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.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

I Injured Myself Just Writing About the NBA

Injuries have always been an issue in the NBA. Athletic freaks like Bernard King, Penny Hardaway, and Chris Webber had prime seasons stolen by catastrophic knee injuries. Nobody can match Bill Walton’s injury woes as virtually his entire career sans two incredible seasons was robbed by knee problems. He wasn’t even healthy for those two incredible seasons. With a sport as fast-paced and athleticism-filled as professional basketball, there are bound to be injuries and, unfortunately, many are serious. However, what has happened to the NBA in recent years makes baseball players look like MMA fighters. Basketball players by the dozens—most of the “star” variety—are spending more time off the court than Pete Carroll does writing checks to recruits.

Just about everyone plays fantasy football. Even the old lady at the antique store downtown can tell you whether to play Tony Romo or Joe Flacco in week 10. Nobody knows more trivial—yet occasionally totally important—things about football than fantasy football players. Likewise, nobody notices trends that might otherwise escape the novice fan than fantasy football players. For instance, if you’re a fantasy footballer, you know that production by elite wide receivers is down across the league this year. I’m not sure the average fan would know that. A monetarily bereft league championship and oodles of pride depend entirely on picking up said trends. It’s not just fantasy football where fantasy players see something develop before the average fan. It’s exactly the same for fantasy hockey and basketball and so on.

By way of the 2005 NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement, the injured reserve (IR) was replaced by the “inactive list.” This prevented teams from stashing players away who weren’t really injured. It had minimal impact; it could even be argued that it had an even bigger impact in the fantasy basketball world. Up until 2005, all fantasy sports had an “IR” for injured players. The new CBA changed that. If you’re a fantasy basketball owner and one of your “stars” is out for three months, you have to play a man down for three months. So, fantasy basketball owners are very much in tune with injury trends. These trends seemed to be status quo until the disastrous NBA injury plague of ’08. To the average fan, everything probably looked the same as it always did. For fantasy basketballers—including me—it was very obvious that something significant had changed. Here is a list of players who missed at least 13 games (or played fewer than 70 games) last season; Yao Ming, Danny Granger, Amare Stoudemire, Kevin Garnett, Al Jefferson, Deron Williams, Caron Butler, Jose Calderon, Devin Harris, Kevin Martin, Gilbert Arenas, Shawn Marion, Carmelo Anthony, Elton Brand, Man Ginobili, Baron Davis, Carlos Boozer, Monta Ellis, Andris Biedrins, Marcus Camby, Stephen Jackson, Michael Redd, Jameer Nelson, Al Horford, Andrew Bynum, Rasheed Wallace, Zach Randolph, Josh Howard, Chris Kaman, Marvin Williams, Andrew Bogut, Luol Deng, Jamal Crawford, Richard Hamilton, Tyson Chandler, Peja Stojakovic, Allen Iverson, Jermaine O’Neal, Cory Maggette, Mike Dunleavy, Tracy McGrady, and Kenyon Martin. Most played far fewer than 70 games.

From a fantasy basketball perspective, things got so bad that I only had four of the 15 guys that I originally drafted at my disposal come playoff time. I’ve been watching the NBA religiously since 1986 and this is easily the most injury plagued basketball season that I can remember. So, was this all a fluke, or is there something bigger going on? My first inclination is that it was a fluke. That didn’t stop me from pushing safeguards in my league in the form of an artificial IR to prevent such carnage for this fantasy season but, as far as I was concerned, they were just “safeguards.” Well, that turned out to be a good idea because whatever injury “bug” infested the league last season is back, and possibly stronger. The NBA season isn’t but two weeks old and there is already a list of injuries that closely resembles the horrifying list from last season. Already, we’ve seen, Pau Gasol, Tim Duncan, Kevin Martin, Eric Gordon, Devin Harris, Tyrus Thomas, Troy Murphy, Michael Redd, Tracy McGrady, Andrew Bynum, Tony Parker, Antawn Jamison, Tayshaun Prince, Francisco Garcia, Nate Robinson, Mike Dunleavy, Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, Randy Foye, Mike Miller, Yao Ming (never returned from last season), Yi Jianlin, Hasheem Thabeet, Joe Alexander, Robin Lopez, Daequan Cook, Tim Thomas, and Darrell Arthur miss extended time from injuries. Even Tayshaun is out and he hadn’t missed a game in seven years. This is all in just two weeks. Multiply this by nine and you’ll get an idea what things might look like at the end of the year.

It would be one thing if these were comprehensive lists of NBA injuries over the last two seasons but they’re just lists of players who play major minutes. For a league that thrives almost entirely on its superstars, this has to be a concerning development. Fortunately, Kobe and LeBron have managed to avoid missing time although Kobe has suffered a torn pinky finger and a dislocated ring finger in the last two seasons and still managed to play 208 out of 208 regular season games over that span. Could this all come down to “toughness?” Are players starting to realize that they get paid whether they play through injuries or not? Could be. I don’t think there’s a way to know that or not. It’s possible that Kobe is more representative of the type of basketball player of the past who wanted to win above all. Some injuries are just impossible to play through so even if players today are “softer”, that would only account for a certain percentage of the problem. Maybe players are stronger, quicker, and more skilled than in previous years. The more athleticism that’s on the court likely yields a greater amount of injuries. Explosive moves to the rim or cavalier block attempts are often the culprit in devastating knee injuries.

I don’t have the time or the means to get to the bottom of this; all I can do is make educated guesses. It’s possible that this injury “bug” is just an allusion but I’m not the only one who feels this way. I don’t have irrefutable proof but I’m pretty sure that more players are getting injured than ever before. Again, it could be that the league is more athletic resulting in more injuries. It’s possible more players are taking advantage of the fact they get paid whether they play or not. It could be something I haven’t mentioned like faulty equipment basketball shoes (yeah, right). Maybe the trainers are more paranoid these days so they play it safer for fear of OK-ing a player who goes on to suffer a season-ending injury. Another possibility is that there are just more “good” players in the NBA now than ever increasing the likelihood of an injury to a “good” player. It’s difficult to argue that the league isn't less saturated now than 10-20 years ago. It seems like every starter is a borderline all-star these days. Those are all semi-plausible explanations but what would explain the rapid hike in “superstar” injuries just in the last 2-3 years? Whatever the reason, expect the NBA to take notice and, if this continues, seriously consider shortening the season.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Willie "Blow By"

I’d like to take this opportunity to formally apologize to the respective sports of baseball, hockey, pro and college basketball, and professional football and those of you who love them for my neglectful ways. I got carried away to the tune of eight consecutive “Michigan football” posts. In hopes of avoiding further and potentially more damaging penalties from the hated governing body of blog posts, I’m putting myself on probation which includes a three-day suspension of all “Michigan football” themed posts and a reduction in allotted caloric intake of 300 per day for the next week.

Today’s replacement theme is everyone’s favorite Metro Detroit area professional basketball team. Before I get to that, though, if you already know who I’m referring to in the post title without reading any further, then you have won my admiration as a highly loyal reader, immediate induction into my reader Hall of Fame, and a .25 cent gift certificate to the fictitious Motown Sports Revival apparel section. Please identify yourselves so I can dole out the rewards as necessary. Moving along…

When Joe Dumars burned all of his coin on an undersized shooting guard and an oversized small forward last summer—rather than bank it on the deep 2010 free agent class—the future of Pistons basketball was officially set for the course of “Milwaukee Bucks.” With money tied up in redundant players and no way of scoring or preventing scoring in the post, the Pistons are destined for a brutal stretch no matter how many cherries Joe D tries to put on top. Joe should know more than anyone that there are four ways to win an NBA Championship. You either need to dominate the paint offensively and defensively, have three (or more) superstars, have a historically stingy defense, or have the best player in the game. Of the last 30 NBA Champions, all 30 have fallen into at least one of those four categories. The Pistons aren’t even remotely close to embarking on any of the four proven paths to a championship. They are one of the worst rebounding teams in the NBA and have virtually no post-offense. They don’t have a single player who qualifies as a “superstar” which, unfortunately, means they don’t have the best player in the NBA either. They have been respectable defensively through seven games but most of that has been against some of the worst teams in the league. Sadly, the Pistons don’t seem to be above average at anything except “percentage of payroll devoted to the shooting guard position.”

All sports fans ever want from their team is to either play at a championship level or be building towards a championship level. The absolute worst place to be is stagnation, or the Milwaukee Bucks. The Bucks are nowhere near contending and no amount of maturation will change that. Unless Joe D has a trade on the horizon involving Rip Hamilton and/or Tayshaun Prince, the Pistons are very close to being a finished product. Considering how flawed they are, this team is in for a long bout of stagnation without a major change in course.

Since there isn’t a whole lot of hope for contention anytime soon my only recourse as a fan is to find something to root for. When the Lions were being the Lions in the 90’s, that “something” was Barry Sanders. When the Tigers were the Tigers earlier this decade, it was “Jeff Weaver.” Yes, I realize what I just wrote. This time around, it’s without question, Will Bynum. Bynum flourished in limited opportunities last season. Why his opportunities were limited still remains a mystery. Apparently, Michael Curry’s way of dealing with unexpectedly good players is to superglue them to the bench. When last season neared its miserable end, I wrote that all I wanted to see this season was Will Bynum in the two-deep. Fortunately, John Kuester, seems to be more amiable than Michael Curry at both appeasing fan requests and playing good players more minutes. The result has been Bynum playing nearly twice as many minutes over last season. Some of those minutes have surely resulted from injuries to both Rip and Tayshaun. It’s obvious, though, that a bigger role for Bynum was in Kuester’s plans even before the season began. He mentioned before the season that he intended on utilizing Bynum more and in the first game of the season—with both Hamilton and Prince healthy—Bynum got a robust 28 minutes.

Not surprisingly, Bynum has delivered on the tantalizing potential he flashed last year. Through seven games, he is averaging 11 points, 4 assists and 3 rebounds in just under 27 minutes. He has continued to show the explosiveness that eluded Michael Curry’s consciousness last season and that compelled me to come up with the spectacular nickname, “Willie Blow-by.” In fact, if he were a starter, he’d be producing near-All-Star caliber statistics. If he were getting, say, Ben Gordon’s 38.7 minutes per game, his numbers would come out to 16 points, 6 assists, 4 rebounds, and a steal per game. His numbers would probably be even more impressive than that since he’d be spending more time with accomplished NBA players rather than the worst bench in the league.

Even though the future doesn’t look too promising, Joe D still has a few moves remaining before he officially check-mates himself. If he could somehow shed the contracts of Rip and Tayshaun—some $24 million due next season—and turn that money into the post-presence that the Pistons so sorely lack, then we might be able to raise the short-term ceiling to a more respectable level. Bynum essentially fell from the sky. He is young and won’t command anything close to what Rip makes. There is no question that his emergence along with Rodney Stuckey’s versatility gives Joe the flexibility to part with Rip. Now it’s up to Joe to do something about it.

Optional Reading: Stop Fouling!

The NBA season is just two weeks old and other than the continued wussification of professional basketball players—injuries have reached an epidemic level—there isn’t much in the name of interesting storylines, yet. One that has caught my eye, however, is the curious case of Benjamin Greg Oden. If the guy could just keep his hands to himself, he would not only have the potential to be a dominating center, he would already be one. Despite being Portland’s starting center, Oden barely plays more minutes than Joel Przybilla, his backup. In fact, Oden’s move to the starting lineup has only generated an extra minute and 30 seconds of playing time over last season. At a paltry 23 minutes per game, Oden isn’t getting nearly enough minutes to put up All-Star caliber statistics let alone shed his reputation as a draft bust. To compare, Dwight Howard played 35:42 per game last season and that was down two full minutes from the previous year. That’s nearly a 13-minute per game discrepancy. I’ve watched the NBA a long time and I don’t recall another player whose inability to stay out of foul trouble has threatened to steal away a potential Hall-of-Fame career.

Oden’s first season was entirely and tragically lost due to a knee injury. His second season was plagued by inconsistency and confusion. Yet, if you watch him play, you no-doubt notice flashes of immense potential. If/when he gets comfortable playing in the NBA, he is good enough to become the closest thing possible to Shaq. Oden is off to a rather average start to the season statistically but if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find that he is merely an ounce of self control away from league-wide domination. He is currently averaging eight points, eight rebounds, and 2.5 blocks per game. That’s not much to fawn over and it’s barely enough to keep him off waiver wires in fantasy basketball leagues. However, those per-minute numbers spread over Dwight Howard’s minutes become downright scary. At 35:42 per game—a typical number for an NBA starter—Oden would be averaging 13.5 points, 14.6, rebounds, and 3.8 blocks per game to go along with a Shaq-esque 59% shooting percentage. Howard led the league in both rebounding and blocks last season with 13.8 RPG and 2.9 BPG. The obvious problem is that, with Howard’s minutes, Oden would be averaging a hilarious 6.6 fouls per game.

This isn’t a new problem for Oden. He was notorious for getting into foul trouble at Ohio State. When he did play, though, he was the most dominating player in college basketball and one of the most dominating college big men in recent memory. I have no idea how this is going to turn out because there isn’t any precedent to draw from. Obviously, he doesn’t want to have foul problems. He is surely trying to “not foul.” It’s just that it’s not working. That leads me to believe this could be a long-term issue. If so, that would be a shame. Most NBA players succeed or fail based on ability. Oden’s chances of succeeding or failing depend entirely on a lesson that everyone learns in kindergarten. I guess time will tell if he can keep his hands to himself.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Immaculate Redemption

I’ve alluded in the past to the parallels in media and fan perception of both Alex Rodriguez and Rich Rodriguez. While their shared surname is quite likely a coincidence, they certainly can relate to each other when it comes to stereotypes. Alex Rodriguez has been one of baseball’s villains ever since he signed a $252 million contract with the Texas Rangers nine years ago. Before that, he was universally recognized as a great baseball player and only a great baseball player. He was one of the rising stars in the sport and was well-liked by fans across baseball. It wasn’t until he wrote his name on that contract—something every single breathing human being would’ve done—that he became “selfish”, “greedy”, and “a cancer.” Similarly, Rich Rodriguez was well-recognized as one of the best coaches in college football. He had rebuilt West Virginia into a powerhouse capable of beating any program in the country. He was affectionately coined, “The Godfather of the spread” and was universally considered a revolutionary mind in college football. It wasn’t until he left West Virginia to coach at the University of Michigan—something that virtually every coach in college football history would’ve done—that he became “greedy”, “overrated”, and “morally compromised.”

In both instances, nothing changed. Alex Rodriguez was the same person after he took the pen and signed his name to his contract as he was before it. Rich Rodriguez was the same person standing on the sidelines of a 3-9 Michigan-team last year as he was when he was standing on the sidelines of the 2006 Sugar Bowl leading West Virginia to victory over Georgia. Neither man changed; it was the way they were perceived that changed. There are few things in this world that sports fans love to do more than ridicule and criticize. The average sports fan doesn’t care about reality. Sports fans don’t care about “truth.” All they need is a slight change in “perception” to turn 180 degrees on a sports figure. By all accounts, Alex Rodriguez is a nice guy. He might be “quirky” but that’s just code for “normal.” Everybody is quirky. I repeat: EVERYBODY is quirky. Whether an athlete is portrayed in a positive or negative light has nothing to do with their intricacies because all humans have those. It has to do with whether or not there is an obvious superficial reason to dislike that athlete. Sports fans are so superficial that it’s amazing more don’t double as beauty pageant judges. Albert Pujols is one of the most popular players in baseball. He isn’t any “nicer” than Alex Rodriguez and he isn’t any “better” than Rodriguez. What he has is really what he doesn’t have. The difference between the two in perception is that while Pujols makes a ton of money, he doesn’t make the most money. That distinction goes to Alex Rodriguez. On the surface that might seem like a minor difference but that is the whole difference. Before Rodriguez signed that contract, the only thing that mattered to people was that he was a hell of a baseball player. If people wanted to criticize him then for any number of things, then they certainly could’ve. Everyone is criticizable. Once he signed his contract, every possible annoyance or hiccup was beaten to death by every radio show and water cooler in America. It became cool to hate Alex Rodriguez.

Rich Rodriguez has travelled a similar plight. If you were given an assignment three years ago—when Rodriguez was still coaching at West Virginia—to write a movie script in which the whole premise was that Rodriguez gets criticized as much as humanly possible, you would not have even come close to what he has gone through in reality. No Hollywood script could compete with what Rodriguez has actually had to go through. I don’t ever remember hearing a word about him being a “redneck” when he was at Clemson or Tulane or West Virginia. I never heard a word about his football program at West Virginia lacking “family values.” Nobody ever complained about forcing his players to break NCAA rules. In fact, Rodriguez had—and still does—come across as being a genuinely nice and honest person. Yet, many Michigan fans and college football fans in general think he’s a “slimeball.” If he’s a slimeball, he’s the nicest, most humble slimeball who has ever lived. To these people, the fact that he isn’t a dirtbag doesn’t matter. They get their jollies off of aimlessly criticizing and ridiculing. It’s the perception of Rodriguez that they care about, not actually who he is or what he stands for. “These people,” unfortunately make up the vast majority of sports fans. If you want to find them, seek out the comment sections of ESPN or newspaper articles. These are the people who ESPN seems to market their programming towards.

This isn’t just a phenomenon involving people with the last name Rodriguez. This sort of character lynching happens to many high-profile sports figures. It happens just as often, if not more, in politics and in the entertainment industry as well. These false perceptions aren’t life sentences. What I mean by that is there is a way out of dirtbag oblivion. It can all change back to the way it used to be just like it never happened. It might not be as easy as it was to fall into it in the first place, but the right event or accomplishment can erase it all. No amount of logic or reasoning will do it, though. It has to be as superficial as the original change in perception.

It’s not a coincidence that the Yankees won the World Series last night and I’m writing about this today. Anything that has ever been written negatively about Alex Rodriguez disappeared last night by simply having better teammates than he has ever had before. It had nothing to do with him. He is the same player and person that he has always been. It's just that now he will be thought of as a great baseball player and not a “greedy weirdo.” Instead of having his accomplishments minimized, he’ll be celebrated in same vein as the great redemption stories of the past. Never mind that there was no actual redemption. Alex Rodriguez has won the World Series with better teammates and, apparently, that makes him a better person.

The moral of the story is that winning cures everything. Bad people become good people when they win. Jerks become characters when they win. All of this, of course, means that faux redemption for Rich Rodriguez is only a victory over Ohio State away. That’s not likely to happen this season but if it did, you would see him embraced by the same fence-straddlers who’ve tried to run him out of town. If Rodriguez turns the Michigan football program into the elite power that he was hired to do and that many fans thought he would, then he’ll no longer be a “redneck, destroyer of traditions.” He’ll be the second coming of Bo Schembechler. People will want to buy him drinks and sing his praises. There will be no apologies or mea culpas. They'll just pretend it never happened. Until then, I suppose he can take comfort in seeing Alex Rodriguez immaculately redeemed.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Directed Criticism

Rich Rodriguez has received a lot of criticism in his two years at Michigan. Almost none of it has been warranted. I can regurgitate the litany of ridiculous accusations and innuendos that have been unfairly tossed his way but I’ve documented them enough here that they should be pretty obvious by now. Rodriguez’s unspectacular 8-13 start at Michigan has been plagued by mitigating factors. Unfortunately, few are willing to acknowledge them. The guy deserved patience when he came to Michigan and got virtually none. He deserved support when he came to Michigan and got very little. The fact that he didn’t get those things has made his job of selling the future of his program to perspective recruits extremely difficult. Without those recruits, Rodriguez has little chance of succeeding. The roster he has right now is just not capable of winning consistently. There are a lot of reasons why we’re at this point. Some of it has to do with inexperience. A lot of it has to do with defensive recruiting in the waning years of the Lloyd Carr regime. If you’re wondering why Michigan is playing walk-ons regularly, it’s because of that. Last week, Mgoblog posted a scathing review of Carr’s final three classes and how they have impacted the current state of the program. In short, Scott Shafer had no chance last season and Greg Robinson has had about the same chance this season. Considering all of this, criticizing Rodriguez for not casting the magic “immediate awesomeness” spell is obtuse. The guy deserves patience and isn’t getting it.

However, there is a point at which criticism—appropriately placed criticism—becomes fair game. That point came on Saturday and it came many times. One major flaw in the mindset of too many Michigan fans is that every mistake Rodriguez makes proves that he should be fired. The fact that people immediately take their criticism and aim it directly at “job security” only undermines what Rodriguez is trying to build. I’m going to take my criticism and aim it at Rodriguez which is where it belongs. Michigan lost to Illinois for many reasons but most of them had to do with the tactical blunders that came from the Michigan sideline. Illinois is a pathetically bad team. It should’ve been stomped into oblivion well before the 4th quarter. Illinois came into this game expecting to lose. The Illini players might not have admitted that but it was obvious by the way they played in the first half. They were so inept that they were repeatedly booed by the disgruntled Illini faithless. The only way they were going to win was for Michigan to allow them to—which is what happened.

Rodriguez’s first blunder came at the end of the first half. On 3rd and six, Michigan sacked Juice Williams on his own 24-yard line with 1:02 remaining. Rodriguez had two timeouts and was likely to get the ball near his own 40 yard line. Michigan led 13-7 at the time and was set to get the ball to start the second half. With two scoring opportunities in a row on top of a six-point lead, Illinois was in danger of getting blown out. Instead of calling a timeout at the 1:02 mark, Rodriguez inexplicably allowed 35 seconds to tick off before calling a timeout with 27 remaining. I can’t even begin to comprehend what logic went into that decision. My only guess is that the coaching staff wasn’t paying attention. That is the only conceivable explanation for burning 35 seconds off the clock. It didn’t even make sense to call timeout at that point. If you’re going to burn 35 seconds and any chance of scoring along with it, then you might as well just forget about it. As poorly as Illinois played, Rodriguez gave its players a huge boost of confidence by letting them go into the half down just six points. I was incredulous by the decision. That level of coaching incompetency is unacceptable.

The other major gaffe came in the third quarter after Roy Roundtree failed to get the extra 18 inches necessary to get into the endzone to put Michigan up 20-7. Michigan faced a 1st and goal from inside the one. Anybody who watches football knows that it is virtually impossible not to gain 18 inches on a quarterback sneak. I don’t care how big Tate Forcier is. It’s not about size; it’s about falling into the appropriate crevice formed by the converging lines. To not run at least one QB sneak in four plays from the 18-inch line is inexcusable. Ideally, he would’ve made that call four consecutive plays if necessary. In fairness to Rodriguez, every college football team in the country from Florida to Akron should be able to gain half-a-yard given four run plays. His players certainly didn’t do their jobs. However, Rodriguez inexplicably went against the play with the highest chance of success on four straight plays. He could’ve lined up virtually any player on his roster behind center and gotten a touchdown with a QB sneak. If Rod was going to defy logic and not run the QB sneak, then Brandon Minor should’ve gotten the carry on four straight plays. Yet, it wasn’t until 4th down that Rodriguez sent Minor trudging out onto the field. If Minor gave Michigan its best chance of a touchdown, then he should’ve been on the field on first and goal.

Those two decisions cost Michigan the game. It’s hard to imagine Tate and Co. not getting into field goal range at the end of the half with 50+ seconds and a timeout especially considering how poorly the Illinois defense was playing in the first half. It’s even harder to imagine Forcier not getting in from inches out on multiple quarterback sneaks in the 3rd quarter. Illinois should’ve been buried midway through the third quarter. Rodriguez’s decisions made sure that didn’t happen which ultimately paved the wave for the Illini awakening.

There have been other criticisms of Rodriguez’s decision-making on Saturday. One was his decision to pass on a 27-yard field goal attempt late in the 4th quarter and go for it on 4th and six. Michigan trailed 31-13 at the time. As a fan—and I’m assuming it’s the same for coaches and players—you want to extend the game—and hope—for as long as possible. That’s why coaches who need multiple touchdowns and a two-point conversion wait until the very end to go for the conversion. The object is to extend the game for as long as possible. Using that rationale, Rodriguez should’ve taken the three points to pull within 15 points with 8:20 to go. I’m not going to lump this decision in with the two egregious decisions I discussed earlier because I don’t think it made much of a difference. Michigan was very unlikely to win the game at that point. A field goal would’ve made little difference. The ball was at the 10-yard line and for all Rodriguez knew, that was going to be his best chance of getting a touchdown. I would not be surprised if he made the correct decision statistically speaking. Rodriguez made game-losing decisions against Illinois but this wasn’t one of them.

One other criticism that I’ve seen is failing to get Denard Robinson into the game. In my opinion, Michigan would’ve beaten Illinois if Denard Robinson was behind center for the entire game. Illinois’s defense is so bad that Michigan could’ve called a designed run on virtually every play like it did in Robinson’s touchdown drive against Iowa. Illinois would’ve had no chance to stop it. That wouldn’t have been the most exciting way to win but RR doesn’t need to worry about style points. He needs to worry about winning. Right now, Denard running on every play gives Michigan its best chance of winning. Tate can’t play well for more than one series without regressing. Once he turns into “bad” Tate, he doesn’t snap out of it. Denard needs to start and Rod needs to run him to victory over Purdue. I understand why he wouldn’t want to do that. He would undoubtedly open himself up to even more criticism than he already has for being one-dimensional with D-Rob in the game. Illinois and Purdue have horrible defenses and Rod needs to make them pay for being so horrible. Force them to do what they can’t which is stop Denard on the ground.

Rodriguez has said on multiple occasions that his team is not good enough to play poorly and win. The same goes for coaching poorly. Even against a team as horrendous as Illinois, Michigan is not nearly good enough to be handicapped by its head coach and win. The loss on Saturday proved that. Contrary to what too many people think, though, making poor decisions in a game doesn’t mean that Rodriguez should be fired. People need to stop acting like he is constantly interviewing for his job. That already took place two years ago when he was hired. Until it becomes obvious that what he is doing isn’t going to work—which is something that nobody can even remotely suggest at this point—the incessant calls of “failure” are just idiotic. However, after what happened at Illinois, it’s apparent that he needs to make better sideline decisions. It would be advisable that he start doing that by this Saturday if he has any inclinations of playing in a bowl game. After Saturday’s loss, this officially becomes the most important game of the Rich Rodriguez-era.


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