Drew Stanton and Tim Tebow: 2 Sides of A NFL Coin FLIP

>> 10.27.2011

drew_stanton_tim_tebow

In some ways, the NFL is an unflinching meritocracy. With billions of dollars on the line nobody gets a scholarship. The players who can play, play. The coaches who can coach, coach. The executives pair one with the other. Anyone not pulling their weight is gone in a heartbeat.

Yet somehow, people slip through the cracks.

Good players get hurt, or put in the doghouse. Coaches get stuck with players they don’t want. Players land into specific systems that hide their flaws and magnify their strengths—or the other way around. Problems with chemistry and synergy can make working relationships untenable. Success and failure in the NFL are, sometimes literally, a coin flip apart.

Drew Stanton and Tim Tebow are two sides of the same coin. Both moved across thousands of miles in their youth. Both became highly touted high school quarterback prospects. Stanton, a Rivals 4-star prospect, was Rivals’ 6th-best pro-style QB. Tebow was a 5-star, and Rivals’ No. 1 dual-threat QB. Both were multidimensional athletes who had real potential as baseball prospects. Both led their team to a state championship; Stanton in back-to-back years.

“Desire to win is unmatched . . . brings every intangible you want at the QB position.”

- Mel Kiper

Stanton and Tebow attended in-state schools. Both contributed to their teams immediately in unconventional ways (Stanton a special teams gunner, Tebow a situational change-of-pace quarterback).  They were strong, vocal leaders who often willed their team to win. Both gained yards on the ground both by accident and design, and through athleticism and toughness rather than speed.

Clearly, Tebow ascended to greater collegiate heights than Stanton did: with a much better coach and supporting cast, Tebow won a Heisman Trophy, and led his Gators to a BCS National Championship. Stanton cracked several Heisman watchlists throughout his career, but he and his inconstant Spartans simply weren’t at that level. Stanton, however, didn’t leave the record books untouched: he lead the biggest comeback win in NCAA history.

“I still believe the positives outweigh the negatives . . . He possesses all the physical tools to eventually emerge as a starting quarterback in the NFL, including the size, arm strength and athletic ability . . . also shows the toughness and competitiveness necessary to make it at the next level.”

-Todd McShay

Tebow was unquestionably the better college quarterback, but Stanton was unquestionably the better professional prospect. Both quarterbacks went to the Senior Bowl; Stanton completed 8 of 12 passes for 63 yards and a touchdown and was named the North’s Offensive MVP. As McShay said, Tebow’s week in Mobile “could not have gone worse from an on-the-field standpoint.”

Scouts, Inc. graded Stanton as an 87, an “Outstanding Prospect,” a high second-round grade. Tebow got a 78, a third-round grade. Most observers (including myself) pegged Tebow as a third-rounder—whether as a long-term quarterback project, or as an an unholy marriage of Chris Cooley and Kordell Stewart: “fullback/H-back/tight end/linebacker.”

"Has a well-built, natural frame with good arm length, broad shoulders, developed chest, good bubble, thick thighs . . . thick chest muscles, more in the line of a linebacker, with defined calves . . . Shows good athleticism, with nimble feet that defenses must always account for."

-CBS Sports

The Lions traded down to the 43rd overall pick to select Stanton. Per Scouts, Inc. that was right where he should have been drafted (he was their 41st-ranked prospect). But in the draft, as they say, it only takes one team to fall in love—and then-Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels was smitten with Tebow.

The Broncos dealt the 114th, 70th, and 43rd (!) pick in the 2010 draft to move up to #25 overall and take Tebow. That’s right—the Broncos traded away the exact same slot the Lions used to draft Stanton, plus a 3rd- and 4th-rounder, to draft Tebow and make him their quarterback of the future.

"Smart, hard-working and patient with the football. I liked most that I rarely saw him rush things . . . poised in the pocket."

-Matt Miller

Stanton was not beloved by the Lions coaches; offensive coordinator Mike Martz wanted nothing to do with him. McShay said in the wake of the 2010 Senior Bowl that Tim Tebow needed to be completely torn down and rebuilt as a quarterback; Martz tore Stanton down like that but never rebuilt him. The Lions put Stanton on IR to save a roster spot, and he lost a season of mental and physical practice. Stanton’s mechanics were ruined, and he was getting no coaching and no reps in Martz’s complicated offense.

When Martz was fired after the 2007 season, the Lions simplified the playbook and called in a new quarterbacks coach: former Michigan QB coach Scott Loeffler. Loeffler undid what Martz had done, restoring Stanton’s natural throwing motion. Stanton flashed a little of that magic in a preseason game against the Bengals; he threw a 50-yard touchdown and ran for another. I’m embedding this fan-shot video because it is terrible as it is awesome:

Stanton was again injured, and again stashed on IR, and again his progress halted. After one season working with Stanton, Loeffler was hired away from the Lions by the University of Florida—to polish up Tim Tebow.

It’s here where Stanton’s career as a Lion truly begins, with the hiring of Jim Schwartz and Scott Linehan. With every OTA, training camp, and preseason since Stanton has taken a step forward. Last season, Stanton did what everyone had waited for: he started and won a big game for the Detroit Lions. It wasn't always pretty, but he got the W. His contract ended after last season, but Lions GM Martin Mayhew brought Stanton back:

"Scott [Linehan] came in during year three and we saw a dramatic improvement in his ability, his throwing and his accuracy and all those things got better. But still, they weren't quite where you wanted them to be."

"We got into training camp and he had a pretty good camp, he made plays for us in the preseason. And then late in the year, we called on him to play and start and he won some games for us as a starter. I really didn't envision him doing that prior to this season, being able to get that done.”

"I thought he showed a lot of improvement so we plan on having him here this year and seeing if he continues to improve that way."

Tebow went through nearly the opposite path. He was drafted by an organization that believed completely in his ability to be a premier NFL quarterback . . . and then the rug got pulled out from under him. McDaniels was fired, along with anyone who had any investment in Tebow’s success. John Elway and John Fox were brought in to start a new-new era of Broncos Football, and Tebow suddenly had to prove his worth.

Last week, Fox trusted Tebow with the starting job, and Tebow delivered victory. Like Stanton's big win against the Packers, Tebow put some ugly stuff on tape—but he made it happen when it counted.

If you hadn’t guessed, all of the above scouting blockquotes are about Stanton, not Tebow. It’s not a stretch to say that Drew Stanton, as a player, is Tim Tebow’s professional upside. They share weaknesses, only Stanton’s aren’t so weak—and where Tebow’s stronger, like literal strength, it’s less useful in the NFL.

While Tim Tebow's immaculate character borders on caricature, Stanton is quietly one of the best “good guys” around. His relentless charity work has earned Stanton a perennial stranglehold on the Lions’ Robert Porcher Man of the Year award. There will never be a plaque immortalizing a Stanton motivational speech, but Stanton most certainly knows how heavy a football team is when you place one on your back and carry it.

In the infinite possibilities of other dimensions and alternate timelines, there are Drew Stanton who were drafted by a good team that believed in him, and he’s now coming off his first Pro Bowl appearance. In others, Tim Tebows are moonlighting on special teams and goal-line offense packages.

In our corner of the multiverse, Tebow is the starting quarterback for a Denver Broncos organization that could be secretly hoping he fails. As Tebow faces the Lions this Sunday, Stanton will be be watching from the sidelines—possibly in street clothes, inactive as the Lions’ third quarterback.

Will either have a long, successful NFL career? Eh, flip a coin.

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The Hidden Detroit Lions Offense: 1st and 2nd Down

>> 10.26.2011

The Lions lost to the Falcons on Sunday, due to an astonishingly poor performance by the offense, and particularly Matthew Stafford. Many noticed the Lions seemed to be “in a lot of third-and-longs,” and blamed the lack of a power running game that could keep the Lions offense on schedule.

It’s been my contention the Lions use their backs in nontraditional—but effective—ways. If they can run for three or so yards on first down, that gives Stafford and the 7+ yard-per-attempt passing attack two attempts to get seven yards. If they can mix in the screens and draws on which Best and Morris are varyingly effective, they can move the ball very well and score points in bunches.

This has been empirically obvious: through five weeks the Lions had the #2 offense in the NFL, racking up an impressive 31.8 points per game. Subsequently, I have been directing all parties inquiring RE: fat guards and white running backs to talk to that statistical hand.

However, something is not adding up. Maurice Morris and Keiland Williams combined for over five YpC against the Falcons, yet indeed the Lions were constantly facing second- and third-and-long.

Chart?

Chart.

1ST DOWN RUN MM KW NB PASS CJ NB BP TS WH
22/8/6.59 12/2/3.8 7/0/2.0 5/2/6.4 0/0/0.0 10/6/9.9 5/3/16.2 1/0/0.0 1/1/9.0 1/1/6.0 1/1/8.0
2ND DOWN RUN MM KW NB PASS CJ NB BP TS WH
20/7/5.3 7/2/6.6 3/1/12.3 2/0/-1.0 2/1/5.0 13/5/4.62 4/1/6.25 1/0/1.0 3/2/5.0 2/2/13.0 0/0/0.0
TOTAL RUN MM KW NB PASS CJ NB BP TS WH
42/15/5.98 19/4/4.8 10/1/5.1 7/2/4.43 2/1/5.0 23/11/6.91 9/4/11.8 2/0/1.0 4/3/6.0 3/3/10.7 1/1/8.0

The Hidden Game of Football is a seminal book which tops every serious football analyst’s reading list (but which I still haven’t read). In it, so I am told, the authors outline a new way of defining a successful football play. On first down, a successful play gains four yards. On second down, a successful play gains half the remaining distance to converting the first down. On third down, a successful play converts first down. This theory informs the analysis at awesome websites like Football Outsiders and Advanced NFL Stats.

The chart above is a breakdown of the Lions first- and second-down plays against the Falcons. The first number in each box is the number of plays in that category. The number after the first slash is the number of “successful” plays, and the number after the second slash is the average yards-per-play rate of categorical plays. So.

The Lions faced 22 first-and-10 situations Sunday (including plays wiped out by penalties). They gained at least four yards 8/22 times, and averaged 6.59 yards per play. That sounds kinda okay-ish until you look at the run/pass breakdown: the Lions ran on first down 12 of 22 times, were successful twice, and averaged 3.83 YpC. This meshes with my “3-to-4 yards on first down is okay” theory until we go a little deeper.

Maurice Morris ran seven times on first down, never successfully, and averaged 2.0 yards per carry.

Keiland Williams fared a little better. He gained 4+ yards twice on five carries, including a long one that swelled the average up 6.4 YpC. However, neither could compare to the first-down passing game, which was successful six of ten attempts and averaged 9.9 YpA.

Megatron was targeted five times on first down, successfully three times, for a 16.2 average (yes, the 54-yard touchdown was on first down). Non-Megatron receivers were successful on 3 of 4 targets, for 5.75 YpA.

On second down, things were not much better. The running game chewed up half of the yards needed for conversion just twice on seven carries, though the YpC was an impressive 6.57. Part of that is due to a long run by MoMo, but part of it is the “on schedule” effect: the Lions average distance-to-conversion on second down was eight yards. This includes sacks, penalties, etc., but those count in the game, too. The Lions simply aren’t getting enough yards on first down, and it’s making second down much harder to convert.

The Lions running game was successful on first- and second-down just 4 of 19 carries, despite an apparently-excellent 4.84 YpC. The passing game was a better-but-still-not-great 11 of 23 plays for 6.91 YpA. Here’s the interesting bit, though: non-Megatron receivers were successful on 7 of 11 first- and second-down targets, for 6.09 YpA.

This points towards something else I’ve been saying: Stafford is pressing. He’s trying to force it to Calvin (see CJ’s second-down success rate above).  Despite the totally ineffective running game, when Stafford spreads the ball around the offense works. I’m wrong about Maurice Morris being a solid first- and second-down tailback, but I’m right that if Stafford does his job that doesn’t matter.

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The Fallen Watchtower Review: Lions vs. falcons

I did get something sort-of resembling a Watchtower up before the Falcons game on Sunday, if only just. Without any of the historical breakdown or schematic analysis, I just looked at season ranks and averages. It was done entirely on my iPhone in stolen moments. It looks like it:

The Falcons have the NFL's 17th-ranked offense, averaging 22.5 points per game. The passing attack has garnered a respectable-but-not-great 6.22 YpC, while the rushing game is netting a very solid 4.37 YpC.

The Lions defense is allowing a stingy 19.0 points per game, 7th-fewest in the NFL. Opponents are passing for a miniscule 5.55 YpA, while they're running all over the Lions at a 5.21 YpC clip.

The Falcons power running game directly attacks the Lions defensive Achilles heel. Then again, so did the 49ers, and their offensive output exactly matched my projections. Therefore, I project the Falcons to score 17-20 points, throw for 5.5-6.0 YpA, and run for 5.0-5.25 YpC. I have medium confidence in this projection.

The Falcons scored 23 offensive points, just above what I'd projected. Their passing game slightly outperformed expectations as well, gaining 6.23 YpA--matching their season average to 1/100th of a yard. The running game actually performed BELOW their season average, well below my projections: 4.16 YpC.

This is an example of what I call the "Whack-a-Mole" effect. When a defense has a glaring weakness in one area and they’re going up against an offense with a corresponding strength, often the D will “sell out” the strength of their D to shore up the weakness. The net result is usually the same in terms of team scoring and overall per-play effectiveness.

This is best known to fantasy football fiends who are drooling over starting their stud running back against the worst run defense in the league. Somehow that never quite results in 200 yards and 3 TDs, does it? According to Mike Mady at Scout.com, the Lions were emphasizing the back seven stopping the run against the Falcons; could it be that pass coverage suffered as a result? I’ll go back and look at this.

The end result of the defense's effort would have looked much better if the Lions’ offense hadn’t repeatedly hung the defense out to dry:

The Lions offense is still the 4th-best in the NFL, racking up 29.7 points per game. The passing attack is slightly slowed after last week's performance, but still high-flying at 6.99 YpA. The ground game is chugging along at 3.92 YpC.

The Falcons are allowing a ridiculous 7.97 YpA, surely a big part of why they're allowing a 22nd-best 24.5 points per game. The run defense is much better, allowing 3.84 YpC.

The Falcons defense is particularly ill-equipped to stop the Lions pass attack. I project the Lions to score 34-37 points, passing for 9.50-10.0 YpA and rushing for 3.50-3.75 YpC. I have medium confidence in this projection.

The brutal reality: 16 points, 5.72 YpA, and—surprisingly—5.2 YpC.

This is the worst underperformance of expectations I’ve seen since Daunte Culpepper got the Lions completely shut out by the Packers (I’d projected 24-28 points). Let’s be clear, here: the Falcons allowed 8 YpA through six games and faced a team gaining 7 YpA and held them to less than 6 YpA. This does not compute.

This isn't Whack-a-Mole effect, either; if it were the Lions would have rolled up 200 yards on the ground and still scored 34-37 points. This has nothing to do with the Falcons defense and everything to do with the Lions offense playing like a shadow of itself.

Next up: numbers and film.

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Three Cups Deep: Lions vs. Falcons

>> 10.24.2011

coffee

This Sunday, the Lions lost their second straight game. They—especially, the offense—especially Matthew Stafford——looked nothing like the team that started the season 5-0, scoring 30+ points per game in the process. When the Lions gave up on the first half by running Keiland Williams twice in a row, the boo birds came out. You could hear them at points throughout the second half, as the Lions offense again failed to find the extra gear they had against Dallas and Minnesota.

It’s amazing how quickly us fans get accustomed to success. Between December 24th, 2007 and December 18, 2010 the Lions won just five games. The Lions started the 2011 season with five consecutive wins and suddenly we’re booing our our team.

I don’t understand the entitled fan.

I’m hearing a lot about “wanting to see good effort,” as if we’d rather watch a talentless team Rudy their way to a close losses than an extremely young, talented team grow into a dynasty before our eyes. So Matthew Stafford had a bad day at the office; why pouncing on him and ride him like he’s Scott Mitchell?

I’m seeing lots of, “I paid good money for those tickets, I deserve to see better than that” today. Deserve to see better than what, 5-2? The Lions in sole possession of the top wild card spot?

Earth to Entitled Lions Fan: it’s not because they’re not trying, it’s because they’re not executing. Matthew Stafford isn’t seeing the field like he’s been all season. The receivers aren’t bailing him out like they have all season. Somehow the gameplans which have worked to a “T” all season long aren’t putting the players in a position to succeed. Blame the coaches, blame the receivers and yes—blame Stafford. But don’t boo him.

When Stafford and the Lions most needed their fans to support them, the fans were booing them. When the defense most needed to the fans to be loud, they were quiet. When Matthew Stafford—and his confidence—were under attack from all angles, Lions fans didn’t rally to his defense, they joined in the attack. I can almost hear some loser shouting from the stands, “HEY STAFFORD! WHERE’S YOUR CONFIDENCE, YOU LOUSY BUM!!”

One of the interesting things about soccer—primarily, English soccer—is that the diehard fans aren’t called “fans,” they’re called “supporters.” It’s an important distinction. We should be supporting our team through thick and thin—especially when the “thin” is a slight lessening of the gloriously lovely “thick” our team has slathered all over the schedule to date. Double-especially when it was so very, very thin for so very, very long.

What’s the point of keeping the little blue flame burning all offseason if we’re just going to walk away the moment everything isn’t perfect? Why spend the longest, bleakest football winter ever refreshing websites and frequenting forums just to turn around and boo the team you allegedly support? It makes no sense—and worse, it makes all the cheering from prior weeks sound craven and false; the worst sort of bandwagoning.

Lions fans aren’t entitled to see winning football, any more than Lions players or coaches are entitled to their jobs. Everything that’s gone wrong can be put right. Nothing’s broken that can’t be fixed. Everything that helped the Lions go 5-0 can help them go 6-2. If you’re a Detroit Lions fan—a Detroit Lions supporter—then help them climb back up the mountain, don’t kick dust in their eyes.

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Fireside Chat, Week 7: Lions vs. Falcons

Here’s last night’s Fireside Chat podcast:

Don’t forget, we do this every Sunday night, roundabout 10:00 pm. If that doesn’t work for your schedule, hit up the iTunes subscription link! Don’t forget to rate the episodes if you dig ‘em.

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Fireside Chat tonight; 10:10 pm!

>> 10.23.2011

Hey, all, the Fireside Chat podcast is streaming LIVE tonight via Ustream! Check it out at http://tinyurl.com/firesidechats, about 10:10 pm.

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The Fallen Watchtower: Lions vs. Falcons

Unfortunately, between MSU Homecoming, ESPN College GameDay coming to Michigan State, getting a chance to interview the GameDay talent, the all-day tailgate, and watching the game itself, there simply wasn't time to do the Watchtower up right.

The Falcons have the NFL's 17th-ranked offense, averaging 22.5 points per game. The passing attack has garnered a respectable-but-not-great 6.22 YpC, while the rushing game is netting a very solid 4.37 YpC.

The Lions defense is allowing a stingy 19.0 points per game, 7th-fewest in the NFL. Opponents are passing for a miniscule 5.55 YpA, while they're running all over the Lions at a 5.21 YpC clip.

The Falcons power running game directly attacks the Lions defensive Achilles heel. Then again, so did the 49ers, and their offensive output exactly matched my projections. Therefore, I project the Falcons to score 17-20 points, throw for 5.5-6.0 YpA, and run for 5.0-5.25 YpC. I have medium confidence in this projection.

The Lions offense is still the 4th-best in the NFL, racking up 29.7 points per game. The passing attack is slightly slowed after last week's performance, but still high-flying at 6.99 YpA. The ground game is chugging along at 3.92 YpC.

The Falcons are allowing a ridiculous 7.97 YpA, surely a big part of why they're allowing a 22nd-best 24.5 points per game. The run defense is much better, allowing 3.84 YpC.

The Falcons defense is particularly ill-equipped to stop the Lions pass attack. I project the Lions to score 34-37 points, passing for 9.50-10.0 YpA and rushing for 3.50-3.75 YpC. I have medium confidence in this projection.

The most likely outcome of the game is 35-17 Lions win.

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