Week of January 14, 2022


What It Actually Takes To Win In College Football

This is a must read for casual college football fans, like me. Before reading  Kevin Clark’s story, I knew there exists a group of college football programs above the rest—I’ve watched Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma, Ohio State, play in the 4-team playoff year after year, with a little Georgia, LSU, Notre Dame and even a Cincinatti mixed in this year—but reading this story made is so abundantly clear what it takes to win a national championship in college football, and that nothing short of a miracle is needed for a team like Cincinatti to win a title. 

First and foremost, it’s about talent. Of course, right? I didn’t know how drastic the disparity is. Georgia had 19 – 19! – 5-star recruits in the title game last week. 

Per Clark: 

There’s a massive gulf between making the College Football Playoff and winning it, and you can measure the distance in talent. Around 60 percent of five-star recruits committed to the same five schools—Alabama, Georgia, Clemson, LSU, and Ohio State—over a five-year period ending in 2021, and that number increased later in that time span, according to the Sporting News. Those schools have combined to make 16 playoff appearances and win every national championship since the 2016 season. Texas A&M, which has the no. 1 class in 2022, has made strides to join that group.

Next is money. A school has to spend gobs and gobs of money, and not have to waste time convincing people to hand it over. Clark tells a story about when Clemson’s Dabo Swinney asked for a bigger staff and facilities upgrade, he was asked why. He responded, “Well, Alabama does it.”

Or how about this anecdote about Kirby Smart and Georgia’s program: 

“Kirby Smart got in there and said, ‘This is exactly what I need to win,’ and Georgia gave it to him,” Bud Elliott, a recruiting expert for 247Sports, told me. This includes a helicopter, which Smart uses to navigate recruiting visits. (“Time spent going slow doesn’t work,” he said, when first asked about the helicopter, which costs tens of thousands of dollars to operate.) The state of Georgia changed a public records law early in Smart’s tenure after he lobbied against it. Everyone was on board.

Plenty of schools with big football programs have money. Money is a prerequisite to be above average, but it doesn’t make a program a contender. Traditions be damned—a program that cycles through a couple bad coach hires (take USC as an example) is like blood in the water for the sharks. 

What’s developed is fairly obvious to see: a handful of schools that conceivably could compete are stuck in the mud, stopping and starting with every new coaching hire, while the select few run up the score. In many instances, those down programs are in recruiting hotbeds, which means the haves can run in to raid their talent, increasing the disparity even more. You should not be surprised when Georgia and Alabama play in the national title game—you should be surprised when they don’t. That’s what we had Monday.

It was a great game watch, and now I know why I should expect a lot more of the same. -PAL

Source: Georgia Is the Exception to Alabama’s Rule,” Kevin Clark, The Ringer (01/11/2022)


The NFL’s “Scheme Wars” Will be Spotlighted This Weekend

This was a fun article by The Ringer’s Steven Ruiz outlining the rise of the spread offense, kickstarted by the 2008 New England Patriots, and the factions in offensive scheme that have formed over the last decade:

Now, 14 years after the Patriots kicked things off, that ubiquitous “NFL Offense” that Brown wrote about is just one of many systems that are permeating the league. Never before have we seen schematic variety like this at the NFL level, as some coaching staffs have fully embraced more modern concepts, while others have adapted them to fit their established philosophies, and still others have been more reluctant to jump on the bandwagon.

Those three factions are the Spread (Chiefs, Bills, Cardinals), the Wide Zone (Rams, 49ers), the “Throwback” (physical running game setting up play-action passing) (Titans, Patriots, Buccaneers). Ruiz does an excellent job explaining each of them, with video examples. As Ruiz argues, 

These varying levels of acceptance have separated the league into schematic factions. And as assistant coaches from winning teams get head-coaching jobs of their own, those new hires will take their offensive systems with them and expand the territory of whatever faction they belong to. We saw this phenomenon play out a few years back when seemingly every coach who had ever crossed paths with Sean McVay became a hot coaching commodity. And after Kyle Shanahan, who belongs to the same coaching tree as McVay, dragged Jimmy Garoppolo to the Super Bowl after the 2019 season, we saw a run on his assistants, too. Now, nearly a third of the league’s offensive play-callers come from that tree. And four of their teams have made the playoffs this season.

If that success continues, we could see the Shanahan/McVay influence over the NFL grow even larger. But the rest of the league won’t go down without a fight. McDaniels (Patriots), Brian Daboll (Bills), and Eric Bieniemy (Chiefs), three offensive coordinators outside of the Shanahan/McVay tree, are headed for another round of head-coaching interviews this offseason, and Byron Leftwich (Buccaneers) has also gotten some requests.

In that way, there is more than a Lombardi Trophy at stake this postseason. With so many different offensive schemes represented in this year’s playoff field, the next month will not only determine a champion—it might dictate the next step in the NFL’s offensive evolution. So let’s take a look at three main factions that will battle it out for schematic supremacy over the next few weeks, starting with the one that launched it all.

It’s a great article if you’re interested in learning a bit more about how your team’s offense works. -TOB

Source: Scheme Wars Have Taken Over the NFL—and Could Decide This Year’s Playoffs,” Steven Ruiz, The Ringer (01/13/2022)

PAL: Good week for The Ringer, eh? Two of its stories made our list this week. The bit of this article that I had to read twice was that, prior to the 2007 Patriots,  a large portion of NFL teams ran essentially the same offense. I couldn’t believe it. But a former journeyman player would know better than anyone.

Donté Stallworth, who joined the Patriots just before the 2007 season, shared a similar viewpoint at the time. The now-retired wide receiver told The Ringer’s Kevin Clark that around half of all NFL teams ran the same playbooks, and the rest were only separated by minor scheme tweaks. He was expecting more of the same when arrived in New England. But Stallworth quickly saw that the offense Josh McDaniels had crafted was something radically different.


A Pet Peeve: Announcers Who Lose Track of the Basic Rules of the Game

Last weekend, the 49ers overcame a seemingly insurmountable 17-3 halftime deficit against the Rams. If they lost, they would have been out of the playoffs. It was such an improbable comeback, that late in the 4th they had an expected chance to win of just 0.4%. 

But they did. In overtime. The Niners won the OT coin flip and elected to receive. They kicked a field goal on the first possession, giving the Rams a drive to either tie and continue OT, or score a touchdown and win. Niners rookie cornerback Ambry Thomas intercepted a deep pass from Matthew Stafford, and the game was over. Everyone seemed to realize that, except 49ers radio play-by-play guy Greg Papa. Here’s Papa’s call of the last play, starting at the 2:00 mark. Listen to that again:

“Intercepted! By Ambry Thomas. Ambry Thomas takes it away. The Rams only have one timeout remaining! The Niners are gonna win the game in L.A. … and they have won the game.”

LOL. The ever important timeout reminder after the game is over! You can hear the moment his spotter punches him in the shoulder to point out the game is over, and he tries to save it. I really don’t know how you lose track of the fact the game was over – Papa should be embarrassed, and I’ve wondered all week if he addressed his blunder on his daily radio show. But it reminded me of the very famous call from Joe Starkey, the longtime Cal Bears announcer (and also a longtime 49er announcer, coincidentally), during The Play. Give it a listen.

There are just a few seconds left. The Stanford kicker squibs it, and Starkey says:

“The ball comes loose and the Bears have to get out of bounds!”

Except, no. It’s a kickoff. The clock stops at the end of the play. The Bears could have kneeled to save a second or two for a Hail Mary. But getting out of bounds there would serve no purpose, except to waste time trying to get there, and possibly losing Cal the game in the process if the time ran out. And it certainly would have deprived the world of the greatest play of all time.

Starkey has long been lauded for his call on the Play. And, yes, his emotion is great. But his failure to understand or remember a very basic rule of the game has always perturbed me.

Announcers: Do better! -TOB


More Women Officials Needed

I knew the majority of basketball referees – at all levels, but especially at the high school level – are men, but I didn’t know just how few women ref until I read this story from Jim Paulsen.

In Minnesota, one organization that represents officials said “18 to 20” of its 250 officials are women. Another told Paulsen that just four of their 200 officials are women. The good ones move up to college pretty quickly, he was told. 

Far more interesting than the disparity, though, is the difference in how a girls game is called when reffed by all-women crews.

Per Paulsen:

Buffalo coach Barb Metcalf said the difference in how the game was officiated was evident from the outset.

“To me, things just seemed more equitable,” Metcalf said. “It felt like there was a better flow to the game, with a lot fewer ticky-tack calls. There weren’t 50, 60, 70 fouls. They let them play.”

Metcalf summed up a common complaint: Male officials let boys play a more physical game than girls.

“There’s an assumption that women cannot be physical and are less athletic,” Eden Prairie coach Ellen Wiese said. “Boys play more physically, and the male referees are used to that. It’s like they’re saying, ‘I’m going to be more lenient because of your gender.’ ”

But ask female refs, and they articulate that it’s not as simple as calling a tighter game for women than men. 

“As officials, we’re taught to allow for a flow to the game,” said Dayna Rethlake, a former player and coach who has been officiating for about a decade. “It’s not so much calling it tighter for the girls as it is defining the skill level and what players can play through.”

Rethlake believes those discrepancies are declining quickly. She cited the improved strength and skill of girls’ players since she helped Midwest Minnesota (now MACCRAY) to a Class 1A championship in the mid-1980s.

I would assume this theory extends to other physical women’s sports – hockey, lacrosse, water polo – as well. I’m calling on my nieces for an update. Will update next week. -PAL 

Source: All-woman crew leads to a question: When the refs are women, is the girls’ basketball better?,” Jim Paulsen, Star Tribune (01/11/22) 

Video of the Week

Tweet of the Week

Song of the Week


Like what you’ve read? Follow us for weekly updates:

Email: 123sportslist@gmail.com

Twitter: @123sportsdigest

Facebook


“Where were you on September 11th?”

-Deangelo Vickers

Week of January 7, 2022

RIP John Madden

My kids know “Madden” the video game, but I am 99% sure they have no idea why the football game they play on my old PS3 is called Madden. So sure, the games are quite the legacy for him (while he didn’t make the game himself, he reportedly helped make the game realistic over the years). Older people remember him as a coach. And sure, he won a Super Bowl. 

But to me Madden will always be an announcer – the best announcer. When you turned on a football game in the 90s and John and his longtime broadcast partner Pat Summerall were on the call, you knew you were in for a treat. Madden’s enthusiasm shown through – he loved football and wanted to share that love. The Ringer’s Bryan Curtis relays a great anecdote:

One of the coolest things about John Madden is that he was an academic. It was a brief run, but still. In 1979, after Madden quit as head coach of the Oakland Raiders, he was hired by the University of California, Berkeley, to teach an extension course called “Man to Man Football.” Madden’s students had watched football on TV. Now, they wanted to understand how it worked.

Professor Madden stood in front of a board that was like the Telestrator he later used on TV. Madden drew X’s and O’s and carefully studied his students’ faces. “I wanted to see at what point I lost ’em,” he told me years later. Madden was trying to find the most simple way to explain a complex game. He was converting passive football fans into smart fans. For the next 30 years, Madden performed the same trick on TV every week.

When Madden died Tuesday morning at age 85, obits mentioned his three great careers: football coach, broadcaster, video game czar. In fact, these are all the same career. John Madden was the greatest teacher of football of the 20th century and probably of this one, too.

Madden’s genius was how he taught football. Those booms, that unbuttoned aura of regular guy-dom—all of that was an invitation. It made Madden’s classroom feel like a safe place, where you’d get a little smarter and the professor would never act like he was smarter than you.

He taught us the game, but always at a level we could understand. He was informative, without talking down to us. He was the best.

So I am honoring John Madden in the best way I know how: smiling and laughing at clips of him doing what he did best:

-TOB


The State of the MLB Lockout

For our 40th birthdays this year, Phil and I (and our friend Rowe) are planning a baseball trip. The current plan, three stadiums in three days (Pittsburgh, D.C., Baltimore in June). When discussing dates, I suggested we avoid April: in part because of cold and an increased incidence of rainouts. But also because of the ongoing lockout. Rowe asked, “Are we really concerned about the lockout?” As luck would have it, Jeff Passan published an article this week addressing this very topic. So, Jeff, how are things?

“The players and league don’t negotiate so much as talk past each other. For all the rhetoric about the animosity between the parties not mattering as much as the substance of the issues they’re discussing, they can’t even get to the substance of the issues because the relationship is so toxic. “We’re in such a place as an industry that it’s kind of like politics,” the man said. “Everyone is so obsessed with winning this narrow game we’ve prescribed for ourselves. There’s no practicality. No moderation.”

Hm. Seems bad.

In its last bargaining session, on December 1, “MLB had said it wanted to talk about core economics, but only on the condition that those discussions not include any changes to the six-year reserve period of free agency, the arbitration system or revenue sharing. The union would not agree to that condition. Seven minutes in, there was nothing left to discuss. MLB left the hotel and did not return.” MLB locked the players out at midnight that night.

The players, for their part, want, “earlier free agency, earlier arbitration, a rejiggered draft system, more money going to younger players, a higher minimum salary, less revenue sharing and a higher luxury tax threshold, among other things.” Rob Manfred said such changes would “threaten the ability of most teams to be competitive,” though as Passan points out, Manfred “provided no evidence to support the idea that players becoming free agents after five years or reaching arbitration after two years would ruin the sport — because no such evidence exists.” 

MLB, meanwhile, wants to expand the playoffs (which is a TV cash cow) and, per Passan, “is most interested in continuing its curtailed spending. Player salaries dipped to $4.05 billion in 2021 — a $200 million drop from the record high in 2017 and the lowest since 2015, when the league still hadn’t crossed the $4 billion mark.” Since 2011, MLB revenues have increased 70%, from $6.3 billion to $10.7 billion, while the league’s soft salary cap number has increased only 15%, from $178 million to $206 million.

Passan spoke to a number of agents, players, and league and team officials, and came up with the following framework for a deal:

1. Raise minimum salaries to around $650,000 — a 14% bump

2. Add a performance bonus pool for pre-arbitration players

3. Implement the universal designated hitter

4. Expand the postseason from 10 to 14 teams

5. Remove indirect draft-pick compensation for free agents

6. Make significant changes to the draft to disincentivize tanking and reward small markets

7. Raise the CBT threshold into the $230 million-plus range and remove other restraints, including nonmonetary and recidivism penalties

This seems reasonable to me. Hopefully, the two sides come up with something soon. Afterall, pitchers and catchers should be reporting in just five weeks. -TOB

Source: Why MLB’s Labor Negotiations Have Gone Nowhere — and Baseball’s Path Back,” Jeff Passan, ESPN (01/05/2022)


The Industry-Changing Beetle 

It would be decades before anyone would know it, but the ash bat – used by almost every major leaguer for over a century – was doomed because some pallets were left outside warehouses in Westland, Michigan. 

The pallets were from far away, and they carried the emerald ash borer beetle. The beetles spread, killing ash trees across North America. 

The emerald ash borer beetle was discovered in 2002. In 2001, Barry Bonds broke the single season home run record with a maple bat ( the maple bat was thanks to Joe Carter). It wasn’t long before big leaguers were switching to maple, and thank god they wanted to change when they did. 

Per Stephen Nesbitt: 

Almost overnight, there was an explosion of interest in this small Canadian maple bat company. Hitters turned from ash to maple in droves. Sporting goods stores wanted to stock maple bats. Holman needed more space, more staff, more bats. He hired the bar manager at the Mayflower Pub to be his production manager. He bought an empty bar in Ottawa and converted it into a bat-making laboratory. It still wasn’t enough to keep up with demand.

Maple was suddenly king, and just in time.

The following year, the first ash borers were discovered in Michigan.

I never imagined I’d read a sports story about a beetle, but the best stories take us to unexpected places. This is a story about environmental anomalies, the science behind the ideal wood density, about grain spacing. It’s also about Joey Votto, the last big leaguer to use ash bats exclusively, and his ultimate trust in the feel of the ash bat…and trying to find an ash tree or two that hasn’t been visited by the emerald borer. 

Such a great read. – PAL 

Source: ‘It’s an epic saga’: An exotic beetle, Barry Bonds, Joey Votto and the end of ash baseball bats,” Stephen J. Nesbitt & C. Trent Rosecrans, The Athletic 

TOB: My favorite part:

Votto wasn’t always an ash apostle. As a high schooler in Toronto, he swung whatever wood bat was available. In the minors, he tried a variety of bats without settling on any. It was Jay Bruce who got him hooked on ash when they were at Triple A together. Votto came to love the sound of a baseball smacking the sweet spot, the way an ash bat hardens and grain grooves deepen over time, and the feedback delivered to his hands when making solid contact. An ash bat, he says, just feels like the best possible tool a hitter can have.

And so when Votto has an ace ash bat, he wants to protect it.

“This might sound crazy,” Votto says, “but there were times I was even a touch more particular about what I was going to swing at because I didn’t want to break the bat.”

It’s not that Votto never gave maple a chance. He uses it every day in batting practice — he’d rather break maple in that setting and save ash for competition. Last year, he took an ash bat for a test run in the batting cage and broke it. That really bothered him. “It’s like that scene from ‘Seinfeld’ where Elaine goes out and gets the sponges, then she’s like, ‘Are you sponge-worthy?’” Votto says, with a laugh. “I was hitting, and I was like, ‘Are you cage-worthy?’ I don’t want to burn them on batting practice.”

-LOLLLLL


The Athletic Submits to its Fate

The Athletic was an ambitious undertaking – restore the sports local sports page! And honestly, for the most part I think they did a pretty good job. At least in the Bay Area, they hired good writers to cover the local teams and they freed those writers from traditional print deadlines, to allow them to write about the team without those restrictions. But there were signs all along that it was not going to work. 

First, the Athletic was not profitable, “hemorraghing $100 million cash” in 2019 and 2020, over revenues of just $73 million. In hiring all these writers away, they had to pay them a lot of money! And in order to lure subscribers, they often offered steep discounts, but it was not enough, as subscriptions stagnated over the last two years – going from 1 million in 2020 to just 1.2 million late last year.

It also suffered from quality issues, in the eyes of this humble blog. The plan to restore the sports page relied on hiring local beat writers. And while the Bay Area writers it hired were generally good, that was not true in other locales, which we often noted after reading articles that we found wholly disappointing. 

Which brings us to this week’s news: The Athletic was sold. To the New York Times. Yes, the news publication that aimed to modernize the sports page and in the words of its co-founder, was going to, “wait out every local paper out and let them continuously bleed until we are the last ones standing,” and “suck them dry of their best talent at every moment,” ended up selling out. To a newspaper. Sure, it’s the New York Times. Still, it’s a newspaper. 

It remains to be seen what will become of the Athletic, or the jobs and careers of the writers it peeled off from the local rags. But the Athletic becomes, in the end, a symbol of the modern media landscape:

I suppose it was always going to be this way. It was its fate. -TOB 

Source: The Athletic To Be Swallowed By Industry It Aimed To Kill,” Ray Ratto, Defector (01/06/2021)

PAL: Great writers at The Athletic, but also, in recent years I found a lot of filler stories. A lot of lists and rankings, e.g. Top 100 prospects, Week 17 NFL rankings, fantasy projections. That’s never been my idea of a good read; in fact, these headlines would just make it harder to find something I’d want to read. I have long believed more is almost never better, and The Athletic proved to me that the kid who loved to read every word the Pioneer Press sports page doesn’t live here anymore.

I love Ratto’s take on this, and I also think The Ringer’s Bryan Curtis hit the bullseye with this bit from his story on the acquisition…which kinda read like an obit.

When hiring, Athletic editors would tell writers the site didn’t care about clicks. But the site did care about “conversions”—stories that lead people to subscribe to The Athletic. The site set annual conversion targets for writers, a number that can hang over a reporter’s head. Even happy writers who’d migrated over from newspapers told me it felt like trading one Darwinian struggle for another.


Anti-Vaxxer Suffers Consequences

Anti-vaxxers are awful, especially ones who are rich and (presumably) influential (yes, including Aaron Rodgers). So I really like it when one of them finally suffers the consequences of their willful stupidity. 

Enter: Novak Djokovich, aged 34, currently sits tied atop the career Grand Slam leaderboard, with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, with 20. Federer and Nadal both are seemingly done and Djokovich appears destined to surpass them. But with the Australian Open starting next week, it appears Djokovich will have to wait at least a few more months to do so.

You see, Djokovich is an anti-vaxxer. As this article lays out, he’s long been a proponent of fake medicine and has engaged in risky behavior that put himself and others at risk. 

Like many leagues and events, the Australian Open requires competitors to be vaccinated, or to receive a medical exemption. Djokovich applied for a medical exemption, for an undisclosed reason, and it was granted. Given his past behavior during the pandemic, this put many around him at risk. So Djokovich flew to Australia to begin preparing for his tournament. The only problem: while he got a medical exemption from the tournament, he neglected to inquire whether the Australian government would let him in.

Denied.

Australia has had very strict visa rules since the pandemic began, and Djokovich was denied a visa, on the grounds his medical exemption was not valid. He is presently awaiting an appeal hearing next week. I am really, really hoping he does not get his way, and it is doubtful he will. Reportedly his exemption “hinges on the argument that he had COVID in the last six months and is therefore immune. The feds rejected that argument once already, and he faces a possible three-year ban from the country if the courts side against him.” 

As his rival Nadal, who has long supported vaccine efforts, said: “In some way I feel sorry for him. But at the same time, he knew the conditions since a lot of months ago, so he makes his own decision.”

Indeed, he does. -TOB
Source: Novak Djokovic and Fellow Star Vaccine Skeptics Are Increasingly Scorned,” by Matthew Futterman, New York Times (01/06/2022); Detained Novak Djokovic Is Jesus And Spartacus All Rolled Into One, According To Novak Djokovic’s Father,” Patrick Redford, Defector (01/06/2022)


Video of the Week

Tweet of the Week

Song of the Week


Seems awfully mean. But sometimes the ends justify the mean.

-Michael Scott