QB Mystique: Part 2

Brett Favre and the art of great timing

There are a million factors that fed the legend of Brett Favre.
His numbers and streaks, his good looks and charisma. His postseason awards and his charmed 1996 Super Bowl season. By the time of his third and final retirement in 2011, the media’s adoration of the gunslinger had become so cliche that Frank Caliendo built a career on making fun of it. One reason typically gets ignored.
Brett Favre was peerless in a very literal sense.
Look at the state of the league in January 1998, probably the zenith of his career. At 28-years-old Favre had just finished his third MVP season. The Packers were the reigning champions, challenging for a repeat.
In the broader sense, the league’s best quarterbacks are getting old. Dan Marino, Steve Young, and John Elway are all in their late-thirties. Warren Moon is 41. Troy Aikman’s career is coming to a premature end due to concussions. In the last two drafts, only one quarterback has been taken in the first round: Jim Druckenmiller. Favre is simultaneously the league’s best quarterback and best young quarterback.
Brett Favre picked the best possible time to be alive.

Born in 1969, Favre was in middle school when six quarterbacks were taken in the first round of 1983 draft. Four of them turned out to be longterm starters; three were elite; two of those went to the Hall of Fame and were still playing in 1998. That draft started a trend.
Throughout the next six years, good and great quarterbacks flooded the draft. The period produced five busts in Canton: Marino, Elway, Aikman, Young, and Warren Moon. Eight quarterbacks who entered the league during this period threw for at least 200 touchdowns in their careers.
If those years were the roaring twenties, then the day after Favre was taken in the 1991 draft was black Tuesday.
In the 1997 playoffs, half of the quarterbacks were younger than Favre, but they were a mediocre bunch. The best was Drew Bledsoe, who had been promising during his first few seasons, but who would never appear in another playoff game. Then there was Mark Brunell, a former back-up in Green Bay, who came to define the term “game manager” in Jacksonville. Of course, Kordell Stewart, a tantalizing athlete who never quite mastered the position, was a few years away from officially failing to live up to expectations. After that, it gets ugly.
Trent Dilfer, widely perceived to be the standard of how bad a quarterback can be and still win a Super Bowl. Elvis Grbac, who would replace him in Baltimore and prove that theory to be correct. Also, young Danny Kanell, who never achieved the status as a full-time starter during his brief six-year career.
There was no next generation behind Favre. In seven years, not a single future Hall of Fame Quarterback entered the league: the longest gap since 1949-1956.
Three types of quarterback tend to get the most media attention: rising stars, current greats, and aging legends. In every facet of his career, Favre had a near monopoly on each basket.
Marino and Elway were tied at the hip. Young and Aikman battled for NFC dominance in the early 1990s. Even later iterations seemed to come in pairs and cross paths: Brady and Manning, Roethlisberger and Rodgers. On the other hand, Favre had no nemesis. He beat Bledsoe in 1997, and that seemed to settle the debate.

The drafts from 1990 to 1997 look like a recession. There were outright busts (Heath Shuler, Andre Ware, Rick Mirer), mild disappointments (Dilfer, Jeff George) and even a few mild successes (Bledsoe and Steve McNair).
The end of the recession went straight into a boom. Kurt Warner, Todd Hasselbeck, and, most notably, Peyton Manning entered the league in 1998. The 1999 draft produced Donovan McNabb. Then Tom Brady came in 2000, Michael Vick and Drew Brees in 2001, Carson Palmer in 2003, Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, and Ben Roethlisberger in 2004, and finally Alex Smith and Aaron Rodgers in 2005. During that era, six of seven drafts produced a franchise quarterback.
This era will likely exceed the 1980s in Hall of Fame inductions. Warner has already been inducted. Peyton Manning, Brady, Brees, and Rodgers seem likely, with Eli Manning, Rivers, and Roethlisberger remaining possibilities.
The boom was mirrored by the rapid exit of the old guard. Elway retired after the 1998 season. Young and Marino followed the next year. Aikman, the youngest of generation, left in 2000.
That exodus meant that Favre, who was allowed to retain the status of being the best young quarterback in the league until age 28, took the mantle of being the best legacy quarterback at age 30. He went seamlessly from rising star to an aging generation of one.
For an entire decade, Favre was the only quarterback on retirement watch. He helped his case by remaining effective for nearly the whole time. However, it bears mentioning, that he did relatively little to expand his Canton resume after losing Super Bowl in 1998. He was a mainstay in the playoffs, but he never got past another NFC championship game.
Still, his retirements were massive stories. Since injuries had taken Young and Aikman and Marino’s star had diminished slightly after years of mediocre Dolphins teams, the prospect of his retirement hung over the league in a way that hadn’t happened since Elway a full decade before. It took five more years for Peyton Manning’s decision to match the attention, and even then, it was mingled with a discussion of the potential retirement of Tom Brady.

That is the charmed life of Brett Favre: starting two years after Troy Aikman and seven years before Peyton Manning. In sports, timing is everything.

QB Mystique: Part 1

The Elusive Elite Quarterback

Once upon a time, wins were the primary way to judge greatness of pitchers. A twenty-win season was good for a Cy Young Award; A three-hundred-win career was good for a spot in Cooperstown. Wins are still credited, but they’ve never been more irrelevant.

At some point in the statistical revolution, fans, writers, and owners alike realized that the entire category was basically meaningless. A pitcher could allow one run and lose, or he could allow five runs and win. He could pitch eight shutout innings and miss out on a win because his offense finally scored in the ninth inning, rather than the seventh.

Jacob DeGrom won the NL Cy Young last season with a record of 10-9: a gigantic middle-finger to 150 years of conventional wisdom.

While baseball was wising up, football was doubling down. Wins and losses have become a stand-in for greatness, attributed to only one player on the team: the quarterback.

In my mission statement, I cited the great-man theory as the most popular view of sports history. Nowhere is that more rampant, and less accurate, than the way we talk about quarterbacks.

With another Super Bowl on the horizon, expect media coverage to center around two players: Tom Brady and Jared Goff. The results of the game will become a standard argument for the all-time rank of the winning quarterback. If Brady wins, he will silence any remaining doubters that he deserves to be considered the greatest quarterback of all time. If Goff wins, he will jump most of his contemporaries in perception: Carson Wentz, Patrick Mahomes, perhaps even older players like Andrew Luck and Cam Newton.

This is not contingent on either having a great game. The single most important part of John Elway’s legacy was winning his first Super Bowl in 1997, a game where he went 12 for 22 for 123 yards. Consider that Rex Grossman was effectively banished from the NFL for going 20 for 28 for 165 yards. The win is all that matters.

That is because we’ll forget the numbers. We’ll barely remember the game unless it involves a last-minute drive or sudden power outage. But, we’ll never forget the result.

This is myth-making at its finest: strip away the context and build statues of the biggest name. That’s why we celebrate Columbus Day every fall. The game will result in a financial windfall for the winning quarterback, both in salary and endorsements. More importantly, it will create or confirm mystique.

For five seasons, there was real debate whether Joe Flacco was a good quarterback. The idea that he was elite was considered laughable, as shown by the reaction to Flacco making that assertion before the 2012 season.

Since being drafted in 2008, Flacco had been a steady hand for a stable franchise. The Ravens had gone to the playoffs every season, but Flacco himself had performed as a roughly median starting quarterback, never ranking better than tenth in completion percentage, yards, or touchdowns, but rarely lower than twentieth. He wasn’t a bust, but there was an argument to be made that Flacco was merely an average quarterback on a good team.

Everything broke right for the Ravens that year. For one month, Flacco looked excellent. An electrical failure derailed a potential 49ers comeback in the Super Bowl. So, Flacco became elite.

The Ravens committed to him long term, paying him 124 million dollars over the next six years. Flacco got all the money of an elite quarterback.

Except, he stopped being one.

The Ravens missed the playoffs four of the next five years. Even though Flacco improved his numbers in most areas, the team was worse. In Week 10 of this season, the Ravens benched Flacco in favor of rookie Lamar Jackson, who led them to the playoffs, most likely ending Flacco’s time in Baltimore and possibly as a starting quarterback.

Now, this might sound like I’m piling on Flacco. He’s an easy target, as he is the unfortunate combination of overpaid and conventionally unattractive. But the problem was never Flacco. It was the desire to view Flacco as something he just wasn’t: the central figure to the Ravens success.

Flacco is and was an average quarterback. He wasn’t exceptional, but he wasn’t bad either. Average quarterbacks can win Super Bowls: Flacco, Foles, Eli Manning, Peyton Manning’s corpse. Even quarterbacks who eventually became top performers won their first Super Bowl as a young, pedestrian version of their future selves: Brady in 2002, Roethlisberger in 2006.

Sometimes quarterbacks are the heart and soul of a franchise. Sometimes it’s a linebacker or wide receiver who sets the stage.

But in the sports world, there has been a truism that comes in and out of fashion, depending heavily on recency bias and logical fallacies.

“To win a Super Bowl, you need an elite quarterback.”

In the future, this idea will look just as foolish as all the writers who gushed oven pitcher wins. Just ask the Ravens.

The Easiest Fix

Holding is football’s worst idea

The Davis Darts are massive underdogs.

They’ve shuffled through the season, only winning two games. Their opponent, the Clearfield Falcons, are undefeated. If Clearfield wins tonight, they’ll face off against Northridge, also undefeated in addition to being the reigning state champions, next week. Davis County is already buzzing that the matchup might be shown on ESPN.

Clearfield scores first, but the Darts march down the field. They have a touchdown called back for offensive pass interference. Questionable? Sure. But, they’ll roll with it.

Davis regroups fifteen yards back. They run a fly sweep in for another touchdown. The celebration starts again.

Another flag flies.

Holding.

Another flag flies.

The Davis coach is flagged for arguing.

Another flag flies.

The coach is ejected. The ball moves well into their own territory. The Darts have to punt. All energy gone, they lose 35-0.

It’s been fifteen years since I saw this scene from the stands as a teenager, and it is still the angriest I’ve ever been watching a football game.


As any millennial, my education in football came from pre-canned tidbits from John Madden and Pat Summerall, as we attempted to win games using a pass-heavy strategy that would be eventually co-opted by Mike Leach. The little bits of wisdom were repeated so often that they became unquestioned truth by an entire generation.

One sticks out in particular.

“Holding happens on every play. It’s just a question of how much the refs are willing to tolerate.”

At the time, it was a bold statement to be made by a video game. The faces of the league were essentially admitting that holding was a random penalty, and when it was called against you, you had reason to be upset. It was the ref’s decision, not an empirical act of justice.

Holding isn’t only a pox for pre-teen offensive coordinators throwing six consecutive Hail Marys. Holding is the most common and most damaging penalty in football. For the past six NFL seasons, it has accounted for more flags and penalty yards than any other infraction. During the previous decade, false starts eclipsed it for frequency for a few seasons, but no penalty has cost teams more yards since at least 1995 when Pro Football Reference started tracking the frequency.

It’s the most common and costly penalty, and it is always the right call. The rule states that holding includes using hands to “grasp, pull, hook, clamp or encircle in any way that illegally impedes or illegally obstructs an opponent.” The difference between grasping and proper blocking is the difference between a closed and open fist, a minute distinction for a referee to see thirty feet away.

Offensive linemen grasp opponent’s jerseys all the time. Most of the time, they get away with it, so it just isn’t feasible to argue with any holding calls. We are all debtors, and thus all in need of forgiveness.

Thus, the argument in the stands becomes less about whether the play was actually holding, but rather whether it was the right time of the game to call it.

For example, whether a ref should call holding to negate a touchdown on a second consecutive play.

So if it could be called on every pay, why isn’t it?


You can divide most rules into three categories: rules of order, laws of safety, and standards of aesthetics.

You can only cast one vote in an election: a rule of order. You have to drive the speed limit: a law of safety. You have to wear a shirt and shoes to get service: a standard of aesthetics.

The rules of order structure the game: the play clock, the numbers on the field, the pre-snap procedure. Without these rules, the game descends into anarchy. Imagine a world without an offsides penalty: players stand in their opponent’s huddle; defensive linemen line up right next to the tailback, ready to tackle him as soon as the play starts.

Laws of safety evolve as necessary. Football was once a sport where players dying on the field was a fairly regular occurrence. We penalize the grabbing of face masks because if it were legal, broken necks would be commonplace. In recent years, all levels have emphasized penalties on helmet-to-helmet hits, hoping to stem the number of long-term head injuries plaguing the sport.

Standards of aesthetics exist to make the game watchable. Pass-Interference is called because contact between players, while the ball is in the air, would result in more incomplete passes, which would discourage passing altogether. As the recent TV ratings indicate, the game is most popular when more passes are being completed.

Holding isn’t necessary for order, doesn’t make the game safer, and likely has a negative impact on the enjoyment of the spectator.

Why does it exist?

Aesthetics

There are those who prefer a defensive struggle, who value sacks over touchdowns, and who feel that league has stacked the game in favor of star quarterbacks. To them, holding is a standard of aesthetics.

Numbers suggest that these people are a minority. Also, their well-developed philosophy indicates that they are the type of person who will complain about football, but never stop watching it.

Last season saw a pronounced dip in ratings. Most conservative pundits blamed Colin Kaepernick, but the 2018 rebound, when nearly all of the league’s best quarterbacks were healthy and performing, indicates that the quality of play was the primary driver of disinterest.

Drew Magery of Deadspin wrote an article arguing for the abolition of holding. He was fed up with watching offenses sputter and proposed the league do everything in its power to prop them up. His sentiment, if not his solution, is generally popular.

Viewers want to see Patrick Mahomes have time to throw the same way that the wanted to see Michael Jordan have space to drive to the paint. Although there will always be naysayers against NBA rule changes that enhanced Jordan’s ability, the results are clear: fans want to see great players being great.

Safety

There’s some irony in the intentions behind the rule. According to the rulebook “Illegal use of the hand or arm is unfair play, eliminates skill and does not belong in the game.” The powers at be don’t want holding because it cheapens the value of a block. If an offensive lineman can impede a defender by grasping his jersey with an outstretched arm, then how can we call him a good lineman?

No mention of safety or fairness. Just skill.

What the rulebook wants, especially on passing plays, is for an offensive lineman to square up, make helmet-to-helmet contact, keep his hands inside and hidden (where it’s harder to see him grab fabric), and repeatedly batter the oncoming defender. If he fails in this, the rules dictate that he should let his opponent gain a full head of steam and hit the unsuspecting quarterback.

For a game trying to decrease concussions, this seems like an odd strategy.

In 2012, Chuck Klosterman, writing for Grantland, proposed the elimination of holding penalties. Klosterman wasn’t concerned with aesthetics, unlike Magery. He was worried about safety, writing less than a month after Junior Seau’s suicide. He argued that fewer full-speed sacks and hits would lead to fewer concussions. He even offered that allowing defensive holding as well would negate the offensive advantage.

Unfortunately, Klosterman’s musings did not start a movement. Both college and professional football has focused on implementing stricter targeting rules, a subjective call that has been (as mentioned above) very controversial in its application.

So the question remains, why try to limit helmet-on-helmet collisions with a lousy rule when you could do the same thing by eliminating one?

Order

Imagine you’re a corrupt ref.

There aren’t many known examples of this, admittedly. However, recall that this fall the Pac-12 admitted that a senior conference official had called into the replay booth to overturn a targeting call. Anything is possible.

In the past year, since the Supreme Court essentially legalized sports betting, gambling has become an increasing presence in sports discourse. Recall or research the effect that bookies and gamblers had on the competition with which it is most associated: boxing.

So, imagine that you are an underpaid referee who being is pressured from outside forces to impact the outcome of a game. How would you go about that?

You can’t fabricate false starts. You can’t make touchdowns appear. But if you are even moderately more focused on calling holding on one side rather than the other, perhaps three separate calls, you could tilt the game in favor of your chosen team dramatically and quietly.

In the first four weeks of this season, there were 22 games in which two things occurred.
The referees called holding more than the league-wide average (three or more)
The calls favored one team by two penalties or more.

In those 22 games, the team with more holding calls covered the spread only eight times.

In the Nov 4 game between the Washington Redskins and Atlanta Falcons, the Redskins were flagged for holding four times in their first six drives. Three of the calls led directly to a punt while the fourth pushed them out of field goal range at the end of the first half.

The Redskins, who entered the game as slight favorites, lost 38-14. The Washington Post noted the penalties but didn’t stoke any controversy.

Holding negates first downs and touchdowns all the time. As in the Washington-Atlanta game, it can kill drives in before they’ve even started rolling and push teams out of field goal range. Most importantly, because it is widely agreed that it happens on every play, every call you make will be justifiable. It wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow for anyone but the aggrieved team, whose coach is forbidden from criticizing you publicly and whose fans will be deemed delusional.

In the stands during that Clearfield game, I heard a lot of even-tempered people alleging a conspiracy. But no one really believed it. No one investigated.

With so much money on the line, that is a potential disaster.

What is Guns, Germs, and Sports?

To learn history is to learn names.

We tell ourselves the story in novel form — someone great rises and changes history. Julius Caesar expanded the Roman Empire into Western Europe and initiated the fall of the Republic. George Washington crossed the Delaware River and won the Revolutionary War. Woodward and Bernstein followed the money and brought down the Nixon White House.

We learn these names because our society has generally subscribed to Thomas Carlyle’s Great Man Theory from the 1800s. The short version is that great leaders are born gifted and thus grow up to shape history. This is why we have a fawning Winston Churchill biopic every ten years. Right man, right moment.

It’s never really that simple. The more you read, the more you start to recognize the trends and movements that precede these events. Julius Caesar acted similarly to many of his Roman peers and ancestors. The Republic was crumbling well before he arrived on the scene, and a de facto dictator named Sulla had led the Rome of his youth.

We rarely talk that way about sports.

In the past century, the standard way to speak about athletic greatness is to subscribe to the Great Man view of history: Jordan, Ruth, Ali. Where there is a debate, it usually centers around which great man deserves the credit. Russell or Auerbach? Brady or Belichick? Even coverage of baseball’s unromantic evolution into advanced statistics devolved into hagiographies of executives like Billy Beane and Theo Epstein.

My intention with this website is to take a broader view. I won’t be responding to box scores or blockbuster trades in the traditional way. When I look at a result, such as Clemson winning the college football playoff last week, I’m going to seek to answer the question: how did we get here?

The title of this site is a play on the book Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. Like many a pseudo-intellectual before me, that book was my first exposure to the idea that history is often shaped as much environment as personalities.

Now, I’m unlikely to develop a grand theory of the sports world that boils down to the native plants and animals of the Boston metropolitan area. Instead, I hope to expand the conversation with you, the reader, to consider things outside of the typical sports discussion.

In the coming weeks, we will explore:

Why did the media adore Brett Favre so much?

Where should we expect the next great college football program?

What is the most pointless and counterproductive rule across all sports?

We will talk about history, but we won’t ignore current events. We’ll shine a light on broken systems and propose solutions.

Thank you for coming along for the ride.

Eight teams will not save you

People looking to fix college football are thinking too small

When Davis High was established in 1914, there were no grand plans.
The surrounding area was rural and sparsely populated. As the area grew into a sleeper community for Salt Lake City, the district added on a section here and there: a new fieldhouse, some extra classrooms. Eventually, nicer school buildings were built throughout the county, while the area’s first and largest high school fell into disrepair.
When I was growing up, I’d hear adults arguing about the fate of the old school, whether it ought to rebuilt or not. There was a sizable population that preferred the school as it was. However, the thing to remember is that Davis High wasn’t an architectural masterpiece worthy of preservation. It was a hunk of garbage to which some in the community had become emotionally attached.
They finally tore it down and rebuilt in 2004, right before I started attending. For all the arguments I’d overheard as a kid, but I haven’t heard a single person say that it was a mistake in retrospect.

College Football looks a lot like Davis High circa 2000.
Just look at Monday’s National Championship. Sure, Trevor Lawrence looked terrific. Of course, Clemson really did acquit itself. Clearly, Dabo Swinney will deliver an insufferable Hall of Fame induction speech at some point in the next 30 years.
However, the game did not deliver. It didn’t offer hype, excitement or an extended conversation. It’s been less than 48 hours, and the sports world has moved on.
If anything, the fourth straight year of an Alabama-Clemson championship only goes to show that the four-team playoff that had been desired and advocated for decades (even making a short appearance in Barack Obama’s 2008 Presidential Campaign) is fatally flawed.
Very smart people believe that the problem would be fixed by expanding the playoffs to eight teams. They are wrong.

As always, let me preface everything with a few caveats:

  1. Nothing will change during this off-season. There hasn’t been any indication that the powers of College Football have any interest in fixing a flawed system until momentum has swung irrevocably against them. This is a century-long tradition.
  2. If the groundswell grows to the point of demanding change, these powers will only move one step at a time. The presidents, athletic directors, and bureaucrats that run the show are incrementalists by nature. They are the intellectual brothers of the people that swore that the individual mandate and “bending the cost-curve” would be the most popular parts of the ACA.

These are the reasons that college football, like the old Davis High, has been adding and patching for the past century. There was never a grand plan or master architect. It just sort of happened, and a lot of people got emotionally attached.

In the beginning, a few warm-weather cities held exhibition games over the holidays. These were not intended to be a traditional postseason. Through the 1960s, they took place AFTER the National Champion had been crowned. In 1964, Alabama finished number one in the polls, was awarded the trophy, then lost to Texas in the Orange Bowl.
Bowls were never a solution to the problem; they were a popular sideshow. Now, it is the system built around the sideshow, continually shrinking in importance and popularity, while growing in scope and time frame, that is keeping us in this limbo.

The old bowl system succeeded to an extent by being mostly ambivalent about who was the National Champion. The BCS was established to attempt to simultaneously change the concept of the postseason while keeping all the traditionalists happy. This is a strategy, whether in sports, politics or public high schools, that never works.

The Rose Bowl doesn’t matter, but it still exists. The Cheez-It Bowl never mattered, but it still exists. A champion is crowned every year, but it seems less relevant and interesting.

Writer Matt Zemek summed up the problem perfectly last week.

“The BCS had eroded the classic bowl traditions which made college football great… without delivering a manifestly improved national championship process.”

Swinney, with all the superiority that will inevitably make him a Republican congressman in the future, suggested this week that if people are unsatisfied with Alabama-Clemson matchup, they should embrace the old system. As Zemek said, there were some advantages to the broadly meaningless system, but its coexistence with a playoff cannot work.
The old system is utterly untenable in today’s world. We’ve seen an increase in healthy and semi-healthy players skipping bowl games to prepare for the NFL Draft. Without our modest playoff this year, we likely would have seen the same from a handful of marquee players from Alabama, Clemson, and Oklahoma.

What’s the outlook? To quote everyone’s favorite semi-fictional Scottish usurper:

“I am in blood stepp’d so far that, should I wade no more, returning is as tedious as go o’er.”

Here’s the crux: eight teams will not be enough to convert the postseason into something universally meaningful. The expansion will mean the permanent end of the identity of the major bowls, moving them to full-time quarterfinals or relegating them to lower status. The Cheez-It Bowl would still exist, along with a mess other meaningless games played in half-empty stadiums in the middle of the week.

For the playoff to work, they need to tear it all down and rebuild. The NCAA has to keep moving forward before uninteresting bowls and uninteresting playoffs conspire to widen the interest gap between the college football and its chief rival, the NFL.

Take the 24-team playoff used by the FCS. Copy it exactly.

  • The expanded playoff replaces the bowls entirely.

The FCS playoff includes a total of 23 games. That’s a cut from 41 bowl games, but the increased importance should counteract the loss in ratings. Addition by subtraction. Would you rather have 18 games between 6-6 and 5-7 teams or 23 games that might include four Alabama match-ups?
Furthermore, this would likely solve the problem of players skipping the postseason. Rather than a meaningless exhibition, every game counts. Playing in the tournament would be a chance to increase your draft stock, rather than merely being an extra opportunity to get hurt.
Think for a moment: who was the last basketball player to sit out the NCAA Tournament to keep his draft stock safe? Could Will Grier have tempted a team into making him a first-round pick by taking West Virginia on a surprise run? Ask Donte DiVincenzo.
The playoffs would own the month of December, a perfect time for college football to shine. The NFL would still be in the final weeks of its regular season, which usually is its most anticlimactic time.

  • It shifts the nexus of controversy.

There are always going to be arguments about who gets left out. There’s almost always one aggrieved team every year left out of the basketball tournament. But as soon as the games start, they drop away. Try to remember who the best team left out was last year? Unless it’s your alma mater or you’re a future jeopardy champion, I’ll bet you can’t. It was St. Mary’s, who was ranked 25th in the final AP Poll.
The reason is that the cut off for an at-large bid in the tournament is generally around the 12-seed. So the team that gets left out is somewhere around the 49th best team in the nation. At best, the argument is that the team was robbed of a chance to go on a surprise run to the Sweet 16, Elite Eight, or maybe Final Four. Even when a team like St. Mary’s loses out, there is no countervailing argument that the outcome would have been wildly different if St. Mary’s had been given a 10-seed.
Look at college football. During the BCS era, there was almost always an aggrieved party: USC in 2003, Auburn and Utah in 2004, Oklahoma State and Stanford in 2011. The third and fourth place teams still have a reasonable claim that they could have won if given a chance.
Moving to four teams hasn’t really improved matters. TCU and Baylor were caught in the 5-6 spot in 2014. Ohio State was left out this year. There just isn’t enough space between the best team left out and the team that wins the championship.
Moving to eight teams walks the fault line down the polls, but again, only slightly. Assuming some system of automatic bids, Michigan, Florida and LSU would have all been left out. Could any of those teams have gone on a three-game run? Perhaps. It’s difficult to argue that they couldn’t.
The farther the nexus of controversy moves down the line, the more legitimate the eventual champion will seem.

  • 24 is close to the magic number.

What if I told you that, before the explosion of bowl games and the invention of television, society had decided how many college football teams were worth caring about? Let’s say, perhaps, a weekly issue from nationally credible wire services?
We’ve been ranking 25 teams since the Great Depression. It has been, apart from conference and national championships, the critical indicator of merit. Embracing a 24 team playoff, even perhaps with a play-in game, would embrace tradition rather than abandoning it. The season would still matter, which seems to be the chief concern of playoff doves.

  • It really wouldn’t require a longer season.

Clemson played 15 games this year. If the NCAA went back to an 11-game schedule, jettisoning meaningless games against FCS opponents, and did away with conference championship games, which would no longer be necessary to pad resumes, the eventual champion would play, at a maximum, 16 games.
Of course, that would only be true of two teams. More likely, the champion would tend to be one of the top eight teams who receive a first-round bye.
Are 16 games too much for college students? Just ask anyone at North Dakota State.

Who’s in The Club?

In my last article, I introduced the idea of The Club: the 21 (or maybe 19)teams who hold power in College Football. They are defined, primarily, by a previous championship in living memory. Now there are two important caveats:

  1. Not all members of The Club are equals
    There is something like a meritocracy within the ranks. Some members carry more clout than others today, but may not tomorrow. This is particularly true the more space is put between the last championship and the current day.
  2. Living memory is a debatable concept.
    For some of the members of The Club, their glory occurred decades ago. For example, Tennessee won it all in 1950 and 1998. If Tennessee hadn’t won the first BCS championship, I would probably exclude them from this list, as there are virtually no working coaches or sportswriters who remember the year 1950 (save perhaps Lou Holtz, who is an immortal being sent to punish eardrums with his hissing).
    In 1998, that wasn’t the case. So I keep Tennessee in.

Without further ado, allow me to introduce the club.

  • The Current Top Tier
    Alabama (most recent championship: 2017), Oklahoma (2000), Clemson (2016), Ohio State (2014)

Virtually any sports fan in America would identify these four schools as the top programs in America. Clemson is the freshest member, earning an entry in 1981, and re-upping in 2017. These are teams that can have almost any sin forgiven to get a spot in the playoff. Ohio State only missed out this year because of an unusually lousy pr season, and an undefeated Notre Dame team. The system is reluctant to pass over an undefeated Club member.

It should be noted that Oklahoma hasn’t won it all in 18 years. They have, however, played in five title or playoff games during that period.

  • The Legacy Kids
    Michigan (1997), Florida (2008), Florida State (2013), Texas (2005), Notre Dame (1988)

This group can be split into two subgroups: the Florida schools and the old-money schools.
The Florida schools have relatively recent histories, climbing into the club during the expansion years between 1980 and 1997. With six titles between them, all in the last 40 years, their legacies carry a lot of currency. Both programs are in relative down cycles, but if Dan Mullen and Willie Taggart can turn things around, they will enjoy all the benefits of membership.
The three old-money schools have been skating by on the deeds of the postwar era and excellent marketing. Texas is the only one that has won a championship in the BCS/Playoff era. Notre Dame appeared in one BCS Championship and one playoff and got smoked both times. Michigan, for all its pomp and circumstance, hasn’t risen to the occasion since its 1997 split championship provoked the BCS system.
When any of these five teams are good, the media gets really excited.

  • The Inner Circle
    LSU (2007), Auburn (2010), Georgia (1980), Penn State (1986), USC (2004), Miami (2001)

Any of these schools could jump a level with the right coach. Generally, they’re the beneficiary of proximity. First, they’re all close to fertile recruiting grounds. Second, they’re all close enough to urban centers that allow them to fill massive stadiums.
But most important, all of these schools benefit from a close association to schools in the higher tiers. LSU, Auburn, and Georgia have to go through Alabama and Florida, not to mention each other. Any victories will be seen as justification for placement in the playoffs. Penn State has Ohio State and Michigan. Miami has Clemson and Florida. USC can struggle being the top prestige team in their conference, but a yearly battle with Notre Dame has made them surrogate conference rivals.

  • The Outer Circle
    Nebraska (1997), Michigan State (1965), Washington (1991), Colorado (1990), Georgia Tech (1990), Tennessee (1998)

These teams tend to raise eyebrows. None of them will get the benefit of the doubt when put against any of the 16 teams ahead of them. But they do carry some weight, and a good team from any of them will get put in the running for a playoff spot.
Michigan State and Washington have proved this in recent years, with their recent coaches awakening sleeping past champions. Tennessee and Nebraska have taken a dive since the early years of the BCS, but they are always one season away from returning. Next year, a 12-1 team from either would carry more credibility with pollsters than a 12-1 team from, for example, TCU or North Carolina State.
Georgia Tech and Colorado are debatable entries. Neither has done much in the past two decades. One could argue that their pedigrees are too weak—each holds only the 1990 Championship that they shared. If they’re left off the list, it doesn’t change my argument. Neither has played for a National Championship since the start of the BCS.

  • Lapsed Membership
    BYU (1984), UCLA (1954), Syracuse (1959), Minnesota (1960), Maryland (1953), Pittsburgh (1976)

Some of these would seem to be football schools, but they’ve all fallen off from the years in which they won their last national championship.
BYU never gained admittance to an elite conference and under current rules, would have never been considered for the 1984 Championship. Pittsburgh and Minnesota disappeared after special players left and their metro areas stopped growing. Maryland, Syracuse, and UCLA became more committed to basketball.

Will we ever see The Club admit new members? Stayed tuned.


The Club Problem

College Football’s caste system is only getting stronger

By Nathan Smith

Alabama. Clemson. Notre Dame. Oklahoma.

That’s the playoff that the selection committee gave us: four teams littered with NFL talent, three teams with undefeated records, two legitimate Heisman candidates. During the five-year history of the four-team playoff, this might have been the least controversial bunch presented to the public. While Alabama and Clemson will be heavy favorites, all of the teams seemed like legitimate claimants to the throne.

There was only one certainty: no team would raise the trophy this year that hasn’t done so before. This will keep alive a 22-year streak keeping final glory in the hands of the powerful, wealthy and prestigious. This is the defining feature of college football—a permanent aristocracy.

It all feels very zeitgeisty. Since the end of the Clinton years, income inequality has taken center stage in our political discourse. Politicians have built national followings railing against elites who, they allege, hoard all the gains of economic growth and shoulder no responsibility for their own failings or misdeeds.

While the Senate’s confirmation hearing for Brett Kavanaugh produced a dozen viral clips and memes, recall the nominee’s evidence that his youthful partying couldn’t have been out of control.

“I got into Yale Law School. That’s the number one law school in the country. I had no connections there. I got there by busting my tail in college.”

Senator Mazie Hirono responded, “I’m insulted as a Georgetown graduate.”

Nothing could make the populist argument more: two of the most powerful people in the country, decades removed from their studies, name-checking their prestigious alma maters.

The schools aren’t a part of the argument. The schools are the argument.

Yale is Yale.

The promise of the BCS system, implemented for the 1998 season, was to make college football less subjective. For decades, champions were selected by opinion polls, the two biggest being conducted by the media in the AP Poll and fellow coaches in the AFCA Poll. The result was decidedly anticlimactic and often confusing. In 1997, the old system produced what was supposed to be the last of its kind: a split decision between two programs—Michigan and Nebraska—who hadn’t played each other in over a decade.

There was a certain appeal, then and now, to having the championship be decided on the field. Perhaps there was some envy of the hype of the NCAA Basketball Tournament and the finality of the Super Bowl. But the move to the BCS marked a distinct closing of the gates of the elites.

In the old system’s penultimate year, Steve Spurrier’s Florida Gators won their first National Championship. It marked a quick rise out of relative obscurity, coinciding with the hiring of Spurrier six years earlier. In today’s world, Gainsville is a destination job, but it’s rarely mentioned how new that tradition is.

In fact, the twenty years that preceded the BCS were marked by quick rises and first time Champions. During that period, the AP crowned eight first-time champions: Georgia, Clemson, Penn State, Miami, BYU, Colorado, Florida State, and Florida. Georgia Tech and Washington also received their first championships at the hands of the Coaches.

The landscape was changing rapidly at the end of the millennium. USC, Texas, Alabama and Notre Dame were all in long fallow periods. The center of the sport had moved from the industrial Midwest to the Southeast, specifically Florida.

So, like all oligarchs, plutocrats, and aristocrats in history, the system found a way to cement gains, mitigate losses, and keep the unwashed masses at bay. Nobody has joined the club in two decades.

The Supreme Court that Kavanaugh enters is similarly elite. All eight of his fellow justices attended Yale Law School, or its chief rival, Harvard. In fact, there hasn’t been a justice admitted to the court that hasn’t gone to one of those two schools since 1981, when Ronald Reagan (the last non-Ivy League President) nominated Sandra Day O’Connor.

Kavanaugh got into Yale Law School. He made sure to tell us that. It creates a circular, self-sustaining logic: Kavanaugh deserves to be on the Supreme Court because he went to the best law school and Yale is the best law school because Brett Kavanaugh went there.

The key to both the BCS system and the current playoff format is the careful selection of who has the opportunity to play for the trophy. There is no dissenting opinion anymore. The National Champion has to be one of the two or later four teams selected.

In this era, there hasn’t been a single champion crowned who hadn’t won the award under the previous system. The selection model, whether by computers or the opaque playoff selection committee, has virtually denied all applications to the club.

There are 27 schools that have won the championship either through the AP or Coaches Poll since 1945, when the AFCA first appeared. To  be fair, they are not all currently treated as royalty. BYU is not affiliated with P5 conference, and thus cannot enjoy full membership in the club. Oklahoma State, Maryland, Minnesota, Syracuse and Pitt all won championships early and then receded into decades of mediocrity. That leaves 20 teams in this unique club.

Club members accounted for 30 of 32 participants in the BCS Championship Game. As of this week, they will account for 19 of 20 participants in the playoff. They account for l5 percent of FBS teams, and have been given 94 percent of chances to win it all.

Between 110 non-club members, there have only been two schools who’ve even being allowed a spot at the table: Virginia Tech in 2000 and Oregon in 2010 and 2014. Even those inclusions were accidental. Each of those teams finished their respective seasons undefeated in a power conference, without an undefeated club members to take precedence.

How often would you expect the in-crowd to be selected over the out-crowd when both have an equal amount of losses? How often would you expect the club to sneak a team in with more losses than a non-club contender? Since the start of the BCS, these two instances have happened a combined 48 times, averaging more than twice a year. There has never been an example of the club losing a spot to a peasant school with the same or worse record.

If this was random, it would be the equivalent of a coin coming up heads 48 straight times.

There is a potential quibble with every team on the list. Half played in what are now call G5 conferences, with Boise State accounting for six instances on its own. But the bias doesn’t end when strength of schedule improves. TCU found itself on a short end of the stick four times as a member of various non-power conferences, but even after its elevation to the Big 12, it was excluded yet again in 2014.

For all his anti-elite bluster, President Trump has shown an enormous preference for Supreme Court nominees with Harvard or Yale degrees. There have been reports that he sees it as a prerequisite. During both selection processes the perceived runner-up has come from a slightly less elite program: Thomas Hardiman from Georgetown and Amy Coney Barrett from Notre Dame.

Even before sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh surfaced, it was frequently argued that Barrett, as an anti-abortion woman, was the more politically savvy pick. This argument grew in popularity up to the moment Kavanaugh was confirmed, when it became moot. Kavanaugh’s brand appeal won out.

Trump, to be fair, along with his four immediate predecessors has something in common with the playoff selection committee: They can’t resist a pedigree.

After all, Yale is Yale.

The usual culprits for college football’s aristocracy are money and recruiting. It’s only reasonable, say the defenders of the club, that Alabama has won it all 5 of the last 9 years. They have the best recruiting classes, best coaches, the most money. This is a meritocracy, and Alabama has earned its place.

If this logic were to track, we should see similar results in college basketball, where the best recruits and money also tends to swarm to traditional powerhouses. Yet, under the weight of a 64-team tournament, those types of advantages seem to diminish dramatically.

Since the first BCS season, the NCAA tournament has produced four first-time champions: UConn in 1999, Maryland in 2002, Syracuse in 2003 and Florida in 2006. A further eight teams have had the opportunity to win their first title, falling short in the final.

Currently, there is no real analog to Alabama football in the college basketball world. Duke and Kentucky tend to split the top-rated recruits in any given year, but they have only four championships between them over this 20-year time frame. UConn has won the most titles, but is currently in disarray, having lost in the last round of conference realignment and parted acrimoniously with Kevin Ollie, the coach of its most recent tournament run.

 In football, take a look one division lower, to the FCS/Division 1AA, and you will see nine programs winning their first championship over this period, even with North Dakota State’s six championships in the past decade.

In professional football, the path to glory has opened up considerably since 1998. The first 32 Super Bowls were split between 11 franchises, with six franchises representing a super-majority of champions. The last 20 have been split among 12, with only the New England Patriots winning more than two.

During this period, seven franchises won their first Super Bowl. Four more teams made their first appearance but lost.

As power in all of its rivals diversifies, college football continues to silently consolidate.

Despite his assurance that his admission to Yale Law was a sign of grit and brilliance, Kavanaugh came to represent the epitome of privilege to many Americans, the majority of whom opposed his confirmation. His declaration that he got in by himself, with no connections, seemed immediately dubious for the son of powerful lobbyist, the grandson of a Yale graduate, and an alum of nationally elite prep school and Yale itself as an undergrad.

Furthermore, it stood out how many sins had been indulged to get him there. Even though Christine Blasey Ford’s accusations had never been public, Kavanaugh admitted, in a deliberately misleading way, to underage drinking. He was also cited for participating in a bar fight, which he allegedly started by throwing ice in a stranger’s face. It isn’t particularly a novel idea that such behavior could have derailed the life of a less wealthy, less connected, and less white person.

But mistakes only matter when you’re not a member of the club.

Opportunity is so vanishingly small in college football, with gatekeepers showing such bias toward established power, that we’ve seen hardly any change in the hierarchy in 20 years. The gap between the club and everyone else just continues to grow.

The most popular refrain is that this system is necessary because “it makes the season matter.” This is so oft repeated that it’s accepted even by fans of non-club schools. The complete statement should be, “it makes the season matter for the have-nots.” They are the ones of whom perfection is demanded. One loss from an upstart is a blessed rational for exclusion.

What’s striking is how easily the standard disappears once it applies to a blue blood. Kansas State lost the Big 12 championship game in 1998, so it was denied a chance in the first BCS matchup. But when the Wildcats beat Oklahoma in the same setting five years later, it was not enough to keep the Sooners out of the title game. In 2011, instead of one-loss teams at Stanford and Oklahoma State, the system rewarded Alabama with a rematch against LSU, to whom they had fallen weeks earlier.

The quirky rules that kept Texas Tech out of the Big 12 Championship in 2008 were used to discredit any claim to a shot at glory. However, the inability to win one’s conference division had stopped mattering in 2017, when Alabama got an invite. It is reasonable to expect that this prerequisite will reappear, the next time a have-not comes close.

Two of Alabama’s championship trophies arrived in circumstances that can, would, and have disqualified a less storied program. The Crimson Tide’s unparalleled run could only exist in a world that forgave its sins and condemned all others.

After all, Alabama is Alabama.