Sunday, September 30, 2007

Ravens' Ray Lewis Eats Crow in Cleveland

Yesterday, Ray Lewis made his debut as a Yardbarker blogger by declaring, "It's OUR time now." He even included a photo of the complete message that he wrote to his teammates on the board that is by the entrance to the Baltimore Ravens' locker room: "The only thing close is horseshoes. Take this win and let's roll. It's our time." Lewis probably meant to reference the cliche that close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. Anyway, there are few things more galling to Cleveland Browns fans than watching the Baltimore Ravens march into town, talk trash and then head back home with a victory. Remarkably, that did not happen today. Instead, the underdog Browns emerged with a 27-13 victory to even their record at 2-2 while dropping the Ravens to the same mark.

The Ravens' response to Lewis shooting off his mouth was to repeatedly shoot themselves in the foot against a Browns team that is more used to making mistakes than taking advantage of them. Baltimore's troubles began with the opening kickoff, which Cleveland's Josh Cribbs returned 45 yards to put the Browns in business near midfield. Browns quarterback Derek Anderson, who still displays a perplexing tendency to throw passes into quadruple coverage, seems to be the football equivalent of a streak shooter in basketball: when he's on, he can put up points in a hurry but when he's off he can take his team right out of the game. Anderson went 4-5 for 41 yards, including a 2 yard touchdown to Joe Jurevicius, as Cleveland took a 7-0 lead.

On the Ravens' first possession, they converted twice on third down to move to the Cleveland 27 yard line but that promising drive stalled when Steve McNair's pass to Todd Heap was intercepted by Leigh Bodden. On the very next play, Braylon Edwards used a gorgeous double move to break free before hauling in a 78 yard touchdown pass to put Cleveland up 14-0. McNair was noticeably hindered throughout the game by his left groin pull but he did engineer several drives deep into Cleveland territory. Unfortunately for Baltimore, only one of them resulted in a touchdown. Baltimore made just two of four field goal attempts, which is unusual considering that Matt Stover is one of the most accurate kickers in NFL history (Cleveland's Phil Dawson, also one of the most accurate kickers in NFL history, missed one field goal).

Baltimore finally got on the board when Stover made a field goal with 12:48 remaining in the second quarter. Cleveland answered by driving to the Baltimore 22 before settling for a Dawson field goal to make the score 17-3. That is when Baltimore committed the gaffe that for all intents and purposes put the game out of reach (considering McNair's condition): Yamon Figurs fumbled the kickoff and the Browns recovered at Baltimore's 31 yard line. Cleveland used a simple but effective strategy, running ex-Raven Jamal Lewis to the left followed by Jamal Lewis to the right. Lewis eventually scored on a one yard touchdown run and Cleveland led 24-3.

Anderson completed 10 of 18 passes for 204 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Jamal Lewis had a 28 yard run plus the touchdown but was generally held in check by his former team (64 yards on 23 carries). Ray Lewis followed up all of his loud talk with a very quiet game: six tackles, no sacks and very little real impact on the outcome.

It is hard to know what to make of this Cleveland team. A horrible week one loss to Pittsburgh preceded a shootout win over Cincinnati, which was then followed by a sloppy loss to Oakland. The last time that the Browns had a .500 record this late in the season is when they started the 2005 season 2-2 in Romeo Crennel's first season as head coach. Cleveland went just 4-8 the rest of the way and started last season 0-3 en route to a 4-12 record. The Browns also started the 2004 season with a 2-2 record under Butch Davis but crashed and burned during a nine game losing streak. The Browns opened the 2004 season with a 20-3 home victory over Baltimore. Amazingly, that is the last time that the Browns had a better than .500 record. What does all of that history mean? It is possible that the Browns have turned the corner--but no one should believe it until they show the ability to focus and execute on a consistent basis. It was amazing to hear Browns players say after the Oakland loss that they had been overconfident prior to the game. What, pray tell, do the Browns have to be overconfident about? A one game winning "streak"? The Browns travel to New England next week, so one would hope that overconfidence will not be a problem prior to that game.

Past Versus Present: Comparing Brett Favre and Dan Marino

This is the first article in what will be a periodic series comparing retired athletes from various sports with one or more of their active counterparts (if you would like to see a particular matchup analyzed, make a suggestion in the comments section). Brett Favre versus Dan Marino is a natural and timely selection to begin this series with because Favre is just one touchdown pass away from breaking Marino's NFL regular season career record of 420. Purely based on the "eyeball" test, my first inclination would be to agree with Favre's own recent assessment that, regardless of the final tally in the record books, Marino was a better quarterback. I remember Marino for his lightning quick release, his strong arm and his efficiency. I also remember that he was significantly better than average at evading pass rushers and, although he was never a scrambler, he was mobile enough to roll out and throw accurately, at least early in his career. Favre, on the other hand, sticks out in my mind for his strong arm, his remarkable streak of 240 straight starts (and counting), his mobility and a peculiar combination of clutch play and erratic decision making that can either quickly bring his team back in the game or take his team out of the game. Off the top of my head, I would have assumed that Marino has a higher career passer rating than Favre--and he does, but by a smaller margin that I would have thought, 86.4 to 85.2. I previously explained why the passer ratings of quarterbacks who played prior to 1978 should not be compared to the passer ratings of quarterbacks who played after 1978 but it is fair to compare Marino and Favre in this fashion because they both played their entire careers after 1978.

Marino began rewriting the record book in his rookie season, posting a 96.0 passer rating in 1983 that was not exceeded by a rookie until Ben Roethlisberger put up a 98.1 rating in 2004. Marino is the first (and still the only) rookie quarterback to lead a conference in passing since the passer ratings began being used in 1973. That was just a prelude to his epochal 1984 season, when Marino led the NFL with a 108.9 passer rating (a mark that 23 years later has still only been broken by Steve Young in 1994--112.8--and Peyton Manning in 2004--121.1) while setting single season records for yards (5084) and touchdowns (48). The yardage mark still stands, while Manning broke the touchdown record by one in 2004. After a "down" year in 1985 (4137 yards, 30 touchdowns), Marino led the AFC in passer rating in 1986 (92.5) while throwing for 4746 yards and 44 touchdowns, still the third best single season total ever. After the 1986 season, Marino was the highest ranked passer in NFL history with a 95.2 career rating (Joe Montana was second with a 91.2 rating). Marino retained that status after the 1987 season before slipping to second place behind Montana in 1988. Marino stayed in second place until after the 1992 season, when Steve Young amassed the minimum qualifying number of attempts (1500) and pushed Marino to third place. Marino got off to a fine start in 1993 and had a 95.9 passer rating through five games when he ruptured his Achilles tendon. Prior to 1993, Marino displayed an almost Favre-like durability, playing in all 16 games in eight of the previous nine seasons. Marino came back from the Achilles injury to play six more seasons but he only had a passer rating better than 90 in one of them. At the start of the 2007 season, Marino ranked 12th in career passer rating, while Favre was right behind him at 15th.

Those early, record breaking seasons left an indelible impression and are no doubt why my gut instinct is to consider Marino to be a more efficient passer than Favre, who never was quite as dominant as Marino was at his peak and who never topped the NFL's career passer rating list. Also, the only time that Marino threw more interceptions than touchdowns in a season was 1999, his final year; Favre has had more interceptions than touchdowns three times (not including his two game rookie season when he had two interceptions and no touchdowns) and he had a fourth season when he tossed 18 of each. Favre is not only closing in on the career touchdown record but he also is just three interceptions away from breaking George Blanda's career interception record of 277; Marino finished his career with 252 interceptions.

A closer look at the numbers reveals why their career passer ratings are so similar; they are pretty evenly matched in each of the four categories that are combined to calculate the ratings: Marino has a slight edge in yards per attempt (7.3 to 7.0), Favre has the better completion percentage (61.1 to 59.4), they are in a dead heat in percentage of TDs per pass attempt (5.0 each) and Marino did slightly better in percentage of interceptions per pass attempt (3.0 to 3.3). I thought that Marino had a much better TD/INT ratio than Favre but this may be a sign that I am living in the 1980s; the young Marino was a more efficient quarterback than the young Favre, who did not really hit his stride until his fourth season, but their overall careers are remarkably similar. One thing that has helped Favre gain ground on Marino at the back end of Favre's career is Favre's unmatched durability. Favre had down years in 2005 and 2006 but he has bounced back so far in 2007 and in general he has aged better than Marino did.

Neither player was ever a running quarterback in the Steve Young/Randall Cunningham mold. Favre has rushed for 1771 yards on 531 attempts (3.1 avg.) and scored 13 touchdowns so far, while Marino rushed for 87 yards on 301 attempts (.3 avg.) and scored nine touchdowns. To be fair to Marino, most of his "attempts" were kneel downs (which by rule lose at least a yard) and he rushed for -22 yards combined after his Achilles injury; again, it is worthwhile to mention that while Marino was never a scrambler he was more mobile in the pocket than many people who only saw him late in his career might think.

What about their playoff careers? Marino went 8-10 in the playoffs, completing 385 of 687 passes for 4510 yards, 32 touchdowns and 24 interceptions (77.1 rating). He led the Dolphins to the Super Bowl after his record setting second season but Miami was routed by Montana's 49ers and Marino never made it back to the big game. Favre has gone 11-9 in the playoffs, completing 401 of 663 passes for 4902 yards, 34 touchdowns and 26 interceptions (84.0 rating). Favre led the Packers to a Super Bowl victory after the 1996 season; they lost in the Super Bowl the following year.

The NFL does not officially award an MVP but several different organizations (Associated Press, Pro Football Writers of America, the Maxwell Football Club) choose an NFL MVP each year. They often agree, but not always, and if you hear the phrase "NFL MVP" without a qualifier then the speaker is probably referring to the AP honor. Favre is the only three-time winner of that award (1995-97, sharing the 1997 MVP with Barry Sanders). Marino won the AP NFL MVP in 1984; Marino was also honored by the Maxwell Club (the Bert Bell Award) and the PFWA that year. Favre won the Bert Bell Award in 1995 and 1996 and he won the PFWA MVP in those two years as well.

In addition to the career touchdown record that Favre is about to set, he holds numerous other records, including most career completions (5101), most regular season wins by a starting quarterback (150; John Elway had 148, Marino had 147), most consecutive seasons with at least 20 TD passes (12; Marino's streak of 10 was snapped by the Achilles injury and he had at least 20 in each of his next two full seasons), most consecutive seasons with at least 30 TD passes (5; Marino's best such streak was 3) and most consecutive seasons with at least 3000 passing yards (15 and counting; Marino had nine in a row before the Achilles injury and then had two more in a row right after it). Favre ranks second with 58,361 career passing yards, exactly 3000 behind Marino, so that mark is certainly within reach this season.

Who is the greater quarterback, Dan Marino or Brett Favre? It really depends on what one means by this question. Favre has constructed a more weighty overall body of work, highlighted by a Super Bowl win, three AP MVPs and a laundry list of career records. However, in terms of peak value--which quarterback reached the highest level based on his performance during his best seasons--I would take Marino circa 1983-86, particularly the 1984 edition, in a narrow decision over Favre's great peak value run from 1994-97.

Statistical Appendix:

Brett Favre's career statistics

Dan Marino's career statistics

NFL career passer rating leaders

NFL passer rating calculator

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Silent End of a Tainted Era in San Francisco

It did not have to end this way. Barry Bonds' 15 year career in San Francisco concluded without fanfare on Wednesday as he went 0-3 in the Giants' 11-3 loss to the San Diego Padres. There was no pre-game ceremony honoring Bonds, nor was he able to deliver one final, dramatic blast into McCovey Cove. This game, like most of what Bonds has done since he broke Hank Aaron's career home run record, proved to be simply an afterthought, just another loss for a last place team. It is as if the rest of the world is saying that we may have been compelled to watch Bonds as he marched inexorably past Aaron but now that this distasteful trek is over we will try to pretend that Bonds--and his tainted numbers--do not exist. The 43 year old Bonds is hobbled by a toe injury, so this was not only his last home game in San Francisco but likely his last game of this season. It may very well have been the final game of his career.

When Bonds arrived in San Francisco in 1993 he was already a two-time NL MVP and had shown the prized combination of skills that earn the designation "five tool player": he could hit for average, hit for power, run, throw and field his position. He was truly a native son returning home; his father, Bobby, had starred for the Giants, as had his godfather, the legendary Willie Mays. At that moment, the future seemed limitless for Bonds. In his first seven years in San Francisco, Bonds continued to be a very productive player, earning his third MVP (1993) and becoming the second player to have 40 home runs and 40 stolen bases in the same season (1996). By 1999, he had already blasted 445 home runs and stolen 460 bases in his career.

Those who say that prior to the so-called "Steroids Era" Bonds had clearly established himself as a Hall of Famer player are quite correct. So what? There is a mountain of evidence indicating that since that time Bonds has broken the law and thereby cheated his way past perhaps the most hallowed record in sports. What he could have or would have accomplished without using performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) is a moot point. If you still believe that Bonds did not knowingly use PEDs and that such substances do not in fact enhance performance then you are either completely out of touch with reality or you are an economist (pardon me if that is redundant). Although an economist cannot fathom how increased muscle power could result in more home runs, a recent study by Tufts University physicist Roger Tobin not only explains why this is the case but also why PEDs would not provide nearly as a big a boost to pitchers, thereby invalidating the lame argument that Bonds' illegal drug use is somehow justified and his home run records legitimate because pitchers may also have been cheating. Tobin says, "A change of only a few percent in the average speed of the batted ball, which can reasonably be expected from steroid use, is enough to increase home run production by at least 50 percent." Tobin's research showed that a similar increase in a pitcher's strength would not have as dramatic of an impact on his effectiveness: "The unusual sensitivity of home run production to bat speed results in much more dramatic effects, and focuses attention disproportionately on the hitters."

Perhaps Bonds could have passed Aaron without cheating; perhaps Bonds had enough talent to honestly become the greatest baseball player of all-time--but just like Michael Vick's poor choices will preclude us from finding out if he could have truly revolutionized the quarterback position, Bonds' poor choices robbed him--and us--from knowing what he could have achieved by naturally honing his abundant talents. All we are left with are doubts, tainted numbers, a baseball with an asterisk on it and a silent swan song to a career that otherwise would have been honored as one of the most remarkable ones in sports history.

It did not have to end this way--and Barry Bonds has no one but himself to blame that it did.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Mike Gundy is Right to Ask, "Where Are We At In Society Today?"

You have probably already seen the instantly famous press conference rant by Oklahoma State University football coach Mike Gundy. It is easy to mock Gundy's over the top method of making his point but he is absolutely correct to ask, "Where are we at in society today?" in the wake of a third rate column that consisted of nothing but rumors and innuendo about quarterback Bobby Reid (forgive me for not using a link and giving this writer even more undeserved fame than she has already gotten).

Perhaps Gundy could have handled this situation in a more civil manner but I have no problem with authentic, righteous indignation. Here is one sentence from the offensive column: "Tile up the back stories told on the sly over the past few years, and you see a pattern that hasn't always been pretty." That poorly written mess is characteristic of the style and tone of the piece. Her "back stories told on the sly" have nothing to do with Reid's performance on the field but simply portray his personal character in a negative light. At one point, she asks, "Does he want to be coddled, babied, perhaps even fed chicken?" Gundy correctly labeled this article to be "garbage" and the editor who permitted it to be published "garbage."

This writer is simply following the not so proud standard set by people like Dan Rather, Jayson Blair, Jack Kelley and many other prominent journalists who decided that facts should not get in the way of the "higher truth" that they want to convey to their audience. Whatever your political affiliation, you should be appalled that Rather would go on the air and broadcast undocumented, unverified information as though it is the absolute truth and you should be even more appalled that he continues to defend this conduct by reasoning that even if the particular evidence he cited is false that the overall story he told is true. Maybe this does not bother you because Rather did not gore your proverbial ox but the media is supposed to be the public's impartial watchdog; the democratic process is mortally wounded when journalists decide to abandon objectivity because they believe in the importance of their message. That is the height of hubris.

Of course, the story that Gundy vehemently protested is not nearly as important on a cosmic scale as the Rather affair but the same faulty journalistic practices are at work in both cases; this approach could be summarized with the phrase "never let the facts get in the way of a good story." The Oklahoma writer believes that Reid lacks toughness, so she wrote a column filled with rumors to "prove" this, just like Rather went on the air with since discredited information to "prove" his case. The point is not whether or not Rather or the Oklahoma writer are correct in their beliefs; it is irresponsible to portray rumors/undocumented assertions as though they are facts. Although the Oklahoma case is less important than Rather's story it is in some ways more reprehensible because, as Gundy noted, the writer went after the personal character of an amateur athlete. Harsh criticism goes with the territory of being President but what the Oklahoma writer did is completely out of bounds even if she could document her assertions; she should stick to reporting on what happens in the games and not try to do psychological profiles of college athletes.

The Oklahoma writer has responded to the controversy by acting like she cannot fathom what Gundy was so upset about. She complains that she has asked Gundy repeatedly to document what factual errors she wrote and that he will not do so. Here's a hint: go to about the 2:39 mark on the above clip. Gundy emphatically states that the coaches never said that Reid was scared and that the decision to bench him had nothing to do with Donovan Woods allegedly threatening to transfer.

The sad thing is that in today's society, fame--not talent--is the most valuable currency; Blair parlayed his dismissal from the New York Times for plagiarism into a book deal. The writer who Gundy correctly berated is now nationally known and will probably end up working for a big media outlet like ESPN; hiring her will boost ratings, because everybody tunes in for controversy. It will not take long for this story to get twisted until she is viewed as the victim; the Chicago Sun Times' Carol Slezak questions whether a coach would similarly go after a male writer, apparently unaware of numerous instances of coaches and managers having confrontations with male writers. I applaud Coach Gundy for taking an unapologetic stand against shoddy journalistic practices--and if you listen at the end of the clip, you will note that at the end of his press conference his audience literally applauded him. It is not clear if the applause came from media members or not but if it did maybe there is still hope for the profession of journalism.

Crennel's Got Jokes but his Team's Performance is Not Funny

Cleveland Browns Coach Romeo Crennel has no answers for his team's woeful performances but he does have jokes. In the wake of Cleveland's 51-45 win over Cincinnati on September 15, someone asked Crennel about the opportunity the Browns now had to win two games in a row by beating the woeful Oakland Raiders, losers of 11 straight games dating to last season. Cleveland has not posted back to back wins since October 2003, so Crennel quipped, "Just winning a game in Cleveland has been a challenge." Yeah, Crennel will be here all week and he's a laugh a minute. Unfortunately, the joke is on anyone who believes that the Browns can be a winning team while he is the coach; right now, it looks like reaching an 8-8 record during his tenure is a long shot.

On Sunday, Cleveland lost 26-24 to an Oakland team that had not only lost the aforementioned 11 in a row but had been 15-51 in its previous 66 games. Crennel and Charlie Weis were supposedly the irreplaceable defensive and offensive gurus respectively for Bill Belichick's New England Patriots but New England is rolling along just fine without them. Meanwhile, to quote a classic Mike Lupica line, "it is time for the guru to start 'guruing.'" Crennel has orchestrated a Browns defense that is perennially bad--particularly against the run--and is getting progressively worse under his stewardship: the Browns allowed 18.8 ppg in 2005, 22.3 ppg in 2006 and are giving up a league-worst 35 ppg in three games this year. The normally punchless Raiders offense had numerous big plays against the Browns, including passes of 41, 39, 27, 24 and 20 yards and runs of 20, 21 and 25 yards. The Browns are giving up 430.7 yards per game, including 176.3 yards rushing, ranking 31st (out of 32 teams) in the league in both categories. The pass defense has been shredded for an NFL-worst 11 touchdown passes. My contention is that the Browns' main problem is a lack of discipline and focus. Crennel agrees: "We have some guys who aren't quite disciplined enough to get aligned where they need to be aligned, to put themselves in position to stop the run." What he did not add is that when a team is not disciplined and focused that is a direct reflection on the coaching staff.

Yes, the Browns could have won the game by making a last second field goal--but that does not change the fact that the defense played terribly and that the Raiders are not a very good team. While everyone debates the late game timeout/do-over situation, look at what happened on the last play: the Browns allowed a rusher who came straight up the middle to block the kick. The Browns' Phil Dawson is one of the most accurate kickers in NFL history and has been a money performer on game-winning kicks throughout his career; if the attempt is not blocked he almost certainly would have made it. The cardinal rule in such situations is that you never allow a rush up the middle, because even if an edge rusher breaks free he probably will get there too late. Oakland Coach Lane Kiffin said after the game that several Raiders could have blocked the kick and Crennel did not disagree with that. This total breakdown of basic football fundamentals on a game-deciding play once again speaks to the lack of discipline and focus that characterize how Crennel's Browns play in all phases of the game.

The win over Cincinnati was exciting and it at least got rid of any concern that the Browns might not win a game before Thanksgiving--but that victory was an aberration. The Browns are a disorganized and undisciplined football team. General Manager Phil Savage has succeeded to some extent in upgrading the talent level on the roster but, as the blocked Dawson kick showed, it does not matter how good your players are if you do not have a coaching staff that places them in position to succeed. The Browns' next two games are against Baltimore and New England, meaning that Cleveland is staring at a likely 1-4 record before a matchup with Miami preceding the bye week. Rookie Brady Quinn showed some signs during the preseason that he could be the team's quarterback of the future. The real question is not so much when he will replace erratic journeyman Derek Anderson but rather when Savage will pull the plug on the Crennel regime and put a coaching staff in place that can run a disciplined and focused program that will give Quinn a realistic chance to be successful. As the botched kick versus Oakland proved, it does not matter how good an individual player is if the team is not properly coached.

Monday, September 24, 2007

New England's 38 Special May be the Start of a Record Setting Season

Bill Belichick led New England to three Super Bowl wins in a four period but already it is reasonable to at least wonder if this year's Patriots may be even better than those championship teams. The Patriots have won their first three games 38-14, 38-14 and 38-7. Keep in mind that Tom Brady led New England to three titles without having a bona fide number one receiver; now he has Randy Moss, who has shed the disinterested look that he had in Oakland and is once again running past defenders and gliding into the end zone with amazing regularity. One of Brady's trademarks is his accuracy--he has never had a completion percentage below 60.2 in a season--but this year Brady may make a run at Ken Anderson's 1982 record for completion percentage in a season (70.55); Brady is 70-88 (79.5%) so far and he has thrown for 887 yards, 10 touchdowns and just one interception. His passer rating of 141.8 is an amazing 20.7 points higher than the record that Peyton Manning set in 2004. Brady's average of 10.1 yards per attempt is more than two yards per attempt better than his career-high and would be one of the top performances ever in that category if he maintains that pace for the whole season.

Moss is also putting up eye-popping numbers: 22 receptions for 403 yards (18.3 avg.) and five touchdowns. Projected over a full 16 game season those numbers work out to 117 receptions, 2143 yards and 27 touchdowns, which would be career-highs for Moss in all three categories; the latter two numbers would also shatter NFL single-season records. Whether or not Brady and Moss can maintain their record setting paces all season long, based on their track records there is every reason to believe that they will continue to be very productive. ESPN's Sunday Countdown crew debated whether or not Moss is a good leader but that is as easy to answer as it is irrelevant. Moss is not a leader and his own statements prove that: he is on record saying that he plays hard when he feels like it and that since no one else on one of his previous squads was concerned that the team was losing that he was not concerned either. Leaders don't think that way and don't say such things. However, what Moss has demonstrated from day one in New England is that he is a very good follower. Belichick, Brady and New England's Super Bowl veterans set a tone for professionalism and work ethic and Moss has by all accounts completely bought into it. You don't want Moss to be the strongest voice or most dominant personality in your locker room but put him on a team that already has leaders in place and then all Moss has to do is play--and no one questions that he is a very, very gifted athlete. Add in Brady's accuracy and Belichick's peerless ability to design game plans that maximize his players' strengths and attack opponents' weaknesses and you have the recipe for a special season. Keep in mind that last year New England was one defensive stop away from advancing to the Super Bowl, where they almost certainly would have befuddled Chicago and Rex Grossman even more than the Indianapolis Colts did. In the offseason, the Patriots bolstered their already talented squad by adding not only Moss but also Wes Welker, Donte Stallworth and Adalius Thomas. Also, defensive standout Rodney Harrison has not even played yet this season because of his suspension for HGH use; he will return to action after missing the next game. In 2004, the Patriots set an NFL record by completing an 18 game regular season winning streak over the course of two seasons. The Patriots have some tough games remaining on this season's schedule but they also have an intense game to game focus that probably has not been seen since the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls went 72-10. New England has the right mindset to put together a long winning streak precisely because the Patriots will not allow themselves to be distracted by the media circus that would surround it.

My prediction of a New England-Dallas Super Bowl looks good so far; on Sunday night, Dallas improved to 3-0 with a 34-10 dismantling of the Bears. Dallas' Tony Romo went 22-35 for 329 yards, two touchdowns and one interception and his favorite target, Terrell Owens, caught eight passes for 145 yards. The main change in Dallas has been addition by subtraction: the Cowboys subtracted Bill Parcells, a coach who generally referred to Owens as "the player" and made it clear that having Owens on the squad was owner Jerry Jones' idea, not his. Owens was very productive last season--85 receptions, 1180 yards, a league-leading 13 receiving touchdowns--despite playing most of the year with a broken finger but there were many situations when it seemed that Parcells' game plans did not take advantage of what Owens does best: catch the ball while on the move across the middle and accumulate yardage after the catch; Owens' yards per reception average (13.9) was nearly one yard below his career norm. In three games this year, Owens has 16 receptions for 329 yards (20.6 avg.) and three touchdowns, which projects to 85 receptions, 1748 yards and 16 touchdowns. While his reception and touchdown totals mirror last year's outstanding production, check out the dramatic increase in his yards per catch average, a direct reflection of how he is being utilized differently. Unlike Moss, there has never been a question about how hard Owens plays.

Some people insist that any coach can win big if he has talented players; how is that theory working out so far in San Diego? What championship-winning coaches understand is that you can't treat all of your players exactly the same but that you have to treat them all fairly; in other words, some guys need a pat on the back and some guys need a kick in the rear and it it the coach's job to figure out the right approach to take with each player. Moss has demonstrated that he needs structure and he needs to be surrounded by good leaders; prior to 2007, his most productive seasons were in Minnesota when his mentor Cris Carter and his coach Denny Green were in his ear. Owens, on the other hand, is very self-motivated and very disciplined--but he is also sensitive to criticism and he desperately wants to feel appreciated. Calling him "the player" and acting like he has no value is the worst possible approach to take. The Cowboys have been on NBC's Sunday Night Football several times in the past two seasons and one thing that analyst John Madden has consistently said is that Owens is most productive when he is involved in the offense early in the game. Owens is a very potent weapon, so it makes no sense to not at least attempt to get him the ball right from the start; of course, if he is double-teamed then you don't force feed him the ball and you take advantage of other matchups. This season, Dallas Coach Wade Philips and offensive coordinator Jason Garrett are doing what Madden has suggested all along and it is working brilliantly.

If you are wondering how New England and Dallas match up against each other we will soon know the answer: the teams play in Dallas on October 14 in what looks like one of the must-see games of the 2007 season.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Is This the Golden Age of Sports?

There is a natural tendency to wax nostalgic about the "good old days," a period of time that almost always coincides with when a person was somewhere between eight and 18 years of age. Never mind that sports had plenty of problems--racism, labor disputes, drugs to name just three--in past decades; to many people, the 1970s or the 1980s seem in retrospect to be the "good old days," just like the 1950s or the 1960s seemed like the "good old days" 20 or 30 years ago. What if I told you that right now we are living in a golden age of sports that is likely to be looked upon as the "good old days" in 10 or 20 years? Perhaps that sounds absurd coming on the heels of headlines screaming about various scandals and misdeeds but if we divert our attention away from the negative and depressing stories then we can notice something that is very interesting: it could be reasonably argued that the greatest player ever is currently performing at or near his peak not in just one or two sports but in several sports, including each of the proverbial "big three."

Let's start with the most obvious case: Tiger Woods, whose scoring average this year (67.79) is tied for the best of his career (he had the same mark in 2000 when he won three majors). Woods just claimed the first annual FedEx Cup (and its $10 million first prize) and he already ranks fifth in career PGA Tour wins with 61, just one behind Arnold Palmer and three behind Ben Hogan; all-time leader Sam Snead won 82 events. Most golf aficionados believe that Woods cannot claim to be the greatest golfer ever until he surpasses Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major championships won. Woods has already won 13 majors and is four years ahead of Nicklaus' pace, so it certainly looks like it is just a matter of time until Woods surpasses Nicklaus' standard. Woods says, "When all is said and done, when you rack the cue and go home and retire, you can honestly say, 'These were my best years, when I was at my peak.' But when you're in it, you're always trying to improve that a little bit to get to the next level." That attitude and drive is why Woods will eventually own all of the important golf records--and when he "racks the cue" we will likely look back and say that he was at or near his peak in 2007.

Meanwhile, switching to tennis, Roger Federer's fourth straight U.S. Open title is his 12th Grand Slam win, moving him past Bjorn Borg and into a tie with Roy Emerson for second on the all-time list, which is led by Pete Sampras (14). Many people already believe that Federer is the greatest tennis player ever, although at least one author suggests that Federer still has some work to do to surpass Rod Laver, Bill Tilden and Bjorn Borg. In any case, virtually everyone agrees that if Federer maintains his current pace for a few more years then he can lay claim to the title of greatest tennis player ever--and if he does, we will more than likely look back and conclude that he was at or near the height of his powers in 2007.

Individual greatness is more difficult to quantify in team sports. Joe Dimaggio used to insist that he be called the greatest living baseball player, which neatly avoided the issue of whether or not he was better than Babe Ruth. Ted Williams wanted to be known as the greatest hitter who ever lived. Willie Mays is considered by many to be the greatest all-around player when one factors in speed and defense in addition to hitting. The all-time home run record was broken this season by a player who could lay an excellent claim to the title of greatest baseball player ever were it not for the mushroom-size cloud of suspicion that taints his statistics. Whether you like Barry Bonds or not, we can all agree that he is not at the height of his powers now--but Alex Rodriguez, who is hitting .308 with 52 home runs and 142 RBI, is having one of the best seasons of his career and is probably going to win his third AL MVP. Rodriguez may very well own the career home run record just a few years from now and if he picks up even one World Series ring along the way then he will be on the short list of players who are in the discussion for the title of greatest all-around baseball player ever. Despite the incessant criticism that Rodriguez receives, when his career is over and viewed through a more objective lens it may very well be said that in 2007--at the age of 31--he, like Woods and Federer, was at the height of his powers.

Like baseball, football does not have a consensus greatest player of all-time. Jim Brown would certainly receive many votes and Jerry Rice--the all-time leader in receptions and touchdowns scored--is also in the discussion. Last year, LaDainian Tomlinson shattered the all-time single season records for touchdowns scored and for points scored. The latter mark stood since 1960 and was held by Hall of Famer Paul Hornung, who was a kicker and a running back. It is worth mentioning that Hornung scored 176 points in 12 games, while Tomlinson produced 186 points in 16 games, but even if one still gives Hornung the nod based on points per game Tomlinson's achievement is remarkable because until fairly recently Hornung's mark looked unbreakable even in the longer season. Tomlinson may very well surpass Rice's career touchdown record while at the same time breaking Brown's record for average all-purpose yards per game. Marty Schottenheimer, Tomlinson's coach last year, has already called Tomlinson the finest running back he has ever seen. Granted, it is more than a bit early to call Tomlinson the greatest football player ever but the point is that the possibility certainly exists that he will be on the short list for consideration for that title by the time his career is over--and his record breaking 2007 campaign will likely stand out as one of his best seasons.

Most observers would probably agree that pro basketball's pantheon consists of the top 10 finishers in the 1999 AP panel's vote for Basketball Player of the Century: Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Earvin Johnson, Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and Julius Erving. Shaquille O'Neal could arguably be added to that group but he is clearly well past his prime now. Tim Duncan also deserves mention but his best years statistically are also likely behind him, though he may very well anchor more championship teams. However, there are two active players who are at or near their primes who have an excellent chance to join the pantheon: Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. Bryant appears to be doing Jordan's career in reverse and on a smaller scale, winning three championships early and collecting scoring titles now. Although Bryant has yet to win an MVP, most informed and objective observers consider him to be the best player in the game (James--and many other players--agree with that). If Bryant continues to perform at a high level individually and/or adds at least one more championship then his resume will stack up with the best of the best--and it will probably be thought that he was at the height of his individual powers the past couple years, when he seemingly could score at will. James is also a highly potent scorer and last season he proved that he could carry a team all the way to the NBA Finals. His best years are likely still in front of him but when we look back 2006-07 will at the very least probably be considered the start of his prime, the beginning of his ascension to the very top of the basketball world. If things break right--and admittedly a lot would have to happen--perhaps we will be fortunate enough to see Bryant and James battle against each other head to head in the Finals (or earlier in the playoffs if Bryant is traded to an Eastern Conference team or signs with one when he becomes a free agent).

Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, Alex Rodriguez, Kobe Bryant/LeBron James, LaDainian Tomlinson--yes, these are the "good old days."

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Golf's FedEx Cup Brings Back Bad Memories to Tennis Fans

When I first heard about golf's FedEx Cup, I immediately thought of Bjorn Borg, who at least one writer still believes is the greatest tennis player of the Open Era. Borg played in his final Grand Slam event at the age of 25 at least in part because of the ridiculous and tyrannical rules that were imposed by tennis' governing bodies. For instance, Borg won Wimbledon five times (1976-80) and the French Open six times (1974-75, 1978-81) but starting in 1982 it was decreed that any player who did not participate in a minimum number of sanctioned events would have to take part in qualifiers to enter the main draw of tournaments. Borg--and some of the other leading players of his day--generally skipped the Australian Open to allow himself time to unwind and by 1982 he did not want to play a full schedule of events. That meant that Borg would have had to play in qualifiers at Wimbledon and the French Open in 1982, despite being the runner up and defending champion respectively in those events, a status that in a sane world would have made him one of the top seeds. Maybe Borg would have retired anyway but the way that his sport's rulers completely disregarded what the players thought was in their own best interests certainly made his decision to walk away that much easier.

What does this have to do with the FedEx Cup? Someone decided that it would be a grand idea to create a playoff system for golf and to reward the winner with $10 million to be applied toward his retirement plan. The scheduling and format of this playoff system were designed without consulting the sport's top players, who were presented with a fait accompli: here is your playoff system, take it or leave it. The top players decided to take it--more or less. Tiger Woods skipped one of the four events but played so mindbogglingly well in the other three (two wins and a tie for second) that he won the playoff anyway; Phil Mickelson also skipped one event but still took third place in the playoff. Woods' performance was so dominating that he actually would have won the playoff even if he had skipped the last event in addition to sitting out the first one. That proves that it is not correct to call the FedEx Cup a playoff; in a real playoff, a competitor cannot sit out one fourth to one half of the events and still win. Some have suggested that golf should impose rules similar to those that prevailed in tennis circa 1982 and not permit a golfer to sit out events and still win the FedEx Cup--but that would only make the situation worse, not better. I suspect that Woods and Mickelson would have elected to miss the whole thing rather commit to all four events and the result would have been that a lesser player would have been crowned the champion. In any case, that is where this is headed unless golf's leaders come to their senses. Elite players need a break at some point. As Borg once explained, "When I boycotted the Australian, I was trying to make a statement. I had made my mind up. My point was that a player requires some time to himself, he can't keep rushing from one court to another all the time without a break. They all heard me say that, but no one did anything about it. So I did it myself, I skipped the Australian and gave myself the time I needed."

To play the complete FedEx Cup schedule involves participating in tournaments for four consecutive weekends after the players have already gone through a whole season of golf. Since it comes after the Bridgestone Invitational and the PGA Championship and prior to the Presidents Cup, a player would have to compete in seven tournaments in nine weeks if he did not choose to sit out one weekend as Woods and Mickelson did. Woods has not played tournament golf on four consecutive weekends since 2000. It is easy for the average Joe to scoff at the players' complaints and to declare that if he had the chance to play for $10 million that he would do whatever it took to participate. That is not a realistic scenario. If the average Joe were good enough at golf to have a legitimate chance to win the FedEx Cup then he would not want to risk shortening his career by playing too many weeks in a row. Or think of it like this: if you have already earned the amount of money you expect/need to earn in a given year would you just leap at the chance to work overtime and make more money at the possible risk of shortening your career and/or losing time with your family? The players are the ones who make any sport go and they should have a voice in decisions that directly affect their careers. The last thing that golf needs to do is alienate its best performers.

Monday, September 17, 2007

A Lake Erie Shootout and a New England Blowout

It's alive! The Cleveland Browns' offense, which has been in deep hibernation seemingly for decades, exploded for 51 points in a six point home win over the Cincinnati Bengals. The Browns had not scored this many points since Bud Carson coached Cleveland to a 51-0 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first game of the 1989 season. Derek Anderson, who became the Browns' starting quarterback after Charlie Frye--last week's starter--was traded to Seattle on Tuesday, went 20-33 for 328 yards and five touchdowns (tying the franchise's single game record and doubling his career total) with only one interception. He started the game 0-5 and got away with some shaky throws but 51 points is usually about a month's worth of work for the Browns so those minor blemishes are easy to overlook. The Browns had two 100 yard receivers (Braylon Edwards, 8-146 with 2 TDs and Kellen Winslow, 6-100 with 1 TD) and a 200 yard rusher (Jamal Lewis, 28-215, including a 66 yard TD); Cleveland had never before had a 300 yard passer, a 200 yard rusher and two 100 yard receivers in one game. The Bengals' Carson Palmer also had a big game (33-50, 401 yards, six touchdowns, two interceptions) and this was just the fourth time in NFL history that two teams combined to throw at least 11 touchdown passes in one game; the last time this happened was in 1969 when Billy Kilmer of New Orleans (six) and Charley Johnson of St. Louis (six) tossed a single game record 12 touchdowns.

The best news for Browns fans is that the team did not look disorganized and disinterested. Granted, giving up 45 points and 531 yards on defense is not great but the Bengals offense contains a lot of Pro Bowl caliber players. However, the question that remains to be answered is whether the Browns offense is really this good or if the Bengals defense, which was considered suspect before the season began, should in fact be on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted List.

I believe in giving credit where credit is due, so Romeo Crennel should be applauded for preparing Cleveland to beat a squad that is widely expected to make the playoffs. Of course, that is Crennel's job and the win will seem meaningless a month from now if the Browns are 1-5. One thing that we learned for sure from this game is that this edition of the Browns has a lot of playmakers: not only Winslow, Edwards and Lewis but also Joe Jurevicius and Josh Cribbs. That means that we should never again hear from Crennel and General Manager Phil Savage about how they inherited a team whose cupboard was bare. That is ancient history now and if in the coming weeks it turns out that Anderson cannot consistently get the ball in the hands of the team's playmakers then it is Crennel's job to prepare rookie Brady Quinn to do just that.

While the Lake Erie shootout was equally wild and unexpected, the Boston Massacre that happened on Sunday night was predictable to anyone who carefully watched and listened to this week's events. After days of media overkill regarding the "Patriotgate scandal", anyone who understands how real competitors react to adversity is not surprised by the 38-14 beating that the New England Patriots gave to the San Diego Chargers. Prior to the game, NBC's John Madden made an excellent point when Al Michaels asked him if the Patriots were distracted by all of the controversy that has been swirling around Coach Bill Belichick; Madden noted that he watched Belichick conduct the Patriots' practices and that the team seemed completely focused but that San Diego seemed to be very preoccupied with discussing all of the allegations about Belichick. It did not take long after the game started to see which team was well coached and well prepared--and which team was coached by Norv Turner. I know that Troy Aikman speaks highly of Turner's work as Dallas' offensive coordinator during their Super Bowl runs in the 1990s but Turner's resume as a head coach is most unimpressive.

I laughed out loud when NBC's Andrea Kremer reported before the game--with a grave look on her face--that Turner banned all New England locker room attendants from San Diego's locker room, closely guarded his playbook and communicated his pregame instructions to his team verbally in order to not leave any written records that the Patriots might steal. All Belichick had to do was watch San Diego's game last week versus the Chicago Bears and it would be pretty obvious that there is nothing in Turner's playbook to worry about. Turner had a 59-82-1 record as a head coach prior to Sunday's game, so it is very doubtful that Belichick worries much about Turner's brainstorms, which turn into slight drizzles by the time they reach the field. Yes, the Chargers have some very talented players--foremost among them LaDainian Tomlinson, the 2006 NFL MVP--and Belichick designed a very effective game plan to neutralize those players. Anyone who thinks that coaching does not matter should watch what Turner does this year with a team that Marty Schottenheimer led to a 14-2 record last year.

New England led San Diego 24-0 at halftime and the game seemed out of hand even earlier than that. The Chargers managed to produce a slight flicker of hope early in the fourth quarter when they scored a touchdown to pull within 31-14 and then recovered an Ellis Hobbs fumble of the ensuing kickoff. The Patriots immediately snuffed out that flicker, sacking San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers for ten yard losses on back to back plays and forcing a punt, in effect saying, "Thank you for playing our game and here are some lovely parting gifts for your flight back to California."

During the game telecast, Michaels provided a very lucid explanation of the difference between what the Patriots filmed in last week's game against the Jets and what is permitted by the NFL. In the process he showed--perhaps unwittingly--how ridiculously overblown this whole "controversy" is. Michaels pointed out that it is legal for teams to film from an endzone view above the field and that it is legal for teams to film from a 50 yard line view above the field. The offense that the Patriots committed is stationing a cameraman on their own sideline and having him point his camera at the Jets' coaches on the other sideline. In other words, if the cameraman had been positioned a bit further up in the stadium and from a slightly different angle then there would be no problem. The Patriots did not "steal" anything; they did not go into the Jets' locker room and take private property. The Patriots, in essence, used the wrong camera angle to record something that anybody in the stadium can see. Yes, the NFL issued a memo about this prior to the season and the Patriots deserve to be punished for breaking the letter of this rule--but it is amazing that anyone could try to equate this with taking illegal performance enhancing drugs or committing an actual theft. Everybody in the NFL tries to read the other team's signs; that is why coaches cover their mouths when they speak into their headsets and why they have assistant coaches issuing dummy signals at the same time the real signals are being sent out.

Madden added that Belichick is not just the best coach in the game today but one of the best of all-time and Madden described the very real practical difficulties in using any information that the Patriots may have gleaned from their filming. He attributed Belichick's actions to a combination of paranoia and the obsessive attention to detail that characterizes coaches, particularly those who, like Belichick, are defensive specialists. Sadly, this story does not seem likely to die any time soon. Commissioner Goodell has ordered Belichick and the Patriots to turn over to him all records and files pertaining to any such filming that they have done, with the threat of more sanctions looming if the team does not comply. Also, Kremer reported that the Jets want the NFL to investigate whether or not the Patriots were intercepting the Jets' radio sideline radio communications. If that were to turn out to be true or if the Patriots engaged in conduct that could truly be classified as stealing then I certainly would completely condemn that--but the fuss over what has actually been proven is absurd.

I understand why Commissioner Goodell has to lay down the law against anyone who breaks any rule but it is interesting to ponder why this case attracted such a media outcry. Michaels answered that question near the end of the game when he mentioned that Belichick "is not exactly a media friendly guy." That is what this is really all about; Bill Belichick does not fill reporters' notebooks up with juicy quotes during his press conferences, so covering him and his teams is not always easy. This "scandal" is an opportunity for payback against an unpopular figure whose overwhelming success made him all but bulletproof to criticism in recent years. If all of these self-professed champions of justice are so concerned that the Patriots' Super Bowl wins might be tainted then why did they not pursue with greater vigor the story about the players from the Carolina Panthers' Super Bowl team who used steroids?

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Law and Order: SGU (Special Goodell Unit)

In his brief term so far as NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell has clearly established that--like the NBA's David Stern and unlike MLB's Bud Selig--he will mete out strong punishments as he sees fit and that he will do so promptly and without consulting committees and advisers. The latest example of this is his ruling in the now infamous "Patriotgate scandal." Goodell fined the Patriots $250,000, fined Coach Bill Belichick an additional $500,000 (the maximum possible) and ruled that the Patriots must forfeit a first round draft pick next year if they make the playoffs this season. Not too long ago these would have been eye opening, jaw dropping punishments but Goodell has been bringing the hammer down so hard and so often that some people are actually suggesting that the Patriots got off easily. That is ridiculous. Belichick reportedly makes $4 million per year, so he just lost one eighth of his annual earnings; that is like someone who makes $50,000 per year forking over $6250--and I don't believe that Goodell is going to let New England owner Robert Kraft cover this marker for Belichick. The loss of a first round draft pick is a heavy blow to a team like New England that does such a good job of scouting. Sure, Cleveland Browns fans feel like their team has been robbed of several first round picks even though their team technically used them but the Patriots actually draft players who get on the field and perform at a high level.

Let's not forget what all of this is about, either. A Patriots intern stood on the sidelines during last week's game versus the New York Jets and apparently filmed the Jets coaches while they were making signals. Let's be perfectly clear; this is not about "cheating." Goodell flatly stated that New England gained no competitive advantage against the Jets and that he has no reason to believe that New England has gained a competitive advantage in an unfair fashion in previous seasons. This is about power, pure and simple. The NFL has a rule against what the Patriots did. It is a silly rule but it is a rule nonetheless. Bill Belichick violated that rule and he did so in a fairly brazen manner. Goodell is the new sheriff in town and if he lets people jaywalk on his watch--which is what this amounts to, no matter how much Skip Bayless, Jay Mariotti or anyone else has a fit--then pretty soon someone will try to shoplift and then there will be muggings and general mayhem. So Goodell sent a loud and clear message to Belichick and every player, coach and owner in the NFL: "I'm the sheriff in this here town and you are going to play by my rules." I have no problem with that approach; I think that the rule that is involved in this particular case is silly but, as I wrote in my previous post on this subject, if the Patriots violated a league rule then they certainly should be punished for it.

However, I vigorously disagree that they should have received harsher penalties than what Goodell meted out. I also dismiss the idea that New England has won three Super Bowls because of an intern filming coaches wildly gesticulating. Let's break this down scientifically:

1) You only play a team once a year unless that team is in your division. That means that unless you have an army of interns filming coaches at various stadiums each week that you are gathering data that will be worthless the rest of the season. Moreover, if a coaching staff has any sense, it changes its signals fairly regularly during the course of a season and also has someone sending in "dummy" signals at the same time the real signals are being sent.

2) Halftime lasts 15 minutes or so. Does anyone believe that any coach can study a half's worth of film, decode all of the signals and then transmit this information to his team in that period of time? Teams prepare their game plans during the week and they plan for various contingencies. At halftime a team can certainly make an adjustment that was within the scope of its preparation but it cannot just come up with something completely new.

3) What is the likelihood that whatever information is gleaned from the "hidden video" is any more worthwhile than all of the hours of "legal" film that Belichick notoriously watches during the week?

So why did Belichick risk his reputation to do something that was of marginal competitive value at best? Frankly, I don't know. My guess is that a combination of factors is involved, with the most obvious being that he is obsessive about preparation and obtaining every little bit of information to the point of diminishing returns. Although cynics may scoff, his surface explanation may also be true or at least contain a grain of truth: Belichick has publicly said that he explained to Goodell that he had a different interpretation of the rule and that he did not use the film for any kind of advantage during the game. Maybe Belichick was studying how other teams send in signals to compare their methods to his own to look for some kind of way to better disguise what his team does. Coaches like to go to other teams' practices--even teams that play different sports--to watch how other coaches do things. Maybe Belichick was doing some master study of NFL signaling tendencies. I've always called him "the mad scientist"; he spends most of the week in his "laboratory" watching film and then he cooks up a game plan that is tailor made to defeat that week's opponent. Remember when all of the Patriots' defensive backs were getting hurt and he was literally grabbing guys off of the street and putting them on the field? He found some use for ex-Browns' cornerback Earthwind Moreland (whose parents, I'm willing to bet, are huge Earth, Wind and Fire fans); during that time, Belichick also turned wide receiver Troy Brown into an effective nickel back. None of that had anything to do with watching the other team's signals, nor did any of the brilliant coaching moves that he made during the three Super Bowl runs.

The bottom line is that this issue is much more about power and control than it is about "cheating." Belichick did not plant a spy or a hidden microphone in the Jets' locker room; he sent an employee to make a video record of the public actions of the Jets' coaches.

The most absurd comparison that has been made regarding this situation is that what Belichick did is the equivalent of a player using performance enhancing drugs. There is a reason that performance enhancing drugs are called that: they enhance performance. Commissioner Goodell already acknowledged that what the Patriots did, although it violated a rule, did not enhance their performance. Furthermore, steroids and HGH are illegal unless they have been prescribed by a doctor. Anyone using or distributing those substances for the purpose of enhancing athletic performance is breaking the law and could be sent to jail. Belichick did not break a law; he violated a silly NFL rule.

Speaking of PEDs, I hope that everyone who is attempting to tarnish the Patriots' accomplishments has also devoted at least as much time and energy to publicizing these stories--stories that deal with bona fide cheating:

Haslett admits to using steroids

Jim Haslett, a Pro Bowl linebacker who later became coach of the New Orleans Saints, admitted to using steroids briefly during his career. He also said that the Steelers of the 1970s--when the team won four Super Bowls in six years--were big steroids users.

Chargers' Merriman suspended for steroids

While LaDainian Tomlinson and the San Diego Chargers--who face New England on Sunday night in what might be an AFC Championship Game preview--accuse the Patriots of being cheaters they have a Pro Bowler on their own roster--Shawne Merriman--who was caught using steroids.

Broncos Penalized Again for Salary Cap Violations

The Patriots obtained no tangible advantage from the rule that they broke but a decade ago the Denver Broncos won back to back Super Bowl titles in no small part because they circumvented the salary cap to retain the services of stars John Elway and Terrell Davis.

Frankly, the story that has kind of been lost in all of this that is more disturbing is that New England's Pro Bowl safety Rodney Harrison has been suspended for four games for using HGH. That is cheating.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

It Isn't Cheating if You Can Get the Same Information Sitting in the Stands

I was about to write an 800 word explanation of why the whole "Patriotgate scandal" is even more played out than the custom of attaching "gate" to the end of a word every time there is a controversy--and then I found out that's King Kaufman had already authored such an article, calling the situation "an early leader for dumbest controversy of the year honors." Kaufman points out that the NFL has many rules that don't make sense--including very specific rules about sock length--because "the NFL likes rules."

Then he gets to the heart of the matter: "My understanding of spying must be different from the NFL's. Watching a guy flapping his arms while standing in the middle of 70,000 people and in front of a national TV audience doesn't qualify. Even if you point a camera at him. I mean another camera, aside from all the legal cameras that can be pointed at him. For the price of a ticket--assuming the Patriots as an organization can't find a free ticket somewhere--the Pats can put a guy in Row 12 with a video camera and record the opposing team's defensive signals to their heart's content. But because the guy's standing on the sidelines it's cheating? Kinda nutty, don't you think?" The most important thing to consider, as Kaufman rightly notes, is this: "Where a team has an expectation of privacy, it should get privacy. A guy standing on the sideline and flashing semaphores to the middle linebacker can't expect privacy." If the Patriots or anyone else placed a listening device or a hidden camera in an opponent's locker room then that would absolutely be spying and would be worthy of a drastic punishment--but making such a fuss over a guy standing on the sidelines with a camera filming something that literally the whole world can see is just plain silly.

If what a Patriots' employee did on the sidelines of the Patriots-Jets game violates the letter of some nonsensical rule then I agree with Kaufman's very sensible solution: "Punish the Patriots if that's what it takes to keep the suits--and various Pats haters around the world--happy. Then get rid of that rule."

The idea that this in any way taints what the Patriots have accomplished during the past few years is absurd. For one thing, I have yet to hear a convincing explanation of how a team would get any kind of real advantage by doing this--mind you, I have heard some attempted explanations but they were less than convincing. Let's think about this logically (which means that if you are a Jets fan or a Patriots hater please kindly set aside those biases for the next couple minutes). You only play a team once a year--or twice in the case of a division rival. There is obviously some lag time between when the signals are filmed and when they are decoded. Then the decoded information has to be relayed to the players on the field in a way that they can make sense of it. By that time isn't the game already over? If a team is smart then it is not going to use the same signals all year long, so the "intelligence" that was gathered in the first game should be useless if and when those teams meet again. ESPN's Bill Parcells proposed a great solution for any team that is worried that its signals are being intercepted: assign a number to each of your play calls and give the captain a wristband; signal a number for the appropriate call from the sidelines during the game--and then change the numbers the next week.

This whole "scandal" seems like something that Eric Mangini and the Jets cooked up to make the Patriots look bad and possibly get them in trouble with the league. I will be very interested to see what conclusion the NFL reaches about this situation and what punishment, if any, it hands down.

Another aspect of this story that is worrisome is how quickly all of the pundits and talking heads jump to conclusions before the matter has been settled. The NFL has yet to definitively state that whatever the Patriots did was in fact against the rules, so why are people already speculating about New England having to lose draft picks or even forfeit the game? This is just another example of what is wrong with the way the mainstream media works (and this kind of reporting is still wrong even if it turns out that the Patriots are guilty and receive punishment for their actions, because the writers and commentators who are shooting off their mouths now have no way to know at this point what all of the facts of the case are).

Consider how Kevin Everett's injury has been reported: first we are told that he may die and will almost certainly be paralyzed, then we are told that he is making a great recovery and might walk out of the hospital. Would it not have been more considerate to his family--and more accurate--to simply stick to reporting the known facts? He sustained a serious spinal cord injury and was rushed to the hospital for surgery. This was not a matter of national security that required reporters to be skulking around digging up every rumor that they could find and then broadcasting it to the nation--and shame on any doctors or medical personnel who violated Everett's right to privacy by publicly speculating about his case (unless they received permission from his family to do so); that applies to those who are actually treating him and goes double to anyone who is offering an "expert" opinion without even examining him.

Another less serious example is the ongoing sturm and drang about Eli Manning's shoulder. I feel like I am watching a soap opera: instead of "Days of Our Lives" there should be a voiceover intoning, "These are the days of Eli's shoulder." Everyone who watched the Cowboys-Giants game or who saw the highlights knows that Manning injured his shoulder and could not finish the game. Obviously, he has to get an MRI and consult with doctors, so why is ESPN's Chris Mortenson telling us on Monday that Manning will be out for four weeks? The Giants immediately denied his report but Mortenson sternly said that he stands by his story--as if he is investigating a serious corporate or government cover up. Mortenson then added that if Manning plays next Sunday that means his story was wrong. No, really? Let's have less "days of Eli's shoulder" and more real reporting: if you don't actually know something then don't report it--and standing by your story only to say that if Manning plays that means you were wrong means that you don't actually know anything about what you are talking about.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Cleveland Titanic Puts Charlie Frye in a Lifeboat to Seattle

Apparently, Romeo Crennel flipped a coin again and now Charlie Frye has completed a stunningly quick descent from starting quarterback for the Cleveland Browns to trade bait for a sixth round draft pick. While this is a humiliating loss of status for Frye, the good news for him is that he has just gone from an organization that has no clue to the Seattle Seahawks, a team that made it to the Super Bowl just two years ago. Interestingly, the player who until very recently the Browns thought could be a quality starter will apparently be the third stringer in Seattle.

After the Browns' embarrassing 34-7 loss to Pittsburgh in the home opener on Sunday, General Manager Phil Savage said, "I think you run into trouble if you change your plans after one game." Yet that is exactly what the Browns have done. After spending all of the offseason conducting a quarterback competition between Frye and Derek Anderson that resembled nothing so much as two toddlers in a potato sack race, the Browns made Frye the starter only to bench him in favor of Anderson before halftime. Now Frye is completely out of the picture, Anderson is the starter, Brady Quinn is the backup and weak-armed Ken Dorsey has been re-signed to be Quinn's mentor. Dorsey may have an excellent football mind but he does not possess the physical tools to be an NFL quarterback. Quarterback is the most important position in football and arguably the most important position in team sports. The Browns seem to have drafted a good one in Quinn, but one wonders if he can reach his maximum potential playing for an organization that should use the Keystone Cops as its mascot.

In the 1990s, the Cleveland media and fans all but ran Bill Belichick out of town and since then he has proven that he is one of the greatest coaches of all-time. Is it possible that I am judging Crennel too quickly or too harshly? Anything is possible but the statistical evidence suggests that this is highly unlikely. It is important to remember why Belichick was so unpopular during his run in Cleveland: the media hated him because of his monosyllabic press conferences that provided no quotable material for their articles, while the fans could never forgive him for cutting hometown hero Bernie Kosar. I don't evaluate coaches based on how talkative or friendly they are because, frankly, that is idiotic and unprofessional. As for the Kosar situation, Belichick handled it poorly purely from a public relations standpoint but the fact is that Kosar played in just 18 more games after he left Cleveland and was never again a regular starter in the NFL. Kosar won a Super Bowl ring with Dallas in 1993 but his performance in a playoff game versus San Francisco that year (5-9, 83 yards, 1 touchdown) was essentially his last hurrah as a player. Belichick was right from a technical standpoint even though he should have handled the matter with more sensitivity and tact considering Kosar's contributions to the franchise.

A comparison between Belichick's record in Cleveland and Crennel's record in Cleveland is very revealing. Here are the raw numbers:

The Belichick Years:

1991: 6-10--293 points for, 298 points against, -5 differential
1992: 7-9--272 points for, 275 points against, -3 differential
1993: 7-9--304 points for, 307 points against, -3 differential
1994: 11-5--340 points for, 204 points against, +136 differential
*1994 Playoffs--1-1, 29 points for, 42 points against, -13 differential
1995: 5-11--289 points for, 356 points against, -167 differential

The Crennel Years:

2005: 6-10--232 points scored, 301 points against, -69 differential
2006: 4-12--238 points scored, 356 points against, -118 differential
2007: 0-1--7 points for, 34 points against, -27 differential

Belichick took over a Browns team that went 3-13 in 1990, scoring 228 points while giving up a league-worst 462 points, a -234 differential. It is important to note that the team's wins doubled immediately the next season and never decreased until his fifth season (more about that in a moment). By year four, the Browns were not only a playoff team but they actually won a playoff game, something that the team has not done since then. That 1994 Browns team ranked first in the NFL in points against and third in point differential behind Dallas and San Francisco, the teams that won every Super Bowl between 1992 and 1995. Point differential is a very important indicator of how competitive a team is. What about the drop in 1995? The Browns started that season 4-4 and were coming off of an overtime win over division rival Cincinnati when word leaked that owner Art Modell planned to move the team to Baltimore. Belichick later said, "There's no situation I've been in, before or since, that even would remotely approach that one for negativity and affecting the overall focus of the team. Not within 100 miles. It touched every single person in the building, every secretary, every ball boy. I felt badly for everyone involved." The Browns went into a 1-7 tailspin and Modell fired Belichick after the season. Belichick had built the foundation for the Browns to be successful but Modell's betrayal of the Cleveland fans wrecked everything.

"We had a damn good football team in Cleveland in '94," Belichick told Sports Illustrated in 2005. "I told Art several times, you've got a good staff here, coaching and scouting. That's not the problem. I feel like the point has been proven 10 years later."

It is unlikely that in 10 years anyone will look bask wistfully at the Romeo Crennel era. Crennel took over a Browns team that went 4-12 in 2004, scoring 276 points while giving up 390 points, a -114 differential. During his tenure, there has been no tangible improvement in either the team's record or its point differential. The bottom line is simple: the Browns are not competitive and show no signs of being a competitive team any time soon. That is unfair to the team's extremely loyal fans and should be unacceptable to team owner Randy Lerner. Saying that Romeo Crennel should be fired is not something that I take lightly. I realize and respect that this is his livelihood and that his job status affects him and his family--but there is simply no indication that he is the right man for this job or that he can produce a winning team in Cleveland.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Four Penalties on One Play and Other Signs of the Football Apocalypse

The Cleveland Browns are the most inept, disorganized and undisciplined team in the NFL. After failing to get a first down on their initial possession in their home opener versus Pittsburgh, the Browns ran perhaps the most messed up play in NFL history. Punter Paul Ernster bobbled the snap, ran around frantically and launched a 15 yard punt. Amazingly, the Browns committed four separate penalties on this play, which has to be some kind of record. Pittsburgh scored a touchdown on a 22 yard "drive" after that fiasco, en route to a 17-0 first quarter lead and a 34-7 win.

The loss dropped Cleveland Coach Romeo Crennel's record to 10-23, including a dismal 1-12 versus divisional opponents. The Browns committed five turnovers and seemed to average about two mental errors per play. Crennel benched starting quarterback Charlie Frye late in the second quarter in favor of Derek Anderson. Frye finished 4-10 for 34 yards and an interception and he was sacked five times; Anderson went 13-28 for 184 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Frye's passer rating was 10.0, while Anderson's was 65.2. Crennel spent the whole preseason waffling back and forth over which one of these guys should be the starter, at one point flipping a coin to decide; too bad the coin did not have a side that read "none of the above." Cleveland fans chanted for Crennel to hand over the reins to rookie Brady Quinn but Crennel rejected this option, explaining after the game, "I didn't play him because he's a kid and the game was out of reach. What am I supposed to do? Put him in the game and throw him to the dogs? That wouldn't be fair to him. It wouldn't be good for him."

Give Crennel credit: at least he got one decision right--but that does not change the fact that the Browns need a new coach. How do I know this for sure? Bill Walsh told me. Actually, I never met or spoke with Walsh, but, as I noted in my tribute to him after he passed away, in a 1998 Sporting News article Walsh made it perfectly clear that rebuilding a football team should not require one of Stalin's infamous five year plans: "I am often asked how long it should take to turn an NFL franchise around. My short answer is: three years. Not every team will win the Super Bowl in its third season under a new coach (as we did in San Francisco in 1981) but it is reasonable to expect at least some signs of improvement by that time...There are reasons why some teams are able to remain competitive year after year while others never seem to get over the hump." Browns General Manager Phil Savage likes to not so subtly point out how badly previous Browns' administrations performed, drafting guys like Tim Couch, Courtney Brown and Gerard Warren--but those blunders do not justify or excuse how pitiful the Browns are entering the third season of the Savage/Crennel regime, the year that Walsh says should be the turning point. Crennel went 6-10 in his first season and 4-12 last year. Maybe things will turn around in the next 15 weeks but right now there are few tangible "signs of improvement," to use Walsh's phrase. Walsh took over a 2-14 team and won the Super Bowl three years later; Savage and Crennel took over a 4-12 team that three years later looks very much like it will be 4-12 again.

Savage and Crennel always have explanations for why things went wrong but their actions offer little hope that the team will improve any time soon. Ernster was signed on Saturday to fill in for the injured Dave Zastudil, who got hurt on Monday. Why did Savage and company wait almost a full week to replace him? If any position is essential for the Browns it is punter, considering the offense's perennial ineptitude. A competently run team would have ascertained that Zastudil could not punt this week and would have signed a replacement early enough so that he could get some practice repetitions. If the Browns cannot line up, snap the ball and execute a punt without literally tripping over themselves then that is a direct reflection on Savage and Crennel. In New England, Bill Belichick can seemingly grab defensive backs off of the street, coach them up and keep winning; in Cleveland, poor decision making has crippled the team. It is inexcusable to not have at least one competent veteran starting quarterback on the roster and it is impossible for the other offensive players to develop any kind of rhythm when Crennel keeps shuffling back and forth between Frye and Anderson.

No one wants to hear about how Chris Palmer and Carmen Policy and Butch Davis set the team back. Savage and Crennel need to put a better product on the field quickly or owner Randy Lerner needs to send their Keystone Kops routine packing and bring in a real football administration that will generate wins instead of excuses. The Browns not only lack talent--earning no Pro Bowl selections since 2002--but they always look unprepared and often seem disinterested. All of this is a direct reflection on how the team is managed and how the players are coached. Vince Lombardi once said, "Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing." Losing has become a hard habit to break for the Browns and this will not change until the right people are put in charge of the program.

Friday, September 7, 2007

A Rousing Kickoff to the Season

Pro football has become America's favorite sport--and I don't mean the kind of football that David Beckham plays. The NFL captivates its fans with the perfect mix of bone crushing violence, fast paced action and sophisticated strategy as coaches maneuver their players into position like grandmasters deftly deploying their pieces for a checkmating attack. The NFL season has a heightened urgency to it that is difficult for other sports to match for two reasons: (1) the very real possibility that a key player could be injured on any play; (2) the season is only 16 games long, so the significance of every game (and every play) is magnified. As I noted in my season preview, those reasons also explain why in one year NFL teams can easily go from worst to first (or vice versa).

The NFL used to start its regular season without any particular fanfare on a Sunday early in September. All the teams played that day except for the two teams that faced off on Monday night. That changed in 2002 with the inaugural "NFL Opening Kickoff," which included performances by Bon Jovi and Alicia Keys and which marked the one year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The San Francisco 49ers defeated the New York Giants 16-13 on a Thursday night in the Meadowlands and the idea of having a special season opening extravaganza went over so well that the NFL decided to turn it into an annual event. Major League Baseball used to have an Opening Day tradition: the season always began in Cincinnati. Now the MLB season begins in several cities at once and "Opening Day" has lost its charm. The NFL has completely stolen MLB's thunder by transforming the start of its season into a celebration of the sport that lasts for an extended weekend, starting with a Thursday night game, continuing with a full slate of Sunday games--capped off by a special Sunday night showdown--and concluding with a doubleheader on Monday Night Football.

The 2007 "NFL Opening Kickoff" began with performances by Kelly Clarkson, Faith Hill and John Mellencamp and culminated in the raising of the Indianapolis Colts' championship banner. The Colts and the New Orleans Saints are supposed to be two of the top Super Bowl contenders and their matchup lived up to that hype--for a little more than a half. The score was 10-10 at halftime and just 17-10 Indianapolis deep into the third quarter but some turnovers by the Saints and tremendous offensive execution by Indianapolis resulted in a 41-10 decision in favor of the Colts. Peyton Manning finished with his usual outstanding numbers (18-30, 288 yards, 3 touchdowns), while his counterpart Drew Brees had one of the worst yards per completion averages for a game in NFL history (28-41, 192 yards, 2 interceptions). NBC's John Madden said that the way Manning took apart the Saints' defense was "surgical." The pairing of play by play man Al Michaels with Madden is perhaps the best current sports announcing team. Michaels is still at the top of his game, always in command of his facts and impeccable in his delivery. I love the way that he hesitates ever so slightly to allow a play to conclude before calling it; less polished announcers end up saying things like "It's caught--no, it's bobbled--and now it's been picked off." Rarely does Michaels let his call get ahead of the action. Madden has always done goofy shtick--though he seems to do it less now than he used to--but he has never let his "Boom!" or his "turducken" get in the way of breaking down the action on the field. Younger fans think of him as the video game guy but Madden is a Hall of Fame, Super Bowl winning coach and his analysis always adds to the broadcast.

Indianapolis lost several starters from its championship team but we learned that at least one of them is not likely to be missed. Apparently, "Jason David" is Creole for "burnt toast," as the former Indianapolis defensive back was repeatedly torched by Manning. The Colts look even better than they did last season. We will have to wait to see if the Saints were simply overpowered by a superior team or if they are going to experience a serious decline after their fairytale run last season. Meanwhile, the 2007 NFL season is off and running and the 16 week countdown to the playoffs has begun.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

How Widespread is the Use of Performance Enhancing Drugs Among Elite Athletes?

MLB slugger Barry Bonds and the riders in the Tour de France have gotten a lot of media attention this year regarding their alleged use of performance enhancing drugs but there is every reason to believe that this scourge cuts a wide swath throughout the world of sports. Rodney Harrison, a two-time Pro Bowl safety who is the only player in NFL history to record at least 25 sacks and 30 interceptions in a career, just admitted to using human growth hormone (HGH) and has been suspended for four games by the NFL. HGH is not detectable by current drug testing regimens but Harrison, Wade Wilson and Richard Ryzde are three NFL figures whose use and/or distribution of HGH was discovered by an investigation conducted by the Albany (New York) District Attorney's office; Ryzde, a former team doctor for the Pittsburgh Steelers, has been fired and Wilson--who during the time frame covered by the investigation (2004-06) worked for the Chicago Bears and is now the Dallas Cowboys' quarterbacks coach--has been suspended by the NFL for five games and fined $100,000. Also, former number one overall pick Tim Couch reportedly extensively used steroids and HGH as he attempted to rehabilitate from surgery and resume his NFL career. Couch claims that he never used steroids and only used HGH for one week under a doctor's care but he faces a possible NFL suspension if he ever is signed by an NFL team.

For some reason, there does not seem to be the same public outrage about the use of performance enhancing drugs in the NFL that there is about PED use in baseball, cycling, track and field and other sports. Three members of the Carolina Panthers' 2003 Super Bowl team--punter Todd Sauerbrun, center Jeff Mitchell and offensive lineman Todd Steussie--used steroids that season but this illegal conduct simply never seemed to register in the public consciousness. One must assume that for every Harrison, Couch and Wilson who have been caught that there are plenty of others who have done the same things but not been detected. The reason why athletes are using these drugs is obvious: they work and athletes feel compelled to level the playing field when they see (or suspect) that their teammates and fellow competitors are cheating. I don't know when all of the "other shoes" will finish dropping but when everything is out in the open I think that we are going to discover that the past 15-20 years have not just been a "steroids era" in baseball but rather that almost every sport has been afflicted. If you doubt that, just do a simple eyeball test, either by looking at athletes' physiques or by looking at their weights, body fat percentages, bench press numbers and 40 yard dash times. I'm old enough to remember when Anthony Munoz was considered to be a freak of nature because he weighed in the vicinity of 290 pounds but had incredible nimbleness and quickness. Nowadays, Munoz would be on the small side for an offensive lineman. Don't get me wrong--I think that Munoz was indeed a freak of nature in the good sense, someone who was blessed with natural size and athletic ability. My point is how did it happen in one generation that football players got so much bigger, stronger and faster? I don't believe that this is natural or normal. Some people cite improved diets and more advanced fitness regimens but that makes it sound like the United States was some kind of Third World country circa 1979; were nutrition and conditioning that primitive back then? I don't think so.

Remember William "Refrigerator" Perry? He'd just be a small kitchen appliance next to today's NFL linemen. Are we really supposed to believe that these guys would have only weighed 260-270 pounds 30 years ago because athletes were somehow malnourished back then? Fred Dryer played defensive lineman in the NFL at 220 pounds before becoming an actor and playing the title role in the TV series "Hunter." Defensive backs weigh that much now. If the "measurables" don't convince you that PED use has become rampant, just tune to ESPN Classic and watch some NBA, NFL or MLB games from 25 or 30 years ago; those athletes look like they are from a different species than the gladiators who currently take the courts, football fields and baseball diamonds. Baseball players Dave Parker (6-5, 230) and Dave Winfield (6-6, 220) were huge back in the day but their size would hardly draw any special attention today. I'm not saying that everybody is doing it but it would be naive to think that the only cheaters are the few players who have been dumb enough or unlucky enough to be caught red-handed.

The multi-million dollar question now is how to ever put this genie back in the bottle. It may not be long before athletes--and regular citizens--can alter their basic genetic makeup to improve their performance, so where--and how--will society and its sports leagues draw the line? Will we simply give up and say that anything goes? It will be interesting to see how many of today's athletes suffer long term health consequences from the substances that they have ingested. Lyle Alzado attributed the brain cancer that ultimately killed him to steroid abuse, although that link has never been scientifically proven. If many of today's stars pay a physical price for their cheating will that dissuade future athletes from going down this path? Sadly, the answer is probably no, because young athletes believe that they are invincible and do not think about the long term consequences of their actions.