Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
16 Sep 2010
by Mike Tanier
The cereal box is the natural habitat of the superstar athlete. When I was a kid, I ate Wheaties while staring at Bruce Jenner (innovator of the Tom Brady hairstyle) and Mark Spitz. Now, my sons enjoy the same cereal while gazing into the eyes of Shaun White and Dale Earnhardt Sr. So while I dreamed of winning races or swim meets, they will dream of becoming great snowboarders or dead race-car drivers.
Wait, that's not good. I don't want my kids bumming around half-pipes with those slackers, slurping energy drink, skipping baths, and saying things like, "Wicked tamedog, broheim" to girls who pierce body parts I didn't even see until I was married for eight years. I sure as heck don't want them on the infield at Dover, pounding Budweiser next to chain-smoking women with Harley Davidson tramp-stamps. I want them to wear football jerseys proudly, hair buzzed to clockwork perfection, each with a wholesome-yet-buxom cheerleader looking adoringly up at him. I want two clean-cut All-American Boys with any dirty laundry hidden deep at the bottom of the hamper. Yes, I am that shallow, judgmental, and superficial. I want my sons to idolize football players, darn it, so I need a cereal box with a bona fide gridiron hero on the side.
But in a pinch, Chad Ochocinco will do.
Ochocinco's antics don't suit everyone's tastes, so I wanted to find out if his cereal did. Ochocincos are manufactured by PLBSports.com, "your premiere source for athlete-endorsed, quality food products," according to the website. They were the geniuses behind Flutie Flakes and Terrell Owens' TO's cereal, but that just scratches the surface of their product line. The company also made Jason Kendall's Kendall Crunch cereal, Kevin Youkilis' Beef Jerky (original and teriyaki), and Ed McCaffrey's Rocky Mountain Horseradish.
I should stop now. None of those were jokes. I don't think anything I write can top Ed McCaffrey's Rocky Mountain Horseradish. But I shall endeavor to persevere.
Ochocincos are available via mail order, and UPS rushed a box straight from PLB's Ohio headquarters to my home. Inside, the cereal box was carefully bubble wrapped, lest its precious contents settle with extreme prejudice during shipping. My wife commandeered the bubble wrap and eyed the box suspiciously. "Are you going to make the boys eat those?" she asked.
I took back the bubble wrap. "Oh, not just the boys."
My wife then arranged to eat breakfast elsewhere for several days.
Not that she needed to worry. The cereal looked like Honey Nut Cheerios, and a quick comparison of the ingredients revealed a near point-by-point similarity. On the one hand, that was encouraging, because the five dollar box cost me $15 with shipping, and I hoped to at least get a few breakfasts out of it. It was also disappointing, because anything endorsed by Ochocinco should taste like watermelon-banana-pistachio unicorn droppings, or something.
My first guinea pig on Sunday morning was the first person out of bed, four-year old Mikey. His name alone qualifies him as a cereal taste-tester, but it helps that it's easy to tell what he likes. When Mikey likes what he's eating, he hums a little tune while chewing. I hope he grows out of this habit before his first date, but at four it's still charming. When he doesn't like something, he deploys every manipulative tactic he can muster, from whining to faking an injury, to get Oreos instead. He's good at it. I had another battle with malicious malware on my computer this week, and Mikey's needling techniques convince me that he will someday be a malware designer. All the more reason to get him on the straight-and-narrow with wholesome, athlete-endorsed cereals (and possibly horseradishes).
Anyway, I poured Mikey a bowl, and he started humming. "They taste good," he said when pressed. I asked him to identify the man on the cover of the box, but he had no idea. Mikey has seen Bengals games, and I thought he might recognize the stripes on the box and Ochocinco's uniform, so I asked him what team the guy on the box played for. "Football," he said. I asked again. "Cheerios."
Oh yes, the box. Ochocinco is on the front, his arms in the air as if signaling touchdown but holding the oversized oat-flavored "O's" that start and end his family (?) name. On the back, he's in a Bengals jersey, holding a replica of the cereal box with one finger like a Globetrotter twirling a basketball. Beneath him is a T-shirt for one of his charities, Soldiers for Giving.
The packaging is professional but uninspired. Cereal box backs are the magazines for our times. Children's cereal backs are usually carefully-assembled collages of product placement (Lego Inception: The Video Game, coming soon to Xbox 360), and useless scientific trivia ("Did you know the South American Turnip Beetle lays over 36 trillion eggs?"). Adult cereal boxes read like Prevention magazine, full of tips for the health-conscious consumer (drink 30 glasses of water per day and row across a nearby pond during coffee breaks). The folks at Apple need to make an iPad that sticks onto the backs of cereal boxes and amuses us with mindless distractions. Better yet, they can just add an app to existing iPads that blasts Wheat Chex at your face. But Ochocincos come with no facts or tips, which is sad, because just a few of Ochocinco's Twitter wisdom nuggets can provide a full day of bafflement.
Seven-year old C.J. was next into the fray, and he was far too eager to be involved in the taste test. He asked me to pour Ochocincos and our generic version of Honey Nut Cheerios into two separate bowls for examination purposes. "The Ochocincos are a little darker and a little wider," he said. He then tried one "o" from each bowl, sans milk. "The Ochocincos taste a little more like sugar, the Cheerios are a little more like honey," he said. He said he preferred the Ochocincos.
I re-checked the ingredient labels. While they are mostly similar, Ochocincos list Brown Sugar as an ingredient before honey, the generic Cheerios list honey first (regular sugar tops them both). Somehow, C.J. noted this slight difference on his palate, an odd feat for a child who swallows chicken nuggets whole. He took a few spoonfuls while clarifying and restating his opinions about both cereals until I was tired of talking about them. I'm just going to ban him from the message boards now. Subtleties finally parsed, he eventually married the two bowls and ate the co-mingled cereal happily.
Rosie the pit bull came next. She licked both boys' bowls clean and reported no ill-effects. Rosie isn't picky. If there's ever a Michael Vick cereal, I won't make her eat it unless Vick is the main ingredient.
It was my turn. Neither of the kids gagged or rushed to the bathroom with stomach cramps, so I felt safe pouring a big bowl. Yep, honey-nut Cheerios. Now, I used to like Honey Nut Cheerios. They were the perfect midway breakfast between Chocolate Frosted Ritalin Bombs and Sandpaper Seasoned Bran Bricks, something identifiable as a grain product that still had some sweetness and flavor. But something happens when you have children. You discover that Honey Nut Cheerios are one of the first things they can eat by themselves without choking, so you start bringing baggies of them everywhere. When the kids spill food in your car, they spill Cheerios. When they have a stomach virus, they throw up Cheerios. The damn Cheerios become the leaf littler of your life, always lurking between the sofa cushions or crushed at the bottom of your gym bag. You start to hate them and their association with the tedious elements of parenthood. Actually eating them is a reminder of how limited the palate becomes when you are always toting youngsters about: You may want some beef wellington, but you'd better go somewhere that serves chicken tenders and gives you crayons when you sit down. You may want eggs Benedict or a fresh croissant for breakfast, but all you can have for the next decade are these stupid little oat circles that look a little too much like livestock feed.
That said, they were pleasant enough. Everyone in the family has been battling colds for weeks, and on Sunday night C.J. kept waking up with a nagging cough. On Monday morning he was bleary and a little miserable. I told him he could have Ochocincos for breakfast. "Hooray," he said. He came down to the breakfast table singing a little song about Ochocincos. He perked up and felt ready to go to school.
See that? Ochocinco made a sick little boy happy. Try that, Shaun White.
As for PLB Products, they have a smart little business model, though they are hamstrung by the fact that most of their athletic celebrities are Midwesterners, and that some of their choices were a little odd. I cannot imagine a world with a Tommy Maddox cereal, and yet I lived in one. This particular oat product is appealing enough to work in any market, and I have an East Coast suggestion they should start working on right now. Flacc-Os! Start cracking those oats, guys.
|Figure 1: Rivers Can't Find Naanee|
The Chargers needed a lot of things on Monday night. Raincoats. Better cleats. Composure pills for Philip Rivers.
Figure 1 shows the Chargers in the red zone in the first quarter, before the rain started and Rivers started acting like his hands were coated with lard. It's first down, and Gates is out of the game, taking a breather after a long catch-and-run. Problem No. 1 should be clear from the diagram. With Gates out, the Chargers have Randy McMichael (81) and Kris Wilson (88) at tight end and H-back, with fullback Mike Tolbert (35) in the backfield. This isn't an ideal personnel package for the five-yard line. The personnel suggest a power run, but the Chargers have dialed up a play-action pass.
Malcom Floyd (80) is the primary receiver, running a scat route on the left sideline. The 6-foot-5 Floyd isn't shifty, and his attempt to shake-and-bake the cornerback fails. Rivers is forced to look to Legedu Naanee (11) crossing the back of the end zone, but Naanee gets no separation from the cornerback. McMichael appears to be the outlet receiver, but he's knocked over while blocking and never gets into his route. The two-receiver pass concept leaves Rivers no choice but to throw an incomplete pass into the corner.
The incomplete pass didn't hurt the Chargers. Gates returned to the game and caught a touchdown pass two plays later. In a moment, we'll see the Chiefs' response.
|Figure 2: Wherefore Art Thou, Vincent Jackson?|
Mother Nature took over as the Chiefs defensive coordinator for a half, but as the skies cleared, it became obvious that Rivers had problems besides the slippery ball. He threw one pass away when everyone was covered and was forced to throw on the move several times when no one was open. Figure 2 shows the Chargers using a two-receiver principle early in the fourth quarter. Rivers play-fakes to Ryan Mathews (24) and stands in the pocket behind seven-man protection. His two reads are Naanee on a post route, then Floyd on a deep comeback. Neither receiver gets separation, and Mathews shows his inexperience as a safety valve by running in front of a zone linebacker and just staying there.
Rivers runs for six yards; the scramble is not shown. The gain nets a first down, but letting Rivers run is bad because a) he runs like a goose and b) he insists on trash-talking with defenders after the play, which could get him penalized or killed. This drive stalls, with Rivers unable to connect with Floyd on a third-and-long and Naanee dropping a catchable fourth down pass.
In the fourth quarter, the Chiefs started aggressively double-covering Gates at the line of scrimmage. Sometimes, both defenders ran with Gates, sometimes one chipped him and the other covered him, but it was one of the most concentrated efforts on stopping a tight end that I have ever seen. Despite the double team, the Chargers were able to move the ball on the final drive, until they reached the red zone. On their four plays at the goal line, they showed how much they missed Jackson.
Figure 3 is one of my favorite diagrams ever. It's the fourth-and-goal incompletion that ended the game on Monday night. It's hard to demonstrate just what the Chiefs did to Gates on this play. Three defenders mashed him, and a fourth (Tamba Hali) threatened to chip him before pass rushing (not shown for clarity). Gates is the primary receiver, and by the time Rivers looks off of him, he's under a pass rush. Naanee should do a better job running away from his man coverage, but he just drifts through the middle of the end zone. If he snaps off and runs more horizontally, he could give Rivers a window. Instead, Rivers throws a prayer behind Floyd. Game over.
|Figure 3: Gates Triple Coverage|
With Jackson in the lineup, several things happen. First, defenses can't devote their resources to Hack-a-Gates tactics. Second, the Chargers can run their play-action, two-receiver principles knowing that they have a true go-to receiver running one of the routes. Third, they become less reliant on second-tier players like Naanee, McMichael, and fullback Jacob Hester, who saw a lot of action as a motion H-back.
The Chiefs gambled that they only had to worry about one Chargers receiver, and they were right. If I were A.J. Smith or Alex Spanos, I would be on the phone right now. Though I probably wouldn't have gotten into this mess in the first place.
Tim Tebow started a Twitter account on Wednesday, September 8. As you might expect, there was a quick rush of activity. I soon became a follower, not because I expected Tebow to tweet many insights, but because I wanted to see how quickly he achieved Bieber status on the social network.
When I joined at 2:34 p.m. that day, he had 1,357 followers. By 3:52 p.m. he was up to 9,204. My goodness, at that rate soon even the pebbles on the beach would be followers!
By 4:32 p.m., he was at 11,106 followers. By 6:48 p.m., he reached 14,625. At 7:02 the next morning, he reached 20,184. It was clear that the growth had slowed. I decided to try to model that growth by blowing the dust off my TI-83 graphing calculator and doing what I usually do in September: run some two-variable regressions.
Using the data points listed above and a few others, I determined that Tebow's followers were increasing at a logarithmic rate. The formula the calculator gave me was y = -41725 + 18182 ln(x). According to the model, Tebow acquired his first follower just before 10 a.m. on September 8. His first tweet is dated at 1:05 p.m. on that date, so it isn't a bad post-diction. But I found that the logarithmic model increased too quickly. At 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, he had 28,013 followers. By 1 p.m. sharp on Monday, he was up to 29,494. The model predicted 39,365 and 41,725 followers.
Undaunted, I just revised the model with the new data. The new equation yields y = -18807 + 10506 ln (x). According to this model, by noon on Friday Tebow will have 40,251 followers. This article will be online, so we can check the results in the comment thread. But be careful: If you decide to follow Tebow just to determine his number of followers, you will change the results of an experiment just by observing it. The Observer Effect has been brought to life! And you thought this was all going to be cereal jokes.
Does 40,000 followers in more than a week seem low to you? The model could be at fault. Some would argue that a logistical model is more appropriate, because there's an upper limit to someone's popularity on Twitter, theoretically. But let's face it: This guy's upper limit is nowhere near 40,000. Logarithmic curves grow slowly, but this one still outgrew Tebow. We need more data.
Or really, we need more Tweets. Tebow hasn't Tweeted since his first few polite messages, and if you don't make some noise, everyone will forget you are there, no matter who you are. So c'mon Tim. What's for breakfast this morning? What songs are on your iPod? What do you think of those direct snap plunges you ran last week? Engage in some Tweet Wars with other backup quarterbacks -- there must be something you dislike about Charlie Whitehurst. Let's attract some attention.
Or, you can recognize social networking as a needless distraction and concentrate on learning how to play quarterback and living your life. But that's not a very healthy attitude.
49 comments, Last at 30 Sep 2010, 12:19pm by kbp