Sunday, August 30, 2009

Monday night pre-reactions

Brett Favre will play the entire first half against the Houston Texans on Monday Night Football tomorrow. Since I've got some time now, I've decided to be proactive with my analysis of Favre's play with three possible reactions:

a) Favre plays well (roughly 150+ yards, 2+ TDs, 0 Int.)

Granted, it's just one preseason game, but it's nice to see that there might actually be something to Favre's whole "I don't need training camp" mentality. Coming off his lackluster debut last week, he needed to show something, not really because the team needs hit to do well right now, but because they need to convince the anti-Favre faction (like yours truly) that he actually can be a force for good and not for evil. I still have my reservations, and I still don't know that he can hold up for the entire season (not to mention 2010), but right now, I'll take any good I can get.

b) Favre plays OK (100-150 yards, 0-1 TDs, 0-1 Int.)

Granted, it's just one preseason game, but Favre still certainly needs some work with his team. His hit-and-miss play isn't what I, for one, am looking for from a guy making $12 million this year; Tarvaris Jackson or Sage Rosenfels probably could have done the same for a lot less. There's still room for improvement, and the deal might not be a total waste, but I expect more. Here's hoping Favre can get enough done over the next two weeks and be ready to perform in Cleveland for the season opener.

c) Favre plays poorly (less than 100 yards, 0 TDs, 2+ Int.)

Granted, it's just one preseason game, but is this why we endured the months of drama? Yes, the Favre-backers will point to it being a preseason game (and that every missed pass was the receivers' fault), but come on -- at least some of the blame has to go on the QB. Yes, it is still just the third week of preseason, but if this doesn't look better (next week against Dallas and most importantly, week 1 against Cleveland), this could go down as the worst transaction in Vikings history since the Herschel Walker trade.

Yes, I know that not all my statistical benchmarks cover all situations, but they should mostly suffice.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A not-quite-crisis of confidence

I still see plenty of opinions about the conventional wisdom that states that a good running game improves the passing game and vice versa, contradictory to what I observed in a couple months ago:

Specifically (and against my better judgment), I've gotten into it a bit on a recent post on the Pro Football Reference blog. A commenter trotted out the following bits of wisdom:

1) You can't trust Tarvaris Jackson's numbers last year because of the small sample size; and
2) The Vikings' strong running game was responsible for Tarvaris Jackson's good numbers late in the season.

Note that that running game has been in effect for the last 32 regular season games and, by and large, Vikings quarterbacking has been mediocre to poor over that stretch, excepting the final four games of the 2008 season. So, T-Jack's numbers should be discounted due to a small sample size of games, but clearly the running game helps the team's quarterbacks -- which was only true for a small sample size of games. Eh?

But I'm not here to rag on a fellow commenter/blogger. Rather, I've been thinking about my theories the past few months and, while I still think they're mostly true, I can't help but shake some flaws with the analysis. They aren't necessarily deal-breakers, but they could show there's more to the interaction between running and passing than simple correlation.

As I've mentioned before, I'm no trained statistician or anything, just a football fan with a love of numbers and a willingness to challenge conventional wisdom. Maybe that'll get me in trouble someday, but until someone can come up with real, valid evidence to the contrary -- something more than "Well, it's obvious that a strong running game opens up the passing game, I mean, look at how much better quarterback X was when his team got running back Y!" which ignores all the times a quarterback doesn't improve when his running game improves -- I'll stick to my guns.

That said, here are some of the possibilities for why I might be wrong:

1) I'm looking at the wrong stats. Primarily, I use yards per carry and adjusted net yards per attempt, or an averaging stat for one (rushing or passing) versus a total yardage stat for the other (passing or rushing). Might be I'm comparing the wrong stats or, just as likely, I'm using the wrong tools to compare them.

2) Limitations on salary or coaching proficiency make it impossible to be great at both running and passing. Put simply, if you sink all your money into having a great running game -- a star back, big offensive linemen, a blocking tight end -- you're less likely to have anything left over to invest in quarterbacks and receivers. And some coaches might also just be better at engineering a great running game than passing game, or vice versa. This is the same concept that typically makes teams that are good on offense less likely to be equally good on defense, and it holds true for most major sports (hitting vs. pitching in baseball, offense vs. defense in basketball, etc.). My studies show that teams that run the ball well typically aren't exceptional at passing but maybe that's got less to do with there actually being a correlation from an in-game standpoint and more to do with the lack of ability (or funds) to construct a solid passing game.

3) Maybe there really is an effect, but it's undetectable. If you have the best running game in the league and the 20th best passing game, is it because there's no correlation between the two? Or is there a correlation and your passing game would be the 25th (or worse) best in the league without the strong running game? Using my Drew Brees-to-the-Vikings example, if Brees did take over at QB, maybe Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor would have better years, but how would we separate Brees' effect on the running game from Peterson's, Taylor's, and the offensive line's normal development and improvement. I don't know.

I'd welcome anyone with strong analysis and the ability to use facts (instead of "conventional wisdom") to support or refute my arguments, because even I admit I feel a little tentative to expound my theories too loudly. But if you're going to disprove what I've written, at least try to be somewhat nice about it :)

Monday, August 24, 2009

Winter vs. Berry: The Showdown!

Matthew Berry's at it again.

Some of you might remember my criticism of ESPN's "The Talented Mr. Roto" and his outrageous predictions for the 2008, and it appears I wasn't the only one. In this year's article Berry acknowledges the criticism with several excerpts from his comments and mail bag (though apparently not from my blog; I'm terribly offended) and re-iterates his point that his "bold predictions" were supposed to be out-on-a-limb, rather unlikely to be met, and meant to improve your draft strategy. He says:

The point of this is not that I nail every prediction. In fact, I'm going to tell you that the only prediction that I guarantee here is that I'm not going to get all of these correct. Especially since we still have three weeks of preseason to go.

But, if you use this correctly, the idea is simply that it helps you draft. For example, in last year's article, I said eight other tight ends will have a better fantasy season than Antonio Gates. Technically, that was wrong, as Gates finished fourth in fantasy scoring among tight ends.

But, if you took that to mean, in essence, that I felt Gates was overvalued (he was generally the first tight end off the board last year) and ended up passing on him and waiting two rounds later for someone like Dallas Clark (I predicted he would be the No. 1 tight end, also wrong, but he did finish two points out of second and ahead of Gates), then this article worked for you last year. And you still get to give me crap for getting it wrong. See? Everyone's a winner.

So, why not say "Gates is overvalued," rather than come up with some "bold" prediction? And what excuse do you have for saying "Ben Obomanu will reach 800 yards and six touchdowns"? (prediction #46; Obomanu finished with 180 yards and 1 TD." I don't think anyone was unjustly undervaluing Obomanu.

The reason is shock value and "wow" factor. Saying Gates won't be the #1 tight end is like saying, to some people, oh, that Brett Favre won't have a good year. Both will probably be true, but people who don't pay too much attention to football won't know that and will argue vehemently for the "conventional wisdom." Controversy = hits on your web site. If that was the goal, mission accomplished.

With all that being said, it's clear that Berry is in a bit of damage-control mode this year, as his predictions are much, much tamer and I can't argue with too many of them. In fact, I find myself outright agreeing with several. But not all of them. And this year, rather than ragging on the man after the season is over, I'm going to put myself out on a limb and grade his predictions, and at the end of the year, we'll see who is more "right."

Scoring will be simple. I'll give a "YES" or "NO" for each of the 32 predictions (the real, football-based ones), based on whether or not I think it'll happen. I'll assume that Berry labels each of them as "YES." At the end of the year, we'll total up the number we got correct, and highest score wins.

Unfortunately, he doesn't number this year's predictions, which means I'll have to reprint them, word for word, and number them myself for easy reference at the end of the season. Feel free to chime in with your own views.

On to the predictions:

  1. Chris "Beanie" Wells stays healthy enough to get at least 1,000 total yards and eight touchdowns. YES.
  2. Roddy White will lead the NFL in receiving yards. YES. Bold, but I like it. Jake Delhomme is due for a meltdown, and that'll hurt Steve Smith.
  3. Joe Flacco finishes the year as a top-12 fantasy quarterback. NO. Flacco is highly overrated because his defense is good.
  4. Terrell Owens finishes the year outside the top 25 fantasy wide receivers. You heard me. NO. I think he'll be down a bit, but even Trent Edwards can't screw him up too badly.
  5. Jonathan Stewart finishes with more fantasy points than DeAngelo Williams. NO. Williams is overrated, thanks to his huge TD numbers, but he'll still get more carries and points than Stewart.
  6. Devin Hester and Greg Olsen combine for 1,800 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns. NO. Jay Cutler can't fix the mess that is the Bears' receiving corps.
  7. Chris Henry has a better fantasy season than Laveranues Coles. NO. Of course, the Jets lost Brett Favre so they don't know how to pass any more.
  8. Jamal Lewis has 1,400 yards and eight touchdowns, or the equivalent fantasy points. NO. Nice to throw in the "or the equivalent" phrase to CYA, but I still think Lewis is done.
  9. Without T.O. in town, Tony Romo has the best fantasy season of his career. NO. I think Romo will be fine, but the man had 4,211 yards and 36 TDs two years ago. That's tough to top.
  10. Peyton Hillis will end the year with the most fantasy points of any Broncos running back. You heard me. YES. Hey someone's gotta run the ball in Denver.
  11. Brandon Pettigrew finishes the year as a top-15 fantasy tight end. YES. Bad/young QBs love a good tight end.
  12. Ryan Grant goes for better than 1,500 total yards and 10 touchdowns. NO.
  13. Eighty-five receptions and 1,000 yards for Owen Daniels. NO. Daniels is really good and really underrated, but the Texans still have Andre Johnson.
  14. Anthony Gonzalez, whose career high in receiving yards is 664, doubles that this season. NO. A Colts WR might have 1,300 receiving yards, but it'll be Reggie Wayne.
  15. David Garrard will be a top-10 fantasy quarterback this year. Just like last season. YES.
  16. Matt Cassel will not be. In fact, he finishes outside the top 15. YES.
  17. Anthony Fasano, meet the end zone. You two will find each other 10 times this season. YES. Sure, why not?
  18. Bernard Berrian gets more than 1,200 yards and nine scores. NO. Having Brett Favre means Berrian won't have to settle for those weak-armed QBs like the ones he had last year that limited him to a paltry 20.1 yards per reception, second-best in the league.
  19. Eight hundred yards and seven touchdowns for Joey Galloway. YES. If he's healthy Galloway can catch 800 yards' worth of passes from anyone.
  20. Pierre Thomas is a top-10 fantasy running back this year. And Saints fans start wearing berets to games. You heard me. YES. But I'll disregard the beret thing.
  21. Brandon Jacobs scores 20 touchdowns. NO. How will the Giants get that close to the end zone with Eli Manning battling Brett Favre for the league interception lead?
  22. Dustin Keller gets 800 yards, eight touchdowns and is one of the top eight fantasy tight ends this season. YES.
  23. More than 1,500 total yards and eight scores (or the fantasy points equivalent) for Darren McFadden. NO. I dunno, but I think we're going to look back in 10 years and find that Felix Jones was the better Alabama RB who entered the league in 2008. Plus, being with the Raiders automatically subtracts 25% (or more) from your fantasy potential
  24. Brian Westbrook plays all 16 games. NO. Hasn't happened yet, see no reason to start now.
  25. Trendy preseason favorite Rashard Mendenhall finishes with fewer fantasy points than Willie Parker, Mewelde Moore and Heath Miller. YES.
  26. Philip Rivers ends up with 225 fantasy points or fewer, which last year would have put him ninth among quarterbacks. (To put that numerically, I think he throws for fewer than 3,400 yards and 25 touchdowns). YES.
  27. Shaun Hill wins the starting quarterback job, throws for 3,000-plus yards and has at least 26 total touchdowns. NO. He'll be the starter, but he won't get those kind of TD numbers.
  28. T.J. Duckett scores double-digit touchdowns. Julius Jones has more than 1,200 total yards. Both have solid fantasy value this year. You heard me. NO. I could believe Jones, but absolutely not Duckett.
  29. Donnie Avery has more than 1,000 yards receiving. And yes, I know he's injured and most likely will miss the start of the season. That's how much I like him and the Rams' revamped offensive line. NO. But I don't like Marc Bulger.
  30. Antonio Bryant finishes outside the top 30 of fantasy wide receivers. YES.
  31. Nate Washington, on the other hand, finishes inside the top 30. YES.
  32. More than 1,000 yards and six touchdowns for Chris Cooley. NO. Put simply, expecting 1,000 yards from any TE is asking for trouble.

And one of his non-football predictions:

At some point in the next 12 months, a blog will print a story about me and every "fact" will actually be, well, factual.

Already happened, man.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The debut

Honestly, I won't write too much into four passes in a pre-season game (and Kevin Seifert does a good job of explaining those four passes here), but suffice to say Brett Favre didn't do anything to change my opinion of his eroding skills Friday night against the Chiefs. That said, I did fill in two spaces on my Favre Bingo card, which is a little disheartening considering the brevity of his debut.

But wow, didn't Tarvaris Jackson look good? I only watched the first half (and thanks to the guys at Awful Announcing for the streaming video!), so I didn't see the long TD pass to Darius Reynaud. Admittedly, he stayed in the game long after the Chiefs' starters had departed, but it's still a little depressing to think that he could be the best quarterback on the team. I wonder what uniform he'll be wearing next week?

Favre Excuse Bingo!

Just in time for the Vikings' first game in the Favre era, you too can play the game that's sweeping the nation!

Just choose from one of the four cards below and mark off the spaces whenever the announcers at a Vikings game make an excuse for Brett Favre's poor play! Fill out a line and you win! Play with your friends!

Favre Excuse Bingo Card 1

Favre Excuse Bingo Card 2

Favre Excuse Bingo Card 3

Favre Excuse Bingo Card 4

Feel free to leave additional space suggestions in the comments.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Examining the deal

A breakdown of the Brett Favre contract, as reported by ESPN:

The Vikings will pay Favre $12 million this year and $13 million next season, sources told ESPN senior NFL analyst Chris Mortensen and ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter. The contract does not contain performance bonuses.

Because Favre is a vested veteran, the $12 million is guaranteed for this season if he is on the opening day roster. This also applies to the $13 million 2010 deal. This year, $6 million is guaranteed for skill and injury, meaning that if he is bad during the next few weeks, the Vikings can't get out for less than $6 million.

The 2009 salary payments are deferred: $4 million over the season, $4 million in March and $4 million in 2011.

So, at the least, if Favre bites the big one before Opening Day, the Vikings are only out $6 million.

If he survives the Turk, the Vikings are on the hook for his $12 million this year. It's not clear what the article means by "This also applies to the $13 million 2010 deal," but one would imagine that means "If he is on the 2010 Opening Day roster, he gets $13 million," as opposed to the $13m being guaranteed if he makes the 2009 roster. We hope.

(And was that Turk article really written by someone at The Sporting News? Did they really refer to Frank Wycheck as "Frank Wishek"?)

Of course, we've probably got at least another 380 days or so to go until we know whether Favre will be on the team in 2010. Any "will/won't play out the contract" talk is pointless until then.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Letting it sink in

I've been rolling around in my head all the different ways to address "the topic," but there's so much to talk about, I don't think I can come up with a post that's both all-encompassing and coherent. So I'll break down my thoughts on a point-by-point basis.

* The deal itself. Last I heard, we were talking about $10 million for one year. Instead, Brett Favre will be a Viking for the next two years, making $12m this year and $13m the next.


It's nice for Sage Rosenfels, who signed a two-year, $9 million deal a few months ago and likely becomes the highest-paid backup quarterback in the league. And it's obviously good for Favre. But I can't think it's good for anyone else, especially the Vikings. NFL salaries and contracts are a dubious science, but did we really just give a nearly 40-year-old player a top-25 salary? And a higher salary when he turns 41? Really?

Rob Brzezinski, the Vikings' capologist (and maybe the best at his job in all of football), is crying.
* Favre's health. He has a small tear in the rotator cuff of his throwing shoulder. But hey, he's started every game for the last 17 years, so who cares?

Except that he was awful for the Jets after he tore the cuff and only had surgery a few months ago. And you know he won't come out of the game, no matter how bad the arm gets. This has all the look of a karmalicious "Brett Favre finally succumbs to injury after joining the Vikings" season. Packer fans are laughing at us.

* Training camp. Brett didn't want to go because, after all, he knows everything about the offense already. The Vikings are out of camp, so now he signs. In hindsight, we should have known.

* Chemistry. It's probably overrated, but when your own teammates call you out for being a jerk (as Thomas Jones did) and you're likely perceived as getting a free pass from the work of training camp and there's no way in hell the head coach or his OC, your good buddy, will ever criticize you...

* No excuses. Brett did this his way. He could have been with the team three months ago but he hemmed and hawed his way for months. But it's OK, right? All we hear is how well he already knows the offense, which wasn't the case early on with the Jets last year, and everyone was quick to make excuses for his spotty play.

Brett Favre will need to come out and be like the Brett Favre of old, slinging the football around, breaking the opposing team's hearts with last-minute drive, and showing that same hard-nosed grit and determination he always has as he leads the Vikings into and through the playoffs. There will be no "It wasn't the right situation." There will be no "He's struggling with the scheme." There will be no "He's not familiar with his teammates." Those were all correctable, and Brett Favre chose not to. He chose it. Nothing was forced upon him. It was his decision to make, and his alone, and he should be held responsible for the consequences.

There won't be any free passes given if the Vikings suffer a rash of injuries. Brett Favre won the Super Bowl with an arguably less-talented team in 1996, and if he can do it with the 1996 Packers, he can do it with the 2009 Vikings, even if they're missing a star or two. Reggie White only had 8.5 sacks that year; Jared Allen should top that number, easily. Edgar Bennett and Dorsey Levens are no Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor. Antonio Freeman had 56 catches for 933 yards; Bernard Berrian had 48 for 964 in 2008. I look at the Packers' starting offensive line and don't see anyone there who resembles Steve Hutchinson or Bryant McKinnie. So even if E.J. Henderson goes and gets hurt again in the first month or Adrian Peterson misses half a dozen games, there's no excuse for why Brett Favre can't win a Super Bowl with this team. I mean, that's why we got him, right? We can not win the Super Bowl just fine with Sage or T-Jack.

There won't even be a free pass given if Favre himself gets hurt because -- guess what? -- 40-year-old (and 41-year-old) quarterbacks often get hurt. He and the Vikings knew this going in and while it's safe to say that Favre is more durable than most, nobody, not even Brett Favre, can play forever.



Is the season over yet?

Monday, August 17, 2009

The pain! Make it stop!

It's like a disease that just won't go away.

ESPN is also reporting that Brett Favre's agent, Bus Cook, says that Favre still has no intention of going to the Vikings and that the Vikings' front office hasn't made any offers to Favre since breaking off talks a few months ago. So, in all likelihood, this is just a few players spreading rumors after being dissatisfied with the team's quarterbacking in Friday's preseason game against Indianapolis, despite Sage Rosenfels looking solid and Tarvaris Jackson slightly less so.

Chris Mortensen also reports that, according to some Vikings players, that Favre would have joined the team if he could have avoided training camp, which is sticking with his M.O. of doing as little work as possible to play on Sundays. His legendary status as a classic improviser has been so ingrained in him by the media and fans that he doesn't believe he needs to practice or learn a playbook, he'll just do something wacky when a play breaks down and, even if he throws a left-handed interception, people will just shake their heads at him and smile. It's just "Brett bring Brett," after all.

What is needed is for that paragon of discipline, Brad Childress, to speak to his team (and, only somewhat less importantly, the media) and say this to them: "Brett Favre is not joining this team. Our quarterbacks are Sage Rosenfels, Tarvaris Jackson, and John David Booty. That is not going to change. End of story. Deal with it." Of course, that will only be effective if Vikings' management takes the same stance, which, at least for the moment, appears to be the case. But, as always with Brett Favre, things can change at any time, and we won't know anything for sure until the first regular-season game, against Cleveland, on Sept. 13.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Watch out for the Lions in 2009

What would you say if I told you the Detroit Lions have a 21% chance of making the playoffs this year?

Considering that only 37.5% of all teams in the NFL make the playoffs in any given season, you'd probably think odds a little over half as good as that would be too high. To be sure, strange things can happen: Jay Cutler could bomb in Chicago, Green Bay might not fix its defense with the 3-4, Adrian Peterson could get hurt (gulp!), and Matthew Stafford could be the best rookie quarterback in league history. And BAM! The Lions take the NFC North, or at least get enough in-division victories to secure a Wild Card berth.

Some people get their ideas through meditation, others get them in the shower...this unlikely scenario came to me, as many great ideas likely do, by watching Alge Crumpler in last night's Hall of Fame Game between the Titans and the Bills.

Say what?

Apart from noticing Crumpler's girth (was he always that big?), my first thoughts upon seeing him was why the Falcons let him go to the Titans in the first place. He was a reliable receiver for the team for seven years, averaging 45 catches and just over 600 yards per season, numbers most tight ends would be more than happy with. The natural reason, of course, was that the Falcons were rebuilding after a 4-12 year and thought they could afford to let their high-priced veteran player go.

So what happened? Matt Ryan is what happened. The Falcons went 11-5, made the playoffs, and, in the offseason, traded for future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez to play tight end for them in 2009. Now, Gonzalez is a better receiver than Crumpler, to be sure. But why didn't the Falcons just hang on to Crumpler and accept that it might just take a couple years to be competitive? And what if Matt Cassel leads the Chiefs to a good record and playoff berth this year? Will the Chiefs regret giving up Gonzalez (not to mention Jared Allen last year)?

The trade deadline in baseball recently passed, and you see similar things in MLB: high-priced veterans being traded to contending teams in exchange for cheaper prospects. In MLB, with no salary cap, legions of minor leaguers, and a powerful players' union able to negotiate huge guaranteed contracts for its constituents, it probably makes more sense, even if your team thinks it can contend in a couple years. That kid from AAA might not be as good as your All-Star, but he's reasonably decent and makes about 1/50th the money. And if the situation is reversed in a year or two, you can make a deadline deal of your own and trade him for a pricy veteran.

The point is, why do NFL teams let their top talent go when they have a bad year or two (or 10, in the case of the Lions)? With a draft that actually works (more or less) in distributing top talent to the worst teams in the league, more moderate contracts, a salary cap, and a shorter schedule, which leads to greater fluctuations in win-loss record than true talent level would normally account for, why not hang on to your good players? You're not going to save that much money and might pull out of your nose dive quicker than you think.

But how quickly do teams "turn it around" in the NFL and go from awful to playoff hopeful? To answer this, I counted an "awful team" as one that went 4-12 or worse since the 1988 season (with 1987 being the strike year). I then counted how many years it took that team to make the playoffs after its awful season. If a team hasn't yet made the playoffs since its awful season, I didn't count them in the survey. And some teams' playoff-counting team counted against multiple awful teams. For instance, the 1997 and 1998 Bears are counted as taking four and three years, respectively, to make the playoffs, owing to the 2001 Bears' playoff run.

57 teams over 21 seasons meet these criteria. Their average wait to make the playoffs was 3.19 years, distributed below:

1 Year12 teams
2 Years16 teams
3 Years7 teams
4 Years8 teams
5 Years6 teams
6 Years3 teams
7 Years3 teams
8 Years2 teams

Of the 57 teams to go 4-12 or worse over this span, nearly half (28) made the playoffs within two years. Suddenly, blowing up the whole team doesn't seem like such a good idea.

Of course, it could be that blowing up the whole team was why those teams made the playoffs. Maybe the players Kansas City received in the trade for Jared Allen will be the reason they make the playoffs in 2009. (The Tony Gonzalez trade won't bear fruit for a while, though; the Chiefs dealt Gonzo for just a 2nd-round pick in 2010.)

And then there's the Lions. 12 of 57 teams -- about 21% -- made the playoffs the year after their "awful" year. And the awful year wasn't just a blip on the radar during an otherwise good run. Interestingly, as I look at those 12 teams, none of them seemed to be "good" for any significant length of time before their awful season, and a few -- like the 03-04 Chargers, 98-99 Rams, 98-99 Colts, and 95-96 Jaguars -- were very good for several years after making the playoffs for the first time following a lengthy period of mediocrity (or nonexistence, in the case of the Jags). The Falcons were the most recent team to accomplish this feat, so maybe Matt Ryan can lead them to a new era of dominance in the NFC. And maybe Matthew Stafford can usher in a new era of prosperity for the Lions, if not in 2009, then at least by 2010.

Or maybe he'll just be Joey Harringon, Part II.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Not so bad after all

Given the deal the Falcons just gave Roddy White (6 years, $50 million, $18.6 million guaranteed) and the Cardinals gave Larry Fitzgerald (4 years, $40 million) last offseason, suddenly the 6-year, $42 million ($16 million guaranteed) for Bernard Berrian doesn't seem so bad. Certainly, Berrian's not in Fitzgerald's (who seems dramatically underpaid) league, but he might be on par with White, assuming the Vikings get better quarterback play.

Of course, long contracts for wide receivers -- and, admittedly, any player -- can be dicey. Two years ago, this article quoted Steve Smith's new deal as putting him "among the five highest-paid receivers in the league, along with Marvin Harrison, Terrell Owens, Javon Walker and Deion Branch."

Smith, Harrison, Owens: Worth big money.

Walker, Branch: Not so much.

Hey, at least Fred Smoot's off the Vikings' books!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The battles in the trenches

Lots and lots of lineman news coming out of Vikingland the past few days...

* The big news is that Kevin Williams and Pat Williams are very likely off the legal hook, at least in terms of their availability for 2009. Fuhrer Goodell is likely outraged at the outcome, but Viking fans are licking their chops at the likelihood of having the Williams Wall for all of 2009 -- until Pat Williams trips over himself in a mad rush to the buffet line.

* Jared Allen knows how to live. And he's totally rocking the NES Power Pad!

* I normally don't put much stock in off-season reports about how well a player looks in training camp or practices because everyone looks good in June, July, and August (even Troy Williamson), but I'm encouraged by this article about the (likely) new Vikings right tackle, Phil Loadholt (link thanks to Pacifist Viking). His real test will still come in pass protection against the league's elite defensive ends, but if he can at least be average this year, it'll still be a big step up from Ryan Cook.

* The other new Viking starting o-lineman, John Sullivan, looks to have already earned the starting center job. It sounds less impressive, though, when his only real competition was Ryan Cook.

* But hey, not everything about Ryan Cook is bad. In fact, here's proof:

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Grinding it out: Good or bad?

I watch a lot of football with a Steelers fan. Invariably, it comes up while watching the Steelers -- either from him or by the announcers -- that, with a good running game and sturdy defense, the Steelers often attempt to "shorten the game" by "keeping the other team's offense off the field." The Steelers aren't the only team that does this, but it seems to come up a lot with them or when watching any team that's playing against Peyton Manning or Drew Brees or another elite quarterback (or, less frequently, against an elite running back or wide receiver).

This had always struck me as odd, and I think the feeling goes back to the first Super Bowl I really watched, Super Bowl XXV between the Giants and Bills. You might recall that the Giants controlled the ball for 40 of the 60 minutes of that game, including two long drives at the end of the first half and beginning of the second that, the analysts noted, kept the Bills' offense on the sideline for over an hour of real time. With Jim Kelly and Andre Reed and Thurman Thomas lined up on the other sideline, it seemed like a good strategy, right?

But then I got to thinking...don't football teams have, roughly, the same number of possessions each? Barring some shenanigans around the end of the first half or at the start of overtime, when you're done with your drive, the other team gets the ball. So what's the point of having a drive that's three minutes long versus one that's 10 minutes long? If, over a 60-minute game, each drive takes three minutes, that's 20 drives -- 10 for each team. If each drive takes five minutes, that's 12 drives -- 6 for each team. How does that actually help anyone? Yes, the Giants kept the Bills offense on the sideline in Super Bowl XXV, but, by the same token, they reduced the number of opportunities their offense had to score. What's the strategy there?

(I'll note here that I've never bought too heavily into the notion of "tiring out the defense" on long drives. Unless I'm mistaken, offensive players are pushing, shoving, and sweating on a drive, too. A 10-minute drive should have about the same effect on offensive players that it does on defensive players, shouldn't it? This article focuses solely on the strategy aspect of long drives.)

Then it hit me. To win, a team must score more on its possessions than the other team does on its (discounting things like return TDs). The "ground it out" (GIO) team generally has a worse offense than its opponent, usually because the opponent has a superstar QB and the other team doesn't. Take an individual drive by each offense, and you'd expect the QB-driven (QBD) team to do "better" (higher chance of TD or FG). Over a season's worth of drives, the QBD team will likely score more points than the GIO team, and the GIO's coach knows it.

But the GIT's coach realizes that, in a smaller sample size, his team can outperform the QBD team!

Here's a simple example. For those who've never played Dungeons & Dragons (yes, I am a complete geek), it uses dice of all kinds of shapes and potential values, including eight-sided dice (d8), which has values of, surprisingly, one through eight on its sides. Suppose I take a regular six-sided die (d6) and you take a d8. In any "who can roll higher" competition between us you clearly have the advantage. Even if you graciously allow me to win all ties, my chances of "winning" any individual roll is 43.75%.

Now, suppose we're going to put money on this. Clearly, this means I'm not too bright, but then suppose a third party gives us two odd numbers. These are the number of rolls we are to each make, and the person with the most "wins" gets $1,000. The catch is: I get to choose how many rolls we'll make, based on the numbers that third person gave us.

And I should always choose the lower number of rolls, because with fewer rolls, I have a better chance of getting lucky and beating you out. With just one roll, as mentioned, I win 43.75% of the time. With a best 2-out-of-3 contest, I win 32.30% of the time. 3-of-5 is 26.50%. 4-of-7 is 22.82%. And so on.

Now, back to football. If GIO's coach believes his offense is like a d6 and his opponent's is like a d8, the best strategy for him is to try and minimize the number of drives each team gets. If he could cut the game to one drive per team, he should. That's clearly impossible (and I'll admit I'm not taking defenses into account at all), but, failing that, he should try to limit the total number of drives in the game, by grinding out clock time with running plays and short passes.


I read somewhere that the typical NFL game has about 10 drives per team. I'm too lazy to do any real research on that, but it seems about right. Going back to my dice contest:

In a best 6-of-11 contest, the d6 beats the d8 18.24% of the time.
In a best 5-of-9 contest, the d6 beats the d8 20.22% of the time
In a best 4-of-7 contest, the d6 beats the d8 22.82% of the time.

If we assume that a typical game has around 9-11 drives and that a GIO coach can eliminate two drives with his clock-eating strategy, then he would appear to increase his winning percentage by only about 2%. This makes sense; as the number of trials increases, the difference in winning percentage by adding or subtracting a couple trials goes down. There's not much difference between a best 50-of-99 contest and a best 51-of-101 contest.

Now, a d8's average roll is 4.5; a d6 averages 3.5. 4.5/3.5 = 1.29, so the d8 is about 29% "better" than the d6. Thus, if QBD's offense is 29% better than GIO's, we might expect the percentages quoted above to be true. Considering that GIO typically has a better defense than QBD, thus reducing QBD's overall effectiveness on offense (sorry, they don't make seven-sided dice), you might even say that the differences are even smaller. For one example, Pittsburgh, the quintessential GIO team, scored 347 points in 2008. San Diego, which led the AFC in scoring, had 439. 439/347 = 1.27, which is close to the 29% difference between a d8 and a d6.

So, assuming that my relatively simplistic assumptions are true, the GIO team does increase its chances of winning using its GIO strategy, but only by a small amount. It would seem to me, then, that teams should cater more to their strengths than to a formula. In the case of the Steelers, with a questionable running game heading into next year, a strong-armed QB (Ben Roethlisberger), and three legitimate receiving threats (Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes, and Heath Miller), maybe they should air it out a bit more. That is, unless Jerome Bettis (or maybe Franco Harris) can come back from retirement.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The non-news update

Two things happened in Vikingland over the weekend. One is important but not unusual, and the other is probably even less important but will have the strong likelihood of erecting mountains where molehills once stood.

* Percy Harvin agreed to a five-year deal with the Vikings today, after missing just two days of training camp. While it's certainly good to have Harvin in camp, his lateness in securing a contract hardly registers as a blip on the notability radar. All the usual pleasantries are brought up in the article ("Coach Brad Childress has said that it was important for get into camp as soon as possible"; "Segal [Harvin's agent] said his client was ready to hit the field immediately") but Harvin's participated in all the team's other off-season activities so his absence will have no effect on his performance this season and beyond. Furthermore, 11 of 32 first-round picks have yet to sign deals with the teams that drafted them, all of them higher picks than Harvin.

I've been skeptical of Harvin, partially due to his off-the-field issues and partially because I lack the confidence to believe in Brad Childress and Darrell Bevell's ability to use him properly. And there have been legitimate rookie holdouts in the past. But if Harvin does have a subpar year, it won't be because of this insignificant "holdout."

* Then there's the story that won't die. This article, which is the top story on ESPN's NFL page, cites the usual contempt the media has for the Vikings' quarterback situation, lamenting the absence of Brett Favre, who we all know would have led the Vikings to a 17-0 record in the regular season and won the Super Bowl twice in the same year. It was posted at 1 p.m. Saturday.

Which is about the same time I heard news of this. And yes, for the first time in my life, I got legitimately worried about Tarvaris Jackson's health.

It wasn't because of the severity of the injury. It's supposed to be a grade 1 (least severe) MCL sprain, meaning that, at most, Jackson will probably miss a little practice and then be back in action. The article even says, "Jackson missed the Vikings’ practice on Saturday night. If he can’t go for the team’s lone practice on Sunday, [Sage] Rosenfels and [John David] Booty will get all the work." Can't be all that serious if they're not even sure he's going to miss any time.

But why should that stop ESPN from reigniting the speculation that nobody wants to hear? When I watched the evening SportsCenter, here's how the lead story went, in a conversation between the lead anchor and a reporter on the scene at Vikings' camp (sorry for not remembering the names):

Anchor: What's the word on Jackson's health?

Reporter: They're saying it's a grade 1 MCL sprain. [10 seconds on how minor that is]

Anchor: I have to ask -- have there been any phone calls to Hattiesburg from Viking camp?

Reporter: Oh, I bet there have been plenty!

Ha ha. I changed the channel at that point. Because you all know that, if Tarvaris Jackson develops an ingrown toenail or Sage Rosenfels gets indigestion, it'll be time to panic and call up ol' #4.

If a legitimate injury happens to both Jackson and Rosenfels, then I would actually be a little more on board with the notion of calling up you-know-who. Since that hasn't happened, well, there's not much to report.