Friday, November 27, 2009

Turkey Day

I’m in a good mood due to some stimulating conversations I’ve had over the past few days.

Thinking about the Packers Offense

I had an online chat with a guy named Oppy on the CheeseheadTV live blog during the Packers-Lions game today. Last week or the week before, Oppy mentioned that Rodgers is McCarthy’s “shiny new sports car, he wants to show it off.” As a result he tends to solve most of his problems by using the quarterback.

This makes a lot of sense to me, this notion that McCarthy is basically a QB coach and thinks like a QB coach. Oppy also critiqued my notion that the O-Line was ignored, “I don't think the o-line has been ignored.. Just over-estimated. O linemen have been taken en mass through the draft for years. They just haven't panned out much. Spitz and Sitton look to be the best of them, but Spitz's future is uncertain at this point.”

I like that. Clearly management feels that they’re focused on the O-Line. It’s just they think that they can coach Alex Gibbs’ zone-blocking system. They can’t. I strongly want to critique this notion of McCarthy being an offensive genius. I think he’s a quarterbacking genius. But ultimately he’s too biased toward the position of the quarterback in most of his analyses.

Oppy asked, “I still don't get why on 4th down attempts or 3rd and Goal McCarthy seems to refuse to use sets that at least make defenses acknowledge it might be a run. I mean, if you want to pass it, that's fine.. But would it kill you to pass it out of a formation with a RB and maybe even a FB in the backfield?”

I said back, “Oppy, I almost get the impression that McCarthy just doesn't trust running as a concept. It's like he thinks, ‘On third and long, of course you throw. No one would rush, so why fake it?’”

He said back, “Cup, I'm not even talking about 3rd and long situations. I'm talking about 3rd and goal.. 4th and 2.. At least make the defense THINK you MIGHT run it. But when you go empty backfield, you're telegraphing ‘Just rush the passer or cover’”

I thought for a bit, but realized it didn’t change my answer. “Oppy, I still think that line of reasoning can be expanded. McCarthy is biased toward passing. Whenever tension is high, he passes. He grafts that bias onto the defense. He thinks, ‘This is a crucial play, we can't run it. The defense knows that.’ He likes passing and grafts that bias onto the defense, so he doesn't try to trick them, thinking it won't work. That's my theory, anyway.”

The Packers play book, according to Aaron Rodgers, is roughly 250 pass plays and 100 run plays. Is it any wonder that he passes way too often? It feels more than 75 percent of the time, but I don’t know the numbers. But even going by a random distribution of the plays, he’d be passing at least 75 percent of the time. Call me old fashioned, but I think that’s crazy. He may be a genius QB coach, but he’s not a genius offensive coach and he’s no head coach. He’s trained Rodgers. He’s done the best he can do. I don’t think he’s a strategist.

Thinking about the Damned Dissertation

I had a talk with Steve Hanson, which very often has a mind-clearing effect for me. He drove home a clear point. “Talal, you should be an unabashed supporter of qualitative methods.” Ellis has also told me to be myself and stop sounding “like you through a Poli Sci echo chamber.” Steve pointed out that all this work was worth it because it has prepared me to go up against the KKV types and that was what I needed to get out of the methods courses. So I guess, in the end, you come up against yourself.

Steve also gave me a minimum for my causal argument. It has to be reasonably falsifiable. That’s the boundary. I can work with that. For the first time I feel like this is a football game I could win. My goal is a theory chapter by Week 1 of next term.

I’m actually pumped about writing.

I Need to Stop Selling Myself Short

I’ve lost a lot of respect for myself because of the illness. I’ve come to believe that I can’t fight, that I don’t have it in me to fight. Maybe I’ve sat in too many seminars in the Pacific Northwest. When I went to Palestine, when I saw that wall in Jericho, I realized that was wrong. There’s fight left in this sclerotic carcass after all. I want to go back.

I will not fear—fear is the mind killer.
Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Reading Up on Packers O-Line

The Packers O-Line has never recovered from the loss of Mark Rivera and Mike Wahle at the end of 2004. Two veterans of the old O-Line remain: Mark Tauscher (RT) and Chad Clifton (LT). Both are injury prone, as one would expect of ten-year veterans in this vicious sport. Tauscher is backed at right tackle by Allen Barbre, a third year player. Clifton is backed at left tackle by T.J. Lang, a rookie, who also backs up left guard. Our current center, Scott Wells, is back in his job again after having been ousted by Jason Spitz, our former right guard. Spitz is out for the year with a back injury, so Wells is in again. At left guard we have Darren Colledge and second-year player Josh Sitton is right guard. Sitton and Wells are both backed up by Evan Dietrich-Smith, a rookie. The unit is run on a “musical chairs” philosophy. It has no coherent identity beyond the fact that, as a unit, they suck.

Aaron Rodgers has been sacked a total of 37 times in eight games. That’s nearly five sacks a game. That old man who works in Minneapolis has only been sacked 18 times this season. That’s a little more than twice a game. And that doesn’t tell the story. Aaron Rodgers is mobile. We can’t say that Brent moves that well. He’d be toast if he still played here.

Last summer, when McCarthy purged the defense coaches and started anew, he didn’t bother to change his offensive line strategy at all. This is a problem. This is how Pete Dougherty of The Green Bay Press-Gazette summed up the coaching history of the line.

When McCarthy became the Packers’ coach in 2006, he brought with him Jeff Jagodzinski, a Gibbs protégé, to teach Gibbs’ distinct and idiosyncratic branch of the zone-blocking scheme.

Gibbs, whom McCarthy worked with in Kansas City in 1993 and 1994, had a track record of success, especially in Denver (1995-2003) and then Atlanta (2004-06). In both stops, he was allowed to fully implement his comprehensive run scheme that emphasizes smaller, quicker offensive linemen, extensive cut blocking, and decisive one-cut running by the backs.

But considering no one running Gibbs’ system has duplicated his success, maybe there’s something about it that’s too dependent on Gibbs himself.

So we’re trying to build a miracle O-Line that operates with sprightly leprechauns instead of the beefy motherfuckers that everyone else favors for all their O-Line needs. Our sole link to the mystical body of the canny and sagacious Alex Gibbs, the only man able to create this miracle O-Line, was a guy named Jeff Jagodzinski. Jagodzinski left the Packers at the end of the 2006 season, the season that O-Line was looking just a little bit better.

So, you ask. Who is the Packers O-Line coach now, Talal? They knew that this strategy was motherfucking hard and can’t just be pulled out of your ass. They got a specialist, right?

Our current O-Line coach is James Campen. Here’s a bit from his profile on the Packers website:

Promoted to offensive line coach Jan. 15, 2007, by Head Coach Mike McCarthy, Campen moved up from his position as assistant offensive line coach in McCarthy's first season at the helm. Prior to that, Campen filled the role of assistant offensive line/quality control coach for two seasons following nine years in the high school ranks.

That’s right, boys and girls. They put the head coach of Ponderosa High School in charge of the Great Experiment, because the kids get mighty high-tech in Shingle Springs, California. The guy watches Jagodzinski for a year, and suddenly he can coach the Miracle O-Line Zone Blocking Scheme.

Give McCarthy his due. He’s an excellent quarterback coach. I like the way the Kid turned out. I truly do. But that’s all I like about McCarthy. So long as he's coach, this line is never going to perform.

What floors me is the way the media covered this. I'm a crummy football fan. Kirk sends me website URLs to read up on what a zone blocking offensive line is supposed to be. I heard about the Broncos's success with the approach and experienced it first hand at the most unfortunate Super Bowl game of my life. But until I found this recent Dougherty piece, I didn't know that no one has had success coaching it besides Alex Gibbs. And Jagodzinski left at the end of the 2006 season. He's the last guy who has worked with the guy extensively. Then they bring in the high school coach. But no one over three seasons says anything. Yeah, they're under pressure from the team to be rally the troops. But I have to wonder just how knowledgeable reporters are in sports. The reason I ask is that very few are much good as analysts in politics. I know that because while I'm not a beat reporter, I can often cull together decent analysis based on what they can feed me, because I know the Levant well (and not as well as I want, by the way). This data has been there for a while. In this case, they didn't pick up on it, or were too afraid of the team's response to use it. My gut tells me it's mostly the former.

Sunday, November 01, 2009


Frustrating as it is to not have gotten my massive article download, I'm excited by the prospect of getting my camera back to Palestine/Israel and getting better pictures. These are my best from Nazereth.

The produce shots I got at Carmel Market are better, but I couldn't resist this stack on the road up to the Church of the Annunciation (I can hear Alberto, our tour guide now: AN-NUN-CI-A-TION!) I couldn't resist this handsome guy I met on the road, either...

A lot of people have religious experiences in Holy Land. The only place I came close was at the Church of the Annunciation. It was really the only place I felt genuine love for God. The art was simple, but sincere and it moved me. Below is a Madonna donated by Japan:

The Annunciation to the Blessed Mother by the Archangel Gabriel.

Mary Magdalene washing Jesus' feet. The Latin reads, "Your sins are forgiven. Go in peace."

A Madonna donated by Egypt.

A Greek Madonna.

I found this image commemorating a meeting between Pope Paul and Patriarch Atenagoras to be particularly moving, as there isn't much in Jerusalem to express any sentiment of Christian unity. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is particularly bad in this regard.

Here's more detail on their faces. The birds are perhaps Orthodox, as clearly they weren't too kind to poor Pope Paul...

We had so little time in Nazereth. I really would like to spend the day next time. It's such an Arab city. It looks like an upscale version of Fuheis.

This one caught the eye of the political scientist in me.

I never saw a single Palestinian flag in any of the Arab parts of Israel. But Palestinians express identity in several ways through religion. I imagine this sign was up for Ramadan. I'd like to get a clearer idea of the way religion expresses identity for Arab Israelis.