Parallel Efforts on the defensive line & Secondary

>> 6.10.2010

As I work to complete my follow-up on the defensive line and secondary analysis, I want to draw your attention to three more articles attempting the exact same thing:

Anyway, give these articles a thorough review while I woodshed on it.


Tom Izzo and the Balrog

>> 6.09.2010

Please forgive the wildly off-topic post.

Those of you who’ve been reading for a while, or follow @lionsinwinter on Twitter, likely know that I’m a Spartan fan.  Not just a fan, I attended Michigan State—as did my wife, my in-laws (father-, mother-, sister-, her husband, and other sister-, plus grad school for two of those five), my mother, my stepmother, and my grandfather.  That’s right, I’m a third-generation Spartan, and fiercely proud of it.

One of the things that comes with being a rabid sports fan is getting asked “What’s up with” local sports happenings, especially in a city so profoundly intertwined with its major university.  So with all the reports of the face of said university, Tom Izzo, talking to the Cavaliers about their open coaching gig, I’ve been fielding quite a bit of these.

One must understand how deep Izzo’s roots in the community are.  He’s been head coach since 1995, yes—but he started at MSU part-time in 1983, and was named associate head coach in 1991.  He’s been a fixture in the community for decades, deeply involved in charity work and fundraising, and highly visible as a university advocate and spokesperson.

Were Izzo merely wildly successful, he'd be popular; such is the nature of the beast.  But since he’s not only built Michigan State into one of the most powerful programs in America, but done so with almost entirely local talent, espousing a philosophy of relentless effort and physical play . . . well, he’s become a minor diety in this Rust Belt town.  There are cars in Lansing still rocking this bumper sticker:


Cavs owner, MSU alum Dan Gilbert, is pitching his coach's gig to Izzo--and drawing comparisions to Art Modell in the process.  Is it really all that dramatic?  Is it really all that sinister?  Does Izzo really mean so much to Michigan State that if he leaves, they might as well close the town down?  Besides, it’s immaterial, right?  Izzo wouldn’t go, would he?  Would he?

. . . WOULD HE?!

Former Spartan guard Tim Bograkos, himself very active in the community and university, writes a cool blog, The Sixth Option.  His most recent post delves into Izzo's temptation to leave for the NBA:

I’ve often said that Coach has a competitive streak unlike anyone I’ve ever seen. I know he has the desire to test himself at the next level with the greatest players in the world. The chance to coach Lebron James is a very tempting offer and to get paid A LOT of money to do so makes the deal even sweeter. But will King James embrace him like our Spartan Nation reveres him? Does the chance to impact a young man’s life compare to over-paid players who don’t always play hard?

Over the years, I've heard rumblings along these lines.  Let me be clear: I’m not connected to the university, or the hoops program, in any way.  But add up the way Izzo talks in interviews, the way his name always seems to pop up in these rumors, and his apparent mastery of the college game, and it’s not hard to reach the same total: Tom Izzo wants to coach in the NBA . . . or at least, he thinks he does.Balrogvsgandalf

from Wikipedia Commons, copyright New Line Cinema

Tom Izzo is Gandalf, and the NBA his Balrog.  Izzo is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, college basketball coaches alive.  He’s been to nine of the last thirteen Sweet Sixteens, seven of the last twelve Elite Eights, and six of the last eleven Final Fours.  Of course, he also won a national title in 2000, and was the national runner-up at Ford Field in 2008.  Outside of winning a second national title, he’s accomplished all there is to accomplish at the college level.

The wizard Gandalf the Gray from J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, is similar; he is a being of incredible supernatural power.  He is more wise, and more powerful, than nearly anything on Earth.  Like Tom Izzo, he walks almost without peer in the world of Middle Earth (this opens up a line of Mike Krzyzewski/Saruman reasoning that I find infinitely funny, but won’t bore you with).

Balrogs, as dramatically portrayed in the film adapation of the books, are enormous, powerful beings of “shadow and flame,” incredibly powerful, and nigh-on immortal.  What the movies don’t say is that in the world of Lord of the Rings, Balrogs are archdemons.  Serving as the most powerful lieutenants of Morgoth—essentially, the Devil—Balrogs slew countless elves before being driven deep underground.

In the story of the first book of the Trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf avoids leading the party through the mines of Moria at all costs, for he knows a Balrog dwells there.  Yet, you get the sense that Gandalf knows a confrontation is inevitable—and to a degree, he has to have the challenge.  He has to know: as powerful as he is, is he powerful enough?  Can he go mano-a-mano with the most powerful adversary imaginable and win? 

Very few college coaches have made gone to the NBA and succeeded.  The players are better in the NBA, and the margin for error much smaller.  With massive, guaranteed player contracts, the inmates run the asylum; if a star player quits on his coach, the coach is shown the door.  The skill sets that make college coaches excellent, like recruiting, program-building, and fundraising, are mostly irrelevant in the NBA—and the primary talent an NBA coach must possess, motivating pampered millionaires, is rarely found in the college ranks.

In the story, Gandalf avoids the Balrog until there is no choice.  In order to save the future of Middle Earth, Gandalf fights the Balrog, and time he buys the Fellowship allows them to flee.  The battle rages, from the bridge of  Khazad-Dûm, to an underground lake, to the top of a mountain, where Gandalf finally slays the Balrog—but dies in the effort.  Gandalf is sent back from the afterlife “until his task is complete,” and assumes his true form: Gandalf the White, more wise and powerful than he’d ever been before.

Izzo faces no similar pressure.  He can, and may well, happily stay at Michigan State until the end of his working days, going to Final Fours, winning national titles, and overthrowing Saruman—er, I mean, eclipsing Mike Krzyzewski, as the greatest college coach in the land.  I fully believe that’s possible, even probable, and Michigan State’s AD Mark Hollis is “very confident” that Izzo will be coaching Michigan State’s basketball team in the fall.

But no matter what he does here at Michigan State, Tom Izzo will always wonder if he could have taken on the NBA and won.  He’ll never know if he could have slayed that demon.  He’ll never know if he could have become the second member of basketball’s most selective coaching fraternity: those who’ve won a title in both college and the pros.  No, until he’s tested his strength against that evil, Tom Izzo will always be Gandalf the Gray, and never Gandalf the White.


On Film Buffs, Enlightenment, and the Red Pill

>> 6.08.2010

This recent Ross Tucker article on tickled my fancy for many reasons.  First, it deals primarily with the importance of film review; as many of you know I’m a wholehearted believer!  Tucker interviews Greg Cosell, an NFL Films employee--and the creator of NFL Matchup, ESPN’s incredible film breakdown show.  As a youth, I never missed an episode; it was worth Herculean effort to peel myself out of bed at 7:30 on Sundays.

The amount you can learn from watching what’s really happening is enormous.  I’ve called it “the red pill” of fandom; once you slow it down and watch what’s really happening, all the easy “he sucks” and “he rocks” stuff goes right out the window.  Players you think can do no wrong do, and players you think are worthless prove their worth.  Once you’ve watched one player for a hundred snaps in a row, you understand his play better than if you read a million words written about him on message boards and forums.

As a wide-eyed youth I watched, enraptured, as Ron Jaworski break down Tom Moore’s play-action based offense.  Some of you might know Moore as the Colts’ longtime offensive coordinator; the man who built Peyton Manning into Peyton Manning.  But as my pimply self sat in my beanbag chair, Moore was calling signals for the Lions.

That's right, Moore became the Lions’ OC in 1995—and quarterback Scott Mitchell had the year of his life: 4,338 yards, 32 touchdowns, and only 12 interceptions.  In that episode of Edge NFL Matchup (as it then was), Jaws broke down how well the Lions’ offensive line “sold” the run, which in turn dramatically increased the effectiveness of the play fake.  When I saw from the end zone camera how the line’s “run blocking” made the linebackers creep up, the play fake made the safety bite, and Mitchell’s inexplicable pass to nothing in the wide-open middle of the field became gloriously on-target when the wideout made his break, the scales fell from my bleary eyes.

As Tucker says, NFL folk get access to two critical angles: the “all-22,” a sideline view that extends from the tailback to the safeties, and the end-zone camera, which records action along the axis of play.  Grading secondary play is almost impossible without the first, and understanding the distances, spaces, and angles involved in football is difficult without the second.

Tucker laments the loss of his access to those film angles; they’re only available at NFL Films HQ, or NFL team facilities.  So, uh, if the Detroit Lions wouldn’t mind declaring my basement an official “team facility,” I’d really appreciate it.  Yes.  I would.

Another topic of interest Tucker touches upon, something I’ve spent a lot of time looking into lately:  the relationship between pass rushing, pass coverage, and pass defense.  Specifically, he asks Cosell whether, if starting a franchise, he’d rather have an elite pass rusher or an elite cover corner.  Cosell says:

"If the players are equivalent in terms of skill set and impact, I think you always have to go with the pass rusher."

I can’t put that data point on a scatter plot, but it’s valuable nonetheless.  There was one other part that got me all warm and fuzzy inside, this time about a certain quarterback, and his fellow 2009 top-five draft pick:

"Stafford is a more gifted passer than Sanchez. He has a more complete skill set for the position. His issue, which was a function of his team last year, is that because of his big arm he has a tendency to too often try to make 'stick' throws into tight windows. Normally, that trait is a positive in the NFL. When you are forced to do it too often because of the score of the game, it can become a negative."

. . . allow me to do a little happy dance.

So, you take the blue pill, the story ends.  You keep scrolling, you go to forums, and you believe whatever you want to believe.  You read Ross Tucker’s article on, you stay in Wonderland, and he’ll show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.  Actually not really, because there’s no film clips in that article, but I had to complete the quote . . . I am a film buff, after all.


Unintentional TLiW Radio Silence: an Apology

>> 6.07.2010

In case you were wondering what happened to this site, laying fallow and unposted-upon, and you don’t follow @lionsinwinter on Twitter where I spent all day panicking, here is your explanation:  Blogger took it upon themselves to go completely offline, work late hours to ensure that it came back up, then catch a nice long victory sleep while posting and commenting was still broken for everyone living in a landlocked state, plus Michigan and Canada (I know Michigan doesn’t touch an ocean, but a landmass with 3,200 miles of beaches can’t possibly be “landlocked”).

Anyway, during this time, I couldn’t post, write drafts, comment, moderate comments, or anything to even explain what was happening.  Even now, I have to use the Web editor instead of my weapons of choice, Windows Live Writer and Blogo.  If I had enabled email posting pre-glitch, I could have done that, but I hadn’t, so I couldn’t.  Again, my apologies.  I’ve got lots of stuff planned for this week, so please keep an eye on this space—and keep a couple fingers crossed that this doesn’t happen again!


The Lions Congregation: CBA Musings

It’s time once again for The Lions Congregation!  The top Lions bloggers, and I, have met as a body of Schwartz.  We have testified our fervent wishes for the NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA).  They discuss rookie salaries, a developmental league for the NFL, retired players, season length, roster size, and many other issues.  So wash in the waters of the Congregation’s temporary home, the Roar of the Lions, and become clean!


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