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kottke.org posts about NFL

How professional football might end (sooner than you think)

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 13, 2012

Writing for Grantland, economists Tyler Cowen and Kevin Grier imagine how the NFL might end due to the increasing visibility of head injuries.

This slow death march could easily take 10 to 15 years. Imagine the timeline. A couple more college players — or worse, high schoolers — commit suicide with autopsies showing CTE. A jury makes a huge award of $20 million to a family. A class-action suit shapes up with real legs, the NFL keeps changing its rules, but it turns out that less than concussion levels of constant head contact still produce CTE. Technological solutions (new helmets, pads) are tried and they fail to solve the problem. Soon high schools decide it isn’t worth it. The Ivy League quits football, then California shuts down its participation, busting up the Pac-12. Then the Big Ten calls it quits, followed by the East Coast schools. Now it’s mainly a regional sport in the southeast and Texas/Oklahoma. The socioeconomic picture of a football player becomes more homogeneous: poor, weak home life, poorly educated. Ford and Chevy pull their advertising, as does IBM and eventually the beer companies.

Is this how soccer finally conquers America? Not that soccer doesn’t have its own concussion-related problems.

Update: Claire McNear for the Ringer: It’s Getting Harder and Harder to Deny That Football Is Doomed.

They keep telling us they’re going to find a safe way to do it — a way to play football that doesn’t result in Tre Mason’s mom telling the police that her 23-year-old son just isn’t acting right, that her boy, who couldn’t bring himself to turn up at Rams training camp this summer, now has the mind-set of a 10-year-old. They keep telling us they’re going to find a way that doesn’t end with Bruce Miller, all 248 pounds of him, wandering lost and angry and confused, looking very much like someone exhibiting the symptoms of long-term brain damage, and then attempting to enter a family’s hotel room and allegedly beating a 70-year-old man.

What the NFL won’t show you

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 02, 2011

The NFL regards the “All-22” footage of their games — the zoomed-out view of the game that includes the movements of all 22 players on the field — as proprietary and releases it to very few people. But it’s difficult to fully understand the game without it.

For decades, NFL TV broadcasts have relied most heavily on one view: the shot from a sideline camera that follows the progress of the ball. Anyone who wants to analyze the game, however, prefers to see the pulled-back camera angle known as the “All 22.”

While this shot makes the players look like stick figures, it allows students of the game to see things that are invisible to TV watchers: like what routes the receivers ran, how the defense aligned itself and who made blocks past the line of scrimmage.

By distributing this footage only to NFL teams, and rationing it out carefully to its TV partners and on its web site, the NFL has created a paradox. The most-watched sport in the U.S. is also arguably the least understood. “I don’t think you can get a full understanding without watching the entirety of the game,” says former head coach Bill Parcells. The zoomed-in footage on TV broadcasts, he says, only shows a “fragment” of what happens on the field.

Update: The NFL is making the All-22 footage from next season’s games available on its website for $70. (thx, stef)

The life and death of Dave Duerson

posted by Tim Carmody   May 03, 2011
Dave Duerson.jpg

Jason wrote about the suicide of Dave Duerson in February. Duerson was an all-pro NFL safety, most notably with the Chicago Bears, who shot himself in the chest.

He left several suicide notes and text messages asking for his brain to be examined post-mortem for signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy — a disease caused by repeated untreated concussions now thought to be common among professional football players and other athletes — which he thought may have led to his depression. An autopsy later revealed that Duerson was right.

Gus Garcia-Roberts has a magnificent story on Duerson — his childhood, football career, post-NFL life as an entrepreneur, and his dip into bankruptcy and mental illness, both of which he tried desperately to cover until the day he died.

To its black residents, Muncie — nicknamed “Little Chicago” because it was divisively and forever segregated — felt like a village. And by his high school graduation in 1978, Dave was the golden child. He was a member of the National Honor Society, had traveled through Europe playing the sousaphone as part of the Musical Ambassadors All-American Band, and in his senior year was voted Indiana Mr. Football. He could run the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds and throw a fastball at 95 mph. “I thought he might go on to be a senator,” Kizer says, “or anything he wanted.”

The Los Angeles Dodgers offered Dave a signing bonus to pitch for them. But when the Dodgers’ scouts told his father there was “no time for college,” Dave later recounted to HistoryMakers, “that was a very short conversation.”

He enrolled in his home state’s University of Notre Dame on a football and baseball scholarship. Once there, football dominated his schedule, and his baseball prospects faded away.

Dave would later say that, for the career longevity, he wished he had chosen baseball. Decades down the road — after the undiagnosed concussions, headaches, mood swings, memory loss, erratic behavior, and, finally, the suicide — his family would agree.

Read it. (Via the excellent new sportswriting aggregator SportsFeat.)

How NFL footballs are made

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 03, 2011

The manufacturing process for the official NFL football made by Wilson:

It’s fascinating that every football used in the NFL for the past 20-30 years has been made by Deb, Loretta, Peg, Glen, Emmitt, Tina, Etta Mae, Pam, and Michelle. Also, they call the pre-laced, pre-inflated ball a carcass! (thx, peter)

Update: The NY Times takes a slightly different look at the Wilson factory, through the eyes of Jane Helser, who sewed footballs there for almost 50 years.

And then after the teams get the balls, they go through further procedures that vary from team to team. Here’s how the NY Giants prep their footballs for Eli Manning:

The new ball is rubbed vigorously for 45 minutes with a dark brush, which removes the wax and darkens the leather.

Next, a wet towel is used to scour the ball until the ball’s outer surface is soaked through. “You’re not done until the ball is waterlogged and water will no longer bead on it,” Ed Skiba said.

While the ball is wet, it is brushed again.

Then the ball is taken over to an electric spin wheel, where it undergoes another high-speed scrubbing.

At this point, the ball is put aside overnight. Then the process is repeated twice over the next couple of days.

But under-inflating by a couple of PSI is a scandal? Absurd.

NFL TV maps for 2010 season

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 08, 2010

I’m a little late this year, but the 2010 NFL maps site has been up and humming for four weeks now. The site displays what games are going to be on TV in different parts of the country.

Player Drafted At Linebacker To Start At Realtor

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 30, 2010

Big NFL draft news:

The Raiders organization welcomed sixth-round draft choice Travis Goethel Wednesday and said the Arizona State linebacker would more than likely be asked to start as a Bay-area Realtor by the beginning of next season.

40 yard dash: average dude vs pro athlete

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 05, 2010

Video from the NFL Combine showing just how fast prospective NFL players can run compared to normal people.

It is almost unbelievable how quickly Jacoby Ford (the top performer in the 40 this year) covers that distance.

New NFL playoff overtime rule

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 25, 2010

The NFL has approved a new overtime rule for the playoffs. Each team will now get at least one overtime possession unless the team winning the coin flip scores a touchdown on the opening drive.

In 1994, the spot of the kickoff was moved to the 30-yard line from the 35, allowing for longer returns that put the receiving team into field-goal range with just a few plays or a long penalty. Since then, the team that won the toss won 59.8 percent of the time, because even if it did not win on the first possession, it often controlled field position. The team that lost the toss won just 38.4 percent of the time. And before the kickoff was moved, teams won with a field goal on the opening possession just 17.9 percent of the time. After the kickoff moved, it rose to 26.8 percent of the time.

I’m pretty happy about this. Like I said after the Saints/Vikings game in January:

Congrats to the Saints, but the coin-toss sudden death OT thing has to be the worst rule in sports.

Gridiron time

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 26, 2010

Actual football played in a 60-min NFL game: about 11 minutes.

So what do the networks do with the other 174 minutes in a typical broadcast? Not surprisingly, commercials take up about an hour. As many as 75 minutes, or about 60% of the total air time, excluding commercials, is spent on shots of players huddling, standing at the line of scrimmage or just generally milling about between snaps.

The dark side of Marvin Harrison

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 15, 2010

Did former Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Marvin Harrison shoot a North Philly drug dealer and later have him murdered?

The cops also thought it was wrong to drop the case just because a piece-of-shit famous person might be guilty of shooting a piece-of-shit unfamous person in a piece-of-shit part of the city. If prosecutors required every witness to have a pristine record, one detective says, “most of the cases in the city wouldn’t be solved.” None of the cops doubted for a second that if Harrison was a plumber or a UPS driver instead of a famous athlete, he’d have long since been arrested.

The rise of the punter

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 08, 2010

Are NFL punters the most valuable defensive players on their teams? Punters think so…and so do an increasing number of coaches and teams.

Steve Spagnuolo, who was the Giants’ defensive coordinator before becoming head coach of the Rams last January, was one coach who appreciated what [Giants punter Jeff] Feagles could do. “I used to tell Jeff he was our most valuable player on defense,” Spagnuolo says. “He didn’t worry about his yardage or net punt average. All he worried about was putting our defense in the best position. He’s a tremendous directional punter. He was always trying to back the offense inside the 10, and nobody did it better.”

And of course I love this quote by Feagles:

The punter’s mind is a lot more powerful than his leg.

Rating the pundits: 2009 NFL preseason predictions

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 07, 2010

How accurate are all those preseason predictions about how the coming NFL season will unfold?

ESPN Ranking OffsetsIn an effort to find out, I collected a number of preseason “team power rankings” two days before the 2009 NFL regular season started in September. These ranking lists are compiled by columnists and pundits from media outlets like Sports Illustrated, Fox Sports, The Sporting News, and ESPN. In addition, I collected a fan-voted ranking from Yahoo Sports and the preseason Vegas odds to win the Super Bowl. As a baseline of sorts, I’ve also included the ranking for how the teams finished in the 2008 season.

Each team ranking from each list was compared to the final 2009 regular season standings (taken from this tentative 2010 draft order) by calculating the offset between the estimated rank to the team’s actual finish. For instance, ESPN put the Steelers in the #1 slot but they actually finished 15th in the league…so ESPN’s offset for the Steelers is 14. For each list, the offsets for all 32 teams were added up and divided by 32 to get the average number of places that the list was off by. See ESPN’s list at right for example; you can see that each team ranking in the list was off by an average of about 6.3 places.

Here are the offset averages for each list (from best to worst):

Media outletOffset ave. (# of places)
CBS Sports5.6
The Sporting News5.6
USA Today5.6
Vegas odds5.8
Yahoo Sports5.9
Sports Illustrated5.9
ESPN6.3
Fox Sports6.4
2008 finish7.3

The good news is that all of the pundits beat the baseline ranking of last season’s final standings. But they didn’t beat it by that much…only 1.7 places in the best case. A few other observations:

- All the lists were pretty much the same. Last place Fox Sports and first place CBS Sports differ by less than one place in their rankings. The Steelers and Patriots were one and two on every list and the bottom five were pretty consistent as well. All the pundits said basically the same thing; no one had an edge or angle the others didn’t.

- Nearly everyone was very wrong about the Steelers, Giants, Titans, Jets, Bengals, and Saints…and to a lesser extent, the Redskins, Bears, Vikings, and Packers. CBS Sports made the fewest big mistakes; their offset for the Bengals was only 4 places. The biggest mistakes were Fox Sports’ choice and the Vegas ranking of the Bengals to finish 28th (offset: 19).

- Among the top teams, the Colts, Eagles, and Patriots more or less fulfilled the hopes of the pundits; only Fox Sports and Sports Illustrated missed the mark on one of these teams (the Colts by 9 places).

- The two “wisdom of the crowds” lists, Yahoo Sports and the Vegas list, ended up in the middle, better than some but not as good as some others. I suspect that there was not enough independent information out there for the crowd to make a good collective choice; those two lists looked pretty much like the pundits’ lists.

- The teams who turned out to be bad were easier to pick than the good teams. The bottom five picks on each list were typically off by 3-5 places while the top five were off by more like 8-12 places (esp the Steelers and the Giants). Not sure why this is. Perhaps badness is easier to see than goodness. Or it’s easier for a good-looking team to go bad than it is for bad-looking team to do better.

For the curious, here’s the full Google Docs spreadsheet of numbers for all of the lists.

Methodology and notes: 1) I made an assumption about all these power ranking lists: that what the pundits were really picking is the final regular season ranking. That isn’t precisely true but close enough for our purposes. 2) I have no idea what the statistical error is here. 3) The 2010 draft order list isn’t a perfect ranking of how the teams finished, but it is close enough. 4) Using the final regular season records as the determining factor of rank is problematic because of the playoffs. By the end of the season, some teams aren’t trying to win every game because they’ve either made the playoffs or haven’t. So some teams might be a little bit better or worse than their records indicate. 5) The Vegas odds list was a rankng of the odds of each team making the Super Bowl, not the odds for the teams’ final records. But close enough. 6) The Sports Illustrated list was from before the 2009 pre-season started; I couldn’t find an SI list from right before the regular season. Still, it looked a lot like the other lists and did middlingly well.

Dogfighting vs. football in moral calculus

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 12, 2009

Using Michael Vick as a pivot, Malcolm Gladwell compares professional football with dogfighting and asks if the former is just as morally unacceptable as the latter. This is former NFL offensive lineman Kyle Turley:

I remember, every season, multiple occasions where I’d hit someone so hard that my eyes went cross-eyed, and they wouldn’t come uncrossed for a full series of plays. You are just out there, trying to hit the guy in the middle, because there are three of them. You don’t remember much. There are the cases where you hit a guy and you’d get into a collision where everything goes off. You’re dazed. And there are the others where you are involved in a big, long drive. You start on your own five-yard line, and drive all the way down the field-fifteen, eighteen plays in a row sometimes. Every play: collision, collision, collision. By the time you get to the other end of the field, you’re seeing spots. You feel like you are going to black out. Literally, these white explosions-boom, boom, boom-lights getting dimmer and brighter, dimmer and brighter.

Perhaps this is what Gladwell will be talking about at the upcoming New Yorker Festival?

Update: From Stephen Fatsis, a list of improvements for the NFL players union to consider to protect the health of the players.

N.F.L. players often get excellent medical treatment, but the primary goal is to return them to the field as quickly as possible. Players are often complicit in playing down the extent of their injuries. Fearful of losing their jobs — there are no guaranteed contracts in the N.F.L. — they return to the huddle still hurt.

And from GQ comes a profile of Bennet Omalu, one of the few doctors investigating the fate of these NFL players.

Let’s say you run a multibillion-dollar football league. And let’s say the scientific community — starting with one young pathologist in Pittsburgh and growing into a chorus of neuroscientists across the country — comes to you and says concussions are making your players crazy, crazy enough to kill themselves, and here, in these slices of brain tissue, is the proof. Do you join these scientists and try to solve the problem, or do you use your power to discredit them?

Update: Commissioner Roger Goodell defended the NFL’s handling of head trauma in a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee today.

Goodell faced his harshest criticism from Representative Maxine Waters, Democrat of California, who called for Congress to revoke the league’s antitrust exemption because of its failure to care adequately for injured former players. “I believe you are an $8 billion organization that has failed in your responsibility to the players,” Waters said. “We all know it’s a dangerous sport. Players are always going to get injured. The only question is, are you going to pay for it? I know that you dearly want to hold on to your profits. I think it’s the responsibility of Congress to look at your antitrust exemption and take it away.”

Update: The NFL will soon require players with head injuries to receive advice from independent neurologists.

2009 NFL TV maps

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 11, 2009

If you want to know what football games are going to be on TV in your part of the country on Sunday, check out these maps every week.

Michael Oher drafted

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 27, 2009

Michael Oher, the subject of Michael Lewis’ The Blind Side, got drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft by the Baltimore Ravens. Oher was chosen 23rd.

Update: Lewis comments on the draft here and here. (via unlikely words)

John Madden retires

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 16, 2009

I was up waaay too early this morning watching some trending topics on Twitter Search and John Madden’s name suddenly appeared. When you see a boldface name pop up on Twitter Search like that, it usually means they’ve died. I’m glad Madden’s not dead but I’m sad that he’s retiring from calling football games. I know he wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I loved listening to him.

Redesigning the Super Bowl logo

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 28, 2009

Some designers take a crack at redesigning the most recent Super Bowl logo. Most are completely impractical, but I thought Aaron Draplin’s had a nice throwback style.

Wide left, no, wide right!

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 29, 2008

Highlights of yesterday’s Patriots/Bills game, aka The Wind Bowl. We must have rewound that Buffalo field goal attempt at least five times…I still can’t believe it hooked that much in two different directions.

How do we find good teachers and QBs?

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 18, 2008

This is more than a week old but I just finished reading it, so stick it. Malcolm Gladwell says that the problem of finding good teachers is the same sort of problem encountered by scouts attempting to find good NFL quarterbacks.

The problem with picking quarterbacks is that [college QB] Chase Daniel’s performance can’t be predicted. The job he’s being groomed for is so particular and specialized that there is no way to know who will succeed at it and who won’t. In fact, Berri and Simmons found no connection between where a quarterback was taken in the draft — that is, how highly he was rated on the basis of his college performance — and how well he played in the pros.

A group of researchers — Thomas J. Kane, an economist at Harvard’s school of education; Douglas Staiger, an economist at Dartmouth; and Robert Gordon, a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress—have investigated whether it helps to have a teacher who has earned a teaching certification or a master’s degree. Both are expensive, time-consuming credentials that almost every district expects teachers to acquire; neither makes a difference in the classroom. Test scores, graduate degrees, and certifications — as much as they appear related to teaching prowess — turn out to be about as useful in predicting success as having a quarterback throw footballs into a bunch of garbage cans.

The upshot is that NFL quarterbacking and teaching are both jobs that need to be performed in order to find out if a certain person is good at them or not. For more, check out a follow-up post on Gladwell’s blog.

The future of sports television?

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 03, 2008

The NFL is showing their Sunday night game on NBC (traditional play-by-play broadcast) and online (traditional broadcast plus four other camera angles). Slate declares that the experiment may be the future of sports television.

The “Star” cam isolates on one player from each team-or, in the case of the Tampa-Seattle game, five different players. Other “stars” have included Pittsburgh wide receiver Hines Ward and safety Troy Polamalu, Jacksonville QB David Gerrard, and Cleveland wideout Braylon Edwards. For quarterbacks, this feature is a bit redundant-the camera’s always on the guy with the ball-but it’s fantastic for the other positions. Watching Polamalu fly around the field at full speed on every play is fantastic, and not just because his jouncing hair is hypnotic. Few athletes play with Polamalu’s reckless abandon, and it’s thrilling to try to forecast collisions by watching him bounce around the iso cam.

The Star cam works even better for receivers. After watching Ward and Edwards for three straight hours, I now understand why so many wide receivers are narcissistic-their job is to run one wind sprint after another with only the occasional ball thrown their way to break up the track workout.

TBS did this for the baseball playoffs too, except that they omitted the actual broadcast online and provided only extra footage/angles. Adding to Slate’s complaints of no replays (it’s streaming video only, no pausing, etc.) and no stats info on the other angles, I’d add that based on my experience watching the game online last night, they need something other than a test pattern and piercing tone to indicate that the video player is lagging and buffering. Perhaps a silent “please wait, buffering…” message instead?

The (football) Office

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 03, 2008

Tucked away in this profile of Brett Favre is a description of the contemporary NFL quarterback as a cog in complex coaching systems:

…regional distribution managers in a coach’s yardage-acquisition scheme.

At the end of the day, if the QB hits the ground running, is on the same page as the coach, gives 110%, and has all his ducks in a row, that’s all that matters.

2008 NFL TV maps

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 03, 2008

New for the 2008 NFL season: the NFL TV distribution maps that tell you which football games are going to be broadcast is which parts of the country. They’re using zoomable Google Maps this year…here’s what a typical coverage map looks like:

NFL TV Maps

During football season in a TV market like NYC, which is dominated by coverage of two local teams (Giants and Jets), this is an essential tool for determining if you’re actually gonna get to watch the game you want to on Sunday.

Update: There’s an interview on Yahoo with the guy that runs the site, J.P. Kirby.

Brett Favre retires.

posted by Deron Bauman   Mar 04, 2008

Brett Favre retires.

Gelf Magazine enlisted the help of ZEUS,

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 15, 2008

Gelf Magazine enlisted the help of ZEUS, a football game analyzing computer, to see which NFL coaches called the worst plays at critical times during the 2007 season.

On average, suboptimal play-calling decisions cost each team .85 wins over the course of the season.

In particular, the world champion Giants should have won another game had they called the right plays at the right times. ZEUS also analyzed play calling in “hyper-critical” situations (those fourth-down decisions with five or fewer yards needed for the first down) and found that on average, teams made the wrong calls more than 50% of the time. Here’s an interview on the results with the guys behind ZEUS.

The NFL has caved and is going

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 27, 2007

The NFL has caved and is going to simulcast the Patriots/Giants game on NBC and CBS instead of just showing it on NFL Network, a channel available to fewer than 40% of US households.

Seeking Patriots game in NYC

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 09, 2007

The NFL, in their infinitesimal wisdom and utilizing their stupid scheduling/blackout policy, has ensured that the best game of the weekend (Steelers vs. Patriots) will not be shown on TV in the New York City area. We get the hapless Jets instead…a team that not even Jets fans care about at this point in their 3-9 season. Our cable provider doesn’t carry any NFL stations and we don’t really want to trek out to a sports bar with the kiddo. Are there any other options? An illicit online broadcast? Anything?

Update: We ended up watching the game online — poor quality, dropped frames, and all. Better than braving the rain and sports bar. (thx to everyone who wrote in, especially kunal)

Michael Lewis on the unique role that

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 26, 2007

Michael Lewis on the unique role that kickers occupy in professional sports.

There is still some faint resistance to the notion that a kicker could ever really do anything great. Brett Favre can throw 10 more game-ending interceptions and fans will still cherish his moments of glory. Reggie Bush may fumble away a championship and still end up being known for the best things he ever does. Even offensive linemen whose names no one remembers are permitted to end their days basking in the reflected glory of having been on the field. Kickers alone are required to make their own cases.

Maybe soccer goalies can identify with NFL kickers?

A must-see for football fans: NFL TV

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 09, 2007

A must-see for football fans: NFL TV distribution maps. Check out what football games will be on in which parts of the country.

Due to problems off the field, defensive

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 25, 2007

Due to problems off the field, defensive tackle Walter Thomas hasn’t played a lot of college ball. But his stats — 6-foot-5, 370 pounds, XXXXXXL jersey, runs the 40 in 4.9, can do backflips and handsprings, benches 475 pounds — guarantee that he’ll be drafted into the NFL this weekend. Shades of Michael Oher, Michael Lewis’ subject in The Blind Side. Also, this may be the first NY Times article to use the phrase “dadgum Russian gymnast”.

Long audio interview with Michael Lewis by

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 26, 2007

Long audio interview with Michael Lewis by economist Russ Roberts on “the hidden economics of baseball and football”. “Michael Lewis talks about the economics of sports — the financial and decision-making side of baseball and football — using the insights from his bestselling books on baseball and football: Moneyball and The Blind Side. Along the way he discusses the implications of Moneyball for the movie business and other industries, the peculiar ways that Moneyball influenced the strategies of baseball teams, the corruption of college football, and the challenge and tragedy of kids who live on the streets with little education or prospects for success.”