On Choosing Sides in the NFL Lockout

>> 3.12.2011

Last August, I wrote the following:

I’m the schmuck in line at the gate, ready to part with fistfuls of hard-earned jack I should spend on more important things. I’m the tool with a family of five, all dressed in jerseys on gameday. I’m the fool at the bottom of the pyramid scheme, the rube all this is built upon, the mark they’re all getting rich off of . . .

. . . and I’m the kid in front of the TV set, eyes as big as saucers, watching Barry run. Owners, players, coaches, front office, staff, agents, flaks, and all the rest: please. Remember me. Remember us. Remember who really bears the financial burden here—and ultimately, who really holds the cards. Baseball, 1994? Hockey, 2005? We are the golden goose, and you have your hands around our neck.

The union has now decertified, and the NFL has locked the players out.

Throughout this process, fans have had a hard time choosing a side. It’s almost impossible to identify with the players; they’re the top 1% of the top 1% of the top 1% of athletes. They achieve incredible levels of fame and success—in most cases, before they’re old enough to buy beer. They, likely, were the most popular kids in school from a very young age, and had grown adults following them around like puppies from high school on. They’re the ones we see on the field, week after week, making athletic feats we couldn’t dream about doing on our best-dreaming day look routine. We stand in line for hours for a chance at getting their autograph. We melt into babbling idiots when we do get that chance. They are our heroes, they are our idols, and we’d do almost anything to live life as them, even for a little while. What a charmed life, we imagine, they lead.

NFL owners are a different lot. Like politicians and bureaucrats, some seem like familiar characters: Jerry Jones, Al Davis, Dan Snyder. We know how they look, how they talk, what they like, the decisions they tend to make. Others, like William Clay Ford, practically never talk to the public, but we put words in their mouths anyway. Between the very public business decisions they make, and their few public statements, we come to know these men as caricatures: like Donald Trump or Bill Gates, we make them accessible—human—by reducing them to the ridiculous.

I’d like to credit our American ideals, our society’s ingrained belief that every single one of us is just some elbow grease and a lucky break away from being fabulously wealthy. The fact of the matter is that many of these men either built enormous businesses from the ground up, or had wealth—and the team itself—gifted to them. We simply cannot imagine how far removed we are from that world. Witness the public outrage when The Big 3 CEOs flew in private jets to Washington to ask for a bailout! Oh my goodness! As if that wasn’t the way they normally got around!

But NFL athletes? Most of them live in the same world we do for most of their lives. As I’ve said before, I went to college at Michigan State, in an athletes' dorm. I hung out with a lot of football players—and while I got to see just how Big of Men on Campus they were, I’ve also heard where they came from, and seen what’s happened to them since. Most knew they didn’t have a shot at playing on Sundays. Some couldn’t finish school. Some bounced around the Arena League, NFL Europe, and the CFL before getting regular jobs. One even signed with the Lions as a UDFA, went through one day of training camp, and hung ‘em up; through a mutual friend I heard he figured being a gym teacher was easier than two-a-days. One got drafted #2 overall by the Lions . . . now he’s got a horde of mouths to feed and an eight-digit settlement hanging over his head.

Of course, players like Matthew Stafford and Ndamukong Suh had supportive parents, charmed high school and college careers, and signed enormous NFL contracts that will set them up for life. But, for every single one of them, there are thousands that played D-I college ball, had a cup of coffee in the big leagues, and now punch a clock.

Throughout this process, the NFLPA has honest and communicative with me and the fans. Yes, they've tried to get "their message" out—but whenever they've stated facts, they've been facts. The players have repeatedly reached out to bloggers and fans on Twitter, through email, and via phone to explain what’s going on from their perspective. Meanwhile, I’ve written several open letters to the Commissioner, and privately tried to contact NFL spokespeople multiple times; I might as well be talking to a wall.

NFL lead counsel Jeff Pash said yesterday that “the absence of an agreement is a shared failure," and I wholeheartedly agree. But the Commissioner’s latest letter to fans does nothing but explain why it’s all the players’ fault. Meanwhile, DeMaurice Smith’s statement apologizes, at length, to the fans and players, while recognizing the efforts of past players who fought to build the league into what it is today. Whose statement rings more true to you?


What’s that?  It’s an internal NFL flowchart, created to explain their decision-making process. It’s one of the key pieces of evidence Judge Doty referred to when ruling that the NFL violated the CBA. It’s proof that they decided to lock the players out years ago, and jury-rigged the last round of TV contracts to fund a “lockout insurance” war chest. Maybe that just sounds like prudent planning to you—so here’s an analogy.

Imagine if Ford decided the current UAW contract gave too much money to the workers, and that they’d seek major concessions at the next renewal. So, they went to their dealerships and said, “Hey, will you guys agree to keep paying for cars, even if we’re not making any? We’ll sell the cars to you now at a discount.” Then, they sell the cars (that workers built) to the dealers at a discount, thereby making themselves less profitable. Then, they tell the UAW they’re less profitable these days, and demand major concessions. When the union asks for proof, they lock them out—then line their pockets with the money dealers are paying them for non-existent cars. Meanwhile, the workers with mouths to feed and mortgage payments to make have little but their personal savings.

There’s a reason Judge Doty ruled this trick violated the Collective Bargaining Agreement: it’s low-down, dirty stuff. First they shortchanged the players of deserved revenue, then they set up a war chest that would ensure the players caved first . . . all because they weren’t quite wildly profitable enough. This tactic puts the lie to all of the “give a little, get a little” talk the NFL office has been spouting from the get-go, and to all of the “the players decided to walk away for no reason” talk they’re spouting now.

Of course, it certainly appears as though the league made significant movement as the last minute. Today, the NFL and the Trade Association Formerly Known As The NFLPA have wildly differing opinions as to what the NFL’s last offer entailed. So now, a lockout, and the battle will be settled in the courts. Likely, free agency will start sometime before the draft, and business in the NFL will proceed in something kind-of resembling normal fashion.

There’s an argument to be made that we shouldn’t even be paying attention; that all sides admit there will certainly be NFL football in 2011. That it’s a dispute between two groups we cannot influence, who don’t care about us. That we should shrug our shoulders and focus on free agency and the draft and everything else we normally do, and plug our ears and go LA LA LA LA LA about everything labor-related until there’s football again. I flatly can’t do that; I’m too invested in these players and these teams. Plus, it tickles my Justice Thing.

I don’t know what makes people root for the most fortunate to get more fortunate. I don’t know why working folks repeatedly side with the people exploiting them. I don’t know why, after the owners opted out of the CBA, demanded a billion dollar give-back, and refused to justify it with financial data, almost 40% of ProFootballTalk readers think this is the “players’ fault.” If you want to ignore all of this and wait for football, that’s fine. But if you’re inclined to choose sides, stop and think about who really needs your support—the wealthy old men who’ve harvested billions from fans for decades? Or the young guys who’ll likely be selling cars or teaching gym in five years?


Old Mother Hubbard: The Inside Linebackers

>> 3.11.2011


The news is not good. The thick black line indicates the NFL average. The bright yellow line indicates the best-PFF-graded ILB in the NFL, Lawrence Timmons. The bronze-ish line shows the worst-PFF-graded ILB in the NFL, Jonathan Vilma. That every single one of the Lions’ ILB are between the black line and bronze line is not good. Let’s start with the starter, DeAndre Levy.

DeAndre had an inauspicious start to the season: first a back injury sidelined Levy for much of training camp, then a groin injury sidelined him for most of the preseason, then an ankle injury sidelined him until Halloween. Incredibly, Levy still logged 749 snaps, just under the league average for an inside linebacker. While he was out there, he was inconsistent, but slightly positive. He had strong games against Buffalo, Green Bay, and Miami, and weak ones against New England and Miami. His worst grade of the season, though, was his only pre-bye appearance: Week 3, at Minnesota (-2.7).

This was both his first game back from the groin, and when he suffered the ankle injury—so I’m willing to give him a pass for that game, and for much of the season. But Levy’s shortcomings in run support are really holding his grade back. PFF charts tackles and assists, as well as missed tackles—their tackle data is flatly much better than the “official” tackles passed out by team scorers. I created my own little metric by adding PFF tackles to PFF assists, and dividing by PFF missed tackles. Levy was tied (with Stewart Bradley) for last in the NFL; both tallied just 4.9 total tackles for each one they missed. The league average? 12.83.

Of course, Levy was a third-round pick in 2009, an outside linebacker with a ton of upside. That upside lay in his hitting, his athleticism, and his theoretical ability to cover (though he was not an outstanding coverage OLB in college). PFF tracks opponent passer rating against each defender, and Levy was 13th-best in the NFL with this, at 86.1 (avg 98.0). He was also 15th-best in individual YpC against with 8.9 (avg 10.0). The longest reception Levy allowed was just 20 yards long, tied for fourth-best in the NFL (avg. 32.7). His actual coverage grade was slightly below average, indicating inconsistency. Still, the metrics show that he wasn’t thrown at very often, and when he was not much damage was done.

This training camp was Levy’s first as a starter, and first as a pure middle linebacker. It was vitally important that he go through camp and learn his assignments cold. He couldn’t. It was crucial that he get a lot of snaps in preseason, to get his timing down. He didn’t. He didn’t see regular action until Week 8—and when he did, he almost never took a breather. Per PFF, he missed only two defensive snaps from Week 8 on; an incredible workload. By my count, he’d have played the second-most snaps in the NFL if he were healthy all season long.

Bottom Line: Levy is exactly where Cliff Avril was at this point last year: third-round pick from a Big Ten school, battling injuries and switching positions. Levy will have to take an Avrilesque step forward in 2011 to prove he’s a long-term solution to the ILB problem—but even if we get more of the same, he’s not a liability on this defense.

No other ILBs got the requisite 25% of snaps, but Landon Johnson came close. Average in pass rush, a little below average in coverage, and well below average in run support, this career OLB/special teams ace was a step down from Levy, but not as big of one as you’d expect. He was better than awful, but still well below average.

Bottom Line: Johnson will be an unrestricted free agent, and has no future playing ILB for the Lions. If he’s brought back, it will be as a special teamer—and there’ll be lots of competition there.

Several other players got snaps for the Lions at ILB; Spencer Havner and Ashlee Palmer foremost amongst them. But, I’ll either grade those players as OLBs, or not at all. For 2011 and the forseeable future, DeAndre Levy is the only credible inside linebacker the Lions have.

SHOPPING LIST: The Lions are rolling with DeAndre Levy at starter, who’s proven he can play at at least a decent level. He has flashed the potential to get much better, though, and the Lions will hope he does. The Lions could use a credible veteran backup here, in lieu of repurposing OLBs or special teams specialists.


Tinderbox: Back in Blue at Scout.com

>> 3.09.2011

Ty of The Lions in Winter is again writing for the Roar Report at det.scout.com.

Hey, all, some quick meta/housekeeping notes. First, I’m completely thrilled to say my name (and ugly mug) will be back under the masthead at Scout.com’s Roar Report. For the most part, it will be the articles I write here, cleaned up by Nate Caminata—the editor I always say my stuff needs. If anything exclusive to Scout goes up, though, I’ll be sure to link you from here.

Second, the site redesign hit a major roadblock, and it’s called “I used beta software without testing my backups.” Still in progress, but I promise y’all will be thrilled with it when it’s done.

Third, the Old Mother Hubbard series continues apace. The spacing will be a little funky sometimes, but I’m definitely on track to get this cranked out before whatever free agency will happen, happens. Please don’t hesitate to email me, thelionsinwinter@gmail.com, if there’s anything you want my take on, if you have input, if you have feedback, or anything. I’m totally up for doing some mailbag posts.


Old Mother Hubbard: The Defensive Ends

>> 3.07.2011

The Old Mother Hubbarding of the DTs got a bit of attention; I was even linked by ProFootballTalk. I’ve been a dedicated PFT reader for, like, ever, and secretly I’m over the moon about that—but I’ve decided to act like I’ve been there before.  So.

The Pro Football Focus data I’m using is widely misunderstood, so let me explain a couple of key points. First, the PFF data doesn’t measure pure talent. The final grade doesn’t mean that one player is “better” than another, just that they turned in a more effective performance, on a down-by-down basis. Second, PFF weighs penalties in the final grade—so Sammie Hill, who didn’t commit a penalty, graded out higher than Corey Williams, who was more effective, but flagged a ridiculous number of times.

Second, it’s my observation that PFF’s system rewards consistency. A player that repeatedly makes a positive impact (and is rarely a liability) will have a much higher final grade than a player who “swings for the fences,” makes a few spectacular plays, and is otherwise often ineffective . . . even if those few spectacular plays change the outcome of the game. Watching at home on TV, at full speed, we tend not to notice line play unless the results are spectacular—so a player who is always a little more effective than you think (like Sammie Hill) is going to grade out surprisingly well. Meanwhile, the home run hitters (like Ndamukong Suh) are going to grade out surprisingly poorly, since every time you notice them, they’re doing something awesome.

Sometimes, this leads to counterintuitive results. However, a lot of what’s really happening on the field is counterintuitive from a fan perspective. I’ve said before that watching film is the “red pill of fandom;” if you start doing it you learn the truth about what’s happening on the field . . . and you realize just how wrong most of the national football groupthink is. PFF is a group of dedicated football fanatics (like you and I) who spend outrageous amounts of time popping red pills like candy. If you and were committed enough do to what they do, we’d likely get the results they’re getting; that’s why I’m using their data. So, with all that in mind . . . to Wonderland.


Just as before, I’ve included the top-graded 4-3 DE, the Eagles’ Trent Cole, and the bottom-graded 4-3 DE, Kentwan Balmer of the Seahawks. The thick black line represents the average for 4-3 DEs who saw at least 25% of their team’s available snaps.

Just a week ago, I wrote that Cliff Avril was one of the two Lions who had the most to prove in 2010; boy, did he ever prove it. Avril was massively improved over 2009, and finished as PFF’s 11th-best graded 4-3 DT. He was 7th-best in the pure pass rush grading, and 4th-best in coverage. His athleticism, and linebacker pedigree, shows through in those grades. The question mark with Avril is his ability to anchor against the run; he grades out below-average there, but was far from a liability.

Avril was the Lions’ best defensive end, by a long shot, and a true difference-maker for the defense. He saw an average of number of snaps, fewer than most of the other top-ten-type—but that was due to injury, not lack of use. If he was healthy, he was in there. By my calculations, Avril was behind only Ray Edwards and Dwight Freeney in pressures-per-snap—he had a truly outstanding year applying heat to the quarterback. When Kyle Vanden Bosch was hurt, Avril not only didn’t wilt under the pressure, he took the reigns and ran with them, handing in better grades as the season went on. Food for thought: he turns 25 next month.

Interestingly, Avril only had two QB hits all season, far fewer than most with his kind of sack and pressure numbers. My guess is that he’s relying on pure speed to get around right tackles—then either getting there and flushing/sacking the QB, or not. I wonder if pass rushers the QB can see coming don’t get as many hits . . . an interesting project for another time.

Bottom Line: Cliff Avril was pigeonholed by most as a 3-4 ROLB, and I’m certain he could shine in that role. But he’s developed into the fast, athletic 4-3 rush end Rod Marinelli thought he could be. Avril will never be a 270-plus-pound, two-way monster—but he’s already an impact defender, top-flite pass rusher, and a huge part of this defense going forward. Signing this RFA to a long-term deal must be a top priority.

The centerpiece of the Lions’ free-agent additions, Kyle Vanden Bosch had a lot to prove, too: namely, that he could still get to the quarterback like he used to. In his first game, it seemed like he answered those questions in style; I said it was “one of the most amazing individual performances I’ve seen.” KVB poured his heart and soul out into that game, trying to will the Lions to victory. He was sideline-to-sideline, or as much so as a defensive end can be.  He put up a truly dominant PFF grade that week, too: a +6.1.

Unfortunately, KVB was inconsistent the rest of the season. He turned in very solid games against the Giants and Redskins, but was negatively, or neutrally, graded in every other game. He was graded well below-average in pass rush; negative in five of eleven games. He was the 46th-best pass rusher out of 65, and had less than half the pressures Avril did—yet, KVB had five sacks and ten quarterback hits in just eleven games. His sack-and-hit per-snap rate was 25th-best in the NFL. This suggests that he was “saving it up” for critical moments; generally just below average except for several plays a game.

However, all of this does an injustice to KVB’s contribution. He was the bell cow for the defensive line, the tone-setter; he pushed every single Lion on the line to practice at full speed, to workout like you practice, to push, to go to the limit and then realize it’s not really the limit and keep going. Avril, Suh, Hill, all the young linemen repeatedly pointed to KVB’s leadership as a major factor in their progression; he was a catalyst, and without him I doubt the others take the strides they did.

I had really good seats to the Jets game, and seeing KVB in action live was something else. He never missed an opportunity—before, during, or after the snap—to remind the Jets that he was there. That he was fighting. That they needed to keep their head on a swivel. That they needed to watch their ass. Vanden Bosch and the Lions out-Jetted the Jets on that day, mostly thanks to KVB and his leadership. PFF graded him at a –2.1 on the day, but I know he had a positive impact.

Bottom Line: Kyle Vanden Bosch is the ultimate leader, a consummate professional—and as a player, the yang to Cliff Avril’s yin. Had he stayed healthy, he would have had seven sacks and fifteen QB hits, more than acceptable standalone production, besides the undeniable halo effect. Unfortunately, he’s 32, and recovering from a major neck injury. The Lions need to find a starting, impact, two-way end to replace him by the 2012 season.

The most surprising line in the chart above is the red one, the one representing Lawrence Jackson. Jackson was the 25th overall pick in 2008, a four-year starter at USC. Lo-Jack is a 6’-4”, 270-pound two-way defensive end, the prototype end for this defense. He was the victim—and the Lions, again, the beneficiary—of “One Man’s Trash” syndrome. The Seahawks let a first-round pick two years into his career go in exchange for a sixth rounder, because he no longer fit their system. To replace Lo-Jack, the Seahawks traded their own sixth-rounder to the 49ers for . . . Kentwan Balmer, picked just a few spots after Jackson in the 2008 draft. Balmer, for the Seahawks this year, was the worst-graded DE in football (see chart).

Jonah Keri just wrote a whole book on how the Tampa Bay Rays went to the world series by making these kind of deals, over and over again. By trading one commodity for another, similar commodity, and getting a 2% edge, over time it really adds up—and at some point, you’ll get a few surprise deals where the edge is way more than 2%. In this case, the Seahawks essentially traded Lo-Jack for Kentwan Balmer. The difference, as you see above, is way more than 2% . . . and where did the benefit go? To the Lions.

Lo-Jack was not a terrifying speed rusher at USC. He had 30.5 sacks in four full seasons: 6, 10, 4, and 10.5, in order. But with size, strength, and attitude sharpened by life in hardscrabble Inglewood, Jackson was a force in both dimensions of the game; in his senior year he paired his 10.5 sacks with 60 tackles—a prototypical Schwartz/Cunningham defensive end.

When injuries hit the defensive line, Jackson answered the bell in a big, big way. Getting a steady diet of snaps from week 10 on, Lo-Jack had a huge (+5.0) game against Buffalo, at left end. He was flipped to the right when KVB went down, and was average against the Bears in his first game on that side. He was flipped back to the left against Green Bay, and had a very strong game, then back to the right against the Bucs and dominated (+4.5). He stayed on the right side the rest of the way out, struggling against Jake Long, but finishing strong against Bryant McKinnie.

Bottom Line: Lo-Jack produced like an above-average starter in heavy rotation, and fron Week 10 on was one of the better 4-3 DEs in the game. I’ll hold off on anointing him the starter of the future for now, because I’d like to see more consistency—but there’s no doubt he’d be the perfect physical fit for the void KVB will eventually leave.

Next, the ever-controversial Turk McBride. Controversial, because I repeatedly dismissed him in my offseason assessments last year, much to the chagrin of the commentariat. This season, the 6’-2”, 278-pound ex-Chief played about 40% fewer snaps than Avril or KVB, but about 40% more than Lo-Jack—exclusively at the left end until Vanden Bosch went down, then exclusively at the right end for the rest of the season.

The stats suggest that McBride was nearly as successful as Jackson; McBride had five sacks to Lo-Jack's eight. The second Green Bay game sheds some light on why they graded out so differently, though. By PFF’s reckoning, both McBride and Jackson had two sacks, yet McBride’s grade for that day was –0.3, and Jackson’s was +2.1. Jackson is clearly having more of an impact down-to-down; Lo-Jack’s run support is much better than McBride’s, as well.

Bottom Line: McBride is an interesting case. Phyiscally, he’s a bit of a ‘tweener, and he did manage to get to the quarterback five times. However, I’ve never liked the cut of his jib for reasons I couldn’t fully explain. The PFF grades show why: when he’s not sacking the quarterback, he’s simply not a factor. PFF’s consistency/home-run bias may be coming into play here, but it supports my eyeball take: Lo-Jack has long-term starter potential here; Turk McBride does not.

There’s nothing that can be said about The Great Willie Young that Neil from Armchair Linebacker hasn’t already said (at breathtakingly profane length!), but I will say this: in only six snaps, he was graded at a +1.5 on the season. He also impressed during the preseason.

Bottom Line: Willie Young is a developmental prospect with a very lean frame, a long way to go, and an undeniable knack for playing football. I hope he has a place on the roster for next season.

We’ve already talked about Andre Fluellen as a defensive tackle. He played 81 snaps there, as opposed to 72 at end, during the Avril/KVB injury phase of weeks 11-15. As a DE, he graded out as a below-average pass rusher, and a well-below-average everything else. I believe his future on this team is as a tackle.

Bottom Line: At 6’-2”, 302, Fluellen is a defensive tackle. He should get this offseason to be developed and coached strictly within that role, rather than being moved all over the line. Instead of frantically gaining and losing weight to fit immediate need, the Lions should develop him this year as strictly a three-technique DT.

SHOPPING LIST: The Lions will need to find an impact two-way defensive end, ready to replace KVB as a starter by the 2012 season. Lawrence Jackson has the potential to be that end. Cliff Avril is an RFA who must be re-signed to a long-term deal. The Lions may look for a developmental speed-first end behind Avril, especially if Willie Young does not take major strides in the offseason.


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