Super Bowls Are Getting Closer, and That’s a Good Thing

Originally published at
For those of us who grew up with the lopsided Super Bowls of the 1980s, it seems as if we’ve had an unusual run. The past few years of Super Bowls have stayed tight, the result in doubt until the very end. It’s almost miraculous we haven’t had one go to overtime yet, though there have been some some close calls. Despite the early signs of a blowout (and maybe in part because of a brownout), Super Bowl XLVII held the pattern: While the 49ers fell behind 4:18 into the game, and never led, they were only three points down with the ball and a theoretical chance to win, right until Ted Ginn Jr. was tackled returning the game-closing kickoff.
How do you measure the closeness of a game? The final score is one way, of course. But for the viewer — especially the TV viewer who can change the channel — the real test is how long the outcome of the game remained in doubt. One way to figure that out is to ask: When was the last point at which the losing team was within striking distance?
Let’s look at three simple tests for when a game is in reach: the last time the winning team seized the lead for good, the last time the loser was within three points, and the last time the loser was within seven. If a game was decided by three, like Sunday night, that means that by the “within three” or “within seven” test, it was competitive for 100 percent of the game time. If the losing team fell behind four minutes into the game, like Sunday night, and never pulled even again, then by that measure the game was competitive for only 7 percent of playing time. There’s no magic formula, obviously, but if you plot all three together, you can see a trend. In the past 17 Super Bowls — dating back to Super Bowl XXXI (Packers 35, Patriots 21 in 1996) — the teams have remained competitive until late in the game:
In 13 of those 17 Super Bowls, the losing team was within seven points in the fourth quarter. In 12, the losing team was within three points in the fourth quarter. In 11, the losing team was within three points in the last six minutes of the game. In nine of the 17 — more than half — the team that won the Super Bowl only took the lead for good in the fourth quarter. For Roger Goodell, the network, the advertisers and everyone who hosts a Super Bowl party or just wants a good game — even for the gamblers and the fans of the losing teams who want to go down with dignity — this is a dream come true.
But if you’re older than 30, you know it wasn’t always this way. Super Bowls in the 1980s and early 1990s, especially those lost by the Bills, Broncos, and Dolphins, were often as lopsided as early as a Mike Tyson fight. (This was back in the days when Tyson was cold-cocking his opponents 90 seconds after the bell. You could order a beer and miss the fight.)
In the years from Super Bowl XI (Raiders 32, Vikings 14 in 1976) to Super Bowl XXX (Cowboys 27, Steelers 17 in 1995), the lead changed hands in the fourth quarter just four times in 20 Super Bowls, and in the second half only six times. In more than half of those Super Bowls — 11 out of 20 — the losing team was behind by more than a touchdown for the entire second half. In 15 of those 20 games, the losing team was never within a field goal in the fourth quarter. A whole generation of casual football fans grew up conditioned to the idea that the Super Bowl is about beer, buffalo wings, the Bud Bowl, and crummy football.
Mismatched conferences were obviously part of the problem. Between Super Bowl XVI in 1981 and Super Bowl XXXI in 1996, the NFC won 15 times in 16 years. The 49ers, Giants, Redskins, and Cowboys went 13-1 in those 16 Super Bowls, while the Bills, Broncos, Dolphins, Patriots, and Bengals went 0-13. The Bengals’ two losses and the Giants-Bills Super Bowl were close, but most of the other matchups were blowouts. Even more so than regular-season results, it was this period that elevated the league’s mantra of “parity” to a moral imperative. That ghost was only truly exorcised when John Elway and the Broncos — losers of some of the worst fiascos — won consecutive Super Bowls in 1997 and 1998.
The first 10 Super Bowls took a while to get going: Joe Namath’s Jets in Super Bowl III were the first AFL team to have a lead in the Super Bowl, and Super Bowl V was the first in which the lead changed hands. Super Bowls V through X at least produced their share of late drama, more than in the 1980s but still a lot less than the past few years:
You can see the trend toward closer games evolving over time if you take each of the three measures and plot them on a graph against a trendline. The tendency of Super Bowls to stay within three or seven points late in the game is even more pronounced than the tendency to have the lead change hands. There have been a number of games like Sunday night when an early lead held up under sustained, nerve-wracking assault:
These are not, of course, the only ways of measuring the closeness of a game; there are a number of sophisticated measures of odds to win at various points in time. And it’s true that you might prefer a game that is neck-and-neck the whole way to one that is lopsided early but features a furious late comeback. But that is a matter of taste as much as anything. Looking at the scoring patterns, it is clear Super Bowls have become more competitive. We should enjoy that now because the game never stands still, and the trends that have given us these games could turn out to be as much luck and transient conditions as inevitable historical forces. We could just as easily have another run of blowouts, in which case we will look back on the past 17 years as the Super Bowl’s Golden Age. Don’t say nobody told you to enjoy close Super Bowls while they last.

BUSINESS: Negotiating Through The Media

There are many species of bad journalism, most of which involve too much opinion by the writer, but sometimes the opposite is true and a writer gives you the apparent facts without the context needed to make sense of them. Let me use an article from the NY Times about 30 Rock to illustrate a common type of bad journalism that I find to be equally amusing and annoying: reporting negotiating positions without bothering to explain to the reader to take negotiating positions with a grain of salt, let alone how to interpret statements made in the course of negotiations. This has been a common thread in scores of articles these past few months about – among other topics – the debt ceiling negotiations, the Libya war, the perpetual Israel-Palestine ‘peace process,’ the NFL and NBA labor negotiations, the Mets’ legal dispute with the Madoff trustee and other business machinations and their efforts to re-sign Jose Reyes, and the legal imbroglio surrounding the Dodgers. I’ve read more articles on all these topics than I could count that failed to give the reader the guidance to put the parties’ statements in the context of the underlying negotiating dynamics.
The Times tells us, first, that Alec Baldwin has said he’s leaving 30 Rock after next season, a departure that of course would be a terrible blow to a show built around the tensions between his (awesome) character, Jack Donaghy, and Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon. It may well be true that Baldwin sincerely has other things on his mind, maybe even a run for public office, and/or that he’s feeling he’s done all he could with the character. But it’s at least equally likely that he could be persuaded to stay on if NBC offers money or other contractual concessions to make it worth his while.
Then we get the response from NBC brass and from Lorne Michaels, the show’s executive producer:

Executives from the show and NBC aren’t sure, but they made it clear in interviews here this week that his departure would not mean an automatic end to the award-winning comedy.
NBC’s new entertainment chairman, Bob Greenblatt, said: “I’d love nothing more than to have Alec for the duration of the show. That’s my goal. Let’s see what we get.”
NBC’s interest in keeping “30 Rock” around for at least one more year after the coming season can be explained by the need for more episodes to enhance the show’s resale value in syndication.
The executive producer of “30 Rock,” Lorne Michaels, was more definitive about a future for the comedy, even if Mr. Baldwin turns down all blandishments to continue. “I would hope he would want to go on,” Mr. Michaels said on Monday. “But we’re going to keep doing the show.”

Again: I don’t doubt that NBC would very much like to extend the show’s run one extra season for syndication purposes; many a sitcom past has been kept on past its proverbial shark-jumping point for that reason. If 30 Rock is still making money at that point, the network would probably try to soldier on without Baldwin. And Lorne Michaels has never been a guy who thought any of his cast members were indispensable (to put it mildly). But this all smacks strongly of a negotiating posture: the network and Michaels are doing interviews here precisely to send Baldwin the message that he’s not holding all the cards. And the reporter, Bill Carter, doesn’t breathe a word of that, probably because he knows full well why they are giving him these interviews.
Of course, Greenblatt and Michaels have their own competing agendas:

Mr. Greenblatt did open the door to a possible disagreement with Mr. Michaels over the re-entry of “30 Rock” onto NBC’s schedule. The show’s sixth-season premiere has been postponed until midseason because of the pregnancy of its star, Tina Fey.
Asked if “30 Rock” was ensured a spot back on NBC’s successful Thursday night comedy lineup, Mr. Greenblatt said, “That is a good question, and I really don’t have an answer for it.” He added, “Nothing’s written in stone.”
But as far as Mr. Michaels is concerned, it is. “The show will be back on Thursdays,” he said confidently.

Of course, if Baldwin’s future with the show is in doubt, that’s one reason the network would not want to commit valuable Thursday night prime-time space, plus Greenblatt is taking charge of a fourth-place network and probably should keep his options open. But NBC has to keep Michaels happy, too; as the creator of Saturday Night Live, he remains a vital part of the network’s brand image. Michaels’ certainty here is obviously intended to send an unsubtle message that he will not be a happy camper if the network moves his prime-time baby out of its Thursday night sinecure.
I don’t mean to pick on Carter, who in this article has at least offered us enough quotes from each of the participants that a skeptical reader can piece together what is really being said here; that’s not always the case with this sort of journalism. But in general, reporters aren’t doing their jobs if they don’t report how someone involved in negotiations could stand to gain from taking a particular position in public, and worse still if they straight-facedly claim that someone will never make a particular concession (e.g., Jose Reyes won’t talk about a new contract during the season), when in fact they might well do so for the right price. The dynamics of negotiations and how they are handled through the media can differ across situations, but there are a finite number of basic underlying approaches to negotiating, and they crop up across many different fields of endeavor.
Consider the debt ceiling debate – surely many Republicans would have preferred to pass ‘cut, cap and balance,’ and some were genuinely opposed to raising the debt ceiling at all. But for many people involved in the fight, pushing for the ideal policy, even if it was the policy they wanted, was also a matter of getting leverage to extract a better deal when the time came to compromise. Similarly, many Republicans sincerely opposed any deal that would raise any taxes at all; others may have been willing to trade some revenue-raisers for something better, but found it convenient to stay in line with the ATR pledge against tax hikes as a posture unless and until that better offer materialized. None of this is insincere; it’s just good bargaining.
Learn to look for the signs of negotiating postures between the lines of news articles, and they will surface again and again in every section of the paper.

One Sporting Event

Tom Bevan passed along on Twitter this column asking what one sporting event you’d go back in time to attend in person if you could, and making the case for the first Ali-Frazier fight.
It’s a tough question. I’d immediately discount any event I actually did watch live on TV, like Game Six of the 1986 World Series, the 1980 Miracle on Ice, or the Giants’ three Super Bowl victories. My first reaction was to pick Game Seven of the 1960 World Series over some of the more impressive individual achievements like Don Larsen’s perfect game or Wilt’s 100-point game (of which film doesn’t survive), or classics like Bobby Thomson’s home run, but I think after kicking this around with some others on Twitter I’d probably settle with Game Seven of the 1912 World Series, which just had amazing team and individual drama and a chance to watch some of the greats of the pre-film era (Christy Mathewson, Tris Speaker, Smokey Joe Wood) in their primes.

Apologies For Olbermann

Via Allahpundit on Twitter, Pat Sajak looks back at his role in putting Keith Olbermann on national television for the first time. The video clip, from Super Bowl week in January 1989, is kind of sad, really; Olbermann, complete with Ron Burgundy mustache, is affable, relaxed, and low-key, not the bundle of psychotic vein-popping rage, smarmy smugness, egocentric rants at personal enemies and neuroses about women we see on air today. (Sajak, by contrast, remains a tweener, funny for a game show host but not funny enough for a late-night talk show host). While I found Olbermann off-putting when he first started on SportsCenter, I came to enjoy his work with Craig Kilborn in what has to be the golden age of the show; back then they did shtick, but (1) it was their shtick, not an imitation of somebody else’s, (2) it was new and different from everything else on sports TV, and (3) because nobody expected shtick to be the focus of the show, it was much more restrained than it later became.

Drive & Punt

The Wall Street Journal has a couple of interesting articles about long drives and punts. First, Tom Flynn looks back at the 2004 Emerald Bowl, in which Navy staged a 26-play drive against New Mexico that chewed up 14:26 of clock – including nearly the entire fourth quarter – and lasted more than half an hour, the most time-consuming drive in college football history. Second, Carl Bialik looks at whether NFL teams punt too much – even at a time when the average punt is reaching record lengths.

Busy Signal

Real life intrudes, from time to time, so apologies to regular readers if I’m tied up a few days – I know I’m particularly overdue on the Winter Meetings roundup. Hopefully, I’ll be back in the blog saddle again by Wednesday.
Feel free to treat this as an open thread – baseball, politics, whatever. You can even talk about the Giants, but you can’t make me listen.

Silverdome Fire Sale

The death of Detroit continues, as the Potiac Silverdome, onetime home of the Detroit Lions, sells for a mere $583,000 to an unidentified Canadian company:

The sale of the Silverdome takes a large financial burden off the hard-hit city of Pontiac, which has fallen on hard times, with budget shortfalls and high unemployment. Earlier this year, GM announced it would close a truck plant, taking about 1,400 jobs from the city.
As a result…Pontiac could ill afford to continue paying $1.5 million in annual upkeep for the stadium. With a private owner, the property “will go back on the tax rolls,” he explained.
The 80,000-seat Silverdome was the biggest stadium in the National Football League when it was built in 1975 for $55.7 million. The stadium, which sits on a 127-acre plot, is also the former home of the National Basketball Association’s Detroit Pistons.
The stadium reached its football zenith in 1982 as the site of Super Bowl XVI, when San Francisco’s 49ers beat the Cincinnati Bengals…
Despite its rich history, the stadium has seen little use since 2002, when the Lions concluded their last season there.


Climate of Hate and Lies

My RedState colleague Leon Wolf looks at the fabricated quotes being used to smear Rush Limbaugh – seriously, when national columnists like Jason Whitlock are quoting things found only on Wikiquote, there’s a problem – as well as Chris Matthews wishing on air for somebody to shoot Rush in the head.
All this out of fear of Limbaugh buying a stake in the St. Louis Rams. What, are they worried that he’d go say something about Obama while accepting a Super Bowl trophy? Oh, that’s right, that already happened.

The Moralizers Were Right

My initial reaction, besides horror, to the shooting death of former Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair was to try to hide from the story. I was always a fan of McNair, and will never forget the heartbreak of the Titans’ just-a-yard-short drive against the Rams in the Super Bowl. Like Kirby Puckett, McNair was a guy whose virtues on and around the field of play were such that I’d prefer to remember him only as he was in uniform.
That said, the saga of McNair’s death at the too-young age of 36 is the proverbial train wreck you can’t look away from, and the details are ugly: McNair was involved with a 20-year-old mistress while he was married to his wife of 12 years, with whom he had four children. From what we can tell, his mistress thought he was leaving his wife, and his wife didn’t know about the mistress. McNair’s death has been ruled a homicide, and while the police haven’t wrapped up the investigation, it appears that the mistress shot him and turned the gun – which she had purchased days earlier – on herself. The motive for the killing is likewise murky, but the obvious likely explanation is that McNair’s deceptions in one sense or another caught up to him.
The McNair story brought me back yet again to the downfall of Mark Sanford and a basic point that the cultural Left, with its pervasive hold on our culture, has fundamentally wrong. You will recall that the main criticism of guys like Sanford from the left is that they are “moralizers” – i.e., speak out on behalf of traditional sexual mores and ‘family values,’ such as not shacking up with a woman not your wife, especially if you are already married. The argument, sometimes explicit and sometimes implicit, is that the real sin of political and cultural leaders is not cheating on their own wives but telling other people that cheating on your wife is a bad thing.
Now, of course any system of moral values, and any discussion of right and wrong in government policy, inherently involves religion, as the foundation of pretty much everyone’s moral thinking is their religion or irreligion. That being said, it can’t be stressed often enough that when our leaders speak out against things like marital infidelity, what they are doing is not just abstract moral philosophy but rather bringing to bear the prudence and wisdom of human experience. Which is where McNair comes into the picture. We know, from many thousands of years of human experience, that cheating on your wife opens up a whole world of hazards and complications and deceptions, and that many bad consequences flow to everyone involved that could otherwise have been avoided. If Mark Sanford hadn’t cheated on his wife, he’d still be a presidential candidate. If Steve McNair hadn’t cheated on his wife, he’d still be alive. If Eliot Spitzer hadn’t cheated on his wife, he’d still be Governor of New York. And on and on and on throughout the ages. The story is all the sadder when men like Sanford and McNair, who had been models of integrity and professionalism in their professional lives, throw it all away over such foolishness. Promiscuous sex, sex among teenagers, prostitution, divorce…we know, and we see, the costs of these things played out again and again and again, and the job of adults, wise in the world by virtue of experience, is to impart to others those lessons, to impart knowledge that comes from human experience and acts as a restraint on the most common of impulses. When the leaders of our society, government and culture speak out on these issues, they are performing that valuable service. Would that someone had gotten that message through at some point to Steve McNair; would that Mark Sanford had listened to his own advice. And shame on anyone who wants to drive the wisdom of experience out of the public square.
The usual rejoinder at this point is to complain that of course it’s all well and good for people to teach morality in the privacy of their own homes, but that people in politics and government have no business getting involved in private matters. As I have noted repeatedly over the years, that’s an easier argument to make when government is small and less intrusive, and laughable coming from people who want to make it larger and more intimately involved in everyday life, but besides that, the very fact that things like adultery are largely beyond the reach of the law is precisely why they remain properly within the reach of the culture, and why it’s a good thing to have prominent people speaking out on such issues.
Maybe McNair, and Sanford, and Spitzer, and so many, many others would never have listened. Human beings are sinful by nature, and desire is strong. But the whole point of civilized society is to make a concerted, collective effort to pass on what we have learned over human history about the restraints we must place upon our instincts if we are to avoid similar tragedies, if we are to act as reasoning moral agents rather than animals driven only by impulse. Being a ‘moralizer’ about those restraints may not be the popular path, but it’s the path of wisdom and maturity. We should be happy for anyone still willing to do that job.

RIP Jack Kemp

Just saw this reported: Jack Kemp, a giant of the modern conservative movement, has died after a bout with cancer. Kemp never won national or even statewide office, and his gravelly wonkishness wasn’t always the epitome of charisma, but his political career was a testament to the power of ideas, simple ideas like human freedom and the potential of the individual to do better for himself than the government could ever do for him. He was an inspiration to everyone who believed that the interests of government are not the purpose of government. Ronald Reagan inspired many people in politics, but Reagan didn’t get to be Reagan alone, and then-Congressman Kemp was one of the people who inspired Reagan’s belief in the transformative incentive power of reducing taxes on the last dollar of income earned. Before entering politics, Kemp was a heckuva quarterback, compiling a 65-37-3 record as a starter in the AFL, playing in championship games for LA and San Diego before winning two AFL titles for the Buffalo Bills. Kemp was also the rare HUD secretary who left office well-regarded rather than under investigation or indictment. He was added to the GOP ticket in 1996 when Bob Dole realized his campaign needed ideas – and Jack Kemp, though an ordinary guy, not an intellectual, was synonymous with ideas. And he was, most of all, a happy warrior, like Reagan – a guy who took visible joy in politics because he always believed that if you gave people the ability to keep their own piece of the pie, we’d all have a larger pie to divide. He was, in every sense, a true heir of the Party of Lincoln. He will be missed.

Quick Links 4/16/09

*Nothing quite like Jose Reyes scoring from first base on a wild pitch last night. Speed gets overrated sometimes compared to the ability to get on base – without which it’s of little use – but that play was a perfect illustration of how speed can really unsettle a defense: Nick Hundley may well have let the ball go by and Luis Castillo score from third in part because he was distracted by Reyes taking off for second, ending with Reyes coming all the way around to score on a comedy of bad throws.
The Mets radio announcers were complaining that neither they nor the managers nor the team PR staff that runs the scoreboards can see into the new bullpens to figure out who is warming up. Last night that was multiplied by the fact that everybody was wearing #42, which is a nice tribute to Jackie Robinson but kind of confusing in mid-April when people haven’t absorbed all the rosters yet.
*Lyford notes an even more no-hitter friendly lineup. Ouch.
*Matt Wieters walks in his only appearance against David Price; presumably there will be many, many more rematches. Is PECOTA overprojecting Wieters by virtue of overly lenient adjustments for players from the Eastern and Carolina Leagues? And how long will it be before I can remember to write “Wieters” instead of “Weiters” without checking?
*I am shocked, shocked I tell you, that Chris Carpenter is injured.
*I don’t love all aspects of the new redesign (which converts the site to features that had already been in place for the sister sites covering football, basketball and hockey); I’m always skeptical of things that make a site run slower and less clean, and that create more hazards of clicking something that will do something on a page when you are just moving your mouse or trying to scroll down. And some information seems to be harder to find or navigate to. That said, there is a huge amount of new data, and from my personal perspective, the ability to copy and paste stats into an Excel spreadsheet is a colossal improvement – I experimented with the method I use for my Hall of Fame columns in particular and found I could run four or five players in the time it used to take to run one. On balance, I give it a big thumbs up.
*Not baseball, but big sports news: John Madden is retiring. Madden’s not as sharp as he used to be, but he’s still entertaining, and he’ll be remembered as the man who revolutionized NFL analysis.

The Greatest Running Backs of All Time

The news that the Jaguars were releasing Fred Taylor started a discussion with some friends about where the oft-injured Taylor would rank among the great running backs, and where he might have ranked if he’d been healthy. As I often do with such discussions, I thought I’d take the broader context to evaluate how the numbers stack up for the all-time great running backs. First I’ll offer the data, then a handful of my own thoughts on it.
Now, when you look at baseball statistics, it’s critically important to do three things. The first is to understand context. A baseball player’s statistics are influenced by many external factors – changes in the game over time, ballpark effects, the influence of teammates, the length of the season. For a variety of reasons, it’s much harder to separate football statistics from the context of time and team. The numbers I’m setting out below are not adjusted for the changing offensive contexts these running backs played in, whether they worked in sophisticated passing games (Roger Craig, Marshall Faulk, Edgerrin James), behind great offensive lines (John Riggins) or great blocking backs (Emmitt Smith), or indoors (Barry Sanders) or wartime (Steve Van Buren), or whether they were just given the ball and told to hope the other 10 guys on the field might run into a defender now and then (Sanders, Eric Dickerson). I have, however, averaged their statistics per 16 scheduled games, as a way of evening out the old-timers who played 12- or 14-game seasons or the more recent players who played during strikes (I counted 1987 as a 12-game season except for Craig, who crossed the picket line). Although the job of the running back has changed less than the jobs of other offensive players over the past seven decades, the latter-day backs, reflecting the higher-octane offenses of modern football, are nonetheless overrepresented. I could have run averages per game played, but I preferred to let the numbers reflect the costs to their teams of injuries to guys who missed a lot of games (like Taylor) or whole seasons (Riggins, Garrison Hearst). Durability matters when you are building a football team. The “G/16” column on the chart shows how many games, on average, each of these guys played per scheduled 16 games over his prime seasons, including entire missed seasons (yes, Walter Payton, Jim Brown, Eddie George and Roger Craig never missed a regular season game in their primes).
Second, and relatedly, you have to figure out what portion of a player’s career you are evaluating. My own preference, in having these kinds of debates, is neither to zero in on a player’s single best season nor to just lump together career totals (since they may include one guy who hung it up in his prime compared to another guy who was just as good and stuck around a bunch more years as a part-timer – a decision that really has nothing to do with how good they were in their primes). So, I’ll set out here the per-16-scheduled-games averages not for these running backs’ whole careers but for that section of their careers you would identify as their primes, in general the seasons when they were a team’s #1 back. In doing so, I’ve set aside the years after these guys broke down (in most cases, running backs break down pretty quickly and dramatically, around age 29 for the usual back, 31-33 for the longer-lasting ones) and the lengthy second acts of backs like Marcus Allen and Ottis Anderson. The resulting focus rewards the guys who concentrated their best seasons all together. Consistency matters when you are building a football team.
Third, much as I’ve done for similar baseball columns, I’m breaking the numbers into two charts, one of guys whose primes were longer (7 years or more), one of the guys who were only on top of their games for 4-6 years. It’s apples and oranges to compare a per-seaon average of a guy who starred for 5 seasons to one who starred for 10. Longetivity matters when you are building a football team.
More specific to football, once those preliminaries are out of the way, is what numbers to use to rank the running backs. I don’t pretend to have a perfect answer to that, but I chose to organize the data around the most basic figure: rushing yards per team game, listed as Yds(R). I could have used combined rushing and receiving yards from scrimmage (YSCM), and you can re-sort the list if you like by that, as in some sense it’s a truer picture of a back’s total offensive contribution. But while catching the ball well is a useful skill, it’s also true that receiving numbers are much more influenced by the team and the era a guy played in, whereas running the football is the purer, man-with-ball-versus-eleven-defenders task that every running back has faced down through the game’s history.
The sample here is the 49 running backs who compiled at least 7,000 career rushing yards through the 2008 season, plus five other notables who popped up on various career leader lists (Van Buren, Marion Motley, Larry Johnson, Billy Sims, and Gale Sayers). I’m hoping the charts here will be more an argument-starter than an argument-finisher, as of course I haven’t even touched here on playoff performances or other factors beyond the raw, regular season numbers. But we can at least appreciate those numbers for what they can tell us about the yards these men traveled with a football in their hands.

Continue reading The Greatest Running Backs of All Time

Mixing The Two, Part Two

I really could have done without Steelers owner Dan Rooney thanking President Obama, who he had endorsed during the fall election, in the immediate postgame interview last night. I swear, an awful lot of Obama supporters seem to have some sort of mental block that prevents them from acknowledging even the possibility of an opposing point of view. It’s not that public figures outside politics should never do endorsements and the like; I accept the fact that they have their views, and I have mine. But there’s a time and a place for everything, and really, sticking your politics in the face of the audience in the biggest sports telecast of the year is just obnoxious, and a good reason to root against the Steelers as long as the Rooneys have anything to do with them.
As for the game itself, first of all, this had to be the most referee-dominated Super Bowl in memory, and not in a good way. Some of the more intrusive calls were necessary (the holding call in the end zone that gave the Cards a crucial fourth quarter safety), some of them just looked wrong to me (calling back a Steelers TD in the first quarter).
If there’s one guy who just impressed the heck out of me in these playoffs, it’s Larry Fitzgerald. He didn’t have a huge game for much of last night, but the late breakaway touchdown was a thing of beauty when everyone knew he’d be Warner’s top target, as he’d been in so many big plays over the past five weeks.

Bill James vs the BCS

The master takes on college football’s arcane ranking system: “It is very difficult to objectively measure anything if you don’t know what it is you are measuring.” I’m enough of a Bill James geek to recognize this passage as a slight rephrasing of a piece of the Oakland A’s comment in the 1984 Abstract:

[T]he rankings are routinely described as “computer” rankings. Computers, like automobiles and airplanes, do only what people tell them to do. If you’re driving to Cleveland and you get lost and wind up in Youngstown, you don’t blame your car. If you’re doing a ranking system and you wind up with Murray State in western Kentucky as the national football champion, you don’t blame the computer.

And so, “whenever the computer rankings don’t jibe with the ‘human polls,’ they fix the computers.” He gets crabbier after that, in classic Bill James style.

There’s No Tying In Football

Yes, it’s definitely Andy Reid’s responsibility to make sure his players know that it’s possible to have a tie in an NFL game. I mean, that doesn’t let Donovan McNabb off the hook for the fact that he still doesn’t know the rule:

“I guess we’re aware of it now,” McNabb said. “In college, there are multiple overtimes, and in high school and Pop Warner. I never knew in the professional ranks it would end that way. I hate to see what would happen in the Super Bowl and in the playoffs.”
Uh, they keep playing if it’s tied in the playoffs or Super Bowl. But McNabb apparently didn’t know that, either.

But Reid’s been McNabb’s coach since 1999. And he never covered this? Wow.

Commerce? We’re Students!

You know, I’m not really an expert on this particular corner of antitrust law, so maybe I’m missing a good, persuasive argument for why this rule makes sense, but I have to express some cognitive dissonance at the Sixth Circuit throwing out a lawsuit by a former Kentucky assistant football coach on the grounds, among others, that the NCAA rule enforcement process is not subject to the antitrust laws because it does not involve commercial activity:

In order to state a claim under the Sherman Act there must be a commercial activity implicated….the appropriate inquiry is whether the rule itself is commercial, not whether the entity promulgating the rule is commercial…. Although the question before us is whether the
enforcement activities of NCAA violate the Sherman Act and not a particular rule, the analysis must focus on the enforcement action itself and not NCAA as a commercial entity….Bassett’s Complaint contains considerable information on the size and scope of college football and the revenues generated by it. The Complaint is wholly devoid of any allegation on the commercial nature of NCAA’s enforcement of the rules it determined Bassett had violated. Bassett’s Complaint contends NCAA’s enforcement process violated its own due process requirements and, as a result, constitutes a Sherman Act violation. We find Bassett’s Complaint lacks the critical commercial activity component required to permit application of the Sherman Act.
…NCAA’s rules on recruiting student athletes, specifically those rules prohibiting improper inducements and academic fraud, are all explicitly noncommercial. In fact, those rules are anti-commercial and designed to promote and ensure competitiveness amongst NCAA member schools. Violation of the applicable NCAA rules gives the violator a decided competitive advantage in recruiting and retaining highly prized student athletes. It also violates the spirit of amateur athletics by providing remuneration to athletes in exchange for their commitments to play for the violator’s football program. Finally, violators of these rules harm the student-athlete academically when coaches and assistants complete coursework on behalf of the student-athlete.
If the rules themselves and the corresponding sanctions are not commercial, as the reasoning
in Smith supports, then the enforcement of those rules cannot be commercial. As long as the
enforcement of non-commercial rules is reasonably and rationally related to the rules themselves, we find enforcement is a non-commercial activity.

I’m not saying the rule should be different, since there is much to be said for keeping NCAA decisions of this nature from turning into federal lawsuits. But one gets the sense that the salami is being sliced rather narrowly here.

Most Fierce

judgeyou.JPGCBS Sportsline sent me an email promoting this contest to name….the “Most Fierce NFL Mascot.”
At least they didn’t say “Most Fiercest.” Be thankful for the little things.
As for the contest, other than Pat Patriot I was blissfully ignorant of any of the macots. Football just doesn’t lend itself to mascots that well, especially pro football. Although I suspect “Raider Fans” will win the poll.

BASEBALL/ They All Look Alike

I guess I am not the only one to notice that Ben Sheets is a dead ringer for Brett Favre:

At one point during lunch, a fan approached Sheets and said “Hey Brett, how are you enjoying retirement?”
“I’m not Brett,” Sheets said, pointing at [Geoff] Jenkins, who was mistaken for Brett Favre early in his career. “He is.”
The confused fan walked away as the players laughed.
“I loved it,” Jenkins said. “And he was dead-set that it was Sheeter. Now that I’m gone, I guess I’ll pass that on to Sheets. I passed the torch.”

Big Blue David

This is truly a moment to savor, as it’s the first time in 17 years that one of my three teams (Mets, Giants, Franchise Formerly Known as the Knicks) has won it all. Before the game I had expected that the Giants would hang with the Pats for at least the first half, but I never thought they would actually pull this off. And I’ll admit that over the past two seasons I never believed that Eli would turn into the kind of QB who could run that incredible do-or-die drive to retake the lead down 4 in the closing two minutes. And maybe I haven’t paid close enough attention to the NFL but it still amazes me that the Giants were able to do this without Tiki Barber and Jeremy Shockey, the two mainstays of their offense these last few years. And on top of that, a quiet day by Tiki’s replacement, Brandon Jacobs.
The co-MVP of the game could easily have been David Tyree, who caught Eli’s first TD pass and had a number of impressive catches including a crucial 24-yard circus catch off the top of his helmet in the final drive that looked like a throwback to the stickum age. But the play that will most likely be re-shown in the days to come was Eli evading the grasp of defenders who nearly tore the jersey off his back to complete a 45-yard strike over the middle to Kevin Boss early in the 4th quarter when the game was still stalled at 7-3 Pats.
If there was one downside to this game it was the officiating, which seemed intrusive and yet missed shenanigans caught on camera by both sides on a couple of occasions.
Nobody will weep for Goliath – least of all the now-giddy 72 Dolphins – the Pats have plenty of rings to count. But from this day forward the credcendo will build whenever a team gets to 10-0 or so that they better lose now and not wait until the Super Bowl. Which is probably unfair to the Patriots, who just looked last night like a team that got beat by another team, not a team that played too tight and choked.
UPDATE: A few additional thoughts:
1. I didn’t give the Giants D nearly enough credit above for stopping the Pats’ vaunted offense. This defensive unit may not have the big names of Giant defenses of yore, but they showed up when it counted.
2. I guess it’s no surprise that I can’t reach this morning.
SECOND UPDATE: Yeah, I somehow got the plays mixed up in my head and forgot that the Eli torn-jersey play was actually the same play as Tyree’s helmet-catch. Duh.

Also, humbling moment of the day: watching scrawny little Wes Welker, realizing that he’s even smaller without his pads…and being informed that Welker is my height and outweighs me by 40 pounds.

Giants Among…The NFC

Sunday night’s Giants-Packers NFC title game made me nostalgic for the days when I used to follow the NFL every week, rather than casually with my full attention not focused until the playoffs. It was a rare kind of classic game – typically a monster game involves two offenses clicking on all cylinders (like the Giants-Pats season finale – the all-time classic of this was the famous Chargers-Dolphins playoff in 1981), or two great defenses slugging it out, or a great offense against a great defense. But this was one of those rare games – much like the 1991 Giants-Bills Super Bowl – that was crisply played by both teams on both sides of the ball, and doubly impressive for such great football being played in such terrible cold. I don’t think I have ever seen so many passes completed by one team with just tiptoes in fair territory on the sidelines (many of them diving grabs) as the much- and (until very recently) justly-maligned Eli Manning hit to Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer in this game. Those weren’t blown coverages, as few of them were totally wide-open; they were just a QB in perfect sync with his receivers and the receivers making amazing snatches. Burress and Toomer have to be the best Giants receiving corps ever (and rookie Stephen Smith wasn’t too shabby over the middle, either). The only marring factor was Lawrence Tynes’ disastrous kicking before the OT game-winner; it reminded me all too much of the infamous Seahawks game two years ago when Jay Feeley missed three game-winning field goals, one to end regulation and two in overtime.
One thing you have to say is that Tom Coughlin’s decision to play full-bore for the ‘meaningless’ win the last day of the season against New England was the right decision. Going the distance against the undefeated Pats juggernaut clearly gave this team a confidence boost, and now they face the Patriots feeling quite reasonably like they can take them. I’m doubtful that they will, not least because it’s nearly impossible to beat a demonstrably better team in the playoffs with an unreliable kicker. But there’s time yet for hope.

The Big Spread

Seriously, did you ever expect to see a team that was (1) the defending Super Bowl champs, (2) undefeated 7 weeks into the season, (3) playing at home, (4) against a team they beat in the playoffs the previous year, (5) who just lost their leading rusher for the season…and be a 5-6 point underdog?
I’m not saying the oddsmakers are crazy, given how the Patriots have played this season, but it remains an astonishing set of circumstances. As for the “Game of the Century” hype…um, don’t we expect these same two teams to likely meet again in the playoffs?

Bill Belichick’s Patriot Act

No, especially after reading KSK’s take I couldn’t resist that title.
The news that Jets coach Eric Mangini caught Bill Belichick in the act of stealing the Jets’ defensive signals via video camera in violation of NFL rules presents a number of interesting issues. For obvious reasons, the NFL isn’t going to go back and start forfeiting games or kick Belichick out of the league, but the penalty does have to be real and stiff to discourage this sort of thing from happening; the NFL has talked about docking the team draft picks, and a first round pick would be a sufficiently stiff penalty that it should be included. And yes, the penalty should fall on the team as a whole, since this was an operation involving multiple people from the head coach on down for the benefit of the club.
Sign-stealing has a long pedigree, of course, and in baseball we have the now-notorious example (only unearthed 50 years later) of the 1951 Giants’ elaborate surveillance operation. But while baseball has mostly treated it as a venial sin and one that carries no penalty if you aren’t caught red-handed (as the Patriots here were) it strikes me as being a more serious issue in football, given the elaborate nature of the play-calling process in today’s game.
At the same time, I’m not so quick to jump on the bandwagon of people trying to strip the legitimacy of the Patriots’ titles; as is often the case with these things, you start doing that and it raises the issue of who else got away with what that was never known or suspected.
Probably the biggest lesson of the whole affair is that you should never use dirty tricks against people who used to work for you and know your M.O. “The Mangenius” knew Belichick’s tricks from having worked for the Pats; if Belichick expected Mangini to keep quiet out of an unspoken code of loyalty, he shouldn’t have tried the same thing against Mangini’s team.
Oh, and: don’t mess with a guy who knows Tony Soprano.

Look For The Union Mug Shot

ESPN’s Howard Bryant pens an uncommonly silly but revealing column arguing that the NFL Players Union should have put up a major fight to defend Michael Vick precisely because his conduct was, in Bryant’s word, “indefensible.”
Leaving aside for the moment the question of how serious Vick’s conduct was and whether it ought to be a federal crime, Bryant’s attitude is precisely what is wrong with many unions:

In the coming years, that will prove to be a colossal mistake. Vick deserves to go to prison, but the union’s job is to defend every player’s right to work.
The Major League Baseball Players Association, built and sustained by Marvin Miller, Donald Fehr and three generations of resolute players, long ago answered the question of defending the indefensible. The multiple drug abuse cases of Steve Howe, the spitting incident of Roberto Alomar and most recently the way the players association has handled much of the steroids era have served as examples of a union not finding itself on the right or popular side of an issue and at risk of damaging its public image. The rationale was this: How you fight today sets the parameters for the battles of tomorrow.


The responsibility of a union is to defend its membership — every time, all the time, if for no other reasons than to send a dissenting vote to management that its membership always will be protected by a strong union and to alert the commissioner that his powers always will be checked by an advocate for the players. The union’s message should be that a commissioner cannot simply do whatever he wants.


So the union has an understanding that it won’t be blindsided by a runaway commissioner, adopting a position closer to equity shareholder than skeptical watchdog. It has labor peace and can take comfort in not worrying about losing public goodwill during contract years or losing face should its membership crack during pressurized labor negotiations. The union seems comforted that it is treated as an inside player instead of a hostile entity. But what good is maintaining the peace if it is not accompanied by power?

There are many fair arguments to be had for the pros and cons of unionizing for the purpose of better wages, benefits and working conditions. But those are general benefits, obtained by the whole union to benefit the whole union.
By contrast, when a union goes to bat for an accused or proven miscreant, or for that matter for its most incompetent or insubordinate employees or to otherwise block management’s efforts to reward the better performers and weed out those who don’t do the job, it is using the strength of the many to benefit the few – and indeed, to benefit those few who least deserve it. That’s antithetical to the entire idea of unions as a collective effort to benefit everyone, and perversely rewards wrongdoers. And of course, it harms the business from which the union’s members derive their livelihoods.
A union may think, as Don Fehr does, that you never give in to management on something management wants unless you get something in return. But that is a misunderstanding born of hubris. In fact, a union, like any other contestant in an ongoing power struggle, has only limited resources: only so much money, only so much time and attention from its leaders, lawyers and members, only so many battles it can fight without triggering an irrational response from management or draining the resources ofthe business as a whole (and thus shrinking the pie), only so many concessions it can extract. A union that prioritizes fighting for the protection of members who are criminals is expending resources that could be used to benefit members who actually stay out of trouble and do their jobs. A union that extracts concessions of that nature is failing to extract others that may be more evenly enjoyed.
Unions, especially private sector unions, have been in trouble for a while in this country, losing footholds in organizing and seeing the industries they dominate weaken. There are many reasons for this, but if there’s a single characteristic of unions that is most unattractive and most gratuitously damaging to the businesses that employ them, it is the determination to go to the mat for members of the union who misbehave or don’t perform at their jobs.


My kids hate Michael Vick. Not, mind you, because of anything he did on or off the field, but simply because on vacation, every time they turned on ESPN to get baseball news, they instead got The Passion of the Vick, repeated endlessly. (Two summers ago it was the same with Terrell Owens).
Vick’s deal is no cakewalk – a likely 12-18-month sentence plus possible state charges carrying stiffer fines. In fact, I don’t know if I would have let him plead to the federal charges given the state exposure. Although I can’t say I see what point there is to the state getting involved once he has plead to a federal felony; is Virginia really that short on crimes to prosecute?
Apparently, Vick is cooperating with an ongoing investigation of other dogfighting rings, so analysts like Roger Cossack were wrong in assuming that he had nothing more to offer once his co-defendants pleaded out. But even if he was the last man standing, Vick had two key chips to play. First, if the investigation really had ended with him, there’s the benefit to the prosecutors of being able to close a case and close it successfully – move on to other things, wrap up without a defeat or a messy, labor-intensive trial.
And second, Vick’s plea legitimizes his prosecution – not a minor thing when a man has lined up the NAACP and similar groups to charge racism and witch-hunting in the bringing of the investigation. Having the man stand up and accept responsibility goes a long way in that regard.

McGovern’s Book

Sooner or later I will have to read “All American: Why I Believe in Football, God, and the War in Iraq,” by Ropb McGovern, a lawyer, former NFL player, and graduate of Holy Cross and of my high school’s arch-rivals Bergen Catholic who left the Manhattan DA’s office after September 11 to become a JAG lawyer in Afghanistan and Iraq (I linked to an interview with him here).

One Ring To…

New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft’s wife on how Vladimir Putin ended up with Kraft’s Super Bowl ring:

As Kraft tells it, she and her husband were in St. Petersburg with Sandy Weill, then the chairman of Citigroup Inc., their “good friend” the media mogul Rupert Murdoch, an oil executive, and a physician. That group, all except for Kraft, met at Konstantinovsky Palace with the Russian president, and when she next saw her husband in their hotel room, he confessed he had a problem. “They were getting up for formal pictures, and Sandy said to Robert, ‘Why don’t you show the president your ring?'” she says. “So Robert never wears the ring, [but] sometimes, in certain instances, he’ll have it in his pocket, he’ll take it out. Putin put it on his finger, and his first comment was ‘I could kill someone with this,’ which was a little bit of an unusual comment, and then they took pictures, and Putin put it back in his pocket and walked out.”
Then the fuss began. The story leaked to the media, and Robert Kraft issued a statement: “I decided to give him the ring as a symbol of the respect and admiration that I have for the Russian people and the leadership of President Putin.”
Myra Kraft even has an explanation for the official story. “Sandy called and said, ‘You’ve got to do something to put this at rest,’ so Robert said ‘fine’ and came up with some statement about the warm fuzzy feelings he had being in Russia. Of course, his forebears were probably raped and pillaged by these people, but Robert had to make it sound good,” she says. “That’s what it is. And so he got another one.”

The article also has some Holy Cross-related anecdotes, for those of you who are interested.

The Blind Side

Just in case you may have considered not reading Michael Lewis’ The Blind Side, I’m here to tell you to reconsider. The Blind Side is one of the best sports books I’ve ever read.
Like Lewis’ previous books Liar’s Poker (about Salomon Brothers in the 1980s) and Moneyball (about the Oakland A’s in the past decade), The Blind Side is fundamentally a book about markets and how they interact with the people whose unique skills or insights are suddenly made valuable by those markets. In this case, it’s the market for NFL left tackles who protect the end of the line of scrimmage on a right-handed quarterback’s blind side from increasingly quick and dangerous pass rushers. Lewis starts his tale with a (literally) shattering anecdote, recounting in stop-motion detail Lawrence Taylor’s legendary hit on Joe Theismann and noting that the Redskins’ star left tackle, Joe Jacoby, was on the sidelines that night. Lewis then details the rapid rise of left tackle salaries and the ripple effect that has had on the position all the way down to high school.
Wrapped inside a book about markets, however, is a second story – a unique coming of age story that takes over the narrative. Lewis follows Michael Oher, a 16-year-old African-American kid from the worst possible part of Memphis who arrives, Tarzan-like, at an overwhelmingly white Christian school with nothing but the ideal physical size and gifts to be an NFL left tackle. And I do mean nothing: no family, no home, no education, no money, no background in organized sports, no medical history – but also, perhaps surprisingly given his background, no boiling anger, no criminal record, no bad habits. The kid was just a complete cipher. It’s an amazing testament to the generosity of his neighbors that a kid who never knew where his next meal was coming from somehow made his way to 350 pounds of mostly muscle by age 16.
I’ve been told by more careful watchers of the NFL that Lewis has a few factual details wrong – names misspelled, dates wrong. As a narrative, the only false note in the book is a chapter entitled “Death of a Lineman,” which ends with the early death from cancer of 49ers guard John Ayers; while Ayers’ story fits neatly into Lewis’ narrative, his death really has nothing to do with nothing, and feels tacked on for surplus emotion (perhaps it would have felt less so if not for the chapter title).
This book may be less significant than Moneyball, in that it’s far less likely to stir new debate in the NFL, but it’s a great yarn full of laugh-out-loud “wow” moments (I may be biased because I went into Moneyball knowing more of the story). On the other hand, Lewis does also manage to bring in more of the world outside football through his examination of a Memphis neighborhood that is staggering even by the standards of urban poverty.
Lewis was a childhood friend of Sean Touhy, the Memphis businessman who takes Oher under his wing, and so this is the second outstanding book that Lewis essentially fell into, the first being Liar’s Poker, which came out of Lewis’ own tenure working at Salomon Brothers. That said, he’s a tremendous writer and it’s a tale worth the telling.

Super Bowl XLI

Peyton Manning seemed to spend much of last night with a look on his face that said, “hey, nobody told me the Super Bowl was going to be this wet!” Then again, that’s better than Rex Grossman’s look of “hey, those cars are coming at me really fast.”
On the whole, from what I was able to see, it was a pretty solid game, not one of the greatest or most well-played Super Bowls but the outcome stayed in doubt into the fourth quarter, which is good. And it was worth it to see Manning finally win it just to hear the grinding of gears by sportswriters suddenly switching directions after years of branding him with the scarlet “L”.
I have to think that one beneficiary of Manning’s victory is Eli. Now, Eli has plenty of problems, but one less is having the burden of thinking that even if he got as good as his brother that still would never be enough to silence the critics, the boo birds, etc. This season, Eli can go back to worrying about living up to his family, not living down to it.

Quick Links 1/30/07

*The Schottenheimer Playoff Coaching Index!
*From the same source: Rick Mirer, the worst NFL QB ever. Note that the list also includes Danny Kanell, Scott Brunner, Kerry Collins, Dave Brown, and Kent Graham.
*Via Instapundit, the Top Ten Iraq War Myths.
*In one January strike, the Iraqis brought down the highest ranking casualties of the war. (Confirmed here). One hopes this was just a coincidence and not a sign of inflitration or other compromising of our operational intelligence.
*John Kerry finally gets good press – in Iran’s state-run media. I had more on his latest foot-in-mouth episode at RedState yesterday, including links to other sources. The most charitable reading of all this is that Kerry really is an idiot.
*Jimmy Carter backs off the implication that suicide bombing is a legitimate tactic that need not be stopped until the Israelis make certain concessions.
*Israeli PM Ehud Olmert on Iran. (A government that now includes a Muslim cabinet member – don’t hold your breath for a Christian or Jew in the regimes of Israel’s enemies).
*Did Barack Obama choose to run in 2008 rather than wait longer because a run now would be easier on his children, ages 5 and 8?
*Obi-Wan’s cloak for sale!