Fireside Chat: Michael Vick Rant Edition

>> 9.24.2010


After last Sunday’s loss, the Vick Love Parade went right by my house, and the noise drove me crazy.  Thanks to a nasty head cold, I couldn’t get my two cents into the mic on Sunday night.  Tuesday night, I tried to broadcast live, but Ustream went down unannounced and I couldn’t.  Finally, despite being out and about, I got a few minutes to lay my thoughts down . . . and so I did.  The RSS and iTunes feed is updated; I’m still trying to force-feed this thing to Ustream.  Anyway.  Enjoy the Michael Vick Rant episode of the Fireside Chat Podcast.


Watchtower Review: Lions vs. Eagles

>> 9.23.2010

In the Watchtower for the Eagles game, I wasn’t starting with an entirely clean sheet.  Last season, the Lions faced a longtime  Andy Reid disciple, Rams OC Pat Shurmur.  I analyzed Reid’s performances against Gunther Cunningham, and concluded:

Given how loosely connected these two data points are to Pat Shurmur, and how wildly they vary between each other, I cannot draw a firm conclusion, other than Reid/Shurmur Walsh-style offenses run the football well below expectations when facing a Schwartz/Cunningham aggressive 4-3.

. . . Therefore, given no talent advantage for either side, and only a very questionable systemic advantage for Cunningham defenses against the running game of Reid/Shurmur offenses, I expect the Rams' output will meet expectations.

I took this non-conclusion conclusion and applied it to Sunday’s game: the Eagles will meet expectations.  Of course, this is the first season in over a decade where the Eagles’ offense wasn’t a known quantity—and then the Vick thing happened.  What I said was:

Given all the unknowns about the Eagles' offense, and tentatively mixing the Lions’ defensive performance on Sunday with preseason expectations and eyeball guesstimation, I project the Eagles’s offense to meet expectations on Sunday. They should score slightly more than my projection of their average for 2010: 24-27 points. I have medium-to-low confidence in this projection. According to my prior research, it is possible that the running game will be depressed—but with Vick likely to run well and often, the Eagles’ final team rushing numbers probably won’t look bad at all.

Vick only rushed 8 times for 37 yards.  His running kept plays alive long enough to repeatedly burn the secondary, but his actual on-the-ground yardage was insignificant.  What was significant was LeSean McCoy’s 120 yards on only 16 attempts.  Though that total is bolstered by a 45-yard long gainer, he was still running at a 6.3 YpC clip without it.  It seems as though the commitment to bottle up Vick was so complete, the Lions essentially surrendered the non-Vick run.

Of course, the Eagles outstripped my scoring prediction by 7-10 points.  It’s undeniable that the Lions blitzed early and often, even more than they normally do.  This approach worked beautifully to keep the heat on Vick; Vick required all of his oh-so-amazing skills to be sacked only six times.  However, the secondary couldn’t keep a clamp on receivers, and Vick, repeatedly, was able to find an open man in desperation.  The 284 passing yards came at a ridiculous 13.52 YpA clip.  Combined with the 7.5 YpC average of McCoy, and no turnovers, the six sacks were the only thing keeping the scoring under 50!

Given a strong systemic [dis]advantage, and a presumable talent [dis]advantage, I project the Lions’ offense to perform below expectations.  Even giving the Lions credit for the erroneously discounted touchdown in their projected season scoring average, the Lions should score 13-17 points.  I have medium confidence in this projection.

I was very, very, very happy to be wrong on this one.  Jahvid Best’s monster performance was the antidote to the aggressive Eagles blitzing, and the Lions’ offensive line physically pushed around the smaller, faster Eagles’ defense.

You have no idea how blissfully I typed that last bit.

I'm going to type it again: The Lions' offensive line physically pushed around the Eagles' defense.  Ah, that felt wonderful.  Er, yes.   Ahem.  Anyway, the final prediction:

The most likely outcome of this game is a “closer than the scoreboard shows” loss by the Lions, with a tense back-and-forth ultimately giving way to a 14-24 final score.

What was odd was, at the end of the third quarter, my prediction was exactly right.  It had been a close back-and-forth game that had seen a Lions lead be eclipsed, 21-17, right before halftime.  After another quarter, the score was 28-17 (just what I’d predicted!), and it looked like the Eagles would calmly salt it away.  They tried to do just that, taking half a quarter to score the would-be dagger.  But the Lions suddenly poured it on, scoring 14 points in the next 3:15.  Recovering the onside kick, the Lions had field position, time on the clock, and a host of offensive weapons.  All that stood between them and victory was . . . oh yeah.  Being the Lions.

Derp, derp, derp, derp.  Game over.

The Eagles must have let off the gas a little bit after they went up 35-17—which, of course, is understandable.  Just like the Chicago game though, once the Lions had a little bit of breathing room they became very, very dangerous.  It’s going to be difficult to project the Lions’ scoring for the next few games, because I won’t be sure which Lions team will show up—nor do I really know how much the play of Shaun Hill is depressing the offense’s output.  But, for now, I clearly have to revise expectations upward, especially for Jahvid Best.  That, at least, is welcome news.


Matthew Stafford’s Point of View

>> 9.21.2010

the War Room from Dr. Strangelove This morning, Tom Kowalski wrote a piece on about Matthew Stafford watching the game from the coaches’ box, something I didn’t catch during the game itself.  It struck me as a flatly brilliant idea: let your field general sit in the war room.

Remember, it’s only this season that Stafford’s been given the freedom to check out of the play sent in from the sidelines.  All last season, the play came in through the headset, and Stafford had to run it.  Even this season, it seems as though his audibles are limited to a Maddenesque handful: mostly “run it,” and variations on “throw it up to Calvin.”  For the most part, Linehan and Stafford work hand-in-glove.

Of course, Stafford—and all the other quarterbacks—spend hours and hours and hours with Linehan during film sessions and position meetings and on the field; he knows what the offense is trying to accomplish.  It’s not a surprise to Stafford what the gameplan is, so when the play comes in through the headset he knows exactly why Linehan is calling what he’s calling . . . or, so he thinks.

I’ve said before that sitting in the end zone seats gives you a whole different perspective on what the quarterbacks are doing:

We as fans are so used to the “TV angle”, the down-the-line-of-scrimmage-cam, that we lose appreciation for how wide the field is. It’s 160 feet---that’s fifty three and one-third yards. That’s right, folks--no matter what Tecmo Bowl taught us, the field of play is over half as wide as it is long. A “30-yard-out” is really a 40-plus-yard throw, assuming the QB’s standing in the middle of the field. When people say that arm strength “doesn’t matter”, to an extent, they’re right—the 50-yard sideline bomb is only deployed once or twice a game. But where arm strength DOES matter is getting the rock to the receiver while he’s still open.

The angles, the spaces, the distances all change when you switch seats from the sideline to the end zone.  I can only imagine how wildly different things must seem from up in the box, after a lifetime of seeing things from the field of play.  For the first time, Matthew Stafford got to physically see the Xs and Os come to life—and I have to believe that gives him a better understanding of not just the offense, but the why of the offense, of the things the coaches see that lead them to design the offense as they design it.  Just as seeing game film breakdowns change a fan’s understanding of the game, I have to believe time in the coaches’ box changes a player’s understanding of the game.  On Sunday, Stafford may have taken the red pill.

The other reason this was a brilliant move is because of who Matthew Stafford is: hope.  He’s hope, personified.  He’s the franchise quarterback, the icon, the avatar of everything that is good and right and getting better about the Lions.  If he’s wandering around the sidelines in a ballcap and T-shirt, how can his teammates feel like they have a chance?  Putting Stafford up in the box puts him out of sight and out of mind.  The team on the field is the the whole team, and the quarterback on the field is the quarterback.  No constant reminders that their best player isn’t playing, no reducing the team leader to being the team cheerleader—psychologically, removing Stafford from the situation entirely was a great move.

Above all that, though, the best thing about this move is knowing that the Lions are being coached by a staff that thinks about things like this.  Rod Marinelli never would have put Stafford in the box; the thought would never have occurred to him.  This staff thinks about football in an intelligent way, and they coach football in an intelligent way, and their players have a better understanding of the game because of it.  That can only bode well for the future of the franchise.


Three Cups Deep: late Night TEA

>> 9.20.2010

I usually write Three Cups Deep on Monday morning, while I draw strength from the taste, smell, and heat of my morning coffee.  I usually record the Fireside Chat podcast on Sunday night, with a live audience listening in via Ustream.  However, I’m fighting a nasty head cold; I can guarantee you don’t want my voice piped into your ears right now!  So, I’m writing this while sipping late-night tea, instead of early-morning coffee.

Today (Sunday) was my daughter’s sixth birthday; there’s a lifetime worth of blog posts about what that means to me.  But six years ago, to the day, in Week 2 of the 2004 season, at halftime of a Lions victory, my daughter was born.  Between that mojo, and the amazing vibe of the incredible Michigan State victory the night before, I held on to a crazy belief that victory was not only possible, but cosmically preordained.  It would be so great, be so beautiful, make so much sense—of course it would have to happen.  It would make no sense to not happen?

It’s the kind of crazy thinking a fan does—but when the Lions went up 17-7, I really began to believe.  I got the hope, the tingle; the all-over buzz and swimmy insides.  Even when the Eagles got the lead back right before halftime, I still figured it was within reach.  But then it started slipping away; when the Eagles made it 35-17, I turned my attention to preparations for my daughter’s birthday party.  The improbable, magical victory I’d felt in my bones had turned into the same old miserable story I’d seen played out over and over and over again for the last decade.

Then, for the second time in two games, this Lions team ripped up that God-forsaken script.  The Eagles, thinking they’d had the game won, let up a little bit—and the Lions pounced, scoring twice in two minutes.  With a successful onside kick, they started what might have been a third scoring drive, possibly the game-winning scoring drive.  But, as you know, that drive never drove; a four-and-out set up the most aggravating ending since The Rules of Attraction.

I was an confounding mix of pleased and pissed, surprised and not at all, satisfied and aching for just a little more.  In a game that everyone marked an “L” the moment the schedule was released, coming away with a three-point loss feels like an achievement.  And yet, losing the home opener when the Lions had a 17-7 lead in the second quarter feels like a disaster.  As Killer wrote on, that’s exactly how Kyle Vanden Bosch feels:

"We could've put them away early. When we get in the lead and have the momentum, we've got to finish. We have to keep our foot on the throttle. And then, in the end, we have to find a way to win it."

While I was simmering in this sweet and sour sauce, my wife put it into perspective for me.  She said, “You can tell it’s working.  This isn’t the same team that lost sixteen games; it’s not even the same team that lost fourteen games.  You can see it: this team is different.”  Of course, she’s right.  It’s hard to be satisfied with another moral victory when a real one was so achingly close for the second week in a row.  But with all the obstacles facing the Lions—no Matthew Stafford, no DeAndre Levy, a hampered Louis Delmas—they’re still clearly a competitive team, a real team.  The Lions are a  team that can’t be written off by any opponent at any time, and that is satisfying indeed.


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