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Just The Sports: 2010-04-11

Just The Sports

Thursday, April 15, 2010

When Reputation Meets Reality

No matter how great an athlete once was, there will come a day when the game simply passes him by. His pace will fail him, younger players will surpass him in ability, and he will no longer be able to dominate the game the way he used to, forcing him to accept a more subordinate role. Some of these over the hill athletes will try to deny that they are in the declining phase of their sports lives, but age is an opponent that refuses to be bettered in the realm of sports. Usually, the media recognizes when a player is no longer performing like he used to, but every now and then comes along a player who was so dominant in his prime, journalists and analysts seem unable to recognize his inferior statistics and proclaim that his career is over and he will no longer make much of a difference for his team. Right now, we are witnessing such a phenomenon regarding the undeserved adulation with which Shaquille O'Neal still enjoys.

When O'Neal was traded from the Phoenix Suns to the Cleveland Cavaliers, there were those who wanted us to believe O'Neal was the final piece to the Cavaliers' championship puzzle. Wherever those people obtained their information it was not based in reality. Even before this season began, O'Neal was only a knockoff of the player he had been. Never one to take care of his body, over the last few seasons he has had to deal with multiple injuries, a decreasing role in the offense, a decline in production, and an inability to really help his teams win on a consistent basis.

Therefore, it is little surprise O'Neal turned in such a lackluster season for 2009-10. This season saw him average the fewest minutes per game, the fewest points per game, have the second-lowest true shooting percentage of his career, and account for the fewest win shares per forty-eight minutes of his career. Yet, there were those who would still have you believe that O'Neal's return to the Cavaliers' lineup for the playoffs will actually make a difference in how far they progress in the playoffs for no other reason than that his name is Shaq.

The truth is the Cavaliers do not need O'Neal to return; he will not raise the level of play for the Cavaliers above what it already is. I know this because O'Neal was kind enough to get injured as been his wont, allowing the Cavaliers to play a sizable number of games without him. O'Neal played a total of fifty-three games for the Cavaliers this season and in those games, the Cavaliers outscored their opponents by 8.3 points per 100 possessions. In the twenty-eight contests without him*, the Cavaliers outscored their opponents by 7.3 points per 100 possessions. A truly dominant player would surely make more of a difference than a single point over 100 possessions; a role player, which is what O'Neal is now, would not.

Moreover, keep in mind that of the twenty-eight games where O'Neal did not play, there were also five games where LeBron James did not suit up. James's absence means the results of the games without O'Neal are probably skewed lightly and there is not even a true point per 100 possessions difference between the two sample sets since the Cavaliers lost four of those five contests without their best player.

When O'Neal does return for the Cavaliers for the playoffs, it will really mean nothing. The Cavaliers do not need him as they have clearly shown when he was out injured no matter what any analyst says. The time has come for everyone to admit the truth and not be afraid to say it out loud; Shaquille O'Neal is not a difference maker for an NBA team nor should he be talked about as one.

*I did not include the last regular season in my comparison as neither the Hawks nor the Cavaliers were interested in putting their best lineups on the floor.


Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Kevin Kolb Era

By trading Donovan McNabb to the Washington Redskins, the Philadelphia Eagles officially ushered in the Kevin Kolb era, which will begin this season. Before he fully assumes the starting quarterback position in meaningful regular season games, though, it is worth trying to predict what sort of player in whom the Eagles have invested so much time and confidence. There are some indications based on Kolb's quarterbacking past that while he will not embarrass himself on the field, neither will he put up any kind of Hall of Fame statistics.

Ordinarily, I would disregard immediately a quarterback prospect with the college resume that Kolb has and predict a short and mediocre career for him; he only completed 61.5% of the 1,563 meaningful passes he attempted for the University of Houston Cougars. Yet, there are a couple of aspects regarding Kolb's collegiate career and the Eagles offense in which he will be playing. Although Kolb had a low completion percentage in college, he also had an amazingly high yards per pass attempt of 8.3 for the low level at which he was completing passes. Usually, whenever a low completion percentage is coupled with a high yards per pass attempt figure, it indicates that the offense is largely predicated on big plays and attempting a disproportionate number of downfield passes while eschewing the quick, safe passes that can elevate a completion percentage. Therefore, we already know Kolb is used to being in an offense that largely survives on the big passing play.

Anyone who studied the Philadelphia Eagles last season knows the offense is going in the direction of relying almost exclusively on hoping for downfield completions, which should make Kolb feel extremely comfortable. Last year, McNabb's 8.0 yards per pass attempt was the third highest of his career despite only completing an extremely pedestrian 60.3% of his passes. Kolb will most likely be able to replicate such a season and do it at a younger age and for a cheaper price, explaining part of the reason for why McNabb was traded. Of course, such a season will make Kolb a middle of the road quarterback, but the Eagles have won with an average quarterback like McNabb so there is no reason they cannot do the same with Kolb.

Another advantage which Kolb possesses is the fact that he has not been rushed onto the field and instead, he has been given time to immerse himself fully into Andy Reid's offense until he learned all of its nuances and intricacies. Therefore, there should be few growing pains as Kolb assumes the reins of the Eagles offense. More coaches should take that same patient approach with their quarterbacks if they want them to play adequately as soon as they hit the field.

Kevin Kolb will never be a star quarterback. He will have great games every now and then, but overall, he will be a quarterback with a mediocre completion percentage and an above average yards per pass attempt mark. With numbers like that, he will be able to do everything McNabb did for the Eagles with the addition of bettering McNabb in yards per pass attempt. However, there will continue to be a multitude of quarterbacks in the league who are better signal callers than Kolb so all expectations for Kolb should be tempered, and Eagles fans should not expect him to light the world on fire.


Monday, April 12, 2010

The Mike Shanahan Effect

If history is any indication, Donovan McNabb will experience a shot of adrenaline to his statistics while playing for Washington Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan and may actually live up to the reputation the media has bestowed upon him. Ever since controversial public personality Rush Limbaugh made his overtly racist comments regarding his perception that the media overrated McNabb due to his race, the media has gone out of its way to praise McNabb and mention him among the NFL's elite quarterbacks. Unfortunately, McNabb is simply not that player. When compared to the other quarterbacks of this era, McNabb has been overwhelmingly ordinary. His net yards per pass attempt for his career is average for this era and his career completion percentage is actually a little below average; those two statistics are extremely important in gauging the quality of a quarterback. Where McNabb does excel is in throwing touchdown passes and avoiding interceptions; he is above average in both of those categories.

Fortunately for McNabb, Shanahan has a track record for putting his quarterbacks in a position to play the best years of their career. Of the four long-term starting quarterbacks he has coached as a head coach, three of the four accumulated their most impressive passing statistics under Mike Shanahan; only Brian Griese was as inconsistent for his other three teams as he was for Shanahan.

John Elway was Shanahan's first reclamation project after Shanahan was hired by the Denver Broncos in 1995. For all the reverence with which Elway is looked upon now, he looked like anything but a legendary quarterback in the twelve seasons before being coached up by Shanahan. Before Shanahan, Elway had two great seasons (1987 & 1993), but the rest were either simply serviceable or mediocre when compared to the other quarterbacks who were playing at the same time. After Shanahan arrived, the four subsequent seasons in which Elway played were all superb in terms of being far above average in yards per pass attempt, net yards per pass attempt, touchdown rate, and interception rate. The fact is that without Shanahan rejuvenating Elway's career, Elway would certainly not be looked upon so favorably.

Mike Shanahan performed the same magic with Jake Plummer, who was well on his way to becoming a bust before coming under the tutelage of Shanahan. Like Elway, Plummer also played for Mike Shanahan for four seasons and in the first three seasons before being replaced by Jay Cutler, Plummer's play was elevated to elite level status. Most notably, Plummer improved in yards per pass attempt and net yards per pass attempt, which is the statistic most highly correlated with scoring points. In fact, Plummer's yards per pass attempt went up almost a full yard (6.4 to 7.3) between the time he played for the Cardinals and when he played for the Shanahan-led Broncos.

Jay Cutler also greatly benefited from his time with Mike Shanahan. Nothing about Cutler's statistics from his alma mater, Vanderbilt University, indicated that he would perform as competently as he did in his three seasons with Shanahan. At Vanderbilt, Cutler only completed 57.5% of his passes while also passing for 7.0 yards per pass attempt. Since college completion percentages usually translate pretty well to completion percentages on the NFL level, it is surprising that Cutler completed 62.4% of his passes for Shanahan. However, it is not surprising, after noticing a growing trend under Shanahan quarterbacks, that in the two full seasons Cutler played with the Broncos, his yards per pass attempt and net yards per pass attempt were well above NFL averages. Now that Cutler is with the Chicago Bears, it will be interesting to see just how much he struggles. If his 2009 season is any indication, he will struggle mightily without Shanahan and struggle to match most of the numbers he accumulated, except for the fact he will have high interception levels.

Luckily for Donovan McNabb, exactly where he struggles is where Shanahan helps his quarterbacks the most. For however long McNabb plays for Shanahan, we should see a significant improvement in his yards per pass attempt and net yards per pass attempt. Instead of being merely middle of the pack in those categories as he has been for eight of his eleven seasons, McNabb should be near the top of the league and actually play like the elite quarterback most people think he already is. This trade that sent him to the Washington Redskins is the best thing that could have happened to McNabb's career.