Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The Game Between The Seasons

It may be quiet on the field, but NFL teams are feverishly plotting roster moves, free agent signings and the draft. In addition, owners and general managers are focused on the critical issues of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement to ensure the health and stability of the league itself.

I've found that Pro Football Talk keeps up with these background moves, many reported as rumor. These are the games between the season that have a huge impact on the talent that teams put on the field. It's when the front office and players agents earn their pay.

I've added as one of the outgoing links on Running Redskins.

Monday, February 20, 2006

The Rundown on New NFL Head Coaches

Ten head coach vacancies were filled in the offseason, largely by up-from-the-ranks coordinators. published a rundown of each situation.

Some once highly regarded, but recently disgraced, head coaches did not find new positions and are now offensive or defensive coordinators at new teams run by their buddies. It pays to network.

The NFL instituted the Fritz Pollard project, an affirmative action program whereby teams with head coach openings must interview an African-American candidate. None of the newly hired head coaches are African-American. I'm not counting Herm Edwards or Art Shell as new coaches. This is surprising given the success enjoyed by Marvin Lewis, Tony Dungy and Lovey Smith; especially Lewis and Smith who turned woeful franchises into playoff teams in two seasons. NFL rosters have been majority Black for, oh, three decades or more. You wouldn't know it based on the number of African-American players who get to extend their career into coaching or the front office.

Art Shell's return to coaching brings the number of Black NFL head coaches to seven, the most ever at one time.

  1. Tony Dungy, Colts
  2. Art Shell, Raiders
  3. Herm Edwards, Chiefs
  4. Lovey Smith, Bears
  5. Romeo Crennel, Browns
  6. Marvin Lewis, Bengals
  7. Dennis Green, Cardinals

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Ode to Bucketheads

I joined my first fantasy football league in 1990 with a group of my IBM colleagues in the Minneapolis office. The league was informally known as Grom's FFL in honor of its founder and organizer. It's a tough league to win. Carry over owners are experienced in fantasy sport. They are good judges of talent, rarely make foolish roster moves and are extremely suspicious of trade offers. I've become, as Master4Caster, the league's unofficial sports writer, reporting game results as though they were real contests, inventing the play-by-play in a sometimes humorous fashion. At the end of each season, I write a summary of the season touting the prowess of the Fantasy Bowl Champion. For the 2005 season, I wrote it as an epic saga to Bucketheads. Every team in the league is mentioned. My team, the Ponies, finished a sorry 5-9.

This is the saga of Bucketheads,
a team for whom it must be said
was never far from the league elite
as they clawed their way to the top of the heap.

Unlike Coach Davis’ previous team,
whose effort was mighty maggoty it seemed,
they never made a firm decision
to break into the upper division.

Bucketheads’ future was preordained
as soon as they drafted Reggie Wayne.
To add a touch of thunderbolt,
they spiced their roster with Torry Holt.

And Collins and Kennison and TJ Duckett,
just fit in on a team named Bucket.
And Mewelde Moore was really hip,
tho’ he saw nothing on the Viking ship.

Buckets kicked off with animal cruelty
when they made Dawgs their first casualty;
running the score to sixty-two
while Dawggies slipped in their own doo-doo.

The Buckets next faced the somewhat Deep Threat.
Bucketheads whistled and sang “Not to fret.
Threat’s neither a threat nor really that deep.”
So they downed a half-keg and beat them, no sweat.

Long Snapper and Code were the next to fall.
They seemed not to be a problem at all.
The point differential was thirty-six.
Buckets swelled with pride to be in the mix.

Then Bucketheads visited East River Rogue.
A date with the Champs was much in vogue.
The Champs pinned their hopes on Bolden and Jones,
but Bledsoe and Glenn were too much of a load.

But Cavemen and Czechboys were on high alert.
“Not here, not us are you going to hurt!
No head for the Buckets, no way, not today.”
As they clubbed them and tossed them hard in the dirt.

“Those last two games were not so hard fought.
We didn’t put out as much as we ought.
We need a rest, a respite, a thought.
Coming up next is sorry Zagnought.”

Money then followed and they were not EZ.
Johnson did much to make Buckets queasy.
Coach Davis cried out “you guys are a pain.
I’ve made up my mind to meet you again!”

Tired and weary, in need of a rest,
in need of some teams not of the best.
Some teams resembling phony balonies.
That only described the Hammsies and Ponies.

Then Buckets they suffered a major setback,
confounded by Bow-wows’ savage attack.
And Threat did the same in much more than name.
Coach Davis exclaimed “I’m coming back.”

Davis pimped his team “Get offa this crapper.”
You’ve got to go fight the rising Long Snapper.
If you want to be the star of this poem,
You gotta go win, go win or go home.”

Just to be sure to change this canard
he handed the ball to David Garrard,
who came off the bench and took no day off
to lead the ‘Heads to the golden playoffs.

On came Deep Threat in round number one
with Peyton and Marvin and Mrs. Parker’s son.
Garrard had no fear. He though it was thrillin’
to just hand the ball to Corey Dillon.

Now at last was the Money rematch.
Coach Davis sat down for his plan to hatch.
For the crown was at stake. It was time to star.
Get your stars to star and you could go far.

And star they did that bright starry night,
Dillon and Glenn and Holt, what a sight.
But David Garrard proved quite a man
to come off the bench and show that he can.

Thus, Buckets are champs of the year oh-five.
They can brag and boast for all of their lives.
Coach Davis proclaims “I won the Cup!
The rest of you losers can just pay up.”

Revised January 27, 2006

Monday, February 13, 2006

NFC East Speculation for 2006

I predict that the NFC East will be much tougher next season. The division boasts a stellar cast of head coaches. Stability in leadership and schemes translates into refinement of strategy and execution. In 2006, the NFC East play teams from the NFC and the AFC South. The East as a whole features rugged defenses. They will need it when facing the likes of the Colts, Jaguars, Falcons and Panthers. Look for sharp competitiveness within the division and the for East to emerge as the beasts that dominate the NFL postseason as they did in the 80s and 90s.

NEW YORK: Little Eli will have another season under his belt and should cut down on mistakes. The experience alone should provide for a 25% boost in the Giants' passing efficiency. The Giants have a good linebacker group, led by "our" guy, Antonio Pierce. The Giant secondary got better through the season. Theirs was a "bend but don't break" type defense; disruptive without being overpowering. They need another receiver to balance Plaxico Burress. Armani Toomer's stellar career is near done from what I see. They will compete for a receiver with the Redskins on the free agent market. Tiki Barber is the best running back in the division. He, not Eli Manning, is the key to making that offense work.

PHILADELPHIA: The Eagles were a playoff caliber team through 2004. Donovan McNabb made them so. They were a Super Bowl team with McNabb and Terrell Owens and team unity. Faced with the reality of getting nothing in return for dropping him, the Eagles may lose the emotion and make a hard core business decision: they will not drop or trade Owens if they get no value in return. For Terrible Owens, there is no better way to rehabilitate his reputation than by playing well -- for Philadelphia.

Owens will not improve his contract by leaving, as he and his agent are now learning. He is unlikely to play any other team with a top three quarterback, as he has with Philadelphia. Is the guy who savaged Jeff Garcia, rejected Kyle Bollar and disparaged Donovan McNabb going to be happy with Jake Plummer or Chris Simms? I don't think so. But, Coach Shanahan took a risk on Maurice Clarrett, and may take a shot with Owens, but this is very risky. Owens reputation for disrupting team cohesion was built on the experience of two teams (three, if you count Baltimore).

Eagles GM Tom Heckert seems resigned to kissing Owens off. He flatly said he would not bring Owens on board if he could do it over again, adding "He's going to end up somewhere. No one has ever questioned that he is a great, great football player. I think some teams are willing to overlook some things. It might work out somewhere else for him. It didn't work out here for whatever reason and if it works out for T.O., I'm happy for him."

However, the contract for Owens' services is an asset. Businessmen do not write off an asset 100%. They want something -- anything -- in return. Their best shot of recovering something is to put Owens in a green jersey, have him play well and trade him in 2007. Preposterous, you say? No more than Ricky Williams, whose abrupt "retirement" in 2004 doomed the Dolphins season before it began. Williams did not walk away on the high ground as Barry Sanders did with the Lions. Williams freely admitted that he was a pothead, had been caught before as a pothead and wanted to remain a pothead. Yet Nick Saban found a way to recover Williams the asset and play him in in 2005 (743 yards, 4.4 yards ave., 6 TDs). The Eagles could cut Owens in March rather than pay him a roster bonus. Owens just might decide that kissing Donovan McNabb's butt is a small price for his $6 Million roster bonus(I know I would). I say it's 50-50 Owens stays with the Eagles. I'm not predicting this, but neither would I be surprised if it happens! If Owens signs a new contract elsewhere, he should consult the career advice offered by Master4Caster.

Owens remaining an Eagle does not solve all problems. Donovan McNabb's interview before the Super Bowl exposed deep wounds and deeper fissures in the Eagle locker room. That has to be resolved before any of this works. That calls for a Dr. Phil more than Coach Reid. The emotional Owens brings huge risks with the Eagles, Broncos, or whomever he's with, to go along with plenty of upside.

The future without Owens could be grim. The Eagles have not performed well on the ground since they let Duce Staley go. Owens made up for a weak receiver corps. There is no one of note after Alan Pinkston, although Reggie Brown showed promise at the end of last season.

DALLAS: The Cowboys have the biggest challenge only because O-line issues are the hardest to fix. The return of a healthy Flozell "the Hotel" Adams, a MSU Spartan, solves half their problem. When Drew Bledsoe has time, he makes few mistakes and good decisions; just what the doctor ordered for a young team. Apart from Keyshawn Johnson, who is a decent possession receiver, The 'boys are thin. Yet, they managed to score points at critical times (fortunately, not against the Redskins) and dominate possession (average 32:24 per game). If they can coach up those young tackles, they could easily win 9 games.

WASHINGTON: The Redskins' approach to 2006 is to invest in coaches. I think that's smart. Most of the other pieces are in place already. The O-line is almost good enough to earn the name "Hogs." David Patten returns; at least he draws double coverage. They have young rushing talent to back up Clinton Portis. We don't need to talk about the D, except to say we are better off with Arrington on the roster. But mostly they have team continuity in staff and players. They have to make better use of who they have.

Gibbs didn't play fantasy football (play the name game) last season. He did his homework and thought about the attributes he wanted in role players. Then he got guys everybody else overlooked. What did YOU think when you heard he signed Santana Moss and Mark Brunell? I believe he and Al Saunders will do the same and come up with the right cogs to fill the holes. Chances are, it won't be anyone that anyone expects.

Barring injury, I say the Giants and Redskins could win 10-11 games next season. Philly could be in that group with McNabb and Owens, or, the spillover from last season could drag them to 6 or 7 wins. Dallas' prospects depend on how well they upgrade protection for Drew Bledsoe.

The new contract year begins in March. The draft is in the Spring. It's time for the games between the season and that's just as interesting as the game itself. (Wow, did I say that? How soon before training camp?)

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Michigan State Ranked 33rd in Football Recruiting ranked Michigan State University as recruiting the thirty-third best freshman class for football. Recruits were ranked in tiers with top ranked schoolboys in the five star tier, the next group in the four star tier, the next in the three star tier. MSU has commitments from seven four star recruits and from seven three star recruits, but none from the five star rank. Penn State has commitments from one five star, fourteen four star and and eight three star recruits. Michigan recruited two from the five, nine from the four and seven from the three star tier. Ohio State's numbers are two, eight and ten respectively.

For MSU football, the future shapes up to be competitive, but without the talent to break through to the top rank of the Big Ten. They should be a top twenty-five team in 2007. State's defense was not the equal of the offense last season, although they had their moments. Seventeen of the twenty-five new recruits are defensive players. Kicking was a problem. The Spartans hope Brent Swensen from Ft. Lauderdale Aquinas is the answer. He drew interest from Bowling Green and Mississippi. "We tagged what the problem was," MSU cornerbacks coach Chuck Driesbach said. "And we went out and got the very best guys we could get to fill those spots." For a profile of the incoming class, go here.

In coaching news, Dan Enos was named quarterback coach. Enos was the last quarterback to lead the Spartans to the Big Ten championship (1990). The Spartans won back-to-back bowl games in 1989 and '90. For college more than the pros, hiring your graduates works. It had better. Like the defense, Spartan coaching was not the equal of the offense.

Enos is a great addition to the staff as a position coach. However, quarterback play and MSU's wide open offense are not the issue. Game management and effective use of talent on the field are.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Thoughts on Super Bowl XL

The Super Bowl play did not go quite as I thought it would, although the Steelers won as predicted. Both teams were tight in the first half. I wrote that the Seahawks would be affected by first game jitters because the franchise had never appeared in a Super Bowl. Pittsburgh was also jittery. That franchise has appeared in five previous Super Bowls, but this group of players had not.

For the second straight year, a Pennsylvania team made the Super Bowl!

Seattle's offense was impressive. They played good enough to win, but for their receivers. Those guys dropped way too many balls!

Matt Hasselbeck was very impressive. My estimation of him went up a notch or two. Ben Roethlisberger looked like a second year quarterback, no better or worse than Eli Manning. He gets lots of accolades for being a winning quarterback, but I wonder how he would do on a weaker team. Could he carry Houston or Detroit? Would Joey Harrington look more like a star if he played for Pittsburgh? It worked for Jake Plummer when he signed on with Denver. Young quarterbacks are over-rated.

Ben Roethlisberger did not cross the plane of the goal line on his touchdown run. The official got it wrong. I would have over-ruled it on the replay.

The Steelers receivers were as stunning as the Seahawk receivers were inept. Hines Ward caught a touchdown pass. Randell-el tossed one. The Steelers picked up their play in the second half.

The commercials were more business-like this year. Very few were as funny as the Bud and Miller Lite commercials of the '70s and '80s. The Spring crime deterrent spot was humorous.

Russ Grimm, now an assistant coach with the Steelers, gets his fourth Super Bowl ring with this win.

I've seen every Super Bowl, all forty. Is that old?

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Super Bowl XL Seahawks-Steelers

It's the fortieth renewal of the NFL championship and I've seen every game. I saw Super Bowl XVIII in person with my father. What a disappointment to travel so far and have the Redskins play so poor.

I am the sportswriter in one of my fantasy leagues, writing under the name Master4Caster. I developed a method to handicap the fantasy games and correctly predicted the winners 67% of the time. Can the same method be used to handicap real games? Well, no, not without making modifications. Fantasy games, and my forecasting method, principally measure offensive performance along with scoring. Real games do not count performance. Only scores count. Fantasy scoring under weight the effect of defense and it does not factor intangibles. Ironic that intangibles have weight in real games, but none in fantasy contests.

What fantasy scoring does well is measure contributions by individual players. Through that, it gives clues to who caused a victory. In theory, the team with the best yardage performance is in the best position to win.

The Pittsburgh Steelers will win the Super Bowl by three points according to Master4Caster's magic projection. A dominating defense and punishing ground game will allow Pittsburgh to control the ball. Seattle will start from poor field position most of the day. When they fall behind, Shawn Alexander will cease to be a factor. Seattle's passing game is more than capable. But, if they can be positioned to where they must pass to win, the Steelers defense will pressure Matt Hasselbeck into an error or two.

It's been fashionable in Washington to poor mouth Seattle. It's sour grapes. Redskins fans saw Seattle in week three when the Redskins won a close game. But Seattle got a whole lot better after that game. The Seahawks say they got better because of that game. They changed their blocking schemes. They relied more on the ground game. Darryl Robinson, who missed the first Redskins game, was healthy for the playoff game. The Seahawks returned to health by the playoff game, while the Redskins got a whole lot more hurt. The offense flat ran out of gas after winning six straight games to get there. Seattle deserved that win and deserves to be in the Super Bowl.

To beat the Steelers, they must get an early lead. That keeps Alexander involved, which makes the ground game more effective. The Seahawk defense is disruptive, as evidenced by fifty sacks and a high turnover differential on the season. They are small but athletic. All of those factors are useful when the Seahawks attack the other team's passing game. They are at a disadvantage against the run. Pittsburgh will run, especially if they get the lead. In that case, Seattle's defense will wear down by the end of the third quarter. To win, Seattle must jam the Steelers ground game and score early. Make Pittsburgh throw and they have a shot.

In those early Super Bowls, the team making its first appearance was tight, nervous and it showed. It's been a long while since we've seen a first timer. Seattle is that team and it will show.

As I tell my fantasy league, football isn't played on paper. It's played on television.

Thursday, February 02, 2006 State of the Redskins

ChrisChase wrote a thorough summary of the Redskins and their needs position by position. I can't improve on it, so I'll just point you to here.