Archive for November, 2011

How important is your best player?

Tuesday, November 29th, 2011

So who’s to blame for the Chiefs season? Todd Haley? Scott Pioli? Matt Cassel? Clark Hunt? There’s a lot of fan anger in Kansas City as the Chiefs have stumbled to a 4-7 record. And a lot of finger pointing by fans and those in the media. Carl Peterson and Marty Schottenheimer took a struggling franchise and turned them into a winner. But they were never able to get over the hump. First the fans blamed Schottenheimer. He left. Then the fans blamed Peterson. And Gunther Cunningham. And Elvis Grbac. And Mike Solari. And Herm Edwards. And Brodie Croyle. The list is long. Today it’s some combination of Haley / Pioli / Cassel / Hunt.

But as usual, it’s rarely that simple. I have a few takes on what’s happened to the Chiefs this year, but today I’m going to focus on just one of them. How important is your best player?

Tom Brady and Peyton ManningIt’s easy to get tunnel vision when looking at your team. Let’s step outside of Kansas City for a moment. For years the discussion in the NFL has been: who is the best quarterback in the league, Peyton Manning or Tom Brady? Over the last ten seasons, Manning and Brady have represented the AFC in the Super Bowl six times with four wins between them. They’re leaders. They put up great stats. And they do nothing but win big games.

But beyond these two quarterbacks, most have considered Indianapolis and New England to be among the best franchises in the league. Bill Polian has built the Colts into perennial winners and one of the most dominant teams in the NFL. From 1999-2010, the Colts have a regular season record of 138-54.

And in New England, Bill Belichick has done much the same. With four Super Bowl appearances and three wins, Belichick is widely considered the best coach in football. From 2001-2010, the Patriots have a regular season record of 121-39, which includes 2007 when the team went 16-0. The Patriots are the only team other than the Dolphins to finish a regular season undefeated.

Manning and Brady have not only been consistent winners, they’ve remained remarkably durable. Schottenheimer used to say that a player’s best ability was availability. And when you’re talking about an elite quarterback, nothing could be more true. But what happens when you take away a team’s best player?

Peyton ManningIn 2008 we got a glimpse of what the Patriots look like without Tom Brady. The Chiefs knocked Brady out for the season in their first game. In came their backup Matt Cassel. A kid who shouldn’t even have been in the league. Cassel was a backup quarterback at USC, never starting a game or playing meaningful minutes for the Trojans. How did he do? The Patriots finished the season 11-5, and Cassel played very well.

And now in 2011, we’re getting a look at the Colts without Peyton Manning. The Colts are 0-11, and could quite possibly finish 0-16. They’re that bad. Quite a turnaround from a team that won the AFC South last year and finished 10-6.

What’s the lesson to be learned? New England surrounded their backup quarterback with enough talent to be successful. Indianapolis did not. If anything, this has only reinforced what an incredible quarterback Peyton Manning has been.

Now, back to Kansas City. The Chiefs lost their best player, Jamaal Charles, early in the season. And while Charles is not a quarterback, he was the engine that drove the offense. Before the season began, I had this to say:

Last year the offensive line was receiving a lot of praise for the Chiefs #1 rushing attack. I credit Jamaal Charles much more than I do the line.

I strongly believe that the loss of Jamaal Charles, combined with a less than average offensive line, has completely derailed the Chiefs’ season. Yes, there are other factors as well. But the Chiefs have shown they cannot consistently run the ball behind this offensive line without Charles. And Matt Cassel has been under constant pressure all year. He’s had no time to find his receivers. The running game has struggled. The passing game has struggled. And the Chiefs have found it very difficult to score any points. As Len Dawson likes to say, it starts up front with the big guys.

Kansas City fans are ready to run Cassel out of town. But surround him with the right players and he can be productive as he’s proven in 2008 with the Patriots (11-5 record) and 2010 with the Chiefs (10-6 record). Cassel is not Manning. He cannot lift the team on his shoulders. He needs a strong supporting cast, and without Charles running the ball, the Chiefs don’t have the cast to be productive on offense.

It’s amazing what the loss of one player can do. Just look at Indianapolis.

Beware of Polls a Year Before the Election

Friday, November 11th, 2011

Rudy GuilianiI had written a post in June advising that we shouldn’t jump to conclusions too early during the presidential primaries. In 2007-08, the lead among the primary candidates changed often. Now that we’re a year out, you’d think we’d be getting closer to knowing whom the GOP will choose as its candidate. But do you remember who was leading the polls in November of 2007? Me neither. So I did a little Googling. (Though you’ve probably already figured it out from the picture.)

As somebody who tracks polls, I’ve always liked how Real Clear Politics averages the results across multiple polls. As of November 11th, 2007, candidate Rudy Giuliani was leading the Republican field. And not just be a little. According to the RCP average, Giuliani held a 12.4 point lead with 29.4% of those polled favoring him for the GOP nomination. Here were the top six candidates four years ago this month:

Giuliani: 29.4%
Thompson: 17%
McCain: 15%
Romney: 12.4%
Huckabee: 9%
Paul: 3.8%

That’s five candidates with at least 9% of the vote. Thompson disappeared quickly leaving the GOP with four vying for the party’s nomination.

And if you look at the Democrats in November of 2007, Hillary had a huge lead over Obama. According to Gallup, Clinton held a 27 point lead with 48% favoring her for the party nomination compared to 21% for Obama. Here’s the Democratic field according to Gallup on November 16th, 2007:

Clinton: 48%
Obama: 21%
Edwards: 12%
Kucinich: 4%
Biden: 2%
Richardson: 2%

The moral of the story? There’s nothing new about what’s going on in the Republican party as they weed through their candidates. Primaries are a messy process. The newest CBS poll has a virtual three-way tie between Cain, Romney and Gingrich:

Cain: 18%
Romney: 15%
Gingrich: 15%
Perry: 8%
Paul: 5%
Bachmann: 4%
Santorum: 2%
Huntsman: 1%

Conclusion: Perry is still positioned well enough despite his many stumbles to make this a four horse race. It’s hard to imagine Paul, Bachmann, Santorum or Huntsman making a run at this point. And like 2008, I don’t think we’ll know for sure until Super Tuesday, which was the day that basically anointed John McCain as the GOP nominee four years ago.

Prediction: I still think it’s Romney’s race to lose. But he could sure lose it.

Click here to see the 2012 Primary Schedule.

Comparing Trent Green and Matt Cassel

Wednesday, November 9th, 2011

Kansas City Quarterback Matt CasselI was thinking about Trent Green and Matt Cassel the other day. Green is one of my all-time favorite Chiefs. He was the best quarterback we’d seen in a Chiefs’ uniform since Lenny Dawson. (My opinion is that while Joe Montana still had a little slice of magic in him, he was a shell of his former self those two years in KC.) Head coach Dick Vermeil brought Green to Kansas City with him in 2001. That year Green struggled mightily and was nicknamed Tr-INT by Jason Whitlock from the Star. Fans and members of the media were critical of the Chiefs’ decision to trade for Green. But that all changed. Trent went on to have a very impressive run from 2002-05. (See his stats on NFL.com here.) I remember thinking during that ’03 playoff loss to the Colts that Green was the second best quarterback in the league behind Peyton Manning. His career derailed with a concussion early in 2006 and he was never quite the same after that.

Matt Cassel, on the other hand, has not been embraced by local fans. He too struggled his first year as a Chief — though I would make the case that most quarterbacks struggle in their first season with a new team. Cassel had a very productive season for the Chiefs last year leading them to an AFC West title. But after two crushing defeats to open the season this year, many in Kansas City were ready to run him out of town. One local radio host started the Kansas City “Suck for Luck” campaign, embracing the idea that the Chiefs should crash so hard that they end up with the first pick in the draft allowing them to pick Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck.

Both Green and Cassel are high-character guys. They’re tough. They’re leaders. Neither are the most gifted of athletes, but athletic enough to move around in the pocket or run for a first down. Neither has an incredibly strong arm. Personally, I see many more similarities between the two than differences. But you want to know the biggest difference? Their supporting cast. Let’s take a look. We’ll compare Green’s cast in his third season (2003) with Cassel’s cast this year, his third season as a  Chief.

Running Backs
2003: Priest Holmes, Larry Johnson, Tony Richardson, Derrick Blaylock
2011: Jackie Battle, Thomas Jones, Le’Ron McClain, Dexter McCluster

This comparison would be much more interesting if Jamaal Charles was healthy. I would have a difficult time choosing between Charles’ big play ability and Holmes’ nose for the endzone. But without Charles as a consideration, I would take every running back from that ’03 team over their counterpart on the current team, and that includes Blaylock over McCluster.

2003: +4

Wide Receivers
2003: Eddie Kennison, Johnnie Morton, Dante Hall, Marc Boerigter
2011: Dwayne Bowe, Steve Breaston, Jonathan Baldwin, Keary Colbert

This is the one grouping that really shines today. I think we’ve got the best group of wide receivers I’ve ever watched play in Kansas City. Do you remember who caught the most balls for KC in 2003? Priest Holmes. Who was our second leading receiver? Tony Gonzalez. Only Eddie Kennison was a legitimate threat and could have hung with our current group of receivers. Kennison was roughly the equivalent of Breaston today.

2011: +3

Tight Ends
2003: Tony Gonzalez, Jason Dunn
2011: Leonard Pope, Jake O’Connell

A healthy Tony Moeaki wouldn’t alter this discussion. Gonzalez is the best tight end to ever play the game. And he was at the top of his game during these years in Kansas City. Dunn was a dominating blocker.

2003: +2

Offensive Line
2003: Willie Roaf, Brian Waters, Casey Wiegmann, Will Shields, John Tait
2011: Branden Albert, Ryan Lilja, Casey Wiegmann, Jon Asamoah, Barry Richardson

That offensive line in 2003 was possibly one of the most dominating offensive lines in NFL history. Roaf and Shields are likely Hall of Fame linemen. Waters was in his prime and received multiple trips to the Pro Bowl. Tait had been an effective left tackle, and was a very good right tackle. And Wiegmann was eight years younger and in his prime. Nobody on the current offensive line would be considered a Pro Bowl caliber lineman, let alone Hall of Famer. I would take every lineman from that ’03 line over the current roster. It’s not even close.

2003: +5

I think it’s fair to say that Green had a MUCH stronger offensive cast around him. A dominating offensive line. Holmes was one of the best backs in the game. Gonzalez was the best tight end in the game. Even Richardson was widely considered the best blocking fullback in the game. (Read stats from the 2003 Chiefs here.)

So where does that leave Matt Cassel? Drawing the ire of Kansas City fans and many in the local sports media. Cassel will never be Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees. But under the right circumstance he could be every bit as good as a Trent Green. What has most impressed me with Cassel this year is that I think he’s throwing the ball down field with much more accuracy than I’ve seen him in the past. He’s hitting receivers in stride on crossing routes 20+ yards down the field. When given time in the pocket, and an effective running game, he’s been very good. When he’s running for his life and our ground game is anemic, he doesn’t stand much of a chance. But that’s pretty much true for every quarterback in the league.

So here’s the most important question. Can Matt Cassel lead the Chiefs to the Super Bowl? Not without a better supporting cast. The Chiefs must improve both their offensive and defensive lines considerably to become a contender. I don’t view Cassel as part of the problem. I do see him as part of the solution. I do believe that Cassel can play well enough on the right team to lead them to the Super Bowl.