Monday, February 8, 2010

Did Manning blow the Superbowl? Maybe...

So now Superbowl XLIV is in the books.  The New Orleans Saints shocked the world and won a game they were supposed to be happy to even find themselves in.  Bourbon Street is ecstatic and so is just about every Peyton Manning hater out there.

The hot topic in the sports media today is "Did Peyton Manning forever tarnish his legacy by throwing a pick six and blowing the Superbowl?"

I am thoroughly convinced that, no, "The Pick Six" isn't what blew the Superbowl.

However, Peyton Manning, the only quarterback in the NFL to call his own plays, did.

That's not to take credit away from the Saints.  Drew Brees put on a passing clinic, the Saints' team hustled, and their coaches, frankly, "outcoached" the Colts'.

First, let's look at what the Saints did right, starting with their gameplan.

The Saints were pretty conservative and ball control oriented in the first half.  This had a lot of people scratching their heads early on, as they expected to see the Saints spreading the Colts out to throw.

However, as Chris Brown over on Smart Football explained wonderfully, the Saints offense is extremely multiple in its formations as well as their plays.  They did a fantastic job of putting the Colts defense in conflict with their various formations and matchups, giving Drew Brees some open receivers to throw to as well as the time to get the ball out to them.  This game should be shown to all NFL offensive coordinators for years as part of a clinic presentation on "NFL Offense 101."

The conservative strategy really seemed to control the pace of the game early on for the Saints, calming the offense down and letting it feel things out and get into a groove without risking turnovers. It also kept them from getting into a shootout and losing their minds when they were down 10-0 early, too.

In short, they let the game come to them on their terms.  All of this really started making a difference in the second quarter, where the Saints limited the Colts to just 6 offensive snaps and took command of the game despite still trailing at halftime 10-6.

Sean Payton's management of the game was brilliant.  While the onside kick to open the second half has gotten most of the media attention, I believe Payton's best call was really the unsuccessful 4th down attempt near at the Colts goal line in the closing minutes of the half.

Payton smartly believed that even if the Saints were unsuccessful, they had pinned the Colts inside the 5 yard line, that the Colts would be trying for the quick score themselves and that with timeouts remaining the Saints had a chance to still get a field goal before the half if they could just force a quick 3 and out.

All of that stuff came to pass.  Payton found a way for the Saints to both have their cake (trying for a TD on 4th down) and eat it too (still get points out of this situation even if the attempt was unsuccessful).

The onside kick was also a brilliant job of scouting and coaching.  In postgame interviews, the players said that the Saints' coaching staff had noticed on film that the Colts' Hank Baskett had a habit of bailing too soon on kickoffs, so they went right after him. Payton announced the onside kick to his players at the beginning of halftime after they'd practiced it all week. This is an excellent job of paying attention to details and exploiting them through planning and preparation.

Further, the Saints' Defensive Coordinator Greg Williams had three seperate ready-made gameplans for Manning in this game: a first half plan (mostly conservative zone defense), a third quarter plan (a little tougher package of zone pressure and blitzes that overloaded a side of the Colts' pass protection), and then an additional fourth quarter plan to really blitz and get after Manning with man coverage behind it.

Still, the Saints could not have came back from a 10-0 deficit if it hadn't been for the Colts' mistakes, mistakes that go far beyond "Pick Six" in the fourth quarter.  Caldwell's team had failed to notice or address Baskett's problems on kickoff returns when he could be observed on film commiting a cardinal sin there, a mistake that would have gotten him benched on many high school teams.

For anyone who thinks that special teams play is overrated, the huge swing in momentum AND the denial of an entire position to the Colts offense should really demonstrate how important they truly are.

You could tell that the Saints' ball control was getting to Manning in the 2nd quarter.  The cameras kept cutting to shots of Manning looking angry and frustrated as he sat on the bench alone, helpless and unable to get back out or stay on the field.

From his expression, you'd think his team was losing by 40, not leading by 7.  He would maintain that expression throughout the game as the Colts first lost the lead, then regained it, then lost it and kissed any chance of a win goodbye with "The Pick Six" and a stalled two minute drill.

I believe this really impacted the Colts' in the second half.  Manning, the Colts' playcaller, basically abandoned the run in the second half in favor of trying to force passes between defenders.  He had some beauties, like the "how-did-he-do-that?" throw to Dallas Clark on the third quarter touchdown drive, but Manning only let the Colts run the ball a total of 8 times for 27 yards in the second half, despite his team protecting a lead for most of that span. 

It's also worth noting that 24 of those yards, and 4 of those attempts, came on the Colts first drive of the second half, which went for a touchdown.  Manning's crushing Pick Six came after 8 straight pass attempts and 14 passes over the Colts' previous 17 offensive plays.  Of the Colts 37 plays in the second half, the Colts passed on over 81% despite having a great deal of success running the ball in the first half.

That is predictability, and numerous statistical analysis have shown that running the ball is the safest way to protect a lead: teams who pass the ball when nursing a lead tend to lose far more often than those who commit to running it.  Since Manning fiercely insists on maintaining his autonomy to call plays at the line, it was not Jim Caldwell's decisions that caused this, though he is getting roasted by commentators and fans ignorant of this fact.

It's especially disappointing since Joseph Addai had such a great first half and was giving the Saints fits on draws and traps.  On only 7 carries, Addai had shredded the Saints defense in the first half for 60 yards and appeared to be the MVP in the making at halftime (many still believe he should've been MVP of the last Colts Superbowl win).  In the second half, however, Manning tried to take over the game himself and took the ball out of Addai's hands.  A 17-16 lead turned into a 31-17 loss.

Addai only had 17 yards on 6 carries in the second half, with 3 of those coming for 19 yards on the Colts final touchdown drive in the 3rd quarter.  He had only 3 carries for -2 yards in the fourth quarter, both pre-and-post Pick Six.  The result: the Colts went from nursing a 17-16 lead to sputtering offensively, Manning threw a pick six to put the game away, and then any hope of a comeback died in a failed two minute drill where Addai carried the ball only once for -2 yards near the goalline.

We can make all sorts of speculation on WHY Manning chose to abandon the running game for the Colts when protecting a lead in the second half of a big game, just as he's done countless times before in his career going back to his college days.  Such blovating and unfounded B.S. would be unfair to Manning, one of the game's hardest workers and most intense competitors.  However, the numbers do hint that Manning's decisions when calling the plays may have cost himself and the Colts a second Superbowl ring.

Coaches will tell you that playcalling is overrated and I'll agree, but this was a textbook example of how it can and does matter.

Yes, Virginia, the Colts CAN lay a heaping portion of the blame for this loss on Peyton Manning.  However, they must credit him for guiding the team this far.  If not for Manning, the Colts are basically Dwight Freeney, Dallas Clark, Reggie Wayne, and a bunch of guys no one would have ever heard of.

Let's not forget that he is still the league's best passer and that his resume includes many of the best seasons of all-time, at least statistically, ever recorded by a quarterback.  One play did not cost this game anymore than it cost Peyton Manning a certain first ballot Hall of Fame induction, and it's possible that he'll be back in a future Superbowl before it's all said and done.

For the Colts' sake, let's hope he remembers it's still legal to run the ball next time.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Lane Kiffin: Creep

OK, I try to focus more on the coaching and fundamental aspects of football in this blog rather than getting caught up in the fan and media circus side of things.  However, sometimes something comes along that's just too weird NOT to write about.

Lane Kiffin just told a 7th grader that he has a free ride to USC waiting for him. 

 Let that sink in for just a second...

The reactions I've seen from from others online have ranged from "What a great story!" to "What a load of crap!"  I'm more inclined to agree with the latter.

In fact, given Kiffin's track record I'm more inclined to pray for this kid and his future, as this could be one of the worst things that could possibly happen to a young QB at that age.  By the time that this kid is actually old enough to sign that offer a myriad of things could go wrong.

First of all, that story reads like a press release for Steve Clarkson, private QB tutor and "Dream Maker."  Calling Jimmy Clausen (a Clarkson pupil) the "Lebron of football" and then claiming that Kiffin took this seriously was a flood of B.S. of biblical proportions.  Kiffin apparently watched a few clips on the kid, David Sills, then called his parents immediately and "offered him a scholarship" (an offer that's not guaranteed until the kid signs the paperwork, which he can't even legally do for another 4 years).

Clips similar to these, perhaps?  Sills wears #1 in in the (self)promotional video below.

Dad, of course, is very excited.  So is David Sills.  You really can't blame the boy.  Any coach who has to deal with this kid over the next five years must already be grumbling.

At 13, Sills is really in a position to screw up his entire life.  It's also going to be hard for his HS coaches to say anything to him when "Steve Clarkson and Lane Kiffin told me to  ________ so I'll be better prepared for the next level."  The first time they bench him or ask him to do something that he doesn't agree with, his father (who is presumably pretty wealthy to be able to afford Clarkson's services) will surely be jumping down the coach's throats.  

Additionally, tons of kids look like studs in middle school but don't pan out at the varsity level--any youth, middle school, or high school coach worth his salt knows this.  Authorities on QBs such as Darin Slack have commented on how many young QBs will actually regress as players between middle school and their Senior year of high school.  He's already hyped so much because of this story that there's no way he could ever deliver unless he goes undefeated in HS as a 4 year starter and breaks all the records on the books.  Any chance that David Sills ever had of a normal adolescence was just destroyed.

Every adult in thie story (parents, Clarkson, and Kiffin) comes across as treating this boy as a meal ticket but that offer is not guaranteed. Kiffin might not be there in five years (and probably won't, given his history--he'll leave for any team who gives him a bigger paycheck and more exposure), but even if he is at USC, Kiffin's already got a track record of pulling scholarship offers from commitments at Tennessee and has been accused of all sorts of dishonest or cowardly things by his players and coworkers there.   

Sills can make it through school riding high because he thinks he's got a free ride to USC lined up, then watch that offer evaporate if he doesn't continue to get better (or physically more mature--at 6'0" he's the same height I was at his age, but I only grew to 6'1", which is "too short" for Kiffin).

What if USC just feels they've found better QBs elsewhere?  One of the first things that Kiffin did when he took over at Tennessee was to tell three highly rated QB commitments that they weren't "his guy" because he felt he could do better.  He did the same with many players already on the Tennessee roster, such as Chattanooga product (and QB) B.J. Coleman, causing a mass exodus.

Many coaches and observers out there have been incredulous.  They have presumed that Kiffin's "offer" was never meant to be taken seriously and has been blown out of proportion by this AP story.  The thing is, Kiffin has already established a track record here, too...

Some choice quotes in that article from Kiffin really lead me to believe that this is just part of his new recruiting strategy.

Of the Berry recruitment, Staples wrote:

Kiffin's only previous foray into tween recruiting seems fairly prescient. Last month, Kiffin said he had offered a scholarship to only one player younger than 10th grade. "Matt Barkley," Kiffin said. "That year I had Orange County, and Barkley was a freshman." In 2005, Kiffin was USC's offensive coordinator and recruiting coordinator. He visited Mater Dei High in Santa Ana, Calif. -- Matt Leinart's alma mater -- and saw Barkley throwing. Kiffin's instincts were dead on. Barkley wound up being the top-rated quarterback prospect in the 2009 class, and as a true freshman this season still may push Aaron Corp for the Trojans' starting job.

Expect Kiffin and his coaches to pay attention to players as young as Evan Berry even more in the future. "When you really have a recruiting machine going," Kiffin said last month, "you're in on the ninth and 10th graders because you know your areas so well." 

Despite this, Kiffin himself even backs away from committing to the kid in the next paragraph...

"It's not like basketball where guys are playing. ... We don't get to see them very often," Kiffin said. "And the growth is so much different. A ninth-grader in football grows so much and adds so much weight that it's pretty hard to project."

If anyone had any doubt or had somehow forgot how Kiffin left Tennesseee, it should be remembered that this is a guy to whom loyalty is only a 1 way street.  Honestly, there's not much downside for Kiffin.  If the kid pans out, he's built the relationship up early and has the inside track on a hot prospect.  If the kid doesn't go on to become the next elite QB recruit, Kiffin can just cast him aside without a second thought since no paperwork has actually been signed.

So yes, Lane Kiffin is a creep who is now playing upon the dreams of middle school kids for his own ends.  It's only a matter of time before he starts telling Pee Wee dads their 6 year old is going to be the next great USC Tailback.  Kiffin, of course, is prohibited by the NCAA from actually commenting on unsigned recruits, something he was reprimanded for while coaching at Tennessee.

I very much hope that David Sills does not turn out to be the second coming of Todd Marinovich.  I think even Todd Marinovich hated being Todd Marinovich.  However, at this point he certainly appears to be headed down that path.

This is child exploitation, pure and simple.