Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Oswalt Roulette

The one guarantee of whatever contract Roy Oswalt gets is that it won't be appropriate for his production this coming year. Oswalt's aging, coming off a year where he spent a lot of time hurt, and about as uncertain a bet as you can imagine. On the other hand, when he finally got healthy last year, he was still Roy Goddamn Oswalt, as good a starter as you could hope for.
All of which means, of course, that he's going to get paid - but not too much. Whoever signs him - and right now, it looks like Texas or St. Louis, because Ruben Amaro Jr has an unhealthy fascination with Joe Blanton - is going to get him on a one-year, mid-priced deal. It makes sense; don't want to go all in, because he might not be healthy. Can't lowball him, because he can still own the park on any given night. So the contract will be somewhere in the middle, probably 1 year at $6M-$8M or so - a lot less than Edwin Jackson's gunning for. And Oswalt will either outperform it or underperform it by a wide margin, because pretty much the one guarantee is that he's not going to recreate last year's performance.
But he'll get paid like it, and someone will either make out like a bandit, or get totally screwed.

Monday, January 30, 2012

An Encounter With Angry Mutton

So it's Saturday afternoon, and I'm in Chapel Hill with my Delicate Bellicose Flower, i.e. my wife Melinda, for brunch. We are having brunch in Chapel Hill (home of the UNC Tar Heels, for those of you who are unable to hear the frequencies Dick Vitale broadcasts at) because we have tried and failed to have brunch in Durham multiple times, and because the restaurant at local landmark foodie haven A Southern Season does good brunch, and there's a big store to wander around in while we wait for our table.
Melinda (that's the Delicate Bellicose Flower, for those of you keeping track) starts looking at the tea. I wander off to try to find the restrooms, and instead I find Rameses, over by the deli meats.
Rameses, as the initiated know, is the mascot of the UNC-Chapel Hill Tar Heels. He is, in this incarnation, an anthropomorphic ram, as having real livestock on the court during a basketball game is generally not a good thing, and undergraduates in ram costumes tend to be better about relieving themselves than farm animals. Why a team named the Tar Heels uses an anthropomorphic sheep as a mascot is a story for another time; in the interim, readers are invited to ask themselves if they really want to see a sophomore botany major from Mebane or Elizabeth City dressed up like a giant foot with some gunk on it, doing pushups on the court at halftime.
In any case, there Rameses was, cavorting in the aisles, doing photo ops with small children and Heels fans of all ages, and more importantly, impeding my forward progress. Behind me, a guy nodded and smiled approvingly and said, as a statement of presumed solidarity, "Go Heels".
In retrospect, I probably should not have done what I did next. I channeled the fact that my aforementioned wife has a PhD from NC State, and said, "Go Pack."  The gentleman was horrified. And I got Rameses' attention.
He took a few steps toward me. His mascoty eyes, unblinking, locked in on mine. "Actually," I said, "I'm a Boston College fan." Which, for the record, is true. BC School of Arts and Sciences, MA in Literature with Distinction, 1994. You can look it up; I'm not sure they ever sent me the piece of paper but they do occasionally send me the alumni magazine and offers to buy Christmas tree ornaments shaped like the football stadium.
Well, that was enough for Rameses. He dropped into a fighter's crouch, cocked his head belligerently and started shadowboxing in my direction. I looked at the large anthropomorphic ram making Rocky shapes, thought about the basketball season so far (you don't mention football in Chapel Hill these days. It's still kind of a sore spot, apparently) and said, "C'mon, man. Boston College."
That would be 7-14 Boston College, with losses to 9-12 Holy Cross, 4-18 Rhode Island, 11-12 Boston U, and the second-worst Wake Forest team of recent memory. (Jeff Bzdelik's squads have bzeen bzad). I mean, look. I'm an alum. I'm a fan. But we're a long way from the Al Skinner glory years here, people. A looooong way.
Rameses stopped. He thought about it. Quite possibly, inside his suit he was checking the ACC standings. And then he dropped his hands and patted my head, in woolly pity, and moved on.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Colts / Arians

Saturday, the Colts hired former Steeler offensive coordinator Bruce Arians as their new offensive coordinator. Arians has always been a pass-first guy. He hasn't paid close enough attention to the offensive line, by virtue of having had the Incredible Hulk behind center. Is this a signal that they're ditching Manning (who needs good pass protection) or that they're keeping him (because Arians likes to air it out)?

As a Steeler note -- the offensive line has been in tatters since Russ Grimm left in a huff with Ken Whisenhunt a few years ago. If the Steelers had been looking for someone to fire in order to Make A Statement, they should have fired offensive line coach Sean Kugler (who joined the Steelers early in 2010, after 2 years of the Bills' offensive line letting Trent Edwards, JP Losman, and Ryan Fitzpatrick get body-slammed through the ice of Lake Erie).

You thought I was done talking about the US WNT

The US Women's National Team beat Costa Rica 3-0 last night, thereby qualifying for the 2012 London Olympics.
Hope Solo started in goal despite a mild quadriceps strain she'd incurred during the 4-0 win over Mexico. Other than injure herself, Solo had hardly had anything to do during the Mexico game (I counted just a handful of first-half touches). The Costa Rica game was a bit more of a challenge; Solo had to make a few saves in the first half. The injury didn't seem to do her any harm, as she registered her fourth clean sheet of the tournament.
Part of the reason that Solo hurt herself against Mexico was that -- as she admits -- she still isn't up to form after taking time off for Dancing With The Stars.
In the Costa Rica game, for the first time that I can remember, coach Pia Sundhage chose not to start Amy Rodriguez. Rodriguez is a reasonably talented player, and she's fast, but she makes terrible decisions when the ball is at her feet. She'll make a good run to get possession and then lose possession in mere seconds -- not to a tackle but to a poorly-chosen pass.
Why Sundhage persisted in starting Rodriguez through the 2011 World Cup run remains a mystery, since Sundhage had a talented midfielder like Megan Rapinoe on the sideline. Many of the team's late-game heroics during the World Cup came only after Rapinoe subbed in for Rodriguez.
Against Costa Rica, both Rapinoe and Rodriguez started on the bench; Rodriguez went on in the 70th minute for Heather O'Reilly, and Rapinoe went on in the 80th minute for Shannon Boxx.
Finally I must confess some curiosity as to why Alex Morgan never starts games. She scored plenty of times in the World Cup run, and has had several goals in this year's Olympic cycle as well. I can only assume that Morgan's fitness isn't yet up to snuff, and so she's used as a strong, fast attacking substitute in games where more offense is needed. She's young, and so I expect to see her getting some starts relatively soon.
The US will face either Canada or Mexico in the tournament final Sunday night at 8pm EST. For once, this game will be broadcast -- it'll be on the NBC Sports network (formerly known as Versus).

The Colts' Joint Statement

So Peyton and Irsay issued a joint statement today talking about how they wanted to dispel the groundless speculation and just move forward and so on and so forth. They're still friends, everything is fine, and they're not going to let a little thing like Peyton's jenga set of neck vertebrae and looming $28M roster bonus come between them.
Besides the fact that I can now only imagine this statement being read in creepy unison by Irsay and Manning like they're refugees from Torchwood: Children of Earth, this is laughable on any number of levels. It's not going to stop speculation. It's not going to stop anything. We have a completely uncompelling Super Bowl coming up, and the only interesting plotlines (the game is in Peyton's backyard! Is Peyton's brother better than he is [answer: No. He's just played more playoff games against teams with crappy punt returners]? are Peyton-centric. It's the only easy, compelling story that will always be there for storywriters to go to, at least until March, and so we're going to hear endless analysis and speculation and God knows what else, until one of them - Irsay or Manning - gets tired of saying "No comment" and tells the five hundredth ESPN beat guy who asks "So, are you two still pissed at each other or what"a bit of unvarnished truth.
At which point, the whole thing will start all over again.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Who the Hell's On First?

Once upon a time, most of the best first basemen in baseball were in the National League. Albert Pujols dominated in St. Louis. Prince Fielder was in Milwaukee. A-Gonz was in San Diego and Ryan Howard had both Achilles tendons, and Joey Votto was a rising star in Cincy. Hell, you can even reach and point out Mark Texeira's stay in Atlanta as roughly cotemporaneous.
And now...bupkis. Votto's the only one left standing (see: Howard, Ryan). Behind him, at least until Howard makes a comeback, is who? Ike Davis? Freddie Freeman? For the love of God, Mike Morse? As what is considered the premier offensive position on the diamond, the place where you're willing to live with a Dick Stuart's Strangegloveliness because he whales the tar out of the damn ball, there's nothing left. It's Votto and a vast wasteland filled with skulking Loneys and LaHairs and fossilized Heltons.
What this means, on one level, is that the NL - after some progress - has once again slipped back away from the AL in terms of quality. You just don't make up a Pujols' worth of offense anywhere else on the diamond, not unless you have a vintage A-Rod type at shortstop. And as good as Troy Tulowitzki is, and as many Scrabble points as his last name is worth, he's not A-Rod. (For one thing, way fewer pictures of him as a centaur.)
Part of this comes from various AL teams being cash-rich at the right time. A new TV deal for the Angels got them Pujols; the Yankee and Red Sox regional sports networks are licenses to print money. And part of it is the fact that the AL does have the DH - a place to stash those aging sluggers as they get older and slower, and still derive some benefit. Think back on the chatter on the Ryan Howard contract; one of the most common memes was that they'd have to trade him to the AL at some point on the back end of the deal because he'd just be a DH. AL teams don't have to worry about making that deal. They can just slide the immobile slugger over at some point without skipping a beat, and that allows them to go longer on contract offers than NL teams. That in turn means more money, which means lots of big guys who hit the ball a ton going to the AL.
At some point, hopefully, that will change. As the Freemans and Brandon Belts and Anthony Rizzos and Yonder Alonsos of the world get some time to develop, as the ownership situations in Los Angeles and Chicago settle down and those teams start flexing their market muscle, as the current crop of guys ages, then maybe the NL will catch up again. In the meantime, though, the AL's got the advantage, and that will show in the All-Star Game, and thus in the World Series. There's a lot of reasons to dislike the fact that the leagues play under different rules; this is one of the more subtle - but possible one of the most important - ones.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

9 Years, $214M

Also known as "Mike Ilitch pulls a Ewing Kaufman" In nine years, the Prince Fielder contract will probably be a disaster. In five years, it may be a disaster. But Ilitch is 82 and he ain't taking Comerica Park with him when he goes. That $214M might as be a one year deal, as what Ilitch is buying is another shot at a World Series ring this year, right now, while he's still around to enjoy it.
In terms of a rational look at the numbers, no, it doesn't make sense. It's a loooong deal, Fielder's body type generally doesn't age well, it's a ton of money, and the Tigers already have a couple of slugging fire hydrants in Victor Martinez and Miggy Cabrera. Sure, Cabrera can stand at third with a glove on, but the man clearly knows the location of the Magical Fountain of Pie, and he's not giving it up for love or money. All three of those guys are owed a lot of money, and in the long term, if you're looking at the extended well-being of the Detroit Tigers as a franchise, it doesn't make a lot of sense.
But the thing is, we're not, or at least Ilitch isn't. His calculus is "I want to win now, and I will spend what it takes to do that". So he spent, and within that frame of reference it makes perfect sense. If the Tigers win the Series next year, it will have been worth every penny of that $214M to Ilitch and then some. And that's just fine.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

US WNT

The US Women's National Soccer Team is participating, as it always does, in the qualifying tournament for the upcoming Olympic Games. Since FIFA is responsible for managing the qualifying tournament, the US WNT is playing other teams from CONCACAF, our regional* soccer federation.
Our opening group consists of Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and Guatemala.
The US team beat the Dominican Republic and Guatemala by a combined total of 27-0.
Let me remind you that this is soccer. British soccer commentators have been known to use the phrase "a 1-0 drubbing" unironically.
(I am not concerned about the sportsmanship of a 14-0 win by the US team, by the way. This isn't youth rec soccer. These are adults and, allegedly, world-caliber players. When you get into top-level competition, as far as I'm concerned, the gloves come off.)
The only team the US WNT has yet to play in its group is Mexico. Mexico, 14 months ago, nearly knocked the US out of the women's World Cup by beating them 2-1. The US team got to the finals of that World Cup despite the Mexico loss; the finals were one of the most-watched soccer games in US history.
You would think the US-Mexico game might be a big draw. Kickoff is at 10:30pm EST tonight. You won't find it on TV, though. Neither ESPN, Univision, NBC Sports, Fox Sports nor even the Fox Soccer Channel is carrying the game. This is a ridiculous state of affairs.
I guess I'll make sure my laptop is charged. The game can be watched on CONCACAF's website.

* CONCACAF's teams come from North America, the Caribbean, and Central America

What Have We Learned From The Conference Championship Games?

  1. The sportswriters busily canonizing Eli Manning are conveniently forgetting that, during the last five minutes of the game and overtime, he repeatedly spit the bit. It wasn't until the 49ers gift-wrapped the ballgame that he was able to seal the deal, somehow magically becoming "clutch" and "gritty" and "better than Payton" in the process. Without a generous assist from San Francisco's special teams, Eli's golfing this week instead of fielding questions about how legendary he is. But hey, it doesn't fit the narrative.
  2. If you can hold your kick returner up to your ear and hear the ocean, it's probably time to get another guy out there. Of any and all the mistakes Jim Harbaugh made, this is probably the least excusable. According to the Giants - who were aware that Kyle Williams had concussion issues and deliberately tried to ring his bell as a result - they could see that he was wobblier than Community's place on NBC's schedule. If they could see it, Harbaugh should have seen it, and replaced Williams with someone who, when asked what day it was, wouldn't answer "Shostakovich."
  3. Speaking of Kyle Williams, stay classy, Bay Area. Between the death threats you've been raining on the kid and Willie Brown's take on Elvis Grbac, you're out-Phillying Philly. And I say that as a guy who owns something once autographed by Marty Bystrom.
  4. Everyone inclined to blame no one but Billy Cundiff for the Ravens' loss should check the angle on the laces on that ball. Then, they should look up the physics of the knuckleball, especially the bits about uneven airflow. To quote Sports Illustrated,
    "When the kicker sees a flash of white facing him [on his approach]," says Frost, referring to the laces, "nothing good is going through his head."
  5. I'm still stunned the Ravens, instead of going to the end zone on 2nd and 3rd on that last series, didn't just bull forward and get the first down. They had a time out; they could reset their downs, used the time out, and been able to spike the ball to buy Cundiff enough time to get on the field properly.
  6. But hey, blaming kickers is fun, because they're not real football players. The guys who turned 3 New England turnovers into 6 whole points? Perfectly blameless. Except for Lee Evans.
  7. So, can we all agree that special teams are actually important now? Folks? Can I get an amen from somebody?
  8. Just remember, folks - the Giants were outscored during the regular season, and were fifteen minutes' worth of Mark Sanchez removing his keister from his cornhole away from staying home for the playoffs. (Eli, for the record, was 9-27 that game. Gritty.)
  9. As a professional game designer, I'm offended by the NFL's overtime rules. There's something about football and overtime that causes rules designers to channel their inner derpderpderp. College overtime rules are a cross between Dragonball Z and handing out participation awards during recess, and the NFL's aren't much better. Look, I'll make this very simple. You have a game. The rules work. If you have to go to overtime, all that needs to happen is that YOU KEEP PLAYING THE SAME GAME HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF PEOPLE ALREADY LOVE. There's no need to get cute, or tack on conditional rules. Just add a quarter, sell more beer and pretzels at the stadium, and let the best team win by playing football instead of pachinko, mm-kay?

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Yinzer-Free Conference Championship Games Edition

I had a bunch to say about this weekend's upcoming games but then Tom Carson went and said most of it, including, of the Patriots:
The simple truth is that reviling them is more fun than liking them could possibly be, and Pats fans don't know what they're missing. Whenever their Evil Empire falls short, a briefly united nation rejoices—and it feels really good.

Go read the rest -- it is excellent.

I had a thing worked out where I would look at preseason expectations for all four remaining teams, and the results of their first four games, and how they line up with recent results, but the fact is that these teams were expected to do pretty well. The only question mark was the 49ers, and they were given the benefit of the doubt because they play in the persistently awful NFC West. Three of them won their first game (the Giants lost to the Redskins, and doesn't THAT feel like a long time ago). No big surprises. So that tack was worthless for this post too.

But then I got weird and mathematical. This is something that happens to me. You get used to it.

That phrase I just used, "the persistently awful NFC West," started gnawing at me. I mean, yes, they are persistently awful. In the regular season. But then I thought, Seattle knocked New Orleans out of the playoffs last year. Arizona went to the Super Bowl a few years ago. The Niners just won pretty convincingly.

It turns out that since the 2007-2008 postseason*, the NFC West has the BEST collective postseason record of any of the conferences. They're 6-4. (The next-most-successful division is the AFC North, at 10-7 -- a lot more appearances, but a slightly worse collective record). (The least successful division in this span? The AFC South, at 4-8). The NFC West has gotten at least one playoff win in 4 out of 5 of those seasons.

What on Earth does this mean?

Well I have a theory. The NFC West doesn't generate a lot of regular-season wild-cards, because they're so awful. However, the NFC West champion hosts at least one playoff game every season. And all of the NFC West's teams are in the Pacific time zone. This, I think, is a big advantage. Teams from the east coast suffer through a six-hour flight; their internal clocks are screwed up; etc**.

If I were good at this sports-geek thing I'd go check the collective records of east-coast teams playing in the Pacific time zone... Maybe I'll do that during the big downtime after this weekend's games.

But this quick & dirty analysis does lead me to think that the spread -- currently 49ers by 2.5 -- may be right.

* I'm not deliberately cherry-picking my data set here. I'm just too lazy to do more than five seasons' worth of investigation.
** Why doesn't this happen with the AFC West, then? Denver.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Random Thoughts From a Day In Sports

  • Russell Westbrook re-ups in Oklahoma City. Thunder fans cheer. Seattlites boo. Most of the rest of the country is briefly reminded that there's an NBA team in Oklahoma City, then goes back to hating on LeBron James.
  • The Texas Rangers say they're most likely out of the bidding on Prince Fielder. This pretty much limits Fielder's possible destinations to the Washington Nationals, the Nippon Ham Fighters, and a "mystery team" invented by Jon Heyman with Scott Boras' assistance, most likely the Springfield Isotopes.
  • Texas has signed Japanese pitcher Yu Darvish. While reports are conflicted about what we can expect from Darvish on the mound, they make it very clear there's one thing we should absolutely expect going forward: a veritable avalanche of crappy "Yu" puns.
  • Clemson just hired a defensive coordinator. Because after their bowl game, they decided it would help if they had one.
  • 49 year old Jamie Moyer signed a minor league deal with the Colorado Rockies who, despite storing their game baseballs in a humidor, still play in the Thunderdome. Moyer's fastball goes slower than my 8 year old nephew rides his bike. If Moyer does break camp with the team, this has the high probability of getting very ugly. And yet, you can't help but root for the guy, in part because he's one of a kind, and in part because as long as he's out there doing it, the dream's not entirely dead for any of us guys careening toward middle age who are still younger than him.
  • Jorge Posada will not play next year. However, he has also not retired. Presumably this means he'll be playing in the IFL with Terrell Owens.
  • Sorry, Illinois. Nobody looks good in orange shorts. Nobody. And that goes double for guys over 6'9"

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

14.2 Seconds to Glory

I was listening with UNC's Associate Athletic Director In Charge Of Media Or Something (also known as Minister of Propaganda For the Benevolent Blue Royocracy) of UNC called in to a local sports talk station to try to explain how exactly the sainted Roy Williams had managed to leave five kids and a couple of assistant coaches out on the floor when he pulled most of his team and staff into the locker room with 14 seconds remaining in Saturday's flogging at the hands of Florida State. To be fair, nobody questioned Williams for pulling his team; the FSU crowd looked ready to storm the court, UNC had suffered a bad experience earlier when a female manager was trampled by rowdy UNLV fans storming the court after an upset victory, and when you're in Tallahassee, there's always the danger of being mistaken for a chunk of turf and getting impaled with a flaming spear.
The problem was, the explanation given sounded, well, goofy. That Williams had talked to FSU head coach Leonard Hamilton and they'd agreed to let UNC go home early, that made sense. But then the story got wonky. Roy's instructions didn't get communicated. He didn't look at game film until much later, so he had no idea that five of his guys, plus some coaches, had been left out there. They went straight into the team prayer, so apparently noticed the guys who were missing, were missing, and, then a few days later, it was left to the assistant AD to call into 850 The Buzz to try to lay it all out for the masses.
You know, I believe it's possible that in the confusion, things got lost. Stuff didn't get communicated. Wires got crossed. And nobody got hurt, unlike in that UNLV game.
That being said, it's still not an excuse. If you think the situation is so dangerous that you have to get your kids out of there, you have to get all of the kids entrusted to you out of there, and you have to make sure that they all get accounted for. Elementary school teachers taking field trips grasp this concept; the ridiculously highly paid coach of a high-profile basketball program, a man who is known for his obsessive, meticulous attention to detail, ought to have it down pat, too. If nothing else, the fact that the refs were setting up for an inbounds play should have warned him that not everyone was down with the 14 second early dismissal; coaches are supposed to notice things like that.
So we're left with a couple of options here. One, it happened the way Roy Williams said it did, and he was guilty of sloppy carelessness. Two, Williams pulled his people off the court and didn't bother to check to make sure everyone made it out, then made up the "I didn't know story" later. That makes him careless and mendacious. Or three, he was interested in getting the key people - the starters - out of there, and the rest was smokescreen, with the AD sent to fall on his sword for the good of the program*.
I don't know which is the case, and I don't particularly care. As has been noted elsewhere, the Roy Williams era in Chapel Hill has been marked by high strangeness as well as spectacular success. And yeah, everyone makes mistakes once in a while, and that includes superstar coaches as well as workaday zhlubs. But no matter what actually happened - and we will never know, now that Williams has officially denounced anyone who dare question the official story - the fact remains that in a situation where the adult in charge decided things were dangerous, players somehow got left behind. One can only hope that next time it happens, Roy Williams takes the time, even if it's all the remaining time, to make sure everyone he's responsible is actually with him.



*Four, which makes even less sense than the rest of this, is that the guys who stayed out there, either coach or players, ignored instructions to get off the court to nab those sweet, sweet 14.2 seconds of PT. That being said, I don't see ignoring the coach's instructions in a potentially environment as a route to either more PT down the road or, in the case of the coaches, continued employment.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Yinzer-Free Super Bowl Matchup Thoughts

More incisive analysis from the mind of Sportsthodoxy football analyst Jim "Tenzil" Kiley
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Every team I rooted for, and half the teams I picked, are out after yesterday. At this juncture, as a fan, I'm just hoping to see some good play. If either of the following two matchups make it to the Super Bowl, well... maybe Sid Crosby will get back on the ice soon!

Giants vs. Patriots:
It's 2007 all over again, kids! A rematch between Brady and Manning! A chance to ... oh, come on.
There are six Patriots left from that 2007 squad, including precisely zero members of the Pats defense. David Tyree and most of the '07 Giants are gone too. The average NFL career is 3.3 years long. In football terms, 2007 was a generation ago.
Nevertheless, if the Giants beat the 49ers this upcoming weekend, and the Patriots beat the Ravens, expect a full two weeks of Eli and Tom getting quizzed about this "rematch."

Ravens vs. 49ers:
Harbaugh vs. Harbaugh! Brother versus brother!
We'll get sepia-toned pictures of Jack Harbaugh's storied career at Bowling Green State University (go Falcons!*). Polaroids of the boys in their junior and high-school gear; footage of Jack on the sidelines at various universities. Probably a homey invite to the kitchen of Mama Harbaugh and her secret deep-fried recipe for deep-fried something-stupid.Let's ignore the fact that there are 106 well-compensated, intelligent**, hugely athletic gentlemen who'll be executing the plays out there. No, instead pretend that what we're about to watch is a game of Madden 2012 with the brothers at the controllers.

So please, Football Gods, if you're listening up there in Valhalla***, give us one of the other two possible matchups. My sanity can't handle these choices.


* Yr obt corresp, BGSU class of '94
** Some of them actually are really smart. Others less so.
*** or Canton, I guess?

Bold Prediction

No matter what happens from here on out, the following things will happen:

  1. Some announcer on a Giants game will talk about how at one point this season, coach Tom Coughlin was nearly fired.
  2. Next season, the Giants will lose 2 or 3 games in a row, and look bad doing it.
  3. Giants fans and the New York media will demand that Tom Coughlin be fired.
  4. The Giants will then rip off a season-ending hot streak and make noise in the playoffs.
  5. Some announcer on a Giants game will talk about how at one point this season, coach Tom Coughlin was nearly fired.

Seriously, people, haven't we seen this movie before?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

So Let's Talk About What Really Happened To Denver

The surprise yesterday was not that the air got let out of the Tebowmobile's tires. New England had done that before, after all, and there was no reason to expect they - even with their 31st ranked defense - wouldn't be able to do it again. Tebow's got no touch and no timing on his passes. What he does have is a cannon for an arm, which is why the only aspect of the passing game he's successful at is the deep ball - he just hoists it up there and gives his receivers time to run under it. That's how he beat Pittsburgh; the Steelers' decimated defense simply didn't have enough bodies to keep him honest on the vertical passing game. Short and medium range stuff, and timing routes, though, Tebow's wounded ducks simply don't fly.
And so the Patriots cut off the deep ball, rushed to contain rather than pursue, and when nobody downfield was open, stuffed the run and collected their sacks. End of story. It was the same model that everyone who'd beaten the Tebow-led Broncos had used - yes, even Buffalo. And it is worth noting, at the risk of beating a dead purple-and-orange horse, that even the games that Tebow won with his thrilling fourth quarter heroics weren't exactly offensive explosions. 18 points on Miami, most of them gifts. 17 points on the Chiefs. 13 on the Caleb Hanie-model Bears. Expecting the same sort of numbers Tebow had magically produced last week against the undermanned Steelers against a Belichick defense was, frankly, hoping for a miracle.
No, the initially surprising thing yesterday was how completely Tom Brady pantsed the Broncos' defense. John Fox is a defensive coach, and a good one. Even his worst Carolina Panthers teams - and there were some real stinkers - had strong defenses (at least until the annual Dan Morgan injury hit), and to see one of his units get so thoroughly and completely embarrassed was shocking. For all the Tebow-mania, it was Denver's defense that got them this far, holding opponents down long enough for the fourth quarter magic to happen.
Then again, if you think about it in context, maybe it's not so surprising. Denver's offense is not built for the comeback. A couple of quick scores to put the Broncos behind means forcing the Denver offense to do things it's not built to do, which means 3 and outs, which means more chances for the opposing offense to score against an increasingly tired Denver D. And that digs the hole deeper, which forces the Broncos even further out of their comfort zone, and, well, in retrospect it doesn't seem that surprising that track meet offenses like Green Bay and Detroit and New England buried the Broncos that deep, that fast. Yesterday was just the ultimate expression of that trend.
That won't be the story, of course. The drums are already beating in some quarters for Brady Quinn, in others they're proclaiming that Tebow was never given a chance to win. The defense, well, nobody's going to be talking about that.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Yinzer-Free 2nd Round NFL Playoff Picks

Courtesy of friend of Sportsthodoxy, talented writer and all-around good guy Jim "Tenzil" Kiley, here's a look at this weekend's games.

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I've been skipping SportsCenter all week because, well, I live in Pittsburgh. It's a penitent time here. We're all wearing Polamalu-hair shirts and flagellating ourselves. If only we'd cheered harder or bought one more Terrible Towel, maybe Ryan Mundy wouldn't have bit so hard on the play-action. You know how it is.

Although I haven't watched any of it, I'm sure the ESPN guys are doing their matchups and key factors and so on. What follows... is not that.

Denver at New England

POINTLESS COMPARISON: WORSE AIRPORT: Denver. Logan is a hole, but at least it's convenient to the city itself. Last time I was there, DIA was in the middle of nowhere and nothing worked. Maybe things work now but I bet it's still out in the wastelands.

Houston at Baltimore

POINTLESS COMPARISON: NATIVE CELEBRITY: Houston, going away. Beyonce is the queen of everything. Baltimore's got... Hasselhoff? I mean, bonus points for Frank Zappa and John Waters, guys, but you're falling behind.

New York Giants at Green Bay

POINTLESS COMPARISON: STUPID COMMERCIALS: Aaron Rodgers "discount double-check" Allstate commercial versus Eli Manning "double stufs racing league" Oreo commercial. God, I hate them both. But this isn't the first terrible commercial for Manning ("Eli Manning is... unstoppable"), so I'm giving the edge to Green Bay.

New Orleans at San Francisco

POINTLESS COMPARISON: SUMMERTIME CLIMATE: Gotta give the edge to San Francisco here. Give me cool and damp over, in the words of Owen's Momma, "sultry."

Actual Football Talk

Denver - New England: While watching my beloved Steelers get kicked in the junk this past weekend, I was impressed by the general quality of Denver's offensive line play. They got a good surge and controlled the line of scrimmage on running plays. This may have had something to do with the Steelers' Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel being out hurt, but Football Outsiders ranks Denver's O-line in the top third of the league on rushing plays.

It will surprise no one to learn that Football Outsiders ranks Denver's O-line in the bottom four in pass protection. (The real miracle this year is that Tim Tebow is still alive.)

Against the run, FO ranks New England's defensive line 29th. (They're in the bottom half against the pass.)

Saturday night we may see a pattern we've seen before -- when Denver gets the ball, they eat clock like crazy with rushing plays. It won't be enough against the Pats -- but I bet it'll be fun to watch.

Houston - Baltimore: Wow, the Oilers at the Colts!

No, that's basically all I have. This one's Baltimore going away. Flacco is middling at best, but TJ Yates ain't even middling.

New York - Green Bay: Some commentators are making noise about this game being very similar to the 2007 Super Bowl. I guess because no one gives New York a shot? I disagree that it's like the 2007 Super Bowl, primarily because the Packers are the embodiment of all that is good and right in football, while the 2007 Patriots were hideous otherworldly monsters who needed to be stopped at any cost.

A quick look at stats tells us that the Giants' offense and defense are both adequate playoff units. The Packers' defense isn't uniquely bad, although it isn't great. The league's conventional stats suggest that it's terrible, but those stats don't reflect the clear purpose of the Packer defense. The Packers seem to be designed to win shootouts rather than to win skull-grinding punishment low-scoring ("classic") games. They don't mind giving up yardage, field goals, and even a TD or two, because Rodgers is still going to get to do his car-insurance dance twice more before the end of the quarter.

I'd say that the Giants's best strategy is to keep the ball away from Rodgers. Try to win the time-of-possession game.

New Orleans - San Francisco: San Francisco's takeaway-giveaway differential is best in the league, at +28. This comes in part on the strength of 23 interceptions for the year, but also by virtue of having an offense that gives away very few balls.

New Orleans is a more pedestrian team in this regard. The Saints have a fairly average number of interceptions and fumbles taken away this season.

I have no idea if this will matter. Fumbles and interceptions are pretty random things and the sample size is awfully small. But I'm sure, after the game, someone's going to credit/blame a turnover for sealing a victory/loss.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Something I won't miss about Hall of Fame voting season

One of the standard arguments pulled out by old-school voter types when they're justifying their Hall of Fame votes is "I saw this guy play and you didn't, and I know what a Hall of Famer looks like." This is often phrased as "I saw this guy play while you were being pantsed in gym class by the cool kids, so suck it, nerds", but hey, polite discourse and professionalism is what these guys are all about, right?
Anyway, as long as we're talking Hall of Fame, as opposed to Hall of Strictly Analytical Selection - to which, incidentally, I am strenuously opposed - there's a place for "You had to be there" in the discussion. Maybe not an exclusive place. Maybe not a decisive place, but a place. Because, hey, there's that whole magical narrative thing going on, and there's something to be said for indelible moments and rising to the occasion, and so on and so forth - if it's stated in a way that isn't sneeringly condescending.
But there are two problems, above and beyond the obvious, with this approach. One is that while you may have seen a guy, a lot of the rest of us saw him too, and we may not agree on what we saw. You see Jack Morris and see a bulldog, an ace, a winner. I saw Jack Morris as a leaner Rick Reuschel, a guy who was always good but rarely great, and who got lit up far more often than an ace should.
The other, of course, is that different players look like Hall of Famers to different observers. To the young me, who watched every Phillies game he could, Greg Luzinski was way more "feared" than Jim Rice ever could be. Garry Maddox was the greatest centerfielder who ever lived - two thirds of the Earth was covered by water, and the rest by Gary Maddox. Ask me who I think is a Hall of Famer based on long-ago observations, and you'll get responses that would make Jay Jaffe's hair curl.
Which is why, ultimately, the "I saw him and you didn't" defense is hooey. You saw him, sure. Maybe I did, too. Maybe I saw different things than you did. But don't you dare tell me that only your hazy memories of youthful heroes are a noble and unbiased standard, to which all the giants of a younger day can be held.

What We Have Learned from Bowl Season

1-The BCS is poorly named. For one thing, it's not a series. Multiple bowls get played, yes, but the ones besides the championship game matter precisely as much as the Northern Illinois Beats The Crap Out Of Some Unsuspecting Sun Belt Conference School Bowl, played in Waukegan to fill three hours of ESPN programming on a slow post-New Years' Thursday. The championship game is 1 vs 2, and everything else is about the lovely gift bags for the players. Stanford vs. OSU was a great game, but by next season, nobody's going to remember where those two ranked in the final polls.

2-Taking anything away from bowl season as an indicator of conference strength is insanity. Long before the bowl games start, things happen. Coaches leave, voluntarily or otherwise. Dozens of players get suspended, or rendered hors de classroom for the bowl game. Other players decide that they're going pro, and sublimate the goal of winning the We-Used-To-Call-It-The-Poulan-Weedeater-Independence-Bowl-But-Now-It's-Something-Else Bowl. Teams that thought they should have gone to bigger bowls check out. Teams that know they were supposed to do better but ended up getting into a bowl by dint of a lucky pummeling of Northwest Rhode Island Welding Institute take a look around, see their opponent is from the MAC, and check out. In short, the teams that actually step out onto the field more often than not bear little to no resemblance to the teams that played the season. Taking anything of significance out of the fact that Louisville wasn't thrilled to be playing NC State in Charlotte or whatever, and trying to extrapolate it to mean anything, is just a bad idea.

3-Anyone who says the BCS is broken is correct. Any system that proclaims a team that couldn't even win its own division of its own conference "National Champion" is, for lack of a better word, screwy.

4-Anyone who then turns around and blames the computers doesn't actually understand the BCS ranking system, which is mainly derived from the human polls. Blaming "the computers" is a lot like blaming pixies for souring your milk; the explanation is right there for anyone who doesn't want to just mouth off instead of think.

5-The fun of bowl season used to be seeing two good teams that ordinarily would never play each other going at it. Sadly, in the age of 70 bowl slots, "good teams" can be a stretch, and conference affiliations with bowls means that similar matches recur all the time. Now, the fun of bowl season is trying to predict which BCS conference team is going to wind up with a losing record after being taken out behind the woodshed by a highly motivated C-USA squad who have no idea how they're supposed to behave when they're on television and it's not a school night.

6-If you're a sports-based television network and the product you're trying to sell to your viewers is a minor bowl game, it's probably not a good idea to kvetch on-air about how nobody bothered to show up to watch this one.

7-The notion that making a BCS Bowl implies some sort of level of quality is officially laughable in the wake of the VT-Michigan snoozer. Nobody even tried to pretend that these at-large selections were picked for any reason other than butts in seats. And if butts in seats is the only criterion for inviting a couple of teams - neither of which looked like they wanted to be there - to a BCS bowl, then holding up a BCS bowl as any kind of achievement is suspect and hollow.

8-Don't make Boise State mad. You won't like Boise State when they're mad.
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