Thursday, July 22, 2010


Past Interference’s first book review and I won't make you wait for the verdict. I loved it. The book's great. Buy it. I can't imagine any thinking football fan not liking K.C. Joyner's Blindsided.  Joyner's known as "The Football Scientist" but he didn't put anything into his book that's not easily understood by an intelligent reader. No crazy numbers. No esoteric mathematical formulas. Just nicely reasoned discussion. Careful arguments. And tables. Lots of tables. Joyner runs through a wide variety of NFL topics.  PI’s long been interested in how the NFL’s greatest teams were put together and in who should be in the Hall of Fame so chapters on those very topics clearly apppaled to me. But I also loved the chapters on things I’ve never thought twice about, like why Art Rooney's Steelers were so bad for so long or why Bert Bell is an overrated NFL commissioner. Really, there wasn't one part of this book I didn't find to be of interest.

Ok, the unalloyed praise is out of the way. Now let me nitpick a couple of things. In perhaps the most intriguing chapter of the book, The Darwinism of the Coaching Forest, Joyner posits the existence of two separate coaching alignments: Personnel/Scheme and Athletic/Hitter. The first alignment divides coaches into those who try to beat opponents with superior talent and those who try win with superior play-calling. The second alignment, as Joyner explains it, divides coaches into those who try to beat opponents with athleticism and those who try to win by administering punishment to the other team. This part of the book is of extra interest to a Dolphin fan since Joyner uses Don Shula's place on each coaching axis to illustrate what Joyner's talking about. Joyner contrasts Shula with Tom Landry to show the difference between a Personnel coach and a Scheme coach. Shula, according to Joyner, designs his offensive and defensive schemes to fit the talent he's got, while Tom Landry runs the offense and defense he wants to run regardless of the talents of his players. Shula tries to acquire the best players he can and makes the most of their talent; Landry tries to obtain those players who best fit into the system he already plans to run. I suppose I can accept that coaches have tendencies along these lines and that Joyner has Shula and Landry pegged correctly. But can we really classify coaches so easily?

Bill Walsh is your classic Scheme coach right? Mr. West Coast Offense. But if you read Dr. Z’s classic column "The real West Coast Offense" you see that Walsh, as offensive coordinator for Cincinnati in 1970, only came up with the seeds of his West Coast Offense after the Bengals QB Greg Cook got hurt. Cook was “a big, strong armed kid who could also throw with touch”. When he went down the team replaced him with Virgil Carter “smaller, agile, quick-thinking”. As Dr. Z puts it:

Carter was able to go through his progressions quickly and throw on the go; not blessed with a big arm, but accurate. So Walsh crafted an offense to suit him, a horizontal offense with a lot of motion and underneath routes and breakoff patterns an attack that now goes by the misnomer "West Coast Offense."
This indicates Walsh might not in fact have been a true scheme coach at all. Rather he designed an offense to fit his personnel. Ok, he was just a coordinator back then, not the coach. And maybe he hadn’t developed his coaching philosophy yet. But how do you explain this? Years later Dr. Z asked Walsh what his system would have been like if he'd had Cook for 10 or 12 years and Walsh said "Completely different…It would have been down the field." So Walsh himself says he would have installed an offense that fit the talents of his quarterback, one totally different than the West Coast Offense.  If Walsh had gotten John Elway or Dan Marino to run his offense then I'm guessing it would have looked a lot different than the West Coast Offense he designed for Virgil Carter.  And something like that happened in reality with Don Shula who abandoned his run-dominated offenses of the 70’s for downfield passing once he installed Marino as his QB. 

Joyner categorizes Bill Belichick as a Scheme coach and claims the reason for Belichick’s refusal to coach the Jets after Bill Parcells stepped down in 2000 was that Belichick knew it couldn’t work since Parcells, a Personnel man, would still be running the organization. That’s certainly a more than interesting hypothesis but I’ve never heard anyone else suggest anything like that as the reason for the schism .  It would have been nice if Joyner actually cited to something in support of his theory.  I doubt he finds another sportswriter to back that up.  (Money and/or power, as is so often the case, seem the more likely answers). 

I have even more of a problem with Joyner's second axis, the Athletic/Hitter one. Here Joyner contrasts Shula, the Athletic coach with Chuck Noll, the Hitter coach. Now obviously Noll's teams were known for hitting while Shula's teams weren't. But was that because Shula didn’t stress hitting or because Noll had better hitters than Shula? And even if we can say Joyner’s right on Shula and Noll on the Athletic/Hitter axis why would that axis continue to exist today? Joyner’s got a table of every Super Bowl winning coach and that coach’s Scheme/Personnel Alignment. Lombardi’s Personnel/Hitter. Shula is Personnel/Athletic, Shanahan is Scheme/Athletic, etc. In the first 42 Super Bowls, just ten of the winning coaches are on the Athletic coaching tree. And out of the first 30 Super Bowls, coaches favoring the Athletic alignment won just four of them (Ewbank, Shula twice, and Walsh in his first SB. Joyner has him switching to the Hitter alignment for his two later wins). We know the NFL’s a copycat league. Soccer-style kicking. The Shotgun. The West Coast Offense. If something works other teams are going to adopt it. If something fails miserably teams drop it like a live grenade (anyone bringing back the single-wing?). So why would any coach in his right mind have favored the Athletic Alignment if the Hitter Alignment was going to give you a far better chance of getting a Lombardi trophy? It makes no sense. According to Joyner coaches on the Athletic side have had more success in recent years but were the 2002 Bucs and 2007 Giants really Athletic squads? They sure seemed like hitting teams to me. Well, PI may not have been able to make much sense out of Joyner’s alignments but it sure made for a fascinating read at least.

My one other quibble with the Football Scientist was with his Hall of Fame chapter, specifically with his contention that Ray Guy needs to be in the Hall of Fame. Seems to me you have to do two things to make the case for Guy. First, you have to show a pure punter, any pure punter deserves induction. In other words, quantify a punter’s contribution to his team. What’s the difference between a really good punter and a really bad one? How much greater are a team’s chances of winning with a great punter? Clearly HOF voters don’t think it’s that much as they’ve yet to vote in any pure punter. But you’d think a football scientist could come up with a formula to show us the actual value of a punter. But Joyner doesn’t do that. He simply asserts that since punters are already honored with All-Pro and Pro Bowl selections they ought to be picked for the Hall. The obvious problem with what he’s arguing is that an entire starting lineup is named for the All-Pro team and you get two entire rosters of Pro Bowlers. Meanwhile, the Hall of Fame can only induct a maximum of seven players a year so who wants to waste a valuable spot on a friggin’ punter at the expense of a “real” football player?

But assuming for the sake of argument that the HOF should immediately induct the greatest pure punter ever we also have to know who that is. Is it Guy? Joyner says it is but he doesn’t refer to any stats at all in support of this; he just highlights Guy’s nine selections to All-Pro teams (six consensus All-Pros). I’ll admit that’s impressive but All-Pro selections can’t be the be-all end-all of the “best ever” argument, especially at a position, like punter, where we actually have numbers that can show us how good somebody actually was. And right now Guy stands at 67th place all-time in punting average. And his net average is even worse! Unless you want to argue it’s become a lot easier to post better punting averages since Guy retired how can anyone say Guy was the best ever? Plus there’s like 23 guys ahead of Guy in gross average who started their careers before his anyway. Tommy Davis punted over a decade before Guy came into the league, his average is much better, he punted in much tougher conditions (San Francisco), and he also doubled as a very good placekicker. Why shouldn’t he go in before Guy? Davis retired over 40 years ago and he’s still ranked 9th in punting average!

Guy had a fairly long career for a punter, 14 years, but Jeff Feagles just retired after playing for 22. Guy’s career average is half a yard more than Feagles but what about their other stats? Guy kicked 210 punts inside the 20. They didn't count the stat for his first 3 years so let's be really really generous and bump him up to 300. Jeff Feagles has 497. Guy had 128 touchbacks. Feagles has only 122 in a much longer career. Feagles owns every cumulative punting stat in the book. And his net average, the more important stat anyway, is higher than Guy’s (35.9-33.4). Guy’s touchback, inside the 20, and net average numbers would all indicate that while he might have had a big leg and great hang time he wasn’t all that accurate at dropping his punts where they needed to go. Joyner finesses this by saying he once talked to a special teams coach who told him that when it comes to a punter the only thing that mattered was hang time. Say WHAAAT?! If that’s true then why is Joyner expending all this effort to make a case for Ray Guy? One punter with decent hang time’s as good as the next. Are we going to put them all in the Hall? Or rely solely on All-Pro selections to sort them all out?  That doesn't sound like Football Science to me.

Ok, so what about all this All-Pro stuff? Guy had to be great to get picked all those times no? Well, I have a theory about this. Hear me out (or rather, read on). Back in Guy’s day there was no such thing as the internet. There were no pro football databases to access. No websites to check. What you had was the newspaper. And once a week the paper would list the league’s punters in order of gross average. That was it. If you wanted to find out who the leaders were in net average (gross average minus return yards and touchbacks), you couldn’t. If you wanted to know who was the best at dropping kicks inside the 20, too bad. All you had was one stat: gross average. And in his day Guy had a pretty good gross average, better than most of his fellow punters. If you were sportswriter voting for the All-Pro team you looked at the same list everybody else was looking at. Plus Guy played for a great team and was on TV a lot where he could uncork a big punt for all to see. He also had a well-liked coach, John Madden, who told everyone Guy was the best. And without access to the statistics that would sort it all out who could argue? And when you get in once, you've got a good chance to make it again.  So Guy would make the All-Pro team year after year based on gross average and reputation. That couldn’t happen today. It’s also likely Guy was aided by weak competition at the position. We might living in the Golden Age of Punting today but when Guy kicked there weren’t a whole lot of quality punters out there. It wasn’t until the late great Reggie Roby debuted near the end of Guy’s career that we had another guy with a big leg and some serious hang time to talk about.

Look, if Guy really had such great hang time on a consistent basis he’d have the high net average to go with it. But he doesn’t. So he’s not the all-time greatest punter. Not even close. Sorry KC. I still loved your book though. And here’s an idea for your next one: come up with a way to mathematically value the contributions of the punter. The world needs it.

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