With a 19-15 record, and currently the 8-seed in the Western Conference, the Portland Trail Blazers have been one of the league’s most pleasant surprises. It’s been even more surprising that a first-year point guard has been their catalyst.
A year ago, it’s doubtful that LeBron James even knew who Damian Lillard was. But a day before his Heat team takes on the Blazers in a national showdown, James named Lillard his Rookie of the Year, and it’s not hard to see why.
For Portland, it seems as though a possession never goes by without the rookie guard and his boundless energy making their mark. Watching Lillard weave in and out of traffic to unfurl one of his silky-smooth jumpers has been a common sight, and with very little punch from the team’s bench, he and his fellow starters have shouldered the bulk of the scoring load. That burden has forced Lillard to be more of a scorer than a distributor in this first season, but his low assist rate isn’t a product of lacking skill.
It can’t be overstated just how impressive Stanford's 17-15 overtime victory over Oregon was. Stanford almost entirely shut down Oregon and its record-setting offense, the same offense that shredded the Cardinal 53-30 last season. Last year, Oregon's victory kept Stanford out of the national championship conversation. This year, the Cardinal might have returned the favor.
Last week, I described how Oregon's flashy offensive attack is, at its core, truly about old-school, fundamental football. Stanford's defense — Stanford’s entire program — is unequivocally about the same. On offense, the Cardinal are a power football team, with most of their passing game based on play-action. On defense, they use a "one-gapping," attacking 3-4 system — the same system brought to Stanford by current San Francisco defensive coordinator Vic Fangio just a few years ago.
I have an admission to make: Several times this season I've tried to watch Alabama play an entire game, and each time I've failed. Sure, I’ve watched quarters of football here and there — the bludgeoning of Michigan, the decimation of Arkansas, and the tidy strangulations of Mississippi State and Tennessee. But watching this team methodically squeeze the life out of opponents is similar to what I imagine it’s like to play against it — occasionally awe-inspiring, but somewhat exhausting. That was again the case until the waning moments of Saturday’s comeback victory against LSU.
For much of the night, Alabama had been outplayed. LSU's offense, which looked flat-out dysfunctional for much of the year, absolutely took it to Alabama's vaunted defense. The Tiger passing attack, in particular, went from awful in previous games — against Florida, South Carolina, and Texas A&M Zach Mettenberger had completion percentages of 44, 48, and 37.9 — to something resembling the Montana–to–Jerry Rice 49ers, hooking up on 25 of 36 passes for 296 yards and a touchdown. The Tigers defense played a stout game as well. Before going 4-for-5 on the final drive, Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron was 1-of-7 for seven yards in the second half.
The Tide’s trademark slow suffocation was being used against them. But down just three late in the fourth quarter, there was still enough time for one of those awe-inspiring moments. Games like that can't be reduced to just one play, but if it was going to be, oh what a play it was. AJ McCarron's screen-pass flip to T.J. Yeldon — who took it the remaining 28 yards to the end zone for the game-winning score — already has its place in football history, known simply as "AJ to T.J."
Peyton Manning's return to the NFL has not exactly been a fairy tale. His team sits at 3-3, they've routinely fallen behind early in games, they average a paltry 93.8 rushing yards per game, and Manning's top receiving targets include young but inconsistent players like Demaryius Thomas and the ageless but hardly explosive Brandon Stokley. It’s not just those around Manning who have come in for criticism. Manning is still recovering from his neck injury, and there have been whispers — some quieter than others — that his arm strength isn't, and will never be, what it once was.
Maybe so. Yet, for those still craving some of that old Manning magic, those moments when Peyton shows us all what quarterbacking is all about, Monday was proof that the 36-year-old can still deliver.
There are only three undefeated teams left in the NFL: the Atlanta Falcons, the Houston Texans, and — wait for it — the Arizona Cardinals. Not only is Arizona's record a surprise, but to get there, they knocked off preseason favorites New England and Philadelphia, as well as a Seattle team with wins over Dallas and (however controversial) Green Bay. Most of the credit for Arizona’s perfect record has to go to its defense. Although the smart money remains against their ability to keep up this success, going 3-0 is extremely difficult in today's NFL, and Arizona deserves respect for that alone.
The main concern about Arizona going into the season was its offense, and although they haven’t exactly been lighting up the scoreboard, whether it was Kevin Kolb's off-the-bench comeback drive to beat the Seahawks in Week 1 or their get-the-lead-and-hold-on performance against a normally resourceful Patriots team, the Cardinals have made just enough plays to win. Last weekend against Philadelphia was no different: Arizona was actually out-gained by the Eagles, but they made enough key plays on offense to put pressure on Michael Vick and allow their defense to force three turnovers (including a 93-yard fumble return for a touchdown) on the team’s way to victory.
In Week 1, the Carolina Panthers’ listless offense turned over the ball twice, gave up three sacks, and registered a grand total of 10 — yes, 10 — rushing yards. Last week against the Saints, Carolina exploded for 35 points and 219 yards on the ground while Cam Newton averaged an amazing 12.7 yards per pass attempt. The Panthers looked like the offense it was for much of last season, and they did it by getting back to what is, for them, basics — the read-option running game.
Newton is a one-of-kind offensive weapon, and his abilities to both be a threat to run the ball and make accurate run-game reads make everyone on the Panthers offense better, including his wide receivers. Steve Smith had Carolina’s biggest play of the day — a 66-yard catch in which no one on New Orleans's defense was within 20 yards of him. As Newton explained after the game, Smith was the direct beneficiary of Carolina's dynamic rushing attack: "Of all of the people on this field to be wide open, you would think Smitty would be the last person,” Newton said. “But that is what type of pressure the zone read gives us."
In an otherwise grim day for rookie quarterbacks, Robert Griffin III's debut against the New Orleans Saints went about as well as it could possibly go. He went 19-for-26, threw for 320 yards with two touchdowns, and, most importantly, led the Redskins to a 40-32 Week 1 win. Following the win, many were quick to applaud the Redskins’ approach, which seemed to allow Griffin to get comfortable with quick, easy throws. But the real hero of Washington’s offensive success wasn’t Kyle or Mike Shanahan. In fact, he isn’t even on the staff. It was Art Briles, Griffin’s college coach at Baylor, and, based on what the Redskins showed in Week 1, the team’s de facto co–game planner along with Washington’s head coach.
Coaching is about putting players in positions to succeed. Griffin’s potential is nearly limitless, but as a rookie playing his first game, he’s not Tom Brady just yet, and asking him to throw 40 or 50 traditional drop-back passes was not going to give Washington its best chance to win. Shanahan has clearly gone into this year with an open mind — something many otherwise excellent pro coaches don't do often enough — and he’s blended his tried-and-true West Coast/zone-blocking offense with some of the best and simplest principles Griffin executed so well at Baylor.
One of the most interesting questions in the NBA right now is, What will the Orlando Magic look like next season? The Magic just lost their superstar center, they have new management, and they’ve got a first-year head coach in Jacque Vaughn. Here’s what Vaughn told the Orlando Sentinel about his offensive philosophy: “I don’t think I’ll pigeonhole myself into a certain style ... I’ve been kind of inclusive about the different styles I’ve played against. Coach [Jerry] Sloan had a style that he used for 20 years. Pop [Gregg Popovich] has been extremely innovative ... For me, it’s about putting guys in a position to make plays. I will not call a play every single time down the floor. My demeanor on the sideline is more calm, not garish at all, and I think players will be receptive to that and want to play. As long as I can teach them, and they’re receptive to teaching, then I’ll let them make plays."
When reports of the Lakers and Mike Brown adding Eddie Jordan to their coaching staff surfaced, two questions came to mind: (1) Will Jordan bring the Princeton offense with him, and (2) how effective will it be with the Los Angeles Lakers? The first part of that question was answered rather quickly by Brown, who told Marc J. Spears of Yahoo Sports that the Lakers plan on mixing in the Princeton offense: "We're still going to do a lot of stuff we did last year. We're just incorporating some of the Princeton stuff."
It wasn't just Mike Brown who wanted Eddie Jordan. According to Adrian Wojnarwoski the Princeton offense is something that Kobe Bryant wants to see the Lakers run as well. So with the Lakers' head coach and star player both endorsing the new system's arrival, we can assume it's going to be a major part of the Lakers' offensive playbook next season.
Going into the preseason, all of the attention at New York Jets camp was focused squarely on Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow. Following the first couple preseason games — and, in particular, Saturday's 26-3, seven-sack drubbing at the hands of the New York Giants — the spotlight hasn't exactly shifted, but it has broadened to include a wider swath of suspects. Namely, it’s been on the offensive line, and even more specifically, whoever happens to be at right tackle. Wayne Hunter got the first crack on Saturday and was promptly abused by Jason Pierre-Paul. His backup, Austin Howard, didn’t fare much better. If the Jets have any hope of success — regardless of who their quarterback is — they need better play along the offensive line.
When we talk about Blake Griffin, we often focus on one of two things: His fantastic athletic ability, or how he can build on it. There’s a tendency to point at the block and criticize Griffin’s post game, but in actuality, he does a decent job of scoring efficiently there, posting a PPP of 0.836, which places him in the 62nd percentile among all NBA players.
You can find a few things Griffin does well when you review the numbers and the tape. He’s probably best when he turns off of his right shoulder — on both blocks, turning baseline on the left block (70th percentile in terms of PPP) or turning middle on the right block (76th percentile in terms of PPP). When posting on the left block, Griffin is all about speed, quickly turning his right shoulder and spinning baseline.
The Heisman Trophy is won on the field, but that hasn’t stopped Southern Cal quarterback Matt Barkley from going about his campaign a bit differently. Instead of just sending out awkwardly filmed DVDs to Heisman voters, Barkley has gone the high-tech route with ploys like designing an iPhone app and answering questions on Reddit.
Along with giving USC’s director of social media something to do, the Reddit Q&A also elicited some information we might not normally get from the Heisman favorite. One intrepid Reddit user was particularly helpful when asking Barkley what his favorite play was. "Be honest," MrShift4 admonished. “None of this 'spreading the ball to my teammates' stuff." So Barkley was, replying: "Solo Personel [sic]. 'Z Mo to Trouble Right 82 Stay Sluggo Z Win.' On Two. TD."
Yesterday we looked at Jeremy Lin and why his ability in the pick-and-roll could wind up warranting the contract that the Houston Rockets gave him. With regard to the Rockets' half-court offense, Lin and his pick-and-roll play is a very good match. However, in basketball, you don't play only offense, and that offense isn't limited to pick-and-roll play. Once you start taking into consideration Lin's ability in transition and how the Rockets want to play in the fast break, you start to worry a little bit. Start looking at Lin's one-on-one defense, and you worry a lot.
After having Jeremy Lin pre-Linsanity, the Houston Rockets made up for cutting him before last season by agreeing to pay Lin around $25 million over the next three years. While that may seem like a lot for a player who had success for just 36 games as a New York Knick, Lin is coming in as the presumed starting point guard for the Rockets, ready to prove that those games weren't a fluke. As it turns out, Houston wanting to make up for their mistake might be the best thing for Lin, because when looking at the tape and the numbers, the fit seems pretty good, especially when you look at Lin's play in pick-and-roll situations, and especially in comparison to how Kyle Lowry — who ran point for Houston last season and is now on the Raptors — played in the pick-and-roll last season.
The news that Dwight Howard is heading to the Lakers in a four-team trade means our long national nightmare is over. It also means that with the particulars of the deal — Howard to L.A., Bynum to Philadelphia, and Iguodala to Denver — three teams got pieces that will have a significant impact next season. The next question is how the X's and O's will work for each.