Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Minnesota Twins are clutch!

Yeah, yeah, I don't believe in clutch hitting, either. But still...the Twins are 9th in the AL (out of 14 teams) in OBP, 10th in SLG% and yet they're fourth in runs scored! Fourth! Yeah, they've stolen a lot of bases (42, 4th) at a good success rate (75%), but that's still less than one SB per game. And their batting average is third in the league, which is testament largely to their "hack first and slap it to the other field" mentality (12th in walks, 13th in HR) than anything else. So, what gives?

The answers can be found here and here.

The first link takes you to the batting splits for the AL this year. Do a search for "RISP" (that's Runners in Scoring Position, FYI, which means runners on second and/or third) to go down to the "Bases Occupied" portion of the link. You'll see that the AL, as a whole, posts the following numbers (Avg/OBP/SLG):

Bases empty: .250/.314/.385
Men on: .271/.347/.412
RISP: .266/.354/.407

That's to be expected. Teams hit better with runners on base, the argument being that pitchers are working out of the stretch instead of the windup. If they were better out of the stretch, they'd use it all the time (which brings me to the question of why pitchers work out of the windup in obvious non-steal situations, like bases loaded or a very slow runner on first).

Now, look at the second link. That takes you to the Twins' batting splits for 2008, where you find the following numbers:

Bases empty: .255/.302/.366
Men on: .282/.351/.399
RISP: .311/.387/.458

Like, whoah. The OPS of the league with runners in scoring position is .761, but the Twins are hitting a robust .845. This is one case where the Twins' "swing first" philosophy might actually be paying off. Walks and strikeouts don't typically score runners from second or third, but singles and high batting averages do, although the team does have 50 unintentional walks in 555 PA with RISP.

On the other side of the coin, you have the Atlanta Braves. A friend of mine, a Braves fan, has been at a loss to understand why the team, which has outscored its opponents 258 to 204, is only three games over .500. The Braves are 2nd in batting average in the NL (out of 16), 3rd in OBP, and 5th in SLG%, but only 8th in runs scored.

Here are the NL batting splits for 2008:

Bases empty: .256/.321/.408
Men on: .265/.347/.413
RISP: .260/.354/.398

And for the Braves:

Bases empty: .289/.351/.434 (good)
Men on: .267/.351/.409
RISP: .265/.352/.393

In truth, the Braves are about even with the rest of the league when it comes to averages with men on base overall and RISP. But look at those numbers with the bases empty! The league OPS with men on is 31 points higher than with the bases empty. The Braves, on the other hand, bat 25 points lower. If they could hit like that with men on base, they'd look like the '27 Yankees. (Random point: If the Yankees are good in 19 years, will we need to distinguish between the two "'27 Yankees" teams?)

In all likelihood, the Twins will come down from their lofty RISP numbers and the Braves will either improve theirs or their hitting with the bases empty will come down (Chipper Jones notwithstanding). Some might attribute this to "great (or poor) clutch hitting," but I have a hard time believing that an entire team can be this good (or this bad) over 50+ games. A few hitters, over a short period of time? Maybe. But not entire teams for a third of the season.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Yet another Tarvaris Jackson post

I try not to rag on T-Jack too often. All right, maybe that's not true. A look at my tagged entries lists shows 28 articles mentioning Tarvaris Jackson, second only to Adrian Peterson (29) among individual players; of course, they'll be tied after this entry. And I've tried to insist, time and time again, that the quarterback position, while important, isn't an absolute make-or-break position for the success of a team, if it's strong in all other areas, which seems to be the case for the 2008 Vikings.

What I do have a beef with is with anyone who insists that T-Jack is a good quarterback, or definitely will be good, somehow based on his previous performance. We hear it all the time from Brad Childress -- oh, by the way, did you know Tarvaris was 8-4 as a starting quarterback in 2007? -- as well as from other fans, naively optimistic about all things Viking, and especially from official sources, which always want to paint Jackson as "showing improvement" and other niceties. If a player at virtually any other position had struggled in his sophomore year like T-Jack had, there would be some strong consideration given for his replacement, or at least for a reduction in his playing time, but I've rarely hear such things spoken aloud about T-Jack this offseason, pointing instead to his positives while completely forgetting about his negatives.

To be fair, Jackson does have some good qualities. He's mobile, hard-working, humble, and young, so there certainly is some possibility for improvement. But what far too many people seem to forget is that just because you can improve doesn't mean you will improve. There's no automatic reason why Jackson should post better numbers in 2008 than in 2007. Yes, having Bernard Berrian (and no Troy Williamson) will likely help. And Jackson doesn't have to put up Dan Marino-esque numbers for his team to win.

The fact of the matter, is, though, that there are 32 starting quarterback positions available in the NFL in 2008. To state it simply, 11 of those will go to above-average quarterbacks, 10 of them will go to average quarterbacks, and 11 of them will go to below-average quarterbacks. I think few people would argue that, while he wasn't the worst QB in the league last year, Jackson fits pretty solidly into that last category. Can he move up the rankings and at least qualify as "average" in 2008?

A lot of people think so, largely based on the fact that he's a second-year player who shows some promise. Then again, every third-year quarterback who gets a starting job is labeled as "promising" by someone. How many of those players actually turn out to be good, and how many flame out?

To answer that question, I went back to the Historical Data Dominator and punched in some parameters to look for second-year QBs from 1978 to 2007 with numbers similar to T-Jack's in 2007. I looked for quarterbacks with 1,500 to 2,500 passing yards (Jackson had 1,911), 6 to 15 passing TDs (Jackson had 9) and 9 to 15 interceptions (Jackson had 12). Here are the results. In my opinion, it's a mixed (and mostly bad) bag.

Of the 13 quarterbacks, only one -- Steve Young -- had hall-of-fame talent, and he had to escape Tampa Bay (where he played in 1986) for the powerhouse 49ers to realize it. The only other QBs on the list with at least reasonable careers (in my opinion) are Jim McMahon, Jim Everett, and Chris Miller. The top four names -- David Carr, Cade McNown, Danny Kanell, and David Klingler -- read like a who's who of failed quarterbacks, and the rest of the list is almost too painful to examine too closely.

But, like Mark McGwire, we're not here to talk about the past. How did these 13 quarterbacks do in their third years? (Well, 12 quarterbacks...Cade McNown never played another down in the NFL.) While the results are mostly bad, there were some gems, like Don Majkowski's magical 1989, where he threw for 4,318 yards and 27 TDs, and Jim Everett's 3,964-yard, 31-TD 1988. And Steve Young was a spectacular fill-in for Joe Montana in 1987, throwing 10 TDs (versus zero interceptions) on just 69 passes. On average, though, these quarterbacks (minus McNown) accumulated 2,130 yards, 13 TDs, and 10 interceptions in their third year. That's not much improved over their second-year average of 2,043, 10, and 12.

Other than Young, I can't say for sure how much of an opportunity they all got to start, though they averaged 305 pass attempts as a unit (compared to 321 in their second years). Jackson had 294 in 2007. Even if he stays healthy and throws, say, 350 to 400 passes in 2008, should we expect better than about 2,500 yards, and a TD-to-Int. ratio just barely over 1.0 for T-Jack in 2008? I'd like to see it as much as anyone, but I won't hold my breath, no matter how much I read about how T-Jack is "seeing the field better" and "making all the throws." That's a lot easier in May than it is in September.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The parity question

Last week, two SN bloggers posted their disparate opinions on parity in Major League Baseball. bartolis argued that MLB wasn't nearly as lopsided as most people think, while ES46NE10 took the opposite stance. In fact, the argument bartolis made was that MLB has more parity than the NFL. Naturally, as a fan of a long-perceived "small-market" baseball team which has, nevertheless, performed very well in recent years, I'm intrigued by the chance to do a little more research into this point.

The crux of the pro-parity argument seems to be that, from 1993 to 2007, a span of 15 years:

23 different MLB teams were among the final 4 playoff teams.
23 different NFL teams were among the final 4 playoff teams.

But is that in itself an endorsement of parity? Is "Final Four" status an indication that all is well and good? ES46NE10 counters with:

The answer lies in the bottom feeders - the NFL's parity is such that every year since 1993, 30 of the 32 teams have had a legitimate shot at making the playoffs, and with the NFL's "Any Given Sunday" mentality, actually riding that playoff appearance into a Super Bowl appearance and maybe even a victory.

I think, though, that, while "legitimate shots" are nice, and it's true that virtually any NFL team -- and an increasing number of MLB teams -- have a chance of winning it all every year, the championships, at least in MLB, still go to the teams with the highest payrolls.

Again, as a fan of the Twins, who made the playoffs for four out of the five years from 2002 to 2006, I often thought, "Man, this is a good team, but they lack X," where X was "another starting pitcher," "a right fielder," "another lefty in the bullpen" or whatever. And, with their meager payroll, wouldn't it have been nice if they could have added a premiere free agent at their position of need, someone who would have cost about $15 million/year, filled a great need, and might have pushed them into the top half of league salaries? In fact, adding $15 million to the Twins' total salaries from 2002-2006 gives them the following rankings in MLB team salaries:

2002: 14th
2003: 16th
2004: 13th
2005: 15th
2006: 15th

Not exactly the Yankees or Dodgers, eh? Still, with their scouting, talent development, coaching -- and that little extra bit of cash, they might have done better then three first-round exits and an ALCS loss in four playoff years. It might have been nice, as a fan of the team, to see a level playing field. I'm sure A's fans can sympathize.

But what about the teams that actually did win the championships? I'll limit the span of my research from 1995 onward, since in 1993 (remember, there was no World Series in 1994), player salaries had not yet rocketed into the stratosphere. Since then, here are the MLB salary rankings of the World Series champions:

1995: 3 (Braves)
1996: 2 (Yankees)
1997: 8 (Marlins)
1998: 2 (Yankees)
1999: 1 (Yankees)
2000: 1 (Yankees)
2001: 8 (Diamondbacks)
2002: 15 (Angels)
2003: 24 (Marlins)
2004: 2 (Red Sox)
2005: 14 (White Sox)
2006: 10 (Cardinals)
2007: 2 (Red Sox)

Over those 13 years, that gives an average salary rank of 7.1. And if you think it's the Yankees' 20th-century WS wins that are skewing the data -- well, you're partially right. The average of the WS winners from 2001 on are 10.7, still putting the average World Series winner in about the top third of salaries.

Then we come to the 2003 Florida Marlins, who won it all with just a $49 million payroll, toppling the $153 million Yankees in the process. Yes, it can happen. But even with such disparity and low expectations (the Marlins had 79, 76, and 79 wins the previous three seasons and were an OK-but-not-great 91-71 in 2003) and a little luck, the underdog can win, at least occasionally. But was it really that absurd that a team with the 24th highest payroll should win it all? Even .500 basketball teams occasionally win the NBA draft lottery, after all.

To test this, I created a spreadsheet to pick one random number from 1 to 30. There were 30 chances it would pick number 1, 29 chances to pick 2, 28 chances to pick 3, and so on, down to a 1 in 455 (1+2+3+...+29+30) chance of picking #30. This was meant to crudely represent the notion that the team with the highest payroll (represented by the 1's) would have the best chance of winning the championship, followed by the #2 team, the #3 team, and so on. Still, it's possible that the #24 team (or #17 or #29) can still win.

Running this test a thousand times (don't worry, it wasn't nearly as time-consuming as it sounds), I get an average result of 10.9. Technically, this doesn't prove anything regarding baseball, but it does show that, given the small sample size we're using (13 seasons, or 7 post-Yankee seasons), the unlikely teams can still win occasionally, and this year's Marlins seem to be on the same track. Over the long run, though, the teams with the most chances to win -- most often represented by higher salaries -- will tend to dominate. Re-run the 2003 season a thousand times, and I'd bet the Marlins -- who had the seventh-best record in all of baseball, and were within five wins of six other teams -- win it all less than 10% of the time.

Yes, better front offices, managers, scouting departments, and the like can close the salary gap very well when there's a monetary imbalance. But why should teams be required to play the game with fewer resources? If you're a good Monopoly player, do you offer to start with only $1,000 instead of $1,500? If you're a good chess player, do you start with two fewer pieces? Of course not. Everyone starts with equal resources and it's up to the skill of the players (and some luck, in many cases) to determine a winner. Talent, not money, should determine who wins and loses. It would be just as ludicrous for the Yankees to be able to give MLB $1 million during an inning to get four outs.

True, there are no such salary imbalances in the NFL to explain why teams like the Lions and Cardinals continue to struggle every year. But what if the Patriots, for example, had been required to play $15 million below the salary cap this decade? They'd still have the same excellent coaching staff, would still have drafted Tom Brady, and would still have cheated :) And, in all likelihood, they would have still been a very good team and maybe even gone deep in the playoffs. But there probably wouldn't be any talk of crowning them the team of the decade. Instead, they'd be more like the Minnesota Twins of the NFL -- very good, but lacking the resources to get over that final hump.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Ultimate Fantasy Football Draft, Pick #3

Only five votes this time around, and only one man got more than one. And that man was Brian Westbrook, who would probably be my #3 pick in any league. He led the league with 2,104 yards from scrimmage last year, adding a dozen touchdowns. There are still some lingering concerns about his durability, but he's played in 15 games each of the last two seasons, so he might be turning into the next coming of Robert Smith, who was fragile as a ballerina at the start of his career, but durable (and very good) for the latter half of his career. Who says marijuana can't be used for medicinal purposes?

This brings our draft up to:

1. Adrian Peterson, RB, Min
2. LaDainian Tomlinson, RB, SD
3. Brian Westbrook, RB, Phi

And the next pick will be...well, I really have no idea. I think most drafts this year will follow the Peterson/Tomlinson/Westbrook line, in some order, for the first three picks. After that, who knows? Maybe we'll get some insight here.

But only if I get more than five votes :)

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Vikings waive Erasmus James

Erasmus James was waived by the Vikings Friday after he failed a physical, putting an end to his oft-injured career in purple. I've got a rather unusual perspective on James, having lived in Wisconsin during his college days at U-Dub and seeing him wreak havoc on Big 10 backfields for several years in Madison, including a senior season that saw him rack up 8 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss while leading the Badger defense to a second-best-in-conference 15.4 points per game. I was excited to see the team draft him with its #1 pick in 2005 and hoped that he'd provide that pass rush from the defensive end spot the team had been lacking for years.

Fast forward three years, and the Vikings are still looking for that pass-rushing defensive end (which they may have finally found in Jared Allen). In those three years, James has appeared in just 23 of a possible 48 games, accumulating just 30 tackles and 5.0 sacks. He played in 15 of 16 games as a rookie, but has since missed 24 of 32 games with injuries, leaving the team with little choice but to waive the unreliable defensive end.

While failing his physical may be a clear sign that James cannot overcome his injuries and play at an acceptable level, it would have been nice if the team could have found some way to keep him around, even just as a part-time player. As good as the Vikings' defensive line could be this year -- with Allen, Pat Williams, Kevin Williams, and Brian Robison/Ray Edwards -- the unit's depth has been decimated in the off-season. Kenichi Udeze will sit out the year while battling his leukemia. Darrion Scott was released (and subsequently arrested). Spencer Johnson signed a free-agent contract with the Bills. And now James is out of the picture. The team had better hope for stellar performances from its top players along the line, because the likes of Otis Grigsby, Kenderick Allen, Fred Evans, Jayme Mitchell, and Ellis Wyms don't exactly strike fear into the hearts of offensive linemen.

It's likely that some team will take a shot at James, considering his youth and his standout performances in college. If he can pass a physical, he might find a team willing to take a low-cost chance on a possible third-down rush specialist. That's probably about all he can hope for at this stage of his career, and I wish him luck.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Ultimate Fantasy Football Draft, Pick #2 (again)

I've decided to start re-naming these posts. Since I'm revealing the #2 pick in this post, I'll call this one #2, the next one #3, and so on.

Now that the bookkeeping is out of the way, the actual #2 pick is...well, a tie. Both Tom Brady and LaDainian Tomlinson received 3 votes. Peyton Manning and Brian Westbrook got 2 votes each, and 6 players tied with 1 vote each. Seems the pick wasn't as cut-and-dry as I thought it would be. So, using my powers as grand arbitrator of ties, I choose, as the #2 pick on my Ultimate Fantasy Football Draft...

LaDainian Tomlinson. Because there's no way you'll get me taking a quarterback second in a fantasy football draft. Plus, that whole 1,776 yards from scrimmage and 15+ TDs each of the last six years thing is the kind of steady production I want from a pick this high. Brady had a phenomenal season, but he's not going to throw 50 TD passes again. In fact, he'd never even thrown for 30 TDs before 2007.

That puts our draft so far at:

1. Adrian Peterson, Min
2. LaDainian Tomlinson, SD

Pick #3 should be very interesting! The polls will close at 6:00 P.M. Sunday.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

My new hero

When a sports blogger criticizes a team's management or coaching staff for questionable personnel moves or a fundamental lack of understanding of what statistics are important (think "quarterback W-L record" or "batting average"), he's at best ignored, and at worst, subject to Buzz Bissinger-style contempt.

Fortunately, there's a new baseball blogger in town who, in this post, rates power as more important than speed and adds that speed is overrated when judging defensive skill. Basically, he poops on the notion that a strong running game is vastly overrated and that, while speed would be nice, he'd rather have a slow power hitter than a singles hitter with speed, something the Minnesota Twins, among other teams, have yet to figure out.

And the best part is that at least one MLB front office can't ignore the guy: He's Paul DePodesta, the Special Assistant to Baseball Operations for the San Diego Padres, and his blog's a great read. Bookmark it!

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Ultimate Fantasy Football Draft, Pick #2

The results are in for the first pick in the Ultimate Fantasy Football Draft! Not surprisingly, there were only two real competitors, and, considering my reader base, the winner should be even less of a surprise.

Adrian Peterson -- no, not the Chicago one -- goes with the #1 pick, beating LaDainian Tomlinson 7 votes to 4. Brian Westbrook got the last vote. All are good picks, though if it were up to me, I just don't know if I could bring myself to take Peterson with the top pick. He has great potential to run for 1,500 yards (or more) in 2008, but his injury history is a concern. When I have the #1 pick in a draft, I want a sure thing, and, in my mind, that's LT. I know he's getting a little long in the tooth for a running back, but it's hard to argue with someone whose worst non-rookie season is 1,776 yards from scrimmage and 15 TDs.

Or maybe it's because I got AP in the 6th round of my draft last year and anything higher than me seems to be overpayment. Gee, you think he'll go higher this time?

In any case, thanks to everyone for voting! The voting for #2 (which might a foregone conclusion, but hey) begins now and runs until 5:00 PM on Wednesday.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Vikings' Best Possible Draft, 1998

One of the earliest posts on my revitalized blog was about the 1997 NFL Draft and the picks the Vikings could have made instead of the ones they did make, using 10 years' worth of hindsight. I called it the BPD, or Best Possible Draft. Here's a bit of the description of the system from that post:

In other words, if the top of my draft looked like this:

1: Troy Aikman (DAL)
2: Tony Mandarich (GB)
3: Barry Sanders (DET)

And I was figuring the Packers' BPD, I'd probably say they pick Sanders, who was available with their #2 pick, but not Aikman, who was off the board. In general, your best pick will fall between your current pick and your next pick, though this wasn't always the case. And, of course, evaluation of players' abilities and the success of their careers is completely at my whim.

I didn't take a team's positional needs at the time of the draft into account, but I also didn't give them a completely implausible draft (like 6 running backs). Even though the 1997 version of the draft presented below is largely defensive, it's at least realistic.
So, without further ado, let's fast-forward a year to the 1998 Draft and see how the Vikings fared and how they could have done if they'd had a crystal ball (or at least, access to a Vikings-loving time traveler):

Round 1, Pick 21
Actual: Randy Moss, WR
BPD: Randy Moss, WR (picked 1-21)

Hard to argue with Moss here. OK, you can argue, based on how things went off the field, but I always felt that Moss was fine as long as he had someone to control him a bit. In the early days, that was Dennis Green and Cris Carter. When Carter left and Green lost whatever disciplinary skills he may have once possessed, things went downhill. Then we have Mike Tice and, with Oakland, Norv Turner and Art Shell, and Moss is a "problem child."

Then "Bam!", send him to Bill Bellichek and everything's rosy. Who would have thunk it? Well, me for one.

Anyway, there are some good players between this pick and the Vikings' next, including Alan Faneca, Flozell Adams, and Patrick Surtain. But I'll stick with the Vikings' real pick.

Round 2, Pick 51
Actual: Kailee Wong, LB
BPD: Olin Kreutz, C (3-64)

Wong was wrong for the Vikes, turning in four unremarkable seasons before going to Houston in the expansion draft in 2002. Assuming I'd know everything about the 1998 draft in advance, it's a tough choice between Kreutz and Ahman Green, and even Jeremiah Trotter seems a decent choice. Of course, the Vikings did draft a center in this draft -- but we'll get to that later.

Round 3, Pick 80
Actual: Ramos McDonald, DB
BPD: Hines Ward, WR (3-92)

Easy selection here. Yes, this overloads the Vikings a bit at WR (they would at this point have Carter, Moss, Ward, and Jake Reed) but provides the team with a good young core to overtake the aging Carter and the inconsistent Reed. Plus, with those wide receivers -- all of them great blockers -- Robert Smith might not have seen the need to retire after the 2000 season.

OK, probably not.

Round 4, Pick 110
Actual: Kivuusama Mays, LB
BPD: Jason Fabini, T (4-111)

Mays had a cool name, but that was about all he had going for him. As for Fabini, it's a toss-up between him and guard Benji Olson (Titans), picked in the fifth round. We'll get to why I went with the tackle in a moment. We've already got a center and a tackle, so next, of course, we'll have to pick...

Round 5, Pick 144
Actual: Kerry Cooks, DB
BPD: Matt Birk, C (6-173)

...another center? Well, maybe. Remember back in the early days of Birk's career, when he was one of the league's rare pulling centers? Imagine and offensive line of Kreutz at center, Birk at guard, and Fabini at tackle. Remember, in those days the Vikings still had Todd Steussie, Randall McDaniel, and Korey Stringer, though all would be gone by the 2001 season (Stringer, unfortunately, for good).

Yeah, I know we don't have any defensive picks at this point. But man, what an O-line!

Round 6, Pick 173
Actual: Matt Birk, C
BPD: Matt Hasselbeck, QB (6-187)

And taking Birk a round early frees us up to select Hasselbeck here, meaning the Vikings take a good pick away from both Chicago (Kreutz) and Green Bay (Hasselbeck). Brilliant!

Round 7, Pick 208
Actual: Chester Burnett, LB
BPD: Nate Wayne, LB (7-219)

Pickings are understandably thin at this point, but Wayne at least was a decent starter for a few years for the Pack. And that's yet another pick "stolen" from an NFC North foe.

Round 7, Pick 225
Actual: Tony Darden, DB
BPD: Pat Tillman, DB (7-226)

Nuff said.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Ultimate Fantasy Football Draft, Pick #1

First of all, today is the one-year anniversary of me re-starting this blog (on at least) and making the commitment to post regularly. This is my 184th post in that span (better than once every other day), and I had about 30,000 hits on TSN before they removed the hit counter. So I'd say I've done all right. Yay, me.

To celebrate, I'm going to launch my most ambitious project to date. It's based vaguely on the ESPN SportsNation mock draft from last month and my experiences with gymrome's mock draft exercise, where he enlisted various TSN members to each pick for their teams in the first round. (I picked for the Vikings, before the Jared Allen deal, of course). I had such a blast with it, I thought, "Why not let everyone share in the fun?" It's a touch too early for the 2009 draft, but it's only a few short months until fantasy football season, so why not run a mock fantasy football draft and invite everyone to participate over the course of the next few months?

Why not, indeed?

Participation is easy. On the right, you'll see a poll listing 40 players. Of those players, who would you draft #1 overall if your FFL draft was right now? The player with the most votes will be "drafted" #1 and, the next time I post, he'll be removed from the list and you'll be asked to pick the #2 player. Then you'll pick #3, and so on, down the line until we've completed 24 picks (I typically play in 12-man leagues, so that gives us two rounds' worth of picks). I'll post twice a week, on Wednesdays and either Saturday or Sunday (being that today is Thursday, I'll probably ask for #2 on Sunday), and 24 picks should take us through all the way to the early parts of the pre-season in August, when you'll be gearing up for your real draft!

A few notes about the list. Yes, it's huge and unwieldy. It'll get smaller, but I wanted to include everyone I thought had at least a reasonable chance of being drafted in the first two rounds. At the least, I'm sure I've included everyone who'll be picked in the first round of fantasy football drafts. Once we get past the first 12 or so picks, if you have suggestions on who to add, feel free. Until then, I'd rather not make it any bigger. As some convenience, I've ordered the players alphabetically by first name (that's how my spreadsheet handles it) and by position (RBs first, then QBs, then WRs). Don't worry too much about scoring -- assume just that you get points both for yardage and TDs and that you just want to draft the "best" player available.

Also, this won't completely replace my regular posts. You'll still see the same old deranged ramblings and attempts at humor (really, I thought those Dick Wood jokes from yesterday were the height of middle-school humor) from me a few times a week. And if you want to mention this project on your own blogs and invite others to come vote, I won't stop you :)

I won't vote, except in the case of ties, in which case I'll cast the deciding vote. And please, don't be stupid (like by selecting Chester Taylor #1 overall).

The poll for the #1 pick will close on Sunday, May 18 at 6:00 P.M. Eastern. I'll post the results and update the poll Sunday night. So get out there and vote!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The worst running games in NFL history

Since my posts about the worst teams in NFL history seemed so popular, I thought I'd try and revisit the topic. But since I've already covered some of the worst teams ever, I didn't think I could top my previous efforts. Instead, considering that the Vikings had the best running game in the NFL last season, I thought I'd go in the opposite direction and try to find some of the worst rushing teams in NFL history. They say that today is the era of the passer in the NFL, and, consequently, the earlier days were dominated by the running game. If that's true, then these teams need a history lesson.

* The NFL Record and Fact Book lists the 1940 Philadelphia Eagles as having the fewest rushing yards ever in a season for an NFL team, and it's hard to argue with that. In the Eagles' eighth season, they managed a paltry 298 yards on the ground all season. Adrian Peterson alone rushed for just two yards less than that in one game in 2007. True, the season was only 11 games back then (and the Eagles went 1-10), but that still averages out to just 27 yards per game.

There might be a catch, though. Note that quarterback Davey O'Brien is listed has having 100 carries for -180 yards. Since sacks wouldn't become an official statistic for another 40 years, I'm guessing that his sack yardage is counted among that negative yardage. Even so, there are probably some legitimate runs in there, and, if you removed all of O'Brien's negative yardage, you'd have just 478 total rushing yards for the team. My Record and Fact Book lists the 1946 Detroit Lions and the 1944 Boston Yanks as #2 and #3 in fewest rushing yards for a season, with 467 and 471 respectively, and that's including negative rushing yardage for likely sacks. I think that cements the 1940 Eagles as the worst rushing team of all time. If only Donovan McNabb had been born 60 years earlier (and, being black, allowed to play in the league).

* The last team to rush for less than 1,000 yards in a non-strike year? You have to go all the way back to the AFL and the 1963 New York Jets, who managed a paltry 978 yards on the ground (while giving up 2,129). Even for the pass-happy AFL, this is the only team in the league's history with such an anemic rushing game. Fullback Mark Smolinski led the team with 561 of his career 1,323 rushing yards, and his reasonable 3.7-yard average would make you think they should have given him the ball more. Then again, when you have a quarterback named Dick Wood on your team, you probably want him going long... the tight end... long as it isn't man-to-man...

...OK, I'll stop now.

* When I got my first Strat-O-Matic football set in the late '80s, it included cards from the 1986 season. A friend and I took five teams each and played a kind of mini-season. I took the Jets, Bears, Bengals, Giants, and the New England Patriots, just because the Patriots had been so bad for so long (by my reckoning), I wanted to see if I could win with them. And the '86 Patriots were a pretty good team overall, winning their division at 11-5 and making the playoffs.

Then I took at look at the team's running back cards. Here were the average yards per carry for each of the team's backs:

Craig James: 2.8
Robert Weathers: 2.8
Tony Collins: 2.6
Reggie Dupard: 2.6
Mosi Tatupu: 2.4

I passed a lot with that team. When I did run, it came as such a surprise to Ted (my opponent) that he would likely be in some sort of prevent, three-man rush, six DB defense -- and I'd get maybe four or five yards. With a good roll.

As a whole, the 1986 Patriots only managed 2.9 yards per carry, and that's including quarterback Tony Eason's 4.9 average on 39 runs. All this came just a year after the Pats' 1985 Super Bowl run, where James and Collins average 4.7 and 4.0 yards per carry on the season. Maybe they were still sore from the pounding the Bears gave them in Super Bowl XX.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Jared Allen, Pet Neshek, Jon Kitna...and a porn star?

* For those still concerned about the possibility of Jared Allen being suspended for a whole season if he fails another drug test/has another DUI, don't be. Not only is the press about him positive, but reports that, if he stays out of trouble until September, Allen's previous failures will be wiped off the record, giving him a clean slate and a fresh start. Considering that his original four-game suspension in 2007 was reduced to two games, it seems that the NFL front office already has a history of being lenient with Allen, who's seemed contrite enough about his early mistakes. Adam Jones could learn a thing or two.

* During the draft -- while Green Bay was selecting Brian Brohm, I believe -- one of the analysts on ESPN commented that, with Brett Favre's retirement and the uncertainty at quarterback for most of the teams in the division, Jon Kitna was "clearly" the best quarterback in the division.

This didn't sit well with me. Kitna has put up some decent-looking numbers, throwing for over 4,000 yards each of his two seasons with the Lions, but that's been due to the Lions' ineptness at the running game. It's the same reason the Vikings' pass defense looks worse than it is -- because teams never run on them. With those 4,000-yard seasons have come more interceptions than TDs each year, 28 fumbles, and a league-leading 114 sacks.

Now, I'm no fan of Tarvaris Jackson, but let's compare the two. Kitna had 561 pass attempts in 2007, compared to Jackson's 294 -- nearly double. Counting sacks among dropbacks, we come up with 612 for Kitna and 311 for Jackson, an even closer match. In fact, let's double Jackson's numbers to put him more in line with Kitna. Here are the results:

Jackson x23425883822182438140520

For 2008, Kitna's passer rating was 80.9, compared to Jackson's 70.8, so he wins that round. But if you take Jackson's mobility (fewer sacks and better rushing numbers) into account, it's a lot closer (and my Total Yards per Attempt statistic does just that, and ranks Jackson as slightly better, overall, than Kitna). Neither one of them are Brett Favre, but at the very least, you couldn't call either of those quarterbacks clearly "better" than the other.

* Sad news about Twins relief pitcher/blogger Pat Neshek, who suffered a partial ligament tear in his elbow and is likely done for the season. On the one hand, many will blame Neshek's funky delivery for his developing elbow problems. Me? I think it came from ripping open too many baseball card packs.

* And, to close on a lighter note...Candy Cummings: porn star or Hall of Fame baseball player?

Thursday, May 8, 2008

What to expect from Jared Allen

It's not every day your team acquires the NFL's leader in any significant statistic the previous season. Being very good, such players usually aren't available, and when they are, they command top dollar, as Jared Allen did in his trade-and-sign deal that netted him a potential $72 million over 6 years.

That said, big-money deals for players who sometimes enjoyed career years often go south when the fans of the player's new team turn on him for not performing the same way he did just prior to the signing. That's just the law of averages at work; rarely does a player lead the league in the same category multiple years in a row, whether due to injury, age, ineffectiveness, or just luck (good in his pre-signing year or bad in his post-signing years). Will Viking fans think Allen a bust if he doesn't notch at least 15 sacks in 2008? Or 18? Is it even realistic to think that way?

Jared Allen led the NFL with 15.5 sacks in 2007. That makes him the 22nd player in 26 years to lead the league in that category since sacks became an official stat in 1982. Only Reggie White and Mark Gastineau have ever captured back-to-back sack titles. Chances are, Allen won't do it again, since his previous three years' sack totals are 9.0, 11.0, and 7.5 -- solid numbers all, but not what you're looking for from the league's most expensive defensive end.

On the other hand, Allen is young; he was 25 in 2007 and turned 26 just last month. Only 6 of those 28 sack leaders were 25 or younger, and most still had (or, in the case of Shawne Merriman and Dwight Freeney, should have) several good years ahead of them. Comparing Allen to 27-year-old Derrick Burgess or 30-year-old John Randle probably won't paint us an accurate assessment of his future. In fact, looking at sack leaders alone is probably not a wise choice in general, since Allen wouldn't be any less talented if, say, some other player had notched 16.0 sacks in 2007.

Instead, we'll look at two factors: Allen's sack total and his age. 17 players have racked up 15 or more sacks at or before the age of 25, including Allen. In the chart below, I've tracked their sacks in their "15" season (Year N), along with their sack totals in each of the next three seasons (Years N+1, N+2, and N+3):

PlayerAgeSeasonYear NYear N+1Year N+2Year N+3
D. Thomas2319902013.514.58
T. Harris25198919.57317
A. Tippett25198418.516.59.512.5
R. White25198618211811
R. Dent24198417.51711.512.5
S. Merriman2220061712.5

R. Dent2519851711.512.510.5
S. Rice25199916.57.51115.5
P. Swilling25198916.5111710.5
D. Freeney24200416115.53.5
J. Allen25200715.5

C. Simmons25198915.57.51319
S. Jones24198615.567.56
L. Marshall24198515.51288
B. Smith23198615121113
L. Williams2419861581114
M. Merriweather24198415465.5


Of the 16 non-Allen players who managed 15 or more sacks in a season, all but one -- the great Reggie White -- had fewer sacks the year after their big season. 6 experienced a drop-off of 0.5 to 5.0 sacks, and 9 lost more than 5.0 sacks from their totals. Not very encouraging, all things considered.

On the other hand, even the players who lost more than 5.0 sacks probably wouldn't be considered total "busts," if they'd signed free-agent deals after their big seasons. Derrick Thomas certainly wasn't a bust, by any stretch. Tim Harris had 13.5 and 19.5 sacks in back-to-back years before his plunge, but he still rebounded nicely a few years later. Richard Dent still managed double-digit sacks for 6 of his next 8 seasons. Clyde Simmons and Lee Williams were fine after one-year drop-offs. Only Mike Merriweather and Sean Jones might be considered absolute flukes (though Jones did have a few nice seasons later in his career), and Dwight Freeney still has a chance to cement himself as a great modern pass-rusher.

Even with the flukes and busts taken into account, 15-sack men averaged about 11 sacks a year over their next three seasons. Considering how much the Vikings have lacked a consistent pass rush this decade (with only Kevin Williams and Lance Johnstone notching double-digit sacks), I think most fans should be happy with 10-12 sacks each year from Allen. I know I will. There seems to be little chance of his improving on that total -- of the 46 post-Year N seasons above, only 4 resulted in a higher sack total, and two of those were by Reggie White.

Then again, playing Jon Kitna twice a season can do wonders for one's sack totals.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The third-year wideout "myth"

Wide receivers need at least three years to be good. Running backs can excel right out of the gate. Quarterbacks need at least a year or two -- and often more -- to excel.

These are all known "facts," especially to fantasy football fanatics looking for that great draft pick in August. But how much of it is true? The "third-year wide receiver" opinion has been rebuffed by many in recent years, but it still persists, and why is that? Could there be a kernel of truth in the oft-stated belief that the third year is the year wide receivers "put it all together"? And just how good are first-year backs? And when does a quarterback start to show real, or at least fantasy-caliber, skill?

To answer this, I've gone back to the ever-popular Historical Data Dominator. I then searched for rookie wide receivers from 1978 (when the NFL adopted a 16-game schedule) to 2007 with 1,000 yards receiving, second-year WRs with 1,000 yards, third-year WRs with 1,000 yards, etc. I did the same for running backs, using rushing yards. For quarterbacks, I elected to go with 2,400 yards and 16 TDs, an average of 150 yards and 1 TD per game.

Before you think 3,000 passing yards would be a better total, note that even in the pass-happy 2007, the average team threw for 3,652 yards and ran for 1,775, a ratio of just over two to one. If anything, the yardage threshold should be lower, or the rush/receive threshold should be 1,200 yards, so as to be more in line with the 2,400 passing yards. I'll get to that later.

It's not a perfect comparison, but 1,000 yards rushing/receiving is generally considered to make a player "good," while a young QB who throws for 2,400 yards and 16 TDs is also considered to be relatively competent (provided he keeps his interceptions down). Here are the number of players, from 1978 to 2007, who meet these requirements:


Without a doubt, third-year wide receivers, as a whole, significantly out-perform their second-year counterparts. However, it should be noted that the difference between third-year WRs and second-year WRs (17) is less than the difference between second-year WRs and rookie WRs (25). So, yes, those third-year guys are might excel, but don't be afraid to take a flier on a good-looking second-year wideout in your draft.

As for running backs, the common wisdom -- that first-year running backs are perfectly valid draft picks -- also seems to hold true, though, as with wide receivers, their peak years seem to be seasons three through five. There's a significant drop-off after year six though, and another precipitous drop after year eight. Again, no surprise there; running backs don't have the greatest shelf life. (LaDainian Tomlinson, it should be noted, will be entering his eighth season in 2008.)

You probably don't need to know that drafting rookie quarterbacks is a risky proposition, and this chart supports that. After that rookie year, though, you get nearly the same number of 2,400-yard, 16-TD quarterbacks every season through year 10. That's probably due in large part to teams not being willing to give rookie QBs playing time (even though it might not be a bad idea, long term) and throwing them into the fire their second or third year.

That said, 1,000 yards isn't that great. That's only 62.5 yards per game. These days, 1,200 yards is probably a better indicator of stardom, or at least a good fantasy player. Here are the number of RBs and WRs who managed 1,200 yards in seasons from 1978 to 2007:


Those are some notably different results. For this level of production, first-year running backs are a relatively poor choice. There was only a difference of 6 (52 to 46) between first- and second-year RBs getting 1,000 yards, but the difference for 1,200 yards is 9 (28 to 19). And wide receivers? Only Randy Moss and Anquan Boldin have managed 1,200 yards as a rookie since 1978. (Bill Groman also did it in 1960.) But there's very little difference from season two on (until season seven, at least). I ran a similar study with QBs, using 3,000 yards and 24 TDs as a benchmark, but it didn't yield any notable results.

So what does it all mean? Yes, third-year wide receivers are actually a pretty good choice, but don't overlook promising second-year players, especially if you're looking for big (1,200+ yard) production. While you can get decent production from a first-year running back, you're not all that likely to find a #1-caliber guy among rookie runners (Adrian Peterson notwithstanding). And don't even think about drafting Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Brian Brohm, or John David Booty. Not this year, at least.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Variety for Monday

* Given his Harvard education, Matt Birk is probably, book-wise, the smartest guy on the Vikings' roster. But it never hurts to have a valedictorian -- from Chaska, no less -- on the offensive line. Between Tim Mattran and Notre Dame center John Sullivan, drafted in the 6th round, the Vikings seem to be getting ready to move on without Birk in 2009.

* The blog has started a series of articles about the early NFL. If, like me, you like reading about the NFL in the 1920s and 1930s (and who doesn't?), it's a good read to get a sense of how the multibillion-dollar league got its humble start.

* So maybe I was wrong and the Vikings did have a desperate need for a defensive end before picking up Jared Allen. I knew about Kenichi Udeze's situation, but I thought Darrion Scott was still with the team and not just a free agent getting arrested for assaulting a child.

* I suppose I'd have a dorky smile like the guy on the right if I was dating the girl on the left.

* Former Viking Ivan Caesar passed away recently. With a name like that, he was probably better suited for conquering nations than playing linebacker. Sadly, his middle name was "Orsen," and not something more fitting, like "Napoleon."

* Having a little more fun with the Historical Data Dominator, I see that Adrian Peterson is already the #21 all-time rusher for the Vikings (and can move into the top 10 with 1,207 yards in 2008) and that Tarvaris Jackson is #13 in interceptions (and can move into the top 10 with 7 in 2008).

* If you made a list of "Guys in the NFL you thought would be involved in a shooting," wouldn't you say that Marvin Harrison would have to be right about at the bottom of that list?

* As if the Packers don't have enough QBs in camp to try and replace Brett Favre, now it looks like they've signed Bledsoe.

* Like Jason Giambi many years ago, Roger Clemens is sorry he did "stuff." Or, more appropriately, "things," since he hasn't admitted to actual steroid use (yet). Or, even more appropriately, "15-year-old girls." Gee, Roger, I thought you were a paragon of virtue?

* The Twins are improbably in first place, leading the White Sox by 1.5 games, due in part to the Twins winning their last five and the Sox losing their last five. The best part of that news, of course, is that it gave [bleeping] Ozzie Guillen the chance to go off on Chicago media and fans.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Start the rookie QB!

With John David Booty under the Vikings' control (and, also of interest to Vikings fans, with Brian Brohm wearing a Packer uniform in 2008) the call will likely go out at some point during the season that the team put in the rookie QB to inject some life into the offense. Just as quickly, sports pundits will decry the team's use of the rookie QB, saying instead that rookie QBs should be brought along slowly, perhaps not even starting a game until their second season, at least.

It seems to me that the whole idea of not starting a rookie QB right out of the gate began when Steve McNair was drafted #3 overall by the then-Houston Oilers in 1995. Despite his high draft status, he played sparingly his first two seasons -- a seeming aberration at the time -- sitting behind Chris Chandler on the Oilers' depth chart. McNair experienced great success, once he finally got the chance to start, and is always cited as Exhibit A for why rookie quarterbacks shouldn't see playing time their first year. The late starts to the careers of Tom Brady and Brett Favre, and the disastrous careers of Ryan Leaf and Tim Couch, each of whom started several games as rookies, is Exhibit A1.

But what about Peyton Manning, who's started every game of his NFL career? And where does someone like Drew Bledsoe fit in? Is giving a quarterback lots of playing time as a rookie just setting him up to fail later in his career? Or is that just a bunch of hogwash perpetuated by sporadic evidence?

To answer this, I went to the Historical Data Dominator on (which, for whatever reason, seems to be working for free now; I thought it required a subscription fee). I searched for all QBs from 1978 to 2002 who had at least 240 passes in their rookie season. I chose 1978 as my starting point because that was the year the NFL went to a 16-game schedule, allowing me to use 15 passes a game (times 16 games = 240) as my definition of a QB who saw "significant" action. Cutting the search off at 2002 gives me a nice, tidy 25 years of data while also letting me properly evaluate players who were drafted more than five years ago, providing a reasonable snapshot of their careers.

That search, shown here and sorted by yards, yields 30 quarterbacks. Three of them threw for more than 3,000 yards, and all (Manning, Warren Moon, and Jim Kelly) are Hall-of-Fame talents. The bottom of the list is occupied by Ryan Leaf, Steve Fuller, and Chad Hutchinson, and in-between are quarterbacks good and bad and awful. I've divided the quarterbacks -- somewhat arbitrarily, but hey, it's my blog -- into three categories.

Category A includes the great quarterbacks, the Hall-of-Fame-caliber players or very nearly.
Category B includes players who fall short of greatness, but still had (or are having) solid careers.
Category C includes everyone else, the abject failures.

Here's how they fall out:

Category A: Manning, Kelly, Moon, Marino, Aikman, P. Simms(?), Elway
Category B: Collins, Garcia, Bledsoe, Plummer, Batch(?), George, O'Donnell, Kosar, Deberg
Category C: Weinke, Mirer, Brock(?), Carr(?), Banks, Couch, Harrington(?), Komlo, Trudeau, Shuler, Hutchinson, Fuller, Leaf

Phil Simms is the only member of the A group not to be in (or destined for) the Hall of Fame, but I thought his two Super Bowl rings should count for something. Charlie Batch wavers between B and C. He was lousy with the Lions, but has carved out a second career as a solid backup with the Steelers, and if anything happens to Ben Roethlisberger, the team would probably do well. Similarly, David Carr and Joey Harrington each seemed destined for C-land but are young enough that they might turn their careers around. As for Dieter Brock, he posted decent numbers as a rookie for the Rams in 1985 (2,600 yards, 16 TD, 13 Int.). I don't know why he never threw another pass in the NFL -- maybe a Rams fan can enlighten me?

(Of course, as with Ichiro Suzuki, "rookie" can be a relative term. Brock, Moon, and Jeff Garcia all played in the CFL before coming to the NFL, and Jim Kelly starred in the USFL. And Chris Weinke was 29 his rookie season.)

In any case, the breakdown is 7 "A" quarterbacks, 9 "B" quarterbacks, and 14 "C" quarterbacks. That qualifies better than 50% (16/30) of rookie quarterbacks who threw 240 or more passes their first season as at least "decent" throughout their careers. In any case, the careers of those 16 weren't "ruined" by their getting starts as rookies. In fact, 7 of the 30 went on to exceptional careers. Of course, all seven of those players, save Moon, were first-round draft picks, and three (Elway, Manning, and Aikman) were first overall. This means that, in all likelihood, they were a) good; and b) going to get the chance to start as rookies. I'm not going to grade out every quarterback on the above list by round; suffice to say there are high (Leaf, Carr, Collins) and mid-low (Batch, O'Donnell, Deberg) picks sprinkled throughout the B and C levels.

At the very least, when the inevitable talk of, say, putting Booty, Brohm, or especially first-round picks Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco in the starting lineups for their respective teams this year pops up, don't jump immediately onto the "Starting a rookie QB is bad for him" bandwagon. About half the time, that may be true (and the C-level quarterbacks might have been bad no matter when they first saw significant action); but you have just as good a chance of getting a solid player, or even a star, for years to come.