Monday, February 14, 2005

Pros, not poetry

I didn't actually watch the Pro Bowl. I had it on as background music while hanging shelves in the basement. And it wasn't actually this year's Pro Bowl. It was still afternoon, and NFL Network was rerunning last year's game. But really, is there even a difference? The uniforms look like something you'd see in a crummy movie where football is being played in the future. The teams put up 80, 90 points. The players just try not to get hurt. The players don't take the Pro Bowl seriously. No one does.

If anyone were to need evidence, they'd only have to check the play by play of last year's game. The following things happened:
  • The NFC was behind 38-13 four minuntes into the third quarter, then rallied to win 55-52. At the time, it was only the third NFL game of any kind to see more than 100 points scored.
  • Trent Green started the second half for the AFC and fumbled four times in about a quarter's worth of work. Yes, the center-QB exchange is tricky in an all-star game, but the other five quarterbacks had one fumble combined.
  • Mike Vanderjagt didn't miss a kick all year, yet honked field goals at the end of both halves, including the potential tying kick as time ran out.

Any of these occurrences would make a game memorable. They'd even make a preseason game memorable. Yet, here this game was playing on my TV, and I only faintly recalled any of it ever happening. That's because the Pro Bowl is the worst game of all. It's worse than a preseason game. At least in the preseason, guys are playing for jobs. And the games, such as they are, are a harbinger of an autumn's worth of bliss. All the Pro Bowl signals is six dark, empty months without football.

As I listened to a game a year past its freshness date, I laughed a little harder each time the ESPN crew -- calling the game as if it meant something, which was cute -- hollered that Green had fumbled. All I could think about was Atlee Hammaker. In 1983, Hammaker was a 25-year-old left-handed pitcher for the San Francisco Giants. At the All-Star break, he led the NL in ERA. He was on top of the world. Then, he was sent in to pitch the third inning of the All-Star Game. Six hits and seven runs later, he stumbled off the field. He was never the same pitcher again.

In the 2004 Pro Bowl, meanwhile, Trent Green fumbled four times in 10 minutes. Vanderjagt shanked two field goals. The AFC lost a four-touchdown lead. And by Tuesday, everyone had forgotten.


Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Salisbury mistake

When the call goes out for all Michael Irvin fans to raise their hands, mine does not go up. His act on Sunday NFL Countdown -- by turns preening, shouting and giggling -- is a little hard to take, especially considering he's sitting in the chair once occupied by Sterling Sharpe, who was simultaneously erudite and a badass. Even so, Irvin's ramblings and mumblings reveal the odd insight, and when he turns out to be wrong, he can admit it. And on top of it all, the man wears three rings. I mean, those are credentials.

So where the hell does Sean Salisbury get off? The day after the Super Bowl, I'm watching a wrapup on ESPN, and Salisbury is explaining why the Patriots are a dynasty -- maybe the best ever. Hey, I'm wide open to that argument. But Salisbury, as usual, makes his case less with reason than with "attitude." He gets in Irvin's face and says the 21st-century Pats are better than Irvin's 1990s Cowboys because the 'Boys merely blew out their Super Bowl opponents, while the Patriots have "proven they can win close games."

What? I repeat: WHAT?

You can give dozens of good reasons why New England's three-of-four is more remarkable than Dallas'. Hell, Troy Aikman (three rings) has been doing that for a while now. But to say that the Patriots are better because they haven't blown out their opponents is a breed of idiocy so rare they should put it in a zoo.

Irvin then said he now agrees that the Pats are a dynasty. Salisbury reopens his blowhole and says, "That's not what you said last year!" As if Irvin is the fool here for waiting until New England established a dynasty before declaring them one. The, um, Playmaker had every right to withhold judgment until he was satisfied. That's the prerogative you earn when you have jewel-encrusted fingers.

Down and Distance isn't about trashing people. But it appears Salisbury is. Look at all the jocks-turned-talking heads on Fox, CBS, ESPN and the NFL Network. Aikman, Steve Young, Terry Bradshaw, Dan Marino, Phil Simms, Ron Jaworski, Howie Long, both Sharpes, Terrell Davis, Daryl Johnston, even Boomer Esiason. Pro Bowlers. Super Bowl players. Super Bowl winners. Hall of Famers. None of them -- none -- trashes people the way Salisbury does. Maybe they don't have to. Maybe when you throw six TDs in one Super Bowl, you just don't have to puff yourself up the way a person with a career 22.4 playoff passer rating does. Maybe if you have nearly 3,849 passing yards just in playoff games, you aren't as insecure as a guy with 3,824 in the regular season for his entire career.

I'll even throw in Solomon Wilcots.

You don't need to have been a great player to be a fine commentator. Hell, you needn't have even been a player to be a fine commentator. But arrogance -- especially Salisburian arrogance -- doesn't mask the fact that you stunk between the lines. It magnifies it.

The Championship Championships

After the Eagles lost Super Bowl XXXIX, we all read that Philadelphia holds the longest title drought among markets that have franchises in "all four major team sports." I guess hockey is still considered a major team sport. ("Better pull them pants up, Chief.") If it were up to me, I'd replace it with Arena football. At least you can count on those guys to play. Anyway, here are the title drought standings:

Boston 2004 Red Sox, Patriots
Detroit 2004 Pistons
Miami 2003 Marlins
Arizona 2001 Diamondbacks
Denver 2001 Avalanche
New York 2000 Yankees
Dallas 1999 Stars
Chicago 1998 Bulls
Atlanta 1995 Braves
Washington* 1991 Redskins
Minnesota 1991 Twins
Philadelphia 1983 76ers
*D.C., of course, has all four sports as of April 2005. Also, one could argue for including the Bay Area here, as it has the 49ers, Raiders, Giants, A's, Warriors and Sharks. If you insist on including it, I won't stop you. Last championship: 49ers, 1994.

As a native Minnesotan, I guess I'm rooting for the Eagles to keep losing, then.

Compiling that list got me wondering which city is the overall sports champion: all leagues, all years. So I put together a database of all title winners in the big four pro leagues going back to the beginning of the Super Bowl era. Here are your standings (see end of post for the specific championship years):

14New York3821
12Los Angeles1290
5San Francisco50----
4Long Island------4
3New Jersey----03
3St. Louis12--0
3Green Bay3------
2San Antonio----2--
2Kansas City110--

*NFL denotes Super Bowl champion, including the '68 Jets and '69 Chiefs of the AFL
(If a city had a franchise during the covered period but it won no titles, it gets a "0" for the sport. If the city had no franchise, the sport is marked with "--")

Obviously New York is always going to come out ahead, no matter how you count and how far back you go. The city has two football teams and two baseball teams, and all have won championships. Boston has had a hell of a run lately (Pats, Sox) and in the past (Celtics). L.A. has the Lakers. But ... Montreal? Sure, the Canadiens have historically been a dominant hockey team, but they haven't won the Cup since 1993. And now that Les Nationales are gone, the Habs are it for Montreal. I can't in good conscience equate an NHL title with a Super Bowl victory. So I tweaked these standings again.

Now, I'm sure that for a hockey player, a Stanley Cup championship is just as good as a Super Bowl victory. But I'm not a hockey player. I'm a sports fan, sitting on the couch. I decided to weight these titles according to their impact on the general sports population (meaning me, but I'm sure we can all agree on the principle). So let's weight them like this:

Super Bowl title = 3
World Series title = 3
NBA championship = 2
Stanley Cup title = 1

That seems about right to me. I'm not happy about equating baseball and football -- this is Down and Distance, after all, not Foul Line and Rosin Bag -- but I'm also a realist. OK, weighting the titles gives us this:

38   New York 10   Montreal 4   San Antonio
28   Boston 9   Philadelphia 4   Houston
27   Los Angeles 9   St. Louis 3   New Jersey
20   Pittsburgh 9   Green Bay 3   Anaheim
19   Oakland 9   Cincinnati 3   Arizona
16   Dallas 8   Denver 3   Atlanta
15   San Francisco 7   Toronto 2   Seattle
15   Detroit 6   Minnesota 2   Portland
15   Chicago 6   Kansas City 2   Milwaukee
12   Miami 4   Edmonton 1   Calgary
12   Baltimore 4   Long Island
10   Washington 4   Tampa

Oh man, we're getting warm. But there's one other factor to consider. Look at Anaheim and Arizona. The Angels are just two years removed from winning the World Series, the Diamondbacks just three years. Yet both trail Long Island, which is still coasting on decades-old Stanley Cup titles. That ain't right. Similarly, look at Atlanta. Yes, the city's lone World Series title was 10 years ago, but how can it be only one point behind Milwaukee, winner of the 1970 NBA title and nothing else? Obviously, we can't just weight for sport. We have to add in a time element.

I developed a formula that assigns points based on a) the sport in which each title was won, and b) the year in which it was won. The most recent title in each sport has a value 39 times that of the oldest title (there have been 39 years in the Super Bowl era). By sport, titles are valued in the same proportion as above: NFL 3, MLB 3, NBA 2, NHL 1.

The Patriots' 2004 NFL title, for example, is worth about twice as much as the Bears' title from 1985. That Bears title, meanwhile, is worth about the same as the Houston Rockets' NBA 1995 title and is worth more than any Stanley Cup. (The most recent Cup equates to the 1978 World Series and Super Bowl.)

So, finally, we have our standings:

.963   New York .246   Baltimore .133   Philadelphia
.813   Boston .214   Toronto .132   New Jersey
.763   Los Angeles .204   St. Louis .131   Green Bay
.531   Chicago .192   Tampa .115   Atlanta
.441   Detroit .185   Minnesota .092   Kansas City
.440   Dallas .185   San Antonio .085   Long Island
.427   San Francisco .177   Cincinnati .036   Seattle
.336   Denver .154   Montreal .031   Portland
.327   Miami .151   Houston .031   Calgary
.322   Pittsburgh .142   Anaheim .015   Milwaukee
.310   Oakland .140   Edmonton
.283   Washington .138   Arizona

Based on the weighting of the sports (3+3+2+1), there were 9 total points awarded. The fractions above don't add up to 9, however, because the .112 points reserved for the 1994 World Series winner are unclaimed.

Now, chew that over.

Each city's championship teams and years are as follows:

New York (Giants 90,86; Jets 68; Yankees 00,99,98,96,78,77; Mets 86,69; Knicks 73,70; Rangers 94)
Boston (Patriots 04,03,01; Red Sox 04; Celtics 86,84,81,76,74,69,68; Bruins 72,70)
Los Angeles (Raiders 84; Dodgers 88,81; Lakers 02,01,00,88,87,85,82,80,72)
Montreal (Canadiens 93,86,79,78,77,76,73,71,69,68)
Detroit (Tigers 84,68; Pistons 04,90,89; Red Wings 02,98,97)
Pittsburgh (Steelers 79,78,75,74; Pirates 79,71; Penguins 92,91)
Chicago (Bears 85; Bulls 98,97,96,93,92,91)
Oakland (Raiders 80,76; A's 89,74,73,72; Warriors 75)
Dallas (Cowboys 95,93,92,77,71; Stars 99)
Baltimore (Ravens 00; Colts 70; Orioles 83,70,66)
San Francisco (49ers 94,89,88,84,81)
Philadelphia (Phillies 80; 76ers 83,67; Flyers 75,74)
Edmonton (Oilers 90,88,87,85,84)
Miami (Dolphins 72,73; Marlins 03,97)
Denver (Broncos 98,97; Avalanche 01,96)
Washington (Redskins 91,87,82; Bullets 78)
Long Island (Islanders 83,82,81,80)
New Jersey (Devils 03,00,95)
St. Louis (Rams 99; Cardinals 82,67)
Green Bay (Packers 96,67,66)
Toronto (Blue Jays 93,92; Maple Leafs 67)
Cincinnati (Reds 90,76,75)
Tampa (Buccaneers 02; Lightning 04)
San Antonio (Spurs 03,99 )
Houston (Rockets 94,95 )
Minnesota (Twins 91,87)
Kansas City (Chiefs 69; Royals 85)
Anaheim (Angels 02)
Arizona (Diamondbacks 01)
Atlanta (Braves 95)
Calgary (Flames 89)
Seattle (SuperSonics 79)
Portland (Trail Blazers 77)
Milwaukee (Bucks 71)

Monday, February 07, 2005

When things can't get worse ...

Here are the raw numbers for the post of Feb. 5, "$100 on the over, and Charge it." These are the teams that have gone 4-12 or worse since 1992, with their records for the following year, and the victory differential from the first year to the next. Obviously, as this is not the NBA, none of these teams qualified for the postseason in the first year. Those that made the playoffs in the second season are indicated by (P).




Jaguars4-129-7 (P)+5
Cardinals4-129-7 (P)+5
Colts3-1313-3 (P)+10
Rams4-1213-3 (P)+9
Saints3-1310-6 (P)+7
2003Chargers4-1212-4 (P)+8

Update 2/10/05: And just for hoots, here are the teams that have finished 12-4 or better since 1992. All made the playoffs in the first year. "P?" indicates whether the team made the playoffs in the second year. As you would expect, when a team wins three-quarters of its games, it's awfully hard to improve. Of the 46 teams here, only 3 improved; 35 got worse; and 8 had no change. On average, teams had 3.2 fewer victories the next year. The median result was 2.75 fewer victories. The most common result was no change at all.

Interestingly, all of 2003's top teams had over/unders of 11.5 or lower for 2004. Apparently, the oddsmakers were flat-out positive that the Chargers weren't going to improve, yet they hedged on the good teams.





1995Chiefs13-39-7-4 N
Chiefs13-37-9-4 N

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Headbands and bodyslams

Charles Martin, a defensive tackle who played for the Packers, Oilers and Falcons from 1984-1988 (and the USFL Stallions in '83), died recently at age 46. Martin's footnote in football history is being kicked out of a game in 1986, and suspended for two more, for pile-driving Jim McMahon. A Packer-fan friend of mine maintains that because McMahon had thrown an interception on the play, Martin was within his rights to stuff him, as the QB had become a defender. This is a good point. The fact that Martin had written down a hit list of Bears jersey numbers (including No. 9) and was literally wearing that list compromises this argument only a little bit

The news of Martin's passing got me thinking about McMahon. You say "McMahon," and the typical fan responds, "Bears." But ...

With the Bears, the guy was hated -- absolutely despised -- across the NFC Central. Yet he started for the Vikings in the '93 season. All of Green Bay cheered when Martin pasted him. Yet guess which one -- Martin or McMahon -- was a member of the world champion Packers?

McMahon was a Bears icon, but how many years of his 15-year career did he play in Chicago? Seven -- and never a full season. McMahon ... the tough guy ... the, er, punky QB. Yet, what do Vince Evans, Steve Fuller, Rusty Lisch, Greg Landry (for God's sake), Bob Avellini, Mike Tomczak, Doug Flutie and Jim Harbaugh have in common? Each spent significant time under center for the Bears because McMahon was hurt. In the end, McMahon spent as many games in Chargers, Eagles, Cardinals(!), Vikings, Browns and Packers colors as he did in Bears attire.

The persistence of memory ...

$100 on the over, and Charge it

While doing research for something or other, I came across this piece on listing Las Vegas' supposed over/under on regular season wins for NFL teams in 2004. The predictions don't really interest me. For the most part, they appear to have been keyed to the teams' 2003 finish. Miami, for instance, was at 9.5; taking the over would have been a sucker bet even before Ricky Williams retired.

I was drawn, however, to the end of the list. The over/under on San Diego -- which finished 4-12 in 2003 -- was 4.5. If I were a betting man, I'd have taken the over on that without hesitation. Talk about easy money. And I would have said that even before the Chargers "surprised" the league by winning the AFC West. Reasons:

1. For sure, the '03 Chargers were not a good team. But they weren't what TMQ would call cover-your-eyes awful. They got blown out a couple times, lost some close ones, kicked the crap out of a near-playoff team in the Vikings. Their 4-12 record wasn't pretty, but it wasn't so ugly that you'd get the impression the 2003 season was the start of a long stretch of ineptitude.

2. That 4-12 record was the best "worst" record in the NFL since the league went to a 16-game schedule in 1978. The Chargers' .250 winning percentage was the best by the NFL's "worst" team since 1957, when the Packers and Cardinals both went 3-9. (In the AFL, the '65 Oilers and Broncos both went 4-10, or .286). Further, the Chargers were one of four teams at 4-12 in 2003 (others: Raiders, Cardinals, Giants). Six other teams finished 5-11: Browns, Jaguars, Texans, Falcons, Redskins, Lions. San Diego wound up tabbed the league's worst team (and got the No. 1 pick in the draft) by way of tiebreakers. There just wasn't much difference among the bottom 10 teams.

3. We're talking about a Marty Schottenheimer-coached team. The knock on Marty has never been that he's a bad coach. It's that his teams stink in the playoffs. That 4-12 record was, by far, the worst of a Schottenheimer-coached team. This is a coach who, in 17 full seasons before '03, had 12 winning years, two losing ones and three 8-8s (Including one that, despite closing the season 8-3, got him replaced by Steve Spurrier).

4. Most important of all, the teams at the bottom of the NFL standings one year almost always get better the next year. I looked at every two-year period since 1992-93, the beginning of free agency and thus the start of today's competitive structure. Out of 12 such periods, only once did the team with the fewest victories post a worse mark the next year: The Jets went from 3-13 in 1995 to 1-15 in 1996. In two cases, the worst team's record stayed the same: The Bengals went 3-13 in 1993, then again in 1994; and the Colts posted identical 3-13 records in 1997 and 1998. The other nine teams got better. But there's more: The '95 Jets, '93 Bengals and '97 Colts were far and away the worst in the league in those seasons. San Diego was just one of several teams huddled together in the NFL cellar in '03. So, to get a better sense of how the league's entire lower rung fares, I again went back to 1992. I looked at the performance of teams that finished 4-12 or worse. The numbers may surprise you:
  • Of 48 teams finishing 4-12 or worse, 42 finished with a better record the next year, 4 showed no improvement, and just 2 got worse.
  • The average change was an improvement of 3.18 games.
  • The median change was an improvement of 3 games.
  • The most common result was an improvement of 4 games -- nine out of the 48 teams.
There are so many reasons for these numbers. Bad teams can't get much worse, at least record-wise, so they almost have to get better. Bad teams replace their head coaches, coordinators, GMs, players. Bad teams get high draft picks. All true. But the fact remains: You finish 4-12, you're almost guaranteed to get better. The Chargers would've had to pick up just one more win to top the over/under. That's a no-brainer.

(Update 02/07/05: Raw numbers posted.)