Monday, October 5, 2015

The Miami Dolphins: a model of aggressive mediocrity

The Miami Dolphins fired their head coach Joe Philbin today after another humiliating loss to long time division rival the New York Jets. There were hopes that coming into this season, the team could move past the consistently mediocre results it has achieve for seemingly decades and make it to the playoffs, perhaps even winning the division that the New England Patriots have cheated their way toward winning won most of the past two decades.

But no. Barring an extremely unlikely turnaround under the interim head coach, the Dolphins will miss out on the playoffs yet again. The disappointment this team's fans have felt has become as predictable as the Dolphins throwing the ball less than 5 yards on 3rd and long situations. We can point to numerous causes for such mediocrity.

Certain Philbin and his coaching staff deserve a long of blame. But as bad as they were, it's not like they were coaching a team filled with all-pros at every position. There are problems with starters at both guard positions, the entire defensive line (which is insane given that they signed Suh), the entire linebacking corps, the entire cornerback position outside of Brent Grimes. And there are problems with backups who are now starting because of injuries at left tackle and free safety. Even Bill Belichick would have a hard time cheating coaching his way to victories with this team.

While trying to diagnose the problems with this team, I kept thinking further and further back trying to find some sort of starting point. Maybe it was the previous GM, Jeff Ireland, who is the underlying cause for all of these problems. He's a big part of it since he picked many of the players and hired Joe Philbin as a coach. But Ireland is a holdover from the Bill Parcells era, who was brought on after the Nick Saban era. And of course Saban was brought on after the Jimmy Johnson era, who was brought in after the legend Don Shula retired. So there's been a lot of turnover after the decades long stability that Don Shula provided. But even with all of those guys who were supposed to be some of the best football people in the game, the results haven't changed basically at all.

But the mediocrity stretches even further back than just the Jimmy Johnson days. I would argue that even Don Shula wasn't holding up his end of the bargain, both as coach and GM. I'd go so far as to say that the Dolphins haven't been a well run organization since the end of the 1970s. The only reason we didn't notice that Shula wasn't doing well is that he lucked into getting arguably the greatest QB of all time, Dan Marino. Marino was supposed to go much higher in the draft than where the Dolphins picked him. But he had a down senior year and there were rumors of drug use that caused him to fall to Miami. From then on they rode the coattails of his greatness, only to appear in one super bowl, and never live up to his standards.

Let's take a quick look at how well the Dolphins have drafted since they took Dan Marino in 1983. Here's a link to every draft pick the team has made. I'll go through and point out the good players, which I'll define as having a career AV of 50 or over:

1985: Jeff Dellenbach, center
1988: Harry Galbreath, guard
1988: Jeff Cross, defensive end
1990: Richmond Webb, tackle
1990: Keith Sims, guard
1991: Brian Cox, linebacker
1992: Troy Vincent, defensive back
1992: Marco Coleman, defensive end
1993: Chris Gray, guard
1994: Tim Bowens, defensive tackle
1994: Tim Ruddy, center
1996: Zach Thomas, linebacker
1997: Sam Madison, cornerback
1997: Jason Taylor, defensive end
1998: Patrick Surtain, cornerback
2001: Chris Chambers, wide receiver
2008: Jake Long, tackle

We can split hairs over whether other players should be considered good. But these are the ones I think wouldn't be questioned. And we can talk about free agent acquisitions. But drafting good players is more important because you get them for less money, giving you more flexibility to sign more players. So I think looking at draft success is a good way to determine how good a team is run. And as you can see with that list, with a few exceptions, this hasn't been a well run team.

Looking at the Shula era, I notice that of the 11 good players that were drafted, 6 of those were offensive linemen. I point that out because Dan Marino is, if not the best, one of the two or three best quarterbacks ever at avoiding sacks. You can probably chalk some of that up to having good offensive linemen. But it's probably mostly because he had great pocket awareness, great pocket mobility, and an extremely quick release. Not getting sacked is a skill, and Marino was great at it. So I think he's influencing how well a lot of those linemen are doing in the AV rating system. They did seem to draft a few good defensive players in the Shula era. But as a whole, the defense never amounted to the type of unit that typically wins a super bowl.

The Jimmy Johnson era began in 1996, which coincided with the end of Dan Marino's career. Johnson tried to give a declining Marino help on offense. But as you can see, he completely failed. But Johnson did succeed in building a very good defense. Thomas and Taylor should be hall of famers. And Madison and Surtain were very good cornerbacks. The defense Johnson built was super bowl worthy. But the offense was never close to what it was during Marino's prime. And Johnson wasn't able to replace Marino at QB.

Once Johnson left in 1999 things went really downhill. Johnson's protege and terrible head coach, Dave Wannstedt, coasted off of the defense and trade for Ricky Williams until the defense started to age. Since then, the team has drafted two good players. That's two good players in 15 years. 15 years! Granted, some players haven't played long enough to accumulate enough points for the AV rating system. But tellingly, several players on that path aren't even with the team anymore:

2007: Samson Satele, center, AV = 48
2009: Vontae Davis, cornerback, AV = 31
2009: Sean Smith, cornerback, AV = 29
2009: Brian Hartline, wide receiver, AV = 30

There you have it, a model of aggressive mediocrity spanning three decades. Given the nature of this team, I'm not confident they will find success next season with a new coach. There's a bit of hope that the VP of football operations, Mike Tannenbaum, can turn things around after having failed in NY. He has taken some non-traditional steps toward improving the team. But by the same token, he seems to be the one who signed Suh to a massive contract and placed all his eggs in the Ryan Tannehill basket at QB. So who knows if he will succeed. If he does, he'll have done something that hasn't been done since Dan Marino fell into this team's lap.

Liberal catholics vs. conservative catholics

There's been a lot of talk about the pope since he visited the US. The pope will draw attention because he's the head of a large, worldwide organization. But Francis is probably drawing more attention than normal because he says some fairly progressive things, at least for a religious leader. This has all sparked some debate over what the catholic church should look like moving forward. This piece from Ross Douthat showed up in my twitter feed and I wanted to highlight some things I found interesting.

Which brings us to the issue that prompted my column: The debate, encouraged and I think guided in a pro-change direction by Pope Francis, over whether to admit the divorced-and-remarried, people in unions that the church has traditionally considered adulterous, back to communion while they’re still in a sexual relationship with their new spouse. I’ve written at length, as have others more qualified than myself, on why this allegedly-pastoral change would, in fact, represent a substantial alteration of doctrine on a very consequential issue — either the doctrine surrounding marriage, the doctrine surrounding sin, confession and the Eucharist, or by effect and implication both.
Some of the people supporting the change obviously disagree with that analysis and seem to believe that this shift would be more akin to, say, changing the requirements surrounding fasts in Lent — a strictly disciplinary or pastoral change, not a doctrinal one at all. (Though some, I tend to suspect, privately agree that it would be a bigger changer and that’s precisely why they want it — to prove that the church can shift substantially on a question of sexual ethics, and therefore that other changes are possible as well.)

To me this is the core of most, if not every, religious stance that I don't agree with. They just can't accept the fact that people, from a fairly early age, want to have sex. He goes on:

And it’s that change, working itself out across enough people and enough time, that I think would make it hard for the church to escape the fissiparous fate of Anglicans and Methodists and Presbyterians and other churches that have explicitly divided on these kind of sex-and-marriage questions, why is part of why I raised the possibility of schism: Not (God help us) as a prescription but as a prediction, based on the unhappy experience of our fellow Christians, of where churches where authority is compromised or absent on these kind of debates tend to ultimately end up.

So my dominant emotion isn’t anger right now: It’s a mix of dismay and determination, anxiety and hope, cycling back and forth depending on events.

Typical conservative, scared to concede his position of power. No, we can't have people getting out of relationships that they don't want to be in anymore because my belief that women shouldn't have sex with anyone but the one person they chose at a likely early age in life is the one with the most institutional power and the one that benefits me the most.

This is very similar to the way political conservatives think. It's all about the continuity of power structures and the fact that to them, any change in that structure is by definition a weakening of the institution. They don't reason from a belief in the morality of a stance on an issue. They reason from whether or not a belief in an issue is a change from a norm or not. I mean, he literally says that the appeal of catholicism is the fact that it's been around for so long and hasn't changed it's stance on some things.

I guess in a way it's admirable to stick to your guns in the way he does. But when you do that you are leaning pretty hard on the belief that what's written in a book, second hand and years after the death of their supposed god, is the word of god. I have no dog in the fight for catholicism's future (except for when they meddle in public policy). But if I did, I'd be siding with the catholics who put compassion and understanding before defense of tradition for the sake of tradition.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Gotham needed Obamacare just as much as Batman

I've seen The Dark Knight probably around 20 times. It took me until seeing it at an old theater in Nashville over the weekend to realize something about the Gotham of the Nolan trilogy. It has crappy health insurance coverage. And the lack of coverage helped lead to the death of Rachel Dawes, the creation of Two-Face, and the turning of Batman into The Dark Knight.

Like all Nolan movies, he drops a hint about what will happen in the movie very early on. After the opening of the Joker heist, we cut to Gotham at night. Two guys are about to make what looks like an illegal drug deal when one of them looks up and sees the Batsignal in the sky. He walks away from the deal for fear that Batman will stop him. Then we cut to Gordon on top of the Major Crimes Unit roof, where he has turned on the Batsignal, waiting for Batman to come talk to him.

Detective Anna Ramirez joins Gordon on the roof with a cup of coffee and asks if he, "Ever plans to see his wife again." To which Gordon responds, "I thought you had to look after your mother, Detective." Ramirez says she checked her mother back into the hospital. So it sounds like Ramirez is the only person her mother has to look after her, an emotional and likely financial burden.

As the movie unfolds, we are shown numerous times where the mob is a step ahead of the police. At the scene where Lao tells the mob that he has to move their money to keep it from being taken by the cops, he says that he knows the cops are planning to take their money through, "Mr. Maroney's well placed sources" (cops that are working with the mob). Later, when the cops are transferring Harvey Dent from the MCU to County General, the Joker attacks the convoy. After the Joker is captured, Harvey is put in a car driven by Detective Wertz so that he can presumably be cleared of being Batman and go home. Once put in the car, the camera lingers on Ramirez, who helped him into the car. This is foreshadowing Ramirez's betrayal of Dent by being the one who gives the Joker Rachel.

After Rachel is killed and Harvey decides to be Two-Face, he confronts Wertz about turning him over to the Joker and asks who the other cop was that gave Rachel to the Joker. Wertz doesn't know. So Two-Face goes to Maroney, who tells him that it was Ramirez. Two-Face confronts Ramirez who says that the mob "Got to her early on" because of her mother's hospital bills. So Ramirez works with the mob so she can make some money on the side to help her mother, who because she's seemingly sick all the time, can't work and can't afford health insurance.

The movie came out in 2008, before the passing of Obamacare (aka, The Affordable Care Act). If the world of Nolan's Gotham had implemented a version of Obamacare, Ramirez's mother may have been able to find health insurance on the exchange. Or if the state Gotham resided in had a Democratic governor or a halfway sane Republican governor, Ramirez's mother could have enrolled in Medicaid. With her mother having health insurance, Ramirez wouldn't have been tempted by the mob. Without cops to help them, the mob and the Joker are less able to capture Rachel and Harvey. And without Harvey Dent's turn into Two-Face, Batman doesn't have to become the villain.

Of course, Batman probably wouldn't be needed in the first place if Gotham would address it's inequality problem. Then Joe Chill wouldn't need to steal from and murder rich people in allies.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Jeb Bush and Iraq War justifications

Jeb Bush is running for president, because you know, our economy and politics are purely merit-based. And because his former president brother was in office such a short time ago, he's getting questions about how he compares to his brother, mostly regarding the biggest decision his brother made, invading Iraq. (I'm not sure if that sentence is a mess grammatically or just sounds messy reading it in my head)

On some level, Jeb and most Republicans know that the Iraq War wasn't a glowing success. Maybe Dick Cheney is still 100% convinced that it was the right choice and everything worked out perfectly. But most Republican presidential candidates aren't giving a full-throated defense of the decision. In fact, many are implicitly acknowledging that it was a bad decision when they say stuff like what Jeb said:

“I would have [authorised the invasion], and so would have Hillary Clinton, just to remind everybody,” Bush told Fox News television in an interview to be aired late on Monday. “And so would almost everybody that was confronted with the intelligence they got.

You'll notice that many people are falling back on the "intelligence at the time" justification as to why they would have invade Iraq. Putting aside the problems with what the intelligence at the time actually said, even if the intelligence would have been perfect and told us definitively that Iraq did or didn't have nukes, this is bullshit, as Daniel Larison explains:

Even if administration claims had been right, there was no threat to the U.S. or anyone other country that warranted an invasion. The main problem with the war was not that the U.S. and its allies failed to prepare for the aftermath of regime change (though they did), but that they launched a “preventive” war on shoddy evidence for the explicit purpose of toppling another government by force.

The decision to invade was indefensible, and the war was entirely unjustified. It could not have been salvaged or made better by a more competent occupation, but then there is no reason to think that the previous administration or any American administration would be competent at establishing a new system of government in another country that it barely understands. The fact that Bush can’t begin to grasp that the original, irredeemable error was the invasion itself tells us all that we need to know about his appallingly bad foreign policy judgment. It gives everyone fair warning that he would make the same sort of disastrous blunder if presented with the opportunity. That alone proves him to be unfit for the presidency.

Jeb Bush, nor really any Republican or conservative pundit, hasn't grappled with the real reasons invading Iraq was a mistake. This is apparent in how they talk about Iran's nuclear policy. To them, any country with nuclear weapons is automatically a direct threat to the US. There's always a mushroom cloud around the corner. They haven't learned a single thing from the entire Cold War or the more recent Iraq War. They have no clue as to how countries with nukes or those pursuing nukes have acted. And they are of course blindly dedicated to supporting Israel.

Which is all to say that their entire worldview or philosophical underpinning when it comes to foreign policy is completely skewed by paranoia, much like their domestic philosophy. This isn't to say that anyone who isn't as fanatical as most of the GOP isn't going to be hawkish; see Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and many other Democrats. But with Democrats you at least have a chance at them making the right decision. If Republicans win the presidency in 2016, we will be left crossing our fingers and hoping that they just luck into not making horrible foreign policy decisions.

Update: Chris Christie says he wouldn't have invaded Iraq knowing what we all know now. But, of course he didn't really mean that because he says Bush made the right choice at the time. No wonder Christie's campaign can't get going. Aside from being a complete asshole and probably corrupt, he tries to play to whatever moderate conservatives he thinks still exist.

Friday, May 8, 2015

The religious freedom of Satanists

Rolling Stone picks up on one of my favorite topics, what rises to the level of a constitutionally protected religious belief:

The Satanists announced this week that they're demanding exemptions to anti-abortion regulations — like Missouri's 72-hour state-mandated waiting period — claiming such measures violate their religious beliefs.

It's an obvious, and brilliant, ploy to test how serious conservatives are about their supposed belief that a person's "religious liberty" rights mean they can opt out of laws they simply don't like. The Satanists are trying to prove that conservatives are hypocrites whose interest in religious exemptions only applies to situations where they can take away someone's birth control, or ruin a same-sex couple's wedding.

This may look like trolling, and on some level it might be. But this gets to the heart of every other "religious freedom" issue that has come up recently. What is a belief that gets protection under the 1st Amendment? And assuming there are different beliefs out there, which gets preference when making policy?

The only way to say the satanist argument in this case is different than conservative's argument is to say either satanism isn't a religion or if they are, their belief about abortion restrictions isn't a "sincere religious belief". I'm sympathetic to the latter argument. But if the courts are going to say conservative arguments against contraception are legit then you have to say the satanist one is too. Satanism isn't quite the same as other traditional religions. But I don't see why they can't be defined as a religion and thus worthy of 1st Amendment protection.

That leaves us with two legit religious arguments trying to decide policy. This is why the 1st Amendment and the entire notion of a secular gov't were developed. The only fair way to make policy is to do so based on science. Making policy derived from one or the other religion would arguably violate the establishment clause. So while I agree with the satanists here, we can't repeal the abortion restrictions because they are against their beliefs. We should repeal them because they violate women's freedom over their body.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron review

No spoilers

The new Avengers movie is a typical Marvel movie, solidly entertaining but not a ton of depth. I felt a bit weird after it because I love Joss Whedon. I expect to love everything he does. But while Age of Ultron is a good, fun movie, I didn't love it.

There are no glaring problems with it. No "what about these potholes" bullshit. It feels a bit too big at times. But it's paced well and there's never really a dull moment. It's got a lot of the Whedon-style banter. And each character gets their due, which is probably enough to consider the movie a success in and of itself. But I just didn't have that gut emotional reaction to it. Maybe it's just me and my Batman blinders when it comes to superhero movies.

Though speaking of Batman, I think that gets at the problem I have with Marvel movies. Batman has great villains; the Joker, Bane, Ra's al Ghul, etc. Along with Batman's status as a vulnerable non-god, the villains really help pull up his movies because they're interesting in their own right. Marvel doesn't really have that level of villains. Loki is entertaining but there's not a lot of depth to him. He just wants power. Ultron is snarky just like Tony Stark but he's just a robot who wants to destroy everything. Captain America: Winter Soldier found a way around the lack of an interesting individual villain by making a secret, evil organization (Hydra) the big bad. No one else really stands out from the Marvel movie universe.

I guess what I'm saying is that a superhero, and thus a superhero movie, is only as good as its villain. That or you need conflict within the hero or heroes themselves. Internal tension with the group helped make the end of the first Avengers pretty satisfying (same with Guardians of the Galaxy). While it's nice to see them (mostly) bonded as a team in Age of Ultron, it kind of removes some of the tension with the plot. The movie tries to ignite some of that tension with two new characters. But I guess it either wasn't fully effective or it was resolved too quickly for me.

Another issue is that while there's a fairly complete arc to this movie, it's just like every other Marvel movie in that it's really a set up for another movie. The reason this is a problem for me is that I feel like it hampers Whedon and the directors of the other stand alone movies. I can't say too much without getting into spoilers. But when you have to worry about putting these characters into another movie in a few years, that limits what you can do with the story.

In the end this is a good movie that I think most people will enjoy. I'll probably see it again. And I'm pretty consistent in needing time and maybe another viewing to come to a full conclusion about a movie. I don't think I'll learn to love it. But I'm confident that it will be entertaining even with a second viewing and beyond.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

NFL draft: the Dolphins and things that annoy me

Something I found annoying:

ESPN’s Bill Polian, on ESPN2's mock draft show: “The Dolphins need to run the ball. That offense is an off-shoot of Chip Kelly’s and is a running offense. So if Todd Gurley passed their physical, take Todd Gurley and don’t look back. He changes their whole team.”

Polian seemed like at least a halfway competent GM. And I get that he has to be able to talk about 32 teams. But damn, they do pay you to be able to know something about all of those teams. So it would help to know that the Dolphins were 12th in total rushing yards last season while being only 22nd in rushing attempts. That's because they were 2nd in yards per rush attempt. Most of that was due to Lamar Miller gaining 5.1 yards per attempt. (Note: I looked that up in about 5 minutes. What excuse do Polian and other pundits have for not knowing that information?)

Miller had an excellent season as the Dolphins' primary running back. Ryan Tannehill even had a good year running the ball, gaining 5.6 yards per attempt on his own. So what about the Dolphins' production running the ball last year suggested that they couldn't do so effectively? And what makes him think they won't be able to repeat that again without Todd Gurley?

Even if we grant that Todd Gurley is an Adrian Peterson type talent, how does that change the whole team? I'll grant that Peterson probably changes the way defenses play his offense. But is Gurley going to do that in his rookie year? After the year Lamar Miller had, how can we be sure he won't change the way defenses play?

Did you know that only twice in Adrian Peterson's entire career he has averaged more yards per carry than Lamar Miller did last season? Sure, it's possible that with more careers Miller's efficiency would decline. But it's also possible that the Dolphins' offensive line was not very good and he could replicate his efficiency with a better line.

All of this is to say that I hear a lot of people saying that the Dolphins should take a running back with their 1st round pick while completely ignoring what the team did last season with a player who is still playing on his rookie deal and who wasn't drafted in the 1st round. If you're going to buck the trend of not taking running backs high in the draft you're basically expecting them to be Adrian Peterson. But even if you are and they turn out to be him, it's not at all clear to me that those resources shouldn't be spent making sure your QB doesn't get sacked 50 times or that your defense doesn't collapse again.