Category Archives: research project

NFL coaching trees

Yesterday, our research on NFL coaching trees contributed to the discussion on the December 23 edition of ESPN’s Football Today podcast. So I wanted to re-post the coaching trees link so it could be easily read. Here’s our research project on NFL coaching trees.

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How great is Favre, really?

My brother Kam sent me an interesting link this week that tried to argue that Brett Favre is even better than we think. Basically, this blogger argues that Brett Favre’s career interception percentage of 3.3 percent is much better than most of the QBs in the Hall of Fame — thus undercutting the big argument against Favre as an all-time great.

It’s an interesting theory, but as my brother and I discussed it, we quickly came to the conclusion that there’s an era gap here that the blogger tried to gloss over. Current-era Hall of Famers Troy Aikman, Dan Marino, John Elway, Joe Montana, and Steve Young are all below Favre in terms of interception percentage. Only Warren Moon and Jim Kelly (both of whom started in the NFL about five years before Favre) are above him in this stat.

And as we look at the career passer rating list, this change in eras bears out. Favre is just 18th on this list, behind many the great QBs of the eras in which he’s played — Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Steve Young, Joe Montana, Drew Brees, and Dan Marino. Meanwhile, the only QB from before the Bill Walsh era in the top 20 is Otto Graham, who is an all-time great who always seems to get lost in the discussion.

So while the interception stat doesn’t tell us much about Favre in the end, it does indicate how much the game changed when Bill Walsh came on the scene as a head coach around 1980. (We’d say that the Walsh era began with the Niners’ first Super Bowl win in the 1981 season.)

Kam said this in the discussion…
Most people think of interception stats vis-a-vis the TD to interception ratio.  nteresting here to consider it as pass attempts to interception, although I wonder what Favre’s completion rate in general is compared to other QBs with comparable yardage and TDs. You’re right that completion rate and TD-interception ratio would be skewed now in the post West-coast era. Fewer and fewer QBs who can actually throw the ball down the field. 

 In my mind, I still don’t see Favre on the same level as modern standout QBs like Peyton, Brady or Drew Brees (potentially Matt Ryan). You can’t help but admire Favre’s passion, but he has lost his teams many games, too, with his cavalier approach to the quarterback position. Might be the difference between one and three Super Bowl wins.    
 
So where do we compare Favre among the great quarterbacks of his era (1992-on)? I’d put the following guys above Favre:
*John Elway
*Steve Young (won his Super Bowl in the Favre era)
*Peyton Manning
*Tom Brady
*Troy Aikman (this one is close, because Aikman never piled up monster numbers, but the three Super Bowls vs. one makes the difference)
 
I’m reserving judgment today on Ben Roethlisberger and Drew Brees. They’re too young right now to say where their careers will truly end up.
 
I’d put Favre before Warren Moon, Donovan McNabb, and Kurt Warner, though Warner and McNabb could pass Favre with huge late-career spikes.
I’m not considering Joe Montana, Dan Marino, or Jim Kelly in Favre’s era, because they were more 1980s guys than 90s guys.
 
That makes Favre a great quarterback but not among the top-5 quarterbacks ever. In fact, when you add in old-timers like Otto Graham and others, Favre would have to push to make the top 10. That doesn’t diminish his greatness, but it does show that his numbers – even his interception numbers – don’t tell the whole story.

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RP: Coaching trees

Per Chase’s request, we spent some time this offseason researching the coaching influences of NFL head coaches. We compiled this information into coaching trees. There are four dominant trees in the league right now: the Bill Walsh tree, the Tony Dungy tree, the Bill Parcells tree (thanks in part to Bill Belichick), and the Marty Schottenheimer tree (thanks in large part to Bill Cowher). Two other trees connected to Buddy Ryan and Jimmy Johnson are also worth noting.

Let’s dig into each tree to see how it has grown and what the distinguishing characteristics are. One note: While many coaches have apprenticed in several of these trees, we’ve tried to locate them in the area that most describes their coaching styles and philosophies. So, for example, while Herman Edwards could be listed under Dick Vermeil, we’ve put him under Tony Dungy because his defensive approach is more like Dungy’s.

You can see an illustration of all of these trees at the bottom of this post.

THE BILL WALSH TREE
Inspiration:
Paul Brown
Distinguishing characteristic: Short, timing-centric passing game a.k.a. the West Coast offense
History: Walsh, who learned under Hall of Fame coach/GM Paul Brown, perfected those lessons in a career that earned him three Super Bowls and spawned at least five other Super Bowl winners — George Seifert, Mike Holmgren, Mike Shanahan, Brian Billick, and Jon Gruden. This coaching tree has spread like wildfire since the early 1990s, when Holmgren, Shanahan, and Dennis Green first got their shots as NFL head coaches. Because those guys are all long-time NFL coaches, they too have “fathered” assistants who went on to get head coaching jobs. Holmgren’s early Green Bay staffs included significant head coaches such as Andy Reid, Gruden, Steve Mariucci, and Mike Sherman. Similiarly, recent head coaches like Billick and Gary Kubiak trace their lineage back to this line.
Current status: As we get further away from Walsh’s fine 49ers tenure, this tree is starting to die off. Of current NFL coaches from this tree, only Brad Childress, Kubiak, Jim Mora, and Jim Zorn truly are true West Coast offense believers. Others — including as John Fox, John Harbaugh, Tom Cable, and Raheem Morris — are defensive guys who coached under Walsh disciples but who haven’t demonstrated the same affinity for the West Coast offense. The fact that West Coast offense stalwarts Gruden, Shanahan, and Holmgren left the coaching ranks after the ’08 season (at least for now) limits the current impact of this tree significantly.
Importance: This coaching tree dominated the league through the 1990s and most of this decade, but it’s now nearing the end of its run unless Kubiak, Childress, Mora, and Zorn produce another generation of coaches who embrace Walsh’s favored West Coast offense.

THE TONY DUNGY TREE
Inspiration: Chuck Noll, Monte Kiffin
Distinguishing characteristic: Zone defense with two deep safeties a.k.a. the Tampa-2
History: Dungy’s temperment reminds us of Chuck Noll, his Steelers head coach, while his strategy owes a debt to Monte Kiffin, his defensive coordinator in Tampa Bay. Dungy is probably the youngest coach to have spawned a coaching tree, but you can trace three current head coaches and two former head men to him. Mike Tomlin and Lovie Smith are the current success stories, and Jim Caldwell gets his shot this year. Two others, Herman Edwards and Rod Marinelli, apprenticed under Dungy before getting their shot. Given that Tomlin has already won a Super Bowl and that Smith has been to one (losing in the game to Dungy’s Colts), this tree has already grown roots throughout the NFL.
Current status: With Dungy’s retirement, it’s left mostly to Smith to continue his style of coaching and style of defense. While Tomlin echoes Dungy when it comes to temperment, he kept the Steelers’ zone-blitz scheme when he took over in Pittsburgh. Caldwell also seems to be moving away from the Tampa-2 defense as he replaces Dungy. That leaves Smith as the best example of a second generation of the Dungy tree. Marinelli is unlikely to get a second head-coaching shot given his failure in Detroit, and Edwards has already had two chances with decent but not eye-popping success.
Importance: This tree might have already seen its peak days. The future depends on whether Smith can continue as Chicago’s head coach and how successful Caldwell is in continuing Dungy’s legacy in Indy. But this tree is significant in that it represents the first three African-American head coaches to make it to the Super Bowl. The fact that Dungy had hired the other two as assistants speaks volumes about his ability to surround himself with the right people.

THE BILL PARCELLS TREE:
Inspiration:
Ray Perkins
Distinguishing characteristic: Size over speed and “Parcells guys”
History: Parcells was a college assistant who moved to the NFL under former Giants coach Ray Perkins and ultimately succeeded him. Since then, Parcells has been a success in five stops (New York Giants and Jets, New England, Dallas, and Miami) as head coach, GM, or both. Given his 25-year-plus NFL tenure, he has spawned many head coaches, including current head men Tony Sparano, Tom Coughlin, Todd Haley, Payton, and the most influential, Bill Belichick. Coughlin, a long-time head coach in Jacksonville and the Giants, has seen Dick Jauron and now Steve Spagnuolo branch off from his assistants, while Belichick has mentored Eric Mangini, Josh McDaniels, Nick Saban, Romeo Crennel, and Charlie Weis. Scott Linehan, a former Saban aide, gives this tree its first fourth-generation branch.
Current status: This is the dominant tree in the NFL today because of Belichick’s influence, Coughlin’s success, and the fact that three of Parcells’ recent Dallas assistants — Haley, Sparano, and Payton — have recently gotten head coaching jobs and succeeded. This tree looks like it is ready to continue branching out, although some of Belichick’s lieutenants (Crennel and Mangini) whiffed in their first head-coaching tries.
Importance: This is a dominant tree, with Parcells having two Super Bowl rings, Belichick three, and Coughlin one, and there appear to be chances for more rings to come. Plus, Saban has a national championship in the college ranks, adding to the luster. In a decade, we’ll look at this tree in much the same way that we current look at the Walsh tree.

THE MARTY SCHOTTENHEIMER TREE
Inspiration:
Joe Collier
Distinguishing characteristic: Smashmouth style
History: Schottenheimer, a longtime AFL player, became a head coach in Cleveland back in 1984, and since then has spent more than 20 years as an NFL head coach in Cleveland, Kansas City, Washington, and San Diego. His coaching tree includes Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy and also its most notable member, Bill Cowher. Cowher’s long run as head coach in Pittsburgh is where this coaching tree gets its depth, as at least five head coaches — Ken Whisenhunt, Mike Mularkey, Dom Capers, Jim Haslett, and Marvin Lewis — served as coordinators under Cowher. Surprisingly, it is Lewis and his time in Baltimore that created the next generations of this tree, as Jack Del Rio learned under him, with Mike Smith took the Schottenheimer approach to Atlanta last year.
Current status: Cowher’s influence is still felt in the league, and the spread of the 3-4 defense throughout the league has a lot to do with the influence of Pittsburgh’s style under Cowher and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. Whisenhunt, Del Rio, Smith, and Lewis are current coaches from the Cowher line, while McCarthy is a direct Schottenheimer disciple.
Importance: This tree doesn’t have the breadth of the Walsh or Parcells editions, but the long tenures of Schottenheimer and Cowher have definitely left a mark. If a second coach from this tree can join Cowher as a Super Bowl winner, the tree will be viewed with more historical importance.

THE BUDDY RYAN TREE
Inspiration:
Weeb Ewbank/Walt Michaels
Distinguishing characteristic: High-pressure defense a.k.a. the 46 defense
History: Ryan first burst onto the scene as the defensive line coach with the New York Jets in Super Bowl three. He went on to become the coordinator of Minnesota’s Purple People Eaters in the 1970s before bringing the 46 defense to Chicago, where he famously led the crew that won Super Bowl 20. Ryan went on to become the head coach in Philadelphia. He is the mentor to Jeff Fisher, the long-time Titans coach who played for Ryan in Chicago and coached under him in Philadelphia. Ryan also has twin sons — Rex, the new head coach of the Jets, and Rob, a longtime defensive coordinator now in Cleveland. Jim Schwartz, a former Fisher aide who is now the head coach in Detroit. Mike Singletary, like Fisher, is former Ryan player who is bringing the coach’s aggressive defensive attitude to the sidelines.
Current status: This is a tree that might be growing into prominence thanks in large part to the Ryan twins and to Fisher. The longer Fisher coaches and succeeds in Tennessee, the more of his assistants will become head men in the NFL. And if Schwartz turns the Detroit wasteland into football utopia, or if Singletary returns the 49ers to prominence, then this tree will take off.
Importance: It’s growing, but Rex Ryan, Singletary, and Schwartz will determine its future. My father-in-law says this of trees: “The first year they sleep, the next year they creep, and the third year they leap.” This coaching tree is the creep stage, and it remains to be seen whether it will leap in the coming years.

THE JIMMY JOHNSON TREE
Inspiration:
Frank Broyles
Distinguishing characteristic: Speed over size
History: Johnson was a successful college head coach at Oklahoma State and Miami before his ex-Arkansas teammate Jerry Jones brought him to the NFL to be head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. There, Johnson created a dynasty by drafting speedy athletes all over the field. He preferred to draft a speedy guy and bulk him up instead of drafting a bigger guy. That college recruiting tactic worked, and Johnson won two Super Bowls (and provided the pieces for a third) in Dallas. Three of his major assistants became high-profile head-coaching hires — Dave Wannstedt in Chicago (then Miami and now the University of Pittsburgh), Butch Davis (at the University of Miami, then the Cleveland Browns, and now the University of North Carolina), and Norv Turner (in Washington, Oakland, and now San Diego). One of Turner’s assistants in Washington and San Diego, Cam Cameron, has had head-coaching stops with the Dolphins and also the University of Indiana.
Current status: This tree is all but dormant now because Wannstedt, Davis, and Turner have all struggled as NFL head coaches.  Turner is on his third shot and has had marginal success with the Chargers. Davis and Wannstedt have returned to the college ranks, both with some success.
Importance: This coaching tree never lived up to its potential because Wannstedt, Turner, and Davis weren’t the coaching stars that they appeared to be on Johnson’s staff. While Johnson is an iconic NFL coach, his tree won’t be remembered as all that impactful.

There are three significant recent coaches who don’t fit into these 6 primary coaching trees. Wade Phillips’ primary influence was his father, Bum Phillips. Mike Nolan first established himself under Dan Reeves with the Giants. And Mike Martz wasn’t known until he worked with Dick Vermeil in St. Louis.

As promised, here’s a visual-learner-friendly look at these coaching trees:

coachingtrees6

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RP: Draft boom and bust by position – Defense

This is part two of our research project examining which positions in the NFL draft have yielded the most hits and the most misses this decade. We did the offensive side of the ball yesterday in this post, and now it’s time to start in on the defense.

Here’s the methodology: We looked at the top 16 of every draft this decade. We categorized each player as a positive, a negative, or a neutral. We only allowed neutrals for the past three drafts so that we didn’t straddle the fence over and over. We combined defensive ends and outside linebackers because of the proliferation of rush ‘backers in the 3-4 in the draft the last four years.

We then counted the positives as completions and negatives as incompletions to create a percentage of sorts. Neutrals did not count as attempts so that they don’t skew the rankings.

So here are the results. Feel free to quibble with the positive/negative/neutral ratings, because that would obviously change percentages. I’ve tried to be fair, and if there is a debate, I leaned toward the positive. (That’s the kind of guy I am.) Even with that, there are some pretty clear distinctions by position. Hopefully you’ll find the results are pretty insightful.

Defensive tackles: 13 of 20 positives (65 percent)
Positives: Sedrick Ellis, Amobi Okoye, Haloti Ngata, Broderick Bunkley, Tommie Harris, Kevin Williams, Ty Warren, John Henderson, Albert Haynesworth, Richard Seymour, Damione Lewis, Marcus Stroud
Negatives: Travis Johnson, Dewayne Robertson, Johnathan Sullivan, Jimmy Kennedy, Ryan Sims, Wendell Bryant, Gerard Warren
Neutrals: Glenn Dorsey, Justin Harrell
Thoughts: This is one of the positions with the highest bust rates. When a player hits, they often hit big — Haynesworth, Seymour, Williams, and Ngata are (or have been) terrific, while even Harris, Henderson, and Stroud are among those who have been game changers. But there are also some big-time busts here in Robertson and Gerard Warren. Some of the busts (Sims, Kennedy) are still in the league, but they have settled into reserve roles. I’ve put Okoye and Ellis on the positives list based on single good years. For Ellis it was his rookie year; Okoye was good as a rookie but stepped back last year. Dorsey is also leaning positive, based on a solid first season. But Harrell has been so banged up that he’s headed for negative land as well. All in all, this is a dangerous position to draft.
This year’s candidates: B.J. Raji, Peria Jerry

Defensive ends and pass rushers: 13 of 17 positives (76 percent)
Positives: Gaines Adams, Adam Carriker, Mario Williams, Kamerion Wimbley, DeMarcus Ware, Shawne Merriman, Terrell Suggs, Julius Peppers, Dwight Freeney, Justin Smith, Greg Ellis, Andre Carter, John Abraham
Negatives: Michael Haynes, Jerome McDougle, Jamal Reynolds, Courtney Brown
Neutrals: Chris Long, Vernon Gholston, Derrick Harvey, Jamaal Anderson
Thoughts: I used to consider pass rusher a premium position (along with quarterback, left tackle, and cornerback), but with the proliferation of 3-4 defenses, the job description has changed. Now guys like Suggs, Ware, and Merriman (and to a lesser extent Wimbley) rush from a standing outside linebacker position. While they pile up huge sack numbers, they don’t strike me as quite as dominating as a more traditional end. I guess that makes me a 4-3 guy. So I would lean toward the more traditional end like Williams who can rush the passer but also can do other things. Peppers is in that camp too, although he wants to move to a 3-4 now. That’s what the Bucs are hoping Adams will do as well. Freeney and Abraham are interesting because they are 3-4 style guys who have fit in beautifully as 4-3 rush ends. There haven’t been a ton of busts, although Brown was the No. 1 overall pick, but the jury is still out on Long, Gholston, and Harvey from last year. Still, this position has a better hit rate than I expected, largely because teams have been able to successfully find guys who can be productive in a 3-4 scheme since Ware and Merriman opened the floodgates in the ’05 draft. This year’s top candidates – Orakpo, Maybin, Ayers, and Brown – all fit that mold as well.
This year’s candidates: Brian Orakpo, Aaron Maybin, Robert Ayers, Everette Brown, Tyson Jackson

Linebackers: 12 of 12 positives (100 percent)
Positives: Keith Rivers, Jerod Mayo, Patrick Willis, Lawrence Timmons, A.J. Hawk, Ernie Sims, Thomas Davis, Derrick Johnson, Jonathan Vilma, Dan Morgan, LaVar Arrington, Brian Urlacher, Mike Peterson
Negatives: None
Thoughts: Linebacker typically aren’t valued at the very top of the draft, but the research shows that the first-round candidates are usually players. Willis and Mayo have been defensive rookies of the year the last two years, and many of these guys are stalwarts of their teams. The problem is that while these guys are productive, few are game-changers. On this list, only Urlacher and Arrington early in his career truly fit that description. So while linebacker is a safe pick, it’s not always the best pick when you’re trying to build a superstar club. Still, especially around the 10th pick and beyond, it makes a lot of sense to pick a linebacker. It stands to reason that this year’s candidates – Curry and the three USC starters from ’08 – will continue the trend of linebackers being good selections. None of the four has the most upside of any pick on the board, but my guess is that all of them will be productive.
This year’s candidates: Aaron Curry, Rey Maualuga, Clay Matthews, Brian Cushing, James Laurinaitis

Cornerbacks: 10 of 11 positives (91 percent)
Positives: Leodis McKelvin, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Darrelle Revis, Carlos Rogers, DeAngelo Hall, Dunta Robinson, Terrance Newman, Marcus Trufant, Quentin Jammer, Deltha O’Neal
Negatives: Adam “Pacman” Jones
Neutrals: Tye Hill
Thoughts: I traditionally consider cornerback a marquee position and a building block, but this decade the draft hasn’t produced a Champ Bailey/Deion Sanders/Chris McAllister elite guy in the top 10. There are some good players on this list – Revis, Newman, Jammer, and Trufant have probably had the best single seasons of these guys – but none of them are true shut-down guys. Revis is probably closest at the present moment. Maybe those guys don’t exist as much anymore, because the Tampa-2 defense emphasized zone coverage and tackling, while the 3-4 also usually features a zone behind it. Again this year, there is no all-time elite kind of corner. Malcolm Jenkins should be a good player, but he’s Newman-level good instead of Champ Bailey-level good. Still, the new defensive systems have meant that most of these corners have panned out. Even the negative, Jones, showed flashes of great ability, but his off-field issues ruined his career and relegated him to the negative category.
This year’s candidates: Malcolm Jenkins, Vontae Davis, Darius Butler

Safeties: 6 of 6 positives (100 percent)
Positives: LaRon Landry, Donte Whitner, Antrel Rolle, Sean Taylor, Troy Polamalu, Roy Williams
Negatives: none
Neutrals: Michael Huff, Jason Allen
Thoughts: Not many safeties reach this stratosphere, but the ones that do typically are at least good players. The late Sean Taylor was by far the best of this bunch, while Landry (another Redskin) is the one of the best of these players at this point. The top current safety, of course, is Polamalu, who is a game-changer at a level that most safeties never even think about reaching. Roy Williams was a standout early in his career, but when Dallas switched defensive systems he lost all effectiveness. Allen and to a lesser extent Huff are leaning toward the negative category, but we’ll leave the jury out on them for now. Most of the time (including this year), there aren’t safeties worth this kind of investment. That makes this position like linebacker, only taken to the extreme.
This year’s candidates: Louis Delmas

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RP: Draft boom and bust by position – Offense

As we approach the NFL draft and listen to coverage, I’ve heard constantly that drafting a quarterback at the top of the draft was a 50-50 proposition. But is that really true? And what about other positions — what are the chances of picking a lemon at those spots? As I wondered what positions have been the safest in the draft recently and what positions have been the riskiest, I decided to undertake  a research project to see exactly that.

Here’s the methodology: We looked at the top 16 picks of every draft this decade. We categorized each player as a positive, a negative, or a neutral. We only allowed neutrals for the past three drafts so that we didn’t straddle the fence over and over. We ranked offensive linemen as a group because at this level in the draft, it’s mostly offensive tackles anyway.

We then counted the positives as completions and negatives as incompletions to create a percentage of sorts. Neutrals did not count as attempts so that they don’t skew the rankings.

So here are the results. Feel free to quibble with the positive/negative/neutral ratings, because that would obviously change percentages. I’ve tried to be fair, and if there is a debate, I leaned toward the positive. (That’s the kind of guy I am.) Even with that, there are some pretty clear distinctions by position. Hopefully you’ll find the results are pretty insightful.

And if you want to check out the defensive results, check out this post (online Friday).

Quarterbacks: 8 of 11 positives (73 percent)
Positives: Matt Ryan, Jay Cutler, Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, Carson Palmer, Byron Leftwich, Michael Vick
Negatives: Alex Smith, David Carr, Joey Harrington
Neutrals: JaMarcus Russell, Vince Young, Matt Leinart
Thoughts: This percentage was higher than I expected, but that’s because I held the jury out on Young and Leinart. Were I forced to assign a mark, both would be misses. Russell likewise needs to have a good year to move up. Smith could still turn his rating around, but because I forced a mark on him, it has to be a minus because he compiled only one quality season. Leftwich had four pretty good years in Jacksonville, and could still start in the league, so he’s a positive. Vick had six mostly good years in Atlanta, so his on-field performance was a plus too. It’s remarkable to see Ryan in the plus category so soon, because most QBs take 2-3 years to really start to shine. The strong QB class of ’04 (Manning, Rivers, Roethlisberger) pushes this completion percentage up, but the class of ’05 (Young and Leinart along with Cutler) could yank the percentage right back down.
This year’s candidates: Matthew Stafford, Mark Sanchez

Running backs: 9 of 12 positives (75 percent)
Positives: Jonathan Stewart, Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch, Reggie Bush, Ronnie Brown, Cadillac Williams, LaDanian Tomlinson, Jamal Lewis, Thomas Jones
Neutrals: Darren McFadden
Negatives: Cedric Benson, William Green, Ron Dayne
Thoughts: This is a pretty safe position at the top of the draft. If a running back fits into the top 16, he’ll most likely have some good years as a pro. And most of the time, backs can make an instant impact, which is another plus. We saw that with Stewart this year and Peterson and Lynch the year before. Williams has been hurt a lot, but when he’s played he’s been really good. McFadden is a neutral because he was so banged up as a rookie, but he still averaged 4.4 yards per carry. Dayne had some decent years, but he never notched 800 yards in a season, and so he has to receive a minus. Benson’s in the same boat, but he has a chance (like Thomas Jones) to reinvigorate his career in his second stop this year as a Bengal.
This year’s candidates: Knoshown Moreno, Beanie Wells

Wide receivers: 12 of 20 positives (60 percent)
Positives: Calvin Johnson, Ted Ginn Jr., Braylon Edwards, Larry Fitzgerald, Roy Williams, Reggie Williams, Lee Evans, Michael Clayton, Andre Johnson, Donte Stallworth, Santana Moss, Plaxico Burress
Negatives: Troy Williamson, Mike Williams, Charles Rogers, David Terrell, Koren Robinson, Rod Gardner, Peter Warrick, Travis Taylor
Thoughts: There are some legitimate superstars (Calvin and Andre Johnson, Fitzgerald) in this category, but the overall batting average isn’t wonderful. Some of the busts – Williamson, Mike Williams, Rogers, Terrell – have been completely useless as pros. (They almost make me want to have a double-negative category.) Ginn has shown enough potential to be a positive, and while Clayton has only had one dynamic season, the fact that Tampa re-signed him moved him onto the plus side as well. Reggie Williams is another marginal plus. Roy Williams hasn’t lived up to his hype, but he had good years in Detroit. I remember covering Gardner’s Pro Day; he tore it up, especially on his vertical jump, and thus moved from a late first-round pick up to No. 15 overall. A similar workout-phenom jump happened to Williamson. Such overdrafting mistakes based on workouts can kill a team. All in all, this is a position that plays out as more of a risk than others.
This year’s candidates: Michael Crabtree, Jeremy Maclin, Percy Harvin, Derrius Heyward-Bey

Tight ends: 3 of 3 positives (100 percent)
Positives: Kellen Winslow II, Jeremy Shockey, Bubba Franks
Neutrals: Vernon Davis
Negatives: None
Thoughts: It’s a little weird to look at this list, because none of the guys on the list has been lights-out dominant. But Winslow, Shockey, and Franks have all been productive (if a little tempermental, in the cases of Winslow and Shockey). Still, in our simple plus/minus grading, each of the three gets a plus. Davis would get a minus, but there’s still hope, and he actually started to come around at the end of the season after Mike Singletary went beyond benching and banished him off the sideline in a midseason game. Because there’s still hope for Davis, we’ll leave him neutral for now.
This year’s candidates: Brandon Pettigrew

Offensive line: 14 of 16 positives (88 percent)
Positives: Jake Long, Ryan Clady, Branden Albert, Joe Thomas, Levi Brown, D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Jamaal Brown, Shawn Andrews, Jordan Gross, Bryant McKinnie, Levi Jones, Leonard Davis, Kenyatta Walker, Chris Samuels
Neutrals: Chris Williams
Negatives: Robert Gallery, Mike Williams
Thoughts: This position was one where the history is striking. If you want a safe pick at the top of the draft, take the offensive tackle. While there are a couple of notable busts, most of the time you get good value out of it. Some of these tackles are superstars, including recent top picks Long, Clady, and Thomas. But even the tackles who haven’t been started for a while, either at tackle or inside at guard. For example, Leonard Davis was not a great tackle, but he’s become a roadgrader at guard. Gallery moved to guard from tackle as well, but he’s a starter who hasn’t proven to be dominant. The numbers here surprised me in this research project, and they make me lean even more to this year’s crop of quality offensive tackles.
This year’s candidates: Jason Smith, Eugene Monroe, Andre Smith, Michael Oher, Eben Britton

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Research project: QB contemporaries of Favre

With the retirement of Brett Favre, we have the end of an era. Favre, of course, owns most of the most important quarterbacking records — TD passes, yards passing, completions, attempts, interceptions, and victories as a starter, just to name the big ones. But how does he rate against the quarterbacks of his era? We did a research project and used the information to do a football relativity comparison of quarterbacks in the Brett Favre era.

A couple of descriptions: The era we’re talking about is the current era. We define this era as beginning with the end of the Cowboys dynasty (which means with the 1996 season). Also, we’re only including quarterbacks with 20,000 passing yards. Of course, that leaves out some important current quarterbacks (listed at the bottom of this post), but we had to make a cutoff somewhere.  We’ve also excluded some quarterbacks who played a bit in this era of ’96-’08 but weren’t necessarily in this era. (Those guys are also listed at the bottom of this post.) A couple of Hall of Fame quarterbacks, Steve Young and John Elway, would have been left out of this relativity comparison but won’t be because they had significant accomplishments in this era.

We’re using a 10-point scale, with 10 being the best quarterback of the era and 1 being a quarterback who hit the yardage qualifier but won’t really be remembered.

10- Tom Brady (26k passing yards), Peyton Manning (45k passing yards), Troy Aikman (32k passing yards), Steve Young (33k passing yards), John Elway (51k passing yards). Brady and Manning are the standard bearers since 2000, while Aikman, Young, and Elway all finished their careers with several years in this era.
In the era:
Brady: 3 Super Bowl wins, 1 MVP, 1 passer rating crown, 2 TD passes crowns, 2 passing yards crowns.
Manning: 1 Super Bowl win, 3 MVPs, 3 passer rating crowns, 3 TD passes crowns, 2 passing yards crowns.
Elway: 2 Super Bowl wins.
Young: 2 passer rating crowns, 1 TD passes crown.

9- Kurt Warner (28k passing yards), Brett Favre (65k passing yards). These guys are just a notch below the first group because of consistency. Favre was dynamic in the 1990s, but for most of the 2000s he was a step behind Brady and Manning. Warner has several unbelievable years, but also has a black hole in his career.
In the era:
Favre: 1 Super Bowl win, 2 MVPs, 3 TD passes crowns, 1 passing yards crown.
Warner: 1 Super Bowl win, 2 MVPs, 2 passer rating crowns, 2 TD passes crowns, 1 passing yards crown.

 8- Donovan McNabb  (29k passing yards), Drew Brees (26k passing yards), Steve McNair (31k passing yards) This is a pretty significant drop from the level before, because the remaining Super Bowl champions weren’t long-term impact guys, and the main statistical stars didn’t win big. McNabb has been a first-tier starter for 10 years now, and Brees is the new Dan Fouts — a big-time stat compiler who hasn’t won big-time in the postseason. McNair led several top teams even though he was never a huge stat guy.
In the era:
Brees: 1 TD passes crown, 2 passing yards crowns, 1 offensive player of the year award.
McNair: 1 MVP, 1 passer rating crown.

 7- Randall Cunningham (29k passing yards), Drew Bledsoe (44k passing yards), Rich Gannon (28k passing yards), Daunte Culpepper (23k passing yards). All of these guys had years when they were among the best in the league, but they didn’t sustain that excellence that long. Still, at their best they were elite quarterbacks.
In the era:
Cunningham: 1 passer rating crown.
Culpepper: 1 TD passes crown, 1 passing yards crown.
Gannon: 1 MVP, 1 passing yards crown.

6- Mark Brunell (31k passing yards), Vinny Testaverde (46k passing yards), Kerry Collins (37k passing yards), Brad Johnson (29k passing yards). Testaverde’s career stats land him here, and in this era he played for some quality Jets teams. Collins led good teams in Carolina, New York, and Tennessee. Johnson put up big numbers in Minnesota and then won a title in Tampa Bay. Brunell was a top-8 quarterback in Jacksonville for several years.
In the era:
Brunell: 1 passing yards crown.
Johnson: 1 Super Bown win.

5- Trent Dilfer (20k passing yards), Trent Green (28k passing yards), Jeff Garcia (25k passing yards), Matt Hasselbeck (23k passing yards).  The fact that Dilfer won a Super Bowl means he can’t go lower than this. Imagine what his career standing would be if the Ravens had given him a chance to stay and he had won a second title. Green was a solid starter for several years in Kansas City; Hasselbeck was a consistent winner with good Seahawks teams; and Garcia was a good starter in San Francisco and Tampa Bay, along with a good run as a backup in Philadelphia.
In the era:
Dilfer: 1 Super Bowl win

4- Chris Chandler (28k passing yards), Jake Plummer (29k passing yards). Chandler led a Falcons Super Bowl trip and was a solid starter for several years. Plummer led both the Broncos and the Cardinals to the playoffs.

3- Steve Beuerlein (24k passing yards), Jeff George (27k passing yards), Jeff Blake (21k passing yards), Marc Bulger (21k passing yards). Beuerlein had a few huge years in Carolina but was otherwise a backup. Bulger and Blake both had brief stops as triggermen in very dangerous offenses. George put up some big numbers but wasn’t a guy you could construct a franchise around.
In the era:
Beuerlein: 1 passing yards crown.
George: 1 passing yards crown.

2- Jon Kitna (27k passing yards), Jim Harbaugh (26k passing yards), Neil O’Donnell (21k passing yards). O’Donnell and Harbaugh played into this era but had their best runs before it. Kitna never was respected as a starter, but he produced numbers in Seattle, Cincinnati, and Detroit.

1- Gus Frerotte (21k passing yards), Aaron Brooks (20k passing yards). Brooks had a few good years in New Orleans, but he flamed out incredibly quickly. Frerotte was mostly a backup.

Active quarterbacks who are not included because they have not yet thrown for 20,000 yards: Brian Griese, Jake Delhomme, Chad Pennington, Carson Palmer, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, David Carr, Philip Rivers, Tony Romo.

Quarterbacks whose careers ended in this era and who had 20,000+ passing yards, but who are not included in this poll because the most significant parts of their careers happened before this era began: Dan Marino, Warren Moon, Dave Kreig, Boomer Esiason, Jim Kelly, Jim Everett, Steve DeBerg, Bernie Kosar, Bobby Hebert.

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Filed under Football Relativity, research project

Research project: More on Jim Caldwell

I wrote last week about how I’m uncomfortable with the Jim Caldwell move in Indianapolis. One of the reasons is that I didn’t remember a failed college coach becoming a top NFL coach. But remembering and research are 2 different things, so I went back to 1989 and tried to look at how former college head coaches did in the NFL. I’ll give the full list and then use it to make appropriate comparisons to Caldwell’s situation. The list is alphabetical. If I missed someone, leave a comment and I’ll add them in.

*Rich Brooks, St. Louis – Went 89-111-4 at Oregon before getting the chance to coach the Rams. Went 13-19 in two years, spent 4 more years in NFL as a defensive coordinator, and then went to Kentucky, where he is 32-41.
*Tom Cable, Oakland – 11-35 at Idaho, then 3 years as NFL assistant before becoming Raiders coach. 4-8 in 1 partial year at Oakland. (He still could get permanent job.)
*Cam Cameron, Miami – 18-37 at Indiana, then 5 years as NFL assistant before becoming Dolphins coach. 1-15 in 1 year at Miami, then fired. Now offensive coordinator with Ravens.
*Tom Coughlin, Jacksonville – Former Parcells assistant who went 21-13-1 at Boston College and then went straight to Jacksonville. Is 111-95 with Jaguars and Giants with one Super Bowl ring.
*Butch Davis, Cleveland – Went 51-20 at Miami before taking big money to coach the Browns. Went 24-35 in 4 seasons before being fired. Now at North Carolina, where he is 12-12 in 2 seasons.
*Chan Gailey, Dallas – 24-11 at Troy State and Samford, then 10 years as NFL assistant before becoming Cowboys coach. 18-14 in 2 years at Dallas, then fired. Went 67-41 at Georgia Tech; was offensive coordinator at Kansas City in ’08.
*Dennis Green, Minnesota – Went 10-45 at Northwestern, then spent 4 years as an NFL assistant, and then went 16-18 at Stanford before getting his shot with the Vikings. Totaled a 113-94 record with the Vikings and Cardinals during his career. Now a broadcaster.
*Al Groh, Jets – 26-40 at Wake Forest, then 12 years as an NFL assistant before becoming Jets coach. 9-7 in 1 year with Jets before leaving for the University of Virginia, where he is 56-41.
*Jimmy Johnson, Cowboys – Had a 82-34-2 record at Oklahoma State and Miami before moving up to the pro ranks with the Cowboys. Finished with an 80-64 record with Dallas and then Miami in the NFL. Now a broadcaster.
*Steve Mariucci, 49ers – After being offensive coordinator for Packers, went to Cal and went 6-6 in one year befoer going to San Francisco. Went 60-43 with the 49ers, then 15-28 with the Lions, for a total of 75-61. Now a broadcaster.
*Dick MacPherson, New England – Went 66-46-4 with Syracuse before getting a shot with the Patriots, but went just 8-24 in two seasons with the Patriots.
*Bobby Petrino, Atlanta – Former NFL coordinator went 41-9 at Louisville before going to Atlanta for big money. Went 3-10 and left midseason to go to Arkansas, where he was 5-7 in his first year.
*Mike Riley, San Diego – 8-14 at Oregon State, then straight to San Diego, where he went 14-34 with Chargers. After being fired, went back to Oregon State, where he’s 46-28.
*Bobby Ross, San Diego – Went 94-76-2 at The Citadel, Maryland, and Georgia Tech before getting a shot with San Diego. Went a total of 74-63 with San Diego and the Lions, then returned to college and went 9-25 before retiring.
*Nick Saban, Miami – Went 91-42-1 with Toledo, Michigan State, and LSU before getting big money to join Dolphins. Went 15-17 in 2 years before bolting for Alabama, where he is 19-8.
*Steve Spurrier, Washington – went 142-40-2 at Duke and (mostly) Florida before getting big money to join the Redskins. Went 12-20 in 2 years before leaving and has been 28-22 at South Carolina since.
*Barry Switzer, Dallas – Went 157-29-4 at Oklahoma but had been out of the game for a while before getting a shot with the Cowboys. Went 45-26 with Dallas, including 1 Super Bowl. Hasn’t coached since.
*Mike White, Oakland – went 87-71-4 at Cal and Illinois, then spent 9 years as an assistant before getting the Raiders job. Went 15-17 with the Raiders before getting fired.

That’s the list. So who is Caldwell most comparable to? You can’t put him in the class of elite college coaches, which would include national champions Saban, Spurrier, Switzer, Ross, and Johnson, along with hot prospects Davis and Petrino. You can’t even put him in the class of solid college coaches like Coughlin, MacPherson, and Brooks (who had a losing record but turned Oregon into a solid program).

And for the sake of fair comparison, I wouldn’t match him with Riley, who without much pedigree went straight from college to the pros, or with Mariucci, who was an NFL guy who spent just one year in the college ranks.

That leaves Caldwell in a class with six other coaches who:
*Had been college head coaches
*Had spent several years as NFL assistants
*Got their jobs more for their NFL track record than for their college accomplishments.

Let’s play relativity with these coaches. Remember that we’ve slotted Caldwell as a “3” hire relative to the other hires this offseason so far.

10 – None.

9 – None.

8 – Dennis Green: Green was a well regarded NFL prospect who probably took the Stanford job to get an opportunity that wasn’t prevalent for African-Americans at the time. But Green’s Bill Walsh pedigree was still the selling point. His career with the Vikings was quite good, as he made the Vikings a top-10 team. While the Vikings never made the Super Bowl (blowing their best chance in ’98), they were definitely contenders. For that, Green was a very good hire. Despite his less-than-stellar college coaching mark.

7- None.

6- None.

5- Chan Gailey. Gailey, who had won a D-2 national championship at Troy, got his shot with Dallas after serving as the offensive coordinator on a Steelers team that went to the Super Bowl. He had a 10-win season and then an 8-win season, but Jerry Jones didn’t like the trajectory of the team, and therefore pulled the plug. Gailey never got another NFL head-coaching shot, but he was not an abject failure in Dallas. He falls in the middle of the pack.

5 (con’t) – Al Groh. It’s hard to slot Groh, who had just one year as an NFL head coach. Remember that he got the job after Bill Parcells left the Jets and then Bill Belichick quit after 1 day to go to New England. Groh went 9-7, which isn’t a bad record, before deciding the NFL was not for him. Could Groh have had a Tom Coughlin type of run in the NFL? We can’t say, but you can’t rule it out. So we give Groh an incomplete and put him at coin-flip level for his single season.

4- None.

3- None.

2 – Mike White. White had been a somewhat successful college coach and a long-time NFL assistant when he got his shot with the Raiders. He started 8-2 but then collapsed to 8-8 in his first year. The second year was another losing season, and then he was gone. It’s not the worst Raiders coaching job we’ve seen over the last 15 years, but it was not good at all.

2 (con’t) – Tom Cable. If Cable gets the Raiders job full time, he becomes a comparison for Caldwell. Cable was awful at Idaho and had just 2 1/4 years as an NFL assistant before getting his shot as an interim. His 4-8 mark was an upgrade for the Raiders at the time, and the performance at the end of the season gave hope (at least when seen in light of where the Raiders have been lately). Cable would not be a dregs hire, but there have to be better options — even for the shipwreck that is the Raiders.

1- Cam Cameron. Cameron’s head coaching tenure couldn’t have been worse. One year, one win, and there’s the door. Cameron’s strong performance as San Diego’s offensive coordinator got him his shot, and he showed in 2008 with Baltimore that he is a great assistant coach. But a great coordinator doesn’t always make a great head coach. The college-ranks failure ended up being a strong predictor of Cameron’s NFL head coaching tenure. Unfortunately for the Colts, I get the feeling the same will be true for Caldwell.

One more thought: In researching this list, it’s amazing how many former college coaches lasted 2 years or less as NFL head coaches (Groh, Cameron, Gailey, Saban, Spurrier, Petrino, White, Brooks, MacPherson). That’s 9 of 18, or 50 percent. That percentage says it’s a coin flip that Caldwell will still be with the Colts in Sept. 2011. As harsh as it sounds, that timetable of failure almost sounds right to me.

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Filed under NFL coaches, research project