RIP Keith Jackson

Keith Jackson died last weekend at the age of 89. If you are a fan of college football and if you are over the age of 25, you must know that he was an icon of the sport as the play-by-play announcer for many of the major college football games of the latter part of the 20th century. He began his career in 1952; he retired – for the second time – after the 2005 season by calling the Texas/USC Rose Bowl game that gave Vince Young and that Texas team the national championship.

Keith Jackson was also the first play-by-play announcer on Monday Night Football before Frank Gifford took that gig.  Jackson also did some basketball broadcasting and the Olympics; but college football was where he was most recognized.  He coined the phrase “The Big House” for Michigan’s stadium and “The Big Uglies” for offensive line units.  However, the best way to remember Keith Jackson is simply to intone:

“Whoa, Nellie!”

Rest in peace, Keith Jackson.

All sports fans love championships and championship games.  However, it is commonplace for the best time of a season to be just prior to the championship event itself.  In March Madness, the Final Four Weekend is great – – but truth be told, I think the weekend where the Sweet 16 cuts down to the final Four is even better.  The games that weekend are good; the teams playing on that weekend are good; there are 12 games not just a handful; that is a great weekend of sports for fans.

The NFL playoffs are similarly constructed.  I do not mean to denigrate any of the playoffs at all; but for me, the best weekend is the Divisional Round.  There are 4 games to be seen and the 4 games almost always involve the best teams from the previous season.  It is not like Super Bowl weekend where there is only 1 game; this weekend gives fans a 4-game smorgasbord.

Last weekend’s NFL Divisional round was a great weekend to watch football.  Take your rooting interests out of the equation and what you saw were 3 interesting/exciting games and 1 game that was not particularly riveting but was instructive.  Let me go through the menu:

  • Eagles 15 Falcons 10:  This game was a win for the Eagles’ defense.  They held a very good Falcons’ offense to 10 points and made the big plays when they needed to be made.  Nick Foles was quietly efficient gaining 8.2 yards per pass attempt and not throwing any INTs.  The Eagles’ offense deserves praise for that efficiency and lack of shooting itself in the foot, but do not get carried away and say that the Eagles’ offense “carried the day”.  I don’t know if the Eagles’ defensive strategy was to nullify Devonta Freeman, but they certainly did just that.  Freeman carried the ball 10 times for 7 yards and his long gain for the day was a 3-yard carry.  The game outcome was in doubt from start to finish.  Falcons’ fans and Falcons’ backers at the betting window may hate the outcome, but the game was a good one.
  • Patriots 35 Titans 14:  After the Titans took a 7-0 lead at the end of the first quarter, the Patriots shifted out of neutral and put their offense into overdrive.  By the middle of the 4th quarter, the score was 35-7 and everything was on cruise control.  The Titans had to have had a defensive game plan, but it cannot have been to “neutralize Danny Amendola”.  Tom Brady and Amendola connected on 11 completions for 112 yards.  When you add in Rob Gronkowski’s 6 catches for 81 yards and a TD, this was a passing clinic put on by the Patriots.  The Pats converted 11 of 17 third-down situations and sacked Titans’ QB, Marcus Mariota, 8 times.  This was not a nail-biter of a game, but it was instructive to watch.
  • Jags 45 Steelers 42:  This was the shocker of the weekend.  The Jags scored all of 10 points last week against the Bills and were all- out to do that.  Here they marched up and down the field and made defensive plays to set up or score 14 points and they kicked the Steelers to the curb.  Leonard Fournette is the real deal folks; you ignore him or minimize your concern about him at your own peril.  People talk about the defensive line for the Jags and its moniker of “Sacksonville”; frankly, I am much more impressed with their two cornerbacks, Jalen Ramsey and AJ Bouye.  There was one aspect of this game that I did not like.  There was far too much posturing and posing by both teams after routine plays; I think the officials could have been much more assertive to put a lid on that nonsense.
  • Vikes 29 Saints 24:  You almost had to see this game to believe it.  The Vikes dominated the first half and the Saints could hardly get out of their own way.  In the second half, Drew Brees played like the Hall of Fame QB he is sure to be, and the Saints led 24-23 with less than a minute to play.  That set up a final play 61-yard TD pass from Case Keenum to Stefan Diggs that you just have to see for yourself on the Internet if you did not see it live on TV.  It is beyond my expository skills to do it justice.

The early lines for next week’s Championship Round games are already up.  The Vikes are road favorites by 3.5 points over the Eagles with a Total Line of only 38 points.  Meanwhile, the Pats are 9-point favorites at home over the Jags with a Total Line of 46 points.  In the NFC, it is interesting to look at the QBs still in action.

  • Case Keenum and Nick Foles are “journeymen” and “backups” and fill-ins” in the parlance of NFL QBs.  Neither is considered anywhere near “elite”.  Nonetheless they are the two left standing in the NFC.
  • Drew Brees is a future Hall of Fame QB.  He and his team are home watching on TV.
  • Matt Ryan and Cam Newton are previous NFL MVP winners.  They and their teams are out.
  • Jared Goff was an overall #1 pick in a recent NFL Draft.  He and his team are looking ahead to next year.

Finally, Keith Jackson’s calls were always associated with college football bowl games that mattered; he did not do any of the games played before Christmas.  In that light, here is a commentary on the myriad college bowl games that exist today from Brad Dickson in the Omaha World-Herald:

“There’s a term for people who watch all 40 or so bowls every year. That term is ‘divorced’.”

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………

 

 

NFL Divisional Round Games

It is a “Football Friday” and we are up to the Divisional round of the NFL Playoffs – – so what else would you expect here besides my game comments and some picks?  Well, anything else you might expect will just have to wait…

In the Saturday afternoon game, the Falcons travel to play the Eagles and the Falcons are 3-point favorites on the road over the Eagles.  This is the first time ever where an #1 seed has hosted a Divisional round game against any lower-seeded opponent as an underdog.  The basis for this one-time event can be stated in two words:

  • Nick Foles

The Eagles were tearing it up with Carson Wentz under center; they were the betting favorites to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.  When Wentz was injured, Foles replaced him in Los Angeles and played very well to preserve a victory in that game.  The next week, Nick Foles played very well against the Giants – – but then he was less-than-wonderful against the Raiders and was “deer-in-the-headlights-bad” against the Cowboys in Week 17.  The oddsmakers seem convinced that “mediocre-at-best” Nick Foles will come out of the tunnel in Philly this weekend.

  • Before going overboard in laying the wood to Nick Foles, remember that in his last stint with the Eagles, he played a full season where he threw 27 TD passes and only 2 INTs.  If THAT Nick Foles shows up on Saturday, the Eagles will be more than merely competitive.

If the Eagles are to win this game and advance, they will need to lean heavily on their running game and mix things up with Jay Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount and Corey Clement.  If they do not make the Falcons respect and play the run, I think the Eagles’ fans are in for a long and unpleasant day.  I see this game as a low-scoring affair; in such cases, I tend to want to take the points.  So, I’ll take the Eagles plus 3 points.

In the Saturday night game, the Patriots host the Titans and the Pats are 13.5-point favorites at home.  While the Pats were taking a week off and stories blossomed about a rift at the top of the organization, the Titans ran their way to this game by beating the Chiefs with a furious comeback.  Lots of folks have lauded Marcus Mariota for his game last week – including a pass to himself for a TD after it was batted back to him by a defender.  Frankly, I think the deciding factor in that game was the running by Derrick Henry; he bulldozed his way for 156 yards in that game.  Now, if you look at the season stats as a whole, you will likely think that Henry will do at least that well this week against the Pats whose run defense was 31st in the NFL in yards per attempt by the opponent.  However, those season stats may be misleading because the Pats’ defense was HORRIBLE in September and significantly better since then.

Looking solely at the defense and the scores allowed by the defense only, that unit for the Pats turned the corner in early October.  Since then, the Pats’ defense has only given up more than 20 points twice; in all the other games, they have yielded 17 points or less.  So, maybe Derrick Henry will gain a lot of yards and that will lead to nothing but a bunch of field goals for the Titans.  If that is the case, that will not auger will for the Titans because it is not difficult to see the Pats scoring 27-33 points in this contest.  I hate double-digit spreads in NFL games, so I will take this game to stay UNDER the Total Line of 48 points.

In the early Sunday afternoon game, the Steelers host the Jags and the Steelers are 7-point favorites at home.  On October 8, 2017 (Week 5), the Jags went to Pittsburgh and dominated the Steelers by a score of 30-9.  In that game, Ben Roethlisberger threw 5 INTs for the only time in his career.  That game was an organized ass-kicking perpetrated by the Jags.  So, how can the Steelers possibly be favored?

  • That game was LeVeon Bell’s first game back from his suspension.
  • The Steelers are a prideful team; they think they owe one to the Jags.
  • Ben Roethlisberger is the Steelers QB; Blake Bortles is the Jags’ QB.

Last week in the Jags’ win over the Bills, Blake Bortles was 12 for 23 for 87 yards and that stat line made him a “winning QB” in a playoff game.  Back in October when the Jags beat the Steelers, Bortles’ stat line was 8 for 14 for 95 yards.  The oddsmaker does not think that kind of output from the Jags’ passing game will get it done this week – – and I agree with that.  Here is the only statistical category where the Steelers are significantly weak for a playoff team:

  • In Red Zone defense, the Steelers give up a TD to their opponent 62% of the time.  If my calculations are correct, that is worse than the Red Zone TD percentage allowed by the Browns.  Yowza!

The oddsmaker has this game at Steelers – 7 and a Total Line of 41.  I like the Steelers to win and cover and I like the game to go OVER.

In the final game of the weekend late on Sunday afternoon, the Vikes host the Saints and the Vikes are 5-point favorites.  If you look at the Vikes’ defense and their recent stats, you might wonder how the total Line could possibly be as high as 46 points.  In their last 3 games of the season the Vikes defense allowed a total of 17 points.  It is hard to lose an NFL game when the defense only gives up 5.7 points per game – – notwithstanding the Eagles’ loss to the Cowboys by a score of 6-0.  Look a little deeper at the Vikes’ last three games:

  • Bengals scored 7 points in a dispirited effort.  Andy Dalton was the opposing QB.
  • Packers scored 0 points.  Brett Hundley was the opposing QB.
  • Bears scored 10 points.  Mitchell Trubisky was the opposing QB.

None of those 3 opposing QBs in the previous 3 games has shown any reason to consider them as “Hall of Fame Material”.  Let me be clear here; Drew Brees is indeed going to be in the Hall of Fame and it should well be on the first ballot where he is eligible.  The Vikes have an excellent defense; but in this game, they are going up against a real offense and not a makeshift offense.

No matter who wins this game, I believe that team will represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.  I happen to think that the Saints are the most complete team left in the NFC, so I will take them plus the points here.

In case you are wondering, you can find the Saints at between +190 and +200 on the Money Line at various sportsbooks in Las Vegas.  If I were in Vegas this weekend, I would probably play a 4-team Money Line parlay with the Falcons, Pats, Steelers and Saints.  If my calculations are correct, a $100 wager on that parlay at current Money Line odds would yield $395 in profit.

Finally, for reasons that escape me, the betting lines for the Pro Bowl game are already posted.  There is no way that I will watch the Pro Bowl game so there is certainly no reason to wager on it.  However, the fact that it will happen a week from now and that the betting lines are available leads me to alert you to this comment from Brad Dickson in the Omaha World-Herald:

“Richie Incognito has been named to the Pro Bowl. Finally a reason to watch a Pro Bowl: to see if the offensive guard bites anyone.”

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………

 

 

The Future Of The NFL – Conflicting Data

Sometimes you receive conflicting data; and in such circumstances, you need to avoid leaping to a conclusion that you prefer to be the case because some of that data point in that direction.  In the early days of 2018, the “future of football” as the “dominant sports focus” in the US is the subject of much scrutiny.  Lots of different people have totally opposing views on what will happen to football as a sport – and the dominance of the NFL very specifically – in the coming decades.  For those who believe that football has an ominous future, consider:

  1. Nielson reports that NFL TV ratings were down 9.7% over the course of the 2017 regular season.  That translates to an average of 1.6 million fewer people watching a typical NFL game this year as opposed to 2016.
  2. This drop comes on the heels of an 8% drop in ratings/viewership in 2016 that was “explained away” by extraneous factors such as Presidential debates; this year, the “issue du jour” was the National Anthem Protest.
  3. Undeniably, lots of people are “cutting the cord” and that means fewer people can have access to all the games.
  4. Fewer kids are playing youth football (from “ankle-biters” through high school) nationally.  Some estimates say the drop from 2016 to 2017 is approaching 20%.  The interpretation here is that fewer young players will eventually result in fewer adult fans who will passionately follow the games.

If you do not like football for any reason or if you feel some compulsion to be a Cassandra on its future, you can look at any or all of those data and use it to lead yourself to the point where you believe the NFL is about to implode.  And – hold your breath here – you may be correct!   Then again, you may be dead wrong because there are conflicting data and other ways to interpret the data cited above.

Let me start with #4 above.  I have no reason to doubt that fewer kids are playing football now than in recent years and that concern by parents over things like CTE and player safety are significant contributors to the decline.  I resonate with those injury concerns because I held those concerns as a parent myself.

  • When #1 son was about 8 years old, he wanted to be a football player.  I would not allow him to play youth football; I was not so concerned about CTE; I was worried about permanent injuries to his joints which had not completely formed at that age.  I told him he could play once he got to 9th grade and not before.  My adamancy here was a bone of contention between me and my son for years.
  • My son now has a son of his own (age 10) and my grandson has not been part of any football activities.  Moreover, my son now holds the position that HIS son will never play football at any time until my grandson is of an age to make decisions independent of his parents.  Where you stand on any issue depends on where you are sitting at the moment…

The issue of the future of football, however, is not linearly linked to youth participation.  My grandson LOVES to watch televised NFL games and he follows the teams and the players league-wide as only an enthusiastic 10-year old fan will.  Projecting to the future, this non-participant in youth football will be a future consumer of televised NFL games.  I do not want to make future projections based on only one kid who happens to be related to me, so let me consider the linkage of “participation” with “fandom” and “viewership” through a different lens.

For years – even multiple decades – people have been telling me that the significant increases in youth participation in soccer in the US will make professional soccer in the US explode.  Indeed, more kids play soccer now than ever before.  More telling is the fact that the number of girls playing youth soccer has increased almost 30-fold over the past 20 years.  And none of that has translated into a fanbase for soccer – men’s or women’s – that is anything more than a rounding error when estimating the NFL fanbase.  I believe there is only a tenuous linkage between “playing a sport as a kid” and “being a fan of the sport as an adult”.

Now let me point out some data that will be refreshing to those who think football is omnipotent and that it will be the “the king of US sporting world” forever and ever.

  • While ratings on TV shows may be down, actual viewership may be up.  TV ratings are just that; they are measures of how many folks are watching games on the telecasts by the networks.  Some people now watch NFL Red Zone instead of individual games; those numbers are not captured.  [Aside:  I happen to HATE NFL Red Zone; I will watch it if my only option is to watch an infomercial for acne medicine, but that’s it.]  Similarly, the number of people who tune into NFL Network to get updates on all the Sunday games as they are in progress are not counted here.
  • Notwithstanding the ratings decrease, Nielsen ratings showed that 20 of the top 30 TV shows in 2017 were football games.  For all the networks that telecast games (CBS, ESPN, FOX and NBC), NFL football games were the highest rated programs on each network all year long.
  • Sunday Night Football (NBC) was the highest rated prime time TV program in 2017 for the 7th year in a row.  By the way, the second highest rated prime time TV program last year was Thursday Night Football (CBS).
  • According to mediapost.com, advertising revenues paid to the networks for NFL games through Week 15 of the regular season was up 16% to $3.7B.  That figure does not include added revenues to NFL Network and added revenues to the NFL from the “digital/mobile transmission sector”.  As of now, the league and its TV partners are all “getting fat”.

I have been on Planet Earth long enough – and I am sufficiently realistic – to recognize that nothing is permanent and times change.  When I was a kid, the plum assignments for sports writers in newspapers were boxing, horse racing and baseball.  Today, you would be hard-pressed to find a newspaper that has a boxing writer or a horse racing writer of any kind.  In fact, my local paper – The Washington Post – does not even publish the entries or the results of the local tracks except for Preakness Weekend at Pimlico.

When I was a kid, baseball dominated pro football and overshadowed college football in most of the country.  Not intending any disrespect to MLB at all, but that is simply no longer the case.  I make these observations to note that the same thing might happen to football and the NFL 50 years from now.  I have no crystal ball; I am not Cassandra nor am I Pollyanna.

What I think is important for all of us to avoid is coming to a conclusion about the future/fate of the NFL and football as an activity and then finding data to support our previously drawn conclusion while ignoring all other data.  Now that I mention it, maybe that is a good behavior model for everyone to emulate as they evaluate more important things than the future of football in our world – – like maybe social reforms and political candidates and “family values”.

Just saying …

Finally, when you think about “fandom” in its most rabid forms, consider this comment from Greg Cote in the Miami Herald last weekend:

“USA Today speculated the Dolphins as a possible landing spot for Tom Brady should the Patriots dynasty come apart. Hmm. Is wishing and hoping for a QB who’ll be 41 next season not its own form of sadness?”

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………

 

 

NFL Coaches And Coaching In The NFL

Today I want to focus on coaching and coaches in the NFL.  We have gone through Black Monday; teams are interviewing new coaching candidates and the Raiders have signed Jon Gruden.  So, let me begin with the general idea of Black Monday and coaching changes.

Firing a coach and/or a coaching staff may be a smart football decision, or it may also be nothing more than a PR-based temporizing move by a team to buy time with the fanbase who – more than likely – thinks that the players on the team are a lot better than they have shown on the field.  Fans tend to over-value the players on their teams and somehow think that the coach(es) have impaired them from showing their greatness.  Most of time, that thinking is delusional.  All too often a new coach comes in with a new “philosophy” and a new staff and the results are not all that much better.  In that circumstance, the team often fires the new coach(es) and moves on to an even newer coach to appease the fans because:

  • It is easier to fire a bunch of coaches and to pay them off than to fire the 30-40 below average players on a losing team and to replace them all at once.

Therein lies the reason why Black Monday is an annual event in the NFL.  Fans pay the freight for the NFL teams, so owners have to keep them from bailing out on the team.  Fans always want to see the last move made by the team as the one that will “turn the corner” but their emotional attachment to the team prevents them from asking themselves critical questions such as:

  • If the owner has failed to hire “the right coach(es)” the last couple of times the team stunk out the joint, why would anyone suspect he will get it right this time around?

I know; even the blind squirrel finds the nut occasionally…

That brings me to the Raiders and Jon Gruden.  Even before he was officially signed, some media pundits wondered aloud how he would transition back to the sidelines after being in the broadcasting booth for a decade or so.  Obviously, we will not know the answer to that question for a couple of years, but I do offer one precedent that should put a smile on the faces of Raiders’ fans:

  • Dick Vermeil

In the early 1980s, Vermeil left the NFL coaching business citing “burnout” and took his talents to the broadcasting booth for about 15 years.  He and Brent Mussberger did a ton of college football games over the years and then Vermeil went back to the NFL as the coach of the Rams where he “oversaw” “The Greatest Show on Turf” and won a Super Bowl.  For Raiders’ fans, that mental image is lots better than “sugar plums dancing in their heads”.

Now, let me offer two cautionary precedents for Raiders’ fans to acknowledge lest they get way out ahead of themselves in their enthusiasm:

  1. Joe Gibbs won 3 Super Bowls in Washington and then resigned to take up NASCAR racing.  His time with the Skins got him elected to the Hall of Fame.  Then after being away a little more than a decade, he came back to the Skins for “Gibbs 2.0” and produced a record of 30-34 over 4 seasons.
  2. Art Shell coached the Raiders from 1989 to 1994; his record then was 54-38; the team made the playoffs 3 times in that period.  Then in 2006, the Raiders brought him back after two down years under Norv Turner and Shell’s record then was 2-14.  That performance was so bad, the Raiders sacked him after that one season to bring in – wait for it – Lane Kiffin.

I was in Ireland when the signing of Gruden was made official.  There is some enthusiasm for American football there but there is no access to ESPN or anything like NFL Network there.  I say that to acknowledge that my information about the details of all this is not what it would have been had I been home at the time.  However, I do want to say something about the announced terms of “10 years and $100M”.

  • If indeed, this is a 10-year deal with the entirety of that $100M guaranteed, then Jon Gruden’s agent deserves god-like status in the Universe of Agents.  Or …
  • Mark Davis is the biggest gambler since Amarillo Slim.

I am skeptical that Gruden will make $10M per year for the next 10 years no matter what.  The NFL – and the agents who negotiate contracts with NFL teams – have perfected the art of what I call “The Ego Stroking Contract”.  Lots of times a huge NFL deal is announced where the player is linked to an astronomical amount of money except:

  • Only about half of that money is guaranteed
  • Most of the “unguaranteed money” is back loaded into the last 2 years of the deal.

Is that the case with Gruden’s contract?  Obviously, I have not seen the contract and never will.  However, it would not surprise me to learn that it had a structure along these lines.

  • Years 1-5 have salaries of $5M, $5M, $6M, $7M, $7M for a total of $30M.  All of that is guaranteed money and there is probably some sort of bonus structure in there for winning the AFC Championship and/or the Super Bowl in any of those years.
  • After Year 5, the Raiders can buy him out of the contract (that is management-speak for fire him) if they pay him $20M cold cash.  That makes the total guaranteed money equal $50M.
  • If he stays with the team after Year 5, the salary structure would be $14M per year for each of the 5 remaining seasons.

Any way you look at it, that is a very long contract for an NFL coach and a very lucrative one indeed.  But I would be surprised if in fact Jon Gruden’s financial advisor(s) can mark down in India Ink an input of $10 per year for the next 10 years as a guaranteed revenue stream.

The final issue for the day is the supposed “rift” that exists among the three most visible figures associated with the New England Patriots – Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and Robert Kraft.  Once again, I cannot pretend to know what is going on inside that organization; what I can say is that some of the things that have transpired with that team over the past year or so does not seem to be aligned with “The Patriot Way”.

Chronologically, the first strange event was the trade of QB Jacoby Brissett to the Colts at the start of the 2017 season for WR Philip Dorsett.  This was strange for a lot of reasons to include:

  1. The Colts were desperate for a QB at the time.  Andrew Luck’s shoulder had not healed, and the Colts knew that; Scott Tolzein was to be the starter and – as everyone saw right away in Week 1 – that was going to be a disaster.  So, the Colts were over a barrel …
  2. The Pats got a WR they really did not need who appeared in 15 games for them this year and caught 12 passes for 194 yards and 0 TDs.

That is a meager return indeed for a player who was virtually certain to be a starting QB for the Colts somewhere in the 2017 season.

Making that trade even more of a head-scratcher is the fact that the “other backup QB” on the roster – Jimmy Garoppolo – was on the final year of his rookie contract and who had shown enough promise in a couple starts in 2016 to be highly coveted around the league.  The Pats’ coaches had to know that AND they had to know the extent of this skills since they saw him in practice every day.  At the time of the Brissett trade, they had to know that there was going to be a problem signing Garoppolo at the end of the 2017 season for two obvious reasons:

  1. He obviously would prefer to be with a team where he can be the starting QB instead of the backup QB and Tom Brady has said he wants to play until he is 45.
  2. Other teams would offer him big-time money and the Pats would be hard-pressed to match those offers because they already have lots of money committed to the QB position in Brady’s deal.

So, back in September, Bill Belichick made a deal to give away what would be his backup QB next year in the case that Garoppolo left for a player he did not need and did not use.  That is not a typical Bill Belichick move…

That put the Pats in the situation where they traded Garoppolo at the trade deadline for a 2nd round pick in 2018.  That was a situation where the Pats needed to make a deal to get something for him in lieu of nothing for him.  My guess is that they made the deal with the Niners because the Pats only need to play the Niners once every 4 years and they knew/know that Garoppolo is going to become a formidable opponent.  And if there is indeed a “rift” within the Pats’ organization, I think the trade of Garoppolo is the culmination.

The far more consistent move for Bill Belichick to have made in the time between the 2016 and 2017 seasons would have been:

  • Go to Robert Kraft and tell him that 2017 has to be Tom Brady’s last year in New England because the team should not lose touch with Jimmy Garoppolo.  Brady is 40 years old; he wants to play to 45 and he may even be able to do that.  Nonetheless, Garoppolo is only 26 years old and is probably going to be an excellent QB for at least the next 10 years.
  • Remember, Belichick is the guy who “ditched” the established Drew Bledsoe in favor of Tom Brady to launch Brady’s career.  He saw the innate talent in Brady and he saw the age differential there.  Now, in 2016/2017, I am supposed to believe he cannot see the same thing?
  • Remember, Belichick is also the guy who gets rid of players nominally in their prime because they do not fit with what his vision is for the team – such as Ty Law and Richard Seymour.  The common narrative is that Belichick gets rid of players a year before their expiration date instead of a year after their expiration date.  However, nothing like that seems to have happened here…

So, how did it happen that Bill Belichick suddenly changed his view on how to build and structure a winning football team?  I certainly do not know how or why, but I will say that one potential way for this to happen is that Belichick has not changed his views, but that Robert Kraft would not go along with any scenario wherein this would be Tom Brady’s last season with the Pats unless it was Brady’s decision to retire that caused the separation.  That might explain the reported “rift”.  Other than that, I got nuthin…

One last comment here…  For a brief moment, there was some thought that Belichick might leave the Pats and wind up coaching the Giants next year.  If that were to occur, there would be 3 NFL teams cheering and 1 NFL team left in a very worried state:

  • The 3 cheering teams would be the 3 “other teams” in the AFC East.  The Bills, Dolphins and Jets would be happy not to have to continue to chase a Bill Belichick directed Pats’ team every year.
  • The worried team would be the Skins.  If Belichick took over the Giants, that would put the Skins in a division with Belichick in NY, Carson Wentz in Philly and the Prescott/Elliott tandem in Dallas.

Finally, since I spent a lot of time talking about coaches today, here is a comment from Brad Dickson in the Omaha World-Herald regarding the hiring of Scott Frost to return to Nebraska as their head football coach:

“How much interest is there in the Husker program now that Scott Frost has been hired? A crowd of 92,000 is expected. That’s just at the next Big Red Breakfast.

“Frost has been named Home Depot coach of the year [at UCF for 2017]. That’s the award where the trophy is placed atop a really high shelf.”

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………

 

 

Wild-Card Weekend In Review

Sorry; I misspoke last week.  Actually, I miscalculated when I said that I would be in transit today; tomorrow is the day of transit and the lack of a rant.  So, let me take a moment here to review the NFL Wild Card games from the weekend.

There were some interesting times over the weekend, but none of the games were “epic” or “games for the ages”.  Frankly, that is not all that surprising because there were too many flawed teams on display to allow for that.  The Jags/Bills game would be a perfect example of what I mean here.

  • The game was always in doubt.  On every possession by each team for the full 60 minutes, the team with the ball had the opportunity to tie the score or take the lead.  Normally, that keeps me “on the edge of my chair”; in this game it made me wonder what the team with the ball would do to avoid scoring any points.

The Saints/Panthers game was sort of the reverse of the Jags/Bills.  These teams showed the ability to move the ball and to play enough defense to prevent the game from becoming a travesty.  If you watch both games, you will clearly recognize the difference in quarterback competency demonstrated by the Brees/Newton tandem as compared to the Bortles/Taylor tandem.

The Titans/Chiefs game featured a furious comeback win by the Titans – – or a typical choke-it-away loss by the Chiefs at home in a playoff game depending on your point of view.  The game featured some injuries that took key players out of the contest for significant parts of the game and it featured some strange officiating decisions.

  • The TV execs and the NFL folks who focus on TV ratings are looking at next weekend’s games and are praying for certain outcomes.  It is possible – although not likely according to the oddsmakers – that the AFC Conference Championship game could be a Jags/Titans pairing.  I think we might all agree that the ratings for that struggle would be a tad short of the ratings for Steelers/Pats Redux.
  • At this point in the week, the Jags are anywhere between +280 and +300 on the Money Line to beat the Steelers next weekend and the Titans are anywhere between +650 and +750 to beat the Patriots.

The Falcons/Rams game looked to me to be a game between one team that had seen playoff pressure before and another team that had not.  The Rams did not embarrass themselves with a ton of silly unforced errors – – except for a couple of special teams plays – – but the Falcons were clearly the more poised/under control team on the field.  The game did generate a question in my mind:

  • Why was the field so treacherous?  Los Angeles is not in a climate zone where grass goes dormant – or dies – starting November 1; how could there have been such bad footing all over the field in the LA Coliseum?  I thought the NFL had some “turf gurus” in the fold; if anyone anointed with that label had anything to do with that field over the weekend, he/she needs to turn in his/her trowel.

The two best teams I saw over the weekend were the Saints and the Falcons.  Having seen the Eagles and Vikings several times this year, it would not shock me to see the Saints and the Falcons play for the NFC Championship.

Last week, I wrote about a chat I had with a former colleague about how XFL 2.0 might differentiate itself from the NFL in some meaningful ways.  Early this morning, I opened an e-mail from my colleague; here is the essence of his missive:

“Why do you always look to find the most complicated way to solve a problem.  You are like the engineer who designed a ten-pennies (sic) nail with five moving parts … You gave me a simple way to discourage long field goals and a complex way and you chose to write about the complex way … Just stick to the simple stuff.”

OK, he is right; I did – and still do – have an idea for XFL 2.0 that will discourage long field goal tries and put more “real football plays” into the game action.  Indeed, it does not require any modifications of the scoring system.  Here it is:

  • In the NFL, the goal posts are 18 feet and 6 inches wide and the crossbar is 10 feet high.
  • XFL 2.0 should narrow the goal posts to12 feet wide – a reduction of 35% – and it should raise the crossbar to 20 feet high – an increase of 100%.

So, there is the simple suggestion to minimize the number of long field goal tries in a football game.  Please note that this change would not have any effect at all on PATs because you should recall that I would outlaw them entirely and require teams to go for 2-point conversions after touchdowns.

I have comments to make about the Raiders’ signing of Jon Gruden to be their “Coach for Life” and the reports of a “rift in the Patriots hierarchy” but I do not have the time or space to do it here.  Barring some extraordinary news in the next 48 hours, those will be focal points for a rant on Wednesday or Thursday this week.

Finally, leave it to Dwight Perry of the Seattle Times to uncover an incident in an Italian fourth-division soccer game and make a snarky comment on it:

“Italian fourth-division soccer player, Giovanni Liberti, has been suspended five games for urinating toward the opposing ream’s fans.

“What, no yellow card?”

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………

 

 

Playoffs? Did Someone Say Playoffs?

Everything old is new again – or so the adage goes.  The NFL regular season is old and over; the NFL playoffs are new and starting.  With Wild-Card Weekend about to happen, it is time for some analysis and picks.

The Chiefs host the Titans and the Chiefs are 8.5-point favorites at home.  The Chiefs came out of the gate in September looking like Lombardi’s Packers from 50 years ago and then went into a fugue state for about a month only to come back to normal and play well down the stretch.  The Titans ended the season on a low note; they lost to the Niners and the Rams and narrowly beat the Jags last week when the Jags had exactly nothing to play for.  Here is a team stat for the Titans that is surprising for a team participating in the playoffs:

  • The Titans threw more INTs (17) than TD passes (14) for the season.

The Titans succeed when they can run the football and the biggest weakness for the Chiefs is their run defense.  If you just look at the stats, you would likely conclude that the Titans will control the clock with the run and keep it close.  That scenario makes the 8.5-point spread look like a lot for the Chiefs to overcome.  Having said that, I have trouble putting faith in the Titans; I just think the Chiefs are the better team and they have the better coaching.  Without a lot of conviction, I like the Chiefs to win the game and to cover that big spread.

The Rams host the Falcons and the Rams are 5.5-point favorites at home.  The line opened at 5 points and as of this morning you can find it as high as 6.5 points at one of the sportsbooks in Las Vegas and as low as the original 5 points at one of the Internet sportsbooks.  Everyone has focused on the Rams’ offensive awakening this year as is evidenced by this historical fact:

  • The Rams are the first NFL team ever to lead the league in scoring for a season after they were the lowest scoring team in the league in the previous season.
  • In round numbers, the Rams scored an average of 14 points per game in 2016 and an average of 30 points per game in 2017.

I think there is a factor that has been overlooked regarding the Rams.  Defensive coordinator, Wade Phillips, has been successful just about everywhere he has been, and he has some very talented players to implement his schemes; Aaron Donald is a human wrecking ball in the middle of that defense.  The Falcons’ defense has played well in recent weeks, but I would be hard pressed to make the case that the Falcons’ defense will shut down the Rams’ offense here.  I’ll take the Rams to win and cover here.

The Jags host the Bills and the Jags are 9-point favorites at home.  The Total Line for the game is 39 points.  If you want to see a game between newbies to the playoffs, this is for you.  The Bills’ last appearance in the playoffs was in 1999; the Jags have not been there since 2007.  I think the oddsmaker has the Total Line right:

  • I do not trust Blake Bortles and the Jags’ offense to light up the scoreboard.
  • With LeSean McCoy at less than 100% – –  if he can go at all – – the Bills will have to rely on Tyrod Taylor to manufacture points against the Jags’ top-rated defense.
  • Neither choice is particularly appetizing…

McCoy leads the Bills in rushing (1138 yards) AND he is the leading receiver on the team (77 receptions).  If he doesn’t play at all, the Bills may be hard-pressed to score 13 points.  On the other hand, if Bortles goes into “interception mode”, the same can happen to the Jags.  Purely a hunch, but I like the Bills to keep this game close; I’ll take the Bills plus the points here.

The Saints host the Panthers and the Saints are 7-point favorites at home.  The Saints beat the Panthers twice this year; I know it is difficult for one team to beat another team 3 times in a season, but I expect that to happen here.  The Saints – for the first time in several years – are a balanced team.  They can run the ball; they can throw the ball; and, most importantly, they can stop the other team more than occasionally.  I think the Saints will win and cover here and move on to the next round of the playoffs.

Since I will be in transit next Monday, I need to make a pick in the CFP championship game here.  With Alabama as one of the participants yet again, some might be tempted to rename the CFP as the AJIT – the Alabama January Invitational Tournament.  As of this morning, Alabama is a 3.5-point favorite over Georgia.  Making a selection in this game comes down to what you believe you saw in last week’s semi-final games:

  1. Georgia’s run attack dominated Oklahoma amassing 319 yards.  Do you believe they can do that to the Alabama defense?  If so, Georgia will win the game outright and be the national champions.
  2. Alabama’s defense simply throttled Clemson holding the Tigers to a mere 154 yards of total offense for the game.  Do you believe that is the sort of defensive effort Alabama will demonstrate on Monday night?  If so, Alabama will win handily.

I think the outcome of this game will be in doubt late in the 4th quarter; in the end, I like Alabama to win the game, but I like Georgia plus the points.

Finally, with the CFP championship game involving two teams from the SEC, here is a pertinent comment from Brad Dickson of the Omaha World-Herald:

“LaVar Ball plans to start a league for players who want to skip college. This sounds similar to the SEC.”

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………

 

 

XFL 2.0

At a Holiday Gathering prior to New Year’s, I had a discussion with a former colleague about the possible reincarnation of the XFL; he called it XFL 2.0.  He asked if I had any ideas what the league might do to identify itself as something other than a “Spring Football Feeder League for the NFL” (his term).  As we chatted, we identified some of the things the “old XFL” had done to be different from the NFL and how some of them worked and some did not.

For example, in the “old XFL” they did away with the opening coin toss and had one player from each team scramble for a loose ball about 10 or 15 yards away from each one.  That was a dumb idea to begin with and was shown to be even dumber when one of the “scramblers” came up with an injury in the “action” that was to replace a coin toss.  I cannot be certain, but I doubt that there has ever been an injury during a coin toss making a player unable to participate in the game.

At the same time, the “old XFL” came up with the field cameras and the extensive use of the overhead wire guided cameras that have now become commonplace in the NFL.  The question we were trying to flesh out was what might XFL 2.0 do to contribute to professional football.

I have long thought that one of the least dramatic plays in a football game is the place kick.  I liked the idea of the 2-point conversion from the time that the college game adopted it more than 50 years ago; it came into the NFL in the 1990s, but it is not used there nearly as often as I would prefer.  Therefore, my first suggestion for XFL 2.0 would be to abolish entirely the point after touchdown.  Teams scoring a TD would then run a play from the 3-yardline and if successful it would be worth an additional 2 points.

Carrying on with that theme, I want to dis-incentivize long field goal tries.  Granted a 55-yard attempt is more attention-grabbing than a 30-yard try; nonetheless, I would prefer real football plays to any field goal try.  Therefore, I would make any field goal try between 40 and 49 yards in length worth only 2 points and any try of 50 yards or more worth only 1 point.  Shorter field goals will still be worth 3 points.  Here is my reasoning:

  • If a team has the ball 4th down and 3 yards to go at the opponent’s 35-yardline, just about every NFL coach would send the field goal team out to the field.  The result will be a 52-yard field goal try.  Marginally interesting…
  • However, if that try is only worth 1 point, maybe that would encourage coaches to try to make the first down and continue the drive.  Much more interesting …
  • Teams would sometimes opt to punt the ball from there to pin the opponent inside their own 10-yardline.  Not as exciting as a play to go for the first down, but more exciting than a field goal try…

My colleague’s reaction to those ideas was to tell me I was “taking the foot out of football”.  All I can say is that if you react that way, I will have to plead guilty.

My colleague offered a modification to my idea of eliminating the PAT.  He said that a team could have a place-kicked try for a single point but that the player making the kick must be the player who scored the TD.  My reaction was that his idea could inject some blooper highlights into a game, but my intention was to put more actual football plays into the game.

  • [Aside:  Making extra point conversions less automatic could increase the number of “Bad Beats” or “Back Door Covers” in XFL 2.0 games and that might increase wagering interest which would then increase interest …]

My former colleague thought that players should be incentivized to win games.  Here was his suggestion:

  • Assume a player has a contract worth $100K and they play a 10-game regular season.  That player would nominally receive a game check of $10K.
  • However, my colleague wants to make 25% of every players game check an incentive.  For the $100K player, that would mean his game check for a winning game is $12.5K and it is $7.5K for a losing game.
  • Interesting concept…

My final suggestion was to eliminate entirely the “half-the-distance” penalties in the game.  If, for example, offensive holding is decreed to be a 10-yard penalty, then it should not be less than that just because the foul occurred at a certain point on the field.  Here is how I would handle this:

  • Offensive team has the ball 1st and 10 on its own 6-yardline and there is a penalty for offensive holding on the first play.  Instead of walking off 3 yards and making it 1st and 13 from the 3-yardling, I want to move the first down market from the 16-yardline to the 26-yardline.  Offensive holding costs the offending team 10 yards.  If the offensive team commits another penalty on the next play, then just move that first down marker further down the field…
  • On defense, it gets a bit trickier.  Offense has the ball 1st and goal at the 6-yardline going in for a TD.  The defense commits a “hands-to-the-face” penalty on the first play.  Instead of marching off only 3 yards and running 1st down again, the ball would be placed at the 6-yardline and 10 yards of penalties against the defensive team would go into a “penalty bank”.  The next time the offending team gets the ball 1st and 10, those penalty yards would be marched off and the team would start the next drive with 1st and 20.  Oh, and if the defensive team commits two such penalties, more yards go into that “penalty bank”.

Will these ideas guarantee success for XFL 2.0?  Hardly.  Will these ideas generate discussion as to the differences between the NFL and XFL 2.0 thereby generating some initial interest in the reincarnated league?  Probably.  Are these changes likely to happen?  Let me just say that Vince McMahon does not have my phone number or e-mail address…

Finally, since I mentioned Vince McMahon above and his claim to fame is the world of pro ‘rassling, here is a comment from Dwight Perry in the Seattle Times about pro ‘rassling:

“A man proposed to his girlfriend at ‘Monday Night Raw.’

“That’s what she gets for saying she expected a humongous ring.”

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………

 

 

Embarking On Another Year Of Sports Rants…

Greetings for the New Year from a rainy/windy day in Dublin, Ireland.  We are here visiting our son, daughter-in-law and grandson for a week.  Postings between now and the middle of next week will be on an “as time permits” basis…

Black Monday came and went with only a couple of surprises.  The news late yesterday that Marvin Lewis got a 2-year extension with the Bengals was more than a surprise to me and the quick release of Jack Del Rio by the Raiders was also a surprise.  Less than a year ago, Del Rio got a 4-year extension to his contract with the Raiders reportedly worth $20M; Raiders’ owner Mark Davis, is not known for throwing money around so I did not see that move coming in the least.

It would be difficult for me to believe that Jack Del Rio is solely responsible for the disappointing and almost somnambulant performance exhibited by the Raiders for the last month of the season, but the team surely did not finish the season looking as if they cared about winning even a little bit.  There’s that; and the fact is that it is a lot easier to replace a coach than it is to replace a half-dozen or so of the least enthusiastic of the players.

The retirement of Bruce Arians was also a surprise – although not as much as the Lewis or Del Rio situations.  In the reports of his leaving the Cards, I read that he was the winningest coach in Cards’ history which seemed strange to me because he only won 49 games.  I know that the franchise has not been a dominant one in the NFL, but that seemed strange to me, so I went looking at the coaching history of the Cardinals in Chicago, St. Louis and now in Arizona.

  • From the team’s founding in 1920 until the early 1960s, no coach for the team had even coached 49 games let alone won 49 games.  Wally Lemm was the 25th coach in Cards’ history starting in 1962; he lasted through the 1965 season and coached 56 games winning 27 of them.
  • Ken Whisenhunt was the coach from 2007 through 2012 coaching 96 games but winning only 45 of them.
  • Bruce Arians regular season record in his 80-game stint in Arizona was 49-30-1.

Whoever replaces Chuck Pagano in Indy will require two things to succeed.  He will need Andrew Luck’s shoulder to be in tip-top condition starting in training camp and he will need an offensive line that can protect his healthy franchise QB.  I know that is a tall order and that the responsibility for making it happen is not totally in the control of the new coach, but that is the reality of the situation.  Oh, by the way, waving a magic wand over the defensive unit to make them a tad more formidable would not hurt either.

The Browns will not change head coaches this year, but they do have a new GM and the spotlight is on him.  Let me give the old Front Office in Cleveland the benefit of the doubt; let me stipulate that they purposely blew up the team with the idea of accumulating draft picks to rebuild the franchise.  Well, they now have the overall #1 pick and the overall #4 pick in the April draft plus they have two other picks in the first 40 selections.  The situation in Cleveland is pretty simple and pretty bleak:

  • The Browns’ run defense is good.
  • If Josh Gordon can stay clean, he is a talented WR.
  • Isaiah Crowell will not make Browns’ fans forget Jim Brown, but he is a serviceable running back.
  • Other than that, the Browns’ roster is sub-standard.

Dwight Perry had this item pertinent to the Cleveland Browns’ situation in the Seattle Times last weekend:

“Obit in the Sandusky (Ohio) Register, listing Paul Stark’s cause of death: ‘Complications from a brief illness, exacerbated by the hopeless condition of the Cleveland Browns’.”

In college football, Arizona has fired coach Rich Rodriguez.  The reports say that he had been the subject of an investigation into “workplace misconduct” during last season and that the school had “decided to buy out his contract”.  Those two things do not always go together so it would appear that there is more news to be learned from the situation.  Rodriguez had been at Arizona for 6 years and the team had been in 5 bowl games during that time.

During the college bowl season, the NCAA folks decided to make a self-serving announcement.  They were proud of the fact that 8 of the teams participating in the bowls had 90% graduation records – or better.  Indeed, that is impressive – – until you focus on one other number:

  • There are 40 college football bowl games.  Using the simplest of mathematical reasoning, that means there are 80 teams participating in bowl games.
  • Ergo, only 10% of the teams participating in bowl games graduate 90% of the players on the team.

Somehow, that does not sound nearly as good as the announcement made by the NCAA…

Finally, Brad Dickson of the Omaha World-Herald had his own assessment of the status of the Cleveland Browns with this commentary:

“Quarterback Sam Darnold reportedly may stay at USC to avoid being drafted by the Cleveland Browns. The Browns are now bragging about ‘doing our part to keep young people in school’.”

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………