2017 Mock Draft

So the draft is this week. It will begin with a familiar sight: the Cleveland Browns own its first pick, which they are expected to use on Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett. They better do it. Garrett is widely considered to be the draft’s top prospect, the franchise pass rusher that comes once every few years. There is greater consensus on Garrett than there was, for example, on Jadaveon Clowney, whose pedestrian junior season at South Carolina gave many significant cause for concern.

Garrett is thickly-built, quick twitch, long, and athletic. He was a productive sack artist at A&M. Yet, questions persist. Why did so many of his 31 career sacks come against non-SEC competition? What are we to make of Warren Sapp’s comments that Garrett is a lazy disappearing act on tape and that he’s never taken over a game?

Well, let’s look at Sapp’s comments. I love Sapp. He is, for my money, the greatest defensive tackle ever to play the game. However, his comments should be taken with a grain of salt. First off, as far as taking a game over, I would direct him to the Arkansas game from this year as an example of a time when Garrett came mighty close. I would also expect it of Sapp of all people to remember that defensive linemen don’t have to make the play to impact the game. The sheer amount of attention Garrett received from offences was intense, and it freed up some of his teammates to make plays. Sapp was double-teamed and triple-teamed enough throughout his career to understand that, when offences go out of their way to take a D-lineman out of a game, they will. When that happens, the other guys have to win the favourable matchups they are left with.

We also must remember that players coming out of college are not finished products. As far as NFL production goes, Sapp set lofty standards which I hope he doesn’t project on rookies entering the league. Let’s take Clowney as an example. Everyone remembers the giant TFL-fumble against Michigan, but he never took over games at South Carolina the way he owned that first half against the Pats in the playoffs or the regular season game against the Raiders. It’s the nature of the game. Players improve. Still, Garrett has already shown impressive gifts, and should become even more consistent once he gets acclimated to the NFL game. He’s not perfect, but he should be the number one pick.

Then, there is, as is the case with every draft, the discussion about quarterbacks. For most of the offseason, the first round QB discussion involves Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky, and Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer. Each has enticing qualities and scary flaws. Watson is the winner who comes from a Run-Pass Option-heavy, one-read offence whose arm strength and zip are good, but not great. Trubisky has better arm talent, and has made NFL throws, but he’s a one-year wonder who also comes from an up-tempo spread offence that didn’t require the QB to read an entire defence. Kizer might have the most physical upside of the three, but he probably needed another year in school after his brutally inconsistent 2016 season. In recent weeks, we’ve seen a wild card enter the race: Texas Tech Patrick Mahomes. He has a cannon arm, but seems to play backyard football all the time, has shown maddening inconsistency and comes from a system that does not have a history of producing good pros at the quarterback position.

Who goes where is anybody’s guess. Trubisky would seem to have the most people excited, but a lot of coaches will value Watson’s record as a starter in college. I have no earthly idea what’s going to happen, but I’ll try to predict it just the same.

  1. Cleveland Browns: Myles Garrett, Defensive End, Texas A&M: This doesn’t have to be hard. Cleveland has a talent-bereft roster and is switching to a 4-3 under new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, a scheme which requires a franchise defensive end. Garrett is that guy. Cleveland, please… Don’t outsmart yourselves. Pick the man, already
  2. San Francisco 49ers: Jamal Adams, Safety, LSU: The 49ers have a poorly-constructed roster, and they could go in several different directions. However, their new GM is a former strong safety, they need a strong safety, and if they trust new defensive coordinator Robert Saleh to make a versatile strong safety into one of the cornerstones of their defence, Adams makes sense here.
  3. Chicago Bears: Solomon Thomas, Defensive End: Mitch Unrein and Akiem Hicks are serviceable starters as 4-i’s in Chicago’s 3-4, but Thomas gives them a potential elite starter at a position with which defensive coordinators can really get creative. Thomas could be a playmaker who lines up all over the line for Chicago.
  4. Jacksonville Jaguars: Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU: The Jags’ running game was terrible last season, and it’s clear there isn’t a top-tier back on the roster at the moment. If the additions on the offensive line improve a unit that’s been stinking out the joint for a long time, Fournette could be a catalyst for dramatic offensive improvement for the Jags.
  5. Cleveland Browns (Trade with Tennessee): Mitch Trubisky, Quarterback, North Carolina: Cleveland needs a quarterback, and if they’ve set their mind on Trubisky, they can’t afford seeing him go to the Jets or to a team that vaults ahead of Cleveland at 12 to grab him. The Browns have the draft capital to afford this trade, so they pull the trigger.
  6. New York Jets: OJ Howard, Tight end, Alabama: Eventually, you’re going to get a franchise QB in there. However, before you do, you have to make sure he won’t be the victim of a poor supporting cast. Besides, tight ends make for good security blankets for lesser QBs. Howard is one of the best prospects to come out in years at the tight end position.
  7. Los Angeles Chargers: Malik Hooker, Safety, Ohio State: This is among the no-brainers of this draft. The Chargers’ new defensive coordinator is Gus Bradley, who comes from the Seattle coaching tree. If Bradley is to bring the cover 3 base defence he’s played in Seattle and Jacksonville, he needs a rangy centre fielder type at free safety. Hooker fits the bill.
  8. Carolina Panthers: Marshon Lattimore, Cornerback, Ohio State: Logic would suggest the Panthers would go with offence, but Ron Rivera has never seen a defensive stud he didn’t want to pick. Moreover, he never expected to find Lattimore available here. Hey, you can get good RBs in the third round, right?
  9. Cincinnati Bengals: Reuben Foster, Linebacker, Alabama: The Bengals might need an edge rusher more, but their linebacking corps is severely lacking in speed. Foster is a great athlete whose attitude fits with the Bengals’ – ahem! – aggressive mentality.
  10. Buffalo Bills: Mike Williams, Wide Receiver, Clemson: As average as Robert Woods was, he needs to be replaced. Your quarterback is Tyrod Taylor, whose accuracy as about as variable as a bad umpire’s strikezone. Thus, it makes sense to add a big receiver with a large catch radius.
  11. New Orleans Saints: Derek Barnett, Defensive End, Tennessee: Tell me if you’ve heard this before: The Saints need pass rushing reinforcements. Barnett, a polished pass rusher who can provide immediate help on that front, lands in Nawlins.
  12. Tennessee Titans (trade with Cleveland): John Ross, Wide Receiver, Washington: The Titans use their tight end really well, but their lack of talent at receiver hurt them last year. Ross adds, well, 4.22 speed. Need I say more?
  13. Arizona Cardinals: Jonathan Allen, Defensive End, Alabama: The Cardinals just lost Calais Campbell and need someone to play the 4-i opposite Robert Nkemdiche. Allen lands in the perfect system to make an early impact.
  14. Washington (Trade with Philadelphia): Christian McCaffrey, Running Back, Stanford: Washington likes McCaffrey’s star power, and he gives them a multi-dimensional threat of their currently atrocious backfield.
  15. Indianapolis Colts: Dalvin Cook, Running Back, Florida State:  The Colts have 92-year-old Frank Gore as their starting running back and the rest of their backfield is comprised of a “who’s who” of “who’s that.” Cook gives them a quintessential modern back and a terrific weapon for Andrew Luck.
  16. Baltimore Ravens: Charles Harris, Edge Rusher, Missouri: The Ravens have next to no help for Terrell Suggs at edge rusher, and Suggs is getting up there in age himself. Harris brings much-needed long-term help at the position.
  17. Philadelphia Eagles: Tre’Davious White, Cornerback, LSU: The Eagles badly need cornerback help, and they’re glad to find White still available despite their decision to trade down.
  18. Detroit Lions (Trade with Tennessee): Haason Reddick, Linebacker, Temple: Detroit’s front seven stinks. They could use help on the defensive line, but Reddick is their top-rated guy at this point, so they move up to start their front’s rebuilding job somewhere.
  19. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Cam Robinson, Offensive Tackle, Alabama: I cannot wrap my mind around the idea that the Bucs are fine with that offensive line. Robinson makes too much sense here for the Bucs to skip on him.
  20. Denver Broncos: Ryan Ramczyk, Offensive Tackle, Wisconsin: Denver’s offensive line is one of those positions that seems as though it’s been bad since about the turn of the century. Ramczyk fits what they like to do and will help the left tackle spot look like less of a revolving door.
  21. Tennessee Titans (Trade with Detroit): Marlon Humphrey, Cornerback, Alabama: The Titans address their other position of need with Humphrey, a physical corner with the speed to keep up with fast receivers.
  22. Miami Dolphins: Forrest Lamp, Offensive Linemen, Western Kentucky: The Dolphins could use interior line help, and Lamp’s positional versatility gives him added value.
  23. New York Giants: David Njoku, Tight end, Miami (FL): The Giants haven’t had a game-breaking tight end since Jeremy Shockey. Add Njoku and his tremendous athletic ability to a receiving corps that includes Odell Beckham, Brandon Marshall, and Sterling Shepard, and Eli Manning is going to be running out of reasons to throw picks.
  24. New Orleans Saints (Trade with Oakland): Corey Davis, Wide Receiver, Western Michigan: Ted Ginn was a contributor for the Panthers in 2015, but you can’t make real projects around him. They cannot wait any longer and come up to snatch Davis, a complete receiver who’s slipping because of his inability to participate in combine testing.
  25. Houston Texans: Deshaun Watson, Quarterback, Clemson: Tom Savage is basically being tabbed as a starter because he looked good against the Jaguars. Faint praise. Picking a quarterback in this draft is a risky operation, but the Texans don’t want to see their window of opportunity as the rest of their division keeps getting better. Others quarterbacks might have better measurables, but Bill O’Brien decides he wants to pick a “winner.”
  26. Seattle Seahawks: Garrett Boles, Offensive Tackle, Utah: This one is fairly self-explanatory. Seattle’s offensive line stinks, and repeatedly puts Russell Wilson’s health in jeopardy. This is high for Boles, but the Hawks need the O-Line help this badly.
  27. Kansas City Chiefs: Patrick Mahomes, Quarterback, Texas Tech: This is an ideal time for the Chiefs to draft a talented but raw quarterback like Mahomes. They have a really good team, and Alex Smith has a few years left. Mahomes happens to need those years to adjust to the pro game. The Texas Tech product also gives the Chiefs deep passing game options they don’t have with Smith, and has just enough mobility to run Andy Reid’s West Coast Offence.
  28. Dallas Cowboys: Taco Charlton, Defensive End, Michigan: Dallas hasn’t had a consistent pass rusher since Greg Hardy was disgracing its uniform. There are questions about Charlton, but he resembles Hardy very much as a player, and gives them similar possibilities.
  29. Chicago Bears (Trade with Green Bay): DeShone Kizer, Quarterback, Notre Dame: This is a mortifying risk, but the Bears don’t view Mike Glennon as a long-term solution, but at very worst, Kizer becomes a trading chip. More realistically, Kizer learns the pro game for a year or two, which he dearly needs. From then onward, he does have rare gifts. If this pays off, the Bears’ franchise will be in good shape.
  30. Pittsburgh Steelers: Takkarist McKinley, Edge Rusher, UCLA: Jarvis Jones has been a bust and has left the team. Bud Dupree is still developing and nobody exactly what he’ll amount to. Even if Dupree flourishes, however, James Harrison can’t be counted on long-term. McKinley has the non-stop motor the blue-collar Steelers like and he gives them long-term insurance rushing from the edge.
  31. Atlanta Falcons: Evan Ingram, Tight End, Ole Miss: The Falcons give Matt Ryan another weapon. Ingram, a move tight end who can be moved around, will give the Falcons a matchup nightmare against virtually every team in the league.
  32. Oakland Raiders (Trade with New Orleans): TJ Watt, Linebacker, Wisconsin: The Raiders drop down and get good value for this pick with Watt, a versatile linebacker whose multiple talents mesh well with a very flexible Oakland defensive front.

And just for fun, here’s the second round:

  1. (33) Cleveland: Malik McDowell, DT, Michigan State
  2. (34) San Francisco: Adoree Jackson, CB, USC
  3. (35) Jacksonville: Dion Dawkins, OT, Temple
  4. (36) Green Bay (Trade with Chicago): Quincy Wilson, CB, Florida
  5. (37) LA Rams: Dan Feeney, G, Indiana
  6. (38) LA Chargers: Taylor Moton, OT, Western Michigan
  7. (39) New York Jets: Chidobe Awuzie, CB, Colorado
  8. (40) Carolina: Zay Jones, WR, East Carolina
  9. (41) Cincinnati: Jordan Willis, DE, Kansas State
  10. (42) New Orleans: Jarrad Davis, LB, Florida
  11. (43) Philadelphia: Alvin Kamara, RB, Tennessee
  12. (44) Buffalo: Jabrill Peppers, S, Michigan
  13. (45) Arizona: Juju Smith-Schuster, WR, USC
  14. (46) Indianapolis: Obi Melifonwu, S, UConn
  15. (47) Baltimore: Budda Baker, S, Washington
  16. (48) Minnesota: Zach Cunningham, LB, Vanderbilt
  17. (49) Washington: Kevin King, CB, Washington
  18. (50) Tampa Bay: Raekwon McMillan, LB, Ohio State
  19. (51) Denver: Jalen Tabor, CB, Florida
  20. (52) Tennessee (Trade with Cleveland): Demarcus Walker, DE, Florida State
  21. (53) Detroit: Dont’a Freeman, RB, Texas
  22. (54) Miami: Sidney Jones, CB, Washington
  23. (55) New York Giants: Antonio Garcia, OT, Troy
  24. (56) Oakland: Joe Mixon, RB, Oklahoma
  25. (57) Houston: Montravious Adams, NT, Auburn
  26. (58) Seattle: Fabian Moreau, CB, UCLA
  27. (59) Kansas City: Cooper Kupp, WR, Eastern Washington
  28. (60) Dallas: Cordrea Tankersley, CB, Clemson
  29. (61) Green Bay: Roderick Johnson, OT, Florida State
  30. (62) Pittsburgh: Curtis Samuel, WR/RB, Ohio State
  31. (63) Atlanta: Tim Williams, Edge, Alabama
  32. (64) Panthers: Carl Lawson, DE, Auburn

The Joey Bosa problem

If you are an NCAA football player and college ball commentators talk about you before the season as a “lock for the first overall pick in next year’s draft,” start freaking out. Your stock will drop soon.

Look it up; for every Andrew Luck or Jadaveon Clowney, there are several “mortal locks” like Matt Leinart, Jake Locker, Brady Quinn or Ricky Williams. All of them were crowned “next year’s first overall pick,” and subsequently tumbled down in the first round to varying degrees (Locker, Williams, and Leinart were still Top 10 picks, but only Williams went in the Top 5); Quinn dropped much further, though not far enough). This year’s draft figures to add another name to this unenviable list: Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa.

As a sophomore on OSU’s 2014-15 National Championship team, Bosa forced the entire college football fanbase to notice him: he won the Big 10’s Defensive Player of the Year award with his 21 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks. Therefore, it was clear to college football analysts that there was no better player for this year’s draft.

That said, we’ve heard the song before, and the CFB gang often gets it wrong, mostly because they look at these players from a college football perspective. They don’t pick players apart the way NFL scouts and coaches do, they seldom engage in trying to look for ways in which these players can transcend a completely different system from what they’ll see in the pros, and they certainly don’t analyse them in terms of NFL team fits (how could they?). This explains why, on the topic of predicting draft spots a year early, you shouldn’t trust them.

Now, sometimes a player is so clearly superior to the rest of the draft class that everybody agrees on it. The only reason why, for example, Julius Peppers wasn’t the first overall pick in 2002 was because the NFL was welcoming the expansion Texans. Houston, being the bright sparks that they were, decided that they absolutely HAD to throw a rookie quarterback behind a bad offensive line instead of going for the best college pass rusher of the last decade.

Players like Peppers are the exception, however, and most of the time, the attentive viewer can start to see signs that their favourite college ball analysts might be off the mark with the first overall pick predictions. For some people who looked at Bosa, the first sign was the drop in sack production: Bosa went from 13.5 sacks in 2014 to five in 2015. His defenders will argue that the lesser sack numbers were the result of double and triple-teams, and that his numbers against the run (16 tackles for loss) were again excellent. Bosa’s doubters, meanwhile, will argue that a sign of a true future NFL star is the ability to keep posting great numbers despite the extra attention.

As luck would have it, both sides have a point. When a player has a ridiculous freshman or sophomore season rushing the passer, one has to expect his sack numbers to drop somewhat the next year. If we stick with the Peppers example, it was unrealistic to expect him to match the 15 sacks he had as a sophomore at North Carolina, but the 9.5 he notched as a junior despite constantly dealing with multiple blockers was considered, for good reason, to be an acceptable drop in production. Bosa’s dip to five sacks is more worrisome, but it doesn’t prove he lacks what it takes to be a productive pass rusher in the NFL.

Recently, however, another issue has come up: Bosa lack of prototypical initial quickness. In other words, the ability to beat blockers off the snap with his first step doesn’t show up on tape. This is a potential issue that has struck me all year long. Even when facing tackles alone (an admittedly rare occurrence), Bosa appears to have neither the elite first step of the usual top-level NFL pass rushers nor the burst to turn the corner on NFL offensive tackles using speed. Scouts and coaches are now much smarter in how they interpret testing results, so Bosa’s 4.86 40-time at the Combine didn’t result in the catastrophic draft plunge that would have been a certainty 12-15 years ago. It did, however, lend credence to the idea that Bosa doesn’t have the explosion to be a classic speed rusher in the NFL. And while he did post a better 40-time at his pro day (4.77), the improvement doesn’t seem like enough to change many people’s minds on the topic.

ESPN’s Todd McShay has suggested that this doesn’t really matter; that being a top pass rusher in the NFL is more about hands and technique than about raw speed or athleticism. He’s both right and wrong. It’s true one doesn’t have to be uber-athletic to be a solid-to-good NFL edge rusher. That said, if you’re looking for a bona-fide franchise pass rusher, statistics suggest Bosa won’t be that player.

Indeed, if we recall that we are looking for either a killer first step or great speed turning the corner, the NFL’s active-sack-leaders list contradicts McShay’s assertion. The first eight players possess at least one, if not both those qualities, and there is a speed rush element to each one’s game. (The list from one to eight: Julius Peppers, Jared Allen, DeMarcus Ware, Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, and Mario Williams.)

You have to get to Trent Cole at number nine on the list to find a player who made his mark essentially off technique and motor, and even that’s debatable. Cole isn’t a fast runner, but his first step is excellent nonetheless. Now, Bosa’s backers might respond that he could do worse than Trent Cole’s career as a pass rusher, and that sacks aren’t the be-all and end-all of the impact of one’s pass rush. Both points are valid, but while Trent Cole has been a very good player for the bulk of his career, would you, at any point, have described him as an elite pass rusher? I cannot say I would have. And on the topic of meaningful pass rush stats, sacks aren’t everything, it’s true. Yet, they are very significant in that they, more often than not, kill offensive drives.

Before we go any further, though, we must remember not to sell Bosa short. All the TV and magazine scouts are both unanimous and right in the following respect: Bosa’s pass rush arsenal and overall technique are both uncommonly polished for a college player, and his hands are among the most violent I can recall seeing on someone entering the NFL. Bosa is also a powerful player who should quickly become one of the NFL’s best defensive ends at defending the run.

But then, the same could be said about a similar prospect who came out in 2008: Chris Long. The son of the great Howie Long hasn’t embarrassed himself by any means in the NFL, but while his technique is just about spotless, his lack of elite athleticism has prevented him from reaching the pass rushing heights of his technically inferior but athletically superior former teammate Robert Quinn. Now ask yourself the following question: if the Rams knew Long’s career numbers in advance and were then transported back to the ’08 draft, do they draft Long second overall again? I can almost guarantee they don’t. And here’s an even more intriguing inquiry: if the entire NFL knows Long’s career numbers during the draft process, where DOES he get drafted?

The thing about having a Top-5 pick is that you’re hoping to come away with a Top three, maybe four, player at his position (unless he’s a quarterback, in which case he can be average and still be a mortal lock for a $100-million contract, but I digress). And if you’re looking for a pass rusher, that’s a 12-or-more sacks-per-year guy. The odds are that Bosa will be something close to that, but not quite.

So while Bosa’s floor is so unusually high that he’s probably the draft’s unlikeliest player to become a bust, his lack of a “sky is the limit” kind of ceiling will likely make him something of a tough sell in the Top 5. You can just picture several heated conversations about him between coaches and scouts. Do you allow the multi-dimensional quality of his game to overshadow his limitations when it comes to his most important task? Do you believe his technique, hand violence, and effort can compensate for his lack of raw speed and overall athleticism? If you’re picking him in the Top 5, maybe even the Top 10, you have to answer yes to both of these questions. Would I? I’m really not certain. And while it only takes the one to pull the trigger, one has to think several teams aren’t sure, either. I’m glad it’s not my call.

 

Chip Kelly’s firing: lessons from a gutsy experiment

I was surprised by Chip Kelly’s firing from his twin post of head coach and general manager of the Philadelphia Eagles, but I cannot say I was shocked. My surprise came from the fact that the team’s decision to sack him went against everything we were hearing in the days that preceded it. And while even his most energetic defenders (of which I am one) wouldn’t dare say the firing was unjustified, hence the absence of shock, his firing, much like his hiring, carries the potential of league-wide ramifications. Knee-jerk reactions were legion, but it matters for the NFL that its notoriously conservative boys’ club of coaches draw the right lessons from his firing.

One rather large problem for both Kelly and any team thinking of hiring him is that there are very few organizations for which the former Oregon prodigy coach is actually a fit. One of the reasons why this is the case is because it is rather necessary that he be hired as a head coach. Allow me to explain. Some people have suggested that an NFL team should hire Kelly as an offensive coordinator. In abstracto, this makes sense. After all, why not limit him to a role that more rarely demands the leader-of-men qualities Kelly so obviously failed to display as a head coach in Philadelphia? Upon further scrutiny, however, this idea carries its share of potential pitfalls.

The most obvious one is the following: if Kelly is not the head coach, then the team’s entire coaching staff must be unequivocally on board with the changes that Kelly’s hurry-up, no-huddle offence entails. You see, I firmly believe that there is no such thing as a mere hurry-up offence; there are only hurry-up TEAMS. Having the hurry-up as your base offensive M.O. forces coaches on both sides of the ball to alter their coaching methods to the extent that anyone who has coached in a more traditional setting will find themselves profoundly challenged by this new format. The odds are that, while some coaches may embrace the opportunity to innovate, most will not. The way hurry-up college teams practice would be heresy to many seasoned NFL coaches. A few years ago, I had the privilege of coaching a football camp with former Montreal Alouettes receiver Shaun Diner, who played for Kelly at New Hampshire. At the time, Kelly was starting to become a household name at Oregon, and Diner told me the biggest thing for Kelly was always that everyone buy into what the team was doing. Nothing kills the hurry-up, no-huddle’s chances of success faster than coaches and/or players who let their skepticism affect their preparation. If Kelly is the head coach, then he gets to pick assistants who believe the system can work. If he’s not, he has to win over a staff he hasn’t chosen, in which case his odds of stumbling into colleagues who are refractory to his methods increase dramatically.

There is more. Within the NFL community, two highly problematic viewpoints about Kelly’s system appear to persist:

  1. The system has become so intimately associated with Kelly himself. Is it possible that Kelly simply lacks the man-management skills required to connect with the group of narcissistic and capricious millionaires known as NFL players? Of course. However, it would be both dangerous and intellectually inept for the larger football community (Yes, I’m looking at you, media!!) to create an amalgam between the system he brought to the league and the way he interacted with players as well as with his unequivocally disastrous decisions as personnel director. Whatever one thinks of Kelly’s system, though, it would be hasty to condemn it along with the coach himself given that so many other factors went into the Eagles’ struggles this year. If the NFL community refrains from hiring a coach who runs a similar offence just because Kelly “failed” in Philadelphia, then his firing will be a tremendous setback for the mere idea of offensive innovation in the NFL. (P.S.: So two 10-win seasons and a playoff berth in three years is failing in the NFL, now? I’m sure the likes of Ron Rivera, Jason Garrett, and John Fox are glad they weren’t held to that same lofty standard. Makes you wonder why, though.)
  2. It’s still often associated with the expression “The Spread”, and with option quarterbacks. Coming into the NFL, Kelly had enjoyed plenty of success spreading the field, and combining his hurry-up, no-huddle with a lethal read-option game at Oregon. Unfortunately, though, it seems that seeing so much option coupled with spread formations, the hurry-up, and the no-huddle has convinced many people, including several journalists that all these things go together and cannot be dissociated from each other. Without getting into the tactical minutiae of why this idea is problematic, let’s just quickly separate these notions from one another. Not all spread attacks carry pure run-run option plays (in fact, on aggregate, few of them do). Moreover, we really have to rethink of what we include in the definition of the  “option” play, because to think of it as strictly a running play that puts the quarterback in jeopardy, nowadays, is inadequate; the run-pass option, which usually keeps the quarterback in the pocket as a passer, is such a huge part of college football now that many offences use it as the foundation of what they do. Also, just because the quarterback is in the shotgun doesn’t mean his team runs a spread offence, nor does his being under-centre prevent the offence from being a spread (to the latter’s effect, the system Drew Brees ran at Purdue comes to the mind). Even if your quarterback is in the gun, if the rest of your personnel includes a fullback, a tailback and a tight end, you’re not in a spread alignment. Too many people who comment on the NFL have internalized these amalgams (along with the idea that spread offences can’t work in the NFL though they have now become the norm in the league today), and it’s a problem.

Looking at things as they stand today, it seems obvious that many people around the NFL are delighted that Kelly has “failed.” Unfortunately for those of us who badly want to see his brand of offence succeed in the pros, his detractors have on their side a few undeniable points:

  • The fact that, for the reasons we’ve just covered at length, he HAS to be head coach if you’re going to hire him. 
  • Making his offence work is going to be a high-maintenance balancing act from a personnel perspective: If the player personnel director isn’t on the absolute same page as Kelly, the organization risks assembling a team of square pegs for round holes. Therefore, the easiest thing would be to put Kelly in charge of personnel… except the Eagles tried that, and the results were nothing short of atrocious. In the span of what amounts to a year-and-a-half, he managed to a) cut two key starting offensive linemen and replace them with scrubs; b) get some players to state publicly that he can’t relate to stars, and that he doesn’t like black players (the latter is most likely untrue, but the damage is done); c) make other really, really puzzling roster moves – i.e. 1) let Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson go, but re-signed Riley Cooper, 2) traded Brandon Boykin for what amounts to Big Mac leftovers, 3) spent a first-round pick on the invisible Marcus Smith, 4) spent big money on free agent bust Byron Maxwell, a press corner who, from the very beginning, might as well have come from Seattle with the expression “product of the system” tattooed on his forehead, and then played him at free safety, where he’ll never get to press, 5) signed BOTH DeMarco Murray and Ryan Matthews to play running back, neither of whom were really going to work because the O-Line was neglected, and Murray flopped badly; d) replaced Nick Foles (not a great fit for Kelly’s offence) with Sam Bradford (an even worse fit for his offence). The condensed version of this train crash? Kelly has proven himself unworthy of controlling personnel.
  • The offence may be a tough sell for many NFL veterans. We’ve blamed Kelly, the person, for many of his Eagles’ struggles. Journalists have speculated ad nauseam about whether his way of handling players might only be suited for the college game. However, the system does require an unusual level of commitment from players, especially when it comes to the way they practice. I want to blame Kelly’s failings on his inability to be the diva whisperer most pro coaches have to be and on his blunders as a GM. Still, we have to account, at this point, for the possibility that the system itself might be as tough to accept for players as Kelly’s personality. I hope it’s not true, and I don’t think it is. But we can’t rule it out.

That said, NFL GMs and owners would also do well to contemplate the following facts, which show Kelly in a more favourable light:

  • The notion that his system has proven itself fundamentally unsound for the NFL is a misconception: No, it didn’t look pretty this year with the wrong personnel, and yes, it does put pressure on the defence when they fail to at least gain a few first downs. Yet, Kelly himself will have to wonder not only what possessed himself to make all these reprehensibly dumb personnel decisions, but also why he so bastardized the offence that worked so well in his first year. In fact, one could make the argument that he coached against ghosts, and anticipated that opposing coaches would “figure it out” instead of testing whatever so-called solutions DCs would have for it. He was roasting the NFL with his run-pass option plays his first year. Why did he get away from that? What would happen if a coach, Kelly or someone else, stuck to that gameplan and combined it with Kelly’s trademark tempo? Take the read option, for example. Tune in to the NFL Network, and you won’t have to wait long to hear some meat-head ex-player triumphantly claim that NFL coaches have figured the read option out. No, they haven’t! There is no “figuring it out.” You either ask one guy to play both potential ball carriers, or you assign a player for each one. Both ways have their strengths and weaknesses but, in the end, it’s a sound football play that carries its share of counters depending on how the defence plays it. And in any case, athletes will make plays on it, or they won’t; just as is the case with any other play, really. Kelly’s tempo just makes it harder for defensive players to muster the concentration required to defend it properly.
  • If it’s not Kelly, it’ll have to be someone else because… at all other levels of football, neither the spread nor the option are going away, people. Used to be, high school teams would take their best athlete and put him at running back, because if you’re running a pro-style offence, it’s the best way to get him a higher number of touches. But with the spread came the realization that while putting the great athlete at running back meant he touched the ball a lot, putting him at quarterback means he touches the ball every single play. It’s simply too advantageous a proposition to pass up. And since spread systems with lots of run-pass options (which mean lots of short throws to left-alone receivers) are now the norm in the NCAA as well, several players who would have played receiver or running back in the past because of their marginal passing skills now play quarterback despite the fact that they can’t make every throw because they’ll still be dynamite as dual-threat guys. Before Marcus Mariota, a legitimate first-round NFL prospect, those are the kind of guys (Dennis Dixon, Jeremiah Masoli, Darron Thomas) Kelly turned into college superstars. And no, none of Mariota’s predecessors would have been suitable starters for the NFL, but that’s the nature of the beast; some spread option products will be good enough for the NFL, and most won’t be. Yet, how is that any different from products of NCAA pro-style offences? Need we really reminisce about the likes of Jimmy Clausen, John David Booty, Jordan Palmer (Carson’s brother), Matt Leinart, or the immortal Mark Sanchez? In any case, spread passers outnumber the Andrew Lucks of the world by a stronger ratio every year, even now. UCLA has a dynamite pro-style prospect, Josh Rosen, who played the 2015 season for the Bruins as a true freshman. What did he run at UCLA this year? All run-pass option stuff. It baffles how quick we are to dismiss the likes of Colin Kaepernick or Robert Griffin as being finished as NFL starters because they don’t work when handcuffed in a traditional offence. Yet, we seem to think it’s OK that thoroughly limited players like Andy Dalton, don’t-give-a-shit-itis sufferers like Jay Cutler, and good-stats-on-a-bad-team guys like Matthew Stafford are on $100-million contracts, holding their teams hostage because said teams don’t want to risk “winding up in quarterbacking hell.” Instead, these teams are stuck in QB purgatory, and I hope for their sake that their fans learn to enjoy it, because that’s where they’ll remain as long as these mediocre passers remain on their roster, eating up cap space like offensive linemen eat up carbs at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Something’s gotta give, so unless the NFL is willing to start its own minor league system, the league’s largely inflexible coaches will need to start doing a better job of tailoring their offence to the abilities of dual-threat quarterbacks.

Moreover, there is another reason to want Chip Kelly, and his brand of offence, to succeed: the sheer spectacle of it. Watch Oregon games from Kelly’s time there, or even the very first game he coached for the Eagles. It is fun, man! College football has spoiled us in terms of system diversity to the extent that I often find it tedious to watch 32 teams run variations of the exact same offence. Seriously, I watch NFL offences play, and most of the time, the only thing that allows me to tell them apart is their teams’ uniforms. Potentially, Chip Kelly could change that. There were even times in Kelly’s three years in Philadelphia when it looked as though he just might have pulled it off. For the sake of the “watchability” of its offensive football, the NFL needs Kelly, or someone else like him, to succeed. Since Kelly is already here, the NFL might as well give him a real go. Lots of things have to be in place within a team’s infrastructure for it to work, and for goodness’ sake, Kelly mustn’t be put in charge of personnel. None of it, however, alters the fact that the main thing I hope to learn about the Kelly experiment in the NFL is that it isn’t over.

 

 

The case for Marshall Faulk as a Top 5 all-time running back

After watching Marshall Faulk’s “A Football Life” episode on the NFL Network, it dawned on me that he’s in danger of winding up historically underrated. Reading this, it might occur to you that I’m being hyperbolic. After all, the man is in the Hall of Fame, he’s widely recognized as a great in the sport’s history, and so on.

And yet…

Ask anyone to give you a Top 5 running backs list, and see how many of them will have Faulk in there. Now, I wasn’t born to see OJ or Jim Brown, I was too young to remember Payton and I missed the first third of Emmitt Smith’s career. But however great these players were, I am making the argument that Faulk belongs on any Top 5 list.

Watching the episode brought historical context to things I barely remembered about him, and even taught me a few things I didn’t know (I must confess feeling selfishly relieved that the Miami Hurricanes lacked the vision to recruit him as a running back. Faulk playing for the Canes? Help us all!).

Statistically, Faulk numbers leave little to be desired. He is one of only three players to have rushed for 10,000 yards and caught for 5,000 (Marcus Allen and Tiki Barber being the others). He is the fastest player to reach 16,000 and 17,000 yards from scrimmage in NFL history. Only he and Jim Brown have ever reached 1,000 yards rushing in six games. Only he and Ladainian Tomlinson have accumulated 10 seasons of five or more rushing touchdowns. Consider the following receiving numbers: 87 catches, 1,048 yards, five touchdowns. Not a bad year for a receiver, right? Thing is, those are Faulk’s numbers from 1999.

One of the clichés we have in sports is that a player’s statistics “speak for themselves.” However, in Faulk’s case, it feels as though they do not. Not quite. As great as his stats are, Faulk’s true greatness doesn’t lie in his tangibles.

Watching the “A Football Life” episode, it struck me that they could have taken away the interviews, the music, the human interest stuff, and simply rolled game footage for an hour, and it would have been enough. Between my days as a player and a coach, I’ve been involved in over 200 games of football, and I’ve watched who knows many more. Football often leaves me impressed, but seldom in awe. Marshall Faulk left me in awe. A lot. Even as I watched the episode, as it replayed moments I could still remember, my jaw dropped several times as I watched him wiggle his way out of piles that would have been impossible to escape for anyone else not named Barry Sanders. If Walter Payton was “Sweetness,” then Marshall Faulk was “Magic.” Unlike several great backs, Faulk wasn’t just great; he was memorable.

But that’s part of the problem. One of my theories as to why Faulk risks being historically shafted to some degree is that nobody seems quite sure what to make of him. We know he was great, but how great, exactly? His rushing numbers are indeed impressive, but they are topped by backs who have managed to play longer. In a way, Barry Sanders may have helped his case by retiring so early, because the fact that he only played eight years will serve as a caveat to justify his not having the numbers some of the other greats have. Fans relish their memories of Walter Payton, for whom running looked so effortless. Most people, for whom running back should be runners above all else, might prefer stallions types with an unnatural combination of length, speed and power, such as Eric Dickerson and Adrian Peterson. And, of course, there are the technical masters, who would never take a step wrong, like Tomlinson and Emmitt Smith. 

How much should we value the fact that Faulk is unquestionably the best receiving back of the modern era, or any era, for that matter? Even that last claim is bound to be contested. Some day, some stat geek born in 2002 or something will crunch the numbers and say that Ladainian Tomlinson was pretty much as a good a receiving back as Faulk. And he’ll be wrong.

Still, if we’re being honest, we must examine whether Faulk benefited from era-specific advantages. This is an especially salient question when we look at his receiving numbers. His prime took place in the last era when a linebacker lighter than 240 pounds was considered too small to play in the middle, 250-pound, 4.9-running Sam linebackers defended tight ends, and virtually all strong safeties were Kam Chancellor types who stank in coverage. Of course, Faulk was matchup hell for these guys. But what about now? It’s hard to believe he wouldn’t be the best receiving back in the league, but would he be quite the same matchup nightmare working against guys like Lavonte David, or Thomas Davis, or DeAndre Levy? Does he pull off his receiving stats from 1999  in today’s NFL? Does he even get enough snaps, given that the running back-by-committee approach is now the norm in the NFL?

They’re not invalid questions, but even if we concede all these points, there are also things in today’s NFL from which he would surely benefit. Would he not be even more of an assassin as an inside runner in today’s zone schemes? Would a lighter workload not allow him to prolong his career? Would the imports from inventive college passing attacks, such as the Air Raid, not compensate for the fact that modern NFL linebackers and safeties are closer to matching him athletically?

I would argue that he would still be a monster receiver because a) today’s linebackers and safeties might be much better athletes, but they still aren’t good enough in coverage to stay with Faulk, and b) in today’s NFL, a bright coordinator would have schemed his way into making Faulk uncoverable. If Dion Lewis can look unstoppable in the Pats’ offence, imagine how Faulk would do. Moreover, given that he was surprisingly durable in an era when front 7 players were much bigger than they are today, it’s safe to assume that lesser workloads would have prevented him from “losing a step” overnight as he did, much like Tomlinson and Eddie George, and would have allowed him to extend his career in much the same way as Emmitt Smith did. Imagine the numbers he would have posted then.

And just in case you remain unconvinced, allow me to give you the bullet-point presentation of why I rank Faulk in my Top 5 running backs of all time, and you should too:

  1. He exuded “X-factorness” (not a word, I know. Sue me.) : We have already discussed this at length, but again, this cannot be overstated. Faulk is one of those players you had to see to truly grasp just how exceptional he was. Look at Emmitt Smith or Tomlinson’s stats, and you pretty much get the picture. Not true with Faulk. He was one of those players who pushed back the limits of what we thought running backs could do. I think that counts for something.
  2. He was a complete, total, utter matchup horror show: You would have needed one of your starting cornerbacks to cover him (and even then, I can think of several stiff starting corners who wouldn’t have had a prayer of staying with him). But you couldn’t have gotten away with that because a) he never lined up in the same spot, and b) because even if you did red-dog him with a starting corner, that would have meant assigning a safety or a nickel corner to cover either Isaac Bruce or Torry Holt (translation: suicide). And while he wasn’t a physical runner, he could wiggle out of tight spaces better than anyone other than Barry Sanders. Your typical NFL linebacker is faster now than he was back then but, with moves like his, Faulk could still leave most modern backers in the dust. One more thing: as a blocker, his cerebral prowess allowed him to excel against linebackers as big as modern defensive ends. Against today’s smaller players, he’d be a world-beater as a blocker. If you want a modern comparison for the kind of mismatch nightmare he was, think Rob Gronkowski. Different athletes; same gameplanning impossibility.
  3.  He turned the moribund Rams into a Super Bowl team: While the media was having a field day signing the praises of Kurt Warner because he was the cuter story, Marshall Faulk was busy being the actual catalyst for the Rams’ turnaround. It’s not that Warner’s performance was without merit, far from it, but ask yourself the following questions: Could the Rams have won that Super Bowl and gotten to another one two years later with Trent Green at quarterback instead of Warner? Probably. Could they have done it without Faulk being the terror that he was, and creating tons of favourable matchups for Bruce and Holt? No, not a chance. 1999-2001 Faulk was, along with Randy Moss, the most dynamic offensive weapon in the NFL. Warner was an unusually smart and accurate quarterback. Deprive him of an offensive star in peak form (Faulk in St.Louis; Larry Fitzgerald in Arizona), however, and his limitations become much more apparent.
  4. Given my tendencies as a fan, I should have hated him, but I didn’t: I have a confession to make. I hate media darlings. And when the media caught on to the fact that they might have, in the ’99 Rams, an amazing Cinderella story in both Kurt Warner and the Rams in general, they couldn’t stop feeding it to us. When I was younger, that drove me even crazier than it does now. There are many players I dislike not because of anything they did, but because I couldn’t take the media marveling over them anymore. I despised Kurt Warner, and I was never too fond of Bruce and Holt. I couldn’t help but like Faulk. I was not very far advanced in my football fandom at that point, but I could tell this was a historically great player having a historically great season. And he was so magical to watch that I couldn’t help but enjoy it.

I realize no one would dare argue that Faulk is overrated, and that nobody is questioning his status as an all-time great. Still, however, I will state until I’m blue in the face that this isn’t enough. There are many names one could put on a list of the greatest running backs of all time and get an argument from no one, but you would get one from me if you were to put five names ahead of Marshall Faulk.

A refresher course on the pain of losses, big and small

Just about every single player on our team was crying. Even our most stoic players and coaches were sullen as hell with our eyes wandering around our home field, the site of a return-to-the-Bol d’Or clincher that never happened. It was as if 40 teenagers had been informed of their mother’s death all at once. It dawned upon me that, of all the things I had ever experienced in my many years of football, I hadn’t gone through this. I had never experienced a playoff loss at home against a team I knew we should have beaten. Part of me feels proud that it took me so long to find myself in this situation, and that every playoff loss I had ever endured at that point was against an admittedly better team. However, I could have done without the first time for that.

The silver lining of this lacrymose postgame is that I had very little time to dwell on my own disappointment, for I was too busy being heartbroken for our Sec. 5 players. It is a remarkable group, one that is largely responsible for the bulk of the high school football community being aware of our program’s existence; a group that took us from no playoffs to the championship game in a single year, and who were, for the most overwhelming part, a joy to coach. I know how badly most of them wanted to close their high school career with a ring, and just like that, this game is now a giant turd in the punch bowl of their legacy at the school, or at least that’s how most of them will see it.

This pains me to no end. As is the case with every game, countless factors went into determining its outcome. It was a valuable lesson to learn, and it’s a good things every player on our team learned it. I really wish, however, that it didn’t have to be like this. Perhaps some of our guys will have found that they left something on the table, and it’s important for them to learn that they shouldn’t. But, man, it remains one hell of a cruel way to teach that lesson to kids, because that’s still what they are, talented though they may be. This must be what parents feel like when their kids go through their first breakup. Sure, the kids are at least in part responsible for their own predicament. Sure, it’s a valuable lesson for them to learn. Still, however, you feel like complete and utter shit, because you hate seeing them like this and you wish you could protect them from the pain, but you can’t. You just can’t. And you only remember that this is a good thing AFTER everyone has recovered from the ordeal to some degree.

Football is a powerful emotional amplifier. You can do well for yourself in other walks of life. You can get some high out of being accepted in the CEGEP and/or university program of your dreams. You might also get thrills from doing well on exams, from graduating, etc. If you’re lucky, you might even get a job that allows you to get a strong sense of fulfillment out of the everyday accomplishment of your work.

Do any of these emotions even compare to those you experience as part of football, though? No fuckin’ way. Not a chance. I’m not exactly sure why, but I know this to be true. Maybe it’s because, of all sports, football almost certainly has the most lobsided practice-to-game, pain-to-gain ratio. Maybe it’s because the mental and physical investments are so great. Maybe it’s because so many coaches convince you that practice is shit (I try my very best not to), but when you think about it, you still found ways to enjoy some of it. Maybe it’s because you forge a bond with teammates that you couldn’t possibly have with co-workers in another context. Maybe it’s all those things; I don’t know. But I do know this: five years after my last snap as a player, I remember mere snapshots from the games themselves, and that’s more than most other former players I talk to. But the relationships, and the emotions that came with the most powerful moments, and the intensity of the whole thing, I remember it all as if it happened a minute ago. This shit brands you in ways that transcend description; you have to experience it to fully understand the power of it.

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A few days later, on Remembrance Day, I found myself alone at work, contemplating the fact that this was the 10th anniversary of my grandfather’s death. 10 years ago on that day, I was woken at roughly 6:30 AM by my mother, who told me she was going to the hospital to see him. I also remember her adding that it might be my last chance to chat with him, because all signs pointed toward the end being rather near. Groggy AS HELL, I went, but there would be no conversation. When we arrived at the hospital, he was already gone, looking as peaceful as he ever would in that damp, depressing place. Although losing a relative is never a million laughs, we had an easier time remaining serene about it, because he had a good life, and we all stood there, united as a family, as evidence of that.

For the life of me, I can’t really remember why I decided to go about the rest of my day normally, but I did. I had tutorship training and a walkthrough practice at Vieux Montréal. I couldn’t tell you a damn thing about the class or the practice, except that I found myself thinking, at some point during the class, “Am I actually here right now? Really?” I didn’t so much regret it as I had trouble wrapping my head around it. The next day, I had to join the Vieux Montréal colleagues as we faced off against F-X Garneau – as they were called back then – in the playoff semi-finals. I was dreading the predictable bad game, but everything seemed to break right for me. I’m not saying it was a “Brett Favre losing his father then casually dissolving the Raiders into atoms” kind of performance, but it seemed as though I could do very little wrong. Just to give you an idea, we lined up in a 5-man front, and F-X had the bright idea of running a toss play with their backs to their end zone on Joash Gesse’s side (not only was the guy a future pro, but ask anyone who was there: that year, he was on a fucking MISSION). He tackled the running back in the end zone, and I saw that the ball was out. So even though I figured he would be ruled down by contact, I picked up the ball just to be able to say that I played to the whistle, and jogged about two steps to the end zone. Turns out there was no whistle, and I had scored a touchdown. That’s the kind of day it was. A religious person, which I am not, might have said my grandfather blessed me from above.

His funeral was by far the most beautiful I can remember being a part of. It truly was, in every sense of the term, a celebration, although I really struggled to hold it together when one of my mother’s Atelier lyrique singers performed the Dido and Aeneas aria, “When I am laid in earth.” (Fuck you, Henry Purcell! What were you trying to pull off, composing this thing? Gets me every time. I have a reputation to maintain!!) But still, for a funeral, it was remarkably happy and upbeat. And when I wondered how I could be so upbeat myself, I started thinking back to that handful of Thursday afternoons when I would visit my grandfather at the hospital between class and football. Not only did I know he appreciated it, but I was glad I did it, knowing he was gone. It felt good to know I had actually taken advantage of the time he was still with us as much as I could have. Had I not done so, it would have been one nasty morality tale for me.

The last time I had lost a close relative, I was just a few months under the age of five, too young to fully understand what it meant. Given that it had been so long, I had no earthly idea how I would cope with such an event given my full awareness of what was going on. I figured I would not allow myself to be my usual emotionally-handicapped self and stay away from my grandfather in his last days out of fear of not knowing what to say, or whatever other shit. It remains to this day one of the best decisions I have ever made, because I can honestly say that I have no regrets over how I handled his last few weeks.

There are some lessons you learn by taking them on the proverbial chin, and others you don’t. Sometimes, you actually have a choice, provided you’re aware enough to realize that you have it. I’m lucky I understood what was at stake, and made sure I avoided having to live with that regret. Because the shitty thing about regret, and the reason it’s so important to leave no room for it, is that it’s the unpleasant lesson you never stop learning, that you never stop taking on the chin.

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And that’s what, thinking back to both our premature elimination and the 10th anniversary of my grandfather’s death, really struck me: similar kind of sadness, different reason. Don’t get offended by my daring to make such a parallel. As I’ve told you, football is an emotional amplifier. Only a person who’s never allowed themselves to truly care about the sports they practice would fail to understand how, on the spot, the two might be similarly painful. It’s not “important” in the “grand scheme of things”… but it kind of is. Football, like all sport, is a metaphor for life. You win, you lose, you laugh, you cry, you fight, you reconcile, you scratch and bite and crawl, but most importantly, you care.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Then, you have the good stuff underneath, which in other words is everything you share with teammates: the superstitions; the preparation; the shared down time in the locker room spent talking about who knows what (probably women); the moment when you allow yourselves to believe your school, of all the ones in contention, might take home the title; and yes, the suffering when it doesn’t work out. When that last one happens, to call it a figurative stomach punch doesn’t quite begin to cover it, especially when there’s regret involved. That’s why I dare compare the feeling of losing a relative to what happened to us on the football field last week. Of course, the pain of a season-ending loss will subside quicker than the pain of losing a loved one, as it should but, in the immediate aftermath of that kind of defeat, the way in which emotion overwhelms you is eerily similar.

For parents who might not have played sports, or just played them “for fun,” and therefore might not have the reflex of drawing a comparison with some of the very worst shocks of their lives, I can only imagine how unsettling it must have been for them to see their sons so devastated. That’s why the overwhelming postgame downpour of emotion forced me to stop mourning the loss and start just being there for these kids. Their parents might not fully grasp how it’s possible for their sons to react to a loss much like they would if their wives died in childbirth. However willing they are to be there for them, they may not completely understand what their sons are going through. And that’s the thing about being a former player and a coach. I do.

 

 

20 minutes to write why I’m voting to fire Stephen Harper

In what is unquestionably his friendliest and least puerile campaign ad, Stephen Harper says that today’s election is not about him. It is, for my money, a good ad. If the Tories’ ads all felt as mature as this one, many Canadians would probably feel rather differently about the Prime Minister. The problem, of course, is that when Mr. Harper says this election is not about him, he’s dead wrong. It is most definitely about him, and if he finds himself genuinely bemoaning this, he only has himself to blame.

In general, people become overly emotional when discussing politics. Adversaries are confused with enemies; people of the other viewpoint are not simply wrong, they are dangerous. Usually, it is a mistake to think like this. The Globe & Mail’s John Ibbitson, a man who is, to put it mildly, far less critical of Harper than most, lamented the fact that we often see things this way.

As much as I agree with Ibbitson on principle, I disagree with him that to think of Harper in such extreme terms is a mistake. There is next to nothing about Harper that isn’t extreme. Yes, I do look at him as an enemy. Yes, I do think he’s dangerous. I do not think of him this way because he is a conservative. Conservatives can hold whatever views they like, for all I care. The problem with Harper, as it has been put so eloquently by many others, is not the ideas he defends; it’s his modus operandi when it comes to defending them.

There is nothing problematic with being an adversary of the left. If your agenda involves lowering taxes for the wealthy and for big business, if you want to eliminate barriers to the expansion of Alberta’s oil business or buy F-35s that are almost assuredly more expensive than the price you claim to have paid for them… Hell, if you want to eliminate the gun registry or reduce the length of the census, as far as I’m concerned, I’ll be sure not to vote for you, but that’ll be it. If that was all I could criticize about Harper, I wouldn’t look at him as a danger or as an enemy.

Our political system breeds people such as Mr. Harper as much as it attracts them. If and when we vote him out, it’s completely possible that the only change we’ll be getting is a new face and name at the head of our government. But when you…

  1. Cut the CBC’s funding, then pretend you haven’t actually cut it and then, when that bullshit idea gets blown up by the first journalist with half an analytical brain, you have the gall to say the problem with the CBC isn’t the cuts, it’s ratings;
  2. Cut or even quit funding government organizations and NGOs because you feel their findings might expose some of your economic policies as misguided;
  3. Cut funding to the arts because you cynically calculate that artists and the people who support them are unlikely to vote for you anyway;
  4. Prorogue the Canadian Parliament several times in order to dodge policy questions;
  5. Make it harder for journalists to do their job, which you know all too well is to hold you accountable, than any Canadian Prime Minister in modern history;
  6. Eliminate nearly all forms of environmental policy, and then pretend you’ve done the opposite;
  7. Base your criminal law reforms not on evidence, but on the kind of dogma that would be found in the hypothetical “Reactionary’s guide to politics” ;
  8. Use the aforementioned dogma to justify keeping a Canadian citizen locked up in Guantanamo;
  9. Make a mockery out the relationship between the legislative/executive branches of government and the judiciary as well as go out of your way to publicly ridicule the country’s Chief Justice.
  10. Pull a page out of the PQ’s book and bring up the stupid fuckin’ niqab as a so-called issue to boost your poll numbers;
  11. Use Karl-Rovian wedge politics at every possible turn to further polarize the Canadian electorate;
  12. Muzzle your own MPs and prevent them, through your all-powerful office, from answering questions and taking part in TV debates;
  13. Globally, generally, and continuously insult the electorate’s intelligence;
  14. Much, much more.

When you do all that, you are not merely an adversary of the left. You are an enemy of democracy. He who views democracy as a necessary evil is merely lucid, but he who treats it as a nuisance is a menace. For nearly 10 years, Mr. Harper has treated the democratic institutions of Canada as mere obstacles to be surmounted. This, and not because he is a right-wing ideologue, is the reason why he has to go.

Soccer thoughts: FIFA, Barcelona, and Canada’s first game at the Women’s World Cup

Many of my sportwatching days are spent pondering just how much there is wrong wth the NCAA and the NFL. However, for Roger Goodell (NFL’s head honcho) and Mark Emmert (NCAA’s head honcho), looking at FIFA and its legion of corrupt bureaucrats must be as comforting as it is for a slightly overweight person to go to an all-you-can-eat buffet: no matter how overweight you are, in one of those places, there will always be a fellow customer who outweighs you by at least 150 pounds. Well, in much the same way overweight people have all-you-can-eat buffets, Goodell and Emmert have FIFA and its former president Sepp Blatter, a man who makes them look like the NBA’s Adam Silver, and Adam Silver look like Nelson Mandela.

Blatter had to step away from his presidency a mere four days after his reelection, a perfect illustration of the saying that the night is always darkest before dawn. I, for one, was starting to wonder if he’d stay on and live until the age of 140 just to watch his detractors spew in a kettle of their own bile. In the end, of all the things that could have happened, it was an investigation by the FBI that sounded the end for the Swiss. The irony is delicious: as the comic John Oliver pointed out, it took the nation that gives the least bit of a shit about football to accomplish the one thing soccer fans were starting to think would never happen.

These next few months will be a revenge best served cold for fans, as the rats who took part in FIFA systemic corruption will start turning on each other just to get better deals when the authorities come asking questions. Already we have seen that the man who gave the FBI tangible information on Blatter and co. was Chuck Blazer, until recently FIFA’s most important American member. After it was revealed that then-FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke accepted a $10 million bribe as part of bidding for the horror show of a tournament that ended up being the 2010 World Cup, a leaked email confirmed what many suspected: Blatter himself was aware of the bribe (though it is argued, rather nonsensically, that this does not constitute involvement). And this weak, uber-crook and former head of CONCACAF Jack Warner promised heaps of evidence to bury Blatter and his friends.

Of course, this leaves us with more questions than answers, namely the prospective identity of Blatter’s replacement: UEFA’s Michel Platini comes to mind. Once pegged as Blatter’s eventual replacement, Platini is believed by many to have soured on the Swiss when he changed his mind about stepping aside for this year’s election. And when word of the FBI’s investigation got out, Platini was suddenly very swift in declaring that Blatter was bad for FIFA’s image.

Few would question Platini’s “qualifications” for the job, although voters would be wise to question if experience within FIFA governance is really such a good thing under the circumstances. Platini would be a new man in charge, sure, but exactly how much change would he bring about? Does electing him not constitute a risk of carrying on with the status quo? And if the new boss was someone newer, how would he deal with the many people who have no interest in seeing FIFA cleaned up?

Because let us make no mistake about it: if everyone involved with FIFA believed, as most Western soccer fans do, that Blatter was a nuisance and a force for all things bad in the sport, he would have been out of a job long ago. Blatter got to stay in charge because as wacky an orator and as much of a crook as he is, the Swiss is also a remarkable politician. His ability to build lasting strategic alliances with people who perhaps were not so concerned with corruption was second to none, and his replacement, whoever he is, will have to deal with Blatter’s allies. I would not trade places with this person for all the cannelloni in Italy.

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Barcelona wrapped their amazing treble season with a 3-1 win over Juventus in the Champions’ League final in Berlin to go along with the Copa Del Rey (highlighted by Lionel Messi’s second stupidly amazing goal in less than a month) and the league title. It is possible to become a little blasé about Barcelona’s recent sustained success (just ask all of England), but while the Catalans had pulled off a treble before, what amazed me about this year’s accomplishment is the way in which they did it.

In 2009, when Pep Guardiola took over FCB’s then-profoundly dysfunctional team, he lost his first game in charge against newly-promoted side Numancia, whose entire yearly wage bill was inferior to Lionel Messi’s yearly salary. But then, they morphed into a juggernaut and never really looked back, capping off their magical season with two emphatic wins: the first an 6-2 obliteration of Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu, the second a comfortable victory against Manchester United in the Champions’ League final. At no point in the latter match did anyone think United had a chance. This was also the year when Messi officially took over alpha dog status at Barcelona from the departed Ronaldinho, though the Argentine had hinted at it the year before when Dinho was giving greater effort in the clubs than on the pitch.

This time, though, Barcelona could not have established their dominance in a more progressive manner. You would have been hard-pressed, at the Christmas break, to find a Spanish soccer fan who didn’t think Real Madrid were the league’s dominant team. The league title looked well in hand for Los Blancos, and a repeat victory in the Champions League. But as the injuries mounted for Madrid and the imbalance of their team started to show in the results’ column, Barcelona took the lead, never to surrender it again. But even when that happened, there was still something unconvincing about them. It was a side that, as many commentators noticed, didn’t show the dominance to which the Blaugrana had accustomed us in the recent past. The difference wound up being a positional change.

Since the departure of Samuel Eto’o and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Lionel Messi had settled into the role of “false nine,” which helped him amass the goal-scoring record we all know. Coach Luis Enrique, perhaps feeling his setup was not taking full advantage of the newly-acquired Luis Suarez, made a bold decision. He switched Messi back to the right wing, a position Messi played with devastating effectiveness in 2009, and moved Suarez to his more natural position of striker. The impact was instantaneous. The trio of Messi, Suarez and Neymar found another gear and combined for over 100 goals on the season. Unless all three show up on game day hung over, I can’t think of the tactical disposition that would allow a team to effectively defend all three.

People immediately began asking whether this Barcelona side was the greatest ever. For my money, the 2009 team still takes the cake. (The starting lineup: a front three of Eto’o at striker, Messi and Thierry Henry on his last great season manning the wings (unfair); a midfield three of Xavi and Iniesta in their prime plus Yaya Touré (Holy Shit !!!); a back four featuring Dani Alves having the greatest season of his career, Puyol still in playing shape, an emerging Piqué and a healthy Eric Abidal (wicked); Victor Valdez in his prime as the goalie.) The fact remains, however, that the 2014-15 front three might just be the most spectacular collection of attacking talent ever put together, and unless the defence completely falls apart, the front three should suffice to guarantee Barcelona continued excellence in the coming years.

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The Women’s World Cup has now begun. Canada squeezed a tight win against a China team that can park the bus like nobody’s business. Anybody can park the bus, but China combined this defensive tactic with a terrific pressing game that forced the Canadians to make very quick decisions with the ball, a task which Sinclair and co. rarely performed with the required effectiveness. By the second half, it looked as though Canada had given up altogether and decided to resort to punting the ball to its outnumbered forwards. You’re not going to win 4-0 against a team defending like this, but it is possible to create gaps by combining effective wing play with a quick, precision passing game.

For most of the game, Canada displayed neither. In fact, they could have conceded twice due to the appallingly atrocious passing of their back four. It was a shame too, because China showed no interest in creating anything on the offensive end, and did not deserve any kind of opportunity to put the ball in the back of the net.

It must be noted, however, that this Kadeisha Buchanan is going to be some player. At only 19, and still a student at West Virginia, she shut down any Chinese attacker who came her way with the ball with impressive athleticism and superior technique. Surely, Buchanan will be tested to a greater degree by New Zealand and the Netherlands, but Canada appears to have found the building block of its defence for years to come.

In the end, Canada’s goal came on a penalty from a call that some might call soft, but I would say was legitimate nonetheless. You can get away with some body-to-body contact (insert your inappropriate joke here) in the box, but an armbar such as the one the Chinese defender used on the Canadian attacker Leon will get much less leeway from the referee. Be that as it may, Canada will have to play much better, especially in the passing game, if they wish to have the kind of tournament the locals are hoping for.

Real Madrid: what happens when you run a club like a fantasy team

After Real Madrid’s surprise Champions League exit against a game Juventus, Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti probably figured his countrymen had hammered down the final nail in the coffin of his coaching tenure with the Spanish giants. Add to that the fact that he is suspended for the last two games of the La Liga season, and Ancelotti has likely coached his last game for Real Madrid. It is a common theme at the world’s most famous and profitable club: when the team falls short of its own expectations, the reflex is to fire the coach and add another superstar or two.

In all likelihood, it’s about to happen again. As The Guardian‘s Sid Lowe noted, not since 1983 has a coach remained at Madrid after a trophyless season, and that manager was club legend Alfredo Di Stefano, whose unrivaled place in club lore most likely explains this exceptional clemency. Therefore, Ancelotti is unlikely to get the same treatment, although many people in and around the club are validly arguing that he should.

It starts at the top

Despite Emilio Butragueno’s cringe-inducing claim that Real Madrid President Florentino Perez is a “superior being” (un ser superior), Perez resigned from the post in 2006 after having presided over the club’s longest trophyless run in 50 years, amid wide-ranging criticism coming from virtually everywhere. It’s a testimony to both Madridistas’ short memory and to the ineptitude of Ramon Calderon, Perez’s successor, that the latter’s return to the Madrid presidency in 2009 was not only unopposed, but celebrated. Perez also generated tremendous buzz that summer by signing Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo over a span of four days, a spectacular reminder to Madridistas that, as long as Perez was President, they would at least have the benefit of never losing an offseason.

However, his new reign began in exactly the same way his initial one ended: with failure. Despite posting the highest point total of the team’s history, Madrid’s 2009 team finished behind an even more impressive Barcelona in the league, but that alone was justifiable. What was not, however, was Madrid’s improbable Round-of-16 Champions’ League exit against Lyon, and manager Manuel Pellegrini was predictably fired at the end of the season. Then, in a move that made sense on paper but had those who follow Madrid refusing to believe it until they saw it, Perez hired José Mourinho. The Special One had just won the Champions’ League with Inter Milan and beaten Barcelona along the way.

Mourinho is the antithesis of a Perez coach: brash, abrasive and unafraid to criticize (publicly or privately) the establishment of his club. After Mourinho predictably and quasi-instantly ruffled feathers among the Madrid administration, Perez made a decision that showed the full measure of his desperation to beat Pep Guardiola’s apparently unplayable Barcelona: he backed Mourinho, giving him full control over personnel. Mourinho had what one might describe as mixed results at the helm of Madrid, winning La Liga (which Madrid hadn’t done since 2007) in 2011, but ultimately falling short of winning the Champions’ League, and sparking highly-publicized spats with his own players, most notably Sergio Ramos.

In retrospect, Mourinho’s tendency for both condescension and inflammatory comments was guaranteed to cause many blowups with Madrid’s heavily political press (namely sport publications Marca and AS), unconditional Perez backers since his return to the presidency. His approach was also doomed when it came to his players. One could tell the Portuguese wanted his team to actually hate Barcelona, but it’s much harder to get a player to hate a club-football opponent he’s won a Euro tournament and a World Cup with. When Mourinho and Madrid ultimately agreed to part ways amid heavy speculation that the Portuguese manager would return to Chelsea, Perez insisted that Mourinho wasn’t a failure. However, his subsequent decision to hire Ancelotti was a sign that the President was not too keen on having another Mourinho-like personality at the helm of his club.

The perfect man for Perez

It is simultaneously a slur and a compliment to call Ancelotti the greatest yes-man in all of football. While he is certainly a coach of considerable tactical acumen, his personality trait most responsible for landing him coaching opportunities at many of world’s biggest clubs – most recently AC Milan, Chelsea, Paris St-Germain and Real Madrid – is the fact that he takes whatever roster is given to him, does his best to maximize its potential, and never complains. It has been a precious ability, because few high-level managers can claim to have had their chances to win more often short-circuited by imbecilic and short-sighted personnel decisions.

Therefore, Ancelotti was ready-made to run a Madrid team, a club where, as Lowe so eloquently puts it, perhaps the most important skill for a coach is his ability to fall on his sword. In his first season in charge, Ancelotti pulled off an extraordinary achievement, as he captured Madrid’s elusive tenth Champions’ League crown. It’s an even greater feat than it appears.

See, Madrid management admits that, under Perez, it builds the football team like a Hollywood blockbuster. Basically, let’s pile up as many stars as we can, and let the coach figure out how to line them up. It’s why Perez has historically gone for players with star power: either Ballon d’Or winners or World Cup stars or both. His Madrid teams have boasted six different Ballon d’Or winners, but before Cristiano Ronaldo won the award in 2013, none of them had captured it as a Real Madrid player.

Perez believes that stars pay for themselves, a belief about which it he’s been fortunate to be right, given the transfer fees he has paid for them. Of the five most expensive players ever, four were bought by Madrid, all of them by Perez. What perhaps constitutes the greatest critique of his model was made when Figo, Perez’s very first Galactico, said that “it all went wrong when marketing took precedence over football.” Figo’s words were no exaggeration. While no one would dare insinuate that results don’t matter at Real Madrid, it is interesting to see just how often the club uses the offseason to put disappointing seasons in the rearview mirror.

So Carlo Ancelotti arrives and wins the Champions League for Madrid on his first try. It is worth wondering whether he realized at that point how thankless his job had just become. There are several places where winning the Champions’ League, possibly the hardest trophy to capture in all of professional sport, would grant a coach an additional honeymoon period, but not in Madrid. The Champions’ League is Real Madrid’s holy grail. As an institution, they are absolutely obsessed by it. So even though he won it last year, Ancelotti likely arrived this season well aware that unless he won the league by 20 points, he would lose his job lest he win the Champions’ League again. Now that he has failed this objective, he is likely on his way out, a probability compounded by the fact that public perception will have it that, by losing, Madrid have basically handed the Champions’ League to arch-rivals Barcelona, in the same week that their draw against Valencia virtually assured the Catalans of the La Liga title.

Be that as it may, Florentino Perez and his advisers had better be careful what they wish for, because they just might get it. Could Perez be tempted to go with a stronger personality, i.e. something closer to Mourinho? Perhaps, but the candidates don’t abound, and the President’s track record suggests this is unlikely. Failing that, however, the alternative is what Gab Marcotti affectionately called a “diva whisperer.” In other words, a coach whose personality is just strong enough to prevent the team’s big egos from causing the squad to implode from within. And if that is the type of coach Perez is seeking, he’s about to fire the best one he could possibly find.

An incapacity for introspection

In addition to Ancelotti combining the yes-man persona with uncommon coaching abilities like nobody else, what he has achieved with Madrid is quietly spectacular. Of course, it’s what is expected of a coach as well-paid as Ancelotti, but this is no reason to minimize the significance of winning that Champions’ League title in 2014, and coming so close in 2015.

Real Madrid’s front office is apparently loaded with people who either don’t understand how team dynamics work, or who fool themselves into thinking a chemistry or balance problem can be solved by throwing one more potential 20-goal scorer on the squad. Any coach worth his salt will tell you it doesn’t work that way.

All those fancy signings look great on paper, but I’ve been watching sports for too damn long. A team cannot have multiple alpha dogs, that is to say a player around whom the team’s offence is built. It didn’t take a tarot card reader to figure out that, given his skill level and his personality, Cristiano Ronaldo would assume that role on arrival. But while he has given Madrid tremendous productivity, the fact that he has assumed the most significant portion of Real’s scoring has meant that several other stars brought in by the club have had to play the Robin to Ronaldo’s Batman. Before the injury bug hit Kaka, it was happening to him. Striker Karim Benzema, another player who would have had legitimate alpha dog aspirations, has had to turn himself into an assist provider for Ronaldo. And James Rodriguez, a classic no.10 signed after his spectacular display at the World Cup for Columbia, has struggled to find a role in Madrid’s 4-3-3.

Which is what made the 2013 signing of Gareth Bale signing so interesting. The Welch talisman is neither a global superstar nor a big-time performer in international tournaments. He’s just a really talented, speedy, and powerful footballer. Depending on the numbers you trust, Bale’s transfer to Real Madrid made him either the most, or second-most, expensive player in history. His price tag, given the things he can do, was ludicrous, and he now finds himself paying for it as he has endured a bad run of form in the 2015 half of this season. Rumours of Bale’s departure are fascinatingly fed by both the English media, hopeful to see Bale return to a Premier League they believe he never should have left, and the Madridista press, presumably anxious to see the Welchman make way for the next superstar with a stratospheric price tag.

At Tottenham, Bale was clearly the team’s alpha dog and its best player, but that didn’t guarantee he wouldn’t fit in with Madrid. In fact, there is still an argument to be made that he does fit in. At first, the idea of Bale joining Madrid seemed ludicrous: a player whose style, all based on speed and power, is so obviously informed by, and suited to, the English game would likely be seen as crude in Spain, a country where short passing rules and counter-attacking is not so much a strategy as it is a curse word. But on second thought, the combination of Ronaldo and Bale could work, because their skill sets complement one another. While Ronaldo is a dribbler who requires much of the ball and takes loads of shots, Bale is a player who frequently disappears, only to reappear just long enough to strike. He doesn’t need to touch the ball all that much to make an impact. It remains possible that he might be the perfect Robin to Ronaldo’s Batman, if he can just regain his form. It would be a shame to see Madrid give up on him so quickly, especially since he had a very good first season in Spain, but there are several English teams who would welcome him back if Madrid did choose to cut their losses.

While Marca called Los Blancos’ exit against Juventus the “fiasco of the century,” they ought to be saying that of the way this Real Madrid team was built. The importance of balance on a team is an element Perez has consistently overlooked, and the most recent example of this was the decision to let go of Xabi Alonso. In and of itself, the decision is defensible given Alonso’s age. The questionable move, however, was to replace Alonso with Toni Kroos. The German is doubtlessly an excellent player, but he cannot fill Alonso’s recover-and-launch role, and this is an attribute of which the Madrid roster now finds itself devoid. Kroos, who is much better as a creator than as a holding midfielder, has to play a defensive role he is ill-suited for because, well, someone has to do it. The same goes for the instinctive Luka Modric. What point is there to having these artistic passers on the team if their talents are going to be wasted? And who’s going to give all those scorers the ball if nobody on the pitch can consistently take it away from the other team?

It’s not just the midfielders, either. Scorers need enablers, and if the enablers are played out of position, everybody loses out in the end. In abstract terms, James Rodriguez just might be a better player than Angel Di Maria, but he’s not if you’re looking for a 4-3-3 winger who widens the play and creates space for Ronaldo and whoever is playing striker. Central midfielders played on the wing tend to take the ball back inside where they are more comfortable, and Rodriguez is no exception. By the time even Ancelotti found James’ situation untenable and ruled that he’s not a winger, we all remembered that the reason why Madrid put him there in the first place is because… there was nowhere else to put him. If you really have the temerity to put a no.10 behind the striker in a 4-3-3, those two remaining central midfielders better a) be defensive monsters, which can be said of neither Modric nor Kroos and b) have two sets of lungs, because they will have to cover an outrageous amount of ground when the opponent counter-attacks.

Perez’s declaration when he sold Claude Makelele (“We won’t miss Makelele much. All his passing either went sideways or backwards.”) and essentially replaced him with David Beckham betrays the fact that he refuses to acknowledge the existence of a fundamental part of football: taking the ball away from the other team. Zinedine Zidane, outraged by the move, lashed out with this question: “What is the point of giving the Bentley another coat of gold if you’re taking away the entire engine?”

Is there no one at Real Madrid, Zidane or someone else, who would dare raise this point with Perez? And even if there were, would Perez listen?

At a crossroads

Simply put, in trying to stockpile superstars, Perez has destroyed whatever balance Real Madrid previously had, which already wasn’t much. He now finds himself at the proverbial crossroads. He could decide to trust someone who tells him that adding a defensive midfielder wouldn’t hurt the team’s offensive productivity, but enhance it. If he does, Madrid would instantly benefit from the move and look less unbalanced than they were this year. Or he can decide that the Hollywood dimension of Real Madrid football is what’s most important and keep running the club like an online fantasy team. If he chooses the latter, the problems will remain; Madrid will keep underperforming, and to find the cause of this, Perez will need to look not in the dugout or on the pitch, but in the mirror.

The Mock draft

M piece on Marcus Mariota aside, the draft is today, and I have put together my first round mock draft while I was taking a break from studying (my version of events) or procrastinating (everybody else’s version of events). So without any suspense at all, the first overall pick is…

  1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Jameis Winston, quarterback, Florida State: I can’t see how this doesn’t happen. You have a head coach who comes from a long line of offensively conservative former defensive coordinators. (Translation: a spread-option quarterback probably has as much appeal to him as would a leper.) You have a team that has been inept at the quarterback position for the longest time. You have a quarterback in Winston whose conduct gives you considerable pause, but who has shown he can play a pro-style offence at a very high level in 2013. The Bucs will talk themselves into thinking there is a reasonable explanation for every question mark about Winston. In fact, they already have. Put it in your draft prediction. Next Thursday is when we get confirmation that Winston’s first NFL uniform will be an XFL one.
  2. Tennessee Titans: Leonard Williams, Defensive tackle, USC: I have gone back and forth on this so many times, I can’t describe it. My first version had the Chargers trading up to this point to send Philip Rivers to Tennessee and drafting Marcus Mariota. But I hit this problem: the trade makes a ton of sense for Tennessee, but for San Diego, it means rather minimal returns for a franchise quarterback who still has gas left in the tank. There will be talk of a trade until the very last second, but it won’t happen. This will leave the Titans with the pick. I don’t believe they think as highly of Zach Mettenberger as they pretend to. However, I do think a coach like Ken Whisenhunt is as skeptical of a spread-option quarterback fitting into his system as any NFL coach, and I don’t think he’s willing to change what he’s doing for the sake of a adapting to a different type of signal caller. That leaves Williams, who can be a productive 5-technique in a Titans defence that could be quite a group if they can stay away from injuries. A front that includes Williams along with Jurell Casey, Derrick Morgan and Brian Orakpo can be an annoying proposition for any offensive line, especially the rather weak ones of the AFC South.
  3. New York Jets (Trade with Jacksonville) : Marcus Mariota Quarterback: The Jets now have something resembling a receiving crew. The new administration wants to start anew with a new player under centre. Mariota has a great personality to handle Gotham City, and the Jets have to come up in order to beat the Browns, also reportedly looking to trade up, and grab Mariota. Here comes the Jets’ next saviour. For his sake, let’s hope he doesn’t end up like the other ones.  
  4. Oakland Raiders: Amari Cooper, Wide Receiver, Alabama: This team needs pass catchers in the worst way and management is celebrating at landing Cooper, a polished receiver who knows how to get open and is very hard to tackle. He will give Derek Carr a much-needed no.1 receiver. A slam dunk pick.
  5. The Washington pro football team: Dante Fowler, Defensive end/Rush linebacker, Florida: The Washingtonians will entertain all kinds of offers. This is Daniel Snyder, so he’ll flirt with a flashy offensive pick (i.e. wide receiver), but ultimately, they lost Brian Orakpo, and Ryan Kerrigan is not a good enough athlete to work through constant double-teaming. Fowler was used in all sorts of funky ways at Florida, as Will Muschamp had him dropping to many different spots. This suits the 3-4 Fowler will insert himself into in Washington. With seemingly every other pass rusher trying to hurt his stock with off-field incidents, grabbing the pass rusher who is a model citizen is a must.
  6. Jacksonville Jaguars (trade with New York Jets): Kevin White, Wide Receiver, West Virginia: My case for the Jags making this pick, and not taking a pass rusher, in four parts. 1. The Jags quietly had 45 sacks last season (sixth best in the league), which is more than their combined sack totals of 2012 and 2013. According to the website Football Outsiders, their adjusted sack rate was second in the league. Nobody saw it because next to everything else about this team sucks, but the Jags defence put really good pressure on quarterbacks last season. The traditional stats don’t always reflect it because their offence was so woeful. 2. Who would Vic Beasley or Bud Dupree be replacing? Chris Clemons looks as though he has at least one good year if not two in the tank, and going for a pass rusher here either means a reach or an off-the-field concern. 3. The Jags lost Cecil Shorts, who, while not a superstar, gave them underrated production. What Jacksonville will want to add at receiver will be a size-speed combo guy who will provide a deep threat. Do I really have to mention that they can’t count on the “weedster extraordinaire” Justin Blackmon? 4. The Jags have put all their eggs in the Blake Bortles basket, and they clearly understand this means giving him as many tools to work with as possible. They signed Julius Thomas, they drafted two second-round wideouts last year, one of whom is an all-around guy who can do good work after the catch (Lee). What the Jags are missing in their receiving corps is a pure deep threat. White, who has drawn comparisons with Julio Jones, fits the model. Last question: Who’s going to block for Bortles?
  7. Chicago Bears: Danny Shelton, Nose tackle, Washington: With both top receivers gone, John Fox turns to Chicago’s porous run defence. Shelton can play as a nose tackle in a 3-4, as a 1-technique in a gap charge scheme or as a two-gapper in a gap control scheme. He will instantly improve the Bears’ run defence, which is especially important after losing Stephen Paea. And until he gets traded, you still play Adrian Peterson twice in that division.
  8. Atlanta Falcons: Vic Beasley, Defensive end, Clemson: So… Atlanta has no pass rush. They have hired Dan Quinn from Seattle, who will presumably install the Seattle defence for the Falcons. Beasley, undersized for a defensive end, is the most polished pass rusher in this class, and is absolutely tailor-made for the Leo role, which compensate for his lack of power by allowing him to rush for outside the tight end. This just might the best fit in the entire draft.
  9. New York Giants: Brandon Scherff, Offensive Line, Iowa: The Giants need offensive line help if they don’t want Eli Manning to die during the coming season. Scherff is a guy who can help at either guard or tackle, so they can’t lose here.
  10. New Orleans Saints (Trade with St.Louis Rams): Bud Dupree, Outside linebacker, Kentucky: The Rams don’t like the need/value balance here, so they trade down and allow the Saints to jump on a riser who has been able to stay away from the ganja. Besides, it’s not like the Saints couldn’t use him.
  11. Minnesota Vikings: Trae Waynes, Cornerback, Michigan State: There are a lot of places where the Vikings don’t quite know what they have on their hands. They can still use help at cornerback, and Waynes’ press ability complements that of Xavier Rhodes.
  12. Cleveland Browns: DeVante Parker, Wide receiver, Louisville: The Browns could use some help at receiver given the uncertain future of Josh Gordon and the overall lack of talent of the remainder of this unit. They’re happy Parker is still here after certain mock drafts placed him in the Top 10. The quarterback situation remains complete chaos, but at least there would be a #1 receiver candidate on the roster.
  13. St.Louis Rams (Trade with New Orleans): Andrus Peat, Offensive tackle, Stanford: The Rams are another team that isn’t completely what they have on their hands, especially at the receiver position. After a few years of looking like a bust, Brian Quick started showing flashes of why the Rams spent a second-round pick on him a few years ago. And while they have not yet figured out how to use him yet, Tavon Austin still has tantalizing potential. So with these questions, they go the safe route and bring more beef on the offensive line.
  14. Miami Dolphins: Nelson Agholor, Wide receiver, USC: Who the hell knows with Miami? This is the team that grabbed Juwan James in the first round last season. They can’t possibly be content with the talent they have at receiver right now. Agholor is a slight reach here, but he’s the kind of all-around talent teams like to have as a no.1 receiver.
  15. San Francisco 49ers: Malcolm Brown, Defensive end, Texas: The 49ers realize that Aldon Smith is not the same player without the contribution of a strong defensive end like Justin Smith. Brown has the strength and quickness to force teams to devote some attention to him, allowing for Smith to take advantage of favourable matchups on his way to the quarterback.
  16. Houston Texans: Ereck Flowers, Offensive tackle, Miami: The Giants don’t like that they missed out on the offensive linemen. However, they don’t have a free safety on the roster. Collins is more of a strong safety type, but frankly, just getting a playmaker in the middle of that secondary would give this disaster zone of a Giants defence a big boost.
  17. San Diego Chargers: Todd Gurley, Running back, Georgia: Gurley is one of the draft’s three most talented players, and he represents the Chargers’ biggest needs on offence. If he stays healthy, this just might be the steal of the draft.
  18. Pittsburgh Steelers (Trade with Kansas City): Landon Collins, safety, Alabama: Troy Polamalu just retired, and Pittsburgh needs a player who can fill his shoes, if not in the same way, at relatively the same level. Collins is a playmaker who has the kind of attitude the Steelers love in their safeties
  19. Cleveland Browns: Arik Armstead, defensive end, Oregon: The Browns continue to stack front 7 talent with a player with terrific physical gifts in Armstead. Can they get the most out of the underproducing Armstead?
  20. Philadelphia Eagles: Jaelen Strong, Wide Receiver, Arizona State: The Eagles have depleted their roster at wide receiver in the offseason, and need to retool the position whether Sam Bradford starts or not. Given the propensity for bubble screens in Chip Kelly’s offence, the strength of strong could be the tie-breaker because of his upside as a blocker and ability after the catch.
  21. Cincinnati Bengals: Randy Gregory, Defensive end, Nebraska: Character concern? No problem for the Bengals, who tend to gloss over these things. They like Gregory’s upside, and remember that there isn’t a great pass rusher on their roster. Given the Bengals’ tendency to sit their first rounders on defence, it gives them time to develop Gregory into what they want him to be.
  22. Kansas City Chiefs (Trade with Pittsburgh): Marcus Peters, cornerback, Washington: Having signed Jeremy Maclin to help with the receiver position, the Chiefs upgrade a position that could use some upgrading.
  23. Detroit Lions: Kevin Johnson, cornerback, Wake Forest: Rashean Mathis is 36. The Lions could also use help at right tackle, but there isn’t a clear pick here. Johnson can be groomed to take over for Mathis next year and can help as a nickel guy this year.
  24. Arizona Cardinals: Melvin Gordon, Running Back, Wisconsin: This pick makes a lot of sense. The running back position is a big need for Arizona, and Gordon is absolutely worth this pick. Provided Shane Ray fell off a cliff on their draft board, the other pass rusher are not good value here.
  25. Carolina Panthers: D.J. Humphries, Offensive tackle, Florida: The Panthers’ options at offensive tackle are atrocious. Like Kelvin Benjamin last year, this pick makes itself.
  26. Baltimore Ravens: Dorial Green-Beckham, Wide Receiver, Missouri: The Ravens are a “best available player” team, but exactly who that player is at this point is not clear. Meanwhile, Green-Beckham helps out a supremely thin receiver position for the Ravens and has flat-out unfair upside.
  27. Tennessee Titans (Trade with Dallas): Eddie Goldman, Defensive tackle, Florida State: The Titans trade back up to grab a nose tackle they need as much as anything else. This defence is now scary.
  28. Denver Broncos: Cameron Erving, Centre, Florida State: The Broncos need offensive line help to keep Peyton Manning upright. Erving is tremendous value at this spot.
  29. Indianapolis Colts: Eli Harold, Outside linebacker, Virginia: Eric Walden? Not starting material. Period.
  30. Green Bay Packers: Breshad Perriman, Wide receiver, UCF: This is a value pick here for the Packers who don’t especially need anything, so they take the best player available on their board.
  31. New Orleans Saints: Maxx Williams, Tight end, Minnesota: The Jimmy Graham trade leaves the Saints with a need at tight end. Williams doesn’t have Graham’s athleticism, but he’s a more complete player and will contribute to the Saints’ running and passing game.
  32. New England Patriots: Jalen Collins, Cornerback, LSU: After losing Darelle Revis, the Pats reload with a raw, but physically gifted cornerback from a school that has a reputation for producing quality players at the position.

Entrée before the Mock Draft: the Marcus Mariota conundrum

Here we go. The NFL Draft is less than a week away. Most NFL-driven sites start popping out mock drafts months in advance, which makes no sense from a football perspective given that teams try to solve part of their needs with free agency, not to mention the fact that we have to give time for the legitimate rumours to separate themselves from the pure smokescreens. My mock draft is coming up on draft day, by the way, but until then, there are still lingering questions, namely those surrounding the number two pick.

The Titans figure to have at least a few attractive options for the pick. Are the Chargers going to press the reset button for a quarterback who doesn’t mind playing in L.A.? It’s a hell of a risky proposition, given that the quarterback in question is likely to be Marcus Mariota. There is no overstating just how much the current draft situation sucks for Mariota. I don’t think an Aaron Rodgers-esque free fall is happening. There simply aren’t enough good starting quarterbacks in the NFL for so many teams to skip on him. However, rough seasons from mobile quarterbacks like Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin have put teams even more on edge about taking spread option quarterbacks than they already were. Even a guy like Cam Newton, whose accuracy remains sporadic at best, doesn’t help Mariota’s cause, either.

What sucks even more is that much of the criticism aimed at these guys is unfair. Griffin hasn’t been the same athlete since the injury he suffered at the end of his rookie season, but here are a few things to consider: 1. He had already missed significant time at Baylor due to a knee injury before ever entering the NFL. 2. If you’ve paid attention to Griffin’s career so far, you’ll have seen a guy who has very much made the mistake of buying into his own hype. 3. The one offensive coordinator who’s been willing to adjust his scheme to Griffin’s strengths got a great season out of him. Hell, Skip Bayless was driving the Griffin-over-Luck bandwagon at about 175 miles/hour after their first season, and he wasn’t alone.

Something really bugs me about this entire mobile quarterbacks discussion. Yes, in most cases, fitting them into conventional pro-style offences is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. However, as goes the coaching maxim, you adjust the system to the players, not the players to the system, and it’s amazing to witness how completely these words of wisdom are lost on NFL offensive coaches. I’m not suggesting NFL coaches should grab 2011 tapes of Oregon’s offence and implement it overnight. However, it really makes me laugh to see the NFL community, change-averse as ever, claiming that the read option is dead in the NFL because coaches have figured it out. What complete and utter drivel! Defences haven’t “figured it out,” offences have stopped running it. I was in pain watching Kap, Griffin and Newton operating under centre last season, going through the motions of offences not at all suited to their skills.

To me, the Niners’ situation is the most puzzling. It’s as if they got together in their offices and had a discussion that went something like this (we’ll avoid mention names, so as to avoid embarrassing the individuals in question; look them up if you like) :

– Head coach: Alright, let’s get this started. Guys, I wanna get your take on the offence.

– Defensive coordinator: Sure thing, coach.

– Head coach: Now, I was watching tape. And it got me thinking… you know… this whole Kap running the ball thing is just working way too well!

– Linebackers coach: Aye, aye! The way we moved the ball against that unplayable Seattle defence in the playoffs…They just didn’t have a solution for Colin’s foot speed. I’m like, ‘Thank God we went to Crabtree against Sherman with the game on the line. Otherwise, this might have been the opening of a real Pandora’s Box!’

– Defensive coordinator : Plus, you have to think that DCs around the league are going to spend the offseason working on a solution to defend it. Right ? Tomlin said that the other day.

– Head coach: Good point. Where would you start?

– Defensive coordinator: No idea. But I’m sure someone will come up with something.

– Offensive coordinator: Well, in any case, we’d best not take any chances. I’m thinking we get Kap back under centre, run a regular offence. If it works, we’ll look like geniuses. Plus, as a bonus, we get the rest of the league to fool themselves into thinking you can just turn any spread QB into a dropback passer, so we weaken the opposition. If it doesn’t work, then we’ve proven our point.

– Head Coach: Sold! Let’s do this!

I’m being a tad facetious, but this spread quarterback discussion shows just how much of an ol’boy network NFL coaching is, and its consanguinity is costing potential starting quarterbacks careers. And I’ve got news for these coaches: spread quarterbacks aren’t going away. It just makes too much sense to take your best athlete and put the ball in his hands on every play, which you can do at no position except quarterback. High school and college teams are glad to take prototypical dropback passers when they get them, but such players are hard to find. Used to be, NCAA coaches would try to scheme their way past a lack of talent with a running quarterback. That’s still happening, but now, even top programs are going for these dual-threat athletes and are incorporating running plays for them. And they’re going to keep doing it because it works. We even see guys who could fit in “pro-style” offences in college, but who simply don’t play in them (see: Bortles, Blake).

For the NFL, terminally stuck in the 80s, the traditional pocket passer remains such an ideal that teams are willing to settle for mediocre ones instead of actually trying to model their offence around a spread system alum with rare skills. “Golly, Andy Dalton might not be able to throw more than 30 yards, and he might have an anti-clutch gene, but at least he goes through a West Coast read progression!” Think I’m exaggerating? The prohibitive favourite to be the first overall pick this season, Jameis Winston, threw 18 interceptions last season (many of which were down to mistakes by freshman receivers, but still…) Count ’em! 18. He had a potential sexual assault case against him dropped in supremely fishy circumstances and now faces a civil suit from the alleged victim. This is me talking about one of my Florida State boys. While I do think his off-the-field issues outside the potential sexual assault have been overstated and that recent comparisons to JaMarcus Russell are patently ridiculous, if I’m a Bucs executive and I know we’re about to pick him, I’m nervous on about 100 different levels right now. But hey, the other guy played in a spread-option offence, so there goes that debate!

The end result is a strange paradox: the league is more pass-oriented than ever, but it hasn’t had as few truly competent passers since, like, the seventies. And it’s not because there is less quarterbacking talent. It’s because more and more players are not used correctly. How many teams can say they are not at all in the market for an upgrade, or an update, at quarterback? People still talk about “the Big Four” of Rodgers, Manning, Brees and Brady at quarterback. Newsflash for all: Three of these four are older than 35, and Aaron Rodgers, while still in his prime, is 31. In the younger generation, we have Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson (one of the rare mobile QBs who’s actually allowed to use his legs) and if you can spot the other sure things, you’re a better talent scout than I am.

So as far as feeling safe with their quarterback situation, how shall we divide them? I propose the following categories, which go in descending order of quality:

  • Absolutely set for several more years barring a crucial injury: Green Bay, Indianapolis, Seattle, Atlanta
  • Pro Bowl-to-Hall-of-Fame hopefuls on their last bits of mileage (or balking at a move to L.A): New England, Denver, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, San Diego
  • “Not quite” guys on far too much money: Baltimore, Detroit, Dallas, Kansas City
  • Still waiting on promising young guys: Jacksonville, Oakland, Minnesota, Tennessee
  • Caught in average-to-mediocre veteran no man’s land: Chicago, New York Giants, St.Louis, Cincinnati, Arizona
  • Slightly (or not-so-slightly) freaking out about guys who should be coming of age: San Francisco, Carolina, Miami, New York Jets, Houston, Washington (In the case of the Panthers, Niners and Washington, I put 80% or more of the blame on the coaching)
  • Who the f— knows? : Philadelphia
  • Jameis Winston: Tampa Bay (Oops! That was supposed a… ahem!.. surprise!) 
  • Complete, total, unmitigated disaster: Buffalo, Cleveland

The first two categories involve guys who we know can win the Super Bowl. In fact, of those nine teams, six have quarterbacks who HAVE won a Super Bowl. But then, the second category carries guys for whom you cannot make long-term projects. (No, Ravens fans, Flacco doesn’t belong in category 1. Yes, he tends to excel in the playoffs, but he doesn’t play that way consistently enough to be a true franchise guy.)

So we have a league in which the quarterbacking is not especially healthy, but coach after coach sends quarterback after quarterback to the bust bin. So yeah, Marcus Mariota is a very big risk, but that has as much to do with the lethally inflexible coaching he’s likely to receive in the NFL as it does with his spread background. In his book Swing Your Sword, Washington State head coach Mike Leach said that the level of football at which one coaches is not really a reflection of their ability. I agree with him more every day I spend coaching and watching football. When I consider the inability to adjust to players’ strengths displayed by so many NFL coaches, I’m starting to think it might not be the quarterbacks teams ought to replace.

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