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Saturday, December 22, 2007

NFL: What the World has Wrong about the Perfect Patriots.

The best team ever? Maybe not. The most potent offense of all-time? Debatable. Super Bowl XLII champions? Probably.

The fact sheet on the Patriots greatness has been written in the blood of the reports who've been slurping them all year long. The knocks, however scarce they may be, have leaked through to the back pages and focus on the perceived ineptitude of their rushing attack.

While the trend among several powerhouse NFL franchises (Dallas, Green Bay, New Orleans, Indianapolis, New England) has shifted in favor of passing to set up the run, a good tailback is still essential for anyone claiming to be a contender. Firstly, because it helps protect leads and shorten games, and secondarily because the cold playoff weather changes the scope and dynamics of your offensive game planning. The playoffs, which start in the dreaded winter season, cause havoc on the skill positions that are heavily relied upon to put points on the board. So when passing becomes more challenging due to the elements, you typically hand the ball off to your stalwart running back and hope your offensive line can manufacture some holes. It's this very factor that many mainstream talking heads have deemed New England's biggest liability and potential Achilles heel, as it is suggested that they've yet to demonstrate the ability to rush the ball with desirable proficiency.

Once again Bill Belichick has outsmarted the observers of the game; those whose job description includes accurate analysis of these critical parameters of victory (a group that also includes the 14 opposing coaching staffs his team has trampled this year). New England can run boys and girls, but heres the rub: Belichick just doesn't want them to, and for good reason.

Once the rosters are set, an NFL coaches ability to asses and exploit strategic advantages over their opponent is the primary determinate of their teams success. When two great field generals (in this case, the Coaches) face off in battle, they all plan based on the most likely course(s) of action of their opponents, it's game theory, and an extension of the Art of War. However, the best of the great generals forces their opponents into defending an attack that will never be launched through deception. The best generals attack formlessly, for the formless cannot be predicted, anticipated, nor defended, thus making it the clearest and most reliable path to victory. Only a fool fights battles he cannot win, and Belichick ensures through meticulous calculation that his team has the best chance to win every Sunday.

When breaking down the numbers, the strategy issued by Coach Belichick becomes increasingly well illustrated and transparent. Their current lead running back, Lawrence Maroney, was the secondary ball carrier last year, although he was impressive behind Corey Dillon who carried a mere 24 more times than Maroney in 2006. With Dillon out of the picture for the 2007 season, Maroney was promoted into the #1 tailback role. Enter Belichicks' genius.

It follows sound intuition that one might want to keep a pivotal piece of your championship puzzle rested and healthy, of course while brilliantly doing so not at the expense of Maroneys' learning and maturation processes. As the numbers show, Maroneys' mileage is nearly identical to his successful rookie campaign with total carries projected at only 4 greater (175 v. 179), while average yards/carry remains within 0.1(4.3 v. 4.2). Surprising are these figures given New England's pass-heavy offense, which effectively creates an average of about 4 less rushing opportunities per game. Even in the absence of the necessity to run, Belichick has quietly managed to get Maroney his essential carries in lieu of wearing him out deleteriously, all the while infatuating their defensive opposition with game planning for the Patriots lethal aerial attack.

Not only is the confidence of a young rusher effectively nurtured by these tactics, but Belichick has ensured optimal health and energy levels in highly valued, highly physical skill player. With a well rested, but battle-tested Maroney in the backfield come January, the elements will not sway the Patriots dominance, but facilitate it. Either the opposition stuffs the box to stop the climate-dependent running game, thus opening up the secondary for the pass, or they rush the passer conservatively and allow Maroney to run all over the field on them. This is the formless attack that Belichick has designed perfectly from game one. He has earned the distinction of greatness for reasons such as these – well, and that dynasty he's orchestrated in New England over the past decade.

To further recount the ways that Belichick has groomed the Patriots for greatness would result in a long-winded almanac deservedly set to music, featuring both food service and an interlude. He may not be charismatic and friendly, nor talkative or honest, but in the management of his on field personnel he has repeated proven his aptitude as an elite field general and strategic luminary. Look for Maroney to hog the ball in the second half of New England's playoff games, especially if they've got a lead on the frosty tundra of Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. Enjoy as the Patriots steamroll to 19-0 and a Super Bowl ring on the back of their reliable, rested and game-ready running back – err, and that Tom Brady guy, I've heard he's having an alright year.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Drugs in Sport: Digging the MLB out of their grave.

[Writers Note: This topic won't go away and I can't resist setting it straight. There is a good deal of crossover here between my hobby (writing about sports), my paying job (Nutritional supplement consultant), and lastly my education (Pharmacology – ie. Drugs). While still wet behind the ears in the writers' game, I can unquestionable speak from an authoritative position with respect to the latter two credentials.]

Little has been resolved regarding the steroid issue in baseball following the publication of the Mitchell Report. In fact, more questions have arisen from the clearly contrived report produced by an individual paid tens of millions for his investigation. The same individual who also remains under the umbrella of the Boston Red Sox organization. From his labours over the past 18 months, George Mitchell gave us a handful of superstar ball players, namely Clemens, Petitte and Bonds, a few others that could have rounded out an All Star team circa 1993, and several dozen additional faceless names. This is much more than a clear disappointment, it's fraudulent. Former Senator Mitchell was the judge, jury and executioner throughout this spurious investigation, and decided to wield his axe merely for show in favour of bending a few old timers over his knee. Bluntly, the Mitchell Report is as synthetic as the performance enhancing drugs which he was chartered to report on.

Prior to dealing with the issue of the players themselves and their integrity in a sport which ignored, and thus backhandedly endorsed the use of steroids, hGH and their cohorts, the organization brass of the MLB require stern reprimand. The league's problem today was their solution and saving grace in the early-mid '90's when the home run records were being shattered by McGwire and Sosa, prior to which their attendance and television ratings were at near all-time lows.

At the time of all this, Major League Baseball made a conscious decision to ignore their cheating in lieu of the rejuvenated revenue associated with the success of the games juiced-up stars. In doing so, they became complicit to the illegalities embarked upon by their players. But when the dust bunny that was the issue of performance enhancing drugs became the elephant in the room – who just passed wind – nowhere to be found were league officials who deservedly must share the blame. This whole era is a black eye on baseball from top to bottom and will continue to looked upon as such for decades to come.

In yet another blunder the league hoped that commissioning Mitchell to report on the abuse of performance enhancers would atone for their lack of foresight issued previously. The Mitchell Report was nothing but a cage that merely sheltered the prey in shark-infested waters. Instead of demanding answers, journalists and reporters waited eagerly for this report, which promised no stone unturned through thorough (but voluntary) interrogation of those inside and out of the game. The release of the 400+ page document last week found itself quickly in the hands of baseball lovers alike, but instead of squelching the issue of cheaters and quieting the speculation to validity of records, it chummed the waters and broke open the cage.

The intentions were good, but the means were suspect to valid criticism. Yes, Geogre Mitchell is an employee of MLB, and is great friends with the Commissioner himself. No, he could not use the power of subpoena to demand the truth from those he interviewed. And yes, while a lawyer and former Senator himself, Mr. Mitchell was fully aware of the causal nexus he could plunge himself and the MLB into at will.

Do you consider a report from a wealthy, well-known league employee, limited to analyze receipts and hearsay as evidence genuinely credible given everything we've learned about this situation. No, or at least thats the take of those with a rational opinion on the matter. There is a reason the term honest lawyer brings about a grin from most who hear it – and Mr. Mitchell can thank the free pass he gave to the MLB executives and countless hundreds of players for that. Mr. Mitchell is owed a steroid-size debt of gratitude to all those he failed to call out and incriminate, for whichever reason he saw fit.

We just need to move from this whole era. Accept it as another one of baseballs injustices and avoid trying to deduce sound conclusions from so much convoluted information. Although where fairness is concerned a proper solution remains allusive, I propose the records stand asterisks free. The problem was too rampant, too miffed up from the start to go patching it up in the wrong places now. Regrettably, this era of doping and record breaking will bring about one solemn conclusion: baseball is now formerly 'the only sport in which records actually matter'.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

I'm Back!

My latest exploits have been both adventurous and tiresome, but alas I've flown back from Australia and New Zealand and immediately immersed myself in the wonderful world of sports. It will take me a day or two before I get a column together, but I hope to reestablish my connection with my (scant) readership.

In the near future, I'll be starting a podcast featuring a variety of guest contributors and my opinions, thoughts and musings on life and sport. Look forward to it and thanks for reading the blog!

- Derek.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

BREAKING: Maple Leafs make Tavares an offer.

Very interesting reporting from Dave Shoalts of the Globe and Mail has revealed that the Leafs are up to some trickery – or at least up to something other than underachieving. A very unique set of circumstances surrounding the OHL's top goal scoring talent have prompted the Leafs to offer John Tavares an equally unique employment opportunity.

Much has been made about Tavares domination in the OHL and his failure to receive an exception for the next NHL draft – for which he is 5 days too young for eligibility. Tragic as it may be given the success of young talents like Toews, Kane, Cogliano, Gagner, and Price in the equally young season, the NHL has chosen to remain stringent on its draft eligibility policy.

Rather than play another season in the OHL, Tavares and his agent have some decisions to make. They have shopped around for interest in Europe, and now are considering an offer which would see Tavares opt out of the draft and play for the AHL's Toronto Marlies.

The 18yo age restriction holds in the AHL as it does in the NHL, making Tavares ineligible to play in either league until 2009-'10. The Marlies deal offers the comfort of familiarity and the opportunity to play very close to home. Aside from the geographical benefits, the prospect of joining the Maple Leafs as soon as he meets the NHL age requirements will provide a strong influence. But, there are a few key hurdles that require jumping before Tavares could ever play for the Leafs.

Unless Toronto can grease the skids prior to draft day, the likely #1 pick will command a hefty sum, and thus force the Maple Leafs to swap club assets for his rights – or worse – require Tavares to hold out and stay in the AHL for two additional seasons. This is due to restrictions whereby a given player must be two years removed from the original draft selection in order to sign with another NHL team.

Should the Leafs be unable to deal for Tavares rights, he would essentially have to forfeit any chance of playing in the NHL (for a team other than Toronto) in order to void any obligation to the organization with his draft rights until 2011, where he can then sign as an unrestricted free agent. While some will justifiably point out Tavares' reluctance to wait until he is 20yo before playing in the NHL, this scenario with the Maple Leafs allows him to sign as an UN-restricted free agent and thus fetch far more money than he would under current entry-level salary restrictions.

It is slightly complicated, and perhaps not the path of least resistance, but it's a proactive initiative by a GM hanging onto his job by a single of his slickly-combed hairs. Any attempt to acquire goal scoring for a team that has failed miserably in the talent development department gets a pat on the back at this point. Bringing in Tavares will create a vastly improved atmosphere at the Ricoh Colosseum, and will foster a winning attitude in the Marlies dressing room -- something that will hopefully carry over with the players that graduate to the big dance and lace 'em up for the Leafs.

If Tavares has the patience to play two full seasons in the AHL prior to becoming a Maple Leaf, he will be a hero on a Toronto club in dire need of a pure goal scorer. But we know he wants a crack at the NHL badly, making this scenario about as likely as John Ferguson Jr. holding onto his job at the conclusion of this NHL season.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Why you should watch the 2007 World Series.

The participants in this year's fall classic were finalized last night when the Boston Red Sox completed yet-another comeback in the post-season. The Mighty BoSox won the final three games of their best of seven against the Cleveland Indians to advance toward the snow-covered tundra of Coors Field in Colorado (they literally had yesterdays practice snowed out).

If you haven't heard about the Colorado Rockies and their one loss over the last 22 games then you wouldn't be reading this, because you don't care about baseball. During this rare stretch of dominance, including 7-0 in the playoffs, the Rockies have proven to be strong -- albeit youthful -- on the mound, while productive and threatening at the plate throughout their line up. They also had the best defensive team in the National League throughout the regular season, and will carry this edge with them to Fenway Park. While the Rockies have outscored their opponent by a total of 73 runs during this stretch, the tango looming with Red Sox presents more than a few roadblocks that can crush their momentum and end their World Series dreams.

Pitching has been strong for the Rockies who boast a 2.85 ERA (combined) throughout this historic run, while holding opponents to a .232 batting average. However, aside from their ace, Canadian lefty Jeff Francis, valid concern can be expressed with regards to the remainder of the youthful Rockies staff. Not only will mounting pressure from the fans potential rattle their confidence, but the Colorado starters will face much stronger bats from the American League Champion Red Sox. If the Rockies' young arms can withstand imminent threads in the form of Ortiz-Manny-Lowell, and can stay relaxed at Fenway Park, they'll greatly enhance their chances of winning the World Series crown.

What happens to the hottest team in baseball when they get nine days off before the World Series? This is the most significant internal issue facing the Rockies, who've been bored all week while watching the ALCS play out and pitching simulated- and playing inter-squad games. Normally teams cool off significantly during extended layoffs as their mental focus, intensity and momentum waiver,

but whether or not this conventional wisdom applies to to the team in the midst of one of the greatest runs in post-season history will be worth watching. The Rockies bats will likely suffer some serious frostbite, not only based on the respective climates in Colorado and Boston, but because they haven't faced any real pitching in so long.

Unfortunately for the Rockies, this real pitching will come in the form of two of the best post-season pitchers of our generation in Josh Beckett and Curt Shilling, in addition to a shutdown closer, Jonathon Paplebon and respectable bullpen. Furthermore, the Red Sox start The Series with all cylinders smoking. They are getting production at the plate from their role players like Pedroia and Youkilis and have their big-time pitchers hungry and rested.

The Rockies will need more Cinderella-type magic to beat the Sox, however improbable it may seem that they'll extend their streak by the required 4 victories to close the season. Colorado fans will be hopeful that the magic remains, as it will make for a fantastic match-up. However, as the first four games of the Series play out, Beckett will likely win two starts, in addition to another guaranteed from the veteran Curt Shilling. Consequently, facing a projected 3-1 deficit starting Game 5, and the difficulty of winning two games at Fenway Park to stay alive, I like the eventual winner to be Boston in 6. Thus, it looks like the party will continue in the Boston-area as the Patriots stay undefeated, Boston College tops the NCAA football polls and the Red Sox win the World Series.

Monday, October 15, 2007

NHL '07-'08 -- The Best-of-the-Best Part One: The 60-goal scorer?

It's been a long time since the NHL saw a 60-goal scorer and the league is begging for this trend to be broken. Following Mario Lemieux's '95-'96 season in which he buried on 69 separate occasions, the NHL has failed to produce a single-season goal scorer exceeding the 59 goals potted by Pavel Bure of the Florida Panthers in '00-'01. While some have ventured closely -- like Jonathan Cheechoos' Thornton-aided 56-goal campaign in '05-'06, and the most recent victor of the Rocket Richard Trophy, Vinny Lecavalier, with 52 -- the screeching reduction in goal scoring is well documented.

Few players in the NHL have the talent, skill and determination to score 60 goals, a fact that is quite evident in the statistics collected over the last 10 seasons, in addition to the tears of every hockey purist incensed over rule changes to beef up offensive production. While the numbers represent the historical precedent by which players of the last decade have failed to score, the newest rule changes and the evolution of the leagues' top talent may allow us present a strong argument for the emergence of a 60-goal scorer in the 2007-8 NHL season.

Player Metamorphosis:

The inflation of the size and speed of the overall talent pool in the NHL have reduced the ability for highly skilled, but slightly undersized snipers, ala Gretzky and Theo Fleury, and to an extent, Brett Hull, to impose their will through shifty end-to-end rushes and extended-range snipes. Instead, over the past six seasons since 2001, power forwards have demonstrated their ability to lead the pack in a category traditionally dominated with allusiveness, accuracy and finesse. The demands of the game have resulting in the leagues' best goal scorers evolving into physical marvels ranging from 210-225lbs of smooth skating and sharp-shooting threats. Since Bure's 59-goals as a Canuck in 2001, Iginla (x2), Kovalchuk, Rick Nash and the aforementioned Cheechoo and Lecavalier have been the leagues top goal scorers. For those who haven't watched an episode of Sportscenter since Y2K, these men average 6'2, 215lbs.

Aside from their size, these top goal scorers had chemistry with at least one top-notch linemate, received the lions share of the ice time, both 5-on-5 and on the PP, and are all prone to good health and durability. There are a slew of players who fit these broad characteristics, and thus would expectedly top the goals category. The likes of Vincent Lecavier, Simon Gagne, Ilya Kovalchuk and Jonathan Cheechoo will likely remain at, or near, the top and should be watched closely during extended hot streaks, but fall short when considering players capable of a 60+ goal season.

Sixty goals just doesn't come often enough to presume definitively that any player will reach that mark this season. That being said, I'm never the type known for aversion from bold and outlandish claims, so here are some things to consider prior to sweeping the 60-goal mark under the Rug of Impossibility. The most likely candidates to push towards the 60-goal plateau this season be Alex Ovechkin and Dany Heatley. They are the only two players situated in what may be the perfect storm allowing them the nearest passage to the 60-goal plateau; a passage they may have the strength and momentum to break it.

The Best of the Best:

At 6'2, 215lbs, the speedy and confident Alex Ovechkin will break his career-high 54-goals this season, playing on a youthful and improving Washington Capitals team. However, the extent to which he exceeds his previous best in goals scored will likely be determined by factors out of his control. For example, will the health of his supporting cast, namely his countryman linemate, Viktor Kozlov, hold up over the course of the season? Aside from the powerplay, how often will he be paired with the newer acquired Michael Nylander, who's tallied 113 helpers over the past 2 seasons in NYC, and whose averaged 40+ assist in each of his past 7 seasons? Lastly, look for Ovechkin to step up and provide more highlight-reel lamp-lighters under the added pressure of a potential playoff birth in the US capitol, all the more reason to believe in this Russians quest to 60 goals.

Just like a good story book, (arguably) the best sniper in the NHL, from the best team, playing on the best line is preserved for final consideration. Dany Heatley has made a strong case for himself early this season by firing six into the twine in seven games. Aided immensely by linemates Jason Spezza, and Daniel Alfredsson -- both know for their skill and playmaking ability -- the sky is the limit for the leagues only back-to-back 50 goal scorer. Heatley will also be featured as the go-to goal scorer on a Senators team who expects to not only compete, but win the Eastern Conference on route to the Stanley Cup Finals.

If we were talking about 40+ goals, the list would include many others. But in the NHL today, only Alexander Ovechkin and Dany Heatley deserve mention in the vacant and baron upper echelon of 60+ goal scorers. If you think I missed anyone, let me know. Lastly, think we'll see 100 assists this year? Stay tuned for Part Two in my continuing Best-of-the-Best Series on the NHL, which will feature the leagues' top passers in a few days.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Discussing the Future of the Ottawa Senators: Where will Redden go?

With a new coach (John Paddock) and new GM (Brian Murray) at the helm in the Nations' capitol, the Ottawa Senators are likely just catching their breath following their 4-0 start. Perhaps to no one's surprise, they are being carried by their top line who has scored all but two of their goals landing Spezza, Heatley and Alfredsson all amongst the top 5 scorers in the league. While all things are rosy for the reigning Eastern Conference champs in the infancy of the 07-08 season, things are due to heat up in the front office come the trade deadline.

Newly minted GM Brian Murray will face a slew of decisions that will undoubtedly impact the long term success of their organization. Several of their key players are pending restricted and unrestricted free agents making Murrays' cozy office chair a proverbial hot seat. The focal point is the expensive unrestricted free agent defenseman Wade Redden, and restricted free agent Jason Spezza.

What must be considered when speaking of pending contract negotiation’s are those of other young stars, namely Jason Spezza, and the perennially underrated forwards Antoine Vermette and Patrick Eaves. Enforcer Brian McGrattan and defenseman Andrej Meszaros, can also be added to the list of players to become restricted free agents next summer, while All-Star defenseman Wade Redden is once again due for unrestricted FA talks.

How many teams will tender an offer sheet to Spezza (thats right, not might tender, but will)? Barring a outlandishly overweight RFA offer sheet, retaining Jason Spezza to play with Dany Heatley will be priority number one. Meszaros’ services will not come cheap either, and this is all in lieu of the negotiations with Redden, who in all likelihood will command the biggest piece of the pie.

We are left to question how much the Senators ultimately value the veteran Redden, who may have seen the best years of his career. Being so early in the season, their options are numerous, the best of which has yet to reveal itself. The Sens could decide to overpay for the aging Redden, rather than let him walk and sign elsewhere at seasons end. If neither of these seem attractive to you, you're not alone. Backed into a corner by circumstance, it seems that Brian Murray should heavily consider pulling the trigger on a deal which sees Redden exchanged for picks or young talent. Although early for a bold prediction of this nature, I’d take the odds in favor of the latter outcome.

If the Sens are dominating the standings at the trade deadline (as many are anticipating), than likelihood of a drastic change -- such as trading Redden -- may be significantly reduced. We'd be foolish to completely discount his on-ice role entirely. However, a mid-season lull in the Sens, or Reddens’ performance, would lend itself to a ticket outta’ town for the former World Champion defender. At 30 years old, a player whose main assets include mobility and puck movement, and whose main flaw has always been a lack of physicality, one must consider how close Redden is to the denouement of his accomplished career and weight that against his promising trade value. Taking advantage of his track record should be at the forefront of consideration when Brian Murray fields calls from the likes of the Philadelphia Flyers (who are currently rumored to be looking for defensive help) or an improved Florida Panther squad.

Furthermore, his most recent level of play, coupled with acquisitions and quality depth on the Ottawa blue line indicate that the stars are aligned to get the best return-on-investment for Redden. The Sens are a team with a fast, young, and talented nucleus featuring Phillips, Volchenkov, Meszaros, all of whom may have proven superior defensively, in addition to their mounting confidence moving the puck (particularly in the case of the latter two). Additional support buffering the potential on-ice loss of Redden is the offensively gifted Joe Corvo, who is worthy of comparison in this regard, although lacking some of the formers' hockey sense and precision. While Reddens spot on the depth chart can be discussed further, I feel it's clearly in the organizations' best interest – and the smartest move-- to avoid having to re-signing him at the end of the year. Should Brian Murray come to this as the most suitable option, he must trade him at the deadline for an asset in return.

How will this hurt Ottawas' Cup run this season? Perhaps he is worth losing at years end if he can help the team drink from Lord Stanley's mug, but should Ottawa be graced with any other fate and they will be left at an impasse with disgruntled fans and a deteriorating blue liner whose flaws were likely exposed during an extended playoff run. Sure, it's highly speculative and Reddens' absence in the locker room may disrupt some of the chemistry that has developed over the past 5 season. This was undoubtedly the most prominent factor in Zdeno Charas' departure. But we can be assured that the Senators will not make the same mistake of throwing money at Redden this go around, at the risk of losing much more than they'd ever hoped to deal with.

Friday, October 5, 2007

On the NFL: Look closely, because it pays to pay attention.

The NFL is an interesting beast. With the exception of Brady and Manning, you never know what might happen on 'any given Sunday' Рit's sad and clich̩, but completely accurate. There are several critical factors that casual fans overlook when enjoying this heralded Sunday pastime. They are characterized below as simplified as possible to give those fans a better appreciation of what it takes to succeed on the gridiron.

Aside from dominating offenses that march up and down the field at the whim of the helpless defense, or the stone-wall defenses that affix the chains in place down after down, special teams can – and often does – determine the victor in the NFL these days. Couple that with the carefully orchestrated annual schedule designed to produce as many 8-8 records as possible, and it pays to dissect the game on every appreciable level.

While the minutia of the game can bog down the most sound analytic minds, therein lies the precise secret to exploiting your enemy and consistent success. This is why NFL coaches work 16-19h days and commonly sleep in their respective offices. It's why every position has its own coach, and why the quarterback watches as much film as the defensive secondary. It's a league where Belichick and Dungy are the only sure things, and it's why those inside the game are increasingly focused on fine tuning the lesser fundamentals.


If you had to place a bet on a game with the aid of one statistic, most would recommend terse examination of the Turnover Ratio (TR = takeaways – giveaways). The TR documents a given teams ability to change the course of the game. The importance of maintaining possession of the ball, and thus effectively controlling field position, while simultaneously stealing the ball from the other teams lead to victories. Year-over-year teams atop the TR list find themselves situated similarly in the overall standings, and this year is no exception. All of the undefeated teams (Indy, New England, Dallas & Green Bay) and other stand-outs (Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Seattle; all 3-1) find themselves tied for 5th or better in this category at +3 or better through 4 games.

The consequence of a turnover is typically favorable starting field position for the opponent, something that 'Big Tuna” Bill Parcels recently touched as one of the most important factors in the game. Continuing with role of field position leads us to punt proficiency.


Punting signifies the loss of possession following the failure to convert a first down. Quite easily we make the logical extension that the teams that the best teams punt the least. Among the elite teams in the NFL thus far, only the Steelers and the Packers out of the top 10 in fewest total number of punts. To illustrate these consequences with respect to the standings, we just have to compare a few ratios. The 10 teams with the highest number of punts total a meager 35% winner percentage (WP) which projects to an average of 5.6 wins. Excluding the outlying Saints, the 10 teams with the fewest punts have a 68.5%WP, projecting to 10.97 wins.

Where punting is truly critical is fringe teams, those in the middle of pack that rely on field position to squeak out a few extra scores per game. There is a trend among those teams thought to be overachieving through the first quarter of the NFL season. The Steelers (3-1), Titans(2-1), Texans(2-2), Browns (2-2) and Raiders (2-2) leave their opponents with 80 or more yards to score greater than 46% of the time. In other words, in more than 4 of 10 times their foes must start from within 20 yards of their own goal line. This is 6 yards better than the average starting field position over the past 5 years. If this trend continues among average teams, look for their continued success.

Field Goals

Three of the top teams in the league: Indy (4-0), Pittsburgh (3-1) and Dallas (4-0) are ranked 1-3 respectively in total scores via the 3-pointer. Furthermore, when we eliminate the struggling Ravens who occupy the 4th rank on the list, the surprise Texans (2-2) and undefeated Pats and Packers round out the top 7. While these opportunities may be fostered through their respective strength on offense, it is noteworthy to consider that field position is the difference between a punt and three points, given the same number of yards gained. Before dismissing the importance of field goals examine the New England Dynasty of the past 7 years and you'll find several instances where games were decided by last second field goals. Yes, Adam Vinatieri is a football god, but Belichick is the mastermind behind keeping those games close enough for a field goal to matter.

Other trends in favor of game management and attention to detail are left out for brevity, but team penalties (which correlate negatively to win at -0.21), reduced pass attempts over the past three years (passing correlates -0.17 with wins), and increased rushing (correlate +0.58) desire weight when determining winners in the NFL.

Enjoy the hits, the speed and precision of 60-yard passes and corner blitzing, but allow your mind to wonder unto the microscopic detail of game planning in the NFL to fully appreciate the efforts required to win on a regular basis

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Why Leafs' Coach Paul Maurice is a GENIOUS!

Game Theory 101: Professor Paul Maurice

Without officially announcing anything, the Toronto media deduced the starter for tonights Leafs v. Sens season opener: incumbent Andrew Raycroft. To many peoples surprise, the Leafs big off-season prize, Vesa Toskala, will be riding the pine. Inherent to this sticky situation is the 'controversy' that will brew for the next several months. Additionally, the brilliant declaration by Coach Paul Maurice, who claimed he will not announce his starting goaltender for the duration of the season, is a glowing indication for his plans this season. He is telling us, without telling us, that he is going with a goaltending-by-committee system. I love it. If this isn't reason to shower Coach Maurice with the praise, then you just don't get it.

The pre-season in Leaf Land was a venerable disaster (from a goaltending perspective) as neither Raycroft or Toskala could effective grab the bull by the horns and win the starting position. Rather than reduce his hairline further, the cunning and courageous Paul Maurice turned it into an opportunity to seize and exploit in an effort to improve his club. A top notch game theory lesson worthy of the Jack Adams Trophy (of course, only if it pays off).

Maurice may have come to realize that the best option for the Leafs is a tandem 'tender system. If you can't rely on one of them, make them compete – scratch and claw each others eyes out – for that starters role. This competition, among men nearing the prime of their career, will bring out the best in both of them just as it did for Jacques Lemaire in Minnesota when Roloson and Fernandez played their finest hockey to date. By the way, this move helped Lemaire take home the Jack Adams in 2002-03, for those wondering the potential dividends of move of this nature can have on the success of the team.

This move makes so much sense when you consider the following. Firstly, nothing in the hockey world aside from a trade will abolish the goaltending controversy talk in TO, so get used to it. Given the current Leafs lineup, there are only three logical hypothetical scenarios whereby the Leafs make the playoffs. We can dream that either Raycroft or Toskala will post Luongo & Brodeur-type numbers, but if you know enough, you'll know better. The most probable scenario that sees the Leafs playing meaningful games in the Spring features both Raycroft and Toskala playing well. I'm talking well in the neighborhood of .905-.920 SV%, 2.66-2.88 GAA, and +20 wins (each), something that is both realistic and necessary for the Leafs to compete.

Furthermore, Toskala is a veteran of the tandem system, splitting time with Nabokov in San Jose for the past two seasons. This setup -- not surprisingly -- featured Toskala as the back-up, in other words in the same scenario he finds himself on opening night. Do you think Paul Maurice considered this when he gave Raycroft the nod for the season opener? If Raycrofts' poor season last year is any indication, it is safe to assume that the money and the pressure that accompanies a starting keeper in Toronto is crippling. Placing Toskala in a scenario that he is very familiar with will only expedite comfort in the chaos that is playing the most scrutinized position, in the most scrutinized event in all of Canada. Well done, Mr. Maurice.

The END.

[PS -- Another indication that this is the right play in Toronto is the fact that perennial foghorn Mike Milbury hasn't gotten anything right in a decade, exemplified by his deplorable track record as a GM on Long Island. He thinks this is a terrible play by Maurice – thanks for the support Mad Mike, you'll be proved wrong again at seasons end.]

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Why the MLB should adopt Video Replay.

There is no crying in baseball, but perhaps we'll make an exception for the San Diego Padres. Amidst the chaos of the 13-inning battle to conclude the marathon regular season in the MLB last night, we saw two exemplary plays which demand the MLB institute video replay. One such play was the games last, a monumental moment that sealed each teams fate sending the Rockies to the playoffs and the Padres to the Kleenex aisle.

This epic showdown between the Padres and the Rockies was fitting based on the stretch drive that saw the latter team grind out victories in 13 of their last 14 contests. In captivating fashion the Rockies battled from two runs behind in the bottom of the 13th inning to win. Back-to-back doubles off Padres rock-solid closer -- and all-time saves leader – Trevor Hoffman brought MVP candidate Matt Holliday to the plate. He bashed a well-hit triple that cashed the tying run and stood ninety feet away from the Rockies' playoff dreams. A sharp liner into right field off the bat of Jayme Carroll forced Holliday to tag up and chug for home. A well thrown ball from the outfield forced a play at the plate in which Matt Holliday slid in head first. A fumbled ball recovered to apply a late tag followed by an unemphatic and meager safe call lead to a Rockies win and providential bedlam in Colorado.

But Holliday missed the plate. Quite visibly according to the video replay, and thus was effectively tagged out leaving the bases empty and two men out forcing an extension to the game between two belabored clubs and their respective post-season hopes. Tragedy for the Padres, triumph for the Rockies and their home crowd, bitterness for fans of the MLB who are tired of their reluctance to embrace modern technology.

Sport isn't about tradition, fame and fortune, or community prosperity. While these things are tangibly linked to professional sport, it is not what they are all about. Pro Sports are about winning – it's not the only thing, it's everything. Why wouldn't the MLB take the required measures to ensure a fair outcome in every contest? Shouldn't the events of this epic, extra-inning play-in game be enough to prove the necessity of replay in baseball?

While pure traditionalist infesting baseball circles prefer the element of human error that has graced (or disgraced, in certain cases) the game for over a century, others arguing similarly against the use of video replay claim it will slow the game down. Clearly these individuals have a skewed conception of todays highly advanced technology. In reality, the level of intricate video analysis that can be performed nearly instantaneously today makes it a must-have for all pro sports.

Tennis is a glowing example of how fast and conclusive video replay can make a positive impact on a sport. Tennis players can now challenge calls and get their ruling within 5-10 seconds. A subtle disruption whereby the player asks for a review, and immediately gets a visualization proving where the ball landed. It's as easy as Roger Federers' domination! It is far less painless, not to mention dramtically less time consuming than watching a Manager charge out of the dugout and protest a call with the Umpire. These theatrical displays are tradition, but can be done without in a game (sadly) too long for most viewers attention span.

Those who confuse video replay for a time consuming and cumbersome process are watching too much football. In the NFL instant replay is slow by design. Yes, they WANT the video replay to take time. They draw it out to ridiculous length by requiring an on-field official to run over to the booth, get on the headset, climb inside and then -- finally -- review the play in question. Meanwhile, every angle has been shown on national TV and millions of viewers already know the right call. In nine out of ten cases of video review in the NFL, the fans know the call prior to the officials' emergence from the booth. It doesn't have to be so, but the marketing geniuses at the NFL know that it drums up drama and suspense, so they have it set up that way.

Baseball, like Tennis, should adopt a system of replay focused on ensuring quickness and avoid disruptions in our beloved pastime. So, we fix the home plate umpire with an ear piece and allow a three-man crew to review the video in the sanctity and comfort of a press box. Should a manager decide to challenge a call, the home plate umpire calls time and passes affirmative judgment the moment he receives word from his friends in the booth.

What about errant challenges and the method of challenge? The NFL penalizes the Coach who incorrectly threw the challenge flag by deducting a single time out, whereas the NHL relies on the discretion of the officiating crew for reviews, thus carrying no penalty to the team(s). The simplistic nature of baseball leaves punishment for over-challengers an issue not easily resolved, but these matters can be discussed at length over a long winter off-season when the San Diego Padres assuredly bring it to the table at the Winter Meetings.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Sports on Cloud Nine: Why the Toronto Maple Leafs can't win.

In all major sports there is an ebb and flow among their player personnel that is characterized by a combination of free agent signings, and player development – both internally among existing players and externally from players in the AHL, and junior.

The teams least favored to win, who will look to improve anyway they can, typically hold onto their cards and trust their blossoming talents will continue to develop and improve. It's best we don't burden ourselves with the equivalent of un-sinking the Titanic by trying to dissect their woes, so we'll move on to consider contenders (and pretenders).

At this point in the season it is fun to put on the General Managers' hat and think about what can be done to improve hockey clubs. For the likes of Ottawa, Pittsburgh, San Jose and Vancouver – all teams expected to be the at the pinnacle of their conference – it is most likely that free agent acquisitions, rather than development, will improve their chances of winning the Stanley Cup. They are granted this luxurious position largely to consistent success in player development. Their rosters feature a high relative percentage of mature young players that now CONTRIBUTE in their line up on a day to day basis. Think Spezza, Crosby, Cheechoo, and Bieksa. Listed from their respective teams above, they are exemplary models of what good player development can do for an organization.

Since we are playing GM, we can't overlook another huge reason player development is vital to success in the NHL: it is cheap! Free agents are always costly and ubiquitously overpaid, whereas nursing and nurturing talent from within allows you to sign them at a discount. This is why the Detroit Red Wings dominate annually with a roster full of skaters you've never heard of. They scout, draft and develop better than any team in the league over the past decade. Their soft division aside, the savings on their developed talent award them a little more freedom come the trade deadline when a costly acquisition might bolster their chances of making it to the dance.

Presented as a polar opposite from Detroit are their Original Six rivals down the 401 in Toronto. The Maple Leafs' model in the pre-salary cap era poo-pooed on talent development in favor of real time success. They would errantly discard prospects and draft picks for the good of that season and to the detriment of future campaigns. They were the NHL's New York Yankees as they unsustainably bought wins (but not Cups – Ouch)! However, in todays NHL where the ~$50 million salary cap handcuffs the big spendings in a futile effort to achieve parity, player development is the be-all, end-all when it comes to the success of your franchise. Thats right, I said it. Player development and the ultimate contributions they make towards improving your franchise will determine where the final resting place in the standings.

The Leafs represent the utmost incompetence when it comes to strengthening your organization from within. On their current roster players like Wellwood, Stajan, Steen (24th overall), Coliacavo (17th Overall), Antropov (10th Overall) continue to disappoint. I could continue, but I won't dare bore you with their mediocre numbers, personalities and contributions overall to the success of the Maple Leafs. Instead, I'll submit to you what I think is the most overlooked factor in the careers and lives of these young men playing in Toronto; a team whose surfeit of hacks and underachievers that can't seem to break out and make a name for themselves. But, why?

Toronto is the center of the hockey universe. The locker room is jammed with media personalities from the drop of the puck at the first practice of the pre-season. To think that it only picks up after that is just mind-numbing. Young Maple Leafs get the rock star treatment from day one and their celebrity status is instantaneous. They get recognized sooner, they get hot woman easier, they get more attention from everyone starting almost as prematurely as Leafs coverage on TSN. This is a phenomena almost unique to TO.

As a stark contrast to the Great White North, Americans largely don't give a rats' you-know-what about the NHL. In a big US city, the top 2-3 faces in the dressing room MIGHT be able to get into VIP at the hot local club, while the rest of the guys are waiting in line with the plumber from Boston, and the secretary from Washington. These small-market players are infused with a blue-collar type attitude that demands performance BEFORE recognition – something TO has entirely backwards.

As a result, Toronto players are bred with a poisonous heir of entitlement at a young age. This attitude, on both the conscious and subconscious levels is disastrous not just in sport, but many aspects of life. We can positively attribute their lack of development and subsequent mediocrity to this mental factor. Compare have and have-nots in any scenario in life and sport: the motivation to get out of the gutter is much greater when you don't have a pot to pee in (or a window to throw it out of). In cities where your not getting the time of day unless you're a top line player, the motivation for the young guys on 2nd and 3rd lines trying to make a name for themselves is immensely greater than that in Toronto. We can't underestimate the intrinsic fury generated by being ignored or overlooked – especially among young, testosterone/ego fueled professional athletes. Having to perform and excel in order to get to get your name in the paper, causes one to work harder in the gym and on the ice. Up and coming players in small markets have more success early because they need to succeed in order to get a piece of face time on Sportscenter, or to jack up their market value in the eyes of general managers around the league. The drive to succeed when you have been overlooked is MUCH greater than that of an individual who feels they have little to prove in lieu of their perceived success.

Lets tackle the other side of the coin in the media infested Toronto locker room, since I know the most common argument regarding the medias' affect on TO players is the added pressure. 'So what about the intensified criticism they are subjected to as a result of their prolific status', as many suggest? It doesn't matter. Most young cocksure athletes are sufficiently full of themselves to overcome the degree of scrutiny and criticism they face. I'd argue it is much easier to get by in Toronto, where even the godly Mats Sundin can't make it a week without his value being questioned. Once again, getting ripped is better than not getting noticed. Steen gets a pat on the back via a picture on Page One if he pops a game winner in TO. But, score 30+ goals in Colorado or Florida and you'll still just the guy listed in the Box Scores near the back. The Broncos and the football-crazed state of Florida couldn't care less about you, and more often then not I'd argue this defines the career of young up-and-comers in the NHL.

Just contrast the success rate for draft picks coming out of small markets and compare it to those from big market teams who echo TO's struggle to develop players. The New York Rangers have been victimized by a parallel course of action, but they are finally staged to make a run this year on the shoulders of their stud Goaltender, and 7th round draft pick, Hendrik Lundqvist. Think the Leafs will right the ship?