Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Overtime is the Best Time

I hadn’t been to the Garden in months- and now I’ve been there three times in two weeks. I find myself wanting to advise the other poor souls in attendance: “you want Tower A” or “Gate 71 is one level up”. Last night the Philadelphia Flyers visited. There were a ton of Flyer fans in the building. Our collective joy filled the Garden at the thrilling win.

The Flyers came back from two down late and then won in overtime. When the Rangers look back on this season, their loss last night will surely rank as among the most disgusting. It was a crusher- as Larry Brooks writes today in a charming piece enititled "Give-Away Night at the Garden":

Not to overstate the importance of the 52nd game of the season, but the Rangers took a shot to the solar plexus that left them doubled over in pain last night.

Because on the verge of taking a giant step forward in front of an electric Garden crowd that roared throughout a terrific hockey game punctuated by a succession of physical confrontations, superior goaltending and outstanding officiating, the Blueshirts stumbled and fell on their faces in losing a 3-2 OT match to the Flyers that they'd led by two midway through the third, and by one into the final 98 seconds of regulation.

I must grudgingly admit the Rangers are no longer a mess. The Flyers deserve credit- down two goals with less than nine minutes to play, having not scored in the last seven periods- they could have gotten on the bus. But Philadelphia was lucky too.

The Rangers can score and looked orderly in their own end at even strength. Lundqvist is quietly becoming a real asset in the nets. Consequently, the Flyers got nothing going five-on-five all night. Their first goal was on the PP, the second a deflection that found the right spot- and the overtime marker was one of those typical goals you get in OT (a unmolested shot in lots of open ice) that you never see in regulation.

But it was a joy to watch and listen to the shocked Rangers’ faithful leave the great arena. You think they'd be used to losing to the Flyers in bitter fashion by now.

Of other note, Hatcher is now the Captain. It is disappointing. Normally I think all this stuff about the consecrated “C” is a lot of nonsense. But Keith Primeau did bring something to the role. He carried weight in that locker room- and led by example. He’d play to score, hit people, play defense, sit down, play more- whatever Hitchcock needed him to do. Hatcher is a respected player- so if they want an on-ice Captain, fine. But it seems the end of a pretty good era by a pretty good player.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Rice is Terrible. Always

Tulane picked up a decent win last night- if just because they were something steady like 0-10 on the road heading into the contest- by felling Rice 70-53. One plus of being a Tulane fan- and there are admittedly not many- is that when the Green Wave wins a road game, you are just about guaranteed a fun read in the opponent's local paper, where their coach absolutely kills his team focus and effort and damns the Wave with faint praise. There is a great example here: "Wilson blasts Owls' effort after defeat".

It was sort of a semi-important win too- as now this time next week the Wave has a real good chance- in fact, it is pretty probable- that they'll be .500 in the League. They get Marshall & SMU at home. I realize the Wave is no lock to beat a non-Division I team- for example, literally St. Whatever- but Marshall & SMU frankly bring to mind those biblical injunction concerning "the wretched of the earth."

Of course, the next four tilts after that are probably hopeless. The Green Wave is normally terrible on the road. And they are not beating Memphis unless an asteroid hits the Tiger bus. So it would be kind of miraculous to get even one. But at least they could be four up/four down going into that challenging stretch. It is more than I thought possible after some of the early games.

The recruiting train rolls ahead for football- bringing some hope to a truly barren roster. It is tough to tell about a team until at least the spring- and you get a look at who is still there and who is moving in. But my gut feeling is next year is going to be a disaster. Two, three wins again: four or five bad, candidly uncompetitive spankings- five teams scoring north of 40- another three north of 30- but without the "Katrina excuses". Other than wide receiver- name one position collective that projects better than average in C-USA? Maybe DL? Ugh- I don't know. I increasingly think a lot of things said and written about our young DL stockpile are Kool-Aid. See- I saw them play against Rice.

The defense is catagorically going to be worse than 2005- and that is saying something. The offensive line, which I thought was pretty okay last season, loses two “all league” players- plus some other starters. Forte and Ricard have shown little in fifteen or so games.

It isn't hopeless. Ricard is clearly the key. While he showed nothing last year- he's clearly had flashes in the past. The League is horrid. Get three starts like UAB in 2004 and four more more like Army in 2004 from Ricard- and there are wins, some, out there.

I also really like

Friday, January 27, 2006

I Never Left "Allentown"

The blogging has been a little light this week. Without football, precious football, on tap- the weeks seem blander- languid in their pace and disposition.

But stuff does occasionally stir us from our malaise, and I am not merely talking about testing at Daytona. Last night, I attended the important BILLY JOEL concert at Madison Square Garden. A classy entertainer- it felt alternately like we were either all in his living room, Manhattan’s living room, or just back from high school listening to “Glass Houses” for the thousandth time.

“A bottle of red, a bottle of white..”

Section 122. Check it out. Thank you Lord for making me the client of a bulge bracket bank. Drop whatever you are doing and get thee to the Arena of your choice.

In other important news, the Sixers lost yet another game due to their inability to guard anyone. Six Magic players had ten points or more. Turkoglu went for 25 points, Garrity had 24 and Howard added 22.

You can’t lose games like this to Orlando. Consequently, I can’t square the essential dichotomy of the Sixers. First, they try. They are a team that does play with effort every night- and the captain leads by example. Defense is about effort- but they don’t get any results at all..

Now I am not blind- they lack the requisite bodies to be a good or particularly smart defensive team. But they don’t dog it either. You normally can cover defense problems three ways: mobility, rebounding and counter-attack in the open court. The Sixers aren’t quick- so they get few cheap stops when other teams make mistakes- loose balls, bad passes, moving the ball to someplace or someone dumb. They can’t board either- so teams get multiple scoring attempts. And that lack of rebounding means few open court opportunities and compensatory scores for what is a pretty good “run the floor” team when they get chances.

Lastly, I don’t wander frequently into events- but I cannot imagine any American not being horrified by this particularly disgusting bit of propaganda. If you’ve been following the news from China concerning Google and censoring, here is the sick product of their work: here. Thank God every day our hockey team wears red, white and blue.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Big Recruiting Weekend

Little can tamp down my joy over the good news spilling out of Canada this morning. As the link suggests, "Get Ready to be Pampered Calgary Southwest". The Grits are dead! And Paul Martin is now free to take a lucrative job with Gazprom- the traditional refuge of western politicans with a taste for soulless graft.

In other good news, Tulane apparently hosted the entire high school football-playing population of Georgia and Louisiana last weekend. Campus visits were obviously out of the question in the fall- unless the recruits had their own power boats. Many commitments were nailed down.

How do I know this? Well, I get endless spam from the Tulane Insider "scout" site constantly asking me to be a member, etc. And today I got twenty e-mails from them listing each and every individual "commitment". I looked in my in-box- thinking I was much loved- and instead it was merely scout.com that loves me- and a little too much frankly. Anyway, here is the list.

I also noted that yesterday, when I first checked, almost all of those guys were "one star" recruits. Today, they are all "two star! Just one day with Coach, an afternoon under his guidance, and they're already better! Honestly, outside of the top 40 guys at each position, I doubt these services have any real clue if these guys can play I-A. But I suppose, you don't get subscribers by telling people all their recruits either suck or are hopeless.

Can these guys play? I have no idea.

One thing that is a plus (I think- but this stuff is such a crapshoot) is the commitment from Kevin Moore. I know nothing about him- other than he apparently is gigantic (6’5” 200 lbs.)- and he plays quarterback! However, stealing him away from our League’s current top program (UTEP) is gratifying. Some of the services like him a lot also- and he is in that Top 40 or so that they might have some clue about.

Last year, I wrote you cannot give kudos to any Tulane recruiting class without a quality passer in it- due to our overwhelming reliance on the spread offense- so I was kinda lukewarm about last year's class. Tulane must feed this spot every year- grooming some and playing the best. The converse is true also- any class with a real live quarterback prospect with sniffs from places like Arizona and UTEP is a solid step in the right direction. One could be optimistic.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Why I Don't Like Vick

I have never been a big fan of Michael Vick- and I think this first play-off game in 2002- was deterministic of things to come. Frankly, until he matures into a player that can complete some passes- this is the ceiling for him. Eventually each year, he will run into a quality defense that can confidently cover his wide outs with three/four guys- and then focus on both stopping the run overall and Vick himself- particularly outside the pocket.

Vick is a plus for a "bad offense". Since the status quo run & pass isn't working well, why not let Vick generate some big plays and bonus first downs with his unique capabilities. But big point production- or even modest success against quality defenses- entails successfully throwing the ball frequently and competently. Vick generates too many incompletions/turnovers to justify the "frequent part"- and since a dozen completions are problematic at times- the competent part isn't there either. And on this bitter cold night, Vick's negatives were on ful display:

(PHILADELPHIA, PA) The bottom line on the Atlanta game was the play of the quarterbacks. I tiresomely lectured here last week that most commentators were missing the point of the QB relationship. Vick may be a better quarterback than a banged up Donovan McNabb- but that is not the point last Sunday. On a frigid day that means everything, McNabb was obviously more likely to not only refuse to throw the key pick, but also more likely to throw the key TD pass.

The final score was 20-6, but it really was McNabb 2-0 over Vick. The Eagles first touchdown was the result of a horrible throw by Vick (off his back foot, across the field, on his own 20)- a throw returned by Taylor for the score: minus one point for Vick. The second half was a desperate struggle between an increasingly exhausted Eagles defense and a valiant harried Vick- the meanest type of mean, very physical, a struggle in the bitter cold night.

When McNabb took the field with 8 minutes left, his team nursing a 13-6 lead, the announcers in their warm booth were yelping about Atlanta momentum. Things were in fact looking increasingly dim. But damn if Donovan didn't complete a 3rd and 14 with a smart throw to his tailback (you know that's not the first or second option on 3rd and forever), and then he coverts a 3rd and 7. However, it was his play 4th and 1 that showed why he is the most valuable player to his team the past three years.... dropping back to throw, getting pressure, he clearly had Pinkston wide open for a short quick throw and the first down... and Freeman had beaten the other CB as well.

Under that kind of pressure, every other QB is the league makes the throw to one of those two guys, gets the first down. And that is good quarterbacking. But McNabb says to himself, "Wait a minute. If the corners have those two guys, and they're blitzing, then somewhere out there, somewhere, Thrash, my best wide out, is one-on-one with a safety!" You can almost see the cruel grin that must have flashed across his lips as he looked off his first two options. He rolled a bit to his right, and threw that strike. Thrash easily eluded the safety (the ever stupidly talkative Robinson), and forty yards later- point, game, set and match- Donovan McNabb. Atlanta's defense played hard, smart and physical the whole second half- made one mistake- and it cost them the game. And a guy who can make that one mistake the difference Sunday after Sunday is a real asset- even if he does spray the ball around at times.

So next Sunday, the Vet will get one more, one last chance, to shine. One veteran NFL player said this year: "This place is like a knife fight in a dark alley. Sometimes you look around and you're not sure you're going to make it out of here in one piece." Now, that's home field advantage people.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Caw! Caw!

Perusing the Daily News this morning, I remembered an article I read a few days ago:
A South African anthropologist said Thursday his research into the death nearly 2 million years ago of an ape-man shows human ancestors were hunted by birds. "These types of discoveries give us real insight into the past lives of these human ancestors, the world they lived in and the things they feared," Lee Berger, a paleo-anthropologist, said.

Five months ago, Berger read an Ohio State University study of the hunting abilities of modern eagles in West Africa believed similar to predatory birds of the Taung child's era. The Ohio State study determined that eagles would swoop down, pierce monkey skulls with their thumb-like back talons, then hover while their prey died before returning to tear at the skull. Examination of thousands of monkey remains produced a pattern of damage done by birds, including holes and ragged cuts in the shallow bones behind the eye sockets.

Berger went back to the Taung skull, and found traces of the ragged cuts behind the eye sockets. He said none of the researchers who had for decades been debating how the child died had noticed the eye socket damage before. Berger concluded man's ancestors had to survive not just being hunted from the ground, but from the air. Such discoveries are "key to understanding why we humans today view the world they way we do," he said.

It is hard to imagine that kind of horror- right? Danger swooping down at you- at any time or place- and you are singularly able to do anything about despite the terrible consequences. But you can recreate it. Most definitely. Just take a look at Mo Cheeks lately.

Last year, I thought it was acceptable to fire Jim O’Brien. I would not have done it. It would be hard to argue he did not get every win out of that roster- kicking their .500 butts into the play-offs. Once there, the team showed some grit- coming within a missed free throw of drawing even with the Pistons two games each. But it wasn’t like they over-achieved either. And the guy the organization had openly coveted forever, Mo Cheeks, a true favorite son, was available. They owned O’Brien nothing- except what was due on his contract. This is the NBA- it isn’t fair.

Look, like all 76ers fans, I am partial to Mo. He is a total class act. But I have never been on this Mo is a top coach bender. There was good talent in Portland- and for four years the Blazers spiraled ever out of control, were stuck on a treadmill & never got better, and couldn’t win in the play-offs. The Sixers, looking to keep a pair of mercurial stars and enigmatic young players into some sort of system, get off their 44 win treadmill and win a play-off series post-Larry Brown, went to the one guy in the NBA who just categorically proved he could not do any of those three things.

The Sixers are not a disaster. They could still make the play-offs. But, if canning Cheeks did not mean the GM would be gone to, I bet Cheeks would be in some trouble. The Sixers aren’t better- seem to have no inclination of how to get better. Worse, some of the bad Blazer habits are cropping up: guys sniping in the press, unhappy star players, increasing ill-discipline (watch the Sixers play defense), and no sense the team is improving.

The performance of the young players, Iguodala and Korver, is particularly disheartening. These two guys are not positive NBA players. Neither can defend well- Korver is terrible and Igoudala doesn’t give as much as advertised. Both are on the floor to score- but both can be stopped (particularly worrisome since the Sixers do have two legit NBA point producers on the floor most times) and both disappear. If the Sixers are right, and these guys can provide good offense in the NBA, why can’t Cheeks bring it forth? Or at least put them in roles where you can say “four nights in five this how they’ll help you”?

When you look at Hitchcock across the street- a guy who is outstanding at easing young guys into roles- then broadening their responsibilites as they acclimate- you see what pro-coaching is all about.

I think Cheeks and Hunter are in more trouble than either realizes.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Real Play-offs

To take the edge of the Eagles’ season, and to make myself happy- I am re-posting some the “reviews” that preceded this Blog. Watching the slop put up now by five of the six NFC East teams in the play-offs, we all would do well to remember what a play-off team really looks like.

Anyone who doubts Donovan McNabb as a big game player must, to be fair, weigh this game, the 2003 Divisional Play-off Game versus the Green Bay Packers. Still the best game I’ve ever attended in my years and years of season tickets. The building was utterly wild. The tension absolutely never-ended. It was a display, distilled, of what makes the Our Precious League great:

(Philadelphia, PA) Sunday, in a grand and breathtaking display of raw will and stamina, the Philadelphia Eagles defeated the Green Bay Packers 20-17, in overtime. The game was a credit to both franchises and to our League.

It is hard to imagine, to recreate for you, the utter gut wrenching evening at the Linc. Literally from the depths of despair- to an overwhelming civic joy and pride. If the Packers had made one more play- say, oh, seven or so times- they would have routed the Eagles right out of our Linc. Conversely, the Eagles had only one chance to go for the kill shot- but they made it. And therein lay all the difference.

There was a palatable air of excitement arriving at the first play-off game at the Linc. Pausing only to “ooh and ahh” the city’s brightly lit trophies- the heads of Steve Spurrier and Jim Fassel- the faithful arrived for church. Coming in to the fixture, the Eagles were a 5 1/2-point favorite- but in hindsight, charitably, that spread was misguided. Watching the game, it was pretty obvious the Packers were better, often substantially, than the Eagles at every position other than the secondary- and maybe quarterback. Plus, the Packers were almost injury-free- with only two low-grade starters (Antuan Edwards and Joe Johnson) missing, whereas the Eagles were without six (six!) key starters: Mayberry, Westbrook, Emmons, Vincent- and the entire defense line except Simon.

This disparity in ready talent was swiftly apparent as Favre went to work with brutal efficiency and enthusiasm. The Eagles, from the start, could not stop anyone running the football. The Pack finished with 210 yards rushing. This, coupled with an early Eagles’ turnover in their end, plus Favre hitting on two long play-action passes over the Eagles’ rookie CB, put the Packers up big early: 14-0. Then, the first quarter was ending- and the Pack was in control. Total control.

The Eagles took the kick-off, down that same fourteen, and quickly punted for what seemed like the umpteenth time.

So, during the next television time out (one of about a thousand Sunday), in the dark and bitter, bitter cold, the Eagles and their fans faced a gut check of tremendous proportion.

The defense loped hesitatingly onto the field. It started where it always does- upstairs- among the poor people. The people that pour just about two-days’ wages into each playoff ticket. This gathering roar clearly was certainly not joyful or hopeful, and it was not just noise for noise sake. As the PDN wrote, it was if the Agony of Defeat said “We are mad as hell, and we are not going to take it anymore.” Personally, I took the not insignificant amount of “restorative” I had laid aside for warmth in the second half and slammed it right then. The Eagles needed me, all of us, right now. The Devil take the second half. Many smuggled flasks were emptied right then. We needed energy to impart courage to the boys in green

You could see the green helmets look up!
You could feel the visible change of will.
You could see them dig in.

From that point on, the Eagles defense and the fans fused together- and decided collectively that we were not going quietly into the night. Sure, Green Bay was, and frankly still is, a better football team than us. So simply, the defense stopped playing football against the Pack. They stopped playing “foot technique”, trying to “shed” blocks, and pursuing “angles”. Instead, they began to flat-out smack people- to fight- and turned the game into something other than a civil affair featuring football plays. From that point on, it was a bitter, sometimes cruel, and always fervent, struggle. They conceded Green Bay’s offensive superiority- and instead turned it into a contest on just who was meaner, tougher, more determined. Green Bay ran for 210 yards, sure. Simon made many tackles eight yards downfield, as that is how far he was blown off the ball each play, struggling to play on one good leg. But he got up each time. Kalu was not brought in here to play running downs- yet there he was- plowing into professional blockers fifty pounds heavier than him- again and again and again and again.

210 yards looks gaudy in the box score. But on 4th and Goal from the one; they didn’t get a damned inch. Another 4th down- 4th and 1 with 2:30 to go; they didn’t dare try it. Did not dare. As Favre was reduced to drawing them off-side, and Philly refused to budge, the indignant, furious howl that went up from the masses was magic. Tears, unabashed tear were rolling down our cheeks upstairs- freezing there as badges of honor. Favre could have barked at them for a week, and they wouldn’t have moved. Sherman knew they weren’t getting that yard- no matter what. 210 rushing yards and he punted- punted!- rather than try to get one more. He was right to do so. They weren’t getting it. Green Bay. Fourteen points in fourteen minutes. And just three (three!) the rest of the way.

Meanwhile Reid coolly surveyed the wreckage of his offense. Stymied and broken, they could not run or pass. I could almost hear Airman in the booth. “They need to establish the running game” and other such nonsense. This was an emergency all right. Forget rational behavior. He did the one thing, the one thing that could save this day. He looked square at Donovan McNabb and said, “You are handling the ball every single play”. Apparently, he meant it literally.

For example, here is the Eagles second TD drive. Do you kind of get the theme, the topic sentence, the gist?:

Drive Info: 4:59, 89 yds
- McNabb 13-yard run to Philadelphia 24
- McNabb 23-yard pass to Smith to Philadelphia 37
- McNabb 10-yard pass to Pinkston to Philadelphia 47
- McNabb 15-yard pass to Staley to Green Bay 38
- McNabb 12-yard pass to Lewis to Green Bay 36
- McNabb 24-yard run to Green Bay 12
- McNabb 12-yard pass to Pinkston (Touchdown)

Other than two huge Staley runs on the last drive in regulation, McNabb absolutely killed the Packers from the second quarter on. Can we please stop pretending he is not the most valuable player in professional football? He set a record for rushing the football. He directed one touchdown drive where he accounted for 109 yards of offense (the field is only 100 yards long- he had to recapture 19 yards the other players lost!). He threw for two touchdowns- and we’ll be watching the second pass for only about one hundreds years. He broke like four tackles, spun completely around, ran for his life and has the presence of mind to throw a gorgeous ball to Todd Pinkston. The Eagles had 363 yards of offense- and Donovan had 306 of it. He handled the ball fifty-eight times in horrible weather- and did not throw an interception (of course) and lost one fumble early. After Green Bay realized the Eagles had literally ceased rushing the football, McNabb was sacked eight times. Yet Donovan kept chucking! As Andy Reid said, he was "firing with conviction".

Ultimately though, it did not matter. With 52 seconds to go, down a field goal, on their own 25, the Eagles faced….

The Fourth Down. Fourth and 26.

The play that will haunt the Packers forever was McNabb's 28-yard pass to Freddie “FredEx” Mitchell. FredEx always delivers! Okay, McNabb had been Houdini in cleats all night long, but this pass to Mitchell, this perfect pass that kept alive the Eagles' final desperate drive in regulation is probably one that gets him in to Canton on the first ballot. I love how it appears in the box score:

- McNabb 28-yard pass to Mitchell on 4th-and-26 to Green Bay 46

Akers then made the resultant kick, and that meant overtime.

Musings on Overtime:

You are Brian Dawkins- the best remaining player on the Eagles’ defense- and you are invisible. That’s good of course, if you are, in fact, a strong safety for the day. As the last line of defense, if the strong safety is visible, it means someone just went seventy yards with you in hapless pursuit. Literally thousands of miles from your ancestral home, you are so cold. You have played more downs today than anyone else on the field and you are completely beaten up and physically exhausted- vomiting helplessly twice at the end of regulation. As the strong safety, your whole day has been miserable, totally devoid of glory. Due to Philadelphia’s totally inability to stuff the run up front, you have been wrestling with offensive linemen all day and tackling running backs running free in the clear. You made eight or so touchdown saving tackles by yourself. You cannot roam, blitz or freelance- as all hands are needed on deck, at the point of the attack. Again, you have been invisible- the strong safety- doing the dirty work of the NFL

Overtime in the NFL is the complete, most total crucible in sports. One instant- and a season’s worth of effort is over. Today, Favre has not made a bad mistake. Frankly, he is having a good day. Accordingly, on his first snap of overtime, he has that greedy look in his eye. As he drifts back to throw- he sees the blitz coming from the right side of his formation. With the linebackers coming hard, he knows Sheldon Brown is in coverage to the right with no underneath help. "I've beat that little guy deep twice already," Favre thinks. And Favre doesn’t hesitate- he puts it up.

But, you see, Brian Dawkins is invisible. And so Favre does not see that Dawkins has made the exact same read. Since Favre is knocked down as he throws, and his only clue to the terrible blunder he has just made is the unholy roar that greets the result. This roar is different than the urgent, desperate noise from earlier. This roar is raw, unadulterated joy. This roar is victory.

I will never forget the tableau as Dawk left the field: the swirling defenders, McNabb grasping for his helmet, Reid barking urgently into his headset, and perhaps most sweet of all, David Akers striding confidently to the kicking net- with Koy Detmer alongside. We can argue about Donovan’s merits, but you have to agree he is a ruthless quarterback when given the chance to get a kill shot. He moves the chains once, than twice. As he seemingly never turns it over- Reid keeps the ball in his hands. Akers makes the chip shot and Carolina has a date at the Linc next Sunday at 7PM.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Our League Loves Us

Our League loves us! It is the only rational explanation why it continually serves up such entertaining product! And for free.

Of course, the beat on this Blog is the sorry NFC East. So I will leave the Colts/Steelers aside. No Eagles’ fan watching the Panthers was surprised. To be candid, we totally have seen a Fox team play a sharp road game totally within themselves- two years ago in Philadelphia. I am wholly sold on John Fox as an NFL coach. That franchise was a bigger on field disaster then, say, the Jets. In 2001, they were a sporting 1-15. In 2002, Fox took over. They were in the Super Bowl in 2003.

The Bears also played defense more then a little soft yesterday, right? Almost Manning soft. Almost- dare I say it?- Harrison soft. One might think Dungy was coaching the defense- had he not been messing up yet another play-off game. Even a mediocre defense won’t allow a team to come in their building- and be a missed extra point away from hanging thirty on you! Carolina’s offense simply outhit & outhustled them. Smith, who I just love, wrestled that pass away on the goal line. (By the way, it took Smith three full seasons to be a good NFL player, and five before he was a real good one- so maybe we ought not be killing Reggie Brown yet?) Proehl, who has no tangible NFL skills left except “want to” and “catch it”, was obviously "trying" harder than the people "trying" to cover him.

But you can’t kill the Bears too much. The offense did darn well- up against it. Again, the Panthers have gone on the road and won big games before with this same sort of smart, competent offensive performance. I’d be real nervous if I was Seattle.

Particularly since the Seahawks were kind of a mess Saturday. They were not sloppy exactly- but the definitely weren’t crisp and certainly weren't emotional- which is what you would expect from a good team with a bye at home.

Fortunately for Seattle, they drew the Redskins. The Redskins are a pretty okay team. To their credit, for once they are playing probably at the limit of their potential. Still, the team is probably a .500 group on paper- somewhere in the great middling of NFL teams- capable of winning ten only in a year where a lot more goes right then wrong.

Here was a game probably for the taking- if just on turnover margin alone. Get “+3” and NFL teams win 85% of the time. Gregg Williams has done an outstanding job this year- the first guy to actually impose a sense of urgency and professionalism on a group that for years had been soft in any big spots.

But the Redskins can’t get further than this sort of mediocre product as long as this 1980's style approach colors their offense and Brunell is the quarterback. Brunell is a pretty shot property for about a month now. I think you can really state categorically Brunell is incapable of a dozen NFL starts anymore. He still can get the ball downfield- but his arm is not a plus on those routes- and so don’t ask for too many and don’t ask for it thrown on a rope. Since Brunell's "injury", teams don't fear him hurting him outside a 25-yard or so bubble from where he stands.

The second is this approach. The have the seventh best rushing attack in football- and still average a little more than two offensive TDs a game. Even when they play well on offense, execute to a "T" everything Gibbs expects- they can't possible hope to score three touchdowns consistently. It is hard to win when even if you everything right, 14-17 points is your expectation against a good defensive team.

Nobody good runs more then they pass anymore. So either Gibbs is a super-genius, or he's wrong. Rushing the football, in and of itself, categorically does not equal point production in this league. It moves the clock when you’re ahead- and helps (some) in the red zone- but that is it. Second, unless you can use your superior rushing attack to generate big plays in the passing game- you are better off moving rushing snaps to the passing column- to give yourself more chances to generate the sort of 20+ yard plays that do flip field position and generate scores in this league.

Brunell is not incompetent. But he isn't a scary quarterback either. And he catagorically is not a big play producer per snap- so he needs more snaps. So the Redskins are stuck with a nice running back on a team that cannot score 23 in a play-off game ever.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

I vote Sutter!

I have been disappointed by the Hall of Fame selections recently. I am not going to be the person who has to explain to our children why Ozzie Smith and Ryne Sandberg belong in the same echelon as Jeter and A-Rod- particularly when guys like Alomar and Bagwell don’t. I honestly believe Smith is in there because he did back-flips- because he sure as heck did not hit much (an amazing career .262 with 28 HRs). Sandberg is in there- despite offensively not being better than, oh, say "the Sarge".

But I am chastised today- as I would have voted only for Bruce Sutter on this year’s ballot- fully admitting he is a more intriguing argument than usual.

Normally I am a committed member of the show me “either 3000 hits, 500 homeruns or 300 wins” club. Got one of those three credentials?- and you need to argue with me why you don’t belong. Miss those numbers- and you need to explain to me why you belong in.

Those three standards illustrate a fact about pro-baseball: we haven’t really figured out closers yet numbers wise. We know good ones when we see them. But the baseball establishment- writers and sabermatricians and such- have yet to break closers down into disgest-able buckets. And as such, it is hard to separate the immortals from the great.

But Sutter deserves to go. First, two key qualifying attributes, outside raw numbers, are:

- did the player affect the game?
- did he dominate a multi-year era?

Sutter arguably did both. Relief pitching is arguably broken down pre-Sutter and post-Sutter. Sutter was the first popular stopper, the pitcher featuring the one-unhittable pitch, who struck out a batter an inning for eight years. The firemen, the sort of man for whom the “Rolaids' Relief Award” was created. While he was not a closer per se- he did more to bridge the gap from your best relief pitcher being a guy who brought value pitching multiple innings competently to a guy who dropped the hammer getting the last few outs. He also had a run 1976-1984 about as good as a pitcher can have: a Cy Young award, votes in five other years, bunches of saves when “getting saves” was not the end all- be all of bullpen work, post-season championship & success (one win and two saves in the 1982 World Series).

Wednesday, January 11, 2006


Thirty years ago, I was merely a boy- about to be caught up in a world wide drama.

Did I love the Philadelphia Flyers? Oh yes. They had just come off two successful straight Stanley Cup runs. The Broad Street Bullies were an invincible physical force- and I loved them. And thirty years ago today- they played the wicked Red Army in Philadelphia.

This was no replay of the Lake Placid miracle- unlike the US Olympic Hockey Team, the Flyers on paper and certainly on ice had lots of ways to “defend” themselves. The game was the last of eight played by a pair of Russian teams- the Wings and the Red Army. The NHL was being embarrassed, down 1-5-1, and the Soviet Army was undefeated. Prior to Lake Placid, it was the biggest hockey game ever played in the USA. This link has a variety of newspaper articles and photos about the match.

The Flyers had a terrible reputation for on ice violence- probably the worst rep ever in sports- probably a little deserved. Philadelphia featured a marvelous collection of Hall-of-Fame hockey talent mixed with bruisers and villains straight from central casting. Of course, it was the Big Bad Bruins and the Plager brothers who taught the Flyers to play that way- beating on guys like Simon Nolet. The Canadian press just got mad because the Flyers perfected intimidation.

I love the cartoon to the left- apparently it ran in Pravda- the wonderful image of the Flyers in the popular Russian imagination. Gene Hart has a wonderful recount of the pre-game lunch in his book “Score!” The biggest stir from the Russians was to see The Hammer: Dave Schultz- hands down the baddest man to ever play anything (he also scored 79 goals in 535 games by the way- not too bad). One of their officials proclaimed, “We are not timid. We have our own bad man like Dave Schultz. Ivan have already forty penalty minutes.” Hart says he lacked the will to tell him Schultz frequently accumulated that in a period.

The fine people of Philadelphia never liked the Reds. We never will. The Flyers’ fan base at the time was very blue-collar- probably the last people in America to still be confident in their country during the mid-70’s malaise. And they were in fine form- angerly pouring blood on the steps of the Spectrum, the great Arena- and festooning the interior with signs like “Lenin was a fag”. In Russian no less.

In the first period, gritty defensemen Ed Van Impe leveled Valerie Kharlomov- who unfortunately had his ankle broken by Flyers’ captain Bobby Clarke a few years earlier in the Canada-USSR Challenge Cup. The Russians responded by leaving the ice and refusing to compete- returning only when informed they would not be paid, if they did not play. The Soviet coach had protested “the Flyers make it damage on our players!”- but after seeing the check proclaimed “We play. With all the money we fix the damage.”

The Flyers then proceeded to bury them 4-1, outshooting the invincible Red Army 49 to 13. A sign read: Bring on Mars!

Hard to believe it was thirty years ago.


Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Okay- Made Me Laugh.

Made me laugh...

Final BlogPoll

The Final Blogpoll of the season is out:

1 Texas (39)
2 Southern Cal (1)
3 Penn State
4 Ohio State
5 West Virginia
6 Louisiana State
7 Alabama
8 Virginia Tech
9 Georgia
10 Wisconsin

It was a lot of fun to participate- you can find my ballot and those of this esteemed group of bloggers by clicking through. Congrats to the folks at mgoblog for a slick operation. The lone apostate, Boi From Troy, is excusable- I appreciate hometown bias. Fair warning, Boi From Troi is a bit risqué.

Now, I voted Penn State ahead of Southern Cal- admittedly gaming the system to support those stout men from Pennsylvania. Obviously USC deserves the #2 spot- but I’ll be damned to see Ohio State football surpass Penn State when I have something to say about it.

I’ve also got the Irish in the Top Ten. Those Buckeyes are arguably playing the best team in the country at the conclusion of business- so I don’t mark’em down for that loss. And I think the Irish played a harder schedule than it first looks. Regardless, they are likely better than a bunch of clubs in the Top Ten: WVU for sure, probably Wisconsin and Virginia Tech.

Monday, January 09, 2006

I'm Ashamed Of the NFC East

Like millions of Philadelphians, I was absolutely sick watching the NFC play-offs this weekend- watching Washington and New York bumble their way through sixty minutes of “football”. Throw in Tampa Bay- and you see what “good-defense, bad-offense, would be .500 in a good division” outfit looks like on a national stage.

One of the great perplexities of the second half of the season was how the Eagles’ B-team, which looked inept against Arizona and Seattle, managed to take both Washington to the wire- in a game the Redskins absolutely had to have- and the Giants into overtime, scoring at least 20 points?

Well, we know now- don’t we? It is because the NFC East doesn’t sport a single good team. There are good defenses- yes- but the offenses, particularly the quarterbacks, are poor. Worse, these play-off teams are shackled with awful offensive philosophies. Even when they play great and execute well, they struggle to get three touchdowns. And when your quarterback turns it over, coupled with this offensive approach that considers 20 points a lot, you are going to play a lot of games that are decided by mistakes featuring a quarterback who gives you a lot of mistakes per good “stuff”.

I am absolutely certain the Eagles could have made the play-offs, despite all their problems, had McNabb managed to stay upright. They might not have won the division- but even with a dozen starters out, there would have been enough here to get at least a pair of division wins, move the Arizona game to the win column- and been somewhere around ten wins.

Mind you, not that the Eagles would have won a play-off game. They would have been in a contest merely to head a real weak group. I can't think of the last time this grouping was this bad. But as long as the other quarterbacks in the division are Manning, Brunell and Bledsoe- playing at the level they are- the Eagles have the only offense that has the potential to be even okay in 2006.

Forget Barber and Portis- a good defense can take that option away if your quarterback is hopeless. We saw that this weekend. And a 120 yard rushing day doesn't mean much in today's game (except when you rush the ball well in the redzone). You have to consistently generate a few big plays and 25 completions from the quarterback- and categorically this division in 2006 has no one who can do that even half the time. Brunell, Manning, Bledsoe and McMahon- what division in football sported a worse foursome with less upside? Heck, to be candid, three of these guys have no upside whatsoever.

Friday, January 06, 2006

March to 77!

The Phillies made some real progress their march to 77 wins- really cementing it in-signing Ryan Franklin (12-31, ERA a shade under 5.00, over the past two years) to a 1 year, $2.6 million deal. Franklin is just the kind of guy ticketed for real success at Citizens Bank Park. A pitcher who not only allows a staggering number of walks and hits per inning pitched- but also does not have any facility for keeping people in the ballpark- is going to be real successful here in Philadelphia.

What do the Phillies get for their money? Well, they get a totally serviceable arm- Franklin definitely brings “take the ball every five days”- and they get it with no commitment. Oddly, for a team with some guys who can really eat innings- Leiber, Myers and Lidle all were at or near the magic 200- the Phillies still seem to need serviceable rotation arms. They have a real nice collection of guys who are older (Leiber, Lidle), prone to arm issues (Myers, Wolf)- all excitingly in a ballpark that is hard to pitch in (i.e. lots of pitches). If the Phillies can bear watching enough 25-pitch innings, Franklin ought to get them near 200 innings; he has gotten near that mark the last three years.

That being said- Mike's Baseball Rants has some good points about why Ryan will suck forever here. And of course- check out PhilliesNation.

Look, he’s another option on a team that is going to have a spring long audition for the last rotation spots. I just don’t think the Phillies are about next year- so this guy is a one-year stop gap.

Next, I don’t read too much into this- Canadian fans take cheap shots at U.S.A.- but it is pathetic. The people who run Canada hockey at the national level for years have been amoral jackasses- and it is coming home to roost. It is also disgusting that Gretzky- the voice of Canada hockey- is continually silent about the character and nature of just about everything of the national Canada hockey program. Hey Wayne! How about a comment like some of the ones below?

Kyle was under the mistaken impression -- one still shared by many Americans, the poor, trusting boobs -- that because our two great countries are neighbours and have co-existed peacefully for over 150 years and have vast economic and cultural ties, that he could consider Canada a home-ice-away-from-home and Vancouverites would naturally cheer for the American team rather than for a team from a country which, not 20 years ago, was chiefly known for its vicious soul-crushing despotism, and whose hockey teams were reviled by Canadian fans as products of a drab socialist machine that saw sport as nothing more than an arm of state propaganda.

But Kyle hadn't figured on the Canadian weakness for envy; I'll bet he didn't even suspect that that weakness existed, or would find expression in something as well intentioned as an international hockey tournament.

His charges are, after all, 17-to-19-year-old boys, not architects of the war against Iraq. Likely, the only thoughts they have on softwood lumber is that it makes for lousy hockey sticks. They are ambassadors of their country of a kind but they are also, effectively, children, as one writer to The Sun, a John Loch, from Nova Scotia, pointed out in an e-mail:

"Vancouver fans," he wrote, "appear to have done it again: embarrass their wonderful city with low-class actions at hockey games. In 1972, they booed Team Canada and gained an ignominious reputation that has remained. Now, they have booed a group of U.S. teens and, worse, included 'U.S.A sucks' in their invective. It's one thing to cheer for a hockey team but it's something else to be that negative towards a group of kids.

"Recalling the rude way that Montrealers treated 12-year-old U.S. hockey players after the start of the Iraq war, I guess you're just being consistent -- consistently boorish and worse."

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Punt that Football!

I am a polemic- that is for certain. As a result, I was thrilled and cheered by the controversery generated- and by the display of guts and honor displayed- last night at the Rose Bowl. Most times, north of 11PM, you turn that game off when USC went up two scores and retire. But last night, a nation shouted “Give us Vincent Young two more times”.

And yes, I was glad to see my old boss Mack Brown get his national championship. He was nice to me. My freshman year in college, I served as the office assistant in the football office- which involved me photocopying just about everything in said office. Coach Brown was always pleasant- particularly considering he coached at Tulane and was absolutely hammered many, many Saturdays.

Beats me if the better team won. I did love Texas and the points in this spot- shouting for two weeks around the office that getting Texas and nine in this spot was an absolute lay-up. I tended to think ultimately this contest was always going to be won by the team ahead when the clock stopped. Last night that was Texas- which I am sure is a huge consolation to all USC fans this morning.

I will start this next part with an admission of bias- I love to punt! Love it. I have season tickets for the Eagles- and it makes me crazy listening for folks hollering “Go For it!” or adamantly arguing for a long field goal try. Not me- I believe in the power of the punt. And that is a reason I love the NFL. Everybody punts.

Accordingly, my only conclusion- outside what you are already reading in the papers- is that college coaches “go for it” way too much. I have no proof- but I feel in my gut teams should punt more. Top-flight college football more and more resembles the NFL- a largely even game largely determined by turnovers and mistakes. When you fail to convert a fourth down invariably you are giving up either a sure three points or handing the ball to your opponent in good field position- an ipso de facto turnover. If you pick up the first down, even then your team is not assured a better scoring opportunity. So, a team risks giving your opponent a true game changing event- either taking points off the board or a “turnover”- in return for a possible shot at a touchdown. Between even teams with hallmarks of competence, I always take the “sure” over the “potential”.

You could thus argue that the ultimate story of this Rose Bowl is that Texas bailed out Mack Brown while the Trojans did not bail out Carroll. Going for it, at mid-field early in the first quarter, is just not smart. Brown gave the Trojans a chance to jump on Texas by two scores before I had opened a second Rolling Rock. Maybe not “game over”- but I do not cherish executing a game plan chasing that offense all night, down a bunch, from the get go. And even if Texas had gotten it- the Longhorns still weren’t guaranteed points.

For heaven’s sake, Texas was still two first downs from a good field goal try. That is just suspect- the risks far outweighed the rewards. I can see it- if USC had conclusively proved itself “unstoppable” or Texas seemed stymied on offense. But only five minutes in? You are the number two team in the country- act with some confidence that your defense can force a stop with at least 85 yards of field position at its back- and that your splendid offense can still score bunches in the 55 MINUTES remaining.

Carroll’s attempt to convert late in the fourth quarter at mid-field was even more suspect. His reward was admittedly high- win the game. But that was a long yard-plus… not a lay-up to convert and real trouble if you miss. The very fact that Texas is so prolific with the football is why you can’t give them the chance to win the game merely by making a big stop and correspondingly finishing a few successive good plays on offense.

Punt the ball. Make them execute a lot of plays, fourteen rather than seven, under pressure, without mistakes. Gosh- just how many teams in three years have driven 85 yards on the Trojans, in a big spot, in a jumpy environment, the past three years? Young is a great player- but driving the ball eighty-five or so yards- quickly- would require a lot of poise and greatness. And not just from Young- but from his teammates. Can’t commit penalties, can’t fumble, catch the ball, run the right routes, pick up the blitzes- again and again. I’d ask him- and his teammates- to demonstrate big-time competence under pressure on lots of offensive plays- and not a mere few.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Thank Heavens For Fan Appreciation Day

Well, I gotta kind of admit I am glad that is over. The Eagles finished their unsatisfactory season with a decent try against the Redskins. But after half-a-dozen games of not really caring if they win or lose- but merely sorting through the B-list roster spots looking for contributors for the 2006 campaign- well, it grows old. Plus, I am not sure they can find out any more about the current roster- the grades are in. Now is the time for sober analysis and the best part of rooting for a losing team- saying good-bye to players who suck and rejoicing in their removal from the roster. I’m talking to you McMahon.

The game itself was a highly spirited, physical affair. Lots of good hitting. The Eagles played a handful of regulars, got some decent performances from the fifteen or so back-ups/youngsters that played in the top 25 regular roster spots. Better, Philadelphia got off to a good start- particularly on offense- and parlayed that head-start into being in the game late. The offense had the ball with a chance to win with four minutes to go. The Philadelphia B-team probably arguably wins the game with any kind of positive quarterback play in the second half.

But you can’t go crazy either. The Redskins are basically a .500 team- commendably parlaying a hot start and a healthy team (Brunell, Portis, Moss and most of the defense are on the field for once in December)- into the last play-off spot in the NFC. Correspondingly, a bad pro-team at home should be able to play with this team- particularly in its own building.

The Seattle game aside- the one characteristic the Eagles have retained, the one thing that the Eagles still have been frequently able to do in the second half of the season, is to sort of hang around in games. Outside of the quarterback position, particularly since the late season resurgence in the kicking game, they are still a pretty smart team- particularly in light of playing so many young people. And of course, playing young people give you a high “try” factor for a lost season.

The Redskins are certainly better- but the Eagles did “play” as well as Washington for the most part. They can’t beat the Redskins, or many other teams, straight up at a football right now with McMahon playing quarterback. But until the quarterback follies in the fourth quarter, the Eagles did some good things to keep themselves around.

For the first fifty-minutes, Philadelphia didn’t kill themselves with penalties. The defense simply plugged away- forcing Washington to play well to score. Reid seemed to surprise the skins’ defense a few times. Yes, most of the Philadelphia offensive line is a problem, but Runyan and Andrews are healthy and move people on their side. Perry and Moats and Brown have shown flashes at times of being solid NFL players- and the Eagles had stretches where they could run it well and throw it a little. They put points up every chance they got. And outside of the fumbled punt, they played well on the specials- scored first via a long kick, forced the Redskins into many long field situations.

And admittedly, the Redskins helped too. The ‘skins are sort of designed to help teams hang around. They play conservative on offense. Handing the ball to Portis and chums thirty-plus times, keeping the clock moving and shortening the game, helped a bunch too. And I suppose Brunell is an adequate quarterback when healthy- but he certainly just doesn’t give you enough consistently to score points in bunches.

Altogether, it meant the Eagles did what they could do- and had some success turning the game for three-plus quarters from a football contest (where Washington is clearly better) into a struggle that could tip either way depending on who made fewer mistakes. Of course, the Eagles are ill-equipped to win that sort of game either. It just gives them a puncher’s chance. The quarterbacks made bushels of mistakes late- particularly brutal turnovers- and the Eagles are simply not beating Washington while losing the turnover battle in the deciding quarter by four. But more often than not, they probably win that game with McNabb. They certainly have in the past.

But McNabb is not there. Even on the road, Washington is a better football team than the amalgamation of back-ups and regulars than Philadelphia presents now- and Brunell is a smarter, better quarterback that McMahon- giving the Redskins also an edge on who is the smarter football team.