Saturday, September 29, 2007

Football Peeves

I am delighted to have you play football. I believe in rough, manly sports. But I do not believe in them if they degenerate into the sole end of any one's existence. I don't want you to sacrifice standing well in your studies to any over-athleticism; and I need not tell you that character counts for a great deal more than either intellect or body in winning success in life. Athletic proficiency is a mighty good servant, and like so many other good servants, a mighty bad master. ~ Theodore Roosevelt

A couple of football-related gripes ...

Lost in the midst of all the foofraw about spawn-of-the-devil Bill Belichick's "cheating" (not to mention the lack of foofraw about the NFL subsequently destroying all the evidence) was a more important issue. Why do coaches feel the need to control every aspect of the game?

I mean, this game was originally played with quarterbacks calling their own plays and someone on defense, normally the middle linebacker, calling the defenses. It has degenerated to the point where the NFL placed microphones in the helmets of quarterbacks so the coach could talk to them directly.

Momentary digression: This is what makes the whole "stealing defensive" signals thing so ridiculous. The microphone is turned off with 15 seconds left on the play clock. By the time a team decoded the defensive signals and called a new play to take advantage of it, there probably wouldn't be enough time to get the information to the hapless quarterback awaiting his words of truth and wisdom form the god-on-the-sidelines. Now back to your regularly-scheduled griping.

I blame all this sideline control on Paul Brown. Brown was a great head coach who formed the Cleveland Browns (immodestly named after himself) and led them out of the old All American Conference into the NFL where they won championships and contended for years (before Art Modell decided to dismantle them as an excuse to move to Baltimore; but that's another rant). Brown, despite having one of the most cerebral quarterbacks in history, Otto Graham, sent in every offensive play, shuttling players in and out of the game to deliver his calls.

Now, coaches had sent in plays ever since football started, but they tended to do so only in critical situations or when the sidelines or coaches up in their box saw something that the quarterback might be missing. It was Brown who took sideline play-calling to the extreme. Because he was successful, other teams decided it must be the coach calling the plays that made them that way. The fact that Brown had an excellent eye for talent and had built a team with some very good players seemed lost to those other decision-makers.

Along the way, as coaches made the offenses look more complicated (they weren't but they looked like it) it took too long to give the information to a lineman and send him to relay all this to a quarterback correctly, so signals started. Defenses still relied on their players to call strategy, although situational substitution allowed coaches to pretty much control that aspect as well.

Now, of course, a player can't spit on the field without checking with the head coach first.

The formations aren't really all the complicated. Watch a game and count just how many really different sets the offense takes. If you see more than five or six, you're probably watching Division III, where teams still have some imagination. As for those 700-page playbooks that some teams claim to have, apparently they have a lot of duplication in them because teams run the same plays game in and game out.

Let's face it. You don't need a few hundred offensive plays to win games. What you need to do is run the right play at the right time and execute properly. Vince Lombardi once said that he could tell the opposition what play he was going to run and still gain yardage on the play if his team ran the play to perfection.

The real problem here is that coaches seem to think that, since they are getting all this money these days, the fans must be coming out to see them, not the players. It's worse in college than in the pros, but it's evident in both.

You want to stop "cheating" like Belichick's? Make signs, microphones, semaphores, mirrors, smoke signals, you name it, illegal. Let those college-educated men on the field make most of the decisions. If the NCAA and the NFL want to speed up games, they might be stunned to find out how much faster a team can get to the line and run a play when the players don't spend 30 seconds staring at the bench waiting for Coach Einstein to decide what play from page 635 of the playbook he wants to call.

Then there's the nonsense about paying college players.

Paying college players is so stupid I barely know where to begin. You've heard the moan. The schools and the NCAA are making so much money off the labors of these man-children on the field, boo-hoo-hoo, they should be forced to return some of it to them.

Bullpucky.

First of all, schools aren't getting rich off these programs. Basically, football makes enough to support itself and some other sports programs, but I suspect, generally speaking, that a lot of Division IA schools are happy to be breaking even. As to the big payouts from bowl games, keep in mind that Texas, I think it was, actually lost money on a bowl game, thanks to the expenses of travel, goodies for players, and the like.

Secondly, colleges are educational institutions, not sports franchises. People, including university administrators, seem to have completely lost sight of this, a fact made obvious by news like this. It's bad enough that private schools would be expected to squander funds to pay salaries to football players (and by extension basketball players; minor sports would, no doubt, be exempted). But, the idea of state-funded schools paying for players using my tax money is positively abominable.

Don't even get me started on taxpayer-funded playing facilities. And don't give me that guff about athletic budgets being separate from academic funding. I've discussed that before.

Thirdly and perhaps most importantly, college players are paid. They get scholarships which are worth tens of thousands of dollars. Those that actually get a degree will be able to parlay that and connections with boosters into better earning potential than someone who never got into college in the first place.

We need to remember that sports used to be about athletes, not coaches and not money. That's old-school thinking, I know.

Well, sometimes old-school isn't so bad.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Belichick and Bama

What about football? Is it a sport or a concussion? ~Jim Murray

A couple of disparate items, connected by football.

Closing the Belichick Incident


I think everyone is about done bellyaching about New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick and his video cameras. At least they've moved on to accusing others of similar evil deeds, like Pete Carroll, who to my knowledge never coached under Belichick, and Nick Saban, who did (more on him below). I forget what Carroll was accused of, but the accusation was made solely because he coached the Patriots at one time. Apparently just being associated with the Patriots is enough to mark you for life.

At any rate, the NFL demanded and received all the tapes and "materials" from New England and promptly announced that there would be no further punishments. But, I was rather intrigued by the fact that the league destroyed all those "materials" about as fast as they got them.

Think about this for a moment. Everyone is up in arms about the wicked Belichick and his marauding, lying, cheating, stealing Patriots. He's made these awful illegal video recordings that have enabled them to win all those games over the last few years, "cheating" Pittsburgh and Philadelphia (according to players from those teams) from their rightful titles. So the league demands all the tapes. New England delivers them with an alacrity that would indicate that either a) there weren't very many of them, or b) they had them all boxed up in a corner someplace. If the former, it doesn't seem like they gathered a lot of intelligence in the process. If the latter, it doesn't sound like they were looking at them very much.

But, far more amazingly, the NFL, upon receipt of all this damning evidence, promptly destroys it, with no comment, no "See? Here's how the evil Belichick was cheating". Boom, straight to the dumpster.

Do you people get it now? Belichick violated a stadium game-time procedure, not a football rule. There is no rule against stealing signs, so the Patriots couldn't have "cheated" by doing so. What they did was take sideline pictures of coaches signaling and maybe used that to figure out signs. Of course, they would have had to figure out which of three coaches or players who were flapping their arms like chickens in a flea storm were actually giving the sign. Then they would have to hope that those signs didn't get changed by the time they played that team again.

At least, we think that was what they were doing, because we'll never know since the NFL conveniently torched the goods.

Here's what I think: The Patriots violated a procedure put in place to ensure that NFL Films was the only entity on the sidelines taping or filming the action. What they were doing with it was unclear. Personally, I think they were checking out injured players or something. Whatever they were doing was not against any rule of professional football.

Get over it. The NFL has.

Bama Predictions Redux

First, let me mention the comedy of the Saban connection to the Belichick incident. During the week prior to the Georgia game with Alabama, Georgia coach Mark Richt closed practice. Now coaches closing practice is not exactly a rare thing. In fact, very few practices are open after the first 15-30 minutes, during which the press can watch players do stretching exercises. But Richt made a big deal about it. Now, he didn't say anything, but reports were picked up by the local sports shows that the reason he did it was that Nick Saban used to be an assistant coach to Bill Belichick, so he might be a low-down dirty spy too.

This is funny enough, but it becomes a laugher when you consider this. Virginia Tech played Georgia in a bowl game some time ago (the Sugar Bowl, I think). Frank Beamer accused "someone" of spying on his practices leading up to his game. Now, the only "someone" who would be interested in Tech's practices would be --well, whaddya know -- Georgia, coached at the time by one Mark Richt.

Anyway, what I really wanted to brag, er, talk about was the prediction I made for Alabama's season. As you can see in the linked article, I forecast a 9-3 record for the Crimson Tide. At this point, I predicted they would be 3-1 with one loss, that to Georgia.

Bingo -- so far.

In looking over the remainder of my picks, I'm not as sure about some of them as I was earlier. Actually seeing the teams in action does offer a different perspective (for example, ranking Michigan number 5 in the preseason polls). Now, for the record, the picks I made are the ones I'm going to live with, but I am willing to admit I'd change a couple if I were doing the balance of the season now.

For example, I'd seriously consider giving Bama a win against Florida State. FSU looks seriously mediocre, and Jimbo Fisher may not have the tools to take advantage of what he knows about Saban's defense. LSU, on the other hand, may be able to overcome Les Miles just because they seem to have buckets of talent. Alabama will be hard-pressed to pull out the upset.

Those two games would be a wash, with the team still finishing 9-3. However, it's just possible that the Auburn game might need re-evaluation. Auburn has had a rough year of it, with a weak offensive line, no Bill Lester, and a very confused Brandon Cox. They could be had. Of course, Lester will be back next week, and Cox looked very good against New Mexico, but the team was pretty uneven last year and seems to still be having trouble finding itself.

Of course, Nick Saban's defense has been pretty uneven itself, and John Parker Wilson is a continual accident waiting to happen, so that game is a toss-up.

All in all, I still feel comfortable about a 9-3 season, which would be a considerable improvement for the Tide and a probable harbinger of even better things to come. They look to be a team on the way up.

Of course, a lot of folks were saying that about Notre Dame not long ago.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Crime and Punishment

'Tis my opinion every man cheats in his own way, and he is only honest who is not discovered. ~ Susannah Centlivre

According to all the hue and cry going around about what an evil, wicked, awful person Bill Belichick, coach of the New England Patriots, is. Oh, people are also griping about his getting nailed by the NFL for violating a rule involving videotaping the opposition sidelines.

Before we go too far, let it be know that I am a rules person. I think rules are necessary in sports and in society as a whole to maintain order and some sort of level of fairness. I don't think much, though, of dumb rules. And I'm particularly vexed when a rule is said to have been violated when it doesn't exist.

What Coach Belichick did was have a video camera on his sidelines taping the coaches on the opposing side while they signaled in their defensive plays. The rule he violated is contained on page 105 of the NFL's Game Operations Manual, which says, "No video recording devices of any kind are permitted to be in use in the coaches' booth, on the field, or in the locker room during the game."

I'd link you to the manual, but I can't find it on the web, but the line has been well quoted all over the place, like here. Note that this is not the NFL Rule Book, which covers the actual rules of play; it's a manual of operations that includes such goodies as how many footballs the teams have to provide. Nowhere in this manual or in the NFL Rule Book does it say that it is illegal to steal signals.

In other words, if you put a guy in row 1 of the upper deck with a video camera, he can record whatever he wants.

Of course, it is widely reported that the NFL head of football operations, Ray Anderson, sent a letter out saying, "Video taping of any type, including but not limited to taping of an opponent's offensive or defensive signals, is prohibited on the sidelines, in the coaches' booth, in the locker room, or at any other locations accessible to club staff members during the game." Notice that this isn't what the OFFICIAL manual says.

Here's my problem: What is so bloody awful about stealing signs? If teams simply shouted the information out to their players, would there be a requirement not to listen? Signaling is essentially an unregulated part of the game, so decrypting those signs is not against any rule. It is, in fact, part of the game.

I've heard this argument in baseball for years, where some managers get all bent out of shape because someone on the other team has figured out the third-base-coaching signals. Now it's gravitated to football. It doesn't make sense. The entire reason for signals to fool the other team. The nature of baseball requires that signs be used because it would take too long for coaches to keep running down to the batter and to the runners to say, "The hit-and-run is on."

In football, signs are completely unnecessary. You want to send in a play? Send in a player. Football players used to be smart enough to call their own plays on offense and defense. For some reason, coaches now feel they have to control every single element of play. Okay, then that's the price you're going to pay.

What's funny is that I suspect the rule originally had another purpose altogether. It could have been to prevent a team putting hidden cameras in the coaches' booth or the opposing locker room to pick up strategy information. Technology would make that an easy task; in fact, I'd suspect it's been done and is being done by any number of teams. But the most likely reason for the rule was to protect NFL property. It's not the teams they worry about; it's to prevent anyone from taking images of the game that could be used without NFL permission.

In fact, it used to be common for local news outfits to put a cameraman down on the sidelines to take shots to use for their evening broadcasts, especially if they weren't an affiliate of the network carrying the home team broadcast. I'm sure the NFL didn't like that.

Why the NFL decided that signal-stealing was evil isn't clear to me. Also unclear is why, if signal-stealing is so evil, there isn't a prohibition against it to begin with. Well, actually that isn't so unclear. If a team is thought to be stealing signals, the opposing team has a simple alternative: change the signs. That could make for some exceedingly embarrassing play-calling.

In fact, the whole idea of stealing defensive signals is ridiculous to begin with. Let's say I know your team's signals. You've got multiple people delivering those signs, so I've got to figure out who is live. Assuming I do that, and assuming you never change your signs, I now have to adjust my play call and relay to my quarterback before his radio gets shut off (I think that happens with 15 seconds left on the play clock). It seems to me that a sign-stealer would be easy to mess up.

Moreover, it does appear that everyone and his dog was aware of New England's habit of taping the sidelines. So what took so long to complain? As if that isn't strange enough, the coach who brought this to a head was Eric Mangini, whose New York Jets got their helmets handed to them by Coach Belichick's Patriots in the NFL opening week. But, it gets funnier. It seems Eric Mangini used to be an assistant coach for --wait for it-- Bill Belichick. And, according to some reports I've heard on radio, the Patriots were doing the video thing when Coach Mangini was in New England.

The guy's been gone for, what, three years? And he complains now after a butt-whipping? Sounds more like sour grapes to me. The NFL's reaction seems more like embarrassed over-reaction, given that the taping seems to have been an open secret. And the moral indignation of fans and newscasters is just plain silly.

I don't care much for the Patriots in general or Bill Belichick in particular, but I have to admit that he's done a good job picking players and coaching them. To say that his "legacy" is tarnished by alleged sign-stealing or that victories should be taken away because of it is absurd. A Pittsburgh player and a Philadelphia player who got beaten by New England in the Super Bowl both seemed to think they would have won if the Patriots hadn't been "cheating."

Let's see. The Patriots didn't play those teams during the year, so they couldn't have taped their defensive signals to know what they were. Are these players telling us that their signals were so simple that they could decrypt them during the game? If so, video taping was hardly necessary.

Bill Belichick broke a rule that has its roots in protecting NFL Films more than in worrying about "the integrity of the game." He's also a bit of a jerk, like most successful head coaches. But let's not get all moral about sign-stealing being the equivalent of mass murder. Once and for all, everybody, stealing signs is not against the rules. Never has been. Probably never will be.

That's probably why the NFL came up with such a Mickey-Mouse penalty. The fines are a blip in the finances of the coach and the team. The Patriots have TWO first round draft choices, so taking one of them is no big deal. Ultimately, Commissioner Roger "Judge Roy Bean" Goodell, who prides himself on being the Law East, West, North, AND South of the Pecos, put on a good show but even he knows that all that was broken here was a procedural rule.

I wonder how much he would have fined them if they didn't have enough footballs for the game?

Saturday, September 1, 2007

I Am Blog - Fear Me!

When the political columnists say 'Every thinking man' they mean themselves, and when candidates appeal to 'Every intelligent voter' they mean everybody who is going to vote for them. ~ Franklin Adams
The 2/3 of a person who regularly reads this space is aware of my ongoing bemusement with the media's fear and loathing of blogs.

The latest pundit to have hives over blogs appears to be Ellen Goodman, who brings her own brand of hysteria to the discussion. She is most concerned with political bloggers, who according to Ms. Goodman are all Democrats. Evidently, aside from not understanding blogs, she doesn't know how to use Google (tm), because there do seem to be a few zillion conservatives out there blogging as well as a few zillion liberals. There are also one or two middle-of-the-roaders, but who would read them?

Ms. Goodman's problem though is that these liberal bloggers are all white middle-aged men. And those rotten ole men are even having the audacity to link to blogs that are also written by -- gasp -- men! Worst of all, these male-dominated blogs are predominantly being read by --oh, the horror--white males around the age of 43 making $80,000 a year.

Right. And this blog is read mostly by left-handed transexuals who majored in pottery at predominantly west coast universities. Maybe it is; that would explain the lousy readership rate.

"Is it any surprise," wails Ms. Goodman, "that Hillary gets only 9 percent in most online-activist polls, while garnering more than 40 percent in traditional polls?" Frankly, madam, given the long-proven wild inaccuracy of online polls, it would not be surprising if Senator Clinton (with whom I am not on a first-name basis) got 90% on those polls, or 50% or any other number you care to name. The surprise here is that any reasonably intelligent person would put any faith in polls that have no scientific sampling basis in them at all.

Besides, what would you expect since all those 43-year-old middle class white males are the only ones participating in the polls? Aren't they smack-dab in the middle of the Conservative demographic? Which sort of begs the question, what are they doing reading liberal blogs anyway?

As to the authorship of those political blogs, as we all know an author's persona on the web may have nothing whatsoever to do with who that person actually is. For example, I have always portrayed myself as a middle-aged, overweight, klutzy Hungarian male. In reality, I am a twenty-five year-old Nobel Laureate with a body like Charles Atlas (when he was alive, not now) and an IQ of 236. Well, no, I'm actually the dumpy, klutzy guy, but I could be the other guy for all anyone knows.

I quit reading print political columnists years ago because I finally figured out that, when in possession of the facts, I could figure things out as well or better than they do. The trick is getting possession of the facts, something that columnists frequently avoid doing. Let's face it. Conservative columnists are often mean-spirited, totally ignorant of basic freedoms, and willing to sacrifice anyone who makes less money than they do. Liberal columnists are out to get anyone who makes more money than they do, refuse to admit that any improvements in the quality of life have occurred in the last century, and find so many false bogeymen under their beds that the real ones completely escape their notice.

Political blogs are the same except even more polarized. The funny bit with blogs is that they garner their facts by linking to other blogs. It's rather like the Bermuda Triangle books, which use are their "source" for facts other books on the Bermuda Triangle, all of which trace back to some initial book whose author simply made stuff up. If you can actually find original sources, you find that those "source" books, like political bloggers, have played fast and loose with reality, when not going into fantasy land altogether.

I have a hard time understanding why Ms. Goodman is so panicked. It would strike me that the same sorts of people who read political mainstream media commentators are the ones reading political blogs. So, she and her brethren and sistern should be able to overcome any political incorrectness spread by these blogs.

Besides, if she doesn't like it, she can always start her own blog.