Saturday, April 30, 2005 

He's Baaaaack

He'll turn 43 in October, but Doug Flutie is still a kid at heart. At least that's what his fans in New England think. Flutie returned to his hometown team yesterday, signing with the Patriots. It's a questionable move, but the Patriots crave depth, and Flutie has a much better resume than Rohan Davey or Chris Redman. I'm sure Belichick would have preferred to keep Damon Huard around, but he left as a free agent after the 2003 season. His replacement, Jim Miller, was too injury-prone, so Davey became the backup last season by default. Davey played great in NFL Europe last summer, then looked very shaky in the NFL preseason. Flutie will certainly make training camp a bit more interesting this summer.

Flutie's first stint with the Patriots began as a "replacement player" during the 1987 strike. He wa acquired from the Chicago Bears for a 9th round pick (the draft was longer then), and was desperate to keep his pro career going. He played 17 games for the Patriots over the next three seasons before leaving for the CFL. At the time, the Patriots were awful, and fans couldn't understand why the team wouldn't name Flutie the starter. But the fact was he threw more INTs (14) than TDs (11) during his time with New England.

His CFL career was legendary, winning 3 Gray Cups and 6 "Most Outstanding Player" awards in Canada before crossing the border in 1998 to return to the NFL with the Buffalo Bills. 1998 was Flutie's best NFL season, as he was named to the Pro Bowl and won Comeback Player of the Year while throwing for 2711 yards and 20 TDs with just 11 INTs. Unfortunately, he had lost some of his speed, and his INTs creeped up again - over his last three years as an NFL starter, 2 with Buffalo and 1 with San Diego, Flutie's TD-INT ratio was a pedestrian 42-37.

Flutie has also been criticized for playing locker room politics, especially in Buffalo, where Rob Johnson couldn't stand him. It's hard to know who's telling the truth in these cases, but pro athletes are intensely competitive; every player knows that there's someone looking over their shoulder, hoping for a chance to replace them. Flutie's 20 year pro career spanning 3 leagues (USFL, NFL, CFL) is a testament to his tenacity.

References: Stats from Pro Football Reference, CFL information from the CFL's official website.

Thursday, April 28, 2005 

Football on the Hill

Yesterday's congressional hearing on the NFL steroid policy was a sharp contrast from last month's session with Major League Baseball. No current players testified, which prevented the members of the House from acting like star-struck fans. While commissioner Paul Tagliabue was better prepared than Bud Selig:

Rep. Christopher Shays ... said to Tagliabue: "Mr. Commissioner, I want to thank you for knowing what the hell is going on. With all due respect, the commissioner of baseball had not even read the document that they had given us."

that didn't spare the NFL from criticism.

The committee acknowledged the strength of the NFL testing policy, calling it "the top of the heap in professional sports", but found fault with the league's penalties for offenders:

... a four game suspension for a first offense, a six-game suspension for a second offense, and a 12-month suspension for a third offense. Several committee members supported penalties more in line with the Olympics, which suspends players for two years for a first offense and bans them for life for a second offense.

Some representatives expressed concern that NFL players caught using steroids were not subject to criminal prosecution, and when Tagliabue tried to defend the league's position, he ruffled a few feathers:

Tagliabue defended the league's penalty system, asserting that suspending players for 12 months, for example, could all but end their careers.

"In some cases, it would be a young man whose only path out of the ghetto was football," Tagliabue said, "and he would go back and never return."

That drew a strong rebuke from Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat who said he lives in the shadow of the stadium where the Baltimore Ravens play... "I live in the ghetto, all right?" Cummings told Tagliabue. "I represent people who can't afford to go to the game. I represent people who, if they're caught with a Schedule III drug [like Steroids], go to jail. I have no sympathy, none, for people who cheat."

Ouch. Tagliabue could have used a better expression...

To me, the Olympic comparison is not fair - the Olympics are only held once every four years - but the NFL could suspend players a year on the second offense and ban them for life if caught again. As for criminal penalties, that's a tougher call, since most NFL players can afford to pay high-priced doctors to legally prescribe designer drugs.

The bottom line of the hearings so far is that new drug technology will continue to make it tougher to test athletes for performance-enhancing supplements. Tougher penalties would help, but the real key will be the willingness of professional sports to invest in on-going research to improve testing. The cost of such an effort might force the major sports leagues to cooperate with each other, before the Federal government takes matters into its own hands.


The Color of Money

The Sports Law Blog recently had this post that commented on an LA Times editorial about the cost of NFL broadcasting rights driving up the price of cable. Both support the idea of "a la carte" cable, where sports channels are pushed into their own tier, and bemoan the fact that cable companies and/or the networks themselves are against it.

But the LA Time editorial undercuts this part of its own argument when it writes:

ESPN says it won't increase programming fees to pay for "Monday Night Football", but when its contracts with cable systems are renewed, the network undoubtedly will try to offset its higher costs with higher rates. So will NBC, which will want to raise prices for its cable channels, such as MSNBC, the USA network and Bravo, to make up for the costs of its NFL deal. Ditto for the other networks that broadcast sports.

As more networks get consolidated under a dwindling number of corporate umbrellas, the costs for sports get spread out across multiple channels that appeal to a wide range of viewers. The LA Times "a la carte" plan would allow you to drop sports, but what about MSNBC, whose price is also likely to rise according to their logic? For example, if half the country decided to drop ESPN, but everyone decided to keep the "ABC Family Channel", the ABC/ESPN empire would simply raise their price for the ABC Family Channel to make up for the loss of income from ESPN subscriptions. For most of us, our cable rates would stay about the same.

Sunday, April 24, 2005 

Treasure hunting

The Patriots had a solid draft yesterday, taking OL Logan Mankins in the first round, then trading down from their second pick to gather two extra choices. By trading their second-round choice to the Ravens, the Patriots picked up Baltimore's third and sixth-round selections this year and a third-rounder in the 2006 draft. That gave the Patriots with two third-round picks yesterday, and 7 more choices for today. More picks is always a good thing.

Mankins played left tackle in college but can also play guard - flexibility that Belichick likes. The two third-round picks are intriguing, but who knows for sure? Ellis Hobbs is an undersized (5-9, 192) cornerback, and tackle Nick Kaczur comes from the unheralded Mid-American conference.


Welcome to the Neighborhood

Packers GM Ted Thompson is drawing mixed reviews for selecting QB Aaron Rodgers with the 24th pick in the first round yesterday. While folks love the possible long-term impact of Rodgers, Green Bay did pass on some immediate defensive help. Coach Mike Sherman probably has mixed feelings as well, since he's entering the last year of his contract.

Saturday, April 23, 2005 

Mr. Smith Goes To 'Frisco

The top 10 picks in the NFL draft are off the board, and there's not a lineman or linebacker in the bunch. QB Alex Smith went first overall to San Francisco as expected, and since then three's are wild: 3 RB's, 3 WR's, and 3 CB's. Plus Auburn has since 3 of its players drafted. The only real surprise was Detroit drafting a WR in the first round for the third straight year.

We'll see how far Aaron Rodgers falls.


All Shook Up

There have been several trades the past few days, with Denver trading away their first round pick to Washington for a third rounder this year and first and fourth round picks next year. Oakland did the most dealing, trading away TE Doug Jolley to the Jets for a first-round pick, and collecting 2 more selections from Houston for Phillip Buchanon. Guess they figured out that they need to rebuild. The best deal may have completed by the Chiefs, who obtained Patrick Surtain from the Dolphins in a salary dump for just a second round pick.

I'll be watching the draft when I can today, and following along with some of the mock drafts out there, including Ron Borges's from the Boston Globe. It's always a fun day, even if most of the "experts" end up being dead wrong.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005 

Switching Channels

There is a lot to like in the new NFL television deals announced yesterday. Disney decided to scale back their NFL interest, switching Monday Night Football to ESPN in 2006 and dropping the Sunday night game altogether. Meanwhile, NBC's Dick Ebersol lept back into the fray, unexpectedly grabbing the Sunday night package that includes the Thursday night season opener. While a late-season Thursday and Saturday night package is likely to be added, possibly on the NFL network to force its way into standard cable packages, the NFL TV picture in coming into clearer focus.

ESPN is a big winner, since NFL Monday's will now belong exclusively to them. Their "Monday Night Countdown" show now becomes the official MNF pre-game show, and an earlier kickoff time of 8:40pm ET will give folks on the East Coast a bit more sleep. The deal also means the end of Sunday night baseball conflicts, which will make Major League Baseball smile.

NBC is an even bigger winner, as they get Sunday nights, plus flexible scheduling in the second half of the season, plus two Super Bowls, all for the same yearly rate as ESPN was paying. The NBC 7pm ET pre-game show will be a great way to recap the afternoon games, just like ESPN does for baseball with their Sunday night "Baseball Tonight". NBC's pre-game ratings might be low during the first half hour while waiting for the late games to finish, but it will keep fans watching football until the 8:15pm ET kickoff without wandering off to "60 Minutes" or somewhere else.

Ebersol's return to the NFL might seem like a flip-flop, but if you go back and read his comments in 1998, when NBC lost the AFC package, he's being consistent:

NBC President Dick Ebersol said the network was willing to pay as much as $300 million a year for the NFL package acquired by CBS -- up from its current $217 million -- but folded when the stakes far surpassed that. ... He said NBC would have gone as high as $500 million for "Monday Night Football"...

Ebersol believes in "event television", which is why NBC has retained rights to NASCAR, the Olympics, Wimbledon, and major golf events like the U.S. Open and the Ryder Cup. Now NBC has a stake in the Super Bowl, and prime time football. They may be able to boast being the home of the Super Bowl and the Daytona 500 in the same year. All of a sudden, the once dormant NBC Sports department looks pretty good.

Sunday, April 17, 2005 

1995 Draft

A famous example of a bad number one draft choice was Cincinnati selecting RB Ki-Jana Carter ten years ago. The 1995 Draft should help us keep the upcoming draft in perspective for several reasons:

1. On draft day, drug rumors were swirling around Warren Sapp. It reminded me a bit of the stories I'd heard about Dan Marino in the 1983 draft. Tampa Bay ended up taking him 12th overall as the fourth defensive lineman selected (behind Kevin Carter, Mike Mamula, and Derrick Alexander). Sapp ended up being a trouble-maker for other reasons, but Tampa Bay won a Super Bowl with him.

2. The Jets had two picks in the top 16, and walked away with the overrated TE Kyle Brady at 9 and the underrated Hugh Douglas at 16.

3. College success doesn't always translate to the NFL. In 1994, Penn State was 12-0 and finshed the season ranked 2nd overall. Three players from that team were taken in the top 10 - Ki-Jana Carter, Kerry Collins (5th Carolina), and Kyle Brady. Only Collins was not a bust, as he played in two conference title games and (lost) a Super Bowl.

4. I had completely forgotten that Tyrone Poole had been drafted ahead of Ty Law. Just barely - Poole was taken 22nd overall by Carolina, one pick before Law was selected by New England.

5. The 1995 draft also proves that the later rounds are probably the most important to building a championship-caliber team. Check out the following two sets of selections:

New England Patriots Green Bay Packers
23. CB Ty Law 32. DB Craig Newsome
57. LB Ted Johnson 65. DT Darius Holland*
74. RB Curtis Martin 66. FB William Henderson
112. C Dave Wohlabaugh 73. LB Brian Williams
90. WR Antonio Freeman
170. RB Travis Jervey*
230. OL Adam Timmerman

All of those players played in Super Bowl XXXI at the end of the 1996 season, and with the exception of Holland and Jervey, they were all starters. Not a top 20 pick in the bunch, but at least one HOFer in Martin and over 20 Super Bowl appearances between them.


Spin the wheel

The NFL draft is next weekend. Maybe I would be more interested if the Patriots were selecting higher, but I've been losing interest in the draft for a while. I don't watch college football, so I have no idea who most of the players are. Plus, I dislike the proliferation of talking heads on TV and the internet that has led to information overload and snap judgements by the media and fans. A week from Monday, nearly everyone will say "you can't evaluate a draft for at least X years," then proceed to grade every team's performance over the past 48 hours.

Great teams have always been built through the draft, but there's too much focus on the first round. A lot of fantastic NFL careers have begun as a late-round draft choice (Joe Montana and Tom Brady come to mind). To me, the best draft strategy is to draft the best player available, and trade down if the draft has hit a plateau where the next N players are of similar ability. I'm always in favor of collecting extra draft picks, because the draft is like roulette - there's strength in numbers.

Thursday, April 14, 2005 

Scheduling Quirks

One of things I like to do is to find quirks in the NFL schedule. I wrote a short perl script to help with this, and it always yields some interesting tidbits:

1. Philadelphia is the only team who will play 3 consecutive weeks at home (weeks 12-14). It's a fairly tough stretch, with Green Bay, Seattle, and the Giants traveling to the city of brotherly love.

2. On the flip side, Jacksonville, San Francisco, and Tampa Bay will all face 3 game road trips during the final 6 weeks of the season (I wonder if the schedule-makers got tired?).

3. Carolina is the only team that opens the season with back-to-back home games, while only St. Louis has to wait until week 3 for their home opener. The NFL obviously wants to schedule all home openers during the first two weeks if possible. By comparison, 10 teams will end the season with back-to-back games at home or on the road.

4. Bye week scheduling can also be peculiar. Normally, a team's bye week will be sandwiched between a home game and a road game - this applies to 25 of the 32 teams this year. But four teams will play on the road the week before and after their bye (Jacksonville, Indy, Detroit, and Minnesota), while three others (KC, Oakland, and Arizona) play both games at home. Coincidentally, Oakland and Arizona will spend the first four weeks of October at home - each has three home games and a bye during that time.


Road Warriors

The NFL released the 2005 schedule yesterday, and today's Boston Globe breaks down the Patriots schedule. After opening at home, they play four of their next five games on the road before their bye week. Season ticket holders who like one o'clock ET kickoffs will be disappointed again this year, since the Pats will play just four home games at that time this season: weeks 4, 11, 15 (actually 1:30), and 17.

New England will not play an AFC East team until Week 8 (Buffalo). That's a plus if the Patriots follow their usual pattern of finishing strong. It also gives the new coaching staff a chance to jell before playing games that affect divisional tie-breakers.

Saturday, April 09, 2005 

'Roid rage

I was waiting for Congress to get the NFL involved in the recent steroid circus. But I think their policy is a little tougher than Major League Baseball's, which, even when a player tests positive, refuses to name the specific substance.

Last night, during the Red Sox game, TV station UPN38 reported that Alex Sanchez, the first MLB player to get suspended for steroids, was not going to appeal his suspension. Why? Because the substance that (he says) he was caught using was a legal over-the-counter substance before January 15th, was not on the MLB banned list until then, and he bought it before January 15th.

He's still suspended for 10 days, but he gets to hide behind a technicality: all he is admitting is that he did not pay attention to new items on the banned list.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005 

Surf and ye shall find

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote:

The Sporting News pro football draft encyclopedia lists every NFL draft by year, by team, and by player, with an all-time alphabetical list at the end of the book. It's an interesting idea, though I didn't spend 25 bucks to buy it. I normally wait for reference books to hit the bargain book bin before buying them. I figure I can find the information on the web somewhere if I really need it...

When the Patriots signed David Terrell Tuesday, I wanted to look at the 2001 NFL draft, where the Patriots took Richard Seymour sixth against the advice of many who wanted them to take Terrell. I found that NFL.com has a draft history section that allows you to cross-reference by year, team, player, school, etc. It only covers 1982 to present, but maybe they'll expand it in the future. I'll add it to my links section.

By the way, the Bears drafted Terrell eighth that year - bet they wish they took Koren Robinson instead.

Saturday, April 02, 2005 

The Grass isn't Always Greener

I knew William Green and Lee Suggs were in trouble in Cleveland when new head coach Romeo Crennel described his running backs last month in less than glowing terms. It sounded a lot like Donald Rumsfeld's infamous statement about going to war with the army you have, not the army you might want.

Well, now Crennel has another arm in the pen, so to speak (couldn't resist a baseball metaphor the day before Opening "Day"). Reuben Droughns is not the second coming of Terrell Davis, and was expendable once Tatum Bell moved past him on the Denver depth chart. But since Bell, Droughns, and Quentin Griffin all had 100-yd games last season, and Denver seems to be able to run the ball every year, you have to wonder if Cleveland is over-evaluating Droughns a bit.

Plus, since Denver then turned around and signed Ron Dayne, that is a pretty strong indication of their confidence in their system.


No Foolin'

I know I'm a day late, but the April Fool's article at Football Outsiders is a great read.

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