southernbeau

Making sense of the non-sensical world of American politics

The Beautiful Game

Football is a sport that ought to be played exclusively outdoors with and among the elements, not in a dome conveniently sheltered from them.  Just as the players, coaches and referees have a role to play in each game, Mother Nature, too, should be allowed to play hers.  This week’s Monday Night Football game delivered yet another sterling example of this self-evident truth.  Normally fair-weathered and balmy, Charlotte, North Carolina – the town in which I was born and raised – played host to the bright lights of MNF and the Indianapolis Colts.  These folks had long been on the guest list.  An unexpected visitor, however, also showed up at the party – a monsoon.  What transpired over the next 4 hours in the sopping wet Queen City was nothing if not a thing of beauty.

Admittedly, the beauty of which I speak stands in stark contrast to the spectacular offensive display produced by the New Orleans Saints and New York Giants just one day earlier.  Set comfortably within the temperature-controlled confines of the Superdome, Drew Brees and Eli Manning combined to throw 13 touchdown passes between them, setting a single game record.  It was as if the two were playing a game of H.O.R.S.E., with each shot becoming decidedly more difficult.  It was clear that the winner would be whomever shot last.  It was quite a spectacle to witness; and, I would surmise, it typified what most contemporary fans have come to consider a beautiful game in today’s pass-happy NFL.

Conversely, Cam Newton and Andrew Luck were a combined 2 for 13 passing at one point in the 2nd quarter.  It was a small victory – and huge relief for fans – each time the center to quarterback exchange was executed properly.  Throughout much of the night, the Panthers secondary seemed to be Luck’s favorite target.  Newton was only marginally less generous to his opponent.  He alternated between throwing high and wide of open receivers, and skidding the ball off the soggy turf.  And when Newton did throw a gem of a pass, the Panthers’ receivers seemed to be playing a game of “hot potato.”  Even the sure-handed Greg Olsen dropped a perfectly placed ball, with the closest defender somewhere near Rock Hill.  The uninvited guest – Mother Nature in all her splendor – was seemingly crashing this Monday Night soiree.  Moreover, at this point, I am guessing the broad majority of viewers would have gladly banished Mother Nature from the party in exchange for some semblance of precision play.

Adding to an already bizarre night, the MNF audience was treated to a fairly amazing – and somewhat scary – security breach as two protesters rappelled from the upper deck of Bank of America Stadium to unfurl a sign complaining about, well, Bank of America.  Though shocking, with the way the game was unfolding on the field below, I was stunned to see that the protesters were not lodging a complaint against the shoddy play of the two quarterbacks.  The stats, after all, were downright comical.  As for the daredevils in the monsoon, their lives also would have been made easier had they turned this trick in a dome as the inclement weather seemed to hamper their rappelling efforts.

While head coach of the Carolina Panthers, John Fox often proclaimed – in his best Donald Trump impersonation – that “stats are for losers.”  Unlike his penchant for the 3rd down and long draw play, Foxy got this one right.  Particularly on a night like Monday, the two quarterbacks needed to forget about their stats, or any pretense of normalcy for that matter.  The game more closely resembled a Monster Truck event than a Taylor Swift concert.  The chunks of turf strewn about the field borne the proof.  Newton and Luck needed to fight, claw, motivate, inspire, coax, push and prod – anything, everything to lead their respective teams to victory.

In the second half, that anything and everything happened.  Cam employed dazzling footwork to elude tacklers and avoid sure sacks, nifty runs – particularly on third down – to move the chains while simultaneously demoralizing the defense, and gravity-defying passes to stretch the Carolina lead to 17 points with just over 10:00 minutes left in the game.  These Colts, it seemed, had been tamed; any buck long since gone.

It was just at this moment that Mother Nature took a timeout; her torrential rains softening to a whimper, as did the Panthers pass rush.  Luck would waste no time taking advantage of his newfound luck.  Having completed just 5 passes for 40 yards up to that point, Luck began to find his footing – and, ironically, his feet as a way to buy precious time and gain critical yards.  Stealing this page from the Super-Cam playbook, Luck seemed to reinvigorate his entire team, as if this stormy night had delivered a lightning bolt of energy to the hobbling Colts.  The result was a barrage of 20 unanswered points that left Carolina – and their drenched fans – staggered and in disbelief.  Hold on to your umbrellas; the party was just getting started.

After falling behind by a field goal in overtime, the collective mood in Bank of America Stadium was as bleak as the weather.  Displaying a resolve and resilience typical of an elite quarterback, Cam picked his team up off the rain-drenched mat and showed them that there was still light at the end of this foggy tunnel.  Undeterred by a gut-wrenching drop by blazer Ted Ginn, Jr. that would have yielded the game winning touchdown, Newton calmly moved his team into field goal range to tie the game.  After the Panthers defense secured another interception from Luck, Graham Gano knocked home a 52-yard field goal to finally – and mercifully for all those fans having to work on Tuesday – put an exclamation point on this Monday night bash.  “It wasn’t pretty,” Newton candidly offered in describing the melodrama that had just culminated in another Carolina victory.  I beg to differ, Super-Cam; it was beautiful.

Interestingly, when you hear folks talk nostalgically about great football games past, Mother Nature quite often played a part.  The infamous “Tuck Rule Game” between the Raiders and Patriots in the 2001 AFC playoffs is also known as the “Snow Bowl” for obvious reasons.  In addition to being part of Tom Brady’s Wall of Fame, Adam Vinatieri leapt to fame for having drilled two field goals in the driving snowstorm, the first of which sent the game into overtime and the second providing the game winner.  (Coincidentally, Vinatieri, who is 42, is still kicking 14 years later, and was incredible in Monday night’s game for the Colts.)  Would this game be etched so deeply into our collective football psyche sans the wicked weather?

The 1967 “Ice Bowl” is widely considered one of the greatest games in football history.  It is immortalized as such due to the game-time temperature at Lambeau Field being -15 degrees Fahrenheit, with an average wind chill of -48 Fahrenheit.  In the end, Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers would defeat Tom Landry’s Dallas Cowboys in the National Football League Championship game; however, the winner and loser are far less memorable than the harrowing weather conditions in which they played.  The surreal video footage in which each exhale of breath is marked by a thick white cloud; the band’s halftime performance being canceled as a result of the woodwind instruments being frozen and rendered soundless; and the referees’ metal whistles sticking to their bloody lips are all mementos from this game preserved neatly for posterity.

What’s more, the great scenes replicated across the country on Sunday afternoons in the Fall and Winter take place primarily in open air stadiums.  From the drizzle in Seattle, the fog in San Francisco, the heat and sudden thunderstorms in Miami and Tampa, to the often cold, blustery and snowy stadiums of Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Green Bay, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York and New England, the elements have a story to tell, and they should not be silenced.  Tellingly, I am guessing one would be hard pressed to find the following on a bucket list: gotta get to Atlanta to see the Falcons play in that soulless, character-deprived dome of theirs…or Indianapolis….or Detroit….or St. Louis.

Soccer lays claim to being the beautiful game, with which I have no problem.  But as a football fan (American, that is), there is nothing more beautiful than watching two teams overcome the elements, and each other, to figure out a way to win in extreme conditions.  Far from crashing the Monday Night party, Mother Nature turned out to be the featured guest.  She provided the entertainment, charm and character; indeed, like any good partygoer, she ensured that all attendees had a memorable evening.  Perhaps if the game would have been played in a dome – say in Indianapolis – it would have been less messy, more artful, fluid and aesthetically pleasing.  Perhaps, more records would have been broken.  But, from my perspective at least, it could not have been more beautiful.

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November 18, 2015 Posted by | Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers, ESPN, Indianapolis Colts, MNF, Monday Night Footbal, National Football League, NFL, Quarterback, Ron Rivera, Uncategorized | , , , , , , | 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