southernbeau

Making sense of the non-sensical world of American politics

Football Giveth and Taketh Away

Football is back. That very short, three-word phrase has seemingly lifted the collective mood of a nation which would otherwise be lamenting the suddenly sliding stock market or the summer so quickly drawing to a close. With football, the various trials and tribulations of everyday life somehow seem more manageable; the work week passes more quickly; Donald Trump seems less grating; strangers flash smiles more readily (even here in New York); folks on the street walk with more pep and purpose; and life, generally, gives off an air that anything is possible, all goals are attainable. I would say that it is Christmas in August, but with football having surpassed Santa Claus in popularity, I will summon my best Ronald Reagan and proclaim it to be morning again in America. I, too, share my fellow Americans’ gridiron giddiness. Unfortunately, however, mine has been tempered somewhat over the past week. What football giveth, football can also taketh away.

Injuries in sports – football in particular – are as much a part of the game as fundamentals, talent, strategy and execution. Though the likelihood of sustaining catastrophic injuries can be greatly reduced through training and preparation, they cannot be eradicated or even avoided. The unpredictable nature of injuries make them difficult to prepare for and, consequently, difficult to overcome. Injuries are often the X factor that mark the fine line between success and failure, between a season which exceeds expectations and one which falls short. This disconcerting truth has fans of all shades holding their collective breath from the start of training camp through the final down of the season.

Regrettably, last Wednesday, the Carolina Panthers lost their best receiver, Kelvin Benjamin, to a torn ACL effectively ending his season before it began. The Panthers were practicing with the Miami Dolphins in anticipation of their upcoming pre-season game on Saturday night. The freakish injury occurred during one-on-one drills in which Kelvin ran about 10 yards against Miami safety Reshad Jones before planting in an attempt to cut right.   Sadly, there would be no cut. And things certainly were far from right. Without any contact between the two players, Benjamin would immediately crumple to the ground, let out a shriek and cradle his left knee in agony. A knee that was no longer stable. Perhaps an apt metaphor for the mental state of the entire team and its fan base.

With his huge frame, massive catch radius and soft hands, Benjamin is quarterback Cam Newton’s favorite target. Who can blame him? At 6’5,” 245 pounds and possessing an astonishing 83 inch wing span, Benjamin, who was entering his sophomore campaign, is already on the verge of becoming an elite wide receiver in the league. Frankly, one would be hard pressed to overstate his loss. As is our times, the news traveled swiftly through Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Chris McClain, a prominent radio personality back home in Charlotte, tweeted sullenly, “My wife and kids are about to find me weeping when they get back from their road trip. They will think I missed them, but it’s the KB injury.” Personally, my phone blew up with largely incomprehensible texts from friends which ranged from resignation to depression to cataclysmic. Amplifying the magnitude of the development, my sister – a marginal football fan at best – texted the news by attaching a message from Benjamin himself through his Instagram account.

Overwhelmed by this barrage of e-messages providing the melancholy news, I could not help but fall into a brief gulf of depression. My mind was flooded by doomsday scenarios, and this obvious and haunting question: had the quickly approaching season, for which I was so excited, instantaneously been lost to one bum left knee? Could it really be possible that – on an otherwise sparkling day in Spartanburg, South Carolina – the turf monster at Wofford College claimed a knee, and with it the hopes of a season? In short order, however, my generally optimistic and hopeful outlook began to take hold. What good could come of this bad situation, I wondered. What opportunities will present themselves in the face of such adversity?

Losing a key component of the football team to a season-ending injury does not necessarily provide the death knell for the season. Indeed, to the contrary, what seems at the time to be a devastating blow can bring about unintended, yet positive, consequences. Often, a team will use a devastating event to “rally around” one another, and, on occasion, such an event can propel a team to higher heights than might have originally been possible. In sports, like life, the prospects of playing for something bigger than oneself can provide the foundation by which something special can be built.

It is the classic cliché: when the football gods hand you lemons, make lemonade. If Benjamin being sidelined the entire year is the lemons, then his replacement – or committee of replacements – might just be the sweet lemonade. Football is rife with comparable examples. The most glaring one is the now legally-strapped Tom Brady. The sixth round draft pick received his NFL shot when starting QB Drew Bledsoe went down to injury. The rest, as they say, is history. Interestingly, as fate would have it, Brady lost the 2008 season to a knee injury, and his replacement, Matt Cassel, ran with the newfound starting job all the way to the bank. The Patriots used the franchise tag on Cassel the following year to the tune of $14 million – the largest one-year contract for an offensive player in NFL history. Kurt Warner became the gun-slinging leader of “The Greatest Show on Turf” in St. Louis only after Trent Green tore his ACL in a pre-season game. Warner would become League MVP on two occasions while leading the Rams to two Super Bowls. These examples are but a scant few; the list runneth over.

Fortunately, the Panthers do possess viable options to fill the size thirteen shoes left empty by Kelvin Benjamin. In April’s draft, Dave Gettleman, the Panthers’ General Manager, traded away two later draft picks to move up in the second round to select Devin Funchess from the University of Michigan. Much like Benjamin, Funchess is a big target who has drawn praise from Head Coach Riverboat Ron Rivera for his sponge-like ability to soak up the intricacies and subtleties of the Panthers’ offensive playbook. This is supplemental to his obvious physical abilities. While it is certainly a big ask for a rookie to lead the receiving corps (as Benjamin did the year previous), I would tag Funchess as the prime candidate to emerge as manager of this lemonade stand.

In addition to the towering Funchess, the Panthers are fortunate to have two burners on the roster. Ted Ginn, Jr. was reacquired via free agency this off-season after spending one season in the desert with Arizona. Two years ago, in the oasis of Carolina, Ginn collaborated with Cam Newton to enjoy his best year as a professional. Can the familiar surroundings and good vibes from that partnership be enough to propel Ginn to another stellar season in the Queen City? With increased opportunity due to Benjamin’s injury, I am hopeful that blue skies are in the offing for Ginn. Corey Brown, the artist formerly known as “Philly,” closed fast last year to post an outstanding rookie campaign with the Panthers. If Brown’s development continues at its speedy pace, he certainly qualifies as a legitimate option to contribute significantly to the lemonade operation.

There is something to be said for steady, dependable and experienced. Twelve-year veteran Jerricho Cotchery provides all these things, and more. Full disclosure: Jerricho holds a special place in my heart for I was an underperforming student at NC State when he was teaming up with Philip Rivers to set numerous offensive production records at NCSU while seemingly catching every ball thrown his way. He had soft hands made of Velcro back then in Raleigh, and those hands have not hardened with time. In his first year with the Panthers, Cotchery anchored the receiving corps by providing the stability necessary to allow Kelvin Benjamin, as a rookie, to shine on the opposite side. Additionally, Cotchery proved priceless to the development of the younger receivers by liberally and generously passing along his wealth of football knowledge. Now with Benjamin out, Jerricho will need to transform from teacher to producer, sensei to warrior. Is this the year that old becomes new again?

Charlotte native Jarrett Boykin signed a free agent contract in the off-season to play for his hometown team. Boykin had a few solid seasons with the Green Bay Packers, highlighted by his 2013 effort in which he produced 49 receptions for 681 receiving yards and 3 touchdowns. The Panthers desperately need Boykin to rekindle that magic, jump start his flagging career, and return to that type of solid production. If he does, he, too, will be a valuable member of the lemonade squad. Of course, the Panthers reserve the right to look externally for potential employees to add to the lemonade team through free agency or a trade. Not surprisingly, the rumor mill is already aflutter with prospective additions from the available labor pool.

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention that the receiver position is ably led by Wide Receivers Coach Ricky Proehl – an outstanding player in his own right, and the best in the business as a position coach. In the past few years, Coach Proehl has done more with less than any other position group on the team. Lest we forget, it was only one year ago that the Panthers entered training camp having lost both their starting wide receivers – the venerable Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell – to free agency. Smith is arguably the best player to ever don a Panthers uniform. Panic, no doubt, was in the air. With this as the backdrop, Proehl molded a patchwork bunch of receivers into a very respectable group who had a nice year under the circumstances – a year in which the Panthers won the NFC South. In Ricky We Trust, as the very capable CEO and leader of our fair lemonade stand. That thought, I think, is very refreshing.

Football is back; although, a game which counts in the standings has yet to be played. It is that magical time of year when – against all evidence to the contrary – optimism reigns supreme and hope springs eternal among fandom. “This is our year, I can feel it,” echoes resolutely in living rooms across the country. In an instant, however, this heady optimism can fade to consternation, or worse, with the news of a season-ending injury to a key player. Given recent events, I know this all too well. But football is the ultimate team sport, even sporting three distinct teams within a team. The beauty of the structure of football is that there are multiple ways to compensate for the failings of one player, one position group, or even one unit. With a little creativity and innovation, the Carolina Panthers can overcome the absence of their best wide receiver for the 2015 season. The true marvel will be seeing just how they go about doing it. Football giveth, it taketh away…but might it give back once more? Along with the rest of Panther Nation, I eagerly await the answer.

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August 25, 2015 Posted by | Carolina Panthers, Corey Brown, Devin Funchess, Jarrett Boykin, Jerricho Cotchery, Kelvin Benjamin, National Football League, NFL, Ricky Proehl, Ron Rivera, Ted Ginn Jr. | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Premature Evaluation: The Absurdity of Grading the NFL Draft

The NFL Draft has metamorphosed over the years from a non-descript off-season occurrence, to the marquee event connecting the end of one season to the start of the next, to what is today a stand-alone phenomenon which garners prime-time television coverage for much of the draft’s three days. Just as one exuberant team hoists the Lombardi Trophy as Super Bowl champions, the fans of the other 31 teams, and indeed the teams themselves, are looking ahead to who might be available in the upcoming draft to summarily transcend their team to that same lofty position. In fact, the unfortunate fans of those truly underperforming teams (I’m looking at you, Cleveland) often begin contemplating the next draft as early as a few games into the current season. In this way, the NFL Draft serves as a perpetual renaissance of sorts – always providing renewed hope and promise for the next year.

Undoubtedly, the draft is an important tool that each team utilizes to replenish talent and build an organization under its own philosophy. Historically, there is a direct and overwhelming correlation between those teams that draft successfully and the ones which perform consistently well on the field. Accordingly, each NFL team employs an extensive scouting infrastructure whose only job is devoted to those 3 days in April when teams select their new players. NFL scouts get paid solely to study college football players 365 days a year, both on the field and off, to determine who might fit their team’s needs, schemes and culture. The significant dollars that NFL teams spend on scouting highlights just how important the draft process is viewed by each franchise.

The rise of the NFL Draft as a truly important event in American sports, and the hoopla which surrounds it, has produced all sorts of entertainment and economic benefits for so many involved. There is, however, one regrettable byproduct of all this good fortune – that is the out-sized voice given to the copious draft analysts and experts (both terms I use loosely herein) who render grades on the 32 teams for their annual performances. These folks are like pervasive and unwanted grass weeds, springing to life the same time every year, ruining an otherwise perfect lawn. Before, during and immediately following the draft, Mel Kiper, the most notable and recognizable of all weeds, blasts his pearls of draft wisdom into the megaphone known as ESPN to opine as to each team’s competence in a particular draft. Kiper, though, is not alone; he is joined by countless other “experts” who insist on grading each team’s draft stock.

I, for one, find this annual ritual of the talking heads to be the height of hyperbole and, frankly, an exercise in futility. There is a gross absurdity to placing instantaneous judgment on such an inexact science, like that of the NFL Draft. Sure, these players are scrutinized and scoured until every nook and cranny of their lives, and bodies, are explored, dissected and understood. Admittedly, there are “measurables” that provide useful comparisons between and among the athletes, e.g., a player’s performance on the Wonderlic Cognitive Ability Test, the 40-yard dash, vertical jump, 20-yard shuttle, and 3 cone drill tests. Although, sports writers, and rational observers alike, question whether these tests have any real relationship with future NFL performance. Empirical research conducted by Brian D. Lyons, Brian J. Hoffman, John W. Michel, and Kevin J. Williams (2011) found that these various tests provide limited insight into a prospect’s future success in the NFL.

In addition to these tests, of course, there are reams and reams of tape from the collegiate games in which a targeted player participated. This vast collection of data, it seems to me, is far more valuable in the evaluation process. In fact, the Lyons et al. (2011) study suggests that a prospect’s past performance in college is a far better indicator of future NFL performance as compared to the aforementioned physical ability tests.  But even collegiate performance is not a precise, error-free predictor of professional success.  One glaring issue relates to the level of competition that each prospect encounters, which can vary greatly throughout the college football landscape.  What’s more, many college programs utilize offensive and defensive schemes that do not translate well to pro-style strategies and philosophies.  The point here being that comparing and evaluating athletes through analysis of game film, or in-person, presents its own set of unique challenges.

The fundamental problem with all of these evaluative techniques, in my view, is that they do not possess the capacity to measure intangible assets – including an individual’s leadership abilities, competitive drive, work ethic, capacity to accept and understand coaching, likelihood of remaining healthy, ability to work and blend with teammates, and, in most cases, proclivity to adapt to sudden wealth and acclaim. I would argue that this litany of non-measurable characteristics play a more consistently vital role in a collegiate football player’s transitioning into a successful one at the professional level.

There are boundless examples of players faring far better than their draft position would indicate, and vice versa. Famously, Tom Brady was drafted in the 6th round, the 199th pick overall, in the 2000 draft by the New England Patriots. To date, Brady has won 4 Super Bowls, 3 Super Bowl MVP awards, 2 league MVP awards, 10 Pro Bowl appearances, and 1 scandal (in which he is presently starring). He is also married to Gisele Bundchen.

Sitting squarely on the other end of the spectrum is Ryan Leaf. Leaf was drafted with the 2nd overall pick in 1998 by the San Diego Chargers after a spectacular collegiate career at Washington State University, culminating in his being a finalist for the Heisman Award following his junior year. Leaf’s professional career is best, if generously, characterized by poor play, bad behavior and injuries, which led several publications to finger him as the #1 “draft bust” in NFL history. Adding insult to injury, Leaf spent time in federal prison after pleading guilty to felony burglary and drug possession charges, and he is not married to Gisele Bundchen. While these are the two most famous, or infamous, examples, the list runs aplenty. Tellingly, 20 of the 44 players who actually saw playing time in the last Super Bowl were drafted in Rounds 4 – 7, the later rounds.

I would submit that there is general agreement that it typically takes 3 years on average to accurately determine whether a particular team had a prosperous draft three years prior. Consequently, it seems to me that attaching a grade to a draft class immediately following that year’s selections is a fool’s errand – premature at best, and irresponsible at worst. It would be tantamount to buying, or disparaging, a work of art after seeing only a few strokes on the canvas. A food critic surely would not grade a dish before the chef had added and blended all the necessary ingredients. A farmer would not judge the productivity of a cucumber plant while still a seed, before having been exposed to the benefits of water and sunlight. Mercifully returning to sports analogies, race car drivers engage in qualifying sessions whereby each driver attempts to set the fastest lap and improve his (or her) pole position – the position in which they will commence the race. Pole position, however, has proven to be a terrible indicator as to how each car will ultimately finish on race day.

The accusation might be levied, by the cynics among you (including most of my football-loving friends), that I am venting in this “pet peeve” column largely due to my Carolina Panthers being roundly panned for their 2015 draft class. Indeed, most pundits felt as though we “reached” in the first round (25th pick) by drafting Shaq Thompson, a versatile linebacker from the University of Washington, especially given our current strength and depth at the linebacker position. We did not address need, and did not select the best player available, they say. A double negative, or something like that. In the second round, we traded away our 3rd and 6th round picks to the St. Louis Rams to move up 16 spots to draft a behemoth wide receiver from Michigan, Devin Funchess. While receiver was a position of need, we gave up far too much in terms of additional picks for the enigmatic Funchess, they say.

I have no way of knowing whether Shaq (though the name alone should count for something) or Devin will be Pro Bowl caliber NFL players. What I do know is that they will not succeed, fail or fall somewhere in between as a result of what the experts had to say on draft day. The universal truth concerning sports, and the primary reason we love them, is that they are unpredictable, much like the weather. And draft prognosticators, like their weather counterparts, seem to be right about half the time. Despite this, oddly, we still follow the news every day to hear the weather forecast, and we tune to ESPN every April eagerly awaiting Kiper’s draft predictions. What did Einstein say – fool me once, shame on you….?

I fully understand that we live in the age of instant information and gratification. Patience might still be a virtue, but not one to which we strive, particularly as it relates to our sports teams. But a draft class can only be truly judged through the lens of experience, i.e., what happens between the lines every Sunday. Patience, then, is required; it is not optional. I suppose I subscribe to the John Locke theory of player evaluation. Essentially, each player enters the NFL – like humans enter this world – with their very own tabula rasa, a blank slate. Not knowing what will be written on that slate is what keeps things interesting, and the experts guessing…and prematurely grading.

May 15, 2015 Posted by | Carolina Panthers, Devin Funchess, ESPN, Mel Kiper, NFL, NFL Draft, Ryan Leaf, Shaq Thompson, Tom Brady | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment