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The Levi Brown trade and the power of change

in which the author fleshes out a throwaway comment in Neal Coolong's excellent article...

Christian Petersen

I opened Behind the Steel Curtain today for the first time (it's been a busy week : ) and the first thing to catch my eye was Neal's article "Why the Levi Brown trade works for the Steelers." If you haven't read it, run, not walk, to the link (well, okay, click on it) and read it immediately.

There was much food for thought in the article, and I heartily agree with it, but the paragraph which got me going was as follows:

That's also exactly why you bring Brown in. He's getting the same treatment in Arizona, just with a much longer history of it. He's been beaten down, but if I'm his agent, I'm telling him, "let's start over somewhere fresh (never doubt the power of change) and see if we can't improve a little bit."

The power of change. It's really easy to underestimate it. I first saw it in action during my undergraduate years.

I went to music school on a full keyboard scholarship, and as part of that I was expected to earn my keep by accompanying other performance majors at their lessons and on their recitals. I quickly found myself gravitating towards the singers. First, they were usually more fun than the instrumental majors, who tended to be a pretty serious lot (with the obvious exception of the brass players.) I also knew a lot of them anyhow, as I also accompanied the choir. But the overriding factor was, as a rule the accompaniments for vocal music are much easier than those for instrumental majors. As I had a substantial slacker component, it sealed the deal.

So I played for voice majors. A lot of voice majors. I typically accompanied around 15 of them per semester.There were four or possibly five major voice teachers at the time, and I spent some time in all of their studios. Naturally I had my opinions as to which teachers were best. It was partially results-based—who had the largest number of who I considered to be the best students—and partially based upon the teaching methods which appealed the most to me personally.

However, from time to time a student would change studios. Sometimes it would be from a teacher I considered to be less good to one I considered to be better, but in a large number of cases it was the other way around. What shocked me the most was, whichever way around it was, said student, almost without exception, made a large amount of improvement in just a few lessons.

After this had happened a sufficient number of times for me to realize it wasn't just a fluke resulting from a small sample size, I started trying to wrap my brain around why this might happen. I had already managed to come to grips with the fact that very frequently the people who were themselves the best singers were not the best teachers. In fact, there is often an inverse relationship. I wasn't basing my judgment of the teacher's worth upon how well they themselves could sing.

So I pondered this question—what was the desired outcome? Once I framed the question this way, the answer was obvious. Each teacher wanted for each student to achieve the greatest potential of their voice, in a manner everyone would consider to be beautiful. In singing, it's not enough to just have mad technical skills—it has to also be pleasing to the ear, by current standards.

So if this was the case, why did each teacher have such a different method for trying to help his or her students to achieve this? The obvious answer was, they felt this was the best way to achieve the desired result. But the question remained—if the desired result was the same, why didn't everyone teach it the same way?

I didn't really learn the answer to this until years later. Learning the answer to this also revealed why the students were improving, no matter which studio they switched to.

I'm not a particularly athletic person, in the same way the winters aren't particularly balmy in Pittsburgh. But as a person who should have been old enough to know better (early 40s) I decided for unknown reasons to take up skiing. I really enjoyed it, but it's a pretty expensive hobby. However, I discovered after a couple of years that if I signed up to be a ski instructor, I could get free passes for not just myself but my whole family. The ski hill would train me and then unleash me upon unsuspecting students.

This isn't as bad as it sounds. A huge proportion of ski lessons at most resorts are beginner lessons, and furthermore people like me tend to be used to man the children's ski school. I was good at cleaning up vomit and reasoning with toddlers, and that's a couple of the top skills required right there. If you're a good skier and you sign up for a private lesson, you aren't going to get me, or anyone like me, you're going to get a seasoned professional who is also an excellent skier. (Hopefully now my old ski school won't sue me for revealing these things : )

So I went to the training session. We had a week of intensive lessons in not just ski technique but in the art of teaching. What I discovered is, everyone learns differently. I had been vaguely aware of this before, but during the training week this was pounded into us in every possible way.

After all, if you give someone an inadequate piano lesson, they aren't going to improve as quickly, or perhaps they will even learn some bad technique they have to overcome later. But it probably isn't going to impact their life in a really negative sense.

On the other hand, as a ski instructor you have up to 10 or 15 people, many of whose most strenuous activity ordinarily is rummaging in the couch cushions for the remote. They are at a much higher altitude than they are accustomed to (my ski hill has a base elevation of over 10,000 feet) They have a couple of slippery boards strapped to their feet. You take them up a hill, try to assess what sorts of people you are working with, and then have about a half hour to teach them how to not die when they attempt to ski, and another hour finding out whether you were successful.

You can, I'm sure, see the liability issues here, no matter what the hill gets people to sign. So the management is extremely invested in knowing the basic safety concepts are going to be adequately conveyed to everyone who signs up for a lesson. Thus the exceedingly strong emphasis upon different learning styles.

We were taught to demonstrate every single concept in ways which would connect with visual learners, auditory learners, and kinesthetic learners. If someone wasn't getting it, we didn't have the option of just assuming they were incapable—we had to figure out a way to teach them enough of the basics so they wouldn't kill themselves. Not an easy task.

And this presumably demonstrates how slow I am myself, but it hadn't really occurred to me before that clinic that you not only could teach things in a variety of ways, but that some people might not be able to learn what you were trying to teach them at all if you didn't figure out how to connect with their personal learning style.

And suddenly the mystery of the improving voice students became clear. Each teacher was saying things in a way that was meaningful to them. And, typically, if the student didn't get it the first or second or tenth time, they just said it louder. So when a student switched teachers, they heard the same message. But it was delivered in a different way, one they could suddenly hear.

Which isn't to say that some of the teachers weren't better than others. But few teachers are effective with every student, and the method is perhaps less important than each teacher thinks. The crux of the matter is, can the teacher communicate the information in a way which is meaningful to the student?

So, finally, let us return to Levi Brown. There is certainly no guarantee he will come to Pittsburgh and suddenly start playing like the top-5 overall pick he is. But there is a decent chance he will be a substantial upgrade to Mike Adams in the short term.

The question is, why has he never played like a top-5 overall pick? Was the scouting really off-base? I decided to look into these things.

When he was drafted in 2007, he was considered to be one of the best tackles available. Considering that Joe Thomas was drafted two spots above him, that's a pretty high bar. In this article he and Thomas were considered to be absolutely the cream of the OT class. Although Brown was injured his senior year and negative remarks were made about his conditioning as a result, it was noted that he "could be the next Gene Upshaw off the field with degrees in industrial and labor relations and psychology." He was considered a smart player and a "classic mauler." So how did he actually perform for the Cardinals?

In 2008, the first year Pro Football Focus begins with their ratings, Brown was the right tackle. His overall rating of 5.7 made him the 20th-ranked right tackle that season. (Willie Colon, as a matter of interest, was ranked No. 7, with a 27.1 rating.) Where he really struggled was in pass blocking—his run blocking was very good, putting him at No. 12 in that category. (Colon was No. 4.) The following year, for some reason, he regressed sharply. He remained at right tackle, posting a -9.2 overall rating. Once again, though, his run blocking was very good.

In 2010 things went from bad to worse. He was moved to left tackle, and his -31.2 rating was the worst in the league for a starting tackle on either side. Even his run blocking sucked.

In 2011 things began to look up. Once again he was the starting left tackle. (It's worth noting that he never missed a game between 2009 and 2012.) His rating, while still a negative one, had improved substantially, to -7.6, and his run blocking was the sixth-best for a left tackle. (We will draw a veil over the pass blocking, which once again was what pulled his score down.) In 2012 he was out for the season, apparently, as he doesn't appear to have taken any snaps at all.

In the first four games of 2013 the pattern remains—dismal pass blocking, better-than-average run blocking.

I decided to try to see what might have happened between 2008 and 2009. What I found was very intriguing. The Offensive Coordinator in 2008, as we all probably recall, was Todd Haley. Russ Grimm was both Assistant Head Coach and the offensive line coach. But Haley left to be the Head Coach of the Chiefs in 2009. And things suddenly got really interesting, in my opinion. The Cardinals did not replace Haley. Instead, they named Russ Grimm the Running Game Coordinator, in addition to his assistant head coach and offensive line duties. There was also another unheralded move. The previous Offensive Quality Control coach, Dedric Ward, was replaced by one Chad Grimm. Not too surprisingly, he is the son of Russ Grimm.

I don't mean to imply that Chad Grimm isn't fantastic at what he does. He now holds the same position, except for the defense, for the Chargers after the wholesale clean-out of the coaching staff in Arizona. I do note, however, this is a lateral move. The above-mentioned coaching staff remained unchanged between 2009 and the end of 2012.

And while that coaching staff wasn't good enough to pull the Cardinals out of the basement, despite Larry Fitzgerald, they might in fact be really good coaches dealing with a combination of bad luck and inadequate personnel. (Although some of the latter is on them, since they presumably had a good deal of input into the drafts.)

The point to be made, though, is that it is entirely possible that they had long ago reached the "say the same things, only louder" point with Levi Brown.

This doesn't, naturally, explain why Brown was still bad enough this season, after a wholesale coaching change, to make the Cardinals decide to release him. But while the coaching staff may have changed, Brown was still in a place where he was constantly reminded of his failings.

And in fact he did improve this season. Not a great deal. But his overall score was less below-the-line than it was in 2011, which was in turn a big improvement over 2010.

So here's hoping a reunion with Todd Haley and, as Neal says, a fresh start will help Brown to take a giant leap forward. After all, as Neal points out, even a small improvement in the play at the position could have a pretty big effect on the offense.

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