Monday, December 28, 2009

Big Ten Championship Game is Perilous

The Big Ten is actively pursuing a 12th team for the purpose of becoming eligible for a conference championship game. Whether Joe Paterno and Barry Alvarez are pushing for a conference championship game because of the expected financial windfall it would bring, or because they’re actually concerned with the “perception” of the Big Ten as both have claimed remains to be seen. Either way, if the Big Ten adds a member, then a conference championship game is coming to the Big Ten.

The trouble is that I don’t think anyone knows whether that’s a good idea or not. I’ve always been happy with the fact that while the SEC and Big XII lose out on BCS bids because of their conference championship games, the Big Ten gains BCS bids because it doesn’t have one. Despite its reputation as a mediocre conference—a reputation that has often been earned—no other conference has produced more BCS bids than the Big Ten. It’s not a coincidence that the conference without a championship game leads the country in BCS bids. Ironically, Joe Paterno and Barry Alvarez are advocating a Big Ten Championship game because they believe the Big Ten is falling behind in "perception" compared to other conference when, in fact, not having a championship game is the only thing keeping the Big Ten's perception from becoming even worse. The other side of the argument is that the SEC and Big XII bring in enough revenue from their conference championship games that each of their member institutions get roughly a $1 million payout every year that Big Ten schools don’t get.

The default setting for most fans is idealistic rather than materialistic. Fans care a whole lot more about the Big Ten’s reputation—which relies heavily on National Championships, BCS bids, and bowl performance—than they do about how much money the Big Ten rakes in. According to Stewart Mandel, each Big Ten school brings in roughly $22.6 million per year. The additional million that could be added via a Big Ten Championship game seems like “small potatoes” compared to that. Certainly, I wouldn’t think it would be worth losing out on extra BCS bids and National Championship Game appearances. I feel that way, though, because I am a fan and it doesn’t cost me any money to feel that way. If I were a President of a Big Ten school, I might be able to forget about “reputation” for an extra million bucks. So, whether a conference championship game is good for the Big Ten depends entirely on your viewpoint.

I’ve been against a Big Ten Championship game because of the obvious advantage the conference has received by not having one. However, it's hard to deny that strictly financially speaking, it is worth losing a BCS bid every other year if it means an additional $12-$14 million for the conference (which is an estimate of what SEC and Big XII Championship Games bring in annually). A second BCS-bid is worth $4.5 million. So, even if the Big Ten loses a second BCS-bid every year due to a championship game, having the game would still net $9-10 million annually. Obviously, a Big Ten Championship Game would not cause the conference to lose a 2nd BCS bid every year. In fact, it would be much less than that. In the 12 years of the BCS, the SEC has lost just two bids as a result of its championship game and the Big XII hasn’t lost a single bid. That means while the SEC has likely brought in over $100 million from its conference championship game over the last 12 years, it has only lost roughly $9 million due to lost BCS bids. The Big XII—while also likely bringing in over $100+ million over that time—hasn’t lose a single dime from lost BCS bids. Financial people will tell you that’s a pretty good argument for having a conference championship.

I’m not convinced that the Big Ten would be as immune to losing bids as the SEC has been. The Big Ten has received two BCS bids in nine of the twelve years since the BCS was implemented. Of those nine two-bid years, the Big Ten did not have a 3rd team strong enough to factor into the BCS discussion in six of those years. The SEC has been so successful at placing two teams into the BCS despite its conference championship game because it often has more than just two elite teams and/or teams that would still receive a bid even with a loss. #2 Tennessee lost in the SEC Championship Game in 2001 and the SEC still garnered two BCS bids. Alabama and Florida—losers of the last two SEC Championship Games—both received bids despite the losses. Depending on how the Big Ten would’ve been divided up, a Big Ten Championship Game could’ve cost the conference as many as six bids since the BCS began. That would’ve been frustrating from a fan’s perspective, no doubt, but that still only would’ve netted a loss of roughly $27 million which is paltry compared to the $100+ million that would’ve resulted from having the championship game in the first place. So, the Big Ten would almost assuredly lose BCS bids as a result of a championship game and likely at a higher rate than the SEC. However, like the SEC has proven, there is substantial money to be made in the process.

*Since the BCS began in 1998

Although “second” BCS bids are certainly important for bragging purposes, they pale in comparison to being selected to play in a National Championship game. Losing out on that opportunity is much more harmful to a conference’s reputation than losing out on a second BCS bid (although the financial loss is the same, believe it or not). Since the BCS was formed in 1998, the SEC and Big XII have lost a total of five National Championship Game participants. In the SEC’s case, it has lost two guaranteed National Championship scenarios. In 2008, Florida and Alabama played in the SEC Championship Game meaning both could not play in the National Championship Game. Otherwise, two SEC teams would’ve played for the National Championship. The exact same scenario unfolded this season. Meanwhile, the Big Ten hasn’t lost a single BCS bid or National Championship Game participant over the history of the BCS. That is an advantage that has allowed the Big Ten to “save face” during a stretch of disappointing football.

On a school-to-school basis, the idea of a conference championship game will appeal much more to the Indiana and Northwestern’s of the Big Ten. They are unlikely to ever be adversely affected as a result of a conference championship game. They’ll simply cash their $1 million checks and say, “Thank you.” Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn St, however, are the teams that will likely have their roads to a BCS game or the National Championship game made more difficult by the adoption of a championship game despite the foolhardy suggestion to the contrary by the Barry Alvarezes and Joe Paternos of the world. For those schools, the $1 million payout may not be worth it. So, while the money brought in would benefit the conference as a whole, it would unlikely benefit the elite programs of the conference nearly as much. That’s why there might be a divide in opinion of a championship game based on the various fanbases. It’s likely that Ohio St, Michigan, and Penn St., fans will look less favorably on it than fans from other schools. As you can imagine, I’m not happy about the fact that Michigan will probably have to beat Ohio State twice in the same season before it can even play in a National Championship game. The extra $1 million that the Michigan Athletic Department would pocket isn’t nearly worth making that theoretical situation a reality. Considering adding a 12th team would also significantly weaken the Michigan-Ohio State game, make it more difficult for the conference to receive multiple BCS bids, and make it harder for a Big Ten team to get to the National Championship game, the Big Ten better make this a "Notre Dame or bust" situation. Otherwise, Big Ten football is about to change forever and, other than a few lousy bucks, it won't be for the better.

Note: This post assumes that any school that is added would bring $22.6 million (Mandel’s estimate of a break even point) annually to the conference via renegotiated TV contracts and nothing significantly more or less.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Big Ten Division Projections

Given the financial uncertainty that any non-Notre Dame addition would bring to the conference, there is no guarantee that this query into expansion will have a different result than the last two. While certain outspoken figureheads within the conference—most notably Barry Alvarez and Joe Paterno—have expressed a desire to expand, expansion is, by no means, a sure thing especially considering those likely to be at least somewhat opposed are Michigan, Ohio State, and the Big Ten Commissioner. So, any speculation of a non-Notre Dame addition needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

There has been much consternation on the interwebs about the difficulty of breaking the conference into two divisions should a 12th team be added. Nobody wants to see a repeat of the Big XII mess that has resulted in two disproportionate football divisions. The Big Ten needs to learn from the Big XII’s mistakes and make sure that forming two evenly matched divisions is the #1 priority.

Fortunately, I think that will prove to be a fairly easy endeavor if the Big Ten does it right. In fact, it doesn’t even matter which university the Big Ten adds. The dynamics are already in place to form divisions that make sense by virtually every measure. Before I get into what those divisional breakdowns should be, I want to identify some of the elements that need to be considered.

1). In my opinion, the key to perfecting the divisional breakdowns is to put Michigan and Ohio State into separate divisions. If the Big Ten adds a 12th team and moves to the two divisions/championship game format, then the Michigan-Ohio State game will suffer no matter how the divisions are broken up. If they are in the same division, then they can’t play for the championship. If they are in opposite divisions then that presents the very likely possibility of rematches in back to back weeks or, even worse, moving “The Game” to October. The Big Ten does not want a situation like the Big XII where Texas and Oklahoma are in the same division making it impossible for divisional competitiveness and for the two best teams in the conference to play for the championship. As for wanting to avoid the possibility of two Michigan-Ohio State games in one season, I’m not sure why that should even be a consideration. Any time a conference plays a championship game, the possibility of rematches are unavoidable whether it’s Michigan-Ohio State or Illinois-Northwestern.

2). Two equally competitive divisions should be a primary goal.

3). Traditional rivalries should be protected as much as possible.

4). Although it is certainly possible to simply put together competitive divisions irrespective of geography, the goal for a number of reasons should be to accomplish competitiveness with two distinct geographic regions.

If having geographically meaningful divisions is a priority, then there is really only two ways to do it. The Big Ten can opt for a North/South breakdown like the Big XII, or an East/West breakdown like the SEC. The only way to see if either works geographically and competitively is to write it out. I’ll be using Pittsburgh as the 12th team in the following scenarios. It’s pretty obvious right away that an East/West breakdown won’t work. Ohio St., Michigan, Penn St., Michigan St., Pittsburgh and Indiana would be the “East Division” and Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois, Purdue and Northwestern would be the “West Division.” That would present an even more egregious talent discrepancy between divisions than what the Big XII faces. So, East/West is out.

The other option is North/South. The six northern most schools—all north of the 41st parallel—are Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, and Northwestern. The six southern most schools—all south of the 41st parallel— would be Ohio State, Penn State, Illinois, Purdue, Indiana, and Pittsburgh. Since all of the likely 12th-team candidates are south of the 41st parallel, this layout works for any addition whether it be Pittsburgh, Nebraska, Missouri, Rutgers or another school.

A North/South breakdown would be a “slam dunk” competitively. Michigan and Ohio State—historically speaking—are the two best football programs in the conference. Northwestern and Indiana—historically speaking—are the two worst football programs in the conference. Wisconsin, Michigan State, Iowa, and Minnesota are very similar to Penn State, Pittsburgh, Purdue, and Illinois, respectively. By sheer coincidence, I don’t think it’s possible to breakdown the conference more evenly. Geographically and competitively, a North/South divisional breakdown works very well.

Of course, competitiveness and geographic structure aren’t the only considerations. Maintaining existing rivalries is equally important. Fortunately, it looks like a North/South breakdown does a pretty good job of preserving rivalries. There are 11 “permanent” rivalry games acknowledged by the Big Ten. A North/South divisional breakdown would preserve all but four of those games (and since Northwestern-Purdue is a rivalry in name only, it really ends up being all but three).

(games in “green” are inherent to a North/South breakdown; games in “red” are not)

Clearly, Michigan-Ohio State, Michigan State-Penn State, and Illinois-Northwestern are games that absolutely need to be played. Fortunately, the Big Ten would simply need to follow the precedent set by other 12-team conferences which allow for interdivisional games to be protected. For instance, Florida plays LSU every year despite being in different divisions in the SEC. With such a large number of rivalries that would be inherent to a North/South breakdown, it would be very easy for the Big Ten to protect the handful that wouldn’t be.

It seems pretty apparent that having “North” and “South” regions would result in two competitively balanced divisions that make sense geographically while maintaining most existing rivalries. If Pittsburgh is extended an invitation, it would seamlessly transition into a division with longtime rival, Penn State. If it happens to be Notre Dame, then Iowa would move to the “South” division and Notre Dame would play in the “North” where it would maintain existing rivalries with Michigan and Michigan State. Virtually any addition would easily fit into the North/South template.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Big ?

The Big Ten came through with a whopper of an announcement on Tuesday. Nineteen years after adding an 11th team, it will seek out a 12th. Obviously, this decision has huge ramifications for the conference. It foreshadows a huge break from tradition by separating the conference into two divisions with a conference championship game to decide the Big Ten Championship. I will be devoting my next four posts—including this one—to various issues related to the expansion. This post will attempt to identify the best candidate(s). The following three will be about the divisional breakdown, a Big Ten Championship Game, and Notre Dame, respectively.

The last time the conference expanded, it was with Penn State. Although Penn State probably hasn’t fared as well as it would have liked in both football and basketball, I don’t think anyone is unhappy with the addition. In fact, it has been a “perfect fit.” It’s doubtful that this search will yield such an outstanding result simply because the Big Ten didn’t put out a mandate in 1990 looking for an 11th team, or at least not to my knowledge. Penn State wasn’t just an attractive option among a pool of candidates; it was the option. It was added only because it was an obvious match. This attempt at expansion is fueled by a different motive. The Big Ten is actively looking for a 12th team which, like a recent well-known coaching search, could get pretty ugly with offers, denials, and turndowns. With money seemingly a driving motive (not sure expansion even makes sense financially without Notre Dame, however) it’s likely that the Big Ten would “lower its standards” just to get a 12th team in the conference. Still, there are a few attractive options among a number of possible candidates. I would hope that the goal would be to find a school that would make the conference stronger and not just make it eligible to have a conference championship game since that would be a misguided endeavor, in my opinion (more on this next week).

There are a number of teams that have had rumored interest in joining the Big Ten as well as a team or two that the Big Ten has been rumored to have interest in. Some of the names are “marquee” while others are “mediocre.” Here is a list of 13 schools (in alphabetical order) that—for one reason or another—have been discussed as possible options: (in alphabetical order) Cincinnati, Iowa St., Maryland, Missouri, Navy, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, Syracuse, Texas, Vanderbilt, and Virginia. There have been other names brought up but I eliminated schools that have little to offer beyond being located in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s pretty easy to throw together a list of preferences based on attractiveness. However, in the interest of credibility, I’ve rated the 13 schools using a formula based on six weighted factors…

1). Strength of the Football Program (1/4)

Football is the reason we’re having this discussion in the first place so it would make sense to heavily factor the strength of the football program when discussing candidates. Additionally, football is the most visible sport in the Big Ten—as it is in virtually every I-A conference—so finding a team that will fit in with the conference’s rich football tradition is paramount. Four of the six metrics are based on rankings by outside sources (meaning: not me). The “Football” and “Basketball” metrics are based on my opinion albeit a well-informed one. Please forgive the inherit subjectivity in those metrics. Although, I’m not sure using other arbitrary metrics like “all-time wins”, “bowl wins”, “wins in 2008” or any other inflexible measure would be any less subjective.

2). Academics (1/4)

The Big Ten prides itself on academic achievement. Every school in the conference is rated among the top 75 academic institutions in the US News and World Report’s list of top-ranked schools. An addition to the conference would have to live up to that standard. This metric is based on the 2008 US News and World Report’s rankings.

3).Basketball (1/8)

Although football is #1 in the Big Ten, men’s basketball is well ahead of any other sport. It would be nice to add an institution that would strengthen the Big Ten’s basketball reputation but Penn St. proved that isn't a necessity. It would be nice to avoid two consecutive mediocre basketball additions but, competitively speaking, the conference is in good shape regardless.

4). Location (1/8)

Airplanes exist for a reason so “travel” shouldn’t be a deal-breaker. However, 10 of the 11 current Big Ten schools are located in the Midwest with Penn St. just a few hundred miles to the east. The conference is synonymous with the Great Lakes region. It’s unlikely that a school too far outside of the region would add much in the name of interest on either side. Candidates shouldn’t be entirely excluded based on location but it is a factor that should be considered. The schools in this metric are ranked based on their distance from Chicago. While it may seem like an arbitrary location, Chicago is in the middle of the Big Ten footprint and, not coincidentally, is the location of Big Ten Headquarters.

5). Athletics (1/8)

While football and basketball might be the most visible sports, the Big Ten is competitive in virtually every collegiate sport which is reflected in the Sears Cup Standings. Indiana—at a respectable 55th—is the lowest Big Ten school in the standings. The addition of Penn State was a boon in this respect as it has been one of the top athletic programs in the country. The schools in this metric are rated by their place in the 2008-09 Sears Cup Standings.

6). Marketability (1/8)

There is no universal definition for this but the Big Ten certainly needs a school that will bring interest to the conference. “Interest” affects the bottom line which affects everything. In this metric, teams are rated by combining three measures into one. I averaged the Collegiate Licensing Company’s Sales ranking, average home football attendance, and DMA rank (TV market size). This metric should at least roughly estimate the “interest” that the school would bring to the Big Ten.

Rating scale: Schools were rated 1-13 in each category. First place was worth 13 points, second place worth 12 points, and third place worth 11 points and so on. Values were doubled for “Football” and “Academics.”

The results…

Unsurprisingly, Notre Dame is, far and away, the most attractive option ranking at or near the top in every category. Texas—clearly an ideal fit in terms of athletics and academics—trails Notre Dame due solely to its poor “location” score. All things being equal, Texas is the more attractive option of the group. However, Notre Dame is smack dab in the middle of Big Ten country. All of Texas’s athletic might can’t make up for that. Unfortunately, neither Notre Dame nor Texas appear interested in joining the Big Ten. Once we get beyond Notre Dame and Texas, there is a huge drop-off in relative attractiveness. The difference between Texas and the #3 team—Pittsburgh—is greater than the difference between Pittsburgh and the #9 team (Missouri). Pittsburgh has a comfortable margin over the rest of the field making it the most attractive realistic option. After Pittsburgh, the list gets pretty cluttered with a bunch of “meh” options.

Contrary to what some media types think, Rutgers would be a very poor choice. In fact, non-traditional options like Navy and Vanderbilt appear to be better “fits.” Navy, of course, has a horrendous basketball program and that wouldn’t change with a move to the Big Ten. There is no way the Big Ten would accept a school—even one of Navy’s academic and athletic prowess—with such a moribund basketball program. Vanderbilt boasts a poor football program which would also seem to eliminate it as a viable choice. The take away here isn’t where Navy and Vanderbilt rank; rather it’s that Rutgers ranks below both. I would expect/hope that the Big Ten would avoid handing out an invitation to Rutgers at all costs. Missouri—somewhat surprisingly—also loses out to two schools that would never receive an invitation (Navy and Vanderbilt) because of the aforementioned disqualifying factors. According to various sources, Missouri has interest in joining the Big Ten. Mizzou also happens to be one of the schools often linked to Big Ten expansion. However, it would be a far worse choice than most realize. It would immediately become the Big Ten’s weakest academic school by a significant margin. Iowa is currently the lowest rated Big Ten school in US News and World Report’s rankings at #71. Missouri comes in at #102. Although Missouri doesn’t rank particularly low in any category with the exception of “academics”, its overall score is low because it doesn’t rank particularly high in any one category, either. It would do very little to strengthen the conference.

On a personal level, if it’s not Pittsburgh, then I would vote for Nebraska. If not Nebraska, I would vote to cancel the expansion idea. I realize Maryland and Virginia actually rate higher than Nebraska but all three come in with virtually the same score. Maryland and Virginia are too far east to “fit” with the rest of the Big Ten. Plus, neither have attractive football programs and that’s really the driving force behind all of this. The choices should be Notre Dame, Texas, Pittsburgh, and Nebraska in that order. Anything beyond that would be a major disappointment, in my opinion.

So, barring a significant development, it looks like the best realistic choice is Pittsburgh. The only drawback that Pittsburgh would bring besides “not being Notre Dame” is its subpar performance in athletics as a whole. It rated second worst of the 13 teams in the 2009 Sears Cup Final standings—well behind Iowa State, Vanderbilt, and Navy. Still, being uncompetitive in non-revenue sports when the other requisite criteria is met would hardly be a deal breaker. The addition of Pittsburgh would also give Penn State a natural rival which would only bolster the conference. First, though, is a token call to Notre Dame.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

So long, Curtis Granderson (and E-Jax)

It’s rare that I find myself unable to throw support behind one side of an argument or another. Yet, that’s where I am after the Tigers parted with Curtis Granderson and Edwin Jackson. This trade has paralyzed my ability to be supportive or critical. It’s not a familiar feeling. I would be lying if I didn’t say I am a little troubled by the fact that—to this point—I have been unable to defend or lament this trade. I do take comfort in the notion of “grey areas.” Life is full of them and “baseball” is just a part of life. It’s doubtful that I’m going to come out strongly for one position by the end of this post, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth discussing. Who knows, maybe a little analysis will jar loose an opinion.

Dave Dombrowski has said repeatedly that this trade was not the result of a fire sale. I believe him. Granderson makes next to nothing for an all-star centerfielder. If he were trying for a fire sale, then he’d start with Miguel Cabrera. Plus, close to $55 million comes off the payroll after this season. I doubt the Tigers are in such economic disarray that they can’t wait one season for a windfall of financial flexibility. So, if DD isn’t looking to shave off vast amounts of payroll, then why trade a player who isn’t just an under-30 all-star, but perhaps one of the most likable players in all of sports? A large part my indifference to this trade is the lack of a clear motive.

I’m assuming that DD’s motive has at least two parts. First, and probably the lesser of the two, is that the Tigers clearly have chemistry issues. They orchestrated one of the biggest collapses in baseball history by choking away a 7-game lead in September. At various points of the season, both the pitching and hitting could be described as horrendous. Without the ability to make any meaningful upgrades via free agency in the offseason, I doubt even DD could foresee a successful season from an aging team saddled with dead money. So, the idea that “this team needs a change” surely crept into DD’s thought process. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a scenario in which that line of thinking was strong enough to ship away a player of Granderson’s age and value. Surely, that couldn’t have been the only motive. Teams don’t generally part with a young, inexpensive all-star just to “make a change.”

The other part—and I think this is why the trade could never be described as a huge loss from a Tigers perspective—is that, relatively speaking, Granderson isn’t that good. Sure he’s an All-Star but his splits also produce some frightening numbers. He is a career .210 hitter against lefties. That number is so poor that it has become increasingly difficult to describe Grandy without mentioning the word, “platoon.” Additionally, he's also a less-than-ideal leadoff hitter. To no fault of his own, Granderson was forced into the leadoff role. The problem is that his OBP is woeful. It was just .327 this past season. As productive as he has been at times, he is a baseball player with undeniable faults. If DD felt that Grandy was at his peak value, then getting a team to overpay while simultaneously ridding his team of those faults probably sounded like a good proposition.

DD’s rationale for getting rid of Granderson has to lie somewhere within the above two paragraphs. From purely a baseball perspective, I can understand wanting to improve the team’s ability to get on base. What makes this whole thing so interesting and weird, though, is how little Granderson is going to make over the next four years ($5.5 million in '10, $8.25 million in '11, $10 million in '12, and $13 million in '13). Faults or not, I don’t think there is a team in the league that wouldn’t gladly pay Granderson that much money over the next four years. I give DD a ton of credit for being willing to buck conventional wisdom and make an atypical move while managing to attract rave reviews by doing so.

Interestingly, I’ve spent five paragraphs trying to figure out whether this trade was a good idea or not and haven’t once mentioned what the Tigers got in return. The “return” tends to be the most important aspect of a trade but that takes a backseat in this deal. Granderson’s value around the league is so high that he was going to fetch a fair return regardless of the trade partner. The first question on my mind—before even considering what the Tigers got in return—was whether it makes sense to trade Granderson in the first place considering his production and cost. Although I admit it's unconventional, I think it does make sense.

I’m much less confused by Edwin Jackson’s departure. He was a pleasant surprise in 2009—or at least the first half—and was probably the most responsible for how much better the Tigers were in ’09 than in ‘08. However, his second half numbers were brutal (5.00+ ERA and a 1.50+ WHIP). The psyche of a pitcher is so fickle that there is no guarantee that Jackson will bounce back from his poor second half; especially since he just recently found success for the first time. Look no further than the mental/control issues that Tigers pitchers have gone through over the last few seasons. Jeremy Bonderman, Armando Galarraga, Dontrelle Willis and even to some extent Justin Verlander have all paired good years with bad years. Odds are Jackson will thrive in the National League but cashing him in at a time when his value is at an all-time high is something I cannot criticize. He’ll probably get a $3 million raise via arbitration this season and then command $10-12 million per year as a free agent after the season. That’s a pretty big commitment to a guy with such a short history of success.

Now that I’ve argued that giving up Granderson and Jackson—despite their age and production—isn’t crazy, I suppose it might make some sense to discuss what the Tigers got in return. Baseball analysts were nearly universal in their praise of the package the Tigers received from the D-Backs and Yankees. Despite the praise, the jury will be out on this trade for quite a while. Three of the four players—Austin Jackson, Daniel Schlereth, and Phil Coke—are of the dreaded “prospect” variety. The most seasoned of the three is Coke who has played just one unremarkable season. Coke and Diet Coke Schlereth are expected to provide depth to the bullpen. What’s puzzling about DD’s insistence on getting two green relievers in return is that he spent nearly the entire 2008 draft on relievers. I hope this isn’t a sign that he’s not happy with the return on that investment. Jackson might be the most lauded player in the deal considering he was the #1 rated player in the Yankees farm system. His repertoire and production are very similar to Granderson’s. However, DD obviously didn’t sweat parting with Granderson so even at his absolute ceiling, Jackson would develop into a guy that DD just sent away in his prime. All three are top-ten organizational prospects but I’m not convinced that any of the three will achieve anything more than marginal success.

The last piece—and perhaps the most important—is Max Scherzer. He has the highest ceiling of the four players, IMO. He is a 25-year old power arm who fits the mold of the classic DD pitcher. With Casey Crosby, Jacob Turner, and Andrew Oliver not ready for the majors and Jeremy Bonderman, Nate Robertson, and Dontrelle Willis as unreliable as my Pontiac Grand Am, the Tigers will need Scherzer to mirror Edwin Jackson’s production from last season. He isn’t just important to Detroit’s long-term success, he’ll go a long way in determining whether the Tigers can contend for the division next season.

In the end, I don’t mind that DD traded away Granderson and Jackson. I don’t believe either is irreplaceable. However, despite what the baseball community seems to think, I don’t think there is a whole lot of “upside” in the players the Tigers got in return. Granderson and Jackson were under-30 all-stars. I don’t see two under-30 all-stars in this group. Predictably, I’m ending this post where it started: with ambivalence.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Why Texas?

Thanks to the convenient and uneven allocation of “clock stoppage” rules by Big XII referees, Texas narrowly escaped Nebraska in the Big XII Championship Game. It was Texas’s worst showing of the season in its most important game. Unfortunately, “how Texas played” was always going to be irrelevant. It was preordained 100+ years ago that even a sloppy win would put Texas in the BCS Championship Game over Cincinnati, TCU, and Boise State. The latter three programs are up-starts. Before it ever got to a resume-comparison, the scrutinizing stopped at the name, “Texas.”

College football needs a playoff. It has always needed a playoff. It is the only major sport dumb enough to avoid the most exciting part of any athletic calendar. The result has been paper champions and insufferable controversy. This season has been no different. Since only two teams can play for the National Championship, non-BCS schools—or schools from the Big East that are often treated as non-BCS schools—are usually overlooked because they simply can’t match the average strength of schedule of a BCS school. Weighing schedule strength seems to be the fairest methodology to an unfair system. What isn’t fair, though, is coming to a decision based on “traditionism,” or simply assuming that the bigger name has the better resume. Sure, in most cases, an undefeated team from a major BCS conference will have a more impressive resume than an undefeated team from a weaker conference. The problem is that “most cases” doesn’t equal “all cases.” Voters still need to do their due diligence by actually comparing resumes. Simply assuming that Texas deserves to be in the BCS Title Game over TCU, Boise State and Cincinnati because it’s “Texas” is lazy and ignorant. It only takes a few seconds to compare resumes and come to the conclusion that, yes, despite a marquee win or two and an impressive average margin of victory, TCU and Boise State do not have schedules that compare to Texas’s. In these instances, conventional wisdom holds true.

What about Cincinnati? I’m not sure “people” (voters, fans, coaches, Ginny Sack, whoever) understand just how weak Texas’s resume is. The Big XII was arguably the best conference in college football last season. This season? Not so much. Oklahoma without Sam Bradford has been mediocre. Kansas spiraled to a fiery death. Texas Tech and Missouri took giant steps back. Oklahoma State was slightly disappointing. It wasn’t until the Big XII Championship Game that Texas met any resistance and that was against an offensively-challenged Nebraska-team. It’s difficult to point to any victory on Texas’s resume as “overly impressive” with the possible exception of its 27-point win over an Oklahoma State team that also lost to Oklahoma by 27-points and Houston. I don’t think there is a “signature win” on the entire schedule. It doesn’t help that the non-conference slate featured UCF, Wyoming, Louisiana Monroe, and UTEP. Without a marquee non-conference opponent, Texas didn’t really even have an opportunity for a “signature win.”

Cincinnati wasn’t any more impressive than Texas but I’m not sure it was less impressive, either. The Bearcats had two impressive road wins over Oregon State and Pittsburgh. They had three victories over the RPI 20 and seven over the RPI 55. Texas had two and six, respectively. Cincy had three wins in the BCS top 25 (#16, #17, and #18). Texas had just two (#19 and #22). Despite playing in a conference that is often criticized and/or dismissed entirely, Cincinnati managed to put together a pretty damn good collection of wins. In fact, Cincinnati actually had a higher “computer score” in the BCS rankings than Texas. I realize that “margin of victory” does play a part in a resume-comparison but whatever small advantage Texas has in that metric is offset by Cincy’s slight advantage in quality wins.

*Margin of victory in parenthesis

**RPI from here.

I’m not suggesting that Cincinnati is better than Texas or that Texas doesn’t deserve to be in the BCS Championship Game. After being famously stonewalled from the Championship Game last season, it’s tough to argue that Texas doesn’t deserve to be there this season. I’m just saying that Cincinnati has every right to be there, too, and not in a “every undefeated team deserves a shot at the championship” kind of way. The Bearcats were unfairly clumped with TCU and Boise State as “feel good” stories. They were never given serious consideration by the “powers that be” because everyone just assumed that Texas had a stronger resume. Few are complaining because who really wants to see Cincinnati in the BCS Championship Game over Texas? Obviously, the idiocy of the BCS necessitates the selection of one undefeated team over another. This is usually done by assumptions. In the case of TCU and Boise State, those assumptions turned out to be correct. For Cincinnati, though, they might be playing for a National Championship if anyone bothered to look at their resume. Hopefully, this will be the last time this happens.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Don't Feel Bad for the Nets

The Nets picked up their first win of the season over the weekend which wouldn’t be such a big deal if it was the first night or even the first month of the season. A whopping 36 days elapsed in the 2009 NBA regular season before the Nets got a “W.” Teams don’t lose 18 consecutive games on accident. The Nets are horrendous. They’ve lost by an average margin of 11.3 points per game. Six of their 18 losses have come against the 76ers (2), T-Wolves, Wizards, Pacers and the Knicks who are a combined 27-71. This team isn’t remotely close to being good this season and it will likely threaten the record futility of the ’73 76ers for fewest wins in an 82-game season (9).

Considering the Nets started the season 0-18, I’m certainly not telling you anything you didn’t already know by saying they’re dreadful. What you might not know is that New Jersey's ineptitude isn’t a fluke or even unexpected. In fact, New Jersey’s brass purposefully put the Nets in a position to be terrible this season. Clearly, they had no idea that their team would be this poor, but I think it would be a mischaracterization to suggest that anyone in the Nets organization is truly upset by what has transpired this season. They might even be happy about it.

Despite its record, New Jersey boasts two All-Star caliber players under the age of 27 along with a young and talented supporting cast. Brook Lopez (21)—in just his second season—has become a beast in the post. He is already one of the top five true centers in the NBA. Devin Harris (26) is an elite point guard (21 ppg and 7 apg in ’08) who is one of the top penetrators in the league. The Nets also have first round pick Terrance Williams (22), Chris Douglas-Roberts (22), and Courtney Lee (24). All three have been major contributors this season. It’s not the age of these players that could have New Jersey playing in the NBA Finals in the near future, however. It’s the salary. Lopez, Harris, Douglas-Roberts, Williams, and Lee will make a combined $15.8 million next season. There are 18 players in the NBA this season alone that make more than that. Oh, and did I mention that $30 million is coming off the payroll at the end of the season?

The Nets have long been rumored to be one of the leaders to land LeBron James when he becomes a free agent next summer. My guess is that will depend considerably on whether ownership can overcome opposition to their planned move to Brooklyn. It’s possible that LeBron ends up with the “Brooklyn” Nets but for the purposes of this post, I’m going to assume that doesn’t happen. While it would make winning a championship easier, the Nets don’t need to come away with LeBron next season. The “Summer of LeBron” is full of headliners including D-Wade, Dirk, Amare, Chris Bosh, Carlos Boozer, and Joe Johnson. Regardless of how the LeBron situation goes down, the Nets will be in position to add a superstar.

Earlier I mentioned that New Jersey’s front office might actually be happy with the way things have turned out this season. That’s because a "1-18 start" generally coincides with having the #1 overall pick in the draft. Assuming the Nets win the lottery, they will land a superstar. Who they choose will depend on which free agent they’re able to sign. If they come away with a big man (Dirk, Amare, Bosh etc.), to pair with Lopez, then they’ll probably take Kentucky’s John Wall who has drawn comparisons to Derrick Rose. If they land a backcourt player (LeBron, Wade, Joe Johnson), then they’ll probably take Georgia Tech’s Derrick Favors who is a dominant power forward in the mold of Chris Bosh. Either way, the Nets are going to come away from the 2010 Draft with a superstar.

Even with $30 million to burn in the “Summer of LeBron” and the likely #1 pick in the NBA Draft to go along with Lopez and Harris, the Nets aren’t guaranteed to win championship but they’d have to make some horrible decisions to not at least contend. The extent to which the Nets can challenge for a title will depend on who they’re able to sign next summer. If it’s a good-but-not-great player like Joe Johnson, then it could be a few years before we know how good this team can become. If it’s someone like Chris Bosh or Amare Stoudemire, then this team is going to be a force in the Eastern Conference. If ownership can move this team to Brooklyn and get LeBron on board, then it’s not a matter of “if” the Nets will win a championship but rather “how many?”

Thursday, December 03, 2009

The Perfect Super Bowl

Despite having two of the best offenses in the league, Indianapolis and New Orleans aren’t necessarily the most attractive markets for the NFL. Sure, die-hard fans know the deal but they make up just a small percentage of the reported billion people who watch the Super Bowl worldwide. Look no further than the moribund ratings that resulted from the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays playing in the World Series for evidence of just how important getting the right markets into the playoffs are for our various professional franchises. While not nearly as unattractive as the Rays, the Saints and Colts aren’t likely to draw record ratings—unless, of course, there was something compelling about those two particular teams facing each other like, I don’t know, both being undefeated…

Both New Orleans and Indianapolis stand undefeated at 11-0. They’ve gotten there two very different ways—the Colts have six wins by four points or less; the Saints have zero wins by four points or less—but they’ve gotten there nonetheless. In previous seasons, teams that started off the year with a string of victories would be dismissed by the foolish notion that “it’s impossible to go undefeated.” Until 2007, nobody had done it before. The ’07 Pats changed that and now undefeated threats are viewed as just that: threats. The Saints and Colts aren’t threats to go undefeated because the Pats did it—although some people probably think this—rather they’re threats because they’re really good football teams and have really easy schedules to close out the regular season.

With Denver’s freefall, the only team on either schedule that appears to be a challenge record-wise is Dallas. While 8-3 is nothing to scoff at, I don’t know anyone—granted I don’t know everyone—who expects the Cowboys to go to New Orleans and stay within 10 points of the Saints let alone win. Barring a major upset, the Saints should breeze (or Brees) to the final week of the season undefeated. A better bet to challenge the Saints is Atlanta who gave Drew Brees and Co. a battle in New Orleans in Week 8. This time the game takes place in the Georgia Dome and Atlanta will be fighting for a playoff spot.

The Colts would appear to have the same easy path but due to the sheer number of close games they have played against weak teams, five more wins don’t seem as inevitable as it does for the Saints. Odds are if the Colts continue tussling with teams well into the fourth quarter, they’re eventually going to lose. Still, based on schedules alone, the Colts and Saints seem to be pretty good bets to get to 15-0.

That is where the biggest obstacle to perfection would come into play. More so than any single opponent, “week 17” could be the biggest roadblock to undefeated seasons for the Saints and Colts. Both teams would have to make the decision to either go for perfection with playoff positioning already decided, or play backups to rest starters and avoid potential injuries. In 2007, with nothing other than a “perfect season” to gain, the Patriots went for it. They beat the Giants in a game that would end up costing them more than they gained. The Pats got the perfect season but the Giants got the confidence and game-plan that allowed them to defeat the Pats in a rematch just weeks later in Super Bowl XLII. It remains to be seen whether Jim Caldwell or Sean Payton would risk postseason success for a regular season distinction. The allure of the “perfect season” isn’t as palpable as it was before the Patriots became the first team to accomplish the feat in the 16-game era back in ‘07. Even if Bill Belichick’s decision to go for the perfect record wasn’t the reason his team didn’t win the Super Bowl—I’m not convinced that it was the wrong decision since there was no way to know that he would have to face the Giants in the Super Bowl—I wouldn’t be surprised if Caldwell and Payton simply look at the fact that a perfect regular season meant nothing for the Patriots in ’07. The ultimate goal for every coach is to win the Super Bowl. It’s possible that these guys will pass on chasing after a “novelty prize” merely to avoid being second-guessed down the road.

If either chooses to rest their starters in Week 17, then the perfect marks are as good as gone. Both Carolina and Buffalo are conference rivals who would relish the opportunity to ruin a perfect season. Even more daunting for the Saints and Colts’ backups would be playing in hostile road environments. It really comes down to whether Caldwell and Payton want to go undefeated. If they do, the schedule is there for the taking. If they don’t, then they’ll rest their starters in Week 17 and, who knows, maybe they’ll accidentally win.

In the event that both “go for it” and make it, the NFL would just be five weeks from the greatest Super Bowl storyline in NFL history: the Perfect Super Bowl. I can’t even imagine the intrigue and hyperbole that would go into a game of this magnitude. The Brees vs. Manning matchup at quarterback alone would be enough ammunition for weeks of analysis and fodder. That wouldn’t even be one of the top three storylines. Those would be reserved for the rise of the Saints following Hurricane Katrina, Peyton Manning entering the discussion of G.O.A.T. with a second Super Bowl ring, and Indy’s Jim Caldwell possibly becoming the first coach in NFL history to win a Super Bowl in his first season. You’ll probably even see a sudden media obsession with importance of playing home games in domes.

Obviously, this is all a long way from happening. In fact, it won’t be a realistic possibility until halftime of the conference championship games. The odds are just not favorable. Thanks to the ’07 Patriots, we can calculate just how unfavorable the odds are for two teams going undefeated in the same regular season. Since only one team has gone 16-0 in the 30 16-game regular seasons since 1978, that puts the odds of both the Saints and Colts doing it this season at (1/30)(2) or, 1 in 900. The odds of both continuing their perfect seasons all the way through to the Super Bowl are obviously much, much lower. The Colts would have to contend with the Patriots for a second time. The Pats dominated the majority of their Week 10 tilt in Indy before letting the Colts back into the game. The Saints will have to contend with the Minnesota Vikings which might just be the best team in the NFL. If the Saints get to the playoffs undefeated, they will get the Vikings in New Orleans and should get the “W.” Interestingly, the Vikings have a very good chance of finishing 15-1. Only five teams in NFL history have equaled or beaten that mark. That makes the odds of having two undefeated teams and a 15-1 team all in the same NFL-season 1 in 5,400.

While all of this is nice to envision, the “Perfect Super Bowl” is unlikely to happen. What’s likely to happen, however, is an amazing NFL postseason. It’s probable that the conference championship games will feature the four best quarterbacks in the NFL with Indianapolis vs. New England and New Orleans vs. Minnesota. Those are games that every fan should be begging to see (I know I am). In fact, I would say that they would be pretty close to a perfect pair of championship games which is really all the perfection I'm looking for. Any more than that would just be gravy; albeit the extra succulent variety made with turkey giblets that Martha Stewart coincidentally calls, "Perfect Turkey Gravy."

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Heisman Race

The 2009 Heisman Trophy race is shaping up to be the most compelling since, well, last season. The 2008-race was perhaps the most exciting three-man race in college football history. It was so whacky that the third-place finisher received more first place votes than the winner. This year’s stage doesn’t have the same hyperbole as we saw last season and for good reason. Although there have been the requisite number of solid performers, nobody has stood out quite like the contenders from last season. Case in point, Colt McCoy and Tim Tebow are likely to be the top two quarterbacks in the Heisman voting. They have 29 and 30 total touchdowns, respectively. When Tebow won in ’07, he had 55. When Sam Bradford won in ’08, he had 55. Heck, McCoy and Tebow had 45 and 42, respectively, in losing efforts last season.

What this season doesn’t have in gaudy statistics, however, it more than makes up for in voting uncertainty. Just a week ago, sports publications—as well as Vegas bookies—were in agreement that Alabama’s Mark Ingram was the clear frontrunner. A mediocre performance against Auburn last weekend and four monumental performances by the other players in the race have changed things significantly. Check out how costly college football’s 12th week was to Ingram:

Not only is Ingram unlikely the overall leader in the Heisman race anymore, he’s not even the top running back. That distinction goes to Stanford’s Toby Gerhart who has stolen “Touchdown” Tommy Vardell’s nickname with the greatest rushing season in Stanford history. Don’t count Ingram out, just yet. Gerhart’s resume-building ended on Saturday. Ingram will play on the biggest of stages against Florida in the SEC Championship Game. If Ingram has a signature performance, then he could shoot right to the top again.

Gerhart and Ingram are unquestionably the top two running back contenders, but if you have a sense of history, then you’re probably aware of the affinity that voters have for quarterbacks. The Heisman has gone to a signal-caller the last three seasons and eight of the last nine overall. There’s a better than even chance that you’ll see that trend continue this season. The three biggest winners on Saturday besides Stanford’s touchdown machine were quarterbacks. The Holy Man put up five touchdowns in a throttling of Florida State. Colt McCoy threw down five against Texas A&M, and Kellen Moore held serve with five of his own.

With the exception of Ingram, a strong case could be made for any of the above players. Considering Ingram was the near-unanimous leader as of last week, who knows what next week will bring. With the conference championships this weekend, McCoy, Tebow, and Ingram will have an opportunity to make their cases for the award. Stanford is done until its bowl game and Kellen Moore has hapless New Mexico State to beat up on. If nobody asserts themselves this weekend, then look for Gerhart—and Moore with a big game—to stay in the race.

I don’t see Moore appealing to voters in most regions. He will have the gaudiest statistics but he’ll have beaten just one ranked team and that was 12 weeks ago in the season-opener at Oregon. The days of quarterbacks from weaker conferences winning the award with gaudy statistics ended with Andre Ware and Ty Detmer 20 years ago. Moore might get an invite to NYC, but he seems to be headed for a 5th-place finish.

Ingram could reclaim his lead with a huge game against Florida but that seems unlikely considering Florida’s defense and his ineffectiveness against Auburn. Without something eye-opening, it’s impossible to place Ingram ahead of Gerhart considering the vast statistical edge in favor of Gerhart. Ingram is a sophomore and plays for a loaded team. It’s doubtful he’ll finish better than 4th place.

The fact that Tebow’s name was even in the Heisman discussion for most of the season was just out of respect for his career accomplishments. His early-season concussion combined with a less-explosive-than-normal Florida offense has his numbers way down from last season and infinitesimal compared to two years ago. Eight touchdowns in his last two games brought his seasonal statistics to a more respectable level and give him an opportunity to really make things interesting with a stellar performance against Alabama. The problem is that “stellar against Alabama” means two touchdowns and not a lot of yards. There’s a good chance that Tebow and Ingram will split the South Region making it difficult for either to seriously contend for the award.

Gerhart is on the wrong end of some nasty west-coast discrimination. While Stanford isn’t in the same class as Alabama and Florida, the Cardinal has beaten USC, Notre Dame, and Oregon in high-profile games. Gerhart averaged 202 rushing yards and three touchdowns in those games. If he put up those numbers playing for USC or Notre Dame, he’d have his name on the trophy already. He leads the NCAA in rush attempts, rushing yards, and rushing touchdowns. He should strongly carry the Far West Region but it’s doubtful he has enough name recognition nationally to win.

Although few are saying it, I think Colt McCoy has to be the overwhelming favorite at this point. He has no competition in the Big XII. He’ll easily carry the South West Region and he’ll show up on voter ballots in every region. He has a huge advantage over Ingram and Tebow because, unlike those two, he doesn’t have the task of playing a stout defense this weekend. He’ll likely have his way with Nebraska which should give him the best “last impression” before voters send in their ballots. I also think the fact that McCoy very easily could’ve won last year might sneak into the voting process. I’m guessing there will be a large sentiment among voters that it’s “his turn.” Plus, he arguably has the best resume...

Click image to enlarge.

The only outcome that could change McCoy’s likely Heisman win is if Texas loses to Nebraska. That’s not going to happen. Nebraska is generously a 14-point underdog and if Texas’s success against the Big XII North this season is any indication, it’ll be much worse than that. The Longhorns beat Missouri, Kansas, and Colorado by an average of 30 points.

If McCoy wins, a Tebow vs. McCoy showdown in the National Championship Game would continue a recent trend of Heisman winners playing against each other. Interestingly, they've all come in the National Championship Game. Through the first 69 years of the Heisman Trophy, no two winners had faced each other. If McCoy and Tebow meet in Pasadena, it will be the third time in the last five years. I would venture to say that the odds of going 0 for 69 and then 3 for 5 are pretty small. Maybe "playing for the best team" is more important now than it has ever been when it comes to handing out Heisman votes. Or, maybe team success is predicated more on having the best player than ever before.

Monday, November 23, 2009

B to the G

Lost in the disappointment of another losing season and a sixth consecutive loss to Ohio State was the final game of one of the greatest players to ever put on a winged-helmet. Brandon Graham’s career ended too early and unceremoniously on Saturday. Unlike most of the great Michigan players of the past, Graham has been saddled with the misfortune of playing for poor Michigan teams. In fact, his junior and senior seasons produced the worst two-year stretch Michigan has seen in 46 years. Unfortunately, that might overshadow Graham’s true brilliance. In the 20+ years I have followed Michigan football, Graham is the second best defensive player I have seen. Believe it or not, I think the gap between BG and Charles Woodson is much closer than most people realize. The only major difference between the two defensively (obviously, CW was a punt returner and wide receiver) is that Woodson played for a loaded National Championship team while Graham was a one-man show on the worst defense in school history.

Before I get into just how great #55 was, I want to commend him on his insatiable work ethic and enviable character. I would be willing to bet that no player in the history of Michigan football was double-teamed more often than Graham. I would be willing to bet that no player in the history of Michigan football played for more defensive coordinators. I would also be willing to bet that no great player has been less appreciated. The Michigan football of the last two years is not the football program that Graham signed up to play for. He was a five-star, can’t miss defensive powerhouse coming out of high school. He literally could’ve played football anywhere. The lows of these last two years could not have even entered his mind as a possibility when he committed to Michigan. How could they? Michigan had been to 31 consecutive bowl games when he made his commitment. Brandon Graham got a raw deal. Instead of bitching about it, transferring, or entering the NFL Draft like many of his Michigan teammates did, Graham hit the weight room harder than ever and came out a physical specimen that would make Mike Mamula proud. He took responsibility every week for the defense’s poor play, vowed to work harder in practice, and continued to give the effort of a player suiting up for a National Championship game. It’s easy to get motivated when your goals are still in front of you. It’s a whole different task to do so when they aren't. Graham deserves so much more credit than simply being considered an all-time great player. He has been one of the great leaders in Michigan football history, as well.

Graham, of course, has great character but I wouldn’t be writing about him right now if that was the end of it. He was a great football player, too. His senior season was one of the most prolific in Michigan football history. He leads the NCAA in Tackles for Loss (TFLs) with 25 which is the fourth highest total in the Michigan record books. He also added 9.5 sacks, two blocked punts, two forced fumbles, and a touchdown. He should be a lock as a First Team All-American and his NFL Draft status has skyrocketed as scouts have rapidly become familiar with his freakish combination of strength and quickness.

While there is little question that Graham’s senior season at Michigan was fantastic, it is his career that will be remembered for many years to come. He finished second on both the all-time career TFLs and Sacks list at Michigan which is impressive in itself but even more so when his wasted true freshman year is factored in. Graham’s redshirt was burnt in a year in which he was merely a bystander to a very deep and very good Michigan defense. He made three tackles as a freshman where he spent virtually all of his time on the sidelines. The fact that he didn’t play much was no surprise considering Michigan’s defensive line was stout with Alan Branch, Terrance Taylor, Lamar Woodley, Shawn Crable, Tim Jamison, Will Johnson, and Rondell Biggs. In retrospect, however, the fact that Graham had a year of eligibility wasted is a travesty. The fact that he was able to do what he did in just three years is truly phenomenal. Mark Messner—Michigan’s all-time leader in both TFLs and Sacks—started all 49 games of his Michigan career after redshirting as a true freshman. Graham—with his wasted redshirt and bowl-less junior and senior years—started just 31 games. I bet you know where this is headed…

Comparing Graham’s number at face value is a disservice to what he actually accomplished as a regular player. Not including his wasted freshman season, Graham is the greatest per game defensive lineman in Michigan football history. Messner—a two-time All-American—recorded 1.43 TFLs per game and .73 sacks per game as a starter. Graham—in his sophomore, junior, and senior seasons—averaged 1.51 TFLs/G and .78 sacks/G. That includes eight games as a sophomore in which he didn’t start. Despite being a full-time starter for just two seasons, Graham holds a number of distinguishable accomplishments. He and Messner are the only two players in Michigan history with two seasons of 20+ TFLs. Graham is the only player in Michigan history with three seasons of at least 8.5 sacks. He is the only player in Michigan history with three games of 3+ sacks. He is second All-Time to Lamar Woodley in Forced Fumbles with eight. His numbers are certainly impressive on their own but become even more so when put into context.

*All-Time Michigan leader, **2nd All-Time

Since Graham was the only star on two of Michigan’s worst defensive units ever, he was met with constant double-teams and run plays in the opposite direction. The fact that he was still able to put up over 2 TFLs/G over that time is amazing. It will be easy to overlook just how dominating Graham was at Michigan because of the turmoil that surrounded his junior and senior seasons. Fans aren’t exactly seeking out superlatives to describe the schools worst defense in history or the players who were a part of it. Still, an exception absolutely needs to be made for #55. As I mentioned earlier, he is the second best defensive player I have seen at Michigan just a half-step below Charles Woodson. Considering Woodson was arguably the greatest defensive player in college football history, that is saying something. Through a period of great struggle and change at Michigan, Brandon Graham left everything on the field. If his teammates want to honor his contributions, they can start by doing the same.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

How to win an NBA Championship

Although it may have come two years too late, Joe D has finally decided to go full bore into the rebuilding process. Chauncey Billups and Rasheed Wallace are gone. Rip Hamilton’s future as a Piston is tenuous at best with the signing of Ben Gordon. Rebuilding is difficult for any franchise but it’s especially difficult for the Detroit Pistons. Few marquee free agents would even begin to consider living in Detroit over, say, Miami or Los Angeles. That means the Pistons front office has to build its team via the draft, trades, and savvy free agent signings. The acquisitions of Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace, and Chauncey Billups are respective examples of such transactions. It’s certainly possible to build a successful team without the benefit of elite free agents—the Pistons proved that in ’89 and ’90 and then again with an entirely different cast in ’04—but I’m sure Joe D will tell you it’s much easier to throw bags of money at Kevin Garnett and watch him go. Barring Rodney Stuckey being permanently possessed by the wandering spirit of Michael Jordan, Joe D is going to have to plan his next moves very carefully because he didn’t do himself any favors over the summer.

If Joe D is going to build the Pistons into a championship contending franchise again, he will need to adhere to the precedents that NBA Champions have set over the last 30 years. After analyzing all of the NBA Champs since 1980, I have found four distinct traits that characterize every single championship team over that span. All four traits were not present on every team. Some teams had all four while others had fewer. However, every team had at least two of the traits.

Here are the four characteristics (refer to the chart below for traits of past 30 NBA Champs):

1). Dominate the Paint.

There is a reason why most of the elite big men of the last 30 years have championship rings—Kareem, Moses Malone, Hakeem, Shaq, David Robinson, Tim Duncan, and Kevin Garnett. It’s the same reason Don Nelson never won an NBA Championship as a coach and likely the reason he ended up going postal.

2). Have the best player in the game.

Over the last 30 years, at one time or another, Kareem, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Hakeem, Tim Duncan, Shaq, and Kobe were the best player in the NBA. In fact, all had multiple years of being the best player in the NBA. Not coincidentally, all have multiple championship rings.

3). Have an all-star trio (or more).

The Lakers and Celtics owned the 80s with two of the best teams in NBA history. The Lakers were led by the stellar triumvirate of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and James Worthy. The Celtics countered with Larry Legend, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parrish. Twenty five years later, the Lakers and Celtics have again won championships with the same formula. The Boston Three Party brought the C’s a championship in ’08 and the Lakers followed that with Kobe, Pau Gasol, and Lamar Odom (filling in for an injured Andrew Bynum).

4). Have an elite defense.

Many times, the best players in the NBA—MJ, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Kobe etc.—are already the best defenders. So, #2 (best player) and #4 (defense) often go together. However, that’s not always the case. The Detroit Pistons have won three championships in the last 20 years without having one of the top five players in the NBA. In fact, Isiah Thomas was the only player on any of the three Pistons championship teams who was among the top 15 players in the NBA.

Click image to enlarge

While Joe D contemplates his next move in the rebuilding process, he needs to make sure that he is putting together a team that will eventually exhibit at least two of these characteristics. As I mentioned earlier, Trait #2 (best player) is not realistic for the Pistons. So, Joe will need to form some combination of numbers one, three, and four if he expects the Pistons to compete for championships again. One problem that he will need to contend with is how the signings of Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva hinder the chances of reaching those traits. For instance, Gordon and Villanueva are far from elite defenders. Remember, Trait #4 (defense) was present in all three of Detroit’s championships. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that it will have to be a staple of this team moving forward if it is going to challenge again. That means that Joe’s next acquisitions—most likely following the departures of both Rip and Tayshaun—will need to include an elite defensive player. The Pistons don’t just need to aspire to have a good defense, they need an elite defense. Dennis Rodman and Joe Dumars were two of the best defenders in the NBA (Rodman was THE best) when the Pistons won back-to-back titles in ’89 and ’90. Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace were two of the best defenders in the NBA (Big Ben was THE best) when the Pistons won in ’04. The Pistons, unfortunately, don’t have any budding defensive stalwarts which makes it hard to imagine this team becoming an elite defensive unit any time soon.

The other two options—#1 (paint domination) and #3 (all-star trio)—are probably more realistic at this point simply because they can be achieved with just one signing. The problem is that elite big men capable of dominating the paint are few and far between. Chris Bosh, Amare Stoudamire, Carlos Boozer, Dirk Nowitzki, and Yao are all big men that could be available next summer in free agency. All are huge offensive threats but, unfortunately, none are the type of dominant two-way big man that has owned the NBA Finals over the past 30 years or more. In fact, all five are mediocre defenders at best. It’s important to point out that no champion of the last 30 years has won with traits #1 (paint domination) and #3 (all-star trio), only. That is one combination that just hasn’t worked. So, even if the Pistons do manage to sign Carlos Boozer or Chris Bosh in free agency resulting in an elite paint presence and a trio of all-stars (assuming Ben Gordon and Rodney Stuckey/Charlie Villanueva can get to that level), they will still need to come up with trait #4 (elite defense). As I mentioned earlier, the Pistons are virtually ineligible for trait #2 (best player) and no team has won with just traits #1 (paint domination) and #3 (all-star trio). That means that the Pistons have to make trait #4 (elite defense) part of the equation. It also means that the Pistons will almost certainly need traits #1, #3, and #4 to get back to a championship level.

With Rodney Stuckey, Ben Gordon, and Charlie Villanueva part of Detroit’s long-term future, the Pistons are left with only two starting positions available to complete the transformation. If Boozer or Bosh is signed, that would leave the center position as the only open spot in the starting lineup. Since the Pistons would still need to make trait #4 (elite defense) part of the equation, it would obviously have to be an elite defensive center. If Joe D was working with a clean slate, there would be any number of ways to build a championship team using the above formula. However, since he has painted himself into a corner with the Gordon and Villanueva signings, there is really only one way that this process can end with a championship caliber-team. He needs an elite offensive power forward, and an elite defensive center. Those just happen to be the two hardest things to find in the NBA.

One additional thing that Joe D needs is to get rid of Rip and Tayshaun. He can’t do anything without their contracts off the books. Assuming that happens, though, Joe will have every opportunity to get the two players that he needs next summer. As I mentioned, there will be no shortage of offensively proficient power forwards next summer. Yao is a center and a huge injury risk but the other four (Amare, Bosh, Boozer, and Dirk) are more than good enough to be a force in the paint. As for the final piece, it appears that there could be two formidable defensive centers on the market next summer: Marcus Camby and Tyson Chandler. Chandler’s separation from Chris Paul and his subsequent plunge in Charlotte makes it unlikely that he’ll command big-time attention next summer which, unfortunately, means he’ll likely take his hefty player option for $12.75 million. That leaves the most injury prone player in the history of the NBA, Marcus Camby, as the only sure bet to hit free agency. Not surprisingly, Camby got hurt while I was writing this post. However, he would come cheap. His age and offensive limitations make it doubtful that he’ll make any more in free agency than the $7.65 million he makes now. The easiest way to get Camby would be to simply trade Rip or Tayshaun for him.

To sum up—and I apologize for the sheer volume of summing up that I need to do—while it is unlikely that Joe D will be able to rebuild the Pistons into a championship contender because of the Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva signings, it is not impossible. He has options—just not many of them. Based on the traits that have defined the last 30 NBA Champions, Joe D can build a championship caliber team by adding an elite offensive power forward and an elite defensive center. To do this, he will need to strategically shed the contracts of Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince which aren’t scheduled to come off the books until 2013 and 2011, respectively. Considering the reluctance of elite free agents to sign with Detroit teams, the most likely scenario to bring the missing pieces to the Pistons is through trades. One scenario might include offering Rip to Utah for Boozer, trade Tayshaun for cap relief and sign Marcus Camby in the off-season. That would give the Pistons a starting lineup of:

PG Rodney Stuckey

SG Ben Gordon

SF Charlie Villanueva

PF Carlos Boozer

C Marcus Camby

Believe it or not, that team looks a little bit like the Pistons championship teams of the past. Now that I’ve spent so much time writing about this, I suppose I should ask the question of whether any of this is likely to occur. Unfortunately, I think the answer is, “no.” Joe D has been less than impressive in his ability to take current pieces and move them for anything of note. One thing is for certain, the Pistons have absolutely no chance of even remotely approaching a championship level with Rip Hamilton or Tayshaun Prince on the roster; not when Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva are making $16.5 million to play their positions. Whether Joe D knows that, or whether he can exchange them for an elite power forward and defensive center will determine whether the Pistons are going to be relevant again in the next decade.

Monday, November 16, 2009

QB Sneak 101

I can say, without the slightest hesitation, that Rich Rodriguez does not read my blog. I realize that I’m playing the role of “master of the obvious” but if there were any doubts before, there are surely none after what I saw on my trip to Madison this weekend. In a shock to nobody, Michigan got destroyed by Wisconsin. For the eleventeenth weekend in a row, the maize and blue were dominated in the second half. In the last four games, Michigan has been outscored in the second half 99-19. As much as I would like it to be, that is not a typo. However, while the second half has been horrific, Michigan has been ultra-competitive in the first half. In the last four games, Michigan has outscored its opponents 64-57. If not for some highly questionable and infuriating play calls on the goaline, that first half scoring margin would be even greater. It was just three weeks ago that Tate and Co. couldn’t score on four plays from the one yard line against Illinois. As you may recall, I was furious that Rodriguez and, Offensive Coordinator, Calvin Magee, didn’t call even a single quarterback sneak. For those of you who have watched more than 20 minutes of football in your lifetime, you are no doubt firmly aware that a QB Sneak is the easiest way to get one yard. It is very difficult for a defense to keep a quarterback—intent on falling forward immediately after receiving the snap—from gaining a yard. Stopping it on two consecutive plays is virtually impossible. For whatever reason, this advantage was not used against Illinois and it quite likely cost Michigan the football game.

Michigan lost for a number of reasons on Saturday. A few that come to mind are giving up; 229 yards on the ground, 50% on 3rd down, 28 first downs, seven drives of 60+ yards, and 6.2 yards per play. Sometimes teams can point to one play that cost them a football game but Michigan had no such luxury on Saturday. It would’ve needed to reverse about 37 plays to get anywhere near a victory in Madison. However, much like the Illinois game in which ineptness at the goaline cost momentum and, eventually, the game, we might have seen a very different game had that same ineptness not been permitted to sabotage Michigan again against the Badgers. After the Michigan defense forced Wisconsin to punt from its own three yard line, the “M” offense was able to take advantage of a short field by marching down to the Badger-goaline. After a Brandon Minor two-yard run on 2nd and goal, Michigan was faced with a 3rd and goal from the one yard line. Instead of calling the play with the best chance for success—the QB Sneak—Rodriguez and Magee put Forcier in a shotgun formation some five yards behind the line of scrimmage. Unbelievably, the play call was a “quarterback keeper.” Not surprisingly, he was cut down for a one yard loss. I cannot even begin to comprehend the logic that goes into forgoing a one-yard QB sneak for a six-yard equivalent of a QB sneak. It doesn’t make sense. So, I’ve developed a formula to help coaches make decisions facing “3rd or 4th and 1” situations. It goes: QB Sneak > QB keeper in the shotgun formation. If you’re a coach, feel free to use this formula. I just ask that you make sure to credit me.

I’m fully aware that it has become chic for fans to throw out the “Tate Forcier is too small to run a QB sneak” excuse. I’ve read it online many times and I actually heard a Michigan fan behind me at Camp Randall yell the same sentiment. Large groups of people thinking the same thing does not always guarantee success. That’s how the whole “Earth is flat” and “Salem Witch Trials” things happened. Tate is indeed small. However, the “QB Sneak” is an equal opportunity success play. It does not discriminate against size, race, or age. If you can say, “hut” or “hike”, and you can fall down, then you can run a QB sneak and do so successfully. If you’re looking for evidence, look no further than the fact that just three plays before Rodriguez put Tate in the shotgun on 3rd and goal from the one, he called a QB Sneak on 3rd and 1 from the seven. And guess what? First down! The moment that Tate took the snap and fell forward, the previously referenced Michigan fan behind me yelled out, “What are you doing? You can’t run a sneak with Tate!” There’s no word weather he fully understood the irony of him yelling that precisely as Michigan was, indeed, running a successful QB sneak with Tate. I’m guessing, “no”, but stranger things have happened.

I might be old school but my first inclination on any 4th and 1 or “any play from the one yard line” is the QB sneak. No team or coach—unless the coach is Gary Moeller—should ever run a play other than a QB sneak in those situations. This is something football fans learn before the age of ten. I have no idea why Rodriguez or Magee would’ve avoided that play-call three weeks ago against Illinois. “Four sneaks from the one” is about the surest way of scoring a touchdown in football. It seemed as though they learned their lesson when Tate dove forward to pick up the first down on the 3rd-and-1 play on Saturday but they went right back to ignoring the surest possible way of scoring just three plays later. The score would’ve put Michigan up 14-7 with the added confidence that comes from two offensive scoring drives. Michigan had struggled to put the ball in the end zone all year and doing so twice against a stingy Wisconsin defense on the road in the first quarter very likely would’ve changed the arc of the game—certainly not to the extent of the goaline play call failure in the Illinois game, but it would’ve changed it nonetheless.

I am willing to be patient while Rodriguez’s implementation of the spread takes longer than expected. I realize how dire depth issues are defensively. Nobody has been more patient than me on that front. What I’m not willing to be patient with are tactical mistakes—especially at the goaline. Bad coaching decisions are a part of football. Everyone from Bill Belichick to Urban Meyer makes mistakes. However, when a trend develops, I think it’s something that needs to be addressed. Three weeks in a row—goaline play calls against Illinois, not kicking the field goal in the fourth quarter against Purdue, and goaline against Wisconsin—have left me fuming. Those aren’t the only poor decisions that have been made, either. The list is growing quite long. Attempting a bad angle field goal the play after Forcier’s QB keeper was stopped—the same bad angle that Jason Olesnavage missed earlier in the season—instead of going for a touchdown is an additional example. Another is Rodriguez's decision to waste 30+ seconds before the half against Illinois only to call a timeout after it was too late to do anything. This is becoming a trend.

Rodriguez has developed an offensive system that exposes weaknesses in defenses. With elite-level talent, that system can be massively successful. Look no further than what Urban Meyer has accomplished at Florida. However, even when the system is performing optimally, big games will be decided by sideline decisions. While a substantial portion of the Michigan fanbase is freaking out that the spread doesn’t work with walk-on or true freshman quarterbacks (duh.), I’m starting to get a little concerned by Rodriguez’s game-management skills. If, by chance, he’s looking for a way to improve those skills, I’ll offer up this piece of advice: run the frickin’ quarterback sneak when you're on the one yard line.


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