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10 Sep 2009

Walkthrough: What Do I Know?

by Mike Tanier

Lee Evans had concerns about the Bills offense.

Everyone who watched a Bills preseason game shared those concerns. The starting offense produced just three points and committed five turnovers in 15 possessions. The new no-huddle attack produced confusion and inconsistency, not up-tempo thrills. Evans, a five-year veteran and one of the team’s leaders, addressed his concerns to the coaching staff. He spoke to several coaches, including offensive coordinator Turk Schonert, seeking reassurance that the Bills were headed in the right direction.

A few days later, Schonert was fired. Head coach Dick Jauron handed the coordinator’s duties over to quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt, whose only playcalling experience came in NFL Europe.

"It caught me way off guard," said Evans, who liked and respected Schonert. "It was definitely a surprise."

Second Hand News

What do you know about Turk Schonert, Alex Van Pelt, and the Bills offense? More importantly -- since I’m the one who writes the articles -- what do I know? And how do I know it?

The information above comes almost exclusively from an article by Allen Wilson in the Buffalo News. I read it, summarized it, and passed it along. Without his work, I would know that Van Pelt replaced Schonert, but I wouldn’t know how Evans felt about it. Without Wilson, or someone else like him, I wouldn't know enough to talk or write interestingly or intelligently about the Bills offensive situation.

Which brings us back to an important question: What do I really know about the Bills situation specifically, or about the Richard Seymour trade, or any other football related event?

And, in the age of the Internet, what does it even mean to "know" something?

Facets of Knowledge

Dick Jauron claimed that he made the decision to fire Schonert quickly. He also said it was his decision, not a mandate by owner Ralph Wilson. "I called Mr. Wilson this morning when I decided this was the direction I wanted to go and informed him of my wish and he said it was my call and I made it," Jauron said.

Reporters who follow the Bills closely think Jauron is performing spin control. "I’m sure [the firing] was an edict from owner Ralph Wilson because this just isn’t Jauron’s style," wrote Sal Maiorana, who has covered the Bills for nearly two decades for the Rochester Eagle and Democrat.

Everyone agrees that Schonert's offense wasn’t getting the job done. The Bills finished 24th in the league in offensive DVOA last year, and they regressed late in the year, scoring a combined six points in their final three home games. The offseason acquisition of Terrell Owens -- who has been laid up with turf toe for most of the preseason -- looked like a quick fix for an offense that needed more broad-based improvement. Drastic changes on the offensive line made it even harder for the team to implement its new no-huddle offense. Rookie guards Eric Wood and Andy Levitre are smart, high-effort players who could develop into excellent blockers on the move. But both are adjusting to new positions (Levitre was a left tackle in college, Wood a center), and both needed a year to get stronger. With Owens sidelined and Levitre and Wood getting blown backward, Schonert’s offense never established any rhythm and often looked downright embarrassing.

When an angry reader sends a nasty email, he invariably suggests that I know nothing about football. That’s not true -- I know something about football. But how much?

There’s a lot of information in the last few paragraphs. It’s knowledge that falls into several categories:

Current Events Knowledge: Schonert was fired, Van Pelt will now call the Bills plays. Terrell Owens is injured. Jauron said in a press conference that he made a sudden decision.

Statistical Knowledge: The Bills finished 24th in DVOA and scored just six points in three late-season games.

Insider Knowledge: Evans was surprised by the firing. A veteran local sportswriter thinks that Wilson forced Jauron's hand.

Scouting Knowledge: The rookie guards, whose strengths are intelligence and blocking on the move, are getting pushed around in preseason games.

Player Background Knowledge: The rookie guards played other positions in college.

There are other types of knowledge underlying those paragraphs. There's historical knowledge, which helps us understand who Owens and Wilson are and their significance to the story. Other historical knowledge underpins the story: the Bills have gone through seven offensive coordinators in 10 years; Van Pelt is a former Bills backup who has been employed by the team almost continuously since 1995.

That’s a lot of knowledge. But how much of it was mine before I sat down to write? I knew the basic outline: the players, the coaches, the general state of the Bills offense, the implications of firing a coordinator 10 days before the season opener. My "walking around" knowledge allowed me to understand more about the story than, say, my wife ("Who is Turk Schonert?") my mother ("Who are the Bills?") or the hardcore Eagles fan at my lunch table who only follows the headlines for out-of-town teams ("Did Owens do something to get that Turk guy fired?")

Unfortunately, my walking around knowledge is insufficient to write a Walkthrough, or to discuss the firing on a radio show. I need additional knowledge:

  • Quotes and expert opinions from the Buffalo News and Rochester Eagle and Democrat
  • Stats from NFL.com, Pro Football Reference, and Football Outsiders Almanac
  • Scouting reports from Russ Lande's GM Jr. and the Pro Football Weekly draft guide

If I needed more depth, I could consult Pro Football Talk, the Bills team website, or even a reputable fan blog. I could tape the Bills preseason games and re-watch them looking for specific problems or mistakes. I could even search news archives to learn more about Schonert's hiring last year or Van Pelt's playing career. But here’s the thing: so could you.

I have very few sources at my disposal that you don’t have. Aaron can give me a hard-to-find stat if I need it. Journalists like Wilson or Maiorana are a little more likely to return my phone calls than yours. I have a library of old magazines, draft guides, and encyclopedias that I can consult. Those sources give me about a five percent advantage over, say, an ambitious blogger researching the same story. My "walking around knowledge" might earn me another five percent, though a hardcore Bills fan probably knows more about the team’s recent history than I do.

That’s what my expertise is riding upon: a 5-10 percent advantage over the next guy, the passionate football fan with a good Internet connection and an urge to learn more about the Turk Schonert firing. I am trying to hold your interest with that 5-10 percent advantage. I am trying to further my career using that 5-10 percent advantage.

There’s very little separating me from the next guy. I know that full well. Not too long ago, I was that next guy.

The Wired Ramification

Jauron says that he wants the Bills offense to do "more attacking" under Van Pelt. That means the no-huddle is here to stay. "It's not like we're changing scheme. We may be changing focus, we may be changing emphasis but it's not like we're adding new things."

In an interview with a Buffalo television station after his firing, Schonert suggested that it was Jauron who took the teeth out of the Bills offense. "He wants a 'Pop Warner' offense," Schonert said in a phone interview with WIVB. "He limited me in formations, and limited me in plays. He's been on my back all offseason."

Schonert's personality may have been more of a problem than his playcalling. He earned a dictatorial, inflexible reputation, according to the anonymous sources who always surface after a coach is fired. Even while defending Schonert, Evans hinted that the former coach could be difficult. "He liked to do things his way," Evans said. "I learned a lot from him. But as many people as there is in this game sometimes you just don't rub some people the right way."

Schonert's relationship with Trent Edwards was very rocky, according to some sources. When Jerry Sullivan of the Buffalo News asked Edwards why he wasn’t throwing downfield more often, Edwards said that he was only following orders by checking down. "That's just the way I'm coached," he said. Sullivan believes that Edwards "was throwing Schonert under the bus (after checking down, naturally)."

Whatever the rationale, the Schonert firing looks like a preemptive strike by Jauron to save his own job. His teams have produced three straight 7-9 seasons. Football Outsiders projects them to win 5.3 games. Vegas is slightly more optimistic, setting the over-under at a predictable 7.5 wins. Jauron won’t survive another mediocre season. The Schonert firing doesn’t buy him much time, but it's a Hail Mary pass that could jumpstart the offense and stave off a slow start.

You know more about football than the typical "expert" knew 25 years ago.

Back in 1984, it was nearly impossible to watch more than three NFL games in a typical week: the early Sunday game, the late game, and the Monday Night game. Now, you can watch seven or eight without breaking a sweat: three Sunday games, the Monday Night game, and as many as four NFL Network Shortcut games.

In 1984, you watched the home team and a handful of the top national teams, like the Cowboys or Dolphins. A Philadelphia area fan could go two or three seasons with no opportunity at all to see, say, the Falcons: They rarely played the Eagles, were blacked out on CBS whenever the Eagles played, and made few appearances on national television. Now, it’s easy to keep track of a low-profile team on the other side of the country, and Matt Ryan’s family in the Delaware Valley can watch him all year for the price of a satellite dish or a trip to a sports bar.

In 1984, those of us with VCRs could record grainy, clunky game tape. Now, we can conveniently tape games in high-definition with the push of a DVR or Tivo button. With a satellite dish, we can tape two or more Sunday games while watching two others.

In 1984, we read the local paper for our news. We got plenty of information on the home team, a few insights about past or future opponents, and AP reports and capsules about the rest of the league. An ambitious fan might subscribe to The Sporting News, Pro Football Weekly, maybe a gambling service. Now, we search the Internet and get our information straight from the sources. If we need to know about the Bills, we read Buffalo News. If we want a national roundup, we have a hundred choices.

We got our stats from tiny, agate-type midweek lists and from the backs of magazines in 1984. Now, we get them from Football Outsiders and Pro Football Reference and NFL.com. Pregame shows were a half hour long in 1984. Their length has nearly quadrupled, and while their information content hasn't, they provide more knowledge than Phyllis George or Jimmy the Greek did.

You get the idea. You watch more football, read more about football, ingest more data and opinion about football than it was possible to absorb just 25 years ago. High level experts and analysts of that era could easily gain an edge over the common fan: they could get their hands on out-of-town papers or game tape, interview a player or telephone a colleague, go to the basement to search the stacks.

Those advantages barely exist anymore. You can watch a press conference or download the transcript. You can read the out-of-town blogs. The marginal knowledge that separates the extremely passionate fan -- and that’s what you are if you are still reading at this point -- from the professional football analyst has grown very small, and it’s shrinking constantly.

That’s why you find your local columnist frustrating, the television color commentator unlistenable: you know too much, and they probably haven’t changed with the times.

That's one reason why newspapers are scrambling to stay in business. The marginal knowledge gap doesn't just exist in sports, but in current events, entertainment, and other fields as well. Your local paper is still learning how to compete with CNN.com or with pundit-like bloggers of all philosophies when covering national news, with TMZ.com and fanboy sites for entertainment news. It’s a scary fact that some newspapers just won't be able to compete, and many have folded or cut to the quick.

It's a reason Football Outsiders stays in business and people like me get writing opportunities. Our databases are a source of extra knowledge, information you cannot get anywhere else. You may read the Buffalo News before I do, you may research Schonert’s career on your own and acquire more information than I have time to provide. But I know that the Bills went 0-for-15 on third-and-10 situations last year, and while you also have access to that information (page 29 of FOA) I had it before you did, which could have made a big difference if Schonert was fired in July.

The realization that marginal knowledge is always shrinking forces conscientious, dedicated football analysts -- and yes, I consider myself conscientious and dedicated -- to keep learning more about the game. For me, that means studying more game tape, because strategy and play diagrams have become my niche. For Football Outsiders, that means more research and more stat compilation. We can stay relevant, interesting, and in-demand by introducing new stats and methods like the FEI, Speed Scores, Receiving Plus-Minus, and by freeze framing plays and counting empty-backfield plays so no one else has to. If we stop evolving and adapting, someone will pass us by, individually or as an organization.

Anyone can write an article about Turk Schonert. Anyone can compile quotes, cite stats, add a little spin. Heck, anyone can transfer play-by-play onto some spreadsheets, type in a few formulas, and create some DVOA-like stats. We survive by surfing a tiny whitecap of knowledge, by working harder and harder to know a little more and to impart that knowledge in an entertaining way.

It's daunting. It's stressful. And I wouldn't want it any other way. I'm in this business to learn more and to pass along what I’m learning, not to string together second-hand facts.

In the Here and Know

The Bills may not have the personnel to be successful in a no-huddle offense, regardless of who is coordinating it. Edwards is not the issue: He is smart enough to make the on-the-line adjustments necessary to run the scheme. The rookie linemen are a bigger problem. Protection adjustments must me made quickly at the line of scrimmage in a no-huddle, and with two rookies and a journeyman center Geoff Hangartner on the interior line, there are going to be some blown assignments, which will lead to disastrous sacks, turnovers, and possibly injuries.

But the biggest problems are at running back and tight end. Marshawn Lynch is not a prototypical no-huddle running back in the Thurman Thomas mold. He caught 47 passes last year, but he averaged just 6.4 yards per catch for a DVOA of -12.5%. He's not a threat as a slot receiver. Fred Jackson (receiving DVOA of 12.4%) is a more credible threat as a slot or flex receiver, but he has only been used sparingly in these roles. Of the Bills tight ends, only rookie Shaun Nelson is a true seam threat as a flex receiver, and Nelson isn’t ready for an every-down role. Fullback Corey McIntyre is a 260-pound blocking specialist with little versatility.

The no-huddle is most effective when it is used to force the defense into mismatches by varying formations and putting individual defenders in untenable positions. The Bills cannot really do that. Opposing defenses aren’t worried about a linebacker covering Lynch in the slot or a strong safety covering tight end Derek Schouman up the seam. The Bills cannot convert easily from power to spread to empty formations with the personnel they have. In the preseason, Schonert deployed lots of three-wideout, single back formations that put little pressure on defenses to adjust. Those formations can be effective when Peyton Manning is the quarterback and Reggie Wayne, Marvin Harrison, and Dallas Clark are running patterns. When Edwards is behind an inexperienced line looking for Lee Evans and Derek Schouman to get open, those vanilla formations hinder much more than they help. Instead of firing Schonert, Jauron should have seriously considered scrapping the no huddle, giving his coordinators more opportunities to vary personnel groupings and formations, while giving his young lineman a chance to process their assignments in the huddle.

That’s my football knowledge, acquired over years of study and research, augmented by sources we all share. Now, my knowledge is yours. Use it, build on it, and add to it, and I may borrow it back someday. Credit me when you reference me, and I'll return the favor. And if you want to be a person who trades in football knowledge, who packages it or spins it, publishes it or popularizes it, then make sure you also find a way to produce it. Stories and headlines are temporary and fleeting. Knowledge, even about something as trivial as football, is precious.

Posted by: Mike Tanier on 10 Sep 2009

62 comments, Last at 16 Sep 2009, 1:23pm by Bruce G.

Comments

1
by ohearn :: Thu, 09/10/2009 - 11:00am

My marginal advantage is that you still owe me crab fries from Chickie's and Pete's. Good article though.

2
by Joe T. :: Thu, 09/10/2009 - 11:09am

Brilliant. Bravo.

3
by Philip Gunns (not verified) :: Thu, 09/10/2009 - 11:10am

Nice article. I know that much.

4
by Tom Gower :: Thu, 09/10/2009 - 11:17am

Very nice piece, Mike.

5
by AnonymousA (not verified) :: Thu, 09/10/2009 - 11:22am

I expect better than truisms, platitudes, and quotes from Walkthrough. This entire article sounded like a leadup to a retirement announcement. More importantly: where has the funny gone? And were the massive quotes from other authors just there to pad word count?

9
by Scott P. (not verified) :: Thu, 09/10/2009 - 11:52am

Those weren't quotes (who do you think is quoting DVOA like that?) They were illustrations of the ways in which sports writers repackage information while adding value of their own. The first is the sort of bald regurgitation you get from a lot of sources. The last part is Mike's attempt to create an 'added value' product by including his own experience and observations.

49
by Spielman :: Fri, 09/11/2009 - 9:34pm

And I expect better from anonymous F.O. comments.

But I probably shouldn't.

8
by Temo :: Thu, 09/10/2009 - 11:51am

Great article, Mike-- may I say your first great article of the 2009 season? :)

A lot of the concepts your brought up have been bugged me in the depths of my consciousness for a while now, not well expressed and articulated until I read this. So there's my marginal utility from your writing, I suppose.

Edit: Just to further establish what I was saying, I think a lot of writers are aware of some of the concepts you discussed but haven't fully realized what they're all about.

For instance, Bill Simmons has had to answer to readers who have asked him why he doesn't do detailed analysis of the NFL or MLB anymore, which he used to attempt back in the day. Nowadays he only writes gambling-themed articles about the NFL and steroids-reaction pieces about baseball. His response was that you really need to know what your stuff these days to write a credible article about a sport, and (he implies) he doesn't have the information advantage in MLB and the NFL that he does for the NBA.

Indeed, I can't think off hand of any "great" writers who do detailed analysis who focus on more than one sport anymore. There are writers who excel at doing profiles and human-interest stories and investigative stories (all of which are great reads and are important in their own way), but no one who actually analyzes the play on the field. All the best analysts are guys at sites like Baseball Prospectus, or guys like Paul Zimmerman who mostly cover one sport.

6
by JTP (not verified) :: Thu, 09/10/2009 - 11:45am

Smart stuff. Insightful and really hits the head of what's going on across many industries, where the transparency driven by the Internet age is putting a higher and higher value on marginal knowledge. We're all in competition not just from the guy next door, but from the guy next door in India, China, and other countries. Consider financial services, an industry that has thrived from opaqueness in its trading algorithms, fees, and the like. With an increased demand for transparency (from consumers and the government), the whole industry is being upended, and seeking new sources of differentiation (high volume trading being one of the more recent ones). Football, life, it's all related.

7
by Jon Coit (not verified) :: Thu, 09/10/2009 - 11:47am

You're selling yourself short, and given that you are or were? a teacher, should know better. Saying that just about anyone could do the play diagramming you do is misleading...when we all know, perusing the information available, that very few NFL analysts do it, because the institutional base (i.e. paying gigs outside of ridiculous news-bot land and relatively free from its influence) is narrow. It's like saying everyone could learn to play guitar like Doc Watson...sure, it's true, but it will never happen. Thankfully for all of us fo, smartfootball etc. readers, the existence of the internet (thanks, Al Gore, Jr.!) means one doesn't need as broad an audience as TV to make content distribution profitable (right?) or at least worth doing.

Moreover, if there's another human being who could have done the classic, brilliant, hilarious Watchmen/NFL coaches mashup, I'd like to meet her.

10
by Capitan (not verified) :: Thu, 09/10/2009 - 11:54am

Umm, the meta wasn't either insightful or funny. I'd like 5 minutes of my life back please.

50
by RickD :: Fri, 09/11/2009 - 11:00pm

Scanning would have saved you time.

11
by RochesterJD (not verified) :: Thu, 09/10/2009 - 12:16pm

Rochester Eagle & Democrat? That is not a thing... the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle is what you were looking for there.

12
by bill prudden (not verified) :: Thu, 09/10/2009 - 12:27pm

Much enjoyed, and thanks.

I think, ultimately, the gap will come down to reporters paid to spend the day watching practice or doing interviews in hallways. That will be the only thing to seperate us:them.

Bill

13
by billsfan :: Thu, 09/10/2009 - 12:29pm

TMZ is actually a subsidiary of Time Warner, and always has been.

(I also like the Eagles)

14
by justanothersteve :: Thu, 09/10/2009 - 12:37pm

Interesting and educational. While I'm sure some will say "I already knew that" while reading this, like Temo said, we may be aware of this at some level but have not put it together conceptually until the info is logically laid out in front of us. For those who complain it wasn't funny, deal with it. As the Stones sang, "You can't always get what you want."

%
One thing I am curious about though after reading this; why the no-huddle offense? Is this an edict from Ralph Wilson to recreate the 1990's Glory Days after several mediocre seasons? Does Edwards want it so he can have more input into the offense? Did Jauron buy a copy of "The No-Huddle for Dummies" from amazon and think it couldn't be any worse than last year's offense? As you state, clearly the Bills didn't have the personnel to run it. Nor did acquire players during the offseason to switch. It makes no sense in this situation.

38
by WhyBillsWhy (not verified) :: Thu, 09/10/2009 - 6:13pm

Well, they knew that the O-line was gonna be a problem this year from the get-go. They let the starting G and both C's go because they were awful last year and the good, but under-performing, LT whined his way off the team.

So they're left with few choices. They pick up the smartest, meanest C they could get their hands on in FA, move the RG to RT (theoretically a better fit for his skill set), and move the RT to LT, a move everyone knew was trouble, but there's a promising LT prospect behind him with no experience that's hitting the gym hard. Add to that the 2 highly-rated draft picks at G that are faster and play with a mean streak and you have a lighter, but more tenacious (hopefully not worse) O-line. Last year's line was bulky, but not very powerful, and I think that the FO wanted to go in the opposite direction of that.

The no-huddle is, I think, designed to help that O-line out. A faster tempo with quick-developing plays in theory would help the linemen by making them protect the QB for shorter periods of time. Unfortunately, the start of games will probably be rough all year. However, as each game progresses and the opposing D's wear down, the no-huddle should really shine.

I think you under-estimate the personnel that Buffalo has to run the no-huddle, though. They have a pretty deep WR corps. Fred Jackson is going to have a monster role. He's been lining up in the slot regularly in camp. Lynch isn't as versatile, but is still a great runner. Where they fell short is with Dominic Rhodes. He clearly didn't live up to expectations and got cut for it, which is bad because Xavier Omon and Corey McIntyre (FB) should not be on this team.

The real problem is that the Bills defense is predicated on playing with a lead, shutting down big plays and keeping teams out of the end zone, which is a problem if you don't get out to an early lead. It ought to be some interesting football this year at least.

53
by justanothersteve :: Sat, 09/12/2009 - 11:30am

Thanks. I do agree that the Bills do have a decent WR corps and two fairly good RBs. But I don't agree with the idea that it should help a young OL that hasn't played together. Quick-developing plays don't require a no-huddle. The no-huddle as I understand it is supposed to reduce defensive substitutions along with setting up mismatches by using versatile offensive personnel; a tight end or RB who can set up as a WR or an excellent pass-catching FB. I don't think Buffalo has those players.

60
by Rich Conley (not verified) :: Wed, 09/16/2009 - 10:22am

"The no-huddle as I understand it is supposed to reduce defensive substitutions along with setting up mismatches by using versatile offensive personnel"

Which is exactly where the lighter, faster, meaner guards come in. You're forcing the other team to not rotate its defensive line, and hopefully, your lighter, faster guys have more stamina.

The Patriots certainly looked like this was an issue in the 3rd and 4th quarter. On the long TD drive early in the 4th, it looked like Wilfork was going to keel over and die.

15
by tuluse :: Thu, 09/10/2009 - 1:06pm

I was listening to the Bill Simmons podcast yesterday, and Tony Kornheiser was on. He made one statement was so insulting and condescending towards his own audience that it's difficult to believe someone who feels that way can succeed in his job.

He was talking about being fired from MNF, and he said something like "these are the people who want everything simplified and made easier, but when it comes to football they want more mystery. If they heard Gruden and Jaws explain something to each other they would have no idea what they were talking about." There is so much wrong with that statement it's difficult to start refuting it. The crux of the problem to me though is that he doesn't think his audience is smart enough to understand football. When his audience says "yes we are, please explain it," his reaction isn't to adapt, it's to assume they are misguided or something.\

Anyways, I think it's a good contrast of the difference between Mike Tainer and Kornheiser. Both are excellent writers and share a passion about sports, but Kornheiser wants to dictate to his audience what they'll get, while Tainer is conscious of catering to what they want.

I think it's another reason sports blogs took off so quickly. Fans in general were tired of being lorded over by reporters. They had access, we didn't, so we were at their mercy of what to hear about with respect to our teams. Now in an age where athletes and coaches are so guarded, and anyone can write about their passion, there is very little separating fans from reporters.

Sorry for the long, rambling post, guess Tainer's article got some juices flowing.

24
by Bowl Game Anomaly :: Thu, 09/10/2009 - 2:09pm

When Kornheiser said that, he wasn't talking about you, me, or anyone who reads this site. He was talking about your typical MNF viewer, who is (on average) the least-sophisticated football fan who actually cares enough to watch games on TV. MNF has the broadest and hence least-hardcore audience of any NFL broadcast short of the Super Bowl.

I didn't like Kornheiser in the MNF booth, but he was just doing what the producers told him to do. I guarantee you that if Jaws and Gruden get too technical on the air, the producers will tell them to tone it down.

27
by PatsFan :: Thu, 09/10/2009 - 2:21pm

Sadly, I think Kornheiser is correct on this.

Sure, FO readers want all that technical goodness, but I think the average NFL viewer doesn't. I know that sounds condescending, but then I go to a game and see all the people who spend pretty much all the game either waiting in beer lines, waiting in piss lines, or too drunk to notice what's going on.

Yes, there's a solid minority of hardcore people who want to know all about the game. But I think a majority of viewers are much less technical fans and don't want to hear all that analysis. They want to have some fun watching a game with their pals and see how their bets and fantasy football teams did.

If network market research showed that viewers wanted technical stuff, you'd see people like Jaws and Gruden really getting into it at a high level. That they don't tells you what the majority of viewers really want.

29
by tuluse :: Thu, 09/10/2009 - 2:46pm

Except ESPN replaced him with Gruden, so unless you think ESPN is grossly misjudging their audience (entirely possible), the average fan doesn't want to hear Kornheiser, and does want real explanations. I don't know if the average fan would enjoy Mike Tainer or detailed explanations, but they do want some analysis.

Kornheiser could have been perfect as a set up man, "how did Roddy White get so open here?" "Why did Steve Slaton get so much running room here?" "Why was DeMarcus Ware unblocked on this play?" Instead he just went for Peyton-Eli jokes and comparing Rodgers to Favre.

31
by Admore :: Thu, 09/10/2009 - 3:36pm

I wonder about the MNF thing and Kornheiser. I think that FO and things like it are a very small, but disproportionately influential appendage when it comes to the vast shambling beast that is the NFL. Kornheiser is right in a way, let completely off the chain, Gruden and Jaws could lose pretty much the whole world in about 2 minutes. This would be better than Dennis Miller, but not a lot.

And if we drank from that firehose long enough, we'd get used to it. But the NFL worries that most of the fans would tune out. The mere presence of Jaws and Chucky, though indicates that ESPN and the NFL know that fans want more, and are figuring out how to tune that knowledge within an entertainment package.

I think a lot of people, not necessarily FO, but a lot of fans confuse in depth fantasy knowledge for knowledge of how football works. The two are almost completely unrelated disciplines. How much does the average fantasy nut know about how line blocking assignments are called? Or the decision matrix for a safety to come up in support? I want to know more about it, and you want to know more about it, but how many people really do?

32
by Chocolate City (not verified) :: Thu, 09/10/2009 - 4:00pm

Football fandom is moving toward that analytical side more and more, though. True, the pace may seem glacial to those on the other side of the learning curve, but it is happening. Twenty years ago, you would never hear fans talking about cover-2 or cover-3, yet those terms are part of most fans' vocabulary now.

My wife attended a women's clinic at Northern Illinois University this summer that had twice as many attendees than the organizers thought they would. She admitted that most of the terminology was confusing, but she started to make headway in deciphering it, because she wants to know more about how the game works.

What I've just said is anecdotal, but still does show what the trend is. Kornheiser went against that trend, and that's why it didn't go over.

35
by Jerry :: Thu, 09/10/2009 - 5:51pm

ESPN didn't (or shouldn't have) put Kornheiser in the MNF booth to provide technical analysis. I think it was an attempt to return to the olden days that Mike mentions in the piece where Monday Night was the only national NFL broadcast, and ABC viewers who weren't interested in Xs and Os could listen to Howard Cosell opine on just about anything. (Serious football fans often put the radio broadcast on to hear Hank Stram provide technical analysis.) With more football available, especially on Saturdays, MNF isn't as compelling a default choice as it used to be, and Dennis Miller and Kornheiser were both unsuccessful attempts to recapture the large audiences they used to get.

52
by zlionsfan :: Sat, 09/12/2009 - 11:02am

Or maybe another way to describe it is parallel to what Mr. Tanier described above: there are so many sources for entertainment these days that a casual fan may find himself or herself doing any number of things on Monday night that do not involve watching MNF. There isn't much that ESPN (or any other network) can do in my opinion to attract more casual fans, or perhaps more importantly, to attract and keep them. They are more likely now than ever before to come and go as they please.

But it is possible for ESPN to keep serious fans, like many of us are, more involved during a broadcast. The problem for them is that there are so many fewer of us right now, and that it's so tempting to try to capture more of the casual fans. I guess it's also true that there are new fans who really do want to learn more about the game, and maybe MNF is their gateway vehicle, so they do need to talk about the basics over and over again when they come up (overtime rules, for example).

What ESPN needs is something like the experiment they tried a while back, showing a single game on ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU (or Classic, don't remember which), and ESPNews, each with a different approach (one in the studio, one with a different camera angle) ... except they only really need one other channel. They could show MNF Advanced on this channel: give us in-depth analysis, more stats (maybe even FO stats), all the stuff we want to see that doesn't make sense for the general public.

That might be easier to arrange online, but I doubt ESPN would be interested in splitting their viewership like that. sigh.

55
by tuluse :: Sat, 09/12/2009 - 3:15pm

I don't mind reciting basic rules, what I do mind is "Isn't that a BRETT FAVRE throw, didn't Rodgers throw that just like BRETT FAVRE."

The evidence seems to suggest I was not alone.

34
by billsfan :: Thu, 09/10/2009 - 5:36pm

Fantasy football, among those with the right mindset, is a gateway drug to FO-style wonkishness.

(I also like the Eagles)

47
by EZG (not verified) :: Fri, 09/11/2009 - 3:13pm

I agree with your analysis of Kornheiser. He recently returned to the local DC market, tail between his legs, an once again we must tolerate his condensending know it all attitude. You would have thought he would have learned that his Hip Guy want to be personia don't play with the Big Guys.

48
by Bowl Game Anomaly :: Fri, 09/11/2009 - 4:40pm

I don't know what you're listening to, but I heard some of Tony's new radio show and it's exactly like his show has always been, for the past 15 years (except minus Andy Pollin apparently). As in, his radio persona is exactly the same as it always was, since long before he ever appeared on PTI or MNF. Also, it's not like he was fired from MNF, it was a mutual decision for him to leave from what I've heard.

54
by justanothersteve :: Sat, 09/12/2009 - 11:31am

Mutual decisions rarely are.

58
by Bowl Game Anomaly :: Sun, 09/13/2009 - 11:05am

You're right. The MNF brass probably wanted him to stay.

It wasn't a Dennis Miller situation. Kornheiser has never been afraid to air his dirty laundry when he's been fired (you have to listen to his radio show, though, it's not like he calls up reporters to give interviews). If he didn't want to leave MNF, he would have said so. I think the biggest reason he left is because of his fear of flying (and the arduousness of his long bus trips). When I said "mutual," what I meant was that the MNF brass probably didn't beg him to hard to stay when he told them he was leaving.

There has been no indication that ESPN viewed Kornheiser as a failed experiment, unless you consider the fact that they hired Gruden evidence. It seems pretty tenuous to me.

16
by LorenzoStDuBois (not verified) :: Thu, 09/10/2009 - 1:07pm

OK. Now where is my must-read weekly column of the NFL season, AKA the "Walkthrough" in which Tanier previews the week's games?

21
by Temo :: Thu, 09/10/2009 - 1:44pm

It's now published in the Times.

22
by LorenzoStDuBois (not verified) :: Thu, 09/10/2009 - 1:58pm

Where is it? When does it come out? Where is the RSS? Is that part of the "Fifth Down" blog? Has it already come out?

Come on, FO! Self-promote!

25
by Vincent Verhei :: Thu, 09/10/2009 - 2:15pm

As noted in last week's Walkthrough, Mike's NFL previews and predictions will now be published on the New York Times' Web site. Once they're up, I assure you we'll link to them.

33
by Tom Gower :: Thu, 09/10/2009 - 4:23pm

Mike has a capsule in the NYT's Fifth Down blog today on tonight's game. I presume others will be up tomorrow.

46
by Mike Tanier :: Fri, 09/11/2009 - 9:50am

Game Previews will be on the New York Times 5th down blog sometime early on Friday (pretty soon in other words)

17
by mattymatty :: Thu, 09/10/2009 - 1:14pm

I enjoyed the article, Mike. Excellent work.

18
by mattymatty :: Thu, 09/10/2009 - 1:16pm

I enjoyed the article, Mike. Excellent work.

19
by jeffjewell (not verified) :: Thu, 09/10/2009 - 1:22pm

Just a brilliant article, Mike. Thank you.

20
by Key19 :: Thu, 09/10/2009 - 1:34pm

I thought it was an interesting piece. I would've liked a more interesting subject matter than the Bills being miserable, but still, I enjoyed reading it.

23
by Karl Cuba :: Thu, 09/10/2009 - 2:01pm

I really wasn't expecting an essay on the theory of knowledge but interesting all the same. Ignore the negative comments from mouth-breathers.

26
by Charlie (not verified) :: Thu, 09/10/2009 - 2:18pm

I enjoyed this; it's disarming to read a piece by someone who admits their (our?) limitations. Epistemology is good learnin'.

28
by Bobman :: Thu, 09/10/2009 - 2:28pm

Mike T,

A different approach, but a superb educational tool--lay it on an AP English class as an example of what separates a top grade from a middling one. They all read the book, they all read the criticism, they all read the Cliff's Notes and saw the movie. Why is one more informative? That extra 5-10% can go a long way.

Being funny as shit helps, too.

Vast fortunes are made (and lost) in all sorts of markets on that 5-10% advantage.

I don't give a damn about the Bills and think they've lost their collective minds, so I read it more as a piece of writing (structure, focus, themes, etc) than as something to inform me. And was not disappointed.

30
by Will Allen (not verified) :: Thu, 09/10/2009 - 3:30pm

Yeah, a 5 to 10 percent advantage IS huge. This is a great piece, and it drives home what I have always believed about football commentary. If you aren't watching a minimum of about 10 games a week, you really don't have anything close to a handle on what happening in the NFL. You don't really know which players are the best, at most of the positions. You don't know WHY some teams are winning, and WHY some are losing. Which means you don't know how various teams will match up in the upcoming weekend's games.

Even the advanced metrics at a site like this aren't enough, because they don't fully capture context. There is just no substitute to, Dr.Z-style, watching and charting a ton of games. Which is why Z is missed so much, why what Tanier does is valuable, and most football writing and broadcast commentary has as much chance of being credible as the chance that your double date with Shawn Merriman and Tila Tequila will be quietly charming.

36
by Led :: Thu, 09/10/2009 - 6:02pm

Mike goes meta. But in a very interesting way. No offense meant to the other Outsiders, but Tanier consistently produces the best writing on the site. Some of the best sports writing anywhere. And don't forget, knowledge is only one reason to read a writer. Great writing might be an even more important reason. It's a more scarce commodity than knowledge.

37
by dbostedo :: Thu, 09/10/2009 - 6:12pm

Dunce though this may make me...it took me a while to figure out that the colored, italicized writing was not a quote from some other source. I'm so used to seeing things done that way. Maybe a little half sentence explanation up front?

Great article though, Mr. Tanier...I think this sums up why I've watched pre-game shows less and less over the years...

39
by BigCheese :: Thu, 09/10/2009 - 6:24pm

Great article Mr. Tanier. Even though as soon as I saw a new Walkthrough was up I was expecting my usual comedy/analysis blend, the piece was so engaging I honestly didn't even consciously notice there wasn't any humor in it until the comments pointed it out. I was just thinking this is one of the best pieces of Walkthrough I have ever read (and that's a high bar indeed). It's not Who Whatches the Walkthrough, but then again, what is?

- Alvaro

40
by njjetfan12 :: Thu, 09/10/2009 - 6:30pm

I really liked this article. As part of the younger generation of fans, I can't really remember being an NFL fan w/o internet access and the blog-o-sphere, and the accessibility of a wealth of information, which is a large part of why I get frustrated with the "old-school" commentators and beat writers etc. who continue to use old cliches that have consistently been proven to be false.

41
by Rivers McCown :: Thu, 09/10/2009 - 6:51pm

I'm not the type who usually comments on this stuff and says "nice job", but this was a very humble piece and I loved it.

42
by OMAR :: Thu, 09/10/2009 - 6:53pm

Was this Walkthrough inspired by one nasty email?

If so, that was one hell of an answer. Well done.

43
by Red Hedgehog :: Fri, 09/11/2009 - 1:10am

This was an excellent piece. Thanks for it.

44
by Francisco (not verified) :: Fri, 09/11/2009 - 1:49am

This was much more enjoyable than some babble about the Bills offense, which we all know will be terrible. This has much more to do with current modernity than football, and I enjoyed it, thanks.

45
by Xeynon (not verified) :: Fri, 09/11/2009 - 3:18am

As a dork and somewhat of an amateur sociologist on the topic of the new media revolution, I enjoyed this article quite a bit. Sports provide a very good laboratory in which to observe the ways in which the internet has changed the role of the media, since they have a large, passionate, and knowledgable following and access to the most fundamental necessary information for processing what happened - the outcome of the games - is readily available to it. It is indeed hard to put one over on a knowledgable fan, which is why writers and commentators who formerly had an easy go of it while being generally uninformative and/or dumbing down or ignoring the substance of the game (Peter King, Phil Simms, etc.) get so much flak these days. At the same time, I agree that the competitive pressure has made those who make their living commentating on sports sharper, at least in some cases - Bill Simmons is one example. He used to spout a lot of nonsense of the "Peyton Manning can't win the big one because his performance suffers in the clutch" variety, but sites like this proved him wrong and called him on the carpet for his bloviating, and he's, to his credit, stuck to his strengths and become a much better writer for it. I will say the current climate has helped me not to second-guess my own decision not to pursue a career in journalism. ;)

Sure, FO readers want all that technical goodness, but I think the average NFL viewer doesn't. I know that sounds condescending, but then I go to a game and see all the people who spend pretty much all the game either waiting in beer lines, waiting in piss lines, or too drunk to notice what's going on.

I tend to agree with this, and I don't see how anybody who spends time reading a message board on, say, the website of their favorite team, could credibly dispute it. About 10% of the posts on the Eagles' discussion boards, for example, are intelligent student-of-the-game type stuff; the remaining 90% are mindless ranting or garbage of the "Giants/Cowboys/Redskins suck", "The owners are cheap and don't want to spend enough to win", and "McNabb sucks and isn't clutch and puked during the Super Bowl" variety. Philly sports talk radio (which I pretty much find unlistenable these days) generally followed about the same ratio when I did tune in IIRC. I expect it's similar in most NFL fanbases.

Even when you get beyond people who enjoy rooting for their teams for emotional reasons and genuinely appreciate the game, I think there's a fair number of people who don't have the knowledge necessary to know that, say, the fact that cornerback A is trailing his man by five yards as he dashes into the endzone for a 50 yard TD doesn't necessarily mean that he's the one who blew the coverage, or that defensive end X just got a sack means that the offensive tackle opposite him missed his block. I only played organized football for five years, and never at a very high level, but even I find that I know more about the way the game works than 90% of the fans I know. I doubt the average NFL fan could explain how a trap block or an A gap assignment work, even though those are fundamentals a football player learns the first time he steps on a practice field. They probably don't want the intricacies of a fire zone blitz explained to them.

61
by Rich Conley (not verified) :: Wed, 09/16/2009 - 10:33am

"I doubt the average NFL fan could explain how a trap block or an A gap assignment work, even though those are fundamentals a football player learns the first time he steps on a practice field. They probably don't want the intricacies of a fire zone blitz explained to them."

The problem is, there's nowhere for NFL fans to go and learn this stuff. The NFL won't let websites use game footage, so you can't watch plays being broken down. The TV coverage won't do it. Who knows if they'd want it explained to them? There's absolutely no way to get it even if you want it.

I'd certainly LOVE to learn more of this stuff. My father is definitely not a stats guy, but I'm sure he'd love to see this sort of stuff, but theres just absolutely nowhere to get it.

62
by Bruce G. (not verified) :: Wed, 09/16/2009 - 1:23pm

Xeynon is absolutely correct. I am a huge Eagles fan but more a fan of the game itself. I can't speak for other cities, but some of the comments on the Eagles board are just dumb. Even fans of other teams here in PA are just mind-numbingly stupid. They make comments more to talk smack than anything else and they view just enough football to think they know it all. But truly they know little about the game or how it is supposed to work. Then they make comments like 'Donovan McNabb is overrated". Compared to what? What are you basing that on? Simple, personal and unitelligent opinion, generally shaded by whatever team they are rooting for. And truly the same goes for some Philly fans.

That being said I feel bad for you Rich. The best announcers I have always felt are the ones who teach you what is going on with the game, in a replay for example, rather then just watching the player with the ball.

That being said I think this is a great article by Mike Tainer. In some form I am even slightly jealous of the fact that his job is to study how the plays and the players work together to produce a given outcome. And I am glad FO gives us a site to come to that caters to more than the casual fan. Can we get an FO TV channel to watch the games on...then Rich could learn all he wanted to know!

51
by t.d. :: Sat, 09/12/2009 - 1:08am

just wanted to echo the praise for this article, and Tanier's writing in general

56
by Raptor Jesus (not verified) :: Sat, 09/12/2009 - 9:33pm

So the Buffalo media returning your calls is part of your extra special super secret knowledge? Sweet. Your investigation still sucked though.

57
by ryangigs11 :: Sun, 09/13/2009 - 5:48am

story on story is very interesting, keep up

59
by Theo :: Wed, 09/16/2009 - 8:31am

in 1984 there weren't torrent sites