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Key Questions for the Fate of the 2017 Titans

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The latest of my occasional posts about the Tennessee Titans. 

With the start of the regular season soon upon us, now is the time people who write about the NFL from time to time are asked to make predictions about the upcoming season. As of writing this, I have just submitted my info for the 2017 staff predictions article at Football Outsiders. Outcomes, though, are the result of dynamic processes. Any dope can, like me, predict the Seahawks beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl, or that the Jets get the first pick in the draft and select a quarterback. What’s more interesting, at least to me, is how they get there-that the Seahawks move Sheldon Richardson to offensive tackle, where he suddenly becomes the reincarnation of Walter Jones, except that he plays both ways, so he’s also the reincarnation of Chuck Bednarik, or that the Jets clinch the #1 pick by having their punter boot the ball out of their end zone for a safety instead of taking a knee to seal a 1-point win (two things I would love to see happen but expect to never occur).

It’s easy to predict the Tennessee Titans to win the AFC South, what with the Houston Texans offense, the Indianapolis Colts being without Andrew Luck for an as-yet-indeterminable amount of time, and the Jacksonville Jaguars continuing whatever it is they’ve been doing. What interests me most, though, is which version of the 2017 Titans we end up seeing on the field on Sundays (and, for the first time in a few years, also Monday night). This is a question not just of where exactly among the range of outcomes the Titans fare, but also exactly which of the possible versions of the 2017 Titans the coaching staff will make it a priority to deploy in games. There are serious questions of fundamental identity for both the offense and the defense for which we do not have good answers. I will address each side of the ball in turn.

Offense
Adding wide receivers Corey Davis and Taywan Taylor in the first and third rounds of this year’s NFL draft, plus Marcus Mariota’s experience in a spread at Oregon, has led some people to believe that the Titans will look more like a “normal” NFL offense and less like the “Exotic Smashmouth” that in 2016 ranked last in their usage of three or more receivers and last in percentage of passes called when leading in the second half (to pick two stats from the tables in my Titans chapter in Football Outsiders Almanac 2017, still available in PDF and dead tree). I am not and have never been one of those people. We may see somewhat more three receiver sets, and slightly fewer runs, but for Mariota’s passing attempts to take a big jump like former Mike Mularkey pupil Matt Ryan’s did in his third season will require at least one of (a) the Titans’ run game or (b) their defense to significantly decline, putting the Titans in more passing situations-third-and-longs and down more than a score and with fewer leads. Could happen, but I doubt it.

The big question for me is how effective the Titans will be in those multiple tight end sets they used 55% of the time on first and second downs in the first 28 minutes of games last year, and specifically how they will respond to the loss of blocking tight end Anthony Fasano. Fasano was a key player for the 2016 Titans, playing 535 snaps even though he was a non-factor in the passing game (17 targets). This preseason, the second tight end with Delanie Walker has been rookie third-round pick Jonnu Smith. Game four of the preseason normally tells us little, but one play said a lot to me, crystallizing the Titans’ dilemma. Smith was lined up as an in-line player on a run to that side. He met Kevin Pierre-Louis at the point of attack, and KPL (a weakside linebacker listed at 230 pounds who failed to find a significant role on defense his first three seasons with Seattle) met Smith and defeated him, forcing running back David Fluellen to bounce. That cannot happen regularly if the Titans are to be successful doing what they did last year, and if asked to be the in-line player, Smith would have to face many players much harder to block than KPL.

So, Delanie Walker’s not that guy. Jonnu Smith’s not that guy. Those are the top two tight ends, and neither of them can fill a fundamental role in how the Titans played in base offensive sets last year. The Titans have a decision to make-they can ask somebody else to do that, who doesn’t present the same threat as a receiver that Smith and Walker do, or they can go without that role. If they decide to play another player, then there are two obvious options. First, they could ask the third tight end, Phillip Supernaw, to do that. He played with Fasano in some 2-TE sets last year and while he wouldn’t be as good as Fasano, he likely would be better than Smith. Second, lots of six offensive linemen, particularly Dennis Kelly. The Week 1 opponent Raiders provided a model of what this could look like. Their fine blocking tight end Lee Smith was injured early last season, and Oakland responded by giving basically all of his snaps to an extra offensive linemen. That’s one thing as an in-season adjustment, though, and another thing to go into the season with that as their primary plan and without an apparent backup. Like Supernaw as the Fasano replacement, this is something I would have expected to see in the preseason if it was going to be common.

The outside answer is “play more three receiver sets.” This is a bad answer. Walker often played in-line in 11 personnel, but he normally goes out for a pass route there. He’s a fine blocker for what he is, but he’s undersized for a tight end, only 6’0″, and cannot control edge players at the point of attack the way Fasano did, and the problems with the other potential solutions I went through remain.

The other potential answer is “play without an in-line tight end.” This is also problematic for a couple reasons. First, you need an eligible receiver on both ends of the line of scrimmage. The X receiver (likely Davis for as many snaps as he can play) is one of them, but the problem is at the other end of the line. Mularkey’s offense uses plenty of presnap motion with the Z receiver, to get the defense flowing one way and to set up blocking angles in the run game. That’s out if he has to stay on the line of scrimmage and cover up the offensive tackle. Second, not having an in-line tight end takes away a gap at the line of scrimmage the defense must account for, which means more defensive players are free to flow to the ball. It’s possible to get 2 off-ball defenders flowing the wrong way and get big gains that way. It’s harder to get 3 defenders flowing the wrong way. Third, those same defenders are still out on the field. Aligning, say, Smith and Walker as wing players and H-backs, may give them better angles against bigger edge players, but they’ll still have to sometimes block bigger edge players. Better matchups for Tennessee, perhaps, but still not great ones. Fourth, part of the run game playbook from last year’s extremely successful offense will have to go. It wouldn’t surprise me if Mularkey and offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie spent much of their time revamping the offense this offseason on just this plan, but it would have been a lot easier to get a better blocker so you could keep doing what you already do well and build off that.

Another outside answer is “play more three receiver sets, by which we mean change the offense.” Another potential path for the Titans this offseason would have been to do more on improving the wide receivers and transitioning from their base offense last year, with its condensed formations, multiple tight end looks, and run orientation, to something that looks more like what Mariota played in at Oregon (and where most of the rest of the NFL is, at least to a greater degree). There have been no indications the Titans are actually planning to do this. We saw more of those same condensed formations and multiple tight end looks in the preseason, and all the insider chatter, from May when that sort of chatter started onward, has suggested more of the same.

So what the heck do I think the Titans are going to do? I’m not confident in my answer, which is why I just wrote all the above. What makes the most sense to me, given Fasano’s limited role in the passing game, is plenty of 6OL sets, but we’ll probably see at least a little bit of all of the above.

Defense
The Titans finished last year 27th in pass defense DVOA. They remade their secondary this offseason, with free agent acquisitions Logan Ryan and Johnathan Cyprien starting at corner and safety, Kevin Byard stepping into a bigger role at safety, and LeShaun Sims, who finished fifth among corners in snaps, starting at the other safety spot (though not in Week 1 against Oakland because of injury).

The questions here revolve around how the Titans ended up playing defense much of last season. They ranked first in the NFL in percentage of 5-man rushes in all situations, and had more plays in sub package defense (at least 5 DBs) where they rushed 5 players than any other team in the NFL. Behind those frequent 5-man rushes, the Titans played a lot of cover-1 looks, with a single high safety and man coverage on the eligible receivers. Their cornerbacks, particularly outside corners Perrish Cox and Jason McCourty, could not hold up in coverage. Should we expect better from this year’s group?

Ryan’s the big added name. He’s a fine player, general manager Jon Robinson is very familiar with him, and New England played plenty of man coverage. I have two specific strong concerns about his fit in Nashville, though. First, what the Titans were to 5-man rushes, New England was to 3-man rushes. Combined with man coverage, this given Bill Belichick and company the ability to double potentially multiple players on the opposing defense. Depending on the matchup, his teammates could give Ryan much more help in Foxborough than he will receive with the Titans unless they completely change how they play defense. Second, in the highest and best version we saw of New England’s defense last year, in sub packages, Ryan played slot, not on the outside. The Titans return last year’s slot corner, Brice McCain. McCain led the position group in snaps and was, if only by default, the group’s best player. If Ryan does play slot in sub packages, the Titans will still need two outside corners, and the other options are even more questionable.

McCain is a useful slot corner. We’ve seen him play outside corner before, and the results were sub-optimal. Sims won the other starting job; he had a solid last four games after a rough first outing against Chicago, but going from a couple hundred snaps to key starter is a big jump. Eventually Adoree’ Jackson will be a starter, but it would take a particularly strong performance in Week 1 to keep permanently a job he’ll likely have earned by injury; I’m skeptical of all rookie corners, he’s undersized so NFL receivers will look to body him early (and this happened some at USC last year), and his first look against NFL starters in Preseason Week 3 against Chicago wasn’t impressive. The Titans have suggested they’re even more skeptical of other potential answers.

The other significant question about the sub package defense is who plays the single high position if the Titans continue to play as much Cover-1. The obvious answer is Kevin Byard, who did well there in college. Cyprien is equally obvious as a non-answer for that role if you watched him play in Jacksonville. But Byard was nearly as obvious an answer last year, when he was deployed largely as a cover player, likely due to his athleticism and ability to match up in man coverage, while Da’Norris Searcy played the deep safety role. Searcy is back, so the Titans could do something similar again, but we just don’t know.

One potential answer for these problems is to not rush 5 as often, so the Titans have an extra defender to devote to coverage help, whether in a shift to two-high, as a robber, to double a dangerous opponent, or some mix and matching among those and other possibilities. The problem with that last year is the Titans could not get home with just four players, ranking in the bottom five in the league in pressure rate in those situations.

It’s hard to see Dick LeBeau shifting from a pressure-oriented coordinator to Belichick’s coverage-oriented schemes, so my question about the defense revolve more around how the defensive question marks play than the offensive questions about scheme and deployment. How well, then, do I expect this to work? The top three pass rushers are all veterans, and I don’t see much reason to expect notable internal improvement there. The best case scenario is probably something like we saw in 2015, where the top three work just well enough that the Titans come out around average in pass defense as long as none of the top three gets hurt. The downside is the Titans defense against the pass is as bad or worse than it was last year.

Conclusion-Type Thoughts

I don’t really know how the Titans are going to play offense in base personnel. I don’t trust the Titans to play well in pass defense. Fortunately, they’re in the AFC South, where all you have to do to go 9-7 in to stop shooting yourself in the foot without then starting to bang your head into a brick well. These questions, while I believe they’re significant, are nowhere near as problematic as the obvious potential problems in 2014 and 2015 that caused the Titans to go 5-27 and end up with the second and first overall picks. 9-7 and a playoff berth, ho!

Bonus Fantasy Appendix

Mike Mularkey has spent his entire career as a head coach and offensive coordinator (except when he was running Scott Linehan’s offense in Miami in 2006 or adapting Ken Whisenhunt’s offense as an interim coach in 2015) throwing the ball to no more than three players in the pass game. But I’m a bit more skeptical of Corey Davis because of how much time he’s missed with injury and expect him to be eased into the lineup. If he recovers reasonably quickly, then I’d expect him to end up with 45 or so catches and Eric Decker in the 25-30 catch range. Right now, I’d be staying with the heck away from each player in non-daily fantasy, and would also not touch Jonnu Smith (Mularkey offense TE2 has never hit 20 catches in a season).

DeMarco Murray’s rushing numbers last season were inflated by a very easy schedule of opposing run defenses. This is probably the best reason to expect the Titans to have to throw the ball more, though I expect this to be only a modest effect (remember, they were already a bottom six pass defense last year, and my likely scenario for them is around that mark, not 2015 Saints). Derrick Henry’s fantasy upside remains entirely focused on injury; a more sensible workload management for Murray gives him 8-10 carries a game instead of the 1-4 he got some games last year. But I’m thinking 10-15 more (team) pass attempts, not 50 or more, and improvement at wide receiver should by better efficiency offset any increase created by fewer favorable down-and-distance situations.

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Written by Tom Gower

September 10, 2017 at 01:15

Posted in Tennessee Titans

Tennessee Titans 2017 Roster Prediction as Training Camp Opens

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

For the past dozen 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. I may have abandoned blogging regularly about the team, but this is an interesting enough exercise to keep me at it.

The intro, largely cribbed from past attempts 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 45 of the 53 players who would be on the roster Week 1. Subsequent personnel moves explained some of the misses, as four of the players were not on the roster when camp opened, while getting the positional mix wrong explains some of the others (3 QB and 6 DL instead of my prediction 2 QB and 7 DL, for example). But I also flubbed a couple depth chart orderings that look bad in hindsight. So, here’s a chance to do better.

So, here’s what the positional mix looked like for Week 1 last year:

QB: 3
RB/FB: 4
WR: 6
TE: 4
OL: 9
DL: 6
LB: 9
DB: 9
ST: 3

The Titans still have the same head coach and coordinators, so this might be a useful guide for what they’ll do this year. In putting together this roster prediction, I relied a great deal on what players the Titans suited up for games last year. I think that gives us an extremely useful guide for the 46-man active roster, but the other 7 players remain a hodgepodge. They could credibly keep a third QB (not active on gameday) over a ninth offensive lineman (not active on gameday) or vice versa, and the only thing I can do from my couch is try to guess along with them.

QB (3): Matt Cassel, Marcus Mariota, Alex Tanney
Analysis: Two or three? If it’s two, Casssel or Tanney? My guess would be Cassel. The Titans have hit a point with Tanney where figuring out his role bothers me. As noted above, I didn’t expect them to keep three last year (though Tanney would spend most of the season on the practice squad). This is one of those variable roster spots, and there’s no way I would feel too comfortable with any prediction.

RB/FB (4): Jalston Fowler (FB), Derrick Henry, Khalfani Muhammad, DeMarco Murray
Analysis: Three chalk names, and Muhammad provides enough of a change-up and the ability to play special teams my guess is he’s in much better shape to make the team than most seventh-round picks as long as he keeps up his end of the bargain in training camp. David Fluellen is RB3/4, but I see him more as Henry/Murray insurance and to give the rest of the team similar looks. If they keep a different third RB not for injury reasons, my guess is that player is not on the roster right now.

WR (6): Corey Davis (unsigned), Eric Decker, Rishard Matthews, Tajae Sharpe, Taywan Taylor, Eric Weems
Analysis: I feel pretty good about Davis, Decker, Matthews, and Taylor as the four receivers who dress weekly and play on offense. The other two spots are up in the air. Sharpe only played one position last year and doesn’t play special teams, so even as the predicted inactive they could prefer Harry Douglas over him. But Decker fits the same role as Douglas and is up weekly, so I don’t see them with a need for that role. Weems will depend on how comfortable the Titans are with other returners, both kick and punt, and a numbers game for the special teams positions he plays. He could potentially be competing with, say, Demontre Hurst for a spot on the 46/53.

TE (3): Jonnu Smith, Phillip Supernaw, Delanie Walker
Analysis: Three good names, but is there a space for a fourth, and is that player potentially on the roster? I think the Titans would probably like to have a mini-tackle. Unless Supernaw is a much better blocker, I doubt they see one on the current roster. Then, it’s the waiver wire or trade, playing 6OL, or changing the offense. My current favorite is plenty of 6OL sets. With the addition of Smith, I don’t see any potential role for Jace Amaro.

OL (8): Jack Conklin, Ben Jones, Dennis Kelly, Josh Kline, Tim Lelito, Corey Levin, Taylor Lewan, Quinton Spain
Analysis: Six chalk names in Conklin, Jones, Kelly, Lelito, Lewan, and Spain, then the two wild cards. With a good offseason, Sebastian Tretola could have maybe challenged Kline at right guard, but he had a bad one. My guess is they stick with Kline at right guard, but if he loses his starting spot, is there a need to keep him around as a regular backup? My guess is Josue Matias is also on the “starter or out” train. Kelly and Lelito are your gameday backups, and both have 6OL experience. Levin gets the iOL inactive spot, and I did not choose to make room for Brad Season as OL9.

DL (6): Mehdi Abdesmad, Jurrell Casey, Austin Johnson, DaQuan Jones, Karl Klug, Sylvester Williams
Analysis: Gameday actives: Casey, Johnson, Jones, Klug, Williams. Then it’s a matter of what they want for the backup. If they want a pure NT, Antwan Woods is the favorite. A vet, Angelo Blackson. Something else, somebody else. The biggest risk I see is Klug’s return to form after his Achilles injury, but I’m not fully confident in which player they would keep if they’re concerned about him.

LB (10): Daren Bates, Jayon Brown, Kevin Dodd, Derrick Morgan, Brian Orakpo, Nate Palmer, Erik Walden, Aaron Wallace, Avery Williamson, Wesley Woodyard
Analysis: Grouping inside linebackers and outside linebackers together is bad practice, but I did it anyway.

Outside linebackers: they’re in a rough spot with Dodd, counting on him but not comfortable with it. But I think with three guys for defensive purposes he’s number three with maybe Wallace and Palmer as primarily special teams players who are active. Or maybe they keep Walden up over Wallace. But I think all those guys make the team.

Inside linebackers: Brown, Williamson, and Woodyard play on defense. Bates is up for special teams purposes. I came up with a flex active spot and had Palmer penciled in there for his positional versatility and special teams value. That they re-signed him early in free agency means they like him, right?

DB (10): Kevin Byard, Johnathan Cyprien, Demontre Hurst, Adoree Jackson, Brice McCain, Logan Ryan, Da’Norris Searcy, LeShaun Sims, D’Joun Smith, Brynden Trawick
Analysis: Grouping together corners and safeties is also bad practice, but I did that anyway too.

Four good names at safety in Byard, Cyprien, Searcy, and Trawick. I don’t see a fifth.

Four names at corner I think are good in Jackson, McCain, Ryan, and Sims. Hurst is this year’s Valentino Blake, a veteran who can play special teams and be trusted not to screw up too badly as long as you don’t ask him to cover good players or often. LeBeau often keeps a lot of defensive backs, so I gave them D’Joun Smith as an extra corner. But that could easily be Kalan Reed or somebody else.

ST (3): Beau Brinkly, Brett Kern, Ryan Succop
Analysis; Chalk, chalk, chalk. The open questions are at returner, and those affect other positions.

Where will I be wrong?
1. I kept 24 offensive players and 26 defensive players. That’s the same as my roster projection last year, but the Titans actually kept 26 offensive players and 24 defensive players for Week 1.
2. Special teams roles are a mess. I don’t have a well-formulated idea of what they’re looking for at each position, so I may have too many R4/5 and not enough R2/3. Or vice versa.
3. They’ll inevitably make a roster move or two, like the ones they made last year and the year before.
4. I’m too used to no undrafted free agents making the team, so I do not project them to make it barring overwhelming evidence to the contrary. They could easily keep a player below my radar over, say, Tajae Sharpe.
5. The late sixth and seventh rounds are basically UDFA-plus, so it’s a mistake to prioritize those players over other ones.
6. Offensive line, defensive line, and corner stand out as positions where marginal players make the most improvement out of sight. I haven’t even listened to, say, Mike Mularkey’s press conference when players reported yesterday, so I easily be wrong at those positions in particular.
7. Injuries. One year I believe I got 46 (of 54) right, but seven of my misses were because players were placed on injured reserve after the start of camp.
8. I’m a guy who sits on his couch in Illinois and makes stuff up. People who talk to people who work inside St. Thomas Sports Park may know important things I do not. I also do not think like Jon Robinson and Mike Mularkey, but they’re the ones in charge of this project, so I try to think like I think they might think, and without that “talking to people” check, so I end up going on quixotic crusades no matter how much I try not to. Thus, getting 48 of 53 right is a performance I would be happy with given all the other stuff.

Written by Tom Gower

July 29, 2017 at 10:01

Posted in Tennessee Titans

What I’ve Been Reading (Football and Not)

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I pretended like I was going to keep up with quarterly reviews. But I put off doing one for the first quarter of 2017, hoping I’d read things I wanted to talk about more in April, then didn’t get that reading done then. Fortunately, May gave me some things to talk about, if only I could figure out how I wanted to talk about them. I then wrote a draft of this post, only to decide it was way, way more 2017 than I wanted to publish. I re-wrote it, and it went from way, way too 2017 to simply way too 2017. Back to the drawing board again, and here you go.

Fiction

So, what have I read? An awful lot of genre fiction, with months devoted to binge-reading. February: the mystery novels of Robert Crais. The early ones hew to the formula, the later ones suggest Crais got bored with writing the same book around the time I got bored with reading the same book. May: fantasy novelist Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings novels, particularly re-reading Farseer and Tawny Man in preparation for the recently-concluded Fitz and the Fool (it’s fantasy, so those are trilogies).

Non-genre fiction, or that which might be of interest to non-genre readers? As a historical novel, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall avoids the typical literary fiction complaint of nothing happening. Protagonist Thomas Cromwell had a bad historical reputation, but political fixer was an especially important job in a pre-modern state. Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology reminded me of the virtues of a ratiocinative mechanistic universe over a polytheistic pantheon. Also, some of my read of it overlapped with my Hobb re-read, and the Norse gods had comparatively no depth. I also re-read Pride and Prejudice in preparation for watching the acclaimed BBC mini-series (still haven’t done that), and enjoyed it nearly as much as I did the first time. Question for Austen-ites: what would a 21st century Mr. Bennet be doing to fill his days?

Football

I did read a couple of books about football. Jeff Pearlman’s Gunslinger covered Brett Favre more comprehensively and in a more satisfying way than the Football Life episode on him did.

On Howard Mudd’s View from the O-Line, I refer you to Ben Muth’s review at Football Outsiders. I found it more satisfying than just a clip show, but not as good as a really good oral history.

Jerry Barca’s Big Blue Wrecking Crew, about the 1986 New York Giants, remembered one thing I like to emphasize and re-emphasize to myself: what happened in the games is what was in some sense really real. What we are doing as writers, him there and me now as I write about the Jaguars and Titans for Football Outsiders Almanac 2017 (forthcoming in July), is condensing, expressing, and rendering stories about what happened there. Yes, it’s much harder to focus strictly on game action for a book like Pearlman’s, but that should always be the focus unless there’s a compelling reason for it not to be. Barca’s work doesn’t transcend the genre, but is a fine exemplar of it.

I also finished Bill Connelly’s The 50 Best* College Football Teams of All Time, which worked perfectly as a lunchtime read, where I could bite off a chapter or three at a time over a long period of time.

Non-Football Non-Fiction

Ben Macintyre’s Rogue Heroes on the SAS during World War II is strongest on the SAS in the desert, when David Stirling was getting going. The more back-and-forth campaign, and the problems of starting up a new unit, lets the SAS be more interesting than it was in Europe, especially France after D-Day.

I really enjoyed Phil Knight’s Shoe Dog and The Hard Thing about Hard Things by Ben Horowitz when I read them; people who, like them and unlike me, actually run things and really manage other people should also enjoy them and will find them of more lasting value than I did.

Angus Deaton’s The Great Escape is a great book on how life, as a whole, has improved for most people. I noted on Twitter one of the more surprising things; that in Britain in the 19th century, life expectancy was greater at age 15 than it was at birth. Childhood mortality was an extremely serious problem not that long ago, even in the most advanced countries. Not as a breezy as your standard pop econ book, but still extremely accessible and not political.

I previously noted Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World; he returned to the Mongol world with Genghis Khan and the Quest for God. The thing about this is how … ecumenical the Mongols were. The Romans considered themselves pretty expansive and accommodating to other religions, letting other people keep their gods as long as they put the Roman gods above them. Obviously, this turned out to be an occasional issue with the Abrahamic religions (I refer here, obviously, to the “classic” broader Roman regime, not the later empire post-Constantine). The Mongols were apparently content to just exist at the top of the power structure and let the locals keep their silly religions as long as it didn’t pose the Mongols any problems.

Speaking of the Romans, there are some really good passages in Adrian Goldsworthy’s Pax Romana about what the Roman empire enabled due to its large geographic area of control. Getting to them requires processing a lot of material. Was it worth it? I think so, but I cannot recommend this more broadly.

In Mark Kurlansky’s Cod, he refers to some shooting between U.S. and Canadian ships in a 1970’s fight over fishing grounds as the first U.S.-Canadian shots since the French and Indian War. This neglects such minor details as the War of 1812 when THE UNITED STATES INVADED CANADA AND BURNED ITS CAPITAL CITY OF YORK (Toronto). It also neglects a minor detail such as the American Revolution when THE UNITED STATES ALSO INVADED CANADA, CAPTURED MONTREAL, AND BESIEGED QUEBEC. I only got to this point in the book because I was sufficiently amused by his previous insane claims and wanted to see what nutty thing he’d claim next. Recommended to those who delight in finding absurd claims in works of “non-fiction” and those in need of kindling.

I found South Park‘s explication of time travel more satisfying than that James Gleick offered in Time Travel. Anti-recommended.

My favorite non-fiction read to date has been Dreamland by Sam Quinones, a great and fascinating look at the opioid crisis, pill mills, and the transition to heroin delivery. More interesting on the economics of that drug cartel than Narconomics, and there’s a lot more to it than that. Very much worth a longer consideration in a different project.

Fine, the world of 2017. An Extraordinary Time by Marc Levinson gets a spot on the syllabus. Tyler Cowen’s The Complacent Class does as well, though not as big a one. Tom Nichols’ The Death of Expertise is fine for what it is, but gets listed under further reading. Dan Drezner’s The Ideas Industry I found better grounded and probably gets a space on the (entirely hypothetical) syllabus. I did not experience any of the four as a political book, though each obviously touches on some areas subject to intense partisan disagreement.

It probably says something about me and where I am as a sports fan that what I wanted more out of Jonathan Abrams’ Boys Among Men, on the NBA’s preps to pro era, was an in-depth look at just how aging curves worked for generally younger teenagers entering the NBA directly from high school compared to older college students. The NBA obviously has a logic all its own, in what it takes to win a championship and clearly that’s reflected in the draft itself.

Things to Read

Success: I finished off every physical book I ordered from Amazon in 2016. Still plenty of books from years prior to then to read, and a half dozen books from this year are on the “owned and unread” list. I’ll discuss most of those if and when I read them, but will note in progress right now is Jared Rubin’s Rulers, Religion & Riches. The unread list still includes, among other titles, Peter Wilson’s The Thirty Years War, Andrew Roberts’ Napoleon, Ron Chernow’s Washington (though my younger niece was happy to listen to some of it on a recent vacation after I finished off Berenstain Bears No Girls Allowed), and, yes, War and Peace. You should still read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (paperback down to just $8.95) if you have not yet done so, and, of course, de gustibus non est disputandum.

Written by Tom Gower

June 27, 2017 at 22:13

Tennessee Titans 2017 Draft Preview by Position

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The latest in a series of occasional posts about the Tennessee Titans, posted here because I no longer maintain a separate Titans blog. “What I’ve been reading” coming after the end of April.

One of the staples of my pre-draft coverage for years has been a draft preview by position, including probabilities of selecting a player at each position. Especially because this will be my only pre-draft post, I will also note players the Titans have been linked to with a reported visit or private workout (via Titans Report compilation).

Mandatory mention for this post: the Titans currently hold 8 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 7.0. 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 7.0, the probabilities all look too high. I know, 7.0 is still short of 8, but (a) it wouldn’t surprise me to see the Titans end up making seven selections by making a trade or two, 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 Kalan Reed last year) or picking a non-need slot (the David Howard pick a few years ago). If things go 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.

I should note that, as much as I can, this post attempts to describe what the Titans might think based on how I think the Titans might think. Jon Robinson and Mike Mularkey will be setting the direction and making the decisions for the team, so I try to think how they would think. What I would do if I ran the Titans is (a) in some cases quite different and (b) completely irrelevant in terms of predicting what the Titans will do.

Quarterback
Need at position: Low
Analysis: Marcus Mariota is the starter. Matt Cassel is the trusted veteran backup. Alex Tanney is the third quarterback. What you may think of Cassel as a backup is irrelevant; the Titans seem to value him a lot, so he will be there. Though Tanney was on the roster Week 1 last year, I do not believe the Titans will look to keep a third quarterback. I will interpret any early quarterback pick as a sign that Mariota’s injury may be much more severe than we believe it to be. Possible late, but I doubt it.
Draft probability: 10%
Linked players: Josh Dobbs

Running Back
Need at position: Moderate-low
Analysis: The Titans did not tender RFA RB3 Antonio Andrews, and did not add a veteran, so they may have a need at the position. But last year they kept DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry and cut Dexter McCluster, and Andrews had almost no role on offense (9 snaps). That surprised me because Mike Mularkey had had a pass game back/satellite player on his team. They could look to add one of those, a more all-around back, or a grinder. Or just roll with Murray, Henry, and maybe dive into the UDFA market and perhaps not even keep a third RB. I think they’ll draft a back, but I do not see it as a priority.
Draft probability: 60%
Linked players: Kareem Hunt, Marlon Mack

Wide Receiver
Need at position: High
Analysis: The Titans’ top four at wide receiver is currently Rishard Matthews, Tajae Sharpe, and Harry Douglas. The more perspicacious of you will note that list has three names on it. Yes, the Titans do currently have more than three receivers on the roster, but that’s the way I think they think of it. I went in depth on the Titans and their potential needs at receiver in February. Since then, they lost who I thought they would lose and have not added anybody, so what I wrote there is still largely true. The Titans could, and probably will, look to draft two receivers: an X to replace Sharpe, probably early, and a slot-type, probably in the middle rounds. I am not as convinced as other people seem to be that plus speed will be a priority, which in practical terms means I think Mike Williams at #5 is much more likely than other people think.
Draft probability: 100% of one, 60% of a second
Linked players: Kendrick Bourne, B.J. Bunn, Corey Davis, Chris Godwin, Zay Jones, John Ross, Da’Morea Stringfellow, Noel Thomas, Mike Williams, DeAngelo Yancey

Tight End
Need at position: High
Analysis: I also covered tight ends in that February post, including why I did not believe (and still do not believe) the Titans are likely to be interested in spending a high pick on either O.J. Howard or David Njoku. But they did lose Anthony Fasano, so the primary blocking tight end role is still open. Phillip Supernaw could help fill that void, as could playing an extra offensive lineman like Dennis Kelly or Tim Lelito. With this year regarded as one of the best tight end classes in history, however, the Titans are nearly certain to draft a tight end. I expect a competent in-line blocker in the middle rounds.
Draft probability: 99%
Linked players: O.J. Howard, David Njoku, Adam Shaheen, Jonnu Smith

Offensive Tackle
Need at position: Low
Analysis: Set at starter with two young players in Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin. Set at backup with Dennis Kelly. Mularkey has carried nine offensive linemen before, and I feel like developmental tackles the way other people feel about developmental quarterbacks, so it could happen. But probably not, not with this tackle class, and not with seemingly everybody else looking for a starter.
Draft probability: 10%
Linked players: Corey Levin, Brad Seaton, Darrell Williams

Offensive Guard/Center
Need at position: Moderate
Analysis: The Titans are set at center with Ben Jones and at gameday swing backup with Lelito. Quinton Spain should hold down one guard spot. Josh Kline returns at the other one, and Sebastian Tretola could challenge him. But Kline was a waiver wire pickup, and Tretola is a sixth-round pick who played 3 snaps. We do not really know just how much the Titans like either player. And they’re keeping 5 interior players, likely, so they could add competition for those two. I’m not sure how their need for an immediate starter fits with the weakness of this line class, though. If Forrest Lamp at #18 is the only hope for a 2017 upgrade on Kline/Tretola barring The Magical Trade-Back Fairy giving them a second-round pick, then they may not draft one at all.
Draft probability: 50%
Linked players: Jordan Morgan, Chase Roullier

Defensive Line
Need at position: Low
Analysis: The Titans regularly dress five defensive linemen. They have on their roster Jurrell Casey (paid a lot, very good), DaQuan Jones (played a lot in 2016, generally well regarded for what he is), Sylvester Williams (whom they signed to a bigger contract than I thought he’d get in free agency), Karl Klug (re-signed early in free agency notwithstanding an injury that may leave him on the shelf until training camp), and Austin Johnson (second-round pick last year). That does not include Angelo Blackson (fourth-round pick a couple years ago), or Anquan Woods or Mehdi Abdesmad (UDFA they liked last year, who spent most of the season on the practice squad and were signed late on the roster). I do not believe the Titans will draft a defensive lineman at all unless they see him as an exceptional value relative to the draft slot and a clear upgrade on a player they have.
Draft probability: 10%
Linked players: Jonathan Allen, Davion Belk, Rod Henderson, Grover Stewart

Outside Linebacker
Need at position: Moderate-low?
Analysis: They’re set at starter with Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan. The questions I have are behind them. To create a decent rotation, you need backups to play 550 spots. Pencil in Aaron Wallace for 10 snaps a game, so are they comfortable counting on Kevin Dodd for 400 snaps, more if Morgan or Orakpo is on the shelf again? I would not be, but nor would I have taken Dodd anywhere close to where the Titans did. Their interest in Erik Walden suggests they may not be absolutely comfortable, especially given Mularkey mentioned at the pre-draft presser Dodd was still not completely healthy, and I still believe this is a position they could look to add a player, even with a high pick. As I’ve considered things more, though, I’ve come to see this as a less of a priority and more of a like to draft, if the right player is there at the right value.
Draft probability: 60%
Linked players: Derek Barnett, Keionta Davis (DL?), Charles Harris, Steven Rhodes

Inside Linebacker
Need at position: Moderate-high
Analysis: Pretty simple here. Sean Spence played a lot in coverage situations for the Titans in 2016. The Titans did not re-sign Sean Spence. There is no replacement for him on the roster. The Titans are therefore very likely interested in adding a cover linebacker in the draft, and potentially interested in adding a three-down linebacker if there is one available they like. I can’t see it happening at #5, but a possibility for any subsequent pick. But they could probably get by with Avery Williamson, Wesley Woodyard, and some Big Nickel and dime if they had to.
Draft probability: 82%
Linked players: Jordan Evans, Reuben Foster, Haason Reddick, Jaylon Reeves-Maybin, Duke Riley

Cornerback
Need at position: High
Analysis: The Titans are drafting at least one cornerback, and could draft more than one like they did last year. The biggest question is, just how high? I keep going back to that Dick LeBeau has been a defensive coordinator or head coach in the NFL more than 25 years, and his teams have never, ever, not once spent a first-round pick on a cornerback, and I’ll keep repeating that until I see somebody I haven’t talked to mention that. I cannot completely rule it out in the first round, after the Titans played so much man coverage last year, but with the depth of the class I see it as likely a third-round priority.
Draft probability: 99%
Linked players: Jamal Agnew, Chidobe Awuzie, Gareon Conley, Jeremy Cutrer, Corn Elder, Randall Goforth, Adoree Jackson, Marshon Lattimore, Obi Melifonwu (S?), Cam Sutton

Safety
Need at position: Moderate-low?
Analysis: At safety, the Titans have (a) Kevin Byard, about whom they have said nothing but good things since drafting him in the third round last year, (b) Johnathan Cyprien, whom they gave a big free agent contract to this offseason, (c) Da’Norris Searcy, a natural SS who played some single high last year and therefore could easily fill in as either Byard or Cyprien’s backup, and (d) Brynden Trawick, a special teams player whose work on defense GM Jon Robinson praised after signing him this offseason. Against this, you have (1) months of Jamal Adams being mocked to the Titans at #5, both before and after Cyprien’s signing, and (2) Mike Mularkey’s comment in March about the Titans liking their safety rotation. It’s a good safety class, so it could happen. But I don’t see it as nearly as likely or as much of a priority for them as most draftniks and fans seem to think it is.
Draft probability: 60%
Linked players: Jamal Adams (maybe), Josh Jones, Leon McQuay

Some Macro-Level Thoughts
I inadvertently gave my best summary of the Titans’ approach to the draft last year in a single tweet noting their 2016 needs. My top need was OT; their first pick was OT. My second need was OLB; their second pick was OLB. By third need was DL; their third pick was DL. I grouped needs 4-6 together (S, RB, CB); those ended up being their 5th, 4th, and 7th picks. WR would have been my seventh need, had I listed one; it was their sixth pick. Based on one year of data, the Titans appear to be an extremely needs-focused drafting team. Applying this same rubric to 2017, where’s what it suggests:

A. WR will be a first-round pick;
B. CB is a strong contender for a first-round pick; and
C. TE is a bit tricky-a strong need, but their need is for a blocker rather than a receiver or all-around player, which means it is does not need to be a first-round priority.

Whether they take G, ILB, S, RB, OLB, or second WR, and in what order, will likely be a function of board and value rather than based on need priority. This is not to say the Titans cannot prioritize different things than I think they prioritize and select a player I do not see as a priority need with a high pick, like a Jonathan Allen or Jamal Adams at #5. As noted above, I am trying to think like I think J-Rob and Mularkey think, but I only know or can guess so much about what they believe, and they may believe things I do not know, think, or guess they believe. Any pick at #5 other than a WR will tell us something, but my guess is the real answers we get from Tennessee start at #18.

Written by Tom Gower

April 25, 2017 at 14:30

Posted in Tennessee Titans

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