Sunday, July 24, 2011

No, No, I *Strenuously* Object to Oversigning

This is apropos of not much besides a single wayward tweet in my queue this morning, but I think it's time for Big Ten fans to let the oversigning issue go, especially in regards to the complaint that oversigning creates a competitive imbalance between the conferences. Is the charge true? Yes, probably, at the margins; it's better to have 88 players on scholarship than 85, and if the coach gets to cull the worst three on the roster after personal evaluation rather than having to choose based on high school tape, then there is surely some advantage.

But at this point, after beatdown and beatdown and beatdown with only a few morally ambiguous counterexamples, the complaint rings a little hollow. Oversigning is an issue of marginal improvement, not massive programmatic change. The last three or five or even twenty players on Alabama's roster didn't account for the 42 point loss Michigan State suffered. The difference that mattered was the difference in quality between the top twenty players on both teams, and the gap was every bit as significant there as the gap at the bottom. Alabama could have signed 15 players each of the past four years and still won that game by two touchdowns.

In the meantime, some of the worst offenders don't appear to be reaping much in the way of rewards. The 37-player 2009 Ole Miss class set off much of the firestorm. As redshirt freshmen or sophomores, that class lost to Vanderbilt and failed to make a bowl game; as redshirt sophomores or juniors, that class is predicted to finish last in the SEC West.

Oversigning matters because kids are potentially getting cheated out of promises. It matters because letters of intent are currently only one-way commitments, leaving players at the mercy of coaches who themselves are increasingly at the mercy of fan bases calling for wins at any cost. But bemoaning that the Big Ten is *thisclose* to breaking through yet held back by its scrupulously scrupulous practices has more than a little bit of whinyness about it. The three star linebacker in Jackson who signs up to play for Houston Nutt and gets cut next year is the real victim, not Michigan State or Ohio State.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Dan Persa is Not Winning the Heisman Trophy

Stop it. It's not happening, and not just because Persa plays for Northwestern. It's also because he's not good enough.

The main problem comes from adding together non-conference and conference statistics. Northwestern's OOC schedule sucked in 2010 (and 2009, and 2008, and 2007). Vanderbilt went 2-10 (and Northwestern may not have won if not for a very sketchy personal foul call at the end). Illinois State was a mediocre I-AA team. Rice went 4-8 in Conference USA. Central Michigan went 3-9 in the MAC. Persa was 85/106 for 1049 yards, 8 TDs, and 1 INT. Those are very good numbers, but against very bad teams.

Against the Big Ten, his numbers were OK, but by no means great: 114/196, 1532 yards, 7 TDs and 3 INTs. That's good for a 132.5 QB rating (the college rating works different than the NFL rating; 100 is theoretically average though average amongst starters has drifted towards 125 in recent years). He also missed three of the top five teams in the conference (Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Illinois) while playing all three non-bowl teams in the conference. He also wasn't all that much of a threat on the ground, gaining only 3 yards per carry in conference play (some of that is from sacks, but still, that's not very good). Against three of the six opponents, he had a worse QB rating than the average QB against that defense.

Let's compare that to another QB who definitely is not winning the Heisman trophy this year. This quarterback went 101/168 for 1142 yards, 14 TDs and 5 INTs. This QB also went 4.3 yards per carry in conference play (including sacks). Guess what: Nathan Scheelhaase of Illinois is not sniffing the Heisman trophy.

Unfortunately for Northwestern, some of their out-of-conference opponents actually have a pulse this year. They miss Big Ten favorite Wisconsin this year (while I'm rubbing dirt on the wounds: Northwestern missed the conference champion twice in the past four years. The combined score the two times they played the conference champions? 128-30. In two games. Stretch back to 2006 and it's 182-40), but they play in the more difficult Leaders division, and face two decent teams this season (don't sleep on Army) in OOC play. You can't just take last years numbers against awful defenses and apply the directly.

If Dan Persa was a Heisman-level athlete, wouldn't Northwestern have performed noticeably worse in his absence? Against Purdue, Northwestern scored 17 points. They scored 27 against MSU, then 20 against Indiana, 21 against Penn State, and 21 against Iowa. Without Persa, Northwestern scored 20 against Illinois (plus another TD on defense), 23 against Wisconsin, and 38 against Texas Tech. The QB play declined, to be sure, but that wasn't really reflected on the scoreboard.

The Argument for the Defense (Rebutted)

Passing yards are usually a good indication of a quarterback’s success or failure. For the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks, this number can vary. 2001 Heisman winner Eric Crouch only compiled 1,510 passing yards, while 2008 winner Sam Bradford threw for a whopping 4,721 yards. 
The last nine Heisman winners have averaged 3,044 passing yards. To put it in perspective, if Dan Persa were to stay healthy in 2010, he would have surpassed that average with 3,355 passing yards.
 Eric Crouch is doing a lot of work there; take him out and the average bumps up to 3235 yards. Persa's (unlikely) projected numbers are still higher. So was Ben Chappell's, along with 18 other QBs.

The previous nine quarterbacks to win the Heisman Trophy have averaged more than 39.8 touchdowns in their Heisman-winning season. That number includes passing and rushing touchdowns—in fairness to the dual-threat quarterbacks. 
Last season, Dan Persa was on pace to finish with 31.2 total touchdowns—just a bit shy of the average. However, 2004 winner Matt Leinart and 2006 winner Troy Smith each finished with 31 touchdowns in their respective Heisman campaigns
31 is not a bit shy of 39. It is not even 80% of 39. Once again, leave aside the questionable projections; Leinart and Troy Smith were special cases on teams that made the national championship game. The Capital One Bowl would be an accomplishment for Persa and the Wildcats this year.
The last nine quarterbacks to hoist the Heisman have combined for 11.8 wins in their trophy-winning seasons. Of that group, only Cam Newton and Matt Leinart led their teams to a national title, while 2007 winner Tim Tebow won the award while winning seven games.
Tim Tebow won nine games, but who is counting? He also set the TD record for a single season. He also had fewer wins than the other recent Heisman winners. 
Dan Persa led the Wildcats to seven wins in 2010, but the team more than likely would’ve added more if their starter had stayed healthy. This season, the Wildcats have their sights set on bigger and better things. Like Cam Newton—who took his team from winning seven games in 2009 to winning a championship in 2010—Persa hopes his efforts help the Wildcats to more wins.
Cam Newton was playing for a junior college in Texas while Auburn was going 8-5 (maybe Northwestern fans forgot that they actually lost that bowl game against Auburn). The difference between Chris Todd and Cam Newton is a mite bigger than the difference between Dan Persa 2010 and Dan Persa 2011.

Northwestern fans: you have a quality team returning for an unprecedented fourth straight bowl eligible season. You have multiple prime time home games this season. You are genuinely starting to piss off Iowa fans and develop a genuine rivalry. Things are looking up. Don't oversell your case. 

Monday, July 18, 2011

ESPN Ombudsman: We Totally Suspended Bruce Feldman, But You Are Ignorant For Calling It That


The recent flap over Bruce Feldman's non-suspension for writing a book on behalf of a guy now suing ESPN for libel has been characterized as (A) a Twitter revolution, (B) an ESPN house of cards, (C) Twitterati gone wild.
In fact, it's all of the above and more. To date, this is the most complicated ESPN issue we've tackled at the Poynter Review Project.
Here are some of our findings, based on a weekend of reporting:
What s strange circumlocution: your findings based on a weekend of reporting? Whose reporting? Yours? ESPN's? Anyway, lets get to it.
 ESPN did not suspend Feldman. Instead managers asked him Thursday to not publish anything online, or go on the air, for what turned out to be roughly 24 hours, while they figured things out.
Maybe I lack the nuance of an ESPN ombudsman, but being asked to not do your job sounds exactly like a suspension.
The sports gossip blog Sports by Brooks erroneously reported that Feldman had been suspended indefinitely, igniting a Twitter wildfire that has yet to be contained.
So, Feldman was suspended, and he wasn't told how long the suspension would last, but it wasn't an indefinite suspension? I know that both of those words are polysyllabic, but they're not that ambiguous.
 Managers gave Feldman the all-clear on Friday afternoon, but Feldman as of Monday morning had yet to tweet or make any public statements, even to explain why he's not saying anything.
Maybe he's pissed. Maybe he's looking for new employment. Who knows? But notice that there was no acknowledgement that the unprecedented bad publicity played a role in any of this.
ESPN officials approved Feldman's authoring then-Texas Tech football coach Mike Leach's autobiography, long before Leach was fired by the university and sued ESPN. 
When Leach filed the lawsuit against ESPN, it's clear to us that Feldman's involvement with the book became an impossible conflict. But Feldman failed to seek and the network failed to provide clear guidance.
I cannot reconcile these two paragraphs. ESPN gave a thumbs-up, but Feldman didn't seek out guidance? Didn't he get the guidance when he received permission from ESPN to write the book? Also, isn't the continued employment of Craig James an equally, if not more, impossible conflict of interest?

Some of these questions are half-assedly answered later in the column.

 ESPN pointed out the error almost 24 hours later in a news release, igniting further argument over the difference between being suspended and merely being asked to take a break. This is more than just semantics. A suspension is a disciplinary action involving human resources, a record in your file and not being allowed onto the company premises for a period of time. Several people on that phone call reported to us that Feldman specifically asked whether he was being suspended and that he was told no. 
Lying low and staying out of the public eye is different than being forced to stay home from work.
This is lawyer-speak. I am well versed in it. When you are a reporter in the public eye, being told to "lay low" is exactly the same as a suspension, whether or not you go through the official HR channels.

The rest of the article is tut-tutting about not having facts, all based around the faulty premise that it is a fact that Feldman was not suspended. This is not fact.

This saga also opens up a question of whether ESPN can be trusted about any reporting in the future, especially when quotes like this enter the public domain:
As the college football season heats up, ESPN must still figure out what Feldman can report on independently. When a reporter has a clear conflict, it's standard in journalism to isolate that reporter from the conflict. Having authored a book in Leach's voice, Feldman clearly can't cover Leach, or Texas Tech, anymore. Leach's former staffers, who are now spread far and wide -- some of them now head coaches -- make for questionable material too. Is the entire Big 12 off limits? Feldman's bosses, King and Millman, are still trying to figure that out, which probably explains Feldman's self-imposed silence.
Why stop at Feldman? Given ESPN's conflict of interest, can any reporter be trusted to report on Leach, Leach's coaching tree, or the Big 12? Given the Big Ten's (And Pac 12's) growing independence from the network, can they be trusted to report on the conference accurately? When you have a virtual monopoly on sports journalism broadcasting in many markets, are those markets completely foreclosed from accurate reporting on a subject because of those conflicts of interest. Oh, and while we are in Conflict of Interest Land,  what about the accusations that Spaeth Communications (employed by Craig James) was providing ESPN reporters with most of their information during the Adam James saga.

Here's a simple rule of thumb: when the entire non-affiliated relevant broadcasting says that what you are going is slimy, you are going to need to do better than finely parsing the definition of the word suspension. And if your ombudsman can't see what every other journalist immediately saw, then why bother having an ombudsman?