Take 5 – October 16th

A weekly look at under-the-radar items from the world of sports, with an emphasis on statistics, analytics, and videos, featuring the occasional rant.

Old Dogs & New TricksDownright Utley Ÿ• Catch Him If You Can

Ÿ• Conservative Coaching – Redux Ÿ• Expensive Ex-Coaches 

Old Dogs & New Tricks

There are very few industries in which 30 is the peak age. You don’t see very many 30-year-old Fortune 500 CEOs or Nobel Prize winners. Heck, many doctors still haven’t finished their residencies by their thirtieth birthday. But in professional sports, the Big 3-0 usually signifies a player’s impending decline. By then, athletic abilities are trending downward, injuries tend to increase, and many players simply fall off the table. That being said, there are plenty of exceptions to the rule, and every team, no matter what the sport, tends to have a healthy mix of over-30 veterans with its developing 20-somethings. Last Thursday night, two different Houston franchises were involved in games that brought the magic number 30 into the spotlight.

Matt Hasselbeck proved old guys can still get it done
Matt Hasselbeck proved old guys can still get it done

In Houston, the hometown Texans fell to the visiting Colts, 27-20. All 27 of Indy’s points involved players over the proverbial hill. Matt Hasselbeck (40), starting in place of the injured Andrew Luck, and feeling plenty under the weather himself, threw two touchdown passes to Andre Johnson (34). Frank Gore (32) ran for another, and Adam Vinatieri (42), the NFL’s oldest active player, topped it all off with two field goals and three extra points. Not a bad outing from Chuck Pagano’s greybeards.

Over in Kansas City, on the other hand, the Astros took Game 1 of the ALDS from the Royals, 5-2, on the backs of their youngsters. The lineup of Altuve (25), Springer (26), Correa (21), Rasmus (29), Gattis (29), Valbuena (29), Carter (28), Castro (28), and Marisnick (24) totaled all 36 at-bats for the ‘Stros, and starter Collin McHugh (28) pitched six strong. Houston’s quartet of over-30 relievers tossed the final three innings and prevented a complete takeover by the young guns, but the Astros won this game without any “grizzled veteran leadership” around the diamond.

Downright Utley

In case you missed my rant at the end of Tuesday’s podcast, I hated the Chase Utley slide that ended in Ruben Tejada fracturing his fibula. I don’t want to go too deeply into it here, but there is no place for such an egregious, endangering play in baseball. Not only did Utley’s slide result in a major injury, it had significant implications for the Dodgers chance at victory in Game 2. I wrote last week about how the refs’ no-call in the Seattle-Detroit game virtually gave the Seahawks the win, shifting their win probability by over 70%. Utley’s highly questionable slide, (along with some terrible rulings by the umpiring crew), also caused a significant shift, upping the Dodger’s win expectancy by a full 40 percentage points. Mets fans have every right to be upset, as a dirty play combined with a poor ruling cost their team a chance to beat the normally untouchable Zack Greinke in Game 2. The Amazin’s faithful got the last laugh though, watching Utley line out as a pinch hitter in the bottom of the 9th of Game 5, and then popping Champaign as they moved on to the NLCS.  

Catch Him If You Can

After not playing a regular season snap in over two years, Dion Lewis has taken the NFL by storm this season. He sits atop everybody’s offseason bargains list, and has already received a contract extension from the Patriots. Where he is really excelling, beyond the standard box score, is his ability to make people miss in the open field. He is miles ahead of the rest of the league in Pro Football Focus’s “Elusiveness Rating,” which measures “a runner’s success beyond the point of being helped by his blockers.” He has been so hard to bring down that he is on pace to surpass Marshawn Lynch’s record of recorded broken tackles in a season. When you’re shedding more defenders than Beast Mode, you must be doing something right. I have no intention of lauding Bill Belichick in this column every week, but his ability to time and again find players like Lewis off the scrap heap helps cement the Patriots as a perennial Super Bowl contender as well as the envy of front offices across the league.

Conservative Coaching – Redux

There are enough ultra-conservative (and frequently wrong) decisions by NFL head coaches each week, that you could dedicate a column solely to breaking down bad calls. In fact, Bill Barnwell wrote one for multiple years with his Thank You For Not Coaching, before retiring the concept due to its repetitive nature. I wrote about it last week, and don’t intend to rehash the subject on any sort of regular basis. But after Mike Tomlin’s gutsy call to go for the win on Monday night in San Diego, I wanted to highlight the flipside of the conversation.

Le'Veon Bell's TD run was anything but conservative
Le’Veon Bell’s TD run was anything but conservative

Down three with five seconds left to play, Tomlin could have easily brought out his field goal unit and sent the game to overtime with a chip shot. “Taking the points” would have been the standard, conservative decision, delaying the game’s outcome as long as possible. Instead, with a struggling Mike Vick on the road, Tomlin decided to snap the ball directly into the hands of his star running back, Le’Veon Bell, setting up one final winner-take-all play. With a combination of his unparalleled vision and patience, the NFL’s best ball carrier rewarded his coach by stretching the ball over the goal line and securing the win for Pittsburgh. NFL games rarely end in “walk-offs” or ”buzzer beaters” (pick your favorite analogy), but they sure are more fun when they do, and Tomlin came out the victor due to his aggressive play calling.

Expensive Ex-Coaches

In a week full of surprising FBS head coaching changes, the most common changing of the guard might have had the biggest implications. Following a 22-34 record over four and a half seasons and a bad start to the 2015 campaign, Maryland unsurprisingly relieved head football coach Randy Edsall of his duties this past week. While by no means a departure from the norm for a struggling power conference school, Edsall’s dismissal brought into sharp focus the insane costs of firing (and in general, employing) a major college football program’s head coach. As detailed in the above link, the University of Maryland paid Edsall’s predecessor, Ralph Friedgen, $2 million as part of his dismissal, and is now paying Edsall $4.7 million to buy out his contract.

All of this money is being thrown around on the heels of cutting seven varsity sports back in 2011. For an institution financed by taxpayer dollars, that is an absurd amount to be spending to pay people NOT to work for the university! Priorities across the board here just seem way out of whack. I understand that certain preeminent football programs do turn a significant profit, but for a publicly funded university to be blowing this kind of money to fire a head coach, while simultaneously exploiting its unpaid athletes (a whole separate topic I will not get into here), is straight highway robbery.

So I would like to wrap up this week by apologizing to all the taxpayers of my great home state of Maryland. You may be paying millions for Randy Edsall to not work, but at least you still have the Ravens the Orioles Old Bay.

By Mickey Katz

Images: Mike Tomlin, Matt Hasselbeck, Le’Veon Bell

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