Monday, December 19, 2011

Championship Fortnight 2012

Men's Basketball Conference Tournament Schedule 2012
* = Campus Sites
^ Ivy League regular season champion receives auto-bid
3/8 - 3/11
Phillips Arena, Atlanta, GA
America East
3/1 - 3/4, 3/10*
Chase Arena, Hartford, CT
Atlantic 10
3/6*, 3/9 - 3/11
Boardwalk Hall, Atlantic City, NJ
Atlantic Sun
2/29 - 3/3
University Center, Macon, GA (Mercer)
Big 10
3/8 - 3/11
Conseco Fieldhouse, Indianapolis, IN
Big 12
3/7 -3/10
Sprint Center, Kansas City, MO
Big East
3/6 - 3/10
Madison Square Garden, New York, NY
Big Sky
3/3*, 3/6, 3/7
Semi-finals and finals held at regular season champion
Big South
2/27*, 2/29*, 3/1*, 3/3*
Higher seed is home team for all games
Big West
3/8 - 3/10
Honda Center, Anaheim, CA
3/2 - 3/5
Richmond Coliseum, Richmond, VA
3/7 - 3/10
FedEx Forum, Memphis, TN
2/28*, 3/2*, 3/3, 3/6
Semi-finals and finals held at regular season champion
3/5*, 3/7 - 3/10
Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland, OH
3/2 - 3/5
MassMutual Center, Springfield, MA
3/6 - 3/10
Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum, Winston Salem, VA
Mountain West
3/8 - 3/10
Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas, NV
3/1 – 3/4
Scottrade Center, St. Louis, MO
3/1*, 3/4*, 3/7*
Higher seed is home team for all games
2/29 - 3/3
Nashville Municipal Auditorium, Nashville, TN
Pac 12
3/7 - 3/10
Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA
2/29*, 3/3*, 3/7*
Higher seed is home team for all games
3/8 - 3/11
New Orleans Arena, New Orleans, LA
3/2 - 3/5
Asheville Civic Center, Asheville, NC
Leonard E. Merrell Center, Katy, TX
3/3 – 3/6
Sioux Falls Arena, Sioux Falls, SD
Sun Belt
3/3 - 3/6
Summit Arena Convention Center Court, Hot Springs, AR
3/7 - 3/10
Garland Special Events Center, Garland, TX
3/8 - 3/10
Orleans Arena, Paradise, NV
2/29 - 3/3, 3/5
Orleans Arena, Paradise, NV

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

NFC Predictions

Finally, the NFL season is here! To quote Jets linebacker Bart Scott, I "CAN'T WAIT" for Thursday night's season opener between the last two Super Bowl Champions when the New Orleans Saints play at the Green Bay Packers. That will be followed by the traditional Sunday slate of games highlighted by the New York Giants at the Washington Redskins during the afternoon, and the Dallas Cowboys at the New York Jets in prime time Sunday night. Sunday is September 11th, and there will be pre-kickoff ceremonies at stadiums all across the league, but none more significant than those in Washington D.C. and New York City. As has been the case the last few years, ESPN will be showing a double header Monday night that will close out the "opening weekend" (I use quotes since the alleged weekend spans 5 days. In fact, "Thanksgiving weekend" thinks the NFL's "opening weekend" is ridiculous.)

With that out of the way I am going to go through the 4 divisions in each conference and predict how the teams will finish. I am electing not to go with what their record(s) will be simply because I don't feel like going the extra mile to make sure that all of the wins and losses come out to equal one another. First up: The NFC



1) Washington
2) New York^
3) Philadelphia
4) Dallas

Yes, I am really picking the Redskins to win the East. Yes, I am aware you probably think I'm nuts. Let me explain... Mike Shanahan wins football games. After the disaster that ensued in the nation's capital last year, quarterback Donovan McNabb was traded to Minnesota, and the team acquired running back Tim Hightower from Arizona. Rex Grossman was named the starter a few days ago, and while most people don't think he'll fare well this year, I do. In fact, I see him putting up numbers similar to what Jake Plummer put up a few years ago in Denver. With Hightower and rookie Roy Helu, Shanahan now has a stable of running backs that are a match for his zone blocking scheme. I like the defense in Washington as well this season, led by an elite safety in LaRon Landry and linebacker Brian Orakpo. 

I am a big seller on Philadelphia this year. They are a trendy Super Bowl pick amongst talking heads, analysts and fans alike. I am selling for one major reason; the durability of Michael Vick. I don't root for injury (not even for guys on the Steelers) but I have major concerns about a patchwork offensive line (at best) protecting Vick. Backup quarterback Vince Young left last week's preseason game with a hamstring injury and now the team is one injury away from starting the third string quarterback. Furthermore, I have questions about the defense. Yes, they have 2 above average and 1 elite cornerback. Yes, they have an above average defensive line. However, they are weak at linebacker, and are extremely susceptible to the run. Teams that can't stop the run don't win games at a consistent rate. Lastly, there are several advanced metrics (I'll spare you the details) that show that Michael Vick played at an absurdly lucky rate in terms of lack of interceptions last year. In short, I am betting against Vick this season and that will mean the Eagles come up short. Similarly, the Cowboys defense is going to get run on all season. The team did hire new offensive coordinator Rob Ryan this offseason, but a change in scheme can only do so much when you are lacking in personnel. The Cowboys will need to consistently win high scoring games to make the playoffs this season, and I don't trust Tony Romo in terms of making big time plays in the 4th quarter, and also to stay healthy for 16 games. 

Lastly, I have the New York Giants coming in 2nd place in the division, but qualifying for the playoffs as a wild card team. Frankly, I don't have a lot of support for this claim outside of a gut feeling. Eli Manning threw 25 interceptions last season but a significant amount of bad luck came into play in terms of tipped passes, or dropped passes by receivers that ended up being picked off. The team still has one of the best defensive lines in the league, and it will only be better when Osi Umenyora returns from injury a few weeks into the season. There is a whirlwind surrounding the team but I am buying that it will lead to the locker room solidifying and playing above it, much like they did in 2006-07. In fact, I think the Giants are a dark horse team to make the Super Bowl this year.

NFC North:

1) Green Bay#
2) Chicago
3) Detroit
4) Minnesota

I am going to be brief in my explanation of Green Bay as division champion (this is the easiest pick of the 8). They won the Super Bowl last season. A plethora of talented players were injured last season who will return to this year's squad. They have, in my opinion, the best quarterback in the league in Aaron Rodgers. The defense can stop the run and the pass. I don't think I need to say anything else here.

Detroit is the league's feel-good story this preseason. After years of being a downtrodden franchise (along with the city in general), they have overhauled the roster and coaching staff and appear to be on the upswing. Led by defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, the defensive line will be feared by opposing quarterbacks all season. I have questions about the team's ability to stop the run, and I also have questions about the secondary. While having a great pass rush can win you a lot of games, they can't do it all on their own. After personally watching Eric Wright cost the Browns several games last year (most notably the three touchdowns he allowed to Anquan Boldin of the Ravens in week 3, and also the game winning touchdown at the end of overtime against the Jets) he is now the liability of the Lions secondary. If quarterback Matthew Stafford makes it through the season, they could be a 10 win team. I don't see that happening, and I think they are a 6 or 7 win team. 

The Chicago Bears were relatively quiet this offseason. They traded tight end Greg Olsen to the Panthers, and acquired running back Marion Barber and wide receiver Roy Williams through free agency. Both players were disappointments in Dallas, but the Bears are banking on a change of scenery leading to better production. The biggest question with the Bears is how will the offensive line play in front of quarterback Jay Cutler. It is a shaky line, but they have a great line coach in Mike Tice. I see the line gelling enough to keep Cutler upright and able to make plays this year. The defense is one of the oldest in the league so the threat of injury is higher, but they were effective last season. The biggest non-division game on the schedule is the match up with the Atlanta Falcons. I have a hard time seeing Chicago winning this game, and that ultimately will be the biggest reason why they don't make the playoffs.

The Minnesota Vikings are going to have a rough season. Donovan McNabb is past his prime, has below average receivers, and the defense is on the decline. Come December, McNabb will be benched in favor of rookie Christian Ponder and the focus will be on the draft in the spring. It really is amazing to think that the team was nearly in the Super Bowl two seasons ago with the Old Gunslinger at the helm. The team needs to rebuild and find out if Ponder has any potential to run the team. They should also think about trading Adrian Peterson. That won't happen, but it is the fastest way to acquire draft picks to fix the holes all over the roster.

NFC South:

1) New Orleans#
2) Atlanta ^
3) Tampa Bay
4) Carolina

Let me get this out of the way: Carolina is awful, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they pick #1 overall for a second straight year. They have zero chance of contending for a playoff spot, and I’m now done writing about them.
Tampa Bay had a very surprising 10-6 record last season, but they had a very easy schedule. To quote the great Jim Ross of the WWE “Business is about to pick up!” (Yes, I went there.) The schedule will be considerably more difficult this season, and they are still an extremely young team. I was very underwhelmed with their (lack of) moves this offseason, and I expect the defense to regress this season. Josh Freeman is developing into a very good starting quarterback, but he has a very young receiving corps to throw to. Young teams have a hard time performing consistently, and as such I have a hard time seeing the Bucs being anything better than 8-8.

The battle for the division crown in the South will be a war all season long. Both New Orleans and Atlanta are loaded on offense, and will score nearly at will this season. However, New Orleans has a better defense than Atlanta, and that ultimately will be the difference in their two head-to-head matchups. After being waxed by Green Bay in the playoffs last season, Atlanta traded their 1st, 2nd, and 4th round picks in the 2011 draft and also their 1st and 4th picks in next year’s draft to Cleveland to acquire wide receiver Julio Jones. While he is a tremendous athlete, it is extremely rare for a rookie wide receiver to have an impactful first season. That said, most rookie receivers don’t enter an explosive offense where they are the third option on most plays. I bring this up because the Falcons chose to bring in an offensive weapon and give up a lot of valuable draft picks in the process as opposed to using those picks to fill holes on the offensive and defensive lines. After being upset in the first round of the playoffs last year, the Saints completely overhauled their running back stable. They drafted Heisman trophy winner Mark Ingram in the 1st round of the draft, and signed former Chargers running back Darren Sproles. The team parted ways with the over-hyped and underperforming Reggie Bush. In short, the Saints realized that they couldn’t contend for a championship by relying on quarterback Drew Brees having to make every play in the passing game. This team is very dangerous this season, and will be a serious contender to win their 2nd Super Bowl in 3 seasons. Atlanta will make the playoffs as a Wild Card team, but it remains to be seen if they can be a successful playoff team. As good as they have been the last few years, they have not won a playoff game since the Michael Vick era.

NFC West:

1) Seattle
2) St. Louis
3) Arizona
4) San Francisco

The NFC West is the worst division in the league. The best way to describe it is a train wreck. One could put the four teams on four pieces of paper and pull them out of a hat to pick the order they will finish. San Francisco hired Jim Harbaugh in the offseason, and the front office hopes that he can turn around former 1st overall pick Alex Smith’s career. He can’t. Smith has been terrible from day 1, and is the poster child for why quarterbacks who dominated by playing out of a spread offense in college are terrible in the NFL (looking at you, Tim Tebow and Cam Newton). The defense lost Aubrayo Franklin and Nate Clements in free agency and they were 2 of their 3 best players. It’s going to be a long season in the Bay Area. Arizona traded for quarterback Kevin Kolb from Philadelphia after the lockout. Kolb has started a total of 7 games in his career, has a terrible running game behind him and a subpar offensive line blocking for him. Also, outside of all-world receiver Larry Fitzgerald, he has nobody to throw the ball too. The defense is on the decline, and their best player will attempt to play this season with a ruptured bicep muscle. Typing that hurt, and I don’t want to even imagine how much pain Adrian Wilson will experience.

Seattle beat St. Louis in the last regular season game of the final week last season to win the division and make the playoffs. St. Louis has been an extremely trendy pick this preseason to win the division. They did upgrade a bit on the defensive side of the ball, but they are lacking in playmakers on the offensive side. Sam Bradford played very well for a rookie last season, but the guy that called the plays is now the head coach in Cleveland. Josh McDaniels (last seen being run out of Denver) will take over the play calling duties this season. It will be interesting to see if he and Bradford will be on the same page and if the offense will be tailored to Bradford’s strengths. The McDaniels offense is based on vertical passes down the field whereas Bradford is more suited for a west coast offense based on timing and accuracy. Seattle has major questions at the quarterback position with the underwhelming Tavaris Jackson/Charlie Whitehurst combination. Had Seattle been able to acquire Carson Palmer from the Bengals I feel they would be a slam dunk pick to win the division. Outside of the quarterback position, Seattle has a good amount of talent throughout the roster (admittedly, the quarterback is the most important position so this could be a moot point). My biggest reason for picking the Seahawks is that I believe in head coach Pete Carroll. He had a fantastic game plan against the Saints last season in the playoffs, which lead to arguably the biggest upset of all-time. He will find a way to make it happen again this season. The Seahawks also have the ultimate home field advantage in the NFL, making it extremely hard for the visiting team to win.

Let me just say this: it is impossible to know for certain what will happen when making predictions of this nature. I listen to a plethora of podcasts and radio shows as well as reading articles and base my opinions off of this information. In some of these predictions I agree with the majority of the pundits. In both the East and West I have gone against the consensus picks of Philadelphia and St. Louis. Feel free to comment if you like. I’d like to get some feedback and see what everyone else thinks! AFC predictions, Browns-Bengals preview, and week 1 picks to follow this week. Definitely going to be busy writing the next few days. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

FedEx Cup/The Barclays Preview

FedEx Cup Playoffs/The Barclays Preview
What: Playoffs Tournament #1; The Barclays
Where: Plainfield Country Club, Edison NJ
When: 8/25-8/28
TV: Golf Channel T/F 3-6pm, Sat 1-230 pm, Sun 12-130; CBS 3-6pm Sat, 2-6pm Sun

PLAYOFFS? YOU WANT TO TALK ABOUT... PLAYOFFS? Ah, yes. The now infamous tirade from former NFL head coach Jim Mora Sr.(or, the old dude in the Coors Light commercial) At any rate, the PGA Tour's FedEx Cup Playoffs begin on Thursday, and I am very much looking forward to the next 5 weeks. The  1st event is this week's The Barclays, at Plainfield Country Club. Interestingly enough, this course has not held a Tour event before. As such, I am not familiar with it, so it will be hard to do much of a preview for the event. The Tour takes next week off, and then it is a frantic 3 weeks to crown a champion at the Tour Championship. The top 125 players this season are eligible for the playoffs based on their point totals accumulated from how they placed in the tournaments they competed in. The rankings coming into the playoffs shape up like this:

After this week's event, players 101-125 will be eliminated from the competition. Next week, the remaining players will compete in the Deutsche Bank Championship at TPC Boston. Players 71-100 will be eliminated after that event. After a week off, the remaining players will participate in the BMW Championship at Cog Hill outside of Chicago. The top 30 players will compete in the final tournament, The Tour Championship at East Lake in Atlanta. The first 3 FedEx Cup tournaments carry 5x the points of a regular Tour event, so players towards the bottom of the standings have a chance to make a big jump. In the Tour Championship, the points are reset so that any player in the top 5 that wins the Tour Championship automatically wins the entire Playoffs, and the 10 million dollar purse. 

While the points component sounds like it would be difficult to follow, the TV graphics constantly update to the minute. It is actually very intense as there are big swings in the standings every few holes. This week could potentially become pretty crazy as Hurricane Irene threatens the Eastern Seaboard this weekend. I'm not sure what the Tour plans on doing if the weather becomes an issue, but I could possibly see them playing 36 holes on Saturday if necessary. The main storylines to follow during the tournament are who from the bottom 25 players makes a jump in the standings, and who among the top players are in top form. Over the last 2 years, only 10 players out of the bottom 50 (collectively) have made the cut to the Deustche Bank Championship. From the research that I've done about the course, it seems to favor players who are accurate off the tee, don't make mistakes, and are elite level putters. There are only a few long holes, which takes away the advantage of the big hitters. Also, the 18th hole is a driveable par 4, measuring just 285 yards. It does play uphill which means it will play longer than the listed yardage. That being said, there are a few areas of very long wispy type grass that will bring high scores into play.

Over the course of the last 4 years, nobody has played better in these FedEx Cup events than Steve Stricker. He has a remarkable 10 finishes in the top 10 (out of 16 events), and has won 3 events including the inagural FedEx Cup tournament in 2007. This has garnered him the nickname "Mr. September".  However, he hasn't won the FedEx Cup in any year. A lot of experts are picking him to pull it off this season. Veterans have performed better than the young guys in the playoffs, so that would favor guys in the top 10 like Stricker, Donald, Mickelson, Choi, and Toms. It is virtually impossible to pick a winner just because there are so many guys that can win. I will get more in-depth with the field and course next week at TPC Boston. As it stands, I look forward to watching the action this weekend and to see who from the bottom 25 makes the cut for next week. Only a total of 10 players (out of 50) the last 2 years have made the jump from 101-125 into the top 100. The highest overall finish in the playoffs after starting in the bottom 25 is 8th, accomplished by Heath Slocum in 2009. I'll be back in this space next week with another post. Until then, enjoy the playoffs!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Glory's Last Shot

 93rd PGA Championship Preview

Atlanta Athletic Club, 18th hole
2001 Champion, David Toms
Course: Atlanta Athletic Club, Johns Club, GA
When: 8/11-8/14
TV: 1-7pm Thurs/Fri, TNT; 11am-2pm, TNT, 2pm-7pm CBS Sat/Sun
Defending Champion: Martin Kaymer (277*, won in playoff)

            “Glory’s last shot”. This phrase used to carry more meaning just a few short years ago, before the creation of the FedEx Cup (the PGA TOUR’s “playoffs”). That phrase used to signify the end of significant golf tournaments until the following season. As it stands, it still represents a player’s last chance at winning one of the four “major” championships of the season. Further, the top 10 roster spots for both the United States and International President’s Cup teams will be locked in Sunday evening. There is a lot riding on the line this week for a large number of players. As history will show, of the four majors, the PGA has produced the most journeymen winners. By that I mean, players without much of a track record have won the tournament more frequently than any of the other three. Will a player come from nowhere and contend this weekend? Only time will tell.
            As predicted last week, Tiger Woods did not factor whatsoever in last weekend’s WGC Bridgestone Invitational. Also predicted last week, Adam Scott and his caddy, Steve Williams stole the headlines. I did not foresee the circus that followed the tournament, or Scott winning per se, just that if he contended it would be a big story. Once again, I am not predicting Tiger to be much of a factor. He will lead all of the press coverage on Sportscenter, but that will be in name value only. I can see Scott contending again this weekend, but it is extremely difficult (and rare) for a player to win back to back tournaments. I’ll get to my top players in just a bit.
            Atlanta Athletic Club is a challenging golf course and will provide a tough test for the field this week. The course plays very long off the tee, and the greens will be very fast. This means that hitting tee shots in the fairway is of the utmost importance. It also means that it will be difficult to get the ball close to the hole. That being said, these are the best players in the world, and I would be shocked if the scoring is high. I would expect the winning score to be anywhere from 8 to 12 shots under par. There are two holes of note: the 265 yard par 3 15th and the 507 yard par 4 18th. For starters, a par 3 that plays more than 230 yards is extremely rare. The green is narrow, and there is water to the right. Making a par on this hole would be considered a minor miracle depending on where the pin is located. The finishing hole also plays over water on the second shot. When the tournament was last played at this course in 2001, David Toms laid up with his second shot instead of going for the green (he held a one shot lead). He went on to make a par and win the tournament (photo above). The pressure will be intense Sunday afternoon, and these closing two holes will make for some great drama.
            One of the interesting dynamics of major tournaments is always the draw of the groups in the first two rounds. This week will have several groups that feature the top players in the game. They are as follows:
1)    Rory McIlroy, Darren Clarke, Charl Schwartzel
2)    Matt Kuchar, Lee Westwood, Jason Day
3)    Steve Stricker, Paul Casey, Miguel Angel Cabrera
4)    Davis Love III, Tiger Woods, Padraig Harrington
5)    Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler, Sergio Garcia
6)    David Toms, Vijay Singh, Phil Mickelson
              There are also several groups that feature past champions of this event, as well as other top TOUR  pros that are near the top of the FedEx Cup standings. My top picks to win this weekend are Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, and Steve Stricker. McIlroy did not have a good first round last week at Firestone, but he rallied to post three consecutive solid rounds to finish in a tie for 6th. As I mentioned last week, Rory had a record breaking performance at the U.S. Open in June, and there is no reason to believe that he won’t be near the top of the leaderboard this weekend. Jason Day played phenomenal golf last weekend to finish in a tie for 4th place. He has the power and moxie to make a run at his first major this weekend. Finally, I think that Steve Stricker has a great chance to win his first major at the age of 44. I should point out that he is my favorite player on the TOUR, and if he were to win I would be really fired up. While he isn’t the longest hitter, he possesses and outstanding short game and is arguably the best putter in the world. 
            Obviously, all of the game’s best players are in the field this week, and any of them can win. There are also a handful of players off the radar and it’s always possible a guy will come out of nowhere. That is part of the beauty of the game of golf: everybody who tees it up has a chance to win. I hope that some of you checked out last weekend’s tournament. I really hope that everyone watches at least the last round on Sunday afternoon. Besides, what else do you have to do?

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

World Golf Championships: Bridgestone Invitational Preview

WGC: Bridgestone Invitational Preview + The Return of Eldrick (Does it Matter?)
Course: Firestone Country Club (South Course); Akron, OH
When: 8/4-8/7
TV: Golf Channel 2-6pm Thurs/Fri, 12-130pm Sat/Sun; CBS 2-6pm Sat/Sun
Defending Champion: Hunter Mahan (268)
                You may have heard that Tiger Woods will return to competitive golf at this week’s WGC Bridgestone Invitational. I will pose the question: does it matter? Quite frankly, I will be stunned if Tiger is on the first page of the leaderboard at any point on the weekend. This is not your run-of-the-mill PGA TOUR event. To even qualify for a WGC event, a player has to be in the top 50 of the Official World Golf Rankings (OWGR) or have played in the most recent Ryder Cup. These are the top players in the world, and to expect Tiger to just show up 3 months removed from his last competitive round (which lasted a total of 9 holes) and contend is not very realistic. This isn’t 2008 where Tiger could win the most difficult tournament in the world on one leg. Unless you live under a rock I don’t need to go into details about his fall from grace. He also has gone through a severe knee injury, and the reason he hasn’t teed it up since May is because of an injured achilles’ tendon. If he can prove to himself that he is healthy, and puts in the requisite work on his game, he can once again contend and win events. The sport can survive without Tiger, but it is better overall when he is at least in contention.

                With that out of the way, I’d like to take a look at who else is in the field this week. As mentioned above, every player in the field is world-class. In fact, each of the top 10 players in the OWGR will be playing this week. Not everyone in the field is on top of their game at the moment, but it is not out of the realm of possibility for anyone in the field to win. Due to the quality of the field, the tournament usually hangs in the balance until the very end on Sunday afternoon. The signature hole on the South Course is the famous 16th (which is where the picture above is taken). It is a 667 yard par 5, but it plays much shorter than that yardage as it is severely downhill off the tee. The players’ approach shots are over a pond to a green where the Sunday flag location is perilously close to disaster. Oh, I probably should have mentioned that the winner of the event will take home a paltry $1.4 million and 550 FedEx Cup points. Needless to say, the pressure will be intense on the back 9 holes on Sunday for those contending for the win. There are 4 WGC events per year, and they are all very prestigious tournaments to win. The competition will be intense, and I am very much looking forward to watching the coverage this weekend (and having the leaderboard up at work Thursday and Friday!)
             Lastly, I wanted to highlight a few players who are coming into this event in good form. Based on his t-2 finish at the Open Championship a few weeks back, I would have included Phil Mickelson on this list. I say would because he inexplicably missed the cut last week at the Greenbrier, and therefore I do not foresee winning this weekend (but hey, you never know.) Nick Watney has had a very strong season, and is leading the FedEx Cup points list. He also won the last WGC event at Doral in March. Steve Stricker has won 2 of the last 4 tournaments he has participated in, including the Memorial Tournament in Columbus in May, and has finished in the top 10 each of the last 2 years in this event. Both Adam Scott and Dustin Johnson have been in good form for the last few months, which is good for them but also good for the sport. Interestingly, Scott now has Steve Williams as his full-time caddie. He had been on Tiger’s bag for the last 12 years, but their relationship had become strained, and Woods just recently relieved Williams of his duties. This would become a huge storyline if both are in contention this weekend, or if they somehow were to be paired together. Finally, Rory McIlroy returns to U.S. soil for the first time since his historic win at the U.S. Open at Congressional in June. He hasn’t contended in any event since, but he has only played a few events. It would be foolish not to include him in this list.
              For those of you wondering why I took the time to write about golf, let me explain. I absolutely LOVE the sport. I love to play (even though I’m not particularly good), and I love to watch it. I even watch the European Tour on Saturday and Sunday mornings. I will be previewing 5 more tournaments in the coming weeks, and later in the fall there will be an in-depth preview of the President’s Cup (with the help of a good friend of mine.) If you are reading this just for the hell of it and aren’t much into golf I will suggest that you give it a shot. It is very easy to follow the ball in HD, and the commentators do a very good job of explaining what the players are trying to do. The crowd will be electric this weekend and if you have never watched a tournament before, this would be a good place to start. Trust me, coming from a guy who used to detest soccer and now watches European club soccer, as well as international competitions, sometimes you just have to dedicate a few hours and give something new a try.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

2011 Season Preview + Turnover Analysis

The Beginning of a New Era (Again...)   
                With the owners’ lockout of the players finally over, it is time for the Browns to begin training camp. This upcoming season marks yet another drastic change in both the coaching staff and scheme as the franchise tries to find an identity. Without question, the lockout was damaging to not only the Browns, but any team that made a coaching change in the off-season, had plans to change schemes, or overturned their roster. In just a few short weeks, new head coach Pat Shurmur is faced with the daunting task of installing his version of the West Coast Offense, and implementing a new 4-3 scheme on defense.  Both systems are what Browns President Mike Holmgren utilized in Green Bay and Seattle as head coach. I should point out that as a head coach, Holmgren led the Seahawks to the Super Bowl (losing to Pittsburgh), and the Packers to two Super Bowls (beating New England, losing to Denver).  Starting this year, Holmgren is officially on the clock for results after hand-picking his coach (Shurmur) and dumping the final remnants of the previous régime since taking control of the front office.

                Without getting too technical, the changes the Browns are making on defense sound basic, but in reality they are not. The Browns have utilized a 3-4 defensive scheme since Romeo Crennel was first hired as head coach. In the 3-4, there are 3 down lineman, 4 linebackers and 4 defensive backs. In this set, the linebackers are expected to create pressure on the quarterback from blitzes that come from different angles, or drop into zone coverage and bait the quarterback into making bad throws. The negative of this set (as anyone who has watched a Browns game will tell you) is that the defense is very susceptible to the opposing offense running the ball.  As previously stated, the Browns are switching to a 4-3 set this season. In this scheme, there are 4 down lineman, 3 linebackers and 4 defensive backs. In the 4-3, the defensive line is primarily responsible for rushing the passer with the linebackers occasionally blitzing. This set is more conducive to stopping the run, and in the AFC North division it is preferable from this observer’s perspective as both Pittsburgh and Baltimore run the ball effectively. The downside to this set is that if the defensive line is unable to generate a pass rush, the opposing quarterback will have time to go through his progression and deliver the ball to his receiver. The issue the Browns will have this season is that most defensive players (based on their athleticism or skill set) are suited to play in either the 3-4 or 4-3, but not both. Needless to say, the defense will be a work in progress and it will take some time to bring in the personnel needed to make it effective.

                Also new this season will be coach Shurmur’s version of the West Coast Offense. In this system, the base formation contains only one running back, and does not use a lead-blocking fullback. Depending on down and distance, the Browns will use a 2 wide receiver/2 tight end set, a 3 wide receiver/1 tight end set, or a 4 wide receiver set without a tight end. In this offense, the Browns will use a lot of short or intermediate passing along with the power running of running back Peyton Hillis. This offense should benefit quarterback Colt McCoy as accuracy and decision making are his two best attributes. It will be his responsibility to read the defense and deliver the ball on time to his receivers. If the Browns are to have any chance at success this season, the offense must accomplish two things: limit turnovers, and put points on the board. It is the former that piqued my interest, and led me to do the research for this article.
              There are two clichés that football commentators, coaches, and analysts use when breaking down a matchup on Sundays (or Mondays, or Thursdays). The first is that “the team that wins all three phases of the game- offense, defense, and special teams is who will be victorious today” and the second is “the team that wins the turnover battle will most likely win this game.” I decided to look into the turnover aspect to see if I could identify any trends. The results were rather startling. I compiled the turnover data from every single game the Browns have played since their reincarnation into the NFL in 1999 (taken from the box scores on the Browns team page at If you have followed the team over the last 11 years, you are aware that the team has been pretty futile, to the tune of a 64-129 record (.332 win %), and only one playoff season. There are a multitude of reasons for the record being as poor as it is, and they are too many to list in this space. However, if one were to look exclusively at the team’s record based on the result of the turnover differential a pattern emerges:

Turnover Differential
Win Percentage
</= -2
>/= 2

                To explain the data, I took the Browns record in 5 different scenarios with respect to the turnover differential: less than or equal to -2 (where the Browns had at least 2 more turnovers than the opposition), -1, even, +1 and greater than or equal to +2 (where the opponent had at least 2 more turnovers than the Browns). As you can see, the winning percentage increases dramatically as the ratio turns in the Browns favor. Limiting the amount of turnovers on offense, and forcing turnovers on defense directly correlates into winning games at a higher percentage. Keep this in mind when watching the team this season. Hopefully Colt McCoy is able to thrive in the new system, and the defense is able to make enough plays to give the team a chance at a respectable first season for new head coach Pat Shurmur. It will be interesting to see how the season plays out. I am not expecting anything better than a 6-10 record. However, going forward, I think the team has the right people in place in the front office to both draft the right types of players and acquire others through trades and free agency. For the first time in a long time, the Browns have the owner, front office and coach all on the same page and going in the same direction. Good Lord willing it pays off with a successful run over the next several years for a franchise and city that desperately wants to win.