Tuesday, October 1, 2013

John Harbaugh: Master of the Obvious

If you expect the worst, you'll never be disappointed.  This depressing bit of advice has been the cornerstone of my family's continued acceptance of my foolish decisions. 

“The whole O-line is disappointing right now,” Harbaugh said.

I just had a vicious laughing fit when I read this post on PFT.  While John Harbaugh isn't the one who selects the players that wind up on his team, the possibility that he expected something better from them was probably unwise.  It's all just rainbows and unicorn farts in the optimistic world of John Harbaugh.

The problem, as I see it, is the o-line reverting to their normal/predictable level of play.  Their recent post-season run, where Flacco was only sacked once in every 21 pass attempts, was an aberration.  The o-line's history had generally shown them to allow a sack once in every 15 to 16 pass attempts, and currently (through 4 games) is allowing a sack once in every 14.08 attempts.  While this still only places the Ravens' slightly below what we we would expect their average results to be, recent history has shown what happens to Flacco as the hits start to accumulate.  So far, the game in which Flacco was sacked least frequently was against the Browns, where he was only taken down once in every 16.5 attempts (itself a rather mediocre result), and not coincidentally this game produced his best passer rating of the season (94.4).

“It’s a difference between Gino and Matt with the calls,” Harbaugh said.

Harbaugh then proceeds to drop a fair bit of the blame on poor Gino Gradkowski, whom many seem to feel has been a significant drop off in talent from his predecessor Matt Birk.  Being expected to follow a Hall of Famers' career isn't an enviable position to be in, but this current situation also seems like it should have been a fairly predictable outcome.  The computer still thinks that A.Q. Shipley should be starting center, though it is entirely possible that the Ravens are waiting to see if recent draft pick Ryan Jensen might be the answer, when he returns from his injury.  While Jensen's measurables aren't quite as strong as Shipley's, Jensen's short shuttle time of 4.56 seconds is much more in line with what the computer expects from a center prospect, at least compared to Gradkowski's time of 4.78 seconds.  On the other hand, the Ravens' management could stick their fingers in their ears and say, "Naaa-naaa!  We can't hear you.!", while continuing to start Gradkowski.

Despite that bit of negativity, I actually think Flacco has been playing about as well as can be expected, considering the horrible pass protection, lack of running game, and questionable receiving corps.  That might seem odd to say about someone who currently has thrown more interceptions (7) than touchdowns (5), while having a 69.4 passer rating, but he hasn't looked nearly as discombobulated as I would expect, considering the situation he has been put into.  Still, it probably is fair to wonder if paying Flacco as if he is the equivalent of 3.5 Steve Austins, really makes much sense (he's worth maybe 2 Jaime Sommers in my opinion).  This idea that any QB, who is about to become a free agent, automatically becomes the highest paid player in the league is hilarious.  You're either viewed as a bum, who the team lets go of, or a 21 million dollar man, and there is almost no middle ground.  Remember all of that talk about how it was Cam Cameron holding Flacco back, and how things would be different with Jim Caldwell?  In the end, you kind of have to wonder if it is worth buying into a small sample size, like last year's playoffs, as a way of making your decisions.

Speaking of the poor situation surrounding Flacco, a recent quote about Ed Dickson provided even more entertainment for me:

“The stats kind of speak for themselves as you’re alluding to. He’s not the same player right now than he was then (2 years prior) obviously,” Harbaugh said

The player that Ed Dickson was 2 years ago is kind of an illusion.  Even in his most productive year (2011) Dickson had a habit of dropping passes.  Ed Dickson was a player who benefited from his draft position to get on the field ahead of Dennis Pitta, who was almost certainly the superior player.  While Ed Dickson was selected with the 6th pick of the 3rd round, in 2010, Pitta was taken with 16th pick of the 4th round, again in 2010.  So, why was Dickson selected ahead of Pitta, and given an earlier chance to play?  Well, that is difficult to answer, but the popular opinion seems to have always been that Dickson was a better athlete, while Pitta was a more reliable but less physically gifted player.  Is any of this actually true though?

  Height   Weight    40-yard   10-yard  Bench  Vert.    Sh. Sht. 3-Cone   Br. Jmp
Dennis Pitta 6' 4.5" 246 4.68 1.63 27 34" 4.17 6.72 113"
Ed Dickson 6' 4.2" 249 4.59 1.64 25 34" 4.59 7.32 122"

While Ed Dickson did better than Dennis Pitta in the 40 yard dash and the broad jump, Pitta bested Dickson in the agility drills.  While we could debate the value of speed versus agility (I would obviously prefer a player to have both), I don't think it is unreasonable to say that the physical advantage of one over another, isn't really as big as some people might have made them out to be.  On the other hand, what they accomplished with these abilities while in college was staggeringly different.

Dennis Pitta       Rec.     Yards         YPC          TD  % of Off.   % of TD
2009 62 829 13.4 8 14.92 23.52
2008 83 1083 13 6 18.73 17.14
2007 59 813 13.8 5 14.12 19.23

Ed Dickson       Rec.     Yards         YPC          TD  % of Off.   % of TD
2009 42 551 13.1 6 10.28 37.5
2008 35 508 14.5 3 8.05 15
2007 43 453 10.5 3 7.45 11.53

While Pitta's stats are somewhat gaudy in terms of his receiving yardage, I am more interested in the percentage of his teams' offense that he was responsible for, which gives us some idea of how much the opposing defenses probably focused on stopping him.  In this area, Pitta clearly establishes that he was a much more vital target for his team, with his results averaging out to about 15.92% over his three years, compared to just 8.59% for Ed Dickson.  I know a lot of people will probably choose to disregard this, but it is something I tend to put a lot of faith in.  Beyond that, we can see that Dickson never really outperformed Pitta in any area during their time in college, except for the percentage of team receiving TDs in his senior year, which is a much flukier sort of stat.

So, why exactly was Dickson given 19 starts in his first 2 years, while Pitta was only given 2?  I have no idea.  All we can say is that it eventually became clear to the team that only one of these players could reliably be counted on to catch the ball, and it just happened to be the player that probably should have been the preferred target from the beginning.  Much like the Gino Gradkowski situation, I often have my doubts about whether teams actually put the best players on the field.  Too often it feels as if teams are hesitant to switch things up, even on a limited basis, preferring to stick with the guys they picked come hell or high water.  Of course, these sorts of complaints on my part are sort of like pissing into the wind.

If there is a positive side to all of this, it is that most teams are in equally bad positions.  There are probably only 3 or 4 teams in the NFL that are worth being scared of at this point, so the Ravens probably won't have to pay too steep of a price for some of their decisions.  They will most likely manage to bumble their way to somewhat mediocre results as the season progresses.  I'll just continue to expect the worst, and if things somehow turn out well, I'll be pleasantly surprised.  I anxiously await John Harbaugh's next great revelation, when it occurs to him that NFL head coaches are vastly overpaid.

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