Monday, December 28, 2009

Weird weekend of football

First off, Urban Meyer came out and retired from the sweetest coaching gig in college football due to health problems related from being a coach expected to contend for the national title every year. I don't mean to minimize the strain that job puts on a guy, and its admirable that a guy at the top of his profession would make the choice to put his health and family over his job. Of course, Meyer muddied the waters just a day later when he unretired and instead decided to take a leave of absence after Florida's bowl game. Something doesn't quite add up here, unless Meyer's family is as fond of his arrogant nature as opposing teams are, and told him they don't want him home 24/7.

Then, Jim Caldwell, when faced with a fork in his road, chose the gutless path. Now, the Colts owe nothing to any other team in the league, and they owe nothing to the "integrity of the game". But there is no evidence that taking games off simply because you have locked up your playoff position is at all helpful on the road to a Super Bowl. For evidence, please see the Colts of 2005, 2007, and 2008. Also see the New York Giants of 2007. If you're committed to the gutless route, then why let your starters go midway into the third quarter? Did the stars align so that the 4th quarter was that much more dangerous for Peyton's knees than the first 3 quarters? The fact that Manning had been hit once all day made you that afraid for his health? And why stick Curtis Painter into a situation up only 5 stuck deep in his own territory? Why not give Manning one more shot to try and get a two-score lead? The Jets were doing nothing on offense. Forcing Mark Sanchez to have to try and win the game would likely have resulted in him handing the game to you without Curtis Painter having to take off his training wheels. Instead, you make the poor guy the symbol of the most unpopular decision in Indianapolis since Ron Artest went into the crowd. Instead of taking the chance to fire up your team, you let them down. Good luck getting them up for their first playoff game after 2 weeks and one quarter of not bothering to show up for games.

Sunday was also marked by terrible efforts from teams allegedly fighting for playoff berths.

Exhibit A is the Giants no-show at home against already eliminated Carolina to the tune of 41-9. Maybe it's for the best that their tearing Giants Stadium down. In the last 5 seasons, in which the Giants have not finished below .500 and have been to the playoffs 4 times and won a Super Bowl, the Giants have won just 57% of their home games. That's not much of a home field advantage.

On that note, the case for John Fox should come down to one question, are you satisfied going into 2010 with Jake Delhomme as your starter? If his answer isn't an immediate "NO!" fire him.

Baltimore went into Pittsburgh to face a wounded Pittsburgh team, and committed 11 penalties for 113 yards.

Jacksonville forgot to show up for their game in New England, and the gametime temperature was 50 degrees, so you can't use the they were cold excuse.

Oh, and of course, how can I forget the New Orleans Saints, who went up 17-0 on Tampa Bay in the first half AT HOME and lost, 20-17. Really??? What happened to the team that started the season 13-0? Losing to the Cowboys is one thing, but Tampa Bay? This ruined Tampa Bay's season too, as the win makes it that much harder to fire Raheem Morris at the end of the season and go hard after Cowher.

And then finally, on Monday Texas Tech suspended head coach and pirate enthusiast Mike Leach for mistreating a player who had been diagnosed with a concussion. Leach allegedly banished the player to a dark closet for the duration of practice (about 3 hours) more than once. This player also happens to be the son of ESPN football analyst Craig James. There is no good (or mediocre) reason to stick a player in a closet. Mike Leach is crazy, both in a mad scientist way and a you can't have a long conversation with him and follow it way, but there's no way he could think this was a good idea. The only rationale that makes sense is Leach didn't think he was really hurt and he stuck him in a closet to teach him a lesson. In a year where painstaking efforts have been made to educate people about concussions and their severity, this is a crying shame. Kudos to Texas Tech for acting swiftly, though their decision to suspend him before the investigation is completed may have as much to do with Texas Tech's annoyance at Leach's dalliances with other schools last offseason as it does with their opinion of what truly happened. Either way, it's the right move.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

No Offense, FIFA, but You're a Total Joke

Imagine this scenario:

In every season since the NFL went to 6 playoff spots per conference, the playoff spots have been taken by division winners first, and then the remaining slots have been filled with the teams with the top records in each conference, so that each conference starts the playoffs with 6 teams.

Now let's flashback to 2008. The season is over, everyone has played their 16 games. The standings are as you see here. At the end of the season, Roger Goodell meets with a group of senior NFL personnel. They make the following 2 decisions:

1) San Diego does not deserve a playoff spot. They're 8-8, for pete's sake. They were 4-8, they basically had to go to a pre-playoff for the last 4 games, just to squeak in by the skin of their teeth. Meanwhile, you have the Baltimore Ravens, who breezed through the AFC with an 11-5 record, despite starting a rookie quarterback all season long. Plus there are the Colts, they put up 12 wins, and Peyton Manning is a top player. Is that really what we want? To give San Diego a seeded spot and make Baltimore and Indy go on the road?

2) Arizona made the playoffs. After that 49-7 loss at Gilette. The Patriots didn't even make the playoffs! Do we really want to reward these clowns a home game, simply because their division couldn't beat a team of the Octomom and her kids? Look at Atlanta, another rookie quarterback, another 11 win season. We should reward the Falcons with a home game, to give Arizona one just doesn't feel right.

Okay, now that they've decided how they feel the seedings should be, now all that's left is determining how to get the seeds to work out that way. An easy way to punish the teams that struggled to get in is to make the playoff seedings based solely on records and remove division titles from the seeding equation. That would cause the seedings to look like this:
AFC: 1) Titans 2) Steelers 3) Colts 4) Dolphins 5) Ravens 6) Chargers
NFC: 1) Giants 2) Panthers 3) Falcons 4) Vikings 5) Eagles 6) Cardinals

Imagine the uproar when the NFL announced, "These are the seedings, as we changed the seeding criteria from what we used last year to just look at records this year." Chargers and Cardinals fans would be furious. The established guidelines stated that winning the division guaranteed a home playoff game, but the NFL decided they didn't like the results of those criteria, so they changed the criteria after all of the games had been played so they'd know exactly what the outcome of their chosen criteria would be.

It would be like handing over the management of their league to 6 year olds. When a 6 year old plays a game, s/he'll play by the rules as long as s/he keeps winning. Oh come on, I'm not the only one that did this at that age, stop shaking your head. As soon as the tide turns, new rules start popping up. "Oh, you rolled a 12? You have to go back to the start." Or, something like, "I win with an all evens straight." When a 6 year old does this, it's cute (see here. When a bunch of old men do this, is it really cute anymore?

Well, this is exactly what FIFA did, and it's what they do every 4 years. Every 4 years, they rank the World Cup teams 1-32. The host country and the top 7 other countries in the rankings are each placed into a unique group of 4, so there is a real advantage to being seeded. It means you won't have to face a Brazil, or a Spain, or an England before you make the round of 16 at the earliest.

For the 2002 World Cup, the seedings were based on the team's performance in the prior 3 world cups (1990, 1994, 1998), and the FIFA World Rankings of 1999, 2000, and 2001.

For the 2006 World Cup, the seedings were based on the team's performance in the prior 2 world cups (1998, 2002), and the FIFA World Rankings of 2003, 2004, and 2005.

For next year's World Cup, the seedings were based on the October, 2009 FIFA World Rankings. That's it. For reference, if FIFA had used this exact criteria back in 2006, the United States would have been seeded, along with the Czech Republic, and Italy would not have been.

Why was it done this way? Well, no one from FIFA will say it, but it was done to punish France. The only change in seeding between last time's criteria and this set is France loses its seed to the Netherlands. I don't know if it was because the Thierry Henry handball was an embarassment (I highly doubt it), or whether it was because France had to win a playoff against Ireland just to get into the World Cup by the skin of their teeth (I'd put money on this). Had France won their qualifying group instead of needing to go to a playoff, this change would not have been made.

I'm not going to sit here and tell you that I'm against the idea of keeping a team that had to win a home-and-home series to qualify because they couldn't do it by winning their qualifying group from a seeded slot in the World Cup. However, I am strongly against running the World Cup like a bunch of 6 year olds. Pick a set of criteria at the beginning of qualification, not at the end. If you feel that a team in France's (or Portugal's) shoes doesn't deserve a seed, fix the criteria for the next World Cup. Don't just go changing it willy nilly so you can get the result that you want.

The unspoken message here (for a US Soccer fan) is don't ever get your hopes up for a World Cup seed. You can do everything right, but if we (FIFA) don't think you deserve a seed, we'll just change the criteria to knock you down and out of the running. Since US Soccer gets no respect on the world stage, barring a 10 year run where the US wins 2 World Cups and is ranked #1 in 98% of the monthly rankings, the US is not getting a seed. And, to be frank, even that may not be enough.