Tuesday, January 23, 2007

State of the Union

Yes, Virginia, this is still (sort of) a blawg, so here is commentary on the State of the Union address. A friend comments via email:

the thing that i am noticing most is nancy pelosi sitting behind W, blinking incessantly. like, 4 blinks for every dick cheney blink on the other side.

If you happen to read this while it's still on, check out the blinks, it's a little unnerving.

UPDATE: If you're not enjoying it enough already, you can play the State of the Union Drinking Game.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

On offensive linemen and good football teams

I am a Cleveland Browns fan. Most of you know that. Over the last eight seasons I have watched them suffer through incompetence previously known only to the Bengals. Though the defense has never been great, the offense has been downright awful. From 1999 through 2006, the Browns have finished last in total offense three times, second to last once, and in the bottom quarter of the league three more times. The lone "bright spot" was their playoff season of 2002, where they finished a decidedly-less-awful-yet-still-pretty-awful 23rd.

As bad as their quarterbacks and receivers have performed, their worst results have been on the ground--their rushing rank has been higher than their passing rank only once. They have finished last in the league in rushing once, and second to last twice. In 2005 Reuben Droughns became the first Browns player to rush for 1000 yards in a season since Earnest Byner and Kevin Mack both did it in 1985. Egads. Pointing to that ineptitude, a lot of people think the Browns will target Oklahoma running back Adrian Peterson in this year's draft. These rumors appear to be fueled in part by the speculation of the Browns beat reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, who has a habit of not knowing a goddamn thing.

Other people think the Browns need a quarterback--Charlie Frye and Derek Anderson manned that position this year, but neither did it particularly well. LSU QB Jamarcus Russell and Browns GM Phil Savage are from the same town, and Russell apparently attended a camp sponsored by Savage when Russell was in junior high. Lots of observers think Russell will be gone by the time the Browns pick (many project him to the Raiders at no. 1), but are sure the Browns will select him if he's still on the board. Meanwhile, Notre Dame QB Brady Quinn has made known his desire to play in Cleveland, and many fans throughout Ohio hope the Browns select hometown boy and former Ohio State star Troy Smith (his final performance notwithstanding).

I think all of those people (the people clamoring for Adrian Peterson, Jamarcus Russell, Brady Quinn, Troy Smith--heck, some of them even want Georgia Tech WR Calvin Johnson) are crazy. I want Wisconsin OT Joe Thomas. Improve the Browns' run game, you say? Not even Jim Brown could succeed behind that porous offensive line. Droughns' best years do appear to be behind him, but bringing in a young kid to get hammered back there is a good way to ruin at least three careers (Peterson's, Savage's, and head coach Romeo Crennel's).

Get a true leader to play quarterback, you say? In the last eight seasons the Browns have tried a no. 1 overall pick (Tim Couch), a three-time Pro-Bowler (Jeff Garcia), and a former Super Bowl-winner and no. 6 overall pick (Trent Dilfer) at quarterback--not to mention a Mormon (Ty Detmer), a retread (Doug Pederson), a McCown (Luke), a hick (Kelly Holcomb), a ghetto-hick (Frye), and a guy with pontoon boats for feet (Anderson). While the second set might not impress anyone, the first set had success everywhere but Cleveland. Heck, Jeff Garcia ripped off six consecutive wins with the Eagles this year.

What's the common thread here? The offensive line. Since 1999 the Browns have slapped together an offensive line full of journeymen and unknowns, and the results have reflected that. In the last eight drafts the Browns have spent only nine picks on offensive linemen. Only three of those players are still in the league (2006 fourth-rounder Isaac Sowells, who appeared in exactly one game for the Browns this year; Jeff Faine, the Browns 2003 first-round choice, will start at C for the Saints in the NFC Championship game tomorrow after being traded on draft day last year; and Melvin Fowler, the Browns' third-round pick in 2002, who was traded to the Vikings in 2005 and now starts at C for the Bills. Faine, a pure center, and Fowler, a center-guard, were the only two of the nine who were selected on the draft's first day). To Savage's credit, he attempted to address the offensive line through free agency in the last offseason, but freak injuries (LeCharles Bentley), surprise retirements (Bob Hallen), drug suspensions (Alonzo Ephraim), and mental health issues (Ryan Tucker) negated most of his effort.

Meanwhile, the leading teams of the last ten years have invested heavily in offensive linemen in the draft. Indianapolis has selected 15 interior linemen in the last ten years, plus two tight ends. Denver has selected 11 linemen and five tight ends (two of whom were converted to tackle). The Patriots have spent 16 picks on interior linemen and an additional eight on TEs. Your 2006 leader in points scored, the San Diego Chargers, have selected 19 interior offensive linemen in the last ten drafts.

The 2005 New York Jets were 4-12--they spent two first-round picks on offensive linemen, and made the playoffs in 2006. (Yes, I know that the Jets benefitted from a ridiculously easy schedule, and really weren't as good as their record indicated, but they did make the playoffs, and now have a good line to build around.) The last decade or so is full of examples like that--Tony Boselli went no. 2 overall to Jacksonville in 1995, and they made the AFC Championship game twice in his first five years; Jonathan Ogden went no. 4 overall to Baltimore, and they won the Super Bowl in 2000; the Rams took Orlando Pace no. 1 overall in 1997 and won the Super Bowl in 1999; Walter Jones went no. 6 overall and has been a key ingredient in an offense that has produced three consecutive division titles and a Super Bowl appearance. Other, lesser-known OTs taken near the top of the draft have helped as well--Luke Petitgout went to the Giants in 1999, and they made the Super Bowl his second year; Kenyatta Walker (no. 14 in 2001) helped the Buccaneers to the playoffs in his rookie year and to a Super Bowl win in his second; Levi Jones (no. 10 in 2002) is blocking for one of the league's better offenses right now in Cincinnati; in 2003, the Panthers took Jordan Gross at no. 8 and made the Super Bowl or the NFC Championship twice in his first three seasons; that same year the Broncos selected George Foster at no. 20, and he has now blocked for four 1000-yard backs in four seasons; in 2005 the Saints selected Jammal Brown at no. 13, they are now on the verge of the Super Bowl, and he is a Pro Bowler in his second year.

In his year-end press conference last week, Savage was asked whether the Browns would address the offensive line in this year's draft. Particular emphasis was placed on the guard-center-guard positions, as they out-under-performed the others. Savage's response was diplomatic enough, and he assured those in attendance that they will do what they can to improve the team based on who is available. But then he expounded upon a long-standing belief of his that while blue-chip tackles must be taken near the top of the draft, quality guard-center-guard players can be found on the second day or as undrafted free agents.

Well, that's the sort of claim that I can't just let go without checking up on it. Considering my recent experience as a Browns fan, seeing the team all but ignore the offensive line in the draft, and their attempts to find quality players in the sixth and seventh round, I did not believe that all these quality players were just floating around out there.

So I compiled a list. I went through the depth charts for all 32 teams and identified the starter at all five line positions. I defined the starters as the player who started the most games at a given position (as opposed to the player who was starting at the end of the season). I then charted the draft position for all 64 starting tackles, and all 96 starting guard-center-guards.

As you can see, and much to my surprise, Phil Savage was right. The significant plurality (more than a third) of the starting offensive tackles in the NFL were drafted in the first round. The first and second rounders combined make up about 60% of the starters. The single biggest group of guard-center-guards, on the other hand, was the undrafted players. Almost a quarter of those were undrafted, though it's worth noting that the second-biggest group is first-rounders, and that almost half of these starters were first-day picks. Still, that means the majority of them were either second-day draft picks or not drafted at all.

Now, it has to be said that this could be the result of something like a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is, general managers believe that OTs should be taken on the first day, and that G-C-Gs should be taken on the second day (or not at all), and that's why we see the distribution as it is. I can't entirely dismiss that out of hand, but a consideration of the GMs' incentives suggests that problem might be overstated. GMs are judged according to how many games their teams win, not how many of their draft picks are in the starting lineup. While the two can be closely correlated, it's hard to imagine that, for example, many of the starting OTs are starting only because they are high draft picks; they still must play well enough to keep their spots. And because teams can bring in so many undrafted players into camp, there is typically plenty of competition.

Anyway, let's get back around to the point. Tackles at the top of the draft, G-C-Gs later or not at all. How have the Browns fared under this model? As I mentioned, the Browns have drafted only nine offensive linemen since their reincarnation. How did those break down? Two were first-day picks. Jeff Faine, in 2003, was a first-round center. That bucks the trend. Melvin Fowler, in 2002, was a third-round center-guard. That bucks the trend too, though not as egregiously. Of the seven players drafted on the second day, four were tackles and three were guards (in the guard total I have included Isaac Sowells, the 2006 fourth-rounder who played tackle in college but has worked almost exclusively at guard with the Browns). According to the handy-dandy little graph above, very few of the second-day tackles are likely to develop into starting tackles in the NFL, arguably making them wasted picks.

The Browns cannot afford to waste more picks. (Many of their non-o-line picks of the last eight years have been wasted as well, but that's a story for another day.) Joe Thomas, if he's available, represents a great opportunity for the Browns to get back on the right track toward building a respectable offense, both on the ground and through the air. I'm not saying that he's their ticket to the Super Bowl, but few teams have managed to get there without a passable offensive line. It's time the Browns started trying.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Back to school

Winter break is over, and it's back to school tomorrow. I've enjoyed my few weeks off, and I think I might get back to blogging soon. At the very least, I will have a post about offensive linemen in the NFL draft coming in the near future. So you all can look forward to that. After that, who knows?