Monday, November 27, 2006

Michael Vick destined for mediocrity

The Michael Vick experiment is over and the results are in: the NFL has no room for running quarterbacks. Don't get me wrong, Vick can be fun to watch but when he faces a strong defense with enough depth to keep him contained Vick makes mistakes. Big mistakes that result in key losses.

With Vick under center the Falcons have proven themselves to be a classic study in mediocrity and when you look at the big picture of Vick's career he falls far short of the performance standards set by great quarterbacks.

Vick apologists will claim that he plays a different game and that the key is designing the game to his strengths but that's what the Falcons have done and the result is .500 football. Vick can hurt a defense with his feet but his arm tends to let the team down in big games. He's got play makers down field and a solid ground game. The Falcons aren't perfect but a lot of that is thanks to Vick's inconsistent passing and bad attitude. They just don't have the leadership on the field in tight games.

Michael Vick is a remarkable athlete with a powerful arm and his struggles are similar to those experienced by John Elway who became an consistent field general later in his career when his body needed more help from his head. Vick's problem is that he has always been able to make things happen, but he gets stopped when he runs into a good team with smart coaches. Like Elway, Vick seems capable of pulling his team out of deep holes but unlike Elway, Vick's arm isn't as reliable down the stretch. That takes away an aspect of the game that is important in managing the clock. Both quarterbacks share a similar distinction in putting their teams in tough spots. Elway's accuracy and awareness made him a little better at overcoming his mistakes. Even so, Elway didn't win the big games until the very end of his career.

At this juncture, Mike Vick has more in common with Randall Cunningham than John Elway. Like Cunningham, Vick has remarkable athletic ability a knack for making spectacular plays. Both share the distinction of being characterized in enduring highlights that capture the essence of their ability. The fact that both of these players are immortalized for making brilliant plays in virtually meaningless games is telling. You have to make things happen when they matter most and so far Vick seems to come unglued when the pressure is on.

It's not about middle fingers. Vick was frustrated and upset and he vented frustration at people who were heckling him. He may not be a complete quarterback but he's a competitive athlete who hates to lose. He knows he let his team down and it makes him sick. He just has to figure out how to best apply his tremendous skill set. Those who are upset or offended at Vick flipping off the home crowd need to find better things to worry about.

The trick is for Vick to realize that his job isn't to take over the game with his athleticism. It's nice if he can use that ability to buy some time or convert the occasional first down, but a quarterback has to defer to the team. Vick needs to become a secondary play maker and use his ability to showcase the rest of the team. Running for a first down is great but scrambling in the pocket in the hopes of finding an open set of hands 25 yards down field is better. He also needs to develop more consistent touch on his passes and hit those receivers in stride so they can use their ability to make plays after the catch rather then exhaust that ability trying to bring the ball in.

Good coaches know how to frustrate Vick. They take away his options and dare him to take the game over on his own. If the defense is balanced the strategy keeps Vick and the Falcons out of the end zone. Vick will gain yards on the ground but the Falcons sputter in thered zone because they can't stretch the defense deep anymore. That's when the defensive backs can sit on routes and wait for Vick to throw a bad ball. Even though Vick has shown flashes of brilliance, the really good teams know how to rattle him.

The problem goes back to college. Virginia Tech is one of those programs that has to recruit creatively and Vick was attracted to Frank Beamer's team because he knew he would get a chance to start as a freshman and be permitted to make plays. Vick wanted to be a star and Beamer was willing to let him shine. Traditional football powers thought of using Vick as a running back or even grooming him to be a staring QB as a junior or senior. Beamer thought he could ride Michael Vick into championship contention but Vick has struggled with the concept of conforming to the NFL game. College often rewards raw talent; in the NFL quarterbacks make plays with their heads. By the way, Beamer hasn't exactly changed the way college football is played. Virginia Tech hasn't won many big games either. Hardly a coincidence.

The Atlanta Falcons are not in the Big East or ACC and the level of talent Vick is facing is much deeper than he ever witnessed in college. Defensive backs in the NFL are smart enough to know when the QB is still behind the line and athletic enough to bring the elusive Vick down when he does take to the open field. He still makes plays because he is a special athlete, but the pond he's swimming in is bigger, deeper and full of much larger fish. The proof is in the standings. When Vick finally realizes that he isn't bigger than the NFL the Falcons will be dangerous. Until then, fans should get comfortable with 8-8.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

B_S Championship

Let me start off by stating for the record that I am a lifelong Ohio State Buckeye fan. My Pee Wee football team was named the Rome Buckeyes, my high school fight song was the Buckeye Battle Cry. I won't claim that I bleed scarlet and gray but I do believe that year in and year out there is no finer college football than what you'll find in the Big 10.

That being said, I can turn in a scathing criticism of the program. I think Ohio State willfully arranges for its players to get paid by boosters. I have seen compelling evidence in the form of expensive clothes, nice cars and fists full of cold hard cash at campus bars. Some of the players might have well-to-do parents, but most come from modest means. I believe Jim Tressel facilitated Maurice Clarett's corruption and quickly feigned ignorance when the NCAA caught wind of it. I won't go saw far as to say Ohio State is dirty, but like every major athletic program in the country, Ohio State bends the rules.

I also think the 2002 National Championship was a fluke. The title game against Miami was the real deal and idiots like Dan Lebatard can whine about bad calls all day but the fact of the matter is that Ohio State won fair and square. If they got a phantom call in the end zone it made up for the pass interference Miami got away with on the previous Buckeye possession. The game was fine and dandy...The fluke was in the regular season. The offense Jim Tressel employed was an abomination and had no business wearing the Buckeye colors. It didn't get much better in the following year and we only saw glimpses of the potential this season's team had at the end of 2005. But when you have a complex method for determining a champion flukes will sometimes prevail. Human polls where traditional powers get credit for historical success are bad enough but the computers can't factor in the intangibles.

This year the computers had Rutgers ranked ahead of Ohio State. Whatever formula the programs run to determine the national champion had Rutgers at #2 behind Michigan and ahead of Ohio State. Granted, the big finale between the two arch rivals corrected the obvious error and Rutgers was takento school by Cincinnati but what if Ohio State and Michigan were in different conferences and never played. The computers aren't supposed to factor in margin of victory because the NCAA doesn't want to see teams running up the score for the sake of tricking the computers, but clearly the reason Rutgers crept past Ohio State is because of the compared margin of victory each team had against a common opponent. Early in the season Rutgers clobbered Illinois 33-0 but late in the season Ohio State struggled with the Illini and only scored 17 in what could only be described as a defensive struggle.

Everybody knows that Ohio State got caught looking ahead to and Illinois played it's best game in 10 years in the hopes of making history by upsetting the mighty Buckeyes. Humans understand the psychology of the game and know that the reason we play every game has a lot more to do with what happens inside the head than what goes on down on the gridiron. Computers don't have a program that factors that in. So as far as the computers were concerned Rutgers was better because they beat Illinois by a larger margin. Simple math. 2+2= Huh? A few of those computers might have gone offline when they tried to figure out how Rutgers could get hammered by a team Ohio State easily defeated. Hearts and heads are a part ofthe game you can't quantify. That's why statistical leaders should never be confused with winners. Right, Peyton Manning?

BCS advocates loved 2005 because Texas and USC ran up perfect records to get to the title game. They claim that Texas was the undisputed champ because they beat USC head to head and played a daunting schedule that included a tough Buckeye team in Columbus. That's a fine point except that even the most skeptical experts believed that Ohio State was playing better football than anybody else at the end of the year and that USC and Texas were fortunate to not have to play them. A great case could also be made for Penn State, whose hard-nosed defense could stonewall any offense and give the athletic play makers on offense a chance to win. Even though there were two unbeaten teams at the top of the polls, very little separated the teams on the field.

This year Ohio State is heralded as the best team in the land. Ohio State started the season at number one and never looked back. The offense clicked in all but two games and the defense was stout in every contest except the final showdown with second ranked Michigan. Even though Michigan lost, they played Ohio State so well and the rest of the field looks so mediocre that the BCS still has Michigan ranked number two. The humans who vote on the polls relegated Michigan to third place, but that can be attributed to faulty human logic that demands that all losers be punished. The computers aren't the only flies in the ointment.

Still, when you look at the contenders everybody except Boise State has at least one loss. So whoever gets the nod to play for the title will be less than perfect. USC is the likely beneficiary of this generosity if they can stay on track against Notre Dame and UCLA. Experts don't see them losing but those same experts though Oregon State was a pushover. The Beavers jumped out to a nice lead early and held on for the big upset. Even in their wins USC has looked a little suspect and would be a long shot to give Ohio State much trouble in the BCS title game.

Then you have Florida. People seem to think that the mighty SEC is the strongest conference in the NCAA and therefore feel that Florida deserves a title shot if they win out. The problem is when you really look closely at the SEC it's not that much stronger than the Big 10. Much of the talk about the SEC's depth has more to do with history than it does actual on field prowess in recent years. Alabama used to be a mighty foe, Tennessee was a warhorse fueled by an explosive offense and Steve Spurrier had Florida in the top 5 every year. In the past few years LSU has been a serious contender and Auburn enjoys periodic spurts of greatness but when you compare apples to apples the SEC isn't all its cracked up to be. Wisconsin and Penn State would do just fine in the SEC. It's a tough conference but not nearly as dominant as people hold it up to be.

This year the SEC doesn't look so hot. The teams don't seem to be beating each other up so much as they are shooting themselves in the foot. Florida is inconsistent and has backed into their victories. Arkansas is having a banner year but that might be thanks to the rest of the SEC being a little less than everybody expected. Neither of the SEC's contenders look ready for prime time.

The Big East is a joke. West Virginia is built around two players and Pat White owes a lot of his success to the fact that Steve Slaton draws so much attention. West Virginia was a sprained ankle away from a 2-10 record. Louisville actually managed to stay in the hunt after sustaining injuries to key players but their biggest win of the season revealed a lot of flaws. The battle for the Big East showed the entire country that West Virginia and Louisville were exactly what people thought they were: big fish in a very small pond. The game was sloppy and made it clear that the Big East wasn't going to fare well if one of its teams ran the table. Rutgers enjoyed its best run in almost 100 years but forgot that the season was 12 games long. They fell flat in Cincy and will probably lose big to the Mountaineers.

The other one loss option, provided they pull off the upset at USC, is Notre Dame. Considering the one loss they have was a firm spanking at the hands of Michigan, it would seem ridiculous to send the Fighting Irish to Glendale to battle Ohio State for a rematch of last year's Fiesta Bowl. Interestingly, Ohio State dominated Notre Dame gaining over 600 yards of offense in one of those lopsided contests where the score didn't tell you how humilating it was for Notre Dame. Ohio State is better this year while the Irish might be a little worse.

That leaves Michigan. The Wolverines already had their shot at Ohio State but at the end of the day when you try to select the team most worthy of a shot at the title you have to give them the nod. Their one loss was by 3 points to the top ranked team in the country. Michigan scored 39 points on nearly 500 yards of total offense. When they needed a touchdown in the closing minutes of the second half they marched down field with methodical precision and topped it off with a critical two point conversion. Give them a lucky bounce on the onside kick and the game might have gone into a marathon overtime shootout.

On so many levels it would be wrong to give Michigan another shot at Ohio State. It would be unfair to Ohio State, it would belittle the rest of the NCAA and it could bore fans who got their fill of The Game on November 18th. A rematch might prove to be anticlimactic. But so would a fabricated championship game with the also rans.

The only answer is a playoff system. If the top ranked teams entered into a playoff to determine the nation champion nobody could complain about the match up. People would complain, but they would have no basis. With more than 100 teams in Divsion 1-a, you would still have to use a ranking system to determine your seeding, so keeping the current BCS system in place would be necessary. At the end of the year after all the games are played you take the top 12 teams and pair them up.

Forget about conference champions or bowl preferences. Keep the program simple and give the top 12 teams a shot at advancing. Conference title or not, if you can't make the top 12 you just aren't that good. Teams get shafted a position or two every year but taking the top 12 gives the poll a margin of error. Maybe the #13 team would cry foul but the if that team really had a shot they would have cracked the top 10. The NCAA could impose a rule that suspended any whiners from play for five years.

Most playoff supporters call for a simple eight team bracket, but I think that expanding it is important because we get to honor everybody in the top ten plus two more. The real playoffs start with he top four teams in the BCS who would obviously get a first round bye. That essentially means that the other eight teams would be participating in what amounts to be a play in game. The winner moves on to the second round where they would face one of the top four teams.

Furthermore I propose only seeding the top four. Spread them out so the one and two would face each other in the title game. The rest of the teams could be paired according to regional interest and would be played at the home field of the team who had the better record or by poll position if the records are identical. This would cut travel costs down and give the hosting team an opportunity to generate some extra revenue. In fact, the second round could be played on the home fields of the teams who made the top four with the semifinal and championship games played at nuetral bowl-oriented sites.

The various nefarious bowl committees would be livid. That's because they make a ton of money with the status quo. There's a distinct possibility that the convoluted system also keeps some of the college football analysts employed because the general public thinks they need an expert to decipher the rankings. However, one only need look at the NFL playoffs to realize the potential a post season would bring.

That leaves the argument that these are students who can't afford to miss that much class, which is a crock because most of these so-called students don't take demanding course loads. Furthermore we are only talking about adding an extra couple of games. If the NCAA opted to embrace the playoff system the regular season could be trimmed to 11 games by eliminating one of the cream puffs and the duration of the season could be reduced by dropping the bye week some teams schedule. When Ohio State made its title run in 2002 they finished the season 14-0. Texas had to play an extra game in the form of a conference championship game in 2005. Teams are already playing extra games, so why not dispense with the pretense and welcome a new era in Division 1-a football where the national champion actually earns the title on the football field?

Monday, November 13, 2006

History Unfolds on a Saturday Afternoon.

Ohio State and Michigan share one of the most storied rivalries in all of sports. For more than 100 years Ohio State and Michigan have been facing each other on the football field which makes this series almost as old as football . There aren't any trophies in this one. No jugs, or hatchets or bags of magic beans. Nevertheless, the players always play this game as though everything they stand for is on the line. Often, this game is a heart breaker. One of the teams will come in with a sterling record while the other has wallowed through a miserable season wrought with adversity only to win decisively as though the rest of the season never happened. They often say you can throw the records out when arch rivals meet but they never tell you that this is the rivalry that makes the adage true.

On November 18th this legendary contest will have an added twist: Ohio State and Michigan are both unbeaten, untied and ranked first and second in the nation respectively. Moreover, both teams are entering the game healthy and playing extremely well. It's unlikely you could examine the history of college football and find two teams playing at a higher level than these two are right now. These teams aren't just the best teams 2006 has to offer, both of these teams are as top to bottom dominant as college football teams get.

That's bad news for the BCS. After Saturday one of these teams is going to fall out of the so-called National Title picture. At best the loser might find themselves at #3 but after the polls are turned in and the equations are calculated the loser find themselves playing in a bowl they simply can't get excited about. The BCS people will hope and pray that they can generate enough hype about USC, Notre Dame or Florida to get the nation excited about who ever survives the formula to play Saturday's winner, but everybody know that the real title game is being played this week, not in January.

Saturday's contest will be epic. There is no question in anybody's mind that these two teams are the very best in college football and when you factor in the intense rivalry you are guaranteed that both teams are going to bring their level best for four quarters. That will make it hard to get anybody excited for the holiday exhibition that the BCS will become.

That's why we need playoffs. It's a shame that the top two teams in the country have to face each other before the predetermined national championship game. The winner of this game will prove that they're the better team, but some how the BCS will determine that the loser is worse than somebody else. It's simply not fair. A playoff system would force teams to prove their worthiness on the field in head to head competition. If Ohio State beats Michigan that shouldn't automatically elevate USC past the Wolverines. Let USC prove they're better than Michigan by beating them on the field, not in some arbitrary formula.