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.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Huskies football is on the upswing, this season and beyond

Bishop Sankey and Huskies fans are thrilled for the present, and future, of UW football.
I want to look at UW football. Four weeks after their season appeared to many in big trouble at 3-4, Husky football suddenly pimpslapped then-undefeated Oregon State, went into Cal's house and beat the Bears, handily disposed of a weakish Utah squad... and suddenly they're 6-4, facing a real prospect of 8-4 and a New Year's bowl game. Not bad for a squad that wasn't sure a month ago they'd even finish .500.
Despite being the 8th best team in the Pac 12, I had no bones that the Huskies were a legit bowl-caliber FBS program (Sagarin has UW currently 34th in the country). Earlier this season I talked about the Pac 12 being one of the nation's best conferences, and UW having one of the nation's toughest schedules. That definitely hasn't changed: Sagarin currently notes the Huskies schedule as 2nd toughest in the nation and he still firmly sits the Pac 12 as the 3rd strongest conference in college football. They've done it with one of the better defenses in college football, a come-and-go running game led by Bishop Sankey and unspectacular but capable play from QB Keith Price.
There was little doubt in my mind the Huskies were one of college football's better teams despite not even being in the top half of their own conference and even while at 3-4. Husky hand wringing in Seattle amused me, given the toughness of their schedule and not their quality of play was the primary culprit for their struggles, and that an easier schedule the rest of the way indicated they would win down the stretch. I didn't expect the upset of Oregon State, granted, but I still figured they'd be a 7-5 or so team.
If anything, the Pac 12's toughness indicates that the Huskies probably don't need to book such a tough schedule in coming seasons. With a conference loaded with legit challengers, the Huskies can put a McNeese State or a UNLV (or two) on the schedule and ensure themselves a better shot at a 10-11 win season (if not a shot at a national title should things break right) without diminishing their stature via strength of schedule.
Maybe that was by design: Maybe coach Steve Sarkisian knew that with a young team of newcomers and newly minted starters that, while good, they didn't have the material to run the table and wanted to temper expectations for 2013... which wouldn't have happened if the team went 9-3 or 10-2 against a more normal schedule. If they finish that well in 2012, expectations for 2013 skyrocket: They have to at least do that well, if not compete for the national championship, or fans will be disappointed. Ask Frank Solich how well finishing "only" 9-3 did for him before that record and higher expectations got him fired from Nebraska.
Sarkisian probably had faith his team could net a bowl game against a loaded schedule, and with the team displaced from Husky Stadium during renovations, why not make this a battle-test season?
Not that this absolutely was the intent (I don't know that and am just taking a loosely educated guess), but whether or not it was by design Sarkisian has set the table for an improved Husky team to take a big step forward in 2013.
For now, UW faces a good look at 8-4 and a chance to impress at a higher profile bowl game. Given a schedule that would have crushed the average football team, as far as I'm concerned they've already had a very impressive season.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Andrew Luck is carrying the Colts on his back. For real.

With little help from the running game and a crappy defense backing him up (aka the same Colts team that went 2-14 last year), Andrew Luck has led the Colts to a 6-3 start.
Frequently when a team wins with a new QB at the helm, the QB gets an inordinate amount of credit when in reality, the rest of the team played a large role while the QB was just one of several factors.
But right now the Indianapolis Colts, with rookie and #1 draft pick Andrew Luck at QB, sit at 6-3. The year before the Colts finished a disastrous 2-14 following the loss of franchise QB Peyton Manning, a loss that starkly illustrated how well Manning's play had disguised the Colts' numerous weaknesses once Manning wasn't there to carry the team on his back.
Without Manning the Colts were 27th in offensive efficiency according to Football Outsiders, 27th with the pass and 22nd with the run. The defense was a fairly crappy 23rd, and the Colts finished a fairly crappy 2-14, putting head coach Jim Caldwell's standing in suitably crappy condition to get fired after the season.
With much of the same personnel in 2012, the Colts have improved under Luck. The offense efficiency is now 15th, in large part thanks to the passing game under Luck. The yards per play improved from a 4th worst 4.8 ypp in 2011 to a league average 5.5 in 2012. The team rebounded from the 2nd worst first downs (252 in 16 games) to the 2nd most 1st downs as of today (213 in 9 games). Over 2/3 of those 1st downs have come via the pass (128 passing 1sts, 60 rushing 1sts).
This improvement on offense comes despite a useful but inefficient running game (985 total yards, 13th best, but a mediocre 3.9 ypg, 19th best). Luck has had to throw an average of 40 passes per game, and hasn't been Drew Brees level efficient (57.5% completion rate, 10 TDs to 9 INT and an okay-ish 79.1 QB rating), but has average 292 yards per game and has led two 4th quarter comebacks for the Colts this season.
Far and away his leading receiver is career Colt Reggie Wayne, who had a trio of 100 catch seasons under Peyton Manning but, coming off a 75 catch campaign in 2011, already has 69 through 9 games, is averaging a career high 103 yards per game and is on pace for a career high 123 catches. Journeyman Donnie Avery (38 catches) is on track for his best season yet, plus rookies Dwayne Allen (25 catches) and T.Y. Hilton (24 catches) have contributed as well. Save for Wayne (and again he wasn't a game changer last year during the 2-14 campaign), I wouldn't call any of those players an equal or greater catalyst to the Colts' turnaround than Andrew Luck.
Oh, and the defense? Football Outsiders not only shows that they've regressed, but by defensive efficiency they are actually the worst defense in the NFL. Even by more conventional stats the Colts defense is still a liability, 18th best in yards allowed and allowing a fairly awful 4.7 yards per gain on the ground (29th best).
So with much of the same personnel on both sides of the ball except for a couple of halfway decent 3rd round picks at receiver, AND with coach Chuck Pagano on hiatus to battle cancer, AND with a mediocre running game that's forced the passing game to win games by itself, AND with an even worse defense than last year's 2-14 team... Andrew Luck has led the Colts to a 6-3 record.
It looks like the Colts have found their franchise QB. Just wait until they build a better team around him. Like Peyton Manning did before him, Andrew Luck may lead an NFL dynasty in Indianapolis for years to come.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Stronger and Weaker, Part Two: NFL teams that are better they currently look

In Part One of this two part series I reviewed three NFL teams that I believe are weaker than their records, rankings and reputations indicate.
Here in Part Two I'll point out three teams currently rated lower than I think they are capable. Don't be surprised to see a surge from these three teams. As I mentioned in Part One, I'll leave the Seahawks off this list as you loyal readers are well aware of our collective take that the Seahawks are probably better and stronger a team than expected.
These teams are more than meets the eye:
Jeff Fisher would like to challenge the conventional wisdom that his St Louis Rams are not a force to be reckoned with.
St Louis Rams:
Why look, it's the Seahawks friendly division rivals... the ones that play their home games in a giant warehouse and haven't been relevant since The Greatest Show on Turf. Under newly arrived coach Jeff Fisher, this rebuilding also-ran sits at a somewhat surprising 3-4 after back to back losses to the Dolphins and Packers. Still, fans and pundits aren't taking the Rams too seriously, with rankings seating the Rams around 21st or 22nd.
Part of that is prior reputation, sure: The Rams haven't posted a winning season since 2003 and with win #3 in Week 5 they blew past their win total from last year's 2-14 disaster season. It's going to take sustained success for NFL fans to buy into the Rams, especially in a tough NFC West where they need to outlast the mighty 49ers, a tough Seahawks squad and a similarly resurgent Cardinals team.
Yes, the offense still has work to do. Sam Bradford has yet to show consistency at QB. The offense itself is 24th in DVOA per Football Outsiders (F.O.). Star back Steven Jackson is struggling and the rushing game is 16th in yardage. The Rams also showed uncanny ineffeciency in a recent loss to the Dolphins: Despite 462 yards and 22 first downs they only managed 14 points.
But look at their opposition, the 4th toughest NFL schedule to date per Sagarin ratings. None of these teams would be considered easy outs: Detroit on the road, Washington (w/RGIII), the now-mighty Bears (in Chicago!), the brutal Seahawks, the green but similarly brutal Cardinals, upstart Miami (in Miami) and Aaron Rodgers-led Green Bay. It's no surprise the offense has struggled to keep up. Few offenses could excel against that slate.
Against this opposition, their 20.1 ppg allowed is 9th fewest in the NFL. F.O. rates their DVOA on defense 7th in the NFL, their pass defense 9th and run defense a respectable 15th, along with some of the least variance in the league (3rd least), illustrating consistency. I didn't even mention their superb rookie kicker Greg Zeuerlein, which extends their field goal range and maximizes scoring opportunities with his big leg.
Going into this season, I wouldn't have been surprised if the Rams finished that stretch 0-7. Instead the only convincing losses they've taken were to the two best teams (23-6 to Chicago and a closer than it looked 30-20 to Green Bay), they nearly beat Detroit and Miami, and they outlasted Washington and Seattle while disposing easily of Arizona. New England, their next opponent, might be the softest defense they've faced all year. Not that I'm sure of an upset, but it's distinctly possible.
It's not going to get much easier for the Rams: They still have to play the 49ers twice, the resurgent Vikings and Bucs await, and they've got to face the Seahawks and Cards again. Five of their remaining games after their Week 9 bye week are on the road.
But a couple of upsets aren't out of the question. In fact, I might even argue that they could be favorites against the Vikes, Cards and Bucs. Favorites! The Rams! I think this team that finished 2-14 last year could conceivably finish .500 this season.
Coach Jeff Fisher is for real, and so are the St Louis Rams.
Creamsicles for everyone! Josh Freeman and the rest of Greg Schiano's Tampa Bay Bucs are looking to crash a few victory formations down the stretch of this 2012 season.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers:
An identity-lacking young team known for combative rookie coach Greg Schiano, the Bucs are the best of a group of NFC South also-rans at 3-4, far behind the currently undefeated Atlanta Falcons. Still, like the Rams no one is expecting much of the rebuilding Bucs... probably even less in fact: While we at West Coast Bias are a tad higher on the Bucs (20th), the bulk of other power rankings had the Bucs around 26th, perceiving the Bucs as a doormat... or at least they did before the Bucs throttled the more highly regarded Minnesota Vikings 36-17 this past Thursday.
A look at the numbers shows that, big victory aside, this team is no doormat. This is one of the highest scoring teams in the NFL (26.3 ppg, 9th best), one of the better defenses (21.9 ppg, 12th), a team that nearly took out the Giants (34-41), Cowboys (10-16), Redskins (22-24) and Saints (28-35) in their four losses. Per F.O. defensive DVOA they have the #1 run defense in the NFL. Recent wins over the Vikings (36-17) and Chiefs (38-10) were convincing, and they've exceeded 100 team yards rushing in their last three games. They've generated multiple turnovers in five of their seven games while only committing seven total themselves.
The offense is still okay to bleh, they have had somewhat easy defensive competition, and as young teams do the team's been inconsistent on both sides of the ball. But Greg Schiano has built this team to compete, and the Bucs' upcoming schedule has enough soft spots (Oakland, San Diego, Carolina are next) that the Bucs could get to, maybe above .500. Games against Atlanta, New Orleans and Denver make the later end of the schedule tougher, but a couple of upsets down the stretch could put the Bucs at .500 by the end of Schiano's first NFL season.
Unlike most teams you would rank 26th of 32 teams, the Tampa Bay Bucs are not a team opponents want to see on the other side of the field.
Barry Sanders would be like, "Bitch, please"
Matthew Stafford and the Lions may be in prime position to cut back and reverse field on their 2-4 start. Wayne Fontes would be proud.
Detroit Lions:
As Brett Miller alluded to, the Lions being better than thought is not really a secret around here at West Coast Bias. But I don't mind going into a bit of detail as to what makes them better than their 23rd ranking and 2-4 record indicate.
Detroit's offense is 7th best in the NFL by offensive DVOA, despite having faced the 4th toughest defensive opposition. Matthew Stafford, Megatron et al can move the ball no matter how good your defense is. This offsets a suspect defense that has conversely done a so-so job (22nd in DVOA against the 24th toughest offensive opposition).
Detroit does a good job in the field position battle. F.O. drive stats peg their net starting field position on both sides at 8th best overall. The defense allows a TD roughly once every seven drives, 7th best. Lions drives on offense average a 9th-best 34.08 yards per drive.
Yeah, they have trouble consistently executing and finishing drives on offense... though again that's been against tough defenses. It doesn't look like it'll get too much easier the rest of the way: Seahawks, Texans, the Packers twice, Falcons, Bears, oh my. But those defenses are mostly good rather than great... and Detroit's shown for the finishing issues that they can move the ball on tough defenses.
Also, they're an indoor team that's only got four road games left after a road heavy early schedule... and two of those road games are indoors anyway (Minnesota and Arizona). This is more the Lions element. The inconsistency problems, possibly a product of playing outdoors (often a dome team's kryptonite), could magically disappear for the Lions down the stretch.
The economy may be dead meat in Detroit, but look for a revival from the football team in Ford Field. I wouldn't expect a championship run like the fellow hometown Tigers: Again, the Lions tend to shrivel up outdoors and should they somehow make the playoffs they'll have to go outside and win outside to make the Super Bowl. That probably isn't happening. If they make the playoffs, I'd expect Ndamukong Suh and the Lions to extract themselves from that situation quickly.
But watch out for a late season run from the Lions that could bring back memories of Wayne Fontes and Barry Sanders.
That concludes this two part series. As always, all of these teams are welcome to prove my guesstimated predictions wrong on the field.