Do The Green Bay Packers Have Trouble Putting Opponents Away?

January 26, 2011

Before I get to the Green Bay Packers, I just want to quickly comment on three items that appeared in my Twitter feed this morning. My criticisms are petty and brief, but I can’t let these slide. The common thread? A mainstream sports media that is seemingly incapable of delivering commentary simply or without hyperbole.

  • Seth Davis comments on Kansas’ Thomas Robinson losing his mother to a heart attack this past weekend. Of course, it cannot just be called a “heart attack.” It must be an “untimely heart attack,” which is so obviously dissimilar from those auspiciously-timed myocardial infarctions. I suppose timely heart attacks exist – right before Kim Jong-il presses the “Initiate Nuclear Launch” button would qualify – but in this situation, it goes without saying that the heart attack was a bad thing.
  • Andy Katz says that Kansas deserves tons of credit for winning a conference road game while grieving for Robinson’s mother. At the risk of being insensitive, there is no way that her death made it more difficult for Josh Selby, Tyrel Reed, Tyshawn Taylor, and the Morris brothers to play basketball. Kansas does deserve credit, however, for winning a conference road game against an improved Colorado squad.
  • In the wake of Michigan State dismissing guard Korie Lucious from the team, Seth Davis says that “a tough season just got a lot tougher.” Right, because losing a junior who can’t hit 40% of his twos or 30% of his threes is a huge loss.

Now, please watch this clip:  Read the rest of this entry »


Punting While Down By 24 Points

September 20, 2010

I know nothing about football. Well, that’s not true. I know a ton about football in the same way that an uninspired geometry student knows all the necessary formulas, rules, proofs, and procedures. But I know nothing about how football actually works, how teams devise strategies and game plans designed to attack opponents’ weaknesses. There are two recent occurrences that neatly sum up my understanding of football. During last night’s Giants-Colts game, as Pat McAfee was preparing to punt the ball to Darius Reynaud, it immediately occurred to me that they played together at West Virginia. Days earlier, I suggested that a friend pick up the Arizona Cardinals defense for his fantasy football league. He did, and they allowed 41 points to the Atlanta Falcons. Those events are my relationship with football in a nutshell.

But just because I am a blithering idiot about football tactics doesn’t mean that I am a blithering idiot in general. I can tell smart from dumb, and I am smart enough to realize that the Giants’ coaching staff produced a particularly egregious and insulting example of tactical conservatism during last night’s evisceration of my beloved Big Blue. The score was 31-7 Colts with roughly six minutes left in the third quarter. The Giants’ drive had stalled at the Colts’ 49 yard line, resulting in a 4th and 5. I had not finished uttering “we better not punt here” when Giants’ coach Tom Coughlin dutifully called the offense back to the sideline and deployed the punting team. Profanity ensued.

As far as I can tell, there is no argument for this being the correct move. Down by more than three touchdowns on the road, the Giants elected to give the ball back to a prolific offense led by the greatest quarterback of his generation. They hadn’t been able to stop Peyton Manning or the Colts’ running game all night, but decided that going for it simply wasn’t worth the risk. At that point in the game, the Giants’ goal should have been to maximize offensive possessions and simply hope for the best. Going for it on fourth downs, onside kicks, fake field goals and punts – these are the sorts of things that Coughlin should have been authorizing, if not demanding. Given the quality of the Colts’ offense, there was simply no way the Giants could win that game unless they tried to score as many points as possible, as quickly as possible. And as we know, punting the ball doesn’t accomplish that. Of course, four plays later, the Colts were on their own 47 yard line – two yards from where the Giants punted. Brilliant.

It’s funny how two people can come to the exact same conclusion about something for wildly different reasons. Earlier today, Joel Sherman tweeted a link to his regular 3UP column, hinting that he was going to criticize the Giants for “dumb coaching in the NFL that goes unchallenged.” I was certain that he was going to point out the punting-on-4th-and-5-while-down-by-24 ridiculousness that I had noticed, but that wasn’t the case. It turns out that he criticized Coughlin for playing the Giants’ starters too long and jeopardizing their health in an obviously hopeless blowout. This seems like a fair point to me, especially when the score was 38-7 in the fourth quarter. Incidentally, Sherman’s observation supports my criticism by catching Coughlin in a bit of a tactical contradiction. Coughlin playing his starters for the entire game suggests a legitimate desire to make the game competitive again. But that decision is inconsistent with the decision to punt on 4th and 5. If Coughlin is trying to win the game, why give the ball back to an unstoppable offense? “It’s like giving up,” two friends independently told me.

Sadly, I have no choice but to conclude that coaches who do this – and it seems like all of them do – genuinely believe that punting the ball in that situation maximizes the team’s chances of winning. I really hope that coaches eventually come around on the whole idea of punting. Like the last three outs of a baseball game, yards on fourth down aren’t any harder to get than yards on first down. Defenses aren’t allowed an extra player on the field. Yards don’t magically become four feet long instead of three. The only thing that changes is the penalty for failure, and more often than most people think, that risk is well worth the reward.


Being Fair In Evaluating Belichick’s Decision

November 16, 2009

I didn’t start off with the greatest opinion of ESPN’s Colin Cowherd. I had heard, albeit belatedly, about his stunt in shutting down The Big Lead because of some perceived slight. This seemed like a petty, malicious, and extreme thing to do in a business that requires awfully thick skin. In recent months, however, I’ve softened my stance on Cowherd. His occasional interviews with Keith Law have drawn me to his show, and from these interviews I’ve decided that Cowherd isn’t the total schmuck I thought he was. He can be a little overbearing at times and he’s clearly impressed with himself, but I think he’s a sharp guy with some interesting opinions.

As I do with increasing frequency, I had Cowherd’s radio show on in the background as I did some work this morning. The topic of discussion, unsurprisingly, was Bill Belichick’s controversial decision in last night’s Patriots-Colts game. With a 34-28 lead and 2:08 remaining, the Patriots went for it on 4th and 2 from their own 28-yard line. They were stopped just short of the marker, allowing Peyton Manning and the Colts to take over possession deep in Patriots territory. The Colts ultimately won the game on the ensuing drive, creating nothing short of total uproar about Belichick’s decision. Like many of his peers, Cowherd hated the gamble, but isn’t buying the idea that Belichick’s skills are slipping or that the Patriots’ defense will remember this perceived slight for the rest of the season.

Cowherd then got an e-mail from a listener, who presented statistics that supported Belichick’s seemingly insane decision to go for it. I’ve forgotten the actual numbers, but it was something like teams should go for it in that situation more than 70% of the time. I was thrilled that these numbers were brought to Cowherd’s (and his huge audience’s) attention, because they touch on what is fast-becoming my newest sports crusade. In general, I think offenses are way too conservative on fourth down. Coaches are too quick to call for a punt or field goal attempt, when chances are they could get the yard or two necessary for a new set of downs. There’s a passing similarity here to closer usage in baseball. In baseball, many managers are convinced that the last three outs in a game are harder to get than the previous 24, thereby necessitating the development and use of a special reliever equipped with the special ability to get these special outs: the closer. While football’s analogue isn’t quite as extreme, it does seem like coaches are convinced that those two or three yards on fourth down are harder to get than most other yards in a game. So, they punt it or kick a field goal. Both tactics – closer deployment and kicking or punting – stem from a misguided belief, as well as fear of public criticism if their solid thought process yields an unfavorable result.

With that being said, I was interested in what Cowherd would say when confronted with these statistics. He’s one of the more open-minded talking heads out there, so I thought maybe he’d change his tune a little. Instead, Cowherd paid lip service to the probabilities and the general usefulness of statistics, but called these particular numbers “disingenuous.” He said that statistics must be taken in their proper context (which is true), and that the context in the Patriots-Colts game essentially rendered the probabilities useless. Cowherd said that the numbers don’t tell us game situations, and that in last night’s case, the mitigating factor was where the Patriots chose to go for it, not that they chose to go for it. It wasn’t the call itself that Cowherd disliked. It was where the call was made (on the Patriots own 28-yard line) that was problematic.

I’m still not sure if I agree with Cowherd or not, but I think it’s pretty disingenuous to call the listener’s statistics “disingenuous.” Upon receiving these numbers, Cowherd basically made an argument for considering context when evaluating statistics or probabilities. Well, it seems to me that Cowherd himself is ignoring a significant bit of context that might the probabilities more admissible in his eyes. If the Patriots punted the ball (as convention dictates), that gives Peyton Manning two minutes to drive sixty to seventy yards at home. This is the same Peyton Manning who has thrown for 48,500 yards and 353 touchdowns in his career, completing passes at a 65% clip. He’s having one of the finest seasons of his career this year, based largely on his 69.7% (!) completion percentage. I’m positive that this was a huge factor in Belichick’s thought process. The Patriots had a chance to win the game right there, and they went for it because of the quality of their offense and the quality of their opponent’s offense. If Cowherd is going to advocate decision-making based on the careful balance of probabilities and context, then that’s wonderful. But it’s just as disingenuous to ignore the quality of the opponent’s offense as it is to ignore the chances of converting on 4th and 2.

I think I just talked myself into liking Belichick’s call. Keep on fighting the good fight, arrogant coach of a team I loathe.

EDIT: Here are the numbers that the listener was most likely looking at, as linked to by ESPN’s Rob Neyer (of all people). Right now, NFL analyst and former quarterback Trent Dilfer is lambasting Belichick’s decision because it wasn’t as “calculated” as those made by Dilfer’s former coach, Tony Dungy. How ironic is it that Belichick probably made his choice based on these probabilities, and he’s being blasted for not being “calculated” enough?


Gus Johnson Opens The NFL Season, In His Own Inimitable Style

September 13, 2009

At 4:06 PM, my phone began persistently vibrating. I opened it to find three separate text messages from three separate friends, all saying something like “please tell me you just saw that play in the Broncos game.” I was on my way crosstown to watch the Giants at a friend’s apartment, so I told them no, I did not see that play, but please explain what happened. One friend described the play in great detail. One didn’t respond. And one simply wrote “GUS JOHNSON OUTBURST.” A huge smile spread across my face. Here’s the play that elicited a vintage explosion from the greatest and most genuine broadcaster alive, Gus Johnson.


A Hodgepodge Of Links

August 27, 2009

I really wish I had time for a detailed and focused post, but alas, life intervenes. Here are some links that I found interesting to help tide you over:

  • The Red Sox released starting pitcher and failed mega-bargain Brad Penny. Coupled with John Smoltz’ ineptitude and subsequent departure, this development is more than a little bit satisfying considering the praise heaped upon the Red Sox for their low-cost offseason shopping. I have a serious but unrealistic suggestion, though: the Yankees should look into acquiring Penny. The Red Sox couldn’t afford his poor performance because (a) he was effectively their #3 starter and (b) they’re in the thick of the playoff race. Surely, however, Penny would be an upgrade on the Sergio Mitre/Chad Gaudin duo that currently occupies the Yankees’ fifth rotation slot, right? Rob Neyer may well agree with me.
  • Deadspin has a brief but outstanding piece about the damaging role of machismo and toughness in professional football. I’ve often thought about making this same point, but Dashiell Bennett conveys in a few hundred words what would have taken me about a thousand. Beware: some of the language in the accompanying video clip is a little off-color.
  • An appeals court has ruled that the government was wrong to seize the list and samples of the 104 Major League Baseball players who tested positive for banned substances in 2003. Great, this really helps David Ortiz and Alex Rodriguez, who have had their reputations and accomplishments tainted by the egregious violation of their basic rights. What do the players think? Most seem to want the entire list released which, as I’ve said, is a horrible idea. Brian Bannister has the right idea though. Just another reason he’s one of my favorite pitchers.
  • Schadenfreude for Louisville (and probably many Kentucky) fans.

Happy Thursday, everyone.


Your Christmas Malapropism

December 25, 2008

I did not plan on posting today, but I came across this on ESPN News about an hour ago. Resistance was futile.

San Diego Chargers’ linebacker Matt Wilhelm apparently does not like Denver Broncos’ quarterback Jay Cutler. His hatred is so ardent that he resorted to his last line of defense: an awesome malapropism.

“Jay Cutler, being the guy that he is, made some shrewd comments to [Shaun Phillips] and myself,” Wilhelm recalled of the in-game dialogue. “Brandon Marshall was making comments throughout the game. All these comments are being made, and they’re not making plays. Yet they’re the ones going home, and we’re preparing for our playoff game. It was essentially a wave to him goodbye and hopefully have a great offseason.”

Shrewd comments! Oh my, what did Cutler say?

“If I could, I would say them,” Wilhelm said. “But they’re unfit for radio.”

Cutler’s profundity is so powerful that to recount it on the radio would be too mind-blowing for us to handle. Must be that Vanderbilt degree. 

You mean “lewd,” Mr. Wilhelm. “Lewd.”

Merry Christmas.


Mel Kiper, Jr. Still Thinks Everyone Is Just Okay

April 28, 2008

As I wrote almost exactly one year ago today, NFL Draft guru Mel Kiper, Jr. has high standards. After last year’s draft, Kiper (henceforth I omit the “junior”) gave each team’s draft a grade. Of particular note was the fact that every team received a grade between a C- and a B+. One year later, I still find this funny.

Kiper just barely avoided a repeat performance in 2008. His lowest grade given was again a C-, and his typical high was again a B+. Unfortunately, the Kansas City Chiefs ruined all the fun by earning a presumably impossible A. Boo Kansas City.

Just for fun, let’s compare Kiper’s grade distribution in 2006, 2007 and 2008:

2006:

  • C- : 0
  • C : 11
  • C+ : 7
  • B- : 2
  • B : 9
  • B+ : 3

2007:

  • C- : 4
  • C : 7
  • C+ : 4
  • B- : 4
  • B : 9
  • B+ : 3

2008:

  • C- : 1
  • C : 3
  • C+ : 11
  • B- : 5
  • B : 9
  • B+ : 3
  • A : 1

For the fellow nerds interested, 2006 yielded an average grade right between a C+ and a B-. 2007 was about the same, although slightly closer to a B-. 2008 was almost exactly a B-. Removing the A – a clear outlier – has negligible effect in 2008; the average grade remains a B-.

2008’s grades are a bit funny because they indicate a shift even further to general mediocrity. While the average grade gets marginally higher as the years go on, the distribution changes a little. At least in 2007, Kiper handed out a bunch of C-‘s and C’s, which are essentially the worst grades possible under his ridiculous system. But in 2008, the range narrowed almost exclusively to C+ to B. In 2006, 56.2% of grades fell within that range; in 2007, 46.8%; 2008, 78.1%. In other words, Kiper’s already less-than-revealing grading system has become even more ambiguous with 78% of teams doing essentially “pretty well.”

It is also interesting to note that in each year, he gave out exactly 9 B’s and 3 B+’s. This probably means nothing.

I will now write a math-free paragraph. The point of all this is that, well, Kiper should maybe take a stand on something for once. I understand that it’s hard for a team to be an abject failure, which would necessitate an F. I also understand that it’s hard for a team to be perfect, necessitating an A. And forgive my informality for a moment, but dude, lighten up. You spend all year dissecting players and forming strong opinions about each one. Shouldn’t the aggregate of 252 strong opinions at least yield some D’s and A’s? It’s okay to grade teams relative to their competition instead of on some perfect, absolute scale. I do not like being yelled and screamed every year for two days in April about these players, and then checking your grades later and seeing nothing but C’s and B’s. Show me that all your sound and fury signifies something.

Your system is already as unscientific as all hell, so take a stand. The world will not end. You can do this. Until next year.