Archive for the ‘Football’ category

Titles as a Measure of Greatness


Many people consider the titles the ultimate measure of greatness. Did a player win a title? Then he might be great. If not, he clearly was not. Classic examples of this are the contrast between Dan Marino and Tom Brady, or Bill Simmons‘ preference for Bill Russell over Wilt Chamberlain. For starters, I think this measure is nonsense. Given that all of these sports are team games, it is tough to argue that any one player determines a championship. With that point acknowledged, I do not see how championships are an appropriate measure of greatness. However, that is not my point today. Rather, I want to pick at another consequence of this line of thought. When does a player become great?

If championships are the measure, a player cannot become great before winning a title. Sometimes, this makes sense. Magic Johnson, Bill Russell, Patrick Roy, Ken Dryden, Babe Ruth, and Derek Jeter all won titles as rookies. They, then, become instantly eligible for greatness. Look at the flipside, though. Alex Rodriguez became officially great in 2009, almost certainly after he has reached the downside of his 3-time MVP career. Wayne Gretzky became great in 1984, two years after he set the single season goal record. Wilt Chamberlain became great in 1967, 5 years after averaging 50 points/game for a season and scoring 100 points in a game. Jerry West became great in 1972, his 12th season, at age 33.

Think about that very brief list for a minute. Gretzky and Chamberlain had established scoring records that stand today, yet they were not officially great. Jerry West had become the logo of the NBA, but he was not great. Rodriguez had become one of only 10 players in MLB history to win 3 MVP’s, but he was not great. Does that make any sense? Ignore, for a minute, the obvious counters to titles as a measure of greatness (i.e. Ernie Banks, Carl Yastrzemski, Dan Marino, Dick Butkus, Charles Barkley, John Stockton, etc.). Even for players who have won titles, the titles say little about these players claim to greatness.

Titles are important, clearly. In the end, teams play in order to win a title. Players, as part of a team, are supposedly united by this common goal. Nonetheless, titles make a poor measure of greatness.


The Draft’s Mistakes


The NFL Draft will soon be upon us, and for many franchises, the draft is viewed as make or break. After looking over many a mock draft, I always wonder how well the players taken below Round One will do. So below, I have constructed the best starting lineup I can from players that were basically overlooked. In doing so, I am relying heavily on the NFL’s 75th Anniversary All-Time Team, with a mixture of other Hall of Famers, Hall of Fame nominees, and Pro Bowlers thrown in to fill out the team.  The listings are position – name (round, year), with U=Undrafted.

QB – Johnny Unitas (9, 1955) [Warren Moon (U, 1978)]
RB – Terrell Davis (6, 1995)
RB – Curtis Martin (3, 1995)
WR – Raymond Berry (20, 1954)
WR – Cris Carter (4, 1987)
TE – Shannon Sharpe (7, 1990)
T – Max Montoya (7, 1979)
T – Roosevelt Brown (27, 1953)
G – Conrad Dobler (5. 1972)
G – Russ Grimm (3, 1981)
C – Mike Webster (5, 1974)
DE – Deacon Jones (14, 1961)
DE – Richard Dent (8, 1983)
DT – John Randle (U, 1990)
DT – Pat Williams (U, 1997)
MLB – Gary Reasons (4, 1984)
OLB – Kevin Greene (5, 1985)
OLB – Harry Carson (4, 1976)
CB – Night Train Lane (U, 1952)
CB – Mel Blount (3, 1970)
SS – Larry Wilson (7, 1960)
FS – Ken Houston (9, 1967)
PK – Adam Vinatieri (U, 1996)
P – Jeff Feagles (U, 1988)

The draft does matter, clearly, because it took a lot of work to pull this team together. Nonetheless, bargains exist, and they always have. One final note: Don’t draft a kicker/punter. Too many of the best ever have gone undrafted. The value just is not there.

Are Modern Players Better?


In The Book of Basketball, Bill Simmons argues that modern basketball players are substantially better than their historical predecessors.  This view is common across sports.  In baseball, Bill James has been known to advocate a weak version of the thesis, and anyone who listens much to sports talk radio can hear its football-based proponents weekly.  But is it true?  Here, the key is defining the question carefully?  What precisely do we mean by saying that modern players either are or are not better than players that have gone before?  We need to dig into this question in all of its permutations before we can begin to give it a satisfying answer.

Claim #1: Modern leagues are better at getting the best players to the big leagues.

This claim is simply true. Reason #1 is integration. A league that excluded all members of non-white races is not getting the same amount of talent as an integrated league. In the NHL and NBA, leagues that allow European players are drawing from a substantially larger talent pool than leagues that do not. Other reasons also abound. In baseball the decline of the minor leagues as separate sources of baseball power increased the quality of play in the major leagues. As an example, Joe McGinnity won 246 games in the major leagues in only 10 seasons. He then moved to the minor leagues and won another 207 games. The National League without McGinnity was not as good as the National League with him.

Response #1: The claim does not prove as much as it seems like it would.

Just because the current leagues are better in aggregate, because they funnel talent more efficiently, does not mean that individual players are better. Old ballplayers, it is likely, have inflated stats because they get to spend more time playing against weaker players. That says nothing about raw talent, though it does form an important part of evaluating statistics.

Claim #2: Players today are bigger, faster, and stronger.

This claim is trickier. In one sense it is clearly true. Compare two left tackles, Jonathan Ogden and Forrest Gregg. Ogden was listed at 6’9″, 340 lbs., making him one of the largest players ever to play in the NFL. Gregg, one of the largest players of the 1960s, was 6’4″, 249. The discrepancy is astounding. As a matter of fact, the discrepancy is so astounding as to undermine the point of the claim.

Response #2: Players are bigger, faster, and stronger, yet they do not possess appreciably more natural talent.

Gregg was 6’4″ and weighed 249 lbs. Nate Newton was 6’3″, 318. Walter Jones was 6’5″, 315. The change is in weight. Did Newton have extra talent that helped him gain 70 more pounds? Of course not. Instead, Newton had better weight training, nutrition, and supplements. Gregg did not have access to the wonders of BALCO, protein shakes, and regular weight training. To get at the question of talent, imagine time travel. What happens if Walter Jones was transported to 1962? He begins by dominating, and then he would shrink. I mean that literally. Walter Jones, upon losing access to modern weight training and nutrition would literally watch the pounds fall off him. Gregg comes forward? Watch the pounds get added to his frame. What would Lebron James look like in the early 1960’s? Probably a lot like Elgin Baylor. The changes cannot be ascribed to something internal to the player, and because of that they cannot be ascribed to talent differences.

Claim #3: Modern players have better stats.

This claim is only sporadically true. Modern quarterbacks have substantially better statistics than their older counterparts. Fielders in baseball commit half of the errors of players a century ago in more games.

Response #3: Stats do not exist in a vacuum.

Why do modern quarterbacks have better stats? They play with laxer passing rules during seasons with more games. Why do fielders commit fewer errors? They play on carefully manicured fields. The 1924 World Series was decided by a ball that took a funny bounce off a rock. That would not happen today. Along with these changes, some older players did have better stats. Consider Wilt Chamberlain or Cy Young as the obvious examples here.

These are three possible ways to answer the question posed in the title. I think #1 is the strongest point. Nevertheless, I don’t think that modern players are more talented. They simply have more favorable circumstances. What are other possible ways of interpreting the claim? Do you think the question is true in any sense?

Predictions, Again


Last weekend I again went 2-2, meaning one of the teams I pick today is going to the Super Bowl. Without further ado:

Colts over Jets
Vikings over Saints

Chan Gailey?


Today, the Bills hired Chan Gailey to be their next head coach.  He came out of the blue, a candidate that had received no discussion prior to news yesterday that he was being hired.  So, it is time for followers of the Bills to do delayed due diligence.  What should Bills fans think of the Gailey hiring? Gailey comes with an offensive background. He has served as an offensive coordinator in the NFL on four separate occasions. Let us start by examining those stints, move on to his time as an NFL coach, and wrap up with the implications he has for the Bills next season.

Gailey was first an offensive coordinator for the Denver Broncos in 1989 and 1990. The 1989 Broncos were 8th in the NFL in points and 15th in yards. The team went 11-5 and lost to the 49ers in the Super Bowl in the biggest Super Bowl blowout ever, scoring only 10 points. In 1990, the Broncos dropped to 16th in points but rose to 8th in yardage. The team dropped to 5-11, and Gailey was fired after the season. He was hired by the Pittsburgh Steelers as offensive coordinator for the 1996 and 1997 seasons. The 1996 Steelers went 10-6, finishing 11th in points and 15th in yardage. They bowed out in the second round of the playoffs. In 1997, the Steelers lost in the second round of the playoffs once again. They went 11-5, with the league’s 7th most points and 6th most yards. In each year, they lost to the eventual AFC champion. Jerry Jones was impressed enough that he hired Chan Gailey as his head coach in Dallas to replace Barry Switzer. We will look at that time in the next paragraph. After being fired in Dallas, Gailey was immediately hired as the Dolphins offensive coordinator for 2000 and 2001. The team was 11-5 each year. In 2000, they were 16th in points and 26th in yards, and the next season they were 8th in points and 21st in yards. He left Miami to spend 6 seasons as the head coach at Georgia Tech, going 44-33 and making a bowl every year. After being fired he spent the 2008 season as offensive coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs finished 2-14, with the 26th most points and 24th most yards. He was fired immediately before the start of the 2009 season.

For two seasons, Chan Gailey was head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. In 1998, the Cowboys were 10-6, winning the NFC East. They lost in the first round of the playoffs to Arizona. For the season, the Cowboys were 9th in points and 8th in yards, yet they only scored 7 in their one playoff game. In 1999, the Cowboys fell to 8-8, winning a wild card. They were 11th in points and 16th in yards. They fell to Minnesota in the first round, scoring 10 points. Gailey was fired and replaced by the immortal Dave Campo. Campo promptly reeled off three consecutive 5-11 seasons before himself being fired.

That is the resume. In Gailey’s 7 years as coordinator, including two coaching John Elway, his quarterback’s best passer rating was 80.3 by Jay Fiedler in 2001. It cannot be said that he ever made a quarterback better, but it also cannot be said he had much to work with in Pittsburgh, Miami, or Kansas City. What does this mean for Buffalo? First look at the offensive rankings. As an offensive coach, Gailey has never coordinated an offensive juggernaut. His best offense, and likely best team, was the 1997 Steelers, who had the misfortune of playing against a dominant Denver team. Gailey teams never cracked the top 5 in either points or yards. In every case except Pittsburgh and Miami, the offense got noticeably worse in his second season in charge. In those two cases, both teams improved slightly in year two. Gailey has never gotten to year 3. Regardless, his resume is substantially stronger than his predecessor Dick Jauron, but it is not particularly overwhelming.

It is hard to see Gailey as anything other that the Bills figuring they could not get anyone better. The Bills problems in 2009 were primarily offensive, as they finished 28th in points and 30th in yards. That is worse than any team Gailey has ever coached, so he is likely to bring some improvement. Playoffs? I see no reason to bet on it. Gailey is a decent coach when given good talent. The Bills have subpar talent. That strikes me as an ill-fated combination.

Predictions and Links


Following my sterling 2-2 performance last week, I thought it best to mitigate my picks by linking to other blogs that have material of interest.

An interesting pair of posts from Verdun on baseball and wartime, one on the general idea and the other on its effect on the Hall of Fame.

Who is the greatest fielding shortstop in baseball history? I am not sure, but the Cardinals have at least two in the running, Ozzie Smith and the forgotten Marty Marion

Who makes the Hall of Fame? Well, Bill James has a number of different methods of predicting the vote, and Alex Remington at Yahoo Sports gives us a good overview.

What happens when someone already in the Hall of Fame is proven to be a steroid user? No one knows. Jose Canseco alleges that some member did, but he has the misfortune of remaining Jose Canseco. In contrast, Rob Neyer discusses the question intelligently.

Finally, picks for the week, not against the spread:

Colts over Ravens
Cardinals over Saints
Vikings over Cowboys
Chargers over Jets

Pete Carroll to the NFL


Apparently, Pete Carroll is leaving USC and returning to the NFL to coach the Seattle Seahawks. What if anything can be drawn from this turn of events?

First, time really does heal all wounds. Carroll has already been an NFL coach, coaching the Jets in 1994 and going 6-10, then spending 1997-99 in New England where he went 27-21, with his record getting worse each year. Of course, those numbers are much better than Bill Belichick‘s tenure in Cleveland, when he was 36-44 over 5 seasons. Nevertheless, the Seahawks are playing with a known commodity with a poor track record.

Second, I worry about the future of USC football. I use worry loosely, given that I basically dislike USC and am happy to see them lose. Still, USC has won parts of two national titles under Carroll, along with three Heisman trophies. Before this year, they had won 7 consecutive Pac 10 titles. Yet this season, they went a mere 9-4, including a bowl win over Boston College. At the same time, the school is facing a series of NCAA investigations relating to football players Reggie Bush and Joe McKnight and basketball player O.J. Mayo. Why do you leave a secure spot in one of college football’s most elite programs? If I were a USC follower, I would worry that either the team is finally having trouble reloading from losing players to the NFL, is facing imminent NCAA sanctions, or both.

It will be interesting to see if Carroll will be a better NFL coach this time around. Do any of you think he has learned his lessons?