Thursday, December 9, 2010

On the Brady-Vick MVP Debate

LANDOVER, MD - NOVEMBER 15:  Michael Vick #7 of the Philadelphia Eagles throws a pass against the Washington Redskins on November 15, 2010 at FedExField in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Here on the cusp of Week 14, three-quarters of the way through the season, most media outlets are coming out and naming Tom Brady as the leading candidate for NFL MVP, ahead of Michael Vick, Philip Rivers, and a host of other candidates.  Brady has certainly put together a strong case, but the professed margin by which he leads this race is astonishing.  Dan Wetzel of Yahoo! Sports said Wednesday that the race "isn't even close" as far as he is concerned. At ESPN, Mike Sando wrote that Brady could sit the rest of the season and contest for the award: "It's that much of a runaway heading into Week 14." Wetzel went so far as to acknowledge Vick's candidacy, but called the contest between the two a question of "heart v. head"--
emotion over Vick's comeback against Brady's performance.

Awards based on performance should not be based on emotion, so I'm going to throw that aspect out, and dissect the two from an on-the-field perspective. Let's start with the numbers, shall we?

Brady fingersTom Brady has some truly ridiculous stats: after 12 games, he has put together 3,029 yards and 27 touchdowns against four interceptions, all on the way to a 10-2 record. His passer rating is a sky-high 109.5, a number good for eighth-best in the history of the game if it holds. He has done this with a patchwork collection of players, including a stellar receiving corps (Deion Branch, Randy Moss, and Wes Welker), two rookie tight ends (Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski), serviceable running backs in Danny Woodhead and BenJarvus Green-Ellis (among the league leaders in names per name), and an offensive line that now showcases three Pro Bowlers with the return of Logan Mankins. He has an active streak of seven games without an interception going into Sunday's showdown with the Bears.

Michael Vick, on the other hand, got his seven-game streak without a pick out of the way to start the season. He has a 6-2 record as a starter (he came on as a back-up in the loss to Green Bay), has a passer rating of 105.7, just under four points behind Brady (not exactly a comfortable margin, as Sando would have one believe). His 15 touchdowns and two interceptions hold up to Brady's ratio. He has had the help of explosive weapons in Desean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and Lesean McCoy, a talented but inconsistent Brent Celek, but he has had to deal with an injury-plagued offensive line with only one Pro Bowler, Jason Peters.

Both are dominant quarterbacks who control games and force defensive coordinators to shape their plans around their styles. It is next to impossible to limit Brady's throwing options and stop his impeccably accurate throws. On the other side, Vick has mastered the deep ball this year, adding another weapon to his arsenal of speed and vicious arm strength.

The simillarities end there, however. Brady is, ultimately, a single-threat quarterback. Of all the ways that he has shredded defenses this year, his feet is not one of them.

And now we come to the statistic that, oddly enough, is conveniently ignored by every single pro-Brady argument. Brady doesn't necessarily need to run, as his offensive line is one of the best in the country, but his 28 carries for 17 yards is fourth-worst among starting quarterbacks, leading only Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, and Drew Brees.

On the other hand, if I asked you to name the leading rushing quarterback and gave you one guess, most of you would come up with Michael Vick. His 467 yards on the ground are without a doubt comfortably the best--Josh Freeman's 291 is the next-highest total--and this is from a Vick that has taken more to passing, looking for the throw before taking off. His offensive line has been average at best, leading to 23 sacks and countless hits, but has forced him to take his electric playmaking up the field at a staggering 6.3 yards per carry (compare to Jamaal Charles' 6.2).

In short, Vick has shown the playmaking ability of a running back and now as a quarterback, making him valuable as two players, as opposed to the one offered by Brady.

Speaking of which, the debate here is over who gets named the "most valuable player," not the "most best player"--and not just for grammatical reasons. A player has to have the most significant value to their team and make a significant impact. There is no doubt that Brady is invaluable to the Patriots, but he has had an absurdly talented supporting cast.

People write this off as freak coincidence, as players all having abnormally good seasons at the same time. This is partially true, but we're not talking about players who have underachieved and languished for years, with the possible exceptions of Danny Woodhead and Deion Branch. As mentioned earlier, Hernandez and Gronkowski are rookies, Tate is a gifted special teams player who holds the record for NCAA return yardage, and Green-Ellis is in his first year atop the depth chart . As for the veterans, Randy Moss is considered by some as the greatest receiver of his generation, and Wes Welker is regarded as the best slot receiver in the league.

Vick has been doing more with less in Philadelphia. Desean Jackson is one of the best receievers in the NFC but has been a victim of injury, Jeremy Maclin is an athletic receiver yet not quite on par with Welker, and Brent Celek has had one drop or incompletion for every fantastic catch. And the offensive line's woes have already been mentioned; ask yourself, what would happen if these two quarterbacks switched positions? Picture Brady in an Eagles uniform (I know, it's hard for me, too) picking himself up off the turf every other play.

Or better yet, imagine a starting-grade quarterback in place of Vick--say, Kevin Kolb. This imagining led Peter King and the analysts at ESPN to rank Philadelphia third and second in the NFC East, respectively. Insert Michael Vick, and this Philadelphia team is now 8-4, ahead by a game in their division, and headed to the playoffs if it can continue its current form.

In conclusion, both quarterbacks have had fantastic seasons and are deserving of the MVP award. Brady has been phenomenal as usual, making pinpoint passes and exerting his will as a leader and a general on the field, but has done so with a greater talent level around him, including an offensive line that gives him time to deliver those passes. Vick has been more valuable to his team, carrying them to wins with his throwing and running ability, combining efficiency with an unmatched level of ability.

If there is truly a most valuable player in the league, his name is Michael Vick.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

On the Departure of Randy Shannon

While I was watching the final minutes of an intense Oklahoma-Oklahoma State game, ESPN's friendly ticker announced that coach Randy Shannon had been fired after 4 years at the University of Miami, following a 23-20 loss to South Florida. These two pieces of news (the loss and the firing) made Miami one of the biggest surprises in a day filled with intense rivalry games. The firing is the more perplexing of the two, and one has to wonder at Miami's timing.

There are high expectations at "The U," and rightfully so. This is a program with 5 national championships (many argue that that total should be 6) and is known for producing high-caliber NFL talent. But in order to have a top-tier team, top-tier coaching talent is a must. With all respect to Randy Shannon, he proved within his first three seasons that he is not a premier coach in this stage of his career, or at least not the type that the Hurricanes thought they were looking for.

To illustrate, let's compare Shannon's tenure and that of his predecessor, Larry Coker. In Coker's first year, Miami went undefeated en route to a national title, which culminated in a 37-14 dismantling of Nebraska at the Rose Bowl. The next year, 2002, Miami went undefeated in the regular season and went to the championship game a second time, yet lost to Ohio State in a double-overtime thriller (and that's all that needs to be said there). In 2003, Coker's 'Canes went 11-2, and beat their rival Florida State in the Orange Bowl to end the year. The next two years, Miami finished 9-3, and for their bowl games proceeded to beat a rising Florida and be embarassed by LSU, respectively.

In Coker's last year, the Hurricanes opened 1-2, and by Week 4 were unranked for the first time since Coker came to Miami. Four weeks later, in a game with Florida International, a massive fight broke out, which resulted in 31 players suspended, 13 of which were Hurricanes. They went on to win--

Pause the history here. Miami, two years removed from winning the Orange Bowl, is clearly on the way down. A pair of three-loss seasons is barely a cause for concern, but their last bowl game, a 40-3 shellacking by the LSU Tigers, is slightly unnerving. Now, in 2006, this latest version of The U sits at 4-2, out of the rankings (let alone BCS contention), and has just displayed a massive lack of discipline that casts the school as a haven for thugs. Is this just cause to bring about a change of leadership? Not for the Miami athletic department, who stuck with Coker--only to watch the team finish .500 on the regular season. He was fired the day after the season ended, and Randy Shannon was pronounced the new head coach.

Unfortunately for Shannon, after 2006 Miami's recruiting power had diminished significantly, and he has been feeling these effects over the last four years. He coached Miami to a 28-22 record in four years, the most recent being a 7-5 effort that saw Miami take second in the ACC Coastal Division; interestingly enough, this is where they were supposed to finish. In 2009 they finished 9-4, a mark good enough to earn him a contract extension, but this offer didn't quite make sense: while this is a normal indicator of a team on the rise, especially after a 12-11 record over the past two years, Miami went 0-3 in bowl games under Shannon's watch, and those four losses in 2009 included two very winnable games down the stretch (Clemson and North Carolina). Regardless, he turned them into a winning team, and was not given enough time to reap the rewards.
In summary, Coker was released for driving the Hurricanes into a hole, and Shannon for not getting them out of said hole quickly enough to Miami's liking. The athletic department expected another Larry Coker, but Coker I inherited a team that had been winning bowls, the most recent being a Sugar Bowl win over Florida. Coker II (Shannon) received a shell of greatness, a team that had to scrap out a win over Nevada in the Las Vegas Bowl for his first game as coach, and was given roughly the same window to do great things and restore Miami to "national relevance," as athletic director Kirby Hocutt puts it.

It has been said many times over the past two seasons that Miami has turned the corner, and I agree to a point: they are turning the corner. Randy Shannon did his part in helping to restore the 'Canes to glory; however, his players did him no favors this year, most notably his quarterbacks. Stephen Morris' willingness to play Beamerball and Jacory Harris' last second interception today against USF are, in all likelihood, the difference between this team being 7-5 and 9-3 (or at least 8-4; I'll give them a pass on the Va. Tech game). Regardless, Randy Shannon is now the first big spin in the coaching carousel of 2010-11, and probably the most undeserving victim in the madness to come.

University of Miami Hurricanes' coach Randy Shannon.
Picture property of Walter Iooss Jr./SI

Sunday, October 24, 2010

On Deangelo Hall

November 8, 2008. The ticker at the bottom of the evening news said that Deangelo Hall had signed with the Washington Redskins, and I proceeded to tell all of my friends and family that remotely cared about such things. As an avid fan of both the Virginia Tech Hokies and their NFL products, it was a dream come true, except for one teensy little detail--the last thing the 'Skins needed was a cornerback. Oddly enough, most of the media seemed to be as confused as I was, but their confusion revolved around his being beaten like a redheaded stepchild when he was with Oakland--overlooking the fact that one of the best corners in the league, Nnamdi Asomugha, was on the opposite side of the field.

Hall surprised me by performing respectably in '08, but then his $50 million contract came down from the Washington office, right on the heels of Haynesworth's $100 million. This further convinced me that Dan Snyder was in the category of owners that can only be described as "Al Davis-esque, with a touch of Jerry Jones." Hall's play that year was average, the team as a whole was horrendous (but the defense was pretty dang good), and one had to question what talent could be bought with Hall's none-too-paltry salary.

However, up to this point in 2010, Hall has been exceptional. As of this week (Week 7), he is third on the team in tackles (behind London Fletcher and LaRon Landry who, aside from having similar first names, have more than any two players in the league at 68 apiece) and leads the league with five interceptions. Four of those came today in a 17-14 win over the Chicago Bears, a feat that thrust Hall into the record books, when he became only the 19th player to do so. All four picks were the results of good coverage, and the first two were jaw-dropping feats of athleticism, especially his 92-yard return for the game-winning touchdown; however, one could argue that the other two were due to Jay Cutler's inability to pick out the subtle difference between his team's color scheme and whatever the other team is wearing.

Regardless, today's win was completely brought about by Deangelo, and Snyder can be commended for a rare gem of a signing.

A tip of the hat to you, Mr. Hall. And thank you for the incredible show.

If this looks strikingly similar to an article in another of my blogs, it is. I apologize for the mishap.