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24 Apr 2008

Walkthrough: Special Assignment

by Mike Tanier

What's Walkthrough? Take Too Deep Zone, Strategy Minicamps, Every Stat Tells a Story, and the other features I write, puree them, and you have a bi-weekly column that's unique, informative, and unpredictable. That's the plan anyway. You'll find stats, interviews, play diagrams, jokes, a little history, and some off-the-beaten-path football analysis. My goal is to develop Walkthrough into the finest column on the Internet in the weeks to come. To do that, I'll need your input, so don't hesitate to offer suggestions, criticisms, and of course effusive praise on the message board or in my inbox.

Special Assignments

College graduation time is fast upon us. I'll never forget my first few months of adulthood. I left school in May with a sparkling transcript full of differential calculus triumphs, and glossy portfolios of imaginative sample lessons that used technology, math manipulatives, and every pedagogical concept in the canon.

Come September, I was trying to teach fractions to classes overstuffed with disinterested high schoolers. All of my collegiate training was out the window. My professional survival depended on a whole different set of skills, like the ability to break up fights without exposing my own vital organs to trauma.

We all had similar experiences at that age: our jobs didn't exactly match our (often idealistic) training. Usually, toughness and work ethic mattered much more than the stuff they taught at school. Those experiences should help us relate to the typical midrange NFL prospect. In college, he was trained to be a franchise running back or a go-to wide receiver. But only the top prospects get to audition for those roles as NFL rookies. Most draftees must prove that they can contribute on special teams if they hope to stay in the league. That means throwing away the glory of fly patterns or a 25-carry workload and settling into a few seasons, or perhaps a full career, as a blocker or kick gunner.

"If you are picked in the fourth or fifth round or later, odds are you will be expected to contribute on special teams," explains Scott Wright of NFL Draft Countdown. "If you can't you might not have a job."

Teams evaluate prospects based on both their special teams willingness and ability. Players with potential as blockers or kick gunners move up the draft board; those who might not have the proper attitude or skills move down, and maybe out.

Most teams ask midrange prospects about their special-teams willingness during pre-draft interviews. According to Rob Rang of NFL Draft Scout, coaches and execs can't always take the answers at face value.

"Some prospects say they're willing to play special teams or 'do whatever it takes get onto field,' but are then shocked when they are actually expected to do so." Wright agrees. "Many of these guys need to swallow their pride and put their egos on the backburner. But some have a real difficult time doing that."

When it comes to special teams, intangibles make a big difference. Rang and Wright agree that most draftees have the physical tools to make a contribution on kicking teams, but it's not clear who will make the commitment to the role until camp starts. That's why few draft guides address special teams potential in their scouting reports. Occasionally, a fullback or linebacker might be singled out for his ability to help the kicking game, but most draft annuals treat fifth-round receivers, running backs, and defensive backs just like their first-round counterparts, analyzing their route running or play-recognition skills. That means second-tier prospects are graded on skills that may not determine whether they'll have a job come September.

Don't blame the editors of the draft guides. They aren't mind readers, and they rarely have special teams tape of the prospects in question. "More than anything you're looking for the guys with the personality to excel on special teams," Wright says. Still, scouts have their hunches. "I've always preferred special teams players who, while perhaps lesser athletes, play with a chip on their shoulder," Rang says. "Players like Oklahoma running back Allen Patrick or Boston College safety Jamie Silva." Rang also mentioned Arizona State safety Josh Daniels as a possible "special teams demon."

Wright has a short list of his own. "I'd keep an eye on are Justin Forsett of Cal, Marcus Smith of New Mexico, Alvin Bowman from Iowa St., Dominique Barber from Minnesota, and Caleb Campbell from Army."

Write those names down. One of them could be the next Gary Stills, the next Larry Izzo, or even the next Steve Tasker.

Run On

We secretly replaced the springy surface Oklahoma wide receiver Malcolm Kelly usually runs on with a dense mixture of superglue and oatmeal. Think he'll notice? "Wow! It's like my 40-time is longer than a Phish jam session, and I now have less earning potential than a bartender at a Mormon wedding!"

Apparently, there's only one running surface slower than Oklahoma's new track: the parking lot of the Pearland, Texas, police station. Browns defensive back Kenny Wright started a ruckus in said parking lot and tried to flee, but was chased down on foot but a couple of Pearland's finest. "I believe because of our quick response time and the mental and physical toughness of our officers to catch offenders, we were able to get him in custody quickly and safely," said Sergeant Roy Castillo.

With their sub-Kenny Wright 40-times and mental toughness, those Pearland cops would no doubt excel on special teams.

Talkin' Ryan Grant First Down Swing Pass Blues

While poring over player data for Pro Football Prospectus, sometimes I come across an interesting split. Take Ryan Grant's receiving numbers. Grant's receiving DVOA is an awful -36.4%, his DPAR -5.0. His first down splits are fascinating: Catch Rate 95%, DVOA -54.1%, DPAR -4.6 on 20 passes. How does a player catch 95 percent of the passes thrown his way and still post such a terrible DVOA?

Thanks to the Game Charting project, I have a database of every single Packers play, so it's easy to sort out and examine all of Grant's first down catches (and his one incompletion, a dropped pass against the Panthers). Eleven of the passes were screens. Two others were shovel passes. Most of the rest were dump-offs into the flat; only six times was Grant beyond the line of scrimmage when he caught a pass on first down. Grant's job on screens and dumps is to generate some YAC. He didn't do a very good job:

  • Grant lost yardage or gained zero yards five times, including the incomplete pass (25% of his passes).
  • He gained one or two yards four times (20%).
  • He gained three to six yards six times (30%).
  • He gained six to nine yards three times (15%).
  • He gained 10-15 yards twice (10%).

For comparison's sake, I looked for a running back with a close-to-average first down receiving performance. Reggie Bush posted a DVOA of 3.7% and a DPAR of 2.4 on 39 first-down pass targets; that's pretty close to average. He caught 83 percent of the passes thrown to him, a lower percentage than Grant. Here's the breakdown:

  • Bush lost yardage or gained zero yards 10 times (26%).
  • He gained one or two yards six times (15%).
  • He gained three to six yards ten times (26%).
  • He gained six to nine yards six times (15%).
  • He gained 10+ yards seven times, including two gains longer than 15 yards (18%).

The differences are subtle, but Bush rates a distinct edge. He was just about as likely to get stopped for a minimal gain as Grant, despite the fact that he caught a lower percentage of passes. He was a little less likely than Grant to get stopped for less than six yards and a little more likely to gain more than 10 yards.

There are other differences not caught in the splits. For example, Bush caught a touchdown pass on first down and also had an 11-yard first down reception in the red zone. Grant had a fumble, Bush did not. The opponent adjustments played a hand; Bush's VOA and PAR were slightly below average, but they got a boost based on the Saints' schedule. The DVOA splits look extreme, which is why it helps to have DPAR to put the percentages in perspective. Grant was well below average, Bush was near average, but the net difference was only a couple of points. This is fine-strained data, after all, and the sample sizes (particularly Grant's) aren't very large.

We shouldn't draw any earth-shattering conclusions from this data. The numbers suggest the Packers weren't a very good screen passing team (Vernand Morency's overall numbers were bad), which is interesting because they always had a great screen pass reputation in the past. Grant could use more experience in reading his blocks on screens. But despite the numbers, I don't consider Grant a negative contributor in the passing game. He's a great open-field runner with pretty good hands, so he shouldn't post many negative DPAR totals in the future.

For the record, Grant's third-down catch rate was 100 percent and his DVOA was –80.6%. Two catches, three yards, zero first downs. C'est la vie.

Speaking of Packers

Aaron Rodgers participated in a sled dog race last month. The Packers may have questions at quarterback, but they're covered in case of a diphtheria outbreak.

Self Promotion

Filmmaker Tim Carr continues his traveling road show, screening Leaf in independent theatres up and down the East Coast. I make it a point to see the movie whenever it's close because, you know, I am in it.

Leaf will be playing in Pitman, New Jersey, at the Broadway Theatre on Sunday, April 27 at 7:30 p.m. This show is a biggie, because it is just a few miles away and Team Tanier (my wife and the few friends I've yet to alienate with my "I'm a sportswriter and an independent film star" routine) will be in attendance.

Last time I mentioned Leaf, I joked that I got the Kevin Costner Big Chill treatment. Not true. I have lots of screen time. But don't hold that against the movie. Leaf is a quirky mockumentary about one of the biggest draft busts in history. Come out and see it, meet Tim and I, and celebrate the NFL draft in all its glory.

Saturday, during the first round of the draft, come visit me on Deadspin, where I will be dropping my usual mix of analysis and incredibly obscure cultural references. I'm hard at work prepping analysis that I guarantee will be like none other on the Internet. Get your yucks at Deadspin, then come back here to chat with hardcore draftniks on our message boards.

Five Questions with Scott Wright

Scott Wright is the president of NFL Draft Countdown, one of the most informative and reliable draft sites on the Internet. Wright has been in the draftnik business since 1993 and has seen both the draft and the business of covering it change over the years.

1) You have been in the scouting business since 1993. How has it changed over the years?

It's obviously gotten much more popular. I am constantly amazed at what a big event it has become, although I can understand the draw because first and foremost I am a draftnik at heart.

I actually think the NFL draft is undergoing some major changes right now. Rookie contracts have gotten so out of control that it's to the point where teams simply don't want to have those Top 5 picks and they can't get rid of them in trades. Unless a rookie salary scale similar to the NBA's is put in place, we are going to see teams pass on more talented players in favor of signability, and the process is going to become increasingly perverted, just like major league baseball's amateur draft.

I am all for the players getting paid but I'd rather see the money go to guys who have proven themselves. The fact that JaMarcus Russell received more guaranteed money than either Peyton Manning or Tom Brady before ever taking a snap in the NFL really says it all.

2) How set is your draft board as of now? What would a prospect have to do to alter his status at this point?

Just like the actual teams I will tweak my rankings a little between now and Draft Day. But outside of an arrest or some other damaging piece of off-the-field information, players shouldn't rise or fall significantly anymore.

3) It's Sunday Night, April 27. The draft is over. Do you A) Pop the champagne cork and call in the dancing girls; B) Plow right into postdraft and 2009 draft coverage; or c) Head to Pitman, New Jersey, to see the movie Leaf, starring yours truly?

Sign me up for option A! In all seriousness I try to get a good night's sleep and then hit the golf course on Monday to clear my head. The fresh air and exercise is nice after sitting inside in front of the television for an entire weekend. Then I take a couple of days to digest the information, and I usually wind up doing a lot of postdraft radio interviews around the country. After that I begin my in-depth team-by-team reviews, which I try to wrap up by the end of May, and then it's time to start looking towards 2009. It's basically a year-round process but the summers are pretty light, which is nice after living and breathing football for 9 months or so.

4) Have you ever had the urge to write a scouting report that said, "Look, he's just another big strong kid who plays football. Go read some T.S. Eliot and broaden your horizons instead of analyzing fifth-round linebackers"?

No, not really. I am as big of a football junkie as you will find so I would never fault anyone for sharing my enthusiasm. I do have to admit though I usually get a little burned out for a week or two in early April. By that time I have spent months watching and thinking about the same players, and I've spent hundreds of hours in the last month inputting my scouting reports on the Web pages. The burnout doesn't last long, because then I realize that Christmas, a.k.a. Draft Day, is right around the corner, and the two days I've prepared for all year long are almost here!

5) In 15 years of scouting, who were your biggest hit and your biggest miss?

Oh boy, that's a tough one because there are a lot. Like everyone, including the actual NFL teams, I definitely have misses but I think I hit my fair share as well.

Most recently I was real high on Cedric Benson. I'm not quite ready to write him off just yet, but that one's not looking real good. I had a hit and a miss back in 2001. Michael Bennett was my No. 3 overall player in the entire draft that year so I guess that qualifies as a miss. However I did have Steve Hutchinson No. 4 overall and he went much later so hopefully that balances it out a bit. I was a pretty big Joey Harrington fan and that didn't work out too good for me (or Detroit).

One that I am real proud of is Antonio Cromartie, who I had as the No. 10 prospect in the entire '06 Draft. I have also been pretty spot-on with my top quarterbacks. The four best quarterback prospects I have ever graded were Peyton Manning, Brady Quinn, Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger (in that order). Three of those four already have Super Bowl rings, which bodes well for Browns fans.

Those Wacky Lions

That Jon Kitna sure has a sense of humor. Around April Fool's time, he decided to play a prank on backup quarterback Dan Orlovsky. He piled storage boxes around Orlovsky's locker and claimed to be the bearer of bad news: Orlavsky had been traded to the Colts. How did the backup react? Walkthrough's hidden microphones were there and recorded the whole thing:

KITNA: Dan, I have something to tell you. (snicker). Pack your things. You've been traded to the Colts.

ORLOVSKY: Traded! Me! Hooray! Oh, happy day. Finally I can get out of Detroit. This is the happiest day of my life. I can't wait to tell Matt Millen what a platinum-plated toolbox he is. Tra la la la la la la!

KITNA: Um, Dan, you don't understand. It's the Colts. You'll never get a chance to play.

ORLOVSKY: Are you kidding? I don't get any chances to play now. You know what it does to my self esteem to not be able to beat a 35-year-old Avatar impersonator for a starting job on a team that averages five wins a year? Heck, you got your bell rung so bad last year you thought you were the 13th apostle and they still stuck H.D. McDougal in the game instead of me. Oh, I'll play in Indy. I'll play in the preseason, and I'll play the Week 17 game when Peyton rests for the playoffs, and I'll play golf three frickin' times a week and maybe get a Super Bowl ring. You ever even seen a Super Bowl ring, Jon?

KITNA: Maybe this wasn't such a good idea...

ORLOVSKY: Hold that thought, Mr. Clean. I gotta make phone calls. Gotta call the family. Gotta call the realtor. Got call my shrink and tell him I don't need the anti-depressants anymore because I won't be sitting through a dozen 44-14 losses next year. And I need someone to help me burn every scrap of Lions gear I own and cart it away, lest its fetid failure stench befoul my new Indianapolis Pleasure Palace.

KITNA: Dan, it was a joke. You're still a member of the Detroit Lions. I'm ... sorry.

ORLOVSKY. Oh. (Long, unbearable silence) It's OK. (even longer silence). Good one Jon. I'm gonna ... I'm gonna just soak in the hot tub. Until tomorrow. Or the next day. Until I come to terms with things.

Posted by: Mike Tanier on 24 Apr 2008

26 comments, Last at 30 Apr 2008, 12:19pm by RickKilling


by starzero (not verified) :: Thu, 04/24/2008 - 3:42pm

when is leaf coming to chicago?

and man, i wouldn't trade sorgi for all the lions quarterbacks.

by Joe Rowles (not verified) :: Thu, 04/24/2008 - 4:04pm

That joke is classic.

by Tom D (not verified) :: Thu, 04/24/2008 - 4:33pm

I like the new article format, and that joke was great.

by MarkV (not verified) :: Thu, 04/24/2008 - 4:37pm

very nice article. I enjoyed it all.

by Bobman (not verified) :: Thu, 04/24/2008 - 4:41pm

Mike, classic as usual. I love the Aaron "Balto" Rodgers joke.

The Orlovsky bit had me crying.

But please... "it's come out and meet Tim and me." (if you cut out Tim, you would not say "come meet I" would you? please...?)

Feel free to bitch-slap this former English major for my mangled math whenever you see it.

As I often say, your students are lucky.

by Joe T. (not verified) :: Thu, 04/24/2008 - 5:17pm

Nice article, but I can't help but think that it would benefit from some regularly featured commentary on your most recent foray at Starbucks.

Oh, and you might try giving Brett Favre a ring every now and then and get his take on things.

You don't have his number? I thought all sportswriters had him and Trent Green on speed dial?

Seriously, good article, fun read.

by peachy (not verified) :: Thu, 04/24/2008 - 5:26pm

The Orlovsky bit was genius.

by Beirut (not verified) :: Thu, 04/24/2008 - 5:53pm

Bonus points for likening Aaron Rodgers to Gunnar Kaaasen. Which Packer, then, is best suited for the role of Balto?

by Randy S. (not verified) :: Thu, 04/24/2008 - 6:06pm

"35-year-old Avatar impersonator"

Priceless. Great article Tanier.

by Lo Pan (not verified) :: Thu, 04/24/2008 - 9:35pm

Not to rag on the joke to much but does the backup qb on the lions really not get to play more than any other nfl team, what with their high sack rate and all.

by ammek (not verified) :: Fri, 04/25/2008 - 4:25am

Ted Thompson has suggested that Ryan Grant's struggles in the passing game (blocking as well as receiving) happened because of a lack of preseason practise: Grant was buried on the Packers' depth chart until midseason. We shall see in 2008.

You are right to note that Green Bay is living on its reputation as a good screen team; in McCarthy's two seasons, that has not been the case. Part of the problem, I think, is the retirement of longtime fullback William Henderson, who was often the target of Favre's screens and consistently had a very solid DVOA. Favre himself was not to blame for the decline, as Grant's 95 percent catch rate demonstrates. Any NFL-wide figures on the relative importance of RBs, QBs and OLs in building a functioning short-passing game?

by RoyFlip (not verified) :: Fri, 04/25/2008 - 9:56am

Great article and format. I look forward to updates on your daughter's field hockey team....

by sanwekwe (not verified) :: Fri, 04/25/2008 - 10:14am

RE: Packers screen passing

I think a lot of the drop-off has been due to the departure of Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera a few years ago - the replacements usually look lost in space trying to lead block on a true screen.

by Fergasun (not verified) :: Fri, 04/25/2008 - 11:00am

Didn't have a chance to read the article, since the MOLI ad is crashing my Firefox...

by DaveP (not verified) :: Fri, 04/25/2008 - 11:19am

Re: 14

Use Adblock Plus! Of course then you don't get to see the scary staring women ads either, but you can't have everything.

by Joe T. (not verified) :: Fri, 04/25/2008 - 11:30am

#15 - It took me over a year to figure out what all the Catholic Match Girl references were about because I was running FF w/ Adblock Plus.

by Stoppable Manning (not verified) :: Fri, 04/25/2008 - 11:43am

Mike Tanier is the only man ever to bring me to ecstacy.

by Joe (not verified) :: Fri, 04/25/2008 - 12:04pm

I'm a HS Math teacher, I loved the column... but your opening statements re-opened old wounds... except that I entered the real world in December. I hope you're happy :)

by MJK (not verified) :: Fri, 04/25/2008 - 4:19pm


Love the column, and I love your humor, as always. I've always considered you to be one of the most enjoyable football writers to read.

However, I hope the new column doesn't mean that this will be the one and only column you will ever write? Particularly I'd be sorry to see the Strategy Minicamps and TDZ go. A column of this format makes for an enjoyable read, but you have a gift for explaining things (probably comes from being a teacher) and I would be really sorry never to see another Tanier column educating those who have never played football about the difference between a fly route and an out route. I hope you'll still do some pure, X's and O's type articles, too.

by P. King no scratch that, Peter K. (not verified) :: Fri, 04/25/2008 - 4:38pm

This article is entirely too substantiated, you will never get published in Sports Illustrated if you write stuff like this. In the future either complain about hotels, starbucks prices and things you think you think or quote unnamed sources, i.e "the consensus among personnel managers I have spoken with is that Akili Smith will be the best quarterback of this class based on his tremendous athleticism and upside." and write a series of articles making dozens of contrary predictions so that you can write an article later on saying how you always predicted what just happened.

by Independent George (not verified) :: Fri, 04/25/2008 - 4:58pm

#17 - too much information.

by PhillyCWC (not verified) :: Fri, 04/25/2008 - 9:48pm

Mike Tanier, my hero!

by dmb (not verified) :: Fri, 04/25/2008 - 10:00pm

Mr. Tanier,

A few commenters have made Peter King references, and to tell you the truth, that's what I thought of, too ... but not in a good way. One of the things I've really enjoyed about your other features on this site is the ability to look at interesting, "out-of-the-headlines" stories with significant depth. I can read quick a zillion "quick takes" about news that's traveled the media gauntlet from any site that can scare up advertising ... and I can get it quicker from those sites, too. What I can't get elsewhere is the more traditional FO-style article, which is exactly what has kept this site at the top of my browser's page for years.

You're looking for feedback, so here is one reader's reaction: this kind of article is fine, but I sincerely hope that it does not come at the expense of TDZ, Every Stat Tells a Story, and the like.

PS -- the Orlovsky joke was awesome! I guess that's another thing I can't get elsewhere ...

--dmb, a long-time reader and very infrequent poster

by Mike Tanier :: Fri, 04/25/2008 - 11:32pm

Thanks for the feedback so far...

Rest assured that there will be some Minicamps this summer, though not as many as in the past.

As for history columns, you'll get a little taste of that in the next Walkthrough.

And if I start blogging about coffee, send me a hearty email slapping

by Packer Pete (not verified) :: Mon, 04/28/2008 - 6:46pm

The Packers certainly are living off their screen pass reputation. They haven't run two good consecutive screens since the days of Edgar Bennett and Dorsey Levens. The problem doesn't lie completely with the backs. Linemen don't get into space well, then miss the first defender coming up on the back. Often, the backs don't get separation or clear their chip block to create a target for the quarterback. Finally, the play calling gets somewhat predictable as to when the screen will be called.

And I hate the shovel pass with a passion. Extremely high risk, absolutely little reward. Basically, a loss of a down.

by RickKilling (not verified) :: Wed, 04/30/2008 - 12:19pm

Air Benders rule! Down with the Fire Nation!