In Defense of Jon Gruden

Michael David Smith at describes comments that Packers quarterback Aaron Rogers made via Twitter during the NBA Finals. One of those comments took Magic Johnson to task for his almost entirely positive commentary on individual players and, as he did it, Rogers also took a back handed swipe at Monday Night Football commentator Jon Gruden:

Magic is quickly becoming the John Gruden of ESPN NBA coverage. Everybody is the greatest everything. #bedtime

Aaron Rodgers (@AaronRodgers12) June 21, 2013

Smith seems to agree:

I don’t watch enough of ESPN’s NBA coverage to know if Rodgers’ criticism of Johnson is valid, but I do agree with Rodgers that Gruden can be so relentlessly positive about every player that his analysis becomes pointless: When you call every player great it can serve to diminish the players who are truly great. Perhaps that’s why it took a truly great player to call Gruden out.

This is a surprisingly shallow comment from the usually thoughtful Smith. It reflects comments that I frequently hear after writing up my “Game Comments” after Bears games during the season. I usually devote at least one line to how I thought the television commentators did if I watched the game at home. This single entry draws more comments from people than almost anything else I typically address in the post. Like Johnson and Gruden, most people think I’m “relentlessly positive” in my comments.

There are a couple reasons for this. First, the Bears play a lot of night games and when they aren’t in prime time, they often get an afternoon slot where much of the country sees them. What that means is that the Bears naturally have been getting the best football commentators available for their games. If you were to look back into the history of this blog into some of those darker years where the Bears weren’t very good, you’d see many more critical comments as they drew the fourth or fifth announcing teams.

However, its the other reason that’s relevant here. I think many fans have a warped idea of just what constitutes a good color commentator for a football game, indeed for any sport. These men really aren’t there just to hammer on players for bad play. In fact, in my opinion, its the least of their duties. As a research scientist one thing became clear to me very early on in my career: any moron can criticize. You can always tell when comments on your work came from a young investigator in training because they pick on things that everyone knows are a problem but which few people think are a real obstacles to supporting a particular conclusion. The trick is to recognize when its appropriate to both listen to and offer a critical comment (i.e. when the criticism is important) and when its not. In the case of football players, everyone – even the best of them – makes mistakes. We all know that. For that reason whatever criticism a good commentator offers on individual players is usually in terms of individual technique. Beyond that, frankly, if Gruden isn’t too free with his critical comments, he’ll hear few complaints from me. I don’t care if he says if a player is great or isn’t great. I can usually see that with my own eyes.

What really makes for a top notch commentator – what really makes the difference between a Cris Collinsworth and some schlub off of a local television station somewhere – is the ability of the person involved to teach the viewer about the game. This is where Gruden excels. He’s always going to be the guy to notice some little point about how the defense is playing, where the mismatches are or where the offense is attacking in a particularly notable way. Almost all fans are limited by the fact that they aren’t good enough to actually get on the field and do the things that NFL football players do. We can’t go to mini-camp and learn about the ins and out of the cover two defense. Its these comments from the likes of Gruden and Collinsworth that are so valuable because they increase understanding of a game we all love and would like to know better but where opportunities to do so are limited.

This is far more important than criticizing the play of individuals because those types of comments die after the game is over or after the player involved is no longer on the field. In contrast, the lessons taught about how the game is played last a lifetime and whatever criticism we, ourselves, offer should be targeted with that in mind.

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Sharrif Floyd

ESPN NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert has some interesting thoughts on the Vikings plans to use newly drafted defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd:

“Floyd plays the same “three-technique” position as veteran Kevin Williams, and during minicamp this week, the two rotated with the first team while Letroy Guion and Fred Evans took turns at nose tackle. Asked how he plans to use Floyd at least initially, [Vikings head coach Leslie] Frazier said: ‘We’d like to be able to get him in a rotation system where he’s a part of what we’re doing with our four-down when he’s getting in sometimes with Kevin [Williams] and just rotate. Hopefully it gets to the point where he’s productive enough where he can warrant increased reps as the year goes on. That would be optimum if he’s able to get in the rotation, have success and we can gradually add more reps to his play as the season goes on.’

“We discussed the issue briefly in Tuesday’s SportsNation chat, and my feeling is simple: I don’t really care who starts, but in the end, the best two defensive tackles should get the most snaps over time. There is a very good chance that Williams and Floyd will be those two players. But because neither is a traditional nose tackle, does that mean they’ll have to share time at one position while two lesser players share the other?”

Of course Seifert has a point. Its particularly relevant when you are talking about offensive players where there’s a lot more versatiliity in terms of what you can do while attacking a defense. But its problematic when you are talking about dong it on the other side of the ball where you are to a large extent reacting to what the offense decides to throw at you. The problem is that there’s a reason for having a nose guard on the line and the way the team functions as a whole trumps individual talent. That’s why the NFL is such a great game compared to, for instance, the NBA where a one or two players are the difference between winning and losing.

The nose tackle in a cover two defense (or really almost any defense) has the job of taking on a double team between the guard and the center. Sure, he’s expected to penetrate more in the cover two than in, say, the defense former head coach Dick Jauron was so fond of where his job was to occupy the linemaen and keep them off of the linebackers. But if you put a nose tackle who is too light in that spot, he’ll get moved out too easily and leave the run up the middle open.

Seifert doesn’t have any constructive suggestions for how you could get both Williams and Floyd on the field at the same time without weakening the defense but I would suggest that its possible in passing situations where a quicker, penetrating tackle might be better for the pass rush. That will get both Williams and Floyd more reps. But you are still going to need a nose tackle for at least half the snaps.

The post illustrates the challenges facing general managers as they approach the draft, again particularly on the defensive side of the ball. The Lions, even more than the Vikings, have embraced the “take best guy available regardless of position” philosophy. This can leave you in a situation that the Vikings currently face – they took Floyd but now have to cut his reps to get WIlliams on the field. Long-term its the best plan as Floyd will be primed to step in for the aging Williams as he approaches retirement age. ven this year, Williams will be better rested and Floyd will have time to gradually adjust to the NFL. But still, the situation isn’t ideal.

In any case it will be interesting to see what the Vikings do here. It sounds like they’ll play it conventionally but Frazier isn’t likely to want to give their plans away in June and he still might surprise us with some interesting alignments as the season progresses.