Monday, November 23, 2015

Houston Texans: Making it respectable.

Much to everyone's (OK, me) surprise, the Houston Texans beat the New York Jets 24-17 on Sunday and looked (fairly) comfortable doing it.

Some thoughts.....

1. It's time to give O'Brien some credit for getting QB's ready. It's easy to criticize, harder to praise. However, given the play of TJ Yates over the last couple of weeks it's fair to say that Coach O'Brien and the offensive staff have done a good job preparing him to play since bringing Yates back to the team.

Not that the offense has been spectacular, but it's been good enough against two opponents that many consider to be in playoff contention.

2. Running the ball is a pipe dream. It doesn't appear that the Texans will be able to do so with any sustained success for the remainder of the year. 

That said, Jonathan Grimes is looking much better than Alfred Blue. It may be time to give the former a start or three.

3. DeAndre Hopkins has gotten much better at route running. He's always had good hands but, my one criticism of him was that he ran poor routes.  Over the last few weeks he's been much improved in this area and seems to be on the cusp of superstardom.

4. The defense is..... Well, it just is.  Two young players in particular, Benardrick McKinney and Kevin Johnson, have been playing very well.  This is important because we're starting to see decent, although not as great as everyone is saying, play from Cushing and JJ Watt and Whitney Mercilus continue to have standout seasons.

Even Jonathan Joseph is playing better of late.

And finally.....

They're STILL not tied for "first place" The Texans are, like it or not, in 2nd place due to the tie-breaker process in the NFL.  From a W/L perspective yes, they are tied with the Colts, but they would miss out on the playoffs (as things stand now) due to tiebreaking procedures.

That said, given the awful records of many AFC teams, there are only five teams in the AFC with a better record than Houston.  This could mean that (amazingly) a Wild Card berth is in play.  This would make the next two games, against the Saints and the Bills, must-wins. Of course, then you get the Patriots and the Colts before finishing with the Titans and a Jaguars team who might still have something to play for.

The team is 5-5, I still say that 7-9 or 8-8 are the most likely records. (With a strong nod to my pre-season prediction of 6-10 being within the realm of probability.)

College Football: Conventional Wisdom vs. Truth

Last weekend provided a few important data points which upset the conventional wisdom in lieu of truth. (Note: I didn't say "fact" which has little place in football).  I thought I'd spend a minute discussing some of those here....

CW: There are a lot of undefeated teams this year.

Truth: Going undefeated is HARD.

When Ohio State and Houston fell simultaneously it served as a reminder that winning all 12 games on the season schedule is hard.  Injuries (in the case of Houston) and team deficiencies (in the case of Ohio State) led to the end of championship dreams for the Buckeyes, and a tougher road for Houston.

Ohio State now needs to beat Michigan (not a given) and hope that Penn State upsets Sparty in order to have a chance to play for the B1G championship.  That said, should these things happen, and the Buckeyes beat Iowa,  the Buckeyes would still be facing an uphill clime to the CFP.  They would need Notre Dame to lose to Stanford in order to have a shot.

Houston still controls their own destiny in terms of making one of the Big 6 bowl games. For the Cougars it's pretty simple, beat Navy, beat Temple.  If they can do those two things then I think they're in ahead of a Toledo team that I don't think is going to win the MAC, or even play in their championship game.

CW: The SEC is the dominant Conference in college football

Truth: Not so much.

Quick, name the SEC's best out of conference win.  I'll wait.

If you said "South Carolina over North Carolina" you'd be correct.  And that win was a week-one reminder that teams are neither as good, or as bad, as they appear right out of the gate. Supporters point to Alabama's win over Wisconsin, who just got beaten by, at home, by a mediocre Northwestern team.  "a-ha!" you might say, Texas aTm beat Arizona State."  OK, but that win has turned out to not be that good when you consider the team is 6-5 with losses to USC (back when the Trojans still had a reportedly drunk Sarkesian as their head coach).

The rest of the conferences OOC schedule is a travesty.  Last week Florida lost to barely escaped, with the help of SEC officials, from then 2-8 Florida Atlantic, this is after barely beating an awful Vanderbilt team 9-7 two weeks prior, and struggling in almost every game. (including a loss to suddenly awful LSU).  South Carolina lost to The Citadel, and Georgia was taken to the limit by Georgia Southern.

For all of the grief given the Big XII (and rightly so) for their pillow-soft OOC schedule, the SEC should be held to the same standard given that they play (and pay) a lot of money to have small-schools come to town.  The SEC's defense has always been that their "schedule is a grind" and that it makes up for them playing soft elsewhere.  When they were winning 10 consecutive titles in a B(C)S system designed to give them an advantage that was hard to argue. Now, in a CFP system that's still skewed in their favor due to the deference to perceived strength of schedule, it's getting harder and harder to justify.

CW: If a Big XII top team wins out, they're in.

Truth:  It's not that clear-cut.

The argument behind this line-of-thought is mostly predicated on the OU Sooners beating OSU in Bedlam and finishing the season 11-1. The thought is that their position in the blue-blood elite of College Football ensures they don't get left out.

The truth is that there are other blue-blood teams who will have a stronger claim than any Big XII team who wins out.  Notre Dame is the first problem, especially if they beat Stanford. They are the highest of royalty and will have the "best" loss with a close one to Clemson. Michigan State is the next problem, they beat Ohio State and Michigan, and should they beat Iowa will have a pretty strong resume entering the selection process. Yes, their loss to Nebraska is an issue, but I would argue a loss to a bowl-eligible Cornhusker's team is "better" than a loss to hapless Texas.  Should Sparty stumble and Ohio State runs the table then they are clearly superior than any of the Big XII contenders. If Iowa wins out there's no debate due to the undefeated nature of the Hawkeyes.

The Big XII's best hope for inclusion lies in Michigan State somehow being upset by Penn State,  Michigan beating Ohio State and then beating Iowa in the B1G Championship.  Either that or Notre Dame losing to Stanford, which opens up the path.

CW: The College Football Playoff is going to work out in the end.

Truth: Probably not.

IF you're a fan of chaos (as am I) then what you're hoping for is that the committee is forced, at the end, to have to choose to exclude either Notre Dame, Michigan State or OU.  Right now I think this is the most likely scenario.

It will be fun to watch Jeff Long stand in front of the cameras and talk about "best losses" and "game control" and "circumstances surrounding a loss" to keep 'Bama, Michigan State and Notre Dame in while, for example, leaving out Oklahoma.  That is college football Nirvana for people who want to see the system ultimately change with either an expanded playoff format or, my dream scenario, a transfer to 4 16-team super conferences in their own league that is independent from the NCAA.

CW: Oregon's days as a National power are over.

Truth: Now that they're healthy, they might be among the best teams in the country.

Just two weeks ago the Ducks were done. They were a team that barely beat an undermanned Washington team, struggled with ASU (which, in hindsight, was one of the most overrated teams in the country to start the season) and had lost (badly) to Utah and a Washington State team that wasn't considered top-tier.

What happened next is an object lesson in how a season plays out. Duck's QB Adams got healthy, and the top WR, Carrington, returned to the team from suspension and suddenly Oregon was starting to flex it's muscles.  They beat a Stanford team that was (incorrectly) considered to be the Pac-12's best, and they throttled USC. Suddenly pundits are realizing that the 8-3 Ducks might be the hottest team in the Country.

Unfortunately, they won't sniff the CFP, which is a travesty.  If the CFP played the same format as the FCS the Ducks would be in and considered a sleeper team for the eventual title.

CW: The CFP committee is getting "proven correct" by the results on the field.

Truth:  Nope.

Pundits are pointing to Baylor's loss to OU as proof the Bears did not "belong" in the top 4. Those same people refuse to call the committee to the carpet for overvaluing OSU, given the criteria they use.

It would be one thing for the CFP to say "undefeated" (as I do) is important. Then they could justify having Ohio State as 3 (Full disclosure: I had them at #1 because they were undefeated and the reigning champions).  But when they started bringing in bogus results such as "circumstances surrounding a loss" and (their perceived) "strength of schedule" they all but admitted that their rankings are no better than the old AP/UPI system that used to create so much controversy.

The simple fact is this:  Outside of Clemson, whose ranking at #1 no-one can, seriously, dispute, the rest of the top 10 is a crap-shoot which largely depends on which team passes the mythical 'eye-test'.  People will say that none of this "matters" until the final poll but it does.  Because the CFP Top 25 is used in the metrics to determine "good/bad" wins and losses.  If the entire SEC is overrated then the teams at the top get an artificial bump.  If the American is underrated then Houston gets unfairly punished. Navy Football, who has no good wins, other than Memphis, on their schedule appears to be artificially inflated to make Notre Dame look better, while Houston, who has wins over Louisville, Memphis and Cincinnati will more than likely be bounced out of the top 25 this week after falling to UConn, on the road, while fighting the injury bug.

The fact is, what the CFP committee values matters, and there's ample evidence to suggest that they don't value Group of 5 games or anything occurring on the West Coast. This places teams outside of the SEC, ACC and B1G at a disadvantage because the committee isn't basing their rankings on truth (not to be confused with fact, which is impossible to determine in college football at times since so many teams don't play like-schedules).

The problem that we have is, absent a full playoff system or 4 16-team super-conferences where the winners all get in, there's not fixing this.  It's also a problem that the solution to the B(C)S SEC-biased farce is to create a system that's even worse.

Now, some lists.....

Top 10 leading into the Thanksgiving weekend games: (with a note about why teams are ranked where they are)

1. Clemson - Undefeated and continuing to look like the best team in all the land
2. Iowa - I've said it before and I'll continue to say it: Undefeated should matter.
3. Notre Dame - Has the "best" loss of all the one-loss teams.
4. Alabama - While the Ole Miss loss is looking worse and worse, it's still (marginally) better.
5. Michigan State - See the "Big XII playoff summary" above. Loss to Nebraska > Loss to Texas
6. Oklahoma - See #5
7. Baylor - Good loss (to OU) but you can't rank them higher.
8. North Carolina - The loss to SC is horrible, but has some better wins than others
9. Oklahoma State - Just slightly under NC due to only having one quality win (TCU)
10. Ohio State - Lack of quality wins stings a lot.

Top 10 "Group of 5" rankings heading into Thanksgiving weekend games:

1. Navy - Hard to argue based on record.
2. Houston - Game against Navy should be a classic.
3. Temple - Losses to Notre Dame a better-than-you-think USF team.
4. Northern Illinois - Maybe the Best group of five team with multiple losses.
5. Toledo - Likely won't get a chance to play in conference title game.
6. Air Force - Quietly having a good season.
7. Western Kentucky - Plays in C-USA, which hurts them.
8. Bowling Green - Always hanging around.
9. Marshall - See Western Kentucky
10. San Diego State -  The best team in the Country that most know nothing about.
10 (tie) Arkansas State - Sneaky good, running rough-shod on the Sun-Belt.

Bottom 5 College Football teams this year: (With apologies to ESPN)

1. Central Florida - On the bright side free beer is still a thing.
2. Kansas - To say the future looks brighter means basketball season is here.
3. North Texas - Given the location, and resources, this team should not be this bad.
4. Eastern Michigan - Possibly the worst team in FBS history all-time.
5. Wyoming - At some point, you have to ask why?

Ranking the coaching openings:

1. Miami - A ton of resources and a history of winning. Downside: You have to talk to Michael Irvin.
2. Illinois - You can win there, quickly. Downside: You only get the easy schedule once occasionally.
3. Maryland - You can win there, quickly. Downside: Those uniforms.
4. Syracuse - New York provides a good recruiting base. Downside: Fans expectations too high.
5. Southern California: Tradition, resources, National Brand. Downside: Pat Haden.
6. Missouri: You can win in the awful SEC East. Downside: Have you been watching the news?
7. South Carolina: SEC school with recent winning history. Downside: Small fish/huge pond.
8. Central Florida: Better landing spot than most think. Downside: Group of 5 conference affiliation.
9. Iowa State: The Big XII can be had. Downside: Horrible facilities, no recruiting base.
10. North Texas: Good recruiting potential. Downside: The ass-end of Texas college football.
11. Hawai'i: The scenery. Downside: Program could be shuttering for good.
12. Louisiana-Monroe: Duck Dynasty crews visit. Downside: Replace "Texas" with "Louisiana".
13. Virginia Tech: Talent on the roster, tradition. Downside: You don't want to be the coach who replaces the legend, you want to be the coach who replaces the coach who replaces the legend.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Houston Rockets: Firing McHale is putting a band-aid on the cancer (But it might help)

Yahoo! News' excellent NBA reporter, Adrian Wojnarowski, broke the news today:

Rockets part ways with coach Kevin McHale. Adrian Wojnarowski, Yahoo! Sports

After struggling to a 4-7 start to the season, the Houston Rockets parted ways with coach Kevin McHale on Wednesday morning, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Leaving the Houston Chronicle Rockets beat reporters to try and provide "additional details" in order to appear as if they're providing something:

Rockets fire Kevin McHale. Reid Laymance.

The Rockets decided that McHale, who coached the team to the Western Conference finals last season, had lost the locker room and the team didn’t want to fall farther behind in the West, a person familiar with the team’s thinking said.

As is often the case in Chron "breaking" sports stories, the comments of the story are more revealing than the article itself.

  • BosVas Guest

  • @eldorado1952
    Yeah, what Curiostom2 said. Ty Lawson said that McHale would call in a defensive play and the players would ignore it and do something else. That means that McHale lost his player's respect.

    While the Rocket's issues go far deeper than McHale, it appears that his firing was the only direction the team could go after starting the season 4-7, which included four straight, blowout, losses where the team looked horrible.

    While this feels like a Band-Aid on the cancer, it might have some, short-term, benefit.  The overriding problem is that the Rockets' current roster is underperforming, lacks focus, and might not be everything that it was last year.

    James Harden - My biggest complaint about Harden is that he is a one side of the court player. He frequently gets mocked for his lack of defense and he's known more, this year, for being a bit-player in the Kardashian drama than he is for playing good basketball. Last year Harden was a legitimate MVP contender, this year he's not even playing well enough to garner consideration for sixth-man of the year. Even those players are expected to bring offense.

    Ty Lawson - Lawson was heralded as the point guard the Rockets were missing. Instead he's been a low effort guy with poor shooting who appears to have been a driving force in the locker room against McHale. Prior to his time with the Rockets, Lawson was the best player on bad teams. It's very rare that players like that add much to good teams since they are accustomed to losing often.

    Trevor Ariza - To date, his most significant contribution to the team is to repeatedly say that the team needs to try harder while showing no evidence that he is doing so himself. Last year he was a key cog in a team that made a deep playoff run. This year he's a below average 3-point shooter who is also a low-effort guy.

    Corey Brewer - Brewer got paid in the off-season and he's playing like a player who has lost his drive.  Again, I think he has talent but the effort isn't there.

    And finally, the area of biggest concern....

    Dwight Howard - There are signs that Howard is not playing bad because of poor effort, but because his injuries are catching up to him. Of all the players on this list Howard is the most concerning. Because it doesn't appear what's ailing his game can be fixed with just more effort. Howard looks slow, lumbering, and out-of-sorts on the court and observers are worried that it's due to his many injuries. Howard has never been a high-motor guy, but as a low-motor center who's already limited offensively and who's body is starting to show severe signs that the tires are balding there's real cause for concern here.

    New interim head coach J.B. Bickerstaff has been handed a job with a flawed roster whose stars are either distracted (Harden) or possibly at the end of their career (Howard). All in all it's a team that doesn't seem to have any focus, or drive to play a complete game.

    Still, the Rockets are only 11 games in to a 82 game season so there's a possibility that things can turn around. Getting the players to run the plays the coach calls would be a marked improvement, and signs that firing McHale was the right thing to do.

    Still, with this roster of low-motor players there needs to be some questions resurfacing as to the personnel decisions being made by GM Darryl Morey.  Last year it appeared that his plan was sound and that all of the naysayers (raises hand) were making accusations not based on reality.  Even I turned around and stated that he had done a great job building last year's roster, that the team was playing great ball, had gelled, and that good things were in the future.

    This year, unlike prior years, I still think Morey has the right plan. I think the Rockets have the talent in place to make a playoff run but the one thing that neither Morey, or Bickerstaff, is going to be able to give them is drive. Last year they seemed to find it, but that team is a distant memory.

    If the Rockets can find their drive, and if Howard's body is not as deteriorated as I fear, if Harden can remember that he's a basketball player first (and can survive the Kardashian athlete curse) then I think the Rockets can turn it around.

    If not?  Well then we're back to "In Morey we Trust" as the GM will have to start the rebuilding process all over again because the window slammed shut on the current group faster than expected. What Houston is hoping to avoid is deja vu all over again, as we've recently seen how fast things can fall apart with the 2012/2013 Houston Texans.

    Tuesday, November 17, 2015

    The Public Money: Same Blog, New Name

    Just some random housekeeping here as I never was a big fan of "Sharp Like a Marble" (the real phrase is "sharp as a marble" but there was already a blog with that name) so I've changed it to.....

    "The Public Money"

    If you have any experience in betting, at all, you know that the public money is often the side that you want to be opposite of.  It's the money that provides the financing for all of the beautiful (and not-so-beautiful) casinos around the world.

    The public bets with its heart, not with its mind. It believes in luck and "hot" tables and doesn't understand that each roll of the dice is an independent event. The public believes they are "due" and that whomever the favorite is would be "the team Vegas thinks will win".  Of course none of this is true.

    The house believes in mathematics. As do the true "sharps" (not the touts, although they believe in another set of math which we'll explore later), as do I, and as should you.

    No other big changes, except that I've added a 3-card poker hand up top that I've actually won with before.  Because, you know......luck.

    Houston Texans: "Red Rider BB Gun" and other thoughts

    Since the game was so boring it seems the national media is trying to gin up controversy from JJ Watt's post game comments.

    JJ Watt to Critics: "How you doin?" Mike Florio, NBC Sports

    “Just talkin’ to my teammates about how everybody told us we couldn’t do this,” Watt told ESPN’s Lisa Salters after the game. “Everybody said there ain’t no — you’re 3-5, there’s no way you’re gonna go in their building and win. Well, how you all doin’?”

    Watt then trotted out some rehearsed material that possibly went over better when he practiced it in the mirror.
    “Our goal was to come out here and make the Red Rifle look like a Red Ryder BB Gun,” Watt said, in reference to Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton.

    Watt needs to perhaps tread lightly, given that the Texans very well could face the Bengals again, in the postseason.

    I heard what Watt said in the post-game interview with Lisa Salters, cringed a little at the canned delivery, and then turned off the TV and went to bed.  I knew however that, when I woke up this morning, the media was going to be all over this for a variety of reasons:

    1. The game itself was boring and ugly football. There's really not much to say about it. You could talk about TJ Yates coming in and throwing a touchdown pass to D'Andre Hopkins (who made a spectacular catch) or you could talk about neither team running the ball, or the fact that most of the receivers on the field had the dropsies, or you can talk about JJ Watt saying words.

    2. There's nothing America likes more, than tearing down a good guy. Yes, it's easy to have Watt fatigue, especially in Houston where he's on seemingly every commercial.  But that's not what this is about. In America the only thing we love more than our heroes is to try and tear them down. It's because we're jealous of their success and have become very British in our class envy.  As Jeremy Clarkson once said "In America when they see someone in a Lamborghini they say "Someday I'll have one of those" while in Britain they say "Someday I'll see him out of that."  That sentiment is no longer the case. In America now when someone does good we say "Some day they're going to mess up, and I'm going to mock them for it."

    3. The devaluation of winning and losing. "It's not whether your win or lose, but how you play the game"  - Grantland Rice - It should not surprise you that a sportswriter came up with a quote that we now consider sacrosanct in sports.  Nevermind that it's bull. It does matter if you win or lose. Just as it matters whether you win or lose within the rules. Acting like our sports stars need to be statesmen after pulling off a large win is ridiculous on it's face. On the one hand we want JJ Watt to play hard on the field, on the other hand we want him to sing Kum-bai-ya with the opposition after sacking them.  Bull.  They made Andy Dalton look like a Red Rider BB Gun.  Suck it up and play better Andy, and quit griping about your feels.

    Monday Night Football: Stranger things have happpened.

    While last night's result wasn't New Mexico beating Boise State in terms of the magnitude of the upset, for that matter it wasn't even Holm/Rousey, it was a meaningful win for the Texans because they have now, finally, beaten a team with a winning record and one that is probably heading for the playoffs.

    And it was unexpected by most. (including me)

    Unfortunately, for the Texans, most of the media oxygen is going to be sucked up by a Red Rider BB Gun and Dalton's ridiculous response to the comments (hint: laugh it off sir) rather than the fact that the Texans defense played really, really well, was aided by some curious ball handling errors by the Bengals, and TJ Yates seemingly has Cincinnati's number.

    Still, it's a win.  And wins in the NFL are hard to come by, especially in an ugly game like the one Monday. Neither offense looked good and it's hard to tell if it was due to good defense or just more bad football being played in NFL prime-time games. I'm OK with the NFL moving games away from Sunday, but it would be nice if the quality of play was up to snuff.

    Going forward the Texans find themselves in the 3rd quarter of a season that could be key to any hopes they have for the post season.

    In the 1st quarter, they stumbled out of the gate to a 1-3 start. They took advantage of a soft 2Q schedule to go 2-2 before hitting the bye (luckily) right at the halfway mark.  Now they start the 3rd quarter 1-0 with some winnable games coming up.  All three teams, the Jets, the Saints, and the Bills can be beaten but it's possible the Texans go 0-3 as well. Especially if the offense continues to sputter, the run game is non-existent and the defense is inconsistent.

    If the Texans are going to make any noise, they have to make it now, because the 4th quarter of the season has them playing the Patriots at home (loss) before going on the road for three straight weeks to face the Colts (probable loss, given history) an improving Titans team, and then the Jaguars who are getting better every week. 

    Right now the team is 4-5, winning the next three would get them to 7-5, which means that going 2-2 in the 4th quarter of the season means a 9-7 final record.  That COULD be enough for the division, given that the Colts will be without Andrew Luck for a few weeks.

    While that all seems rosy my thought is still that they are going to be closer to 8-8, 7-9. I think they go 1-2 over the next three games before finishing 2-2 or 3-1 depending on what happens with the Colts.  Amazingly, that MIGHT be enough to win the sorry AFC South.

    Some random thoughts:

    1. Benardrick McKinney - McKinney is easily the best LB on the team right now, and the only one who is flashing some speed.  Cushing is the signal caller and, behind Watt, the defensive leader, but he has slowed considerably, due in large part to unfortunate knee problems, and McKinney is clearly much faster than Cushing right now.

    2. Whitney Mercilus - Jadeveon who?  Mercilus, in a contract year, is playing lights out. I suspect this is because he wants to get paid, which means I'd think twice about signing him in the off-season. For the Texans right now this is working out well.

    3. Running game - In short, there is none. At the end of the first half the Texans leading rusher was Brian Hoyer with 15 yards. Overall the team ended with a paltry 82 yards rushing and Jonathan Grimes was the leading rusher with 33 yards. To be fair, the Bengals were worse, tallying only 73 yards rushing for the game.

    4. Defensive speed - The Texans defense is still painfully slow at the LB and S position, McKinney notwithstanding. I was surprised that the Bengals continued to try and feed the ball to Hill, instead of Bernard who was having a much easier time running around the Texans slow LB corps. This is a need that must be addressed in future drafts/free agency

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