Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Consistency Rules, Or No Cialis In The Shotgun

Forget Emerson; this is football.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, as every good 85-year-old grammar-school graduate knows, wrote that a "foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of young minds" ... so go forth and be inconsistent, I guess.

Consistency in football is a curious quality, not altogether foolish but in the same area code. Teams strive to be unpredictable from play to play yet consistent in the amount of yards gained by those plays, because they can coach to that. Imagine the plight of a coach whose team rolls up 500 yards in offense and 85 plays in one game, and 200 yards and 55 plays in another. Is he really better off than the coach of a team that's good for 275 every game?

Probably not. The coach of the 275-yards-a-game team takes the hand that's dealt him and maximizes it through ball control, special teams and defense. The coach of the up-and-down team spends more time trying to maximize an offense that can't be maximized, only made less maddening.

Furthermore, the idea that teams are unpredictable from play to play is a conceit, as we’ve established many columns ago. There are only so many plays in a game, and only so many yards that can be gained on those plays. The successful offensive teams do what they do best more often in order to maximize the number of yards gained per play and the number of plays run in a game -- cf., the Indianapolis Colts. If the Colts wanted to be unpredictable they’d run Joseph Addai 40 times a game, and that just plain ain’t happenin’.

The springboard for this discussion is fantasy football. One of the neglected realities of fantasy football is that most of what’s done in real football works against fantasy football. The Eagles are a better team with Ronnie Brown, but his presence makes LeSean McCoy a worse fantasy running back. A healthy Jermichael Finley takes fantasy points away from James Jones, Greg Jennings, Ryan Grant, and James Starks.

However, one thing is true in fantasy football and real football: Production vs. consistency is a conundrum. In fantasy football, do you want a player who's good for 15 points one week and 45 the next, or do you want a player who averages 25 points a game? A combination of the two isn't bad, but given the lady-vs.-tiger conundrum, which do you choose?

There's a definite case to be made for consistency, a predictability that can be managed to, and for that we return to real football. Looking at the standard deviations of NFL teams in all offensive categories over the last five years, the most consistent teams have been three of the league's most successful teams … and two mediocre teams.

As I was putting my research together, I asked many of my football-loving friends to name the successful teams. To a man they guessed the Patriots as one of the most consistent teams. And to a man they were wrong.

While the Pats are the epitome of a successful NFL team, they have not been one of football's most consistent offensive teams over the last five years for some very simple reasons. Reason No. 1: The running game. Reason No. 2: Randy Moss. Randy Moss is a walking inconsistency. Let me rephrase that: Randy Moss is a jogging-at-half-speed inconsistency.

Rather, the successful teams have been the Eagles, the Giants, and the Colts.

The Colts’ offense has been operating at near-peak efficiency for the last five years. Last year was a bit of a down year because of injuries, but basically there is no more up for the Colts’ offense. They run more plays than any other team year after year, they gain more yards than just about anyone, and they are the league’s most consistent team in the number of yards gained per play. Any individual gains are going to be mere internal reallocation. Can Pierre Garcon catch more balls this year? Sure – but so could Austin Collie or even – gasp! – Anthony Gonzalez, and it’s going to come at the expense of the other receivers. There is no more production to be wrung from this offense.

Philadelphia, the league’s most consistent team in terms of yards gained and first downs, also has a system-based story. Ever since Andy Reid has been the coach, the Eagles have built their offense around an athletic quarterback, a versatile running back, and playmaking wide receivers. The differences between the Vick version and the McNabb version are in the details. McNabb favored the tight end. Vick favors the wideouts.

The Eagles' dedication to the system extends to the role players. When Kevin Kolb (who was never a good fit for the system) was traded to Arizona and the Eagles needed a backup quarterback, they looked at their system, looked at the available talent, and signed the second-best QB for their system – Vince Young. Similarly when the Eagles looked for a backup running back they found a fit for their scheme in Ronnie Brown.

The Giants have a system too, albeit one that's less exciting and more dysfunctional than the Eagles' system. It relies on runs and lots of them, coupled with mid-range passes to wide receivers and particularly the tight end.

The biggest loss of the offseason may have been Kevin Boss. The Giants lost a huge component of their offense and came up with nothing to replace it.

It should also be noted that two other system-heavy teams, the Packers and Steelers, are extremely consistent in certain aspects of the offensive game. Green Bay completes roughly the same number of passes game after game and season after season, while the Steelers are the league’s most consistent team in points scored. You bet the games in Vegas? The Steelers are your team to play.

A lot of this research really points up the value of special teams to bottom-line offensive production. If you average 62 and a half plays a game, which is what the league averages, and you gain slightly more than five yards a play, if you start your drives from your own 40 and have an eight-play drive you’re going to score significantly more points than if you start those drives on your 20. And the Eagles, as long as DeSean Jackson returns kicks, are in a good position to score on more of its drives than other teams.

Why do you think the Packers drafted a return guy in the second round and signed the nation’s leading punt returner as a free agent? Because if your average drive is eight plays and thirty-some yards, you need to be starting more of those drives on your own 40 or better if you want to score points.

Moving on to the consistently mediocre teams, we find Jacksonville and Buffalo. Well, of course we do. Why are Jacksonville and Buffalo two of the league’s most consistent offensive teams over the last five years?

Jacksonville’s case is easy. Jacksonville has been consistent because they’ve had the same mediocre quarterback throwing to a bunch of sub-mediocre wide receivers for the last five years, and they’ve had a great running game to enable that. In the words of that famous fantasy-football guru Ke$ha, they are who they are. And they’re not very good. However, they are very consistent at not being very good. And this year they have what they had last year: David Garrard for three or four games, Blaine Gabbert the rest of the way, Maurice Jones-Drew, Marcedes Lewis, and a mess of terrible wide receivers led – led, mind you – by Mike Thomas. I would rather have Rick Perry DJ my going-away party than be the offensive coordinator in J’ville.

You hear Jack Del Rio whinny a lot about how next season is going to be better, but why would it be? What has really changed? I say move the team to L.A., sign Kobe Bryant, and see what happens.

Buffalo’s story is not quite the same. The Bills throw approximately the same number of interceptions each year and gain the same number of rushing yards. This happens when your quarterback position is a revolving door and Dick Jauron is your head coach. Six starting QBs in five years is a recipe for a baseline passing game, especially when three of the six are Trent Edwards, Brian Brohm, and J.P. Losman.

What would need to happen for the Bills to improve offensively, and break out of their offensive rut? Four things: Stability at quarterback, improved production at running back, more talent at wide receiver, and a significant upgrade in the offensive line. Which do you do first? Actually, Buffalo has decided it would rather work on the defense, and to that end traded lone legitimate deep threat Lee Evans, let Donte Whitner walk, and cut Aaron Maybin. And for this they want Ralph Wilson in the Hall of Fame.

I say move the team to Toronto, sign Andrea Bargnani, and see what happens.

Another fallacy this research points up is the fallacy of taking it to the next level. Over the last five years, only one team has really taken it to the next level: Houston, and that’s because their previous level came up to Michelle Bachmann’s kneecaps. Also, David Carr is in New York. Along the way two teams switched emphasis from rushing to passing, or vice versa – Oakland and the Jets – and Arizona regressed down to Tim Pawlenty’s kneecaps. But that’s it. One team in five years moves to a higher level. Everyone else essentially swaps numbers.

In the greater Green Bay area we hear a lot about how Aaron Rodgers is going to take it to the next level, but I have news for all the dudes in their hand-painted green-and-gold pickup trucks: This is the next level. Over the course of this season the Packers offense, if it is absolutely cooking on all cylinders, will run one two more plays a game than it did last season. That’s roughly 11 more yards a game. If a team is lucky, that will mean one more TD. If a team is really lucky, that means two more TDs. If Aaron Rodgers throws for 50 TDs, he takes those two TDs and six or seven from the running game, and maybe one or two from the defense or the return game. (Oops. This is the Packers. They have no return game.)

But that one or two more plays a game really gets diluted when you try to spread it among Aaron Rodgers’ weapons. Their numbers change fractionally, if at all. Greg Jennings is still going to get his 85, Donald Driver, Jordy Nelson, and James Jones are going to split 175 receptions, the League of Exceptional Tight Ends (Green Bay has six of them that are going to make a roster somewhere south of Saskatchewan) are going to get 60 or 70, and James Starks and Ryan Grant are going to divvy up about 1,400 rushing yards. There are not really a lot more numbers to be had in Green Bay. What you have is what you have.

People as a rule don’t like to be told about the limits to offensive production because it puts their game in a can, and tells them that if their team suffers from OD (Offensive Dysfunction) there is no Cialis-in-the-shotgun for them. They also are suckers for double-reverses and option passes and anything short of wide receivers tumbling out of clown cars that they classify as unpredictability.

All things considered, I’d rather strive for the brand of predictability found in Indy and Philly: maximizing plays, maximizing yards, hitting the same number of first downs year after year, and keeping the point totals within a narrow range.

Heck, I’d bet even Jack Del Rio could win with that.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Main Game Of Mid-America

Why is it that any team that has the monicker “America’s Team” must be hated by at least half of the sport-following populace?

Think of the last couple of teams to wear that sobriquet: the Yankees and the Cowboys. The Yankees got there on the strength of a fan base consisting of two-thirds of the inhabitants of the greater NYC metro area and a national subculture of largely obnoxious frontrunners. I have yet to see a Yankee fan miss a chance to declare his genetic superiority to the people around him in as many one-syllable words as he can cram into 30 seconds. Of course, non-Yankee fans return the favor by treating the Yankees and their fans with a warmth not seen since the French turned on their German occupiers following the liberation of Paris.

(Pity the hapless Cub fans in all this. They’re so out of their league. Give them tickets to a UFC match and they’d bring a teddy bear.)

The Cowboys started calling themselves “America’s Team” apropos of nothing and it caught on. The only recent case of chutzpah that comes close was when Kanye West starting calling himself “a singer.”

Like a lot of teams, the Cowboys were the team of a subset of America, that pungent mixture of truck owners with functional gun racks and truck owners with ornamental gun racks, but if that subset actually equaled America you’d best reserve your tickets for Michelle Bachmann’s inauguration.

There’s no question that both teams’ claims as America’s favorite stemmed from their owners. Jerry Jones is H. Ross Perot reinvented as a total egomaniac after being awarded George W. Bush’s brain on waivers, and George Steinbrenner made Donald Trump look like Wavy Gravy. He was shaped like a packing crate and handled sensitive negotiations like a longshoreman.

I have a friend whose favorite teams are the Cowboys and Yankees (and, yes, he went to college at The U). He is insufferable, but not primarily because his favorite teams are the Cowboys and Yankees and he went to college at The U. He’s insufferable because his checks bounce. When he pays with hard money all is forgiven.

The reason I’m screeding like this is that I’ve been thinking about the matchup between the all-time Cowboys and Chiefs.

The Cowboys should win. There’s no question that the Cowboys should win. They have four real live wide receivers, and their running backs are superb. Neither Roger Staubach nor Troy Aikman are QBs that could throw the fear of God into anyone, much less a stalwart Kansas City defense, but they’re game managers with weapons and a line.

But every non-linear cell in my body is fighting that idea that the Cowboys should win because these are the Cowboys, The Team Known As America’s Team, and with all my heart I want the TTKAAT to go down in flames.

Not this time, unfortunately.

It’s a quality thing. There is no way you can look at the Cowboys’ starting offensive line – Rayfield Wright (a HOFer), Larry Allen (a HOFer-to-be), Flozell Adams (a strong maybe), and John Niland and Ralph Neely (HOF oughta-bes) – and figure that the Chiefs’ defensive front, good as it is, has much of a chance.

Or maybe they do. Buck Buchanan is a HOFer, Jerry Mays is just a tick behind, and Art Still and Neil Smith are in the discussion. Curley Culp, Dan Saleamua, and Bill Maas can play some, too. And having three HOF linebackers filling the gaps doesn’t hurt. Only the Giants and Bears have that luxury.

Things don’t change when the situation flip-flops. The Chiefs’ line lacks HOFers now, but Will Shields is a lock, Willie Roaf is a probable, and if Brian Waters keeps going like he’s gone he’ll get there. That leaves Ed Budde and Jim Tyrer, and they’re the Chiefs’ versions of Neely and Niland, really strong oughta-bes. They go up against top-tier HOFers in Bob Lilly and Too Tall Jones, a mid-level guy in Randy White, and a near-miss in Jethro Pugh. Harvey Martin, Jim Jeffcoat, George Andrie, and Larry Cole rotate in.

The ‘Boys’ D-line is stronger than the Chiefs’ but the linebackers aren’t quite as good. Call it a wash. Same with the secondary.

So if the lines, linebackers and D-backs match up, the quality issues are in ... oh, yeah. The running backs and wide receivers.

The Chiefs roll out No. 65 all-time in all-purpose yards (Priest Holmes), No. 90 in rushing (Larry Johnson), and Nos. 178 and 172 all-time in receiving (Otis Taylor and Henry Marshall). The Cowboys counter with Nos. 1 and 8 all-time in rushing yards (Emmitt Smith and Tony Dorsett), No. 29 all-time in receptions (Michael Irvin), and No. 30 all-time in receiving TDs (Bob Hayes), with No. 5 in career receptions (Terrell Owens) on the bench, complaining about his playing time.

Even having the best tight end ever can’t make up for that.

I know I’m getting all conventional on you, and I apologize. There are many ways the Chiefs could win, but the Cowboys have more ways. If the kicking game pins the ‘Boys deep and the Chiefs’ D-line somehow slows down the Cowboys’ running game, the QBs simply go over the top to some of the best deep threats ever. If Johnny Robinson and the gang shut down the passing game, TD and Dancin’ E can run it forever.

Enough of the prelims. So how does the game go?

The ‘Boys get the ball at their 20 and run it out to midfield. The Chiefs get the ball at their 22 and run it out to the 27. The ‘Boys get the ball back at their 39 and run it down to the Chiefs’ 37, and miss a field goal. The Chiefs run it out to the 43 and kick it down to the 30. The ‘Boys push it out to the 44 and kick it down to the 23. And this goes on for a while until the ‘Boys finally move it down far enough for Rafael Septien to kick a field goal.

Late in the second quarter the Chiefs finally cross midfield and use a Priest Holmes screen and a Tony Gonzalez seam route to work the ball down to the 28, where the drive stalls but Jan Stenerud is true. Three-all.

At this point, the wheels fall off of the Chiefs’ war wagon. Eschewing the two-minute drill in favor of the home run, Aikman calls an audible, Bob Hayes slips behind Emmitt Thomas, and he outruns the pack to the end zone. The halftime gun sounds with the Cowboys ahead 10-3.

After the Chiefs go three-and-out to start the second half, the ‘Boys strike again. This time it’s Aikman to Witten for 15, to Irvin for 22 and finally to Drew Pearson in the corner of the end zone from 29. The extra point makes it 17-3.

The Chiefs answer with another nothing drive, and Dallas gets right back to it, mixing sweeps and square-outs until they get inside the 20. The drive stalls, and Septien boots a 29-yard field goal to stretch the lead to 20-3.

And that’s the ball game, for all intents and purposes.

The Chiefs pull Len Dawson in favor of Trent Green, who drops back to pass, assays the field, and says to himself, “Hey – I don’t have any wide receivers,” just before being buried under a mountain of Too Tall Jones and Jethro Pugh. He crumples like a wet paper towel and Randy White recovers the remains. The result is another field goal, and more playing time for Len Dawson.

Dawson eventually gets the dink-and-dunk game going enough to score a TD against a prevent defense, but in the end it’s Super Bowl I all over again. The Cowboys prevail 26-10.

The numbers are not all that great for either side: 163 yards rushing for the Cowboys against 82 for the Chiefs. 268 yards passing for the ‘Boys against 223 for the Chiefs. Emmitt gets 91, TD 61. Hayes catches three for 70, Irvin five for 71. Priest Holmes has a nice all-around day – 57 yards rushing, 89 yards receiving – but Larry Johnson does nothing, and the wideouts stink.

The Cowboys will have their judgment day, as God is my witness. But it ain’t today.

So as Jerry Jones dances on the star in the middle of Texas Stadium like the Thunderbirds version of Jerry Jones dancing on the star in the middle of Texas Stadium, repeat to yourself: It’s okay to hate the Cowboys. It’s okay to hate the Cowboys. It’s okay to hate the Cowboys.

It’s just really hard to deny them.