NFL

How important is speed for an NFL wide receiver?

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We hear all the time about a prospective NFL players 40 yard dash at the combine.  Did he run a sub 4.5? Wide receivers who don’t run a sub 4.6 almost never end up starting in the NFL. I think that’s a shame.

Obviously there is a point where slow is too slow for the game of pro football. But why is speed important? It’s not only important for break away long plays, it’s also critical because getting open is a fundamental aspect of playing receiver and speed can help a player to get open.  My own experience in football tells me that a player’s straight-line speed is not that critical.  More important is his quickness. I would define quickness as the measurement of a player’s ability to accelerate,  stop suddenly and change direction., in a say, a 10×10 yard box. Actually, there are several skills that are more important to a receiver than his 40 yard dash time, and yet it is his 40 time that always receives the most attention.  A player can have fantastic hands and great quickness but it is a invariably a blazing 40 time that will get the most talk.

In my own experience in sandlot ball, the fastest player was almost never the best receiver.  As QB for my Army office team, I’ve noticed the attributes that make a good receiver and can quickly identify the player that I was to throw the ball.

1) Good receivers are aggressive.  They want the ball, run to it, and fight to get it.  They do not let defensive backs make the first move to the ball, either vertically, or down the field.  With a good receiver, the QB must throw the ball to an area; with a poor receiver, the QB must throw the ball much more accurately. Poor receivers drift.  They may look up at the ball then back at the defensive back while the ball is in the air.  They cede the initiative of playing the ball to the defender.

2) Good receivers know how to get open and when they are open. They quickly identify weaknesses in the defenses’ setup and make small adjustments in their routes to maximize the distance between themselves and the defender.  Tactics employed include, head and body fakes and changes in acceleration and angles. They are quick in and out of their cuts Moreover, good receivers know when they have achieved a sufficient level of separation and they look back for the ball quickly. Bad pass catchers stare at defensive backs as they make their cuts and are late looking for the ball.  Bad receivers do not possess a large bag of tricks to fool defensive backs and often fail to properly analyze what the defense is doing to shut them down and they round their patters, providing time to defensive backs to break on the ball.

3) Good receivers catch the ball. Nothing will break a QB’s confidence more than a receiver who drops passes. A receiver’s job is first to catch the ball, then to run. Good receivers make receptions on balls thrown that should have been incomplete passes.  Poor receivers stop drives by dropping balls that should have been easy completions.

One reason for the stress placed on 40 time is because it is easily measurable. Just as in the world of military intelligence analysis, it is easier to present data than it is to interpret what that data means in the bigger picture.  It is easy and safe in the current football culture for a scout or general manager to wow owners and coaches with a number. And speed is difficult to improve; people are mostly born with it or without it, and many of the other football skills, it is thought, can be taught. And of course, speed can result in scores in quick, spectacular scores.

Receivers that do not possess incredible speed but produce good numbers in the NFL, are often referred to as “over-achievers” or “hard workers”. But it’s time to consider the vast range of skills great receivers possess, and realize that speed is only one of them–and probably not the most import one at that.

Run and Shoot

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In a Democratic society, few things are more important than trust.  We have to trust our neighbors, our co-workers, and our government.  This is what makes a free and open society work.  But trust must be earned.  If trust is given to those whom are untrustworthy, systems fail just as rapidly, perhaps more rapidly, than if no trust is granted at all. Everything works better in a high trust society. 

Trust is why America works.  America doesn’t work because of Democracy. Democracy works because of trust.  Certain systems can engender trust in our fellow man, mostly because those systems enable individuals to fulfill their personal needs without ripping off other people.  When systems break down, people tend to circle the wagons, hoarding as much for themselves as possible.  But beyond systems, are the values and capabilities of the people that work in those systems.

Recently at my job, the office I worked in experienced some difficulties in one of the sections. The job was not getting done to my supervisor’s liking.  The historic way that my supervisor tried to fix problems was by changing systems; more Excel spreadsheets, more trackers, more redundant systems. But to me, the problem was the people.  No system can cover  every problem–there’s always a loophole. Success comes when you put the best people in the right positions.  So we made a personnel change.  It wasn’t easy explaining to the soldier why he was removed from the position, but I had to tell him that his attention to detail was lacking so that he could fix the problem in the future.

On Friday, my office usually plays touch football against another section.  I play quarterback. One thing I quickly identify is whom I can trust when I throw the ball to them. Who drops the ball? Who can’t get open? Who doesn’t know how to run patterns?  After a few dropped passes, I don’t want to throw the ball to certain receivers.  One soldier in particular on my team is an excellent athlete and football player. He catches the ball when I throw it to him, knows the game, and has good speed.  I end up looking to him first on most plays and we win often.  I do try to spread the ball around just so that other people have fun. But if our team really needs a score, I know who I’m looking for.  I trust that player.  It is not so much about a system that guarantees or maximizes the chances of our success–it’s about knowing who the most capable person is. One person on the team is an advocate of designing plays so that each player has an assignment. While this would be fine if we had lots of time to practice it doesn’t work very well for our situation. The only direction that is usually given is deciding who blocks, who throws and who receives.  Once in a while I’ll tell a receiver to run a certain pattern, but mostly it’s just “get open.” We were actually less successful when we tried to assign each receiver a pattern.  He could not make the small adjustments needed to get away from defenders, since his assigned pattern may take him towards a safety or linebacker and not away. So we run our offense like the old Run and Shoot.

These two anecdotes reinforce my politics: That nations are not made by regulation, but by the capabilities and attitudes of millions of individuals.  Only individuals can make on the ground assessments and quick changes to make sure things get done the way they should. We are guided by principles, but a rule cannot guarantee success, and we can see by looking at the IRS’ tax code that millions of pages of regulation still leaves loopholes.

For me, it’s never going to be about regulations. It’s always about trust and people.

Tim Tebow: A Real Leader

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As much as there is a real “Tebow Mania” in the air concerning the Denver Bronco’s quarterback Tim Tebow, there is also an equally potent dark side to this mania.  Call it Tim Tebow Manicheanism.  On one side, there are the people who just like football and appreciate the play of a football player who is winning in a very unorthodox way.  Also on that side are people of the Christian faith, who also follow football, who identify with Tim Tebow’s beliefs and who appreciate the fact that he is not ashamed to express those beliefs.

On the other side of the Tebow explosion, are the haters and doubters.  There are people who had and still have legitimate doubts about Tim Tebow’s ability to play football at the professional level.  To those people I must point that Tebow still has under 300 pass attempts in the NFL.  The Denver Broncos selected Tebow in the first round and he has won the games that Kyle Orton could not.  At some point you have to stop doubting his ability and start realizing that he is driving defenses nuts.  Any other QB would have been given at least two full seasons as a starter before such judgments were made.  Especially a first round pick, like say, Rex Grossman–who’s still a starter and performing at a lower level than Tebow.

Then there is the other group of people on the dark side of the Tebow Manichean coin.  These are the people who hope Tebow will fail and it is primarily because of his unabashed Christian views.  These people hate Tim Tebow more than they hate al-Qaeda.  To them, Tebow represents a sappy, Christian anti-intellectualism under which assuredly boils a hatred for hippies, homosexuals and single moms.  The haters must ascribe luck to Tebow’s success, mock him as a Jesus Freak.  Each victory brings a new soliloquy of venom on YouTube video comments  and blogs.  Yet Tim Tebow keeps winning in the most excruciating manner.

Tim Tebow is a real leader, whatever be his innate ability to throw a football.  This morning, ESPN’s NLF Countdown presented a 10 minute tape of Tim Tebow with a mic on during his games.  You simply can’t teach the type of leadership that Tebow displays.  At least not with “leadership courses”, like the US military and some corporations use.  Tebow’s leadership comes from character.  It comes from confidence in something greater than himself.  In the ESPN tapes, Tebow displays an unshakable demeanor, laughing at his own mistakes, constantly motivating his own team mates even as a victory seems more and more unlikely.

We all know leaders who are pretending.  They are overly autocratic, mistaking control for leadership.  They are afraid that others will see their faults, lest they lose the control they ascribe to success.  Ofttimes, they present themselves as intellectuals, failing to recognize that a real leader can capture  emotive power more than the intellect.  Leonidas was no intellectual.  If he were, math would have told him he couldn’t win.

Week 10 NFL predictions

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A couple of comments here.  First, there are a few teams that are downright bizarre this season.  Kansas City is one of them.  Destroy Oakland 28-0, beat San Diego in a game where Phillip Rivers passes for over 350 yards, then get crushed by arguably the worst team in the NFL: Miami.  Then we have Oakland and Denver, whose new QBs have no real record to analyze.  Is Tim Tebow the real deal?  I can’t tell.  His accuracy is atrocious, but he gives Denver a lot of other things that few QBs can bring to the table.   What’s Carson Palmer’s ability right now?  Who can tell.  He’s already thrown a ton of interceptions and after almost a year off, I’m not sold.  I basically have to flip a coin when it comes to Oakland and Denver.  Need we even talk about Philadelphia? Though I still say Michael Vick is just settling back into the statistical norms of his career–last year was an aberration. Well, I had another atrocious week in week 9.  But here goes (I’m late on the Oakland/ San Diego game).

Week 10 winners:

Philadelphia

Carolina

Houston

Washington ( Just found out Rex Grossman is starting for Washington)

Jacksonville

Kansas City ( I know; can Tebow prove me wrong again?  Arrowhead’s a tough place to play)

Dallas (I’m not convinced by Buffalo yet)

New Orleans

Cleveland

Pittsburgh

Baltimore

San Francisco

Detroit

NY Jets

Green Bay

Week 9 NFL Picks

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Last week went considerably better than the prior; only 3 wrong.  Let’s give it another go.

Week 9 Predicted winners:

Kansas City

Atlanta

New Orleans

Buffalo

Houston

San Francisco

Tennessee

Oakland

New England

Arizona

Green Bay

Pittsburgh

Philadelphia

NFL Week 8 predictions

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Well, last week was one of my worst prediction weeks ever.  A number of the games that most people agreed would be close calls didn’t go my way and there were a number of upsets.  But I have to stay with my formula; one week is a small sample and I have all of last season to prove that my formula works.  So on to week 8.

Week 8 winners:

Baltimore

Carolina

Houston

NY Giants

New Orleans

Tennesee

Detroit

Buffalo

Cincinatti

San Francisco

Pittsburgh

Philadelphia

San Diego

NFL Week 7 predictions

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Using the same formula that I used to win approximately 50% of last years football pool weeks, here are my predictions for week 7 of the 2011 NFL season.  I’ll put my record at the end of this season against any of the analysts on ESPN.

Winners:

Detroit

Tennessee

Miami

San Diego

Chicago

Washington

Oakland

Pittsburgh

Dallas

Green Bay

New Orleans

Baltimore

Cleveland

NFL teams are losing their discipline

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Several things are occurring during this NFL season that make me believe that a lack of discipline is turning into badly played football games.

First off, anecdotally speaking, the number of penalties is astounding me. It seems in almost every game, one of the teams, has double-digit penalties. It’s not unusual to see a team with over 100 yards in penalty yards.

Then there’s the atrocious special teams play. I can’t remember a year in which more games have been decided by poor play on special teams. Not astounding returns so much as embarrassing, bone-headed, carelessness.

The game is turning into a personality based circus. I don’t remember many personalities on the great champions of yesteryear. Actually, there aren’t many personalities on today’s good teams either, except maybe the head coaches which is as it should be. No Randy Mosses, Terrell Owenses, Chad Ochocincos. All cancerous tumors that travel around making every one of the their teams’ games all about themselves. And their lack of discipline is infectious to teammates. Witness what’s happened in Minnesota after the Randy Moss carnival of idiocy. It’s not just off-field issues though; Coaches such as Chuck Noll and Bill walsh were well known for the exacting attention to detail they expected during practice. Don Shula’s teams were almost always the least penalized teams during his years as coach. It’s difficult to believe that this is a coincidence, and shows that coaches have a significant impact in on-field discipline of players.

Every year the best teams are not the “flashy” teams. They are the teams that are like efficient machines. They are so efficient in their execution as to be absolutely frustrating to their opponents. Because every player is drilled to respond a certain way in a certain situation, they minimize free-lance mistakes. Penalties, sacks allowed, turnovers, special teams. Want to find the measure of good coaching? Look for those four statistics in the box score and you’ll be able tell who won the game without looking at the score. Success in those areas is mostly determined by execution, not raw talent or speed. They are the result of a team mindset which the coach is primarily responsible for forming–or allowing.

I think of the great coaches–they were all Lords of Discipline. Lombardi, Noll, Shula, Ditka,Levy, Landry, Walsh. They required professionalism from their players. As Mike Ditka once said: “You get from people what you allow.” And certainly we see this on many teams today. The inmates are running the asylum.

There are still teams that show they have discipline. That machine-like quality that makes their opponents grind their teeth. I watched the Packers play last night. They did everything right, while the Vikings looked liked confused college players. The Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots, too. In the age of NFL parity, coaches may, more than ever, be the key to NFL dynasties.

Vick vs Kolb

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Philadelphia Eagle’s coach, Andy Reid, recently made the announcement that Michael Vick would be the starting quarterback for the Eagles for the remainder of the season. This comes after Kolb suffered a concussion in the season opener.

People are quick to point to Vick’s two performances this year as proof that he should be the guy. But wait. Two games? And he threw all of 16 passes last year after spending time in prison. Before that, Vick’s best season came in 2006 when he sported a very average passer rating of 75–the highest of his career. Someone like myself, who grew up reading statistical guru Bill James’ books on baseball probability knows that two games means nothing. We should go with Vick’s previous 5 years if we are to make an assessment of his possible future performance. In almost every year, Vick’s passer rating was very average–in the 70s, with a high of 75. To give him credit, his interception percentages in those years were quite good, with 3.7 being his worst year.

Ah, a Vick fan may point out, Vick’s the best running QB in NFL history. 4.3 speed from the QB position makes defenses quake in their boots.

While a QB who can run is undoubtedly an asset, let’s consider the ramifications. Generally speaking, QBs who can run tend to run more than those who can’t. Of course, they want to do what they’re good at. But, QBs who run are doing almost all of their running in passing situations, which means long yardage situations. Let’s say it’s 3rd and 10. The running QB drops back, and decides to take off. He makes it 8 yards. He now has an 8 yard rushing average–simply awesome when you consider the mid 4 yard averages of some very good running backs. But it’s still 4th down and time to punt. Play calling is contextual. Not all play calls have the same value under different conditions. Yards to go is just as important as matchups, maybe more so.

There are three types of running QBs: Those who prefer to run, those who hate running, and those who run when they have to. Usually, those who prefer to run are young and very athletic. In college, they got by on athleticism alone. It is possible that Vick may get better as he ages. Perhaps time and Andy Reid have encouraged him to make adjustments. There are examples of running QBs who got better with age. Steve Young didn’t become the 49ers starter until he was 30. John Elway won two Super Bowls when he was older and less athletic. Randall Cunningham had his best years at the end. Running became their backup weapon instead of their primary one. Vick lit defenses up in the first two games of this year. But teams weren’t really prepared for him. In todays NFL, the linebackers are the best athletes on the defensive field. They run like some wideouts. They’ll figure Vick out and then we’ll see if Vick has truly evolved.

A problem though, is Vick’s inherent inaccuracy. Will that improve with age? He’s certainly shown no propensity to suddenly becoming the sniper that the West Coast Offense thrives on. Starting in 2006 and going back, his completion percentages were as follows: 52, 55, 56, 50, 54, 44. No Steve Young he. This was while Atlanta was running a West Coast style offense.

What about Kolb? He’s 26 years old, and if we are to be fair to Vick in stating that 2 games is not a big enough sample to make an assessment, we’d have to say the same about Kolb. But, in the two games he started last year, he was spectacular. He is the only QB to ever throw for 300 yards in his first two games. 390+ in his first game. He was highly regarded all through college. Now he lost his job because he got hurt. I believe there’s far more upside for the Eagles in letting Kolb play. And they should’ve been satisfied that they had the league’s best backup in Vick. Starting Vick for the rest of the year does not advance the future of the team, and it only marginally–if history means anything–increases the team’s ability to win games now. Is Vick better than Donovan McNabb? McNabb’s going to the Hall of Fame. Vick could go back to prison if he so much as walks into a pet store. So it’s a step back from last year.

Oh yeah. There’s that character thing. I’d like to say that people change. And of course they do. But they don’t usually make 180 degree changes in short periods of time. They usually continue to be pains in society’s rear until they’re old. There’s a litany of NFLers and NBAers who simply could not stay out of trouble. I can see Vick slowly breaking down over the course of the season as adversity builds. And it will build. It always does. Has he ever proven to people that he’s the type that they should want to follow? This is not a personal attack on Vick, merely a pragmatic observation. He has more proving to do than 1.75 games this year and 16 passes form last year. Kolb was the future. Highly regarded, positive, patient. You worked him for the spot all off-season and all preseason. Then you cast him to rumored trade winds when he takes a big hit. You stick in a guy who hasn’t won anything big but media adulation prior to his lock-up.

Reid made the wrong choice here. Kolb should have at least been given the chance to fail. Instead, Reid made a potential mess out of things. If Vick falters, the Eagles will have to turn back to a QB who was kicked to the curb.

Thoughts on the current NFL season

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It’s coming up on the final regular week in the NFL. To rid us of the tired old cliche’, “things are’t what they used to be” (ie they aren’t as good as they used to be), let me state that I think I’ve seen an outstanding level of footbll played this year. The good teams are very good, but even the teams at the bottom present weekly problems, thus every team is forced to play it’s best or quite likely lose.

As for my 49ers, if they win this week, they’ll end the season at 8-8. Of those 8 losses, only two will have been by more than 7 points–one game against the Eagles, who are probably the best team in the NFL. I’m a fan and biased, no doubt. But, let’s look at the Niners’ schedule this year; it was brutal and maybe the toughest of any team’s.

  1. Cardinals twice, winning both games. The Super Bowl runner-ups and they only have 5 losses, 2 against the Niners. The Cardinals’ record is better than last years Super Bowl team.    
  2. Minnesota Vikings. Lost on the last play of the game at Minnesota.
  3. Indianapolis Colts by 4 points at Indy.
  4. Green Bay Packers–only lost by 6 points.
  5. The Eagles.

That’s a ridiculous schedule. But I’m hopeful. Alex Smith is a different player in the spread offense and they have 2 first round picks this year.

Anyway. The dark horse team in the New York Jets. They boast the best defense in the league and if rookie QB Sanchez plays well, I think they can play a major spoiler roll. They control their own destiny against the Bengals this week.

The Chargers appear strong all around. Phillip Rivers with his size, arm strength and quick release is reminding some of Dan Marino. Still, they have to go through Indy with Peyton Manning.

 The Eagles present the most dynamic team. Their defense is sack happy and their offense is incredibly explosive with DeShean Jackson and underrated rookie first rounder Jeremy Maclin at wideout. I’d like to see their defense keep their opponents from scoring as many points as they do, but why quibble? The team’s won 6 in a row and is second in total points scored.

Then there’s the Vikings. Very talented at the skill positions on offense, I think they’ve been somewhat exposed on defense. If their quick defensive ends get shut down on pass rushing, the Viking cornerbacks are proving inneffective at covering deep routes. I’ve always maintained that a good defense begins with good corner play in modern football. While dangerous, the quick learning coaches around the league studied Minnesota closely and have picked at their weaknesses in the last few weeks.

Dallas is another super-talented team, but very inconsistant. Which team will show up from week to week is anyone’s guess. Same thing with the Saints lately.

All I can say is the NFC is stacked. I look at a team like Green Bay, whose QB Aaron Rodgers has played as well as anyone at that position in the league this year. Check out his numbers–he doesn’t get talked about enough. Then throw in the Packers’ very tough defense, chock full of young stud linebackers like AJ Hawk and Clay Matthews Junior.

Arizona has all the weapons on offense, too, especially with running back Beanie Wells finding his groove.

It’s going to be a very tough playoffs. My predictions are Philadelphia and Indianpolis in the Super Bowl.