Draft Thoughts Part 2 of 4: On the Cleveland Browns and Analytics

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 ]

I was quite excited for what the Cleveland Browns might do in this year’s draft. I watched a lot more baseball in the 1990s and 2000s, and was well aware of (and paid close attention to) Billy Beane’s work with the Oakland A’s. (I also haven’t forgotten how old-school scouts derided it as nerd nonsense by people who had never played the game and didn’t understand the arcane complexities of their sport. That’ll come up later.)

As someone who believes the NFL, both on a league-wide and on the individual team level, is in many ways run by backward, ossified processes that seem to have all the scientific rigor of bloodletting or the Ptolemaic system, I was intrigued by the thought of a team applying real analysis and big data to their front-office processes. This draft was the first chance to see the new front office in action.

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The worst owner in the NFL

Owners of professional sports teams have a lot of responsibility when it comes to the success of their franchise. They are the ones putting up massive sums of money in an attempt to generate profit, but they also control the direction of personnel hirings. Much can be said about terrible owners in other sports, such as James Dolan of the Knicks, who can’t seem to get over his love affair with Isaiah Thomas. However, Dolan at least supports his team and his city and wants the best for them. Recent events have revealed an NFL owner who does not display this courtesy, in addition to ineptitude.

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Thoughts on the recent NFL coaching changes

All in all, it was a pretty typical offseason as far as upheaval in the NFL head coaching ranks goes. Since the dust finally seems settled (only Atlanta’s head coaching job remains open, and it’s all but given that Seahawks DC Dan Quinn will immediately take it following the Super Bowl), I thought I’d look at all the moves made (and the moves not made) and offer my thoughts.

New York Jets

Though I like Rex Ryan as a head coach in general, I felt it was time for New York to move on from him. After six years, and nearly every major offensive component turning over at least once while Ryan was head coach– GMs, offensive coordinators, starting quarterbacks– the ultimate responsibility for failing to field an offense that could allow the team to compete is on him. (Chase Stuart of Football Perspective has a much more detailed account of Ryan’s flaws and the circumstances that demanded his firing.)

Todd Bowles has been a rising star in the coaching ranks after two years of maintaining the high standard of performance as Arizona’s defensive coordinator that was established when Ray Horton had the job. I think it’s a solid hire; I certainly prefer hiring a rising assistant to a known mediocrity.

I’m really intrigued by his hire of Chan Gailey as OC. While Gailey at first glance might seem like another face in a sea of retread coaches, he’s one of the more innovative faces there, having a history of developing unconventional offenses to maximize his talent at hand (most notably with Kansas City in 2008, when, left with only Tyler Thigpen at QB, he resorted to a spread attack similar to the one Thigpen ran at Coastal Carolina). That track record intrigues me, because it makes me think Gailey will do whatever is necessary to maximize his offensive talent and performance at QB– whether that QB is Geno Smith or someone else.

Buffalo Bills

In one of the most unusual moves in head-coaching history, Doug Marrone opted out of his contract due to a clause, that as far as I know, has never been executed in NFL history: The “If the owner dies and the team is sold, I can opt out of my deal after two years” contract. Marrone opted out of his deal, and though he was rumored as a hot head-coaching candidate for the available jobs, particularly the Jets and Falcons, he ultimately took the job of offensive line coach and assistant head coach in Jacksonville, not exactly a lateral move.

Marrone’s failure to find another head-coaching job wasn’t a total surprise; rumbles from Buffalo were that he was significantly overrated and had little to do with the team’s success (he’s an offensive coach, which means he is responsible for the team’s stagnant offense the last two seasons, and the complete disaster of the E.J. Manuel selection and development). Rex Ryan seems like a solid hire, although his specialty– rushing the passer– is something the team already does well, and he won’t fix the offensive problems the team has had the last several years.

Atlanta Falcons

I’m not surprised by Mike Smith’s firing: despite opening his career with five straight playoff appearances, the team cratered in 2013 and 2014, and while injuries and a thin roster played a serious part, so did his absolute terror at fourth-down situations and his inexplicable time management. The Falcons became a bad team at about the same time Smith lost his aggression on fourth-down situations.

I don’t know much about Dan Quinn, but he’s the second defensive coordinator to be hired away from Seattle since 2013, and I think Gus Bradley is doing well despite a poor record for two seasons. Without more specific information on Quinn, I expect he’s a solid hire, especially for a team that already has the most important building blocks to an elite passing offense and needs help revitalizing the defense.

Denver Broncos

I have mixed opinions about John Fox, but ultimately I think John Elway made a gutsy move to fire him. While Fox has always brought a solid defense with him wherever he goes, he actually doesn’t have a particularly impressive track record– only three winning seasons in ten before Peyton Manning became his starting quarterback; he’s basically the non-scumbag Jeff Fisher– and his overly conservative approach to offense was holding the team back. We saw it two years ago in the playoffs, when Fox sat on the ball at the end of the first half and again at regulation, despite having timeouts and, you know, possibly the greatest quarterback of all time behind center. This year, Fox seemed to not prepare for the divisional playoff game at all: the offense was anemic and a defense that had finished fourth in the regular season was invisible. I’ve heard rumors that Fox is one of those guys that treats the playoffs as “just another game,” not introducing new wrinkles or opponent-specific concepts into his gameplans. I think any coach that does this is giving up significant win equity, and in that sense, I absolutely agree with Elway that Fox would keep the team from reaching the next level.

Unfortunately, Elway replaced Fox with Gary Kubiak, someone even more averse to scoring points and offensive aggression (even more bizarre since he’s an offensive coach), and someone whose offensive system of play-action rollouts and bootlegs isn’t well-suited to Manning. I am skeptical this will work, and it would be a real shame if Peyton Manning’s career ended with another playoff upset caused in part by a head coach holding him back.

Chicago Bears

I ranked Marc Trestman much higher in my coaching rankings last year for a few reasons: I believed he had a much better sense of creating a strong offense and playing to his team’s strengths (Lovie Smith and his offensive coordinators stubbornly clung to deep dropbacks with a poor offensive line, subpar receiving talent, and removing Matt Forte at the goal line), as well as a much better sense of in-game situational management.

Fast-forward a year and it seems he completely lost the locker room. Obviously a guy has to go when that happens; what I don’t understand is how that happened. Without a better idea of why, I can’t say what Trestman should have done differently or if he deserves another chance to be a head coach someday. He’s on to be the new offensive coordinator in Baltimore, replacing Gary Kubiak.

John Fox is the new man in Chicago. If he can fix the defense, he’s a good hire, but you just read my concerns about him, and it’s possible he makes the offense even worse and more inconsistent than it was in 2014.

Oakland Raiders

Since the team dismissed Dennis Allen midseason and installed Tony Sparano as interim coach, a full-time replacement has been long in the making. I’m not sure why the team was so gung-ho about Jack Del Rio (and even more baffled that the team’s only apparent serious head coaching candidates were Del Rio and Sparano). Jokes about potentially dropping an axe on Khalil Mack’s foot aside, Del Rio has a 68-71 record as a head coach, with only two playoff appearances in nine seasons. The team looked at two mediocre retreads; I simply don’t understand the aversion to bringing in new blood, someone whose track record may be shorter but at least isn’t mediocre.

Del Rio’s first hire was Bill Musgrave as offensive coordinator. Musgrave’s history of coordinating NFL offenses is, frankly, not good. However, he was Matt Ryan’s quarterback coach for his first three years in the league, and I suppose Del Rio has some hope he can develop Derek Carr in the same manner. Or maybe Del Rio is just hiring his old buddy from the 2003-04 Jaguars (team record: 14-18). Given that Del Rio’s head-coaching record screams “mediocre retread,” my first thought is that Musgrave falls into the same category.

(Yes, I used the phrase “mediocre retread” a lot. Get used to it. The NFL has Mediocre Retread Syndrome.)

San Francisco 49ers

Jim Tomsula may be an inspired head-coaching hire, but I strongly believe this was the culmination of a series of moves designed to compete long enough simply to secure a new stadium before returning to running the team on the cheap. Jed York should be embarrassed.

Other Situations

  • Miami: I don’t know why the team retained Joe Philbin. Bill Lazor was a smart OC hire, and one of the biggest reasons the team improved, but Philbin still seems clueless and cowardly when it comes to in-game decisions.
    Of course, the entire power structure in Miami is a mess, and the team just brought in Mike Tannenbaum for some reason, so I’ll continue to expect a certain level of dysfunction from the team as long as Stephen Ross owns it.
  • Tennessee: This is the horrible team no one talks about. Ruston Webster has been embarrassingly bad at identifying talent (the guy brought you the Shonn Greene – Bishop Sankey two-headed backfield; need I say more?). Without Kurt Warner to carry him, Ken Whisenhunt has never shown anything as a head coach except a fascination for QBs with huge arms and horrible accuracy.
    Bud Adams died (good riddance to the guy who robbed Houston of the Oilers franchise) and his son Tommy seems yet to have noticed how terrible his team is. I’d clean out everyone; Adams the Younger barely seems to have considered that option after a 2-14 season where the team was completely non-competitive outside of a bizarre fluke week 1 win.
  • Washington: Jay Gruden doesn’t want to work with Robert Griffin. Jay Gruden should be fired, then. Quarterbacks with Griffin’s talent are rare, and if you’re a coach who refuses to maximize those talents, you are not doing your job and should be fired for cause.
    Scot McCloughan is an inspired choice to head personnel, but who knows what actual power he’ll wield for the league’s most dysfunctional franchise? The most interesting thing about the Washington franchise is how deep Dan Snyder will dig in to embarrass himself over the team’s racist nickname.
  • Tampa Bay: Hopefully Lovie Smith’s performance this year forever dispels the myth of “steady veteran leadership” at the head coaching position. I didn’t think it was possible for this team to be worse than it was under Greg Schiano last year, but, surprise!
    The team is alarmingly bereft of talent and very few of their free-agent signings and draft picks have worked. (Really, the team should promote whoever’s in charge of wide receiver scouting to run things, because Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson have been the only clear successes.) Much like their South Beach counterparts, this team has a messy org chart and a certain level of dysfunction that seems to stem from the very top. (Jacksonville may well have the brightest future of the Florida teams.)

The Top 10: Safeties

In a lot of ways, safeties are the least valuable players on a defense. They get paid the least on average, and are rarely drafted higher than late in the first round. However, this may have more to do with the distribution of talent at the position; the overwhelming majority of players at safety are marginally replaceable. While this makes for a lot of turnover at the position for many teams, it also makes the top players at the position all the more valuable.

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On Ray Rice, Domestic Violence and the NFL

The TMZ release of the Ray Rice assault video has sparked outrage all around the sports world. The outrage has been directed at both the horrible, now unambiguous actions of Ray Rice and the mishandling of the situation by the NFL league offices. Much has been written and said about the situation in the last 24 hours. Not nearly enough, however, has been written about domestic violence in general. Here’s hoping this is a start.

I am an Assistant Prosecutor in my hometown, a normal Midwest town. Currently, I am assigned to the domestic violence court in my hometown. I prosecute domestic violence cases on a daily basis. It’s been an illuminating experience. I had a normal, healthy childhood. I never witnessed domestic violence in my home. So I, like most others, never realized that it is a real problem. But it is. It’s a problem that plagues every community in the country– large or small.  The case of Ray Rice is a good reminder of that fact.

While every instance of domestic violence is unique to those involved in it, all domestic violence cases share similar characteristics and dynamics. Domestic violence is rarely an isolated incident. Rather, it is a series of events, both verbal and physical, which result in a cycle of violence.

Relationships mired in domestic violence generally begin small and escalate gradually. Abusers do not simply assault their partners. Abusers control their partners. Abusers use many different methods to control their partners. Money and children are among the most common methods of control. Power and control manifest themselves in many different ways, though, captured in the Power and Control Wheel created by domestic violence experts.

Abusers begin with verbal and emotional abuse. That escalates to physical violence. The physical violence escalates in degree. Eventually, the physical violence ends through either the termination of the relationship or the death of the victim. In my small Midwest hometown, there have been at least three murders in the past 12 months that are a direct result of domestic violence escalating to a fatal ending.

In between the abusive events, there are honeymoon periods. Abusers begin blaming victims for the abusive event occurring. Victims blame themselves. Abusers manipulate and intimidate victims into feeling responsible, minimizing the abuse, and ultimately recanting. I meet and speak with domestic violence victim on a near daily basis who recant and minimize the behaviors of their abusers. Victims then re-enter abusive relationships.  The cycle continues. The relationship becomes increasingly dangerous.

So how does all of this tie into the Ray Rice video? Understanding the dynamics of domestic violence allows us to provide better context for individual instances of domestic violence. The Ray Rice video shows a domestic violence incident that is, in all likelihood, not an isolated incident. Rice and his fiance engage in a verbal argument outside of the elevator. From there, they enter the elevator, the doors close, and Ray Rice proceeds to punch his fiance twice in the face until she falls unconscious. Rice then allows her unconscious body to lay in the elevator until the doors open and he drags her away.

These are not actions that are characteristic of a person who lost his temper and made a mistake. These are actions indicative of a calculated abuser. Rice doesn’t impulsively hit his fiance while outside of the elevator. He waits until they are seemingly in private and seriously assaults her. He doesn’t panic and check on her well-being immediately following the assault. He is calm. He shows no remorse. He appears to know what he’s doing.

And it’s not just that Ray Rice’s assault on his fiance doesn’t appear to be an isolated incident. His situation doesn’t seem to be all that unique among NFL players. Ray McDonald was recently arrested for a suspected felony domestic violence incident. Greg Hardy was recently found guilty of assaulting his former girlfriend while threatening to kill her. These incidents, too, are not indicative of being first-time, isolated incidents.

These incidents do, however, reflect the wide-spread epidemic that is domestic violence. No one watches a football player score a touchdown and think, “You know what, I wonder if he beats his wife.” But that is the sad reality in the world in which we live. Athletes, friends and family we admire engage in these abusive relationships every day, whether it be as an abuser or a victim. And we turn a blind eye. It’s about time that changed.

The NFL has a terrific platform to contribute to that sort of change. Shift the focus off from diseases like cancer, which already have real and significant public awareness, to something like domestic violence, which is currently under-reported and under-prosecuted.  The NFL doesn’t have to stop contributing to the causes it currently does.  There is plenty of money to go towards other worthy causes like domestic violence awareness.  Encourage domestic violence victims to report and follow through with cases.  Donate to centers that provide support networks for victims of domestic violence.  Correct the behavior of abusers, whether it be that of players, other employees, or fans.

Make a difference. The opportunity is there. Take it and run with it, NFL.

On Devin Gardner and Pre-Snap Reads

Devin Gardner, with some improvement, is potentially a first round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft.  Where can he improve?  Well, Gardner himself identified an area a week ago in a radio interview:

“Before Coach Nuss got here, I never had to identify a MIKE … now I know where pressure’s coming from.”

The MIKE that Devin Gardner is referencing is the middle linebacker.  The MIKE is often the “captain” of the defense.  He puts everyone in the right place.  He’s defending the heart of the defense– the middle.  Reading where he is and what he’s doing will often tell you where pressure is coming from, if at all, and what type of coverage the defense is playing.  In 2013, Devin Gardner had a lot of  issues with making poor decisions when teams got pressure on him in passing situations.  Does making a pre-snap read on the MIKE linebacker matter that much?  Could it make those post-snap decisions easier?  Let’s take a look at a couple plays from the Michigan-Notre Dame game in 2013.

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