Monday, March 31, 2008
Sunday, March 30, 2008
You can point at the loss of Johan Santana as the death knell of the team's chances of playing in October, but even with him last year, the team only won 79 games. Without him, they'll certainly be worse, though not as much as most people seem to think. Every publication I've read has the Twins finishing no better than third in the division, with Detroit and Cleveland occupying the #1 and #2 spots. Some, however, rank the Twins much lower, and one I glanced at yesterday -- the Sporting News' pre-season publication, I think it was -- had the Twins in fifth, even though it was published before the Santana trade.
People fear change. And the general consensus among many is "change = bad." The Twins may or may not be a better team in 2008 than they were in 2007. They will definitely be a different team, given all their offseason changes. However, apart from the loss of Johan Santana and probably Torii Hunter, it's not as if any of the other changes were automatically for the worse.
With Francisco Liriano inexplicably made to toil away at AAA, the rotation consists of Livan Hernandez, Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Boof Bonser, and Nick Blackburn -- and your guess is as good as mine as to how this group, Liriano included, will perform. Hernandez is the only one with any kind of sustained track record. Unfortunately, it's not a very good one. His ERA has been a hair short of 5.00 the last two years, and that was without facing a DH regularly. If he's still in the rotation by the All-Star Break, I'll be surprised. Still, even that would be longer than Sidney Ponson and Ramon Ortiz lasted.
His other rotation-mates young and inexperienced, which, in many people's minds, means they won't be good. Never mind the fact that Baker and Slowey posted better ERAs than Hernandez last season (while facing a DH) and that Bonser was just a shade higher. Boof's lost weight, so they say, and there's no reason to believe that the lot of them can't at least post a bunch of ERAs in the 4-5 range. None of them are Johan Santana (though Slowey could be the next Brad Radke), but just because they're young doesn't mean they'll suck either. And if they do, there's Phil Humber and Kevin Mulvey waiting in the wings to replace them. With a strong bullpen, led by Joe Nathan and Pat Neshek, there's no reason to think the Twins will be any worse than any other team when it comes to pitching this year.
Then there's the lineup. Yes, Torii Hunter is gone. But can you say without a shadow of a doubt that Delmon Young won't have as good a year? It's a bit of a stretch, to be sure, but Hunter has, I think, been playing way over his head the last two years and is 10 years older than Young, in any case. Hunter hit 31 home runs last year to Young's 13; I think both players arriving in the 20-25 homer range for 2008 is realistic, and Young's 2007 OBP was only 18 points lower than Hunter's. If I had to bet for the 22-year-old to improve or the 32-year-old to decline...well, I'd pick both.
Then there's the (almost) totally new infield. I've always been a fan of Mike Lamb and thought he was criminally underutilized in Houston. He'll hit around .280 with 15 home runs. Adam Everett won't contribute much with the stick, but he's a Gold-Glove-caliber fielder. I actually think Brendan Harris was a first-half wonder in Tampa Bay last year -- he only hit .256/.316/.397 after the break last year -- and I worry that he'll be able to produce much on offense. Harris and Lamb are also not the greatest of defenders; hopefully Everett can make up for some of that. In any case, if the trade is Alexi Casilla/Jason Bartlett/Nick Punto for Lamb/Everett/Harris, I think I'll take the latter most any day.
Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Michael Cuddyer all return, with Jason Kubel and (ugh) Craig Monroe splitting DH duty. That, of course, leaves center field to be manned by the key player in the Santana deal, Carlos Gomez. Nobody doubts that he's fast, but can he get on base enough to justify his spot at the top of the order?
You'll hear the term ISOP (Isolated Power) bandied about a lot. Basically, it's slugging percentage minus batting average. A player with a .200 ISOP has more "power" than a player with a .100 ISOP, even if they might have the same slugging percentage. It's a far more accurate measure of power than SLG% alone Ichiro Suzuki has a career SLG% of .437. Rob Deer has a career SLG% of .442. Will you say that Deer (ISOP .222) is only a slightly better power hitter than Ichiro (ISOP .104)? He's a better hitter, overall, to be sure, but Deer is far more likely to hit a home run.
I like to look at something I call ISOBP (Isolated On-Base Percentage), which is simply on-base percentage minus batting average. It's a way of telling, in general, how good someone is at drawing a walk (or HBP), and, as ISOP removes batting average from figuring power, ISOBP removes batting average -- the ability to put the ball in play -- from OBP, which is often about not putting the ball in play. Even as batting average (and therefore OBP) can fluctuate throughout a player's career, ISOBP tends to stay fairly even.
In 2007, Gomez had an average of .232, an OBP of .288, and an ISOBP of .056. That's not great for a leadoff hitter, but it's not bad either, and he was only 21 years old. It's also roughly in line with his minor-league ISOBP of .058, meaning that Gomez will likely never have an ISOBP of better than about .060.
So, what's an acceptable OBP for a leadoff hitter? I'd say the conversation starts around .350. That means Gomez will need to bat about .290 to be a valuable player. Given his speed and extra-base power, I think that's a reasonable possibility, especially when you consider how young he is. He may not do it this year, but I think it's likely he'll make it into that range before too long. And if he doesn't ever fully develop, well, Deolis Guerra also came over in the Santana deal, and he's not even 19 years old yet and looking good.
I agree that Cleveland and Detroit will rule the division and that the best the Twins can hope for is a third-place finish. That said, I also think Kansas City is on the rise and could actually surpass the Twins. The White Sox? Too full of their own hubris (and old, injury-prone players) to be any good this year. I think the 3-4-5 positions will be pretty close -- and the Twins could be a force in 09-10, once the young players get a little experience -- but my final prediction for the Twins is:
75-87, 4th place
Thursday, March 27, 2008
When my turn finally came up in gymrome's draft, I saw that Harvey had already been taken by Broncos, five picks earlier, leading me to re-evaluate the team's needs and the talent available. I told myself I would take a "safe," un-sexy pick, like a lineman (offensive or defensive), until I saw who else wasn't on the list of drafted players, and I couldn't resist. Take a look at the post on gymrome's blog to see who I picked and read my reasoning behind it. I wish I could say I have complete confidence in the selection; truthfully, I don't, and I may have succumbed to a combination of wishful thinking and glory-grabbing, but I'll try to lay out here a few more reasons why Brian Brohm, if he's available, would be a good first-round pick for the Vikings.
First of all, I still like Harvey if he's available. But Brohm would probably be my #2 pick (barring something crazy, like Jake Long somehow plummeting down the list). When I was writing copy for some football cards last month, I had to research several college players, and here's an excerpt from the page I found for Brohm on FootballsFuture:
Brohm has it all from a physical standpoint. He has a nice frame, and is sturdy enough to sit in the pocket and take a hit. His arm is excellent, and he can make all the throws. He is also a good athlete with the mobility to elude the rush and buy more time. On the field, Brohm has proven to be an extremely efficient QB, making smart decisions and not turning the ball over very often.
The only real knock on Brohm is his durability. He has had some injury issues during his stay at Louisville. He tore his ACL as a sophomore, and was hurt twice last year. He tore ligaments in his thumb, and also had surgery on his left shoulder.
The analysis is a year old, and Brohm was healthy his senior year, so I'm not too worried about potential injury issues. "An extremely efficient QB, making smart decisions and not turning the ball over very often." Gee, I'd sure like to have one of those!
Now, I hate it when an announcer describes a quarterback as "managing the game," typically said when his overall numbers aren't great but he avoids turnovers and/or completes many low-risk, short-yardage passes and his team wins the game. (It's especially galling when the quarterback has next to nothing to do with his team's success, but I've been over that already.) Nobody wants their quarterback to "manage the game"; they want their quarterback to win the game. A player who isn't capable of that isn't as good a quarterback as those who can -- guys like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and the like -- and wouldn't you rather have a better player at the position? Barry Sanders got caught in the backfield for losses a lot but still ripped off enough big runs to average 5.0 yards per carry for his career. Would you rather have a nice, "safe" back who managed 4.0 yards per carry and hardly never gets stopped for a loss? Probably not.All things being equal, nearly every team would rather have a Manning or Brady than the quarterback they currently have. Of course, all things aren't equal. Would you rather have Manning at $10 million/year or someone like David Garrard at $5 million/year and spend the remaining $5 million on other players? The Vikings are a team that would benefit from the Garrard + $5 million scenario rather than the Manning + $0 scenario because, with their running game and defense, they don't need a dominant passer to win games. Now, if we (or the Jaguars) could get Peyton Manning for $5 million, that would be another matter entirely.
So what's all that got to do with Brohm? If he is an "intelligent" quarterback (this just in: he tied for the highest score among quarterbacks on the Wonderlic test) who avoids turnovers, along the lines of a David Garrard or Jeff Garcia (or a certain third-round pick who never had the strongest arm), then he's still valuable to the team even if he doesn't throw for 35 TDs and 4,000 yards every season. For what it's worth, his college numbers seem to bear that out, as he was picked on only 2.0% of his pass attempts. I'd rather have Peyton Manning (or maybe even Matt Ryan), too, but if this is the best we can get, I'd say go for it.
Of course, everyone will say that first-round quarterbacks are a huge risk. I maintain that they aren't any more risky than any other position -- just more visible. Sure, everyone remembers flameouts Tim Couch, Akili Smith, maybe Alex Smith, and especially Ryan Leaf, but you don't hear as much about David Terrell, Mike Williams (the Buffalo OL, though the wide receiver might also fit the bill), Curtis Enis, Andre Wadsworth, and (a particular favorite) Tony Mandarich, because they're not quarterbacks. And my admittedly unscientific study from last month shows that highly drafted QBs aren't really any more of a risk than other positions, at least in determining whether they'll excel enough to make the Pro Bowl. If you think the team would be better off drafting someone other than Brohm, fine, but don't make that decision "because he's a quarterback." Since the merger, the Vikings have drafted two quarterbacks in the first round, and while neither are destined for the Hall of Fame, they weren't exactly failures in Purple either.
Tuesday, March 25, 2008
A quarterback's win-loss record is about as meaningful as the win-loss record of a starting pitcher, if not less so. The most basic assumption is that offense and defense, in any sport, have equal importance. A quarterback has an effect on his team's offense. He has virtually no effect on his team's defense. (Yes, I know that turnovers deep in one's territory can affect how many points a defense gives up. But then you'd also have to give the defense credit for getting a turnover at the opponent's 10-yard line. Over the course of a season, it's reasonable to assume those opportunities cancel each other out.) Right there, that takes 50% of the outcome of a game from the quarterback.
Then there's the running game. Peyton Manning hands off pretty much the same as Trent Dilfer. Last season, there were 18,147 pass plays (attempts plus sacks) and 13,986 rushing plays called. Some of the runs were by quarterbacks, but that still puts the league at a 56% passing rate. 56% of 50% is 28%.
You could stop here. Even skeptics would agree that defense is just as important as offense and that the QB has virtually no effect on the running game or defense. But you can still pare it down further.
Then there's the impact of other players on the offense. Even the best quarterback can't put up numbers if his line doesn't block and his receivers can't catch the ball. At best, quarterback and receiver each have to make a play, and you could argue that their effect on a play is equal. That cuts the quarterback's usefulness in half again, from 28% to 14%. Figure in line play and the QB's effect on the game probably drops to about 10% or so.
So, does that mean that a quarterback only has about a 10% chance of affecting the outcome of a game? Maybe. But even if that's the case, it doesn't mean the position is overrated (well, maybe a bit). If you consider a team to have 24 starters -- 11 on each side of the ball, plus kicker and punter -- then, if all were equal, you'd expect each to have a 100%/24 = 4.2% effect on the outcome of the game. A quarterback, then, is two to three times as important as the "average" player. Some of this also depends on the role the QB is expected to play on a team. Peyton Manning, for instance, is certainly worth more to his team when they pass a lot or have a weak defense, as was essentially the case in 2006. On a team that relies on its running game or defense, the quarterback is less important.
All of which brings us back to T-Jack. Let's take a look at "his" eight wins from 2007 to see just how important he was:
Week 1 (Atlanta): 24-3
Defense holds Atlanta to 3 points, returns two interceptions touchdown. Adrian Peterson runs 60 yards on a swing pass for Jackson's lone TD pass. His final numbers are 13-23, 163 yards, 1 TD, and 1 Int.
Week 6 (Chicago): 34-31
Peterson rushes for 224 yards, has 363 all-purpose yards (only 11 on receptions). Jackson is 9-23 for 136 yards and 1 TD, including a 60-yard bomb to Troy Williamson.
Week 9 (San Diego): 35-17
Peterson rushes for 296 yards. Jackson is hurt in the second quarter, goes 6-12 for 63 yards.
Week 11 (Oakland): 29-22
Sidney Rice starts the game with a 79-yard trick pass to Visanthe Shiancoe. Chester Taylor rushes for 164 yards. Jackson is 17-22 for 171 yards and 1 Int.
Week 12 (NY Giants): 41-17
Defense picks off Eli Manning four times, returning three for TDs. Jackson is 10-12 for 129 yards and 1 TD.
Week 13 (Detroit): 42-10
Peterson and Taylor combine for 186 rushing yards. Aundrae Allison returns a kick for a TD. Jackson is 18-24 for 204 yards, 2 TDs, and 1 Int.
Week 14 (San Francisco): 27-7
Trent Dilfer starts for 49ers, guaranteeing Viking victory. Defense forces 5 turnovers, Chester Taylor scores on 84-yard TD run. Jackson is 16-25 for 163 yards and 1 TD.
Week 15 (Chicago): 20-13
Defense holds Bears to 209 yards. Peterson rushes for 78 yards and 2 TDs. Jackson is 18-29 for 249 yards and 3 Ints.
So there you have it. Of Jackson's 8 "wins," only three were close, and most were dominated by strong play from the defense or the running game. Statistically, Jackson's best game was the Detroit contest, but if the best you get from your QB is 18-24, 204 yards, 2 TDs, and 1 Int., then you might have a problem. And in some of those games -- the second Chicago contest, in particular -- he was average to bad but was bailed out by the rest of his team. And all this doesn't take Jackson's 4 "losses" into account, like a 6-19 performance against Dallas in which Bobby Wade was said to remark, "If you start throwing it at us, we'll start catching it." Then there was the four-interception game against Detroit back in week 2.
In Jackson's so-called "good" stretch, the five-game winning streak, he went 79-112 for 916 yards, 4 TDs and 5 Ints. That's a fine 70% completion percentage and 8.2 yards per attempt, but the 88.2 passer rating is only above average. If he could play like that over a whole season, things would be fine, but there's been little to show that would be the case. Plus, only two of those five games were close. In the Chicago and Oakland games -- which a good quarterback would have put away easily -- Jackson had zero TDs and four interceptions, allowing the inferior team to stick around until the final quarter.
All this isn't to say that Jackson shouldn't be the Vikings QB. Again, if he can show the skills and patience he displayed over that winning streak, with the team assembled around him, he can at least be an above-average QB with a great supporting cast. And the addition of Bernard Berrian should be a boon to the weak WR corps. But please, the next time you hear someone say Jackson should be the starter because he was 8-4 in 2007, just remember that Trent Dilfer once "won" a Super Bowl and that Jose Lima once "won" 21 games.
Saturday, March 22, 2008
I just completed a draft in my 10-team Yahoo! League, and, like every fantasy sports owner immediately after his draft, I like the look of it. It's a pretty crazy league, weekly with lots of categories, so just about every type of player can find a home. But don't worry, unlike everyone else who drafts a fantasy team, I won't bore you with the details of my team, my shrewd picks, and other descriptions of how great I am and how I will own the rest of the league.
Oh, come on, you didn't really believe that, did you? :)
It's a weekly league, meaning we play against another team each week. The winner in each statistical category gets a point and at the end of the week, the team with the most points wins the matchup.
And my, what a lot of categories there are. On offense, it's R, HR, RBI, TB, Avg., OPS, Errors (fewest), and Net SB (SB - CS). On the pitching side, it's W, Saves, ERA, WHIP, Holds, Outs, and Ks. And rosters are huge. Our starting lineups are one each C, 1B, 2B, 3B, SS, 4 OF, an extra IF, a Utility position, 5 SP, 4 RP, 2 flex P, and there are 5 bench slots and 3 DL spots.
With all that in mind, here's my team, with round selected. Bold indicates likely starters.
Joe Mauer (6)
Geovany Soto (24)
Adrian Gonzalez (8)
James Loney (20) (IF)
Ian Kinsler (7)
Asdrubal Cabrera (25)
Garrett Atkins (5)
Hanley Ramirez (1)
Nick Swisher (10)
Juan Pierre (11)
Pat Burrell (12)
Kosuke Fukudome (17)
Rick Ankiel (22)
Josh Willingham (27)
Jim Thome (14)
Frank Thomas (23)
Jake Peavy (2)
CC Sabathia (3)
Brandon Webb (4)
Matt Cain (13)
Mark Buehrle (19)
Billy Wagner (9)
Pat Neshek (15)
Joakim Soria (16)
Jeremy Accardo (18)
CJ Wilson (21)
Scott Baker (26)
I picked third overall, so I was thrilled to see Hanley Ramirez still available. Then I got not one, but both Cy Young winners in my next two picks, and they form the core of what looks like a very good pitching staff. Net SB should be mine most weeks, with Ramirez (51-65 SB), Ian Kinsler (23-25 SB in 2007), and Juan Pierre (64-79 SB) in the lineup most weeks, and I can sit Pierre for someone with more power against teams with poor SB numbers. My relievers include a couple of closer potentials in Pat Neshek and Jeremy Accardo, but until they take over, I'm happy to rack up the holds with each. And at least one of Jim Thome or Frank Thomas have to stay healthy; I got each very late, and they'll contribute mightily to my power categories and OPS.
The bad news is my potentially shaky outfield. I didn't even draft an OF until Nick Swisher in round 10, and Pierre's in danger of losing his job. Kosuke Fukudome and Rick Ankiel are unknowns, and Pat Burrell's sure to frustrate, so I took Josh Willingham -- a steady if unspectacular player -- with my last pick. I also made the error of filling my bench with position players and not taking a pitcher. If Thome or Thomas are hot the first few weeks of the season, I'll probably see about trading one or the other for another starter. Finally, there's a lot of kids out there -- Geovany Soto, Asdrubal Cabrera, Scott Baker, James Loney. Hopefully, one or more pans out. In fantasy, I figure it's always better to go with the unknown kid than the washed-up veteran. Why take a guy you know won't do better than about .270 with 15 home runs when you could wind up with someone who hits .300 and 25?
I'm also in another, far more complex league, GameDay Ritual, that wraps up its four-day draft event (yes, four days) tomorrow. I'll probably post about that one, too, so you can bask in my fantasy magnificence twice in one week. Aren't you lucky?
Wednesday, March 19, 2008
Oh, who am I kidding? It is to make fun of them. And to make your team look not-so-bad in comparison, even if you're a Dolphins or Raiders fan.
We'll start with an easy team to make fun of: the Detroit Lions, specifically the 1942 version. I know, I know, as in Major League Baseball, a lot of eligible players were stolen by the draft and went off to fight in World War II, but every team should have faced the same obstacles, and they didn't all go 0-11 while being outscored 263-38. And perhaps the '42 Lions should have sent some of its boys over to learn how to throw a grenade, since they were so abysmal at throwing a football. As a team, the Lions hurled just one TD pass while notching 33 interceptions. As a team, the passer rating of all passers was 8.2, which is just 1.8 lower than the number of wins Jon Kitna would like for the Lions in 2008.
With their storied success over the past four decades, it's easy to forget just how bad the Pittsburgh Steelers used to be. From their inception (as the Pirates) in 1933 to their first Super Bowl win in 1972, the Steelers boasted exactly seven winning seasons in 39 campaigns and was even twice merged with another team (the Eagles in 1943 and the Cardinals in 1944) to compensate for players lost to World War II.
The 1969 Steelers, however, stand out not only for their abysmal 1-13 record but for the poor head coach who led the squad to the worst record in the league. Chuck Noll, in his first season leading an NFL team, actually won his first game as a head coach, a 16-13 affair against -- you guessed it -- the Detroit Lions. The team then lost 13 straight, including back-to-back 52-14 and 47-10 affairs against the Vikings and Cardinals, respectively. The future Steel Curtain defense yielded 404 points, most in the league, and the offense wasn't much better, with a second-worst 218 points scored.
Then again, what can you expect when your quarterback is named Dick Shiner?
On the bright side, Pittsburgh's horrific 1969 season landed them the #1 overall draft pick in 1970, with which the team selected another quarterback: Louisiana Tech's Terry Bradshaw. That worked out reasonably well, I'd say.
Finally, there's the 1981 Baltimore Colts (not to be confused with the 1-15 1991 Indianapolis Colts), a team that bracketed season-opening and season-ending wins with 14 consecutive losses; only the 2001 Carolina Panthers have done "better" in a single season. (Note to self: There's a historically bad team every 10 years. Will wait to see what 2011 holds.) In fact, think of the '81 Colts as the team that turns everyone into the 2007 Patriots, because no team in NFL history has ever surrendered more points in a season than Baltimore's 533. In fact, only one other team, the 1966 New York Giants, has ever given up 500 points (501, and in 14 games), but I'm going with the raw numbers here over average.
No opponent scored fewer than 23 points against the Colts in 1981. That average alone would have resulted in 368 points given up, good enough for 8th worst in the league, but the Colts wouldn't settle for that. They gave up 40 or more four times, 30 or more 10 times, and allowed a mind-boggling 67 touchdowns (37 passing and 30 rushing), more than twice as many as the 32 offensive touchdowns the team put up. By comparison, the 2007 Patriots scored 67 touchdowns on the ground or through the air. Opposing quarterbacks were only sacked 13 times and racked up a passer rating of 99.7, five points higher than Peyton Manning's career 94.7 mark.
Combine a 2-14 1981 and a 0-8-1 strike-shortened 1982, and it's easy to see why John Elway wanted nothing to do with this team in the 1983 draft. The 1981 Colts might have been better off with Art Donovan manning the defensive line. At the very least, they would have been more entertaining.
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
Ooh, look at the pretty bracket! So shiny...
This is where I've got my boldest pick: UNC (1) vs. Butler (7) in the finals. Butler's ranked #10 or #11, depending on what poll you look at. The only other team on their side of the bracket that should give them a problem is Tennessee, so, really, that's the only upset I'm picking on that side. But in the end, I go with North Carolina to take the region.
Nothing special here -- just Kansas (1) vs. Georgetown (1), with Kansas taking the region. I caught a few minutes of analysis on ESPN, and Bobby Knight liked USC (to win the entire tournament, in fact), so I at least have them going to the sweet 16 but losing to Georgetown.
Another 1-2 matchup here, Memphis (1) and Texas (2). That said, everyone seems to be down on Memphis and up on Texas, so I go with the Longhorns to take the region. If I really had balls, I'd take Pitt over Memphis in the sweet 16 round, but I'm not sure I'm that down on them. And, for no real good reason, I pick two underdogs: St. Mary's (10) and Kentucky (7) winning in the first round. Why not?
A lot of the analysts I read seemed to like Xavier (3), so I picked them and UCLA (1) in the finals, and even chose Xavier to win. Sorry, Georgia.
So, my Final Four consists of:
UNC vs. Kansas
Texas vs. Xavier
And, since it's a big pool, I go with one sure bet and one longshot to make the finals:
Kansas vs. Xavier
But I'm not too crazy. My pick for the 2008 NCAA Men's Basketball Champion: the Kansas Jayhawks. With 113 total points in the final game.
Only three more weeks until I can stop paying attention to college basketball...
Sunday, March 16, 2008
I still think the offensive line could use an upgrade on the right side, the tight ends could be improved, and quarterback is obviously an issue, though unless Brian Brohm falls in our lap, there probably won't be a first-round talent at the position available, and there could be some decent talent (like Joe Flacco or Andre Woodson) available in the second. Anyway, I've posted a poll to the right to get feedback on how you think the Vikings' #1 pick should be spent. Give me some advice, people. Your mock future depends on it!
* For reasons not entirely clear, the Vikings re-signed Robert Ferguson to a one-year deal worth, according to the link, "approximately $1 million, with a possible $500,000 to $600,000 in incentives." Considering that Ferguson will enter the season as no better than the team's number-four wide receiver -- likely behind Bernard Berrian, Bobby Wade, and Sidney Rice -- and with Aundrae Allison at least likely to figure into the mix near the bottom of the wide-receiver depth chart, it's a bit of an odd move. I suppose someone has to drop passes now that Troy Williamson is gone.
* And just because your team went 1-15 doesn't mean other teams don't want your players. He's no Zach Thomas, but linebacker Derrick Pope is apparently a pretty good special-teams player, and the Vikings inked him to a one-year contract last week. Rufus Alexander, a sixth-round draft pick from 2007 was also expected to contribute on special teams before suffering a season-ending injury in preseason, so the Vikings have essentially added two potentially solid special teams players for 2008. The team ranked 23rd in the league last year on opponents' punt returns and 13th in kickoff returns -- not too awful when you consider that we face Devin Hester twice a year -- so there's room for improvement.
Thursday, March 13, 2008
A romantic comedy set in the world of 1920s football, where the owner of a professional team drafts a strait-laced college sensation, only to watch his new coach fall for his fiancée.
Now, I'm not one for romantic comedy, but romantic comedy combined with 1920s professional football? That I could go for. (And on a side note, why does Renee Zellweger always wind up in the pro-football-romantic-comedy movies?)
I try not to read spoilers about a movie that I plan to see before it comes out, so I don't know what team Clooney will play for. It's possible that it will be a team that will be familiar to everyone today, like the Green Bay Packers or New York Giants. To lend it a more exotic feel, it might be a team virtually unknown today, like the Dayton Triangles, Providence Steam Roller, or the powerhouse Canton Bulldogs, who went 26-2-6 from 1921-23 while winning two NFL titles. Looking at the IMdB page, some of the teams mentioned appear to be fictional, so it's possible they won't use real teams at all. That said, my hope is that the movie will center around, or at least feature in some way, one of the most interesting and unique teams ever to play pro football: "The Iron Men of the North," a.k.a. the Duluth Eskimos.
The Eskimos weren't the first NFL team in Minnesota, or even the first in Duluth. The Minneapolis Marines operated, in some capacity, from 1905 to 1924. (The NFL was founded in 1920.) Then came the Duluth Kelleys, which operated from 1923 to 1925 (so that for two seasons, there were actually two NFL teams in Minnesota -- take that, New York!), before giving way to the Eskimos, who operated in 1926 and 1927.
With no less talents than future Pro Football Hall-of-Famers Ernie Nevers (who still holds the record for most points scored in a game, with 40), Walt Kiesling, and Johnny "Blood" McNally on the roster, the Eskimos called Duluth home in name only -- of the team's 29 games (exhibition and league, as in those days, teams often played against non-NFL foes), 28 were on the road. A look at the team's 1926 schedule -- which likely only includes games against NFL teams, which counted in the standings -- shows how brutal the schedule was.
From October 3 to November 28, a span of 56 days, the team played 12 games, all of them on the road, including a brutal week in early October, where they played four games in a week, from the 7th to the 14th. Remember, too, that these totals include games against NFL teams -- according to some sources, the Eskimos played 29 games in 117 days in 1926 -- about one every four days -- with 27 of those games being on the road. Unfortunately for the Eskimos, the innovation of bye weeks were still 64 years distant.
But hey, at least the money was good, at least if you were Ernie Nevers. As the star of the team, he made about $50,000, through a combination of salary and gate receipts. The other 15 players on the team? They received just $75 per game for their many bumps and bruises. If ever a group of players needed Drew Rosenhaus, it was here.
Despite all the hardships, the team managed a respectible 6-5-3 record in NFL games. The 1927 season, however, wasn't nearly as successful. After finishing a 1-8 campaign with a 27-14 loss to the Chicago Bears, and with Nevers leaving the team, owner Ole Haugsrud sold the team but got an unusual concession from the NFL: They promised him that, if the NFL ever returned to Minnesota, he would get the first crack at being the owner of the new franchise. Fast forward 30-some years and there's the 60-year-old Haugsrud, on the scene when the NFL does, in fact, return to Minnesota in the form of the Vikings. And Haugsrud would remain a 10% owner of the team until his death in 1976.
The Duluth Eskimos, like the Kelleys and the Minneapolis Marines before them, stand as little more than an interesting footnote in the history of the NFL. I hope that Leatherheads, even if it doesn't feature the Eskimos directly, makes some allusion to the standards and practices of the NFL in the 20s, bizarre as they would seem today.
Monday, March 10, 2008
ESPN's Sal Paolantonio wrote an article last week explaining how Favre was, essentially, mediocre for the last 10 years of his career but got a free pass from media and fans because of his early success, his durability, and his general manliness. He could throw three interceptions in the first half, but as long as he threw a game-winning touchdown pass at the end (remember, you can't have exciting come-from-behind victories if you aren't behind in the first place), he was celebrated as the best thing to hit Wisconsin since cheese. He uses terms like "blind adulation" and "immune to criticism" to describe the attitudes toward Favre. On these points, I agree with Sal.
Then, about 2/3 of the way through the article, he starts making some unusual claims: namely that Favre was not only not the greatest quarterback of all time, but that he wasn't even the best Packer quarterback ever. Instead, he thinks Bart Starr, due largely to his performance in the postseason, deserves that honor. To which I have to say -- wha?
We'll put aside raw numbers as a comparison. Bart Starr never would have had the opportunity to throw for 61,655 yards and 442 touchdowns. Favre's longevity and durability should count for something, though, as should his 253-158 edge in starts over Starr. Most of Sal's (sorry, but I don't want to type "Paolantonio" over and over in this post) arguments, though, use rating stats as comparison, as they rightly should. Unfortunately, many of them don't hold water when taken in context.
(I'll be referring to, and getting much of my data from Favre's and Starr's respective pages on pro-football-reference.com, as well as the Green Bay Packers franchise page. You might find it useful to have those pages open in tabs as you follow along, as I do while writing.)
"Favre isn't even the greatest quarterback in the history of the Packers. It's not even close. Bart Starr won five NFL championships -- four more than Favre -- and retired as the NFL's most accurate passer."
Starr played in an era before free agency, when teams had much more control over their player movement and a dynasty like the Packers was easier to hold together. Plus, the Packers of the 60s only had 12-14 other teams (except in 1966 and beyond, when the AFL is taken into account) to compete with for the title, compared to the 27 to 31 Favre's Packers had to compete with.
As for the "retired as the NFL's most accurate passer" comment -- well, good for him. Dan Marino automatically becomes better than Favre because he retired as the NFL's leader in every significant passing category. You might debate Favre vs. Marino, if you wished, but in no way should the argument be automatically in Marino's favre -- er, favor. Otherwise, Roger Connor, who retired in 1920 with an MLB-record 138 home runs, is better than Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, and Barry Bonds.
(And...completion percentage? You think Chad Pennington is the greatest QB of all time?)
"Oh, you say Starr was surrounded by a Hall of Fame roster with a legendary coach."
Yes, I do. I'm going to establish Starr's "glory years" as 1960 to 1967. The Packers won five NFL titles (including two Super Bowls) in that period, and Starr started all but nine games for his team over that span. I could conceivably add a few years on either end of that spectrum, but Sal's argument largely revolves around Starr's postseason prowess, and this time frame includes seven of Starr's most active nine years as a passer.
For those eight years, here are the Packers' rank in defensive points allowed:
2, 2, 1, 2, 2, 1, 1, 3
And in yards:
7, 6, 2, 2, 1, 3, 3, 1
And their rushing game, in yards:
2, 1, 1, 2, 1, 10, 8, 2
A few blips there, but otherwise -- pretty freaking awesome. There were fewer teams back then (13 in 1960, 14 from 1961-1965, 15 in 1966, and 16 in 1967), but that's still awfully good.
And what was Starr doing this whole time? Passing less than just about any starting QB in the league. The most passes he attempted in a season was 295, in 1961. And, as this page will show you, no team passed less than the Packers that year. The team also ranked last in passing attempts in 1962, 1964, 1965, and 1966, Starr's #2, #3, #4, and #5 most active years. Even Ryan Leaf could hand off.
So yes, Sal, Starr was surrounded by tremendous talent, and, for the most part, he let them do their job.
Then we get into the crux of Sal's argument, centering around Starr's postseason heroics:
"But Starr still is the NFL record holder with a 104.8 career playoff passer rating, nearly 20 points higher than Favre's. That wasn't Vince Lombardi or Ray Nitschke throwing those passes for Starr, whose career postseason passer rating, by the way, is 38 points higher than Johnny Unitas'."
PFR only has data from a few of Starr's playoff games, so I'll have to take Sal at his word. And a 104.8 rating is awfully impressive. Next, however, we get into a really sticky part of the argument:
"Favre's career playoff record was 12-10. Starr's was 9-1 -- without the benefit of wild-card games."
Seems innocent enough. Starr won 90% of his playoff games, while Favre barely won more than 50%, and only won more games with "the benefit of wild-card games." Ah, but it's the wild-card games that likely doomed Favre to a mediocre win-loss record.
Except for 1967, when Starr played, only two NFL teams made the playoffs (barring at tie in the standings). Thus, those teams tended to be very, very good. From 1960 to 1967, the average Packer team was about 10-3-1. There were no mediocre-to-bad NFL teams in the playoffs, as there are today, when 8-8 or 9-7 teams can slide in, usually to a first-round exit.
In fact, four of Favre's teams were 10-6 or worse going into the playoffs, and all eventually lost. Had there been a wild card in Starr's day, his 11-2-1 1963 squad would have definitely made the playoffs (they were second to the 11-1-2 Bears), and that 8-5-1 1964 team would have been tied with the Vikings (with whom they split the season series) for the fourth-best record in the league, so they might have made it. Who's to say how they would have fared, but it's not impossible to think that the Packers would have lost both games, tarnishing Starr's lovely record to a slightly more manageable 9-3. Still very good, but still.
And, of course, with more playoff rounds and games comes a greater chance for defeat. Favre's Packers, while favored a good deal of the time in the playoffs, still lost. If Starr's Packers had had to play an extra game or two in the postseason each year, how many would they have lost? If anything, the lack of wild-card games helps Starr's record look good; it definitely doesn't hurt it.
Putting playoff wins aside, we come to this:
"Favre threw 28 interceptions in 22 playoff games. Starr threw three in 10. Think about that -- just three picks in 213 postseason attempts."
Impressive, but again, Starr didn't need to throw for 300+ yards a game for his team to win. He had that incredible defense and running game most of the time. In the three playoff games PFR does have for Starr, he threw 23, 24, and 24 passes. In Favre's 22 playoff games, he threw fewer than 23 passes once (though there's still no defending this game). Then there's the whole issue of a small sample size (213 passes), or do you think David Garrard will only throw interceptions on 1% of his passes next year, too?
In my mind, Starr fits the profile of the very good, but not great, quarterback who had a great team around him and played well enough not to screw it up, while also providing enough key moments in big games to cement his legend. I also fit Terry Bradshaw and Troy Aikman, neither spectacular passers, into that category. All of these men had excellent supporting staffs and didn't make the key mistakes that cost their team the game -- good qualities, to be sure, but only useful to a team that has other ways to win.
Brett Favre was overhyped, of that there's really no doubt. Then again, in today's celebrity culture, it's little surprise that a good-looking, rugged, down-to-earth guy who experiences early success and overcomes a multitude of personal tragedies would be the poster child for his league for over a decade and, thus, receive a free pass from much of the criticism that would else be levied against him. And -- confession time here -- I have to admit that I'd probably like to just hang out and have a beer with the guy. He may or may not have been the greatest quarterback ever, but I'll take him over Bart Starr any day.
Are we done with the love? Good. I feel like I need a shower.
Saturday, March 8, 2008
Hicks will fill in as the #3 running back and occasional kick returner (if the team can tear themselves away from using Bobby Wade and Adrian Peterson on returns), the same role Moore filled with the team. Make a quick comparison of Hicks' and Moore's statistics, though, and it's clear the Steelers wound up with the better player:
Each player entered the league in 2004.
Career Rushing Yards
Career Yards per Carry
Career Receiving Yards
Career Yards per Reception
Career Punt Return Average
Moore: 10.4 (2 touchdowns)
Hicks: Never returned a punt
Career Kick Return Average
I've no idea of their respective pass-blocking capabilities, but if the rate at which 49er quarterbacks get sacked is any indication, I'd give Moore the edge in that category, too.
So, for 3.4 yards extra per kick return -- and the team has Aundrae Allison, at least, to take over those primary duties -- the Vikings yield ground in virtually every other category while also signing a player who's four years older. And unless Hicks suddenly decides to field punts, this probably means another year of watching Bobby Wade rack up his impressive 7 yards per punt return. Thrilling.
I'm still waiting to hear why the team was always so unwilling to utilize Moore and instead fill his role with subpar players. Not knowing any better -- and my apologies to Mewelde if this is untrue -- one has to surmise that he was a tremendous a-hole, team cancer, bad influence, or some other negative locker-room presence that the team disassociated itself from him whenever possible.
* Two former Vikings found homes this week. Tony Richardson, who, at 36, still says he has "some gas in the wheel," inked a one-year deal with the Jets, while Tank Williams, who never could escape the injury bug with the team, signed a one-year deal with the Patriots. Both men lost their jobs (or in the case of Williams, the chance to compete for a job) to recently signed free agents Thomas Tapeh and Madieu Williams, respectively.
They join Dwight Smith (Lions) and Spencer Johnson (Bills) in the ranks of ex-Vikings. This page also says Dontarrious Thomas has joined the 49ers, which is news to me -- I didn't even know Thomas was with the team in '07.
* The Vikings continue to look for a free-agent defensive end, but it seems that as soon as they target a player, he's snapped up with another team. Justin Smith (49ers), Jevon Kearse (Titans), and Antwan Odom (Bengals) all were rumored at one time to be in discussion with the Vikings before signing with their new teams (or, in the case of Kearse, his new old team).
Looking over this list, there doesn't appear to be too many attractive prospects for employment, at least not in the long term. Veterans like Mike Rucker and N.D. Kalu might sign one- or two-year deals on the cheap, but would they really be any better than the Brian Robison or Ray Edwards (assuming Kenichi Udeze and Erasmus James are out of the picture)?
A few weeks ago, I said the Vikings had greater needs than defensive end in the draft. Even now, I think the right side of the offensive line should be a priority, not to mention the quarterback situation (which probably won't be addressed in the first round, no matter what), but with two of the team's major needs (safety and wide receiver) accounted for in free agency, defensive end might not be a bad choice for the team's first pick.
Wednesday, March 5, 2008
I'm referring, of course, to Mewelde Moore leaving the Vikings and signing a three-year deal with the Steelers. Who did you think I was talking about?
(And yes, I know that Moore's signing and that other piece of news weren't on the same day, but they were within 24 hours of each other. Close 'nuff.)
For whatever reason, Mewelde Moore never caught on to a regular role with the Vikings, who were always looking to replace him. Despite rushing for 662 yards in his second season with the team, management went out and obtained Chester Taylor in free agency the following year. While there is some question as to whether the diminutive (5'11") Moore could handle the beating of being a regular back (despite weighing a sturdy 210 pounds), it's puzzling and, at times, infuriating, to wonder why the team didn't use the talents that he did have, primarily as a receiver/third-down back and punt returner.
It was understandable after the drafting of Adrian Peterson that Moore would never be more than a third-stringer with the Vikings. However, both Peterson and Taylor missed significant time with injuries in 2007, and, with the team concerned about both the overuse of the rookie Peterson and the veteran Taylor, who broke down late in 2006, Moore still couldn't catch on except in the occasional two-minute drill. He registered a carry in just six games in 2007 and only had 20 on the season to go with six receptions while being inactive for four games. This from a player who averaged over 35 catches a season in his previous three years with the team. It wouldn't be much of an exaggeration to suggest that Moore might have been better than some of the team's wide receivers.
And it's not as if he failed to perform when given the chance. Moore owns a career 4.9 yards/carry average, and, while a good chunk of that is the result of draw plays and other situations where the opposing team might be lax against the run, he managed a reasonable 4.3 yards/carry in his one season as a semi-primary running back (2005). He also averaged 9.4 yards on 116 career receptions, more than Marshall Faulk (9.0) and Brian Westbrook (9.2) for their careers.
The ultimate case of wasting Moore's talent, however, has to be in the team's unwillingness to utilize him as a punt returner. Moore only got to bring back 13 punts in 2007, for a 10.0-yard average. For his career, he sports a 10.4-yard average and has two punt-return TDs to his name. That 10.4 figure places him in a tie for seventh among active players yet Vikings coaches inexplicably preferred Bobby Wade in that role for much of the season. Wade averaged 7.0 yards per return and had more returns than Moore (16 to 13). His career punt-return numbers prior to 2007 weren't too bad, but why use your #1 receiver in such a role when your #3 running back is available (not to mention better)? Between that move and Adrian Peterson running back kickoffs when Troy Williamson and Aundrae Allison were available, I was almost hoping for a special-teams injury to a valuable player to knock the coaching staff upside the head.
Finally, when it looked like Moore -- who obviously had no future with the team -- was on the trading block back in October, it seemed that the team might at least manage to get a mid-round draft pick for him. But the team held out for a higher pick (if the Star-Tribune story is accurate) and got nothing for a player who was so valuable that he got 10 more touches the rest of the season. I won't say that a player like Moore is going to lead his team to the Super Bowl, but for all the work and hours and effort that coaches purportedly put into filling out their game plans, it seems absurd that they would fail to take advantage of such an obvious asset.
Congratulations to the Steelers, who got a player that his team didn't want and congrats to Mewelde, who might finally have the chance to show off his prodigious talent.
Monday, March 3, 2008
a) This is a great move for the Vikings that will vitalize a moribund passing game; or
b) Bernard Berrian couldn't catch a cold in International Falls in January.
And, somewhat predictably, most of the "a" responses seem to come from Vikings fans while most of the "b" responses come from Bears fans. The comments on SN.com's story about the signing fall pretty handily along these lines. Having not watched a tremendous amount of Berrian's play, it seems that a lot of Bears' fans' rancor comes from Berrian dropping a few crucial balls, with the most damning testimony saying that he's no step up from stonehands Troy Williamson, in terms of the ability to catch the ball. The only good thing most people can agree on is that Berrian is an upgrade over the receivers the Vikings currently have, which is faint praise indeed.
Of course, fans always remember anecdotal evidence more than they do overall performance -- catch 10 passes in a game, great, but drop that go-ahead TD in the fourth quarter and you're a bum. It could be that Berrian's had a game or two like that, souring many Bears fans on him and, despite their lack of depth at the position (Devin Hester and...uh...), not raising too many concerns about the signing.
It's tough to use anything but anecdotal evidence to rate a player's "hands"; the closest we can get is probably target stats, an imprecise measurement that simply divides the number of catches made by a receiver by the number of times a pass was thrown to him. Sounds good, until you look at some of the flaws.
Notably, deep threats are likely to have a worse target percentage than short receivers. It's harder to reel in a 50-yard bomb than it is to catch a 5-yard out. A top-of-the-line receiver might also get doubled more if he doesn't have a good complementary receiver to take some of the pressure off.
There are other issues, too. Say Receiver A has 60 catches on 120 targets (50%) and Receiver B has 60 on 100 (60%). This doesn't automatically mean that B is better than A. Receiver A might also have gotten open more often, making him a more frequent target of his quarterback. Receiver B's quarterback might also have been better than A's, aiming more accurate passes his way. Finally, target stats are also completely unofficial, and compilation numbers can vary depending on the source.
Some of these concerns can be reduced a bit, at least in terms of comparing Williamson to Berrian. Both are fast receivers and are considered "deep threats" and neither had particularly good quarterbacking. Also, neither man was his team's primary receiver so they probably weren't doubled a tremendous amount of the time.
With all that in mind, and with all the dubiousness of targetting stats laid before us, take a look at this page. You'll have to select "Week: YTD" and "Year: 2007" to see the target stats for 2007. Once you've done that, you can do a basic comparison of Berrian and Williamson (or any other receiver). Here are the numbers:
As mentioned above, compilation of target stats is iffy, which is clear to see here -- Berrian had 71 receptions in 2007, while Williamson had 18. Even taking that inaccuracy into account, and assuming that the target numbers are off a little, it's clear that Berrian caught a significantly higher percentage of passes that were sent his way in 2007.
As for the other Viking receivers, Bobby Wade managed a 69% conversion rate in 2007, Sidney Rice 63%, and Robert Ferguson 54%. Berrian's Bears teammate, Muhsin Muhammed, managed only a 53% conversion rate. Other notable receivers who had a target percentage equal to or worse than Berrian in 2007 include Randy Moss, Chad Johnson, Steve Smith, Terrell Owens, Braylon Edwards, and Plaxico Burress. Several of those men suffer from the "no real #2" issue mentioned above, and all were at least their teams' primary deep threat, but was it really that different for Berrian?
I've also managed to find some 2006 target numbers that paint Berrian in a less positive light, with only a 50.5% conversion rate (compared to Williamson's 48.7%), and if you select "2005" on the FootballDiehards page, you'll see Berrian with a 52% rate (on only 13 catches) and Williamson at 46% (on 24 catches). Adding it all up gives you a 55.9% (133-238) for Berrian and 47.7% (80-168) for Williamson. On the bright side, Berrian showed improvement in 2007, while Williamson never showed even a remote uptick in percentage over his three years with the Vikings, and Berrian posted higher percentages than Williamson every year. In short, I don't think that Bernard Berrian will make anyone forget Cris Carter's amazing, highlight-reel catches, but he won't be as bad as Williamson, either.
Sunday, March 2, 2008
As I mentioned in Friday's post, Berrian is the top wide receiver available despite not yet registering a 1,000-year season in his career. Also, at 27, he's a touch older than one would like and may not have the durability to finish out his contract in productive fashion. And he's only had three 100-yard games in his career yet will be paid like one of the top wide receivers in the league.
Now I'll find some good news. First of all, Berrian will be a major improvement over any of the wideouts the Vikings currently employ, though that's not too difficult. His 71 catches last year are 17 more than the top Viking receive (Bobby Wade) from 2007 and even his 51 grabs in 2006 would have nearly put him at #1 on the Vikings' 2006 squad (Travis Taylor, 57). And all this comes with a quarterback situation that, at the least, was as confused and disjointed as the Vikings' over the last two years.
And Berrian has speed. His career 14.6 yards per reception for his career shows that, and, even though he only managed 13.4 last year, that still would have ranked him #1 on the 2007 Vikings among players with at least 20 catches. I know what you're saying now: "Hey, wasn't Troy Williamson fast?" Yes he was, to the tune of a 13.5 yard-per-catch average, a full yard less than Berrian. And, while I can't comment on precisely how good Berrian's hands are, I don't recall seeing too many highlights (or lowlights) of him making crucial drops on easy passes. In his three years with the Vikings, Williamson made 79 catches, only 8 more than Berrian had in 2007 alone.
There's little question that Berrian is good; the debate centers around on whether he's that good. Is he worth $7 million/year? On the bright side, this is the NFL, so there's always wiggle room on that front. Only $16 million of the deal is guaranteed, so, if Berrian flops, the team won't be on the hook for too much money. Plus, the team had the cap room, so why not use it?
Finally, it could be argued that no team needed a big-time wide receiver than the Vikings. Berrian won't transform the team into the next coming of the Greatest Show on Turf but if teams have to respect his speed and deep-play threat, that should open up more holes for Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor and teams won't be able to crowd the box to stuff either player. It's still questionable as to whether Tarvaris Jackson will be able to get the ball to Berrian with any consistency, but it sure beats throwing deep to Williamson and Robert Ferguson.
In the end, the Vikings probably did overpay for Berrian's services. Even if he plays out his entire contract, he's unlikely to put up Pro Bowl-caliber numbers for much of that stretch. But by addressing the team's #1 off-season weakness while not significantly impacting the team's ability to pursue other free agents (and sign draft picks), Zygi Wilf and the rest of Vikings management has to be applauded for at least taking what appear to be the right steps.
* In less splashy news, the Vikings also signed former Golden Gopher fullback Thomas Tapeh, late of the Philadelphia Eagles, to a five-year, $6 million deal on Friday. Tapeh will probably take over lead-blocking chores from Tony Richardson, who is an unrestricted free agent. Tapeh, who used to open holes for Marion Barber in college and for Brian Westbrook in the pros, is also eight years younger than Richardson and, while not the same caliber of receiver, might actually be a better runner and blocker, at least at this stage of their respective careers.
I like this move. It giving the team a hometown talent (sort of -- Tapeh was born in Liberia) for the fans to cheer and pairs Adrian Peterson up with a man who can (hopefully) serve as his "bodyguard" for years to come, like Lorenzo Neal and LaDainian Tomlinson of the Chargers. While consistency on the offensive line is important, I think that the camaraderie of a fullback and tailback is often overlooked in the NFL. For the tailback, it helps to know what the man in front of you is capable of and how he'll block for you, and for the fullback, it helps to work with the same kind of back, day in and day out, so you'll know when he likes to cut it in, when he likes to bounce it outside, and so on. The Vikings needed to find a replacement for the aging Richardson and in doing so, found a very good blockade-runner for their most valuable player, at a reasonable price.
* And in case you missed it, Randy Moss is entertaining offers from anyone -- and wants to reunite with Daunte Culpepper. The Bears are minus their top two wide receivers (Berrian and Muhsin Muhammed) and don't have any long-term plans at quarterback. Do ya think? Nahhhh...