Sunday, November 02, 2008

They Might Be Titans

Usually by this time of year we've done at least a few football posts, at least some thumbnail analyses and predictions. Election season, job hunting, and other factors have contributed to not getting around to it, but also it's just not as interesting this year.

Had I been in the mood to make predictions at the beginning of the season, I would have counted out the New England and Indianapolis perennials anyway, because the teams are getting long in the tooth, and running out of dependable veterans. A certain amount of turnover is expected every year, and is desirable from a fan's point of view. But I don't think anybody would have predicted the Tennessee Titans starting 8-0, especially with Kerry Collins at quarterback instead of Vince Young, who seems to be a head case trying to work his way out of the league.

Beyond that, it's such a free-for-all that anyone who thinks they know which teams will make the playoffs is nuts. A month ago the Cowboys looked like Giant-killers, but in the league's best division, they'll be lucky to get a wild-card slot. Lots of people liked Cleveland for this year too, but a rash of staph infections plaguing the team and a couple of numbskull players have squashed that. Mostly the balance of power has shifted from the AFC to the NFC, and the division leaders in the former conference are mostly by default. This year's Super Bowl matchup will probably be about as exciting as the World Series' was.

Salary cap parity and the general dilution of talent brought on by an excess of teams and a dearth of slots, as well as more injuries, have all taken a toll on the overall level of play. There are no dominant teams anymore; even the Patriots' undefeated regular season last year was an enormous fluke enabled by an easy schedule and one of the league's very few genuine concentrations of coaching and playing talent. But the removal of Tom Brady from the equation has exposed the team as a group of well-managed but aging, brittle players. That's all any team can afford anymore.

The collapse of the Collective Bargaining Agreement (which will result in a cap-free year in 2010, impacting small-market teams pretty severely), the void at the NFLPA left by Gene Upshaw's death, and even the trends Upshaw himself was largely responsible for, are going to change the game considerably over the next few years, I believe. The failure to put a rookie cap in place is already affecting quite a few teams, forcing them to spend outrageous piles of guaranteed money on untested rookies and low-ball proven veteran players.

The NFL has also become increasingly corporatized, which is disappointing for working-class fans. The league has cracked down on what it considers unseemly or buffoonish behavior, to what end is unclear. While touchdown celebrations can be obnoxious and tedious, the league's incessant nannying on the issue is even more so. These are grown men getting paid outrageous sums of money to play a very dangerous sport, usually for only a few years. Of course they're going to act absurdly at times; it's an enormously absurd situation. They're having fun while they can. But god forbid anything detract from people watching the same four commercials every few minutes, eating into the corporate bottom line.

The disparity of money and the glut of teams has also led to a dilution of individual talent and team coordination. Since I can no longer afford the Sunday Ticket package (and for what they charge these days, I'd have to make a lot more money to justify that sort of frivolous expense), most of what I watch is our local-market teams, both of which are frighteningly consistent in their sheer awfulness. So for the past few years, much of my football viewing has been interesting more from an overall management perspective, as well as game strategy. Team loyalty matters very little these days; I'm a Raiders fan more out of habit than anything.

But the grotesque Oakland assemblage is perhaps an ideal case for observing unfavorable traits of management and organizational culture. Typically Al Davis gets the blame for the team's performance, and not without reason. But he's not the one out there dropping balls and missing tackles. He's not the one failing to motivate the players to play as a team, although his constant meddling and undermining of coaching staff is certainly disruptive and has prevented any semblance of continuity.

What Davis is doing is throwing money away. Having finally bought out the McGah family's stake in the team, Davis sold a chunk of that share to outside investors, and went on one of the more incompetent spending sprees in recent memory. I don't recall the last time I saw so much money spent on so little actual free-agency talent, washed-out losers and malcontents getting top dollar, while star veterans chafe and languish.

And five consecutive years of high draft picks have affected the team's ability to afford other players. Instead of trading down yet another top-10 pick to get some decent linemen, Davis threw over $20 million guaranteed to get Darren McFadden at #4 overall, who has played all of three games out of eight so far. So McFadden hardly plays, $60 million QB Jamarcus Russell overthrows receivers with startling regularity, and there isn't a reliable receiver in the bunch to begin with.

Free-agent pickups Javon Walker and Ashley Lelie, wide receivers who are 6'4" and 6'3" respectively, are routinely pushed around by 5'10" corners, and fail to finish routes or get open for Russell. $70 million cornerback DeAngelo Hall was supposed to provide the team with the perfect bookend to Nnamdi Asomugha, whom opposing quarterbacks don't even throw at because of his coverage skills. Instead Hall is constantly thrown at, because his zone coverage is horrible and his man coverage isn't much better. The safeties are even worse, with big-money Super Bowl winner Gibril Wilson getting burned regularly, and #7 overall draft pick Michael Huff proving to be just as bad at strong safety as he was at free safety.

Consequently Oakland is being pounded at home right now by a rookie quarterback (and rookie head coach) for a mediocre Atlanta Falcons team, just like they got pounded by a rookie quarterback (and rookie head coach) last week in Baltimore. I seriously think there are at least a half-dozen college teams who would beat them -- badly -- in Oakland. They're that terrible -- no heart, no focus, no execution.

It's no longer a sports question, it's a management question: it's what happens when you have erratic management with no continuity, and your team consists of unprepared people who are not very good at what they do, and who do not give a shit whether or not they win. The business fails.

Kinda like politics, when you think about it.


daver said...

"'s just not as interesting this year...."

Hmm, you know the idea I'm coming around to?

I think many of us are conditioned to think of college games as 'junior' to pro's 'varsity', and to spend more time watching the latter. Because pro games are the 'highest level' of football, and certainly pro teams would beat up college teams a lot of the time.

But the more I watch both, the more my conclusion is that college games are just more 'interesting' in general: more scoring, more exotic plays, and getting away with them more of the time. Fewer collisions in the center with not much.

It's just more interesting to watch in general. I'm starting to watch more on Saturday than Sunday these days....

Heywood J. said...

True, college games can be a lot more fun to watch. I catch some Pac-10 games here and there, and some of the bowl games. The players definitely play harder, and some of the rule differences make for more exciting play at the college level, the Texas/Texas Tech game the other night being a perfect example.

Rathna said...

Yeap, i agree college games are very interesting and unforgettable one.I am a state level player and won quit a good lot of awards.Now though i am not in college(working) i love to see college games as there will be only fun and not politics.