Happy Birthday to Me

>> 9.10.2009

Dear NFL--

Thanks so much for the birthday present!  You got me exactly what I wanted: the first real football of the year.  You know me too well . . .

I must say, it fits perfectly--and it exactly matches this beer and couch that I already have!   I really appreciate the thought.




the watchtower: lions at saints

>> 9.09.2009

When I was a little kid, children’s television was in the middle of changing from puppets on Saturday morning to a 20-channel, 24-hour, on-demand, companion-Web-site multimedia extravaganza.  There was an all-kid’s-programming network, Nickelodeon, but there wasn’t enough actual programming.  What to do?  Re-run old programming, of course!

So it came to be that I would watch old episodes of Lassie, in all of their black-and-white glory.  One of the recurring characters was the park ranger, who would sometimes be shown at his post, in a forest fire watchtower.

It seems like it would be easy to just, you know, look for fire—but without knowing exactly where in all those miles of forest a fire is, a lone ranger couldn’t possibly prevent it from spreading in time.  But by spotting the vector to the smoke from the tower, and with help from some known reference points, he can find the heart of the blaze.

Using known variables like the latitude and longitude of the tower, the position of the sun, the direction and size of the smoke, etc., he could input some numbers into pre-calculated tables, work out the rough location of the smoke’s source, hop in his truck, and go tell those punk kids to douse their campfire.

For this season, the Lions are essentially a blank slate.  We’ve never seen most of these players, they’ve never played with each other, and they’re being plugged into all-new coaching, training, conditioning, and schemes.  So, for this season, I’m going to whip out some tables and numbers of my own, and see if I can match up the Lions, scheme for scheme, with their opponents.


What does all this mean?  The first two columns represent each coach/coordinator, and the team they they were coaching at the time they played each other.  The “OR” and “DR” are the points-per-game rank of their offense and defense, respectively.  This should give a general idea of the talent and execution level of the schemes—you see Linehan’s units were ranked 8th, 6th, and 10th in scoring offense in the three games his teams played against a Gregg Williams defense.  The “Opg” and “Dpg” figures are the actual per-game points either scored or allowed by the  units during the given contest. “Ypa” and “Ypc” are passing yards per attempt, and rushing yards per carry.   “Pts” is points scored in the game; “Int” is interceptions.  “Pyds” and “Ryds” are the total passing and rushing yards accumulated. “Ypa” and “Ypc” are passing yards-per-attempt and rushing yards-per-carry, and “Fum” and “Sck” are fumbles-lost and sacks-yardage.

In the year of the first contest, we see Linehan’s offense scoring 24.4 ppg, and the Bills allowing 24.8 ppg.  The NFL-relative rankings show that the Vikings were a talented offense indeed, but the Bills’ defense was . . . lacking.  The result was explosive; 39 points (despite three lost fumbles), and 5.46 yards per carry for 213 yards.  5 sacks for 45 yards lost really hurts the team passing  stats and team yards-per-attempt; with in-his-youth Daunte Culpepper at the helm, that’s scary. 

It looks like despite Linehan's three-man RBBC running all over everywhere, and a mobile QB in the pocket, Williams’ pass rush prevented the run advantage from developing into a passing advantage as well.  Still, that kind of wanton running success is not to be discounted—and we see that passing-yards-per-attempt and rushing yards-per-attempt were right in line with the average for the year.  It looks as though Williams’s blitzing, though effective, merely prevented the Vikings’ passing game from exploding far above average.

Let's look at the next meeting.  Linehan’s offense has improved in execution and talent--but Williams’s defense has exploded, going from the 27th-ranked scoring defense to the 5th.  This immediately shows up in the stats.  Though the Vikings were scoring 25.3 points per game, passing for 8.18 yards per attempt, and rushing for 4.72 yards per carry that season, against the Bills they scored only 18, passed for 6.80, and rushed for 2.89.  Again we see high pressure; Culpepper is sacked 3 times for 15 yards.  Minnesota’s offensive output for that game is much closer to the Bills’ defensive season average than their own.  Therefore, given equal talent and execution, Gregg Williams’s attacking 3-4 defense will disproportionately disrupt Scott Linehan’s balanced offense.

Finally, the last game.  Linehan’s unit is again one of the better in the game, ranked 10th in ppg output with 22.9.  Williams’ is mediocre, ranked 20th with 19.2 ppg allowed.  The expected outcome would be Minnesota matching their season average, or mildly exceeding it, but no—the Rams exploded for 37 points, passing for a whopping 10.21 yards per attempt, and rushing for a stout 5.05 yards per carry.  Also, look at the sacks: just one for six yards.  As all three metrics of output--per-play passing, per-play rushing, and points scored—are way above their averages for the season, I’m going to say that given superior talent and execution, and/or excellent pass protection, Scott Linehan’s balanced offense disproportionately gives Gregg Williams’ attacking 3-4 defense fits.

Now, the other way around: Gunther Cunningham's 4-3 "with 3-4 principles" (extreme blitz ratio, hard edge pressure, funneling the run inside) versus Sean Payton's pass-heavy offense:


In the first matchup, neither the offense nor defense possesses exceptional talent.  The offense is scoring 18.4 ppg, and the defense allowing 21.5 .  You would expect the offense to mildly outperform its average—yet, that doesn’t occur: they muster only 13 points. 

The per-play passing success—6.26 ypa vs. 6.12 ypa—doesn’t significantly vary, but the running game is throttled down from 4.19 ypc to 3.16.  The Chiefs also force three interceptions from Kerry Collins, and sack him once.  Since we have more data in this matchup, let’s keep looking before drawing any conclusions.

The second game is a bit of an outlier, as Gunther is only a linebackers coach here—but the DC is Jim Schwartz, so like referee Mills Lane, I’ll allow it.  In this case, the Titans’ D is ranked 11th in the NFL, and the Giants’ offense is ranked 22nd.  However, the ppg averages are 20.3 allowed and 20.0 scored, so I would expect Payton’s offense to mildly underperform.  Instead, they rack up 29 points, despite running with far less success (3.80 avg., 2,48 actual), and passing only a little above average (7.20 avg., 7.86 actual).  

However, look at the big plays: 0 INTs, 0 fumbles, 1 sack for no lost yards.  Despite having good talent, and swallowing the run, Schwartz does not disrupt the rhythm of Payton’s passing offense, and so the Titans are disproportionately scored upon.

In the third game, the Cowboys are much more talented than either of Payton’s previous Giants units, and are ranked 15th in scoring output.  Cunningham’s Chiefs are ranked 16th—and both units’ scoring average is the same:  20.3.  I would strongly expect a Cowboy score of around 20.  Somehow, the Cowboys again produce far above expectations, scoring 31 points.  They pass much better than usual (6.68 avg., 9.76 actual), and run much better than usual, too (3.57 avg, 4.60 actual).  Cunningham’s defense produces plenty of sacks, 4 for a loss of 16, but, crucially, forces no turnovers.  This leads me to believe that given equal talent, Cunningham’s hyperagressive 4-3 is extremely effective against Payton’s pass-heavy offense, but only if that aggression leads to mistakes and turnovers—otherwise, the holes in the defense will be exploited. Effective quarterback play may neutralize the defensive advantage.

Last season, there was one more meeting between Payton’s Saints and Cunningham’s Chiefs.  However, though Cunningham was the coordinator in name, he was executing coach Herman Edwards’ Tampa 2.  As we’re trying to isolate scheme against scheme, including that data would only throw off the results.

So, where does this leave us? We know that the Saints have struggled on defense as of late; last season they were the 26th-best scoring defense, and the 23rd-best yardage defense. If you factor in the difficulty of transitioning to a new base alignment, the Saints may again be afflicted with one of the worst defenses in the NFL. The Lions' offense does have an edge in talent; Kevin Smith and Calvin Johnson should both prove very difficult for the Saints to stop.  If Matt Stafford begins the game looking for Johnson deep, the Lions could quickly rock the Saints' defense back on their heels. However, if the Saints' radical revamp of their defense is an immediate net positive, or if Stafford throws an early pick, the advantage will swing back to the home team.

Though there's historical evidence that a decent Cunningham defense, when successful, is disproportionately disruptive of a Payton offense, the talent gulf between the Lions' D and the Saints' O is enormous. Unless the Lions generate three or more turnovers, I don't see their defense having any kind of success in slowing the Saints down.

Therefore, the most probable outcome of this game is a shootout that the Lions lose. There is a chance that the Lions' defense disrupts the passing game early, and that the Lions score on their first two posessions, thereby allowing the defense to safely turn up the heat--and the offense to put it in the cooler. However, the offense will have to overcome a systemic disadvantage with talent, and the defense will have to overcome a significant talent gap with a perfectly-executed gameplan.


Oh for crying out loud

>> 9.07.2009

I spend all morning writing up a post and then two minutes after I publish, Jim Schwartz announces that Matthew Stafford is the starting quarterback from here on out.

Yes, yes, yes, yes yes.  He is the franchise, he is the future, he's the best quarterback we have, and he's ready.  It's time.  Let's start the New Lions off on the right foot--and let's give the cornerstone of the franchise all the time he needs to get ready.  He's not going to learn anything watching Daunte Culpepper throwing four-yard dumps to the fullback on 3rd-and-7, and he's already figured out how to play pitch-and-catch with Megatron.  

He'll take his lumps, and so will the Lions--but *** NEWS FLASH *** they were going to anyway.  There are no expectations this season, no shot at anything more than 17 more months of "preseason" for this squad.  He'll learn from his mistakes, just as Manning did from his, and the Lions will be better off for it.

Matthew?  Give 'em hell, man; give 'em hell.


three cups deep: the roster is set

After an especially lazy Labor Day morning, I have yet to sip even a single drop of coffee, let alone three cups.  Rather than attempt to rehash everything that happened last weekend, I’ll simply crib from Adam Caplan’s excellent Transaction Blog:

Claimed CB Cletis Gordon off of waivers from the Texans, waived WR Eric Fowler, released CB Keith Smith, waived WR Glenn Holt, released CB Dexter Wynn with injury waiver, signed QB Brooks Bollinger, claimed QB Kevin O'Connell off of waivers from New England, released G Terrence Metcalf, waived WR D.J. Boldin, waived LB Rob Francois, waived CB LaMarcus Hicks, waived DE Ryan Kees, acquired S Ko Simpson for an undisclosed 2010 draft choice, waived DE Orion Martin, released DT Chuck Darby, waived OT Lydon Murtha, placed CB Chris Roberson on IR, released DT Shaun Smith, waived LB Rufus Alexander, released QB Brooks Bollinger, released G Milford Brown, waived TE Carson Butler, released RB Aveion Cason, released WR Keary Colbert, waived DE Sean Conover, released K Billy Cundiff,  waived RB Tristan Davis, waived LB Zack Follett, waived C Dan Gerberry, waived TE Dan Gronkowski, released WR Dane Looker, released S Calvin Lowry, waived CB Ramzee Robinson, released S Stuart Schweigert, waived LB Spenser Smith, waived WR John Standeford, waived: DE Ikaika Alama-Francis, CB Cletis Gordon, WR Adam Jennings, traded QB Kevin O'Connell to New York Jets for future draft pick, claimed DE Copeland Bryan off waivers from Buffalo Bills, claimed WR Yamon Figurs off waivers from Baltimore Ravens, claimed CB Marcus McCauley off waivers from Minnesota Vikings, claimed CB Kevin Hobbs off waivers from Seattle Seahawks.

Signed to practice squad: WR John Broussard, TE Carson Butler, RB Tristan Davis, LB Zack Follett, C Dan Gerberry, TE Dan Gronkowski, OT Lydon Murtha.

Whew, got all that?  Really, there aren’t too many surprises here.  Mayhew flipped O’Connell, though faster than I anticipated; Cletis Gordon, Five-O, and Adam Jennings un-made the final roster; then a DR, KR, and two CBs  were claimed off of the waiver wire.  My guess is that McCauley and Hobbs will be given a chance to compete for a spot at nickel corner, and the loser will be shipped off as soon as another DT is acquired.  Why a DT?  Well, with Orien Harris (CORRECTION: several sharp-eyes readers noted that I got the wrong "Orion"; Orien Harris is still on the roster--though that hardly eliminates the concerns I expressed below), Chuck Darby, Shaun Smith, and Five-O all sent packing, the Lions are down to Grady Jackson, Landon Cohen, Sammie Hill, and Andre Fluellen at DT.  

Carrying only four DTs doesn’t sound dire—but Jackson is going to be  15-20 snap situational guy, Cohen’s a seventh-rounder in his second year, Hill was playing 3-4 DE in the NAIA like nine months ago, and Fluellen has been working primarily at DE.  There isn’t a single proven, reliable starter to play DT--though Cohen certainly read well for the role, when he auditioned against Atlanta.  In order to stop the run, this defense is going to need outstanding---both explosive AND disciplined—linebacker play, as well as help from the DBs.

New (presumptive) starting safety, Ko Simpson brings both size and speed to the position; one can only hope his athleticism leads to more plays made back there.  I’ve been sweating bullets about the cornerbacks since the day they let Leigh Bodden walk, and the addition of two waiver-wire scrubs doesn’t assuage my fears—especially given the physical-but-lackluster play of Eric King this preseason.  Even if this unit miraculously stays healthy, both skill and depth are going to remain a problem.

On the other hand, the addition of Yamon Figurs is one I’m excited about.  A 2007 third-round pick of the Ravens, Figurs exploded in his rookie season in relief of the injured B. J. Sams.  Figurs became the primary returner in 2008, but didn’t build upon his initial success.  The Ravens signed former Titans CB/KR Chris Carr—remember him?—and Carr edged out Figurs for the returner gig.  As Figurs couldn’t crack the WR depth chart, he was released. 

I still think Figurs has the explosiveness to be a primary returner for the Lions—and with Cason gone, the Lions have only one player with actual experience as an NFL returner: #1 CB Philip Buchanon.  Figurs should have the leg up on the punt returner gig, and should push Williams and Brown for looks at kick returner, too.

When you take a step back and look at how incredibly different this team is from the 0-16 squad, especially on defense, it’s impressive.  Barring any further miracle transactions—and without knowing the compensation given for Ko Simpson, or received for Kevin O’Connell—the Lions have very well in turning the roster over this season.  However, there’s still a long way to go before this roster matches up, on paper, with the better squads in the NFL.


Comes the Turk

>> 9.06.2009

Of all of the many aspects of professional football that we as fans either never see, or overlook, probably the dimension that’s swept the farthest under the rug is this: it’s professional football.  This game, it’s these men’s lives--and livelihood.  Much was made of the heartwarming story of WR Dane Looker, who’d  given up on playing this season, and was working on a new deck when the Lions called.  Nobody’s writing stories about Dane Looker taking a red-eye flight back to his wife and three kids, sitting on his new deck with a cold one, staring at the full moon, and wondering if his phone will ever ring again.

I don’t mean to be maudlin; this, of course, is the nature of the business. Just like law, finance, or medicine, these are the best of the best of the best in the world at what they do.  While there is friendship and family, and there are institutions and traditions, the NFL is a trust—a oligarchy of thirty-two billion-dollar businesses.  From the unspeakably wealthy men who run these teams, to the unpaid interns putting in 90-hour weeks, the pressure on every single member of these organization is unimaginable—and so is their level of performance.   The difference between 16-0 and 0-16, in terms of absolute overall franchise quality, is probably only a few percentage points. 

You know that guy who sucks so bad you keep bubbly on ice for the day he’s sent packing?  He’s an incredible athlete, faster than you could ever believe, ripped to the Nth degree, and probably spent the first seventeen years of his life being the best player on the field, in every game he played.  If you challenged him to a footrace, he’d probably cover twice the distance you do in half the time.  And yet, as soon as they can find a guy that’s a breath faster, his six-figure salary becomes cab fare and a firm handshake.

Many good players, and good men, lost their jobs today.  I’m most depressed about Stuart Schweigert—whose dedication to the fans turned my family’s trip to the open practice event from a total fiasco into a nice memory that might never leave my two oldest children.  From his Twitter feed, you get a true sense of exactly how painful it is to wholly invest your mind and heart—and literally risk your body—for half a year, only to have your dream snatched away from you on the eve of the season.

 However, it’s not all bad news.  Underdogs like Adam Jennings and Landon Cohen have managed to parlay a consistently excellent camp into a full-time roster spot.  The Lions, as anticipated, held four roster spots for quarterbacks, in order to give hometown favorite Drew Stanton time to heal.  And, in terms of what we fans usually concern ourselves with, the wins and losses?  Well, only 19 of the 53 players from the 0-16 team’s opening-day roster remain; an astounding feat by GM Martin Mayhew, head coach Jim Schwartz, and everyone else with a say in assembling the personnel.   

It remains to be seen exactly how much better this year’s iteration of the Detroit Lions football club is than the last.  However, it’s inarguably a dramatically different squad, from the bottom of the roster to the top.  In fact, it’s still in flux---the “final” list of 53 is really just a snapshot in time, a waypoint on the journey from the opening of camp to the conclusion of this season.  The Lions already have their wish list of candidates from other teams; their trash still potentially the Lions’ treasure.  They will certainly use and abuse their #1 waiver priority.  The revolving door will spin and spin—and with each go-round, the roster will get a little better, someone will get a new job, and, unfortunately, someone will be fired.

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