Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Lighter, Better, Faster, Stronger: The Case for Streamlined Football

"He ain't heavy. He's my brother."

So would say many players on Alabama's national champion football team.  He, of course, is Terrence Cody, the Crimson Tide's All-American defensive tackle who kept Alabama's undefeated season alive all by himself with a crucial block of a last-second field goal in the Tide's game against Tennessee.

Cody's generally good-natured persona and size have made him popular both with his teammates and on a national level.  His ability to eat up space on the line of scrimmage has frustrated many opponents, earning him the nickname "Mount Cody."  He smiles a lot and manages to keep the mood at practice fairly light through shenanigans like racing his coach.

In April, Cody hopes to be among the 200+ players drafted from the college ranks who are given the opportunity to play football for a living.  Given his role as a key player on a national championship team, there's a decent chance that Cody will get his wish, as he has proven that he can be a valuable on-field asset.  The only real question that stands between Cody and an NFL contract? His weight.    

Throughout his life, Cody's weight has fluctuated constantly, even topping 400 lbs. at its highest mark.  When he was recently measured at college football's Senior Bowl, Cody weighed in at 370 lbs., roughly 20 pounds heavier than his playing weight in Tuscaloosa.  When a football fan hears a stat like that, generally the only thought given to it is "Wow, he's a really big guy."  Fans don't realize the physical reality of such a figure. In case you were wondering, it looks like this.

By any standards, that photograph is a portrait of an unhealthy body.  Suffice it to say that Cody's endurance (or lack thereof) has long been questioned by professional and college coaches, including his own.  Cody was not allowed to play more than two downs in a four-down series this past season because head coach Nick Saban had concerns that he would tire quickly if he attempted to play the entire game at such a high weight.

It's not like other players at the same position aren't equally as big. NFL defensive linemen like Casey Hampton, Haloti Ngata, Vince Wilfork, Albert Haynesworth, and Shaun Rogers all have playing weights that might make it difficult for them to fit into a SmartCar.  Cody is simply the next big thing in a long line of them.

The regrettable fact here, the elephant in a room full of similarly huge men, is that the growing size of the average NFL lineman is more a result of popular indifference than it is gluttony at the drive-thru window or not enough time on the treadmill.  Football is America's unique sport, created and refined and adored to the point that it stands alone above every other athletic endeavor in this country.  We love it so much that we no longer take note of how big the athletes that participate are.  We're willing to sacrifice someone else's health to see our team do well, and many players readily comply because of the desire to be remembered, enshrined, and most of all, to compete with the guys on the other side of the ball who are hearing the same message.  We encourage our teams to get bigger because we know that in a team game with a lot of man-to-man battles, strength reigns supreme, specifically on the offensive and defensive lines where the combatants are asked to engage each other rather than trying to outrun the other man. 

So what can we do? If we sit on our hands, we are silently endorsing the idea that people who are obese and in poor physical shape can realistically be considered athletes if they run a short distance a few times per week and are able to simultaneously draw the physical attention of two individuals of similar size for short periods of time.  Given that an ugly proportion of Americans are already overweight, that's not a great precedent to set.  In order to maintain the health of everyone involved, the NFL should consider making a few changes to the playing rules to cap the ever-increasing average player size.

Progressive Weight Limits

Beginning in 2010, the NFL, NCAA and NFHS should beginning instituting coordinated mandatory weight limits for all players on a progressive scale that gets higher as the players get older. The 2010 limits should be 350 lbs. for the NFL, 330 lbs. for the NCAA and 310 lbs. for the NFHS.  Those limits are fairly reasonable considering that most of the NFL and NCAA players already meet those requirements.

In the next six years, the weight limits would decrease at a constant rate of 5 lbs. per year, meaning that by the start of the 2016 season, players in the NFL, NCAA and NFHS would not be allowed to weigh more than 320, 300, and 280 lbs. respectively.  The six-year plan would give athletes time to adjust their present weight in a healthy way in accordance with the rules for each division.  In a perfect world, 300 lbs. would be the maximum for all levels, but there needs to be progress in that direction before an extreme ultimatum like that is even considered.

The benefits of streamlined football would far outweigh the negative effects the system might have on the modern game.  Given the reduced weight allowance, players would be more intent on actually getting stronger rather than just adding mass to their frames to give them more leverage in the trenches.  The chances of a death like that of Korey Stringer would decrease (assuming coaches follow healthy practice procedures like regular access to water) because athletes would be in better physical shape and would not be taxing their hearts as much as they do now.  A side effect of the weight limits might be a slight decrease in the amount of concussions that occur each year, given that the tackling force of a player may be limited by how much he weighs.  However, concussions are another subject altogether.

The biggest casualty of the weight limit system would probably be the 3-4 defensive scheme, since it would be less plausible to have a dominating "two-gap player" like Cody due to the equivalent weights on opposing sides of the ball.  Some would say it's unfair to inhibit a coach's play-calling abilities like that, but there have been other changes (e.g. the forward pass, the outlawing of the head slap and the horse-collar tackle, etc.) that have altered the way the game is played, and very few would argue that football is considerably worse because of those changes.  Modern coaches have some of the most creative minds in the history of the game, and they should be able to adequately adjust to such restrictions, especially when given six years to implement the necessary changes to their schemes.

The bottom line is that football is literally getting too big for itself, and it's starting to have a negative effect on those who play it.  Fans of old-school buffet busters like Ted Washington, Keith Traylor and William "The Refrigerator" Perry may be unhappy to see the game altered like this, but they should realize that this kind of change is done with the health of the players in mind.  If the number of ailing NFL retirees isn't enough to convince someone that health is a serious issue, they need to remember that the players who are entertaining them on every autumn weekend are humans first and performers second.

It's hard to watch someone as likable as Cody struggle with his own weight when you take the time to consider the fact that fans and coaches play a role in pressuring him to be that big in the first place.  It would be nice to see him looking a little more fit by the time the draft rolls around in April, but don't get your hopes up.  Old habits die hard, especially when others stand by and watch as those habits are developed.

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Friday, February 19, 2010

Stallworth Signing Leaves Fans Questioning Ravens' Front Office

Earlier this week, the Baltimore Ravens signed free agent wide receiver Donte' Stallworth to a one-year contract worth $900,000.  Generally, a Ravens fan would have two possible gut reactions to seeing that news crawl across the ESPN Bottom Line (or a similar news ticker):

A) That's good! He's gives the Ravens some speed that they currently lack at that position, and the Ravens need that desperately.

B) What? Wasn't he suspended this whole year for killing somebody?

Neither reaction is incorrect.  Stallworth automatically becomes the fastest wideout on the roster and has the potential to improve quarterback Joe Flacco's deeper passes so that he can worry more about being accurate on a given throw than overshooting his target.  Stallworth also hasn't shown that speed in over a year - last March, he was charged with vehicular manslaughter after killing a pedestrian while driving under the influence of alcohol, and he was consequently suspended for the 2009 season by the NFL.

The shrewd part of this signing is in the facts and figures: Stallworth's contract is pretty low for a veteran (mostly due to his undesirable status as a criminal), and he has shown that he can produce solid numbers for a No. 2 receiver, catching 70 passes for 945 yards and 7 touchdowns in 2005 for the New Orleans Saints.  Economically speaking, that sounds like a low-risk and potentially high-reward acquisition.

The more important aspects of this signing are, unfortunately, a lot less measurable.  The intangibles of the Stallworth signing make up a veritable powder keg of negative publicity that could really hurt Baltimore if he doesn't play a considerable role in the offense in 2010.  For one, the fact that he signed with the Ravens perpetuates Baltimore's "thug" reputation among the rest of the NFL.  The stream of off-field incidents involving Cincinnati Bengals players in recent years has helped divert attention from the Ravens, but they have yet to really shake the "bad boy" label, one that they have been desperately trying to erase in the wake of investigations involving Ray Lewis and Jamal Lewis earlier this decade.  The "second chance" philosophy that owner Steve Bisciotti stands by is admirable, but at the moment, it may not be great for business.

The larger issue at play, however, is the direction the Ravens' front office is taking in remaking the receiving corps to better complement Flacco's development as (hopefully) a franchise quarterback.  The need for a dynamic No. 1 wide receiver has been staring GM Ozzie Newsome and director of player personnel Eric DeCosta in the face for quite some time now (nearly two calendar years), and in that time, they have yet to make a significant move to take the pressure off a solid-but-aging Derrick Mason.  Signing Stallworth is no more an improvement to the offense than was the signing of Kelley Washington from among a group of ho-hum candidates who worked out for the Ravens last May.  At best, it's incremental progress for a team that needs serious receiving talent as quickly as they can get it.

How is this year's situation any different from last year?  Fans are sharing the same whispered rumors about Anquan Boldin and Brandon Marshall today that they ooh-ed and ahh-ed about before last year's draft.  It's clear that Newsome and Decosta are not willing to part with high draft picks or shell out considerable cash to sign a free agent receiver, and neither one of those reservations is necessarily a bad thing.  On the other hand, limiting the team's acquisitions primarily to the NFL draft is risky and shrinks the pool of talent considerably.

Given Flacco's success in the passing game this season (3,613 yards, 21 TDs, 12 INTs), some might say that the Ravens don't need any additions at all, but for all the hits Mason has taken in the past two seasons, he's aging at a rate that far exceeds almost any other receiver in the league, meaning that he probably won't be catching passes for too much longer (he turned 36 last month).  For a team that needs (and has needed) a quality young receiver immediately, the lack of activity in the Ravens' front office is nerve-racking.  The expectations of automatic performance and production that will be demanded of a rookie receiver (assuming Baltimore takes one in the draft) are unhealthy and may hamper his development.  Realistically, unless that rookie has talents comparable to a Percy Harvin or a Michael Crabtree (minus the attitude), he shouldn't be reasonably expected to put up good numbers until at least his second or third year.

So now the Ravens are really stuck.  They didn't get Mason a replacement to groom or a sidekick to team with last offseason, and the prospects seem restricted to the draft this year.  If Mason decides to retire before the start of the 2010 season, their receiving corps will hardly be any better than that of the Browns, Raiders and Rams, all of whom were ranked near the bottom of the barrel in passing offense this year.  If that happens, Ravens fans will have only one question for their front office.

Guys, what's going on up there?

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Porter Power: Memphis Tigers Pounce on Their Best Recruiting Class in Years

"The Memphis job is the perfect job in the perfect place for me," said Larry Porter when he was hired as the new head football coach of the University of Memphis back in November. "I understand the Memphis brand. I believe in it unconditionally. I have a conviction, a passion about it, and a vision that allows me to walk into homes in this community, talk to the student body and faculty and get them to believe in that vision."

If those words sound unfamiliar, it's because they connote optimism, something that the floundering Memphis program has lacked in recent seasons.  Porter intends to bring it back in spades, and the best way to gauge optimism in a program is to see what kind of recruits the program hauls in. Assuming seeing is believing, Porter has reason to be excited.

As of last night, 26 new players have committed to play for the Tigers in 2010, and some have already hit campus. According to Rivals.com, Memphis received commitments from 13 of the top 750 players in the country, and four of them have already enrolled for the spring semester, making them eligible for spring practice.

Two other players among those 13 come from right here in Memphis, an area that Porter was particularly intent on scouring for talent.  Linebacker Fred Harvey (White Station HS) and defensive end Corey Jones (Mitchell HS) both opted to stay home. "Coach Porter is starting something special and I wanted to be a part of that" Harvey said when he committed in early December. "Coach Porter is going to change this program."

Of the 15 high profile Memphis-area recruits, the Tigers only picked up Jones and Harvey, losing many to bigger schools like West Virginia, Alabama, LSU, Mississippi State and North Carolina; some, like four-star guard O.C. Brown (Manassas HS), even bolted for Conference USA rival Southern Miss.  Still, considering many of them were already spoken for when Porter arrived in November, the Tigers did alright, eventually signing a total of five players from the Greater Memphis area.

Whatever his effect on Memphis kids, there is no question that Porter's enthusiasm is infectious, as shown by the number of recruits that come from the same school. Wideout Dejarrius Adams is joined by linebacker Alphonso Bruton, a teammate from El Camino CC in California; DT D'Angelo McCray accompanied quarterback Andy Summerlin from Coffeyville CC in Kansas, and running back Jerrell Rhodes brings with him guard Johnnie Farms and wide receiver Sean Farr of Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, VA.

Farr, a 6'2" wideout who helped lead Dunbar HS in Baltimore, MD to a Class 1A state championship in 2008, is pegged to be the most talented recruit in Porter's class. Farr's senior season at Dunbar produced over 1,300 yards and 18 touchdowns, and Porter hopes Farr can have the same kind of success with the Tigers. "[Coach Porter] came straight in here and told me that he needs a playmaker and he knew I was a playmaker. He said that I need to be down field making plays for the team,” Farr said. "I can go anywhere and catch the ball and that's what I'm going to do when I get to Memphis."

Overall, the Tigers' class ranks 59th in the nation and 4th in Conference USA, trailing Houston (45th), Southern Miss (53rd) and Central Florida (56th). Considering they finished with a 2-10 record last year, that's not too shabby.  It even includes two former SEC players in linebacker Khiry Battle (Arkansas) and wide receiver Delmon Robinson (Mississippi State), a sign that maybe things really are looking up for the Tigers.

"This is a class we are very excited about," Porter told the Memphis Commercial Appeal. "We feel we've improved our team across the board."

Porter, for one, is brimming with confidence, and given the recent decline of the program, Memphians can hardly wait for him to be right.  This class won't win games by itself, but at least it's a start.

Monday, February 1, 2010

February Fast-Forward: Who Will Get The #3 Seeds?

At this point in the college basketball season, the top teams are pretty well established and identified as potential top seeds for the postseason NCAA tournament in March.  The polls are fairly good indicators of this consensus, as they generally have the same few teams pegged in the top spots. According to a combination of the AP and USA Today polls and RPI rankings, the best teams to this point have been Kentucky, Kansas, Villanova and Syracuse; close followers include Michigan State, Duke, West Virginia, Purdue, Georgetown and Kansas State.  Beyond these top ten, however, it's considerably more difficult to say which teams can best compete with the best competition. Here are a few teams to watch out for in the coming month.

Texas (AP #6, ESPN/USA Today #6, RPI #19; 18-3, 4-2 Big XII)
Many fans would rank the Longhorns in the same flight with the aforementioned Top Ten, but a home loss to AP #24 Baylor this past Saturday and a close win at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi earlier in the season prove that this team is not indomitable. Rick Barnes' squad is 2-3 against current top 25 schools, and with six Big XII road games still to play, including the end-of-season rematch against Baylor, seniors Damion James and Dexter Pittman will have to continue to carry the load to combat the inexperience of their young backcourt.

BYU (AP #12, ESPN/USA Today#12, RPI #17; 21-2, 6-1 Mountain West)
The Cougars are undefeated at home this season, and their only two losses have come against Utah State (16-6, first place in the Western Athletic Conference) and league rival AP #23 New Mexico. BYU can shoot the lights out--they rank in the top five nationally in field-goal shooting, free-throw shooting and 3-point shooting--and that can only help them come tournament time.  With junior point guard Jimmer Fredette pouring in 21 points per game and averaging five assists as well, this team could cement a #2 or #3 seed in March if they continue their stellar play into February.

Temple (AP #15, ESPN/USA Today #15, RPI #15; 18-4, 6-1 Atlantic 10)
Despite losing 2009 All-A10 guard Dionte Christmas to the professional ranks, the Owls are still contending for the A-10 regular season title because of guards Ryan Brooks and Juan Fernandez (28 PPG and 6 APG combined) and big man Lavoy Allen, who's averaging a nice double-double of 10 points and 10 rebounds per game.  Temple boasts a victory over cross-town rival #3 Villanova and a plus-minus record of 8-2 (eight road wins, 2 home losses) among the accomplishments on their resume, but with Xavier, Charlotte, Rhode Island and Dayton all gunning for the two-time defending A-10 champs, a three-peat will be very difficult.

Wisconsin (AP #16, ESPN/USA Today #16, RPI #14; 16-5, 6-3 Big Ten)
The Badgers are known for playing well at home, and this season has been no different--all of their losses have come on the road.  They split their games with conference rivals AP#20 Ohio State and AP#10 Purdue and have played well considering their strength of schedule ranks 14th nationally. If they can beat Michigan State in Madison and get past Michigan this Saturday, senior guard Trevon Hughes (16 PPG) and company have a good chance of running the table and setting themselves up in prime position for a #3 seed in March Madness.

New Mexico (AP #23, ESPN/USA Today unranked, RPI #13; 20-3, 6-2 Mountain West)
If you had to guess which conference had two 20-win teams as of this past weekend, there's a good chance you would not have said the Mountain West.  The Lobos, who are neck and neck with BYU for the conference lead, have four players averaging double-digits in points per game and enjoy a distinct home advantage because of the notoriously high decibel levels in University Arena (aka "The Pit"). If junior do-it-all Darington Hobson can maintain his balanced performance (15 PPG, 8 RPG, 4 APG) through the coming month, his team might be able to sweep the season series from the Cougars (they play in Provo on February 27th) and gain the top spot in the conference tournament.

Vanderbilt (AP #21, ESPN/USA Today #23, RPI #9; 16-4, 5-1 SEC)
Led by senior guard Jermaine Beal (14 PPG), the Commodores also have three other players that score more than 10 PPG. Their downfall is that the aren't very deep, and with games against #14 Tennessee, #1 Kentucky and AP #18 Mississippi still to play (the latter two in a three-day span), the next month could tax this team to exhaustion.  If they can stay healthy and get through February at .500 or better, the 'Dores could still have a chance at the #2 seed in the SEC East, meaning they wouldn't have to face John Calipari's Wildcats until the SEC tournament championship. If they make it that far, they've got a great shot at #3 seed in March.