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.
I wrote that last year, and I think it all still applies. The quantity remained about the same, but I think this was my best quality year yet. I hope it was, anyway.
Okay, so this technically isn't writing. But Godfrey and I started a podcast this year, and I'm pretty happy with it. Expect some guests in the offseason.
I didn't write a ton about tennis this year, but I was really happy with the pieces I came up with.
[Nadal is] still 70-2 all time at Roland Garros. It took Novak Djokovic to end his five-year title streak. He dropped three sets during his 2011 title run and was taken to five sets by John Isner, and we started to assume Djokovic was going to overtake him soon; then he dropped one set in winning in 2012. He dropped four sets and won as a 3-seed in 2013, then dropped only two as a 1-seed in 2014. Every time we think he's on his way down, he rebounds. Djokovic's Wednesday dominance was extreme, but it was only a little bit more convincing than Nadal's other Roland Garros loss, a 6-2, 6-7, 6-4, 7-6 defeat at the hands of Robin Soderling. He responded to that one by winning five titles in a row.
Nadal might not be done, and he still might have a 10th title in him if Djokovic's form dips again (and your perfect form always does). But when he is officially through winning slams, this is what it will look like: a timid, aging Nadal, camped out far behind the baseline and incapable of doing enough damage against an opponent who is dialed in and running him from side to side. That it happened against a peaking Djokovic doesn't mean it will happen against just anybody, but it will likely happen more in the next couple of years.
Watch Novak Djokovic play, and you see a fifth-degree black belt at or near the peak of his power. He has learned the sport, he understands the sport, he can make every shot, and he knows when to use them. He is an incredible tennis player, the best in the world. He is a charitable, charming champion.
But in your head, you can almost talk yourself into becoming his approximation -- if I worked for 20 hours a day, got into superhuman shape, slept in a hyperbaric chamber, and gave up eating real foods in favor of gluten-free protein morsels, I could play a lot like him. This is patently untrue, of course, and you know it. But his game just makes sense to you. He has mastered the book, but his game is, in many ways, by the book.
The more you play, the more you hit, the less sense Federer makes. He is practicing Krav Maga in a karate competition. His game is, and always has been, focused more on offense than the games of other greats. And he creates offense in ways that few ever have. Tennis has become so athletic, so physical, so fast that the top level of talent is nearly homogeneous, with even the worst offensive players able to hit backhand winners and the worst defenders able to track balls down and hit a decent slice. But Federer still plays a different game than anybody else.
Many, however, have ascribed an asterisk to her record. Her level of competition just isn't the same, you see. The women's field is weak. Her 21 slam titles are therefore less impressive than Martina's or Chrissie's 18. That's a pretty neat trick, really -- if you dominate your competition too much, it hurts your résumé. That was a knock against Roger Federer, too, until Nadal and Djokovic came along.
Of course, on the list of Serena critiques, that one ranks pretty low. She's dealt with an appalling level of criticism, and it began when she was a teenager. Her father, Richard, was accused of fixing matches between Serena and Venus. She dealt with countless examples of racist comments. Her intensity was viewed as a sign of unwomanly behavior, her build a sign of manliness, her withdrawal from the public a sign of laziness. She has forever been a square peg in a sport that prefers its round holes.
Such is the price of being different in the most individual of sports. We find your every flaw in tennis, and then we invent more.
It is perhaps no wonder, then, why so few women have attempted to approximate Serena's strength, to the extent that they even could. There is upside, sure, but is it worth the risk? In taking his fitness to a new level, Novak Djokovic became leaner, more nimble, and actually even more marketable.
8. In-season writing
I write a ton during the college football season, but so much of it is reaction, and none of it is planned too far in advance. That said, I still end up with a few pieces each year that I really like.
Teams went for it on fourth-and-goal from the 1 on 122 occasions in the 2014 season. They scored a touchdown 66.4 percent of the time, 81 times in all. That's an expected point value of about 4.6. And if you fail, your opponent is probably getting the ball on its own goal line.
Meanwhile, you can only score three points on a field goal.
Just thought I'd point that out, Butch Jones.
Your decision-making can end up based on surprises or on keeping your opponent off your scent, on what is worst for the opponent rather than what is best for you. This paranoia can backfire.
Ohio State's Urban Meyer and Alabama's Nick Saban are the two most proven coaches in football. In a sport where winning one national title makes you part of an elite club and winning two makes you an all-time great, they have won seven of the last 12. They have thrived at seven different schools between them, and their versions of bad teams are still better than almost everybody else's good versions.
Both of these legendary coaches are in the middle of drastically overthinking.
Because they started near the back, Clemson has only advanced to fifth in the AP Poll and sixth in the Coaches. They have a combined one first place vote, 74 fewer than an Ohio State that has proved very little beyond being the guys who won the title last year.
But if the Playoff committee began its work today, the Tigers might be No. 1. They would almost certainly have a spot in the top four.
The Tigers have checked every box so far.
Of Bama's 12 losses, six came to teams ranked in the SR+ top five and 10 came to teams in the top 20. (This table further emphasizes just how incredibly out-of-character Bama's loss to Oklahoma was, and for both teams.) If you're able to effectively move the ball four to six yards at a time and avoid passing downs, only then can you utilize the tempo and spread principles we've seen Alabama struggle with from time to time. Plenty of spread offenses have failed miserably against the Tide in this regard.
So, in more than seven seasons and 101 games, Alabama has lost just three times to a team ranked worse than 13th in this category. And in this category, Texas A&M currently ranks 49th. Uh oh.
I mean ... Stanford, you're making your stolid coach, whose base expression is that of a Silicon Valley accountant driving home from work, make faces like a bass player in the middle of a solo.
Last night in an earlier game, Auburn was punting on fourth-and-1 and playing boring, frustrating football (even while winning), and you're over here unleashing big hits and flashy runs and impossible, beyond impossible, catches. I don't know what to believe anymore.
Cook's explosiveness in the open field has been otherworldly. Against Miami in Week 6, his first touch was a 72-yard touchdown on a perfectly executed option. His third was a 36-yard score on a simple crossing route. He had rushes of 35, 23 and 23 in the game.
In Week 7 against Louisville, his first eight carries generated just 32 yards, and FSU trailed 7-6 at halftime. But on the fifth play of the second half, he rushed right for 54 yards and a touchdown. His 14-yard score made it 27-14, and an 11-yard rush on third-and-11 set up the game-icing touchdown. He finished with 22 carries for 163 yards and four catches for 60; almost all of his yardage came in the second half.
Oh yeah, and he's been fighting a hamstring injury. That is ridiculous.
(Yes, this is an evergreen from 2014.)
We spend the first 10 months of the year talking about what might happen in the college football season. We spend November watching what happens.
College football is at its best and worst in November. October was wild, cruel, and exhilarating. And now come four November Saturdays. Buckle up.
Iowa is projected to pummel Purdue and win a tight one over Nebraska. The Hawkeyes aren't going to be given a favorable shot in the Big Ten title game, especially if the opponent is Ohio State. But who cares? A 12-1 record would be an amazing turnaround. And the tight finishes have given this even more of a storybook run.
Yeah, so the numbers hate your team. So what?
1. LSU is not doing quite as well as it was a couple of years ago. There might be clear reasons related to roster turnover. Teams can naturally recover from small down cycles with extra experience on the field and adjustment in the coaching booth.
2. Les Miles is not Nick Saban. Miles has recruited well, and without any changes whatsoever, LSU could expect to field an improved defense and its best offense in years in 2016. Odds are decent that the Tigers still won't be as good as Saban's Crimson Tide next year.
Does that warrant a change? From an outsider's perspective, no way in hell.
After falling out of the F/+ top 40, the Bulldogs are back up to 34th. Yes, that's a bad performance for a program with Georgia's potential, even one that loses its offensive coordinator and starting quarterback in the offseason and one of the best players in the country (Nick Chubb) to injury midway.
But this poor performances comes on the heels of four consecutive F/+ top-15 finishes (13th in 2011, seventh in 2012, 14th in 2013, fourth in 2014).
Here are the other programs that pulled that off in that same span: Alabama.
That's it. Florida State didn't do it. Oregon didn't. Ohio State didn't. But Richt even pulled it off in 2013, with a brutally young defense and receivers exploding like Spinal Tap drummers.
[Deshaun] Watson averaged 8.1 yards per pass attempt, combining extreme mobility (954 non-sack rushing yards) with an uncharacteristically low sack rate (2.8 percent) and a remarkable 70 percent completion rate. Star receiver Mike Williams was hurt in the first game of 2015, and with a receiving corps loaded with underclassmen (of the top six targets, four are freshmen and sophomores), Clemson ranks third in Passing S&P+. His passer rating of 159.6 is incredible, considering he is also Clemson's best runner.
Watson has mastered the art of efficiency in a way that a true sophomore isn't supposed to. He has been the best quarterback in the country.
7. Concussions (i.e. the War on Football)
This one kind of came about on the spur of the moment, but I really liked it.
The death of Harold Moore and the involvement of Teddy Roosevelt forced massive rules changes on the sport, which people were still growing to love in 1905. It was a local thrill, and it was deemed worth saving. Fans rebelled against the rules changes, and then the sport thrived.
That probably qualified as a serious conversation. And maybe we'll have another one. I can't imagine what kind of event it would take, and I hope we can do it without that event.
That would mean the NFL actually acknowledging how serious CTE is and not asking friends with medical credentials to call the threat "exaggerated." That means actually being willing to stop watching/attending NFL games until they do.
That means demanding that, in an era of record-setting college football revenue, football institutions work to provide strong health insurance options for players and making sure families aren't losing money because of the sport.
That means not throwing a fit when players attempt to unionize to accomplish that. [...]
That means making sure we aren't having 7-year-olds playing organized damn tackle football.
That means accepting that rules changes are going to make for frustrating calls, that further changes might be on the way, that this might make the sport more "like flag football," that the when-men-were-men sport your father loved might not be with us much longer, and that this is okay. We will still watch it. Also not with us as much these days: diners, cigarette ads and skating rinks. The world changes. Sometimes that's frustrating.
6. The work week
My big coaching feature included two mid-major head coaches who had great years and three power-conference head coaches who ... didn't.
"We had a shorter quarterback, and I thought I could get five dumpy linemen who could get run over slowly."
Twenty-four years ago, Rodriguez made one of the most significant tweaks in football history because he was looking to overcome physical challenges. [...]
In 1991, it was time to experiment. A defensive back in college, Rodriguez asked himself what many defense-minded coaches have asked: what do I hate stopping the most?
"I thought, 'Let's try something different with tempo,'" he says. "I was thinking like a defender. The hardest thing to defend was the two-minute drill. Let's do that the whole game. What have we got to lose? We've got 500 people in the stands, and I'm related to 490 of them.
5. Stat stuff
I would love to see recruiting rankings move in a direction like what you see there: ability and potential. Your team's "Coach Report" screen shows you both what a player currently has to offer and what a player might be able to offer with proper development.
Current recruiting services tend to try to toe the line between the two. They look at both a player's instant-impact potential and the raw athletic potential that could be coaxed out three, four, or five years down the road. If I were designing a new system of evaluating prospects, I would love to try to take my ratings in two different directions. [...]
This would allow us to say that a player like Florida State signee Derwin James maybe has 4.0-star ability and 5.0-star potential while a player like Missouri signee Franklin Agbasimere, a Nigeria transplant who has only played football for a year and a half but has crazy athletic potential (his highlight film is fun and screams "RAWWWW"), maybe has 2.0-star ability and 4.5-star potential.
When I rule the college football universe, this is what I want to see.
If you had asked me before hand, I would have ventured that the strongest correlations [between experience and improvement] would be tied to the quarterback and offensive line. Instead, quarterbacks and receivers had far stronger correlations than RBs or OL, and the correlation between line experience and offensive improvement is actually negative.
Now, again, this is only one year of data, so I'm not going to jump to massive conclusions just yet. I assume with more data, the OL correlation will at least flip to positive (and tiny), so I'm not going to start saying things like "Team A returns 132 career starts up front, which is a giant red flag" or anything. But wow, that was not what I expected.
Boykin's chart reveals a player who doesn't quite fit the dual-threat stereotype. Boykin is athletic enough to have played wide receiver for a bit, but we see here that he doesn't actually run that frequently compared to other college quarterbacks -- 98 rushes is quite a bit, but not necessarily compared to 364 pass attempts -- and he avoids sacks quite a bit more than other players who are reliant on their legs.
In all, Boykin has just been tremendous this year. His interception rate obviously perked up against Oklahoma State, but he's still filling in quite a bit of space on this chart.
A quarterback who runs a lot is quite likely to take more sacks, complete a lower percentage of passes, run more successfully (duh), and complete more explosive passes. Meanwhile, quarterbacks who never run are throwing more quickly and therefore taking fewer sacks, completing a higher percentage of passes, and averaging fewer yards per completion. None of this is particularly surprising, but the numbers certainly back this up.
Either offense can work, but it's hard to deny the numbers advantage that a good rushing quarterback can give you ... just as it's hard to deny the downside of having your quarterback run a lot. You could end up with more explosive plays and more negative plays ... and though it didn't earn further mention in this post, you could also get your signal caller hurt.
Plus and minus, give and take.
(And as we learned in 2015 ... repeatedly ... a quarterback who runs a lot might also get hurt.)
Would ya look at that? Just look at it. Look right there. Just take a look at it. https://t.co/x6HUGugJ5M— Stephen Garcia (@StephenGarcia) August 22, 2015
From 2005-13, 35 FBS teams ended up with an actual win total at least 1.8 games lower than their projected second-order win total. That means they underachieved pretty drastically compared to what the stats would expect. Of these 35, four saw their actual win percentage regress the next year, four stayed the same, and 27 improved. Of those 27, 15 improved by at least 20 percent.
Meanwhile, from 2005-13, 32 teams managed an actual win total at least 2.0 games higher than their projected second-order win total. This means they overachieved compared to what the stats expected. Of these 32, two saw their win total improve the next year, two stayed the same, and 28 regressed. Fourteen of those 28 saw their actual win percentage drop by at least 20 percent.
That's pretty definitive.
[I]f your Passing Downs SR+ was quite a bit better than your Standard Downs SR+, you are probably going to regress the next year. And if it's quite a bit lower, you're probably going to improve.
What happens if we look at the Colt McCoy Effect, i.e. the impact a returning quarterback has on these numbers?
[I]f your ratio is too high, but you're returning your starting quarterback, you have a chance at holding steady. (And it should be noted that, if you remove UCF from the "returning starter at QB" list because Justin Holman has been injured, the average change rises from minus-1.38 to minus-0.38.) But if your ratio was high and you have a new starter, you're regressing by almost a touchdown. That's pretty significant.
Meanwhile, if your ratio was too low, and you have a new starting quarterback, you might get even worse. But if you return your starting quarterback, therefore maintaining more experience at the toughest position on the field, you will improve by about half a touchdown.
This is something I perhaps shouldn't have allowed to drop!
For the second straight season, Florida State has been disturbingly consistent. The Seminoles never played elite football last year but were consistently in the 80 to 85 percent range, which, when combined with a nice combination of closers (i.e., a good quarterback and great kicker), was enough to remain undefeated until playing an elite Oregon team in the Rose Bowl. This year, surprisingly enough, the Seminoles have actually established a higher level of play despite the loss of Jameis Winston and so many of last year's difference-makers.
Ring the alarm bells: Ohio State has been consistent in the exact same way that Florida State was last year -- always a good team but never the elite team that we expected to see. The Buckeyes still have time, obviously, but this is a concern. Their max performance is actually the lowest of anybody in the top 30 ... and their minimum performance is one of the highest. That's how you survive a season without any major upsets and then get pummeled by a really good team down the line.
You can potentially distill coaching into two things: building a team that produces great stats and figuring out how to maneuver in tight games when neither team has a statistical advantage. The former matters above all (Nick Saban and Steve Kragthorpe, after all, are nearly even on this list ... and on no other list in existence), but if nothing else, this list might help us to understand which teams/coaches are good or bad at the latter. [...]
On the opposite side, Flexbone masters Ken Niumatalolo (+1.2 wins per year) and Paul Johnson (+0.6) are both pretty far up on the overachiever list. That's hard to ignore. And UL-Lafayette's Mark Hudspeth (+1.1), long considered an up-and-comer, ranks highly, too. So does Toledo's Matt Campbell. And close-game crazy wizard Les Miles.
4. Sloan and a stat manifesto
At this year's Sloan Conference in Boston, we actually had ourselves a college football panel. It featured Oliver Luck, James Franklin, Tom Luginbill, moderator Rachel Nichols, and some nerd. You can watch it here. After the conference, I wrote this:
Each year we pick up stragglers. It's safe to say that, while we are still years behind other sports, more people than ever are paying attention, and even more will be next year. So perhaps we need to set the table.
Below is a mission statement, a list of topics we need to pursue to get the most out of stats in college football. Using this year's Football Study Hall glossary and the 2015 team preview countdown as means of communicating where we've come to date, let's talk about where we could go once the two-deep is fleshed out.
Some of these items are intended to help writing and analysis, some are for coaching, and some are for the health of the sport. There is nothing here about predictions, rating systems, or college-to-pro projections. There is already plenty of work in those arenas.
3. Los Angeles
This year's in-season trip was out west. I enjoyed how this turned out.
Watching a game in the Rose Bowl is watching every game that has been played there. There's Vince Young, ripping out USC's heart where Don Beebe knocks the ball out of Leon Lett's hands. Roberto Baggio's penalty kick is sailing over the goal about 30 yards to the left. John Riggins in Super Bowl XVII is chugging at you in slow motion near where Andres Escobar lies on his back after his own goal against the U.S. Michael Jackson's Super Bowl halftime show is up next. Sit in the end zone seats on the north side, by the video board, and you can see Brandi Chastain staring back.
It was ... an eventful year for Missouri, for any number of reasons. That certainly opened up the opportunity for me to write about my alma mater a little bit.
Look at photos from the 1960s, from the days of James Meredith and Vivian Malone and James A. Hood. It's easy to note the stoicism in the faces of those first black students looking for admission in Southern white schools. My eyes draw toward the other faces. The angry ones. The mocking ones. The drum majors. Some of the students in these photos are still alive, in their mid-70s. Some either died or will die with no regrets.
I bet some of them have, over the last five decades, come to realize their mistakes. Some of them have children and grandchildren who try to rationalize these decisions as products of the time. They weren't truly bad people, you see. They were just misguided. This is what we tell ourselves, hoping we're right and never receiving confirmation. (I include myself in this group.)
In these pictures are the people immortalized as those on the wrong side of history.
There are fewer faces these days, replaced by tiny Facebook photos and Twitter eggs. Maybe these profile photos feature pets or families of a great life people want you to know they have. But the hate is the same, as is the trajectory of history.
The universe was a completely different place 15 years ago, and Missouri was a completely different program. Missouri fans reveled not in accomplishment but in their ability to handle more torture -- the Fifth Down, the Flea Kicker, a 13-year drought between winning seasons -- than others.
Pinkel picked Missouri fans up, dusted them off, wiped their noses and gave them some self-respect. On rare occasions, you'll still see the self-pitying Missouri fan come out, but it's false bravado. Missouri is not cursed, both because curses don't exist and because Pinkel made it so.
My story is not your story, my book is not your book. Our stories may have overlapped -- particularly in the last month or so -- but they are still our own personal stories, seen from our own eyes.
Every season, every new hire, is a new chapter in what is hopefully a very long book for each of us. Maybe we're lucky enough to enjoy it from Columbia, or maybe we're trying to keep tabs on everything from faraway places, closing our eyes to remember the sound of the crowd, the words to the fight song, the taste of Shakespeares. Believe me, not an autumn Saturday goes by when I don't realize how lucky I am to still live in Columbia, with this job no less. So many would kill to still be able to attend six to seven Saturdays a year at Memorial Stadium. Many would settle for one per year.
Not every chapter is happy, and not every chapter is sad, but that is not particularly important. When we're telling our story, we won't be telling the tale of every game or every year. Certain moments will stand out, and others are footnotes at best. Every story is rich regardless.
And for grins, here's a Q&A I did with the greatest, most successful athlete in Mizzou's history.
When Max won the title in 2010 ... he had obviously already had a tremendous four years, but there was always one more hurdle to go, and he finally took the title his senior year. And of course, the camera follows him over, and you guys hug. It was a really cool thing. This is kind of a sappy question, but where do you rank that as compared to your own accomplishments?
I always tell people that I've never felt the same feeling when I won and when Max won, whether it was his first state title, first national title. They were incredible feelings, but Max's was just different. It was just as good, but it was different.
I had been a big part of his wrestling career for right around a decade at that point, but to see him just keep coming up short and coming up short ... he wanted to act like it didn't affect him, but I could tell it did. So when he finally got that title, it was a big pressure off of him. For me to see him get that after all those years -- and I would say he had more hardships and tribulations than I did -- it was great.
And for the second straight year, the piece I was happiest with didn't involve football at all ... American football, anyway.
There is a hill overlooking most of Munich’s Olympic park, and aside from the Olympiaturm — the space needle-type structure on the grounds — the view from the top of the hill might be the most comprehensive and expansive in Munich. Face north, and you’ve got the entire Olympic park in one panoramic shot. Glance to your northeast, and you can see Allianz Arena a few kilometers away. Turn to the southeast, and you’ve got all of old town Munich (which is to say all of what people know about Munich). Glance a little bit southwest, and you get a skyline reminder that the Alps aren’t far away.
German ingenuity: this hill is a Trümmerberg. Literal translation: rubble mountain. After acres of Munich were destroyed during World War II, the ruins were piled together here. A couple of decades later, layered over with green and trees, it became a beautiful visual centerpiece for the 1972 Summer Olympics.
Creating light from darkness is a German specialty. In this country, you are never far from something beautiful, and you are never far from a reminder of how things can go terribly wrong. This is the obvious case with Munich itself — from atop war rubble, only a few miles from the concentration camp in Dachau, you watch over gorgeous views from every angle.