Wednesday, September 18, 2013

week 2 thoughts: not today

"There is only one god, and his name is Death. And there is only one thing we say to Death: Not today."*
* I spent most of my summer every reading "A Song of Ice and Fire." It's gonna come up periodically. I apologize in advance.

The bulk of a sports fan's life is learning how to deal with losing.

It's true. For as much as talking heads — most of them former coaches — blather on about "the team that makes the least mistakes" or whatever, more games are lost than won. This is particularly true in football — I've been a fan of Alabama football since I was in third grade (1989), and I can remember just about every important game the team has played in that time period.
The difference between winning and losing, then, has always been the mistakes.
In a way, this summarizes exactly what "Sabanball" really is (and, conversely, why so many people hate it). It's an effort to take all the mistakes — all the "losing plays" — out of the game. What's left is a cold, efficient machine that grinds up whatever is in its path.

For a Bama fan who grew up reading about the old Bryant teams — while watching Mike Dubose and Mike Shula teams in front of him — that style has meant a dominance not seen in college football since the 1970s. It's been an odd thing, really — this is a team that has seen more success in the past five years than some fan bases will see in their lifetimes.
But there is still the matter of defending that position. And when it came down to it, revenge vs. Texas A&M wasn't as important to me as simply not losing.

Which, of course, is what followed.
No matter what you think of Alabama, the idea of going on the road against a team as good as the Aggies, immediately going down 14 points and ultimately giving up over 600 yards of total offense seems like a recipe for disaster, one of those days when the home fans tear down the goalposts and make home videos to treasure for a lifetime.
But not Saturday, and not against this Alabama team.
The difference in the game, it turned out, were Johnny Manziel's two interceptions. One of them derailed an almost certain touchdown; the other turned into 7 for Alabama in the opposite direction.
The final? 49-42, in favor of the visitors.
More games are lost than won.

There are, obviously, miles to travel in the 2013 season. No law says Alabama is guaranteed a championship, even if the toughest games left on the schedule — Ole Miss, LSU — are at home (and winnable). But it gives me pride to see this team rage against the dying of light. It should make us all proud.

Some other thoughts ...
• We traveled to Texas over the weekend, visiting friends who live in Killeen, and visited campus on Saturday (didn't make it into the stadium, though — too expensive and way too hot). I'd say College Station is a slightly nicer version of Mississippi State (so, Troy, basically). What made up for it were the people, who could not have been more courteous to their visitors. We visited one tailgate — a friend of a friend, kinda — and the matriarch there gave us all "Texas Aggie hugs" upon arrival. "Make sure y'all tell everybody how nice we are," she said. Hopefully this qualifies.
• No more shade to throw at The Magnificent Johnny Manziel*. Maybe he's a spoiled brat or a hustler, but on Saturday he did things that simply boggled the mind. And while we're here, can we encourage Mike Evans to go pro? Good Lord.
* Probably the most objectively stupid argument I've heard thus far against Manziel for a second Heisman is the fact that A&M lost the game. The guy accounted for yard totals that defy the laws of nature, and he was betrayed by a defense that simply couldn't hold up against the top-ranked team in America. And while we're here, he wouldn't have won the Heisman last year if his defense hadn't stepped up to stop Alabama on its final drive. This is a whole other entry at some point.

• Equally unshaded is Alabama's offensive line, which went from suspect to dominant in a matter of two weeks. Alabama's tailback depth also suddenly looks daunting as well — Jalston Fowler looked great, and 2012's Human Victory Cigar, Kenyan Drake, may be faster than anyone. Of course, T.J. Yeldon remains the bell cow, his key fumble notwithstanding. Just nice to have options.
• On that note, Alabama used some unusual formations to attack the Aggies on the ground, occasionally even lining up five people — a tight end and two H-backs — tight to one side of the formation. The effects were obvious. I'm going to assume we didn't use any of this stuff in Week 1 because we didn't need it.
• Whatever can be said about the defense's performance Saturday has already been said. Allow me to point out, though, that we played most of Saturday without Deion Belue and still haven't seen Geno Smith since his DUI arrest. Oh, and one other thing ...
• We almost lost Haha Clinton-Dix in the second quarter to football's newest reactionary rule: penalizing "targeting," or blows to the head against "defenseless players," as defined by the rules. It's tough to blame the official, who's seeing a play happen in front of him at 100 miles per hour, taking into account the directive he's receiving from upstairs — "Protect the receiver's head" — and hearing whoops from the A&M bench, begging for a flag.
Instead, let's just lay out the problem with the entire initiative: It's an effort by the people who govern football — a violent sport in which highly trained young men crash into one another at high rates of speed — to make the game "safe." Football is not "safe," by nature. Attempts to make it safe by putting your referees on high alert only penalizes a player for doing his job.
Moreover, the NCAA has already acknowledged how dumb the rule is by taking away virtually all of its teeth. In essence, the replay booth can now say, "We have looked at the play and determined no foul occurred, so the player who was erroneously flagged gets to stay in the game. But we're not overturning the penalty itself for some reason, because ... you know, whatever." It's equivalent of an unfunded mandate to the guys in the stripes.
• I don't have a good ending for this entry. Honestly, by game's end, watching from Killeen, we were all exhausted, relieved and maybe a little drunk.
It was pretty great.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

week 1 thoughts: something to say

Editor's note: So, remember when I said I was probably going to post here only with sporadic frequency? Yeah, about that. Turns out there's a lot going on these days, that's going to keep me from my slavish devotion to the blog (not shutting down ... just saying). I still am frequent on Twitter, as most of you already know, and a good bit of what I used to do here I can now do there. We'll just keep our relationship here week to week, OK? OK.

So, in my unofficial return to blogging, I mentioned that one of the reasons I took a step back from this particular gig is that I sort of ran out of things to say. Anyone who has ever attempted to write for a living knows that fear living inside him: A blank page with nothing to fill it.
There were a number of reasons for that, but one of the biggest was Alabama football itself, and the Saban machine. Alabama football, as most of you know, is one of the first loves I ever had in my life, and as such I tend to approach everything related to the program with a sense of dread and trepidation. It's just that this recent run — 61-5 after last Saturday's comfortable slugfest vs. Va. Tech — has taken away a lot of room for skepticism.
There are any number of ways to quantify this, but here's one: Since the 2008 whipping of Clemson in Atlanta, Alabama has entered a game as an underdog ... I don't know, 3 times? Four? When was the last time — the BCS MNCG vs. LSU? And we all remember how that turned out.
This status as the king of college football — "where we belong," in the parlance of the Bama Nation — is at once thrilling and problematic. It's more fun to play the scrappy underdog, right? It's why we always complain we're not getting enough respect, even though we've been ranked in the top 5 of every major college football poll for 34 consecutive weeks.

Saturday afternoon in the Georgia Dome, then, was a recipe in which Alabama could only disappoint. Admittedly, it was a difficult watch, even for the most ardent fan (my dad texted me during the third quarter to declare it "boring"). Alabama was limited to a paltry 3.3 yards per play, and barely over 200 yards total. T.J. Yeldon finished with 75 yards rushing, and A.J. McCarron took four sacks (and was moving his feet all night, even when he managed to throw the ball away). For most of the night the team looked like less the big bad behemoths of the sport, and more like a flawed team struggling to find its identity.
And yet, the final score was 35-10. In our favor.
Look, nobody's happy with Saturday's effort. It's not good enough to win a division championship, let alone a conference or a national title (and really, at this point anything less would be disappointing). Still, let us assume the following, for the sake of being positive (a rarity for me):
• Alabama will improve, and has the talent to play much better. Saturday night was a C-, but Bama's C- is still better than most teams in the country.
• Va. Tech maybe is better than we thought (note: Trevor Matich apparently told the Finebaum audience that VT's defense is the best we will see all season, including LSU ... probably not true, but there it is). And they'd been preparing to shock the universe since January.
• Alabama was playing left-handed — that is, without its full game plan — and will install its full game plan before next Saturday in Texas.
(Note: Does anyone feel better yet?)

Some other thoughts ...
• Lost in the furor over the offense's putrid performance was the defense, which was gashed for exactly one big play, and crippled Va. Tech after halftime. VT's offensive output in the second half: punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, punt. They crossed the 50-yard line exactly once, after a punt return in the fourth quarter, then immediately went backwards three yards ... and punted. It's a pretty workmanlike performance from a defense that defines itself by workmanlike performances.
• For all the hype about Alabama's backfield, right now we have exactly one tailback that looks competent. God help us if something happens to T.J. Yeldon.

• This may have been the year when the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic finally went over the edge.  Aside from the constant name-dropping and the endless promotions, Chick-fil-A also decided this was the year that the winner of the game would receive a trophy for its efforts: The Old Leather Helmet*. This was probably a better idea in production meetings; unfortunately, not only had most of the fans left by the time the trophy was presented, but Alabama's players and coaches were so disgusted by their own effort, they were in kind of a hurry to get to the locker room so they could go home.
Instead, everyone lingered on the field, to celebrate ... what, exactly? Winning the opener in lackluster fashion? Do we even have room for that trophy?
(On the bright side, it led to a hilarious moment in which offensive guard Anthony Steen was holding the trophy, prompting one fan near me to suggest they told him to hold "cause he hasn't s--- else all night").
* According to its website, Chick-fil-A has presented this trophy to the winner of its annual game every year since 2008. I have no memory of them doing this in 2009, but I am also old and losing my marbles at a remarkably rapid pace.

• So what was the problem with the offensive line Saturday? I confess it was difficult to tell from my seat in Section 331 — a few times, it seemed Va. Tech simply stacked the line of scrimmage, to the point that the defenders outnumbered our blockers. At other times it seemed like we were just whipped, man for man. Interestingly, our best success seemed to come on counter actions and sweeps; with the defense flowing so hard to the ball, breaking the line of scrimmage meant big plays.
• I am tempted to say, "Without those kick returns, we're not nearly as comfortable at the end." Then again, kicking is 1/3 of the game, right? No reason to apologize there.

In any case, the season is still very young, and hopefully there will be much more to say.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

newspaper column: in the key of me

We can all use a good editor

Here’s a technique whose popularity is increasing: writing in the "key of me."

I have no idea who coined the phrase – I wish I could take credit for it, but I picked it up from either a column or a blog or possibly on the radio (I stay in the car a lot). It probably originated as a musical term, but works for this purpose well.

A columnist writing in the "key of me" is typically taking his or her own feelings or experiences, then generalizing them to the populace, even if there’s little to no basis for doing so. If this sounds familiar, it’s probably the most scathing indictment of the column you’re reading – your life bears no resemblance to mine, you weirdo, so stop trying to make it seem like anybody understands what you’re saying.

Keep reading: We can all use a good editor

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

reality dose: Saban and the hurry-up

We talk about this all the time, I suppose, but one of the realities of Alabama's recent run under Nick Saban is this: It's pretty boring.
Not boring, for the record, in the sense that having the same team win over and over again is boring; when that team is your team (here I am!) that's actually pretty awesome. I mean "boring," in the sense of Alabama's style of play, best envisioned as a python slowly tightening its grip on its prey, until it snaps its neck. Whether at home or on the road, Alabama is at its best when it is boring — the opposing offense cannot score, Alabama's OL is controlling the line of scrimmage ... and eventually, snap.
It is great if you're an Alabama fan, or if you're a gridiron nerd who loves to see sound, well-played football. If you're a casual fan, though? Someone who just wants to watch an entertaining game? Not as great.

In light of all that, and with Saban's Alabama poised to make a run at yet another title in 2013 — likely a doomed effort, but we can get into that later — there needed to be some kind of storyline to make them seem more vulnerable. It has come in the form of the debate over the "up-tempo offense." 
All this actually started in October of last year, when Saban opined about the topic following a tough but not terribly exciting win over Ole Miss. If you're reading this, you can sing along with him:
"I think that the way people are going no-huddle right now, that at some point in time, we should look at how fast we allow the game to go in terms of player safety. The team gets in the same formation group, you can't substitute defensive players, you go on a 14-, 16-, 18-play drive and they're snapping the ball as fast as you can go and you look out there and all your players are walking around and can't even get lined up. That's when guys have a much greater chance of getting hurt when they're not ready to play.
"I think that's something that can be looked at. It's obviously created a tremendous advantage for the offense when teams are scoring 70 points and we're averaging 49.5 points a game. With people that do those kinds of things. More and more people are going to do it.
"I just think there's got to be some sense of fairness in terms of asking is this what we want football to be?"
I caught a portion of Saban doing a radio spot during SEC Media Days, and he essentially reiterated the same talking point, almost word-for-word.  Boiled down, the point is this: As we become more concerned about player safety — specifically, the safety of a player's head — does it not behoove us to at least consider the wisdom behind a tactic that will, ultimately, increase the number of plays in a game (for comparison's sake, the average "up-tempo" offense runs 10-15 more plays than a regular offense) and decrease the opportunities to substitute those players? Are we not, in so doing, increasing their risk?

Naturally, people who are not fans of Alabama see something else in this position: Saban's defenses struggle against whirling dervish type offenses, and he wants it shut down. It's the equivalent of a slugger who's angry because he can't hit a splitter — at best, he's a pompous brat who's angry that someone is gaining an advantage over him; at worst, he's betraying his own personal fears about his long-term ability to exist in the sport.
As with most things in this state, the debate over "up-tempo offense" has become a flashpoint in the Alabama-Auburn rivalry. With Auburn hiring Gus Malzahn, the Tigers are (apparently) fully committed to playing at the fastest speed possible.
(Hang on, this gives me an excuse to do this.)
Malzahn's offensive system has been a fun topic since he came to Auburn in 2009, as fans were thrilled his offense gave them a fighting chance they wouldn't have otherwise, while simultaneously fretting that the speed of the offense hurt them on D.
(Note: It's not clear whether the up-tempo offense ever actually hurt them defensively. Auburn was a terrible defensive team during the Gene Chizik era with alarming consistency, but it's not clear whether that was ever Malzahn's fault. For the record, Chizik asked Gus to "slow it down" for 2011, and things weren't much better; and they were putrid in 2012 with ... uh, whatever the guy's name was that ran the "hybrid" offense.)

In any case, the talking point among Auburn fans — and, I suppose, fans of Ole Miss and Texas A&M and anybody whose coaching staff plans to install such an offensive scheme — is that Nick Saban and Kirby Smart can't defend this offense, and this will be their reckoning in the future. One commenter the paper highlighted in Sunday's edition stated that it was a "proven fact."
The answer to this is, needless to say, multi-faceted.

First off, let's not pretend the hurry-up offense was invented last week. For most of my life — and remember, I spend a good chunk of my time watching football — there has been some coach somewhere who was attempting to play at a speed faster than his opposition. The Buffalo Bills, for one, made the no-huddle a cottage industry in the early 1990s, and I am certain they weren't the first.
As for the assertion that Alabama "can't stop it" ... well, there are a few layers to that answer as well. It is absolutely true that the Nick Saban defense is a complex one that is built around putting certain personnel groups on the field at the right time, and adjusting each call to the offense's specific personnel. Moreover, Saban and Smart (I'm referring to them like a law firm until otherwise instructed) love to "check" at the line of scrimmage when they see the offense calling an audible. This is typically in response to a "check with me" audible of the spread offense — that goofy thing where the entire offense stands up and stares at the sideline to get the play. In short, Saban wants nothing less than the perfect personnel with exactly the perfect call, on every play.
And the up-tempo offense disrupts that. The up-tempo offense, much like a full-court press in basketball, is essentially built around the concept of chaos. There is no putting the perfect personnel grouping  on the field, nor checking into the perfect defense; there is only the play in front of you, and your reactions to it. For a control freak like Saban, the idea of playing in chaos is some level of football hell.

But is there anything in the history of Saban at Alabama that would indicate that the defenders in crimson are powerless to stop it? I combed through the archives of this "golden age" of Alabama football — probable translation: I thought about for 15 minutes and wrote down what I could remember — and here are the best examples I could find:
• 2009 Sugar Bowl. Utah 31, Alabama 17. Running a speedy version of the old Urban Meyer spread, the Utes jumped on a sleepwalking Tide team and took a 21-0 first-quarter lead (this will become important later). They finished with 349 total yards (5.4 yards per play), racked up 339 passing yards and finished the game crowing loudly about their place in a convoluted BCS picture. One important thing I noted at the time: Utah played so fast in that game, they actually neutralized Terrence Cody — he couldn't keep up with the pace that night (Utah threw every down anyway), and 'Bama's staff was forced to take him out.
If there's a mitigating factor that prevents this game from being generalizable, it is this: Alabama a) wasn't all that good in 2008 (they played way over their heads in Saban's second season) and b) didn't really want to be in New Orleans that night. They'd spent a month receiving pats on the back and simply didn't play with any particular heart until the game was well out of hand. The night was so miserable it actually caused a fight between my wife and me (another story for another time, but I think John Parker Wilson actually started it).
• 2009 AuburnAlabama 26, Auburn 21. My friend the Warblogler (of told me, in essence, that he was in favor of hiring Gus Malzahn as Auburn head coach almost solely based on this game. I have argued (loudly, in fact) that Malzahn did his best coaching in 2009, taking an Auburn offense made up almost entirely of the same parts that got Tony Franklin and Tommy Tuberville fired in 2008, and making them into an offense that wasn't horrific. And the Alabama game was his magnum opus — with two weeks to prepare, Auburn jumped on the Tide early (theme!) with a touchdown, an onsides kick and another score. They finished with 332 yards — 181 passing, 151 rushing — and scared the bejeezus out of the eventual BCS champs.
It was a great offensive effort, no mistake, and if there is one thing that can be said to temper the effort, it is this: Alabama pretty well figured out a way to handle them after the first two drives — the long third-quarter pass from Chris Todd to Darvin Adams notwithstanding — and even drove them backwards on consecutive plays when they might have put the game away in the fourth quarter.
• 2010 AuburnAuburn 28, Alabama 27. Admittedly, I haven't watched one minute of this game since I left Bryant-Denny that cold, cold day in Tuscaloosa. So my memories may be a little stilte.d Was Auburn even running that much "up tempo" with Cam behind center? I feel like they slowed it down a good bit. I don't know.
• 2012 Texas A&MaTm 29, Alabama 24. I don't have to remind you of what happened, do I? If there's any solace we can take here, it's that Johnny F. Manziel was so smoking hot that day, it's unlikely he could replicate that performance. Could he ever do this again? In a million years?
There's one other mitigating factor, and it is LSU. Saban himself mentioned it last season while he was bristling at a question about up-tempo offense: One of the offenses that saw the most success against Alabama in 2012 was LSU — they called a great game, and Zach Mettenberger was so good, no amount of blitzes or mixed-up coverages could really even slow him down. LSU, of course, would never be confused with an up-tempo attack.
So perhaps there is no rule. In scientific research, there's a steep dividing line between quantitative research — research with results that are generalizable to support a hypothesis — and qualitative — case studies that typically don't prove anything in a larger context. If there's anything quantitative about these results, it appears to be this: Much like an ace pitcher in baseball, it's best to get to Alabama early — they seem to lock things down as the game goes along.

Or, you could just employ a superhuman at quarterback and hope for the best. Whatever works.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

return to post: the trouble with feelings

For as long as I have been a writer, I have struggled with "feelings."

This is hardly an uncommon thing for a person who writes, or really produces anything. A strong, well-written piece is sort of a piece of the writer's soul — it represents hours on end that the writer spent interviewing subjects, going over word choices before they ever met the page. If it's investigative, it probably represents a number of hours on the phone with cranky gatekeepers of information, unable or unwilling to give the writer the access necessary to make the piece a reality.

So it only makes sense (sort of) how writers tend to react when their work finally goes out for public viewing ... and people hate it. Or maybe they don't hate it, but they find fault with something someone said. Or they take issue with something someone says in the piece, and inevitably blame the author (instead of, you know, the person who actually said the thing).

To use a really dumb example, think of a poem you wrote in the sixth grade. Did you work hard on it? Did you put a piece of yourself into it?
Did anybody like it?

In a way, this is an explanation for why so many writers don't take criticism particularly well. To be completely fair, it also provides an explanation for why many people in the public sphere objectively hate the the press that covers them: they're pouring themselves into whatever it is they're doing — coaching football or performing stand-up comedy or being a terrible member of Congress or whatever — and people like me lob stones at them ... just, you know, because.

This is sort of the reason this blog went dark – to the utter dismay of really nobody except me — before the 2012 football season. Well, it's the initial reason I stepped away. The other problem was that, increasingly, I have found myself with little or nothing to say. I'd blame Twitter, but the problem is probably me. OK, so it's definitely me.

All that to say, I hope I can give this thing another shot. I enjoy my little corner of the internet, even if it's already been taken away from me by more capable people with a lot more to say. I'm not looking toward a regular posting scheduled yet, but maybe we can at least have a little fun.