Sports

NFL teams are losing their discipline

Posted on Updated on

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.

Intelligence Analysis, Or: How to win your office’s football pool.

Posted on Updated on

Recently, I got talked into joining my unit’s football pool here in Afghanistan. Historically, I’ve always done pretty well in these things, so I figured I give it a shot. I knew I’d be going up against a bunch of smart people who also happened to like football. Combine Army-types with nerds and you get what we have here.

My first week, I joined the pool approximately 10 minutes before all picks were do–Sunday morning in US time. I had no chance to do any real analysis, but placed my picks quickly. I didn’t do any better than average. However, the next week, I had time to go through my usual checklist when making my picks. I won the prize hands down and hope to do so again this week. I also hope that no one in my unit reads this page; I don’t want to help people in denying me my weekly prize.

I apply some techniques in intelligence analysis when I make my football picks. Here’s things to consider and an ad hoc checklist that may help you pick up some beer money in your office pool.

  1. Mitigate the emotional pick: While discussing the week’s picks with a very intelligent intel analyst, I had to keep reminding him to avoid the emotional pick. He’s a Redskins fan, so of course he feels the urge to pick the Redskins every week. He also feels the need to pick against the Cowboys every week. Now in the instance of the Cowboys, it’s worked out well for him. However, emotion, in the long run, will severely hamper your chances of victory. Now I’m no stoic. Emotion has its place. When I arm-wrestle, I get fired up. but when I’m making my picks, I’m as cool as a cucumber. Don’t pick the team you like–pick the team that’s most likely to win. It’s not as easy as it sounds. It requires an extraordinary amount of introspection, a monitoring of your own intentions. But it’ll go a long way in helping you win.
  2. Stats don’t lie as much as politicians want us to believe. Barack Obama’s voting history while in the senate proved he was the most liberal person who voted. Yet, somehow the American people ignored this in their hope that Obama’s mere wish to do good would overcome his proven track record. But the trend continues. Statistics can deceive people. But they usually only deceive when other statistics are not known or are ignored. For instance, the San Diego Chargers are off to a bad start. Their win/loss record is very poor for a team that many predicted would go to the Super Bowl this year. However, a close look at their statistics shows something incredible: They are ranked #1 in defense and #1 in offense! Ok, so their special teams have been pretty awful. But a team who’s #1 in both defense and offense is unlikely to have to rely on their special teams to win over a 16 game season. I predict they’ll go on a winning streak soon. I picked the Chargers last week. Few others did. They won. Before my pick, I go through each team’s rankings running and passing, offence and defence. I compare each team’s strength to their opponents weaknesses and so on.
  3. Singular incidents mean little: They mean something–but not very much. We must look for trends when it comes to picking NFL winners. Personally I define a trend as 3 games for an individual player and 5 games for a team. By game 5, I have a much better idea of what a team’s capabilities are then after 2 games. Don’t pick a winner because of a spectacular performance the previous week and conversely, don’t pick a winner because their opponent didn’t perform well (uncharacteristically) last week.
  4. Don’t believe the hype. Watching highlights of a team’s big win can move our emotions. We may want pick a team to win because we keep seeing stories about them on ESPN, or we may vote against them because the media wants to talk about how poorly the coach and QB are getting along. This may matter–or it may not. What really tells us if a team is likely to win is the trending performance on a field, not the regularity of reporting on a team.
  5. Home Field is more often than not, the winning field. I don’t know the stats, but the home field advantage is a worth a few points, historically speaking. When in doubt, pick the home team.
  6. All things being equal, go with the team with the best QB. If you look at a game and can’t decide, after all the above considerations, who’s going to win, go with the team with the best QB. How you decide who’s best is up to you, but most of us know instinctively who the better QB is in a game. While generally unscientific, my reasoning is that since the QB handles the ball on nearly every down, he has a greater impact on the outcome than anyone else.

Unfortunately for me, no matter how I twist my methodology, the 49ers come out to be a mediocre team this year….

Vick vs Kolb

Posted on Updated on

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.

Crime, video games, and how men really act in war

Posted on Updated on

Some of my readers may have heard about the recent video, published by an organization called Wikileaks, a self-proclaimed government and military watchdog organization. The video shows an Apache helicopter crew engaging a group of people in Iraq during the 2007 surge. At least eight people are killed and two children are wounded. What seems to outrage the critics the most is the verbage used by the pilots. Things like: “Good shooting” and “(laughing) They ran over a body.” Also, “Come on buddy…all you gotta do is pick up a weapon.” One pundit commented: “It’s almost like they’re playing a video game.”  Several times the pilots express glee at the sight of their kills.  

Here’s the video. Interpret the propoganda by Wikileaks as you see fit:  

But no. It’s not like they’re playing a video game. It could be said of those playing video games, that it’s almost like the gamers are at war. The people at war are not copying what they’ve seen in video games, people playing video games are obeying the animal urge to fight.  

Perhaps the greatest of all myths when it comes to war, is that men don’t like to fight and kill. What they really don’t like is to lose a fight, die or receive a catastrophic wound. This myth is a primary reason that the intelligentsia, who only study the cold movements of armies, the logistics and the death tolls, fail to fully grasp the nature of war. War is not–primarily–concerned with morality or rationality. This is particularly true in third world countries where the male urge to fight is not blunted by organized sport or entertainment.  

Many American men denied the opportunity to enter the military during WWII committed suicide. I can say from my experience in the Army that people in our current Army love to deploy to a combat zone. I rarely hear anyone complain that they are going to fight. Except for being away from their families, they’d rather be fighting than sitting in garrison. How much more does the insurgent want to fight, since after killing some Americans, he can simply walk back to his home and wife and children at night? It is primarily young males that play video games and engage in contact sports. And let’s not forget that males constitute 93% of the prison population, as of 2003.  

The nature of war and crime are closely related. Let’s look at some crime statistics from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.   

The first thing that jumps out is that violent crime in the US has declined considerably since the 1970s. Contrary to the popular myth propagated by an ever-chugging media. violent crime has been declining for decades in the US and also in many parts of Europe. Let me suggest the un-suggestable: Could violent video games actually be partly responsible for reducing violent crime? Is the natural male urge to engage in violence being sated by virtual killing? Is it a coicidence that the fifth generation of home video game systems–possibly the most revolutionary leap in gaming realism ever– spawned in 1993? The early to mid 90s brought us the Playstation, Sega Saturn, and Nintendo 64. The groundbreaking game, GoldenEye 007 dazzled gamers with a level of realistic warfare never before seen. 

I am not suggesting that moral lessons and teaching the value of non-violence are of no use or that other factors aren’t involved in the fall of violent crime rates since the 70s.  I’d also have to point out that violent crime rose considerable from the turn of the century until the 60s.  I’m merely noting that there is a natural male urge to engage in violent, reckless and dangerous activity and that perhaps artificial violence has diluted the real thing, whereas is the 40s and 50s it seems real values did the job.. Left to himself, a young male will probably find himself in trouble with the law sooner than later. One needs only look at crime statistics in the inner cities, where fatherless young males roam the streets. These places have more in common with Sierre Leone than the American heartland. So, in the absence of moral teaching in youth, there is also the absence of internal safeguards against the use of violence. It could be that violent video games quench a thirst that exists precisely because the male has not been taught proper social interaction methods.  

What people really don’t like when they see the above video, is that the pilots seem to like what they are doing. The critics expect men fighting to experience horror with every falling enemy body. To cringe over each wounded opponent. If fighting were that psychologically trying, men wouldn’t do it. If the insurgents felt the same guilt from killing Americans that they felt from say, accidentally killing their own child, there would be no insurgency. What men have and always will search for, is a socially acceptable reason to fight. And in the absence of fighting, they engage in other activities that stress the subcortical regions of their brains and their adrenal systems.  

I can give first hand attestation. Nothing gives me the same high as competition.  I know many men who feel the same. War is the ultimate competition, and killing a socially acceptable target gives many men the ultimate high. As a police officer, there was a thrill in the chase, to violence–and it was socially acceptable. When criminals resisted arrest, I was more than happy to use legal violence. Afterwards, I felt euphoric. Lying about this will not change what every cop and soldier knows: We didn’t get into those types of jobs for the paperwork.  

The Apache pilots acted as men have for thousands of years at the sight of a dead enemy: They celebrated. Our politicians should set aside for a while the intellectual texts (though they have their place) that drive foreign policy and pick up a copy of The Iliad. Homer captured the sheer joy of combat experienced by warriors better than anyone since. The Greeks never separated sports from warfare, and in their myth, their best warriors were also their best athletes.  

Better than Clausewitz' On War

So, men who are victorious in war act in precisely the same ways as men who are victorious in sports or in video game sessions: They celebrate. They denigrate their enemy. We lie when we speak of the savagery of ancient man. We are the same now, only now we’ve figured out ways to expend our violent energies without actually killing anyone.  

Small Wars define the current generation of fighting. Warrior cultures, composed of youthful males without much to lose and nothing else to do but fight are the enemy. The enemy is not a professional but does gain much local prestige and even food, women and a place to live by being willing to kill Americans. Our politicians fail to accurately perceive the nature of our enemy and his reasons for fighting;  not so much a sense of injustice or outrage, which are only the social phantasms used to justify the fighting. An educated Demos will not  take away the reasons for people in Somalia and Afghanistan to fight unceasingly. It will only give them a way to create methods to channel aggression into other areas besides killing humans.

Thoughts on the current NFL season

Posted on Updated on

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.

Second flag football game

Posted on Updated on

Last night, I played in our team’s second flag football game. I had been planning on skipping the game, as by last weekend, my right knee had swelled and was very stiff. I iced it two-three times per day hoping the pain and fluid would dwindle. As I walked out the door from work last evening, my unit commander asked if I’d be at the game. I couldn’t let him down. At least that’s the excuse I made.

My knee was feeling better, actually, and once the game started I felt pretty good. We ended up winning the game, and I played every down on defense and offense, catching a few passes. Best of all we won the game. We’re 1-1 at this point. All of the other teams have played about 5 more games than us because we started so late as many from our unit were on field exercise.

Tomorrow we play a double-header. The first game is against the team that beat us in the first game and the second is against an undefeated team (7-0), the aviation unit at my base. Stupid helicopter jocks.

Competition

Posted on Updated on

This morning I went to the grocery store to pick up a few things. The air was crisp and sharp–fall is coming. I began remembering my earlier days of football and softball in the cool, dry air. The running and the burning lungs and the euphoric, relaxed feeling I got when the games were over.

I used to be a very competitive person. I’d try anything just to feel the spirit of the game. I lost this after my divorce. Something left me and I changed. I just wanted to be left alone to write.

One thing that I loved was softball, and many weekends I’d play in tournaments–6, 7, 8 games. Like I said, I’d try anything. Fencing (I won a medal in my first fencing tournament for amateurs in Bucksport, Maine), power lifting, jiu-jitsu. I played in my last softball tournament sometimes in the fall of 2006, just after I’d left the police department and two seasons away from my divorce, from which I hadn’t yet recovered. I had to be talked into playing, and I was on cruise control the whole time. Funny thing is, it was so easy, not caring, not having the game be too important–it was simple;my skills were still intact, but the burning desire was gone.

I was awarded the Most Valuable Player award for the tourney and a huge trophy to go with it, the largest of my career. It sat in the corner of my living room for a long time before I brought out to the dumpster.  I remember it laying there amid the trash, thinking that it didn’t mean a thing to me, only my writing, my kids and trying find what I would become mattered.

When I entered the Army, I found my loss of competitive spirit to be very detrimental. While younger men found the taunting of the drill sergeants to be motivating, I found it needlessly abusive and annoying. Sure I tried my best on all of the runs and the little contest, but I didn’t have a rabid desire like the young guys did. In AIT I even forsook the unit’s flag football team, another sport which at one time I loved and excelled. The raucous behavior of new athletes was a thorn in my paw, and I avoided them when they displayed their exuberance.

Since I arrived here in Germany, the only athletic event that I’ve taken part in was a 5k race, not counting of course the Soldier of the Year events. I’d never run a race since junior high school, but I did well and enjoyed myself.

As I exited the commissary this morning, I looked at the hill that runs along the front of the building. It’s steep, but not terribly long. One of the things I used to do a lot of was  hill sprints. I think if I was told I could only do one exercise, hill sprints would be it. They build great cardio and leg strength, and in the end, character.

Then I thought I felt it again. That old me, digging himself out of his grave. You can still excel,he groaned. The zombie-like me wiped the loam from his body and walked toward me with a slight limp–must be an aching knee. He stretch and grabbed his lower back. That must hurt a bit, too.

I walked back home and changed into my short and t-shirt, then walked down the street to an inclined portion of sidewalk, a good long area about 60-70 yards in length. I did 8 sprints up the incline and walked back each time. When I got back home, I did 100 pushups, 2 sets o 50.

There’s a flag football league starting up this month. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll see how much of my old self still remains, and how much has truly died.