The NFL's Proposed 18-game Regular Season Schedule

>> 1.21.2011

If' you read this blog regularly, then you know about the NFL’s proposed “enhanced 20-game schedule,” consisting of two 2 preseason games and 18 regular season games.  Commissioner Goodell, in more places than I care to link, has stated that they’re listening to the fans’ concerns about the lackluster preseason games. To his credit, those are real—remember the Lions’ sparsely-attended preseason closer against Buffalo? The fourth preseason games are played almost entirely by spots 54-72 on the roster, the guys who aren’t making the team.  For the most part, they’re completely futile.

However, eighteen regular season games are simply too many. It increases risk of injury—and when the NFL is supposed to be more concerned about player health than ever, it’s hypocritical. It’s also part of an obvious cash grab by the owners—attendance is clearly going to be better for two games that count than for two games that don’t, and TV deals for an 18-game season are going to be richer. However, neither of those problems are my biggest concern.

The game of football has always been based on the idea that it’s the best against the best.  At first, even the specialization of offense and defense didn’t exist; it was simply the best eleven against the best eleven.  When U-M head coach Fritz Crisler invented “two-platoon football” to give his Wolverines a chance against mighty Army, players’ skills could be maximized, and they could stay fresher longer. Over the next sixty years, specialization, rotation, and have slowly, gradually played an increased role in football—but always, there’s been an inviolable depth chart.  It’s your best against their best, every single Sunday—and your best third-down back will get rotational reps over your second-best third down back.

This is unusual in the sports world.  See MLB’s 162-game season, the NHL and NBA’s 82-game seasons, or the MLS’s 45-game season: you don’t always get best against best. Jim Leyland regularly infuriates Tigers fans by resting his players on a set schedule; no matter how badly the Tigers need a given game is, if  it’s Magglio Ordonez’ day off, he sits.  Imagine this applied to the NFL: the Patriots come to town for Thanksgiving—the Lions’ only national showcase game!—and Tom Brady (secretly battling a stress fracture) sits.  After all, it’s only the Lions, right?

Imagine all the fans who bought tickets expecting to see Brady play! Imagine if Brian Hoyer couldn’t engineer the same fourth-quarter explosion Brady did and the Lions won—the victory would have been hollow.  Meanwhile, the NFL’s most marketable superstar would have been on the bench in a baseball cap, helplessly watching his team take an “L” so that he can be fresh for the middle of February.  It goes against everything we’ve ever seen as football fans, and it will ruin the whole point of the NFL.

This is the key point: the NFL is king because it has the best product. Watching the NFL, at home or on TV, is the best sports experience going. If they expand to 18 games, they’ll have to expand the rosters, too—and those players in roster slots 54 to 72? They’ll be playing in games that will determine playoff berths in January, not functionally scrimmaging against each other in September. An eighteen game schedule dilutes the quality of the NFL.

It takes the NFL’s two key selling points, its superstars and its parity, and waters them down.  Nobody wants to pay seventy bucks to see scrubs against scrubs in a meaningless game, but nobody wants to pay seventy bucks to see scrubs against scrubs in a game that counts, either.

Recently, the NFLPA hosted a conference call (and I promise you, I’ll have more about that in upcoming posts). I the panel asked about this very thing, and Jets safety Jim Leonhard—on the shelf for these playoffs due to a season-ending injury—reflected my own thoughts on the issue:

“We love to play football, that’s what we want to do. Whatever the decision comes down to be, we’re going to do it and we’re going to be glad to do it . . . amongst fans, there’s a lot of debate, even with the current system, that the Super Bowl champion, the champion of this league, doesn’t necessarily go the best team, but the team that can stay the healthiest throughout the season.  If you add two more games I think it just adds to that debate. It’s such a long season, and to play at a high level for four or five months is extremely difficult, and the longer you make the season, you’re going to see more ups and downs with the level of play.”

Again, look at baseball: the teams that seem like locks for the World Series in April and May rarely meet in October.  In basketball, we need only look at our own 2005-06 Detroit Pistons, who started off the season 35-5, murdering just about everyone along the way.  They went 29-13 in the back half of the season, though, and were knocked out of the playoffs by the eventual champions, the Miami Heat (who went 23-17 in the first half). 

We’ve even seen it, just the edge of it, in the NFL.  In 2007, the New England Patriots dominated the NFL like never before seen: 38-14, 38-14, 38-7, 34-13, 34-17, 48-27, 49-28, 52-7, 24-20, 56-10 . . . the Patriots, with Randy Moss and Tom Brady, had neatly solved the NFL.  They were the most dominant, two-phase-of-the-game team I’ve ever seen, and I grew up worshipping the Montana-era 49ers.  In the Super Bowl, though, they of course failed to finish their incredible 19-0 run.  They lost that Super Bowl to the New York Giants—who two months before had been lucky to escape Ford Field with a W after one of the more abysmal football games I’d ever seen two teams play.  Even now, in a season where Lovie Smith was supposed to be coaching for his job this year, the Bears’ astonishing total lack of injuries have propelled them to the NFC Championship Game—where the injury-decimated Packers will probably beat them. anyway.

So, NFL, I implore you: don't ruin the football. Don't make it so starters are healthy scratches. Don't make the sport of football more about "who's hot" heading into the playoffs than who the best team is. You have the most balanced, competitive regular season in sports; it’s a big reason for your success.  Don't make wins hollow and losses acceptable.


JIm Schwartz Gets It: A Fan’s Appreciation

>> 1.20.2011

Detroit Lions head coach Jim Schwartz grins as Ndamukong Suh walks past him.One day, during his first training camp, Jim Schwartz addressed the media. That’s typical for training camp, but on this occasional he had something special to say:

"It's hard to be angry at me, so I generally don't get that that. I don't know the best way to put it ... they're guardedly optimistic. I think when you put yourself out there, the way you do when you're a fan, when you expose your soul to rooting for your team and you get hurt time and time again, sometimes you have a tendency to hold back and not put yourself out as much. and not become as, you know, I don’t know a good way to put it, but not become as . . . fanatical a fan. Is that redundant? “Fanatical a fan”? But the one thing is, they keep stepping up. They’re true football fans in this city; they’re excited about it. Everywhere I go, I get positive, positive feelings from the fans here.”

I think when you put yourself out there, the way you do when you're a fan, when you expose your soul to rooting for your team and you get hurt time and time again, sometimes you have a tendency to hold back and not put yourself out as much.

I swooned.

. . . and yet, here, in the sweltering June heat, is Jim Schwartz, head coach of the Lions. With the bone-chilling cold of this past winter an impossibly distant memory, he's talking earnestly about how hard it is for fans to “expose their soul” to a team, only to get hurt again and again. Could there be a better fit? Is there a team that needs a man like him more? Is there a group of fans more desperate for someone to understand the depth of their devotion, and the depth of their suffering? Is there a coach more perfectly suited to stoke the blue flames, and melt the ice around Lions' fans hearts? Has there ever been a coach brilliant and bold enough to rock the Frank Zappa moustache/soul patch combination?

Well, the Zappa look didn’t last long—but the sentiment remains.  Schwartz has shown a comprehensive understanding of the relationship Lions fans have with their team—that is a rare quality.  It’s especially useful with this team, of all teams; we’ve suffered through decades of mediocrity and worse. We’ve been put down, ignored, stomped on, and put through the wringer.  We’ve endured season after season after season of uncompetitive, uninteresting, hopeless, hapless football—often, with no end in sight.  Our team has been a national punchline for years—and publicly branding yourself a Lions fan was a one-way ticket to Loserville.

But Schwartz, he gets it . . . and unlike just about any other coach, Schwartz gives the fans credit for understanding the game:

“My experience with fans is that this excitement wasn’t developed the last four weeks of the season,” said Schwartz.

“We had really excited fans in training camp this year and I think one of the frustrations with the way that we started was that they recognized how close we were and how good we could be.”

Exactly—that was what was so frustrating about the first half of this season; we could see the talent, we could see the progress, we could practically taste victory!  It was right there at our fingertips, filling our nostrils and our ears--yet, time after time, we came away hungry.  The four-game win streak wasn’t a surprise invitation to a dinner party, it was unbinding our hands from our chair so we could finally eat.

. . . maybe it was only at the kids' table. But next season?  I think we’re sitting with the grownups.

Also, I shouldn’t write when I’m this hungry.


On The “Instant Impact” NFL Rookie

>> 1.18.2011

31 October 2010: Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Mike Williams (17) catches a pass over Oakland Raiders safety Michael Huff (24) as the Raiders beat the Seahawks 33-3 at the Oakland-Alameda Coliseum in Oakland, Ca ***FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY****Something every fan wants their team to pull from the NFL draft is an “instant impact” rookie—a guy like Ndamukong Suh.  A rookie who steps into a starter’s role, immediately transforms team weakness into strength, and changes the dynamic of their entire unit.  Every team—and their fans—hope, if not expect, their first-round picks to have the instant impact of a Matt Ryan, or a Joe Flacco, or a Michael Oher, or . . . wait.

All of those guys turned in subpar performances this weekend, as their teams were bounced from the playoffs.  Peter King even called for the “Matty Ice” nickname to be put on ice.  Michael Oher was abused by James Harrison—and fellow wunderkind-turned-goat Joe Flacco is taking a beating in the media, too, after taking a beating on the field.  What’s going on here?  How come so many headline-grabbing rookies are turning into mediocre second- and third-year veterans?

Part of it is the changing nature of the game.  Football used to be a game of execution: the team that executed better won.  Schematic wrinkles and innovations have always been around, but superior ability (where “ability’ = talent * skill) has always produced superior results.

In college football, ability is hard to come by.  Not only is elite talent incredibly hard to recruit, but those players aren’t yet skilled; they need to be taught to play the game.  As more and more college programs push harder and harder to succeed, less elite talents are being pressed into service earlier.

It’s that intense pressure to perform, to get talent on the field, that has major college programs recruiting true freshmen to fill immediate needs.  Lansing sports media stalwart Tim Staudt recently said about recruiting, “I remember when Duffy would sit us down in the spring and introduce us to all the new sophomores.”  Duffy (and likely, Bo and Woody) would be aghast at high school kids expecting to start!

So, we have elite talents stepping into top-level programs and starting, and we have decent talents stepping into mid-level programs and starting.  How do coaches deploy these players before they know how to play?  That’s where schematic creativity comes in.  Football coaching at the college level has become a way of maximizing a player’s natural gifts, while hiding his natural deficits.  At schools where there’s very little nearby talent (West Virginia), or where the bountiful talent is aggressively mined by rivals and the rest of the nation (Texas Tech), schematically innovative coaches have learned to consistently make silk purses out of sow’s ears.

It's been a pet theory of mine that this is affecting the NFL in two ways: 1) the same pressure to succeed is causing NFL teams to push rookies into service early, and 2) rookies have never been less prepared to step in and start.  The teaching-to-a-system, fit-in-your-niche approach taken in college is producing one-dimensional athletes who are tremendously difficult to scout.

Once, during a Fireside Chat, I asked SI Senior Writer Tim Layden  about this theory.  He disagreed—saying that even if my premise is true, the quantum leaps made in nutrition, strength, and conditioning at the college level are producing players who are much better athletes, if not much better football players. Even conceding that point, the challenge for NFL coaches has become the same: how do you start rookies that are great athletes, but who’ve learned little of the craft of their position?

The answer, of course, is for the coaches to protect those players—to hide their weaknesses and maximize their strengths.  Look what the Jets have done with Mark Sanchez—ask him to simply not make mistakes, and then every once in a while take a shot deep to keep the defense honest.  With a couple of circus-catch specialists getting open downfield, Sanchez will hit on enough of those shots for the Jets’ defense to win them game.  The interesting thing is, the Falcons did the same for Matt Ryan.  Let’s look at his career stats:

Year Age Att Cmp% Yds TD TD% Int Int% Y/A Y/C Rate Sk Yds NY/A ANY/A Sk%
2008 23 434 61.1 3440 16 3.7 11 2.5 7.9 13 87.7 17 104 7.4 7 3.8
2009 24 451 58.3 2916 22 4.9 14 3.1 6.5 11.1 80.9 19 92 6 5.6 4
2010* 25 571 62.5 3705 28 4.9 9 1.6 6.5 10.4 91 23 158 6 6.2 3.9
Career   1456 60.8 10061 66 4.5 34 2.3 6.9 11.4 86.9 59 354 6.4 6.3 3.9

In 2008, Matt Ryan exploded onto the scene, completing 61.1 percent of his passes for 3,440 yards, 16 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions.  Okay . . . maybe “exploding” is overstating things; those are unremarkable numbers.  But rookie quarterbacks almost never take care of the ball that well, and his yards-per-attempt were off the chart.  The hype train for “Matty Ice” left the station early, and picked up speed quickly.

In the second season, attempts rose as Michael Turner’s production fell off (Ryan only played 14 games in 2009).  His completion percentage dipped, his yards-per-attempt dropped dramatically (7.9 to 6.5), and both his touchdown and interception ratio rose.  What’s happening here?  He’s being asked to shoulder more of the burden.  They’re not running, running, running, then uncorking a deep ball.  They’re not drawing the defense in with high-percentage passes, then bombing it over their heads.  Ryan is being asked to win the game—while his stats suffered for it, they indicate progress.

So, what went wrong this year?  Well, his attempts rose drastically—throwing almost 36 times a game, compared to 27 his rookie season.  YpA remained flat from his second season, at 6.5, for a total of 3,705 yards.  His touchdown percentage stayed flat from his second season, 4.9%, while his interception percentage dropped precipitously, from 3.1% to 1.6%.  So . . . nothing went wrong.  For the first time, Matt Ryan was asked to carry the Falcons offense all by himself, and he responded by playing the best football of his career.

The reality is that Ryan’s astonishing rookie year created hype it’d be almost impossible to live up to.  Is “Matty Ice” already an all-time great?  No, but he’s performed like an above-average NFL starter in only his third year—and unlike his rookie season, there’s no doubt it’s “all him.”  Maybe this is as good as he gets, but the Falcons would certainly take ten more years of this and rightfully call themselves lucky.

It’s well within my memory—and I’m only 29—that players were drafted to develop, not to play.  Now, players are drafted, plugged in the lineup, given up on, and cut before traditional wisdom says they should even be ready to play.  You have guys coming out for the draft after their true junior year, getting a couple of years to “make an impact,” and then being cut loose while they’re only 24 or 25.  Lord knows, if my industry gave up on me when I was 25, there’s zero chance I’d be where I am today.

Take the curious case of Mike Williams.  Incredibly productive in two seasons at USC (176 receptions, 2,579 yards, 30 touchdowns), he famously followed Maurice Clarett’s lead into a year of limbo, unable to make the leap to the next level, nor able to return to college.  Nevertheless, the 6’-5”, 235-pound (or thereabouts) prospect was the #1 overall prospect on Mel Kiper’s famous Big Board; theoretically the Lions got a great value when they selected him 10th overall.  We all know what happened after that: motivation and concentration issues made “BMW” more of an X3 than an M3.  He was released after just two seasons, and Kiper penned a column naming Mike Williams one of his worst evaluations ever ($).

A funny thing happened this offseason, though—Williams’ college coach, Pete Carroll, picked him up in the offseason.  Still just 27, and entering his fourth year in the league, Williams made his fourth NFL roster.  Incredibly, he evolved into the Seahawks’ top target, hauling in a team-high 65 catches for 751 yards.  Those numbers aren’t quite what you’d expect out of a #10 overall pick in his fourth NFL season—but they’re much, much closer to than not worth wasting the soap to wash his jersey.

What’s the moral of the story, here?  Not every good player is an instant-impact player.  Not every instant-impact player evolves into a Hall of Famer.  “Great for a rookie” is only “decent” overall. As the Lions round the bend into this draft season, they do so with only a few pressing needs.  I trust the Lions leadership not to reach for those needs, but I’m cautioning us as fans to do the same.  As this roster matures, the Lions should indeed be drafting to develop, not to start; the second- or third-round pick may not start right away and that’s okay.  The likes of Sammie Hill will have to hustle to make the team, and that’s okay.  The Lions have a much bigger need for a Mike Williams type, who slowly develops into a quality starter, than a Michael Clayton—who set the world on fire in his rookie year, and has barely moved the needle since.



>> 1.17.2011

NFLPA Red w black wdmrk

The NFL and NFLPA have begun discussions in earnest—at least in the media.  Last week Bob Batterman, an attorney for the NFL, told the Washington Post that he believes the NFLPA is waiting for a lockout, and not truly negotiating with the intent to make a deal. The NFLPA quickly responded with a media conference call, explaining that they’ve received no responses to their proposals on key bargaining issues (such as the rookie salary structure).  “We are waiting on them,” said NFLPA attorney Richard Berthelsen [emphasis his].

During the call, NFLPA President Kevin Mawae said he’s proposed a “lock-in,” as opposed to a lockout, where all the two organization’s leaders would mutually lock themselves into a hotel, and remain until a deal is done.  As of the date of the conference call (the 14th), the NFL hasn’t accepted.

After the conference call, Batterman (who you may remember from such films as “The Completely Lost Year of the NHL”) reiterated his charge that the union isn’t truly interested in negotiating.  He says they’re just biding their time until the lockout, at which point they’ll decertify the union, sue the league for antitrust violations, and hammer it out in court.  NFLPA  Assistant Executive Director of External Affairs George Atallah said on that conference call that “We hope it doesn’t come to that,” and said they’ll do everything they can to avoid a lockout, and decertifying in the wake of it.

What’s going on here? How can both sides insist that they want a deal, but the other side doesn’t? Bob Batterman gives us a clue during an interview with the Associated Press:

It is in the employer’s interest to get a deal which gets this industry straightened out for the next generation for the good of the fans, for the good of the players, and yes indeed, the good of the owners. Nobody is looking for a lockout. We are looking for a deal. Is that deal going to require some concessions from the players? Yes, it is going to require some concessions from the players because the balance has gotten out of whack. The owners are going to make concessions, too. We are making changes to working conditions. We have made proposals to improve benefits for the players. We have talked about structures to protect the veterans in terms of what the impact of these economic changes are. There are going to be compromises on both sides, and we are hoping to do it without the necessity of a lockout.

This is the key: the NFL believes that the “balance has gotten out of whack.” I said so before in my initial CBA post: the common thinking says the players came out way ahead in the last round of negotiations.  The NFL wants to move the scales back in their direction this time around.  Unlike the “both sides give a little” language Commissioner used in his letter to fans, the NFL is actually seeking major concessions from the players. The best hope of avoiding a lockout, it seems, is for the players to simply capitulate.

Of course, that’s not in the best interests of the players—or the fans.  Why is it that the NFL wants so badly to get major concessions from the league?  Well, it’s a complicated tale.

In the last round of talks, the late Gene Upshaw, then NFLPA Executive Director, led the charge to make revenue sharing part of the CBA between players and league.  It theoretically allowed for smaller-market teams to keep pace with the big spenders, so there’d be a healthier market for players’ services.  The owners resisted it at first—and hammering it out amongst themselves was the biggest stumbling block to getting the last CBA done.  Indeed, as Andrew Brandt of the National Football Post writes, the owners arguing amongst themselves about revenue sharing distracted their attention from the rest of the CBA.  They inked a deal they almost immediately regretted.

We can see the NFL’s strategy for this time in their two main negotiating points: 1) the “enhanced” 18-game schedule, and 2) a massive increase in the “expense credit” that’s subtracted from the “total revenue” that’s split with the players.  Functionally, Baltimore Ravens CB Domonique Foxworth had it right: the owners have decided that rather than hammer out their own disagreements, they’ll “take it from” the players. Their plan is to dramatically increase revenue by playing two more regular season games (for which attendance and TV deals will be much richer than preseason contests), then clamp down on the percentage of all incoming revenue that players receive. The result? A windfall rich enough to make revenue sharing a moot point.

Now, this is all part of the ebb and flow of the labor process; each side needs to negotiate in good faith, and one side cannot repeatedly come out the “winner” without eventual labor strife.  I’m not asking the NFL to extend an agreement it seems to think is untenable going forward, and I’m not asking the NFLPA to simply surrender the advances it lawfully negotiated the last time around.   I want is for both sides to commit to avoiding any kind of work action.

Tomorrow, the NFLPA is holding “#LETUSPLAY Day,” an Internet-wide push to get the owners to commit to not locking out the players.  There’ll be #LETUSPLAY themed posts online, chats on Twitter, even gear giveaways.  Let me be clear, I’m not on either “side” here—I’m on the side of the fans.  I believe that what we fans pour into the game: our time, our money, and our passion, deserves the respect of both the players and the league.  I believe that these men, who have prospered massively from our investments, can and should and will come to an agreement as to how to split the money we’ve given them—without taking away the game that we love.

Therefore, I’ll be supporting #LETUSPLAY day, on here and on Twitter.  If you aren’t already, follow @lionsinwinter on Twitter to get all the latest as I help get the word out.


Three Cups Deep: The NFC North, Rampant

27 September 2010: Green Bay Packers WR, Greg Jennings(85) leaps but can't catch an Aaron Rodgers pass during their 20-17 loss to the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field in Chicago, IllinoisGoing into the season, we knew the Lions had to climb a taller mountain than 28 other NFL teams. That mountain wasn’t their lack of talent, but their division: the NFC North.  With the young, talented Packers set to explode, the Vikings returning the quarterback that got them within a play of the Super Bowl, and the Bears spending millions on new coaches and players in a last shot to save Lovie Smith’s job, the Lions’ quest to improve was a mighty task, indeed. Of course, the Vikings’ season didn’t go quite as expected—but the Bears’ mad scientistry catalyzed, and the Packers survived a rash of injuries. Now, two NFC North teams will meet in the NFC Championship game, for the right to play for the Lombardi trophy.

It kind of puts things in perspective, doesn’t it? The Lions went 1-3 against these two teams—but had one win taken away from them by the referees, and the other two were heartbreaking fourth-quarter losses.  Now, we see that they’re two of the NFL’s “Final Four.”  It’s hard to put into words just how much better these Lions were this year than last, and than the squad from two years ago.  Just imagine if the Lions were as lucky with injuries as the Bears—on whose roster not a single player was listed as hurt . . . maybe the Lions would be playing this week, instead of the Packers or Bears.

. . . on a meta note: we’re rounding the corner into full offseason mode here, which DOESN’T mean less output, but output of a different sort.  CBA stuff is going a mile a minute right now; I’m writing as fast as I can stay on top of it.  There’ll be an important post later today about what the NFLPA is up to.  For year-end stuff, I’m trying to chop up tape for a new, improved, Old Mother Hubbard

What I’m getting at here is that there’s a lot of stuff coming down the pipe, so stay tuned to this space.  Also, stay tuned over at Press Coverage, for non-Lions writing of mine.


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