Tuesday, June 30, 2015

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[NOTE FROM ARIF: This is great stuff from reader Duane Oyen that does a fantastic job integrating what we know of civilian and military technology and applying it to increase the exposure and practice time that an NFL quarterback has. This is his first guest post, and it’s a great one. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Again, email me at arifmhasan (at) gmail DOT com if you have ideas for your own guest post. I love reading them!]

By Duane Oyen

Possibly the favorite recurring theme of everyone who loves pro football—and especially everyone who a) loves the off-season maneuvering and hot stove anticipation of building new rosters for the next season and b) is a fan of a team not led by guys with names such as Manning, Brady, Brees, Luck, Wilson, or Ryan—is how to evaluate the upgrade your favorite team’s quarterback position.  The time and attention lavished on this problem by aficionados almost rivals the scope and degree of the 40+ year old medical research war on cancer.

It should be noted that we seem to be making more progress against cancer than we are in figuring out what QB to draft in what round and how to turn him into the Next Big Passer.  The only surefire method is to go 1-15 in the year that a P. Manning or a Luck declares for the draft.  In other words, “get Luck-y”-which is also the only way to explain how the same team drafted both Peyton and Luck.

You have recognized scouts and coaches such as Brian Billick and Bill Walsh drafting Kyle Boller and Jim Druckenmiller.  Scouts, including lots of ex-QBs such as Ron Jaworski, Bill Musgrave, and, at lower competition levels, Tony Dungy and Brad Childress, render views based on extended film study.  The internet is filled with bright and utterly obsessed analysts breaking down college QB performance in every game ever played, with ranking compensating and controlling for every possible factor you can think of as they try to tease out what some refer to as “it”, whatever “it” is in the post-analysis.

At the same time as the frustration with the process is peaking, especially in a year of draftable QB uncertainty where no one is really separating himself from the pack and there are six teams desperate to find a long term effective starter, the opportunity to coach and develop young QBs is decreasing because of the limits imposed by the NFLPA collective bargaining agreement (CBA), now in its second year of applying stricter limitations on the amount of contact a prospect is allowed to have with his pro coaching staff.

One can’t help but feel that there are more QBs out there who could follow in the footsteps of Rich Gannon, Kurt Warner, Brad Johnson, and Jake Delhomme; their successes followed because they had the long term determination to succeed, combined with hope, and, perhaps most importantly, opportunities to develop.

Johnson had a third string position with no expectations, Gannon (and possibly Josh McCown) just hung in there till they hit the right situation, and Warner and Delhomme got to hone their skills in NFL Europe.  But each got extended practice and waited out situations where they perhaps lacked effective coaching, offensive systems, roster talent levels suited to their particular capabilities, and eventually hit the right circumstances.

If quarterbacking is so highly valued, why doesn’t the NFL, which spends money on everything else in the world of talent acquisition, find ways to get green QBs more training, particularly more realistic repetitions—not standing in a cornfield in shorts and a T-shirt next to legendary NFL star Chris Weinke, but wearing a helmet and pads, and throwing real time against an opposing team, with every possible play and personnel situation in the mix?  In other words, why can’t we train prospective NFL QBs the way we train fighter pilots, using simulators that realistically create battle conditions and the physical environment?

The answer that we can—but no one has done it yet.  We don’t know why.

Teddy Bridgewater wanted to practice this way—his offensive coach says that he replicated his Louisville offense on his video game console.  That is a weak imitation of the real thing, but the world of 3-D aerospace training certainly can be re-created for QB training, practice, and learning.  Some entities have played with this on the edges, but no one has done it seriously.  People such as the military trainers, Disney, and the makers of Madden Football could pretty easily make this work.  Here are the pieces of the system, which could be set up at any major football facility or even a QB’s oversized garage or small sized polebarn.  The main system components are listed below; more detail is provided for each element as needed.

1) Heads-up video display built into a football helmet—this is really self-explanatory, but the technology is now cheap and ubiquitous.  Even Google Glasses or inexpensive systems available at Amazon offer the capability, as does every military aviation system.

It is not difficult to take a video display and build that into a football helmet blocking, out the live optical scene or integrating the camera image of the football center snap with the simulation, so that what the QB sees is a 3-D image of pass rushers and receivers configured in visual depth.

2) 30’ by 30’ artificial turf working practice area—this is also self-explanatory.  The QB needs to feel the “grass” under his cleats, not a concrete floor.

3) Instrumented mesh screen—When the QB throws the ball, he has to throw it into something at the optimal distance so that it catches the ball, and feeds back the information about where it went, how far, did it get to the receiver, was it overthrown, underthrown, wide of the mark, and so on, based on projected vector compared to the place the software image told the QB his receiver was going to be.  This can be done by effectively hanging a “smart” curtain stretched taut, the proper distance in front of the QB, perhaps 3 yards in front of the “line of scrimmage”.

The curtain has a map of grid circuits that tells where the ball hits it, with strain gages (the sensors in an electronic scale) located at each grid point to tell how hard the ball hits it.  The computer then calculates, based on the ball velocity, and direction of flight as calculated from the point of impact, where it would hit the ground, or better yet, where a receiver would meet it.  This can be done with amazing accuracy—GPS systems provide that kind of information over enormous distances with just a few data points 22,000 miles up in the Van Allen satellite belt, army artillery can shoot a shell over ten miles and aim very precisely using ballistics tables for tilting the barrels and establishing the right propellant charge.

4) High fidelity sound system—of course, the QB has to hear the crowd noise in his helmet speakers, along with defensive ends and tackles grunting as their footsteps pound ever closer to the QB.

5) Graphics controller computer—the brains of the hardware system, with both a CPU to do the calculations and control all the elements, and a very high speed graphics processor to create the digital visual images.

6) 3-D video software—this is important, can be expensive, but also can start more simply with fewer plays, with iterative upgrades to expand the capability as long as the initial architecture is set with flexibility.

With this kind of system, a QB can be anywhere, and can work at any time, with or without coaches, in season or off-season.  He can have his most troublesome issues programmed into the software and multiple plays set up so that he drills his muscle memory over and over and over again until new habits are established.

The number of live reps in camp and OTAs need not limit the opportunity to improve.  There is nothing you can’t simulate in software as long as the video-audio and feedback mechanisms are properly represented; using accelerometers and strain gages, along with visual sensors (cameras mounted on the sides of the turf time-sync’d to the other sensors) provides a full record of what was doine right and what was done wrong.  And the willingness to work on shortcomings by drilling over and over again will set the keepers apart from the clipboard holders.

If we Vikings fans care about seeing the team move up in the league, we should initiate a Kickstarter project to develop the closed-loop, game-simulation, 3-D trainer.

[Final note – I have a thought to include a loud, annoying “failure” buzzer every time the quarterback gets “sacked” or “hit” in the simulation in order to simulate pressure, imitate the things that cause quarterbacks to rush their mechanics and give them an incentive to get rid of the ball early (perhaps too early, in order to test their “pocket presence”). Or, they could be wearing a suit that imitates physical force of some sort integrated into the system.

From what I know, Christian Ponder and a number of other quarterbacks have used Google Glass, but I don’t know if it was anything more than a novelty.

The system would be awesome to implement, but would do very well if tested out by a team that knows it has a good quarterback and a team that knows it has a raw quarterback to compare results, just to see if the system can be gamed in a way that won’t help on the NFL field, but helps in the simulation.

Regardless, those are small technical details to add on to an impressive piece by Oyen that should at least have some NFL teams thinking.]

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I hate scouting Johnny Manziel.

It’s not that I hate him as a player, or especially him as a college player: I love watching Johnny Manziel play football. It’s exciting, unpredictable and a little magical.

But more than anyone else, evaluators can make the most of him with “coaches film” (or more appropriately “coaches’ film”).

It’s far too easy for even neutral scouts to read into the type of player that he is or the reason he makes so many exciting plays from outside of the pocket. Does he move to manipulate the defense? Does he move because he doesn’t anticipate receivers getting open? Does he move because he’s a one-read player? What about because he sees a gaping hole in the defense? What if it’s because, for all the explosive playmaking he embodies, he intuitively understands the importance of “success rate” and first downs?

To some extent, broadcast film (again, courteously provided by Draft Breakdown) can answer some or even most of those questions. But a number of them can’t really be discussed until evaluators get the full field of vision, so we fill it in with what we think we see—and what we think we see, we usually want to see.

I unfortunately was not able to get my hands on that “coaches film,” like I have for a few other prospects, so for the most context-dependent player in the draft, I’ll provide some contextless analysis. And because of that, it will be even longer than the previous report (nearly 5000 words).

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[NOTE FROM ARIF: Keep them coming! This guest post pairs well with (unintentionally or not) the previous post on “hope” and how it relates to Vikings fans, this time written by active Tweeter @LAHfreya23, otherwise known as Ligeia Heagy in meatspace.

To my knowledge, this is her first guest post as well! Again, email me at arifmhasan (at) gmail DOT com if you want to write a guest post]

By Ligeia Heagy

Every Vikings fan hopes for a Super Bowl win…before they die. It’s the age old joke between fans, and the twisted verbal knife from other teams.  The thought of a Vikings Super Bowl win is almost too much to hope for, considering history.  Some fans might argue that hope is a four letter word.  To date, a Super Bowl win for the Vikings has been entirely elusive. Is it possible?  Our quest begins with a trip down memory lane.

Vikings fans are inured to disappointment.  There was the 1970s run at the Super Bowl, only to be disappointed four times in one decade. The consolation prize was a series of NFC North and NFC Championships.  Fair enough.  No one is really complaining about those, until the 1998 and 2000 NFC Championship losses are broached. Enough said. Oh, but then there was the 2009 NFC Championship loss to add to an already boiling pot of misery.  Clearly, the Universe did not believe that 2009 had inflicted sufficient pain among the Viking brethren.  Almost on cue, the roof of the Metrodome collapsed in 2010.  Prophetic? Why think otherwise?

On the road towards a Vikings Super Bowl, there have been a number of questionable pit stops along the way.  Notably:

  1. The Herschel Walker trade (If you must ask, visit Wikipedia. It simply cannot be relived here.)
  2. The Love Boat scandal (Included because, well, the Vikings needed this like a hole in the head.)
  3. The acquisition of Brett Favre (Questionable from the point of view that he managed to win a Super Bowl for the Pack, but not for the Vikings.  In his own words, he choked.  Yes, yes he did.)
  4. The 2013 quarterback carousel (This fueled the image of the Vikings as a perennial laughing stock organization. Deepest of sighs.)

By the end of December 2013, the Vikings had secured their future as the laughing stock of the league. At times, being a Vikings fan is akin to stabbing oneself in the eye with thousands of needles daily.  Counter argument?  As they say on Twitter, meh.  But enough grousing.  Is there a Super Bowl for Viking fans on the horizon? 2014 appears to be a pivotal year for Viking fortunes.

Black Monday arrived with few surprises and additional agony for fans, who would surely be disappointed by the selection of a new coach.  Knife wounds to the gut are expected.  Fans carry first aid kits in anticipation thereof (at least one would hope they do).  But the unthinkable occurred.  In mid-January, Vikings brass interviewed Mike Zimmer.  Zimmerwatch commenced upon a tweeted picture of Zimmer at the Cincinnati airport on his way to Minneapolis.  Fans and media allowed themselves two full days of giddiness.  They bathed in it.  Because this kind of joy is so fleeting for Vikings fans.  In the end, Vikings brass hired Zimmer, ushering in a potentially whole new world for Vikings everywhere.

The hiring of Zimmer potentially flips a switch.  The position of Head Coach of the Minnesota Vikings is a first for Zimmer and fulfills a lifelong dream.  Zimmer is a no nonsense personality with a self professed chip on his shoulder.  Needless to say, the Vikings also have a chip on their shoulder and about 50 years of pent up Super Bowl adrenalin.  This is a marriage in Valhalla for Vikings fans.  The bottom line is that Zimmer wants to be the effing coach that brings the effing Super Bowl win to the effing Minnesota Vikings.  And, he is effing believable in his process.  Which brings us back to the possibility of a Vikings Super Bowl win.

Show of hands, who wants to be the one to tell Zimmer he can’t do it?

The room is empty ladies and gentleman.  Go ahead and effing HOPE!

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[NOTE FROM ARIF – It seems as if guest posts are becoming a popular way to get your opinions out there. This one comes from Greg Eichten, and I believe this is his first blog post of any kind.

Remember, if you’re interested in writing a guest post for Vikings Territory, you can email me at arifmhasan (at) gmail DOT com. We’re always looking for fresh angles!]

By Greg Eichten

The NFL’s biggest asset isn’t the Dallas Cowboys, Aaron Rodgers, or even the TV broadcast rights. No, their biggest asset is hope. Hope for the dedicated fan bases all over the world that THIS is the season, THIS is the player, THIS is finally the quarterback that’s going to change the franchise forever. That’s why Christian Ponder in no way can be on the roster when it’s time to report to training camp.

Following the disappointing but predictable 2013 Vikings season, I wasn’t convinced that Leslie Frazier needed to go. Sure he wasn’t Vince Lombardi, but was he really the reason why the Vikings couldn’t win? However, once we brought in the shiny new coach in Mike Zimmer and made a few solid hires such as Mr. Norval Turner, I found myself wondering what that strange feeling was that was working its way into my brain. It seemed vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it. I remember it around the time when Favre, Cunningham, and even Culpepper were here. Then it came to me – HOPE! I’m actually feeling hope for the 2014 season. Right then I realized why coaches are fired every other year and why the draft is so popular…it all comes down to hope and the possibility of positive change. Maybe this IS the great coach we’ve been waiting for. A new regime is starting for crying out loud, we have permission to write off the last few years as a sunk cost in our fandom… but going forward, BOY THINGS SURE ARE GOING TO BE DIFFERENT THIS YEAR!

Back in February, in a 50-minute interview with reporters, Spielman said Christian Ponder will be back next season.

Excuse me, what did he say?!? There’s a reason why you don’t invite your boozy ex-girlfriend to your wedding: nothing positive can result of it, only pain and suffering as those old wounds are ripped open and exposed. What good could possibly come of turning him into Clipboard Christian and have him awkwardly hanging around pretending to cheer on the starting quarterback? No hard feelings against Ponder, as he has been the consummate professional, saying and doing all the right things. Do the right thing for him and let him try and extend his career elsewhere while getting something of value in return. He’s better than Jacksonville bust Blaine Gabbert, and he garnered a 6th round pick from the 49ers.

And let’s not forget our current starting quarterback, Matt Cassel, who would benefit greatly knowing that CP isn’t staring daggers into his helmet and untying his shoes while he naps on the team plane. If Cassel struggles, as he most likely will at some point, I can guarantee that there will be a small but loud clamoring to see one more look at Christian, with the usual chorus of qualifiers: “Why not see what he’s got? Maybe the off-season and benching really got through to him? We invested a 12th overall pick on the guy, might as well use him!” No, nope, and negative again. If Ponder takes even one snap this year, the hope that has been building within the fan base will seep out as we recall the failures of past teams and will be replaced with the all too familiar feeling of dread and disgust. Let’s move forward with the new regime and start off without the face of disappointment holding the clipboard.

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