Sunday, October 31, 2010

O's add two to coaching staff

This news is a couple of days old, but it's still worth noting. The Orioles and Buck Showalter have started to assemble the team's 2011 coaching staff, and according to Dan Connolly of The Baltimore Sun, two hires have been made. Jim Presley will be the new hitting coach, and Rick Adair will take over as bullpen coach.

Replacing Terry Crowley, Presley certainly has his work cut out for him and will be primarily responsible for the tall task of getting better production out of the team's young core of hitters. Adair, who replaces Alan Dunn, also will play an important role, though he likely won't be under the same microscope as Presley.

Here's some quick information on both Presley and Adair, via Connolly's article:
Presley, 49, is reuniting with Showalter, who gave him his first big league hitting coach job in 1998 with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Presley most recently spent the past five seasons with the Florida Marlins before being fired in June along with manager Fredi Gonzalez.
Adair, 52, has spent seven years as a major league pitching coach, including the past two with the Seattle Mariners. He was fired in August along with Wakamatsu, then the Mariners' manager.
So both coaches were recently fired, though that's not a particularly shocking thing for assistant coaches in the MLB. Most new coaches want to bring in their own staff, and it looks like this situation is no different.

At pitching coach, it's not looking like Rick Kranitz will return. Besides that position, three coaching slots still need to be filled: first base coach, third base coach, and bench coach.

Speaking of Wakamatsu, Connolly also mentions the former Mariners manager as a potential bench coaching option.

Week 8 picks

Broncos (+2) over 49ERS

This game is in London, so it's a road game for both teams. Last week, the Raiders absolutely destroyed the Broncos, 59-14; however, the 49ers lost to a previously winless Panthers team as well and are now 1-6. These two teams have also been outscored by a combined 110 points on the season. Lucky fans.

COWBOYS (-6.5) over Jaguars

Even without Tony Romo (broken collarbone), the 1-5 Cowboys are still better than the Jaguars, especially at home. Look for a more balanced attack from the Cowboys offense, which should be able to move the ball with ease against an awful Jaguars defense. Then again, offensive coordinator Jason Garrett could always outsmart himself and decide to have Jon Kitna throw 50 times -- you never know with that guy.

Redskins (+3) over LIONS

I'll admit it: This game has me worried, big time. Lots of people are picking the Lions, who are probably better than their 1-5 record indicates. They've been extremely competitive, and thanks to a blow-out win over the Rams, have actually outscored their opponents by six points -- unlike the Redskins who, at 4-3, have been outscored on the season by three points. But just like most people wouldn't be shocked if the Lions won (they're favored, after all), it wouldn't be a huge surprise for this game to remain close throughout and come down to a field goal.

JETS (-6) over Packers

The Packers won't be able to run the ball, meaning Aaron Rodgers will have to do most of the work and spread the ball around to his receivers. Unfortunately, losing both Ryan Grant and Jermichael Finley for the season has really hurt this offense, and that will be even more evident today against a solid, attacking defense.

RAMS (-3) over Panthers

Tough loss last week for the Rams, who could really use a win this week to keep pace with the Seahawks. And yes, that sentence is funny to read. Thanks again, NFC West.

Dolphins (+1) over BENGALS

Speaking of teams who need wins, both Miami and Cincinnati desperately need to win this week after losing in Week 7. The Steelers and Ravens are running away with things in the AFC North, so if the Bengals don't win this game, they're going to be in big trouble. The same can be said for the 3-3 Dolphins, who really need a win to keep some pressure on the Jets and Patriots. The Dolphins, oddly enough, are also 3-0 on the road (and 0-3 at home), so look for them to get out of Cincinnati with an important win.

CHIEFS (-7) over Bills

It wouldn't be too difficult to roll with the Bills this week after they nearly beat the Ravens in Baltimore last week with an unexpected strong performance. But the Bills are 0-6 and have been outscored by 77 points and are traveling to Kansas City to play a 4-2 Chiefs team that is going to run the ball and make the Bills defense stop their impressive running back tandem of Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones. And they likely won't be able to stop that from happening, no matter how well Ryan Fitzpatrick plays.

Titans (+4) over CHARGERS

The Chargers really need to win this week, but they also needed to win last week against the Patriots -- or the week before in St. Louis, or the week before that in Oakland. But they have lots of flaws, which the Titans should be able to exploit, even on the road with a banged-up Vince Young back under center.

Buccaneers (+3) over CARDINALS

The Bucs, at 4-2, are overrated; meanwhile, the Cardinals (3-3) aren't that good. I'll take the points.

Seahawks (+3) over RAIDERS

Similar to the game above, though with two better teams. The Raiders had a monster game last week, but there aren't really any signs that they'll ever play that well again. And the Seahawks, though not a great road team, may be the best the NFC West has to offer. Obviously, that's not really saying that much, but they're a decent defensive team who stays committed to the run. These two teams are pretty similar; look for a close game.

PATRIOTS (-6) over Vikings

The Brett Favre ship is sinking, whether or not he plays in this game. I'll admit, Favre is an extremely tough guy who seemingly has an incredible ability to heal quickly and play through pain, but his presence -- and bad play -- have been hurting the Vikings, who really should have a better record than 2-4. The Patriots will take advantage of every mistake Favre, or any other Vikings quarterback, makes this week.

Steelers (PK) over SAINTS

Not much explaining is necessary here. The Steelers are just better.

COLTS (-5.5) over Texans

The Colts and Texans are both 4-2, so this is obviously an enormous game. Both teams had Week 7 byes, so they're each a little healthier heading into this game. Peyton Manning should be able to carve up the Texans' league-worst pass defense, just like he did in a losing effort in Houston in Week 1. But it's not likely that Arian Foster (who has slowed down since then) will rush for 231 yards and three touchdowns again, even if the Colts have just the 26th-ranked rushing defense. Both teams should be able to put points on the board, but the Colts should be able to take care of business against a division rival at home, just like they always do.

Last week: 8-6
Season: 46-54-4

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Keep giving the ball to Ryan Torain

What's the best way to keep the pressure off of Donovan McNabb? Continuing to run the ball with Ryan Torain.

In Week 6 against the Colts, the 24-year-old Torain had his first career 100-yard game in the NFL. He rushed 20 times for 100 yards, averaging five yards per rush. He broke plenty of tackles, and he also added two touchdowns for good measure. And last Sunday against the Bears, Torain arguably had an even better game, getting the ball 21 times and gaining 125 yards (six yards per rush). He failed to score a touchdown and also fumbled twice (losing one of them), but he ran extremely hard and again ran through several tackles.

Torain's performance against the Colts could be viewed as not so impressive simply because the Colts allow a ton of yards on the ground. They're currently ranked 26th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game (137.3). The Bears, on the other hand, do a solid job of stopping the run. Right now, after Torain's impressive game, the Bears are ranked fifth in rushing yards allowed (89.3). The only other running back this season to rush for over 100 yards against the Bears is the Giants' Ahmad Bradshaw (23 carries, 129 yards, 1 TD) in Week 5. Like Torain, Bradshaw also lost a fumble.

The Redskins seem committed to the run -- Torain has received at least 20 carries in each of the last two games -- and they're actually more efficient at running the ball right now than passing. As long as Torain holds onto the ball, which hopefully doesn't develop into a weekly worry, he should be due for another huge game against a Lions run defense that is allowing 138.8 yards per game on the ground (ranked 27th).

And in case you're curious about how Torain stacks up to the rest of the league, his 381 rushing yards rank 19th in the NFL, and his 4.6 yards-per-carry average of 4.6 is tied for 12th. Not bad for a guy who wasn't even activated until Week 3.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Grossman over McNabb? You must be joking

I've been critical of Donovan McNabb through his seven games with the Redskins, particularly the last few weeks. But never did the thought of benching him cross my mind. But according to Redskins Insider's Jason Reid, apparently some fans believe it's time to give Rex Grossman a shot:
In e-mail we've received recently, many Insider readers have suggested that the Washington Redskins should bench Donovan McNabb and start backup quarterback Rex Grossman.

The thinking, if I read it correctly, is that Grossman has a better grasp of Coach Mike Shanahan's offense because he worked under offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan with the Houston Texans. Since he understands the offense better, readers have explained, he undoubtedly would be more productive than McNabb, who is struggling to learn the offense and is struggling on the field.
Seriously, that's it? Because he's more familiar with the offense, Grossman should start over McNabb? That seems rather simplistic, especially when looking at this:

McNabb (career): 86.0 QBRat, 58.9 Comp%, 222 TD, 107 INT
Grossman (career): 69.6 QBRat, 54.0 Comp%, 33 TD, 36 INT

Do fans really want to start someone who has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns in his career just because he's more familiar with the team's offense? Now, I understand that there are some crazy fans with irrational ideas -- mainly the types of fans who routinely call into sports talk radio shows and ramble on and on about random things -- but that type of thinking is just ridiculous.

Also, for as below average as McNabb has been this season (76.0 QBRat, 57.5 Comp%, 6 TD, 7 INT), those numbers are still better than Grossman's best season (2006-2007: 73.9 QBRat, 54.6 Comp%, 23 TD, 20 INT). McNabb needs to start ramping up the touchdown production a little, but there's still time for that to happen. By the way, Grossman's experience in this offense in actual game situations is one game last season. In that game, when he replaced an injured Matt Schaub, Grossman threw nine passes, completing three of them, and also had an interception. He also fumbled once, but it was recovered.

If Grossman had spent several years learning this offense and was some kind of master of this scheme, then maybe, just maybe, it would be worth considering. But he's only been learning this offense since the Texans signed him in 2009, so it's not like he has some enormous advantage, or even one that comes close to the talent differential between him and McNabb.

Grossman seems like a decent backup. It should stay that way.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Skins beat Bears despite offensive struggles

First, the good news: The Redskins beat the Bears today, 17-14, and moved to 4-3 on the season. If the Giants lose tomorrow, then the Skins will be on top of the NFC East again, via tiebreaker. Also, DeAngelo Hall had the game of his life, intercepting a whopping four Jay Cutler passes and returning one for a 92-yard touchdown in the third quarter. That touchdown accounted for the only second half scoring in the game and ended up being the deciding play.

On offense, Ryan Torain rushed 21 times for 125 yards and broke numerous tackles, just like he did on Sunday night last week against the Colts. Unfortunately, he did lose a fumble deep in Bears territory on a potential scoring drive that could have put the game away for good, but it ended up not mattering because of Hall and the Skins defense. Donovan McNabb finished 17-32 for 200 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions. He didn't play particularly well, but he was also under siege all day by the Bears defense, and his receivers didn't help him out much, especially early in the game when Anthony Armstrong and Chris Cooley dropped consecutive passes in Bears territory. McNabb's lone touchdown was to Santana Moss, who had five catches for 63 yards. Cooley caught seven passes for 52 yards, but he also had at least one drop and also fumbled (though he did smack the ball out of bounds to keep the ball away from the Bears, but that play did draw a flag). Armstrong also had two catches for 42 yards.

On defense, players were flying all around the field, making big hits and forcing numerous fumbles. Rocky McIntosh led the team with eight tackles (tied with London Fletcher) and had a sack. Albert Haynesworth returned and played a phenomenal game. He blew up several plays by himself and also recorded a sack. Brian Orakpo was awesome as well and had two sacks, increasing his season total to seven. Overall, the defense only allowed seven points and was very opportunistic.

And now, the bad: The offense had a very difficult time both scoring points and holding onto the ball. As mentioned above, McNabb threw two interceptions -- one was returned for a touchdown -- and the Redskins also fumbled the ball six times(!), though they only lost one of them. So that was weird.

But back to the lack of scoring. In the first quarter, the Bears could barely gain any yards, which repeatedly set the Redskins offense up with great field position. In the quarter, the Redskins had four possessions that ended up at least entering Chicago's side of the field, yet at the end of the quarter, the score was 7-7. Let's take a look at each series:

1) 1st and 10 at WSH 23 D.McNabb pass short middle to A.Armstrong to WAS 43 for 20 yards (D.Manning) [I.Idonije].
1st and 15 at WSH 38 R.Torain right end to WAS 49 for 11 yards (A.Adams).
2nd and 4 at WSH 49 R.Torain right tackle to CHI 49 for 2 yards (T.Jennings).
3rd and 2 at CHI 49 D.McNabb pass incomplete short right to S.Moss.
4th and 2 at CHI 49 H.Smith punts 49 yards to end zone, Center-N.Sundberg, Touchback.

Nothing too out of the ordinary here. The Redskins get the ball on the opening kickoff and open up with a 20-yard completion to Armstrong. Torain gains 13 yards on two rushes after a false-start penalty, but McNabb and Moss can't connect on third down. Result: Punt

2) 1st and 10 at 50 D.McNabb pass incomplete short middle to R.Torain [J.Peppers].
2nd and 10 at 50 D.McNabb pass incomplete deep left to A.Armstrong.
3rd and 10 at 50 (Shotgun) D.McNabb pass incomplete short middle to C.Cooley.
4th and 10 at 50 H.Smith punts 20 yards to CHI 30, Center-N.Sundberg, out of bounds.

After the Skins defense forces a three-and-out, Brandon Banks returns the punt nine yards to the 50-yard line. McNabb drops back to pass three times in a row and fails to complete a pass. But it's hard to blame him since Armstrong and Cooley each botch potential big plays by dropping passes that hit them in the hands. Result: Punt

3) 1st and 10 at WSH 39 R.Torain left tackle to WAS 41 for 2 yards (H.Melton, M.Toeaina).
2nd and 8 at WSH 41 D.McNabb pass short middle to F.Davis to CHI 42 for 17 yards (B.Urlacher; C.Harris).
1st and 10 at CHI 42 D.McNabb pass short right to C.Cooley to CHI 37 for 5 yards (M.Toeaina).
2nd and 5 at CHI 37 D.McNabb pass short left to M.Sellers to CHI 22 for 15 yards (C.Tillman).
1st and 10 at CHI 22 R.Torain right end to CHI 26 for -4 yards (P.Tinoisamoa). PENALTY on WAS-J.Brown, Offensive Holding, 10 yards, enforced at CHI 22 - No Play.
1st and 20 at CHI 32 D.McNabb pass short left INTERCEPTED by D.Moore (I.Idonije) at CHI 46. D.Moore for 54 yards, TOUCHDOWN.

After another forced three-and-out, the Skins earn decent field position at their own 39. The drive starts out with some promise as McNabb starts to get in a rhythm and completes a few passes to move the ball down the field. But disaster strikes on a 1st and 20 play on the Chicago 32: McNabb drops back to pass but doesn't see an unblocked Bears defender running straight for him. Instead of taking the sack, McNabb tries to make a play and attempts a difficult throw to the left side of the field. But that doesn't work, and the ball is tipped up in the air, intercepted, and returned for a 54-yard touchdown. Result: Interception, TD Chicago. 7-0 Bears

4) 1st and 10 at WSH 28 R.Torain right guard to WAS 33 for 5 yards (M.Toeaina).
2nd and 5 at WSH 33 D.McNabb scrambles right end to WAS 35 for 2 yards (B.Turner).
3rd and 3 at WSH 35 (Shotgun) D.McNabb pass short middle to S.Moss to CHI 49 for 16 yards (C.Harris).
1st and 10 at CHI 49 D.McNabb pass incomplete short left to M.Sellers.
2nd and 10 at CHI 49 D.McNabb pass short right to C.Cooley to CHI 41 for 8 yards (B.Urlacher).
3rd and 2 at CHI 41 D.McNabb pass short right to C.Cooley to CHI 35 for 6 yards (T.Jennings).
1st and 10 at CHI 35 R.Torain right guard to CHI 25 for 10 yards (C.Harris).
1st and 10 at CHI 25 R.Torain left end to CHI 24 for 1 yard (P.Tinoisamoa).
2nd and 9 at CHI 24 D.McNabb pass deep left to S.Moss for 24 yards, TOUCHDOWN.

After that horrible play and resulting touchdown, the Redskins start at their own 28. What resulted was their only touchdown-scoring drive of the day. Looking determined, the offense marches down the field, utilizing both McNabb's arm and Torain's legs (but mostly McNabb's arm). After getting to the Chicago 24, McNabb fires a 24-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Moss. Result: TD Washington. 7-7

The Redskins defense again forces the Bears into a three-and-out, which ends the first quarter. For what it's worth, the Redskins did score on a field goal on the ensuing drive, though they didn't have to go very far considering they started at midfield. But after that field goal, the offense failed to score again, and the only Redskins points came on Hall's interception return.

For the game, the Bears offense slightly outgained the Redskins 322-308, though neither offense would likely take much pride in such an ugly game. However, it's still notable because despite being 4-3, the Redskins offense has been outgained (in yardage) in all seven games. Yes, the scoreboard is what's most important, obviously, but the yardage stat is still worth noting.

So what does all this mean? Well, the offense failed to take advantage of outstanding field position early in the game and also allowed the Bears to score a defensive touchdown, both of which nearly cost the Redskins the game. At this point, Redskins offensive players know that they need to put more points on the board -- especially touchdowns. The offensive line didn't pass block well at all, but Torain did have a strong game on the ground, averaging six yards per rush. Last week Torain had 100 yards, so moving the ball on the ground is starting to become a strength instead of a weakness like it had been early in the season.

The Redskins just aren't a very good offensive team at this point. There's tons of room for improvement, but it may take a while before positive changes are made (if at all). With the team playing so many close games and still managing a 4-3 record, it would be a huge lift if the offense could just score another touchdown here or there. But it would be even better to not have any more plays like that Bears interception return, though that type of thing really hadn't happened to the Redskins this season until today anyway. It's also awesome that the defense forced six turnovers, but that kind of thing probably won't continue to happen, especially since the Skins schedule after the bye week is rather difficult.

No matter who's to blame -- McNabb, offensive line, receivers, coordinators -- the offense has to be more efficient if this team is going to reach the playoffs. Jay Cutler won't be there every week to throw the game away.

Week 7 picks

The main topic of discussion in the NFL this week is pretty obvious: the NFL's decision to ramp up fines and other penalties (like suspensions without pay) to deter defenders from making "illegal" hits on, basically, quarterbacks and receivers. To try to clarify the issue, the NFL sent a video to every team attempting to explain what is and is not considered a legal hit. (The video can be viewed here.) The video clarifies a few things but mainly creates more questions than answers.

After watching the video, only a couple of things are clear (at least to me): 1) if a defensive player aims to hit the head or neck of a defenseless receiver (or quarterback, etc.), that counts as an illegal hit and will likely earn that defender a penalty, fine, and possibly a suspension; 2) helmet-to-helmet contact isn't the only thing that constitutes an illegal hit; and 3) the Brandon Meriweather hit on Todd Heap is the best example of what the NFL is trying to eliminate. The Meriweather hit is particularly singled out in the video as being a blatant illegal hit, and it's also the one hit that I have yet to hear someone describe as unintentional or justified.

The best take I read on the whole legal/illegal hit debate is by Joe Posnanski. The whole article is definitely worth a read, but this part particularly stuck out:
And here is the riddle of football — how can you hurt without injuring, how can you weaken without harming, how can you send a receiver flying backward and have him pop right back up, good as new, Wile E. Coyote gone back to the drawing board? The NFL keeps wanting us to believe that there’s a real answer to this riddle. The league makes the equipment better — or at least that’s what we keep hearing and desperately want to believe. They make the pads more secure, we hear. They make the helmets safer, we are told. . . . The trainers tape every bendable part before every practice and every game, as if the players are windows in the eye of a hurricane — or at least that’s what we choose to believe.

The NFL tinkers with the rules constantly to prevent the most dangerous of hits — the chop block, the clip, the clothesline, the horse collar, the helmet-to-helmet, the trip, the facemask grab, the forearm shiver, the punch, the unloading on a defenseless receiver and whatever devastating tackle they will come with next. The NFL makes the injuries part of the fabric of the sport so that they sound bland … they even release injury reports each week with the tamest-sounding of conditions — probable, questionable, out. Probable means they’re playing no matter how much pain they’re in. Questionable means they might not play, but they also might. Out means out. Put someone else on your fantasy team.
Seriously, read the entire article -- it's fantastic. Is it really possible to hurt without injuring? No, it's not. And the NFL knows that too. But that doesn't mean they're wrong about trying to get rid of hits like the Meriweather one.

My main concern with the NFL's endeavor is that it's impossible for all of these hits to be called the same way. Every hit is unique, and each game has different referees who will interpret the rules differently. Sure, fines and suspensions will come down from the league office for hits that are ruled to be illegal, but what happens if a player is both fined and suspended for a hit that isn't even flagged for a 15-yard penalty? Also, will intent factor into the legal/illegal hit decision, and is that a smart thing to assume? And finally, does the receiver absorbing the crushing tackle/hit have to be hurt for the defender to be heavily penalized? One major similarity in the video is that the players tacking huge hits seemed to be hurt pretty badly -- not a shock, obviously. Sure, they were involved in huge hits and it's not likely that they'd immediately pop back up, but what if they did? If everyone's fine after a significant collision, does that warrant a penalty?

Basically, I'm just as confused as ever, but maybe it will just take a few weeks for the whole issue to be ironed out. Or maybe it'll continue to linger and won't be solved at all -- especially since football is an extremely violent sport. We'll see.

Onto the picks for Week 7:

Steelers (-3) over DOLPHINS

FALCONS (-3.5) over Bengals

CHIEFS (-9.5) over Jaguars

Eagles (+3) over TITANS

Redskins (+3) over BEARS

Browns (+14) over SAINTS

RAVENS (-14) over Bills

49ers (-3) over PANTHERS

Rams (+3) over BUCCANEERS

Cardinals (+7) over SEAHAWKS

Patriots (+3) over CHARGERS

BRONCOS (-7.5) over Raiders

PACKERS (-3) over Vikings

Giants (+3.5) over COWBOYS

Last week: 5-8-1
Season: 38-48-4

Friday, October 22, 2010

Crowley's role with the O's could be changing

According to Jeff Zrebiec of Orioles Insider, Terry Crowley's tenure as hitting coach could be coming to an end. No final decision has been made, but apparently the Orioles "are currently discussing an adviser/instructor type position" for Crowley, enabling him to stay in the organization.

Zrebiec explains more about the potential move:
The deal has not been finalized, according to multiple sources, and the Orioles remain open to Crowley returning for his 13th straight season as Orioles’ hitting coaching and his 17th overall.

However, the club, wanting to take advantage of Crowley’s ability to evaluate hitters, has been mostly talking to the 63-year-old about a different role, one in which he will still work with both major league and minor league hitters during spring training, but also assist in scouting and evaluating potential trade, free agent or draft targets. Either way, Crowley will still factor prominently in the instruction of hitters in the organization.
Zrebiec also notes Crowley's popularity among O's players because of his "work ethic and positive reinforcement." And you know what? That's fine, and I respect that. I'm sure Crowley is a great guy, but one of the main criticisms of Crowley is that many O's hitters develop a free-swinging approach under him, or at least they aren't patient enough and don't draw many walks.

If the move becomes official, it'll be worth taking a closer look at Crowley and how O's hitters have developed (or not) under him. But, for now, let's see what Buck Showalter and the O's front office decides.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

McNabb isn't playing that well

The Redskins season -- so far -- has to be considered a moderate success. At 3-3, they've done a pretty good job of weathering the storm of a difficult early season schedule, and they've really only lost one game, to the Rams, that looked bad at the time. But with the Rams playing better, that doesn't even look too awful now, and the Skins have also beaten Dallas (doesn't look that impressive now), Philadelphia (solid win), and Green Bay (also solid). The two three-point losses to the Texans and Colts were tough to stomach, but they were certainly in both games the whole time and barring a couple of missed opportunities, could actually have won those games. The Colts and Texans are also both 4-2, so it's not like they're slouches either.

The next two games, both on the road, are crucial. First, the Redskins head to Chicago in Week 7 to play the Bears, and then they travel to Detroit to face the Lions in Week 8. If the Redskins win both of those games, they'll be 5-3 heading into their bye week, which is right before another difficult part of their schedule. Here's who they face in weeks 10-13: Philadelphia, at Tennessee, Minnesota, and at New York (Giants). The Redskins will likely need to finish at least 2-2 in those games, meaning they need to win these next two games before their bye.

The Redskins have been better than last season, but they obviously still have things to work on. The defense gives up way too many yards, the offense needs to score more points, the offensive line could certainly block a little better, and the defensive backs could do a better job of catching would-be interceptions when they're thrown right to them, etc.

But here's something else the Redskins will need if they're somehow going to finish above .500: better quarterback play from Donovan McNabb. I know what you're thinking: Wait, I feel much more comfortable with McNabb at quarterback compared with Jason Campbell and all the other QBs the Redskins have had over the last several seasons. And yes, for the most part, I feel the same way. McNabb has the intangibles factor and the better ability to lead the Redskins on a game-winning drive, but that doesn't mean he's played all that well so far this season.

Let's take a look at McNabb's stats through six games this season versus Campbell's first six games last season:

McNabb: 78.8 QB rating, 58.1 completion percentage, 1,561 yards, 5 TD, 5 INT, 0 fumbles lost
Campbell: 82.9 QB rating, 65.6 completion percentage, 1,197 yards, 6 TD, 6 INT, 2 fumbles lost

Sure, Campbell turned the ball over three more times, which definitely is something quarterbacks want to avoid, but he also put together better overall numbers while playing with essentially the same weapons in the passing game and a worse offensive line. And yes, I do realize that this example is a small sample size and just a tiny slice of the whole pie to examine. (By the way, McNabb currently ranks 24th in the NFL in QB rating and 26th in completion percentage.)

I am in no way trying to say that I'd rather have Campbell as the quarterback of the Redskins than McNabb. McNabb simply brings things to the table that Campbell never will: better pocket presence, a quicker release, the ability to create plays, and being better at throwing deep passes. Simply put, McNabb's career numbers dwarf Campbell's, and McNabb is unquestionably the better quarterback -- not exactly a stunning statement. Still, the Redskins need McNabb to play much better than he has, meaning that he needs to do a better job of hitting open receivers and completing a higher percentage of his passes. Yes, he's in his first year in this offense, so he gets the benefit of the doubt in that regard. That may also mean that he'll progress in this offense as the season goes along. But even though I like that McNabb throws a great deep ball, there's nothing wrong with checking down a little more and moving the chains instead of going for the home run.

Especially when some of those home-run balls are going in the direction of Joey Galloway.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Week 6 picks

OK, things are starting to get ugly. After a 5-9 week, it's time to turn things around now. Here we go:

Chargers (-9) over RAMS

Too much Philip Rivers.

Chiefs (+5) over TEXANS

I don't know if the Chiefs are for real, but the Texans might not be either. They arguably haven't played a complete or impressive game since their Week 1 win over the Colts.

Ravens (+3) over PATRIOTS

Maybe the best game of the day. I'll take the Ravens; I just think they're the better team.

BUCCANEERS (+5) over Saints

Speaking of teams being for real, there's the Saints (3-2), who, in their three wins, have won by a combined 10 points. Their loss to the Falcons was understandable, but to the Cardinals last week? They may be due for a big week soon, but I don't think it's coming right now.

Falcons (+3) over EAGLES

Tough road game for Atlanta, but I just flat-out think they're better than Philadelphia.

GIANTS (-10) over Lions

The Lions completely dominated a team last week when they destroyed the Rams. Don't expect that trend to continue.

BEARS (-7) over Seahawks

Have the Seahawks played an actual game this year? Why do I feel like I haven't seen any recaps and replays from any of their games? Maybe it's just me. Anyway, I'll take the Bears and that defense.

Dolphins (+3.5) over PACKERS

Aaron Rodgers is going to play despite suffering a concussion last week, but Clay Matthews is listed as doubtful and likely won't be active. Backing a team with an offense with a banged-up quarterback and no running game (and also no Jermichael Finley) to rely on and a defense missing its biggest playmaker? Yeah, the Packers could really use a sound win here, but no thanks.

STEELERS (-14.5) over Browns

Sure, this is Ben Roethlisberger's first game back. But Colt McCoy getting his first NFL start against a stalwart Steelers defense equals big trouble for the Browns.

Jets (-3) over BRONCOS

The Jets are due for a let-down game at some point, but this isn't the game it happens.

Raiders (+7) over 49ERS

I understand the logic here, but backing the 49ers right now in any game just seems silly.

Cowboys (+1.5) over VIKINGS

Ravens-Patriots may be the best game, but this may be the most interesting. The losing team in this contest drops to 1-4 and will be in big, big trouble. I'll take the Cowboys, and I don't really know why.

Colts (-3.5) over REDSKINS

Lots of people seem to be backing the Redskins, and I'm thrilled with that. But the Colts will win this game for two reasons: Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. Those two will get pressure on Donovan McNabb all game long, something the Packers weren't able to do after Clay Matthews got injured last week.

Titans (-3) over JAGUARS

This seems like a game that could come down to a field goal, but I don't feel confident backing David Garrard in a big game. By the way, did you know he hasn't thrown for over 200 yards in a game yet this season?

Last week: 5-9
Season: 33-40-3

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Various takes on the Rangers Game 1 loss

This is mainly a Redskins-Orioles-Wizards blog (with some Terps basketball thrown in). But last night in Game 1 of the ALCS, the Rangers blew a 5-1 lead in the eighth inning against the Yankees, and they eventually lost 6-5 in disastrous fashion. Rangers manager Ron Washington is being criticized for some of his in-game decisions, with the most popular critique being of his eighth inning bullpen management. In that inning, he used four relievers, and two of them threw just one pitch each. And while the ship was sinking, Washington never decided that maybe it would be a good idea to get the team's most effective reliever, closer Neftali Feliz, into the game to stave off the Yankees rally.

My take: Once the Yankees started their eighth inning rally, Feliz should have been summoned immediately. Yes, it's certainly easy to criticize now after the fact, but too often managers prefer to wait to use their closers in the ninth inning instead of in situations late in games when they're needed the most. Sure, Feliz could have blown the game too, but he would have had a much better chance than Darren Oliver, Darren O'Day, and Clay Rapada. And that's not even mentioning his ninth inning decision to have Elvis Andrus bunt.

Let's see what others are saying:
  • "Not using ace closer Neftali Feliz in the 8th, when they REALLY needed the game saved? It doesn't take a sabermetric genius to intuitively grasp the value of using your best relief pitcher when your team needs it most late." [Dan Shanoff]
  • "You can question the bullpen decisions by manager Ron Washington. You can wonder why third baseman Michael Young was playing on the infield grass with Derek Jeter up and holding a four-run lead. You can wonder why first baseman Jorge Cantu was still on the field with six outs to go with a lead. You can wonder why Hamilton kicked a ground ball single, yielding a key base. You can wonder how Ian Kinsler can possibly get picked off first base for the first out in the bottom of the inning. But this is really where the inning fell apart: Darren Oliver came into a 5-2 game and walked the only two batters he faced. That's where the game fell apart for Texas. There was no recovering from handing the Yankees two base runners without an out. Oliver never gave his team a chance to get out of it." [Tom Verducci, Sports Illustrated]
  • "There were, for the Rangers, a lot of almosts. They almost delivered what might have been an early critical blow to the Yankees, whose ALCS future might have included three additional probable losses (both Cliff Lee's starts, and A.J. Burnett's start). They almost forced Girardi into making the difficult decision to tap Sabathia again for Game 4, thereby putting his entire staff on short rest (that Girardi pulled Sabathia after only 93 pitches suggests he was already thinking about that)." [Ben Reiter, Sports Illustrated]
  • "When the goat horns are handed out (sorry boys, no antlers in this one), they'll go to Oliver and Ian Kinsler (who walked to lead off the bottom of the ninth, and was promptly picked off). There's no accounting for Kinsler's gaffe. But when it comes to pitching changes, the buck should stop with the manager. Oliver performed terribly, and he'll probably take that to his grave someday. But his manager wasn't much better. Ron Washington might be the Manager of the Year. But if we're voting for Manager of Game 1, he's going to finish dead last." [Rob Neyer, SweetSpot]
  • "I’m sure Washington was saving his closer for a supposed “save” situation, but there’s no situation that could possibly need saving more than the Rangers’ eighth-inning implosion and after coughing up the lead there was no “save” chance for Feliz in the ninth inning anyway. Blaming the manager for five different pitchers allowing seven straight batters to reach is obviously silly, but Washington pulled some extremely questionable strings and never even saw fit to let Feliz try to put out the fire." [Aaron Gleeman, Hardball Talk]
  • "Hindsight is 50-50, but then again, Twitter will give you a live account that a lot of people thought Ron Washington was mis-managing today with each move he made. The only move was to leave Wilson in the game to face Swisher and Teixeira, and had he allowed them to reach base, to bring in Neftali Feliz to face Alex Rodriguez. Baseball teams need to put their best pitchers on the mound in the biggest situations. This isn’t theory that should be debatable. In the course of the five at-bats that happened immediately after C.J. Wilson was pulled – a stretch that included four different Rangers pitchers – the Rangers win expectancy dropped almost 70%. While it’s easy to blame Darren Oliver, or Darren O’Day, or Clay Rapada for the game’s outcome, the Texas Rangers lost a game they needed to win because Ron Washington (and the majority of baseball managers) continues to fail to recognize ideal game theory." [Bryan Smith, FanGraphs]
  • You may have seen this by now, but here's what Nolan Ryan looked like during the Rangers collapse. [David Brown, Big League Stew]
  • "Going to Oliver made some sense, but as soon as the Old Man walked Swisher and Teixeira, that should have been it. No Darren O'Day. No Clay Rapada. How could Washington pin the Rangers hopes to Clay Rapada? He's not even the lefty Clay reliever with the killer mustache. It's managerial malpractice. It's entirely possible Feliz would have given up the lead as well. But at least the Rangers would have lost with their best relief pitcher on the mound." [David Brown, Big League Stew]
  • "The second mistake that Washington made is more egregious and obvious, yet again, almost all managers do and would do the same thing. We ALL know that was. Not bringing in your best reliever in a high leverage situation in the 8th inning, regardless of the number of outs. Now, whether that was with runners on second and first and no outs or bases loaded and the go ahead run at the plate, I don’t know. But surely there was a time in the 8th inning where the leverage was extremely high. Had the Rangers been able to get into the 9th with a 3-run lead, Washington would have joyfully used his closer, Feliz, and that would be the ONE situation where he would not be needed (although it would be OK to use him) as the leverage with a 3-run lead in the 9th is low, as anyone who has read The Book knows (and you can probably guess anyway). Of course he never got to pitch at all and the rest (and the game, and likely the series) is/was history for the Rangers." [The Book Blog]
Quick point: The Yankees obviously deserve a ton of credit for last night's comeback. It really was a fantastic effort to win that game. But with a few moves, the outcome could have been much different. But it's too late now; the Yankees are now up 1-0.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Santana Moss and Chris Cooley catch a lot of passes

Do the Redskins rely too much on Santana Moss and Chris Cooley? Do defenses fear anyone in the Skins passing attack besides those two? Who is going to step up and be that third receiving threat? Those three questions, and many more, are ones that Redskins fans have likely heard multiple times over the course of the season (and even before the season started, to be honest).

There's no denying that Moss and Cooley are a strong receiving tandem. Heading into this week's matchup against the Colts, Moss (29 catches) and Cooley (23 catches) have combined for 52 receptions for 711 yards and three touchdowns. Donovan McNabb looks for them often -- about 47 percent of his targets are to Moss and Cooley. They've also made eight more catches than the rest of the Redskins receiving options combined (52 to 44). And just to hammer the point home, the next highest reception total on the team is nine by Mike Sellers. So yeah, not that anyone's arguing otherwise, but Moss and Cooley are fairly important.

Is this really a problem? Not necessarily. There's no question that McNabb should be looking to get the ball to Moss and Cooley, especially if other receivers aren't getting open. It would be nice if perhaps Armstrong or someone else develops into a third option to help open the offense up more, but who knows if that's really possible right now with this current Redskins roster.

Anyway, let's take a quick look at other current top receiving duos and see what percentage of their team's receptions they're hauling in.

Percentage of receptions caught by top two receivers

1. Atlanta Falcons: Roddy White/Tony Gonzalez (55.9%)
2. Miami Dolphins: Brandon Marshall/Davone Bess (55.8%)
3. New York Giants: Hakeem Nicks/Steve Smith (54.4%)
4. Washington Redskins: Santana Moss/Chris Cooley (54.1%)
5. Indianapolis Colts: Reggie Wayne/Austin Collie (52.0%)
6. New England Patriots: Wes Welker/Aaron Hernandez (51.7%)
7. Cincinnati Bengals: Terrell Owens/Chad Ochocinco (49.5%)
8. St. Louis Rams: Danny Amendola/Mark Clayton** (48.6%)
9. San Francisco 49ers: Frank Gore/Vernon Davis (48.3%)
10. Oakland Raiders: Zach Miller/Louis Murphy (47.9%)
11. Arizona Cardinals: Larry Fitzgerald/Steve Breaston (47.0%)
12. Baltimore Ravens: Anquan Boldin/Todd Heap (46.9%)
13. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Mike Williams/Kellen Winslow (46.7%)
14. New York Jets: Dustin Keller/Braylon Edwards (45.7%)
15. Houston Texans: Andre Johnson/Kevin Walter (45.0%)
16. San Diego Chargers: Antonio Gates/Malcolm Floyd (43.9%)
17. Cleveland Browns: Ben Watson/Peyton Hillis (43.8%)
18. Denver Broncos: Jabar Gaffney/Brandon Lloyd (43.2%)
19. Pittsburgh Steelers: Hines Ward/Heath Miller (43.1%)
20. Kansas City Chiefs: Tony Moeaki/Dwayne Bowe (43.1%)
21. Philadelphia Eagles: LeSean McCoy/DeSean Jackson (42.9%)
22. Dallas Cowboys: Miles Austin/Jason Witten (42.8%)
23. Jacksonville Jaguars: Mike Thomas/Marcedes Lewis (42.0%)
24. Minnesota Vikings: Percy Harvin/Adrian Peterson (41.8%)
25. Green Bay Packers: Donald Driver/Jermichael Finley** (41.4%)
26. Chicago Bears: Matt Forte/Greg Olsen (39.7%)
27. Buffalo Bills: Steve Johnson/Lee Evans (39.5%)
28. Detroit Lions: Brandon Pettigrew/Jahvid Best (39.2%)
29. Tennessee Titans: Nate Washington/Kenny Britt (38.1%)
30. Seattle Seahawks: John Carlson/Deion Branch* (34.6%)
31. New Orleans Saints: Marques Colston/Jeremy Shockey (33.8%)
32. Carolina Panthers: Steve Smith/David Gettis (33.8%)

* Traded to Patriots
** Out for the season

Now, this list may not mean a whole lot. Some teams don't throw a lot to their tight ends; some teams prefer to throw a bunch of dump-off passes to running backs. Some teams in the top 10 or so are similar to the Redskins in that they don't really have many other options in the passing game. But most of the teams at least have pretty good third and fourth options that 1) simply don't get thrown as many passes and 2) are still good enough to force other teams to account for them and allow their team's top receivers to have more space to work with.

And then, there are teams in the 20s like the Cowboys and Packers who spread the ball around and have plenty of receiving options. Must be nice.

In the end, the Redskins will likely need someone to step up to take the pressure off of Moss and Cooley, but that's not really breaking news. I guess I'm just trying to say this: Both of those guys are really good.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Nick Young scores 24 in Wizards' third preseason win

This is the preseason; it doesn't count. With that being said, the Wizards (3-1) have looked impressive while also winning a few games as they prepare for their regular season opener on October 28 against the Magic.

I haven't had the chance to watch many of their games so far, but John Wall again had a decent night, scoring 19 points (on 8-18 shooting) and dishing out seven assists in 35 minutes. But he did get to the free throw line just twice, making both, and also had five turnovers. More important than the win, though, is that Wall is learning valuable lessons before his rookie season begins. According to the AP game story, he learned one last night after picking up two quick fouls:
"The second foul, I should have let it go. I should have let the play go on," Wall said. "I'm more valuable to the team than getting a cheap foul. The preseason is good for learning things that will prepare me for the season, and hopefully, in the season, I won't pick up that cheap foul."

Wall didn't need to be too hard on himself. He sparked Washington in the second quarter, when the Wizards (3-1) took control of the game. He had five of his seven assists in the period as Washington built an 18-point lead.

"You just try to get everybody involved, and whoever has the hot hand, you keep going to them," Wall said. "As a point guard, it's your role to keep everyone happy."
Obviously it's not a huge shock that the Wizards want Wall to stay on the floor and out of foul trouble, but he may also be getting a feel for how NBA officials operate and what he can and can't get away with while he matures into a better defensive player.

Starting in place of Gilbert Arenas -- more on him below -- Nick Young scored 24 points in 31 minutes and seemingly had the hot hand. He made most of his shots, shooting an impressive 10-14 from the field and 4-7 from three-point range. If he shoots that well during the season, he should find plenty of minutes as a scoring threat off the bench. Still, in typical Young fashion, he didn't have a rebound or an assist, though he did have two steals.

Rounding out the rest of the starting five, Kirk Hinrich (as the third guard) had eight points and eight assists, Andray Blatche had nine points, six rebounds, and four assists, and Yi Jianlian, starting at center, had eight points, nine rebounds, and three assists. Oddly enough, Hinrich and Yi had a combined nine field goal attempts, though Yi did get to the three throw line seven times (making four).

With Arenas out and Al Thornton nursing a left ankle sprain, the bulk of the bench minutes went to Cartier Martin (26), JaVale McGee (25), Adam Morrison (17), and Trevor Booker (15). Martin scored 11 points on 5-7 shooting and chipped in three rebounds and two assists. McGee had a strong game too, putting together a double-double (16 points, 11 rebounds) on 6-10 shooting and getting to the free throw line six times (making four). Morrison and Booker added five and four points, respectively.

But back to Arenas: According to Gene Wang of The Washington Post, before the game last night Flip Saunders said that Arenas wasn't going to play because his knee was "acting up" and was "a little sore." Normally that would be the end of the story for most players -- but not for Arenas. After the game, Arenas said that he wanted to give Young the chance to play, hinting that he probably could have played if he had to. Here's what he said:
"I know he's kind of frustrated he's not getting a chance to crack the three position, especially since we're going three guards, so I told him I'd go ahead and fake an injury or say something's wrong with me so you can start," a smiling Arenas said in the locker room.

When asked about the health of his knee, Arenas said, "I'm fine," and indicated he would play on Thursday in the Wizards' final home preseason game against Milwaukee.
Arenas's comments should usually be taken with a grain of salt, especially in this case because he was smiling when he said it. Still, even though it's only the preseason, Arenas took some of the spotlight off of Wall and the rest of the team to admit, or possibly make up, something that didn't really need to be revealed. If this is a sign that the fun-loving and joking Arenas is going to return, I have no problem with that if his play on the court returns to the way it was a few seasons ago too. But with the current condition of his knee, that may not be possible.

Quick update/comment: Kyle Weidie of Truth About It defends Arenas here and makes the case that if Arenas is willing to sacrifice in a preseason game, then that's seemingly a good sign for the upcoming season. He may be right, and I actually hope he's right. I just don't understand why Arenas had to say anything about it if that's what he was really doing. Maybe that's just his nature. But, to me, if he's really willing to sacrifice to make the guys around him better, he would keep these kinds of things in the clubhouse and wouldn't share them, even if he was just joking around (which is likely).

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Redskins release Devin Thomas

The Devin Thomas era in Washington has ended. According to Redskins Insider's Rick Maese, the Redskins released Thomas yesterday, making room on the roster for Keiland Williams.

In the end, Thomas was right. For weeks, he admitted in interviews that he was worried that his roster spot was in jeopardy. He survived four games under Mike Shanahan, only contributing as the team's kick returner. In parts of three seasons in Washington after being drafted in the second round in 2008, Thomas caught a grand total of 40 passes for 445 yards and three touchdowns. He also had a rushing TD in 2008.

Obviously there was something about Thomas that the Redskins coaching staff didn't like, or else he would have gotten a chance. Thomas, who's only 23, will likely move on to another team with wide receiver issues, though not many teams have as thin of a wide receiver corps as the Redskins.

It would be nice to have some more answers on why Thomas was released, but two things probably contributed: 1) somehow he got in Shanahan's doghouse and couldn't get out of it, and 2) maybe he just wasn't that good to begin with. After all, he was drafted by Vinny Cerrato.

Jason Reid also shared a story about Thomas during the preseason:
An incident during a meeting in the preseason probably did not help Thomas improve his standing with the Shanahans.

As Thomas slept in the meeting, rookie wideout-punt returner Brandon Banks used his cell phone to take a picture of Thomas. Banks then transmitted the picture via Twitter. After team officials informed Shanahan of what occurred, Banks quickly deleted the picture from his Twitter account.
If Thomas was talented enough, him falling asleep in one meeting probably wouldn't have been a big deal. But that unprofessionalism, combined with his apparent talent deficiency, was enough for Shanahan to show him the door after just four games.

Here are some other links/reactions on Thomas's departure:

  • "Redskins release Devin Thomas after four games; Keiland Williams promoted" [Mike Jones, @TBDSkins]
  • "Thomas cut, Williams promoted" [John Keim, Redskins Confidential]
  • "D.C. Is Where Wide Receivers Go to Die" [Jamie Mottram, Mr. Irrelevant]
  • "Devin Thomas era in D.C. is over" [Matt Mosley, NFC East Blog]
  • "Devin Thomas Cut by Redskins" [J.J. Cooper, FanHouse]

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Week 5 picks

Right now, the Chiefs, at 3-0, are the only undefeated team, the Jaguars are 2-2 despite being outscored by 40 points, and because of tiebreakers, the first-place NFC West team is the Cardinals, who have been outscored by a stunning 60 points (which is not only second worst in the NFL, but also nine points more than the 49ers (outscored by 51), who just happen to be 0-4). Not that you needed to be reminded of it, but parity still reigns supreme in the NFL. And the NFC West is still awful, though the Rams look half decent.

On to the Week 5 picks:

RAVENS (-7) over Broncos

BILLS (PK) over Jaguars

COLTS (-7) over Chiefs

Rams (+3) over LIONS

BROWNS (+3) over Falcons

Buccaneers (+7) over BENGALS

PANTHERS (-1.5) over Bears

Packers (-3) over REDSKINS

TEXANS (-3) over Giants

Saints (-7) over CARDINALS

Chargers (-6.5) over RAIDERS

Titans (+7) over COWBOYS

Eagles (+3.5) over 49ERS

Vikings (+4) over JETS

Last week: 6-8
Season: 28-31-3

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Appreciating Clinton Portis

In case you hadn't heard, Clinton Portis is expected to miss four-to-six weeks with a groin injury, meaning Ryan Torain is expected to receive the majority of the carries in the running game for the next few weeks. Torain ran hard last week against the Eagles, but he's still a question mark in terms of both staying healthy and handling a full workload.

But back to Portis. Sally Jenkins wrote a great article about Portis for The Washington Post, hinting that Portis may be nearing the end of the road and also saying that his work over the last several years in Denver and Washington commands our respect.

Here's a section of Jenkins's article, but I encourage you to read the entire thing:
Portis has earned some criticism for divalike behavior, like his occasional ingratitude to his linemen and quarterbacks, and for playing overweight. But lack of toughness isn't one of his failings. Overall, he's probably given as much to the Redskins physically as he has taken financially. If you're inclined to resent his salary of almost $7.2 million this year, try to remember that. Even former coach Jim Zorn, who was often frustrated by him, said that when Portis is on the field, "Your head better be on a swivel. Somebody is gonna get knocked down."

Remember that in four seasons, he has had at least 320 carries. Remember that he ran for a club-record 1,516 yards in 2005, alternately avoiding tacklers with suave cuts and knocking them down like bowling pins. Remember how he dislocated his shoulder in a preseason game with the Cincinnati Bengals, when launched into a tackle, trying to stop an interception return. Remember how just two weeks ago against the Houston Texans he raced half the length of the field to explode on a block and open a pathway for Fred Davis, resulting in a 62-yard play.
Hopefully Portis's career isn't over just yet, but even if he isn't in Washington after this season, I've definitely enjoyed his tenure with the Redskins.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Wall displays abilities in first preseason game

John Wall probably didn't envision his first shot in last night's preseason game against the Mavericks being an errant, airballed three-pointer. Then again, it happens to everyone, and Wall said it himself after the game: "[T]he most important thing was to get the jitters out of the way. I had a lot of assists and was able to get to the free throw line." Yes, he definitely did.

Wall had 21 points and nine assists, and he also got to the free throw line 11 times (making nine of them). He didn't have the best shooting night (6-14 from the field) and grabbed just one rebound, but he also turned the ball over just twice in a whopping 38 minutes, by far a game-high (the next highest was Kirk Hinrich, who played 28 minutes). Wall also had a game-high four steals.

Andray Blatche was the game's high scorer with 22 points on 9-15 shooting. JaVale McGee added 13 points and seven assists, and Gilbert Arenas scored 12 points, including two three-pointers. Hinrich also hit two threes and chipped in nine points.

A few game notes:

- Hilton Armstrong played 21 minutes and totaled two rebounds, two steals, and a block. He also committed two turnovers. He didn't take a shot and had no points. I get that 1) he's supposed to be focused on defense and rebounding, 2) he's the backup center (for now), and 3) it's the first preseason game, but even Michael Ruffin would have taken a shot in 21 minutes. How about a put-back or something?

- Out of all the bench players, Yi Jianlian had the best game. In 22 minutes he scored 11 points on 5-11 shooting and snagged 10 rebounds. He had two turnovers, but he also blocked three shots. Not bad, Yi.

- Nick Young, on the other hand, was not good. He had only two points on 1-7 shooting in 15 minutes.

- Adam Morrison didn't get in the game. Neither did Trevor Booker, Hamady Ndiaye, or Kevin Seraphin, the team's rookies not named Wall.

The Wizards won, by the way, 97-94. Lester Hudson hit a three-pointer with 2.5 seconds left to give the Wizards the lead and the win. It was a big shot for Hudson, who played only eight minutes and had five points.

Sure, it was only the first preseason game, but Flip Saunders started three guards (Wall, Arenas, and Hinrich) together, and he seems to like how all three play together. If Blatche and McGee show that they can rebound efficiently enough and hold their own in the paint, I wouldn't be surprised to see Saunders use this lineup a lot, though I'm not sure if it would be able to work all that well with either Arenas or Hinrich being forced to guard a small forward for more than a few minutes. But it did work last night, so it's worth paying attention to, especially while Josh Howard is out.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Matt Wieters: a work in progress

The topic of Matt Wieters is a divisive issue for many Orioles fans (and non-O's fans too). Usually, most people end up on either one side of the Wieters discussion or the other -- either he's going to be great for a long time, or he's never going to pan out as a top prospect and dominate at the major league level. But his talent is evident, and even though he took a few steps back at the plate this year, he still improved in a few categories that suggest that he'll be able to turn things around next season.

I've already written about Wieters a few times -- once in May and once in early August. Wieters looked like he was turning things around in August when he raised his batting line to .253/.330/.380, but his numbers dipped toward the end of the season, and he ended up with a line of .249/.319/.377 and a .303 wOBA (weighted on base average). Frankly, that's just not very good.

Still, something that was consistent for Wieters throughout the season was his improvement at the plate with walks and strikeouts, i.e., he walked more and struck out less than in his rookie season.

2009 BB%: 7.3%
2010 BB%: 9.4%

2009 K%: 24.3%
2010 K%: 21.1%

Unfortunately, returning to three trouble areas -- hitting the ball hard, hitting too many ground balls, and hitting fastballs effectively -- I used in the two previous Wieters articles suggests that he still has work left to do:

1) Hitting the ball hard

2009: 18.5 LD%
2010: 15.4 LD%

2) Ground balls

2009: 41.9 GB%
2010: 46.4 GB%

3) Fastballs

2009: 6.6 runs above average
2010: -1.3 runs above average

So Wieters didn't hit nearly enough line drives, which also helps explain his drop in BABIP from .356 to .287, hit too many ground balls for someone his size (and lack of speed), and struggled slightly with fastballs, though he did get much better from August (-5.0) to the end of the season. These are categories that Wieters absolutely needs to address and improve on.

Also, despite his walks increase and strikeouts decrease, plate discipline still may be an issue, or at least something that he still needs to work at. This season, he swung at more pitches out of the zone (29.9% from 25.7%), fewer pitches inside the zone (61.0% from 70.2%), and swung at fewer pitches overall (43.5% from 47.2%). He made better contact on pitches both inside and outside the zone, but his knack for expanding the strike zone likely hurt his numbers.

It's worth noting that Wieters was still valuable last season, mainly because of his defense behind the plate. Though I have no idea how FanGraphs accounts for catching defense, in 2009 Wieters was -2.0 fielding runs above average, and that number jumped to 5.0 fielding runs above average this season. That mostly contributed to his value, which according to FanGraphs, was 2.4 wins above replacement. And out of all AL catchers, Wieters finished tied with Jorge Posada in WAR -- good enough for sixth place. If he starts hitting the ball, he will undoubtedly climb that list and his value will grow.

I think Wieters is going to have a big season in 2011. He may have taken a step back in overall numbers in 2010, but I think he'll start to put everything together shortly. He already has a ton of pressure on his shoulders, but he looked much more comfortable behind the plate -- and that's something I think will translate to his at-the-plate skills next season. He may have expanded the zone a little too much -- maybe he was trying to drive in runs on pitches that maybe he should have been taking -- but he still walked more and struck out less, something that suggests at least some amount of progress.

The next step for Wieters is to start driving the ball and hitting the ball harder. He already possesses that power, and he can also hit the ball to all fields. Basically, it's time for Wieters to transform into a power hitter. Many people thought Nick Markakis was progressing into one, but now he's essentially a doubles hitter who also uses the entire field. And that's not a bad thing, but Markakis just doesn't hit for enough power to be an elite hitter. But not only does Wieters have that power and skill set, but he can also give the Orioles that power from behind the plate, making it even more valuable. (I'm trying really hard not to blame Terry Crowley in this paragraph, but his presence as hitting coach in all of this is some food for thought.)

I've also been trying not to make excuses for Wieters, just note that the talent is there and that he still can put everything together. Next season, which will be his third, would be an outstanding time for him to make that jump.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Despite scoreless second half, Skins still beat Eagles

Here's a fun fact: Did you know that the Redskins (2-2) are in first place in the NFC East (thanks to tiebreakers) despite being outscored by six points (79-73) in their four games? That's probably not a good thing, but it's all about getting wins, right?

That seemed to be the case yesterday, when the Redskins played a fantastic first quarter and then were mediocre, or worse, on offense the rest of the game. In that first quarter, the Redskins scored two touchdowns on their first two drives. On the first TD, Brandon Banks set the offense up with outstanding field position after a 53-yard punt return. The Redskins ran the ball three times, the final play a 12-yard run by Ryan Torain, who ran over Eagles safety Quintin Mikell on his way to the end zone. On their next TD drive, the Redskins moved the ball from their own 22 into Eagles territory with ease, and that drive was capped off by a 31-yard TD pass from Donovan McNabb to Chris Cooley. With about five minutes left in the opening quarter, the Redskins were up 14-0 -- a great start. Unfortunately, the offense wouldn't do a whole lot else for three-plus quarters.

Tale of the tape (first quarter):
Redskins: 112 yards (plus a 53-yard punt return), 14 points
Eagles: 72 yards, 0 points

Sure, the Redskins kicked a field goal in the second quarter to take a 17-3 lead. But for the next 39 minutes or so (in game time), the Redskins scored no points. And after gaining those 112 yards in the first quarter, the offense gained just 181 yards for the rest of the game. That's just not good enough to win many games; however, the defense was up to the task yesterday.

Did it hurt the Eagles that Michael Vick had to leave the game late in the first quarter? Yeah, definitely. But the Redskins defense still held the Eagles to only 12 points, even with an offense that stopped moving the ball effectively after the first quarter and a punter (Josh Bidwell) who averaged 37 yards per punt and probably shouldn't be with the team going forward. The Redskins knew when to get rid of Larry Johnson; it's time to do the same with Bidwell.

The Redskins shouldn't expect to win a lot of games when McNabb ends up with a quarterback rating of 60.2 (8-19, 125 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) and the offense fails to score any points in the second half, but the defense also took a step forward, holding the Eagles to just two field goals until a late TD drive in what looked a lot like some version of a prevent defense. The defense also forced, by my count, four holding penalties on the Eagles offensive line, and it probably should have been more than that.

The running game was also much better this week. Torain rushed for 70 yards on 18 carries (3.9 average), and Clinton Portis had 55 yards on 11 carries (5.5 average) and showcased some evasiveness that hasn't been seen for a few years. McNabb also ran five times for 39 yards, including a clutch run for a first down in the fourth quarter to, more or less, seal the game. (But why did he run out of bounds?) Still, the ground game was improved.

With consecutive games against the Packers and Colts coming up, and then a trip on the road to Chicago to play the Bears, the win over the Eagles was crucial. And not only that, but the Redskins are now 2-0 against the NFC East after finishing 0-6 against the division last season. They may not stand a chance in their next two games, but they've been competitive in their own division, which is important considering how average all four teams have looked at times.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Matusz dominates, O's win fourth straight

The 2010 season is coming to a close for the Orioles -- there's just one game left -- yet they continue to play inspired baseball under Buck Showalter. On Friday, they won both games of a doubleheader against the Tigers to begin the four-game series, and yesterday Brian Matusz earned his 10th win by pitching six innings of one-run ball in a 2-1 victory. Matusz gave up two hits (one a solo home run) and two walks while striking out nine.

The O's offense collected just three hits and one walk, but a solo homer by Nick Markakis in the fourth and a Matt Wieters sacrifice fly in the fifth were enough for Matusz and the bullpen. Michael Gonzalez and Jim Johnson each threw scoreless innings, and Koji Uehara pitched another scoreless ninth for his 13th save.

In the O's final game of this season today, Brad Bergesen will take the mound, trying to give the O's their 67th win, which would be three more wins than last season. Again, that's not a huge jump, but it's all about baby steps, especially in the brutal AL East.

By the way, whether or not Matusz wins the AL Rookie of the Year award or even receives many votes, he deserves a lot of praise. He's given the O's a ton of value -- 2.6 WAR and 175.2 innings pitched -- and has lowered his ERA on the season to 4.30 and his FIP to 4.06. He still walks a few too many batters, but he's also pitched much more effectively since the All-Star break.

Pre-All-Star break: 103.2 IP, 4.77 ERA, 80 K, 38 BB
Post-All-Star break: 72.0 IP, 3.63 ERA, 63 K, 25 BB

Matusz still has a lot of room to grow, but in his first full season in the majors, he got stronger as the season went along and finished with solid numbers. It's hard to ask a rookie starter for much more than that.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Week 4 picks

Here are my picks for this week:

TITANS (-7) over Broncos

Ravens (+2.5) over STEELERS

BROWNS (+3) over Bengals

PACKERS (-14) over Lions

SAINTS (-14) over Panthers

FALCONS (-7) over 49ers

Seahawks (-2) over RAMS

Jets (-6.5) over BILLS

Colts (-8) over JAGUARS

RAIDERS (+3.5) over Texans

CHARGERS (-9) over Cardinals

Redskins (+6) over EAGLES

Bears (+3.5) over GIANTS

Patriots (-1) over DOLPHINS

Last week: 9-7
Season: 22-23-3

Friday, October 1, 2010

Haynesworth opens mouth, inserts foot

It's not that I don't like Albert Haynesworth. He's probably an OK guy, but he obviously believes that he's in the wrong kind of football situation (the 3-4 vs. the 4-3) and isn't happy about it. I also don't think he's being completely honest with himself, and that was evident in his "exclusive" interview on Thursday with ESPN.

Go ahead and watch the video. I did and wasn't that impressed, particularly with this portion here from the article (pardon the long quote):
"I wanted to be the greatest defensive lineman ever to play the game," Haynesworth told ESPN's Sara Walsh in an exclusive interview on Thursday.

In the time since, the Redskins have changed coaches -- from Jim Zorn to Mike Shanahan -- and defensive schemes -- from the 4-3 to the 3-4.

The change made Haynesworth hesitate before depositing the $21 million bonus check he was given April 1.

"Yeah, check sat at my house for a couple weeks before I cashed it," Haynesworth said. "I was weighing my options about what I should do. ... Do you want to take this? Do you want to commit yourself to playing a 3-4 [defense]? Do you want to go somewhere else and try again?"

Haynesworth ultimately took the money and stayed with the Redskins. But he did protest the change by skipping the team's offseason conditioning program and a mandatory minicamp.
There are several things to take away from his quotes, but let's examine two.

First, regardless of whether the check actually sat in his house for a few weeks or not, was there even a minuscule chance that Haynesworth would not cash that $21 million check? Of course not, even if the Redskins adopted Chris Cooley's 6-2 stack monster defense (which link I can't locate right now). Who would even say something like that? (There's an easy joke to be made about why he didn't get up and cash the check; I'll let you figure it out.)

Second, take a look at the last paragraph in the block quote. Haynesworth cashed the check, which, according to his own words and logic, meant that he was going to stay with the Redskins and commit to the 3-4. And then he skipped both the offseason conditioning program and minicamp, which both contradict that he was ever actually on board with the change in defenses. No one said he had to be happy with the 3-4 defense, and he's not the only one to blame in his power struggle with Mike Shanahan. The defense has also been awful, giving up lots of yards each game, and defensive coordinator Jim Haslett could really use a dominant Haynesworth on the defensive line for an entire game. But not only hasn't that happened, but Haynesworth frequently stands alone on the sidelines, looking like he'd rather be anywhere else.

If Haynesworth really wanted to be the greatest defensive lineman ever, he would find a way to get the job done in any defense. But not only did he convince himself that he couldn't be effective in the 3-4, but when he did show up, he was, at the very least, out of shape and was already behind the other linemen in terms of learning the new plays and schemes.

Instead of occupying multiple blockers and making things easier for other linemen and linebackers to make plays, Haynesworth would rather be somewhere where he can make tackles and get sacks. Is he more effective in that style of defense? Yeah, probably, but that's not really the point.

He doesn't have to stay in Washington for much longer. He's only been with the Redskins for two seasons, and yet it feels like he's been here forever. Honestly, it wouldn't be much of a surprise if he's with another team next season (barring a lockout, of course).

I'm just tired of the drama, and I know I'm not the only Redskins fan feeling that way. Haynesworth is tremendously talented, and it's a shame that those skills haven't been on full display in Washington -- especially since they desperately need them now. But whether Haynesworth leaves after the season or not, I'm confident in saying that they won't be losing the greatest defensive lineman ever -- not even close.