southernbeau

Making sense of the non-sensical world of American politics

Elite Quarterback Club: The Newest Member

The Carolina Panthers will go as far as Cam Newton can carry them on his broad shoulders, rifle-like right arm and nimble wheels. Admittedly, this is not a small, feeble limb on which I have climbed. Quarterback being the most important position in football, the same statement might be made about other, if not most, teams in the League. But the 2015 version of the Carolina Panthers is different. Following the season-ending injury to Kelvin Benjamin, the receiving corps lacks a dominant threat, let alone a true #1 wideout. Indeed, it is a patchwork of oddly mixed players masquerading as a receivers group. Just listen to most, if not all, pundits and you are quick to learn the consensus that the Carolina Panthers – while still undefeated – will ultimately be undone by their offensive mediocrity.

Of course, teams of glory past have ridden uninspiring offenses to the highest of heights. The Baltimore Ravens won a Super Bowl in 2000 relying on the limited ability of quarterback Trent Dilfer and a don’t-mess-things-up offensive philosophy. Like those Ravens, the Panthers boast a stout defense led by middle linebacker Luke Kuechly – their very own version of Ray Lewis. On offense, though, these Panthers lack the type of weapons that one would typically associate with a Super Bowl contender. Running back Jonathan Stewart is running hard and tough, but is averaging a somewhat pedestrian 3.77 yards per carry. In his (and the offensive line’s) defense, it is tough sledding against primarily 8 man boxes. Cam Newton’s security blanket, and clearly his most trusted target, is tight end Greg Olsen, who is undoubtedly among the League’s best. Besides Newton, Olsen represents the only legitimate threat on offense.

Cameron Newton is currently immersed in his fifth season as the Carolina Panthers quarterback after being selected first overall in the 2011 NFL draft. The results to this point can best be characterized as uneven. Panthers’ fans have been treated to spectacular play in the previous four years, interspersed with stretches marked by inaccuracy, poor decisions and, according to many detractors, immaturity. Nevertheless, for the first time in franchise history, Newton has led the Panthers to back-to-back NFC South championships and a corresponding spot in the NFL Playoffs. But in neither year were the Panthers able to get past the second round. All this is to say, at least in my view, that Newton has been a good – sometimes very good – quarterback over his first four years, but not an elite one.

So far, through five games of Year 5, Cam Newton has climbed into the realm of the elite – that stratosphere of quarterback nobility where only Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady currently reside. Cam became a card-carrying member of this group as a result of his heroics in Sunday’s road win in Seattle. Every championship team, and every transformational player, has a defining moment – a particular play, set of plays, or entire game in which adversity is at a fever pitch, yet is met with a calm resolve and is valiantly and heroically overcome. For Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers, this moment came last Sunday in the Pacific Northwest.

Great players, and great teams, inevitably have a nemesis – a villain that ultimately must be vanquished if you are to reach the pinnacle. Though not a division rival, the Seattle Seahawks play this role for these Panthers. Prior to Sunday, the Seahawks and Panthers had faced off 4 times the past 3 years, with three of the four being in Charlotte. The 3 regular season games were decided by a combined, and miniscule, 13 points; despite this, the Panthers tasted victory in none. In the 4th game of this set, the Seahawks ended Carolina’s playoff run last year with a workmanlike 31-17 victory in which Carolina, and Cam Newton, came unraveled under the intensity of the 4th quarter pressure. For Panthers fans, Seattle is where many a nightmare begin and end. So much so that I have given up Starbucks, and refuse to order my books from Amazon.

Setting aside the historical record, Seattle is a tough place to play for any team, but especially for an East Coast team. There is the lengthy flight across the continental U.S.; the 3 hour time difference; and in this case, a 5:30 a.m. wake-up call as a result of someone’s having pulled the fire alarm – coincidentally, I’m sure – on only the Panthers’ floors of the team hotel. Sleepless in Seattle, Part Two. Once at the stadium, Seattle’s vaunted 12th Man is notorious for making the opposition’s ears bleed with noise which regularly registers on the Richter scale. Rising above all this, however, is the simple fact that Seattle is a darn good team. Until Sunday, quarterback Russell Wilson enjoyed a career record of 24-2 within the friendly confines of CenturyLink Field. Oh, and there is the minor detail that the Seahawks have participated in the last two Super Bowls.

It was against this ominous backdrop that Cam Newton led his undefeated Carolina Panthers to Kings County, Washington to face a familiar foe. Through three quarters, the game played out as a sequel to the others, as if the script had been plagiarized. Carolina played well for much of the game, but Seattle was even better – playing opportunistic defense, moving the ball methodically on offense, and mixing in big plays throughout. This movie, it seemed, would have the same ending.

With a nod to Lee Corso, not so fast my friends. Particularly impressive against Seattle’s formidable defense, the Panthers used four 80 yard touchdown drives to ultimately best the Seahawks on this day. The Panthers offense is like my mom’s Camry – it gets nowhere fast, but get there it will. Cam saved the final two beauties to erase a 9 point deficit with just over 5 minutes left in the 4th quarter. After pulling within 3 points with 3:55 to play, Ron Rivera kicked the ball away thereby entrusting his reliable defense to get the ball back a final time. The defense contained the ever-elusive Wilson, and the Seattle offense, rewarding Coach Rivera’s trust. With two minutes and 20 seconds with which to work, Cam brought the offense back on the field secure in the knowledge that a field goal would be good enough to send the game into overtime. Eschewing such mundane thoughts, Cam, unbelievably, completed passes to six different Panthers, culminating with his 26 yard strike to Greg Olsen for the winning score.

During the two 4th quarter 80 yard touchdown drives, Cam was 11 for 13 passing. Notably, however, the two incompletions were a drop by Devin Funchess on a perfectly placed ball on a dig route, and a spike into the ground to stop the clock. In other words, Newton was perfect. Consider: all this without his best receiver, with the weight of history on his shoulders, the intensity and glare of the moment, and the Seattle crowd in a state of euphoria. Perfection despite the elements.

Following the winning touchdown to Olsen, Cam’s frantic celebration with his teammates, Carolina fans in the crowd, and the suddenly stunned Seattle fans, underscored just how big a moment this clearly was.   The unthinkable had just happened. The nightmare that was the Seattle Seahawks had just ended. In an instant, Goliath was lying helplessly on the ground, in his own forum no less. For Carolina fans, it was hard to know exactly what to do with themselves. As for me, I celebrated the victory by visiting two old friends: I ordered an iced caramel macchiato (one shot of Joe) from Starbucks, and my newest book – Napoleon: A Life – from Amazon.

While Sunday’s win will only count once in the standings, all victories are not created equal. What we witnessed at CenturyLink Field might well have been the Carolina Panthers casting aside old demons, gleaning an infusion of new confidence, and getting over the proverbial hump. The remaining 11 regular season games together with any playoff games will shed light on this hunch. But what I am sure we undoubtedly witnessed in Seattle last Sunday was the emergence of a star. A star who now happens to be the newest member of the Elite Quarterback Club, rendering this year’s Club a Triumvirate. Will Cam keep his seat beside Brady and Rodgers at this ultra-exclusive club? Of course, only time will tell. If Sunday was any indication, he will be a longstanding member.

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October 25, 2015 Posted by | Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers, CenturyLink Field, Greg Olsen, NFL, Quarterback, Seattle, Seattle Seahawks, Tom Brady | , , , , , , , , , | 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