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Memory Banks

Buffalo Bills @ Kansas City Chiefs
AFC Divisional Playoffs
January 23, 2022
Arrowhead Stadium
Kansas City, MO

Wow! What a game between the Bills and the Chiefs!

The greatest game in NFL playoff history?

The greatest total QB performance by both Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes?

Who’s to judge? I’m biased so I am a resounding “YES!” On both counts.

I tried to sleep after the game. I was beat. Worn out from a head cold and from sitting on pins and needles for hours watching the game. Okay, I was also worn out from yelling at the TV but I’ll rant about that in a later post.

I tried to sleep. Monday morning and work were staring me in the face. I needed sleep. I knew I had to trick my mind into a relaxing slumber so I pulled up a book I’m reading on orbital mechanics. Thirty minutes into reading about eccentricity and inclination and the argument of periapsis, I was not only not tired but I was actually getting really fired up about eccentricity, inclination, and the argument of periapsis. The Chiefs’ game adrenaline was still flowing.

I gave up on trying to read myself to sleep so I contemplated the game. There was a nagging familiarity during the game that jostled my memory banks. A pleasant familiarity I couldn’t quite put a finger on during the excitement of the game.

But as I lay there in bed staring at the ceiling with the joy of the unlikeliest of Chiefs’ victories being a real and tangible victory, that specific memory came rushing back.

It happened in the early 1970s. I was watching the Vikings play the Rams from the LA Coliseum on TV from Kansas City, KS. It was a beautiful, late afternoon, Southern California day. I was, and still am, a fan of the game of football so the 8-10-year-old me was soaking in all the NFL action he could find. The young me couldn’t get enough football when it was football season, baseball when it was baseball season, or basketball when it was basketball season. It was, and still is, a blessing and a curse.

Fran Tarkenton was the quarterback for the Vikings and Roman Gabriel was the quarterback for the Rams that day. What I remember is those two great QBs of my childhood throwing long passes up and down the field in an amazing offensive game. Gabriel would drop back, set his feet, and launch a rainbow of a pass that seemed to clear the upper rim of the Coliseum. Next, Tarkenton would employ his textbook scramble, moving 30 or more yards to avoid the fierce Fearsome Foursome pass rushers and let the ball fly downfield for a completion.

Burned in the memory is this pattern of incredible passing feats that went back and forth the entire game. Bomb after bomb after bomb. It probably didn’t happen this way but that is how the kid-generated memory reads in my 57-year-old mind. The memory may not be 100% accurate, but in my memory banks, it’s 100% spectacular even after all these years. It’s a feeling of pure, youthful sports joy I hope I never outgrow.

Why do I share this 1970s football memory with you? Because I hope the young kids who watched the Bills play the Chiefs on January 23, 2022, burn the memory into their memory banks like I did in the early 1970s. I hope when they’re 57, the near-perfect performance of Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes in a game for the ages rushes back and puts a smile on their faces.

That’s what sports are all about. Magic and memory.

Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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Happy New Year 2022!

The Priestly Blessing

The LORD said to Moses:  
“Speak to Aaron and his sons and tell them:  
This is how you shall bless the Israelites.
Say to them:  
The LORD bless you and keep you!  
The LORD let his face shine upon      
you, and be gracious to you!  
The LORD look upon you kindly and      
give you peace!

So shall they invoke my name upon the Israelites,  
and I will bless them.”

Numbers 6: 22-27

Sunrise, Kansas, Nov. 2021, Sometimes you just have to pull over & appreciate.

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A Numbers Game

Football is a great game. Great not in a “Football Is Life” t-shirt kind of way but in a numbers kind of way. 

Most people understand the numbers game as it relates to statistics. How many yards did he run for? What is my team’s first down efficiency rate on 3rd and 8 plays? How many tackles did my boy have? Touchdowns? Catches?

What most people don’t realize about football is behind the curtain, the sport is all about a different kind of numbers game. The numbers of advantage. This is the side game that has always appealed to me. The coaching side of the game. On the coaching side, it’s all about the numbers and gaining a numbers advantage.

At its very basic level, offensive football is about gaining a numbers advantage in your favor where you want to run or pass the ball. Think about some of the different offenses out in the game today. Spread or air raid passing offense spreads out your defense and then reads how you align. If the defense leaves 5 or fewer in the box (at the LOS), the read is usually a run read because you have a blocking advantage. If the defense puts six defenders in the box, the offense will read where in the secondary the advantage of numbers or matchups occurs and then attack that.

In the zone read, option, veer, RPO, or other read-based offenses, at least one defender is left unblocked. The QB reads what those unblocked defenders do and reacts accordingly. Away from the unblocked defenders, the offense uses its numbers advantage to block or attack the defense.

As a former offensive line coach, one of the things I tried to do with blocking schemes was to use numbers and angles to give us the advantage and put one defender “on an island”. We were almost always undersized but athletic with our offensive lineman so gaining an advantage in our schemes was necessary. We used double teams, combo blocks, pulls, and fold blocks to give us different angles and favorable numbers to help our smaller players block larger defenders. We had more successes than failures because we understood the value of the numbers game.

Defensively, the numbers game is equally important. We have to neutralize the offense’s attempt to gain their own numbers advantage at the point of attack and then pursue relentlessly to regain the numbers advantage at the ball or spot. 

Two of our biggest challenges came against a team that ran the double wing another team that ran the double tight wishbone offense. Both teams ran their offenses to near perfection. The toss play in the double-wing offense and the belly play with the wishbone offense.

I still remember how Coach Paul Lane would tell kids about the double wing team’s toss play. He walked down the scout team’s double-wing formation and point to a spot between the tackle and the tight end and say, “They’re going to line up tight and then bring 600 pounds of humanity over to THIS point!” After walking over the two backside pulling linemen and the lead blocking fullback, he showed how vital it was for our defenders to neutralize and form a wall at the line of scrimmage and then pursue to the run alley to make the play. Against both offenses, if we were to have success, we had to neutralize their number advantage attack and establish our own numbers advantage.

Double Wing Toss Play

The numbers game. It’s the cat and mouse, nuts and bolts of football. 

As a coach, if you don’t understand the numbers game concept, then all the pretty diagrammed plays, graphs, and charts in your playbook are useless. Lifeless and worthless to the success of your team. 

Below is an example of the importance of understanding the numbers game from a recent high school game I watched.

Play One – The offense lined up in a TE left, wing left with twins to the opposite side. They pull the backside guard and hand it off to the RB on a power lead play. The defense lined up pretty well on this play with the corner aligned with outside leverage on the #1 receiver and the safety over the #2 TE. Although the ILB is probably a step too far outside for my liking with this formation, the alignment look is rather neutral on the numbers game. The defense allowed about 10 yards on the run because the pulling guard and the playside blockers don’t get neutralized well enough at the point of attack and the pursuit fills a bit slow. Nevertheless, the defense did a good job establishing numbers on their alignment. The problem was in the execution and fundamentals, two things that can be fixed.

Play One

Play Two – The very next play the offense flipped the formation and ran the same play. This time the defense does not align properly, The ILB, corner, and safety are all outside the frame of the offense, subtracting 3 players from the numbers game. Even before the snap, the defense was in bad shape. In this play, the pulling guard and blocking scheme gave the offense at least a +3 number in the run alley. The play went for a long touchdown. Numbers matter.

Play Two

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Creative Autonomy

I recently read a great nonfiction book by Adam Savage called, Every Tool’s a Hammer: Life Is What You Make Of It. He’s one of the guys from the Mythbusters show. The book is a roadmap to making. Better yet, it’s a roadmap of what he’s learned over a decades-long career as a maker. 

One of my favorite parts of the book is when he talks about visiting his friend and movie director Guillermo del Toro on the set of Pacific Rim. Adam was amazed at the scope and depth of the worldbuilding and creation going on with the hundreds of people working on the set. That night at dinner, Adam asked Guillermo how he’s able to manage a large group like that into a cohesive vision. The director replied, “You have to give everyone complete freedom within a narrow bandwidth.”

Adam calls it “creative autonomy”. He expands on the idea in regards to creating successful teams. After you get the team’s buy-in on the larger vision, you need to strictly define their roles in the fulfillment of that vision. Once everyone knows where they’re going, then you need to set them free to do their thing.

Within a good organization, an effective leader lets people do what they do while keeping them anchored to the overarching goal. Creative autonomy may be properly suited to only certain endeavors where creativity reigns but it’s equally important in managing or coaching a sports team. 

Creativity, in the case of the sports team, is talent unleashed. It’s using your tools to solve problems. Just as in making a movie, publishing a book, or designing a factory, the sports organization is a team of specialists with the goal of using their individual tools to successfully achieve or create.

In the two sports I’ve had the opportunity to coach, football and baseball, establishing creative autonomy is vital. Vital not only for ultimate success but vital to have athletes who enjoy participating and enjoy doing the necessary work to be successful. A culture of creative autonomy lets athletes feel part of something, which I believe is one of the major reasons we are drawn to these activities. 

In today’s world of teenagers, making them feel truly part of something is a foundational coaching skill. There are too many other places and activities calling their name and 99% of those are much less demanding activities than sports.

Building a successful program through creative autonomy means work on the coaching end. Take football for example. The offensive and the defensive schemes we implemented had to be simple enough for all our kids to understand but variable enough to give us the tools we needed to face anything an opponent threw at us. We had to not only understand all the facets ourselves as a coaching staff but we had to understand the specific job of each position. Once the specific jobs were defined, then we could break them down into teachable bites for coaching those particular athletes. 

One of the most overlooked coaching skills is the ability to teach a player they need to do this one thing, this is how you do it, and then trust them to do their job. One of the things I feel most proud about from coaching football is the way we played defense. We had more successes than failures and most of those successes were because of creative autonomy. The schemes were simple, yet multiple. The athletes, for the most part, knew their jobs. They were allowed to play with a physical, aggressive style that became our hallmark. Alignment. Assignment. Attack. 

Young coaches getting started or a coach looking to turn around a program, never underestimate the power of creative autonomy. Establishing this culture and philosophy up and down the ladder of your program, from the incoming freshman to the top of the coaching staff, is a huge leap toward excellence. Plus, athletes have more fun and more joy from playing in an environment of creative autonomy. 

And at the end of the day, isn’t your athletes enjoying playing sports the ultimate goal?

Happy athletes are more fun to be around every day and get more work done. They just need to know where they’re going, what they need to do to get there and to feel like they’re part of something bigger than themselves.

Teach your athletes; trust your athletes. 

Every Tool s a Hammer  Life Is What You Make It

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Shifting Our “-demics”

We’re close to the point of a shift in the way we think about the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s time to start adjusting from living in a pandemic to living with an endemic disease. What does this mean?

Pandemic is when the infectious disease is spread across the whole world. That’s a big “Check”.

Endemic is when it is maintained at a baseline level in a geographic area. We’re heading in this direction.

What this means this SARS-Co2 family of viruses are with us for the long haul. COVID will be part of our health as the flu has been for 100 years. Like influenza, there will be waxes and wanes in severity of the particular circulating coronavirus strains. Similar to our established medical response systems to combat influenza, we need to establish ways to combat new and potentially more dangerous coronaviruses. We need to continue to improve the COVID-fighting tools in our toolbox.

Good news, bad news.

The bad news is pathogenic human coronavirus are here to stay.

The good news, however, is we have the tools, the experience, and the ability to fight back. All we need is the will to make decisions to take care of our business. We need the will to do what’s necessary to keep ourselves, our families, and our circles of people as healthy as we can.

I guess that’s the bottom line: Do what you need to do to keep yourself and your people living your best lives.

Use your available tools.
Be smart.
Be responsible.
Be safe, my friends.

Do what you need to do.

florianric from Deutschland, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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GM For a Day: 2021 KC Royals

If I had the honor of being GM of my beloved Kansas City Royals for a day…

Where do I start?

That’s hard because this season (and honestly for the past 30-odd years except for two months at the end of the 2014 season and the entirety of the 2015 season) has been an utter and complete disappointment. I start with a good, long and honest look in the mirror. I take all the excuses we’ve rolled out over the years about small market economics and competitive imbalance and lock them away never to see the light of day.

I realize we must do things differently in Kansas City. The success of 2014 and 2015 balanced on a razor-thin margin of error. We relied on a lights-out bullpen and an offense with just enough firepower to score just enough runs to win games. The 2014-2015 Royals weren’t a fluke or just a team that got lucky; they were a team that was very good at playing a limited game and found a way to keep most games within their margins for success.

I say we have to realize the need to do things differently because it’s so hard to win under the 2014-2015 error margins. It’s, without a doubt, why success has found KC for only two calendar years out of the past 35. Lightning struck and we were able to briefly catch it. You can’t be a competitive program if you build on the foundation of catching lightning.

The first place I’d rebuild in the Royals organization is the developmental side of things. Right now, we have talent up and down the system that we’d acquired through drafting and trading. I know this sounds like a no-brainer but look at history. 35 years of high draft picks and we’ve only had two playoff appearances? I’d say that’s an issue in dire need of addressing.

The Royals have done a decent job in the Dayton Moore Era drafting talent. Their problem has been they’ve done a poor job of developing their talent. Yes, even the 2014-2015 glory boys, Gordon, Moustakas, and Hosmer, never lived up to their potential. For example, you don’t draft a Gold Spike winner to only win Gold Gloves at a different position from where you originally slotted him in. The only players I can think of who really developed were guys who weren’t really big on the organization’s talent ladder focus, Salvador Perez and Whit Merrifield. And by many accounts, these two players were highly self-motivated and worked to develop their skills with a chip on their shoulders.

Of my 24 hours as GM for the Day, all 24 would be dedicated to cultivating our developmental program. The whole professional organization needs to be a competitive endeavor all day, every day. One of my sports credos has always been, “In order to be competitive, you have to be competitive.”

It’s easy to say you want to win. Everybody wants to win. It’s human nature. At the upper echelon of a sport, everybody has talent. What sets apart the ones that are competitive versus the ones who wash out often comes down to treating every day as a competitive venture.

Get better. Do the work. Compete. Fail or succeed. Repeat.

The good organizations in professional baseball, especially the organizations that succeed in the “small market” arena, will often develop talent with a competitive edge. Whether a player is a #1 draft pick, a 20th round pick, or a free agent, they are forced into the competitive fire day after day after day. A competitive organization must have this in order to achieve its goals to succeed. 

The second thing I’d do as Royals GM for a Day is…

Hell, there wouldn’t be a second thing. EVERYTHING right now has to be about player development. You can’t worry about guys walking away in free agency at the end of their first contract. You can’t feel sorry for yourself in the economic context of the rest of the league. It’s a great place to play. It’s a great city to live in with one of the best fan bases in any professional sport. As the person in charge, I have to realize this and change my philosophy to fit the reality.

  • Acquire and develop talent.
  • Hire and train coaching within the system toward development. 75% of all resources should be invested in development.
  • Demand competitiveness at all levels.
  • Have talent ready to step up when players walk out the door for bigger paychecks.
  • Constantly analyze why players are developing to their potential and fix the problems early in the process.
  • Keep an open mind without compromising competitiveness.

I always enjoy thinking Royals GM for a Day thoughts. It’s how I like to enjoy being a sports fan who is also a coach. Thinking about how to make things better is always foremost in my mind when I watch a sports event from local T-ball to professional football and baseball on TV. 

Enjoy the rest of the 2021 MLB season! Never forget, at the end of the day, win or lose it’s still baseball. The greatest game on earth.

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A Words Look: Texas In My Rear View Mirror by Mac Davis

I hadn’t heard this song for years but the line, “And when I die you can bury me in Lubbock Texas in my jeans”, popped into my head the other day for no particular reason. The mind is a weird thing—an amalgamation of stored experiences, thoughts, and dreams. I was thinking about home and found homes and adopted homes and how all three meld together to form your true home. To me, now on the downslope to sixty years on this planet, that single line from this great 1980 song defines the essence of what true home means.

Mac Davis could do just about anything in the entertainment business. Songwriter of such  megahits as Elvis’ In the Ghetto, I Believe in Music recorded by a whole slew of people, Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me, and the late-night, driving home from a party anthem, Lord It’s Hard to Be Humble. Singer/songwriter of many popular hits and albums over a twenty-year career. He also acted. Over his long acting career, he starred in the 1979 movie, North Dallas Forty, hosted his own variety show, appeared in several TV shows, including a hosting gig for an episode of The Muppet Show, and was a voice-over talent in a handful of popular animated series. He could pull off just about anything and do it with his mix of down-home personality and general likeability. 

For some reason, probably because he did so many things well and did them in his own easy-going style, Mac Davis was never really given the credit he deserved for the talent he exhibited. He died in November of 2020 from complications after heart surgery. 

This song, Texas in My Rear View Mirror, will always be in my top 100 songs. It means as much to me now as it did in my 1980s crazy-ass youth. It’s about true home. Something I’ve been lucky enough to find and something I hope to never take for granted. Because every day, “ the vision was getting clearer in my dream”.

Texas in My Rear View Mirror by Mac Davis

I was just fifteen and out of control lost to James Dean and rock and roll
I knew down deep in my country soul that I had to get away
Hollywood was a lady in red who danced in my dreams as I tossed in bed
I knew I’d wind up in jail or dead if I have to sta
y

I thought happiness was Lubbock Texas in my rearview mirror
My mama kept calling me home but I just did not want to hear her
And the vision was getting clearer in my dream

So I let out one night in June stoned on the glow of the Texas moon
Humming an old Buddy Holly tune called Peggy Sue (pretty, pretty Peggy Sue)
With my favorite jeans and a cheap guitar, I ran off chasing a distant star
If Buddy Holly could make it that far then I figured I could too

I thought happiness was Lubbock Texas in my rearview mirror
My mama kept calling me home but I just did not want to hear her
And the vision was getting clearer in my dream

But the Hollywood moon didn’t smile the same old smile that I’d grown up with
The lady in red just wanted my last dime
And I cried myself to sleep at night too dumb to run too scared to fight
And too proud to admit it at the time

So I got me some gigs on Saturday night not much more than orchestrated fights
I’d come home drunk and I tried to write but the words came out all wrong
Hellbent and bound for a wasted youth too much gin and not enough vermouth
And no one to teach me to seek the truth before I put an end to this song

I still thought happiness was Lubbock Texas in my rearview mirror
My mama kept calling me home but I just could not, would not hear her
And the vision was getting clearer in my dream

Well I thank God each and every day for giving me the music and the words to say
I’d never had made it any other way he was my only friend
Now I sleep a little better each night and when I look in the mirror in the morning light
The man I see was both wrong and right he’s going home again

I guessed happiness was Lubbock Texas in my rearview mirror
But now happiness was Lubbock Texas growing nearer and dearer
And the vision was getting clearer in my dream

And I think I finally know just what it means
And when I die you can bury me in Lubbock Texas in my jeans

Songwriters: Mac Davis
Texas in My Rear View Mirror lyrics © BMG Rights Management

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Wildlife Ranger Action Guide by Mary Kay Carson

As adults, we often look at children’s books through the lens of our adulthood. We also, however, can look at these same children’s books with child-like eyes. The best books for me are the ones that flick the switch of curious excitement in my brain. As a scientist and a writer, I’m blessed (cursed?) with a youthful exuberance for new and/or applicable knowledge. As a husband and father to elementary school teachers, a fan/creator of children’s literature, and, most importantly, a grandfather, I’m also always on the lookout for interesting things to pass along.

In Spring of 2020, Mary Kay Carson, a fellow member of the From the Mixed-Up Files…Of Middle-Grade Authors STEM Tuesday team, put out a call for anyone who wanted to read advanced copies of her new book, Wildlife Ranger Action Guide. I jumped at the chance. Mary Kay is an amazing STEM nonfiction writer. Her Scientists in the Field series is remarkable. The Bat Scientists and The Tornado Scientists are books I recommend to everyone. 

When Wildlife Ranger Action Guide showed up in the mail, I unpackaged it and a weird thing happened. I couldn’t put it down. Seriously. I dropped everything I was doing, sat on the back patio, and read it cover to cover. For that one afternoon, I was that kid scientist Mike Hays again. Amazing. This book hit all the notes that I would have loved as a kid. 

Just take a look at the Table of Contents and I’m sure your interest will be piqued as was mine.

I read it a second time with my adult eyes and I had the urge to order a copy for every kid and every teacher I know. I told the teacher-folks in my family about it and then read it a third time through my kidlit writer lens. It’s an outstanding piece of creative, informational work perfect for the target audience. 

Mary Kay mixes images, information, activities, and love of nature on every, single page to create a work that is alive and can give kids hours of enjoyment. It hits on all the right notes for a young STEM reader or budding young naturalist. The field guides included at the end of every chapter are pure gold and perfect for kids to use on their own or with their adults. 

Wildlife Ranger Action Guide is a great book perfect to place into the hands of the young readers in your life. It’s even a better book to have on your shelf as a reference to enjoy the natural world all around you with the people, both young and old, in your life. Give it a try and I think you will agree with me. Once you read it, I think you’ll enjoy and appreciate nature a little more.

Happy reading!

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The American Game

Today is Super Bowl Sunday. For me, it’s always been a great day. This year is extra special because the team that’s woven into my DNA, the Kansas City Chiefs, is playing for a chance to win their second straight Lombardi Trophy. 

The Super Bowl is a celebration of the game of football. Football has become America’s Game. Rightfully so. 

It’s the perfect modern American Game. 

A contest is scheduled.

Fans, coaches, and players prepare. They can even talk some trash before the game.

The game is played. The teams tried to bash each other’s heads in for four quarters. 

One side wins. One side loses. 

At the end of the game, we shake hands, go our separate ways, and then get ready for the next game. It’s play the game, enjoy it, and get back to work. 

See what I mean? It truly is America’s Game. 

A lesson staring us in the face about what we need to do as a nation, as the United States of America, moving forward into 2021 and beyond.

It’s easy to get sidelined by things outside of our control. It’s easy to become caught in a loop of emotion and lost in confusion. It’s easy to lose sight of what’s vital and important. 

Enjoy the Super Bowl today!

Cheer and scream for our team. Eat, drink, and be merry. Most importantly, be safe and be true. 

When the game is over, shake hands, and wish your opponent well. Then wake up tomorrow and get back to the business of being a good American. We need teamwork to put the greatest nation on Earth back on the right track. We need each other.

America’s Game is asking for you to chip in. 

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No Country For Grumpy Old Men

Something hit me like a brick the other day while looking over the Chiefs Super LV Bowl Week Spirit Activities from the elementary school where my wife teaches. Something that could have instantly thrown me, a lifelong Kansas City Royals and Kansas City Chiefs sports fan, into get-off-my-lawn-you-you-you-young-whippersnappers, grumpy-old-man mode. 

It easily could have resulted in me ranting at whoever lent an ear about my long-suffering fandom, the years of terrible teams, years of gut-wrenching defeats, and years of one disappointment after another. Instead, while observing the enthusiasm the local youth exhibited after the Royals 2015 World Series Title and the recent Chiefs Super Bowl runs, I just about exploded with joy.

It’s awesome to see. The joy of being a sports fan. The joy of sports. The joy of proudly and innocently cheering for a sports team. Man, I remember those days well. Those days, in fact, help fuel my love of sports and passion for baseball and football. They helped form me into the somewhat responsible adult that I’ve become.

The young Chiefs and Royals fans in the 10-year-old range around our local elementary schools have seen two World Series, one with a championship from the Royals. They’ve witnessed an improbable three straight Chiefs home AFC Championship Games, two straight Super Bowl appearances with a great chance to win back-to-back Lombardi Trophies, and a possible run at a three-peat. 

To these kids, this is normal. This is the way. 

It’s crazy but it’s true.

So instead of going grumpy old man on the enthusiastic young fans in your life, join the party! Cheer them on as much or more than you cheer on the teams. Learn from their youthful exuberance and live life with their spirit and passion.

Let kids enjoy their fandom as kids. The realities of sports and of life will one day chase them down. They will learn to win as well as lose. They will suffer defeats as well as victories. 

But for now, enjoy the ride, kids!

And in twenty years, we can sit down and tell stories about these times in our sports life. Oh yes, we will have stories to tell my friends.

Remember that one time…

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