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NFL Black Monday – An Analysis

We all know Black Monday in the NFL.  If the Draft or Free Agency is Christmas, then Black Monday is Good Friday – a crucifixition of sorts.  The time to throw rotten fruit and veg at rotten coaches.  Following  this is an analysis of this years stocks:

Already Gone

The following is a list of those that have already sadly departed their teams. Correct decisions? Read on and find out.

Jack Del Rio, Jaguars – There was inevitability about this for a few years, and for me, Del Rio was one of the biggest fraud coaches in the league. He coasted by with a mediocre team, being bailed out by the excuse of ‘the Colts are in our division’, and tying his future to a multitude of bizarre QB decisions.  Del Rio attempted the same trick this year, drafting the most overrated QB in the draft, Blaine Gabbert, to buy some time, but with Gene Smith building a talented young roster, a new owner in Shahid Khan, and the team seemingly in rebuilding mode, it was probably the correct time to move on, and get some fresh air out there in Florida.  Time to hire a new, young, fiery coach, and build this team up into a contender.
Ultimately: Right decision.

Tony Sparano, Dolphins - This was also bizarrely inevitable, mainly due to Stephen Ross’s desire to play Hollywood owner.  From jumping on a private jet like some sort of crazed lover to attempt to woo the now-49ers HC Jim Harbaugh, without firing his man first, to consistently talking about a new future for the team in interviews, Ross left Sparano in an untenable position. The team played like it too, opening the season 0-7.  Despite a late comeback, it wasn’t enough to save Sparano.  Ownership, therefore, has to take some blame for the terrible state of affairs in Miami.  But analyse Sparano’s term in office, with one winning season, no playoff victories, and a bizarre tie to Chad Henne, as well as seemingly drafting and developing (along with Jeff Ireland and Bill Parcells) a large, dumb, and lazy team (other than on the offensive line), and it’s not hard to see why Sparano ultimately had to be replaced.  But what now in Miami?  While the temptation if I was Jeff Ireland or Stephen Ross would be to hire a young, aggressive coach (maybe the next guy I’m about to discuss, Todd Haley), Ross himself is clearly looking for a rock-star hire, so I can only see Jon ‘Every player in the league is fantastic’ Gruden there next year. But keep reading if you’re a Gruden-ite, because I’m going to suggest him for a few jobs.
Ultimately: Right decision, wrong execution.

Todd Haley, KC – Ahh, the angriest man in coaching, at least until Gruden comes back.  Todd Haley was basically fired after an underachieving season in KC, and rumours of dissent with the franchise’s General Manager, Scott Pioli.  I personally rate Todd Haley very highly, and he turned around a god-awful Kansas City team left destitute by another overrated coach, Herman ‘He must be good because he’s funny’ Edwards, so much so that they were actually a playoff team last season.  But you raise your own expectations, you pay the price. A poor season, more disputes with the general manager, a bizarre obsession with Tyler Palko (this is why Haley is a WR and not a QB guru), and a team that appeared to get burnt out on him.  He had to go, but this won’t be the last we hear of him as a head coach. And don’t keep blaming him for Matt Cassel.  That’s all on Pioli.  Anyway, yeah, gone. Replacement? Kirk Ferentz, Iowa. Book it.
Ultimately: Good coach, wrong place. Right decision.

The Rest

Steve Spagnuolo, Rams – Pointless analysing this one. He took over a bad team, made it look good for a year, lost Pat Shurmur, hired Josh ‘Honestly, I’m good’ McDaniels, and now they’re back where they were when he took over.  That wouldn’t be so bad if the team still sucked, but it’s a team with better players than they had when he took over, achieving the same. That’s coaching death. See ya Spags, no doubt you’re gonna show up as a DC for the 2013 season.
Verdict: May even be gone by the time I press submit.

Jim Caldwell, Colts – Up til a few weeks ago, this was my dead cert.  Leading a horrible team without their best player to what looked like a winless season…yeah, coaching death.  Now? A few wins, maybe even about to blow the Andrew Luck race.  Amazing what a few weeks do.  Does this save Caldwell? In my mind, no. He’s only succeeded on the back of a good, ageing team.  That team has now matured past it’s best, is in position to make some changes, and will likely get the #1 pick in the draft. I think he should go, but unless the Polians are out, he isn’t.
Verdict: Should go, won’t.

Raheem Morris, Tampa - Youngry? Not in Tampa.  Horrible year, ill-disciplined team, letdown.  Josh Freeman, after seeming on the ascendancy in the NFL after last season, has regressed to a point where the words ‘Shaun King’ may be used to describe his career arc.  Is it all his fault? I’ve heard it floated that the Glazers are cutting back, and their decision to create the ‘young, hungry’ team is what’s causing the inconsistent form.  I don’t buy it – if you raise your own expectations, you die by them. Raheem will, if the Bucs can find a suitable replacement.
Verdict: Should go, will go.

Norv Turner, Chargers – Several years of mediocrity and seasons only started in December has Norv – surely the man to get most opportunties to do nothing as a HC – on the chopping block again.  It’s hard to argue that he should go – the entire team is regressing, they’re out of the playoffs, and it’s probably time to start again.  However, look at AJ Smith too.  Poor drafting and free agency choices have left the San Diego roster in a state of flux. He should go too. Sadly for San Diego, I don’t think he will.
Verdict: Should go, will go, but the Lord Of No Rings will stay.  Stay depressed, San Diego.

Tom Coughlin, Giants/Jason Garrett, Cowboys – Basically, this is a ‘loser on the hot seat’ type situation.  The Sunday Night game will decide which one.  The winner goes to the playoffs, the loser may lose his job. Personally? If it’s Coughlin, it’s about time the Giants made a new start.  The guy’s a good coach, but the kind who is eventually tuned out.  It feels like the Giants may be reaching that point.  In addition, even if he did survive, he only has his lame-duck year left on his deal. Maybe it’s over.   Let’s see. Garrett? It’s probably a little too early to fire him, but don’t be shocked if Jerry Jones’s itchy trigger finger shoots his coach down, and Jeff Fisher maybe heads to Dallas as his replacement.  Either way, he’s going to need some improvements quickly.
Verdict: If Coughlin, should go, will go. If Garrett, shouldn’t go, but might.

Andy Reid, Eagles - The Dream Team quickly turned sour, and if we’re believing Eagles ownership, it was Superbowl or bust this year.  Well, the last I checked, we ain’t seeing them in the Superbowl this year, so shouldn’t it be over?  No – it won’t be.  This is an example of the great difference of opinion among any sports fans.  For example, for me, Reid is all sizzle, no steak – he’s had limited-at-best success with decent teams, and his drafting has been spotty at best.  Couple that with some baffling decisions with regard to the coaching staff (Juan Castillo?)…and in my personal opinion, it’s time for Philly to move on.  But the recovery to (likely) 8-8 will buy him another year. Nothing short of a disaster would appear to get him out of Philly before retirement.
Verdict: Time for a fresh start in Philly, but he’ll get at least another year.

Rex Ryan, Jets - Simple this one – the law of diminishing returns. The more he’s opened his mouth, the less his team have delivered.  His defense is regressing, Mark Sanchez is on a career path not unlike some of his USC QB buddies, and they look likely -  at this point – to miss the playoffs.  The good thing is, when you’ve built up some cache with the fans, and you have some playoff appearances to your name, it’s a lot easier to blame a scapegoat, or several, like offensive co-ordinator Brian Schottenheimer.  For that reason, he’ll probably survive the year, and come back with a new rag-tag bunch of offensive assistants next year, but the question needs to start being asked as to whether his act - unlike his waistline – is wearing thin.
Verdict: Blowhard who should go. Won’t.

Notable Omissions And Why

Leslie Frazier,  Vikings – Should be safe – new, young team, ravaged by injury and still recovering from Brad Childress. He needs to show faith in Ponder and start building something around him.  I expect him to start next year on the hotseat, but end this year in his job.

Chan Gailey, Bills – See above, pretty much. A team devoid of talent which has, at times, played above it’s level. The success of signing Fitzpatrick to that expensive long-term contract is still to be determined, but I fully expect Gailey to get at least a year before the judgements on his status begin.  At least he has, at times, made the Bills look interesting.

Mike Shanahan, Redskins – Surely not yet? While the rebuild is taking longer than expected, and there have been some odd (Rex Grossman/John Beck) decisions, I can’t honestly see a benefit in the Redskins firing Shanahan yet, particularly after how long Dan Snyder courted him.  But like Jerry Jones, you never know when Snyder will throw his organisational weight around.

Pat Shurmur, Browns -Holmgren’s choice, so he’s going nowhere yet. A lot to do in Cleveland (some offensive weapons would be nice) – but with so much upheaval in years past, there won’t be any this year. There may, however, be a new QB.

Is the Option viable in the NFL?

As a general rule, I like to stay away from the current ‘hot topics’ of sports, mostly because you risk regurgitating everyone else’s words on the subject.  I have no desire to do that, mainly because most of my interests focus on being different, individual, and finding a new angle on things.  So while this is a discussion of the Option as an offense and of its viability in the NFL, do not expect to see the word ‘Tebow’ beyond this opening paragraph. Bored of the talk about him, bored of him, bored of ‘Tebowing’, and bored of the same arguments being advanced every time his team wins or loses a game.  To quote Mike Ditka, ‘STOP IT!’

End Of Tebow Segment

Anyway, hi.  This article will be a wider discussion of the option offense as a whole, and it’s suitability in the pro game. As we all know, the Broncos have recently adopted it due to the ascension (see, I’m getting this Christian terminology down pat) of ‘That Guy’.  But does it work in the NFL?  The Broncos’ recent ability to pull wins out of their ass despite their quarterback only completing two passes and generally having the throwing motion of Steve Backley (look him up kids, it’s worth it) would indicate that it does, at least currently.  But how about long term? In the run up to the Broncos’ Thursday’s showdown with the Jets (which they won, by the way), the best defensive player in the NFL who can’t tackle, Darrelle Revis, was asked this very question, and he offered the appropriate soundbite in reply:

“Yeah, if you have Michael Vick and, I don’t know, Chris Johnson at running back, yeah, it can work. Those are probably the two fastest guys that can probably get out on the edge on you. Yeah, those two.” 

When asked about ‘That Guy’, and if the Broncos could sustain their momentum, Revis said:

“No.  Not for a whole season, because we know what they’re doing, and we feel comfortable in our game plan.”

While I imagine Mr Revis likely feels less comfortable in the gameplan at this point, he brings up an oft-repeated point.  Any time we see something that differs from the norm in the NFL, or any time someone suggests that being a little unconventional, it seems that we expect that NFL players are ‘too fast’ or ‘too smart’ or ‘will ultimately catch up with it’, or even that ‘you can’t find the players to run that’.  We’ve seen this with the Run N Shoot, the Fun N Gun, and the Wildcat. In most of these cases, these arguments have held when the dust has settled.  But is this the case with the option? Let’s examine the arguments.

1 – You can’t run the option because NFL players are too athletic.
I see the argument. I really do.  The NFL is the peak of athletic ability.  When you start playing, at whatever level, by the time players reach the NFL, it’s generally because their athletic abilities stand above the rest. So obviously, an offense that works at the college level isn’t necessarily going to work in the pros.  It’s much easier to target people at the college level, and if you are a ‘pro prospect’, it’s probably easier to outrun slower and less athletic players.  In essence, the gap between the top athletes and the bottom is a lot smaller at the NFL level than it is at the college level.  This means that an offense like the option, which is predicated on having better athletes than the competition, naturally has a disadvantage at the pro level.

However, you can also make the argument that while the athletes are better defensively than the offense would face in college, this applies to the offense too.  You get better athletes on both sides of the ball, meaning that providing you are coached well and can install your offense correctly, you should still be successful.  How about being able to have the right players in the right positions, I hear you ask? That’s more a case for point 3.  But I think the point to be made here is that the difference in athleticism is ultimately negligible – while you may be transporting a ‘college offense’, you aren’t necessarily transporting their players. Finding the players is a little different, though.

2 – You can’t run the option because NFL players are too smart.
Again, a solid argument on a base level.  NFL players are smart enough not to get sucked in by the Option, because they’re not college players, with, as one of my old coaches used to say ‘balls bigger than their brains’.  However, looking at the tape (Mike Mayock), this isn’t always the case. Taking an example, look at Calvin Pace on Thursday – guy didn’t have a clue what was going on.  He was playing on instinct, which is generally ‘hit who you think has the ball’ – after a few times of guessing and guessing wrong, he was slowed for the rest of the game.  The lesson?  Run it right, run it properly, and ultimately human instincts take over, and you will catch them out of position.

If the Option can’t work, why do reverses, flea flickers, HB passes and the Wildcat (to some extent) work?  They are all predicated on the same thing – that eventually, NFL players will play with their instincts and not their brains.  Smart, because when it comes down to it, you are coached to play on instinct. Sometimes you don’t have time to do anything else.  Of course, this sometimes means the QB (the main option point in the offense) gets a good kicking, but that leads neatly into the next argument…

3 – You can’t run the option because it’s hard to find the right players for the system.
A strong argument – because who the hell playing QB at pro level wants to get hit 20 times a game by 300 pound linemen and 250 pound linebackers?  Certainly no one in the current NFL (beyond ‘That Guy’) can probably stand up to it.  Similarly, for a dive-man, who wants to stick their head in there 20 times a game to get pounded? One could argue of course that a few running backs (Frank Gore, for example) already do this.  But it’s a solid argument, because really, you draft people into the NFL because they can play in a pro game, not because they fit the Option.  However, as we saw with the Wildcat, if something catches on, instinctively those players suddenly become a hot commodity.  I think of some god-awful players being drafted or hanging on to NFL careers as ‘Wildcat QBs’ (Michael Spurlock, Pat White, Brad Smith…you probably said ‘Who?’…exactly), or people who aren’t much good at anything beyond the Wildcat (Ronnie ‘throw a pass on the 1 yard line’ Brown) keeping roster spots because of that dimension they can add.

Why couldn’t this happen with the Option? Certainly if  NCAA Football keeps producing spread and gimmicky offense QBs who are not natural pocket passers or pro-ready QBs, but they can be comfortable and effective running the ball and working out of strange formations (as like ‘That Guy’) it may become a staple in the NFL.  Why not? No one bothered drafting 5″9 white WRs before Wes Welker either, but now in every draft there seems to be a ‘Welker type’ being picked (Julian Edelman, Jeremy Kerley).  But I guess the worry is that ultimately all of these players, like the aforementioned Spurlock, White, etc, will ultimately become obsolete once the NFL ‘finds a way to stop it’.  That’s the final argument, and probably the strongest.

4 – Someone will catch up to it.
As with most of these kind of statements, we can only say ‘lets wait and see’.  While I do see the argument that ultimately a ‘one trick pony’ offense like the option is easier to defend that a multi-headed, deeply faceted offense with a number of different elements, knowing something doesn’t necessarily mean you can stop it. Everyone knows that the Patriots are pass based and use Welker out of the slot a lot. Does it slow them down?  Everyone knows Calvin Johnson will outjump people to catch a Stafford pitch and catch, but do you see that slowing down?

Ultimately it’s about innovation. Can the offensive minds stay in front of the defensive? We saw with the Run N Shoot and Wildcat that when it came down to it, that one lightning bolt of innovation was all that we got on the offensive side, even after defenses had found ways to shut them down completely, and even (in the case of the Wildcat) shared them with the media.  In the case of the Option, however, I remain unconvinced that there is any single rule beyond ‘stay assignment sound and don’t overpursue’ that can really shut it down.  However, the success of the Option or indeed any offense will ultimately be determined by the coaches who wish to use it, and, above all else, that particular coach’s job security.

Conclusions
So there we have it – the success of the option as a pro offense relies on the innovation of coaches. Who knew?  All we know right now is it’s working, and it’s something fresh and different that livens up watching some horrible games and teams on Sundays.

Personal opinion? (Because that’s what most of this is after all): I don’t think we’re going to be seeing the back of the option just yet.  But as a full time offense? Maybe not. As an idea to catch out over-aggressive defenses? Always good fun.

Until next time, thanks for reading. 

Andrew Luck: The latest to fall foul of contrary thinking and bad scouting?

Good afternoon! Welcome to the blog.  I decided to start off with a post about my favourite sport and ultimate passion – yes, even for a Brit – the gridiron.  American football. NFL or College, I’m all over it. I do prefer the NFL, and the reasons for that will, I’m sure, be the subject of a future rant.

Anyway, a few hours ago I watched the Stanford-Oregon game, mostly to keep an eye on the widely-lauded Andrew Luck.  While it wasn’t his greatest game last night, a pretty painful loss (although I would argue that had more to do with a group of sub-par receivers, and a D that is incapable of playing with good fundamentals), the more I watch Luck, the more  I can say with the utmost confidence that Luck is the best college and pro-ready QB I’ve seen since I began watching college football, which was around 4 years ago.

Granted, this may not make me an authority (I declared Christian Ponder the best QB in this years draft, which is still somewhat under question), but I still feel the need to make a judgement on the players I watch play fairly regularly.   As far as Luck goes, I’m clearly not alone in that assessment, unlike the aforementioned Ponder analysis.  Numerous observers have anointed him the best prospect in years, he’s the clear front-runner for the Heisman, and it’s widely assumed that he will be the #1 overall draft choice this year, and would have been last year had he elected to declare.  The NFL and its fans seem to agree with me, with fans of many cellar-dwelling teams such as Miami and Indianapolis urging their teams to essentially give up on the season, or ‘Suck For Luck’.  It’s pretty clear the hype is at an all time high.

However, when you get to that stage in your career and that stage in your hype, it’s the time when everyone becomes an expert.  Everyone picks a flaw. The two most recent ones have been from Steve Sarkisian, the University of Washington HC, and Phil Simms, professional gobshite and former NFL Quarterback.  Let’s start with Sarkisian.  He rather hilariously made the statement that if he was an NFL HC, he would take Matt Barkley over Luck.  Quite apart from the fact that this statement explains why the Oakland Raiders are the only team to have given him a head coaching interview, it’s a hilarious statement coming from a man who has coached such wonderful pro quarterbacks as Matt Leinart and Mark Sanchez.

I’ll give him a pass on Jake Locker as I rate him fairly highly, but even so.  And has anyone watched Matt Barkley lately? Better than Luck? Really? Nah. Just another one off the USC production line who, in my view, isn’t going to be a good NFL QB.  But I can’t get too wound up at Sarkisian, because ultimately, he’s defending a guy he coached, who he knows, and it even seems to have been a way to put pressure on his old team. That didn’t seem to work (40-17?) but you still can’t blame him for trying.

Simms, on the other hand, has come out with something I guarantee that you’ll be hearing a lot more of in the months leading up to the draft. “I don’t see big-time NFL throws.”  I feel I can’t quite express strongly enough how many things are wrong with that statement.  Watch the tape. Hell, watch him live. The guy makes all the throws. Accurately. Fundamentally sound.  On the run, or in the pocket.  Into the right places.  If that doesn’t fit in the NFL, then what the hell does?  What actually qualifies as a big-time NFL throw, Mr Simms?

But in fairness, I don’t blame Simms. He’s a symptom of a wider issue with how the pro league and the media judge quarterback prospects.  The obsession is not with fundamentals, or accuracy, but the NFL seems to judge guys off arm strength.  Kyle Boller (1st round pick, great arm), JaMarcus Russell (#1 overall, great arm), Vince Young (#3 overall, great arm). Just off the top of my head. 3 people drafted for being able to make ‘all the throws’.  Boller, I seem to recall getting hype for throwing 60 yards from halfway on his knees. Russell, too.  All big hype, all ‘big-time NFL throwers’, Mr Simms. All busts. Huh.  Guys with less strong arms currently making a success of themselves? Drew Brees, Matt Hasselbeck, Andy Dalton. Hall of Famer? Joe Montana. Strong-armed guy who didn’t make it? Jeff George.  Of course there’s examples of both sides of the coin, but my point is, a guy with a strong arm will always be given more hype, will always get the ‘HE MAKES ALL THE THROWS’ comparison. And no one looks at the guy’s accuracy.

And now it’s happening to Luck. He can’t boom it like Boller or Russell did back then, so between now and April, someone in the media, or god forbid, someone in an NFL front office, is going to convince themselves that there’s a better pro prospect QB, or player worthy of taking higher.  It always happens.  We feel the need to pick holes in everyone, find flaws that aren’t there, convince ourselves that someone has a ‘higher ceiling’ or ‘better upside’.

Fact is? There’s no such thing as an upside, in my estimation.  Potential is a fucked up word, too. It means ‘you might be good one day’.  Judge on the now. Judge on the abilities. Sometimes, judge on the obvious.  Judge what you can see. It’s there. Andrew Luck is special. He hasn’t got a booming arm, but he’s fundamentally sound, accurate, smart, and a good leader.  Give me Luck over someone who can throw the ball 60 yards from halfway on their knees.  Regardless, someone is going to convince themselves otherwise, and many people will follow that person’s opinion.

They will be wrong.

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