Wednesday, March 09, 2011

The End

I had planned a farewell message- but even thinking about it seemed maudlin. I have nothing more to say.

Thanks for reading. Thanks for participating.

And now, I'm off to the bar at Tujague's. See you around friends.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Tooling Around The Past

Tooling around Tulane’s recent football history, I was struck by how generationally Tulane hits utter rock-bottom. First, Tulane has the end of the utterly uncompetitive SEC era- from 1957-1965, Tulane never won more than one SEC game in a given season. Second, the Green Wave suffered the horrid collapse of the the English regime in the seventies, followed in the 90s by the incompetent Buddy Teevens (11-45).

Now, while it is not utter rock bottom, we have had eight years of post-review, post-Katrina football- and only once in that time has Tulane posted four I-A wins.

These downturns are probably inevitable given Tulane’s place in the strategic pecking order. Tulane is not top-40 in attendance, tradition, money, etc. - which not only make prolonged runs in the top of college football impossible, but also make runs in the bottom inevitable.

Still, it always picks back up. Which gives me a chance to revisit some of my favorite themes on here as the blog wrap begins.

The very nature of “conference play” brings teams together. The bottom teams do not have to re-invent the wheel, the success metrics frequently are right in front of them. If your football team is 1-7 in the League, there is usually enough to copy, that is not unique, to the 7-1 conference team.

Bill James made a good living writing about this recognition- Law of Competitive Balance: the .500 record exerts a powerful pull. Below .500, you are not a slave to the status quo- you are willing to experiment. Tommy Bowden’s revolutionary new offense in 1997 was not coming from Southern Miss- but rather a football team with real woes.

The experimentation and risk-embracing culture doesn’t always work- see Toledo’s Forte offense. But sometimes it does- and you get your once every fifteen years renaissance.

The other note is that every change in Tulane’s fortune- even modest- was driven by a coach who knew what he was doing. Tulane was hopeless when it left the SEC in 1965- and was promptly ranked multiple years (1970, 1973, 1979)- as some decent to good coaches wandered through: Jim Pittman, Bennie Ellender, Larry Smith. Mack Brown picked Tulane off the deck in the 80s. Tommy Bowden was arguably the best coach in America for two years in 1997-98.

The point is- after the Top 25 player list and Top 25 game list- a lot of good players and good wins filter through here. It ramps up when a serious leader steps forward. Even with four, five year regimes, Tulane has probably three chances a decade to get it right. The strategic problems are insurmountable right now- but I still have faith in a tactical renaissance. If there were an over/under line in Vegas: Tulane Bowl wins the next four years at 0.5, I’d take the over pretty willingly.


Monday, February 28, 2011

Top 25 Players: #1

Looking back at the Mack Brown orchestrated renaissance of mid-80s Tulane football, I am struck at how some things never change. He rebuilt Texas the exact same way- an emphasis on mobile, athletic quarterbacks and oodles of receiving talent.

I’ve worn out the keyboard here explaining just how much harder it was for Tulane to win in that Brown era, how much broader the talent base had to be to merely be .500 as a regional independent, faving week-after-week of the SEC and other quality independents: Florida State, Louisville.

Those Mack Brown teams were loaded with skill players- beginning with the quarterback Terrence Jones. Jerome McIntosh, Michael Pierce, Melvin Ferdinand, Maurice Nelson and Larry Route were all guys who would start ahead of anyone on Tulane’s receiving corps today.

But the best was Marc Zeno- the only Tulane position player to be an All-American on this list.

#1. Marc Zeno, WR (1984-1987)

Is that a groan I hear? This community has not taken well to ancient Tulane star players.

Still, Marc Zeno was created to catch football passes, nurtured in a perfect environment to catch said passes. A big target, tall and strong, good speed, excellent hands. He had a quarterback who could deliver the ball, a good running game to keep teams honest and a plethora of secondary receiving options to divert attention.

Still, Wally English could not find ways to get him on the field. But Brown did not suffer from that limitation of imagination. Zeno quickly became Ken Karcher’s favorite target- setting single season marks in both receptions (73) and receiving yards (1137)- including 208 yards versus LSU. Zeno would again break these same records as a senior (77 for 1206) with Jones pitching.

All those aforementioned skill players, coupled with high quality quarterbacking, turned Tulane into a pre C-USA offensive nightmare. Tulane just rolled teams on offense. The 1987 Independence Bowl team smashed every Tulane scoring record- and Zeno was particularly unstoppable. He left Tulane with the NCAA mark for career receiving yards (3725 yards). And despite a plethora of cartoon number receivers and quarterbacks that have filtered through here- he still holds Tulane’s career marks for catches and receiving yards (500+ more than Roydell Williams, about 700 more than JuJuan Dawson).

That NCAA career receiving record was no joke either. The pro-set offense had been in place for awhile- and big number offenses were percolating in the WAC and at Miami. Doug Flutie had already graduated- the college passing game was alive.

Plus, the Tulane schedule was again no joke either- littered with quality independents and BCS teams. There were no vacations for the offense- no five or six games against poor defenses, go hang 400+ yards on Rice and Army and UAB and I-AA squads.

Zeno was just consistent. With good hands and other receiving distractions present, you could just pencil him in for real good production again and again: 17 100-yard receiving games (still a record). The 100-yard day was a real achievement in the 80s. Immediate contemporaries at Tulane had a mere handful: Ursin had seven, McIntosh had five, Cook had three. Then look at these outfits Zeno put his 100-yard games up against: Washington, Iowa State, LSU (three times), Mississippi, Mississippi State (twice), Southern Miss, Kentucky, Virginia Tech, Memphis, TCU, Louisville (twice), TCU (twice). No UL-Monroe there.

He was a consensus All-American in 1987, and made some teams in 1986, the only player on this list to have two seasons of such national recognition.

After the 1987 campaign, Zeno had a poor off-season prepping for the NFL. He hurt his knee in workouts- and never was truly healthy again. The whispers went out too, and his stock plummeted- a seventh round pick of Steelers.

A seventh rounder has to impress quick or play special teams- Zeno did neither. He kicked around the CFL- but like Terrence Jones, he was a better all-around player, he lacked the great pro-skill or two. Add in some gimpiness- and he never got much chance to make a sustained impact. Teams will take a sustained chance on either a potentially great or healthy player- and Zeno was a gimpy, good one. It just became easy to give his roster spot away to a higher potential or healthier player- particularly in light of his inability to help the return game.


Friday, February 25, 2011

Top 25 Players: Honorable Mention

These guys were on my short list- but ultimately did not make the cut:

Erik Bruce, OG (1991-1994)- he could block, some good seasons lost amid the suffocating mediocrity.

Toney Converse, FB (1997-1999)- ideal west coast offense fullback and potential NFL draft pick, went to jail.

Floyd Dorsey, DE (1999-2002)- all C-USA player, many sacks.

PJ Franklin, WR (1995-1998)- obviously, right time, right place player- but good numbers. Ultimately a great complimentary player?

Jerry Godfrey, OL (1996-1999)- the tackles stole the show, but Bowden inherited some great offensive linemen.

Pete Hendrickson, OT (2007-2010)- high quality C-USA tackle with an absolute ton of good starts.

Jeff Liggon, WR (1993-1996)- perhaps the best special teams player in Tulane history, fourth all time in career yardage.

Trent Mackey, LB (2010-present)- unfinished, but what defensive player had that sort of impact season?

Dennis O'Sullivan, DL (1995-1998)- took the NFL to get him in the right position on offense, but hard to argue for such an extreme change in the face of such team success

Brad Palazzo, K (1995-1998)- in the class of Seth Marler

Lester Ricard, QB (2004-2006)- the poster child for Tulane football post-Bowden

Casey Roussel, P (1999-2001)- great, great, great punter

Tookie Spann, DB (1985-1987)- quality player, strong, athletic, heady.

Jeremy Williams, WR (2006-2009)- what C-USA is all about! big numbers! but ultimately, hard to value.


Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Top 25 Players: #2

Almost as quickly as the Bowden miracle happened, it ended even quicker.

Not capriciously, of course. But the advantages fell away quickly. Bowden’s offense and methodology were quickly copied (Dave Ragone was a 1999 recruit), ending a brief interlude of tactical superiority. There were some good players, notably at quarterback, but Bowden’s approach was a huge part of this success. And it was over.

The last vestiges of the latent advantage of regional independent recruiting slipped away- as bottom feeding C-USA talent procurement took hold. And, as frequently happens, an exceptional season features an exceptional talent concentration- and most key actors simply left, hastening the talent decline. Two quick coaching changes meant lost recruiting focus two years in three- and Bowden didn’t do much recruiting anyway.

So a lot of talent chickens came home to roost in 1999 as Chris Scelfo took the reins.

#2. Patrick Ramsey, QB (1998-2001)

Patrick Ramsey came to Tulane in 1997 as an odd recruit. He was a track and field star- already by 18, one the great javelin throwers in the history of US track-and-field, the holder of an actual medal at the Pan Am Games. He played football as an afterthought- and it took personal lobbying by Louisiana State great Bert Jones to get Ramsey into Tulane very late.

So he had that great arm- the only Tulane quarterback with a true “plus” NFL arm of the past 25 years. But he was not real quick, and certainly not accurate in high school. It seemed a shame to waste that rocket in a spread the ball, check down C-USA offense. If there was a guy who screamed drop back passer, protect me and I’ll get you big plays down field, it was Ramsey. Add in the incumbent Shaun King, and he was an easy red-shirt.

Yet, the buzz was there. There was zero speculation, even during the Perfect Season, who was the heir apparent at quarterback. Coaches adored his arm. And he turned out to have the same high football IQ as Shaun King- but with an actual NFL skill set to go with it. Scelfo made the decision to shoehorn Ramsey into a distribution offense.

As a sophomore, Ramsey was sensational right out of the gate – setting the school record with 3410 passing yards as a first year starting quarterback. He immediately set 20 Tulane passing records, including single season records for passing yards, attempts, and completions- shattering the season passing records set the year before.

He was simply a wonderful three year quarterback at Tulane. After setting all the season records as a sophomore, Ramsey left as a first round draft pick with nearly all of the school’s career passing records, including yardage, touchdowns, completions and attempts. Records he still holds today and in many cases, not by a little.

Ultimately, for all the noise and evaluation, playing quarterback in C-USA is about throwing the football, completing many passes and piling up totals. And Ramsey was the best.

Does it surprise you that the big-armed, big play Ramsey has the highest career completion percentage in Tulane history? He lost a few points on that percentage, and threw some picks, because that big arm had to be utilized outside the context of dink-and-dunk- but in the rote possession offense, he had no equal. He never played with more than one great receiving option at a time, the o-line was spotty, the defense a sieve (particularly in 2001)- and he just kept completing passes, generating crazy C-USA numbers.

The three-year starter made 32 career starts- all three of those years are still listed in Tulane’s top five total passing seasons. He threw a TD in an astounding 31 of those 32 starts (72 TDs total). He threw for 200+ yards in 24 starts, 300+ in 16 and 400+ in four. There is an unreal consistency there passing the football- particularly in light of some of the real game day talent disparities Tulane suffered through.

That 300+ yard number is a big one for the C-USA quarterback. It is where you start impacting the point totals in a big way, getting your team into the 30’s. (Both King and Ricard have more total starts- but only eight 300+ yards passing days each). Ramsey was the best production passer Tulane has produced- the C-USA consistent number generator, yardage producer, touchdown maker. He literally more than doubled your chances of a 300+ passing day over his immediate Tulane contemporaries.

And ultimately, quarterback is first about consistently generating the extreme C-USA passing game- the rest falls out of that (particularly in C-USA). So I give the nod to Ramsey over a talented bunch. Ramsey produced three outstanding years. Again, he produced three of top five totals in season passing yards- no one else managed it more than once. Consistent, huge numbers- over three years.

Ramsey is still going a decade later in the NFL. Drafted into a horrible situation (the Redskins under Spurrier and his pet Danny Wuerffel), he has managed to find employment because he has "straight" quarterback skills.


Sunday, February 20, 2011

Top 25 Players: #3

Part of putting together this list is realizing the 1998 campaign was no miracle. It was not a series of inexplicable events. It can be rationalized.

There were three key drivers. First, the transition from major regional independent to C-USA was not complete. The top half of the roster was still Buddy Teevens’ band from the independent days. Sure, Buddy lost almost all recruiting battles- but he lost them to other regional independents and second tier SEC programs: Mississippi, Florida State, Louisville- not C-USA dreck. As is today, the leftovers from the SEC were still materially better than C-USA base talent.

Second, Tommy Bowden successfully identified the new League’s chief strength and weakness- the surplus of smallish speed on the offensive perimeter (size seems to run out before speed at WR) coupled with the total lack of defensive secondary players who could cover. Since these factors exactly complimented one another- exponential change was possible.

But the third success criteria required identifying the quarterback who could tie this new attack all together. The player who could mentally internalize a whole new approach, physically deliver the needed performance and emotionally keep the team going despite reasons to be satisfied.

3. Shaun King, QB (1995-1998)

Shaun King is the MVP of Tulane football of the past 25 years. I honestly don’t think there is disputing that. He leveraged the aforementioned mental, physical and emotional tools in to a great two year run. That same two year run probably generated the sufficient good will to allow athletics to survive the betrayal that was Cowen’s secret athletic review.

King did play quarterback for Teevens, but it was his role as C-USA’s first cartoon number generator that marks him an iconic League figure. King inherited not only a whole new offense but a whole new offensive philosophy. It wasn’t just understanding a whole new set of plays- but a whole new football calculus: when do you take risk?

For example, Bowden threw out everything we are taught to think about first down. First down was no longer about setting up a future convertible down and distance equation. Instead, Tulane was looking to punish the defense via the pass on the one down where extra defensive backs were on the bench. 2nd and 10 was sometimes better than 2nd and 5- if it meant you had King take a shot for a bigger opportunity. The football IQ required was off the charts.

And it obviously worked. King is second on Tulane’s all-time passing lists for yards, completions, touchdowns. He still leads Tulane in career total offense and total touchdowns scored. But the undefeated season was his crowning college achievement. From his official Tulane bio:
King… had a pass efficiency rating of 183.3, which broke the NCAA single season record of 178.8 set by Danny Wuerffel. King completed 68 percent of his passes (223-of-328) to go along with 36 touchdowns and just six interceptions…. also became the first player in Division 1 A history to pass for 3,000 years (3,232) and rush for 500 (532) in an 11-game season. King finished the regular season with 168 consecutive pass attempts without an interception.
The other important point about King is that Tulane was not a perfect offense in 1998. There weren’t many great players- only one other offensive teammate made first team all C-USA (Bernard Robertson), and no skill player did. Even King’s raw ability wasn’t off the charts; his eventual NFL professional play showed the limits of his frame and arm.

But I write here on Frank Helps You Think It All Out about being “quarterbacky”- a sort of intangible ability to “get” the possession passing offense. And that is what King had- he could overcome the imperfections of both himself and teammates by throwing good balls, accurately, completely within the context of the exponential advantage Bowden gave him. Not only did he complete 68% of his career passes, but just as importantly completed those 68% to the right guys in the right situations.

Forget about the all-decade C-USA team, he is still the most important player in C-USA history- one of those few guys who changed an entire League. Drafted in the second round by Tampa Bay, he had some success as NFL quarterback. He joined a good team, good situation and good coach (Jon Gruden). But ultimately, being a distribution quarterback is hard in the NFL. You can play the risk-reward game, but ultimately there needs to be some base level of reward. It is a quarterback league, good quarterbacks have to make big plays. And King never had the arm to be a true drop-back weapon- just could never generate enough 20-, 30- yard plays downfield- to turn himself into a franchise asset.


Friday, February 18, 2011

Top 25 Players: #4

In the 1980s, the college game never did commit as completely to the forward pass culture as the NFL: the pass interference rule is still less draconian, defensive backs still get away with more, there simply aren’t enough high quality quarterbacks and available practice time to master the true NFL passing offense.

But the rise of the forward pass in the ‘80s did largely kill the alternative approaches. The veer was dead; the option was finished at Oklahoma and Nebraska by 1985. The “three yards in a cloud of dust” offensives of the Big Ten died a hard death. The increasingly athletic, passing Pac-10 routed them in Rose Bowl after Rose Bowl. The pass-crazy WAC produced a shocking 1984 national champion. What offensive innovation that did exist was increasingly from guys like Mouse Davis and LaVell Edwards.

Mack Brown was trying to figure it out too in New Orleans:

#4. Terrence Jones, QB (1985-1988)

As the nation watched Vince Young run and throw all over the place, and announcers lauded Greg Davis to the sky for the unique, intelligent package given to Young to run, the late 1980s Tulane undergraduate was forced to remark we’d seen all those same plays, those same looks, before. All Brown and Davis had to do was load Tulane game film from 1987, show it to Young, and say “Do that”.

Terrence Jones wasn’t the runner Young was. And Tulane’s approach was a bit rawer- as Terrence Jones was really an electric '80s college quarterback experiment, rather than a finished product. Nowadays, we have an idea of how to quantify good quarterback play. But, in the 80s, a lot of it was still exploratory: how much should a quarterback run? how much should you throw on first down? what is the nature of play at this position?

And the charismatic Jones (the Louisiana Jones and the Dome of Doom football poster is still the best ever) was part and parcel of that argument. As stupid prejudices against African-American quarterbacks declined, the athleticism of the position went up. The successful Jones and Brian Mitchell became prototypes for mobile yet good passers: Andre Ware, Rodney Peete, Brett Favre and Randall Cunningham.

Jones was darn successful. Introduced to the Green Wave as a running back, he complimented able senior quarterback Ken Karcher. Jones led the team in rushing in 1985 as a freshman as a tailback- and would again in 1988 as the quarterback.

So he was a great rusher (career rushing totals of 1761 yards rushing and 24 TDs), folded into a highly competent passer. Readers here know how I laud the advantages of the 60% passer. Well, Jones managed 60% too- but NOT in a possession, distribution offense.

That meant he could generate cartoon numbers in a time where they were of real value. Despite not being a creature of the C-USA era, Jones is still second all-time in total offense at Tulane, a mere 23 yards behind Shaun King (9468). He left Tulane with almost every school passing record: passing yardage (7,684), passing touchdowns (46), completions (570) and attempts (1,042). He still holds the record for most total yards in a single game: 484 versus TCU in 1986.

Accordingly, Jones finished Tulane ranked sixth in all-time NCAA total offense (just ahead of John Elway)- and was named to some All-America teams in 1988. Thanks to Jones, Tulane had a “good for all of college football” offense, an offense that could generate a 3-1 SEC mark in 1987, real legit goodness. The 1987 LSU-Tulane tilt was the last time the Green Wave took the field with enough major football talent to be "good"- and Jones was the fulcrum: 27-for-40, 316 yards, 3 TDs.

Ultimately, Jones did not have the raw arm to be a franchise NFL quarterback- and his mobility was not prized in the era of big armed NFL prospects like Troy Aikman, Jeff George and Drew Bledsoe. He was drafted late (7th round) by San Diego- but the Chargers wanted him to play defense. But the mobile quarterback was valued in Canada- so he instead played half-a-decade in the CFL with modest success. He then signed briefly with New Orleans as a wide out. It didn’t work out with Jim Mora- and Jones retired.