Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Great and Underrated Marques Colston

            During Sunday’s win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New Orleans Saints wide receiver Marques Colston snagged two touchdown passes from quarterback Drew Brees, his second and third TDs of this year. Chase Stuart, owner and proprietor of the great footballperspective.com, pointed out on Twitter that in his career Colston has caught 75 TD passes and Brees has thrown every one of them. That is a feat unmatched elsewhere in NFL history. According to Stuart’s research, the closest player percentage wise, before the start of the 2015 season and with a minimum of 50 TD catches, was Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, catching 59 of his 60 touchdowns from Tom Brady. In terms of the highest number of touchdowns between a quarterback and wide receiver, the Brees-Colston combo ranks fifth all time, only one touchdown behind Peyton Manning and Reggie Wayne. Unless the aging Colston somehow remains with the Saints for the next few seasons, it’s hard to imagine him finishing any higher than fourth. Manning-Marvin Harrison lead the way with 114; Steve Young and Jerry Rice are second with 92 TDs, and in third is Dan Marino and Mark Clayton at 82.

75 and counting... 

            Regardless of what the future holds for Colston (and Brees for that matter), it is still a remarkable achievement for a 7th round draft pick out Hofstra. During the 2006 NFL draft, the Saints held the 252nd pick (the draft had 255 picks that year) and selected the 6’4 wide receiver one pick after the Houston Texans selected David Anderson, a wide receiver from Colorado State, who played for the Texans until 2011 before being released (just to give you a sense of how much the draft is a total crapshoot when you get to the 7th round). In total, NFL teams selected 26 wide receivers ahead of Colston. Of that 2006 WR draft class, Colston is 2nd in receiving TDs and yards only behind Jets WR Brandon Marshall. Colston’s career AV (approximate value, a metric developed by pro-football reference to measure a player’s on-field contribution) of 70 is tied with defensive end Mario Williams for 7th best in the draft class. Williams, for those who are unaware, was the 1st overall pick in the draft that year.

Whether through luck, skill, coaching, or some combination of all three, Colston has developed into the best receiver in Saints history. The chart below details just how great he has been:

Marques Colston
Eric Martin
Joe Horn
Deuce McAllister
Dalton Hilliard
Pierre Thomas
Danny Abramowicz

Tony Galbreath

Jimmy Graham
Devery Henderson

While Saints fans tend to think of the combination of Sean Payton and Drew Brees reviving the moribund franchise in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, let’s not leave Brees’s favorite target, the 6’4 draft afterthought from Hofstra, Marques Colston, out of the conversation. 

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

December 2015 Movie Preview

            After lugging through a lackluster fall, this December will hopefully provide movie-goers a film or two to remember. So far Ridley Scott’s The Martian has provided the only thing close to a memorable or entertaining film experience. The rest of the landscape has been littered with franchises lumbering toward their conclusion (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part Two), bizarre retellings of well worn stories (Victor Frankenstein), or overly nostalgic remembrances  of Cold Wars gone past (Bridge of Spies). With all this in mind, let’s see what December has to offer.

In the Heart of the Sea (Dec. 11): Based on the bestselling book by Nathaniel Philbrick, In the Heart of the Sea recounts the fate of the Essex, a Nantucket based whaling ship. During a whaling voyage in the Pacific Ocean, the Essex was rammed and then sunk by an enraged whale. The crew, forced to abandon the doomed vessel, were exposed to the ravages of the Pacific Ocean in whaling boats. Some of the sailors resorted to cannibalism before their rescue by passing ships. The story of the Essex became the basis for Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick.

That's a big whale. 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Dec. 18): In case you hadn’t heard or somehow missed the commercials, toys, and product integrations, there’s a new Star Wars movie coming out next week. Every day pop culture websites drool over every little bit of information that comes out. Look a new poster! A TV spot with 1 second of new footage! It’s been ten years since the conclusion of George Lucas’s underwhelming prequel trilogy. Interviews and leaked footage provided by new director J.J. Abrams have stoked fans’ hopes that the series has returned to its space adventure roots rather than the emotionally draining slog of Episodes II and III.

The Hateful Eight (Dec. 25): The latest venture from Quentin Tarantino revolves around the story of a group of bounty hunters seeking shelter in the middle of a blizzard. In true Tarantino, i.e. hyper-violent, fashion there will be betrayals, back-stories, and a lot of colorful language. The film’s running time of 182 minutes suggests that in his older age, Tarantino has given up on editing his films down to something that an audience might actually want to sit through.

Point Break (Dec. 25): A totally unnecessary remake of the early 1990s film starring Keanu Reeves as ex-college quarterback turned FBI agent Johnny Utah. Instead of chasing a group of bank robbing surfers, now Utah (played by someone else) will be tracking down a group of extreme sports athletes, who it turns out in their spare time enjoy engaging in corporate espionage. Pass.

Concussion (Dec. 25): This Will Smith vehicle about a doctor who helped expose the NFL’s concussion crisis reeks of Oscar bait. Well known actor in need of a starring role? Check. Contemporary hot button issue? Check. The chance for a lot of moral grandstanding? Check. A good movie? We’ll see.

The Revenant (Dec. 25): Leonard DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, a frontiersman out for revenge against the men who left him for dead after being mauled by a bear. There’s something undeniably awesome about that description. Let’s hope the film can live up to that awesomeness.   

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Into the Woods (Film)

On the surface, Disney’s film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods has all the right elements. It has a top notch cast, an experienced director, and a great staging of the film’s titular woods. When you dig into the themes of the film, however, the truth becomes apparent. Disney and Marshall have taken Sondheim’s musical of existentialist angst and thoroughly and completely neutered it.

            The film boasts an impressive cast of talented actors. Meryl Streep bursts and explodes into her scenes. Her character of the Witch takes special pleasure in scaring and tormenting James Corden’s Baker as he stumbles through the woods. She propels the plot forward, constantly reminding everyone of the film’s ticking clock. Anna Kendrick ably plays the conflicted Cinderella, who dreams of attending of the King’s ball and flees at the first available opportunity. Chris Pine excels as  Cinderella’s dementedly polite Prince Charming. Pine seems better suited to play characters who are slightly off than the straight leading man role of his Star Trek films. The actors mostly perform their songs well and the film’s soundtrack is an easy listen. Rob Marshall has previously directed adaptations of Chicago and Nine, giving him the experience necessary to carry off the musical’s complicated plot. In fairy tales and other literature, weird things happen in the woods. Wolves stalk little girls for lunch. Graves spawn handsome trees. Girls with impossibly long hair live in isolated towers. The film’s set designers have managed to capture this quality, successfully staging the random meetings of the film’s characters.

Sondheim’s original musical offered a mature examination into themes of wishes and loss, sexual anxiety, and the guilt of parents and survivors alike. Instead Disney has produced a film that instead winks and nods at Sondheim’s original text. Marshall and Disney present Into the Woods as a tongue and cheek deconstruction of the musical and fairy tale genre. While this deconstruction was a key part of Sondheim musical, it was a means to an end, not the end itself. To take one example, Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen offer a hilariously exaggerated (complete with pelvic thrusts) performance of “Agony.” The song laments the two princes inability to attain their true loves: Cinderella and Rapunzel. The song highlights the absurdity of the fairy tale prince as a character. This, however, is all the film has to offer for their characters. In the second act of the stage show, the princes sing a reprise of “Agony.” Now the princes have gotten the women they love, but lust after two new unattainable women, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. The second act of musical complicates the idea of “ever after.” It argues that maybe getting the thing you’ve wanted your entire life isn’t really what you want after all. The film completely removes this challenging and morally complicated part of the musical.

Disney has also removed the emotional complexity from the Baker’s Wife (Emily Blunt). In the original stage version, she is a more calculating character, reminding her husband that “if the end is right it justifies the beans.” The moral ambiguity of her character builds in the second act with her sexual encounter with Prince Charming. Her song “Moments in the Woods” highlights her conflicting desires. She dreams of princes and castles, but lives with a baker and her newborn child. She ultimately decides to return to her life with the Baker only to be trampled by a giant. The film retains her awestruck attitude towards royalty, but removes her emotional conflict. This lack of conflict flattens her character and makes her death less dramatically interesting.  

While this criticism may seem pedantic, it highlights the question of why make this version of Into the Woods? If in order to make a palatable family friendly version of Into the Woods requires removing its emotionally affecting content, why make it at all? Why not just select a different play? Haven’t we seen deconstructions of the fairy tale genre on the big screen already? Instead of offering the existentialist questioning of Sondheim’s original musical, Disney has served up a pretty looking, but ultimately shallow adaptation.  

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Saints Fire Rob Ryan

            After two and a half seasons as the man in charge of the Saints defense, Rob Ryan is now looking for new employment. He will probably be better remembered by Saints fans for his long flowing hair and headlong embrace of New Orleans culture than for any of his on the field contributions. When he was hired following the disastrous one year tenure of Steve Spagnuolo, Ryan seemed like an improvement. The 2013 Saints finished 10th in Football Outsiders DVOA rankings (a metric that measures every play against league average, negative rankings are better for defense). Since then, however, it’s all been going downhill.

Defense DVOA (rank)
Pass Defense DVOA (rank)
Run Defense DVOA (rank)
-5.8% (10)
-9.2% (6)
-1.5% (20)
13.1% (31)
19.2% (27)
6.3% (32)
19.4% (32)
43.5% (32)
-12.8% (18)

            Some of Ryan’s problems were not of his own making. He can only coach the players that general manager Mickey Loomis provides. Loomis has done a poor job in the past few years of finding quality defensive players, mostly due to his penchant for signing over the hill veterans and poor draft decisions. Loomis’s poor decisions, however, don’t excuse Ryan’s faults. As head coach Sean Payton admitted today, “And we just had to look closely at some point to at least give this an option because the direction we were heading wasn't good. We really struggled with substitutions, getting lined up, getting guys on the field and being able to function.” These are not personnel issues, they’re coaching ones usually resolved in training camp, not in the middle of a game. In the offseason, the Saints asked Ryan to reduce his overly complex and confusing playbook in order to make it easier for the players—Ryan had received similar complaints during his stint as the Cowboys’ defensive coordinator.

            And it’s not like Ryan has been a tremendously successful coordinator elsewhere. He has been a coordinator since 2004 with Oakland, Cleveland, Dallas, and New Orleans. Ryan has never found consistent success. Ryan has finished inside the top ten once in DVOA (Oakland 2006). It’s hard to imagine him getting this many chances if his name had been Ryan Roberts.  Ryan’s brother Rex is currently the head coach of the Buffalo Bills after a six year stint as the head coach of the New York Jets and his father Buddy was known as a defensive savant.

That's the same expression most Saints fans have felt all season watching Rob Ryan's defenses 
             Now that Ryan is gone, what’s next? In the interim, Dennis Allen will take the helm of the defense. Allen was the Saints secondary coach in 2009 when they won the Superbowl. Allen then assumed the job of Broncos defensive coordinator in 2011 before becoming the head coach of the Oakland Raiders from 2012-2014. After being fired as the Raiders coach last offseason, Allen returned to the Saints as defensive assistant. How much Allen can turn around the defense is an open question. On Sunday the Saints allowed Kirk Cousins to throw for 324 yards and four touchdowns for a perfect 158.3 passer rating and a 90.1 (out of 100) QBR. The Saints have allowed 45 points to their opponents twice this season, and four times they have allowed more than 30 points. Will the Saints defense get better? Who knows, but it’s hard to see how they can be any worse. 

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Dallas Buyers Club

            Dallas Buyers Club tells the story of Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughy), an electrician, bull rider, and hustler who, after being diagnosed with AIDS, violates an FDA ban on importing drugs from Mexico. While Dallas Buyers Club deserves credit for tackling such a recent and deeply troubling subject matter—the1980s AIDS crisis and its corresponding homophobia and bigotry—it fails to rise to the challenge presented by the subject matter. There is a great movie somewhere in Dallas Buyers Club, but ultimately the film relies too much on Hollywood cliché than saying something meaningful.

            The movie’s strength lie in the performances of McConaughy as Woodruff and Jared Leto as Rayon, a transsexual AIDS patient and later Woodruff’s business partner. Both underwent startling physical transformations to play their roles (Step 1 towards winning an Oscar). McConaughy channels all of his charm and confidence into his performance as Woodruff. He ably plays Woodruff’s cockiness and charisma in battling the FDA, the reluctant Dallas gay community, and winning over the affections of a hospital doctor, Eve (Jennifer Garner). His performance, however, troublingly transforms Woodruff’s own homophobia and bigotry into a side note—something that needs overcoming rather a significant obstacle towards sympathizing with his character. In their scenes together, Leto matches McConaughy’s charisma with a startling energy and determination. He refuses to allow McConaughy’s star power to gobble up the entire screen. He offers a sympathetic portrayal of a transsexual woman in an era that discriminated against anyone who challenged prescribed gender and sexual roles.

            While McConaughy and Leto offer compelling performances, the rest of the film fails to meet the challenge of its subject matter. In telling the story of Woodruff, a heterosexual man, who becomes a pioneer in battling the stigma of AIDS, the film relies on Hollywood paternalistic tropes of a “normal” person standing up for the oppressed minority—for examples look at some recent Oscar nominated films: white lady saves black kid (The Blind Side), white man ends slavery (Lincoln), or white lady supports civil rights (The Help). Rather than showing how gay and lesbian activists challenged bigotry and oppression, we have Matthew McConaughy, the embodiment of a rugged and heterosexual masculine identity, leading the charge. At the end of the film, Woodruff’s patients cheer and celebrate him for standing up to the FDA. The majority of AIDS victims in the film spend their time waiting in lines to get drugs from Woodruff—seeking a cure from the straight white man. As Woodruff fights the FDA, the plot of the film descends into a tried and true narrative of man against uncaring and crooked institution.

            Yet within the film lay the potential for a much more meaningful story. The AIDS crisis of the 1980s produced frightening levels of bigotry, homophobia, and blatantly false information about the spread of HIV. President Reagan refused to call the disease by its name. The American government’s lack of response to the crisis remains a stain on the history of America in the 1980s. The gay rights movement, begun in earnest in the 1960s, gained traction by protesting discrimination and homophobia. The film attempts to capture some of this fear and paranoia, but fails to fully grasp it. After learning of his diagnosis, Woodruff’s rodeo buddies recoil in horror at the prospect of even touching him. They pelt him with homophobic slurs. The scenes, however, come across more as acknowledgments of the era’s bigotry than effectively recapturing it. Instead of spending more time on this part of the AIDS crisis, the film has Woodruff woe Eve, the female doctor (whose character remains horribly underdeveloped), fly around the world looking for drugs, and battle the FDA in court. Rayon, meanwhile, sells her life insurance policy in order help Woodruff stay in business—the ultimate selfless act by an oppressed minority to help her paternalist benefactor.

            Dallas Buyers Club warrants praise for addressing a dark and disturbing part of American history. Yet it squanders the opportunity to tell a meaningful or challenging version of that story. It instead settles for a comforting and safe history of an era that was neither.  

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Saints Mid-Season Check-In

            On Sunday, the Saints triumphed in one of the weirdest (and most fun, assuming you like offense) NFL games you will ever see. The Saints and Giants scored 101 points (3rd most in NFL history). Drew Brees and Eli Manning combined for an NFL record 13 touchdown passes. Despite the flurry of TD passes, the game came down to a Kai Forbath (yeah I have no idea who is either) field goal in the waning seconds of the fourth quarter. Brees went 40-50 (that’s an 80% completion percentage for those of you counting at home) for 511(!) yards and 7 touchdown passes. His QBR (ESPN’s inclusive quarterback rating scaled from 0-100) was an astonishing 95.7. And most importantly, it looks like Brees is finally healthy. A large number of his throws on Sunday came out of his hands quickly and were accurately delivered to his wide receivers. The victory extended the Saints winning streak to 3 games and brought their record to 4-4 at the halfway mark in the season. There’s room for optimism for Saints fans, but also some potentially crippling concerns.  

            With the win over the Giants, the Saints playoff chances have risen to 31% according the statistical analysis provided by FiveThirtyEight. With their next three games against Tennessee (1-6), Washington (3-4), and Houston (3-5), the Saints very well could be 7-4 by the end of November. The remainder of the Saints schedule is very favorable with winnable games against Tampa Bay (3-4), Detroit (1-7), and Jacksonville (2-5). The two toughest teams left are at home against the Carolina Panthers in Week 15 and at Atlanta in Week 17. New Orleans has a good chance to finish above .500, which is much better than just three weeks ago when FiveThirtyEight had them targeted for 6 wins and just an 8% of making the playoffs. Take a look at Brees’s numbers over that time frame:

Completion %

Over the past three games, it seems like the Saints offense and Brees have finally gotten on the same page. Heading into this week, Football Outsiders DVOA rankings had the Saints as the 8th best offense in a league. That number will likely rise this week.

The offense can celebrate. 

            While the Saints offense finally seems to be clicking, there are some major red (and yellow) flags, all on defense. Despite the massive turnover in personnel in the offseason, the Saints defense remains atrocious. Near the end of Sunday’s game, TV cameras showed a jubilant Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan on the sidelines. What was he so happy about? For all the celebration that the Saints offense should rightly be doing for scoring fifty-two points, the defense allowed the Giants to score six offensive touchdowns, 416 yards, 28 first downs, and an astounding 6.4 yards per play. Eli Manning produced a QBR of 94.1, just short of Brees’s 95.7. Brandon Browner continues to a penalty machine in the secondary. He was responsible for FOUR penalties including a 15 yard unnecessary roughness penalty that set up a Manning touchdown pass on the next play. Currently the Saints sit 31st in defensive DVOA (14.3% worse than league average) in exactly the same spot where they sat at the end of 2014. If the offense can’t score at 35 points every week, the Saints have little hope of winning.

            Despite the offseason turnover in personnel (Junior Galette, no one misses you), the Saints feature a top flight offense and a near historically bad defense. Jeez that sounds a lot like the Saints of the past few years. The more things change on the Bayou, the more they seem to stay the same.