The NCAA and the football-factory conferences endlessly say their players are not unpaid semipros; rather, they're true student-athletes.
So let's take them at their word and rank the country's top college football programs with education as important as victory.
Introducing ESPN Grade, a whole new way to think about college sports rankings. ESPN Grade combines on-field performance with commencement-day performance.
Here's how it works: ESPN Grade adds each Top 25 college program's position in the Associated Press (media) and USA Today (coaches) polls with the program's position in ranking of graduation rates. The numbers are combined to produce a blended victory-education ranking.
ESPN Grade debuts today with its preseason ranking. In both the media and coaches preseason polls, the top three are Florida State, Alabama and Oklahoma. In ESPN Grade, the top three are Alabama, UCLA and Ohio State.
Florida State drops from first to sixth based on a low football graduation rate of 58 percent; Oklahoma drops from third to 10th based on an even worse football graduation rate of 51 percent, lowest of any ranked team. Florida State and Oklahoma offer first-rate football on the field, but second-rate football academics.
Alabama rises to No. 1 in ESPN Grade based on a football graduation rate of 70 percent. UCLA vaults to No. 2 on a rate of 82 percent, while Ohio State reaches No. 3 on a football graduation rate of 75 percent. These programs achieve the student-athlete ideal -- great sports followed by diplomas on commencement day.
Elsewhere in ESPN Grade, South Carolina and USC are among programs that drop downward, owing to low football graduation rates. Clemson, Georgia and Stanford are among those whose strong commencement-day numbers cause them to rise.
The first step in compiling ESPN Grade is making a ranking of teams based solely on their most recent football graduation rates, ranking every school that makes either the coaches or AP Top 25. Only the ranked power teams are sorted by graduation rate. (Sorry, Williams.) Then the graduation standing is combined with the media and coaches' rankings to produce ESPN Grade.
Graduation numbers employed are the most recent available: Right now, from the end of the 2013 academic year. Numbers from the end of the 2014 academic year are expected in October, and then ESPN Grade will refresh -- there will also be a final ESPN Grade at season's end.
To have a uniform standard, ESPN Grade uses graduation data as released by the NCAA. Some colleges also announce additional graduation information. Because there are several ways of calculating the numbers, ESPN Grade takes all data from the central NCAA source. Employed is the Graduation Success Rate as computed by the NCAA, which gives credit for players who transfer in or out, and is generous in other statistical respects. Another metric called the Federal Graduation Rate is lower than the numbers you'll see used in ESPN Grade. More details on the methodology are on the ESPN Grade page.
What about early departures for the NFL? They reduce graduation rates a little, but the effect is small: employing the Graduation Success Rate rather than the Federal Graduation Rate more than compensates for early departures. The most recent year for which graduation statistics have been released had 53 early entrants, about half of 1 percent of upperclassman scholarship players. As ESPN Grade shows, some football-factory programs maintain high graduation standards in spite of early departures, while others have low standards in spite of no early departures.
What about the Academic Progress Rate the NCAA also computes? This metric only matters to a college's institutional compliance with NCAA rules; the APR has no bearing on the real world and tells next to nothing about education. Nobody receives an APR compliance certification on commencement day. At job interviews, no employers ask whether you attended an APR-compliant institution. Employers ask: Did you graduate from college?
What about allegations of "academic misconduct" at Notre Dame, the football factory at the top for graduation rate? This may be a serious matter, and if so, the important thing is the players involved were caught. Unless they answer the accusations and fix their transcripts, they won't graduate. Many college students who are not athletes try various forms of cheating, and if caught do not receive degrees. No system is perfect, but generally, college students who don't attend class or who hand in work copied from the Internet don't get diplomas and do not show up in graduation statistics.
Isn't it possible that someone can graduate from college without really getting an education, after taking easy courses? Yes, and this is a problem in collegiate athletics. But it's a problem in all of higher education; many non-athletes take easy courses, skip class and graduate without meaningful education, too. All that anyone can be sure of about a college student is whether that person walked to "Pomp and Circumstance" holding a diploma, and that's what ESPN Grade either rewards or penalizes.
Most people agree there is not enough emphasis on academics in big-college football. To change this, we must first change the incentives. Today the incentives are exclusively for victory. Coaches and athletic directors are extensively rewarded, with prestige and money, if their teams win. If players graduate, there is no reward, nor any downside if players are used up and thrown away without a diploma. And the bachelor's degree -- which adds $1 million to lifetime earnings -- is worth more economically than the average player could receive in any college pay-for-play scheme.
By ranking teams both on gridiron and graduation, ESPN Grade creates a new, simple way to assess the student-athlete overlap. Alumni and boosters of universities that do well in ESPN Grade should feel proud. Alumni and boosters of universities that do poorly in ESPN Grade should feel embarrassed. And that starts a conversation all of collegiate athletics needs to have.
In other news, the resumption of the football artificial universe approaches. Here's an AFC preview:
Baltimore: The Ravens are streaky. During their 2012 Super Bowl victory run, Baltimore went 1-4 down the stretch to conclude the regular season, then 4-0 in the playoffs. Last season, the Ravens posted a three-game losing streak and a four-game winning streak.
Last season, Baltimore became the 15th of 48 Super Bowl victors to fail to reach the succeeding postseason. The Nevermores followed a Super Bowl trophy season with a missed-the-playoffs season partly owing to declining stats. In 2012, Baltimore was plus-16 in turnovers and allowed 44 sacks in 20 games. In 2013, the club was minus-4 in turnovers and allowed 48 sacks in 16 games. The offense tanked in 2013, dropping to 25th overall. The football gods stopped smiling on Baltimore. In the Super Bowl year, Baltimore completed incredible long plays in the waning seconds in games at San Diego and Denver. No such luck in 2013. Luck is a bigger factor in sports -- and in life -- than commonly acknowledged.
Joey Odoms, who served in Afghanistan, will sing the national anthem for Ravens home games this season. He can belt it out -- here he is auditioning in Afghanistan.
Over the summer, Joe Flacco said of football players, "We're not the brightest people, so therefore how hard can an NFL offense be?" He said this on the Ravens' own website!
Buffalo: The Bills will be sold by the estate of late owner Ralph Wilson. Buffalo has experienced a cycle of long-term economic decline, including population loss. Los Angeles, the nation's No. 2 television market, has no NFL franchise. Toronto, North America's fourth-largest city, is a cosmopolitan boom town with every major sport except the NFL. Doesn't it make sense to relocate the Bills?
Not necessarily. Because the NFL is more dependent on national television revenue than any other sport, where a team plays is not hugely important to business success. Green Bay-Appleton is the 70th-ranked television market in the United States, right below Wichita-Hutchinson, yet Packers financials are sound because so much revenue is attained from national television. Economically, keeping the Bills in Buffalo, where the cost of doing business is low, might actually be more appealing to the next owner than relocating to expensive Los Angeles or Toronto. (Las Vegas would be a different kettle of fish, but the NFL is deeply ambivalent about Sin City.)
The question is whether a new owner who keeps the Bills in Buffalo should get public subsidies for a new stadium. The ideal situation would be that the new owner pays for a new stadium. The notion that government should pay for pro sports facilities might have made sense in the 1960s, when there was hardly any money in sports; it makes little sense today when the NFL wallows in greenbacks. But if the question comes up, should government reach into the pockets of taxpayers to buy the Bills a new facility?
Wilson told me in 2009 that it was unrealistic to expect the city of Buffalo or surrounding Erie County to fund a new stadium for the Bills, owing to the area's weak tax base. So should Albany pay? The state of New York just finished pumping $90 million forcibly removed from taxpayers' pockets into upgrades to the Bills' current facility. The upgrades will increase concession revenue, meaning Empire State taxpayers who live far from Buffalo and may not care one whit about sports already have been taxed to make the Bills more profitable. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in June there would be further subsidies only if Buffalo really needs a new stadium, "which I am not convinced of."
The new owner is likely to be a billionaire. Why should taxpayers with a median household income of $54,000 be compelled to give a new stadium to a billionaire who will keep all profit the facility generates? As happened, say, with billionaire Paul Allen and CenturyLink Field, where the defending champion Seahawks perform. There, Washington state taxpayers were compelled to foot the cost, and Allen keeps nearly all the profit.
Right now, political pressure is building for a taxpayer-funded new stadium as part of the franchise sale. Roger Goodell has lobbied Cuomo and U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer to compel taxpayers to provide a new stadium for the Bills. The NFL takes in only $10 billion a year and enjoys federal tax and property tax exemptions -- it couldn't possibly afford to pay! Goodell pays himself only $44.2 million a year for running a "nonprofit" -- Goodell couldn't possibly be expected to reduce his personal windfall to help finance a stadium!
Worried he will take the blame if the Bills move -- and needing to divert attention from his considerable ethical problems -- Cuomo now says the state "would be interested" in funding a new stadium if that kept the Bills in Buffalo. That is easy for the governor to say, since taxpayers, not him, will be the ones handed the invoice. How could a huge subsidy for the super-profitable NFL be justified when the state is cutting funding from public schools? (Look up "Gap Elimination Adjustment.") But from Cuomo's standpoint, he might get to make a dramatic announcement claiming a subsidized stadium would generate thousands of jobs, then be out of office before the red ink begins to flow.
Judith Grant Long, an urban planning professor at Harvard, has shown that about 70 percent of the cost of building and operating NFL stadia has been paid by taxpayers -- many not even sports fans. About 95 percent of the revenue the stadia generate is kept by team owners. It's a deeply disturbing arrangement. Andrew Zimbalist, an economist at Smith College, has shown that NFL investments never generate the promised job totals or local economic activity. If there's public money to spend in Buffalo, investments in infrastructure -- schools, transportation, a replacement for the dilapidated Peace Bridge, improving Delaware Park -- would have more of an economic multiplier effect than an NFL field.
This said, if there is one city where public investment in an NFL stadium might be justified, it's Buffalo. Should Atlanta or Miami lose its NFL team, that would be a shame, but these cities would still have strong economies. Should Buffalo lose the Bills, this could be perceived as the "last one turns out the lights" moment, reducing the odds of a Buffalo urban recovery.
Public investment in an NFL stadium might be justified only if the facility is located downtown. The Buffalo News reports that 15 sites are under consideration for a new stadium. Two are in Toronto. Several are suburban, including an abandoned shopping mall property an hour's drive from the city. One is near Niagara Falls, where the tourist activity is on the Canadian side, not the American side. One is on the Buffalo Outer Harbor, which is cut off from downtown by a freeway and doesn't contribute to the pulse of urban life. Only downtown locations should be considered if public funds are spent.
Nobody would have believed 20 years ago that Pittsburgh and Cleveland could bounce back and have trendy downtowns. And nobody believes that about Buffalo now. But already underway on the north side of the city is a complex of a teaching hospital and medical research center that will be among the world's largest and best equipped. Thousands of professionals will move to the city to staff the center. Add the NFL to downtown, and Buffalo might acquire the cachet it needs to rebound.
That brings us to stadium cost. The Buffalo News reports that Bills bidders and local politicians say they expect a new stadium to cost $1 billion. Bruce Fisher, an urban economist at Buffalo State, estimates that because both the Buffalo real estate market and construction business are depressed, a world-class downtown NFL stadium could be built for about $500 million. Fisher thinks the land acquisition and existing property demolition expense would be only $30 million, which is very low by the standards of major urban public works. CenturyLink Field, a magnificent facility in Seattle, located in one of the world's hottest real estate markets, cost $575 million in today's dollars. Why should a similar project in depressed Buffalo cost more?
The answer is corruption. Because there's little economic activity in the Buffalo area, there are few chances for government, construction company and construction union corruption. If the state legislature decides to write a blank check for a new NFL stadium, this will be the biggest candy jar for Buffalo insiders to reach into since Robert Moses.
Bottom line: If taxpayers are to support a new NFL facility for Buffalo, it must be downtown and must be realistically priced.
New urbanism tip: A lively indie arts scene is developing at Silo City, the abandoned grain silos on Buffalo's Lake Erie waterfront. Buffalo's Allentown and Chippewa arts-music-bar districts grow ever trendier. Studio Arena Theater, back in the day an important location for Broadway-bound trials, just returned to existence as 710 Main Theatre, while the nearby Shaw Festival has emerged as among North America's top regional theaters. Delaware Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, awaits discovery as the finest American urban green space other than Olmsted's Central Park.
Starting about 20 years ago, downtown areas of Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Washington, D.C., and other cities came roaring back from decline. A decade ago, Pittsburgh's downtown came roaring back. Now Cleveland -- great theater district, the Republican National Convention in 2016 -- is roaring back. Buffalo fell furthest behind, so its recovery may come last. Still, the Buffalo area seems poised near critical mass for roaring back. In Buffalo your housing dollar buys a well-built home in the university district or a good-schools 'burb for the price of a one-bedroom condo in Boston, New York or San Francisco. Yes, it snows, but unlike in Chicago or Washington, the snow is promptly plowed. Yes, it's cold in winter, but summers are a delight. And no traffic jams! Don't be surprised if Buffalo comes roaring back (this paragraph was not sponsored content from the Chamber of Commerce).
As for the Bills, in the offseason, EJ Manuel said he was learning the "nuisances" of his position. Presumably this a malapropism -- he meant "nuances." Unless it was a gaffe, meaning that he accidentally spoke the truth. Also in the offseason, NBC's Luke Russert said the Bills should stay in Buffalo for "all eternity." For a trillion years? Your columnist tweeted, "By then Bills will have won the Super Bowl." Jesse Griffis of East Aurora, New York, tweeted back, "Don't jinx it!"
Cincinnati: "The Bengals played a strong regular season quickly followed by a first-round postseason wheeze-out." I just loaded that sentence into my AutoText, since it describes five of the past nine Cincinnati seasons, including 2013. In his 11 years holding the whistle for the trick-or-treats -- impressive longevity by current NFL standards -- Marvin Lewis is 90-85-1 in the regular season and 0-5 in the postseason. Cincinnati hasn't won a playoff contest since 1991.
Last season, Lewis barely seemed awake on the sideline as Cincinnati lost 27-10 at home to San Diego in the playoffs. Lewis didn't get upset. He didn't try changing strategy as his charges wheezed out again. He just stood there, staring. Employing the passive, retreating tactics for which he is infamous, Lewis three times had his team punt on fourth-and-short in San Diego territory, including on fourth-and-1. Victories don't come in the mail; go win the game!
Two interceptions and a lost fumble by Andy Dalton didn't help. In the offseason, Cincinnati rewarded Dalton with a contract extension with a $115 million paper value and about $25 million guaranteed. Dalton, 0-3 in the postseason, now boasts a richer contract than Tom Brady, 18-8 in the postseason with three Super Bowl rings. Tony Romo, 1-3 in the postseason, also boasts a larger contract than Brady. There are differences in their situations -- Brady is 37, and in his last negotiation sought higher guarantees in exchange for lower maximum. But these three contracts tell us much about the goofy state of pro sports economics.
Reader Ty Kuck of Batavia, Ohio, notes that the Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl with conventional, conservative defense, while Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther has decided to try gimmick fronts.
Give the ball to the law firm! The Bengals and Patriots are a combined 32-5 when BenJarvus Green-Ellis scored a touchdown for them.
Unified Field Theory of Creep: Reader Natalie Pasternack of Palo Alto, California, notes that at around the Fourth of July, Kmart began running ads themed "the new school year starts here."
Cleveland: Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan had Robert Griffin III in Washington and now has Johnny Manziel in Cleveland. The media circus around RG III may have prepared him for the media circus around Manziel. Let's hope experience with the pounding Griffin took when he rushed 120 times in his rookie regular season is fresh in Shanahan's mind, too. If Johnny Football runs around like a madman as he did in college, his career will be short -- defenders are so much faster and stronger than they once were; Fran Tarkenton couldn't use his crazed scrambling style today, either.
Colin Kaepernick has learned to head for the sideline when he runs. Manziel must learn this. Even should Josh Gordon get to play, the Browns have a weak receiving corps. That will tempt Manziel to take off running. Or it may tempt Cleveland management to trade some of the team's stockpiled draft choices for receiving help now (Cleveland holds two choices in the 2015 first round, plus other extra selections).
The Browns used the eighth overall choice of the 2014 draft on corner Justin Gilbert, who is athletically gifted. A generation ago, scouts would have shied away from a corner from Oklahoma State, fearing all he'd know is run support. Today's Oklahoma and Texas college teams are as pass-wacky as they come. Last season against Texas Tech, the Cowboys defended 71 pass attempts.
In anticipation of new officiating emphasis on defensive holding, the Browns' secondary has been wearing boxing gloves in scrimmages, conditioning them not to grab. The Browns also should condition Manziel not to make the "money" gesture after a touchdown pass. If he does this any more than occasionally in the NFL, he'll be inviting a backlash from sportsyak radio and "First Take."
Denver: Now with five Super Bowl losses, the Broncos have taken the pressure off the Bills and Vikings (four losses apiece). And when Denver loses a Super Bowl, the Broncs really lose; their defeats are by 45, 35, 32, 19 and 17 points. Perhaps the altitude advantage that assists Denver during the regular season, and at home playoffs games, propels the Broncos to Super Bowls where they don't really belong.
With Peyton Manning, the Broncos have endured two consecutive awesome regular seasons followed by bummer endings. Denver's awesome 2012 regular season led to the team allowing a 70-yard touchdown pass in the final seconds of regulation of a home playoff game, then losing in overtime. Denver's awesome 2013 regular season led to a 43-8 crushing by Seattle in the Super Bowl. Will 2013 be another awesome regular season followed by a letdown?
Manning has thrown interceptions returned for touchdowns in his last two Super Bowl appearances, and teams that give up a pick-six are 0-12 in the ultimate contest. Manning used a bright green football in Broncos minicamps to help ball-security awareness. At least the old dog is willing to try to learn a new trick.
The Broncos' record-setting offense was a stat-a-matic in 2013. Here are leftover amazing stats from that season. What were the highest scoring teams per quarter in 2013? First quarter: Denver, 130 points. Second quarter: Denver, 158 points. Third quarter: Denver, 135 points. Fourth quarter: Denver, 183 points. But after leading the league in scoring in every quarter of the regular season, the Broncos failed to score in three of the four quarters of the Super Bowl.
As Denver's chief executive, former great John Elway is 37-17. As chief executive of the Wizards and Bobcats, former great Michael Jordan is 285-488.
Houston: "Meltdown" is sugarcoating the Moo Cows' situation. Since reaching 11-1 to open the 2012 season, Houston has gone 4-18, held without a touchdown on five occasions. At the 11-1 juncture in 2012, Houston went to New England for a "Monday Night Football" contest that Texans faithful viewed as the team's debutante party -- a chance for the nation to see in prime time what the Texans could do. Houston was blown off the field, trailing 42-7 early in the fourth quarter. The Texans' confidence was shattered and has not recovered.
Now the Texans enter 2014 with Ryan Fitzpatrick, who owns a 27-49-1 career record as a starting quarterback, backed by Case Keenum, who's never won an NFL start, and rookie Tom Savage, who didn't play anywhere in 2011 and 2012. What could go wrong?
The Texans are in meltdown status despite one of the most overstaffed front offices in sports -- or perhaps because of the overstaffed front office. Houston lists a chairman and CEO, a vice chairman and COO, a general manager, a president, two executive vice presidents, two senior vice presidents, six regular vice presidents, six senior directors, 13 regular directors, a controller, a general counsel and a senior adviser. This, despite the fact that 85 percent of the team's revenue comes from the league's master television contract, into which the club has no input. If Wal-Mart had the same ratio of top management executives to income as the Houston Texans, Wal-Mart would employ 63,000 senior executives.
Tick, Tick, Tick -- '24' or '60 Minutes'? The "24" franchise is up to nine seasons and 204 episodes, meaning Jack Bauer has fired that special gun that never needs reloading for more episodes than Jerry Seinfeld and Julia Louis-Dreyfus fired one-liners. The latest iteration dropped to the status of a summer show, and took place in an alternate-reality London.
That imaginary city is a favorite destination of pop lit from Mary Poppins to Harry Potter to steampunk. In the alternative-reality London of "24," driving scenes repeatedly showed central London rolling by the windows without the car ever so much as slowing down, let alone stopping for a light or traffic. If you haven't been lately, London is the most traffic-clogged metropolis in all the world. But by the show's clock, it took Bauer four minutes to drive from an industrial area in East London to the United States embassy in Westminster, and three minutes to drive from central London to suburban Hampton, using an M3 motorway on which there was not a single other car. Jack and Chloe found a grainy CCTV image of an evildoer boarding the Tube. After the train departed, they jumped into a Volvo and reached the next station before the train arrived, racing down London streets where there were no other cars in sight.
Of course, all measures of time accelerate on "24." New character Kate Morgan, a valorous CIA agent, saves Jack's life at 3:06 p.m. Jack was barricaded in the safe room of the U.S. embassy in London, about to be killed by a huge force of Marines. Luckily, Kate knew about the gigantic air shaft that led directly to the safe room! By 3:17, Kate had driven across London, cracked a complicated computer code that stumped military intelligence and been suspended because of a "formal complaint that a Marine at the embassy" filed regarding her actions at 3:06. Thus, it took 11 minutes from when a Marine said, "How do I file a formal complaint about unauthorized use of an embassy air shaft?" until the complaint had been written, gone up the chain at the Pentagon, been reviewed by the State Department and accepted by CIA top brass at Langley. On "24," even the revolution of the Earth about its axis accelerates -- it's light at 6:31 p.m., pitch dark at 6:37 p.m.
Action on the latest "24" begins with a diplomatic crisis. "The Chinese have sent one of their supercarrier strike groups to the Persian Gulf," the president gravely is informed. This veers "24" further into alternative reality, since the People's Republic does not have a supercarrier strike group. There are 10 supercarriers in the world, all with an eagle and sailing ship painted on the side. China's sole aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, is a short-deck turbine-propelled "ski jump" ship intended for coastal use, not a full-deck nuclear supercarrier designed for the blue water. When the Chinese carrier is shown on the show, computer-generated graphics depict a full-sized supercarrier of the U.S. type, not a ski-jump carrier of the Chinese type. TMQ loves the fact that while the Chinese army is simply called the Army, the Chinese navy is called the Army Navy.
The latest "24" accelerated so much that most action took place in the first 12 hours. In that time, our hero: participates in 11 all-out gun battles without getting hit, hundreds of rounds fired at him at close range all missing; participates in four car chases, including once being fired on by a ground-attack drone during the chase; pursues two different people through two parts of the London Underground; knocks 10 men unconscious, each time with a single punch; shoots 36 bad guys to death (all die instantaneously); throws a butcher's cleaver which kills a bad guy instantaneously (apparently there are butcher's cleavers lying around on tramp steamers); beheads a bad guy with a katana (apparently ceremonial swords are common on tramp steamers); rappels down the side of a skyscraper, then grabs a man inside and throws him out the window using only one arm; defenestrates a terrorist mastermind; is unharmed by a crash in which his car is rammed by a large truck; breaks out of a CIA black site; breaks into the United States embassy in London despite a phalanx of police surrounding the building; performs minor surgery on the president of the United States, who recovers instantaneously; sneaks the president out of the embassy without the Secret Service noticing; drives the president around London without anyone noticing; fakes the death of the president; locates a hacker collective the CIA couldn't find; interrogates a hospital patient; helps evacuate the hospital just before a huge explosion; engages in tender moments with an old flame; infiltrates two different organizations of super criminals; steals a flash drive the entire U.S. military is looking for; determines the identity of a master terrorist whom the CIA knew nothing about; finds her location and gets the electricity to her building shut down; flies a helicopter back and forth across London; needs mere seconds to figure out how to operate an attack drone; uncovers a CIA traitor whom the agency knew nothing about; tracks and apprehends the CIA traitor, then tricks him into talking; discovers the White House chief of staff is a traitor, then tricks him into talking; arranges an elaborate trap for the Russian ambassador to the United Kingdom; attacks the Russian ambassador's home; assaults a heavily defended ship; recovers an override device that allows remote control of any United States military system; and prevents nuclear war with China. All in 12 hours!
Indianapolis: Not only did the Colts defeat both Super Bowl entrants; reader Jack Epstein of New York City notes, "The Colts are the sole team on either Seattle's schedule or Denver's schedule that they did not beat this season." By the test of Authentic Games, the 2013 Colts were terrific. But all contests count. The Colts lost to St. Louis by 30 points, to Arizona by 29 points and wheezed out in the postseason at New England. Strong regular seasons culminating in a postseason wheeze-out are a recent Indianapolis norm; since trotting onto the field for the 2010 Super Bowl versus the Saints, the Colts are on a 1-4 playoff stretch.
Indianapolis is a middling team statistically (15th offense, 20th defense last season). Management gambled the team's 2014 first draft choice on Trent Richardson in hopes he was the final piece of the puzzle. Instead, he played like a piece of the rock, averaging 2.9 yards per carry, leaving the Colts without a first choice in one of the strongest drafts in many moons. Indianapolis has five straight wins versus division rival Tennessee, part of a 10-1 stretch against the Flaming Thumbtacks. The Colts have lost four straight to the Patriots, all games played at New England. So circle Nov. 16 on the calendar, when the Patriots travel to Indiana.
Jacksonville: Some 52,000 people came to the Jaguars' stadium just to watch the new scoreboard unveiled. Most likely the crowd was not told that Jacksonville taxpayers paid $43 million for the scoreboard and miscellaneous stadium improvements, while Jax billionaire owner Shad Khan contributed only $20 million. Obviously diverting public money to an NFL owner's private profit is more important than improving Jacksonville public schools.
The Jaguars went into training camp with a league-high $28 million in unused salary cap space. Perhaps Khan's plan is to milk the franchise, and Jacksonville taxpayers, for maximum profit while exerting minimum effort to improve the team. Soon Jax fans may be yelling, as in the Star Trek movie, "KHANNNNNNNNNNN!"
Jersey/B: The struggles of rookie quarterback Geno Smith -- nine more interceptions than touchdown passes, 66.5 rating -- are well known. All Jets passing stats were terrible in 2012. Jersey/B was last in the league in aerial touchdowns at 13, an amazing 42 fewer than Denver. One reason is that the Jets used a second-round draft choice in 2012 on wide receiver Stephen Hill, who did little in college but ran a 4.36 40 at the combine. Hill has done little in the NFL. Two picks later, Chicago chose Alshon Jeffery, who was super productive in college but ran a 4.48. Jeffery is already a Pro Bowl player. Hill has measurables, Jeffery performs. Players who perform are what Jersey/B needs.
Maybe free-agent acquisition Chris Johnson will perform. He's already declared himself a "first-ballot Hall of Famer," though it's not even certain he will start. Johnson's attitude fits right in with the Jets, whose coach, Rex Ryan, says boasting is "who we are." Ryan declares of himself, "I'm not saying I'm the best of all time," though he does hope you'll say that. Ryan boasts to Dom Cosentino that "my defenses work, period." He doesn't add that the Jets were 20th in scoring defense in 2012, 19th in 2013.
The Awful Missouri Shooting: Civil unrest in Missouri regarding a shooting by police was worsened because local authorities initially refused to disclose the name of the officer who fired. Law enforcement officers sometimes commit crimes against the innocent; sometimes must defend themselves in ways that initially appear to be crimes; and sometimes simply make horrible mistakes under the pressure of their duties. Which was the case in Missouri remains to be determined. But not disclosing the name of the officer who fired -- that is, of the person who under any other circumstances would be called the suspect -- is the behavior of a dictatorship, not of a democracy.
It's all too common for law enforcement agencies to publicize every detail about someone they've arrested or killed, yet clamp down in secrecy when the behavior of police officers is questionable. In 2006 in Fairfax, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C., police made a horrible mistake and shot to death an unarmed optometrist who was standing in the doorway of his own home, not doing anything threatening. Local law enforcement released copious information to damage the dead man's reputation yet refused to identify the officer who fired the shot. Many months passed before authorities disclosed the officer's name; five years passed before they paid a settlement to the victim's survivors.
Had it been the other way around -- civilian appears to blame, police appear blameless -- every conceivable detail about the civilian would have been publicized immediately. Example of the latter: In the same city in 2011, police issued a press release giving the home address and other personal details of a man they'd arrested and declared him a known felon before he'd ever faced a judge or jury. Later the man was acquitted after just 47 minutes of jury deliberation. Everything possible was done in public to humiliate and endanger a civilian -- by the same police department that had insisted its own officers not be publicly accountable. In the Missouri case, the unarmed dead man was African-American; in the Virginia cases, the unarmed dead man and falsely accused man were white. Race is an issue in Missouri but only one of several issues -- race, the militarization of police, unaccountability of law enforcement among them. Police departments should not be able unilaterally to exempt their officers from the kind of scrutiny faced by everyone else. Most policing is a local matter, but if local law enforcement authorities cannot behave in a responsible manner, perhaps national legislation is needed to compel disclosure of the same information regarding police suspects as regarding any other suspects.
Kansas City: In the offseason, Chiefs star tailback Jamaal Charles signed a new contract that is nice but relatively modest compared to what stars at other positions receive. Recently, Chris Johnson, Maurice Jones-Drew and other runners have found the market for their services not as expected, while no running back was chosen in Round 1 of the 2014 draft. In May, TMQ offered reasons for this Twilight of the Running Back. Reader Joe Hertz of Sterling, Virginia, suggests another: "The decline of the RB is attributable directly to the 'outside the pocket' rule change for intentional grounding. Before 1993, the quarterback needed an outlet receiver. Typically that was the tailback on a flare route. Now that a quarterback outside the pocket can just throw the ball away, teams can be fearless with five-wides."
Last season Kansas City faced the league's weakest schedule, a factor in the Chiefs' 9-0 start. From then on, including postseason, Kansas City went 2-6. Only one victory in the 9-0 run came over a team that made the playoffs (Philadelphia). All six Kansas City defeats came to teams that made the postseason (Denver, Indianapolis and San Diego twice each). In other words, the Chiefs were 1-6 in what this column calls Authentic Games. Until such time as Kansas City may prove otherwise, this is not an elite team.
'We're Great and You Suck': Weird Al's "Mandatory Fun" is so damned funny I actually bought the album, rather than just poach on YouTube. He perfectly satirizes football fight songs -- the satire is adept both musically and visually. Yankovic is doing his best work at age 54. It's great to see an artist (OK, the term "artist" is used loosely here) peaking later rather than early. American culture puts too much store in the young phenom who comes out of nowhere, while not giving enough credit to the gradual accumulation of achievement. TMQ supports the Change.org petition to have Weird Al be this season's Super Bowl halftime act.
Miami: The Dolphins' offensive line curse continues, with starting center and 2011 first-round draft choice Mike Pouncey to miss at least the initial month of the season. Offensive tackle Jake Long, the first overall draft choice of 2008, now plays for St. Louis. Offensive tackle Jonathan Martin, chosen in the 2012 second round, now plays for San Francisco. All the Marine Mammals got in exchange for Long and Martin is a conditional seventh-round draft selection.
Miami's weak offensive line allowed 58 sacks last season, as the Dolphins, needing one win in their final two outings to reach the playoffs, went 0-2 at the end with both losses to second-echelon teams. In trots yet another highly drafted lineman, first-rounder Ja'Wuan James, an offensive tackle. What woe will befall him? James should watch out for wet paint, banana peels on the sidewalk and asteroid strikes.
The defensive line is not looking so great, either. In 2013, Miami invested first- and second-round draft choices in defensive end Dion Jordan, a guy who didn't play much in college, didn't play much as a rookie and now starts the 2014 season suspended. Cashiered general manager Jeff Ireland sunk an awful lot of high draft choices into linemen who won't be on the field when the Dolphins open their season. Miami was 2-4 in the last three years to defenses coached by Mike Pettine at the Jets and Bills. Miami must be plenty happy that Pettine is now out of the division as head coach at Cleveland.
Fun fact: The Dolphins used five draft choices on players from below the football-factory level, including Terrence Fede of Marist College, member of the Pioneer Football League.
The Football Gods Chortled: Five years ago Allen, Texas, borrowed an absurd $60 million to build the country's fanciest high school football stadium. Its reward was a defective structure already closed owing to cracking and needing extensive repairs. Maybe Halliburton was the contractor.
New England: Tom Brady still performs at a high level, but it's hard to believe that can continue much longer. If there is to be another Brady-Belichick trophy ceremony, now would be the year. The Brady-Belichick era has seen the Patriots grind out stats and records. Here are a few of the lesser-known ones: In the last decade, New England is best in the league in turnover differential, at plus-113 -- more than twice the plus-52 of Indianapolis, which ranks second. New England's 136 victories are by a comfortable margin the league's best in the last decade. New England has the best home record and the best December record. But lately, the Patriots have acquired Cincinnati Postseason Wheeze-Out Syndrome, which apparently is communicable. Over the last four seasons, in the second half of the regular season, New England is 29-3 -- then in the playoffs, New England is 4-4.
Actual title on the Patriots' masthead: Executive Director of The Hall at Patriot Place Presented by Raytheon.
Grand Compromise Missed: Recently the White House announced greenhouse gas restrictions on power plants. That's a step in the right direction, but the rules are administrative proceedings, which ensures years of delay and process costs during courtroom fights. Legislation would have been strongly preferable. The chance of a political grand compromise was lost; Barack Obama should have asked congressional Republicans to approve the power-plant initiative in return for his approving the Keystone XL pipeline. Obviously the House is a tough nut to crack, but all presidents have trouble working with the hill. Leaders take on challenges. On the missed compromise, Obama didn't even try.
Oakland: In 2013, the Raiders onside kicked six times and didn't recover any; it was that kind of year. It's been that kind of decade. The last time Oakland posted a winning record was 2002. Since jogging onto the field for Super Bowl XXXVII, the Raiders are 53-124. Ouch. And despite a huge investment in their secondary in free-agency dollars and draft choices, the Raiders allowed a league-worst 68 percent completions and were second worst with 33 touchdown passes allowed. Ouch.
The front office was expected to improve with the 2012 arrival of general manager Reggie McKenzie, but the team is 8-24 under McKenzie. To sum up his many quarterback moves involving Carson Palmer, Jason Campbell, Matt Flynn, Terrelle Pryor and Matt Schaub: Oakland invested first-, second-, third-, fourth-, fifth- and sixth-round draft selections, plus about $45 million, to obtain Schaub, tight end Mychal Rivera and two seventh-round choices in this year's draft (defensive end Shelby Harris and safety Jonathan Dowling).
For the last decade Oakland is a league-worst minus-89 in turnovers, almost double the number for the second-worst club, the Browns at minus-48. Ouch. The Raiders are on a 2-14 road skid and open with two of three on the road -- in New Jersey and Boston, where the players' body clocks will be three time zones off at kickoff. Ouch.
News From Space: In 2013, astronomers found three very large planets in the Goldilocks Zone -- not too hot, not too cold -- of the star system Gliese 667C. That's a triple star: The gravity and pressures of the planets, plus the degree of radiation from three stars orbiting each other, probably rule out any life we'd recognize. But finding this star system was another step closer to what seems inevitable: the discovery of distant Earth-like worlds.
In 2014, astronomers reported the first Earth-sized planet orbiting in the habitable zone of its star. The new world, Kepler 186f, about 500 light-years away, is the proper distance from its star for liquid water. Whether the planet is made of rocks like Earth, or of frozen gas like most "exosolar" worlds found so far, isn't known. Because the star of Kepler 186f is a red dwarf, a cool star compared to the sun, the planet gets only about one third as much solar energy as Earth receives; at noon on a summer day, its star would seem small and dim compared to a blazing noonday sun. And because Kepler 186f is closer to its star than Earth is to the sun, radiation levels are likely to be higher than here. So though fascinating, Kepler 186f is not Earth 2. Yet it continues to seem only a matter of time until an Earth 2 is discovered.
The upside of Kepler 186f is that red dwarf stars burn for billions of years longer than the sun is expected to. This suggests that if radiation-resistant life exists there or evolves in the future, Kepler 186f could host life for an unfathomable length of time.
Pittsburgh: Kevin Seifert reports that just before training camp, the Steelers were down to $6.5 million in salary cap space. That's a sign of a team approaching the end of a talent cycle. If so, what a cycle it's been. The Steelers have the most total victories since the AFL-NFL merger, the most home wins since the merger, and of course, the most Super Bowl rings.
Last season, Pittsburgh opened 2-6 then went 6-2 down the stretch, partly owing to a tactics change. At midseason, offensive coordinator Todd Haley began using the no-huddle, which shook up a previously plodding attack. No-huddle passing may be the Steelers' only hope, since the fearsome Pittsburgh rushing attack is but a memory. Pittsburgh was 27th in rushing in 2013, 26th in 2012. The last time Pittsburgh finished in the top 10 for rushing offense was 2007. The defense is faltering, too. The Steelers dropped from first in 2012 to 13th last season. It could be a long season for Pittsburgh, except for the two Cleveland games. The Steelers are riding a 25-4 stretch versus the Browns.
The Funding Gods Chortled: Do federal student loans essentially subsidize the lifestyles of overpaid, underworked college professors and administrators? Some conservatives ( Naomi Riley, for instance) contend this. The contention is that Barack Obama has pumped up spending on student loans not to help students but to pass money along to his social peers among the "tenured radicals" (Roger Kimball's phrase) who spend their time teaching kids that America is bad.
Is there another side to this coin? Austin Wright shows in a sharp piece on Politico that many big universities are essentially subsidized by the defense budget. Conservatives root for higher military spending, not realizing the tenured radicals are using some of the funds for their sherry hours.
San Diego: Consider this proof of TMQ's Twilight of the Running Back theory. Entering the season, of the 27 active players with the most touchdowns scored, 17 are pass-catchers, and just 10 are running backs. Tied for first among the receivers is Chargers tight end Antonio Gates, an undrafted free agent who has 87 touchdown receptions and a decent chance of joining a very rarefied club -- undrafted members of the Hall of Fame.
The perception of the Chargers is that they stumble early then roll in December. This perception is grounded in reality. Last season the Bolts opened 2-4, closed 4-0. Over the last decade they have the NFL's second-best December record (39-10). The best (New England, 42-7) is assisted by December games played in bad weather versus warm-weather visitors. But kickoff temperature is never a factor in San Diego. So what makes the Chargers stumble early and come on strong late? It must have something to do with San Diego having the league's best surfing and beach-bunny scene. The Bolts just can't keep their minds off waves and babes till the local surf season winds down in November.
Tennessee: The Flaming Thumbtacks hang the hat of their 2013 season on a close 20-13 loss at Seattle to the eventual Super Bowl champion Seahawks. Tennessee trailed 20-10 with 2:20 remaining and faced fourth-and-3 at the Seattle 8. Of course you have guessed that Mike Munchak did the hyper-conservative thing and sent in the field goal unit, then did not onside kick. Down 10 points at the endgame, close to the end zone, try for the touchdown, then hope to launch a long field goal later. Taking the field goal makes the final score respectable but means that if you get the ball back, then you must move a long distance for the touchdown. Munchak went hyper-conservative, and Tennessee never touched the ball again. Now he's ODD -- Out Da Door -- replaced by the presumably more freewheeling Ken Whisenhunt.
Tennessee had the fewest touchdown passes allowed in 2013 but otherwise was unimpressive statistically. The starting quarterback and tailback for the majority of games, Chris Johnson and Ryan Fitzpatrick, departed in free agency. The Titans have compiled a very impressive offensive line -- first-round draft choices Chance Warmack, Michael Oher and Taylor Lewan plus Andy Levitre and Michael Roos, both top performers. The rest of the roster has a who-dat quality. At least music at tailgate parties is always good.
Reader Animadversion: Last week I chided the public schools of Montgomery County, Maryland, for replacing letter grades with mysterious designations such as "ES" instead of A. I wrote, "ES stands for exceptional, a word that does not include an S." Dana Tofig of Rockville, Maryland, replies, "There's an error in your item about the grading system in Montgomery County Public Schools. ES stands for Exceeds Standard, not Exceptional. So I'm giving you an I ('in progress') for this item, but your column overall is a solid P ('proficient'), almost an ES!"
Next Week TMQ's NFC preview.