On Football, Cancer, Life, and Death

>> 10.20.2011

Raven Wing Prints In Snow. Mark Marschall - 1979 - Public domain image.

Jerome Harrison has a brain tumor.

Yesterday, the Lions traded Harrison back to Philadelphia, who’d originally released him after free agent signee Ronnie Brown made Harrison expendable. Harrison was packaged with a reported seventh-round pick in exchange for Brown, who had himself struggled to make an impact for the Eagles.

When the news broke, I was writing a post about arbitrage—the practice of swapping commodities for similar commodities and getting a small advantage. It’s how a kid hit Craigslist with an old cell phone and ended up with a Porsche convertible. It’s how the low-budget Tampa Bay Rays perennially make the playoffs out of a division containing the blank-check Yankees and Red Sox.

The parallel here is obvious: the Lions were trading a talented-but-unused running back and the least-valuable draft pick for more talented running back. However, Harrison and Brown are not wireless devices or cars or pork bellies or shares of stock—they are not commodities. They are human beings.

Brown was devastated, ‘lost for words’ when the trade fell apart. He was excited to get a chance to play for a winning Lions franchise, and now that’s gone. Harrison is already undergoing treatment for a tumor he didn’t know he had two days ago. The trade, in detecting the tumor early, might have saved his life: according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Harrison’s long-term prognosis for life—and football—is “good.”

This is where should I say football is meaningless against a backdrop of life and death, but I won’t, because it isn’t.

Football is part of our lives. Our fandom is woven into our work, our leisure, our money, our time, our families. It’s our respite from the banalities of life and a connection that passes through mortal boundaries. Just this week, my aunt sent my son an old Michigan State football hat that used to belong to my grandfather—literally, half a foam football that sticks up like a conehead. I couldn’t believe my straight-laced Italian Grandpa had ever put that crazy thing on his head. He never met my five-year-old son, but they share a bond through football fandom.

For Harrison and Brown, football is a job, a career, a way of life. Football helped detect this tumor early—and if Harrison makes a full recovery, he’ll go right back to playing football for a living; it’s what he does.

The Detroit Lions franchise has outlived generations of players, coaches, staff, owners, and fans. It existed long before I was born, and hopefully will long after I die. Football doesn’t lose its meaning because Jerome Harrison has a brain tumor—people get brain tumors every day. It’s only because of football that Harrison’s sickness is relevant to our lives.

That may sound callous, but think about it: Harrison’s condition is relevant to our lives. If pink shoes and pink gloves and thousands of twirling pink towels didn’t raise the awareness of the importance of research, screening and early treatment, maybe what’s happened to Harrison will.

Football may have saved Harrison’s life; if even one person does a self-exam or gets screened or donates to research because of his experience even more lives could be saved.

Hint, hint.

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Watchtower Review: Lions vs. 49ers

>> 10.19.2011

Reviewing the first “wrong” Watchtower of the year is never fun, especially when it’s also a loss. From the defensive side:

Defensively . . . you may want to sit down for this. The Detroit Lions have the fourth-best scoring defense in football. They’re allowing a miniscule 17.7 points per game, and a meager 5.91 YpA. Their running defense has been less than stout; opposing running backs have been rolling up the Lions for 4.78 YpC.

Without any systemic advantages either way, we must project the 49ers offense to to meet expectations against the Lions defense. I project the 49ers to score 21-24 points, passing for 6.50-7.00 YpA and rushing for 4.25-4.50 YpC. I have medium-to-low confidence in this projection.

Mitigating/Aggravating Factors

Of course, it’s pretty much all up in the air, schematically speaking. There are many different flavors of the “West Coast Offense,” and the Callahan/Gruden branch is one we don’t have a lot of prior history with. The Lions are definitely soft against the run, and the 49ers are calling runs 54.2% of the time. The Lions showed against Chicago that merely grinding it out against them won’t work if the offense can score. For the Lions’ defense to exceed expectations, the offense may need to force Alex Smith to play catchup.

The scoring projection was spot on: the 49ers scored 23 offensive points. The run/pass effectiveness was all over the map, though: they passed for a miserable 3.91 YpA, and ran for a stonking 7.00 YpC. I hinted at the ultimate problem, though, in the Mitigating/Aggravating Factors: “The Lions showed against Chicago that merely grinding it out against them won’t work if the offense can score. For the Lions’ defense to exceed expectations, the offense may need to force Alex Smith to play catchup.”

Yup, that was the problem. The Lions defense precisely met expectations, but needed to exceed them to win the game. The only way they were going to exceed them was if the 49ers had to do a lot of passing . . . meaning, the Lions offense needed to force the 49ers offense to keep pace.

Given these unit’s equal strength (they’re both outstanding), if there really is no advantage for Scott Linehan’s offenses against Vic Fangio’s defenses, the Lions should exactly meet expectations. Since I’ve been trying to weigh recent performance more heavily than historical, I’ll roll with that as my official projection. Factoring in the 49ers penchant for allowing more yardage than points, I project the Lions to score 23-26 points, throw for 7.5-8.0 YpA, and run for 3.75-4.0 YpC. I have medium confidence in this projection.

Mitigating/Aggravating Factors

Of course, if there really is a systemic advantage for Lions offenses against Capers/Fangio 3-4 defenses, then the Lions should add another touchdown or so. As with Monday Night Football, I expect the crowd to give the Lions a lift—though not to the same extreme. However, if the Lions turn the ball over two or more times, they may not make it into the mid 20s.

Well, they didn’t make it into the 20s, but it wasn’t due to lack of turnovers. It was due to a total lack of passing effectiveness. The Lions averaged 5.86 YpA, a ridiculous 2.07 fewer yards per attempt than what they’d averaged to day. The Lions rushed for 3.67 YpC, which is not fantastic—but it’s only slightly below the Lions season average coming into the game (3.96), and above the 49ers season average allowed (3.57).

Yesterday’s Matthew Stafford piece got into the whys and wherefores behind the failure of the passing game, and I don’t want to repeat myself. Long story short, the 49ers pass defense was too good for the Lions dominate with pure talent. The 49ers defense was too good for Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson to just pitch and catch over. The Lions decided to put the pedal to the metal rather than downshift into a dink-and-dunk gear, and it didn’t work.

Conclusion

This game gives me the heebie-jeebies. Both teams are coming off enormous wins. Both teams are “due” to drop one against an extremely tough opponent. The data shows the Lions to hold about a field goal advantage in this one. Both teams take care of the ball extremely well, and both teams force a lot of turnovers. I feel like this will be the difference in what could be a very dramatic, very physical, low-scoring slugfest. The most likely outcome of this game is an extremely hard-fought 23-21 Lions win.

Heebie jeebies, yes. Lions win, no.

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Matthew Stafford is the Detroit Lions

>> 10.18.2011

11 SEP 2011:  Matthew Stafford of the Lions warms up before the regular season game between the Detroit Lions and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, FL.

The Lions lost their first game of the season because they were gashed by the 49ers’ Frank Gore on wham plays and trap blocks. Jahvid Best, already struggling to run between the tackles, may be unavailable Sunday due to yet another concussion. Clearly, the Lions need to adjust their defense to account for this vulnerability, and maybe pick up a between-the-tackles back who can replace Best in the lineup, right?

Wrong.

The Lions offense is Matthew Stafford and the bristling arsenal of skill position weapons they’ve supplied him with. The Lions defense is the defensive line—which gets after the quarterback first and asks questions later.

The Lions are built from the ground up to score points through the air, then prevent the other team from doing the same. Teams have been able to run the ball successfully against the Lions; they’ve even been able to dominate time of possession. But until Matthew Stafford and the offense failed to muster at 20 points, no team actually beat the Lions.

Fans and media assessing the Lions in the wake of their first loss are frequently citing an inability to grind out yards, and prevent others from doing the same, as the reason they didn’t win. They want the Lions trade for a power back, or feature Redskins retread Keiland Williams more. They want the Lions’ defensive line to quit pinning their ears back and maintain gap responsibility.

It's not going to happen.

There’s no available running back that will turn the Lions into the 2000 Ravens or the 2009 Jets [Ed.- as I wrote this, the Lions completed a trade for Ronnie Brown. My analysis stands]. The Lions interior line can’t run block like that, and the Lions’ massive array of downfield artillery would go unfired. Why assemble all that firepower and then pull a slingshot out of your back pocket?

The Lions can’t neuter the hyperaggressive defensive line; it’s what allows them to drop seven men back into coverage and take away the pass. As I (presciently) wrote last Friday, the Lions defensive line is allowing running backs to run through them. On purpose. They’re counting on the linebackers to clean up, which until Sunday they were doing brilliantly. Even with those two long runs, the Lions' defense allowed the 27.8 points-per-game 49ers offense to score just 23 points.

Much like the 2009 Saints, the Lions defense is built to stop teams from keeping pace with their offense. As of today, they’re allowing 19.0 points per game; the 7th-stingiest  scoring defense in football. But if the offense only ekes out 19 points, as they did on Sunday, there’s not much the defense can do.

I said during the Fireside Chat Detroit Lions podcast something was wrong with Matthew Stafford, the receivers, the coaching, or all three. Stafford was under pressure, yes, but just like in the Cowboys game he had enough time to throw. He didn’t have enough time to stare down Calvin Johnson and wait for him to get 40 yards downfield, but he had enough time to throw. Jim Schwartz gave us a hint of what was happening when talking about the decision to use Maurice Morris instead of Jahvid Best in the fourth quarter:

"He's been effective in the pass game," he explained, "but Mo's also been effective in the pass game. We're working a lot of different combinations and things like that. It really had nothing to do with anything other than that.

"We're sitting there, looking, saying, hey look, we can get Matt some more time - going a lot to Calvin down the field ... trying to push some of those balls down the field. They were playing a little bit different coverage -- rather than 2-Man, they were playing 3-Cloud -- all game decisions."

The Lions were trying to hit the home run. Just like the Chicago game broke open when they hit Megatron with the long ball, the Lions were trying to grab the lead and the momentum. They had Morris in to help pass protect, to give Johnson enough time to get open against a three-deep zone. But they couldn’t pass block long enough, or Megatron couldn’t get open enough, or Stafford couldn’t make a decision quick enough to make it happen. In trying to force the game-changing big play, they passed up a whole lot of little plays that could have helped them win.

In the end, that’s the error I prefer the Lions make. This league is full of almost-good-enough quarterbacks playing almost-good-enough dink-and-dunk ball and mostly hovering within a game or two of .500. That’s not how you win titles in today’s NFL—not without a legendary defense and a Hall of Fame-caliber running back. The Lions don’t have either of those—but what they do have is one hell of a quarterback, one hell of a wide receiver, and an excellent supporting cast.

So the 49ers stopped the unstoppable Stafford-to-Johnson connection, and the Lions by extension. Fine by me! If that’s the only way the Lions lose, they won’t lose more than five games this season. The Lions should not, will not and cannot make wholesale changes to the way they play the game. They have bet their franchise on Matthew Stafford, and they should ride him as far as he’ll carry them.

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Three Cups Deep: Lions vs. 49ers

>> 10.17.2011

coffee

In every cup of coffee, there is bitterness. Some bitterness comes from the flavor of the bean, and some bitterness comes from how darkly it was roasted. Ever wonder how Starbucks turns out drinks that taste exactly the same in massive volumes all over the world? They roast all their beans so dark it doesn’t matter what they used to taste like. That’s why a downing a straight shot of Starbucks espresso is like drinking a campfire.

Yesterday's loss leaves a bitter taste in the Lions fan's mouth. It’s not a delicate touch of acidity awakening the earthy qualities of your Monsooned Malabar, it’s just nasty cup of bitter upon bitter.

Bitter, because it was an awful loss. The 49ers played well, but the Lions had every opportunity to win the game, and didn’t. Time after time, the defense got stops, and time after time the offense frittered good chances away. The “first quarter jitters” Lions fans have seen from Matthew Stafford and the offense never settled down. As I said in the Fireside Chat, it felt just like the Cowboys game: either the receivers aren’t getting open, or Stafford’s holding onto the ball too long.

Bitter, because the Lions lost Jahvid Best to a concussion. This is his second concussion of the season, and he had a history of concussions and neck injuries at Cal. This is now a serious concern . . . we must now worry about his medium- and long-range future.

Bitter, because Jim Schwartz and John Harbaugh got into a postgame skirmish that made both men look bad.  The story of the game wasn’t the 49ers win or the Lions loss or any of the great plays made on either side, it’s “OMG COACHFIGHT.” and that’s too bad.

Bitter, because 49ers offensive tackle Anthony Davis hopped on Twitter and ran a bunch of silly smack that Cliff Avril and Lawrence Jackson both called out.

Bitter, because I had a Twitter avatar bet with Bleacher Report NFL editor Dylan MacNamara, and now my avatar is a picture of Anthony Davis.

But Starbucks sells a hell of a lot of coffee every year, and there’s a reason why: they take that bitter swill and dump a bunch of heat-sweetened milk in it, then slather that in whipped cream and sugary sauces. Here’s the sweetness that makes yesterday’s loss palatable . . .

The Lions are 5-1. Only three other teams are either 6-0 or 5-1. The Lions are still two games ahead of the Bears, with a head-to-head win and a better division record. They’re now at the soft underbelly of their schedule: hosting Atlanta (3-3), at Denver (1-4), at Chicago (3-3), hosting Carolina (1-5). I’d expect the Lions to win at least three of those four games—and if they beat Chicago, it’s a two-horse NFC North division race.

They took their only loss against one of the toughest teams on the schedule. Remember when I called the Kansas City game a “must-win?” It’s because the Lions’ schedule is tough enough that they had to win their winnable games. Because the Lions started 5-0, they can lose some of their toughest matchups (this one, at New Orleans, both Packers games, etc.) and still make the playoffs.

Now that the Lions have brought their B-/C+ game for the third time this season and not won, they can take a breath, reset, and get to work on fixing the issues that winning has glossed over. The team and crowd should be doubly motivated to get a home win against Atlanta next Sunday.

Finally, though the nation is talking about “OMG COACHFIGHT” and what a black mark it is on both franchises, I choose to look at this a different way. Charles Robinson of Yahoo! said on Twitter:

Please let San Francisco and Detroit meet in the playoffs. I love it when the NFL coaching fraternity develops some bitterness within it.

I’ve said before that rivalries—real rivalries—are when it means a little more to the players and coaches. Those naturally happen when games are played for high stakes multiple times in short window. Tempers get high, slights real and perceived get magnified, and both teams carry grudges into the next important matchup. At this point it looks possible—even probable—that the Lions and 49ers will meet again in the playoffs, and both teams will want vengeance.

NFL.com’s Albert Breer said this kind of swagger is nice to see from two historically great franchises that have been moribund for nearly a decade—and you know what? I agree.

Take this to the bank: The players on both sides loved seeing their coaches get after each other. Each leader has instilled a fighter's mentality in his team, and this was the manifestation of that approach.

Harbaugh's bluster, Schwartz's intensity. All there on display.

I say, enjoy the show. And enjoy that, in this age of chuck-it-around-the-yard-all-day offense, we had a couple of teams going at it Sunday that are a little more Mike Tyson than Muhammad Ali when they get in the ring.

I’ll happily drink my third cup of bitter office-pot sludge to that.

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Fireside Chat Week 6: Lions vs. 49ers

>> 10.16.2011

I regretfully present to you the season’s first post-loss Fireside Chat:








Video streaming by Ustream

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The Watchtower: Lions vs. 49ers

prospector-memorial

If, during the long dreary lockout months, you engaged in a Completely Useless Waste of Time, when you came upon “vs. SFO” you doubtlessly checked the “W” side of the ledger. Instead, the 4-1 49ers come to town as one of the hottest teams in football. Coming off a 48-3 dismantling of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, my favorite predictive metric thinks the 49ers are the fourth-best team in football.

This is why reviewing the schedule and predicting wins and losses is a completely useless waste of time.

If the Simple Rating System is right, the Niners are the strongest non-Packers opponent the Lions will host all season long. They come at a weird time. The Lions are just six days removed from a franchise-defining MNF win, and at an improbable 5-0 are more than due for a letdown. The 49ers just blew out the Bucs in ridiculous fashion, though, so they’re unlikely to be playing with maximum fire, either.

Let’s go to the tape.

Jim Harbaugh vs. Gunther Cunningham

JH Ornk PgG YpA YpC Gun Drnk PpG DYpA DYpC PTS PTSΔ YpA YpAΔ YpC YpCΔ
CHI 7th 28.4 7.75 4.01 DET 4th 17.8 5.91 4.78            

This one will be quick.

Jim Harbaugh jumped right from his playing career to coaching quarterbacks Raiders, then from the Raiders to the college head coaching ranks. He’s never been an offensive coordinator, but he’s most definitely an offensive coach. Though he played under a variety of systems, he’s a member of the Bill Walsh coaching tree. He coached QBs under Raiders OC Marc Trestman and HC Bill Callahan. Practically the first words out of Harbaugh’s mouth after being introduced as coach were “We will install the West Coast Offense in San Francisco, birthplace of the West Coast Offense.”

There are several layers of that not being quite true, but whatever. Harbaugh brought his “running game coordinator,” Mark Roman, with him from Stanford. Roman has never been a full-fledged coordinator in his career, either, so there’ll be no historical data.

Led by the suddenly-efficient Alex Smith, the 49ers are the 7th-best scoring offense in football, averaging a solid 28.4 points per game. They’re moving the ball incredibly well through the air, at a 7.75 YpA clip. On the ground, tailbacks Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter have combined for a solid 4.01 YpC.

Defensively . . . you may want to sit down for this. The Detroit Lions have the fourth-best scoring defense in football. They’re allowing a miniscule 17.7 points per game, and a meager 5.91 YpA. Their running defense has been less than stout; opposing running backs have been rolling up the Lions for 4.78 YpC.

Without any systemic advantages either way, we must project the 49ers offense to to meet expectations against the Lions defense. I project the 49ers to score 21-24 points, passing for 6.50-7.00 YpA and rushing for 4.25-4.50 YpC. I have medium-to-low confidence in this projection.

Mitigating/Aggravating Factors

Of course, it’s pretty much all up in the air, schematically speaking. There are many different flavors of the “West Coast Offense,” and the Callahan/Gruden branch is one we don’t have a lot of prior history with. The Lions are definitely soft against the run, and the 49ers are calling runs 54.2% of the time. The Lions showed against Chicago that merely grinding it out against them won’t work if the offense can score. For the Lions’ defense to exceed expectations, the offense may need to force Alex Smith to play catchup.

Scott Linehan vs. Vic Fangio

Lin Ornk PgG YpA YpC Vic Drnk PpG DYpA DYpC PTS PTSΔ YpA YpAΔ YpC YpCΔ
MIN 6th 25.3 7.16 4.71 HOU 15th 21.2 6.82 3.91 34 34% 7.92 11% 2.46 -48%
DET 4th 31.8 7.79 3.96 SFO 2nd 15.6 6.85 3.57            

Vic Fangio is a 3-4 zone blitz coordinator; a contemporary, colleague, and sometimes employee of Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers. Latif Masud did an excellent history of Fangio that I’ll just link you to in the interests of getting this bad boy up. In prior Watchtowers, I’ve projected an advantage for Linehan’s offenses against Caper-y defenses. However, turnovers and poor quarterback play have repeatedly hamstrung the Lions’ efforts against Capers.

The one time a Scott Linehan offense faced a Vic Fangio defense, the result was a game that got under my skin for years hence. You see, Daunte Culpepper threw for five touchdowns, no interceptions, and 396 yards against Capers’s Texans (with Fangio coordinating the defense). The Vikings won in overtime, 34-28, and Culpepper’s “MVP Caliber season” took flight. You know, the one where they went 8-8.

The offensive explosion against Houston was partially fueled by game conditions—it was an overtime  shootout—but the Vikings’ 6th-ranked offense faced Houston’s 15th-ranked defense and scored 34% above their season average. At 7.92 YpA, Culpepper moved the ball even better than he usually did, but the Vikings’ dangerous running attack was stopped cold: only 2.46 YpC, a decrease of 48% from their typical 4.71.

This jibes with what I’ve found with Linehan offenses: they do well against 3-4 zone blitz defenses. This time, the Lions won’t be starting Drew Stanton the non-touchdown-throwing version of Daunte Culpepper or whoever, they’ll be starting Matthew Stafford.

Stafford is at the helm of the second-best scoring offense in football. The Lions are averaging 31.8 points per game, 7.79 yards per attempt, and 3.95 YpC (up 1.01 yards after Jahvid Best’s explosion last week). The 49ers are the second-best scoring defense in football, averaging 15.6 points per game, 6.85 YpA, and 3.57 YpC. They’re actually allowing better balll movement through the air and on the ground than you’d expect, given the scoring average. That’s due in part to their excellent +10 turnover ratio.

Given these unit’s equal strength (they’re both outstanding), if there really is no advantage for Scott Linehan’s offenses against Vic Fangio’s defenses, the Lions should exactly meet expectations. Since I’ve been trying to weigh recent performance more heavily than historical, I’ll roll with that as my official projection. Factoring in the 49ers penchant for allowing more yardage than points, I project the Lions to score 23-26 points, throw for 7.5-8.0 YpA, and run for 3.75-4.0 YpC. I have medium confidence in this projection.

Mitigating/Aggravating Factors

Of course, if there really is a systemic advantage for Lions offenses against Capers/Fangio 3-4 defenses, then the Lions should add another touchdown or so. As with Monday Night Football, I expect the crowd to give the Lions a lift—though not to the same extreme. However, if the Lions turn the ball over two or more times, they may not make it into the mid 20s.

Conclusion

This game gives me the heebie-jeebies. Both teams are coming off enormous wins. Both teams are “due” to drop one against an extremely tough opponent. The data shows the Lions to hold about a field goal advantage in this one. Both teams take care of the ball extremely well, and both teams force a lot of turnovers. I feel like this will be the difference in what could be a very dramatic, very physical, low-scoring slugfest. The most likely outcome of this game is an extremely hard-fought 23-21 Lions win.

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