Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Unfounded Mystique of the Pro Bowl and Flozell Adams

The Pro Bowl rosters were released this past week and while most of the ESPN no-it-alls are debating pointless crap (like which guy was left out), I began to wonder exactly what being a Pro Bowler means. What we’re supposed to believe, indeed, what the award is supposed to signify, is that the recipient is the best at his position in the league (or conference rather). By this thinking, if I was to theoretically take all these Pro Bowlers and put them all on one team, they would be perfection personified (keep this thought in mind as we go on) since, as was just established, these are men who reign unmatched in their respective positions throughout the league.

Now go back a couple of weeks, when I was still entrenched in my laborious old job that would have made even Peter Gibbons cringe, where I was having some vague idea about measuring a team’s draft success (which I’m still thinking about and will probably write about soon since this fascinates me from a football-geek point of view). After staring into space for about 30 minutes (not an uncommon practice while on the clock at the old job) I decided initially that Pro Bowl appearances was a good measuring stick. I mean, after all, these are the best of the best right? That’s when I started actually looking at Pro Bowl rosters since 2000.

Immediately, a couple of stark indicators stand out regarding the validity (or lack thereof) of Pro Bowl selections. Since the beginning of the new century, no Super Bowl champion has led the league in ‘number of Pro Bowlers.’ In fact, of the teams that led their respective year in Pro Bowl players, they carried a combined 5-9 record in the playoffs. Six times in nine seasons, the most Pro Bowl laden teams have gone one-and-done in the playoffs (and the 2008 New York Jets set the benchmark for All-Star futility by not even making the playoffs last season despite fielding the most Pro Bowlers in the league along with the Titans). So basically, two thirds of the supposedly highest quality NFL teams have lost right away upon arriving in the playoffs. Only once in the last decade has the squad with the most star power made a Super Bowl appearance (the 2004 Eagles).

So what’s wrong with this picture? By very simple, sound logic, my original thesis of success being derived from the number of Pro Bowlers on a team should be true. I mean, if being a Pro Bowler really is an indication of superiority, then the team with the greatest number of these guys should at the very least do moderately well. By the odds, one of the aforementioned teams leading the league in Pro Bowlers should have gotten at least one Super Bowl. That none of these teams has won a Super Bowl makes this a trend, not a fluke.

There are a couple of explanations for this. Foremost is that the way Pro Bowlers are selected is flawed. Badly. That fans can vote is nice, but not really a wise move. Maybe in baseball or even basketball the casual fan can recognize true effectiveness, but not in football. Even most coaches and players won’t get it. They’ll hit the nail on the head usually with the selection of quarterbacks, running backs and receivers, but let’s take a closer look at offensive linemen.

Flozell Adams has been voted to five Pro Bowls. Every one of these Pro Bowl appearances has been as a member of the Dallas Cowboys. The first of these came in 2003. In fact, from 2003-2008, he made the trip to Hawaii every year accept 2005 (when he sustained a season-ending injury). In that same time, Adams ranked among the league leaders in penalties (he was in the top ten for most penalties among all NFL players, not just offensive tackles). On top of this, he was part of a Dallas offensive line that never ranked among the top teams in running the ball (their highest rank in this span was 12th in 2003). Ok, so if he’s not good at run blocking or avoiding penalties, then surely that must mean he’s fantastic as a pass protector right? Well…not exactly. In fact, in 2008 (as in last year) he ranked a very unremarkable 22nd in the league in terms of sacks-allowed among tackles.

So why is this guy going to the Pro Bowl every year? Honestly, I don’t know. It’s not even that he was having legitimate seasons at the beginning of his career and then fell off with no one noticing (like Orlando Pace). He definitely was never really that good at any point. Yet almost by sheer force of reputation, Adams has slithered his way into multiple Pro Bowls. It’s almost as if NFL experts who look at someone as physically gifted and, frankly, as large as Adams and think ‘he’s got one of the best NFL-caliber bodies in the league, therefore he must be good and therefore he warrants a place in the Pro Bowl.’ It’s a case of body type and potential justifying what should be a performance driven award. This is where too many of those that select Pro Bowlers turn the page a little too quickly. If they bothered to delve into this subject at all, the writing about Adams would be on the wall. Instead, we get to listen to Joe Buck rave about ‘how much Flozell Adams and teammate Leonard Davis can bench-press’ (Davis is another example of a fraudulent Pro Bowler).

Actually, speaking of Joe Buck, it seems that the number one credential that guys like Adams put forward is their ability to attract good PR. Playing for a team constantly in primetime (the Cowboys in Adam’s case) a lot of guys that have the ‘good body’ or get clichés attached to their name by announcers (they play with ‘reckless abandon’ or are ‘playmakers’ etc) become glorified to a public that is already influenced by the ADD television coverage that will only follow the ball. So the blitz-happy safety will get the PR, while the guy who covers downfield and negates touchdowns goes unnoticed.

To be fair, Flozell isn’t the only example of this. Not even close (he’s just the most obvious target). Others are out there. Defensive players in general are a good example. Another reason why these picks get screwed up is simple: too often statistics are used to measure a sport that can’t really be judged on pure numbers. It goes back to when I used to play football. As anyone who has played free safety will tell you, the most tackles you have is during a loss, because it signifies that the linemen and linebackers aren’t doing their jobs and that you, as the last line of defense, are having to make a play. This reasoning is also true in the NFL, so when certain db’s or linebackers receive attention as ‘tackling machines,’ just remember that their numbers are often inflated by incompetent personnel that surrounds them.

There also is no readily available statistic for missed tackles, which probably would have cast doubts on certain cornerbacks (Deion Sanders is a great example). Next time you watch a football game, especially an NFL game, just try and count all the times that defensive backs, for whatever reason, decide to go for the ‘kill shot’ on a receiver or running back and blow the tackle, allowing the offensive player to pick up additional yardage at best and a touchdown at worst. Why proper tackling technique is not drilled into their skulls relentlessly is a mystery, shrouded in an equal mixture of egotism and stupidity.

So what does this really mean? Clearly it indicates that the definition of a Pro Bowler is not ‘the best player at his position.’ More reasonably, the definition of a Pro Bowler is the person who has achieved the best mix of good PR and impressive statistics which, as has been shown, are many times a result of things having nothing to do with their own ability. Where does this leave us in explaining the curse of leading the league in Pro Bowlers? It should begin to make sense now that the mystique of being selected a Pro Bowler has become unraveled.

The initial and fundamental part of the explanation as to why these teams will underachieve is psychological. It’s funny how so many teams will insist that they aren’t fazed by having a league-leading tally named to the Pro Bowl when the stats mentioned earlier scream the contrary. In the modern era where media coverage of sports has become so widespread that it’s almost suffocating, players simply are incapable of escaping their own good press. They will hear about how awesome they are or how well they’ve played. And they will hear about this constantly during the playoffs (since Pro Bowl rosters are named near the end of the regular season). This affects everyone, whether subconsciously or consciously. Not only that, but it effects the teams they play. The other team is most definitely going to play with a chip on their shoulder after hearing all week about how the other team has ‘more Pro Bowlers than any other team in the league.’ (Of course they wouldn’t be as worked up if they actually knew how flawed the selection is).

The other main reason why these Pro Bowl-infested teams fail is that the same bad criteria for their selection (good PR, flashiness, arbitrary and inflated stats) proves to be their undoing against a more disciplined, albeit less flashy opponent. In other words, a balanced team with a good blend of aggression and intelligence will generally beat a team that is unbalanced. This sounds so simple and yet it perplexes even some of the most tenured minds in the game.

Essentially, it’s therefore the best strategy to have a handful of players who will fill out the Pro Bowl criteria, as most teams generally need some flash. Yet it’s also essential to have some substance to go with that flash. It’s why Carl Banks always complemented Lawrence Taylor so well. While LT was busy ruining the quarterbacks day, Banks was worrying about covering tight-ends or stuffing draw plays. The balance is what achieves success ultimately. This is probably the best example of how the NFL has become such a cerebral game. While in the past it was many times enough to win on talent and aggression alone, the modern game has evolved to take advantage of that concept. Intelligence has become just as crucial as athleticism and for those of you who don’t believe me, just watch the disgust on Tony Romo’s face the next time five time Pro Bowler Flozell Adams turns a convertible 3rd and 4 into a much lower percentage 3rd and 9.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Greatest: Part I

Way too often, people will see a great team and miss the point. They wonder if the team will win the championship (in whatever sport it might be) or, perhaps, where this team would stack up among the other great teams that came before them. And in this, they look past what is plainly in front of them. Great teams are labeled as great because of the dominance they achieve in their own time, not someone else’s. This is what always kills me about comparing something like whether or not the 1972 Dolphins would get smoked by the reigning Superbowl Champion Steelers. It’s a ludicrous conversation that is usually driven by people who have too much free time or too much red bull.

For this reason, I’m deciding to write something about a historically great team not because I want to measure it alongside other great teams in order to put together a “top 10” (I kind of hate top 10 lists anyway, since it’s such an arbitrary number to judge history by). Instead, I’ll want to pay homage to them as they truly were: great teams in their own time.

First up, 1999 Manchester United.

While Manchester United have hoisted the European Cup (or the Champions League as it’s now known) on several occasions, no season was as successful as 1999 was for the Red Devils. They played with swagger, with guts and most importantly, a sense of the moment. It was a true team in deepest sense, with so many contributions all grading out to the same end: the Treble. The winning of the League, Cup and Champions League trophies all in the same season is a mountain that only a select few have climbed. That being said, it is undeniable that the 1999 incarnation of Sir Alex Ferguson’s team had the power in their feet to rise into the most rarified of air in pursuit of glory.

The run up to the 1998-1999 season for United was tumultuous to say the least. David Beckham, fast becoming the super icon of the modern day, had been vilified during the summer at World Cup ’98. His decidedly rash kick of Diego Simeone while both were on the ground following Simeone’s foul of Beckham earned him a red card and the ridicule of countless masses in England (who eventually lost the game to their Argentine rivals and were ousted from the tournament despite the emergence of a lightning paced 18 year old named Michael Owen). On top of this, 6’5” defender Gary Pallister had moved on from the club and left a correspondingly large hole in the center of defense. Added to that, the shadow of departed talisman Eric Cantona still loomed large as the prior season had ended trophy-less for a club where success is measured only in championships.

Things didn’t get any better after the first true test of the season (the Charity Shield) where United were played off the field by defending champions Arsenal in a 3-0 loss. However, the game did mark the return of Roy Keane, whose relentless drive had clearly been missing from Manchester United’s midfield during most of the prior season (due to cruciate ligament tear). This, coupled with the signings of central defender Jaap Stam and forward Dwight Yorke, set the foundation for unparalleled success that so few would have prognosticated following the Charity Shield debacle.

The flow of the season was soon established in league games. Though they had retained their swashbuckling attack-first mentality, the distinctive trait became the improved defense. Not merely in their ability to keep the net clean, but more importantly they now seemingly had the presence of mind to know when it was best to grind it out. In essence, they became a more complete team, a skill that was to become self evident in places like Turin and Barcelona.

The rock of the team, like that of so many great soccer teams, was its goalie. Peter Schmeichel, who had so famously lifted the European Championship with surprise winner Denmark in 1992, was in his final year at Old Trafford. Though there had been other great goalkeepers in United’s past, known had carried themselves quite like Schmeichel. Standing an imposing 6’4”, his massive frame was equaled by a vociferous personality which he did not hesitate to use on his own defenders should they dare to tire from their marking for a moment. While Roy Keane has since called Schmeichel “a poser” in his autobiography, even the notoriously stubborn Keano had to admit “he did the business. He was as good a goalkeeper as anyone in the world.”

The United defense, supposedly in trouble after the loss of Pallister, recovered to become as formidable a unit as existed in England. The arrival of Stam (who became the most expensive defender in history) solidified the back four and, partnering with a mixture of Ronny Johnsen and Wes Brown, allowed outside backs Dennis Irwin and Gary (as well as brother Phil) Neville to drive forward and support the attack. Gary Neville was particularly durable during the season, finishing only behind Schmeichel in games started.

In midfield, United could boast some of the best talent in Europe. On the left side ran the ‘Welsh wizard’ Ryan Giggs. Now known for his maturity and versatility, Giggs in ’99 was all speed. He could run at any number of defenders at once and pin back other rightbacks with his incessant surges up the left wing. On the other side stood the heartthrob himself; David Beckham. All joking aside, Beckham in the 98-99 season was at his finest. Drawn into the classic ‘siege mentality’ by his World Cup send-off, Beckham redoubled his efforts to become the very best right-winger in England no matter how bad the chants got. The net result of this intensified focus was a product that speaks for itself. The endless supply of crosses and long-field precision passes allowed United a unique route towards goal that helped unlock even the most watertight of defenses. Also, Beckham’s willingness to sit deeper down the field compensated for the shuttling Giggs and provided some much needed cover.

The center of midfield was anchored by men who were synonymous with everything that Manchester United derived their edge from. In Roy Keane, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt, there was relentless combination of energy, industry and unlimited determination. Keane and Butt (the unfortunately named protégé) took to the field like soccer’s version of the Hanson Brothers, only they played with a refined style that belied their natural aggression. Yet while those two acted as holding midfielders in Ferguson’s 4-4-2, Scholes provided the class and forward presence from the center of the field to link the defense with United’s formidable attack. ‘Paul Scholes…he scores goals’ was a common saying among not merely United supporters, but also rival fans, albeit begrudgingly.

The attacking line was one which was as full of depth as it was diversity of talent. An array of talent did the business for Ferguson during the season. At their apex were the ‘soul brothers,’ Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole. The reserved Cole had settled in at Old Trafford and reveled in the service he received from Beckham and Scholes. Yorke, in his first season with United, quickly quelled concerns about his ability to live up to the large fee United paid for his services. With 29 goals in all competitions during the season, Yorke not only provided a target man but also proved effective in holding up the ball, allowing the likes of Giggs and Gary Neville to maraud forward. Yet what separated United that season from so many other clubs was their depth, and with Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Sir Alex Ferguson had two readymade aces up his sleeve.

The climax of the season came in the final weeks. After battling in a veritable group of death against Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Brondy, United were the only team in the group not to lose, advancing in second place. Meanwhile, they ground their way towards reclaiming the Premier League, while quietly keeping pace in the F.A. Cup. After suffering a shocking loss to Middlesbrough on December 19th, they would not lose another league game that season.

Still, domestic success had become normal during the Ferguson era. The true measuring stick for success was in Europe. Having not succeeded in Europe’s most prestigious club competition since the days of Sir Matt Busby in 1968, it was an open wound for Ferguson in particular, whose shortcomings in the Champions League were well documented. A quarterfinal win over Italian giants Inter setup a monumental semifinal clash against Juventus. In the first leg, United were outplayed at home and were only saved by a last gasp Giggs equalizer.

The second leg, played in Turin, was to be Roy Keane’s finest hour. Early goals from Filippo Inzaghi gave Juve a 2-0 edge and the finals seemed within their grasp. Yet the cosmopolitan Italian side, boasting the likes of Edgar Davids and Zinedine Zidane, had failed to count for the relentless Keane. There is a reason the United faithful still chant “there’s only one Keano” and much of it was born on that humid night at the Stadio delle Alpi. Scouring every corner of the field, Keane helped turn the tide back in the Red Devil’s favor. After receiving a yellow card that was to ensure his suspension should United reach the final, the popular saying goes that he played the remaining minutes as if it was his final. Keane was granted some measure of consolation for his tireless work, nabbing the first in a succession of second half United strikes, beautifully flicking a header inside the far post on a Beckham delivered corner kick.

Yet that night, which set Manchester United on course for their first European final in over 30 years, belonged to more than just Keane. Jaap Stam, who had drawn early criticism after his pricey move from Dutch club PSV Eindhoven, played brilliantly. It was his uncompromising marking of Inzaghi that allowed the massed attacks from United in the second half. Added to that, it was the high-water mark for the soul brothers, with both Cole and Yorke combining in their distinctly telepathic way to contribute two more goals, sowing Juventus’s defeat 3-2.

On the home front, United closed out the season with more goals than any other team in Premier League history (80). A highlight included an 8-1 thrashing on Nottingham Forest where Ole Solskjaer came on as a substitute with 12 minutes remaining and banged in four goals. Always the consummate League team, United got crucial draws against the bigger sides and beat everyone else, failing to discriminate between home and away matches (dominating them both). Their FA Cup campaign was littered with close calls as they drew only one non-Premier League squad (Fulham). The most famous clash came in the semifinal versus Arsenal.

Having lost their seemingly annual Premier League crown to Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal the previous season, the two clubs contested both the 98-99 Premier League and FA Cup trophies in a desperate struggle. With players like Dennis Bergkamp, Marc Overmars, Emmanuel Petit, Patrick Viera and Nicolas Anelka all in their primes, the Gunners were formidable opponents. After a scoreless first leg, the second was to prove one of the games of the season.

Despite taking an early lead courtesy of a long range Beckham special, Bergkamp leveled and Arsenal seemed to have stolen the momentum. Roy Keane’s second yellow card sent him off and a rash Phil Neville tackle handed Arsenal a penalty kick in stoppage time. It was Schmeichel, who had a horrible record against penalties that was celebrating afterwards however. The Dane produced a fine save of Bergkamp’s spot kick, injecting life into his teammates at the very point which they seemed to have cracked.

The legendary winner produced by Giggs is still one of the most famous FA Cup goals in the long and illustrious history of the cup. Picking up a wayward pass from Arsenal midfield stalwart Patrick Viera, Giggs took the ball and went zero to full speed within the blink of an eye (a typical Giggs decision). Surging with the pace of a man who knew his team was down to ten men and had not been on the attack in some time, he carried the ball deep into Arsenal territory. Whether he saw the diagonal runs of Yorke and Scholes to his left and right is irrelevant. All that mattered was the masterpiece Giggs painted through the heart of the Gunner’s defense. After willing his way by four defenders, he blasted a rocket into the roof of the net and past a dumbstruck David Seaman. Such a stunning strike was enough to push United past their rivals and into the FA Cup final, where Newcastle were ground down by suffocating defense and goals from Sheringham and Scholes.

With success on the English front secured, all eyes turned to the Champions League final, to be played in the epic Nou Camp in Barcelona. United faced Bayern Munich, themselves in pursuit of the treble. In Oliver Kahn, Mario Basler and Lothar Mathaus Bayern boasted one of the finest and most talented German sides since the club days of Beckenbauer. They had grappled with United in the group stages of the tournament and had drawn both times. Now they would face off in what amounted to be one of the most dramatic moments in recent soccer history.

That Roy Keane and Paul Scholes were suspended for the final became apparent right from the first whistle. Bayern immediately seized on the attack and found themselves in the lead after six minutes. An uncharacteristically poor tackle from Ronny Jonhsen allowed Mario Basler the perfect opportunity to dispatch a swinging free kick past Schmeichel and into the net.

Down a goal, United certainly didn’t appear to panic (having been there so many times before), but they had the look of a team that was flustered. Subsequent breakdowns in United’s defense nearly resulted in a deficit being doubled (one Carsten Jancker effort striking the cross-bar in an agonizing moment for those cheering for United or, more accurately, cheering against the Germans). Yet through luck and poise, the Red Devils remained trailing by only a goal and, knowing the strength emanating from his bench, Ferguson threw Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on for the final stretch.

Even watching the youtube clips of it now still gives chills like it did live. United seem to surge as Bayern wilts. (This wasn’t coincidence either, as Bayern manager Ottmar Hitzfeld removed both Basler and Matthaus just as United threw in their reinforcements.) Trapping the Germans time and again in their own half, Beckham played especially well late. It was his industry that created a corner and announcer Clive Tyldesley hypothetically asked “can Manchester United score? They always score.” Peter Schmeichel, in what was to be his last game with the club, lumbered forward in desperation. The prospect of coming so close and yet so far to the treble loomed, should Bayern have held for only a few more moments.

Like so many great moments in sporting history, the tying goal was born out of pure luck, grit and unmitigated desperation. The ball was improperly cleared after Beck’s corner by the antsy Bayern defense, falling finally for Ryan Giggs who clumsily mishit a volley back toward goal. The German goalie Kahn, like his German team in the match itself, seemed to have it lined up, both the shot and the Champions League trophy. They had the lead; they had United in what was seemingly their last act before succumbing to the pressure of the moment. Yet Teddy Sheringham, who at 33 years of age had never won a major trophy before the season began, was unfazed by it all. Not by the pressure of a Champions League final. Not by the pressure of becoming the first English team to complete the treble. Not by Oliver Kahn and the German defense. All he saw was Giggs’s wayward volley that bounced into his path. And with one seamless, swift motion, he redirected it into Kahn’s previously impenetrable goal. “Ahh Teddy Teddy” lamented Tyldesley, as he, like so many of the British journalists on hand, struggled to maintain their professionalism in that joyous moment.

Overtime seemed to beckon. The Germans clearly expected this, as they almost stopped playing altogether. They were nearly correct too, but before this could be proven true, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer latched onto a desperation long ball hurtled into the Bayern half and won a corner. In this, he took a major step into United lore, as what happened next ensured that Solskjaer will never be forgotten by United faithful. Another Beckham corner was swung in beautifully, Sheringham was the first to meet it, flicking the ball perfectly across the suddenly exposed goal-mouth. The ‘baby-faced assassin’ (as Solskjaer was famously known) was placed characteristically in the perfect position and his predatory instincts took over. Flicking the ball into the roof of the net he changed the course of Champions League history, sending United to their treble and opening the floodgates for the last decade of success enjoyed by British clubs in Europe.

The aftermath of that momentous night at the Nou Camp stretches broadly over European soccer history. Alex Ferguson can trace his knighthood to this moment, where he finally broke through on the grandest of stages and in the grandest of style. Other careers, like that of David Beckham and Ryan Giggs, were most definitely elevated to ‘legendary’ status. Sheringham and Solskjaer became heroes in their own time. Peter Schmeichel was sent off with a bang, as he left the club after that game. More importantly, it sent a message to anyone that mattered that British power was rising in continental soccer. They had finally emerged out of the ashes of Heysel and it is not coincidence that the three other members of ‘the big four’ in British soccer would all play in a Champions League final within the next ten years.

Other kinds of fallout weren’t as uplifting. As proud as Roy Keane was of his teammates for that night, he still admits that “No matter how people tell me I deserve that Champions League medal, I know I don’t.” The always outspoken Keane is haunted by his suspension for the final. Other players peaked that night, as United achieved everything possible for a club team in that season. Dwight Yorke would never match his rookie year, content (if only subconsciously) with what he had achieved. Bayern players were visibly upset and distraught with the manner in which they had lost. Sammy Kuffour became famous for violently beating the ground in a raw showing of true emotions from a Champions League loser. German sweeper Lothar Matthaus (who was beaten late both times he played a Champions League final) would later say “it was not the best team that won but the luckiest.”

For United, it marked a culmination of a decade’s dominance domestically manifesting itself in final European victory. Sir Alex Ferguson (as he is now) still has Clive Tyldesley’s commentary framed in his office. It was a tremendous way to cap off one of the best seasons in recent memory and surely 1999 Manchester United deserve a place among the best ever. Not simply for their skill, or their athleticism, but more for their determination and character. In the darkest of moments this incarnation of the Red Devils had an undeniable ability to hang tough and fight back. As Tyldesley would famously say following the final whistle in the final: “Down and out? Not a bit of it…they are never out.”