Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Jose Bautista's Gambit: The Game Theory behind the failed takeout slide

Over two weeks after Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista became one of the first victims of MLB's new takeout slide rule, I can't get over the fact that Joey Bats actually made what was a smart decision.

The slide itself seemed borderline. This wasn't the traditional spikes-up M.Bison from Street Fighter Slide Kick Into the 2nd Baseman takeout slide that Chase Utley used to injure Ruben Tejada in the 2015 playoffs. Bautista's slide was in line with the bag. His hand made contact with Logan Forsythe's leg as Forsythe tried to turn the potential game ending double play. The booth umpire decided that Bautista had reached for Forsythe's leg on the slide, and called the batter out due to runner interference. Game over, Rays win.

Bautista's no dummy. He knows as well as anyone that interference with the middle infielder on slides into 2nd is now illegal. And I don't believe for a second that his outstretched left hand was circumstantial. Every player knows to keep his upper body compact to maximize speed when sliding into a base. The only reason Bautista happened to extend the hand on the same side as the 2nd baseman was to interfere with his throw.

While that seems rather dumb, to knowingly interfere when it's not legal... Bautista's play was a great game theory move, and the best play for his situation.


See, if Bautista slides normally, Forsythe, a competent 2B, turns the easy double play to throw out the not so fleet footed Jays batter Edwin Encarnacion at 1B to end the game. Of course, if Bautista blatantly slides into Forsythe, it's not only obvious interference and the game is over... but he could also be suspended.

However, when Bautista slides normally into the bag and subtlely extends his hand, there is a chance that the umpires overlook his interference, with the more substantial chance that Forsythe doesn't complete his play (which is what happened: Forsythe in fact made a throwing error due to interference from the outstretched hand), tying the game (Josh Donaldson would score from 3B) and keeping the game alive with two outs in the top 9th. Having a runner on 1st with two outs, obviously, gives you a better chance of winning than the game being over.

Yes, Bautista is often cited for interference and the game is over anyway. But it took an astute challenge from Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash and a conclusive booth review for that ruling to occur. Bautista's interference was subtle, and there appeared such a substantial chance that he could get away with it that many argued (incorrectly) that Bautista hadn't intended to interfere at all! The umpires on the field in fact had not ruled he done so.

Of course, the opposing manager and the booth were a little sharper than that, and Bautista's gambit did not pay off. It also sent a message that this subtle hand-checking-like attempt at interference will get called, so it's unlikely players will attempt it in the future.

But before we knew all that, Bautista made the game theory optimal decision that it was worth a try. It wasn't clean, and he got caught, but it was a very smart move on his part... smarter than playing it clean and taking the certain defeat. There was greater expected value for him and the Jays in attempting to get away with interference, than there was in sliding normally... even with the high odds that his gambit would not succeed.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Breaking Loose in Tulsa: Anatomy of a bad at-large NCAA Tournament selection, and the business of at-large bids

Every NCAA Tournament selection show ends with howling over snubs and undeserving inclusions. This year's bad-inclusion winner is a duesy: Tulsa made the field at large despite ranking 75th in Massey Ratings and a mediocre finish that included multiple losses to unheralded Memphis.

Syracuse (58th) caught similar flak, especially after losing 5 of their last 6, including a regular season closing road loss to NIT-worthy Florida State. This is especially glaring given the omissions of worthy programs like South Carolina (44th) and Georgia Tech (45th). However, Tulsa's inclusion is quite glaring given their rating even made them a marginal pick for the subordinate NIT tournament.

Someone on reddit floated an excellent theory that might not only explain these inclusions but also illustrate the sort of political factors within the NCAA that lead to certain selections and omissions:

Each conference gets a certain sum of money for every NCAA bid they get. Louisville and SMU, who would have certainly made the field, are barred from postseason play this year and could not go. The ACC (Louisville) and American Athletic Conference (SMU) lose out... unless the tournament takes one extra at-large team from those conferences in their stead.

Hence Syracuse (ACC) and Tulsa (AAC) got bids they probably didn't deserve, as a restitution payoff to the power conferences for their powerful but banned programs not getting in.

Yes, this is terribly unfair from a competitive standpoint. Yes, the committee ideally should take teams on their own merit rather than out of loyalty to a conference or program. But as long as the NCAA fills a field by hand picking teams at-large, this is always going to happen with the bubble teams. Teams are always going to get seeded higher or lower than they should, or play at an out of place region when circumstances would have allowed them to play closer to home.

Unfortunately, when you give a group of rich white men the power to hand pick competitors for a championship, political and business interests become just as important a factor in your program's fate as your strength of schedule or win loss record.

Monday, March 7, 2016

If Roy Williams want automatic NCAA Tournament bids for regular season conference champs....

Roy Williams has stated for years that he feels a conference's regular season champion should get the conference's automatic tournament bid, rather than the conference's tournament champion. Should the regular season champion get an automatic tournament bid? Or the conference tournament champion?

My answer? Yes.

If you're going to do it, both should get it. We should do away with at-large tournament bids, give every conference two bids and expand the field to 72.

Much like how international soccer leagues' non-premier divisions hold playoffs to determine who gets promoted, I think the conference tournament should be played among every runner up in the conference as a winner take all event. The conference champ gets an automatic bid, and every other team in the conference plays each other for the right to the other automatic bid.

With 36 conferences, this leaves us with 72 tournament entrants. You may do one of three things.

1. Hold eight play-in games at Dayton over Monday and Tuesday to determine the 15 and 16 seeds. This gives the lowest seeds a chance to at least win a tournament game before being fed to the #1 and #2 seeds on Thursday/Friday.

2. Hold a pair of 4 team play in tournaments at Dayton on Monday and Tuesday among the lowest 8 rated teams in the field, to determine the lowest #16 seeds for Thursday/Friday's round of 64. This gives the field of 64 a little more stuffing, since more of the lowest rated teams would knock each other out during these play ins.

3. Take a page from the conference tournaments and "stepladder" the rounds with byes to reward the higher seeds. Perhaps the top 8 teams (all the #1 and #2 seeds) get a bye to the round of 32, while everyone else has to play on Thursday and Friday. This jacks with the seeding, with 18 teams now in every region rather than 16, plus instead of 1 vs 16, 2 vs 15... 3 plays 18, 4 plays 17... down to 10 playing 11... while #1 and #2 get the 1st round off.

The obvious issue with this more objective format for determining tournament teams is that you involve fewer of the power conference teams, which not only dilutes attendance and viewership, but also doesn't allow these conferences to rake in extra tournament money. That alone will likely prohibit the NCAA from ever eliminating the placement of at-large teams from the tournament.

Still, if Roy Williams is serious about giving the conference champ an automatic bid, there would need to be a carrot for the conference tournaments, which obviously won't ever go away. This would be the most workable solution, outside of that silly 96 team expansion idea the NCAA had a few years ago.

Monday, February 8, 2016

A new look at MLB realignment, six years later

Six years ago I posited how MLB would handle expansion if they added two new teams. I figured they would follow the NFL's lead and switch to eight 4-team divisions, with the playoffs consisting solely of each league's four division winners.

That would still work today, but since that 2010 post, MLB made the move to two 15-team leagues with perpetual interleague play, and Houston ended up moving to the AL. This obviously renders my San Diego to the AL recommendation obsolete, though it still allows for a new expansion team in each league.

Also, while I had recommended Charlotte as a likely expansion candidate, the city has since built BB&T Ballpark, a 10,200 seat stadium that is decidedly not suitable for a larger MLB crowd. Having committed to minor league baseball, Charlotte is now out of that running.

Omaha's TD Ameritrade Park remains a suitable MLB-friendly ballpark (even given doubts about their market). But now the 2nd expansion candidate goes back up in the air. However, groundswell has grown in recent years to bring back the once-eliminated Montreal Expos, and now it seems they would be the most likely expansion candidate should MLB expand to 32 teams.

All this throws a wrench in the realignment plan I originally proposed in 2010. So I gave it a look and realigned my realignment plan, which again focuses on geographically grouping teams as best as possible to reduce overall travel time within the division. And again, the playoffs are division champs only, making the division winner-take-all and eliminating the somewhat unfair roll-of-the-dice wildcards.

Here is how a solid realignment would look today:

AL West - Seattle, Oakland, Anaheim, Omaha

Texas and Houston would move to a more regionally accessible division, while the expansion Omaha club would join the remaining AL West teams. This unfortunately means the division has a long-travel partner, but the AL and NL North divisions were both quite loaded and no other AL teams were in easy reach of the three incumbents. So the expansion team unfortunately drew the short straw. However, travel between the West Coast teams and Omaha is a little short than travel to either Texas team, and to a less crowded airport hub, so that helps.

This division will feature three relatively competitive rivals, which for poor Omaha means their early tenure will most likely mean some 90-110 loss seasons. You also lose the hitter friendly Texas parks, swapping in Omaha's hitter friendly TD Ameritrade Park but still making this a pitcher-friendlier division.

AL North - Minnesota, Chi White Sox, Detroit, Cleveland

Most of the AL Central remains intact in the new AL North, losing only World Champion Kansas City (and boy did none of us see THAT coming in 2010). Given each team's current state of transition and development, this division would be wide open for the taking among four fairly competitive rivals. Losing hitter friendly Kauffman Stadium with KC makes this division a little pitcher friendlier, with only the White Sox's US Cellular Field being a hitter friendly park in the division.

AL South - Houston, Texas, Kansas City, Tampa Bay

Both AL-West-departing Texas teams would join World Champs Kansas City and the AL-East departing Tampa Bay Rays in a new and quite competitive AL South. Houston of course has become young and quite good, KC is now quite good, Texas has had some struggles but is still fairly good, and Tampa Bay even on a downswing is still at least a .500-caliber team. This may become the new toughest division in MLB.

On top of that, Rangers Ballpark is a launchpad, Kauffman Stadium in KC is hitter friendly, and upcoming changes to Minute Maid Park in Houston will make it more hitter friendly. If not for Tampa Bay's crappy but slightly pitcher friendly Tropicana Field, this would be the Launchpad Division. Hitters will love it, the division becomes a pitcher's nightmare, and each team's hitters could expect a sizable boost in their season stats.

AL East - Boston, NY Yankees, Baltimore, Toronto

The AL East loses only Tampa Bay (who heads to the more regionally friendly AL South), and remains one of baseball's toughest divisions. The loss of the wildcard turns both the South and the East into two of baseball's best pennant races. Plus, all four teams play in hitters parks, and Tampa's pitcher-neutral Tropicana Field goes away. Pitcher just got a little tougher in the AL East.

NL West - San Francisco, LA Dodgers, San Diego, Arizona

With the past realignment, San Diego no longer needs to jump leagues, and a revised NL West only loses regionally unfriendly and largely uncompetitive Colorado. The winner take all division now gives greater weight to the always competitive Giants-Dodgers rivalry. Also, losing Coors Field makes this one of the most pitcher friendly divisions, with only Chase Field in Arizona not being a strong pitcher's park.

NL North - Milwaukee, Chi Cubs, Colorado, Pittsburgh

Cubs-Cards fans may howl at splitting up the two bitter rivals. But St Louis is more of a southern team, and fits better geographically in the new NL South. Plus, it also makes it possible that the Cubs and Cards could meet in the playoffs, whereas sharing a winner take all division means a playoff rematch would be impossible.

In any case, Pittsburgh and the Cubs' rise to power with young talent have made this a tough division, which leaves the Brewers and Rockies in a difficult position.

This becomes a very hitter friendly division, with park-neutral Milwaukee being the only non-hitter's park.

NL South - Cincinnati, St Louis, Atlanta, Miami

A new NL South would pair Cincinnati with three southern teams. In terms of travel and maintaining as many rivalries as possible, bringing Cincinnati is probably the best arrangement for MLB. A rebuilding Reds team joins the rebuilding Braves, the middling but improving young Marlins, and the strong veteran Cardinals. This division is probably all St Louis for now, as long as their veteran core remains strong. But should the Cards age and decline, this division could be wide open.

It's also one of the more pitcher friendly division... definitely not on the scale of either West division, but Busch Stadium plays pitcher-neutral, Turner Field (ATL) plays pitcher neutral, and Marlins Stadium (MIA) is neutral, while Great American Ballpark (CIN) is the only hitter's park. Given how many hitter friendly divisions we end up with, pitchers may prefer this division.

NL East - Philadelphia, NY Mets, Washington, Montreal

The reborn Montreal Expos would fit nicely in the revised NL East, joining the Mets, Phillies, and the former Expos now known as the Nationals. Montreal's new team would have it somewhat better than expansion Omaha, as Philly is not doing well, the Mets are good but still improving, and the Nationals while very talented have underachieved. Montreal would still enter as the likely doormat, but they'd probably be a little more competitive.

This is also the most diverse mix of parks in any division. Philly's park is a hitter's launchpad, Citi Field is a bit pitcher friendly, Nationals Park is neutral, and while it's anyone's guess how Montreal's new stadium would play, they'd likely play for now in weird and hitter friendly Stade Olympique.


So that's what a solid MLB realignment would look like if MLB quickly added two ready-to-play expansion teams to expand to 32. Losing the Wildcards would give added weight to each division's pennant race, and each smaller division would take on intriguing personalities of their own.

Friday, February 5, 2016

MLB's qualifying offer system needs to change, but it doesn't need to go.

MLB's qualifying offer system is the latest attempt to even the playing field for smaller market teams who can't afford to retain their free agents. However, like the Type A/B system that preceded it, the system is ham fistedly simple. You can submit a default qualifying contract offer of one season for about $15M, and if the player declines it to sign elsewhere, you get a sandwich draft pick (end of 1st round) and the signing team loses their top qualifying draft pick.

However, this vastly discourages teams with departing free agents from making the qualifying offer, since they now add a relative ton of money to the payroll if the player re-signs with them (which they may not want). It also vastly discourages other teams from signing such a player since they lose a prized draft pick if they do.

The system also has rules in place preventing offers to midseason acquisitions, which increases the organization hit to a team acquiring such a player, since they can't recoup a draft pick.

Agent-friendly baseball writers recommend the system be scrapped entirely, forgetting why such a system exists in the first place. Prior to its existence, MLB's richest teams stockpiled talent at will and left lesser teams to flounder, watch their developed young talent leave via free agency, or both.

What the qualifying offer system needs is nuance. Neither the Type A/B system or the QO had much nuance at all. Type A/B somewhat arbitrarily attached a label to a subset of free agents that could net sandwich picks, while the QO gives teams a single blunt instrument offer to levy in exchange for a draft pick. And both systems heavily penalized the drafts of any team that signed such a player.

First of all, the blanket 1st/2nd round sandwich picks and 1st/2nd round draft penalties need not be so ham fisted. It should be possible to open up lower picks in the draft, from the 3rd round down to the teens, to exchange and compensation. The expected value of these picks are far lower, and would levy a substantially smaller penalty to teams that sign a qualifying free agent... yet still aiding the draft of an organization that loses a player.

I think the $15 million qualifying offer is not a bad number... as a maximum. You should be able to offer smaller qualifying offers, that net lesser draft picks in return should the player sign elsewhere.

This can be determined by, say, average WAR per draft pick in each round over, say, the five years prior to the last six years (the span of a team's initial control over a prospect). For this season that period would be 2006-2010. This allows a complete picture of the recent relative value of picks made in that round.

Using WAR as an approximate barometer, you can make the qualifying offers relative to that $15 million total.

For example, a $15M qualifying offer would cost a team their highest available pick (top 10 picks are protected, so if a team's 1st selection is protected, they'd lose their 2nd pick). But then a team could offer, say, $7M, and if that player signs elsewhere the new team could lose their 3rd round pick. The compensated team gets a sandwich pick for that round. Or, you could offer $6M, and losing the player nets you a 4th round pick while the signing team loses theirs, and so on.

Eventually, you'll want to set a minimum qualifying offer amount, maybe $2 million or so, but you could go as low as the 10th-20th rounds in terms of compensation if you wanted, depending on how much of a qualifying offer is levied.

If the signing team has already lost their pick in the relevant round, they can exercise one of two options:

- Forfeit the next round's pick as well in this draft. If you're slated to lose a 4th round pick that you've already lost, you can choose to lose your 5th original pick as well. (Any sandwich picks you have gained are protected, so if you got a 4th round sandwich pick while losing your original 4th round pick, you won't lose the sandwich pick)

- Defer the lost pick to a future draft, losing the relevant pick in the next draft after this coming one. So in this case you could just decide to lose your 4th round pick next year.

This would soften the blow to your draft in signing a QO player. And it would make sure the team losing such players could offer more flexible QO's and get some compensation for more of their losses. A team rebuilding could load up on picks, without ruining the draft of whoever signs their departing free agents. It's much easier to lose a 3rd or 5th rounder than your top pick.

I realize this would dramatically increase the number of qualifying offers, and would send draft picks and draft orders flying all over the place. This would level the playing field, and also better encourage teams to sign these players, rather than discouraging them as the current system does.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Ray Rice, the fallacy of hero worship, and the invincibility of the bottom line

He never did own his actions
With two furious punches to his fiancee's head inside an elevator, one of the NFL's lauded heroes became its biggest monster
Ray Rice was for years one of my favorite famous people in sports, let alone one of my favorite players. He was, dating back to his Rutgers college days, a standup guy with a great public attitude and a work ethic and performance to match.
Then we found out he beat up his fiancee in a New Jersey casino elevator, and that changed immediately. You could see the dust from my fandom floating in the air after how fast my allegiances to Ray Rice disappeared.
See, because while I'm not so sure about how the rest of the nation sees domestic violence, me finding out a person I look up to just beat down their S.O. is for me a pretty quick dealbreaker. And never mind difficulty with sentiment. If I can walk away from everyone and everything I've ever known to come live in a place like Seattle (as I did 10 years ago), I should have no trouble reconciling a sudden and decisive end to my fandom for anyone or anything over a sordid discovery.
In fact, growing up in Vegas taught me that underneath the public facades that so many put up there is in many cases a giant self serving asshole who will step on whoever they need to and give zero fucks about what they're doing wrong or who they're hurting. And that's just the random tourists: Both my folks as well as several friends worked in prominent Vegas Strip casinos and have met hundreds of celebrities from both sports and entertainment. While many were great people, many were total dickheads, some beyond the scope of reason and sanity (and no, I'm not naming names, but some of the bad ones include some of my childhood favorites and some of yours). I think merely by growing up in Vegas I had given up the notion of public figures being heroes by adulthood.
So it makes a little less sense to me than it does to others that we have any responsibility to protect Ray Rice from prosecution and other punishment to the fullest extent of the law. At the same time, I realize why the public and the NFL and the relevant governments are having a harder time with what should otherwise be a Judge Dredd style slam dunk decision. People for years looked up to Ray Rice as not just a football star, but one of the shining beacons of everything that was right about football, a great character guy and an example to the rest of us... before this.
I did not... have viewing relations... with that video... of Ray Rice.
The NFL Commissioner claims he made a decision on Ray Rice's actions without viewing video footage of those actions even though the NFL had received that video in advance. This is probably not an honest claim by the Commisioner.
This sentimental disconnect probably has a little bit to do with why NJ authorities and why Roger Goodell have so badly screwed up how they have handled the due process and punishment for Rice's behavior.
It's no secret that many across America were already not happy in general with Roger Goodell's tenure as NFL Commissioner. The Ray Rice disaster was not really so much a cherry on top of a shit cake as it was a barrel of watermelons dumped in a splattering heap atop it, leaving the table looking like the unholy marriage of a scat film set and the stage at the end of a Gallagher show.
In fact, scat, slapstick and bigotry might be appropriate symbols for Goodell's handling of this whole disaster. The NFL's role in the subsequent failed cover up is nauseatingly disgusting, Ray Rice acted out a Three Stooges short on his fiancee's face, and many people both uninvolved and directly involved have shown that they still have a culturally backwards sense towards whether or not it's ever okay to physically strike a significant other over a domestic dispute.
Like many of you, I want Roger Goodell gone after this. Hell, I wanted him gone before this, given his cavalier disdain for serious issues facing the league such as the serious health and brain-damage problems of retired players.
But as it was before, Roger Goodell isn't going anywhere no matter how upset we get with him, no matter how much media figures like Keith Olbermann rake his credibility over the coals, because the only people who can oust him are the other owners. And the only reason they would oust him is if his decisions were directly impacting their bottom line.
And as angry as the public gets over the Rice disaster, 50K-70K are still going to pack every NFL stadium hosting a game this weekend. Millions of fans across the world are still going to tune in and obsess over this weekend's games. Advertisers still see the incredible value in reaching an audience of this size and have no intentions of pulling their NFL sponsorships over a commissioner's mishandling of a domestic violence case involving one of his players.
And given that, none of us angry at Goodell have any leverage to oust him over it. None. His placement as commissioner is by and large a business decision. His role by and large is to make business decisions. And the league's decision to oust him would have to be by and large a business decision. The NFL is not going to lose a significant portion of its business over the outrage.
This never minds the sordid reality that a good portion of the other players, coaches and executives, not to mention the fans, are probably themselves wifebeaters, people who see no big deal in taking a swing at their wives/girlfriends/fiancees, especially provided they say sorry later and move on. That's a whole other can of worms that goes beyond football, let alone the Ray Rice disaster.
Roger Goodell probably doesn't deserve to be the face of anything, let alone the NFL, after this disaster. But sadly there isn't much of anything we can do about it.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Finding Ways To Win: The Hawks have made a fan out of me

Despite growing up in Las Vegas, I grew up a Mariners fan. I was sort of a Sonics fan, but more in passing than anything. Admittedly, I grew up a Kansas City Chiefs fan, and of course I’m thrilled with their sudden, incredible turnaround to a 9-0 start this season. My allegiances to Seattle sports teams have always been incidental or objectively neutral.
Pete Carroll makes winning look automatic these days
Pete Carroll makes winning look automatic these days
But that aside, after almost ten years in Seattle, I am finally becoming a Seattle Seahawks fan. The edition I discovered when I moved here was good, but bland, a blandly competitive West Coast style team that had a couple of great years, a few good ones and a slow slide into mediocre irrelevance. And then John Schneider, Pete Carroll, Beast Mode and Russell Wilson showed up and the identity of the team changed dramatically. They started growing on me during last season’s emergent 11-5 season and thrilling playoff run, and now I have bought in.
I grew up watching the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels basketball team, one of college basketball’s powerhouses under embattled but savvy coach Jerry Tarkanian. Combining incredible talent, a relentless pace and Tim Grgruich’s Amoeba Defense (basically, smother the back court with pressure man defense, steal the inevitable desperate pass, fast break to an easy basket and profit), UNLV had one of the top teams in the country and for long stretches was ranked #1 overall. To see them inevitably lose in the thrilling crapshoot that is the NCAA Tournament (except of course for glorious 1990, when they did win it all) was always a shock, like getting punched in the gut. Growing up watching them steamroll every opponent, from the lowly division rivals in a Big West Conference they were far too good for to some of the top teams in the country, you as a fan always had the sense regardless of the score that the Runnin’ Rebels were going to find a way to win.
I feel that way about today’s Seahawks. They are super talented and capable of a wider variety of explosive plays than probably any other NFL team. Their defense has brash personalities and makes a lot of big plays. They make a lot of foolish mistakes and at times play like background noise on defense. Their QB is super smart, level headed and versatile.
But most of all, no matter what the score, I always believe they’re going to win, especially after that epic comeback against the Bucs. For me, that game was the turning point, and showed me more about what this team is made of than any blowout would have… because they got hit in the mouth by a vastly inferior opponent, fell embarrassingly behind at home, and landed in a spot where most teams would have gone into pass-only desperation mode or folded their tent. And instead, they ground their way back into the game, forced overtime and flipped the kill switch on both ends of the ball. They overwhelmed Mike Glennon and the Bucs offense. Beast Mode basically willed the offense downfield. And Hauschka’s walkoff field goal felt automatic as it sealed the deal.
I can look at the Seahawks schedule and see a lot of trap games. But I can’t look at the schedule and think, “There’s a chance they lose that game.” The reasonable part of my mind says a loss is always possible, but the fan side now just doesn’t see how it can happen. They always seem to find a way to win.
They haven’t lost since that road game against the Colts. I bet, the next time they lose, it’s going to feel like getting punched in the gut.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Washington Huskies basketball: It's probably time for Lorenzo Romar to go

That's the look of a man who got a top 25 caliber team to lose to Albany, Colorado State and Nevada.
That's the look of a man who got a tournament caliber team to lose to Albany, Colorado State and Nevada.
In light of my previous post on UNLV football, let's talk about the sport UNLV is actually good at: College basketball. I have two alma maters, UNLV and the University of Washington.
Now, college basketball is a different beast in that teams play about 30 regular season games, there are over 350 Division I programs, and instead of bowl games you're playing for a spot in the massive March crapshoot that is the NCAA Tournament. The 7th best team in a power conference has just as much a chance at the national championship as the best team in that conference, or any conference champion.
While regular season contests don't carry the weight they do in other sports (individual games are typically not life or death), what you do during the season still matters in the big picture. At-large participants in the NCAA Tournament (those who don't win their conference tournaments) are picked based on their in-season performance, so a slate of bad losses can hurt your case as much as big wins over tough teams can help you.
The UNLV Runnin' Rebels currently look good at 6-1 thanks to a soft schedule (a loss to Oregon and wins over N.Arizona, Jacksonville State, Iowa State, UC Irvine, Hawaii and Portland). They get Cal tonight in Berkeley and entertain a few more cupcakes before going to Chapel Hill to play top 25 North Carolina. Their days of glory under Jerry Tarkanian are long gone and the program's relevance has come and gone... but previous coach Lon Kruger did a good job using solid defense to turn the team into a top 25 squad before turning the reins to current coach Dave Rice.
But they're not who I really want to talk about. Over in Huskyland, it's not looking good for often embattled coach Lorenzo Romar.
Though the Huskies made a few Tournament Sweet Sixteens under his watch, many of his teams have a history of underachievement. After three straight NCAA tourney bids, Romar somehow survived missing the 2007 tournament and an early exit from an undeserved CBI tourney bid in 2008 to hold onto his job and swing three more consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances from 2009-2011. Even in missing the 2012 tourney his Huskies made the consolation NIT's Final Four.
And this year it's gotten worse, to the point where I think this will be Romar's last season at UW. Never mind that last year's team missed the NCAA tourney. Previous Romar-led Husky teams at least beat the softer opponents on their schedule. This year's team lost at home to lowly Albany on 11/13, got routed at home by mediocre Colorado State on 11/24, watched Saint Louis (11/28) and Fullerton (12/2) take them to the limit and then lost at home to Nevada on 12/8.
The Huskies expected to be 7-1 off a cupcake schedule, but instead sit at 4-4. Even if they run the table leading into a 12/29 road game with tough UConn, Romar's standing will be in trouble at 8-4 when he should have been 11-1 against a soft schedule. Unless his team rips the Pac 12 apart in conference play, and given their performance to date I strongly doubt they'll even win all four of these upcoming easy games, I have doubts Romar keeps his job.
Compare this to the 6-4 Washington State Cougars, a fellow state of Washington team that while improving isn't expected to make the NCAA Tournament and might even be a hard sell for the 2nd tier NIT. They narrowly lost to 10th ranked Gonzaga, took a narrow loss to lesser but tough Pepperdine, and took expected losses to Kansas and Texas A&M... but have had little trouble beating the weaker foes on their schedule. EWU, Utah Valley, AR-Pine Bluff, Idaho, Portland... all easily dispatched cupcakes. Fresno State was a tougher opponent and still the Cougs won.
If the Cougs can beat such teams, the Huskies and their top 25-50 talent should have had no trouble with their early schedule. Instead, true to Lorenzo Romar form, they found a way to sweat and lose winnable games. Having a young team (which is the current case with UW) is never an excuse in a sport where teams contend and win national titles with freshman and sophomores leading the charge all the time.
Lorenzo Romar has done good things with the UW program, but it looks like the time has come for him to go.

Fumblin' Rebels: Can UNLV football ever succeed?

I had the fortune of growing up in Las Vegas, right down the street from one of the most exciting college basketball teams in NCAA history. Under coach Jerry Tarkanian, the UNLV Runnin' Rebels frequently challenged for the NCAA Tournament Championship, actually did win it in 1990 and almost won it before a dubious Final Four loss in 1991. Since Vegas had no pro sports teams of note, UNLV basketball pretty much became the local hometown team and, through tough times, has remained the epicenter of Vegas local sports fandom to this day.
As for the UNLV football team....
UNLVFootballFrom where I sit in Seattle, Washington State Fans right now are watching the football team go through an extended dead period. Coach Mike Leach is trying to dig the Cougs out of the doldrums, and along with the recent Apple Cup victory they're showing signs of finally returning to relevance.
The Cougs' worst, however, pales in comparison to how hopeless the UNLV program has been since the 1980's (when Harvey Hyde had the services of future NFLers Randall Cunningham and Ickey Woods). Save for an handful of 6 to 8 win seasons, UNLV has shown little in D-1/FBS play. That narrow win the Cougs had over UNLV earlier this season in Las Vegas? That if anything says more about how much the Cougs were struggling at the time than how good the UNLV football program is. UNLV capped off a 2-11 season a few weeks ago with a convincing 48-10 loss to Hawaii, who with that rout improved themselves to 3-9.

Since Harvey Hyde's departure, UNLV coaches have watched the program dissolve into irrelevance. Coaches and records:
Wayne Nunnely (1986-1989): 6-5, 5-6, 4-7, 4-7.
Jim Strong (1990-1993): 4-7, 4-7, 6-5, 3-8.
Jeff Horton (1994-1998): 7-5, 2-9, 1-11, 3-8, 0-11.
John Robinson (1999-2004): 3-8, 8-5, 4-7, 5-7, 6-6, 2-9
Mike Sanford (2005-2009): 2-9, 2-10, 2-10, 5-7, 5-7
Bobby Hauck (2010-now): 2-10, 1-11, 2-11
(Note that under Nunnely and Strong that UNLV played in the lowly Big West conference, with competition so weak that most of those teams probably belonged in D-1AA... and yet they still posted the above records. Horton played his first two seasons in the Big West before UNLV joined an oversized Western Athletic Conference that included a few of those Big West pushovers. After Horton was let go UNLV joined the Mountain West Conference.)
The program had a glimmer of life under Horton and Robinson, only to eventually dissolve once the momentum failed to sustain.
UNLV has also taken some embarrassing losses. Strong's final year included a loss to then-D-1AA North Texas. Just last year UNLV not only dropped a home game to FCS squad Southern Utah but was routed 41-16. UNLV's annual game with Nevada for the Fremont Cannon (their version of the Apple Cup) hasn't been much of a contest: Nevada's won the last eight meetings and 18 of the last 24. In one Fremont Cannon game, Nevada committed five turnovers against UNLV... yet still gained 699 yards.
Time and again pundits, athletic officials and directors alike have suggested disbanding the UNLV football program. The team facilities are middling. The home stadium is situated in a swampy hole several miles east of campus on the edge of town.
And coaches have one of the hardest recruiting sells in the country. It's hard enough convincing a talented player to come play for a bad football team in a so-so conference. Try convincing someone's parents that getting an education and playing four years in Las Vegas, the debaucherous party outpost of the world, is a good idea. The program gets middling support from the University officials, and students and locals just don't care about the football team.
As someone who attended UNLV out of high school, I can attest that the bulk of the team's fiercely loyal supporters could probably fill a meeting room. You get an additional straggling bunch of casual fans and bored students at each of the home games, but mostly the football team plays home games to a horde of sun-scorched empty seats in a dusty swamp.
So I can see arguments to dissolve that football team. Coach after coach has come in looking to right the ship, only to pack his boxes and unceremoniously depart a few years and dozens of losses later.
What would it take to rebuild the UNLV football program? It goes without saying that the team is going to have to do it without significant community, campus and University support and without any leverage to recruit four and five star talent.
Let's bear in mind, Coug Fans, that Mike Leach is facing a somewhat similar situation in Pullman. The Cougs have a much richer history and tradition, granted, but Bill Doba left the team in tatters and asking top players to come to a hot-and-cold outpost in Eastern Washington to help rebuild a Pac 12 doormat is a hard sell.
But so was recruiting kids to play in Lubbock, TX for a Big 12 doormat. And Mike Leach turned Texas Tech into a high scoring college football powerhouse through his trademark Air Raid offense. The success he assembled from scratch compelled Tech to spend on upgrades to the program while filling the stadium and bringing new fans and support to the program. He is one of many pieces of proof that lacking allure and resources itself cannot prevent a coach from rebuilding a football program.
Despite his previous success coaching FCS school Montana, I don't think that current UNLV coach Bobby Hauck has the answers. After his 2nd year the program appears nowhere closer to relevance, is still getting stomped by fellow FBS doormats and I have a feeling he will get the axe before his recruiting and discipline efforts manifest into any sort of results.
Most of all, I don't find his offensive and defensive schemes all that creative, and I think the key to turning a program around is to bring in a unique scheme that will build in an edge the team can eventually exploit.
- Leach's Air Raid is the weekend pickup game edition of the run and shoot, overloading the secondary and having the QB throw to a receiver as soon as possible. Purdue ran a similar bunch-style spread offense that turned Drew Brees and Kyle Orton into stars. Even when the defense knows what's coming they're forced to bench front linemen and play backup DBs, plus the pace of the offense can wear down the defense.
- Teams like military academies Air Force and Navy live off the wishbone and triple option, running the ball every down with 3-4 backs and overwhelming defensive fronts into leaving open gaps even when said defenses stack the box on every play.
- Urban Meyer's spread option turns every play into a wildcard, rolling the QB out and giving him the option to throw, run an option play with the tailback or bootleg it himself. Defending the spread option is difficult because if the defense overcommits any one way, the offense can exploit the resulting weakness.
If a coach is going to turn UNLV around, he's got to bring a gimmick to the table that will give this team an identity other than the team everyone else beats the crap out of. He's got to give an opposing coach something to scheme against. And success with such an offense will reduce the burden on the defense to perform time and again when the offense stalls, a contributing factor to bad games like the aforementioned 699 yard game against Nevada. If the offense can consistently hold onto the football instead of going three-and-out or committing turnovers, that lessens the load on the defense.
A coach also has to bring a sense of discipline. UNLV had a productive run and shoot style offense under Jeff Horton, but he didn't exhibit the strong leadership needed to keep his team disciplined and in-line, which ultimately contributed to his undoing.
Even though they struggled again this season, the Cougs have experienced a 180 in terms of the discipline Leach has demanded of his charges. The dismissal of star receiver Marquess Wilson was the tip of the iceberg in regards to Leach demanding much more of his players than his predecessor did. The team continued to struggle, but in holding them to greater accountability Leach not only set the table for this year's Apple Cup upset of the Huskies but likely for future success in coming seasons. By creating a culture of discipline, pride and accountability Mike Leach is making it clear that, whether or not failure happens, it's not going to be accepted with resignation but received with unrelenting resolve to use it as a lesson for improvement.
The only place a UNLV coach and his team can look to turn the program around is in the mirror: They need to trust the current players. He can't just wait for better recruits to come along, because as his predecessors found out they're not coming. To paraphrase Rick Pitino, Ickey Woods and Randall Cunningham aren't walking through that door. The guys who are getting their asses kicked right now will need to be the guys you trust tomorrow to turn the program around. In most cases it's not their lack of talent holding them and the team back but their lack of training and tools. A unique scheme will give them those tools, and the unwavering discipline of a strong leader will instill the training to use those tools. A name guy isn't going to provide those tools all that much better than any no-name coach, provided that coach has a philosophy and scheme that his players can utilize to their advantage.
Waiting for "your guys" cannot be an excuse. Mike Leach is recruiting for players who better suit his system today, but he did not and will not use the "your guys" excuse for his team's failures. He is working hard with today's guys to turn that program around, just as he did with the guys he inherited at Texas Tech.
UNLV football, hopeless as it looks, is capable of turning things around if they want to, and they can hire the right coach. They don't need a new stadium on-campus. They don't need million dollar training facilities and they don't need superstar recruits or a name brand coach. They just need a strong-willed coach who brings with him a unique system that can exploit opponents, plus the strength to develop a culture of discipline and accountability and a willingness to trust the guys who are there today to implement his system and work their hardest to succeed in it.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

49ers QB Alex Smith, entitlement, and the magic of Urban Meyer

Alex Smith (#11) has led the 49ers offense with splendid results, but Colin Kaepernick (#7) showed in last Monday night's 49ers win over the Bears that he may be the better QB for the 49ers.
San Francisco 49ers QB Alex Smith suffered a concussion a couple weeks ago, leading coach Jim Harbaugh to turn to 2nd year backup Colin Kaepernick, a mobile and talented prospect out of Nevada. Last Monday Kaepernick did well (16 for 23, 243 yds, 2 TD, no picks) against a tough Chicago Bears defense in leading San Francisco to a convincing 32-7 win.
Despite Alex Smith's success and the 49ers sitting at 7-2-1 with Smith playing most of those games, Harbaugh faced a QB controversy if Smith was healthy for this Sunday's game against the New Orleans Saints. Kaepernick is being groomed as the QB of the future (and has seen some action out of Wildcat packages), but in shredding one of the NFL's top defenses in a high profile game it now appears that Kaepernick has the talent in the present to lead the 49ers offense.
Harbaugh first stated he was willing to go with the 'hot hand', i.e. play the QB who is currently playing well... indicating he was going to go with Kaepernick even if Smith was healthy. Despite not formally committing with the media to either Smith or Kaepernick, sources indicate that regardless of Smith's health (and jury's out on whether Smith is 100% back from his concussion or not) Harbaugh will go with Kaepernick this Sunday and possibly beyond.
Fan reaction is mixed, but an uncomfortable lot of 49ers fans are upset with the decision because they believe Alex Smith's embattled career path and recent success entitles him to the starting role. ESPN's LZ Granderson has also jumped on that bandwagon.
Let's talk about entitlement.
I'll digress from NFL football a second, go out on a limb and cite entitlement as the #1 obstacle in improving the Seattle Mariners. How many players have the M's kept well past their expiration date in key roles, refusing to replace or bench them, due to a sense that they were entitled to their everyday roles, entitled to a chance to hit/pitch out of slumps? Just some obvious examples: Carl Everett, Ken Griffey Jr.'s last run, Jose Vidro, Miguel Olivo's recent run, Bret Boone, Rich Aurilia, Jeff Cirillo... yes, even Ichiro in 2012... relievers like Norm Charlton, Eddie Guardado, Rick White, Jose Mesa. Even when it was clear to the naked eye that those guys were hurting the team, management not only kept them in the lineup but in key lineup slots and roles out of a sense of veteran entitlement.
Entitlement is entirely a subjective social construct that depends on the judgment of whoever is making the decision to entitle someone or not. Even our laws, up to the US Constitution, exist because of sociopolitical choices made by our government leaders. They could decide tomorrow to take them all away, for any reason legitimate or otherwise: That these laws continue to exist are a matter of collective choice. To a lesser extent, any decision that someone is entitled to something is purely a subjective choice on the part of whoever makes that decision.
To say that a player should not be benched because of a subjective belief that he deserves to keep his role has no basis in reason or reality.
Alex Smith has had an embattled career on a franchise that until Harbaugh arrived as coach had an erratic sense of direction. Surrounded by a revolving door of limited talent and poor coaching, Smith floundered when he did get to play and almost had his career literally crushed. Smith healed up and Harbaugh arrived after turning Stanford into a college football powerhouse, quickly developing the same sort of solid running game and defense as at Stanford. With surprising quickness the 49ers became a winner... and Alex Smith suddenly became an effective QB in Harbaugh's system, bolstered by star veteran tailback Frank Gore, improved front line blocking and a vastly improved defense covering his back.
Like managers in baseball, quarterbacks in football are frequently given far, far more credit and blame for their team's fortunes than is deserved. There are some cases where it's somewhat justified: The QB of a pass-heavy air attack like Drew Brees in New Orleans (or any run and shoot QB ever) is obviously largely responsible for his offense's fortunes. But even then the playcalling of the coaches and coordinators plays a large role in what the QB can and can't do: Think about the run-first playcalling of the Seahawks, the limited nature of the pass plays called, and consider what effect that has on Russell Wilson's ability to lead the offense.
When the 49ers were a disorganized mess, Alex Smith struggled badly. When the 49ers built a solid team around him, Alex Smith succeeded. You could do this with most NFL QBs and see largely similar results (ask Trent Dilfer about how he got his Super Bowl ring). It's only when you have very talented exceptions to the rule like Andrew Luck, or Peyton Manning during his final Colts seasons that you see good QBs carry lesser teams. And it's rare you see exceptionally bad QBs bring an otherwise great team down, because obviously a coach will either bench a bad QB if he has a potentially better option on the roster, or rework the offense to minimize the responsibility that QB has for carrying the offense.
Alex Smith has a gaudy 104.1 QB rating after 9 starts in 2012. He has completed 152 of 217 passes (70%) for 1731 yards, 13 TDs and 5 INT. Over the previous three seasons he did post solid numbers (81.5 rating in 10 starts in in 2009, 82.1 in 10 starts in 2010, 90.7 in a full season in 2011).
So don't take the following as a statement that I think Alex Smith is a bad QB. And of course let's assume for this discussion that both he and Colin Kaepernick are healthy: Obviously if he's still suffering effects from his concussion then Colin should start regardless. But I don't think Alex Smith is a great QB who is being held back by circumstance, or one that deserves Franchise QB status. In fact, I consider him one of the most overrated QB prospects of all time.
Alex Smith played his college ball at the University of Utah under coach Urban Meyer, who famously turned Utah into a BCS title contender with his spread option. Smith saw incredible success in this system, throwing 47 TDs to 8 INT in 25 NCAA starts before being selected #1 overall by the 49ers in the 2005 draft.
However, two caveats. Urban Meyer got the job at Utah by having done the same thing at Bowling Green, producing two bowl seasons at BGU and making a mid-major star out of QB Josh Harris. Harris did not get the attention Smith got, drafted in the 6th round of the 2004 draft by the Baltimore Ravens and bouncing around several NFL benches before retiring in 2008 to focus on advertising (he briefly came out of retirement to play in the Continental Indoor Football League).
And following Alex Smith, Urban Meyer once again parlayed his success into a new and greater role, taking the coaching job at Florida and turning them into a BCS title contender. His most famous QB pupil threw for 9286 yards, 88 TDs and 15 INT in 55 career starts and won the 2007 Heisman Trophy.
If this guy's passes can't hit the backside of a barn, how did Urban Meyer get him to throw for 9286 yards and 88 TDs, win a Heisman Trophy + lead Florida to BCS title contention?
That QB, Tim Tebow, is considered a deeply flawed media magnet punchline with insufficient ability to be an NFL QB. Alex Smith succeeded in the exact same system that allowed a deeply flawed, allegedly incapable QB to throw for over 9000 yards, 88TDs and win a Heisman Trophy. Think about that.
Alex Smith is probably a better skilled QB than Tim Tebow, but the idea that he is a top prospect superstar soiled by circumstance is an overstatement. In actuality, the 49ers vastly overrated Alex Smith when they drafted him, and what the 49ers have right now is somewhere in the middle: A decent but not great QB that can perform well if surrounded by the right talent.
That said, QB is thus an upgradeable position for the 49ers and the 49ers knew it, drafting Colin Kaepernick under Jim Harbaugh's watch with the 36th overall pick in the 2011 draft. Now that Kaepernick is showing in the present that he can lead the 49ers offense, Harbaugh is understandably considering the notion that his new QB is not only ready to take the reins but is superior to his incumbent QB.
Alex Smith is not a sacred cow, and should not be kept in the starting QB slot out of a sense of entitlement. He is probably at the zenith of his upside as an NFL QB, a man whose reputation as a pro has never fit his actual ability. Colin Kaepernick should not be denied the opportunity to start, to not only grow his already solid ability with experience but offer the 49ers a better chance to win as the starter than Smith does... just because of some mythical sense that Smith's success in a situation that maximizes his ability entitles him to a starting role.
Ask fans of the Seattle Mariners how a sense of veteran entitlement worked out for their team.