Monday, April 27, 2009

Cuttin' out the middle man

Since the Lions have never been to the Super Bowl, the NFL Draft has become a surrogate Super Bowl for Detroit Lions spectators. I feel uneasy referring to Lions followers as “fans” because I think, by definition, “liking the team” is a prerequisite for being a fan. Since nobody likes the Lions, I think the word “spectators” is more appropriate. Nonetheless, if Lions spectators were polled about how their team faired in the draft over the weekend, I think most would say that the Lions lost their 20th consecutive Super Bowl. Statistically, the Lions had one of the worst defenses in the history of the NFL last season. On a team with more holes than a Kwame Kilpatrick alibi, the defense especially stood out as a unit in major need of an upgrade. Instead, the Lions opted to use their first two picks on skill positions handing out the richest guaranteed contract in the history of the NFL to a player who hasn’t taken a pro snap in the process.

I wrote last Thursday how ridiculous it is for any team in the NFL to invest a top ten pick on a quarterback given the futile success rate of such a risk. Scores of teams have gone that route and roughly 80% have regretted it big-time. Top-ten offensive tackles, on the other hand, have higher than an 80% success rate. Considering top-ten tackles have four times the success rate as top ten quarterbacks and it would’ve cost the Lions $10-$15 million less to take a tackle, I think the Lions made a major mistake. Spectators are pissed about that and they should be.

Surprisingly, though, it’s something else that the Lions did on Saturday that irritates me even more. I’ve come to terms with the fact that Martin Mayhew and Jim Schwartz feel lucky enough to go all-in on a 1 in 5 probability. I’ve also come to terms with the fact that they immediately drafted a tight end to help improve those odds. What I cannot understand is the rationale that went into drafting a safety in the second round for the third time in four years instead of a middle-linebacker. I don’t know if Louis Delmas is going to be a bust and, really, it doesn’t matter. Entering the 2008 NFL Draft, the Lions needed a MLB so badly that Rod Marinelli insinuated that he would take Jerod Mayo—the top MLB in the draft—with the 15th pick in the first round. The vast majority of mock drafts had Mayo going in the mid-to-late 20s. That tells me that the Lions were in serious need of help at that position. Unfortunately for Marinelli, New England had few holes to fill and didn’t mind burning a pick on Mayo at #10. Marinelli tried making up for missing out on Mayo by overreaching on another MLB prospect in the second round. Unfortunately, that was Jordan Dizon and well, you know.

Considering the Lions had one of the worst statistical defenses in NFL history last year and the fact that Marinelli badly wanted to take a MLB in the first round of the 2008 draft, I think we’ve established that MLB was a position that needed a major upgrade going into the 2009 draft. The consensus top two middle linebackers in the draft were Rey Maualuga and James Laurinaitis. Many analysts predicted that the Lions would take Maualuga at #20 if he fell that far. The same was predicted for Laurinaitis had he been available for the Lions at pick #33. As it turned out, Maualuga was available at #20 and the Lions opted for a tight end. If the Lions truly believe that Brandon Pettigrew is a game-changing tight end, then I can’t fault picking him at #20. Tight ends can make things much, much easier for a young quarterback. However, when both Maualuga and Laurinaitis fell to #33, and the Lions still passed on both, that’s when idiocy became hilarity. I don’t think anyone can argue that the Lions don’t badly need a major upgrade at MLB. I don’t think anyone can argue that Maualuga and Laurinaitis were certainly worth taking at #33 considering they were the top two MLBs in the draft. If Maualuga or Laurinaitis were there at #33, but not both, then I could possibly understand the Lions passing. There are a bevy of reasons why a team might not like a certain player. That wasn’t the case, though. Both players were there. The Lions had their choice of two premier middle linebackers with very different builds and styles. I cannot imagine that both of them were so flawed that they weren’t good enough to play MLB for the Lions. The Rams and Bengals—both badly in need of an upgrade at MLB—jumped on Laurinaitis and Maualuga within five picks of the Lions passing. I wonder how that’s going to turn out.

To be fair, though, the draft did have its bright spots. For instance, there was the total vindication of the Matt Millen-era. Who knew that the first round trade that Millen made with the Chiefs last year would end up being one of the great ripoffs in NFL draft history. The Lions dropped two spots from 15 to 17 last year and picked up KC’s 3rd and 5th round pick in the process. This year, the Browns dropped back two spots in the first round twice—from 17 to 19 and 19 to 21—and only managed a 6th round pick each time. What Millen got a 3rd and a 5th for last year only went for a 6th this year. I think everyone owes Millen a monumental apology.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

"Staff" infection

It sounds like there is a good chance that the Lions will select Matthew Stafford with the first pick in the 2009 NFL Draft. Stafford and his agent have until Friday to accept a deal proposed by the Lions. Various reports have the Lions taking Aaron Curry if an agreement cannot be reached with Stafford. I expect Stafford—with his agent’s blessing—to accept the deal because being the #1 pick in the draft will be a “feather in the cap” for both the least of which is his agent. If this goes down like I think it will, then the Lions will be making a huge mistake. Even if I liked Stafford—which I don’t—taking a quarterback with such an important pick is—and likely always will be—foolish.

There are a number of reasons not to take Stafford that have everything to do with Stafford himself. One reason has to do with "price." If the Lions take him with the first pick, they will likely be dishing out $15 million more in guaranteed money than they would had they chose to intentionally drop to the 5th pick and take either Jason Smith or Eugene Monroe. That is a substantial difference. However, there are just as many reasons—if not more—to avoid Stafford that have nothing to do with his abilities. There is a bounty of first round quarterback prospects that will be available next year including Sam Bradford, Colt McCoy, Tim Tebow, and Jevan Sneed just to name a few. The Law of Supply and Demand is not on Detroit's side with respect to drafting a quarterback this year. Next year, however, it most certainly will be.

Still, the Lions will likely end up taking Stafford not necessarily just because they are the worst franchise in the history of the universe (L.A. Clippers aside) but because NFL teams in general have an infatuation with taking quarterbacks early in the draft. Like most infatuations, this one is purely illogical. The vast majority of NFL teams that have chosen a quarterback early in the draft have ended up crippling the franchise with that decision. It is amazing that teams continue to fall into the same trap considering the evidence.

QBs Drafted in Top Ten since 1990

YearNamePickQB RatingPro Bowls
1990Jeff George180.40
1990Andre Ware763.50
1992David Klingler665.10
1993Drew Bledsoe177.14
1993Rick Mirer263.50
1994Heath Shuler354.30
1994Trent Dilfer670.21
1995Steve McNair382.83
1995Kerry Collins573.82
1998Peyton Manning194.79
1998Ryan Leaf2500
1999Tim Couch175.10
1999Donovan McNabb285.95
1999Akili Smith352.80
2001Michael Vick175.73
2002David Carr174.90
2002Joey Harrington369.40
2003Carson Palmer188.91
2004Eli Manning176.11
2004Phillip Rivers492.91
2005Alex Smith163.50
2006Vince Young368.81
2006Matt Leinart1071.70
2007JaMarcus Russell173.90
2008Matt Ryan387.70

Quarterbacks are important but they aren’t so important that it’s worth taking an extremely high chance of wasting an extremely valuable draft pick. Everybody wants the next Peyton Manning or Tom Brady. Interestingly enough, Manning went first overall and Brady went in the 6th round! That dichotomy is a microcosm of the NFL as a hole. Great quarterbacks come from every round. Donovan McNabb, Philip Rivers, and Jay Cutler went in the first round. Matt Cassel went in the 7th round and Kurt Warner, Tony Romo, and Jeff Garcia went undrafted. Identifying college quarterbacks that will flourish in the NFL is about as sound a science as "Mind Reading." Plus, while everyone wants a good quarterback, many recent Super Bowl Champions have had merely average quarterbacks. Trent Dilfer and Brad Johnson were no better than the league average while Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning managed games more than they won them.

The draft, by nature, if full of risks. I understand that every position produces "busts." The Lions have run the gamit over the last decade coming up empty in the first round with quarterbacks, offensive linemen, linebackers, cornerbacks and wide receivers. I’m not suggesting there is no risk selecting another position. I am suggesting that the risk is way too high to use a top five or ten selection on a quarterback. I’ve been saying since last fall that the Lions should use the #1 pick on the best offensive tackle in the draft. Obviously, they need help on the offensive line and have had as many issues on the o-line over the last 25 years as they have at quarterback. Here’s another reason why they should take the best lineman in the draft:

OTs Drafted in Top Ten since 1990

YearNamePickPro Bowls
1990Richmond Webb87
1991Charles McRae70
1991Antone Davis80
1992Bob Whitfield81
1992Ray Roberts100
1993Willie Roaf811
1993Lincoln Kennedy93
1995Tony Boselli25
1996Jonathan Ogden411
1996Willie Anderson104
1997Orlando Pace17
1997Walter Jones69
1998Kyle Turley71
2000Chris Samuels36
2001Leonard Davis22
2002Mike Williams40
2002Bryant McKinnie70
2002Levi Jones101
2003Jordan Gross81
2004Robert Gallery20
2006D’Brickashaw Ferguson40
2007Joe Thomas32
2007Levi Brown50
2008Jake Long11

The vast discrepancy in the two charts above make you wonder how any NFL GM could keep his job after wasting a top 10 pick on a quarterback. The difference in level of success between drafting a quarterback and drafting an offensive tackle in the top ten is astronomical. Since 1990, there have been 25 quarterbacks taken in the top 10. In that same timeframe, there have been 24 offensive tackles taken in the top 10. The 25 quarterbacks produced a paltry QB Rating of 73.3. All of those teams on the list above were in exactly the same position the Lions are in in now. They all mortgaged the future of their franchise on a quarterback and, on average, got a return of a low 70's QB rating. The only thing worse than being bad enough to have a top ten pick is making a bad choice with that top ten pick. Most of the teams on the quarterback chart did just that and paid for it for many years. The Lions are one of those teams having already been through all of this with Joey Harrington in 2002.

The 25 quarterbacks picked in the top 10 since 1990 produced 32 Pro Bow selections. Peyton Manning and Donovan McNabb make up half of those selections. On the other hand, the 24 offensive tackles produced 71 Pro Bowl selections. The tackles on that list are some of the best linemen of the last 20 years. Only three of the 24—Charles McRae, Antone Davis, and Mike Williams—can be considered “busts.” On the other hand, at least half of the 25 quarterbacks have been “busts” while only five—Steve McNair, Peyton Manning, Donovan McNabb, Philip Rivers, and Matt Ryan—can be considered elite quarterbacks and only one of those five ever won a Super Bowl.

There is still hope that the Lions won’t be able to reach an agreement with Stafford. Unfortunately, the backup plan is to draft a linebacker which is more like drafting a quarterback than an offensive tackle in terms of expected success. If the Lions don’t select Jason Smith or Eugene Monroe, 10 years from now they will be just another team on a chart that shows how stupid it is to take a quarterback in the top 10 of the NFL Draft.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

NFL Draft Strategery

The NFL draft is this Saturday and the Lions finally have the first overall pick. I don’t know if any team in any sport has ever put together a 25-year run of futility without ever getting the first overall pick in the draft. The Lions have been so abysmal that they couldn’t even “win” in a system explicitly set up to reward the worst team. The Lions organization will finally see its ineptitude payoff this Saturday. It’s been a long time coming and I wish to congratulate William Clay Ford one last time on reaching what had clearly been his goal for many, many years.

It would make sense that in the year the Lions actually end up with the #1 overall pick, there wouldn’t actually be a player worth taking in that spot. Normally, teams that don’t feel there is value with their pick look to trade out of the spot. Unfortunately, I can’t imagine there are teams aiming to move up to the #1 pick in a draft without anyone worthy of the #1 pick. The Lions are stuck. They are in the unenviable position of having to make a selection that they don’t necessarily want to make. Most mock drafts have the Lions taking Matthew Stafford based on “need.” The Lions have needed a franchise quarterback since the 70’s. From an outsider’s perspective, it would make sense that the Lions would take a quarterback. However, few people, if any, have suggested that Stafford will be an elite quarterback. In fact, of all the quarterbacks who have ever been projected to go in the top five, I don’t remember a single one who garnered more lukewarm praise than Stafford. Everyone is suggesting that a). the Lions need a QB and b). Stafford is probably the best QB in this draft. Nobody, however, is suggesting that Stafford is worth the #1 pick.

So, it would seem the Lions are out of luck. Or, are they? It has been reported the Lions have been in negotiations with at least three players for the top pick. I would be surprised if they aren’t considering Jason Smith (OT, Baylor), Eugene Monroe (OT, Virginia), and Aaron Curry (LB, Wake Forest) along with Stafford. Reports have surfaced just in the last few days that the Lions might even be considering Mark Sanchez (QB, USC). Since the Lions don’t have to worry about someone picking their target, they would not be wasting their time negotiating with players who they wouldn’t be happy with. So, I have to conclude that the Lions would be content with at least three players at #1 and possibly up to five. If that’s true, then I don’t think the Lions should pick first in the draft. Just because the Lions won’t likely be able to trade out of the pick doesn’t mean they have to pick first. They can simply choose to not pick until they want to. Cleary, there is a “public relations” aspect to such a maneuver. The Minnesota Vikings were annihilated in the press for failing to submit their pick in time in the 2003 draft. Two teams below them ended up picking before the Vikings finally got their pick in. Mike Tice didn't last long in Minnesota but he still got the player he wanted (DT, Kevin Williams who is one of the premier tackles in the NFL) and got him for less money despite the gaffe. The Lions need more negative publicity like American Idol needs a fourth judge. As a result, it would be imperative that the Lions make it clear that they’re dropping out of the first slot intentionally.

I realize this sounds “crazy” but I assure you it’s not. Let’s consider for a moment how the first eight picks might pan out under a few different scenarios.

If the Lions use the #1 pick, this is how things would likely unfold:

1. Detroit—Matthew Stafford
2. St. Louis—Jason Smith/Eugene Monroe
3. Kansas City—Aaron Curry
4. Seattle—Eugene Monroe
5. Cleveland—Brian Orakpo/Michael Crabtree
6. Cincinnati—Andre Smith/Michael Oher
7. Oakland—Jeremy Maclin
8. Jacksonville—Mark Sanchez

If the Lions decide to pass on the #1 pick, this is how things would likely unfold:

1. St. Louis—Jason Smith/Eugene Monroe
2. Kansas City—Aaron Curry
3. Seattle—Matthew Stafford
4. Cleveland—Brian Orakpo/Michael Crabtree
5. Cincinnati—Eugene Monroe
6. Oakland—Jeremy Maclin
7. Jacksonville—Mark Sanchez

If the Lions like Stafford and Sanchez equally, then it would be a huge mistake for them to take Stafford with the #1 pick. If they like Stafford, Sanchez, Smith, Monroe, and Curry equally, it would be an even bigger mistake. It is guaranteed that one of those players will still be there at pick #5 and it’s likely that two of them could be there. Last year, Matt Ryan was the #3 pick in the draft and received $34 million guaranteed. The Lions would have to pay Stafford even more at #1. Last year, Glen Dorsey was the 5th pick in the draft and he walked away with $23 million guaranteed. It is likely that the Lions would save $15 million by avoiding Stafford with the #1 pick and taking either Monroe or Curry with the 5th pick. They could also save a considerable amount of money by passing on Stafford at #1 and taking Sanchez at #5 or #6. They could even take Stafford at #3 if they wanted to. If the Lions are unsure who to select, I would think that $15 million would be enough to sway their opinion.

Since St. Louis is likely to take Jason Smith or Eugene Monroe, the only way the Lions lose is if they absolutely value Smith or Monroe as the #1 player on their draft board. If they value Smith and Monroe the same--the consensus top two OTs in the draft--then there really isn't a scenario in which the Lions should pick first. By dropping 1 to 4 spots, the Lions would end up getting a player they covet for far less money. Obviously, Jim Scwartz and crew would have to perfect this strategy. They would need to place a representative just off stage with firm instructions on what to do and when to do it. Back in 2003, the Vikings realized they ran out of time and hurried to make their selection but two teams ran up to the podium knowing they were essentially stealing a slot. If the Lions attempt such a maneuver, you can bet that the next few teams in line will try to cut.

In the vast majority of cases, it doesn’t make sense to intentionally drop in the draft. However, that doesn’t mean it never makes sense. The Lions might not be able to find a team to give them value in trade for the #1 pick but the NFL rookie pay scale provides them more than enough incentive to drop in a draft without a true #1 pick available. Schwartz has been praised for being a strategist. In a situation like this, a true strategist would have gone over every scenario and realized that the only situation in which this maneuver wouldn’t payoff is if the Lions feel that Smith is substantially better than Monroe and vice versa. If reports are true and the Lions have 3-5 players that they would be happy with, then they should keep dropping as long as there is a player they considered taking #1 overall left on the board.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The coronation of King James

Up to this moment, LeBron James has been just another NBA superstar. Sure, his career has produced statistically significant numbers but it hasn’t produced historically significant accomplishments. That’s certainly not meant to be a knock since he’s still only 24 years old. I’m just pointing out that King James has now played six full seasons without an NBA Championship or an MVP. If his career continues down that path, he will come nowhere close to living up to the billing of “the chosen one.” If you don’t win NBA Championships or MVPs, your legacy peaks somewhere around “Dominique Wilkins.” No offense to the Human Highlight Reel but considering LeBron’s skill, youth, and athleticism most would likely view that fate as a colossal disappointment. It takes multiple MVPs and championships to put you in the same class as Magic Johnson and Larry Bird not to mention Michael Jordan. You can’t be the greatest of all-time without passing those players first. Considering Jordan has six NBA Championships and five MVPs, LeBron has a long way to go. Just for comparison, Kobe Bryant—the closest thing offensively and defensively we have seen to Jordan—only has three NBA Championships and one MVP. It’s not easy to climb the ladder of legends. LeBron needs to get on the path of greatness stat if he’s going to challenge the aforementioned legacies. Most fans have assumed that at some point he will eventually put together a dominating run similar to what MJ did with the Bulls. The question hasn’t necessarily been if it will happen, but when it will happen. I didn’t see it coming but I think that time is now.

Michael Jordan—as great as he was—didn’t break through with his first championship until there was a lull of great teams in the NBA. Los Angeles, Boston, and Detroit had finished their respective runs and there was no other contender to challenge Chicago. Breaking through with the first championship is the hardest part. It took the Bad Boy Pistons years and years of frustrating playoff losses before they were able to break through. The fact that the Lakers and Celtics were passed their prime certainly helped. Similarly, it took Jordan’s Bulls years and years of frustrating playoff losses before they were able to break through. The fact that the Lakers, Celtics, and Pistons were passed their primes certainly helped. It doesn’t always work this way but historically great teams have paid their dues and then, when the opportunity arises, seize the championship. It’s a combination of a crescendo of skill perfectly timed with opportunity. I don’t know for certain that it’s going to happen this year. All I can say is that the maturation of LeBron’s game—and the Cavs as a team—combined with the relative mediocrity of the rest of the NBA has a giant, blinking neon-sign in my head screaming, “This is where it begins.”

It didn’t occur to me until yesterday, actually, that all of this was not only possible, but maybe even probable. LeBron not only has a good shot of winning a championship but he could make a major move in terms of historical significance if he can obtain the holy trifecta of single-season accomplishments: MVP, NBA Championship, and Finals MVP. He has all but locked up the MVP. Kobe and D-Wade had fantastic seasons but Cleveland is a one-man show—no offense to Mo Williams, Big Z, and Sideshow Bob—while the Lakers have three tremendously skilled big men (Pau, Andrew Bynum, and Lamar Odom) to complement Kobe. Plus, I think LeBron has made his move in the public relations department as the default best player in the league. The Finals MVP will not be a major hurdle since it’s functionally tied to Cleveland winning the championship. So really, the trifecta comes down to whether LeBron can lead Cleveland to the NBA Title. I don’t think I ever would’ve said it was impossible but if you asked me two months ago if Cleveland was going to win the championship, I would’ve said, “not likely.” A lot has changed not only in the last few months (Bynum’s injury) but also in the last day. News that Boston could be without KG for the playoffs is a huge boost for Cleveland’s title chances. In fact, I think that news bumps it up to damn near 50%. The Cavs are the #1 seed in the NBA Playoffs which obviously comes with homecourt advantage. Cleveland went 39-2 at home this season with one of the losses coming in the season-finale with LeBron, Mo Williams, and Big Z on the bench. With KG out, there isn’t a team in the Eastern Conference with a legitimate chance of beating Cleveland. The only team in the Western Conference with even a remote chance of beating Cleveland is LA. If that’s going to happen, LA is going to have to win on the road. This is where I mention that Cleveland’s only legitimate home loss this season was to the Lakers. Interestingly, if the Lakers do end up winning, I could write virtually an identical post discussing how much a fourth NBA Championship (first without Shaq) and a Finals MVP impacts Kobe’s legacy. Either way, someone is jumping into some new company in two months.

If LeBron pulls off the trifecta, he will immediately become historically significant beyond regular season statistics. There have only been nine players in the history of the NBA to accomplish the trifecta in the same season. The list goes a little something like this: Michael Jordan (x4), Larry Bird (x2), Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Moses Malone, and Willis Reed. Only Jabbar (24) was younger than 27. LeBron is only 24. If he were able to accomplish the feat this early in his career, he would be carving a path that not even the greatest player in NBA history—MJ, obvs—was able to take. Next year has been dubbed the Summer of LeBron due to off-court reasons. However, there is a good chance that the Summer of LeBron is going to come a year earlier than anyone thought.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Holland shooting for improbable Hat Trick

Ken Holland and the Wings scored big over the weekend despite losing both of their games against Chicago. Thanks to a pair of timely wins by St. Louis and Phoenix, the Wings were able to avoid an uncomfortable first round matchup with Anaheim. Holland—never to be outdone—continued to build a legacy of near-perfection by inking Johan Franzen to a long-term, incredibly reasonable, contract. Things are going so well for the Wings right now that they’re winning even when they’re losing.

Before I get into the Franzen news, I want to quickly rehash the importance of avoiding Anaheim in the first round. The positives of avoiding such a fate are too numerous to list in their entirety but I’ll touch on a few. First, not only do the Wings avoid playing Anaheim—the 2007 Stanley Cup Champions—but now San Jose—the #1 seed in the Western Conference—has to deal with Anaheim. That series is going to be long and physical. Normally, the 1-seed gets the advantage of playing a weaker opponent but that clearly is not the case in this instance. The Wings catch a huge break by playing experience-challenged Columbus in the first round. The Jackets are making their first ever playoff appearance. They are a gritty and talented bunch but they are considerably more tame than the Ducks. Dodging Anaheim also prevents the Wings from having to play what could’ve been three successive series on the West Coast. It’s hard enough to win one series travelling across three time zones. Three in a row against the likes of Anaheim, Vancouver/Calgary, and San Jose would’ve been brutal. Conveniently, Columbus just happens to be the only other team in the Western Conference besides Detroit that plays in the Eastern Time Zone. If Ken Holland was permitted to play God himself, he could not have arranged the Western Conference playoffs in a more hospitable fashion. On a side note, we are privy to possibly two of the greatest 1v8 matchups in NHL history. The aforementioned San Jose/Anaheim series is going to be electric but I expect the Boston/Montreal series to be even better. On to Franzen…

Ken Holland made NHL GMs weep in January when he inked Henrik Zetterberg to an extension at the bargain cap-hit of $6 million annually. Although Zetterberg is one of the NHL’s elite players, the tears weren’t simply because the Wings re-signed a great player. Rather they were because of what Zetterberg’s relatively low cap number meant for Detroit’s ability to re-sign Johan Franzen and Marian Hossa. There were countless articles written last summer after Hossa signed with Detroit that flat-out stated the Wings could not afford to keep Zetterberg, Franzen, and Hossa beyond this season. Economically, those sentiments made sense. Franzen—rapidly approaching stardom—seemed to be heading for a big payday this summer. Hossa—having already taken a discounted contract to win a Cup—also seemed to be headed for a monstrous payday with ring in hand. However, as soon as the Zetterberg cap number was revealed, it was obvious to everyone who follows hockey that Ken Holland had “hat trick” on his mind. Shortly after Zetterberg re-signed, Hossa started to say things like, “To be able to stay as a Red Wing, I am prepared to take less money, but a fair deal, so both sides are happy. That's what I'm looking for. I know if I go somewhere else, I could have more, but I'm willing to take less to stay here. Hopefully things work out." Had Holland inked Hossa to a new contract before Franzen, we would've had to wait, fingers-crossed, through the playoffs for the verdict on Franzen. Franzen is an extremely valuable commodity. Fans should/would rightfully fear the offers that his performance over the last calendar year would fetch on the open market. Knowing Hossa's preference, the fact that Franzen signed first—and at an incredibly low cap rate of only $3.95 million annually—increases the likelihood that all three end up in a Wings uniform next seson. A lot will depend on whether the 2009-10 salary cap can withstand the recession. If the cap doesn't increase at all or--even worse--drops, Holland will need to take a page out of David Blaine's book to make this happen.

With four Stanley Cups and a basement full of President’s Trophies, Holland’s legacy is ironclad. However, it was a consensus before the season that the Wings weren’t going to be able to re-sign Zetterberg, Franzen, and Hossa. If Hossa falls in line, this could be Holland’s most impressive feat yet. The Wings can't re-sign Hossa before July 1 but fans should be comforted by Hossa's stated preference and the general feeling that he will make the necessary concessions to stay in Detroit. If the Wings march to another Stanley Cup, Hossa’s desire to stay in Detroit will probably increase significantly if that’s even possible. Getting Columbus in the first round was an important step in making that happen.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

"Mighty" 7-seed

The Wings are putting the finishing touches on another spectacular regular season. It might be a tad disappointing for some that the best team in hockey won’t take home the President’s Trophy but 111 points and counting is good enough for me. The year following their Cup win in 1997, the Wings finished second in the Western Conference and promptly waltzed to another Stanley Cup. This year’s team seemed to attack the season in nearly identical fashion. Only playoff failures concern themselves too much with the regular season. The Wings—hardly playoff failures—used this season as one very long preparation for the playoffs. Criticizing a team that is very clearly the deepest and most talented in the NHL certainly reeks of “alarmist” behavior. So, I’ll simply suggest that the .895 Save % accumulated by Chris Osgood and Ty Conklin—good bad for 27th of 30 teams—is something worth noting. If anything is concerning, it’s that Ty Conklin was so unimpressive that Mike Babcock has already named Chris Osgood the starter for the playoffs. Osgood boasts a 3.10 GAA and a .887 save %. Obviously, those numbers are horrifying. Osgood actually led the NHL in GAA last season (2.09). Clearly something has gone awry defensively for the Wings since last season and I’m betting it’s something more substantial than “indifference to the regular season.” Fortunately, the Wings have nearly made up for the defensive drop-off by increasing their scoring by a half a goal a game. Osgood has enough playoff experience and the Wings have enough capable defensive personnel backing him up that it should not be surprising to see Osgood look more like the Jennings Trophy winner of 2008 than the matador we’ve seen in 2009.

While the Wings are clearly the elite team in hockey, simply “turning it on” in the playoffs always comes with hazards. If they hope to use the first round to shape into form—rather than using the last few games of the regular season—they could be in for a rough experience. The Anaheim Ducks are not the ideal first round opponent for a 2-seed. If the season were to end today, the Wings would have the uncomfortable task of starting off the playoffs with quite a battle. Anaheim struggled mightily to open the season which is the main reason that it finds itself fighting for a playoff spot. The Ducks—of course—won the Stanley Cup in 2007 and finished with 100+ points in each of the last two seasons. They are led by the same group of players that led them to the Cup less than two years ago. The Ducks have one of the most potent top lines in the NHL with Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan. The trio has scored 32 points in Anaheim’s last six games. Of course, Teemu Selanne, Chris Pronger, and the Niedermayers—the stalwarts largely responsible for the Cup in ’07—give Anaheim one of the deepest teams in the NHL.

Anaheim is 10-2 in its last 12 games. Over that span, it has scored 3.91 goals per game and allowed 2.42 goals per game—both significantly better than its season averages. The Ducks are clearly improved from what we saw out of them last November. Jonas Hiller’s ascension to the starting goaltender role has been a significant improvement over the sometimes spectacular, often erratic Jean Sebastian Giguerre. Selanne missed a number of games with various injuries including a nasty leg wound. Ryan spent the first part of the season in the minors and really didn’t start turning it on until the New Year. A lot has happened since the start of the year the least of which is Anaheim turning into a team you don’t want to play in the playoffs. The Wings should beat Anaheim. I think they would beat Anaheim. I just fear that the impact of the Anaheim series could be felt well past the first round—assuming the Wings emerge victorious—especially if the route to the cup eventually includes Vancouver and/or Calgary and/or San Jose. Columbus, St. Louis, and even Chicago would make for a much more hospitable first round opponent. So, along with heading to Comerica Park on Friday and Michigan Stadium on Saturday, I’ll be spending the last weekend of the NHL regular season rooting for one of those teams to sneak into the #7-spot. According to, there is only a 37% chance that will happen.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

The Big Least

This is kind of a sequel to “The Bigger Ten” and may have been implied in that post but I think it’s worth a post of its own. I have nothing against the Big East all things being equal. I love watching Big East basketball. I love the traditions of the programs. I have “going to New York for the Big East Tournament” on my short list of “things to do.” My problem with the Big East is that all things aren’t equal—namely the media coverage. The Pac 10 has long been the victim of the West Coast bias. The idea there is that most Pac 10 games finish well after half of the country has gone to bed. USC’s recent success in football has made it difficult to tell just how much of a West Coast bias exists but it certainly seems like a reasonable concept. Similarly, the Big Ten has fallen victim to a bias of its own except it has nothing to do with bed times. The Big Ten is viewed as a second-rate conference because of its style of play. Analyst after analyst ripped apart the Big Ten before and after Selection Sunday. “Low scoring” and “sloppy play” were often at the center of the criticism.

Meanwhile, the Big East has been anointed the pinnacle of college basketball because its games are high scoring and more exciting. Anyone who knows anything about sports is firmly aware that “style of play” and “level of excitement” have nothing to do with success. The Golden State Warriors were among the leaders in “excitement” this season. They stunk. The San Antonio Spurs lead the league in “boring” every year and have four NBA Championships to show for it. Digger Phelps, Bob Knight, Billy Packer, Dick Vitale and many others of the same ilk took a giant shortcut on analysis by confusing excitement with superiority. As a result, the image of Big Ten basketball took a major hit.

The Big East had a number of teams that had very good resumes. I can’t and won’t argue too much about its seeds. West Virginia was probably too high. Connecticut probably deserved a 2-seed. Syracuse might have been too high. Still, the conference clearly had a number of good teams as did the ACC and the Big Ten. The RPI ordered the conferences: 1) ACC, 2) Big Ten, 3) Big East. The Big Ten had more top 50 wins than any other conference. The Big East had more top teams while the ACC owned the computers. It’s clearly debatable as to which conference was the best. What’s not debatable is that the Big Ten was certainly among the best and deserved to be in the discussion. Yet, the Big Ten was heavily criticized for receiving seven bids—same as the ACC and Big East—while the Big East garnered so much adulation that some wondered if it was the greatest conference of all-time. The fact that it received three #1’s, two #3's, and two #6's only fueled the hyperbole. Before I go any further, it’s important to note just how easy of a draw the Big East had. Since the current format began (1985), a 16-seed has never beaten a one-seed. An 8 or a 9-seed has only beaten a one-seed in the second round 12.5% of the time. #1 seeds have only lost 18% of the time in the third round. #1 seeds make it to the Elite Eight 70% of the time. Simply having multiple teams reach the Final Four should not be the Big East’s barometer for success. Nearly half of all #1 seeds make the Final Four. Furthermore, 24% of 3-seeds make the Elite Eight. From its seeds alone, the Big East was virtually guaranteed to threaten the mark for wins by a conference in a single NCAA Tournament (the Big East won 18 in 1985). Simply piling up wins proved nothing. For example, based on historical data on the success of #1, #3, and #6 seeds, a conference with seven bids correlating with those specific seeds would—on average—win 16 games. The Big East ended up winning 17 games. On the other hand, seven bids correlating with the Big Ten’s specific seeds would—on average—win six games. The Big Ten won nine games.

Although the numbers indicate that the Big East had an “average” showing in terms of overall wins, it’s tough to imagine a conference with such a bevy of good seeds performing worse than the Big East did this year. Louisville—the #1 seed in the entire tournament—failed to make it to the Final Four. Pittsburgh—arguably the #2 seed in the entire tournament—failed to make it to the Final Four. Two of the Big East’s three #1 seeds failed to make it to the Final Four. Even the one #1 seed from the Big East to get to the Final Four—Connecticut—got manhandled by a Big Ten team. None of its three #1 seeds made it to the Championship game. That alone has to be viewed as disappointing—if not a failure—but if we look deeper into the performances of the Big East’s seven teams, we’ll find it was surprisingly rough. Here’s a recap:

West Virginia

The Mountaineers earned a controversial six-seed (IMO) and a first round matchup with 11-seed, Dayton. Dayton led for most of the game and sent WVU packing with an 8-point victory. Six seeds beat 11-seeds 68% of the time. This was clearly a weak performance by a Big East team.


The Golden Eagles also earned a controversial six-seed. Marquette played well early in the season but struggled mightily down the stretch without Dominic James. His availability for the NCAA Tournament was shaky at best but it appears that the Selection Committee did not take that into consideration. Marquette barely escaped West Virginia’s fate by squeaking out a one-point win over 11-seed, Utah St. Marquette got bounced in the second round by Missouri.


The Orange was one of the chic teams entering the tournament having just played in one of the most “exciting”—there’s that word again—games in NCAA history while making it to the Finals of the Big East Tournament. Syracuse catapulted from a likely #6 or #7-seed all the way to a #3-seed following its performance in the Big East Tournament. The Orange crushed Stephen F. Austin in the first round and then beat Arizona St. in the second round. That set up a 2v3 matchup against Oklahoma. This would end up being the first of many marquee matchups in which the Big East would be beaten soundly. Oklahoma dominated Syracuse from start to finish en route to a 13-point win.


Villanova was the only team in the Big East that exceeded expectations. The Wildcats reached the Final Four before getting trounced by North Carolina. They were a #3-seed so their appearance in the Final Four was certainly a big score for the Big East.


Pittsburgh was a huge disappointment for the Big East as one of its #1 seeds. The Panthers barely escaped 8th seeded Oklahoma St. in the second round. They barely escaped 4th seeded Xavier in the third round. Then they lost to the #3-seed in the third round.


Louisville—probably the flimsiest #1 overall seed that I can remember—was easily the least impressive of the #1 seeds. At least Pittsburgh beat a top-four seed. Louisville beat Morehead St. in the first round and then barely survived Siena in the second round. The Arizona/Cleveland St. second round matchup guaranteed Louisville no worse than a 12-seed in the Sweet Sixteen. The Cards easily took care of Arizona before getting manhandled by Michigan St in the Elite Eight.


Villanova may have been the only team to exceed expectations but at least Connecticut did what it was supposed to do. The Huskies destroyed Chattanooga in the first round before authoritatively taking down Texas A&M and Purdue. They then beat a red-hot Missouri-team in the Elite Eight. Connecticut followed Louisville’s suit in the Final Four getting manhandled by Michigan St.

One of seven Big East teams exceeded expectations. Four of seven Big Ten teams exceeded expectations. The Big East won 17 games which included wins over Morehead St., Chattanooga, East Tennessee St., Stephen F. Austin, American, Utah St., Siena, Texas A&M, Oklahoma St., Arizona St., Arizona, UCLA, Purdue, Xavier, Duke, Missouri, and Pittsburgh. The Big Ten won nine games which included wins over Robert Morris, Northern Iowa, Clemson, Florida St., USC, Washington, Kansas, Louisville, and Connecticut. Of its 17 wins, the Big East beat seven teams with a #7 seed or better. Of its nine wins, the Big Ten beat six teams with a #7 seed or better. Clearly the Big Ten wasn’t respected entering the tournament but it accomplished nearly the same—and in some respects more—with a much harder path.

I’m not trying to flip the script by putting out a “Big East sucks” post. I don’t think the Big East sucks. I don’t think the Big Ten sucks. However, when one conference gets lauded by various members of the media and another conference gets lambasted, there should be some “mea culpas” when those opinions are shown to be rubbish. Although, I’m starting to wonder if this was just a giant misunderstanding. Connecticut and Louisville play tonight in the Women’s National Championship game.

Friday, April 03, 2009

The Bigger Ten

Statistically speaking, the Big Ten had a banner basketball season. It finished #2 in Conference RPI and fielded seven teams in the NCAA Tournament. I wrote a post in January suggesting that the Big Ten’s RPI was somewhat of a magic act since it lacked the marquee non-conference wins that would generally accompany such a lofty conference rating. My point wasn’t to argue that the Big Ten sucked. Rather, I wanted to explain why the Big Ten was rated so high without necessarily piling up impressive wins. In short, the Big Ten had an incredible record against weak opponents (winning percentage is ½ of the RPI) and it played one of the strongest schedules in the country (1/4 of the RPI score). The Big Ten was certainly a very good conference but I contended that it wasn’t a great conference. It never occurred to me that there were actually people out there who would actually argue that the Big Ten was vastly overrated until Bob Knight, Digger Phelps, Dick Vitale, Billy Packer and a number of other old people sprang up in unison following the Selection Show. Packer even went as far as to say that Notre Dame and Providence—two teams that had virtually no chance of an at-large bid—should’ve made the tournament over some Big Ten teams. Luckily, this isn’t college football where people can say ridiculous things with the knowledge that there isn’t a playoff to prove them wrong. In college basketball, you eventually pay the price for making stupid arguments.

I have no problem admitting that the Big Ten was short on elite teams this year. Michigan State is the only team that qualifies. The Big Ten had only one team seeded #4 or better in the tournament—and deservedly so. The Big East, on the other hand, managed seven teams all of which got a six-seed or better which is hard to believe. If the Big East really had seven teams worthy of a top-six seed, then how could Providence not be worthy of at least a 12-seed? The answer is that the Big East was grossly overrated by the Selection Committee. Here is a quick recap of the seedings from the top three conferences all of which got seven bids:

Big East:

Louisville #1
Pittsburgh #1
Syracuse #2
Villanova #3
Marquette #6
West Virginia #6


North Carolina #1
Duke #2
Wake Forest #4
Florida State #5
Clemson #7
Boston College #7
Maryland #10

Big Ten:

Michigan State #2
Purdue #5
Illinois #5
Ohio State #8
Michigan #10
Minnesota #10
Wisconsin #12

Clearly, the Big East and ACC were given much more credence than the Big Ten based on the vast discrepancy in seeding. The Big Ten had four teams seeded #8 or worse and the Big East and ACC had one combined. The result was a much tougher slate for the Big Ten. The Big Ten had three teams that were underdogs in the first round. Two of those teams—Michigan and Wisconsin—won and did it against ACC teams on neutral courts. That’s #10 and #12-seeded Big Ten teams beating #7 and #5-seeded ACC teams. If the ACC was the #1 conference in the country, then it’s difficult for anyone to argue that the Big Ten is outmatched. Certainly, there isn’t a deeper conference based on the results of the tournament.

The Big Ten had four wins over teams that were seeded higher. It had just two losses to teams seeded lower. The ACC had one win over teams seeded higher and five losses against teams seeded lower. The Big East had one win over teams seeded higher and three losses to teams seeded lower. The Big Ten—despite its more difficult draw—ended up with the most impressive wins of any conference. The Big Ten beat the Pac 10 regular season champ (Washington), the Big XII regular season champ (Kansas), and the Big East regular season champ (Louisville). In fact, Louisville—the #1 seed in the tournament—played two Big Ten teams this year (Minnesota and Michigan State) and lost both. The latter was a drubbing.

The Big Ten didn’t feature a bevy of elite teams. However, based on how the conferences fared in the tournament, I don’t think any conference did. The ACC was the #1 conference in America according to the RPI. What does it say about the depth of that conference to have two of its tournament teams lose to double-digit seeds from the Big Ten? I think it goes a long way in proving that no conference was deeper than the Big Ten. Critics/really old people love to argue that the Big Ten is a weak conference because its games are often low-scoring and ugly. Well, how did that work out for Louisville? The fact that a conference plays defense should not disqualify it from being a good conference. Don’t forget that in retrospect the best team to not make the NCAA Tournament was very likely Penn St. The Nittany Lions won the NIT beating Florida, Notre Dame, and Baylor along the way. Billy Packer’s suggestion that Notre Dame should’ve made the tournament over Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin—let alone Penn St.—exemplifies the PR problem that the Big Ten faces. The people in charge of influencing public opinion are morons. As long as that’s the case, you’re going to see the Big Ten ridiculed regardless of merit.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Coming Clean

I remember the feeling well. I think everybody does. Christmas morning was the pinnacle of my existence for the first 10 years of my life. Few things rival the magic and wonder of closing your eyes with anticipation and waking up with adrenaline-fueled excitement. If I try hard enough, I can still get lost for a moment or two in the memories. Nobody ever tells you this when you’re a kid but the joy of Christmas from a child’s perspective is fleeting. No matter how hard you try to replicate the feeling as you get older, it’s a futile endeavor. Some things—like watching cartoons and eating popsicles—just aren’t the same when you get older. Unfortunately, I have to add the University of Michigan to that list.

I was born in Columbus, Ohio. I spent the first four years of my life as an Ohio State fan—or so I’m told. The bulk of my extended family still resides in Columbus. My family moved to Michigan when I was four and it was the 1988 Hall of Fame Bowl and the 1989 Basketball National Championship that got me hooked on Michigan sports. It wasn’t hard to switch allegiances. I was basically a free agent. Without the influence of my Buckeye-crazed family, my love for Michigan athletics grew undeterred. ‘M’ sports joined Christmas and He-Man as the most totally awesome things in the universe. My affinity for the Maize and Blue grew throughout middle and high school. By the time I was set to graduate, I knew exactly where I was going to college. I filled out one application, got one acceptance, and I was off to Ann Arbor.

The seed of change started to grow early on at Michigan. I entered school with passion intact but little did I know that I would quickly find out just how human ‘M’ athletes were. Soon I was in class with football players. I attended parties with hockey players. Some were great people. Others were jerks. When it came time to root for the teams on the field, I no longer saw the uniform. Instead, I saw people—extremely flawed people. My Christmas morning was taken from me again. When I graduated, I had to deal with the inherent issue of rooting for a team that was almost entirely younger than me. Every college sports fan has to go through that transition at some point. However, not knowing the athletes personally—like I did the four previous years—helped bring back some of the excitement post graduation. Still, I found myself suppressing thoughts of indifference and, at times, disdain. Many of my friendships are rooted in shared enthusiasm for Michigan athletics. It was hard to fake interest at times but it was necessary to keep friendships intact.

Every now and again, you hear of couples who just fall out of love. It’s not something that was planned but it just happened. I’m sure everyone pretends for a certain amount of time but that sort of self-deception is unsustainable long-term. My experience might not be as important as a failed-marriage but it is certainly something that hasn’t been easy to accept. I started this blog with hope that it would re-kindle my interest. Some of my best and most popular work has been about the Michigan football and basketball teams. The positive feedback from those articles helped string things along for a few years but I can’t do it anymore. I just don’t care about Michigan. That last sentence wasn’t as nearly as hard to write as I thought it was going to be. In fact, it was relieving.

I can’t say for certain but I suppose winning more might have made a difference. How can I rationalize rooting for a school like Michigan when it has been utterly dominated by Ohio State on the field? Michigan Basketball is 1-8 against Ohio State since 2005. Michigan Football is 0-5 against Ohio State since 2004. That’s pathetic. I know I run the risk of being labeled a fair-weather fan but, remember, I was born a Buckeye. I have every right to return to my roots. Ohio State is the pinnacle of college athletics. A family friend who also happens to be the biggest Ohio State fan on the planet never fails to remind me that I was born a Buckeye and that somewhere inside of me is a Buckeye. I’m a stubborn person so I’ve resisted mostly out of defiance but I’ve always been a little jealous of what I’ve been missing.

Had I let my emotions dictate my decision, I think I would’ve come to this conclusion a long time ago. I wouldn’t dare do this out loud but every time the OSU band plays the fight song, I can’t help but hum along. For the longest time, seeing Michigan lose was unbearable. It ruined more days than I can count. Slowly, that post-loss feeling turned to indifference. Now, I’ve actually started to get those feelings when Ohio State loses. I probably shouldn’t say this but I actually put on an old OSU shirt for the Siena-game. That was not a good night for me. But, that night marked the night that I gave in. I don’t know any other way to say it than to simply say that Ohio State is my team.

Anyhow, I wasn’t sure what to do with all of this. I mean, I’ve maintained a Michigan blog for four years. The last few months have been brutal. I’ve forced a number of Michigan-related posts that were absolutely agonizing to write. I’ve even railed on Justin Boren for doing essentially the same thing that I’m doing. I just can’t do it anymore. This is my attempt to get it all out so I don’t have to pretend anymore. I still haven’t decided how I’m going to juggle being an Ohio State fan with writing a Detroit sports blog. I still love my Detroit teams so I plan to continue writing on those topics. I’m toying with the idea of writing a few Ohio State articles just to see how it goes. I know I have readers who are diehard Michigan fans. All I can do is apologize. I hope writing about the Bucks doesn’t mark the end of your readership. This has been years in the making and it has helped tremendously to get this off my chest and…April Fool’s! Go Blue!

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