October 29, 2010
It's almost time for the "Playoffs? Playoffs!", and one of the most crucial games this week is Saskatchewan's spooky Halloween clash with the B.C. Lions (Sunday, 5 p.m. Eastern, TSN). It doesn't actually mean all that much for the Riders in terms of positioning, but they will be looking to bounce back from a disappointing 39-24 loss to Edmonton.
Saskatchewan defensive coordinator Gary Etcheverry (pictured at left above with Mike "Pinball" Clemons, back when Etcheverry was announced as Toronto's head coach in 2002) and special-teams coordinator Jim Daley have both taken substantial heat for the team's recent struggles, and Regina Leader-Post columnist Rob Vanstone had an excellent piece this week focusing on their different responses to criticism. He also posted the full transcripts of his interviews with Daley and Etcheverry at the Leader-Post's Rider Rumblings blog, and there's some fascinating stuff in there. Daley believes criticism is something media and fans are entitled to offer, while Etcheverry refuses to believe that anyone who hasn't had success as a professional coach can have anything worthwhile to say. Here are some of his comments:
"The people who make comments, there's basically two kind of folks, basically. There's fans, who are blindly faithful to their team. They understand the value that the team provides for them. Again, this is my opinion. I can't say it enough times - this is my opinion. And then there are critics and followers. With critics and followers, the vast, vast, vast majority of them have never coached football. Many of them might have played football, but that doesn't mean anything. Just because they've played football doesn't mean they can coach football and teach it."
Etcheverry might have emphasized his point better if he followed that statement up with a reference to his many leather-bound playbooks and the rich mahogany smell of his apartment. Instead, he went on to blast TSN's analysts in rather hilarious fashion:
"The only thing that consistently gets under my skin - and this is a personal thing - tends to be our so-called partners at TSN, because they are supposed to be our partners. In fact, I sat in on a thing in 2008 with one of their broadcasters and I think it was a producer, and the broadcaster did all the talking. They talked about how we're in partnership and said ‘trust us.' Those are some of the last people in the world I would trust, because they have no idea about coaching, again....
...With TSN, I watch it for reasons that I think can assist us - I'll just leave it that way - not from what the broadcasters are saying, but from other sound bites that are coming, and sometimes in interviews that are being done of potential opponents. I have to suffer through what I find is said. Again, they're all scrutinizers. There's one exception - a glaring exception for one that has coached, and he was an abject failure as a coach. When they scrutinize, in some cases just absolutely erroneously, it's funny. In the past, I've probably made the mistake of pointing out errors to them. Sometimes I think our players pay for it in the future. I probably will elect not to say that again."
Despite Etcheverry's largely misguided criticism, he does have the faint glimmerings of a point. There is generally more information available to coaches than to the casual fan or even broadcasters and analysts. For example, a colour commentator might criticize a defensive scheme based on inaccurate information (is a defensive failure due to a poor scheme, or rather due to the players involved failing to carry out their instructions?) or assign responsibility for blown coverage to the wrong player. That doesn't mean that commentators shouldn't try to figure out what went wrong, or that fans can't have opinions about the reasons for a certain play's failure. They will get it right a lot of the time; it's just a reflection that they aren't always working with complete information.
However, playing the "you don't understand football if you haven't coached it professionally" card is just silly, and it's a reflection of the all-too-common jockocracy mentality Howard Cosell described. As I wrote earlier this year, avid video-game players might actually have more experience with certain football situations than coaches, and I'm far more likely to buy a statistical analysis of controversial decisions (like Saskatchewan's punt) than just off-the-cuff comments from a coach that it felt like the right thing to do.
Football experience isn't everything: as Sports Illustrated's Joe Posnanski noted earlier this year, most current NFL coaches were pretty lousy players. That doesn't mean we should replace all coaches with broadcasters, fans, statistical analysts or mathematical models, as there's a lot that goes into coaching beyond playcalling and clock management. It does mean that we shouldn't necessarily write off perspectives just because they come from someone who hasn't been a professional coach. We need to recognize the limitations of each perspective and integrate them to provide a more comprehensive understanding of the game.
B.C. The stories coming out of Vancouver this week are much more positive. First and foremost, Mike Beamish of The Vancouver Sun has a tremendous piece on Lions' kicker Paul McCallum, who's quietly having an incredible year at the age of 40. There's a good reason I put him and the Lions first in my rankings of the league's punters and kickers. Beamish has a nice article on quarterback Mike Reilly (no, not the former Winnipeg and current Oregon State coach) as well. The Province's Ed Willes also has a great feature on Korey Banks' heavy heart and Kent Gilchrist weighs in on the Leos' rookies. The Lions are also releasing an energy drink; we'll see if it provides them with some extra pep for Sunday's must-win game against Saskatchewan (5 p.m. Eastern, TSN). The Sun's Lyndon Little is also on his last day there; he's done some great Lions coverage over the years.
Calgary: The Stampeders have a linebackers coach who's younger than many of their players, which is certainly interesting. On the other side of the ball, their offence might be set to make history. They face Hamilton tonight (10 p.m. Eastern, TSN), and The Calgary Herald has a good breakdown of the game's key matchups. The Hamilton Spectator's Drew Edwards also has a good piece on the Stampeders' Jesse Lumsden's first game against his old team.
Edmonton: On the Eskimos front, much of the focus this week has been on the unexpected signing of Kerry Joseph. He's still the third-stringer, though, and what's more important for the Eskimos' playoff hopes is their matchup this week with the struggling Winnipeg Blue Bombers and rookie quarterback Joey Elliott (7 p.m. Eastern Saturday, TSN). Gerry Moddejonge of The Edmonton Sun writes that the Bombers' defence is still dangerous, though, and they might get in the way of the Eskimos' quest to pick up three straight wins for the first time since 2005.
Winnipeg: The Bombers are another club that's been surrounded by prominent off-field stories this week. From officially signing lineman Matt Morencie in the midst of a controversy to picking up obscure quarterbacks to getting fined for wearing pink gloves (in response to a league policy that might not be as crazy as it sounds), many of the headlines haven't had much to do with Saturday's game in Edmonton (7 p.m. Eastern, TSN). Even Doug Brown's annoyed that the league's cracking down on head shots. The Bombers do have some outstanding players, and they'll need those guys to have big games if they want to have any chance of picking up a win in Edmonton.
Hamilton: As The Calgary Herald's John Down writes, Stevie Baggs is making quite the impact for the Tiger-Cats since his return from the NFL. In fact, the Tiger-Cats have improved dramatically down the stretch this year. Some of that's due to Baggs, while some of it might be due to a rant from defensive coordinator Greg Marshall (no, not that one). If they can pull out a win in Calgary tonight (10 p.m. Eastern, TSN), they'll lock up a home playoff date.
Toronto: Before Jim Barker was a CFL head coach, he was a very successful offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach with Montreal. Alouettes' star quarterback Anthony Calvillo credits the current Argonauts' head coach with some of his personal development, and Barker speaks equally fondly of Calvillo. The feelings between the teams aren't likely to be as positive, though; the Alouettes lost by 37 to Hamilton last week, so they're out for revenge, and Toronto needs a win tonight (7 p.m. Eastern, TSN/NFLN) to have any shot at a home playoff date.
Montreal: As previously mentioned, the Alouettes don't have anything to play for tonight except pride, and that might prove dangerous to the Argonauts. Slotback Kerry Watkins is also out to make an impression in his return from injury, and kicker/punter Damon Duval andreturner Larry Taylor hope to make their own impacts. The whole team will be looking to respond after getting called out by team president Larry Smith this week, so we could see some fireworks tonight against the Argonauts (7 p.m. Eastern, TSN/NFLN).
"I decided to run through all 256 possible outcomes* of the last eight games, and see what the numbers were on each team making the playoffs.
* Technically 128 - the Calgary/Winnipeg game changes nothing.
- 97.8% chance Hamilton finishes 2nd (and therefore 2.2% chance Toronto finishes 2nd)
- Edmonton has 79.8% chance of finishing 3rd (BC 20.2%)
Or, in standings format:
Team - Current Wins - Expected Wins || Probability of finishing in each spot
MTL - 11 - 12.3 || 100 - 0 - 0 - 0
HAM - 9 - 10.1 || 0 - 98 - 2 - 0
TOR - 8 - 8.7 || 0 - 2 - 98 - 0
WPG - 4 - 4.6 || 0 - 0 - 0 - 100
CGY - 11 - 12.3 || 100 - 0 - 0 - 0
SSK - 9 - 10.1 || 0 - 100 - 0 - 0
EDM - 6 - 7.1 || 0 - 0 - 80 - 20
BC - 6 - 6.8 || 0 - 0 - 20 - 80"
That's pretty much in line with what I forecast this morning. I think B.C.'s real odds might be slightly higher than 20 per cent, though, as it wouldn't be too ridiculous if they won both games and Edmonton lost their final game in Winnipeg. The Tiger-Cats and Eskimos appear in very good shape, however.