Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Immutable Rules Of Football Might Be Somewhat Mutable (Classic NC!)

In the previous iteration of this blog on another address, I posted several years back on a topic that I called "The Immutable Rules Of Football." Having referred to them recently, and needing a filler post here, I thought I'd revisit that post and repost it on this site.

Note: I know that since then, the Cardinals have gone to the Super Bowl. But they lost it, so my rules kind of still hold.


As the football season begins again – tonight is the Hall of Fame game, the first of the preseason exhibition matches – it is time to review some of the Immutable Rules by which The Trouble With Roy lives.

Those rules are: 1. The only nonbreakfast food you can eat for breakfast without being a weirdo is cold pizza.

2. Arizona, Houston, and Cleveland will not be good this season.

3. Free agents do not make that big of a difference in football.

I know, these rules may seem controversial. Many of you might want to quibble with them, take issue. You are probably right now preparing to send me an email or leave a comment taking me to task. You are typing right now: I could eat a hamburger for breakfast if I wanted to.

You’re typing that, I know, because the other two Immutable Rules are really unquestionable. They are as certain as gravity.

Let’s make my point through a test: Pick up something right now. Anything. A pen, a coffee mug, your second-oldest, just do it. Ready? Now drop the thing you picked up. Unless it really was your second-oldest. Don’t drop that kid. But everyone else, drop it.

It fell to the ground, didn’t it? Whatever you picked up fell and kept falling until something stopped it. And really, you were absolutely sure that would happen, right? That’s how certainImmutable Laws 2 and 3 are. You do not need to question them, you do not need to wonder

What would happen if Cleveland drafted the best offensive lineman in college

and also a mediocre quarterback? [NOTE: This was way before everyone knew Brady Quinn would be a mediocre quarterback. I'm prescient. Like Paul Atreides.]

You don’t need to ask that any more than you had to ask What will happen when I drop this coffee mug? The outcome in both cases is certain: Cleveland will not make the playoffs and your wife will yell at you to quit making a mess.

There are still those of you who will protest. Sportscasters, fans, whoever you are, you’ll sayHouston could surprise you, or Arizona has a new coach. But don’t bother. We won’t see Houston in the Superbowl. Or even the playoffs. And given how bad they are, we probably won’t see Houston on television. (Or Arizona, or Cleveland.)

(A note to people, too, who say things like Arizona could be the surprise team this year. That’s not a prediction, or even an opinion. It’s nothing. It’s blather, nonsensical blather on the level of "it is what it is" or other inane statements. Almost anything “could” happen. Saying a team “could” be good is akin to telling me it “could” be raining outside when you haven’t looked. It’s no use.)

The third Rule is equally uncontestable. I live in Packerland and have had to hear for several years now how terrible it is that the Packers do not sign a big-name free agent, or even a middle-sized name free agent. Sportswriters and opinionators and fans bemoan the prospects of the Pack because Ted Thompson will not go after whoever the rest of the world is salivating over. (This year it was Randy Moss at first, and now Larry Johnson. Whoever the flavor of the month is, Packer fans want to sign him.)

I feel alone in fighting upstream against that current. I keep telling them, and anyone who will listen: Free agents do not make that big of difference in football. It’s not like baseball, where you can bring in a pitcher or hitter or first baseman and it makes a huge impact. Baseball is fundamentally different; it’s not really a team game. In any baseball play, there are only 1 or 2 or maybe 3 or 4 people involved, total. Because batting averages are between 0.300 and 0.400, on about 60% of baseball plays only two players from a ‘team’ are involved, the pitcher and the catcher. (I’m not counting the batter; he’s on a different team.) If the batter hits the ball, it’s then one-player game or a two-player game as someone fields the ball. On a ground-out to the shortstop, a very common play, the players involved are pitcher, shortstop, first basemen. And not only does the pitcher not need to coordinate at all with the other two, but 66% of the team isn’t involved at all.

Everyone said it wouldn't matter,

but aren't the Yankees doing

well right now?

Football is not like that. In football, every player is fundamentally involved on every play (unless the player in question is Randy Moss, who admitted he takes plays off.) Lineman and backs block, receivers run routes drawing coverage downfield, the quarterback hands the ball off. All eleven have to work together as a team. What that means is two things.

First, it is harder for a free agent to work into that mix. On most good football teams, the coach and many of the players have been together for a couple of years; not many rookies play a big role on winning teams. (Last year, one of the best-known rookies, Devin Hester, played only on special teams.) Free agents have to pick up the scheme and get to know their teammates.

Secondly, a free agent makes up less than 10% of the unit he joins. A free agent pitcher in baseball is one of two players who count on 60% of the plays. A free agent receiver is one of 11 players. As a smaller percentage, the free agent in football has a harder time affecting the quality of play. A good pitcher can improve a team that had terrible fielding by not letting the ball be hit to them. A good receiver has a lot of trouble improving the running game.

But let’s look at some other facts. Consider the biggest free agent signings in the past few years. The biggest free agents in the 2006 season were Edgerrin James and Drew Brees.

James went to Arizona. How’d they do? Arizona was 5-11. James was 12th in the NFL in rushing and 22nd in rushing TDs.

It could be argued that Brees was a great sign for the Saints and that he made a major impact, because the Saints ended up 10-6 and were in the NFC Championship.

While Brees was number 1 in passing yards, and third in passing TDs, was he doing that on a bad team?Sure, it could be argued, but it would be wrong.

No. The Saints went 3-13 the year before, when they played all their games on the road after Katrina. In the years before Katrina, New Orleans was 8-8 (2004), 8-8 (2003), 9-7 (2002), and 7-9 (2001). So leaving aside the anomaly year after Katrina, adding Brees – and Reggie Bush, let’s not forget – gave New Orleans exactly 2 more wins than they had in 2004 and 2003, and one more than 2002. And during those years, the Saints were playing 2 games a year against Carolina, which went to a Superbowl, and Tampa Bay, which won a Superbowl. New Orleans was, in other words, a pretty good team before Brees, and they were a slightly better team after adding him. (And Bush.)

And their new coach was every bit as lucky as Gruden was with Tampa Bay, stepping into a team that was already close.

Do I even need to mention how those teams that bring in free agents all the time do? You Redskins and Raiders fans, do you still welcome the big-name free agents?

A free agent might help an already-good team over the top. That’s certainly the hope for the Patriots with Randy Moss. The Patriots were 20 seconds away from the Superbowl last year, and have been in 3 Superbowls this decade, all without a great receiver. They are a good team, with or without Moss. They hope to be a slightly better – a 20-second-better—team with Moss. But for the rest of your teams – including the Packers - -they are either beyond hope (see Rule 2) or they need help on more than one front. And you get that help not by paying $23 million dollars to a guy that some other team wanted to get rid of, but by drafting and building and having a good coach.


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