Thursday, November 08, 2012

[Football] Pigskin Potluck

Pigskin Potluck: NFL season is half over, and it's been a strange and fascinating season. I almost wish I had my football column back. Almost.
  • It started with Bountygate, and has anything ever had it's moral righteousness turned inside out so fast? At the start it was all the rage to demand action -- who were these savages trying to injure their fellow players? Roger Goodell put his hand over his heart and laid down the law; he could do no less what with the concussion problem getting so much press and all. Then the Saints, everybody's beloved puppy of a team, started to lose. Then everyone stopped to think about it. Then everyone read the details. Then the lawsuits came. A couple months later and Goodell is running for cover and suspended players are beating the rap. I realize there may have been some wrong-doing here, but I just love it when the sanctimonious get their comeuppance.
  • Then we had replacement refs, who are now largely forgotten. For me this was a dose of self-awareness. I know I am an instinctive contrarian, but I never realized how severe this affliction was until I found myself thinking that even though everyone was up in arms over these guys, there really was no hard evidence that we're doing significantly worse than the pros. There are bad calls made in every game, often they are overlooked or excused away. I seriously suspected that the replacements weren't doing any worse, at least not relative to expectations given their experience level, they were just getting hammered because of perceptions and fashion. I honestly still don't know that that wasn't the case. But in the course of this I discovered one secret to lifelong happiness: Always agree with the majority and delude yourself that you have done so out of reasoned analysis. You will find the world is made for you.
  • I can't remember the last time I saw an NFL game in person, but I have been to two Michigan games this year. Having given some thought to the differences between college and pro I have come to wonder whether the differences between the games are greater than generally perceived and whether that explains why it is so difficult to draft effectively over a long period of time. It has to do with the great(er) variation in athletic ability in college. This is most blatantly on display at QB where a very athletic QB will always have someone he can outrun in college. The offense only needs to design a play such that the poorer athlete ends up responsible for stopping the speedy QB and points and trophies and Heismans are in the offing. At the pro level, every player on the defense is a better athlete than anyone the QB has ever faced before. The QB may get away with depending on his athleticism for a while -- maybe even a full season -- but the defenses around the league will figure you out and you will fall flat. This is also true to a lesser extent in receivers and defensive backs. In college you can get away with just being a better athlete. Chances are your team has a receiver who will simply be outright faster than the guy covering him. Easy target. Once you get to the NFL you will no longer be fast enough to outrun the skilled and disciplined defenders, your success will depend on hitting your routes, adjusting on broken plays, and even blocking. It's entirely possible that players who don't get the big national headlines or even regular starts during their college career turn out to be the ones who are better at adapting, finding roles, and playing with their heads instead of their feet. This explains why the big NFL stars are often guys you never heard of in college. Denard Robinson (Michigan's speedy QB) is a blast to watch, but no one has deluded themselves that he is going on to much success in the NFL except as a role player. And as much fun as I have at the Michigan games, I still prefer the higher play quality of the NFL.
  • Speaking of quality: Peyton Manning. He gets a knock or two for having only one ring but that's about the only knock I can think of. In fact, having that ring could be quite an argument in his favor. The one season the Colts managed to have a defense that wasn't below average he got them all rings. He was out all last year with an injury and looking at the Colts record you can get a sense for how much of their success was because of him. Now after a year off, four neck surgeries, and on a unfamiliar team, he looks like he's still elite.
    "Receiver Demaryius Thomas [says] that Manning recently installed a play during practice that included a fade-out route cornerback Champ Bailey described as "unstoppable." Manning installed another play that the Saints couldn't handle - during last night's game. And so the point is that Peyton isn't playing at this level because he has the arm strength of his younger days, but because he still has enough in his body and he has more than ever in his mind."
    I maintain he is the best QB ever and probably the best football player ever. And that's not me being a contrarian.
  • Since this post is getting to be as long as my old columns, let me finish up by pointing you to my current favorite football writer, Mike Tanier, at Sports on Earth, formerly of my longtime favorite stats site Football Outsiders. He writes smart, literate and lively columns -- never descending into snarky juvenilia as is the fashion in sports writing on the web. In fact, I worry that he may have a little too high an opinion of his readers. For example, this quote from a column a couple of weeks back:
    "As usual, Julian Assange couldn't get accurate injury information out of the Patriots if you gave him a keycard, Bill Belichick's computer password and a stethoscope. [Receiver Brandon] Lloyd went down hard on his shoulder at the end of the Seahawks game Sunday and appeared to be very injured, but ask Belichick and he will just tell you that Yuri Andropov has a cold."
    It's marginally reasonable to expect Joe Football Fan would know who Julian Assange is. But Yuri Andropov? That's quite a reach. Great line though. Kudos to his editors for letting him go for it. I'm rooting for a followup reference to Konstantin Chernenko.