Before making his fourth move in five years, Dana Holgorsen needed a little convincing. West Virginia had contacted the Oklahoma State offensive coordinator and expressed interest in grooming him to be its next head coach. But prior to any commitments, Holgorsen wanted to see what it was his new home had to offer. So in late fall of 2010, he boarded a plane for Pittsburgh, where he was met by WVU athletic director Oliver Luck. And on they went, the 75 miles south to Morgantown.
Holgorsen’s first request was to see WVU’s indoor practice area, an amenity Oklahoma State had yet to add. The tour moved through the football facilities, and it was there, walking past photos of that year’s team, that Oliver Luck first mentioned Tavon Austin. “One of the first things Oliver did when he walked me through the building was point to a picture of Tavon Austin and say, ‘You need to get that guy the ball as much as you possibly can,’” Holgorsen recalls. “[Tavon] certainly was not shy about wanting the ball, and we certainly weren’t shy about giving it to him.”
During two seasons in Holgorsen’s offense, Austin got the ball plenty — 303 times, an average of more than 11.5 touches per game. As a senior, he caught 114 passes for 1,289 yards. He added another 643 yards rushing, on 8.9 yards per carry. Including kick returns, Austin hit the end zone 17 times. He was, along with USC’s Marqise Lee, one of the two most electric players in college football.
With free agency and the draft process revving up, there are plenty of questions for every NFL team. But for most, there's one issue that trumps the rest. This is the latest in a team-by-team look at the offseason tasks that just can't get botched.
Among Rams fans, the Greatest Show on Turf has that cursed way of feeling both a moment and a lifetime ago. It doesn’t feel like the days of Marshall Faulk and Kurt Warner have been gone that long, but we’re now 11 years removed from St. Louis’ trip to Super Bowl XXXVI. The last piece of that offense, Torry Holt, left the franchise five whole seasons ago.
There are some positions where the Rams found adequate replacements for the borderline Hall of Famers they lost. Marc Bulger went to the Pro Bowl in his first (mostly) full season as a starter, throwing for more than 3,800 yards and 22 touchdowns for a Rams team that made the playoffs in 2003. St. Louis prepared for Faulk’s exit by drafting Steven Jackson, whose streak of 1,000-yard seasons started in 2005 and hasn’t stopped yet.
So what do you do when you are a disgraced major character from the Bountygate saga, best known for coining the phrase "kill the head and the body will die," and testifying against the guys who played for you and the coaches who worked with you? Obviously, you grow an Evil Abed beard and join the Tennessee Titans staff! How is this even a question?
For Steven Jackson, everything about Sunday afternoon was fitting. With 1:47 left in the third quarter, and with his team trailing Minnesota 33-7, Jackson took a delayed first-down handoff and went for nine yards up the middle. With those nine, Jackson’s career total was 10,002 — a plateau reached by only 26 others. The crowd in St. Louis rose to its feet, gave a short ovation, and then watched as an incomplete pass and Jackson getting hit in the backfield made it fourth down. As Adrian Peterson’s continuing pursuit of history was cause for celebration, Jackson’s came and went without much notice.
Each of Jackson’s 10,000 yards has been gained while he was a member of the St. Louis Rams, and it’s that part of it that makes his accomplishment even more impressive than it already is. There have been plenty of NFL players whose talent has been squandered on bad teams in the past decade, but Jackson deserves to be near the top of the list.
In Jackson's seven years as the Rams’ starting running back, St. Louis has tallied 23 wins, roughly 3.3 wins per season. Over the same span, the Rams have been outscored by more than 1,000 points. Since 2007, the highest finish for a St. Louis offense in total yards is 22nd. In total points, it’s 24th. For the majority of Jackson’s career, St. Louis has defined awful in the NFL, and the question as Jackson nears 30 and his career enters its twilight is just how good he might have been.
On Tuesday, Arsenal lost on penalties to Bradford in the League Cup. This is astonishing because Bradford is in the fourth division of English football and Premier League–side Arsenal is still good (or they might be ... they are in the last 16 of the Champions League, after all). And it's not every day that you get to follow a team to (what you think is) its nadir.
If you're Jonesing for some schadenfreude, you could OD on it by reading the post-match comments over at Arseblog, maybe the top Gooner-centric destination on the Web. The big takeaway is that the "Wenger out" groundswell now seems to be about the size of the Sudetenland. Some of the club's current struggles — just 10 wins in its last 25 matches, peppered with some other dreadful losses (Norwich, Swansea) in between — are indeed manager Arsene Wenger's fault. He did bring in Gervinho, who seems to be in some secret competition with the on-loan Nicklas Bendtner to see who can miss the most unmissable sitter (Gervy locked up the contest against Bradford). And the extent to which financial issues may have forced his hand in selling any or all of Emmanuel Adebayor, Samir Nasri, Gaël Clichy, Alex Song, and Robin Van Persie, while relevant, is an entirely different discussion. The fact is he has sold really good players and replaced them with less good players.
No, fault aside, Wenger isn't the problem. Or more accurately, sacking Wenger — and really, Arsenal fans, whom do you think you can bring in if you shitcan Wenger? — won't solve the problem. That's because the problem is bigger than the manager; and if anything Wenger is still the last best hope for staving off the looming disaster of the real problem: Stan Kroenke.
In case you were out living a life of leisure, here's what you missed in sports over the weekend.
The L.A. Lakers hired former Phoenix Suns and New York Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni to replace Mike Brown. In his basement, Dwight Howard took down the complex pyramid of surveillance photos and connection lines and case notes from his bulletin board, stored them in a cardboard box marked "The Brown Investigation," and replaced them with a sheet of paper on which he'd written a single word: "D'Antoni?"
With most teams about to get their eighth game in the books this upcoming weekend, we're getting to the point where we can begin to get an idea of how randomness is affecting the NFL. In some cases, it's because teams have done so well in a small sample size that it will be impossible for them to keep that rate up over a bigger one; in others, it's because we're beginning to build a large enough sample that we can get a grasp on what's real and what's not. Eight games might not sound like a lot, but that's right around 100 possessions and 500 plays from scrimmage on either side of the ball for most teams.
Of course, we can use that information about randomness to get some insight into whether certain teams have been "luckier" than others over the first half of the season. Luck is a tricky word in terms of football, and it has to be taken with a grain of salt. Take fumble luck, for example. Fumble luck is the idea that no team in the league recovers a particularly high or low percentage of the fumbles in their games, year after year. There may be years when a team like the 2009 Jets recovers 70 percent of its fumbles, and it might even repeat that number the next season (as the Jets did in 2010), but that recovery rate won't stick around for half a decade or anywhere close. A team like the Bears is likely to recover a lot of fumbles, year after year, because they force a lot of fumbles, and forcing fumbles is a far more consistent skill. (Just ask Charles Tillman.) They won't recover a disproportionately high percentage of those fumbles, though.
It's also important (if admittedly tedious for the regulars) that the idea of some player or team benefitting from randomness in a certain sample doesn't mean that the team is going to suffer from bad luck in that same category in the near future! If the Jets recover 70 percent of the fumbles in their games in a given year, it doesn't mean that they should expect to recover some really low percentage of their fumbles in the following season. That's the gambler's fallacy, the idea that a team is "due" for good luck or bad luck. The truth is that the Jets aren't any more likely to recover 70 percent of their fumbles in a given season than they are 30 percent, or any more likely to recover 60 percent of the fumbles than 40. Over a long enough time frame, we would expect to see the Jets recover just about 50 percent of the fumbles in their games. That's the concept of regression to the mean.
So, with those cautionary points ringing in your ears, let's take a look at how the league has been affected by randomness during the first half of the NFL season. And since it just came up, let's start with that wonderfully meaningful bit of fumble luck.
This week in BQBL was just well weird. We had TAINTs, we had benchings, we had a postgame Mike Vick act like he was in an eighth-grade relationship gone bad — breaking up with Andy Reid before Andy Reid could break up with him. Yet we didn’t have a single quarterback score more than 50 BQBL points. Also, despite some gloriously terrible things, two of our top three scorers gave their respective teams a good chance to win the game. The other one? Well, let’s just say that whatever impressionable British youths the NFL was hoping to convert with this “football” game in London are likely buying Tom Brady jerseys, not Sam Bradford jerseys.
Oh yeah also, totally unrelated, but I need to share this with the world. Bryant McKinnie of the Ravens owes Trick Daddy’s father $375,000 for “services accumulated at South Florida strip clubs." Sure, this has nothing to do with the BQBL, but BWHAHAHAHHAHHAHA!!!!
Three and Out
Rams (Sam Bradford and Kellen Clemens), 47 points: Sam Bradford completed his first pass for 14 yards. Then Sam Bradford completed his second pass for five yards. Then Sam Bradford completed his third pass for 50 yards and a touchdown. Then Sam Bradford did something counterintuitive. He decided that he was done advancing the football — and, ya know, scoring points — and shut it down for the rest of the game. It was nothing if not innovative.
In celebration of the NFL's release of the all-22 and end-zone film for the 2012 season, each week we'll be bringing you the best in offensive- and defensive-line play. For the winners of last week's Trenchie's, click here.
The John Hannah Award for General Road Grading
The Houston Texans Offensive Line
For about 15 years, many of the NFL’s best running attacks had one thing in common. It wasn’t a punishing back, or a huge, mauling set of guys up front, although those things often help. No, it was just one guy, a North Carolina–born assistant coach with a penchant for four-letter words and an unrelenting demand on the men he coached. Alex Gibbs was never a head coach. He was never even an offensive coordinator. But he’s done more for football than many who’ve been either.
Gibbs’s zone-blocking scheme took hold in Denver in the mid-to-late '90s, and it’s proliferated from there. After a couple years spent turning the Falcons into the best running team in the league, Gibbs rejoined Gary Kubiak when the former Broncos’ offensive coordinator got the head job in Houston. It’s been three years since Gibbs left the Texans, but his principles are what have made Houston the best running team in football.
In case you were out living a life of leisure, here's what you missed in sports on Thursday.
The Rams defense contained Kevin Kolb (28/50, 289 yards) and Ryan Williams (14 carries, 33 yards) en route to handing the Cardinals their first loss of the season, 17-3. Among those in attendance at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis were actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, and President Barack Obama. Nah, I'm kidding, none of those people would ever go to that game. Grow up, St. Louis. You're pathetic.
A reader named Mike in St. Louis sent me the following e-mail this week:
"Simmons, football fans in St. Louis have suffered enough, compiling the worst 5 year stretch in NFL history (15-65). Please give us a chance in our lone nationally televised game and don't pick us. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD DON'T PICK US!!!!!!!!"
Mike wasn’t alone. Fans of the Cardinals and Rams spent the past 72 hours jockeying for my anti-approval in tonight’s clash in St. Louis. In less than a month, Thursday's Skunk of the Week quickly evolved into one of football's most frightening forces, taking its rightful place alongside Bernard Karmell Pollard, concussions, replacement referees, Detroit’s kick-return coverage and every time a CBS producer says the words, "Let’s have Shannon Sharpe do this highlight." I’m not just 0-4 picking midweek winners against the spread I’m a LOUD 0-4.
All aboard the Romocoaster! After 10 days as the shiny, winning-friendly leader of the Cowboys, the new Tony Romo suddenly crumbled to reveal that it was the same old loser all along. All the doubts that were erased by Romo's triumphant 1-on-53 victory over the Giants were rewritten over the course of 60 minutes, when he single-handedly caused the Cowboys to lose to far inferior opposition.
And people say, stat guys don't watch the games! If you take a look at how Romo actually played against one of the league's most underrated defenses on Sunday afternoon, as I did, you'll see a guy who wasn't really all that much different from the player who took down Dallas's big blue elephant. It would be downright impossible, though, to ignore how little Romo actually got from the players around him.
Rams trade Jason Smith, provide Brian Schottenheimer with the devil he knows
It doesn’t come as a surprise, but Jason Smith’s time in St. Louis is finally over. The Rams reportedly agreed last night to send the former no. 2 overall pick to the Jets in exchange for similarly maligned tackle Wayne Hunter. The move gives new Rams (and former Jets) offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer a familiar face for his swing tackle, but it also marks the failure of yet another draft pick for the Rams.
Smith is the second first-rounder from the 2009 draft traded in as many days, with Vontae Davis being the other. That year was former general manager Billy Devaney’s first with the team, and a year after the Dolphins took Jake Long and saw an immediate turnaround, the Rams hoped to establish a bookend on their offensive line as well. Coming out of Baylor, Smith was a converted tight end who was supposed to have the feet and frame to develop into a stalwart left tackle for the next decade. A mix of injuries and poor play was enough to keep that from happening, and it soon became clear that 2010 second-round pick Rodger Saffold, and not Smith, would get the chance to be St. Louis’s left tackle of the future.
Yesterday, we stopped lamenting the end of the NFL's acquisition season by detailing how 10 teams had sufficiently upgraded their weakest spots in the lineup. Plaudits were handed out, compliments were given, and we even found a nice thing to say about the Browns taking a running back third overall. All in all, it was a day of high praise.
Today, though, brings the natural counter to that piece: the 10 teams who failed to address their biggest holes this offseason. Some of these organizations tried to do so and failed. Others were limited by the salary cap. A couple of them even created those holes early on in the offseason and never seemed to get around to patching them up. We're not concerned with the excuses here, though; we just see the smoldering wreckage at certain positions for each of these teams and wonder whether that problem will come back to haunt them in 2012.
The Robert Griffin III trade on Friday night produced more than a marked uptick in celebrations on U Street; it set into motion a series of events that should have a profound impact on the NFL as it heads into free agency this week. We don't know how the trade between the Redskins and Rams will play out over the next five years, but we do know that there are nearly a dozen teams who felt the reverberations of the RG3 deal and its resulting events. Teams handing out makeup contracts! Cap space being carved out! Peyton Manning sleeping overnight in desperately desirous cities! We have to take the temperature of the rest of the league right now to see how this RG3 deal has, well, heated things up. (Get it?) (You get it, right?) (It's a fev OK, sorry.)