Sunday, December 21, 2014

Johnny Manziel Shows the World the Difference Between College Ball and Pro Ball

Johnny Manziel's disastrous debut as an NFL starter (10-18 passing for 80 yards, two interceptions and no touchdowns as his Cleveland Browns lost 30-0 at home to the Cincinnati Bengals last Sunday) provided an excellent demonstration of the huge difference between collegiate sports and professional sports. Manziel set the college football world on fire last season en route to winning the Heisman Trophy but in the complex, fast-paced hard hitting pro football world he looked small, slow, confused and noodle-armed as his ill-advised throws wobbled off-target.

The idea that Manziel offered the Browns a better chance to win than Brian Hoyer made little sense. Hoyer led the Browns to a 7-6 record as the starting quarterback this season after going 3-0 as the Browns' starter last season before succumbing to a season-ending knee injury (the Browns went 1-10 the rest of the way and finished 1-12 in the games that Hoyer did not start). Hoyer is a journeyman NFL quarterback but he is also a six year veteran who has logged 15 NFL starts in 29 NFL games. Hoyer struggled in recent games but his problems could probably be attributed at least as much to the loss of All-Pro center Alex Mack as to any of Hoyer's individual shortcomings; Hoyer is not a highly accurate passer by modern NFL standards (his career completion percentage is .571) and he is not very mobile but, surrounded by the right talent and guided by the right coaching, he is a solid NFL starter and a very good NFL backup.

In contrast, Manziel has yet to establish anything positive about himself as an NFL player. It seems as if Coach Mike Pettine and the Browns organization tapped him as the starter not so much because they know that he is better than Hoyer but rather because the fans and the media clamored for a change. The cliche states that if a coach listens to the media and the fans too often then he will soon be sitting next to them.

Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young, perhaps the best NFL analyst in ESPN's overcrowded stable, often speaks of the "craft" of quarterbacking; he laments that Jay Cutler, who possesses more physical talent than Hoyer or Manziel, has yet to put in the time and effort to master that "craft." There is no way that Manziel, who likely has received very few repetitions in practice with the Browns' first team, understands enough about that "craft" to be an effective NFL starter at this point in his career. The Browns should have finished out the season with Hoyer as the starter and found out for sure whether or not he could have led the Browns to a 10-6 record and a possible playoff berth. Then, if the Browns were not fully satisfied with Hoyer, they could have given Manziel the benefit of a full offseason of film study plus some repetitions in practice with the first team.

Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh described the proper "care and feeding" of young quarterbacks. He considered it a mistake to just throw a young quarterback into the fire. When he mentored Joe Montana, a mobile and undersized hot shot college quarterback, Walsh made sure that at first he only used Montana in select situations that Montana had thoroughly worked on in practice. This helped to build Montana's confidence in himself as an NFL player and also helped to build his teammates' confidence in him. I doubt that Walsh would have started Manziel last week (a better question is whether Walsh would have even drafted Manziel at all but that is a story for another day).

Watching Manziel flail around nervously and helplessly reminded me of a couple other recent sports stories. Rookie Cleveland Cavaliers Coach David Blatt, who enjoyed a long and distinguished FIBA coaching career, often reminds media members that various milestones--his first game as an NBA coach, his first NBA win, etc.--are not really milestones from his perspective because he has already coached teams to championships. Blatt does not seem to understand the vast difference between even high level FIBA play and the NBA. The NBA is the most sophisticated basketball league in the world and its players are bigger, faster, quicker and smarter than the players in other leagues. Properly coached, the best NBA players can go through a quick summer training camp and then win FIBA gold medals against seasoned FIBA teams that are used to playing under FIBA rules with FIBA's inconsistent officiating. No FIBA team could just jump into the NBA and perform at a championship level. If Blatt really believes that his FIBA championships are in any way equivalent to an NBA title then he and the Cavaliers are going to experience some problems during the NBA playoffs when the best NBA coaches will be playing grandmaster chess and Blatt will be playing FIBA checkers.

Similarly, every season when there is a historically bad NBA team it does not take long for fans and media members to speculate about whether or not that team could beat the best team in college basketball. The 11-0 Kentucky Wildcats are the consensus best team in college basketball right now. The 2-23 Philadelphia 76ers may be the worst team in NBA history--and if they played the Kentucky Wildcats today the 76ers would beat the Wildcats like the Wildcats stole something. There is no conceivable way that the Wildcats would win a seven game series versus the 76ers. Yes, the Wildcats have several players who are projected to be first round NBA draft selections--but the 76ers have three first round draft selections on their active roster (including Michael Carter-Williams, the 2014 NBA Rookie of the Year) and several other veteran NBA players. NBA players are grown men physically and mentally. It is far from certain that Kentucky will even win the college championship, let alone be able to beat a team of grown men, several of whom were collegiate stars in their own right before becoming pro basketball players.

Television sports coverage does a disservice on many levels but one of the major elements that is not obvious to casual viewers is how much more complex pro sports are compared to their college counterparts. The pro game is so much faster and more sophisticated than the college game. This is evident if you watch a college game (basketball or football) in person and then watch a pro game in person. There is inevitably an adjustment period for rookie players and for rookie coaches. If you doubt that, just look at Manziel or Blatt; both men may become highly successful pros eventually but right now they are learning why Jerry Glanville used to say that NFL stands for "not for long": if you do not adjust to the speed and complexity of pro sports then you will not participate in pro sports for very long.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Magnus Carlsen Convincingly Retains World Chess Championship

In November, Magnus Carlsen--the highest rated chess player ever--defeated former World Chess Champion Viswanathan Anand 6.5-4.5 to retain the World Chess Champion title. Last year, Carlsen dethroned Anand in a 6.5-3.5 rout on Anand's home turf in India. After the final game of the most recent match, Carlsen told Leontxo Garcia, "I do not know if nerves were the key factor in general. But in the last game, nerves definitely had something to say. But I think nerves are a part of your strength and weaknesses as a chess player. If you have bad nerves, it is unfortunate but it is no excuse. In that game showed I have stronger nerves, probably because of the age difference."

Shortly after Carlsen defended his crown, Garry Kasparov (the 1985-2000 World Chess Champion who held the rating record that Carlsen eclipsed) offered his typically blunt (and insighftul) comments:

This year's match between Magnus Carlsen and Viswanathan Anand proved that time doesn't run backwards. It is extremely difficult to overcome a gap of a full generation between the players. I believe Magnus Carlsen is a special talent, and even though he didn't play his best and Anand played better than he did last year, Magnus won. The score was a little closer than last year mostly due to Carlsen's nerves in a psychologically difficult rematch after he beat Anand so easily last year.

Did the run of the match surprise me in any aspect? Before the match began I predicted [to a number of newspapers and to Frederic Friedel of ChessBase] that Carlsen would win by two points. Magnus had one important advantage on his side: he is the better player. But it was atypical for Carlsen to not make the most of his chances in several games. I blame that on tension. For him this match was psychologically not easy, after he had beat Anand so decisively in 2013.

Championship level chess requires intelligence, resourcefulness and energy but it also requires prodigious amounts of confidence/psychological strength. In "It's Just a Question of Nerves": Anand Defeats Topalov 6.5-5.5 to Retain World Chess Championship, I discussed the emotional fortitude that Anand displayed in his first title defense since becoming the 15th classical World Chess Champion:

During an an interview conducted shortly after the match with Topalov ended, Anand provided some insights about the mentality that is required to win such a competition, stating, "It's just a question of nerves." In this high tech, computer dominated era, elite chess players prepare their opening moves to a greater and deeper extent than at any time in chess history but during the games they are under great pressure to remember this preparation while also being ready for any possible surprises (known as theoretical novelties) that their opponents might unleash. Topalov won the first game of the match when Anand got confused about the correct order of his prepared moves, an error which gave Topalov a crushing attack against Anand's exposed king--but Anand showed great psychological resilience by striking back with a game two win to level the score.

While Anand demonstrated strong nerves versus Topalov--and in several other high level encounters--he has now faltered twice against Carlsen. It is obvious that Carlsen is the stronger player but it is fascinating to observe how that superiority manifests itself not only in the moves that Carlsen plays but also in the way that Carlsen's strength affects Anand. Anand demonstrably lacks confidence against Carlsen and at times Anand's play is unrecognizable as he struggles to figure out how to fight on even terms with his much younger rival. If chess games were purely decided at an intellectual level then Anand would play very well and Carlsen would just play better but what we have seen in both matches is that, at key moments, Anand either blunders outright or at the very least he lacks the confidence to pursue the best path, to play the moves that he might reflexively play against a less intimidating opponent.

It is very difficult to play against Carlsen for reasons that extend beyond his chess talent. Carlsen is a chess warrior who has great and commendable fighting spirit: "More people have to change their attitude. Too many have seen chess as a scientific process where you exchange ideas in openings and midgames and if there is no clear advantage you agree a draw. But you have to fight until the end. I’ve stopped agreeing draws--it's not a natural part of the game. I think others will do the same thing." Carlsen insists that "a modern sportsman" must "fight until the last moment every day, in every tournament. Being tired is no excuse for making mistakes."

As a young player, Anand relied on his tactical acumen and his exceptionally fast rate of play to steamroll most opponents; now Anand is not as sharp tactically nor does he calculate so quickly and thus he has evolved into a player who prepares his openings very deeply and thoroughly in order to guide the game onto terrain that Anand expects to be comfortable for him and equally uncomfortable for his opponent--but Carlsen is largely unaffected and unimpressed by Anand's computer-assisted preparation. In Magnus Carlsen, an Unlikely Chess Master, Grandmaster Peter Heine Nielsen (one of Carlsen's seconds) explains, “Magnus believes in his pure chess strengths. You shouldn't be able to do that in today's world and none of us thought it was possible. Luckily, we were wrong.” A recent Financial Times article notes that Carlsen is refuting the notion that chess is played out because the silicon beasts know all and see all:

Whereas computer analysis has raised the relative importance of the opening for most players, Mr. Carlsen has relegated it. He looks instead to win a game later on via the steady and patient accumulation of sometimes almost imperceptible advantages.

"The space that chess occupies is so gigantic that in spite of all the computer work done today, you can get out of it," says Mr. [Frederic] Friedel, who occasionally chaperoned Mr. Carlsen at tournaments when he was a teenager. "Magnus goes off into sidelines . . . then he just outplays people. It is extraordinary and amazing."

After beating Anand for the second consecutive time, Carlsen commented that this is two down and five more to go, a reference to his goal to surpass Garry Kasparov's total of six successful World Chess Championship matches. Carlsen's next title defense will take place in the United States in 2016. The United States has hosted the lineal World Chess Championship six times (winner listed first, defending champion in bold): 1886 (Steinitz v. Zukertort), 1891 (Steinitz v. Gunsberg), 1894 (Lasker v. Steinitz), 1907 (Lasker v. Marshall), 1990 (Kasparov v. Karpov), 1995 (Kasparov v. Anand). In addition to those six matches, the United States also hosted FIDE's 1999 World Chess Championship event in Las Vegas but that tournament did not include the reigning, undefeated champion Kasparov--who captured the lineal title in 1985 and retained it until losing a match to Vladimir Kramnik in 2000--and thus should not be considered part of the authentic, lineal title chain.