In my job, I aim for both quality and quantity. By my estimation, I write about 1.5 million words per year, and a lot of the pieces that hold those words are, to some degree, duds.
I like a lot of the pieces, though, and all I can really hope is that I look back at each passing year and think, "This was my best writing year yet." Well ... this was my best writing year yet. I'm really proud of a lot of what I did, and as we reach the "year-end series" portion of the year, I wanted to share some of my favorites.
I can be awfully self-indulgent at times, so instead of sharing my 10 favorite pieces, I'm going to share far more than 10 favorites, based instead on 10 themes.
10. The Sloan Conference
Here's the general layout of a [Sport of Choice] Analytics panel: Team Executive 1, Team Executive 2, Actual Analytics Person 1, and a Wildcard, with ESPN Personality 1 as moderator.
For football, the original lineup just got rid of the actual analytics person altogether. The panel initially consisted of San Francisco 49ers president Paraag Marathe (Executive 1), Atlanta Falcons assistant general manager (and former Chiefs GM) Scott Pioli (Executive 2), Miami Dolphins executive VP Dawn Aponte (Executive 3), Patriots receiver Julian Edelman (Wildcard?), and Pulaski Academy (Little Rock) head coach Kevin Kelley (the never-punts-on-fourth-dows guy and the actual Wildcard). Moderator: Suzy Kolber.
Here's a quick note about team executives in these panels: They're not going to reveal anything. Of course they're not. How would it benefit them?
Marathe is smart and affable. Pioli's approachable Sloan presence in no way meshes with the cartoon version of the control-everything tyrant we heard about in Kansas City. But in these open-mic situations, all team executives basically use "analytics" as a verb. "Yes, we definitely analytics. We analytics as much as anybody else. Analyticsing is a big part of what we do. There are limits to what analyticsing can do, but we definitely analytics."
9. Promotion and Relegation
David Cutcliffe wins Coach of the Decade for simply bringing Duke back to the ACC, North Dakota State narrowly misses out on a Rose Bowl bid (the Bison would have finished around third in the Big Ten and wouldn't have lost head coach Craig Bohl to Wyoming), Nevada somehow survives another year in the Pac-12, and Mark Stoops' stud recruiting class at Kentucky falls apart when the Wildcats are demoted in favor of Mark Hudspeth's Ragin Cajuns.
Houston is in the Big 12, Bowling Green joins NDSU, NIU, and Toledo in the Big Ten, and Maine and SMU are now conference mates. So are West Virginia and UTEP.
8. World Cup 2014
But while tangible moments are felt and remembered for what they are, the intangibles give us glimpses of what could be. And there was no greater set of "what could be" moments for the USMNT than in the 2009 Confederations Cup. It was great for what it was and amazing for what it felt it could become.
There's 19-year old Jozy Altidore, bigger and stronger than most, muscling up defenders and wrong-footing the Spanish goal-keeper in the 27th minute of the semifinals.
There's 26-year old Clint Dempsey, pouncing on a deflection in the 74th minute and putting the U.S. up 2-0.
There's Oguchi Onyewu, a 6'4 mountain at centerback, heading away all aerial attacks and ushering any ground attacks away from danger.
There's Tim Howard, a 30-year old veteran and longtime Manchester United keeper, playing the match of his life (or one of them) to keep Spain from scoring.
There's Michael Bradley, somehow a late bloomer at 21 years old, shaking off the "Coach's son" label and showing glimpses of elite quarterbacking ability in midfield.
There's Jonathan Spector, who donned a Manchester United jersey at 18, making one of the prettiest passes you'll ever see to set up a Dempsey goal in the first 10 minutes of the final against Brazil.
There's Charlie Davies. Oh, Charlie. Barely 23 years old and the personification of pace, he outruns Brazilian defenders down the left sideline on a breakaway and somehow curls a pass to Donovan in stride. Donovan puts the ball in the net, and the U.S. is up 2-0 on Brazil. I've probably watched this goal as many times as I've watched Donovan's Algeria goal. It was so easy. Speed creates easy chances, and Davies had more of it than anybody else.
Perfect touch No. 1: After clunking most of his post-halftime touches, André Schürrle threaded a perfect cross between two Argentinian defenders.
Perfect touch No. 2: Mario Götze not only got his chest square on the ball, but dumped it slightly forward, which caused Sergio Romero to instinctively take a step forward, reflexes telling him to chase after a loose ball.
Perfect touch No. 3: Now with an angle at the far post and no time to hesitate, Götze slings his left foot at the ball, which hasn't touched the ground since it left Schürrle's foot. It sails past Romero's left arm and into the goal.
Four-hundred-eighty-six minutes between conceding in their final group stage match against Nigeria and that Götze goal. You can almost fly from Buenos Aires to Miami in that time, and this is a team that entered the World Cup with a bit of a "great offense, shaky defense" reputation. But in the end, the 322 minutes (and counting) since Argentina's last goal ended up mattering more. Gonzalo Higuain scored in the eighth minute of the quarterfinal against Belgium, and La Albiceleste almost won the World Cup without scoring another. Almost.
And then there was Chang. He was generously listed at 5'8 (shorter than me!) and 135 pounds (115 in his thighs). He was fast, and he had a pretty good two-handed backhand, but his most dominant trait was his acceptance of mortality. His playing style can be summed up in the "HURRGH" sound you make when you start sprinting from a dead stand-still. He was spectacular in his total lack of spectacular qualities, but he knew you were mortal, too, so he waited. Two-set comebacks were nothing. He did it to Lendl in Paris in 1989. He did it to Horst Skoff in the Davis Cup semifinals in 1990. He did it to Lendl again in the Grand Slam Cup in 1991.
Chang once battled Stefan Edberg for five sets, five hours, and 26 minutes at the U.S. Open in 1992. This was before the Djokovic/Nadal/Murray marathon era. He won 20 five-set slam matches in all. He was both joyless and redemptive. He let you celebrate his wins for him, he hung out almost entirely with his family in private, he didn't date publicly (he didn't do anything publicly), and when he had downtime, he read the Bible. His style had underdoggy charisma; he himself had none. [...]
Chang didn't have Sampras' serve, Agassi's return, McEnroe's volley, or Connors' charisma. Lendl once told him, "You get a lot of balls back but you have absolutely nothing you can hurt me with." But he had thighs, and he had balls. In 1989, he was young and dumb enough to think that was enough. And in Paris, it was. He beat the best player in the world serving underhanded. I could do that! So could you! Right?
Rafael Nadal always falls to the ground when he wins a slam. He always pretends to bite the Coupes des Mousquetaires when posing for pictures. He is always gracious. But he was even more emotional than normal after taking down Djokovic on Sunday. The conditions almost certainly played a role, as did the back pain he was feeling late in the fourth set. But while his growing set of French Open titles -- now up to nine -- begins to feel more and more like an immortable, untoppable accomplishment, Nadal himself looks more mortal by the year.
Nobody puts his body through the wringer to win a match more than Rafael Nadal. Never mind that his best surface is the cruelest and most grueling, the one with the longest points and the longest rallies. Never mind that his forehand features so much torque and topspin that it appears his wrist will dislocate (and never relocate) at any moment. Nadal's grueling game puts so much demand on his feet and knees that they have, at times through the years, simply given out.
At 28, his body treats him at times like it is 35. His 14 slam titles (nine at the French Open, two at Wimbledon, two at the U.S. Open, and one at the Australian Open) are within three of Roger Federer's record, but catching up to Federer (especially with Federer still active and good enough for perhaps another run) will be particularly tricky. It seemed like a given that he would pass Federer a couple of years ago, but even with three titles in his last five slams, the man simply looks tired. And he knows as well as anybody that not even one more slam title is given.
6. 2013 review and 2014 preview
College football began almost 150 years ago, and most programs have been playing the sport for 100 years or more at this point. Games have ended in every conceivable way, but until the early evening of November 30, no game was known to have ended on a walk-off missed field goal return.
That this happened in one of the sport's greatest rivalry games was incredible. That it happened in a battle of top-four teams was magnificent.
That it happened just two weeks after Ricardo Louis' miracle touchdown and took Auburn to within one step of the national title game, just one year after the Tigers went 3-9 and fired their coach, made this quite possibly the greatest finish in the history of the sport.
Auburn fans, Alabama fans, and college football fans will be talking about this game, and this finish, 50 years from now. We might still be talking about this season then, too.
(I can't really find a blurb that properly summarizes a 128-part preview series.)
5. The 2014 college football season
Eleven months ago, it was looking like Dan Mullen wasn't going to be around in Starkville much longer. Once an up-and-comer with an impeccable résumé as Urban Meyer's right-hand man at Bowling Green, Utah, and Florida, Mullen had taken the MSU head coaching job at age 36. In 2010, his second year with the Bulldogs, he engineered a nine-win season (the school's first since 1999) and a New Year's Day bowl win (first since 1941).
But the returns quickly diminished. The Bulldogs needed a late-season win over Nutt's final Ole Miss team just to become bowl-eligible in 2011, and after a 7-0 start against dreadful competition in 2012, they lost five of six to finish the season, then went 4-6 to start 2013.
All you have to do is survive. Keep living, and you might not die. An overtime win over Ole Miss last fall got MSU to 6-6, and the Bulldogs' Liberty Bowl romp over Rice gave them hope that an experienced 2014 squad could get the program rolling.
Bowl wins are terrible predictors of future success. We overreact to them every year -- Team A looked great in its bowl, so it has momentum! Team B looked awful and is clearly doomed! In MSU's case, we apparently didn't overreact enough.
Now, it's difficult to question too much of TCU's offensive game plan when the Horned Frogs gained 485 yards and scored 58 points (well, 44 offensive points) against a defense that hadn't allowed much of anything all year. But either because of play-calling or because Baylor baited him into thinking it was open, Boykin threw far too many fade passes on Saturday, especially as TCU advanced into Baylor territory and the field got shorter. And instead of going with an easy slant or short pass, he lobs it to Doctson on fourth-and-3. Ryan Reid either plays good defense or commits pass interference (depending on your fan allegiance), but the ball falls incomplete, and Baylor takes over at its 45 with 1:11 left.
It feels like the game is already over at that point, but TCU stiffens. After Linwood gains 12 yards in two carries, the Frogs force two incompletions to set up third-and-10. Petty lobs the ball to Norwood, but it's broken up rather perfectly by Corry O'Meally, who looked back for the ball, then swatted it away as it reached Norwood. Only ... O'Meally is called for the pass interference penalty that didn't afflict Reid a few plays earlier.
Three rushes get the Bears to the TCU 11, and that's that. Chris Callahan boots his fourth field goal of the day, and Baylor wins.
Scorecard: Baylor 10-9. On the cards, this goes down as a 114-114 draw. But college football doesn't do draws. Thanks to two Round 11 knockdowns, we'll say Baylor gets the controversial majority decision.
Creating an offense that is all things to everyone -- a Cheesecake Factory offense, of sorts -- seems too good to be true. But damned if the Mines attack didn't actually seem to account for all possibilities, and in a not-particularly gimmicky way.
This isn't an offense full of trick plays. Mines utilizes a variety of spread formations (all of them, basically) and employs motion as a way to both identify a defense's coverage and get the defense to over-think. A given play might establish a receiver screen set up on one side (with one receiver taking a step backwards to receive a ball and another preparing to block the closest man), another deeper route combination on the other side, and a run option up the middle. The quarterback's job is simply to identify what the defense is giving him and take it. If that means handing to the running back 20 times, so be it. If it means passing 60 times, that's fine too. The options allow for you to call the same play countless times, and it allows the quarterback to read and react.
This offense is efficient with opportunities for explosiveness. It is complicated and packed with simple decisions. It is delicious.
November is cruelty.
Injuries don't mean you miss part of the season. They mean you miss the rest of the season. And losses are eliminators.
Washington State lost senior quarterback Connor Halliday on Saturday. His career is over before Senior Day.
Ole Miss suffered one of the cruelest losses in the history of November losses and did so with a double stomach punch. While scoring what appeared to be the go-ahead touchdown against Auburn in a de facto Playoff elimination game, receiver Laquon Treadwell was dragged down awkwardly from behind. Everybody in the stadium, from the fans to the television announcers, knew immediately that he would probably be done for the season.
Then on replay, we all saw that, while getting his leg destroyed, he started to fumble the football before he crossed the goal line. The go-ahead touchdown was no more, and Auburn once again benefited from the unlikeliest of November outcomes. This one will stick with Ole Miss fans for a really, really long time. Hell, I'm not an Ole Miss fan, and it will stick with me for a while. Rarely have there been such diabolical losses, even in a sport that specializes in such things.
There were no leaps. All hints of improvement happened week to week and day to day.
"I had all of our coaches make sure that our players define for their coaches what it is that they can improve upon today and what they are going to put focus on when they go onto the field. We didn't have a lot of guys, and the locker room wasn't as big then as it is now. I'd do in there after every practice, and I'd corner every guy, and I'd put people at the door so they couldn't leave. I'd ask them what they tried to work on and what they were doing and whether they improved. They thought it was tedious, I'm sure, but persistence is one of those intrinsic values. Over a period of time, they became a bit better because they realized, 'This guy's not going to give up on this.'
"I used to go into the meeting rooms, and I would take each guy in the meeting room and ask them, 'What's important to you?' Sometimes it was football or academics or family. I'd say, 'What can you do today to get better?' They'd think about it, and they'd answer, and it'd be accurate, and they'd get a little bit better.
"That hasn't changed."
3. The Bayou
When you see the content smile of a woman in a Grambling jacket at the airport, telling you she's indeed going to the Bayou Classic ...
When you hear the honest thank yous of people on the street when you wish their team luck on Saturday ...
When you see the smiles of two 70-something Southern supporters on the Superdome field after the game, asking "Did you have a good time?" and, knowing the answer to that question already, "You coming back next year?" ...
... you realize this is a special thing. The Bayou Classic is everything you fell in love with when you fell in love with college sports. It is rivalry. It is an important battle. It is players from the losing team unable to control the tears.
It is also a respite, a perfect oasis for a sports life that is, for the other 51 weeks of the year, challenging and frugal.
The Bayou Classic makes you a sports socialist. It makes you realize that this sport can be so much better, too big to hold just 60 or so major programs, too incredible to limit your own exposure to sports joy. At all times, we should make sure that there is always a place in college for healthy, historical rivalry, and that there is forever a pathway to health for those who want to make history.
2. Five Factors
But over time, I've come to realize that the sport comes down to five basic things, four of which you can mostly control. You make more big plays than your opponent, you stay on schedule, you tilt the field, you finish drives, and you fall on the ball. Explosiveness, efficiency, field position, finishing drives, and turnovers are the five factors to winning football games.
- If you win the explosiveness battle (using PPP), you win 86 percent of the time.
- If you win the efficiency battle (using Success Rate), you win 83 percent of the time.
- If you win the drive-finishing battle (using points per trip inside the 40), you win 75 percent of the time.
- If you win the field position battle (using average starting field position), you win 72 percent of the time.
- If you win the turnover battle (using turnover margin), you win 73 percent of the time.
This is from 2013 college football game data. It's very, very similar from year to year.
These are good odds. And they speak to the fundamentals of football itself. You want to be efficient when you've got the ball, because if you fall behind schedule and into passing downs, you're far less likely to make a good play. You want to eat up chunks of yardage with big plays, because big plays mean both points and fewer opportunities to make mistakes. When you get the opportunity to score, you want to score. And when you give the ball back to your opponent, you want to give them to have to go as far as possible.
And you want that damned, pointy ball to bounce in a favorable way. Again, you control four of the five.
It got swept off the front page by Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson, but my favorite piece of the year was a five-part series on something other than football. (Part 2, by the way, was my absolute favorite, and I'm not completely sure why.)
"Sky Sports blew the competition out of the water [20 years ago] with this huge bid, and that has changed the whole face of English soccer. The amount of money around the game ... that's why the clubs could afford to purchase Thierry Henry, Eric Cantona. So the whole growth of English soccer as a huge cosmopolitan product, which sells around the world, is from that point."
"Cosmopolitan" is an interesting word for him to use, as our first day in England began with a trip to the new and old universe of Arsenal Football Club.
The facade of Arsenal's former home, the built-into-the-neighborhood Highbury Stadium, is still built into the neighborhood. You can iron your work clothes on your balcony while looking out at what was once Arsenal's venerable pitch and is now a garden square. (That's such an American idea that it's rather disgusting that America didn't do it first. Just keep this in mind if Fenway Park, or Wrigley Field, or Lambeau Field ever get vacated.)
A few blocks away stands the glorious, cosmopolitan monstrosity known as Emirates Stadium. It is immense and gorgeous, replete with statues and aesthetics on the outside and all of the legroom and capacity Highbury lacked on the inside. As Nick Hornby mentioned in the revered Fever Pitch, Highbury was both his second home and something in need of replacement (like all of the other crammed, increasingly decrepit neighborhood stadiums). Highbury was the first division; Emirates is the Premier League.
A statue of Bremner greets you outside of Elland Road, immortalizing the salty Scotsman, reminding you that Leeds United once had their own intimidating brand of football, and warning you that the fans still believe in Bremner ball. (Everybody in the bar said Bremner's name at least once that night.) Before he took over at Forest, legendary manager Brian Clough -- mortal enemy of Leeds' previous manager, Don Revie -- took the Leeds job. He couldn't get past his dislike of some of the Dirty Leeds players, however, and basically introduced himself by telling everybody they weren't shit. He lasted 44 days on the job. Leeds fans are passionate, and their style of play elicited nearly involuntary passion in others.
The latter might not be as true anymore, but the former is still evident everywhere you look. In bed around 5 a.m., we had to be up and out of the hotel by 11. As we stumbled out of the hotel, groggy and achy and feeling older than we are, we looked in at the hotel bar one more time. David and his friend were sitting in the same spot at the bar, beer in hand. Of course they were; as they mentioned the night before, they have spent countless great moments and great beers in that spot. And we were amateurs in their presence.
We promised them that if (our words) or when (theirs) Leeds are up for promotion in April or May, we'll be back. (Leeds aren't exactly a favorite to make a run this year; Cellino himself has said that, and early results have backed that up. That's a promise we probably won't have to worry about keeping. Probably. But I figured I should tell my editors just in case.) An hour before Leeds kicked off against Middlesborough, city centre was buzzing. The noise near Elland Road was already emanating. Leeds would win, 1-0, on an 88th-minute goal by Billy Sharp. I bet that would have been pretty fun to see, but we had somewhere else to be.
The simple thing to do following the 1989 tragedy would have been simply tear down this stadium and build somewhere else. But that's not how this sport and this continent work. Heysel Stadium still stands. Valley Parade Stadium still stands. Hillsborough Stadium still stands. In a continent that has seen wars, plagues, and disaster, you don't tear down and rebuild your history; it is what it is, and you live your life around it. Hillsborough was an old stadium 25 years ago, and while infinitely stronger safety measures are still in place, it is now mostly what it was then from an aesthetics standpoint.
And just as your history is your history, your fixtures are your fixtures. Teams still play each other when asked. Millwall and Luton Town still played when required after the 1985 Kenilworth Road riot. Liverpool and Forest still played until Forest's demotion. Hell, Wednesday remained a top-division team for 10 of 11 years from 1989 to 2000; that means Liverpool came back to Hillsborough for a road tie 10 times. History is formative, but really, history is a caboose you drag behind you from fixture to fixture. [...]
Sheffield is Pittsburgh, gray and alive, married to steel with rows of homes in the hillsides. It has been called the best beer city in England, which we unfortunately didn’t have the opportunity (or, after the night in Leeds, the wherewithal) to prove right or wrong. It is a family-friendly area with two proud fanbases – Wednesday and United – and while the aesthetics could be polished up a bit, there’s no need. It is what it is, and I was disappointed not to spend longer there.
Liverpool has one of the most distinct identities of any English city. With identity comes a more tightly knit community. Beyond that, however, was the tragedy itself -- a mix of could-have-happened-to-anybody circumstance and official cruelty/bungling. From the moment the Hillsborough tragedy unfolded, authorities attempted to pin a good portion of blame on rowdy Liverpudlians with a sort of "You know how they can be" nudge that was both unfair and, in this instance, untrue. And in the 25 years that have followed, there has not been any major sense of remorse for that. For so many Liverpool fans simply looking for closure, for acknowledgement of reality, that has been endlessly infuriating. [...]
Sports are a collection of what would seem to outsiders as strange traditions, customs, and sets of rules. In America, we sing 100-year old fight songs, and bury dead collies near Kyle Field, and scream "War Damn Eagle" in support of a team named the Tigers, and run with a buffalo in Colorado, and dot an "I" with a tuba player, and sailgate in Seattle, and Jump Around in Madison. These things are all great because we decided they should be great.
"You'll Never Walk Alone" began as a similar tradition. It was originally a song writen for a Rodgers & Hammerstein play (Carousel), and it was known mostly in the states because Jerry Lewis would sing it at telethons. Liverpool fans began singing it at games 50 years ago thanks to a cover of the song by locals Gerry & the Pacemakers. But after Hillsborough, it took a new, permanent interpretation. And now we view it as one of the signature traditions in sport.
College football and club soccer have quite a few obvious similarities. The teams with the money go out of their way to make sure they remain the teams with the money; most of the programs that were good (or bad) 20 years ago are good (or bad) now. There is an established oligarchy for each sport.
But at the very least, college football throws teams a socialist bone. It is the sport with the highest capability for adjusting hopes and goals. "Okay, we lost, so we're probably not going to be national champions; we still have a shot at the conference title." "Okay, we're probably not going to win the conference title; we still have a shot at a January 1 bowl." "Okay, we're probably not going to make a January 1 bowl; we still have a shot at the [insert semi-attractive December 29 bowl here]." "Okay, the season's kind of a bust; screw it, just get to 6-6 and go to [Shreveport/Boise/Albuquerque]." You can fail to clear all of those bars, but there are at least different heights to attempt along the way. It's like a high jump competition backwards.
With soccer, however, the only definable goals are finishing in the top six (which is difficult with a seven-club ruling class) or just not getting sent down.
This one didn't feel right on any sort of "best" list, but a friend of mine passed away in August, and I wrote about that, too.