SportsProf

(Hopefully) good sports essays and observations for good sports by a guy who tries (and can sometimes fail) to be a good sport.

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Friday, December 19, 2014

Can Chip Kelly Win the Big One?

That question is starting to permeate in Philadelphia.

As well as how good a drafter he is, given that at Oregon he could build better facilities with the help of Phil Knight and out-recruit competitors.  In Philadelphia, he stretched to take Marcus Smith, an alleged edge rusher from Louisville whom most had in the late second or third rounds, in the first round.  So far, Smith has been a bust,  What makes that worse is that the Eagles' defense at times has been iffy. 

Chip is an innovator and he has won, and some would argue that he has done so without his optimal roster.  The secondary is not good, the linebackers inconsistent, and the back-up quarterback not good.  Bright spots have included the defensive line (one of the best in the league), the now-healthy offensive line (ditto) and certain skills position players (but not all of them).  The special teams have excelled.  There are many bright spots, but perhaps the Eagles need another draft and a key signing or two to fine-tune the roster, upgrade the secondary, get a few difference makers on defense and then step up.

Kelly's tenure has been good but not great, and if there is disappointment, it's because the fans fail to realize that even with bright innovators, change takes time to take root.

He has won big games before and will win them again.  Sadly for Eagles' fans, Kelly did not win the big one last Sunday, and that could prove fatal to the Eagles' chances for the post-season.  And that would put a huge damper on the overall progress Kelly has made since he came to Philadelphia two years ago. 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Are the Stat Guys and Outcomes Predictors Ruining the Fun or Just Changing the Conversation?

I appreciate math people, I really do, but I confess that I am not all that good at math (even though friends of mine and I in the 70's figured out MoneyBall way back when via Strat-o-Matic cards, thinking that OBP for hitters and OBP and Total Bases Yielded for pitchers meant something).  Today, there is so much math around baseball in particular that you can settle arguments about who is better than the next guy via some type of calculation.  I suppose that empirical evidence should trump observations and opinions, but the latter are just so much fun.  When people used to talk about hot-stove or inside baseball they used to debate whether Mays was better than Mantle and historically how DiMaggio and Speaker matched up.  Today, they'll pull out a bunch of algorithms to prove one's superiority over the other. 

It's analytical, mathematical and clinical at one level, but does that type of stuff remove the intangibles, and, yes, the fun?  Or, does it spark a whole new level of discussion about which numbers really matter and why some calculations are fuzzy math while others bring home the goods.  In the days before the Society of Baseball Research guys (and pretty much they were guys) and the internet, one could wonder about the relative merits of say Lefty Grove versus Whitey Ford.  Today, there are a whole host of people who can break down the careers of both in so many ways that the discussion ends with the math; the words are rendered almost pointless.

Many who like baseball like it because of the math, even though today's metrics arguably replace out-dated ones that might not mean a whole lot, such as runs batted in, ERA for a relief pitcher and wins for a pitcher (I still maintain that had Frank Tanana pitched for anyone but the Angels, he'd be in the Hall).  That said, what's replaced them to a degree are numbers that are hard to explain and, therefore, hard to capture the average fan.  And while fans in San Francisco and Kansas City might have had a gripping World Series, the rest of the country yawned.  The numbers are better conceived, but harder to grasp.  The numbers that get grasped are that games take 3:30 and that the ball is in play for about 15 minutes.  Those numbers repel kids; baseball increasingly is becoming the game their grandfathers took their fathers to, or, alternatively, a side show to sports bar-like stadiums that permit the 21-35 crowd mingle on pavilions while showing only a slight interest in the game.  That doesn't seem to be a sustainable strategy.

Yes, there are all sorts of statistics in other sports, but in soccer the main ones are goals and assists, as in ice hockey.  In basketball, it's points, rebounds and assists, and in football, well, it's just whether your team wins enough to make the playoffs.  With baseball, it's harder to tell.

The analytics can be fun.

If only the average fan can understand them.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Why are 76ers' fans so patient?

The team is one and forever, having beaten the also hapless Timberwolves the other night, which must have gotten former 76er Thad Young to thinking that he is living in one of Dante's circles of hell because the 76ers traded him precisely to get worse, and then they beat the team that he's on, which also has Andrew Wiggins, who apparently was the object of the 76ers' desires when they adopted their strategy of losing last season, only to get another big man with a bad wheel, this time Joel Embiid.

Philadelphia fans can get a bad rap.  Sure, they aren't patient and yes, they can be profane, but that's what many fans are about today.  Perhaps they did throw snowballs at or boo Santa Claus in the early 70's, but reports from the game indicated that this happened because the man impersonating St. Nick was drunk and behaving badly.  At any rate, despite the fact that many are diehards, they are giving the 76ers a huge pass for losing badly, fielding a terrible team (even though it tries gives it the old college try, which makes you wonder whether a college team like Kentucky could give them a run) and not caring whether they win.  The front office has taken the love of drafting prospects to an extreme (where it's more fun to take someone with potential than someone with a proven track record, so seniors in the draft are doomed) and dangles the promise of a front line of guys named Noel, Embiid (who admittedly looked like the best college big on film since guys named Olajuwon and O'Neal) and Saric.

It's hard to know whether the diehards know that these three can be special, whether they have put their  fanaticism in abeyance because of the rise of the Philadelphia Eagles or that they have stopped caring to the point that they are not even complaining.  The latter would worry the front office the most, for while they have enough money to float the team, so to speak and carry it forward until the glory days return, most fans don't have the type of money to invest in season tickets and watch a team which, if it were in the English Premier League, would definitely be relegated to the next league down and be playing in smaller arenas in the 33rd through 64th largest cities in the United States.  Instead, they still demand NBA price and, as a bonus, fans get to see the visiting teams and their stars.

It's not as though the 76ers have offered discounts to fans for watching such an awful team or even lower prices now in exchange for higher prices a few years down the road.  The fans who do come like the arena, like the vibe, love the game and like the visiting teams.  Many who come are smart enough not to purchase season tickets (and whoever talks about fan loyalty to me is a bit silly given that management really isn't serving the fans all that well with the product they are putting out on the floor) from the team but to purchase individual tickets at cut-rate prices on StubHub.  Perhaps they are curious, perhaps they are buying the propaganda that management is putting out about how good the team can be in the future.

But here's a question:  don't most great teams have veteran leadership, and don't they have a mix of players, some of whom are veterans, some are younger and some are rookies?  It's hard to conceive that a bunch of young players the same age will be able to beat veteran teams consistently and become an elite team.  They will need veterans, and while it's understandable that they traded Thad Young, ultimately they will need leaders.  And that begs the biggest question of them all:  once Saric comes over from Turkey and Noel and Embiid are healthy, what veterans will they sign?  And who will come to the team?  Fans can assume that veterans might come to play with the young nucleus the 76ers are putting together, but if they do so they will demand a premium.  Why?  Because they are veterans, and they are the least patient of them all to win and win now, because they know how short careers can be and how few chances the average veteran has to play on a special team.  And I'd be skeptical of those who really want to come to Philadelphia initially unless they are proven winners, because it could be that they want the payday more than the rings.  And if they have won a title before, will they still have the hunger to win again?

Look, I know I am parsing this finely, but the 76ers have adopted a risky strategy that, while unique, has its risks -- that all players will be healthy, that all will be good, and that some veterans will come over as free agents to help form an eight- or nine-player rotation that can quickly climb into the top four teams in the Eastern Conference.  Right now, the fans are buying it because they did grow tired of rooting for a team whose upside was that maybe they would win 45 games and lose in the first round.  They grew tired of Comcast's ownership, of Ed Snider's mismanagement of the club  and of Comcast's treating the team as the poor stepchild to the Flyers.

All that's fine, and the new ownership has said the right things and brought more zing and oomph to the franchise.  But after a while, the fans will yell "call," and they will want to see a big-league team.  I don't know how long the fans will wait, but it won't be much more than beyond this season.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Rushes to Judgment

There are a few headlines this week that are potentially giving perspective to serious situations that turned into feeding frenzies, as follows:

1.  Did the NCAA rush to judgment in punishing Penn State's football program?  The report is that the NCAA bluffed because it didn't really know if it had the right to do what it did.  I thought at the time and still believe now that a) the NCAA didn't have the right to do what it did because while what Jerry Sandusky did was awful the football program didn't commit the violations of the type that are within the NCAA's purview, b) because it wasn't on solid footing (if any at all) it was setting a bad precedent for the future and c) there is so much hypocrisy, anyway, that what would it do when investigative reporters turn up dirt on probably mostly every SEC school?  And, for what it's worth, what is it going to do to North Carolina? 

2.  Did Penn State rush to judgment in firing Joe Paterno?  Penn State was in a difficult spot, and while Governor Tom Corbett expressed his regrets today, there were many other factors at work that made the Paterno situation difficult.  First, Paterno let himself be turned into a demi-god, and Penn State let Paterno become bigger than the institution.  Second, Paterno had no succession plan and wasn't gracious enough to help the university figure out one (guaranteeing martyrdom).  Third, it seemed that despite Penn State's excellent reputation generally, there were problems with the culture surrounding the football program, or at least with respect to its general accountability within the university (and there were some odd facts regarding the Sandusky affair).  I do think that Joe Paterno should have retired long before he was fired, but all of the facts combined for the result that occurred -- a very unhappy ending.  Most observers could have seen that problem (more than two) miles away.

3.  If the issue is whether Ray Rice told the truth about hitting his now-wife in his June meeting with the NFL, then who missed what, and will Rice be reinstated to the league?  Ray Rice (who has done some very good charitable things around the country, including in his hometown of New Rochelle, New York, but also with pediatric patients in Baltimore) did a terrible thing.  The Ravens erred in not disciplining him; the NFL exacerbated it by not disciplining him hard enough.  (And I am not clear what the collective bargaining agreement between the players' union and the league provides on this subject).  I think all can agree upon that.  It also seems clear that the NFL decided to ban Rice indefinitely after the famous video came out of Rice's slugging his wife in the elevator.  What is not clear at all is whether that was the first time anyone in the NFL had access to or saw that video or whether Rice had admitted decking his wife in the June meeting.   If the answer to the first part is yes they had access and yes they saw it and the answer to the second part is yes, he came clean, then the issue becomes solely whether the NFL goofed in the severity of the punishment.  While the fact remains that Rice did a terrible thing, the overall story changes a bit because what comes into question is not whether Rice told the truth, but why the NFL did what it did.  It seems like the NFL has taken steps to address domestic violence, but unless there is a means under the collective bargaining agreement to get Rice's ban lifted because the NFL violated procedure in its inquiry, Rice's suspension probably will continue.  All that said, the continuation of this sad saga in the press is bad for the Ravens, the league and Commissioner Goodell. 

And all of this speaks to rushes to judgment.  The public rushed to judgment during the Boston Massacre and then in the Duke lacrosse fiasco.  In the former, the British soldiers weren't guilty, and in the latter the Duke players weren't guilty, either.  It was the case that the colonials didn't want the British soldiers in their midst, and it might have been the case that certain members of the Duke team had behavioral issues (not major) for which they always weren't held accountable.  But by no means did that make them guilty of the very serious charges that faced them.  With regard to the sanctions handed out to the Penn State football program, the NCAA probably rushed to judgment because of the nature of Sandusky's crimes, although what happened at Penn State was unclear and Paterno's almost dictatorial control over the athletic department was a problem.  In the case of firing Paterno, while Penn State loyalists to this day will back their coach, the situation was rather complicated.  I don't think it would have been possible to give Joe a gracious exit -- he didn't want to leave at all, let alone gracefully.  As for Rice, the facts are bad, but when they're almost radioactive, we have to be careful to develop the facts carefully before rendering judgment.  Everyone is entitled to a defense, and if we forget that we have much bigger problems than whether our beloved football team plays on Saturdays.

All of this underscores the point that all of the facts have to be developed before conclusions can be drawn.  And while "justice delayed is justice denied," justice rushed could be injustice absent a good process and a thorough review. 

Just ask the kids on that Duke lacrosse team, who would much rather be known as college lacrosse players who played on a good team than having been in the spotlight for a feeding frenzy that transpired because others rushed to judgment.

Observation about Postings on Social Media

Consider the following statement:  "The more people you know post on social media, the [less] or [more] you will find them appealing." 

I suppose that it depends on what they post.  For example, during the recent election I read several posts on my spouse's Facebook wall about the election and the "arrogant smiles of Republicans."  Naturally, these were Democrats from blue states who were making these posts.  And that got me to thinking about the nature of their smiles both in 2008 and 2012.  Were they humble?  Sometimes we and others we know have no idea how we seem or what we're doing when we're doing it. 

There's also the humble bragging, the rants (both about politics and about the quality of service providers) and the posts of good times that (inadvertently, perhaps) tell others that they were not included.  Perhaps, also, there are posts to people far away, because for some it is easier to relate by social media than in person in the present.  The latter can be awkward and require more of an effort than hitting strokes on a keyboard. 

In business we talk frequently about realizing that you should consider what you write in the context of its being quoted verbatim in the newspaper or blown up on an exhibit in a court room.  Translated, be professional to the point of being antiseptic.  In our private lives (which are not as private as they once were), we would like to reveal more of ourselves and be less filtered.  That's fine, but we also should consider how we would like to be perceived and the legacy that we want to leave behind.  If you post frequent criticisms, are the things that you are criticizing always that bad or are you just unhappy?  If you post frequently about what you buy, where you go and what your kids do, are you arrogant?  If you always tell people how much you admire them, what they do and their and their children's accomplishments, are you a sycophant (especially when you do so for people you do not know that well).  And if you have many friends but do not post much, are you a bystander or voyeur?

I don't think that we should apply Teddy Roosevelt's "In the Arena" standard to ourselves when it comes to posting on social media.  So, if someone who gets criticized for a fit of pique were to say, "well, at least I post and I share my thinking.  I have the courage to do that.  They don't," I don't think that someone who is an infrequent poster should question his or her own courage.  Perhaps, instead, they should reflect upon their own restraint and a transcendent display of maturity, honoring the adage, "she who holds the word back is its master, and she who deploys it is it's slave."  Or, as the British at times were wont to say, "the less said, the easier mended."

I do not have a Facebook page yet but might get one, if only because so many friends have one and keep in touch better that way.  On the one hand, I value my privacy very much.  On the other hand, I do not want to be isolated.  Yet, I realize that because I have various friends but not a group of friends, having a Facebook page might reinforce some isolation because others might get together more frequently than my schedule, commitments and location might allow.  At the end of the day, though, I try to operate under the adage that if these are my friends, I am happy for their happiness.  The world is a big place, and we need a lot of people to be successful and happy to have a great society.  So, if I'm not included on a jaunt to a baseball game in another city, so be it.  Making my own fun, in the end, is up to me, and I can as easily gather others as be gathered.  Sometimes we all have to remember that.

But going back to my initial premise, what I have found out in infrequent views of my spouse's Facebook page is that she has more liberal friends than conservatives, that some of the liberals cannot begin to understand anyone else's point of view, that one guy seemingly writes only of icons of our youth who have passed way.  A few tout causes, whether they are illnesses or veterans, and a few just pop in to post and say hello.  Some vent, some boast about their kids' report cards, some post too much information.  In a way, it's all about living life.

Don't know when I'll find time to start my Facebook page, and will try not to get addicted to it if I do so.  After all, I'd rather be out there doing things that are worthy of posting and not have the time to post about them then spending time on Facebook, not having done things, and then wondering what I'll post about. 

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Jason Kidd and Mikhail Prokhorov

One was a great college basketball point guard, a very good professional point guard who became a head coach right after his career ended. 

The other is a young, successful Russian businessman (read:  oligarch) who owns the team that the other guy played for and then coached for.

The first guy dissed the second guy and bolted to coach in Milwaukee.  The first guy loves to win.  The second guy loves to win but also likes to get his way and hates to lose.

There is bad blood between the two men.  There is a public war of words.

Memo to Jason Kidd: Probably not a good idea to get into a fight with an oligarch.

Just saying.

Monday, November 03, 2014

The Stupidity and Corruption of FIFA's Decision to Host the World Cup in Qatar

Before you dismiss me as a first-world, American, economic imperialist. . .

1.  It is hot in the summers in Qatar, so much so that today FIFA announced that it might move the 2022 World Cup to winter time.  Read here for more details.

2.  There is the issue of corruption and what officials from Qatar might have done to convince the FIFA board to choose Qatar in the first place.  Read the linked article for more on that, too.  Why that might be okay mystifies -- is it because that's the way things get done over there or because understated bigots hold those in Qatar to much lower standards than say to those that those in the West are held?  (And why would that be okay?)

3.  Russia 2018 ought to be interesting given Putin's issues in Ukraine and Russia's overall world image.  Brazil gave some hope to FIFA in that despite major political unrest during the Confederations Cups and some economic issues, it pulled it off and did it well. 

Still . . .

Heat.

Payoffs.

What's the third thing? 

Because there usually is a third thing. 

Here's to hoping that the corruption didn't happen and the event gets moved to the winter, that the stadiums get built and that people can travel there safely and enjoy themselves.  A lot can happen between now and 2022 -- oil prices can continue to drop, reducing the income of the Qataris, and the political climate of the Middle East can change dramatically. 

Then again, things could stay the same, too, and Qatar can pull off another soccer surprise, this after somehow getting the jersey sponsorship for one of the world's most beloved teams, Barcelona.  Perhaps after the World Cup the government will try to turn the Qatari Super League (or its equivalent) into a new English Premier League.

After all, if they have the money to host the World Cup and to sponsor Barcelona, the government and the country's wealthiest citizens probably have the funds to start a formidable league. 

But for right now, the whole thing doesn't make a lot of sense.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Thoughts on the English Premier League

1.  Chelsea
2. Southampton
3.  Manchester City
4.  Arsenal
5. West Ham.

Which has you wondering where Liverpool, Man United and Tottenham are, too.

Thoughts:

1.  Chelsea is the prohibitive favorite.  Give Jose Mourhino credit -- he fortified an already formidable defensive squad by getting keeps Thibault Courtois back from Athletico (where he was on loan), acquired Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas.  Some of his young midfielders are a year more experienced.  Atop that, they probably have more players out on loan than the next two clubs combined, and, if one were to think deeply, I am not convinced that their roster of players out on loan couldn't win the Championship League if not avoid relegation in the EPL.

2.  Southampton must have people who know what they are doing.  Their manager bolted for Tottenham, where he, like his three predecessors, is struggling.  They let Lallana, Lovren and Lambert go to Liverpool and Shaw to United, and have not suffered at all.  Lallana is in a pressure cooker, Lambert is closer to the tail end of his career and Shaw showed up at Old Trafford looking, well, doughy.  I don't know if the Saints will remain in the top four, but wins before Christmas count as much as wins in April.

3.  City.  They got a year older, period.  Did the World Cup tire out Yaya Toure?  Aguero has to be one of the best five players in the world, but there seems to be something missing early on.  Yet, last year they played solidly and patiently, stalked Liverpool and overtook them after those Reds had their slight collapse at season's end.  They remain dangerous, that's for sure, with great talent.  Look for them to be the biggest threat to Chelsea.

4.  Arsenal.    The good news is that Arsene Wenger is resourceful and can manage through injuries.  The two pieces of bad news is that they seem to suffer more injuries than anyone else.  In addition, Wenger didn't populate the roster the way he might have had he been more aggressive.  The team needs a defensive mid and a few extra center backs.  It's hard to determine whether Danny Welbeck is the answer at striker, although Alexis Sanchez looks to be a great addition at wing.  Getting Theo Walcott back will help, and they need everyone else -- particularly Aaron Ramsey -- to stay healthy.  That said, they need a few highly rated players to join Mesut Ozil and Sanchez.  Look for them to return to Champions League competition for the umpteenth year in a row.

5.  Liverpool.  They aren't the same without Luis Suarez.  Who would be?  Their defense also is not that good, and perhaps deficient enough to cause them to fail to qualify for champions.

6.  United.  They'll get it right at some point, but they don't have it right now, and even some dynastic teams in sports have had their down periods.  They are in one now and are still figuring it out.  They have some talent, but it's not the case that United can just toss a lineup out there and the competition will roll over.

7.  Spurs.  I thought that with all the moves they made last year they finished okay because they had a bunch of players who had to adjust to the manager and each other.  But it seems like they have regressed this year.  They have some pieces, not enough to win the EPL, but I thought enough to contend for a space in Champions.  That doesn't look to be the case now.

8.  West Ham.  Figured I"d make a plug for Sam Allardyce.  I thought that the Hammers made some good moves before Transfer Deadline Day, and right now they are paying off.

Based on what I've seen today, I'm thinking that this is how the EPL will finish:

1.  Chelsea.  Not invincible, but close.
2.  City.  Too much talent.
3.  Arsenal.  Arsene Wenger strikes again (this also is a reflection that I think that there is Chelsea and then City and then many other teams).
4.  Southampton.  Hard to see why the magic will not continue.
5.  Liverpool.  They'll recover, somehow, to get here.

Dark horse:  United, because few have higher expectations, and West Ham, because they are playing with a bounce in their step.