Monday, August 30, 2010

The Terrifically Transitional Ozzie Newsome

What do we want from our Hall of Fame tight ends? The answer has changed over time.

The tight end became an established position throughout the NFL in approximately 1960. Not surprisingly, the first incarnation of the HOF tight end was as a bruising blocker who could also catch passes.
Bobby Walston may have been the first-best, but there were others around about that time. Certainly there were large, physical pass receivers who were also good blockers playing end before 1960. Cf. Ron Kramer, just to name one.

That early definition of the position certainly has its adherents. HOF voters have repeatedly turned aside the best pass-catching tight ends of the '60s and '70s -- Pete Retzlaff and Jerry Smith -- in favor of the better blockers: Charlie Sanders, Mike Ditka, Jim Langer, John Mackey, and Jackie Smith.

However, starting in the '80s the top tight ends were the pass-catchers for whom blocking was as big of part of their game as holding on extra points: Kellen Winslow, Keith Jackson, and Newsome.

This is hardly a revelation. As the game moved towards a pass-first track meet, the idea of the tight end as an extra left tackle who can run the occasional slip route has grown as antequated as the cassette deck. The All-Pro tight ends of the last 30 years haven't been the Pete Metzelaars and Toolbox Wests of the tight-end world; they've been Antonio Gates and the Tony Gonzalez. In that context Newsome shapes up as a transitional guy.

Transitional for this too: He's one of the few old Browns to travel with the franchise and become a new Raven. The new Browns (as by association, the Ravens) are problematic, and not just because they have a front office whose combined skill is not proportional to its combined weight. Does the time line for the Browns run Cleveland to Baltimore or Cleveland to (pause) to Cleveland?

The NFL, ignoring the precedent of every other team (including the previous tenants of Charm City) has deigned that in the case of the Browns, the line runs from Brown's Browns to Kosar's Browns to the Browns of Montario Hardesty.

Wow. Good morning, Baltimore, indeed. Newsome has made it work, but no one else could -- not Art Modell, certainly -- but only because Newsome had experience in the position.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Shootout At The Fantasy Factory

I'll level with you: There is an ulterior motive to this, beyond the undeniable thrill of laying unadulterated smart-aleck comments on a fawning public. It's fantasy football.

The underlying premise of much of Football with 1 Stick Gum is that professional football teams have tendencies, and these tendencies cannot change overnight. Even in the age of free agency teams cannot simply be swapped out, the way you'd pop out Madden 9 and pop in Madden 10. Teams cannot transform; they can only evolve.

Furthermore, there are only so many plays that can be run in a game, and only so many yards that can be gained in a season. Yards gained in the NFL have increased season over season, but slowly. There has never been one season where everything simply exploded beyond the simple addition of games and teams, not even the post-AAFC and post-AFL merger years. It's not really possible. The laws of time and effort take over, and everything, as always, regresses to the mean.

As an aside, this tendency is even more pronounced the further down the football chain you travel. In the early ‘80s the University of Wisconsin hired Don Morton as its head coach. Morton made his reputation at the University of Tulsa as the progenitor of the veer offense, a sort of half-assed wishbone with a couple of pass plays. Morton came to Madison and tried to install the veer using the athletes who were running the Badgers’ patented crummy pro-style offense. It was enough to make the body-passers, the pot-smokers and the other miscellaneous faithful moon for the days of Mike “The Polish Rifle” Kalasmiki.

At that time I was moonlighting as a color commentator for the radio broadcasts of Wisconsin high-school football powerhouse D.C. Everest. They ran the veer too, and ran bubble screens and run-‘n’-shoot passes and plays that would never have showed up on Don Morton’s board if he had stayed at Madison a millennium.

The difference? The veer was D.C. Everest’s system, not the coach’s system. In Madison, the veer was Don Morton’s system, not Wisconsin’s system. The Badger players were the wrong ones to run the plays, and the plays were the wrong plays to boot. Wisconsin not only couldn’t flip a switch over to a new system, but the new system was a total botch. (Something to think about, Fighting Irish fans.)

What does this have to do with fantasy football? Basically, it means that everything the so-called experts think is special really isn't as special as they'd have you believe. If you read the magazines – and I've read a scad-load – you'd think that every player in the league is going to do 10 percent better than he did last year. And then there are the rookies – my Gawd, the rookies!

Well, it's bunk. It's not statistically possible. There are only so many plays in a game and yards in a season, there are only so many opportunities, and no single player or coach is capable of producing sea change overnight. Sam Bradford? Puh-leeze. No one to throw to, no line to protect him, and the game is going to look faster to him than Michael Phelps in a cheat suit. Mike Martz in Chicago? Martz has Johnny Knox, who does not equal Isaac Bruce, a couple of possession receivers who together don't add up to Ricky Proehl, a decent tight end that in the Martz scheme of things is as useful as a backup long snapper, and Jay Cutler, who resembles Kurt Warner the same way that Brett Favre resembles Bart Starr. There is no Torry Holt and no Marshall Faulk, and Soldier Field in December does not offer the same cushy consistency of the TWA Dome.

The way this game works is that players are slotted into roles, and it's those roles, not the players in them, that matter. The No. 1 receiver lines up here and does this, and ultimately it matters little whether it's Greg Jennings or Donald Driver.

The fantasy disconnect is that when you draft Greg Jennings you're not really drafting Greg Jennings. You're drafting the Packers' No. 1 receiver. And while roles don't change much over the course of the season, the players in those roles can, either through injury or performance. The Jets' No. 1 running back will be good for a ton of fantasy points this year, but at what point does that position gravitate from Ladanian Tomlinson to Shonn Greene?

All right, so here’s the first rule of drafting fantasy football players: Draft roles, not players. If the St. Louis Rams are going to be primarily a running team in 2010 – which they will – and you draft Steven Jackson, it’s not a bad idea to draft his backup as well. If you draft Tomlinson, save room to grab Greene. If things are really in a state of flux – read Buffalo – either save room for three RBs from one team or move on to a more settled situation. Besides, if you’re a fantasy-footballer who feels his team will not be complete without a Buffalo running back you’re beyond this column’s ability to help.

Second, realize that every gain has to be matched with a loss somewhere. Okay, so Jay Cutler throws for 10 percent more yards in 2010. He throws on more downs, which means fewer rushing opportunities for Matt Forte and Garrett Wolfe, and fewer rushing yards, more than likely. Since the Bears defense is projected to be worse than last year, the Bears will probably not gain any offensive opportunities. Therefore, it is extremely unlikely that Jay Cutler will pass for 10 percent more yards and Bears running backs will rush for 10 percent more yards.

Here’s another way of approaching the same question. Was Adrian Peterson a worse running back after Brett Favre’s arrival than he was before? Of course not, that fumbling thing aside. However, there were fewer situations in which handing the ball to Adrian Peterson was the No. 1 option. And what of all those pundits who figured that Brett Favre’s arrival would make Peterson even better, because it would keep the defenses honest? They forgot three immutable facts: 1) there are only so many plays to go around, 2) keeping the defenses honest also means keeping the offenses honest, and 3) Brett Favre is an incorrigible ball-hog.

Saying that Favre and Peterson could both bump their numbers proportionally by playing together would be like saying that Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh and LeBron James will all increase their scoring averages now that they’re Heats, and no one is saying that. Instead, they’re laying bets on whose average will suffer most. Anyone with a milligram of hoops sense knows that there can be only so many trips down the court in a basketball game, and there’s only one ball. Football thinkers would be wise to pay attention.

This is the long way ‘round to the key question: Which roles will produce the most points in 2010? Here are my calculations, based on a specially weighted average of past years and a projection of trends and performances this year. The league gives six points for each touchdown scored, three for each TD pass, and half a point for each reception.

I can tell you this: I ran these same numbers last year and scored the most points of anyone in my league. This is the way football works. Ignore it at your peril.

1 Green Bay QB
2 San Diego QB
3 New Orleans QB
4 Indianapolis QB
5 New England QB
6 Tennessee RB 1
7 Dallas QB
8 Jacksonville RB 1
9 Minnesota QB
10 Houston QB
11 Minnesota RB 1
12 New York J RB 1
13 Miami RB 1
14 Pittsburgh QB
15 Baltimore RB 1
16 New York G QB
17 Philadelphia QB
18 Baltimore QB
19 Arizona QB
20 Carolina RB 1
21 Washington QB
22 San Francisco QB
23 Atlanta QB
24 Denver QB
25 St. Louis RB 1
26 Cincinnati QB
27 Dallas RB 1
28 Indianapolis WR 1
29 San Francisco RB 1
30 Atlanta RB 1
31 Chicago QB
32 Houston WR 1
33 Seattle QB
34 Philadelphia RB 1
35 Jacksonville QB
36 Green Bay RB 1
37 Arizona WR 1
38 Green Bay WR 1
39 Houston RB 1
40 Washington RB 1
41 Kansas City RB 1
42 Seattle RB 1
43 Chicago RB 1
44 Carolina RB 2
45 Philadelphia WR 1
46 Cleveland RB 1
47 San Diego RB 1
48 New England WR 1
49 New England RB 1
50 Detroit RB 1
51 Miami QB
52 Pittsburgh RB 1
53 Kansas City QB
54 New Orleans RB 1
55 Tennessee QB
56 Arizona RB 1
57 Dallas WR 1
58 Detroit WR 1
59 New Orleans WR 1
60 Minnesota WR 1
61 Oakland RB 1
62 Indianapolis WR 2
63 New York G RB 1
64 San Diego WR 1
65 Pittsburgh WR 1
66 Denver RB 1
67 New York J RB 2
68 New York G WR 1
69 New England WR 2
70 Green Bay WR 2
71 Cincinnati RB 1
72 New Orleans WR 2
73 Buffalo RB 1
74 Atlanta WR 1
75 Indianapolis RB 1
76 Tampa Bay RB 2
77 Houston WR 2
78 Cincinnati WR 1
79 San Diego WR 2
80 Detroit QB
81 Pittsburgh WR 2
82 Minnesota WR 2
83 Washington WR 1
84 Baltimore WR 1
85 Kansas City WR 1
86 Carolina QB
87 New Orleans K
88 Buffalo RB 2
89 Oakland QB
90 Dallas WR 2
91 New York G WR 2
92 New York J QB
93 Tampa Bay RB 1
94 Chicago WR 1
95 Detroit RB 2
96 Miami WR 1
97 Denver WR 1
98 Jacksonville WR 1
99 Miami RB 2
100 San Diego K

Monday, August 23, 2010

Anonymity, Thy Name Is Chuck Walker

One of the criteria for judging the worth of a football player prior to about 1977 was how many times they appeared on football cards. Football sets in the pre-merger days routinely checked in below 200 cards, and they didn't double in size right away after the merger. You had to be of a certain quality -- Joe Auer and above, or Max Choboian and below -- to make it onto a football card, and then you had to be of a certain slightly higher quality -- Clendon Thomas country or thereabouts -- to stay on football cards more than one year, unless you were on an expansion team or Topps had a really good collection of photos of you it had to use up, which appears to be the only explanation for Bo Roberson.

This criterion was not infallible, though. Warren Raab appeared on a football card. Marion Rushing appeared on a football card. Steve Thurlow appeared on a football card. Steve Tensi, Gerhard Schwedes, A.D. Whitfield, Hal Bledsole, James Stiger, Pete Perrault, Wahoo McDaniel, Bob Cappadonna, and Tom Nomina all appeared on football cards, and not just in the team photos. Don Trull appeared on so many football cards you forgot he was a backup quarterback for a sub-.500 AFL team (though he will someday be one of the top quarterbacks in the league). Even Cosmo Iacavazzi appeared on a football card, and he never played a game in either league.

But Chuck Walker, two-time All-Pro, 13-year vet, appeared on only one football card, in 1970. To a football-loving kid of the era, Chuck Walker was on the same football footing as Iacavazzi and Raab and Nomina and -- yeesh! -- Perry Lee Dunn. As a practical matter this was very nearly true, since he was a defensive lineman for the Cardinals and therefore almost nonexistent.

But the funny thing was, Walker wasn't bad. Better than multiple-card-appearer Sam Silas certainly, which makes you wonder: Did Topps and Philly have better Sam Silas photos, and if so, why? Silas looked like Werner Ohland channeling Porky Pig. Walker merely had a flat-top with a bald spot, no different than Ken Rice or Sonny Bishop or John Olszewski or 30 other multi-card guys. It's strange that one of the major measuring sticks for player goodness can be so arbitrary. But then again, measuring sticks usually are.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Numbers Are A Beast

I know I promised I wouldn't drag numbers into this, but I just couldn't help myself.

Just assuming for a second that all numbers are not whacked when it comes to evaluating the relative merits of O-linemen, let’s let the actuaries and allied number-crunchers make their case.

It just so happens I have actuaries who are my friends. It happens when you work in insurance. It especially happens when you work in insurance and marry an actuary.

Anyway, one of the endearing things about actuaries is that they’re so amazed to find someone talking to them that they will do practically anything you ask them to, as long as it involves numbers and not talking to members of the opposite sex.

(I make an exception to this in the case of my wife, who will most emphatically not do anything I ask her to. In her case, matrimony overrules actuarialism.)

So I was thinking about offensive linemen in the Hall of Fame, and wondering why Gene Hickerson was in and others were out. It’s not that I have anything against Gene Hickerson; not at all. He was one of my heroes growing up. Basically any football player who struck the elbows-out O-lineman pose was my hero, and looking back I have no bloody idea why.

Anyway, the Hickerson thought led me to wonder why Frank Gatski was in when others were out, which led me to wonder why Mike McCormack was in when others were out. The common denominator was that they were Cleveland Browns linemen, and lo and behold, the Football HOF is just down the road a piece from Cleveland. Could there be a geographic bias in the selection of linemen for the Hall of Fame?

At this point I called up my actuary buddy and asked him to take a swag at the question. He boogied over to and grabbed the average career value of HOF linemen and ranked the linemen on that basis.

What he got was this:

Anthony Munoz 137
Bruce Matthews 121
Ron Yary 119
Jim Ringo 113
Gene Upshaw 111
John Hannah 106
Forrest Gregg 104
Rosey Brown 103
Randall McDaniel 103
Art Shell 103
Mike Webster 103
Jim Parker 102
Gary Zimmerman 102
Jim Otto 100
Lou Groza 100
Larry Little 99
Jackie Slater 93
Gene Hickerson 92
Bob Brown 91
Tom Mack 91
Lou Creekmur 90
Stan Jones 88
Joe DeLamielleure 86
Rayfield Wright 86
Dan Dierdorf 86
Mike Munchak 84
Jim Langer 82
Bob St. Clair 80
Mike McCormack 80
Ron Mix 77
George Connor 73
Frank Gatski 72
Dwight Stephenson 71
Russ Grimm 63
Billy Shaw 50

Okay, so Hickerson ranked higher than I thought, but otherwise I could justify pretty much everything I saw.

Then I realized that average value isn’t an average at all. It weights its numbers based on longevity, and longevity along does not get you into the HOF.

So when you factor for longevity the rankings go like this:

Anthony Munoz 11.42
George Connor 10.43
Jim Parker 10.20
Dwight Stephenson 10.14
Bob Brown 10.11
Lou Creekmur 10.00
Gary Zimmerman 9.27
John Hannah 8.83
Rosey Brown 8.58
Ron Yary 8.50
Jim Ringo 8.07
Bob St. Clair 8.00
Gene Upshaw 7.93
Randall McDaniel 7.92
Mike Munchak 7.64
Larry Little 7.62
Tom Mack 7.58
Jim Langer 7.45
Art Shell 7.36
Stan Jones 7.33
Mike McCormack 7.27
Joe DeLamielleure 7.17
Rayfield Wright 7.17
Dan Dierdorf 7.17
Jim Otto 7.14
Ron Mix 7.00
Forrest Gregg 6.93
Bruce Matthews 6.72
Frank Gatski 6.55
Mike Webster 6.44
Russ Grimm 6.30
Billy Shaw 6.25
Gene Hickerson 6.13
Jackie Slater 4.89
Lou Groza 4.76

Better. Hickerson drops but Stephenson rises, which is okay, seeing as he was the Practically Perfect Center for most of his career. Gregg and Matthews might be low, or their reputations may be so strong that they overshadow their real accomplishments.

Okay, now I did the same for a lot of HOF suspects. Just looking at their career AVs gives you this:

Mick Tinglehoff 102
Mike Kenn 100
Russ Washington 99
Dick Schafrath 98
Lomas Brown 96
Jim Tyrer 96
Larry Allen 91
Chris Hinton 83
Jerry Kramer 83
Ken Gray 82
Leon Gray 81
Marvin Powell 80
Bob DeMarco 78
Duane Putnam 78
John Niland 78
Ed Budde 77
Ruben Brown 71
Ernie McMillan 70
Dennis Harrah 66
Dick Stanfel 65
Rich Saul 56

Mick Tinglehoff as an HOFer? It’s a satisfying thought. It feels right. On the other hand, look who else is up there: a bunch of offensive-line lifers and Dick Schafrath (whose raw score is way better than Gene Hickerson’s).

Ah, but these numbers overvalue longevity. Correcting for that brings this:

Dick Stanfel 9.285714
John Niland 7.8
Jerry Kramer 7.545455
Dick Schafrath 7.538462
Leon Gray 7.363636
Marvin Powell 7.272727
Duane Putnam 7.090909
Jim Tyrer 6.857143
Russ Washington 6.6
Larry Allen 6.5
Chris Hinton 6.384615
Ken Gray 6.307692
Mick Tinglehoff 6
Bob DeMarco 6
Mike Kenn 5.882353
Ed Budde 5.5
Ruben Brown 5.461538
Lomas Brown 5.333333
Dennis Harrah 5.076923
Ernie McMillan 4.666667
Rich Saul 4.666667

This may be going too far in the other direction, but it makes more sense. Stanfel was a heck of a lineman for bad teams, and Schafrath was great no matter how you slice it. And it throws the long-lived slugs to the bottom, which is where they belong in this exercise.

So what I wound up finding was not necessarily that there’s regional bias in the selection of HOF OLs (though three of the bottom seven linemen are Browns, and then there’s Leroy Kelly over in the RBs) but that longevity is overvalued. Playing 16 pretty good years is more valuable than playing 10 great ones. And that’s just not the way it is.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Aeneas Williams And Three Guys Named "HOF."

Hard to believe considering the relative quality of everything else in ChiStlAz, but Aeneas Williams is the only one of the Cards' all-time starting D-backfield to not be in the HOF. Larry Wilson is, Roger Werhli is, and Dick "Night Train" Lane is.

That sort of quality is like finding Alcantara leather in a Geo Metro, but when you're the Cardinals you take these things where you can find them.

Taking it for granted that Williams will make it into the Hall of Fame -- and while nothing is ever for certain, keeping an eight-time All-Something like Williams out of Canton would be like barring George Bush from the Former Presidents Club just because he spent eight years thinking he was still president of the Texas Rangers -- only one other team will have the distinction of an all-time all-HOF D-backfield, and it's not obvious either.

That team is .... wait for it ... the Detroit Lions, who invented the modern defensive backfield and got three Hall of Famers out of it (including Lane), with Lem Barney coming along later. Williams, the pending Hall of Famer, may be the best of the Cards' bunch, though it's always hard to vote against the inventors of the horsecollar and the safety blitz.