Monday, September 28, 2009

Employee Appreciation in Action, Part Two

Football fans always want their team to go for it on fourth and short. The only people who want it more are the team's offensive linemen.

The desire for recognition is a universal human trait. Fourth and short is the only play in the game where offensive linemen get to be the center of attention. Even the most fantasy league and Madden '10-besotted follower of football knows that on fourth and short, success hinges on the ability of the offensive behemoths to best the defensive behemoths in the stylized hand-to-hand combat for 18 inches of real estate that is the sport's essence. The increasing importance of passing has only heightened the linemen's fondness for going for it. At last, a chance to stop being a damned counterpuncher. We hit first!!

Given their druthers, coaches would go for it on fourth and short almost every time. Coaches are products of the game's culture, which celebrates risk-taking. They believe in accepting and confronting challenges as directly as possible (whether that's by nature or nurture is an issue for another post). They believe, as Bill Parcells said, "you always ought to be able to get one lousy yard."

But coaches also believe in their paychecks, and the costs of failing on fourth and short are very high. This has created a rough risk management mathematical model which states that teams are more likely to go for it the further away they are from their own goal line without reaching their field goal kicker's comfort zone.

So what are we to make of Bill Belichick's decision yesterday to have the Pats go for it yesterday from the New England 24, leading the Falcons by a one-possession margin of 16-10? In both reputation and fact Belichick is a dispassionate and careful risk manager, aware of football's situational probabilities out to the eighth numeral to the right of the decimal point. What possessed the coach to risk a failure that had an excellent shot at losing a lead, and perhaps a game?

My former colleague Tony Massarotti posited that Belichick was asserting leadership of a wayward offense. This is surely erroneous. It's only in politics where telling people to do something they're dying to do anyway counts as leadership.

Football's a simple game, although making it so can be a complex matter. Trying to read Belichick's mind shouldn't make us overthink the situation. Belichick decided to risk going for it on 4th and and short just outside his own red zone because in his judgment, there was no risk involved. The offensive line had already made the call for him.

The way I saw it, Belichick was delivering a pep talk in one phrase of playbook jargon gibberish. He was speaking directly to his offensive line and bragging on them in the process. Here's one man's translation of Belichick's decision, as heard by the behemoths in question.

"Men, you are kicking some serious ass out there today! I love it! Go out and show the whole world how you're doing it. Go out and show the Falcons they're not stopping us in this game!"

As noted, human beings like recognition. The Pats offensive line continued to kick ass, on the fourth and one and thereafter, and New England beat a talented team going away. How could it not? The Pats have flaws, but they also have soul, and no team with a soul could fail after any coach, let alone the reticent Belichick, made such a public expression of his faith in them -- one where the consequences of failure were his, not theirs.

Faith moves mountains, it is said. Dunno about that, but we have clinical evidence it can move defensive tackles back a few steps.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Employee Appreciation in Action

Today's "New York Times" sports section has a front-page article on NFL quality-control coaches, the assistant coaches who do the actual scut-work of film breakdown and computer-human interaction needed for the creation of game plans.

These coaches get paid very little and work approximately 28 hours a day. Bill Belichick probably inadvertently invented the job when he began his NFL career as an unpaid coach willing to do anything to be part of the game, and who also felt (and still does) that a long day spent doing nothing but thinking about football was big-time fulfillment.

The story basically states that these quality-control coaches have become essential personnel for any NFL franchise, that their work is invaluable, and that their reward for the endless hours and tedium of pigskin data processing is unique insight making them head coaches of the future.

Two of the quality-control coaches profiled in the story is Jim O'Neil of the New York Jets, whose workday, complete with nights spent snatching sleep in the office, is described in detail. Here's a guy who could use the occasional pat on the back from his supervisors. Head coach Rex Ryan is not quoted.

After the Jets' win over the Pats last Sunday, a victory in which the defensive game plan was an important factor, Ryan awarded the game ball to a goddamn fan, and not just any fan, either, but that clown in the fireman's hat who has been leading cheers for two decades, decades in which the Jets have either failed or failed dismally.

One understand what Ryan was trying to do. That doesn't make it right. Teams win games. Fans yell. Yelling has nothing to do with winning. Cubs games are very loud.

I'm sure it's no bed of roses being on Belichick's staff. But if I'm a football technocrat, I think I'd like to work for another technocrat.

You Guess Is As Good as Mine -- They Both Probably Stink

Through the housecleaning process, I would up skimming a book that had fallen behind one of our bookshelves. It was "Arthur Ashe: Portrait in Motion," an as-told-to first-person diary of the late Ashe's 1973-1974 tennis season written in collaboration with Frank Deford. I'm sure it's out of print, but it is an excellent read for any sports fan, even those who don't much care for tennis.

In the course of my browsing, I came upon a diary entry Ashe wrote the evening of September 10, 1973. He was completely, hopelessly depressed and angry at being eliminated in the fourth round of the U.S. Open in a major upset. Ashe could not believe he had lost to some upstart kid, a teenager, a nobody. Some guy named Bjorn Borg.

What was an upset in 1973 doesn't look quite the same in 2009. Ashe lost to an all-time great at the start of said great's career. Of course, on that September evening, Ashe didn't know that. Neither did Borg, or anyone else. The future is blank by definition. And by that definition, most attempts to see into the future draw blanks.

Ashe's diary entry reconfirmed one of my beliefs that is becoming increasingly strong with the passage of time. When it comes to sports (and this goes triple for other forms of journalism), predictions and speculation are a complete waste of time. They are enjoyable, people like them, and on some occasions (the Super Bowl, the Kentucky Derby), they are mandatory. There are occasions where a fan or a writer is expected to take a position beforehand, and it's all part of the fun.

But fun and reality are not always companions. Forecasts, whether in finance or football, are based on the past. Almost all of them are straight-line projections, that is, an assumption that what's happening now will continue to happen for an indefinite period.

Take one forecast -- please. Last weekend, I made a post here that effectively picked the Pats to beat the Jets, based on a 20-year historic trend of the Jets turning turtle in big games when fans and commentators thought they might really be a good team this time. This was erroneous. It was also a bad forecast based on other people's previous bad forecasts, which in itself shows the cloud-cuckoo land nature of predictions.

Oh, well. If there's one thing sportswriting teaches you, it's how to shrug off bad guesses. They are as inevitable as rainouts and as ephemeral as their cousins in entertaining mindlessness, trade rumors. As noted, predictions are an inescapable part of sports. It is my belief that football has become the most popular U.S. sport because it allows fans and commentators an entire week to argue about what's going to happen next before their opinions must be tested by reality. In baseball, what a person predicts at 4 p.m. can make said person appear a perfect ass by 10 p.m.

I'll still make predictions, because I am a member of the sports community. But I never argue predictions with people. I'm trying to cut down on idle speculation, too. To my mind, the most sensible and honest answers on future sports events are "just a hunch," if one has one, or "why don't we wait and see," if one doesn't. I told you I wouldn't be a very good sports talk radio host. There's another reason why.

It is worth nothing that Damon Runyon, who made one of the most famous observations on sports forecasting, that "the race is not always to the swift or the battle to the strong, but that's the way to bet," covered his bet nicely with an opposing opinion: "I make all of life 6-5 against."

Let his second thought be our watchwords.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Throwing Uphill's Even Harder Than Running There

National Football League teams throw 50 passes in a game for one reason only. They're behind. Teams pass to score, and run to control time and keep their offensive linemen sane.

Most often, they're way behind. The classic example of this strategy came from Kevin Kolb of the Eagles yesterday. The Saints led most of their game by around three touchdowns. Accordingly, Kolb put the ball up 51 times, a high number even for that lover of spirals Andy Reid.

The New England Patriots have thrown 100 passes in two games. They've been behind in both games -- but not far behind. The Patriots are demonstrating that being behind is more than a question of the scoreboard. It's a state of mind.

The Pats never led in their opener against the Bills until the last 50 seconds and trailed by 11 with 5 minutes to play. In the latter circumstance, Tom Brady or any other quarterback is going to get a great deal of right shoulder joint exercise. But the Pats had over 30 passes in the game's first three periods, too, during most of which they trailed by a margin of four, hardly a desperate situation.

Against the Jets, New England was behind from the opening minutes of the second half, but never by more than seven points. Their first loss of 2009 was always within one play of being a tie or win. The Pats began the game's scoring, and led throughout the first half. 16-9 is not a score that calls to mind an aerial circus. And yet, Brady had 47 pass attempts, an outlandish figure considering the game's overall flow and point total. How come?

Well, as noted, there are different types of behindness (a word I just made up). There's absolute behindness, as registered on the scoreboard, and what I call situational behindness, in which down and distance make passing an almost imperative play call. Third and long is the most obvious form of situational behindness, but second and long has increasingly become its equal.

Evidence mounts that Bill Belichick is coming to view just about every down outside of third and fourth and inches as situational behindness for his offense. He surely doesn't trust his running game to convert anything longer, or to turn second and long into third and short. He doesn't much seem to trust it to convert first and ten into anything but second and long, either. In two games, which is not a trend but is a sample worth examining, Belichick has taken situational behindness to its ultimate extension -- psychological behindness. The Pats are running plays that suggest the team FEELS behind unless Brady's turning the secondary into a free-fire zone.

In times of trouble and doubt, sports teams ALWAYS tend to shift the workload to their best player. That's smart, not neurotic. But it is remarkable, and not a little disturbing, to see New England's offense indicate that the team has seen the 2009 season as full of trouble and doubt since shortly after the opening kickoff of Opening Night. That, far more than Brady's indifferent performance yesterday, is what I would worry about were I a Pats fan given to worry.

One more thing. Teams which throw approximately 50 passes in a game lose said game far more often than they win it. This is not an outcome we need Amos Alonzo Stagg to explain. Teams that are behind for most of the game tend to be behind at the end of it, too. Even if Tom Brady threw the 50 passes for it.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

An Easy Call-Even for Sportswriters

Ken Rosenthal and Joe Posnanski are two former colleagues whom I both admire professionally and like a great deal personally. They had a little Internet dustup this week over the American League Most Valuable Player award. Joe had the better of the dispute, since he took the only sane contention that Joe Mauer of the Twins should win it.

That was only the surface of the argument. Typography does not exist to duplicate the loud sigh the following words deserve, but the heart of their postings was a battle over, yeah, you guessed it, baseball statistics, a dead horse so well-beaten it ought to be made into a souffle.

Ken's contention was that Mauer was only the MVP if you used what I call derivative stats, the newfangled metrics (not really so new, most of 'em were introduced into public discussion in the 1980s) like OPS, etc. Otherwise, using just the good old standards by which voters managed to screw Ted Williams out of an MVP in a year he won the Triple Crown, Jeter was at least as good if not a better candidate for the award.

Joe, who is a believer in derivative stats, disagreed strongly. I agree with Joe, but what strikes me about the 2009 AL MVP award is that the statistics argument shouldn't figure into it at all. Ken was venting about an issue which was not relevant to his essay's alleged point. It can be demonstrated that Mauer and not Jeter should be MVP simply by using the information available in that most old-fashioned of sources, the baseball agate page of a print edition Sunday newspaper.

Start with the standings, since MVP voters have an historic if to my mind wrongheaded preference for picking players on pennant winners or at least contenders. The Yanks are in first place in the AL East. The Twins are coming on strong in the AL Central, live contenders with two weeks to play. No advantage for either man.

We move to the letters in the box scores that identify each man's defensive position. Jeter is the Yankee's shortstop. That's the second-most important fielding position on the diamond. Mauer is the Twins' catcher. That the most important one.

(I will omit the customary stupid discussion of Jeter's fielding. In my mind that's merely a way for fans to express their Yankee hatred. Both he and Mauer fall into the useful defensive assessment "plenty good enough considering how they hit.")

Check out each player's position in the lineup. Jeter hits leadoff. That's theoretically the second most important spot in which a player could hit. Mauer bats third. That's number one. The guy batting third should be the team's best hitter, batting both for average and power.

Finally, let's turn to the league leaders list and scan the most retrograde, ridiculed, old fogey's statistic of them all -- batting average. Jeter is hitting .330. That's terrific. Mauer is hitting .370. That's just sick. He also leads Jeter in the second and third most conventional hitting categories homers and RBI.

This is not close. A catcher batting .370 for a contender is more valuable than a shortstop batting .330 for another contender, and if he also hits for more power, why is there an argument? Joe Mauer would win the AL MVP over Derek Jeter if the two guys were playing in 1939, and the stats Ken hates so much hadn't been invented yet.

Were Mauer not in the league, then Jeter would be a deserving MVP. But Mauer is, and Jeter isn't. It may be Jeter's destiny to never win an MVP in his distinguished career. It happens. Hank Aaron, a somewhat more valuable player than Jeter, only won one. There weren't any sabermetrics back in 1960 when Aaron led the National League in slugging percentage, homers, runs scored, RBI, and stole 31 bases and wasn't named MVP. There was, however, Sandy Koufax, who was.

Jeter will have to be content with being a damn near unanimous first ballot Hall of Famer.

Ozymandias, Sports Mogul Division

Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys and not often as obnoxious as he is commonly portrayed, spent $1.2 billion on the construction of Cowboys Stadium.

What did Jones get for his money? He is the proud possessor of the only football stadium in history that needs and has ground rules.

If the real estate bubble hadn't already burst, that would have done it.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Quant-Free Investment Analysis

If, starting in 1985 or so, a speculator had reacted to every increase in the stock of credibility given the New York Jets by the public, especially the tristate area public, by shorting the Jets in every manner possible and to the full extent of his capital, that person would be doing about as well as Warren Buffett right now.

Jets' futures have seen a sharp rise in the past week in active trading on the Loud Opinion Exchange. The Pats are only giving them three and a half points. Draw your own conclusions.

I should add that the phrase "past performance is no guarantee of future results" is a legal disclaimer, not scientific truth. Sometimes, in fact most of the time, past performance is a damn fine guarantee of future results.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

First, Do No Harm. Also Second

The Patriots' rousing 25-24 win over Buffalo last night reminds us that luck is also the residue of your opponent's bad design.

While Leodis McKelvin's decision to return the kickoff he wound up fumbling to blow the game for the Bills is a debatable issue, please put me firmly down on the side of the debate which calls it a major error in judgment. It's a risk management-return on investment question for me. The slightest hint of a possibility of a turnover is not worth risking the certainty of in effect giving the Pats an extra time out. If the offense makes a first down, the Bills win. Putting the game-changing onus on New England's defense rather than its robust offense seems like an easy call.

I admit special teams coaches and players, especially return guys, don't think that way. I believe, however, that they should. McKelvin inadvertently demonstrated evidence in support of one of my pet pro football theories, namely, that when it comes to kick returns, less is more, and none is perhaps most.

Were I a special teams coach (I'm not qualified, as my voice isn't loud enough), my opening speech to the kick return teams would be as follows: "Men, we ain't paying you enough to be heroes. Your job is to make sure the guys who are getting paid to be heroes get a chance to do their jobs."

Fifty years-plus of watching pro football (first game in person, 1956) have convinced me that kick returns aren't worth the trouble they cause returning teams. That is to say, on balance, negative plays far outnumber positive ones. Over the course of a season, the game-winning effects of the spectacular touchdown returns and all the good field position created by successful returns by one team do not equal the game-losing effects of the fumbles and muffs and the poor to execrable field position created by bad returns and, most of all, the ubiquitous illegal block and holding penalties that seem to happen on two out of every three punt returns.

My belief in this theory grows stronger every season. Leaving the Pats game aside, I will point out that the other biggest return play of the week was DeSean Jackson's TD punt return for the Eagles, which only took place because the refs missed an obvious block in the back which would have turned the TD into about a ten-yard loss.

It is my contention that if a team did nothing but risk avoidance on kick returns, if it fair caught every punt, and either downed every kickoff or never ran one back past its own 25, but also never committed a return penalty or turnover, it would have a better won-loss record than an equal team which played returns the conventional daredevil way. I don't suppose Bill Belichick would be willing to give my idea a shot in the interests of science. He loves football theory discussions, but not that much.

No coach would ever turn my theory into practice. I may well be right, but what I propose is a psychological impossibility for the reckless human beings who bring x's and o's to three-dimensional life. Simply put, on the field, pro football players are half-crazy, and special teamers are half past that state of mind. The risk-reward calculus for men who are assigned to what once were pretty accurately termed "the suicide squad" is not a matter of mathematics. You can't ask men to suffer the risks of selling out in the most violent collisions their violent sport creates without offering the reward of the chance to be difference-makers. It would be neither humane nor smart coaching.

I still know I'm right, though. It's probably why I'm the only football spectator in the U.S. who goes "Attaway to go!" every time a return man sticks up his hand to signal a fair catch.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Nostalgia's Not What It Used to Be, Fashion Design Division

The American Football League was founded when I was a little kid. In a bizarre marketing decision, the league had bubble gum cards before it had played an actual game. That's how the Patriots became (for awhile) my favorite AFL team.

It was all Pat Patriot's doing. I LOVED that logo. My 11-year old self thought it was about the rootin'-tootinest emblem a football team ever carried into battle. Or so it looked on the side of a cardboard color reproduction of Larry Garron, anyway.

It is not going too far as to state that without Pat Patriot, I would not have followed the AFL at all. Very few fans, children or adult, did in the Philadelphia area. It was the NFL city with the highest percentage of fans who regarded the new league with contempt and resentment. I believe it was because the AFL offered Eagles fans their only chance to feel superior to other football teams during most of the '60s.

But I became an AFL follower from the jump. To me, a REAL AFL fan is someone who followed the league before the New York Titans became the Jets, and I did. I remember the Dallas Texans. I remember Houston's Jeppesen Stadium. And I followed Pat Patriot and the team he symbolized through thin and thin. I couldn't have been more involved had I been one of the many people to whom the franchise owed money.

So I plan to watch the NFL's commemoration of the AFL's 50th anniversary with extreme interest -- not for nostalgic reasons, but to check for historical accuracy. An AFL celebration that does not recall the fly-by-night oddities of the early '60s is no celebration at all as far as I'm concerned. If it was up to me, the weeks the Pats wear their throwback uniforms this season, the NFL should make the team practice over at the stadium by Logan airport and watch game tapes projected onto a bedsheet.

Which brings me to the crucial issue of the AFL's golden anniversary. If the Denver Broncos wear orange and blue throwbacks, history has been vandalized. I demand brown and gold Broncos -- vertical-striped socks and all.

Anything less would be an insult to the memory of Frank Tripucka.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Great Moments in Sports Marketing

Tonight was Bermuda Night at Fenway Park. Honest. Unlike State of Maine Day, there weren't any tour buses parked behind the center field bleachers, though.

The Premier of Bermuda, its head of government, was just on NESN touting special tourist events to be held in his fine country in the fall. He was wearing a Red Sox jersey and cap. NESN foolishly used a close-up during the interview, so we couldn't see whether he had Bermuda shorts on, too. Would've made a nice outfit for throwing out the ceremonial first pitch.

Bermuda is a wonderful place to visit, and I highly recommend it to anyone who's recently won a lottery or pulled off a successful armored car heist. But its connection to the Sox, or baseball, is tenuous. They play cricket there.

Bermuda is, however, only a two-hour flight from Boston, is extremely dependent on tourism in its economy, and these are tough times for tourism in general. The Red Sox, as this cockamamie event proves, will promote ANYTHING in return for the proper considerations.

It was a match made in heaven-poolside, over a couple of rum swizzles.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Way to Spoil the Writers' Labor Day Weekend, Bill

In evaluating blockbuster trades, a category in which the Patriots' deal of Richard Seymour to the Oakland Raiders for a 2011 first-round draft choice certainly qualifies, this blogger has a rule of thumb. Since talent assessment is very hard looking in from the outside (the far outside in my case), I generally give the benefit of the doubt to the organization that has a better track record of knowing what the hell it's doing.

The Pats' record in personnel management is unsurpassed in this decade (the Steelers are very close). So is Oakland's, actually, since no other NFL franchise has done worse. Ergo, we should probably err in New England's favor in assessing the swap. Way in favor.

Seymour remains a solid professional. But he hasn't been near the force he was in the first seasons of his career for several years now. He's also in the last year of a contract. In purely generic terms, that is the kind of player successful franchises seek to trade to losing ones for future draft picks all the time. It is roughly the equivalent of the big-stack player bullying the short-stack at a poker tournament. The Pats can play the percentages with a vengeance. The Raiders have more imperative requirements.

Let's face it. On the Oakland roster "solid professional" equals "one of our four or five best players." The chance of 2009 improvement, however slight, is well worth mortgaging the future for the people who made this decision. Al Davis doesn't give a damn about the future and never has, even when he wasn't obviously near death. His underlings must figure that the percentages argue they will no longer be employed by the Raider organization by late April, 2011. That's a safe bet, too. If Seymour helps the team soar from its expected 4-12 record this season to a glorious 6-10 campaign, they at least have a better shot at being Raider employees in 2010.

Meanwhile, back in Foxboro, the Pats have the luxury of (relatively) long-term planning. No Seymour makes it ever so much easier to satisfy Vince Wilfork's contract desires. It also means they will not face the problem of dealing with potential free agent Seymour at a time when the odds are overwhelming that he will be on the descent from "solid pro" to "just OK" or worse. There is, of course, a short-term cost. Teams whose goal is winning the Super Bowl seldom improve their chances by shedding solid professionals on the Seymour level at any position. But all in all, that cost appears payable.

The Pats are recreating their defense on the fly whilst they depend on their offense for wins. Looking at their offense, this seems like a sound strategy to me. The various linemen who wind up replacing Seymour's play totals this season need not be Pro Bowlers, or even as good as was Seymour in 2008. Really, all they have to do is not suck. I tend to trust Bill Belichick's ability to determine that players are above the suck level.

So at a real but manageable risk in 2009, the Pats have the luxury of waiting for their payoff. Despite what Davis may think, it is very likely the 2011 draft will take place as scheduled. If memory doesn't escape me, New England drafted Seymour with the 6th pick overall in the 2001 draft (if I'm wrong, I know it was in the 5-8 range). I'd be willing to bet right now that the Raiders choice in 2011 will be AT LEAST the 6th overall pick.

Apparently, so was Belichick.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

NFL Preview for People in a Hurry

There's no point in killing too many innocent pixels for the 2009 season. Barring the unforeseen catastrophic injuries that of course will occur, and which make football previews the most useless of forecasting endeavors, there are only three possible outcomes for the year. Your National Football League champions will be, in order of probability--

1. New England Patriots

2. Pittsburgh Steelers

3. In yet another epochal upset, whichever one of 13 NFC teams winds up representing the downtrodden Fox Broadcasting conference in the Super Bowl. (The puny human mind cannot envision the Lions, Rams, or Bucs getting that far. They'll be happy, and lucky, to finish the regular season.).