Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Rambling Thoughts on the NHL and NBA Playoffs

I haven't even talked about the NBA and NHL playoffs since they started two weeks ago, and that is a mistake. So far, they have both been brilliant. Honestly, both sports are in  great shape right now. For the 2nd straight year, the NHL playoffs started a bit late (last year it was because of the lockout, this year the Olympic Break), making the two playoffs run essentially concurrently. That makes it so much better. Since the NBA schedules way too many two-day-breaks, very soon the NBA will lag behind, but for right now, with 2-3 NBA games and 2-4 NHL games a night, this is heaven.

** Just a note, I'm not touching this Donald Sterling thing. I'm happy a piece of shit has been banned from the NBA. I'm glad he was finally publicly exposed as the scum he was. Of course, he should have been exposed as such a while earlier, but that doesn't matter anymore. He's gone, and the NBA is a better place for it **

  • The NHL playoffs had added juice this year because of the Realignment, with essentially regions like March Madness. Of course, because of some strange Wild Card rules, we can teams from one division win the other, but this year only one team fit that spot, the Stars, who have since been eliminated. Still, the realignment hung over this postseason, which is nice since...
  • I love this new playoff format. Is it unfair that the Bruins have to play Montreal and not New York/Philadelphia (as they would in teh old format)? Sure, but in the NBA that happens all the time. The NHL is unique in that it reseeded a 16-team tournament after the first round. The NBA doesn't. Plus, if the Bruins are that good (and they are), then they'll beat whoever anyway.
  • The NHL Realignment has also become a nice converse example for hte people that say we should seed playoffs 1-16 regardless of division/conference. The reason you don't is because it removes rivalries. This new division format was created to get rivalries to play in the playoffs each season. Well, we already have that.The Bruins get to play Montreal. We already have Flyers vs. Rangers, and the winner gets Pittsburgh, both rivalries. Same with whoever gets Chicago in Minnesota or Colorado (who are continuing their own long-standing rivalry), and then either the Kings or Sharks against hte Ducks will make another great rivalry. Honestly, this format created four awesome 2nd rounds.
  • My favorite series from a viewer standpoint was Chicago vs. St. Louis. First, both were really good teams, netting 107 and 111 points, which is crazy for a 1st round matchup. The Blackhawks play arguably the most focused, skilled game in the NHL, but with size and depth. They're essentially a perfect team, but that Blues group shed their normal defensive trappings and engaged the Hawks. It made for an awesome series, didn't it? Four of the six games went to OT. Just great stuff.
  • Honestly, all the Western Conference series were, have been, great. Colorado vs. Minnesota has been a rivalry in the past, but this has raised that. There is serious bad blood between those teams, most notably with Matt Cooke taking a run at Tyson Barrie. It's a little odd watching Zach Parise play for another team, but there are ex-Devils littering a lot of rosters. What's more fun is watching this young Avalanche team just continue to surpass their ETA. My God, is Nathan MacKinnon awesome.
  • Finally, as a quasi-Sharks fan who has been predicting success for them since 2004, I'm obviously nervous. Watching them whip the Sharks and embarrass Jonathan Quick in the first two games was fun, but Quick's become what he was in 2012 the last two games. Now, the Sharks have been here before in the positive sense. Three years ago, they blew a 3-0 lead to the Red Wings, and then won in Game 7, and they were probably less trusted and mroe pressured then than now.
  • Since I'm in Mexico right now and the East games start when I'm still at work, I haven't seen too much of them, but I am really excited for Montreal vs. Boston. There's obviously bad blood, but also some recent matchup advantages for the Canadiens. The Bruins are a machine right now, but rarely does that last in teh Stanley Cup Playoffs.
  • I still think teh Blackhawks are the best team now that they're healthy - and my God, are Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane healthy, but the Ducks might have the highest ceiling. There's obviously concern since thheir collection of goalies are all untested, but they're as deep as any team in the NHL, and arguably as talented as they were when they won the Cup in 2007. Quietly, they finished just one point behind Boston for the best record in the NHL. The Stars were a bad matchup, but I think they'll beat either the Kings or Sharks.

  • As I'm in Mexico for the NBA playoffs as well, I've also seen far more of the Western playoffs, but this time it is also out of pure interest. The East Playoffs have been terrible. The only team to play up to its level (other than Washington, I guess), is Miami and seeing them be Miami is never fun. I do think the winner of  Toronto vs. Brooklyn will give them a good series. I know people love to discount the Nets 4-0 record against the Heat this year, partially because three of the wins were by a point, but the last two examples of one team having a very good record against the other might portend something bad for the Heat. First was the Warriors beating the Mavericks in 2007 after winning the season series 3-1, and then the Grizzlies over the Spurs in 2011 after winning that series 3-1.
  • It's staggering what happened to the Pacers. I get that they built their 18-1 start off a cupcake schedule, but even in their 2nd half malaise their defense remained good, and in their single biggest game of the season, home against Miami, they won. Now they can't even play with the Hawks, even on the defensive side? My guess is Vogel loses his job, but I don't think he's close to the problem. Those players just can't play with each other anymore, and have proven themselves to be the most fragile team in recent memory.
  • OK, let;s go to the main event, teh West. Four series, and they're all good. I'll start with the worst series, the one with all the controversy and the one currently in teh midst of Game 5. It may be 2-2, but it has also featured some staggeringly one-sided games. I have no idea who will win this series, but I can't see either team beating Memphis/OKC, who are both 60-win teams had they been healthy all year. The Warriors don't have the size without Bogut,and really, with Big Baby MIA right now, neither do the Clips.
  • Speaking of OKC-Memphis, the XXXXXXXXXXXXX just won Game 5
  • The Spurs lucked out by having their half of the bracket fall perfectly, other than the Rockets who they are 0-4 against, though it should be said they weren't at 100% in any of those games. The Spurs, of course, have to beat Dallas first. Obviously, they dodged a major bullet in Game 4 by holding their nerve after blowing a 20-point lead, and I still think they win the series, but their falling into the same trap the 2011 and 2012 Spurs did in teh playoffs, namely their bench guys failing. The biggest culprit so far has been Danny Green. They'll need him somewhere to make their run.
  • Honestly, Rick Carlisle is the 2nd best coach in the NBA. No one thought the Mavericks would win two games in this series, not with them being so outmatched and with their roster having a glaring lack of players that like playing defense. Yet, in four games, they've held the Spurs below their season average. There's a reason he's the coach of the only team to beat the Heat in The Decision era.
  • Finally, let's get to my favorite series, which is Portland vs. Houston. They are both such fun teams to watch, the Rockets in a 'if they just had a coach they should win by 50' way, and in a 'how is Harden this good - remember when he was ON OKC!!!' way, and the Blazers in a 'man is this team fun' way, and in a 'Damian Lillard is a God' way, and in a Wes Matthews and Nicolas Batum have been really good for a long time and they're finally getting a chance to make the 2nd round way. Love both crowds in that series too. I wouldn't be happy if that series doesn't go 7.

I'll probably do picks for both NBA and NHL 2nd rounds and beyond, and I can't wait for hte sakes to be even more raised, but I don't think I have ever appreciated the dual NBA/NHL playoffs like this before, man they are a treat.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Tak-Tiks for Tiki-Takas a.k.a. has Pep ruined Bayern and Everything Else

*Yes, I know this is my 4th straight post about soccer. First off, I feel that it fits since this is primarily a football blog. Second, there are some really interesting developments going on right now (that and the Zizou piece was a total one-off that was related to nothing). In the end, as the calendar turns to May there will be a lot more on the NBA and NHL playoffs, but for now, futbol rules the roost*

Ahead of the 2014 World Cup, World Football is entering an interesting time. We have our great players, our great teams, but maybe more than anytime since the heyday of Total Football, great tactics seem to be the largest topic in the sport. This tactical revolution is rooted in Total Football, but really starts with one man, a man who conquered the football world, then was conquered by it, and is now trying to do it all over again. The problem, for Pep Guardiola, is the cycle is a lot faster this time.

Tiki-Taka football was not invented by Pep Guardiola's Barcelona teams. They just perfected it, a style of intricate short passing, and movement, preached to players at Barcelona from their earliest days in La Masia to the elder statesmen on the club. It worked wonderfully during Guardiola's reign at Barca, concluding in four La Liga titles, and two Champions League wins. It helped that Pep had Leo Messi and helped further that he had Xavi and Iniesta, two of the smartest, most brilliant passers the sport has seen.

Pep's Barcelona team changed the way we look at football. When he first unleashed it on the world, most really in the 2009-10 season (as in the 2008-09 season they still blended some more conventional tactics with using Henry as a true #9, and Eto'o alongside him - evidenced by them barely winning time of possession in the final against Manchester United), no one was really ready to see possession splits of 70-30, but Barcelona did it. They were able to retain possession, pass the ball around until a defender got out of his lane, and then instantly recognize it, catch the mistake, feed the ball and score. It was a simple system, but they ran it at a PhD level.

Like in all sports, it seems offenses are ahead of defenses, but only for so long. Eventually, teams kind of figured it out. The main teams to do it early on all had a common tie: Jose Mourinho, and all had a stylistic tie of 'parking the bus', The first team roundly criticized for this defensive tactic was Chelsea in teh 2009 Champions League Semifinal, a tie they should have won if Tom Henning Ovrebo gave one of four very legitimate, some absurdly obvious, penalty appeals to Chelsea in the 2nd leg. In the first leg, Chelsea played 10 men behind the ball, and anytime they got possession, they just kicked it the length of the field and told Barcelona to start the tiki-taka process over again. What was their result: they became the first team that season to hold Barca scoreless at the Camp Nou.

The first team to expose Barca was Inter Milan in 2010, coached by Jose Mourinho. They did much of the same that Chelsea did, losing the possession battle 65-35, but countered so ruthlessly they won the first leg 3-1, and could have won it 5-1 with better finishing. Mourinho's Real Madrid teams over time did the same thing and got better at it. They only once lost to Barcelona by more than a goal (a 5-0 loss where they tried to play with Barcelona), and drew the plurality of their games against each other.

Finally, there was last year's nadir for tiki-taka, when Bayern Munich, despite losing the possession battle 68-32 and 65-35 in the two legs, won 7-0 on aggregate, attempted way more shots on goal, and even won more corners. They cracked the code. Of course, at that point Pep Guardiola was already hired to take over from a (forced-into-an-early) retiring Jupp Heynckes, so in one year Bayern became essentially the same version of the team they beat 7-0, and guess what, despite historic domestic success (never a problem at Barcelona), they've struggled in Europe.

The antithesis to all of this is the 'parking the bus' phenomenon. I didn't follow soccer as much pre-Big-4 era in England (started earnestly in 04-05), but the first time I heard the phrase was regarding Chelsea in 2009. I heard it much more with Inter Milan, especially when Barca players essentially accused Inter of doing it, and then in how teams tried to attack Spain in that World Cup. It's never really left the sport's lexicon, but it has become more and more apparent: it is the best, and arguably only true, way to successfully play a tiki-taka team, and it's gone from being something to an act of desperation, to a legitimate strategy to have a better than 50-50 chance of beating them.

The key to beating Barca, or what Bayern has become, is defend like hell. Well, that conversely, becomes easier the more you give up possession. If you clog passing lanes, the other team retains possession but it makes it harder for them to do anything like it. The more you deny them easy passing lanes, the more people they bring forward, and then the easier it is to counter-attack against a out-of-place defense. It is a beautiful little push-pull equation that works best when parking the bus. Case in point is the most recent two examples, Athletico's 1-0 win over Barcelona knocking them out of the Champions League, and Real Madrid's 1-0 win over Bayern which pushes the defenders to the brink.

In both games, the losing team had more tan 70% of possession, despite playing the game on the road. Also, in both games, the losing team had fewer shots on goal. In both games, the loser, the one with all the possession could have easily lost far worse. In both games, the winning team 'parked the bus' (though Athletico presses more than most), but was ruthless going forward when they could. In fact, Real Madrid is probably the best in the world at it, with four skilled attacking players that make any counter instantly terrifying. They are a perfect Carlo Ancelotti team, and a perfect foil to the tiki-taka.

Pep Guardiola has come under fire at Bayern, despite the dominant domestic season, due to the struggles in Europe. And there's good reason for it. Tiki-Taka is a very foreign type of play in Germany, whose style is mostly straight attacking and defense. Tiki-taka was also the style that was so thoroughly dominated by the best version of the German style last year in the Semifinals. True, Pep Guardiola was not the coach of Barcelona last year, but that didn't matter. It was still Pep's style (and in Tito Villanova, his right-hand man coaching the team), and Bayern destroyed it, countering with such ruthless effectiveness they beat Barca by a worse score than Barca beat anyone else in the Messi era.

Pep inherited that team, but placed on it his style. Because the style works to some degree, and because Bayern is talented enough, they still dominated in Germany, but now that they're playing a team that is built to beat Tiki-Taka, people are calling for Pep to lay off imposing Tiki-Taka values on this powerful Bavarian machine. And I can see why, just like Real Madrid is now, Bayern is built, on personnel, like a team that should not be playing tiki-taka but anhillating it. Their strength on offense is not intricate passing and triangles and piercing through balls. Apart from Ribery, and possibly Toni Kroos, Bayern does not have those players. Bayern has players that have talents in speed, size and attack.

Pep's style has negated the effectiveness of Mario Mandzukic, Thomas Muller, Mario Goetze, and, most worrying, Bastian Schweinsteiger. Pep's style is forcing those players to play to something that isn't their strength. It still could work, and I'm a little hasty in writing this as Bayern is still very much alive in next week's return leg, but signs that Pep may already be wearing out his welcome at Bayern is a sign of the growing acceptance of tiki-taka not being the best possible way to play.

Like any sport, the tactical evolution of football is always changing. When tiki-taka first came about, it was overwhelming on opponents. No one came close to Spain in the 2008 Euro and 2010 World Cup, same with Barcelona in 2009 or 2011 (with Inter being the one example). Soon, the other side adjusted, playing smarter and more efficient, conceding more and more possession if it led to aimless passing and greater opportunities to counter with a numbers advantage. Soon, teams that beat Pep's Barca weren't called lucky and inferior and guilty of playing negative football, they were called better, starting with Jose's Real Madrid in 2011-12, to Chelsea in the 2012 Champions League Semifinal, to Bayern last year to Atletico this year. I can't wait to see what the next turn in the tactics are, especially since the National equivalent, Spain, is probably at their weakest in a decade ahead of the World Cup. Pep will have an answer, it might not be at Bayern though. And ironically, when Pep does develop that answer, if he's at another place, there's no one better than Bayern itself to answer back.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Thoughts on the 2014 NFL Schedule

So, I haven’t written about the NFL since that thing that happened last February happened. Anyway, with the schedule just being released, I thought it would be an interesting time for me to at least give my thoughts on the schedule. I thought about writing a Free Agency related post, but thenthe Pats signed Revis , assuring themselves an 19-0 season scoring 607 points and allowing 199, so why bother. Anyway, now to the schedule.

The schedule hasn’t changed in makeup this much since 2006, when ESPN took over the MNF schedule, NBC took of the SNF slate, and the league started Thursday Night Football on NFL Network in the 2nd half of the season (yes, Thursday Night Football has been around that long). The next change was in 2012, when the NFL started airing Thursday Night Games all season long. This season doesn’t have any giant changes, but changes the landscaping of who’s broadcasting what.

This season, CBS takes over from NFL Network for the first half of the season. They also add a Saturday Doubleheader, putting a game on Saturday for the first time in three years. Then, in the oddest change, the NFL adds the layer of cross-flexing games between CBS and FOX, allowing CBS to air games normally aired on FOX and vice-versa. Chances are this won’t come up during the season, but it is already shown in the released schedule. The most obvious example is the Lions hosting the Bears on Thanksgiving on CBS (instead of the Bills or Dolphins).Another is a Redskins @ 49ers game midseason. The final change will only show up in the playoffs, but ESPN will air a playoff game for the first time ever, taking a Wild Card Game from NBC, who in return gets a Divisional Game to strip away from either FOX or CBS.

Anyway, let’s go to schedule itself:

  • CBS and the NFL claimed that the CBS part of the TNF schedule would have some marquee matchups and not the usual Thursday fare. Well, mission accomplished? They certainly got games that have one key selling point: they are all divisional matchups. Those games, supposedly are more intense, and they definitely will have built in storylines, even though few of them feature the league’s top teams, and none feature two of them. Only one features two playoff teams (Chargers @ Broncos), and a few look quite uneven (Vikings @ Packers, Colts @ Texans). On the face, it is better than what NFL Network was dealing with last year, but it really isn’t that much better.

  • As for ESPN, it’s nice that they get that playoff game, but with even more primetime games to compete with, and a Network getting 8 of them, they will never get a slate worth what they’re paying. I will say that the schedule does look better than normal. Only a few of the games seem very uninteresting: Texans @ Steelers, Steelers @ Titans, Patriots @ Jets, and some other don’t seem great but are either divisional games or have nice angles, like Seahawks @ Redskins (Wilson vs. Griffin). Then they get a nice set of really interesting games, like Eagles @ Colts in Week 2, Panthers @ Eagles, or Saints @ Bears, and a potentially massive Week 16 game with the Broncos @ Bengals. Not a great haul for ESPN, but better than most years.

  • As usual, Sunday Night Football is absolutely loaded. NBC, as a network, has so many problems right now, but Sunday Night Football, the highest-rated television program each year ever since they took it over in 2006. Let’s go Week by Week, because just breaking this down will get me in Football Mode.

o   Season Kickoff: NBC saved the 49ers and Seahawks rivalry for a later date and didn’t want to put on a Super Bowl rematch. Instead, the first meeting since the Fail Mary. Great, great way to start the season. Rating: 10/10
o   Week 1: Colts @ Broncos: Considering Manning’s already finished his first game against the Colts, and since this is in Denver, there is a chance that this is the blowout everyone expected last year, but still you can’t beat these storylines. Rating: 9/10
o   Week 2: Bears @ 49ers: Big for the first ever game at the new Stadium for the 49ers, and they get a good opponent. The Bears had a good offseason, so they could be a really dangerous team. Good test for the 49ers. Rating: 8/10
o   Week 3: Steelers @ Panthers: This is probably the worst SNF game of the season, and considering the Panthers offseason losses, they might be really evenly matched after all. Anyway, not a great game. Rating: 5/10
o   Week 4: Saints @ Cowboys: Well at least they avoided having this game in New Orleans, which would promptly be a 45-10 blowout. The last two times they met in Dallas, they were two excellent games. Hopefully we get another. Rating: 7/10
o   Week 5: Bengals @ Patriots: Patriots home games in primetime are either really good or terrible, with no inbetween, but this has the chances to be good. A playoff game that everyone (me) wanted last season gets played months later. Could be a good game, but certainly an intriguing matchup. Rating: 9/10
o   Week 6: Giants @ Eagles: My top two competitors for the NFC East crown in the first of only three NFC East matchps! We all have NFC East fatigue. At least when they come late in the season there’s often playoff implications, especially since all four teams are destined to finish between 6-10 and 10-6. Rating: 6/10
o   Week 7: 49ers @ Broncos: My word, this should be fun. Peyton hasn’t played the 49ers since 2009, which was a previous lifetime ago for the 49ers (same is true for all the NFC West teams he’s playing this year, I guess). Great tactical game. Rating: 9/10
o   Week 8: Packers @ Saints: A very good game on paper, but then we remember that the Saints are wont to blow the doors off opponents in home primetime games. The Packers under Aaron Rodgers aren’t even innocent, losing 51-29 to them in 2008. Rating: 6/10
o   Week 9: Ravens @ Steelers: Great rivalry, but having both of them in primetime is a little much (not to mention  something I’m surprised CBS gave up). Anyway, chances are it’s a 3-point game or whatever, but my how things change in three years. Rating: 7/10
o   Week 10: Bears @ Packers: Last year, when these two teams met, Aaron Rodgers was injured almost ruining their season. Well, assuming that doesn’t happen, this should be a nice game between two high-powered offenses and two bad defenses. Rating: 8/10
o   Week 11: Patriots @ Colts: Pats & Colts in November? Sign me up. The Colts are better positioned to beat them in Indianapolis, and this is one of the few stadiums Tom Brady has yet to win in. Sure, that’s because he’s only played one game, but whatever. Rating: 9/10
o   Week 12: Cowboys @ Giants: The Cowboys and Giants could either be in the thick of the playoff race, or one will be way ahead of the other. Either way, this is the first game that could be flexed but won’t because it is an NFC East game. Rating: 7/10
o   Thanksgiving: Seahawks @ 49ers: Well then, after being nasty AFC rivalries the last two years, we get a nasty rivalry between the NFC’s best two teams in recent times. What a game this could be. Also, do the Harbaugh’s just hate their families to keep wanting these Thanksgiving games. Rating: 10/10
o   Week 13: Broncos @ Chiefs: It was a fun rivalry last year when the Chiefs started 9-0, but if you look at the Chiefs schedule this year, it is pretty clear they won’t be 9-0 entering this one, making it a little, less fun. Rating: 6/10
o   Week 14: Patriots @ Chargers: The game that started the NFL’s path to greatness was when the Chargers met the Patriots in Week 2 in 2007, the Week after Spygate. They’ve played some good games over the years. Here’s hoping this is another one. Rating 8/10
o   Week 15: Cowboys @ Eagles: What a difference one year makes, as the only NFC East team not in primetime is the Redskins. Anyway, this could have playoff implications. Rating: 7/10
o   Week 16: Seahawks @ Cardinals: The NFC West is too tough and too hard to forecast that this could be a game that decides the NFC West or it could be one where only one team is battling for another, or as odd as it may seem, a game with two teams fighting for their playoff lives. Who knows? Rating: 8/10

  • Finally let’s get to the playoff angle in this. ESPN gets one of NBC’s playoff games. NBC gets a Divisional Game, alternating NFC and AFC each year. However, since we don’t know what timeslots each get, I have no idea what will happen, but here is a guess. First guess is NBC takes a CBS Divisional Game this year, as last year they gave CBS both the late game on Saturday and Sunday in Divisional Weekend, so CBS has the misfortunate of being gifted last year with favorable timings. Then, I think ESPN gets the late Sunday game for Wild Card Weekend, and NBC gets the late Saturday game. Now, it could change each year, but the reason I feel this way is if they each get one of the Saturday games, the late Sunday would basically automatically be given to the network that loses the divisional game. Meaning say this year CBS gets the late Sunday game, FOX gets the early game, but what if one of the NFC teams hosting a game is an western team, then either NBC or ESPN has to get that game. Basically, networks like to have options, so my way leaves a lot of options, especially since there is no real difference between the early Sunday and 4:30 PM Saturday spots for playoff games.

Should be a fun year overall. Can’t wait, only 19 weeks, to the day, until the Packers and Seahawks kick it off.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Moyes and Stability

David Moyes was fired yesterday. Not exactly surprising given that Manchester United is 7th in the Premier League, meaning they’ll miss out on Champions League play for the first time in over 20 years, and the first time they will drop below 3rd since 1990-91 (which is staggering). To make matters even worse, the team that Moyes came from is currently in a fight for 4th, to get that last Champions League spot (Arsenal is one point ahead), a good 12 points above Manchester United, having just beaten them 2-0 over the past weekend. There was little chance David Moyes was going to survive, given that this team, with largely the same roster, won the Premier League easily last year, but should he have survived, is there a place for stability in world football, or any sport?

Replacing Sir Alex Ferguson was never going to be an easy job. He’s easily the most accomplished club manager in history, given the size of the sport now to what it used to be. He’s had some luck in both his Champions League wins (coming back from 0-1 down in the last five minutes against Bayern in 1999, and having John Terry slip and pull a penalty wide to save Manchester against Chelsea in 2008), but he’s still won that competition twice, while reaching two other finals. There’s nothing he hadn’t done. He transformed that club to the largest brand in football outside of Real Madrid. He left a gaping hole. Moyes was probably doomed to fail from the beginning.

Moyes was an interesting choice from the start. His real training for the job was a mildly successful 10 year run at Everton, where they were always in that 10-5 range, once finishing 4th and qualifying for the Champions League. They once made the FA Cup Final, losing to Chelsea. Part of his connection to Manchester United was a relationship with Wayne Rooney, who the club wanted to convince to stay. Well, if Moyes accomplished anything, it was that, as Rooney is locked up to a giant contract. Sadly, that’s all he accomplished.

I don’t know enough about Everton to say what type of football Moyes liked his teams to play, but whatever it was, it didn’t work with the United players, especially the older ones. There are 10-year veterans on United that have only played under Sir Alex, like Giggs, Evra, Vidic, Rooney at their time in United. They were entrenched in that style that proved ultra-successful, and they were slow to adapt and slower to accept the changes Moyes wanted to make. If anything, Moyes’ biggest failing was not getting the support of the elder players, a trickle-down problem that permeated across the club. He’s now gone, and someone new will come in, likely someone with a little more clout than Moyes had. Who knows if it works, but all I know is that after being the most stable club in Europe, they’ve basically thrown that all away.

To turn it back stateside, Marvin Lewis, coach of the Bengals, is entering his 12th year as the Head Coach of the Bengals, despite never winning a playoff game in his previous eleven. His teams have made the playoffs five times in those 11 seasons, and only twice lost more than 10 games. In the history of the Bengals this is a good run of success, especially considering the decade prior to Lewis’s hiring. That said, in a league where the average lifespan of a coach in 3 years, it is staggering that Lewis still has a job. Some say it is due to owner Mike Brown being too cheap to pay Lewis in firing him, but I think the larger reason is they want consistency.

Marvin Lewis commands respect for that team. He’s given the Bengals a stable base for a decade. There is value to that. Can the Bengals win a Super Bowl with Lewis? Maybe, but probably not. Can they stay competitive? Yes. Will they stay competitive replacing him? Maybe, but maybe not. The Bengals took 12 years to find a coach that could last after Sam Wyche left, and they’ve held on to him. I respect them for that, and for the Steelers keeping Cowher after missing the playoffs three years in a row from 1998-2000, or for the Titans for keeping Jeff Fisher all those years. Stability matters in sports.

In a way, Lewis’s time in Cincinnati is a good comparison for Moyes at Everton, but Manchester United is not Everton. They didn’t want to wait for Moyes to build something, but who can build something that quickly. The hottest coaches right now are Jurgen Klopp and Diego Simeone, both have essentially turned the job down for now. Next in line are guys like Louis van Gaal, who has never been one for consistency, or Laurent Blanc, who is untested but been successful. But where is the proof that the next guy will be the answer. European Football is every bit as quick in coaching hiring and firing as the NFL. Just look at the history of Real Madrid’s coaches, who have often been fired after winning La Liga or the Champions League. Manchester United avoided all of that, but that is now gone.

Manchester United has to look just a little south to Chelsea to see what can happen. Jose Mourinho was the perfect coach for Chelsea when he came. He did some incredible things with the Blues from 2004-2007 (in a way, it is unfair to compare him to Moyes since Mourinho’s resume was far superior), but then they let him go. What was left was a parade of managers, only one making it through their second season. Avram Grant was fired despite making the Champions League Final. He gave way to Luiz Felipe Scolari, who was fired midseason for the interim Guus Hiddink. Next came the only real period of stability, with Carlo Ancelotti leading for two seasons, but then he was canned, replaced by Andre Vilas-Boas, who was fired midseason and replaced by Roberto Di Matteo, who was then fired midseason the next year and replaced by Rafael Benitez. Finally, Jose Mourinho came back. That could be United’s future.

It is really unfair to give Moyes so little time to make an impact. No one is going to be Sir Alex. No one. They will never get another Sir Alex Ferguson. But they also need to show to future managers that they aren’t going to hold everyone to that unattainable standard. Certainly Moyes didn’t come close, an Manchester United brass definitely expected more, but that quick trigger could be a signal that the club will be a Chelsea, or a Man City (who fired Roberto Mancini after good results), rather than what they were or even Arsenal, who despite not winning a trophy for 8 years, have been extremely competitive behind Arsene Wenger.

David Moyes will probably get another job, and he underperformed at Manchester United, but he probably feels let down, both by his players and management. He proved he could coach with playing Bayern Munich far closer than anyone imagined in the Champions League Quarterfinals, but in the end, the losses were just too many. I don’t know who the next coach will be, but I hope they use Moyes’ quick sacking as a sign that United’s period of stability is most certainly over.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

How to Solve a Problem like Barca?

Many times during their Copa Del Rey loss to Real Madrid, ESPN announcers Ian Darke and Steve McManaman (and get used to them - they're the lead World Cup team in the US) posited that this was the end of an era for Barcelona. It may be, it may not be, but the era ended a long time ago. The era ended many times actually, this is just the final product. FC Barcelona is no longer the best team in the world, in fact, it is quite literally the 3rd best team in their own country. What happened? Why did it happen? and How do they fix it? Those are all interesting questions to ask for a team that used to pride itself in being 'more than a team'.

In truth, just two years ago Barcelona went through a week about this harrowing. That week went from a Wednesday through the next Tuesday in April. The bookends were a 0-1 loss at Stamford Bridge and a 2-2 draw at the Camp Nou in the return to end their chances at a 2nd straight Champions League crown, and then a 1-2 loss at the Camp Nou to Real Madrid to cede the 2011-12 La Liga title to Jose Mourinho's Real Madrid. Barca had three games in 7 days, two at home, and didn't win any of them, crashing out of the Champions League and losing the La Liga race.

They responded by having a dominant 2012-13 domestic campaign, going 32-4-2 (W-L-D), scoring 115 goals and tying the record (set by Real Madrid the previous season) with 100 points. But behind that dominance lied some interesting results that already signaled the end of Barca was near. First, was their over-reliance on Messi, as the goals scored by Messi compared to the rest of the team rose to absurd levels. Messi scored 60 goals for Barcelona in all competitions in the 2012-13 season. That's incredible. The next highest scorer? Pedro... at 13. That's also incredible. There was never that discrepancy. La Liga defenses aren't that good, so Messi tore those up (46 goals in 33 games), but international competition proved tougher. They played 6 knockout games in the Champions League and won exactly one of them, a 'last-moment-of-brilliance' 4-0 win over AC Milan to advance to the Quarterfinals (a big result since they lost 0-2 in the San Siro). What followed were two draws against PSG, winning the tie on away goals as they drew 2-2 in Paris and 1-1 at home, and then the true nadir, the 0-7 aggregate waxing Bayern Munich put on them. That was the beginning.

This bad run of play isn't new. Sure, three straight losses hasn't happened for Barcelona since Lionel Messi was 16, but this bad run of play for Barcelona has basically been the norm since Jan 1st. On the start of 2014, Barcelona were 15-1-1 in La Liga. Since, they are just 10-2-4, netting just 30 out of a possible 48 points. That is really not very good. Some of the losses were just ridiculous, like losses to regulation contending teams like Real Valladolid and Grenada. These are bad results. This is what happens when a team that prides itself on being the 'purest' form of football runs terribly afoul at the highest level.

Lost in Barcelona's early success in the 2013-14 campaign was the sudden resignation of Team President Sandro Rossell. He resigned over the investigation into the true nature of the transfer fee paid out to get Neymar. They claimed the fee was one thing, but it ended up being far, far more, forcing the President out of a job and the club to pay tax dollars they tried to evade. And that even doesn't count how shady the transfer fee looks when more than half of the money is paid to a corporation owned by Neymar's father.

Then two weeks ago came the news that Barcelona has been slapped with a transfer ban for two transfer windows (essentially through the 2014-15 Europe Club Season), because of some nefarious methods Barcelona used to acquire international youth players for their youth academy. 'La Masia' as it is refered to, was the long-standing pride of Barcelona, so much that Barca higher-ups would never forego a chance to expound the values of La Masia and how they build their stars while 'the others', namely Real Madrid, buy them. Well, now La Masia came under fire, and Barcelona may not be able to fix the problems that are currently messing up the club.

The final piece of internal strife is over the manager position. Gerardo 'Tata' Martino is coming under fire for Barcelona's poor performance, and for good reason. This is going to be Barcelona's worst campaign since 2007-08, the first year of Pep Guardialo's run before Messi was Messi. His hiring was strange, as he was plucked from Newell's Old Boys, a club in Argentina. He had no European coaching experience, and was seemingly hand-picked by Leo Messi himself, in a sign that his influence in the club was growing exponentially. Now Tata is failing to do anything new with the club, as his adjustments have just made them worse.

It isn't like Barcelona is suddenly a bad team. They still have a ton of skilled players. Their larger issue is they have no depth, and while the club has extolled its purist virtues, trying to make splashy, uneccesary signings and overlooking the true problems have killed the team. For years, people have said that Barcelona needs better fullbacks. This wasn't said at the height of the Guardiola days. Those days are interesting, since Barcelona's defenses were impeccable in those days. With Puyol and Pique healthy, in their prime, and Erik Abidal (or Maxwell) on the outside, and Toure Yaya playing the Busquets role, they were great defenses. In Guardiola's last three seasons, they gave up 24-21-29 goals in La Liga. They gave up 40 last year.

Over the years, Puyol started becomingly constantly hurt, while Pique has gotten older. What was the brilliant idea that Barcelona came up with? Move Javier Mascherona, a career defensive midfielder, to fullback. He's been out of position for three years and a liability from the beginning. Intsead of going outside to get someone, they've relied on untested La Masia players (in fairness, Marc Bartra - ability to get burned by Bale aside - is becoming a decent fullback) or moving other guys back. They desperately need both depth and youth in their back line, a problem that isn't easily solvable considering they can't make transfers for a year.

But then there's the offense. For all their defensive woes, the first two of their three losses were 0-1 (although Atletico Madrid should have had at least three). They seemingly have been found out by any competent defensive team. When was the last time they just scorched a good team, like they did to Real back in 2010, or Aresenal in the Champions League? When was the last time they made a good team look foolish. Back in the day when Chelsea first did it in 2009, parking the bus and playing all out defense and trying to pick one or two up on the counter, Barcelona players, management and supporters decried their opponents of playing 'negative football'. See for Barca, it wasn't about just winning, but winning beautifully. Now, they aren't doing either.

Tiki-Taka style football worked in the Pep days for two reasons: his back four was good enough to allow his front six to all-out press knowing if their opponent breaks the press the back line is good enough to stop them, and because Xavi and Iniesta were better players then than they are now. Those two can still come up with brilliant moments, but their passing isn't as sharp, their movement isn't as good, and that beautiful inventiveness is kind of gone, at least against good competition.

They need a plan B, but Barcelona, and this is a criticism even in the Pep era, has never been able to develop a Plan B. They've tried bringing in Real #9 type players to go up top like they had with Eto'o back in 2008-09, but they've all failed, from Ibrahimovic to David Villa, to even Neymar now. They've brought in Cesc Fabregas, but never had the space for him to play like he did at Arsenal, moving him to unconventional places with average results. The only forwards that worked were La Masia products like Pedro and Alexis. Now, with depth and age concerns sprucing up, Barcelona is basically trying to play exactly like Barcelona from 2010, but with worse or older players.

In Tata Martino's defense, he is trying to put in place a Plan B, like trying to play more directly, trying to play with more verticality, trying more conventional routes to scoring like more and more high crosses, but they don't have the players to do that. They have the players to play tiki-taka, but teams know how to defend Tiki-Taka. 

The biggest problem Barcelona is facing is that there is no easy way out. Assuming the transfer ban does not get overturned (and since the ban is coming from FIFA and not UEFA, overturning it seems unlikely) they have no way of going out and getting good defenders that they desperately need. They can't stop the aging process from making Xavi worse, or Iniesta, or Messi himself. There are problems facing Barcelona on the field and off it, and the one's off it are more systemic and possibly larger. The group running Barcelona hasn't really done much good since Sandro Rossell replaced Joan Laporta. It was the Rossell regime that brought in Fabregas for no reason, with no natural place to play him, just because they wanted the La Masia product to return home. It was his regime that brought in Neymar with similar concerns under shady tactics. He's gone, but the infighting remains.

In the end, Barcelona's off the field issues will probably impact the on the field issues, which is sad since the on the field issues aren't that great. 0-7 loss to Bayern aside, this isn't a team that lost any of these games badly. They're still very good. They still have one of the two best players in the world in what should be his prime. They still have a player in Neymar who was doing well when Messi went through myriad injury issues in October-January. They still have loads of money to buy players. But the buying players part is where the off the field comes in, in that they can't for now. Who is going to replace Martino when he is eventually fired? Is Messi going to handpick another coach? Are there going to be any shady hirings and signings?

What really hurts Barcelona is that they have massive competition in Spain right now. Madrid's already won a trophy, is alive in the Champions League and ahead of them in La Liga. Atletico Madrid can say the same for the second two things. Both of those two teams have managers who's identity is all over their teams, with Diego Simeone doing with Atletica what Jurgen Klopp has done with Dortmund, and Carlo Ancelotti has done wonders in his first seasons at Real Madrid. Both teams are in great shape, and Madrid has the resources to hang onto their players. We shall see how Barca reacts. For years they thought of themselves as 'more than a club', and now they aren't, they are just that, a club, and have to do what any club does: rebuild and reload. The quicker they can remember they aren't more than a club, the quicker they can go back to being one.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Can Zizou be a good Coach?

Zinedine Zidane will be a major club manager soon. It might be for the 2014-15 season, if not the 2015-16 season, but the man known as Zizou will get a job, a major club one. Nothing will matter until he gets that job, and then he will be judged on how he does in that job. Whenever he gets it, it will be one of the underrated stories of the European Club Season that year. Zidane's made his expectations known. He wants a major club job, and his name and his skill and legend as a player deserves it. But he doesn't want to be the next Diego Maradona, the brilliant player but forgotten, oft-criticized Argentina National Team Manager No, Zidane wants to be a good manager, and that might be the best part of all.

Right now, Zidane is the right-hand man of Carlo Ancelottia at Real Madrid. His claim to fame in his coaching career at Madrid is working with youth players, and convincing The Madridistas to keep guys like Jese and Isco. In the past year, as he's graduated from a nominal title at Real Madrid to a real Assistant Manager Job, seated right beside two-time Champions League winner Carlo Ancelotti, Zidane has made it known that he wants a manager job. In a way, there is an interesting race to who will get him, but more than that, how good will he be.

Wayne Gretzky was the Coach of the Phoenix Coyotes for a few years. He's a pretty good comp to Zidane. Like Gretzky, Zidane scored some outrageous goals, especially in big matches. Like Gretzky, despite the big goals he scored, Zidane's best characterstic was his playmaking, his passing, his ability as Juventus's, Real Madrid's, and France's nucleus. Gretzky failed as a coach. Will Zidane?

Great Players have rarely succeeded as coaches. A lot of people look to the 'Bacteria of Brilliance' that has inflicted these great players. Gretzky could see things the normal hockey player could not. That is how you end up with more assits than anyone else has goals plus assists (other than Messier, who had to play to roughly 47 to break that mark). Gretzky saw things the normal hockey player couldn't, so when he was coaching mere mortals, he probably wondered why they couldn't see those things. They couldn't because they were human. Gretzky wasn't.

Zidane wasn't either. So it will be interesting to see if the same thing happens. That said, there are numerous signs the same won't happen. First, Zidane seems to want to be a coach, and to want to go through the steps necessary. Zidane could have taken the Maradona approach to coaching, which is to do nothing but be good, and then gifted a managerial job. Instead, despite being gifted a nominal position at Real Madrid that required no real work but came with a damn good paycheck, Zidane checked himself into Managerial School, he allowed himself to be an assistant coach. He allowed himself to be coached in the art of coaching. That is uncommon acceptance and realism for a potential coach, especially one of Zidane's brainpower.

The simple fact that Zidane has taken the normal approach to coaching, and is willingly accepting an assistant managerial position at Real Madrid is quite shocking. Here is one of the 10 Greatest Players of All Time, sitting on the bench as the #2 coach, willingly subjicating himself to Carlo Ancellotti. Zidane seems to want to learn how to be a good manager. He is going to slow route, and that works for him.

Let's be honest, to those that don't follow the sport, Zidane will always be synonymous with the headbutt. It is one of the most infamous sporting images of the 21st Century. Behind that lies an extremely smart player, beyond being an extremely brilliant one. Zidane was one of the last true Central Attacking Midfielders that could do it all. He played the perfect position that would make a good coach, and he is trying to make that come true.

Zidane, through his people, has made it obvious that he would love the Real Madrid job. Despite arguably his best years coming at Juventus, his most famous club years (including "That Goal") came at Madrid. He was bought by Madrid. He owes a lot to Madrid, and he wants to coach Madrid. The results of the last 10 days withstanding, Carlo Ancelotti has done too good a job to exclude Zidane from that job in the next few years. Likely, Zidane's first major managerial job will be outiside the Bernabeau, and without Cristiano Ronaldo or those type of players.

There is a short list of players who were of the all-time variety to do anything of note as coaches or executives. Most have failed. Gretzky failed. Michael Jordan faield. Can Zidane sicceed? Who knows. The only evidence that he could comes from Zidane actually preparing to be a manager, taking the requisite coaching exams, being an assistant manager at a major program. It will remain to be seen if any of these means anything, but Zidane's taken the necessary steps.

Zidane was the center of a France team that came close to dominating the last old-school major competition. Since the 2006 World Cup, Spain has dominated, winning the Euro in 2008 and 2012, as well as the 2010 World Cup, playing a variant of Barca's toiki-taka style. Of course, who beat them in 2006? France, with Zizou assisting on the game-wining goal and scoring the capper himself in the 92nd minute. He was the talisman of  the last team to beat Spain in a major International Knock-Out Competition. To me, that helps his cause.

Honestly., it is rare that people as historically good as Zinedine Zidane even want to coach. Most of the people that that level are content with their playing career, or take up Executive Positions with the Sports' Governing Body (see; Franz Beckebauer's current role in UEFA). Zidane, ever a traditionalist as seen by his Algerian roots, doesn't want that, at now at least.

Zidane has worked under some of the most impeccable managerial minds of the last 20 years or so. Obviously, now he is working as Carlo Ancelotti's right-hand man, who he also played under from 1999 to 2001 at Juventus. Ancelotti replaced Marcello Lippi at Juve. Lippi himsefl is arguably the Greatest Manager who Zidane has played for. Zizou played under Lippi at Juventus from 1995-1998, a period that included two trips to the UEFA Champions League Final. Zidane also lost to Lippi's men in the 2006 World Cup Final. Zidane has experienced the Great Minds of the last 25 years, which considering he, along with Lionel Messi, is the Greatest Player of the last two decades, is a pretty good trail-by-fire for his managerial career.

The Curse of Brilliance is rarely defeated, though. I don't know if Zidane can. I don't know what his footballing philosophy outside of how he viewed his position. Carlo Ancelotti has already said he believed his former player will find success, that he has already earned the respect of the Real Madrid players as a coach, and not just an icon. All that will help, as will where he goes. I hope it works. It will be interesting to watch one of the Great Footballers of All Time try to manage and do the daily grind once again.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Grading the 2004 NFL Draft

1.) New York Giants select Eli Manning (QB, Mississippi) - Grade: A

Yes, I realize the Chargers actually made this pick, and then got a bounty from the Giants (including picks that turned into Shawne Merriman and Nate Kaeding), but I'm grading the team who got their guy. Eli Manning wasn't great in the beginning, and he's been, on his overall play lone, the worst of the three main QBs picked in the draft, but they don't win two Super Bowls without Eli, certainly not the 2nd one, in Manning's one true HOF-worthy season.

2.) Oakland Raiders select Robert Gallery (OT, Iowa) - Grade: C

If the Raiders drafted Robert Gallery at #12 to play guard and paid him like a #12 pick that played guard, then this pick would probably be a B+, but they didn’t. I can’t fault the Raiders too much. Out of all their Top-10 picks in these years, this was the one where they picked a guy that was the consensus top prospect, but he never worked out at tackle.

3.) Arizona Cardinals select Larry Fitzgerald (WR, Pittsburgh) - Grade: A+

I started this in the 2003 redraft, but when you pick a Hall of Famer, no matter where, you get an A+. Larry Fitzgerald didn’t have the greatest rookie season (WRs rarely do), but he had a great 2005 season (100+ catches), and took off from there. Apart from one season where he was saddled with really putrid QBs (2012), he has been putting up massive seasons year-after-year-after-year.

4.) San Diego Chargers select Philip Rivers (QB, NC State) - Grade: A

We can debate the Chargers ultimately choosing Rivers over Brees after Brees suffered his torn labrum at the end of 2005, but in the end Philip Rivers has more than played up to what you should expect from a #4 pick QB. He continued to play well as the talent drained off that team from 2006-2010, and then rebounded in his 10th season to play some of the best, most contained, smartest football of his career last season.

5.) Washington Redskins select Sean Taylor (S, Miami) - Grade: INC

I thought about actually giving this a grade, but it’s really impossible. Sean Taylor probably wasn’t as good as people remember him being, but he did have a whole host of highlight-reel plays, my personal favorite being his really ballsy scoop and score for a TD in the 2005 Wild Card Game against the Buccaneers. His death is something a lot of football fans will never get over, but like shows that end after one or two seasons, his overall legacy was, sadly, probably raised in the eyes of many.

6.) Cleveland Browns select Kellen Winslow Jr. (TE, Miami) - Grade: B-

It’s hard to remember how terribly his career started, breaking his leg in his 3rd game to end his 2004 season, and then breaking it again in a motorcycle accident to end his 2005 season before it started. Thinking of that start, it is very surprising how well he rebounded. Winslow had really solid seasons in 2006 and 2007 for the Browns. I can’t fault the Browns as much as Winslow himself for the missed 2005 season, and he did provide good value. I also never realized how sneakily good his three year run in Tampa was.

7.) Detroit Lions select Roy Williams (WR, Texas) - Grade: C

Well, he was the best WR the Lions picked in their three year run of picking WRs in the 1st round. His largest problem was an inability to stay healthy, as the one season he was healthy for 16 games he put up a slash line of 82/1310/7, and that was in 2006, the year before Calvin was drafted. The Lions also, amazingly, swindled the Cowboys out of a 1st round pick in trading him during the 2008 season. But aside from the 2006 season, he never even had one good season.

8.) Atlanta Falcons select DeAngelo Hall (CB, Virginia Tech) - Grade: B

Since leaving Atlanta before the 2008 season to join the Raiders, DeAngelo Hall has become something of a lightning rod. The stats community hates him, as does a lot of the public who dislikes his brashness, but he manages to game his way to 4-5 picks a year and played well in some high profile games. That all said, in his Atlanta days, he was a solid cornerback, arguably deservedly pro-bowl caliber in 2005 and 2006, someone capable of covering and tackling in run support.

9.) Jacksonville Jaguars select Reggie Williams (WR, Washington) - Grade: D

I have pretty low standards for picks, some would say more realistic standards. Reggie Williams was not good, not even close to Top-10 pick worthy, but he provided some value. Look, no one was going to put up big volume numbers on those run-and-defense Jags teams from 2004-2008, and while Williams did not, he at least played every game for five years. He even had a 10 TD season in 2007 (albeit on only 38 receptions). That all said, he was not good, and was out of the NFL two years after that 10 TD season. Not a good pick, not even close.

10.) Houston Texans select Dunta Robinson (CB, South Carolina) - Grade: C+

Dunta Robinson had a really good rookie season, with 6 picks and 3 sacks, with 74 tackles for a bad team. He never approached that again in his following four seasons in Houston, leaving right before the team got good. Robinson made a boatload of money just off that rookie season, because I don’t know what else the Falcons gave him 22.5MM guaranteed for. Anyway, Robinson was not a bad player, but a disappointing one who never got better off a very good rookie season.

11.) Pittsburgh Steelers select Ben Roethlisberger (QB, Miami OH) - Grade: A+

I believe that Ben Roethlisberger will be a Hall of Famer, thus the A+ pick. I believe the Roethlisberger is the best of the three QBs, the only thing keeping the Steelers from being a 4-12 team right now, and they got him at #11. The Steelers were built to win when Ben got there, but as the team got older, Ben got better and proved he could put up huge numbers when asked to throw 500 times, like he did in 2009 or this past season.

12.) New York Jets select Jonathan Vilma (MLB, Miami) - Grade: B-

Jonathan Vilma had some really nice seasons, and was well above average for most of his Jets career, including a monster season in 2005 around a terrible Jets team. Vilma was able to flex right into a 3-4 later in his career, but that was after he left the Jets. They probably expected a little more from Vilma, but there is a lot of value in a good player who plays a lot of games at only a good level.

13.) Buffalo Bills select Lee Evans (WR, Wisconsin) - Grade: B

Surprised? Lee Evans is probably most famous for his drop in the end zone as a Raven in the 2011 AFC Championship Game, but before that he had a surprisingly good 7 year career in Buffalo. Evans was extremely durable, missing just four games over that 7 year career. Also add in that he had about 70 QBs throw to him in that period, and his 16-gm average of 59/880/6.4, which isn’t that bad.

14.) Chicago Bears select Tommie Harris (DT, Oklahoma) - Grade: B+

Tommie Harris was on the path towards this being an easy A when he tore his Achilles late in the 2006 season. Tommie Harris was arguably the most disruptive DT in the NFL in 2005, and was having a similarly good season in 2006. He actually came back to have a nice couple years in Chicago, including an 8 sack campaign in 2007, but he was never nearly as good against the run or as consistent, but he has that three season run of really great play.

15.) Tampa Bay Buccaneers select Michael Clayton (WR, LSU) - Grade: C

Has anyone ever had a great rookie season and still ended up a bust, not including players who left the league because of injury/suspension/etc.? Michael Clayton put up a 80/1193/7 season as a rookie. That is not a misprint. He had an all-time good rookie season. In his next three seasons he had a combined 87/1029/1. Yup, one TD. And he played 40 of 48 games in that span. That rookie season keeps this from being a D, but it is almost funny how bad he became.

16.) Philadelphia Eagles select Shawn Andrews (G, Arkansas) - Grade: B

Shawn Andrews, much like Tommie Harris, had a really nice career at times, but also was a nothing at times. Unlike Harris, it wasn’t totally injury based but just weird stuff like a mysterious ‘back injury’ that ended his career in Philly. In between his injury-marred ’04 and ’08 seasons, he had three really good seasons for the Eagles from ’05-’07, including an All-Pro season in 2006.

17.) Denver Broncos select DJ Williams (LB, Miami) - Grade: B

DJ Williams was the opposing of Andrews and Harris, providing less peak value, but far more sustained value. DJ Williams only once got hurt until the tail end of his career, and was consistently good. He was first one of the main players of very good defenses from ’05-’07, and then a stat-muncher on bad defenses, before getting phased out as the Broncos went from terrible to really good. Not a memorable career, but one that was rarely anything less than good.

18.) New Orleans Saints select Will Smith (DE, Ohio St.) - Grade: A-

Getting a player this consistently durable and productive this late in the 1st round is very good use of resources. Until this year’s preseason trip to IR, Will Smith never got hurt (missed five games through 9 seasons), averaging 7.5 sacks a season in that time period including two very good campaigns in the Saints two most memorable seasons (’06 & ’09). Anyway, Smith’s productive career is likely over, but the Saints got great return.

19.) Miami Dolphins select Vernon Carey (OT, Miami) - Grade: B

Vernon Carey was essentially the Dolphins version of DJ Williams, a good player for a long period of time, but someone who was never pro-bowl worthy (I guess Williams did make a pro-bowl, but the comparison still holds). He rarely missed games, and was always above average. Not a terrible legacy, and for the Dolphins good value for the 19th pick.

20.) Minnesota Vikings select Kenechi Udeze (DE, USC) - Grade: INC

If I’m going to give the Redskins an Incomplete for the Taylor pick, it is only fair to give the Vikings an INC for this pick, as Udeze had to retire after the 2007 season, right before the two best years the Vikings had since his being drafted, after being diagnosed with Leukemia. Udeze had a nice 2007 season and looked to be coming close to fulfilling all the promise he had, but then cancer does what it does.

21.) New England Patriots select Vince Wilfork (DT, Miami) - Grade: A

Chances are when you are 32 coming off of a serious injury, the best days of your career are likely over, especially when arm strength is really important and that injury was a triceps injury. That said, Wilfork has done enough and given the Patriots enough value before 2013 to already make this a great pick. Wilfork is the only defensive player on the Patriots to have won a Super Bowl with them, being a consistent starter at the nose since he was drafted. Great player and a great pick by the Pats.

22.) Buffalo Bills select JP Losman (QB, Tulane) - Grade: C-

QBs are, rightfully, held to a higher standard in the 1st round as they really do bust less than other positions (as a point, just look at the ’04 QB group), but by any position standard this was not a good pick. Losman went from inaccurate to strangely accurate very quickly (under 50% in ’05 to above 62% in ’06-’07), but threw like no touchdowns and all of the interceptions, apart from the 2006 season that saves this from being a D. By ’07 he had been passed by Trent Edwards, and that was basically it for him.

23.) Seattle Seahawks select Marcus Tubbs (DT, Texas) - Grade: C+

The beginning of the end of the Ruskell era in Seattle was this, wasting a 1st round pick on an injury-prone player who was never that good except for being fat. I always liked him since his name was ‘Tubbs’, a great nickname for a fat guy. Tubbs had a nice season in the Seahawks Super Bowl season, but got injured early in 2006 and never played again, which is a little surprising. The only reason he’s not worse than a C was the minimum expected duration of value for a 1st round pick is 4 years (a normal rookie contract), and he gave the Seahawks three, including one good one.

24.) St. Louis Rams select Steven Jackson (RB, Oregon St.) - Grade: A

If you are going to pick a RB in the first round and you are not getting Adrian Peterson, than this is about as good as you are going to do. Steven Jackson was the backup on a team that made the playoffs in his rookie season, then took over for Faulk and played really well for another 8 seasons in St. Louis. He had a 16/gm average of 292/1238/6.8, which is really good production for a running back over the long term. Very good pick for a team that missed on everything for the next five seasons.

25.) Green Bay Packers select Ahmad Carroll (CB, Arkansas) - Grade: C-

Yeah, this was a waste. I guess he played a lot of games in 2004 and 2005, but the second they could get some other people to play corner, they did. The Packers never rued this pick as they hit on most from 2005 onwards, this was an awful pick. Carroll did come on to an aging team in need of an overhaul, but the Packers could have used this pick in that overhaul.

26.) Cincinnati Bengals select Chris Perry (RB, Michigan) - Grade: F

I don’t like giving F’s. In fact, I’ve given just three over 89 picks through 2002 on. This is my first for 2004, and it was really hard to not do this. The pick was made just before Rudi Johnson became a good player, so maybe Perry didn’t get the opportunities, but whatever opportunities he did get he failed so badly. He actually had a useful season receiving in 2005, but his overall rushing numbers are just so bad, a career 606 yards on 177 receptions, with just 2 TDs, pathetic return for a 1st round investment.

27.) Houston Texans select Jason Babin (DE, West. Michigan) - Grade: C+

Jason Babin has had sack totals of 12.5-18.0-7.0-7.5 in the last four seasons. Too bad those weren’t on the Texans. On the Texans he had just three seasons before he was traded to Seattle for Michael Boulware, a nice double-dump trade. In those three seasons he had just 13 sacks, becoming a pure situational pass rusher before he left. Babin had a decent rookie season and then turned into nothing.

28.) Carolina Panthers select Chris Gamble (CB, Ohio St.) - Grade: B

Gamble is the Carolina what DJ Williams was to Denver and Vernon Carey was to Miami, a good player who played consistently for a long time. Gamble retired after 2012, and before that season he was a consistent 4-6 picks, 50-70 tackles each year for eight seasons. Gamble played on some good teams and gave very good return to the Panthers.

29.) Atlanta Falcons select Michael Jenkins (WR, Ohio St.) - Grade: C

Michael Jenkins provided comically little value in his rookie season (7 catches for 119 yards), but then was a consistently average player, with seasons like 36/508/3, and 53/532/4, and then his career best in Matt Ryan’s rookie season, 50/777/3. Not exactly great stuff, but not awful either. It probably also hurt his development that he was playing with Michael Vick in his first three seasons.

30.) Detroit Lions select Kevin Jones (RB, Virginia Tech) - Grade: C-

Kevin Jones had a very nice rookie season, putting up a 241/1133/5 for a bad Lions team. Sadly, he never came close to that again on other similarly bad Lions teams. Going to a Mike Martz, pass-happy offense helped his receiving numbers (61 catches in 2006), but he never got any better as a runner. Jones flamed out as his Lions career ended, giving far less return than a 1st round RB should.

31.) San Francisco 49ers select Reshaun Woods (WR, Oklahoma St.) - Grade: F

My God was the back-quarter of the 1st round bad. Rashaun Woods had 7 catches for 160 yards in his rookie season (hey, slightly better than Michael Jenkins) and then never played a game again. He spent ’05 on IR, was traded to San Diego for not-quite-a-bust Sammy Davis in 2006, along with a pick, never played there and then went to Europe and Canada. And you wonder why the 49ers went 6-26 in 2004 & 2005.

32.) New England Patriots select Benjamin Watson (TE, Georgia) - Grade: C+

Benjamin Watson’s most famous moment was running down Champ Bailey on his INT-return in the 2005 Divisional Round. That’s probably not what Bill Belichick envisioned when he made this pick, especially considering it took all of one play for the Broncos to score a TD right after. The Patriots never threw to Watson much, but that’s because he dropped everything and until Gronk showed up the Patriots didn’t realize TEs existed, despite drafting two of them in the 1st round.

Best Picks from the Later Rounds

2nd.) New York Giants select Chris Snee with the 34th pick.
2nd.) Indianapolis Colts select Bob Sanders with the 44th pick.

It's probably homerism to put Sanders up with Snee, a stalwart on two Super Bowl winning lines, but Sanders' peak value was every bit as good as Troy Polamalu. Sanders was healthy for most of '04 and '05, '07 playing well (hey, guess what, that's his rookie deal), and his return in '06 coincided with a Super Bowl run. Of course, after the Colts gave him an extension it all went to hell. As for Snee, he proved nepotism can work, as he was dating/engaged to Tom Coughlin's daughter at the time. 

3rd.) Arizona Cardinals select Darnell Dockett with the 64th pick.

It's hard to believe Dockett has already played 10 seasons, all with Arizona, but he has, and been very good all time. He's missed a grand total of two games in those 10 years as well. Tons of sacks all over the place, including tying a Super Bowl record with 3 in Super Bowl XLIII. A pretty good pick right there. 

4th.) Kansas City Chiefs select Jared Allen with the 126th pick

Jared Allen gave the Chiefs four years of really good play, then two 2nd round picks in a trade to the Vikings. Allen was in his Chiefs career pretty much the only consistent part of those defenses that weren't always terrible, and then gave the Chiefs over half their sacks in his final season there. Not too shabby for the 126th pick.

5th.) Indianapolis Colts select Jake Scott with the 141st pick.

Sure, this may seem a little homeristic, but if you look at who was picked in that 1st round, there's no competition. The only two active players from the 5th round are Antonio Smith and Josh Scobee. The only other players to have any type of career were Erik Coleman, Michael Turner and DJ Hackett. Jake Scott was a consistently good player for the Colts for four seasons, and then had an All-Pro caliber season in 2008 for Tennessee.

6th.) Green Bay Packers select Corey Williams with the 179th pick.

God, the bottom part of this draft was a washout. Corey Williams wasn't even that good, but at least had a solid career and played through his rookie deal with the Packers. He then had a couple nice seasons in Detroit before leaving football. The Packers got rid of Williams when they could under Thompson, but until then he was a nice bridge between the Barnett/Harris/Kampman defense and the Matthews/Woodson/Collins era.

7th.) Green Bay Packers select Scott Wells with the 251st pick.

It was very close between Wells and Shane Olivea, who had a nice little career in San Diego before abruptly retiring. Wells had a long, slightly injury-prone career in Green Bay before leaving to have a even more injury-prone career in St. Louis. Still, getting the value the Packers got from the 251st pick is a little absurd on the whole.

About Me

I am a man who will go by the moniker dmstorm22, or StormyD, but not really StormyD. I'll talk about sports, mainly football, sometimes TV, sometimes other random things, sometimes even bring out some lists (a lot, lot, lot of lists). Enjoy.