Reading and Thinking Football

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Some Thoughts on the Titans, Wide Receivers, and Tight Ends

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The latest in a series of occasional posts about the Tennessee Titans. I’ll probably have another Titans post in the next couple weeks looking at the roster heading into free agency, and will definitely have a big pre-draft post along the lines of last year’s.

One of the things you see a fair amount in mock drafts around the interwebz is a tight end, whether O.J. Howard or David Njoku, projected to the Tennessee Titans with the 18th pick. The connection is a natural one. The Titans give a lot of snaps to tight ends. The Titans only have one veteran tight end under contract for 2017. The Titans need weapons in the passing game. The wide receivers they might consider are generally off the board, so project them a tight end. Easy and obvious.

Now, it’s easy to criticize mock drafts, even one with natural connections like that one. I criticize mock drafts all the time, of course, but mostly reserve those thoughts to my head or to occasional mutterings when I’m alone. I wouldn’t be writing this post just to criticize mock drafts or even Howard and/or Njoku as players (for one, I’ve barely started watching draft prospects seriously). Especially in February, I use mock drafts as information on where players might be valued and/or evaluated and to build my own list of players to watch. But those projections of a tight end to the Tennessee Titans do give me an excuse to write about something I’ve been thinking about in general, namely the need to analyze potential Titans tight ends and wide receivers through the filter of roles.

This is something general manager Jon Robinson has expressly stated, that players are evaluated in terms of how they fit roles. While under Ruston Webster player evaluations might have been done free form in a relative vacuum, Robinson emphasized that draft prospects will be fit into the roster and compared to players on it. This means it’s important to look at what roles on the team might be open, and how draft prospects might fit or not fit into particular roles, including potentially at the expense of players currently on the roster.

We only have one draft with him in charge to consider in thinking about how Robinson does things, but fortunately Mike Mularkey brings with him a long history in the NFL in being in charge of an offense and/or a team. We can use that to learn some things, or at least makes some educated guesses.

One thing that’s clear if you look at Mularkey’s history is he tends to concentrate who he targets in the passing game. Among wide receivers and tight ends, the top three targets tend to have a lot more catches, while the fourth, fifth, or later options don’t have many. Look at the 2016 Titans-Rishard Matthews had 108 targets and 65 catches, Delanie Walker 102/65, Tajae Sharpe 83/41, and then Kendall Wright’s down at 42/29. The last offense Mularkey ran, the 2012 Jaguars: 132/64, 105/55, 77/52, then 43/24. The 2009 Falcons were probably the purest example of this-Roddy White was at 165/85, Tony Gonzalez 134/83, Michael Jenkins at 90/50, and then Marty Booker down at 31/16. One of those top three players may or may not be a tight end. Gonzalez obviously was targeted a lot, as was Walker, but Justin Peelle had 23 targets as the Falcons’ lead receiving tight end in Mularkey’s first year there.

Let’s apply this prism to the 2017 Titans. Matthews, Sharpe, and Walker are all back, and could fill the role of top three receivers. Now, it seems likely the Titans would be happy to have Matthews and Walker be focal points of the passing offense again this coming season. That leaves one role potentially up for grabs. The simple question to be asked of any wide receiver the Titans sign or draft is, will that WR send Tajae Sharpe to the bench? If the answer is no, he’s crossed off the list as a potential starter. Whether he could be function in a reserve role is a different question, but I belay that for now.

Now, these mock picks of Howard or Njoku, where they fit? The Titans obviously have a big need at tight end. There are two questions that will dictate whether the Titans potentially have interest in a first-round TE. First, do they like their offense better with that TE than they do their offense with Sharpe? Mularkey has never, ever, not once in his career featured two tight ends in the passing game. In the 12 seasons Mike Mularkey has spent as a team’s offensive coordinator or head coach, the most targets his TE2 has ever had in a season has been 19. (I’m not counting Anthony Fasano’s 42 targets in 2015 because that was Whisenhunt’s offense they installed leading into the season.)

Now, this presents to Mularkey a bit of a tactical problem. Walker’s a solid move tight end, but not somebody they want to put on the line of scrimmage in 21 or maybe even 12 personnel and run the ball with. One of the things that would make Howard and/or Njoku appealing to the Titans is if he could do that and present more of a pass threat in that role than Fasano (now a free agent) or Phillip Supernaw did this past season. But if you’re looking at that player as a Sharpe replacement, then what you’re looking for is a player who can line up on the outside and win 1v1 matchups against cornerbacks on intermediate routes (y’know, that thing Titans receivers had so many problems with this season). There are players who can do one, and there are players who can do the other, but hardly anybody this side of Rob Gronkowski can do both as frequently as he would have to do to fit both needs. So I’m kind of skeptical any TE in this draft fits that first potential justification for spending a first-round pick on a tight end.

Ok, fine, the second potential justification for spending a first-round pick on a tight end. Are the Titans ready to move on from Delanie Walker in the near future? This is almost always an awkward question, but it must be asked. Walker turns 33 before the start of this coming season, and his contract expires after 2018 (when he’s due a $5.4 million base salary). If the Titans are ready to move on from Walker, they could select Howard or Njoku to be their TE2 this season, filling a Fasano-type role with more receiving upside, with the expectation that he’ll supplant Walker as their primary receiving TE and one of their big three receiving options in 2018, or at latest 2019 (similar to Derrick Henry’s likely career trajectory). If this is the answer, though, the pick of a tight end would be in addition to, not instead of, a receiver to supplant Sharpe.

Let’s try putting this into a different format. Here’s what things looked like in 2016:

Starting outside WR, frequently targeted: Tajae Sharpe
Starting outside WR, frequently targeted: Rishard Matthews
Slot WR, occasionally targeted: Kendall Wright
WR4, slot or outside, infrequently targeted, didn’t play ST: Harry Douglas
Marginal WR: Marc Mariani (returner), Tre McBride

Move TE, frequently targeted: Delanie Walker
Inline TE, infrequently targeted: Anthony Fasano
TE3, blocker/special teams, infrequently targeted: Phillip Supernaw
TE4, inactive: Jace Amaro

Now, within the context of what I wrote above, here are your questions as we project those roles going forward to 2017:

1. Do you want Tajae Sharpe to be an 800+-snap player? If yes, fine. If not, then the Titans should look at free agency (not many great options, likely) or the draft (maybe depending on what you think of Mike Williams, Corey Davis, John Ross, etc.) for a player who can be better than Sharpe at this job. If you do this, then Sharpe could potentially fill one of the spots lower on the depth chart.

2. Kendall Wright is a free agent and, in my opinion, quite unlikely to return. This isn’t a big role, but is there a player on the roster you want to fill that slot WR role, even if it may just be a limited one?

3. Harry Douglas is due $3.75 million in the final year of his deal. (a) Do you want him to fill the Wright role, or you can find a better player for that? (b) In his inside-outside flexibility and your degree of trust in him, plus the absence of any cap pressure, such that you’re willing to pay him that much to again do what he did in 2016, or can you find a different, maybe better and/or cheaper player, preferably one who contributes on special teams for that role?

4. Marc Mariani is a free agent. Who’s going to return punts and kicks? I’m skeptical this player was on the 2016 roster. Obviously, this player doesn’t have to be a wide receiver and is quite unlikely to be a tight end.

5. Anthony Fasano is a free agent. Who’s going to fill that role? You could re-sign Fasano to do it, but as an anti-fan of old tight ends, I’d prefer a younger option if there’s a good one available. This player is unlikely to have a big passing game role in 2017, but could have one in future seasons.

6. Phillip Supernaw is likewise a free agent. This could be a good role for a young player with the goal of putting him in Fasano’s role in 2018, or just a marginal veteran.

7. Is there a path from Amaro’s current position to any potential role other than move TE? I really don’t see one, and haven’t since the Titans claimed him off waivers. But if the TE2 and TE3 aren’t credible potential Walker injury replacements, as they weren’t in 2016, Amaro could maintain his 53/healthy inactive status for another season.

Possible answers to those questions likely to come when free agency begins next month, and we should know a lot more about what the Titans are actually likely to do come draft night by the time I do the big draft preview post in mid- to late-April.

UPDATE (2017-02-20 2255): Had some “this season” ambiguity, using it to refer to alternatively 2016 or 2017 at different points, so changed that and some other style stuff that was annoying me.

Written by Tom Gower

February 15, 2017 at 22:17

Posted in Tennessee Titans

What I’ve Been Reading (Football and Not)

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Hey, I’m actually doing a quarterly installment at the end of the quarter, even if it doesn’t go up until the morning after. Thanks, Buckeyes!

For those unfamiliar with this thing, I read books. Some of them are about football. Most of them are not. I then occasionally mention what I thought about some of them, but don’t mention others. I try to mention the interesting ones, or the ones about which I have something I want to say. My tastes are not those of other people; what I write in these posts is what I thought about the books, not necessarily an attempt to put them in a broader context or to say what I think other people might think about them.

Since this post covers the books I finished in the fourth quarter of 2016, I will also include my customary list of the favorite books I finished in the calendar year.

Football Books
I kind of liked Nate Jackson’s Slow Getting Up, but Fantasy Man: A Former NFL Player’s Descent into the Brutality of Fantasy Football didn’t do a single thing for me. I wouldn’t have finished it if I hadn’t been able to breeze through it quickly. The Rookie Handbook: How to Survive the First Season in the NFL by Ryan Kalil, Jordan Gross, and Geoff Hangartner did little more for me; I didn’t disenjoy it, but rather just didn’t get anything out of it.

The early Tampa Bay Buccaneers provided some great natural material for The Yucks: Two Years in Tampa with the Losingest Team in NFL History, which Jason Vuic plumbed reasonably enough.

I’m not sure how much was new in Lars Anderson’s The Mannings: The Fall and Rise of a Football Family, whether in general or to me specifically, but I still enjoyed my time with the book. If you’re not familiar with Archie’s story (the book covers him and each of the three sons, but Archie is more the primary focus), then I recommend the SEC Stories documentary.

I’d write my own review of S.C. Gwynne’s Hal Mumme biography The Perfect Pass: American Genius and the Reinvention of Football, but why should I when I can just point you to Chris Brown’s comments instead? I second Chris’s note that it seemed like Gwynne downplayed how Mumme’s Kentucky tenure went sour and add the post-Kentucky portion of his career is barely covered, and second Chris’s comment about football going in different directions, though there’s no doubt the Air Raid’s influence has helped change the college game in particular.

Fiction
Mostly genre. I did mostly enjoy Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, though to my way of thinking it’s more a novella than a proper novel (his longer Arthur & George sits unread near me as I write this). I also enjoyed Robert Harris’s Cicero trilogy (beginning with Imperium) enough to finish all three books. I also finally read Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince, which, uh, okay, sure, whatever, maybe it would’ve been great for many 7-year-olds, but I’m kind of beyond that.

Non-Fiction
Mini-theme of space, or at least it felt like that when reading overlapping parts of Rowland White’s Into the Black about the first Space Shuttle mission and This New Ocean: The Story of the First Space Age by William E. Burrows. I found both interesting enough if you have an interest in the topic, and there really wasn’t that much overlap. If I was reading the two sequentially, I’d read the Burrows first and skim even more than I did the passages in White about rocketry and general space program background.

A brief taxonomy of political books by quality ordering:
Level 0: Treats all conclusions as self-evidently and obviously correct, without recognizing the existence of possible counter-arguments.
Level 1: Recognizes the existence of possible counter-arguments, but does not engage with them.
Level 2: Recognizes the existence of possible counter-arguments, engages with them, does not make a good case for somebody who does not already agree should agree.
Level 3: Recognizes the existence of possible counter-arguments, engages with them, successfully makes a good case for why somebody who does not already agree should agree.
Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction is at Level 0 and is therefore strongly anti-recommended. Pity, because (1) there was no need for this to be a political book at all, and (2) even if O’Neil was determined to make this a political book, it could have been much better. Very disappointing.

Tim Harford may be my favorite pop economist writer, and I greatly enjoy his More or Less podcast, but Messy didn’t stand out in the genre the way his other books have.

Collections of essays on different, even if related subjects are almost definitionally hit-or-miss, and the same is true of Stephen Wolfram’s The Idea Makers. The people covered are all interesting enough and mostly, though not all familiar names even with a general knowledge of math and/or computing history, but they range from historical profiles where Wolfram does detective work (just how important was Ada Byron Lovelace, really, and what did she do?) to personal reminisces. Perhaps not valuable without an interest in the general topic, but Wolfram (with whom I was just extremely generally familiar) is a useful enough guide.

Taxonomically, I would classify Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive as a self-help book, the personal utility of which is highly unpredictable and extremely variable. Most books I would classify as self-help I find worthless, but some are quite useful. Some of those books I found worthless others found extremely valuable, while they found the books that I enjoyed worthless. I mention it here solely because it was not as obvious as normal that it is what I would classify as a self-help book.

My 2016 Favorites
Brief overview notes, also noted in my past end-of-year reviews: I try to read a balance of fiction and non-fiction. For my fiction reads, I tend to prefer plot-heavy narratives. Beyond minimums, literary quality is a plus but not a priority. Genre is ok. For the most part, the fiction I read suffices and clears my palate for other reads, with few of my choices reaching or even aspiring to particularly high heights. Non-fiction is a hodgepodge; a minor concentration on football, some history (broadly defined), mostly popular rather than academic, but no single driving focus.

New for this year: I’ve decided to classify this as a “favorites” list rather than a “best” list. This is a change in description rather than a change in classification or methodology. Like past lists, this is a listing of books I found particularly memorable that met some vaguely defined quality threshold. I don’t want to look back in five or ten years and think “What on earth possessed me to like this terrible book,” but I am absolutely not declaring these are the most technically excellent books I read in 2016.

Fiction was mostly genre not worth recommending more broadly. In a previous recap, I noted Don Winslow’s The Power of the Dog and its sequel, The Cartel, about the Mexican drug wars from the mid-1970’s onward with a DEA agent protagonist, describing them as James Ellroy-esque in how characters overwhelmingly range from shades of gray to black, but much more narrative and much more readable, and epic in scope. Not “literary fiction,” and perhaps not even Tom Wolfe-esque “literate popular fiction,” but maybe a slight step down from there.

Non-fiction… in that same recap post where I noted Winslow’s novels, I mentioned Martin Gurri’s The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium, a 2014 book that said much more about the strange happenings of 2016 than anything else I read (favorite “2016 was weird” tidbit: people who had a favorable and unfavorable view of capitalism both broke roughly 50-50 on the Brexit vote). The most distinctive book I read in 2016, always a useful marker, was Robin Hanson’s The Age of Em. I will also single out Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens.

Aside from, of course, Football Outsiders Almanac 2016, my favorite football books included the aforementioned The Perfect Pass, Monte Burke’s Saban, and Amy Trask’s You Negotiate Like a Girl. My favorite sports title was Andy Glockner’s Chasing Perfection.

My least favorite non-fiction book I finished in 2016 was O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction. My least favorite fiction book I finished in 2016 was the nonsensical Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. I gave up on nine books in 2016, including three novels by Paul Murray (An Evening of Long GoodbyesSkippy Dies, and The Mark and the Void) because I thought I saw enough there he might write a book I really, really like one day.

Things to Read
This is a more interesting section when the previous installment came more than six weeks ago. The Amazon Unread list of physical books (I have a lower threshold for e-books) from 2016 still includes Rob Vollman’s Stat Shot, James Gleick’s Time Travel, and Adrian Goldsworthy’s Pax Romana, and only those three titles. I did in fact over my Christmas travels begin Ron Chernow’s Washington, but just barely so. War and Peace remains on the unread pile, something I’m pretending will change in 2017, a mere decade after its purchase.

As always, you should still read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (up 53 cents to $9.60 for the paperback as of right now!) if you have not yet done so, and, of course, de gustibus non est disputandum.

Written by Tom Gower

January 1, 2017 at 08:30

What I’ve Been Reading (Football and Not)

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When I last did one of these posts, I had the vague ambition that I might resume doing it quarterly. Alas and alack, that was seven and a half months ago. So, a bit of a change.

This post: covers books I finished in April-September 2016, and dismisses them in as few words as I feel comfortable with. Normal caveats apply: I don’t mention everything I finished, just the ones I decided to talk about, with a focus on the interesting ones, and with only modest correction done for my tastes versus the tastes of other people.

Football Books
I was yet once again involved in writing a book and did not mention it here. Yes, I’m bad at promoting myself. I wrote the Colts and Texans chapters in Football Outsiders Almanac 2016, the annual tome previewing the season from those of us at FO. It’s mid-November and I don’t reflexively cringe when I think back to what I wrote in either chapter, so maybe it’s possible they weren’t terrible (or I was too mealy-mouthed and didn’t say anything interesting).

Jeanne Marie Laskas did some great reporting, but the book Concussion didn’t do much for me, as familiar as I already was with Bennet Omalu’s story (I haven’t seen the movie).

Alex Kirby’s Speed Kills is a very high-level overview of Chip Kelly’s offense; useful for what it is, but know what it’s not.

So You Think You Know Football? is a terrible title, but a useful book if you want to know more about NFL rules. Much better for that purpose than Mike Pereira’s After Further Review, which I reviewed over at FO thanks to a copy provided by the publisher.

I’ve stayed away from Nick Saban-related material, but I did enjoy Monte Burke’s Saban.

I finally read Sean Gilbert’s The $29 Million Tip, which would have been a much more useful thing to do when he was running against De Smith to head the NFLPA; I may discuss this book in more detail if/when I ever write that really long Roger Goodell piece I would have published last month if I wasn’t lazy (actual status: haven’t bothered to start the serious research).

Amy Trask’s You Negotiate Like a Girl should be your Christmas gift to the football-loving corporate attorney in your life; I can’t comment on how others would receive it.

Fiction
My fiction reading is mostly highly narrative fluff, often genre, and generally not worth commenting on. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child will be on my “worst of 2016” short list. I did start Robert Crais’ series of Elvis Cole mystery novels (and then stopped a couple books in; I’ll probably get back to those at some point) and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books (Watch good, Rincewind much rougher going).

Non-Football Non-Fiction
A lot here, some of it good.

My favorite part of Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World was about the diffusion of knowledge across the Mongol Empire; more support for Ian Morris. But also see this review noting the anthropologist Weatherford puts himself on shaky historical ground at times.

Even though I don’t really know anything about basketball, I enjoyed Andy Glockner’s Chasing Perfection, though I should note it’s more a team-focused book than the individual player development-focused book I was expecting.

Roger Crowley’s Conquerors was an interesting look at the early days of Portugal’s overseas exploration.

As an admitted philistine, I’m still searching for a book about art I’ve actually enjoyed; Timothy Brook’s Vermeer’s Hat, despite some interesting moments, did not fill that niche. People who actually like art may like it more.

Tonio Andrade’s The Gunpowder Age was very interesting on the history of Chinese firearms. A useful corrective at least on that. Maybe I’ll get enough into the 1500-1800 period to the exclusion of other things to write long pieces on the subject.

I want to nitpick anything non-legal/technical Cass Sunstein writes, so I of course wanted to do the same to The World According to Star Wars. Maybe best if you love Sunstein or haven’t read him before, and are only sort of into Star Wars. (Disclosure: In the before time, in the long long ago, I had Cass for Administrative Law.)

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Hariri is a very interesting book on the history of homo sapiens. Very much worth a longer consideration in a different project.

I enjoyed Ben Wilson’s Heyday: The 1850s and the Dawn of the Global Age-Minnesota’s not really a state you (or at least I) mentally think of when it comes to having a boom, but it really did go from 6,000 people in 1850 to 172,000 in 1860 (2000-10 equivalency ~75,000 to 1.7 million).

Greg Milner’s Pinpoint was an interesting look at GPS.

Robin Hanson’s The Age of Em is a very strange book; in a way, it reminds me of my version of team blogging, only actually rigorous and comprehensive, except my blogging got regular anchors to reality in the form of actual moves and games by the team. Hanson’s work does not and cannot, so he’s building up an idea of a future he recognizes is unlikely to take anything that close to the shape he envisions, while still considering his future more plausible than the alternatives. At a minimum, it’s a fascinating intellectual exercise, plus there’s always the Straussian reading.

Things to Read
The Amazon Unread list of physical books (I have a lower threshold for e-books) from 2016 includes Rob Vollman’s Stat Shot, James Gleick’s Time Travel, and Adrian Goldsworthy’s Pax Romana. I got almost 200 pages into Peter Wilson’s The Thirty Years War before the NFL season began; my reading of heavy non-fiction tends to die from September through January, so books like that, plus Andrew Roberts’ Napoleon and Ron Chernow’s Washington remain on the unread pile, as does War and Peace. You should still read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (still just $9.07 for the paperback as of right now!) if you have not yet done so, and, of course, de gustibus non est disputandum.

Written by Tom Gower

November 18, 2016 at 12:40

Why I Don’t like a Titans Offense DVOA Thinks Is Okay

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The third in an irregular series of posts about the Tennessee Titans. Perma-disclaimer: I write for Football Outsiders, whose statistics, rate-stat DVOA and counting-stat DYAR, will be referenced throughout this article. Some numbers may be through Sunday’s games; opponent adjustments from the Texans’ play will have slightly affected some numbers. 

There has been a great deal of wailing and gnashing of teeth coming from Tennessee-following quarters, including from yours truly, about the quality of the Titans’ offense this season. It came Week 1 after the loss to Minnesota and has continued after most weeks. The wins against the Dolphins and Browns quieted the cries somewhat, but they rose again after Sunday’s loss to the Colts.

DVOA does not agree. DVOA actually rates the Titans’ offense fairly highly-currently 11th at 4.2%, right behind San Diego and Green Bay (9/10, 4.7%) and ahead of Detroit (12th, 4.2%), where Matt Stafford has gotten articles declaring him an MVP candidate. If they keep that up for the entire season, 4.2% would be their best offensive DVOA since 2009 (also 4.2%), and an 11th-place ranking would be their best since the halcyon days of Steve McNair and 2003’s third-place ranking. And it’s not just the DeMarco Murray-led run game that has been driving the offense. DVOA currently rates the pass game as pretty average, 15th at 16.0%, while Mariota is rated at almost exactly league average (-0.7%; 0% is league average).

This presents to us a puzzle. DVOA thinks the Titans’ offense is actually pretty average. The emanations from Titansland, including from me, say it is not average. I like DVOA quite a bit and believe it can be used to tell us interesting and powerful things. Why am I disagreeing with it?

1. The Titans are a consistent but not high-yardage offense.

DVOA places a great value on consistent success. This makes a great deal of sense. And this year’s Titans offense ranks highly by success rate-third at 48.4%, behind only Dallas and New Orleans, and well ahead of the league average of 43.3%.

At the same time, the Titans rank just 14th in yards per play, so their consistent successes are mostly only minor successes. My guess is a statistic like Bill Connelly’s IsoPPP for NCAA stats that measures explosiveness would rate the Titans quite poorly. Unfortunately, I’m not aware of an NFL statistic that captures quite that. (They’re 14th in FO’s open field yards, which measures rushing yards over 10, and in a 14-way tie for 13th with 3 passes of 40+ yards, for what those are worth.)

2. The Titans are good at moving the ball without getting first downs before third down.

Thing I believe is probably “true” but haven’t done the research to convince you of: first down is the most important down by a significant margin. Distance matters a fair amount for third down conversions, and the best way to get a first down is to not get to third down in the first place. (Along similar lines, I prefer the quarterback with more second quarter wins to the one with more fourth quarter wins.)

One thing the non-explosive Titans do not do is go from first down to first down. They had zero first down conversions in the first 58 minutes of Sunday’s game against the Colts, and that’s been a problem that’s plagued them for most of the season. In the first three quarters of games, the Titans get a first down on just 13.1% of their first down plays. League average is 21.1%. The Packers are second-worst at 16.2%. The Falcons lead the league at 29.8%. Yes, Atlanta is more than twice as likely as Tennessee to get a first down in first down in the first 45 minutes of a game. 31.7% of such Titans plays are successful but do not produce a first down. That’s the highest total in the league, and well above the league average of 21.9%.

The situation on second down may be nearly as bad, and is even worse relative to the league average. The Titans are successful but do not gain a first down on 21.1% of second down plays in the first three quarters. League average is 14.0%, and the Saints are second at 18.1%.  Add them together, and the Titans have such plays on 27.0% of their first and second downs, compared to a league average of 18.5%, and well ahead of the second-place Saints at 23.5%.

Hey, what about the fourth quarter?

The fourth quarter is different. The basics are straightforward: in the first three quarters, 37% of successful first down pass attempts by the Titans result in a first down. In the fourth quarter, 85% do. My guess is this is likely related to the number of passes that come in two minute situations, and you’d see an even clearer trend if I looked to just those at the end of each half. But this post is enough work without me bothering to prove or disprove that.

3. Marcus Mariota has not been good outside of the red zone.

General DVOA note: player stats cannot be separated from the context of the team and particularly the offense. By “Marcus Mariota” in the above, I really mean “Marcus Mariota, throwing to Tajae Sharpe, Delanie Walker, and company, with Mike Mularkey and Terry Robiskie designing the offense and calling the plays, and with DeMarco Murray running the ball, while playing behind the Taylor Lewan-…-Jack Conklin offensive line, paired with Dick LeBeau running a defense with Jurrell Casey and company” but it’s too long to write that out every time.

Mariota did quite well in the red zone last year, posting a DVOA of 49.4%. This year, he has been even better, ranking second in DYAR (behind Drew Brees) and DVOA (behind only Tom Brady among qualifiers). But DVOA rates Mariota as just an average passer overall, even with that fine red zone DVOA. Why?

Simple: Mariota, as good as he’s been in the red zone, has not been good outside the red zone, which makes up 80% of the length of the field. From his goalline to the plus 20, he has posted a DVOA of -13.5%, which ranks 25th among the 32 qualifying quarterbacks. For comparison’s sake, that puts him just ahead of Case Keenum and just behind Ryan Six-picks-trick.

Being good in the red zone is great, but being good in the red zone is not something seems to be particularly consistent.

So what if the Titans aren’t quite as good in the red zone?

I think it’s useful to look at this through the prism of drive stats. The Titans currently rank 16th with 1.92 points per possession while scoring 6.0 points per red zone possession. If they instead scored the league average of 4.9 points per red zone possession, they would score about 0.3 fewer points per possession, which would be around 24th in the league.

4. Marcus Mariota has not been good in the under center pass game.

One of the big questions with Mariota coming out of Oregon was how he would adapt to taking many of his snaps from under center instead of from the shotgun. The answer we got in 2015 was “quite well.” He was actually better under center (1.6% passing DVOA) than he was in shotgun (-18.4%), and that was true under both Ken Whisenhunt and Mike Mularkey (cited numbers season-long). This year, that is not the case.

Among the 32 quarterbacks with 105 passes (the current DVOA QB leaderboard table cutoff), Mariota ranks 30th in both passing DYAR (-23) and DVOA (-16.8%) from under center. That’s … not so good. One of the players behind him is Cam Newton, and Mike Shula has had Cam attempt just 8.2% of his passes from under center this year, while Marcus has attempted 24.1% of his from under center. (The other is Brock Osweiler, whom you may have heard got $72 million over four years and is not playing well.)

5. Marcus Mariota has not been good on first downs.

Mariota ranks last in the league in both DYAR and DVOA (among 32 qualifiers) in first down passing DVOA. That is true even though he has a decent success rate. Turnovers seem like an obvious culprit, and they’re indeed part of the story. But only part of it. Without turnovers, his rank by DVOA jumps from 32nd all the way to 29th (among qualifiers). That’s still not good.

6. The Titans have been significantly better on third down then on first or second downs.

As much as I denigrate third down, third down performance is extremely important. And good news:  led by Mariota, the Titans have been very good on third downs. He ranks fourth in DVOA (among qualifiers) and fifth in DYAR, and the Titans as a whole rank third in offensive DVOA on third down.

The bad news comes in two parts. First, notwithstanding their pretty good success rates on first and second downs, the Titans are not good on third downs because they’re ending up in particularly favorable third down situations. They are in fact almost dead average when it comes to third down situations-basically, a team that was precisely league average would have had two more third-and-mediums (4-6 yards to go) and one less third-and-short (1-3 yards) and one less third-and-long (7+ yards). In terms of average to-go distance, the Titans are pretty much right at league average (7.1 v. average 7.0).

Second, third down performance, especially third-and-long performance, tends to be pretty variable. The 2016 Tennessee Titans are a great example of this. They had 18 third-and-longs against the Vikings, Browns, and Colts, and got 10 conversions, an outstanding performance. They had 18 third-and-longs against the Lions, Raiders, and Dolphins, and got exactly 0 conversions, a quite lousy performance. That’s enough to rank quite highly for the season (currently third), but not enough to make me feel better about the offense.

The Titans currently have the second-biggest difference between their third down DVOA and their offensive DVOA on first and second downs, behind only New England’s unwanted experiment into the effect of quarterback quality on team performance. That gap is more likely to close over the course of the season than it is to increase or stay the same.

Hey, what about the run game?

The run game has been fine. I don’t quibble with DVOA putting the run game 9th. That’s probably about where I would have put it in general, though I admittedly haven’t really studied teams around the league enough to say that with confidence. The puzzle I was trying to solve was about the pass game, and why DVOA and I thought (and still think) different things about it. Also, passing is generally more productive and more variable than running, so more worth looking into even if things were equal, which they weren’t.

So, the Titans are running two offenses?

Eh, not necessarily that much more than most NFL teams do. The league as a whole runs a pass-oriented offense out of shotgun that is somewhat more efficient overall than the run-oriented offense they run from under center.

What about opposing defenses?

DYAR is adjusted for quality of opposing defense; that’s what the “D” stands for, so I haven’t touched on this subject yet.

Even though they opened with the Vikings, FO’s #2-ranked defense, the Titans have faced the league’s easiest schedule of opposing defenses thus far, including the 32nd-ranked Lions, 31st-ranked Colts, 30th-ranked Browns, and 28th-ranked Raiders. The Titans’ offense, both the run game and the pass game, has been worse than it “looks” so far, and is likely to decline going forward as the Titans face more accomplished defenses.

I believe this is particularly a problem for the Titans, as their lack of explosiveness and playmakers means their offense works best against the worst defenses, which tend to have more execution issues.

TL;DR?

DVOA likes consistently successful offenses, which the Titans are. But the Titans have too many short gains. They therefore must consistently and repeatedly execute to move the ball down the field to score points. To do this, they need to be great in high-leverage situations, particularly third downs and the red zone. They have been so far, which is a big reason DVOA likes them so much more than I do. Performance in high leverage situations tends to regress, so the Titans are not likely to be as good in those areas moving forward, plus they have not been as good as they look because of an easy schedule. They are therefore likely to score fewer points going forward, unless they start playing better.

Written by Tom Gower

October 26, 2016 at 13:44

Posted in Tennessee Titans

Tennessee Titans 2016 Roster Prediction As Training Camp Opens

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The second in an irregular series of posts about the Tennessee Titans.

For the past eleven seasons, around the start of training camp I have predicted which players the Tennessee Titans would keep when they cut down the roster to 53. Quitting regular team blogging in March was not sufficient to keep me away from that task, so here goes nothing.

The intro, largely cribbed from last year’s attempt at the task:

Each season, the day the Tennessee Titans players report to training camp, I attempt to predict which players they will keep after the cutdown all the way to 53. Some years this goes kind of okay,  while in other years I end up on quixotic quests and stick on them long after it becomes obvious they are indeed quixotic quests. Most years, I’m happy to get 48 of the 53 right at this stage of the game, as the inevitable injuries, surprises, and attempts to be clever that don’t work out happen.

Last year, I got 44 of the 53 players who would be on the roster Week 1. Subsequent personnel moves explained some of those misses, as did not getting the shape of the roster right (though I still maintain keeping 4 WR, 5 TE, and 8 DL was insane and should not have been predicted (or done) by anybody).

To guide me in this exercise, it’s useful to take a look at what the Titans looked like Week 1 of last year in terms of number of players at each position:

QB: 3
RB/FB: 5
TE: 5
WR: 4
OL: 8
DL: 8
LB: 8
DB: 9
ST: 3

 

But that was with Ken Whisenhunt running the offense and Ray Horton (still) running the defense. There’s no guarantee a roster led by Mike Mularkey and Dick LeBeau will look the same. As I mentioned last year, LeBeau has tended to keep more defensive backs than Horton had. Mularkey has his own roster trends that have affected my judgment (the Titans are probably likelier to keep 5 WR than you might think, though I’ll get into that below).

With a new general manager, new head coach, and new defensive coordinator, this year I am probably more likely to be wrong on which specific players the Titans value. I also expect there to be several additions to the roster, to fill some obvious (and maybe not as obvious) currently unfilled needs. I’d be perfectly happy to get 45 players this year.

With that in mind, here’s my 53:

QB (2): Matt Cassel, Marcus Mariota
Analysis: Chalk, chalk. Whatever qualms you may have about Cassel as a backup quarterback, he’s the veteran in camp. It doesn’t make sense to keep a third quarterback.

RB/FB (5): Antonio Andrews, Jalston Fowler (FB), Derrick Henry, Dexter McCluster, DeMarco Murray
Analysis: Four easy names (Fowler, Henry, McCluster, Murray), then the question becomes if they keep a fifth and who it would be. Bishop Sankey would make sense if they want a passing game back, since he filled that role in McCluster’s absence last year. But Murray’s a three-down back and the Titans have praised Henry’s work there. David Cobb would make sense if they wanted a lead back type. But they went out and acquired Murray and Henry this offseason to fill that job. Andrews offers the best mix of versatility in both categories and plays special teams, making him the favorite for the fifth back in my eyes.

WR (5): Dorial Green-Beckham, Andre Johnson, Rishard Matthews, Tajae Sharpe, Kendall Wright.
Analysis: Anyone outside, or maybe even inside, St. Thomas Sports Park who’s absolutely confident in how the Titans will handle their receivers this season is probably nuts. I’d have to write the full positional analysis to get into all the details, but here’s the basic breakdown:

Reliable but can’t separate: Harry Douglas, Johnson
Known unreliables: Green-Beckham, Justin Hunter, Wright
Offseason acquisitions: Matthews, Sharpe
Likely roster longshots, must beat out other players in camp: Everybody else

I’ve tried parsing this different ways, trying to think of the 46-man active roster, inside, outside, whatever have you, and have made no significant progress on how this is likely to go. A fifth player who’s up on gameday will likely have to play special teams. I don’t know who, aside from maybe Tre McBride (probably the 8th guy), does.

My initial draft of this post had Douglas as the token veteran on the team; when news of the Johnson signing broke 15 minutes before it was scheduled, it was pretty easy for me to make a one-for-one substitution. I think Johnson is mostly done and cannot separate, but Douglas can’t separate either and Johnson is more of an outside receiver. The slot is settled with Wright and Sharpe, and ceteris paribus outside over more of a slot type is a preference the Titans should have had.

TE (4): Anthony Fasano, Craig Stevens, Phillip Supernaw, Delanie Walker
Analysis: Three chalk names, and Supernaw gets one of the (RB5, WR6, TE4, OL9) roster spots. Special teams matters, and they’ve consistently privileged him.

OL (8): Jack Conklin, Ben Jones, Taylor Lewan, Will Poehls, Jeremiah Poutasi, Brian Schwenke, Quinton Spain, Chance Warmack
Analysis: Two areas here, and both have major question marks. At tackle, Lewan and Conklin are set at starter, but who backs them up? Poehls gets my nod here, based on the current roster and his experience, but (a) they could prefer one of the UDFA tackles like Nick Ritcher, (b) they could go with a veteran not on the roster right now for the backup OT spot, and/or (c) Mularkey has kept 9 OL before so with youth plus Lewan’s injury history, it could be Poehls/Ritcher AND a veteran.

Interior offensive line: who and how many do they keep? LG winner, Jones, Warmack, and swing gameday backup are locks. LG winner is penciled in as Spain. The swing gameday backup must be able to play center, so I’m giving that job to Schwenke (over Andy Gallik). I don’t think it makes sense to keep three backup interior OL, and Poutasi’s pedigree, plus experience playing tackle (it was insane to ask him to play RT day one as young as he was) gives him the clear edge over Sebastian Tretola.

I’d be surprised if I don’t get at least one name wrong here.

DL (7): Angelo Blackson, Jurrell Casey, Austin Johnson, DaQuan Jones, Karl Klug, Ropati Pitoitua, Al Woods
Analysis: One of the positions I feel worst about. Blackson, Casey, Johnson, Jones, and Woods are locks. LeBeau hasn’t traditionally placed much value on a 3-tech, so Klug may not be nearly as much of a lock as you think he is. It wouldn’t surprise me to see them keep Pitoitua over him, and I almost did that here. I didn’t keep any UDFAs, but maybe Antwaun Woods has a shot. N.B. LeBeau from 2005-14 kept only 6 DL 7 of 10 seasons, so any body elsewhere could easily come from here.

LB (9): Kevin Dodd, Derrick Morgan, Deiontrez Mount, Brian Orakpo, Nate Palmer, Sean Spence, Aaron Wallace, Avery Williamson, Wesley Woodyard
Analysis: I feel pretty good about seven names here, and Palmer and Wallace get the last two spots. In his recent linebackers article, Jim Wyatt mentioned Palmer’s ability to play inside and out. That could help keep him up on gameday and helped convince me to give him the ILB4 spot where I’d had Justin Staples as a placeholder. Wallace has some athleticism and seems like a good candidate for LeBeau’s defensive academy.

DB (10): Antwon Blake, Kevin Byard, Perrish Cox, Rashad Johnson, Brice McCain, Jason McCourty, Da’Norris Searcy, LeShaun Sims, Daimion Stafford, Blidi Wreh-Wilson
Analysis: I feel pretty good about seven names here-the four safeties in Byard, Johnson, Searcy, and Stafford-and the top three corners (Cox, McCain, McCourty). The other three are just guesses and should not be privileged. Kalan Reed over Blake, or Sims, or Wreh-Wilson? Sure. Instead of six corners and four safeties, a fifth safety like Josh Aubrey, Marqueston Huff, or Curtis Riley? Absolutely a possibility. Cody Riggs at corner? Eh, he may be limited to the slot, and I can’t see him higher than third there with Cox and McCain on the roster. Am I overrating Antwon Blake’s edge because of his scheme familiarity? I’m fine there, because I think other people are underrating that.

If I get two of the three non-locks right, I’m happy.

ST (3): Beau Brinkley, Brett Kern, Ryan Succop
Analysis: Chalk, chalk, chalk. The interesting job is kick returner (McCluster returns punts).

On my roster, not on Paul Kuharsky’s: RB Antonio Andrews, DL Ropati Pitoitua, WR Andre Johnson, OL Will Poehls, OL Jeremiah Poutasi, TE Phillip Supernaw, LB Aaron Wallace, DB Blidi Wreh-Wilson
On Paul’s roster, not on mine: LB Curtis Grant, WR Harry Douglas, WR Justin Hunter, OL Josue Matias, DB Kalan Reed, DB Cody Riggs, RB Bishop Sankey, OL Sebastian Tretola
Huh, that’s more than I would have guessed. But we did both keep 24 offensive players and 26 defensive ones.

Written by Tom Gower

July 29, 2016 at 12:00

Posted in Tennessee Titans

Tennessee Titans 2016 Draft Preview by Position

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GENERAL NOTE: ICYMI, I blogged at least semi-regularly about the Tennessee Titans at Total Titans starting in the 2007 season until “retiring” at the end of the 2015 League Year in March. Though I am happy not to be doing anything like regular team blogging, I still want to chime in on the Titans from time to time in ways that do not fit in 140-character soundbites. Thus, a couple times a year, I will put up posts here about the Titans. These will probably mostly be longer pieces (1000+ words). This is the first of those. 

One of the staples of my pre-draft coverage at Total Titans was a Titans draft preview by position, including probabilities of selecting a player at each position. Given that I’m only writing one pre-draft post, that seemed comprehensive and detailed enough to be the post to write. So, that it is. Since I will not be writing a separate post on players the Titans had an official visit or private workout with, I will mention the names I have seen the Titans linked to in this post. (I’m not including Senior Bowl or Combine interviews or mere pro day attendance, as I do not consider those nearly as useful signals as visits or private workouts.)

Mandatory mention for this post: the Titans currently hold 9 picks in the 2016 NFL draft. To be as realistic as possible, I wanted the sum of the draft probabilities at each position to add up to 8.0. If the probability at any particular position looks too high to you, well, it probably looks too high to me as well. But to get the total to 8.0, the probabilities all look too high. I know, 8.0 is still short of 9, but (a) it wouldn’t surprise me to see the Titans end up making eight selections, either by moving up in the first round or by trading one of their second- or third-round picks for a future pick, and (b) the sixth and seventh rounds are prime spots for value- and UDFA-related picks where positional need matters much less, so they’re ripe for doubling up on a need position (like Tre McBride last year) or picking a non-need slot (the David Howard pick a few years ago). If things to true to form, the Titans will hit all but one of the positions I have them rated as highly likely to draft while hitting one of the positions I think it much less likely they will draft.

Quarterback
Need at position: Low
Analysis: Marcus Mariota is the starter, and will hopefully be for the next decade-plus. I’m not a huge fan of Matt Cassel as the veteran backup, but an upgrade at veteran backup is something the Titans will not find in the draft (and apparently weren’t interested in in free agency, given they signed Cassel quickly). The Titans won’t want to make a roster spot for a third quarterback.
Draft probability: 1%
Linked players: Kevin Hogan

Running Back
Need at position: Low to moderate
Analysis: From one point of view, the Titans already have a fully loaded backfield for 2016 and don’t need a running back. DeMarco Murray will be the bellcow and play on passing downs, Dexter McCluster is the backup passing game back, David Cobb the backup run game back, and Antonio Andrews can fill either role while also playing teams. On the other hand, Murray may be mostly washed up and you could upgrade the other players in that group with the right player even in the later rounds. But if the right guy isn’t there, they won’t draft a back.
Draft probability: 30%
Linked players: Kenneth Dixon, Keenan Reynolds

Wide Receiver
Need at position: Moderate
Analysis: The Titans have the receivers they need to line up and play in 2016. As I noted before my retirement, Mike Mularkey offenses generally have not featured many pass catchers, and between Dorial Green-Beckham, Kendall Wright, Rishard Matthews, and depth parts, the Titans do not absolutely have to take a wide receiver. But Wright is a free agent after this year, they may view Matthews as more of a role receiver, Green-Beckham is a huge unknown long-term, etc., so the Titans could see this as a significant need for 2017 and beyond. Pre-draft smoke, emanating Jon Robinson, Mike Keith, and Jim Wyatt, has led me to revise my estimate upward significantly. I doubt it happens in the first round, but it probably does in the second or third.
Draft probability: 90%
Linked players: Leonte Carroo, Jared Dangerfield, Braxton Miller, Michael Thomas

Tight End
Need at position: Moderate
Analysis: Like wide receiver, not a significant 2016 need, but a need nonetheless because Anthony Fasano, Craig Stevens, and Delanie Walker will all be 32 years old when the regular season begins. This probability would be higher if the tight end class was better regarded.
Draft probability: 60%
Linked players: Stephen Anderson, Austin Hooper, Nick Vannett

Offensive Tackle
Need at position: High
Analysis: Taylor Lewan is locked in as the starter at one tackle position. Byron Bell, who returned on a one-year deal of the sort a non-premium backup would draw in a league in desperate need of quality offensive tackle play, is currently penciled in as the other. Will Poehls, who has spent two seasons on the practice squad, is currently the top backup. I may currently be fourth on the Titans’ depth chart at offensive tackle. The need to line up and play in 2016, plus the lack of quality options available in the free agent market, tells me offensive tackle is the overwhelming favorite for the Titans’ first selection on Thursday, and it would not be a surprise at all to me if the Titans come out of the draft with two offensive tackles.
Draft probability: 99% of one, 50% of a second
Linked players: Caleb Benenoch (OG?), Shon Coleman, Jack Conklin, Clay DeBord, Taylor Decker, German Ifedi (OG?), Alex Lewis, Jason Spriggs, Ronnie Stanley, Zach Sterup, Laremy Tunsil

Offensive Guard/Center
Need at position: Moderate-low
Analysis: Ben Jones is the center. Chance Warmack is the right guard. Between Jeremiah Poutasi, Quinton Spain, and probably Bell (assuming an early OT pick), the Titans can find a workable solution at left guard. A good solution at left guard would be nice, as would a developmental center, or more protection against Warmack leaving after 2016. But with all the answers and potential answers here and the needs elsewhere, this is an area I don’t think the Titans end up addressing.
Draft probability: 40%
Linked players: G Joe Dahl (OT?)

Defensive Line
Need at position: Moderate-high
Analysis: The Titans have lost two players (Sammie Hill and Mike Martin) and have not added any. One of the six that remains (Ropati Pitoitua) barely played last year. One is really good (Jurrell Casey), the rest of the group is mostly undistinguished. Defensive line is a strength of the draft, an area Robinson has suggested multiple times could be addressed, and the Titans have been linked to many defensive linemen. I don’t see it in the first round, but probably in the second round.
Draft probability: 95%
Linked players: DeForest Buckner, Jonathan Bullard, Kenny Clark, Joel Heath, D.J. Reader, Lawrence Thomas, Adolphus Washington, Jonathan Woodard

Outside Linebacker
Need at position: High
Analysis: Derrick Morgan and Brian Orakpo are quality starters. At least one of them has missed significant time in three of the past four seasons. The Titans’ defense collapsed when Morgan went out last year. The Titans have not done anything yet to improve their depth at OLB. To not improve their depth at OLB would be (a) Ruston Webster-like malign neglect, (b) a demonstration of incredible faith in Dick LeBeau’s powers of behind-the-scenes development, or (c) both (a) and (b). The Titans have been linked to multiple potential OLB in the pre-draft process. Probably not in the first round, but a good bet in the second or third rounds.
Draft probability: 85%
Linked players: Joey Bosa, Kamalei Correa, Shaq Lawson, Yannick Ngakoue, Emmanuel Ogbah

Inside Linebacker
Need at position: Moderate
Analysis: Wesley Woodyard is in the last year of his deal. Sean Spence is signed to a one-year deal. Avery Williamson isn’t a star. Nobody else is more than a backup and special teams player. It’s not an acute need, but it is a need. Injury wild card Myles Jack might be too tempting to pass up in the first, but otherwise more likely an option in the third round or later.
Draft probability: 80%
Linked players: Jatavis Brown, Deion Jones, Darron Lee, Antonio Morrison

Cornerback
Need at position: Moderate-high?
Analysis: In terms of being able to line up and play, the Titans are in better shape at corner than they’ve been since at least 2013. Between Perrish Cox, Brice McCain, and Jason McCourty, they have three veteran corners, two of whom can play in the slot. Antwon Blake has scheme and LeBeau-specific experience. Blidi Wreh-Wilson has some NFL experience. LeBeau may be high on Cody Riggs. On the other hand, Cox and McCain may be best as just slot players, McCourty is a bit of a question mark after missing most of last year with injuries, and depth is a major question mark (true at corner for basically every team). I see corner as a “like to draft” position; The Reporters Who Cover the Titans see it as a priority (Paul Kuharsky saying I was underrating CB as a 2016 need; John Glennon Tennessean article expecting a CB draft pick in first/second round). I’d frankly be shocked if the Titans took a corner in the first round, but who knows.
Draft probability: 80%
Linked players: Mackensie Alexander, Eli Apple, Kendall Fuller, Xavien Howard, Tavon Young

Safety
Need at position: Moderate-high
Analysis: It’s a good safety class. Rashad Johnson gives them cover for 2016 so a draft pick will not be required to step in immediately. Johnson is on a one-year deal. I don’t see a second starting safety on the roster for 2017 (Da’Norris Searcy is a given). I’m expecting this to happen in the second round, but if there’s a run on the position or too much value elsewhere it doesn’t have to happen.
Draft probability: 90%
Linked players: Vonn Bell, Kevin Byard, Jayron Kearse, Miles Killebrew, Keanu Neal, Tyvis Powell, Jalen Ramsey

UPDATE (2016-04-27, 1230 CT): Added CB Eli Apple and OT Taylor Decker as linked players.

Written by Tom Gower

April 26, 2016 at 18:46

Posted in Tennessee Titans

What I’ve Been Reading (Football and Not)

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Once upon a time, I read books and wrote reviews of them. Book review posts were staples in the Before I Only Wrote About Football blogging days, and were my most regular non-link posts in the early days of this site. Earlier this decade, I wrote reviews-many short, plenty longer-of every book I finished for a blog that nobody else can read. Yet, for one reason or another, I eventually stopped doing that. I switched from full reviews of each football book to capsule reviews in a quarterly post. I started out writing the quarterly post at the end of the quarter. Then a couple weeks after the end of the quarter. By now, it’s been nine months since I posted here about anything I read (and it’s been several years since I’ve written a book review for The Locked Site).

I know I’m quite likely never going to go back to writing about football books the way, but I do want to try to return to the quarterly recaps. After so much time, though, I just want to get everything up to date. Thankfully, I didn’t read that much the past nine months by my standards. In my last book review post, I mentioned the second quarter of 2015 was my least productive reading quarter (in terms of numbers of books finished) since the first quarter of 2010. Third quarter 2015 was my least productive third quarter since 2009 and fourth quarter 2015 was my least productive fourth quarter since 2009 (I note by quarters because my reading has tended to follow seasonal patterns; since I started keeping track by month in 2004, I finish on average 20% more books in July and August than you’d expect, while I finish 26% fewer in June). For the year, I finished 79 books, my lowest total since 2009, and the 9 football books I finished was the lowest total there since 2006. (By comparison, I averaged 117 books per year in 2011-14, so 79 books was for me a 33% drop.) We’ll see what the rest of 2016 brings. In 2010, I finished more books in April than I did in the entire first quarter, but I surely won’t replicate that this year.

Anyway, time for the nominal purpose of this post, telling you what I did actually read. Football first, then non-football, my 2015 favorites, and a look at the unread list.

Football Books-2015
Once again, I was involved in writing a book but failed to talk about it here. Yes, Football Outsiders Almanac 2015, the annual tome previewing the NFL and college football seasons from us at Football Outsiders came out. I wrote the Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers, and Tennessee Titans chapters. One day I should really talk about my FOA writing process and give a behind-the-scenes look at what I wrote about, why I wrote about what I did, how I wrote the chapters, and some stuff like that. Today will not be that day.

I mentioned in that previous book review post Chris Brown sent me a review copy of his second book, The Art of Smart Football. It’s Chris’s work, so of course you should read it. Like his first book The Essential Smart Football, it’s a collection of essays, most previously published. For me, it wasn’t as essential as Essential, because more of it was familiar to me. Some of the Grantland (R.I.P.) pieces also missed the graphics a digital product can have that a physical book cannot.

When the NFL made all-22 accessible to the public in 2011, one lament/request I heard from fellow outsider fans with an analytical bent was they really didn’t know what they were looking at, and it would be great to have somebody knowledgeable explain to them what was really going on. Alex Kirby’s Every Play Revealed 2 gives you that kind of guide for the Patriots-Seahawks Super Bowl. It’s probably best read in conjunction with a re-watch of the game itself. I ended up not having the time to do that, alas, and just read the review PDF Alex sent me. He’s done similar books for other games, and they’re probably worth picking up if you really want to study that game. Now if we can just get a consortium of people to do it for every other NFL game…

Thursday evening, I was listening to Bruce Feldman (mostly) talk with Kevin Sumlin about RPOs and the one-back clinic, so it’s fitting that tonight I finally get to writing about Bart Wright’s Football Revolution: The Rise of the Spread Offense and How It Transformed College Football, a history of the spread offense that includes the influence of Dennis Erickson and said one-back clinic. Not a coaching book, but a lot of good interview work and a book I wished I’d read soon after it came out (in the fall of 2013). Recommended.

I wanted more than I got from Brady vs. Manning: The Untold Story of the Rivalry That Transformed the NFL by Gary Myers.

I was a big fan of John U. Bacon’s Three and Out, and though about Michigan thought that book could be read quite profitably by people with no connection to the Wolverines or Ann Arbor. Endzone, I thought, was a book that appeals much more to the UM devotee and wasn’t as broadly interesting.

Football Books-2016
Writing a biography about a living subject who doesn’t cooperate with you is an interesting task. The living subject means that there are contemporaries around, many of whom are probably willing to speak, plus contemporaneous records are generally extant and not too difficult to locate. But you’re still in some ways missing the most important voice. Keith Dunnavant’s Montana is fine for all that, though I’m reminded of my comment on his Bart Starr biography, America’s Quarterback, that was kind of the inflection point for when I got bored with football books.

I wasn’t as big a fan as everybody else seems to be of Adam Lazarus’s Best of Rivals on the Joe Montana-Steve Young quarterback battle when I read that a few years ago. I was a much bigger fan of his Hail to the Redskins on Joe Gibbs’ great Washington teams, plus there’s a great Gibbs quote I want to use in a longer piece I’m still in the planning stages on. Recommended.

NFL Confidential: True Confessions from the Gutter of Football by Shmavid Shmolk, er, “Johnny Anonymous” was a suitably breezy and entertaining book by a player about a team-season, in the instant case David Molk on the Eagles’ 2014. The veneer of anonymity is paper-thin; the travails of the third-string center who ends up playing probably would’ve been enough to identify Molk with even minor work, a Monday off day is a give-away for Chip Kelly and the Eagles, and picking out Jason Peters and DeSean Jackson, among others, was pretty easy. Ball Four it ain’t, but it’s in line with Slow Getting Up as far as recent NFL player memoirs go. The better question is what would a book like Ball Four look like these days? I don’t know, really, but has anybody attempted to write a book like Dryden’s The Game since that came out 35 years ago? That’s a niche I’d like to see filled.

As long as you’re not expecting a full biography or anything more than a quick airplane read (which I mention because this was, in fact, where I read it), Bill Polian’s The Game Plan delivers what you might want. But while I bet he could’ve, Polian wasn’t interested in writing a great book on the NFL.

Non-Football-Fiction-2015
I finished Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale out of sheer cussedness to see if I would enjoy it any more, if it made any more sense, if it was any better. Nope, and a couple pages at the very end of academic satire were not enough to carry the rest of the work for me. Very strongly anti-recommended to people who share my tastes (see infra).

Jo Walton’s The Just City was an interesting novel about an attempt to set up Plato’s city in the “real” world with people from various stages of history. I forgot if it was in this book or the sequel The Philosopher Kings that Walton had a character note they didn’t get many people from the Enlightenment or later (beyond the POV female character from Victorian England), (a) for which I credit Walton and (b) #TeamEnlightenment. Being science fiction, this is of course a trilogy, and I plan to get the third volume from the library when it comes out as well.

A friend of mine recommended Sean McMullen’s trilogy beginning with Souls in the Great Machine after I asked for books like Anathem in my last book review post. There’s an interesting premise here, which carries the first book, and an interesting change of scenery does the sequel The Miocene Arrow well, but I wasn’t a huge fan of the concluding volume Eyes of the Calculor (a 2016 finish, but it’s not worth breaking up the review for that). Recommended for genre fans.

I did read non-spec fic fiction in the final two quarters of 2015, but not much of it and nothing to recommend.

Non-Football-Fiction-2016
I was hoping I’d finish Michel Houellebecq’s Submission before the year ended so I could just declare it my favorite fiction read of 2015. But I didn’t, and if it had really deserved its place there, I probably would have. I didn’t enjoy it was much as I did The Map and the Territory.

I suspect I would have enjoyed Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard more as a dramatic performance than as a book.

Some actual non-genre novels I liked Don Winslow’s The Power of the Dog and its sequel, The Cartel, about the Mexican drug wars from the mid-1970’s onward with a DEA agent protagonist. James Ellroy-esque in how characters overwhelmingly range from shades of gray to black, but much more narrative and much more readable, and epic in scope.

But if you want genre fiction, I did enjoy Daniel Abraham’s The Dagger and the Coin series. Five books, concluded satisfactorily with the just-released The Spider’s War. And am I the only one who sees the outlines of an alt-universe Anakin Skywalker in Geder?

Non-Football-Non-Fiction-2015
Based on the reaction of my then-6-year-old niece, the start of Chapter 12 of Ian Toll’s Six Frigates on the early U.S. Navy is one of the funniest things ever put to print. She seemed particularly amused by Toll’s use of the word “private,” describing a letter sent by President James Madison. More … mature readers will find it a well-done history of the time period, capably conveying both the on-land and at-sea machinations, something not often done in naval histories.

I was unsurprised to see Ashlee Vance’s Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future make many best of 2015 lists. I’m personally hesitant to put biographies of people who seem like they’re still in the prime of their careers there, simply because I want to be sure the best books of a year to still be really good five years later. But anybody who writes a Musk biography in 2020 or 2050 will have to engage in some way with Vance’s work.

Economist books: I enjoyed both Alvin Roth’s Who Gets What – and Why: The New Economics of Matchmaking and Design, focusing on his work on auction designs, and Richard Thaler’s more specifically a memoir Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics. Greg Ip’s Foolproof: Why Safety Can Be Dangerous and How Danger Makes Us Safe I didn’t love as much as others seemed to (I seem to recall seeing it on more than its share of best of 2015 books), but it’s still solid.

Phillip T. Hoffamn’s Why Did Europe Conquer the World? was a book I’d been waiting on for a while, since discovering Hoffman’s work into seventeenth century France years ago. It was good, but wasn’t as much of an addition to the literature as I hoped it would be. I’m not quite sure I’d go as far as R.Albin’s review, but nor would I say he’s wrong.

I read and enjoyed but didn’t love David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing about a decade ago, but had put off reading his Paul Revere’s Ride for some time for no very good reason. Like Crossing, it does a fine job of putting the epochal historical event sometimes shrouded in myth and mystery into time-specific context. It shouldn’t be your first book on the American Revolution, but it can profitably be read with just a basic knowledge of the American Revolution and probably can profitably be read by those with a great interest in popular histories of the American Revolution.

The Russians are coming: Bill Browder’s Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice was a nice mix of personal memoir of doing business in Eastern Europe and Russia in the collapse of Soviet hegemony and then in Putin’s Russia, where the life of enemies is cheap. David Hoffman’s The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal has its own Moscow betrayal and killing but it set a quarter-century or so earlier, as Adolf Tolkachev spies for the U.S. and then is betrayed and executed.

The problem with a book like North Korea Confidential: Private Markets, Fashion Trends, Prison Camps, Dissentors and Defectors is it’s difficult to judge just how good a job Daniel Tudor and James Pearson did of giving us a glimpse into the normally-forbidden and highly-restricted Hermit Kingdom. The available evidence seems to be as good a job as one can. If you can trust it, it’s quite an interesting look at a very different world. If you can’t, then, of course, it’s worthless.

I didn’t enjoy Matt Ridley’s The Evolution of Everything as much as I did his The Rational Optimist; the two books aren’t the same, but I recall a broad thematic similarity and Optimist seems like a better sell. David Starkey’s Magna Carta was a thin book, but did a good job of putting the 1215 document in more context. After Dan Jones’ The Wars of the Roses, I didn’t get as much out of Michael Jones’ Bosworth 1485: The Battle That Transformed England, and probably wouldn’t have finished it had it been longer. As a fan of the novels of Frederick Forsyth, I enjoyed his memoir The Outsider: My Life in Intrigue; his take on Biafra remains quite interesting, though I lack any context for it (or any detail of the conflict in general).

Non-Football-Non-Fiction-2016
I’ve only finished 7 non-fiction books this year, and 4 of those were about football. Fortunately, two of those other three are worth discussing.

I’ve previously noted I greatly enjoyed Randall Munroe’s xkcd comic and his earlier What If?, where he answers absurd hypothetical questions seriously. His latest book is Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words, where he explains (with the aid of illustrations) complicated things using just the one thousand most common words. It’s a clever concept, I believe first expressed in his Up Goer Five comic. In book format, though, my overwhelming impression was that it’s just a clever concept and fine details are normally expressed in specific technical jargon because that’s the best, clearest, and most economical way of doing so.

The nature of my project here precludes me from going into too much detail on Martin Gurri’s The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium. But this 2014 work is a superb analysis of the basic fault lines in American (and other) society, as demonstrated in the current Presidential election campaign and many other things. Not exactly a casual read, but worth working through and considering. Quite likely to end up on my best of 2016 list, and would have topped the best of 2015 list (infra). For a glimpse of Gurri’s thought and analysis, see this recent post of his on D***** T****.

Best of 2015
Brief overview notes, also noted in my past end-of-year reviews: I try to read a balance of fiction and non-fiction. For my fiction reads, I tend to prefer plot-heavy narratives. Beyond minimums, literary quality is a plus but not a priority. Genre is ok. For the most part, the fiction I read suffices and clears my palate for other reads, with few of my choices reaching or even aspiring to particularly high heights. Little stands out among my 2015 fiction reads. The most memorable for me was Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality by Eliezer Yudkowsky. I repeat my earlier warnings, that this is the most Not For Everybody, Your Mileage May Vary thing I’ve ever mentioned on here and if you start it, and you’re not enjoying it by chapter 8-10, give up. The Walton books were interesting, but I’ll wait to judge those until the final volume comes out. Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem was interesting, but (a) it’s the first volume in a trilogy, (b) I didn’t make any headway into the sequel when I checked it out from the library, and (c) series in progress (at least the English translation thereof). I wish I had non-genre recommendations, but I don’t.

For the third straight year, picking my favorite non-fiction read is quite a challenge, and this feels like an even bigger challenge than it was the past two years. Looking over the list, the standouts in my memory include James Whitman’s The Verdict of Battle (though I am somewhat loath to recommend this more broadly), Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, plus the aforementioned Paul Revere’s Ride and Six Frigates. But I’d put all of them a notch below my 2014 favorites.

Aside from, of course, Football Outsiders Almanac 2015, my favorite football reads of the year were Wright’s aforementioned Football Revolution and, idiosyncratic in some sense it may be, Ran Henry’s Spurrier. I finished entirely too many books I disenjoyed in 2015, including The Handmaid’s Tale and Ernest Cline’s Armada, which I finished out of curiosity to see if it really was that awful. It was (following my Dan Brown parallel, if Ready Player One was his DaVinci CodeArmada is more like his Inferno). I gave up on at least eight books in 2015, including both The Remains of the Day and The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro.

The Things to Read
Over the next month, I’ll be spending a great deal of time preparing for the 2016 NFL draft. I’ve already acquired Optimum Scouting’s draft guide and Nolan Nawrocki’s NFL Draft 2016 Preview, plus depending on when I get this post up may have already received my pre-ordered copy of Matt Waldman’s Rookie Scouting Portfolio. Dane Brugler‘s forthcoming draft guide is also on the must-buy list, and of course I’ll be supplementing all of those with Lance Zierlein’s draft profiles for NFL.com. Anything else I end up getting, I’ll note on Twitter, and if you want to send me your draft guide, just hit me up.

My book buying tends to go in spurts. Lately, I’ve neglected that I’ve been in a long-lived reading rut, and my acquisitions in the past nine months that I have not yet read include, among others, Dan Drezner’s Theories of International Politics and Zombies, Timothy Brook’s Vermeer’s Hat, Tonio Andrade’s The Gunpowder Age, Monte Burke’s Saban, Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life, Andrew Roberts’ Napoleon: A Life, and Ben Austro’s So You Think You Know Football?, titles like Alex Kirby’s Speed Kills, Peter H. Wilson’s The Thirty Years War, and many more sit waiting to be read while forthcoming books like the conclusion to Walton’s trilogy and James Gleick’s Time Travel (due out in September and pre-ordered) await in the distance.

As always, War and Peace sits on my end table waiting for me to finally get around to reading it, you should still read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow ($9.07 for the paperback as of right now!) if you have not yet done so, and, of course, de gustibus non est disputandum.

Written by Tom Gower

April 1, 2016 at 12:09