Monday, December 31, 2007

We Play to...Get Reggie Wayne the Receiving Yards Crown and Then Lie Down Like Dogs

On Saturday night, NFL fans were treated to two NFL teams that "had nothing to play for" playing one of the most exciting games of the season, a game that will forever be remembered because of its historical significance and for the long, record setting touchdown pass that gave New England the lead for good. Then, on Sunday night, NFL fans watched a bunch of imposters wearing Indianapolis Colts uniforms play against the Tennessee Titans. I don't know what was worse, how totally inept the Colts were on offense or the fact that the Titans made the playoffs on the basis of a 16-10 win that looked like a bad preseason contest. I understand that Coach Tony Dungy and his Colts earned the right to do whatever they wanted on Sunday night; it is indeed the Cleveland Browns' fault that they not only lost to the Cincinnati Bengals but that they also lost to the Oakland Raiders and thus needed help in order to qualify for the playoffs. However, can anyone honestly say that the Titans-Colts game was entertaining, that it was good for the league or that the fans who bought tickets truly got their money's worth? If you are a Colts fan did you really enjoy watching that game?

A lot of people like to take shots at Patriots' Coach Bill Belichick but Belichick and his team treat every moment of every game as if that moment is supremely important. Dungy had Peyton Manning throw a steady diet of short passes to Reggie Wayne until Wayne caught his 100th pass of the season and clinched the AFC receiving yards crown--and then Dungy took out his key players and put in a bunch of guys who could barely line up correctly, let alone get a first down.

Tom Brady and Randy Moss set all-time records on a play that helped their team cap off a 16-0 season; the Titans were content to let Wayne have all the short yardage receptions he wanted as long as the plays chewed up time and did not lead to a score, secure in the knowledge that after Wayne achieved his "milestones" that Dungy would call off the dogs. Isn't it convenient that Wayne fumbled in the red zone to end the Colts' first series? Then, at the end of the game, the Colts could have called a timeout and at least forced the Titans to run a fourth down play or punt; instead, Dungy and Titans' Coach Jeff Fisher were standing at midfield smiling and shaking hands with time still remaining on the clock--and fans are supposed to be satisfied by this charade because the reserve Colts who were on the field for most of the game tried the best that they could and made a few hard hits. Give me a break. Root for the Colts if you must but please don't say that you prefer them to the Patriots because you value the integrity of the game.

Dungy "rested" key players in the last two regular season games of 2005, losing one and barely winning the other, and then the Colts were upset at home in the playoffs after a bye week. True football fans who value the integrity of all of the regular season games no doubt hope that the "rested" Colts meet a similar fate this time around. Michael Jordan once said, "Love is playing every game as if it's your last." Clearly, he could not have played for the Colts.

Ed Hochuli is the Greatest NFL Referee Ever

Ed Hochuli is one of the few NFL referees who even casual fans know by name--and if you don't know him by name, you almost certainly would recognize him: he's the referee with the legendary "guns" for arms who is able to give the most precise and accurate explanations for even the strangest plays; the "guns" can perhaps be explained by the fact that the 6-1, 215-pound Hochuli played linebacker at UTEP, while his way with words probably stems from his training as a lawyer.

Hochuli reached a new level during Sunday's Atlanta-Seattle game. Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck fumbled and then general chaos ensued, leaving everyone in the stadium wondering who should get the ball and where it should be spotted. If Bud Selig had been the referee, he would have shrugged and declared the game a tie. Fortunately, Hochuli stepped to the mike and restored order with this explanation:

"The ball was initially recovered by Atlanta and it was fumbled again. It was never regained by anyone. Therefore, it's Atlanta's ball--however, it was a fumble forwards that went out of bounds; therefore by rule it returns to the spot of Atlanta's fumble. It's Atlanta's ball there, first down." Of course, Hochuli punctuated this statement by signaling first down with one of his massive "guns." If there has been a better NFL refereeing moment--other than Ben Dreith's legendary "giving him the business down there" call--I haven't seen it.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Perfection! Long TD Pass from Brady to Moss Preserves Unprecedented 16-0 Season for Patriots

It was not easy and at times it was not pretty but the New England Patriots defeated the New York Giants 38-35 to complete the first 16-0 regular season in NFL history, setting numerous individual and team records in the process. The Patriots had several lapses, most notably in their kickoff coverage and in the red zone (both offensively and defensively) but even those shortcomings ultimately testify to this team's unique greatness: it is not possible to play perfect football for 16 straight weeks, so overcoming mistakes well enough to post a perfect record is most impressive indeed. Coach Bill Belichick will no doubt be able to bake several "humble pies" with the ingredients that his team provided him against the Giants but what this team has accomplished is remarkable. Obviously, this story is not complete until and unless the Patriots win the Super Bowl--as they are the first to admit--but this squad, more than any other NFL team that I have ever seen, reminds me of the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls team that set an all-time record by going 72-10 in the regular season and then went 15-3 in the playoffs en route to winning the NBA championship. Those Bulls tried to kill everybody every single night, regardless of what had been clinched or if the game was the fourth road game in five nights and that kind of extreme focus and dedication is unique even among championship teams; NBA champions often lose 20 or more regular season games and the past two NFL champions lost four and five games respectively.

Tom Brady completed 32 of 42 passes for 356 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Wes Welker had 11 receptions for 122 yards, setting a new single-season franchise record for receptions (112; Troy Brown had 101 in 2001). Randy Moss caught six passes for 100 yards and two touchdowns. Laurence Maroney only gained 46 yards on 19 carries but he scored two touchdowns. Eli Manning completed 22 of 32 passes for 251 yards and four touchdowns but his fourth quarter interception was a pivotal play; the Patriots converted that opportunity into a Maroney touchdown that gave them a 10 point lead with less than five minutes remaining in the game.

There was a lot of talk about this game being "meaningless" in terms of playoff seeding but the Patriots and the Giants acted as if this were a playoff game. There were many hard hits and several after the play skirmishes. The Giants struck first, moving straight down the field with a seven play, 74 yard opening drive that culminated in a seven yard Manning touchdown pass to Brandon Jacobs. The Patriots only got a field goal on their first drive but after forcing a three and out they took the lead on a four yard touchdown pass from Brady to Moss; three records were set or tied on that play: touchdown passes in a season (49, tying Brady with Peyton Manning), touchdown receptions in a season (22, tying Moss with Jerry Rice) and points scored in a season (561, breaking the mark of 556 held by the 1998 Minnesota Vikings).

The joy from that moment did not last long for the Patriots, because Domenik Hixon ran the ensuing kickoff back 74 yards for a touchdown to put the Giants up 14-10. The Patriots answered that score with two good drives that stalled in Giants' territory and only resulted in field goals. The Giants received the ball deep in their own territory with less than two minutes remaining in the half but rather than playing it close to the vest they drove 85 yards and took a 21-16 halftime lead on Manning's three yard touchdown pass to Kevin Boss.

New England went three and out on the opening possession of the second half and the Patriots faced their biggest deficit of the season after Manning's 19 yard touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress put the Giants up 28-16. It was stand and deliver time for the Patriots, who did just that with a 73 yard drive that ended with a six yard Maroney touchdown run. The teams traded punts and the Giants received the ball with a 28-23 lead and 12:46 left in the game. One long touchdown drive would put a lot of pressure on the Patriots, who would need two scores in a short amount of time. Instead, Manning recovered his own fumble for a loss of one yard on first down, threw an incomplete pass on second down and completed a four yard screen pass on third down. The Giants failed to go for the kill--and promptly got killed. Brady threw an incomplete pass to Wes Welker on first down and just underthrew Moss on a long bomb on second down but, undeterred by those plays, Brady uncorked another bomb that Moss caught in stride for a 65 yard touchdown. That play gave the Patriots the lead for good while also breaking the single season records for touchdown passes and touchdown receptions; it will no doubt take a prominent place in NFL Films' library of seminal NFL moments, particularly if the Patriots cap off this season by winning a Super Bowl title. Maroney capped things off by running for the two point conversion to put the Patriots up 31-28.

Of course, more than enough time remained for New York to come back but the Giants went from being too conservative when they had the lead to being a bit too reckless when they were only down three. Manning tried to force a second and six pass into coverage and Ellis Hobbs intercepted the ball near midfield. That led to a Maroney touchdown run and a 38-28 lead. The Giants needed to score 10 points in just 4:36. They did not do a great job of time management on the next drive; one thing that they could have at least considered--but was not mentioned by NFL Network commentators Bryant Gumbel and Cris Collinsworth--was to kick a field goal, leaving more time on the clock to try to get the tying touchdown. In any case, Burress' one handed touchdown reception with a little over a minute left gave the Giants one last chance. Fittingly, Mike Vrabel--the sure-handed Pro Bowl linebacker who also catches touchdowns--recovered the onside kick to preserve the perfect season.

Some people questioned why the Patriots kept their first stringers in some of the earlier games in which the Patriots had huge leads, but this team is always sharpening its tools and that relentless focus on trying to play correctly regardless of the time or the score has been vindicated several times in recent weeks when the Patriots were able to execute under pressure; all season long they have held themselves to a high standard of performance, so they have never gotten stale or rusty, unlike some teams in previous seasons that shut some things down after clinching a game or clinching a playoff berth and then were never able to fire those things back up in the playoffs. Perhaps New England risked injury or risked getting some negative media coverage but the reward so far has been, as the commercial tag line goes, priceless: a 16-0 season that will be talked about as long as the NFL exists.


NFL records set by the Patriots (previous record):

--19 consecutive regular season wins (New England Patriots, 18--2003-04)

--16-0 record (Miami Dolphins, 14-0--1972)

--Tom Brady, 50 touchdown passes (Peyton Manning, 49--2004)

--Randy Moss, 23 touchdown passes (Jerry Rice, 22--1987*)

--589 points (Minnesota Vikings, 556--1998)

--75 touchdowns (Miami Dolphins, 70--1984)

--Scoring differential of 315 (589 points scored, 274 points allowed; the 1942 Chicago Bears scored 376 points while allowing just 84 points for a scoring differential of 292)

*Rice played in only 12 games in that strike-shortened season

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Sixteen Reasons the Patriots Will Go 16-0

Here are 16 reasons that the New England Patriots will beat the New York Giants tonight to cap off the first 16-0 regular season in NFL history.

1) Although the Giants are 10-5, they have only outscored their opponents by a total of 25 points. The Giants fattened up their record with wins against weak teams like the Jets, the Falcons, the Dolphins and the 49ers.

2) Although neither team has "anything to play for," as the cliche goes, the Patriots have shown consistently during this season that they will keep their starters in and play aggressively in situations when many other teams would not do so.

3) The Patriots and several of their key players are close to setting all-time NFL records in various categories, most of which have to do with touchdowns and points scored. No matter how much the Patriots publicly downplay such things, they will do their best to make sure that all of those records fall. The toughest one will probably be the single-season touchdown receiving mark; the Giants may be able to deny Randy Moss from getting that but only at the expense of leaving someone else open, enabling Tom Brady to get the single-season mark for touchdown passes.

4) Tom Brady--enough said.

5) Randy Moss--enough said.

6) Bill Belichick versus Tom Coughlin--enough said.

7) The 1972 Miami Dolphins could not beat the New England Patriots--at least, according to Bill Parcells, whose last duty for ESPN was to choose the five best teams that he has seen (excluding ones that he coached) and assess their chances to beat this New England team. Parcells says that the Dolphins' defensive backs would not have been able to cover the Patriots' receivers (this will be a recurring theme, both in this list and in tonight's game).

8) The 1978 Pittsburgh Steelers could not beat the New England Patriots--again, according to Bill Parcells, who says that of all the teams he looked at this one would have the best chance. I agree with him on that score; you could open a small wing of the Hall of Fame with that Steelers team. While some of the earlier Steelers' teams relied more on the running game, this team had a more dynamic passing attack due to the liberalization of the NFL's rules to open up the passing game.

9) The 1985 Chicago Bears could not beat the New England Patriots--Parcells points out that in the one game that the Bears lost, the famous Monday Night Football showdown with the Miami Dolphins, the Bears had trouble defending against three wide receiver formations, a staple of the Patriots' attack. Mike Ditka, who of course coached those Bears, agrees that the famed "46" defense would not work against New England but he says that teams win because of players, not schemes, and that, man for man, his Bears match up with anyone. The Bears won two of their three postseason games by shutout and outscored their playoff opponents 91-10 but I agree with Parcells that they would have struggled to cover New England's deep wide receiving corps.

10) The 1989 San Francisco 49ers could not beat the New England Patriots--Parcells says that of all the hypothetical matchups this is the one that most likely would have been a shootout but he still likes the Patriots because (stop me if you've heard this before) the 49ers would have trouble covering New England's wide receivers.

11) The 1993 Dallas Cowboys could not beat the New England Patriots--Parcells likes Dallas' overall balance and huge offensive line but says that New England would prevail. Speaking in general terms about all of the hypothetical matchups, Parcells concludes, "It's 2007. They're bigger and they're faster and their quarterbacks are better schooled."

12) The New York Giants are not better than the 1972 Dolphins, 1978 Steelers, 1985 Bears, 1989 49ers or 1993 Cowboys.

13) Against common opponents this year, New England went 9-0 with a point differential of 222 (360-138), while New York went 6-3 with a point differential of just 21 (207-186)

14) Bill Belichick is unparalleled in his ability to devise the correct game plan to use against each opponent; two of his game plans--the one he came up with as a defensive coordinator for the Giants in their Super Bowl XXV win and the one he used as New England's head coach in the Patriots' Super Bowl XXXVI win--are on display in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

15) Belichick only keeps around players who have the mental ability/physical capability to not only implement his masterful game plans but to incorporate in-game adjustments to those plans if necessary.

16) This whole season has been one seek and destroy mission by a highly intelligent, highly skilled and highly motivated Patriots team that is not about to let up with the finish line (at least in terms of the regular season) in sight.

Prediction: Patriots 38, Giants 14; Brady, Moss and company will not leave the game unless they are injured or the Patriots have at least a three touchdown lead in the fourth quarter--and possibly not even in that case.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Has NFL Quarterbacking Gotten Better or Worse Since 1970?

In the November 19 issue of Sports Illustrated, Peter King writes, "Ripping NFL quarterbacking has become a favorite pastime this year." He acknowledges that several teams are struggling to find a decent starter but declares, "there will never be 32 premier passers at one time. And in truth, the overall quality at the position has improved steadily since 1970." King then cites the fact that the average NFL passer rating has increased from 65.6 in 1970 to 73.7 in 1980 to 77.3 in 1990 to 78.1 in 2000 to 81.1 (at the time he wrote his article) in 2007. For some reason, King randomly picks 1980, lists the eight passers who threw for the most yards that season (Dan Fouts, Brian Sipe, Archie Manning, Tommy Kramer, Steve Bartkowski, Lynn Dickey, Ron Jaworski and Doug Williams) and declares that the eight passers who had thrown for the most yards through week 10 of this season (Brett Favre, Tom Brady, Tony Romo, Carson Palmer, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Matt Hasselbeck and Donovan McNabb) have a more impressive collective resume; King notes that there is just one Hall of Famer in the first group (Fouts) compared to "at least three" in the second group (presumably King means Favre, Manning and Brady). After that, King mentions that Hasselbeck has posted a better completion percentage and yards per game average than Jim Hart, a Pro Bowl quarterback from the 1970s. King concludes by pointing out that Atlanta and Chicago, two teams that have unsettled quarterback situations now, were no better off in 1972 when Bob Berry and Bobby Douglas/Kent Nix were their respective quarterbacks.

It is hard to imagine a less well reasoned article about this subject than the one that King put together. Let's take it (apart) from the top. There is a difference between each team having a competent starting quarterback and having "32 premier passers in the league"; by definition, there will never be more than five or 10 "premier" passers, even if the overall quality of play is in fact improving: "premier" simply means the best of the best at a given time. A record 61 different quarterbacks have started at least one game this year; some of that is due to injuries, of course, but many teams are having trouble finding one player who can do an even semi-competent job at the most important position in the sport. Whether or not this is a golden age in terms of "premier" quarterbacks, there are certainly a lot of bad starting quarterbacks in the NFL.

King's method for evaluating the evolution of quarterback quality is bizarre, to say the least. Passer ratings compiled prior to 1978 should never be compared to the ones put up in what I call the "Liveball" era (borrowing a concept from baseball); in 1978, the five yard contact rule was enacted and offensive linemen were allowed to extend their arms and open their hands while blocking. Those changes led to dramatic improvements across the board in passing statistics. Another change since that time is the proliferation of the so-called West Coast Offense and its various offshoots that emphasize using the short passing game in place of the running game; quarterbacks in such systems are going to have high completion percentages and low interception rates (because they are not making risky, long throws) and thus their passer ratings will be better than those put up by gunslingers like Terry Bradshaw or Joe Namath. King is oddly infatuated with yardage statistics but after the rules affecting the passing game were liberalized teams sensibly chose to pass the ball more often and thus gain more passing yards; teams gained 181.1 passing yards per game in 1970 (according to King's chart), 214.1 passing ypg in 1980 and 214.6 passing ypg through week 10 in 2007. Obviously, the bulk of the increase in passing yardage happened right after the 1978 rules changes--but King never mentions those changes in his article, leading the reader to believe that there has been some quantum increase in quarterback quality.

It is also not clear why King randomly selected 1980 or why he chose to list the year's yardage leaders as opposed to its passer rating leaders. Yardage is hardly the best way to evaluate a quarterback's greatness. Although comparison of passer ratings between eras can be misleading, there is nothing wrong with comparing the career accomplishments of 1980's passer rating leaders with those of 2007's passer rating leaders (the passer ratings themselves have skewed upwards but it is valid to look at who were the top QBs in different eras and make subjective determinations about which group of players is more distinguished). The top eight 1980 passers by passer rating were Sipe, Jaworski, Vince Ferragamo, Steve Bartkowski, Joe Montana, Dan Fouts, Gary Danielson and Manning. Montana and Fouts are Hall of Famers, while Sipe won the 1980 NFL MVP. By using yardage as his metric, King "conveniently" left Montana out of the discussion of 1980 quarterbacks. In any case, what is so special about 1980? If King had chosen 1981 and looked at the top eight passers by rating then he would have found three Hall of Famers (Montana, Fouts, Terry Bradshaw); if King had chosen 1979 and looked at the top eight passers by rating he also would have found three Hall of Famers (Bradshaw, Fouts, Roger Staubach). It looks like King deliberately chose one year and one category in order to "prove" that there are more great quarterbacks today than there were in previous eras. It should also be mentioned that Hall of Fame status is a somewhat subjective barometer of greatness; Ken Anderson is certainly a worthy HoF candidate and if he were inducted at some point then the 1981 leaders would include four HoFers.

The Hasselbeck-Hart comparison is completely out of left field (pardon the mixed-sports metaphor). What do those two quarterbacks have in common? Even if Hasselbeck is better than Hart, what does that prove? Furthermore, King only compared them in terms of their completion percentages and their passing yards per game, two metrics that clearly favor the post-1978 passer. The references to the 1972 Falcons and Bears are also strange. What light can those situations possibly cast on the overall level of quarterbacking at that time?

King may be right that NFL quarterbacking is better now than it ever has been but he certainly did not prove it in his article, which is a textbook example of misuse of statistical data.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Instead of Delivering Knockout Blow, Browns Shoot Themselves in the Foot

The Cleveland Browns squandered an opportunity to earn a Wild Card berth as Derek Anderson threw four interceptions that the Cincinnati Bengals converted into 13 points en route to a 19-14 victory. That result enabled the Pittsburgh Steelers to clinch the AFC North title. The Browns can still make the playoffs but they no longer control their own destiny; if the Tennessee Titans beat the Indianapolis Colts next week then the Titans will get the final AFC playoff berth--and the Colts will likely be resting most of their top players because they cannot move up in the standings; as CBS' Phil Simms noted, Colts' Coach Tony Dungy has said, "If you're depending on us for help, tough."

At the start of the game, it looked like all the Browns needed to do was deliver one or two punches in the mouth and the Bengals would have been more than happy to quit. The Bengals gained just 13 yards on their first possession before being forced to punt and then the Browns easily moved downfield from their 10 to the Cincinnati 22 in just eight plays. The drive stalled, though, and the Browns had nothing to show for their efforts after a botched hold prevented them from even attempting a field goal. Carson Palmer threw an interception on the third play of the Bengals' second possession and Leigh Bodden's 22 yard return set the Browns up at the Cincinnati 28 yard line. Good teams capitalize on such opportunities by scoring touchdowns; the Browns were unable to gain 10 yards and turned the ball over on downs after eschewing a field goal attempt. The Bengals then put together their best drive of the game (10 plays, 69 yards) but the Browns held them to a field goal. Cincinnati later tacked on another three points after a 48 yard drive but when the Browns got the ball at their own 43 with 1:27 left in the first half they had an excellent chance to run their two minute offense and take a lead by scoring a touchdown. At worst, Cleveland only needed to gain 30-40 yards to kick a field goal. Instead, Anderson's first down pass was intercepted and returned all the way to Cleveland's five yard line. Palmer's touchdown pass to T.J. Houshmandzadeh put the Bengals up 13-0. Incredibly, Anderson threw another first down interception, providing the Bengals great field position at the Cleveland 20. Two plays later, the Bengals led 19-0 after a touchdown run by Kenny Watson (they decided to go for a two-point conversion instead of kicking an extra point).

Although the opportunity for Cleveland to deliver a knockout punch was long gone, the game was still there for the taking. The Browns drove all the way to the Cincinnati nine yard line on the opening possession of the second half but again came up empty after Anderson threw an interception. Cincinnati got one first down before punting the ball away. The Browns drove downfield and finally scored a touchdown just before the end of the third quarter on Anderson's two yard pass to Braylon Edwards, who broke Gary Collins' franchise record for single season touchdown receptions (14). The Bengals promptly went three and out and the Browns again moved right down the field to the Cincinnati 29 before the drive stalled as Anderson threw incomplete passes on third and fourth down.

The Bengals responded with a three and out and Joshua Cribbs' punt return gave the Browns great field position at the Cincinnati 48. The Browns gained 31 yards on the next three plays before an Anderson interception ended that scoring opportunity. The Bengals continued to show their lack of interest in winning the game by turning the ball back over on the very next play as Palmer threw an interception that Bodden returned to the Cincinnati 16. Three plays later, Anderson's second touchdown pass to Edwards made the score 19-14 and it looked like the Browns might overcome their ineptitude and beat the lifeless Bengals. All Cleveland needed was one defensive stop and no more turnovers, because their offense had repeatedly demonstrated the ability to drive down the field. Instead, the Browns let the Bengals convert two first downs that drained most of the remaining time off of the clock. The Bengals had the ball at the Cleveland 22 yard line and were about to clinch the win when Watson fumbled, giving the Browns one last chance. Anderson drove Cleveland to the Bengals 29 yard line before time ran out in the game--and possibly for the Browns' postseason chances.

The Browns gained more yards (380-270), had more first downs (25-15) and won the time of possession battle (33:06-26:54) but simply could not overcome Anderson's interceptions. Cleveland's last ranked defense performed decently overall but did give up 130 yards on 30 carries to Watson, a career backup who was playing in place of the injured Rudi Johnson. This was essentially the first playoff game for the young players on the Browns' roster--win and you're in, lose and you're probably out. Perhaps they will receive a second chance if Tennessee loses next week but, most likely, they will have a long offseason to think about the opportunity that they squandered today in Cincinnati.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Steroid Cheaters Have Trampled Baseball's Record Book With Huge, Ugly Footprints

What would the past decade of baseball history have looked like if Commissioner Bud Selig, the MLB Players Association and MLB owners had not perpetrated a fraud by allowing performance-enhancing drug users to run amok? It is simply pathetic that arguably the greatest hitter and the greatest pitcher of this era--Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens--likely enhanced significant portions of their careers illegally. Just like Marion Jones has had to return her ill gotten gains, baseball's cheaters should likewise be stricken from the record books. Phil Rogers of the Chicago Tribune listed some possible changes that could be made in the record book to more fairly document recent baseball history.

Boston Red Sox General Manager Dan Duquette famously said that Clemens was in the "twilight of his career" by 1996; in the four previous seasons, Clemens posted a 40-39 record with Boston. In 1997, Clemens signed with the Toronto Blue Jays. He went 41-13 in his two seasons with Toronto and won two Cy Young Awards. Clemens won two more Cy Youngs--one with the Yankees and one with the Astros--to become the only pitcher to have received that honor seven times. That late career surge enabled Clemens to assume the mantle as the greatest pitcher of the modern era, but the Mitchell Report casts serious doubt over the legitimacy of anything that Clemens accomplished after 1996. Rogers notes that Randy Johnson finished second to Clemens in the 1997 and 2004 Cy Young voting; disqualify Clemens and then Johnson becomes the only seven-time Cy Young winner. Pedro Martinez finished second to Clemens in the 1998 Cy Young voting, so he should have had four Cy Youngs instead of three. Also, Martinez placed second in the 2000 AL MVP voting to Ivan Rodriguez, who is one of the players that Jose Canseco claims to have personally injected with steroids. Take away the Cy Youngs that Clemens cheated to win and he ranks behind Johnson and Greg Maddux in terms of modern era pitchers.

Albert Pujols finished second to Barry Bonds in NL MVP voting in 2002 and 2003, awards that would have already put Pujols on the elite list of three-time MVPs. Frank Thomas finished second behind Jason Giambi in 2000 AL MVP voting. Thomas, who has long been a lonely voice speaking out against performance-enhancing drug use, is the only star player who cooperated with Mitchell's investigation (Thomas is not suspected of any wrongdoing but volunteered to talk about what he has observed during his career). There is no earthly reason for Selig to not step in--like the track and field authorities did with Marion Jones--and take the award away from Giambi and give it to Thomas. Giambi admitted his steroid use to the BALCO grand jury and publicly apologized for his actions, albeit in a non-committal, roundabout way.

Near the end of his article, Rogers relays the story of Dan Naulty, a journeyman pitcher whose name was listed in the Mitchell Report. Naulty has since admitted that he did in fact use steroids: "I stole people's jobs. That's the part for me that was so wrong. I have to explain to my boys that I took people's jobs by cheating, and that penetrated my soul a number of years ago and still haunts me today--the poor choice I made for the chance of being a Major League Baseball player."

Naulty, who cooperated with Mitchell's investigation, says that he gained at least 20 pounds of muscle and added about 8 mph to his fastball, enabling him to make it to the majors. Naulty took steroids for six years before switching to human growth hormone. All that added bulk and strength resulted in numerous injuries that ended his career: "I had 40-45 pounds of extra muscle my body wasn't used to. I was tearing tendons off bones."

Isn't it interesting that in the wake of the Mitchell Report we have heard a lot of the implicated players admit to their offenses, even if the vast majority of them seem to be reading from a standard script that says that they only did it once, regretted it and never did it again? Do you really believe that the only steroid users were journeymen like Naulty or players who tried it once and then quit because they had pangs of conscience? If Clemens, Bonds or anyone else really feels that the Mitchell Report or any book or article has unfairly linked them to this scandal then they should sue. That would entail going to court and testifying under oath about exactly what they did or did not do. To the best of my knowledge, no baseball player who has been publicly linked to performance-enhancing drug use has ever won a lawsuit over this nor has any accused party stepped forward and proven his innocence.

Why is the Media Out to Get Terrell Owens?

Let me tell you about an athlete whose story you don't know. He was born to a 17 year old alcoholic, who raised him with help from her mother, who was also an alcoholic. He did not know who his real father was until he was 12 and he became friendly with a girl in the neighborhood--who turned out to be his half-sister. He sought to escape from his unhappy life at home by immersing himself in sports, becoming good at basketball, track and football. In high school, college and the professional ranks he distinguished himself with his work ethic until he became one of the best players in the history of football at his position. His name is Terrell Owens and, for some reason, no matter how hard he works, no matter how well he plays and no matter how well he conducts himself, a significant segment of the mainstream media is apparently determined to bring him down. You don't know his story because, even though the facts are publicly available and have been mentioned in a few articles, his story has not become a part of the national narrative the way that Brett Favre's triumphs over adversity have been relentlessly thrust into our collective consciousness.

That is not to say that Owens is perfect. Like everyone else, he has done things that he should not have done--but how is it that Ray Lewis obstructed justice in a double murder that still has not been solved and yet he has a better public image than a player who has never committed a crime and whose biggest "offense" is that he feuded with some of his quarterbacks, none of whom have played as well without Owens as they did with him?

Owens is having one of the most productive seasons of his future Hall of Fame career, his Dallas Cowboys have the best record in the NFC and Owens has been a model citizen. He has carefully walked the verbal line of praising new coach Wade Phillips without overtly slamming Phillips' predecessor Bill Parcells, who would not even publicly utter Owens' name--literally dehumanizing him. A little over a week ago, ESPN's Keyshawn Johnson, one of Parcells' former players, decided to publicly offer Owens some advice, namely to not even suggest that the Cowboys are better off without Parcells because Parcells laid the foundation for the team's current success. If Johnson were sincerely trying to help and not making a bid for more attention, wouldn't he deliver that message privately? Anyway, how likely is it that Owens would be watching a pregame show right before he's about to play? Apparently, someone told Owens that Johnson had disrespected him--I firmly believe that Owens never actually saw or heard the segment featuring Johnson (at least not before microphones were thrust into Owens' face). Naturally, feeling hurt and insulted, Owens fired back, although his comments actually simply stated the truth: Owens' career has been more successful than Johnson's and Parcells may have put the team together but Phillips is getting the most out of all of the players. ESPN and some other networks tried to turn this into some kind of blood feud but, fortunately, the story has died down.

That just meant that Owens' detractors had to try to stir up trouble in a different way. Is there anything more overblown than the ridiculous obsession with Jessica Simpson's appearance at last week's Cowboys-Eagles game? Who honestly believes that her mere presence had anything to do with how Tony Romo played? Asked about the situation, Owens delivered some one-liners. Look, he may not be Jay Leno or David Letterman but anyone who listed to the audio can plainly hear Owens and the media members around him laughing. Even if you just read the text of what Owens said, it was so over the top he obviously was kidding. Instead, Owens' attempt at humor was reported as if he actually demanded that Simpson stay away from future Cowboys' games, leading Owens to call Romo just to clear the air. Owens' teammates are bemused about this so-called controversy. As receiver Patrick Crayton noted, Simpson also attended two games that the Cowboys won but nobody is talking about that.

Before sticking a microphone in Owens' face and asking him to respond to Johnson wouldn't it be fair to make sure that Owens really knows exactly what Johnson said and how he said it? Johnson was grandstanding, to be sure, but he did not really blast Owens--but it makes for a juicier story to provoke Owens and then let the cameras roll. Also, before declaring that Owens really meant that Simpson should not come to the game doesn't a reporter have an obligation to know the context in which his comments were made?

The good news is that ultimately, all the mainstream media can do is manipulate how the public views certain people; it cannot decide the outcome of games--and, at the end of the day, if a player and his team cannot get it done no amount of whitewashing can cover up that stark fact. The Eagles, notwithstanding their victory over the Cowboys, are floundering and have never been the same since kicking Owens to the curb; yes, other factors also played a role in their demise but they have a crying need for a playmaking wide receiver. Hello? They had one and he is not so coincidentally a key performer for the conference's best team. Eagles' fans can savor their moment of triumph in their one Pyrrhic victory over Owens this season as they watch the Cowboys during the playoffs.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Two Minute Drill: Miami's "Perfect" Season is Over, but New England's is Still Going Strong

The Miami Dolphins "ruined" their "perfect" season by beating the Baltimore Ravens 22-16 in overtime to post their first win in 14 games. Think about how far and how fast the Ravens have fallen--from an AFC North division title and a 13-3 record in 2006 to a 4-10 mark this season, including an eight game losing streak. Meanwhile, the New England Patriots continued the NFL's real perfect season, improving to 14-0 with a 20-10 victory over the New York Jets. While many people assumed that the Patriots would wreak vengeance on Jets Coach Eric Mangini, ESPN's Steve Young correctly predicted that the Jets would not be blown out; he said that a focused, well prepared NFL team should never be routed and that he expected the Jets to be very focused considering how much outside attention was being focused on this game. Of course, the harsh weather conditions greatly limited the passing game, which obviously hurt New England a lot more than New York.

If the Dolphins had not won then next week's New England-Miami game would have involved the bizarre, unprecedented symmetry of a 14-0 team facing an 0-14 squad. Even with Miami finally entering the win column, this matchup still features a 13 victory differential, a first in NFL history. Maybe the weather will conspire to keep things close but a bigger factor will likely be what Young talked about: a focused team should not be blown out. The Dolphins could go one of two ways with this--they might be energized by their victory and enthusiastic about their opportunity to spoil New England's perfect record (and at the same time preserve the 1972 Dolphins' place in history) or they might be so relieved/content about their win that they simply play out the string and get ready for the offseason. My hunch is that Miami will play hard at the start but as soon as New England puts the hammer down the Dolphins will give in mentally and get blown out; a lot of the comments from Miami players before and after the Baltimore game centered around the embarrassment of possibly going 0-16, which makes me think that the Dolphins' main goal was simply to get one win to avoid that fate.

Several interesting storylines emerged in the Dallas-Philadelphia game. Dallas defensive back Roy Williams is the main reason that the "horse collar" rule exists yet he continues to be the primary practitioner of this dangerous (and dirty) maneuver in which a tackler grabs a ball carrier by the back of his collar and yanks him to the ground; Terrell Owens, then with the Eagles, suffered a broken leg after a "horse collar" tackle by Williams in 2004, and Eagles quarterback Donavan McNabb is fortunate that he did not suffer a similar fate after a "horse collar" tackle by Williams during Philadelphia's 10-6 win over Dallas on Sunday. That was Williams' third "horse collar" tackle this season. Thankfully, the NFL has responded swiftly against Williams, suspending him for a game without pay because of the McNabb play.

Most of the media coverage after the Eagles' upset victory focused on how Dallas quarterback Tony Romo was allegedly more preoccupied with the presence of Jessica Simpson in the stands than with what he was supposed to be doing in the game. The reality is that the Fox broadcasters were the ones who were preoccupied with her; there never was any indication that Romo interacted with her during the game, was distracted in any way by her presence or even knew that she was there. Instead of wasting so much air time talking about her, it would have been nice if Fox bothered to actually analyze what Romo was doing wrong--was he not reading coverages well, were his mechanics breaking down, was his injured thumb affecting his grip on the ball or was it a combination of all of these things? ESPN did not do any better, as its postgame coverage focused much more on Simpson than on the game. Are we supposed to believe that Romo is the only quarterback in the NFL who has an attractive lady friend who sometimes goes to games?

One thing that was very obvious is that Romo was not throwing the ball accurately. He completed just 13 of 36 passes and most of the incompletions were poorly thrown balls. Of course, since Terrell Owens only caught two passes for 37 yards but was the target of some passes that were intercepted there has been much talk about whether Owens is going to become disruptive to the team and if Romo is forcing the ball to Owens. There has been no indication that Owens is whining or griping (unlike the constant, highly demonstrative gestures that Cincinnati's Chad Johnson has been making all season long), so the disruption issue is just wishful thinking by people who don't like Owens. As for forcing the ball, there are two sides to this issue. First, Owens is the best offensive weapon on the team, which means that if he is open he should be getting the ball and if the design of the offense is not getting him open then different plays should be run (I've yet to hear anyone suggest that Owens is dogging it by not playing hard). Second, if Owens is not open because he is double covered then it is up to Romo to make that read, find the open man and deliver the ball to him. During the telecast, Troy Aikman pointed out that the Cowboys' best offensive play against the Eagles, a 53 yard reception by tight end Jason Witten, was made possible because the way that Owens ran his route forced the safety to cover him, leaving Witten wide open. As long as Romo accurately delivers the ball to whoever is open then Dallas' offense will be fine, because teams cannot double cover both Owens and Witten without leaving huge running lanes for Marion Barber. The problem for the Cowboys was not Jessica Simpson or Terrell Owens but Romo's inaccuracy, the root causes of which must be discovered and corrected as soon as possible.

I have heard announcers say that a player should kneel down instead of scoring a touchdown late in a close game in which his team is ahead, thus enabling his team to run out the clock without giving the ball back to the other team--but I cannot recall seeing this happen until Philadelphia running back Brian Westbrook did it. In this era of me-first thinking, his selfless act truly stands out, even if offensive lineman Jon Runyan deserves some of the credit for suggesting this tactic to Westbrook in the huddle before the play. How many guys would so blatantly sacrifice personal statistics for the good of the team? To all of you fantasy football players who are whining about this, all I can say is, "Grow up." The most important thing for a player to do is win the actual, live game, not worry about personal glory or his statistics.

Welcome to Believeland!

Cleveland has improbably become "Believeland." The Indians did better than expected last season, the Cavaliers won the Eastern Conference Finals thanks to the efforts of LeBron James--who is perhaps the NBA's best young star--and the Browns are just one win away from clinching the team's first playoff berth since 2002. The Browns and their loyal fans have suffered through bad drafts, disappointing free agent signings, a rash of bizarre injuries and horrible quarterbacking--all of which combined to produce losing records year after year. This season began in all too familiar fashion with a humiliating loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Amazingly, since that disaster the Browns have become the turnaround story of the season and after Sunday's 8-0 victory over the Buffalo Bills they are tied with Pittsburgh for first place in the AFC North with a 9-5 record. The Steelers hold the tiebreaker advantage due to a 2-0 head to head record but if the Browns can close out the season by beating Cincinnati and San Francisco then they will only need a Pittsburgh loss either at St. Louis or at Baltimore to clinch the franchise's first division title since 1989. The Steelers have lost two in a row and are just 2-4 this year on the road.

"Red Right 88," "The Drive" and "The Fumble" are reminders that even some good Cleveland teams seemed to be snakebitten but this year's squad won a game thanks to a "double doink" field goal and beat Buffalo in the third lowest scoring game in franchise history with a final score that has not been seen in the NFL since 1929. After the Browns almost beat Arizona on a last second pass, receiver Braylon Edwards quipped that if the Browns had won that game he'd say that they were going to the Super Bowl because destiny is on the team's side. Well, what can you say about a vitally important game in which the winning team's points came from a safety after a snap sails over a punter's head and two field goals that the kicker had to intentionally aim outside of the goal posts because of swirling winds? When Coach Romeo Crennel sent Phil Dawson out to kick a 49 yard field goal I thought that he had lost his mind--and when the kick landed precisely on the spot where the "double doink" kick hit I thought of Edwards' statement and wondered aloud if the Browns really are a team of destiny this year.

I don't really believe in things like luck or good fortune, though, and there are some fundamental football reasons that explain the Browns' success so far. Football games are won by teams that are strong in the trenches and that play in a disciplined, smart and physical manner. None of those things were true of the Browns for many years. Now the team has a very good offensive line, which is a big reason for this season's scoring explosion. Obviously, strong-armed quarterback Derek Anderson deserves a lot of credit as well and he has pair of great targets in Edwards and tight end Kellen Winslow. Returner Joshua Cribbs consistently provides the Browns with good field position.

While a good offensive line, a dependable quarterback, good receivers and quality special teams play are very important, every Browns playoff team has had a good running back; Cleveland weather gets nasty late in the season and it is essential to be able to run the ball. It is scandalous that this franchise went two decades without having a 1000 yard rusher but that problem has been solved now: Jamal Lewis already has become just the second Browns running back since 1985 to rush for more than 1000 yards. He is on pace to finish the season with 1239 yards, which would be the most by a Browns running back since Mike Pruitt's 1294 yards in 1979. Lewis needs 216 yards in the last two games to become the only running back in Browns history other than Jim Brown to rush for 1300 yards in a season. Lewis runs with an attitude and his physical style can break an opponent's will. Recent Cleveland teams would not have had a chance to win a bad weather game like last Sunday's because they had no running game. Lewis pounded the Bills for 163 yards on 33 carries. I don't know what the CBS announcing crew was talking about when they said before the game started that it could be a high scoring affair. When is the last time that blizzard-like conditions produced a high scoring game? It was obvious from the start that this game had to be the Jamal Lewis Show. The Browns did a good job of mixing in some pass plays to keep Buffalo off balance but when money time arrived, Crennel told Lewis, "It's your time"; Lewis gained 69 yards on 16 carries in the fourth quarter to preserve the win.

The defense is still a work in progress but the good news is that it has gotten better during the season and shown the ability to make key stops at the end of games. It is still a stretch to see this team winning a championship this year but the Browns are not some fluky team backing their way into the playoffs; they are a legitimately good team with several Pro Bowl quality players, each of whom is young and still improving. Regardless of what happens the rest of the way this season, the future is bright for the Cleveland Browns--and who in September would have dreamed that those words could be uttered with a straight face in December?

Saturday, December 15, 2007

How Good are the Patriots?

Recently, With Malice asked some bloggers to discuss who would win a matchup between the 1992 and 2008 U.S. Olympic basketball teams. That brought forth some interesting replies, inspiring him to turn his attention to this interesting hypothetical two part question: Are The Pats REALLY That Good? Or is the NFL that bad?

Click on the above link to read all of the panel's responses. Here is my take:

We can’t definitively answer this question until after the Super Bowl. For the sake of discussion, let’s assume that the Patriots go 19-0. If the Dolphins go 0-16 then two of the Patriots’ wins would have come against one of the worst teams ever--but the Patriots also beat the defending Super Bowl champions (Indianapolis), the best regular season team in the NFC this year (Dallas) and a strong Pittsburgh team that many experts thought matched up perfectly with New England. Overall, the Patriots are playing a stronger schedule than the 1972 Dolphins did and are winning their games by a wider margin.

I don’t see any evidence that the NFL is “that bad.” Years ago, Commissioner Pete Rozelle tried to create parity and that has been a major characteristic of the league not just this year but for quite some time, which makes what New England is doing even more remarkable. New England’s success this season has to be placed in the context of the fact that the Patriots’ coach-quarterback duo not only has already won three Super Bowls but also set an NFL record in 2003-04 by winning 18 straight regular season games (21 in a row if you count the 2003 playoffs); that is a powerful reason to believe that the Patriots will go 19-0--they’ve already won that many games in a row before and they did it with a team that, on paper, was not as strong as this year’s squad. Remember when some pundits suggested that the departure of assistant coaches Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel would be New England’s undoing? The 2007 Patriots are first in the league by wide margins in points scored and yards gained--and their recently maligned defense is fourth in yards against and fourth in points allowed, resulting in a scoring differential of 21.6 ppg, much better than any of New England’s Super Bowl teams. That differential is more than 15 of the 32 NFL teams score on average!

Back in October, I wrote the following in a post titled Tom Brady is Rewriting the Record Book:

Is Brady the greatest quarterback ever? That sounds like a sacrilegious question but Brady only needs one Super Bowl ring to match Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana (four each). What are we supposed to think if Brady wins his fourth Super Bowl after shattering the single season statistical standards set by the likes of Manning and Dan Marino?

If Brady maintains his lofty individual numbers and the Patriots go 19-0 en route to winning a fourth Super Bowl title in seven years--an amazing feat in the free agency era--then not only would the Patriots have to be on the very short list of greatest teams of all-time but serious consideration would have to be given to ranking Brady as the greatest quarterback in NFL history. At that point, he would be a combination of Dan Marino and Terry Bradshaw--the ultimate numbers guy and the ultimate winner.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Was that Bud Selig Talking--or Was it Mark McGwire?

In the wake of the publication of the Mitchell Report, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig sounded like he was channeling Mark McGwire's ill-fated appearance before Congress. McGwire infamously said, "I'm not here to talk about the past." Selig uttered virtually the same thing, echoing something that Senator Mitchell said earlier during his press conference when he officially released his findings: "Letting go of the past is hard, but it's often a necessary step if you are gonna deal with the problem in the future. I don't think baseball now needs to spend the next several years rummaging around in the past trying to find every single person who ever used performance-enhancing substances and try to punish them. I think what they need to do is to look to the future. How can you best prevent this from occurring in the future?"

If MLB is not going to at least try to figure out what happened in the past and do something to preserve the sanctity of its record book then why commission the Mitchell Report in the first place? Otherwise, this whole thing is just a dog and pony show so that Selig can shrug his shoulders and say that he did the best that he could to deal with the steroids issue, kind of like the impotent gesture he offered at the end of the 2002 All-Star Game that ended in a tie.

At his press conference, Selig came off, as usual, sounding like a well-meaning buffoon. Selig looked like the substitute teacher who can't believe that the students are firing spitballs behind his back and who can't figure out how to identify and punish the perpetrators. Of course, this situation is a lot more serious than spitballs. The integrity of the sport is at stake, as is the health and welfare of young athletes who look up to professional athletes and who feel compelled to take performance-enhancing drugs to keep up with their peers and to be like the stars who they admire.

Selig said that he has not read the complete report--which is odd since he commissioned it in the first place and will be charged with dealing with its aftermath--and he kept repeating his mantra about bringing closure to what happened in the past so that MLB can now look toward the future. The performance-enhancing drug (PED) using cheaters won World Series titles and MVPs while setting numerous records. The MLB record book is now covered in steroid-soaked graffiti and that mess must be cleaned up. Track and field has taken a great step by striking Marion Jones' results from its record books. Here is what MLB should do, at the very least: every single player who MLB has good reason to believe to be a cheater should have a giant "M" (for "Mitchell Report") placed by his career statistics. When more cheaters are discovered in years to come (keep in mind how long it took to find out what Jones did), put an "M" by their names, too. Anyone who consults the record book should be informed in no uncertain terms that those numbers are tainted. It may never be possible to completely restore the record book to a pristine state but MLB owes the fans something more than saying that we should not "talk about the past."

Sometimes it is said that steroids were not banned by MLB until 2002. That disregards the fact that steroids and PEDs are illegal to use without a prescription but the Mitchell Report goes even further by noting that MLB's 1971 drug policy prohibited the use of prescription medication without a valid prescription and that steroids were explicitly mentioned in the sport's 1991 drug policy: "Steroids have been listed as a prohibited substance under the Major League Baseball drug policy since then," the Mitchell Report flatly states; what changed in 2002 is that the owners and the players union agreed on a drug testing plan for the first time.

No one should buy the argument that if MLB cannot identify every single player who used PEDs that it should not punish anyone. If the police cannot catch every single criminal then should all criminals be set free? It just does not work that way. If you break an MLB rule--and break the law on top of it--then you run the risk of being caught, being publicly embarrassed and being punished.

Roger Clemens is the most prominent player mentioned in the Mitchell Report other than Barry Bonds. Already, some people are claiming that Bonds has been the victim of racism because he has been pilloried for years, while Clemens has received a free pass. The flaw in this thinking is that Bonds' name emerged years ago in the Balco proceedings; after that, the book Game of Shadows made an overwhelming case that Bonds cheated and that his cheating played a major role in increasing his production. Until now, no such case could be made against Clemens but now that his name is in the Mitchell Report he should be subjected to the same scrutiny that Bonds has faced; in fact, at least one writer has already declared that Clemens is no different than Bonds. Prior to publishing his report, Mitchell informed Clemens of the information that he had obtained about him and offered him an opportunity to defend himself and Clemens declined, so don't pay any attention to sob stories coming from Clemens' camp about how unfair it is that his name is mentioned in the report.

Selig has never accepted responsibility for his own role in this mess. He presided over the sport when a labor stoppage canceled the 1994 postseason and then he and his minions looked the other way as PED usage proliferated because the resulting home runs filled the owners' coffers and put MLB back on the map after that 1994 fiasco. The end result is that the owners got rich, Selig got rich, the players got rich and few of the guilty parties will ever pay a price for what they have done to the national pastime. Who got stuck with the bill for all of this? The fans who bought tickets, MLB licensed merchandise and the products advertised during TV broadcasts of MLB games. Come next spring, the stadiums will be full, the cash registers will be ringing and all will likely be forgiven and forgotten. Maybe Bud Selig actually is smarter than he looks--he and his sport have not only perpetrated a huge fraud on the American public but became fabulously wealthy while doing so.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Keyshawn Johnson Versus Terrell Owens: The Real Tale of the Tape

Keyshawn Johnson is right--and so is Terrell Owens. For those of you who may have missed it--pretty hard to do considering that this "controversy" is in full 24 hour rotation on ESPN now--on last Sunday's "NFL Countdown," Keyshawn Johnson looked directly into the camera and offered some advice to Owens: "This team that Terrell Owens is on--Bill Parcells built it. And you may go on to win the Super Bowl but you're always going to be linked to Coach Parcells, because he helped build this team. The one thing that you have to get over--and I'm talking to you, T.O.--leave this man alone. Stop messing with Coach Parcells and that staff. Stop needling, because you are not going to win in this situation; you are only going to make yourself look bad. You're having a terrific year. You're playing out of your mind. If I had votes for Player of the Year, you'd be right up there with Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Just leave it alone. You're not going to win with Parcells. Just get the Super Bowl ring--that's it. Leave it alone."

Owens has actually been quite circumspect with what he has said about Coach Parcells and he has really spent more time praising his current Coach Wade Phillips than he has saying anything negative about Parcells. There really should not be any controversy here at all but Johnson is right that a lot of people hate Owens so much that they will gladly twist his compliments about Phillips into shots at Parcells; from that perspective, there is probably a point of diminishing returns for Owens in terms of continuing to publicly say how well the current coaching staff is using him, even if those statements are 100% true.

Unfortunately, Owens took such umbrage at Johnson's advice--or how that advice was portrayed to him--that he apparently disregarded Johnson's talk about him being a candidate for Player of the Year and just interpreted the whole thing as a cheap shot, possibly coming from Parcells in some fashion. That led Owens to fire back with both barrels: "He's going to be a hater and do whatever he can to throw me under the bus obviously because he and Bill are real good friends. I mean, nobody would even know he won the Super Bowl unless you checked the roster. My thing is we came out the same year. He was a first rounder and I was a third rounder. I'm still playing, he's not. You compare our stats until up until the time that he retires and it's a no-brainer...Here's a guy who writes a book, Just Give Me the Damn Ball--106 catches and one touchdown and that was off a tipped pass...It's not a matter of me giving or not giving Bill credit. Everybody wants to make a big deal that this is a team that he built. It doesn't matter--if you have a house and you design it one way and you have a new designer who comes in then it's a whole new look...A lot of people just don't want to give credit for what Wade has done and what wasn't done last year. That's it. I'm not trying to be negative or trying to point out Bill but the proof is in the pudding...I challenge him (Johnson) to come out of retirement and try to come take my position. ESPN producers, let him go. Let him go."

Those Owens quotes come straight from SportsCenter and the ellipses (...) indicate portions that any careful viewer can tell that ESPN edited out (a technique that the network learned from 60 Minutes, among other shows). That means that we don't know everything that Owens said or what questions prompted his answers (sorry for shouting, but that is a very important point). We also don't know if Owens actually even heard exactly what Johnson said. In fact, I would not be surprised if Owens did not even see firsthand what Johnson actually said and that Owens' comments are responses to questions posed to him in the locker room. This is what athletes mean sometimes when they say that they are quoted out of context even if their responses are on tape--if Owens was misled about what Johnson said and that is not shown on SportsCenter, then Owens' seemingly brash comments are indeed being taken out of context. For instance, suppose that a writer said to Owens, "Hey, did you hear how Keyshawn ripped you on Sunday?" Perhaps if Owens had a different personality then he might simply say, "No" and leave it at that--but what would you do on the spur of the moment if someone told you that a good friend of your ex-boss who you did not get along with said something bad about you on national television? This is an ESPN manufactured "controversy" in which ESPN analyst Johnson will not only get the last word but in which the questions posed to Owens and Owens' answers will be edited before you ever see them. Just keep that in mind--not just in reference to this story, but in general. This is a fine little case study about how the mainstream media works.

As for what ESPN showed us of what Owens said, Owens is right that he is a better receiver than Johnson ever was and that there is more than a little irony for the author of Just Give Me the Damn Ball to provide advice about what a player should or should not say to the media. However, there is also irony to Johnson praising Owens for the most part but telling Owens that Owens cannot win by making certain comments in the media and Owens then responding with precisely the kind of comments that Johnson pleaded with him not to make.

Here is the real deal about Owens, as deftly pointed out by Slate's Robert Weintraub: "While (Brett) Favre is lionized for playing through tragedy, Terrell Owens' success has never been given the same kind of context." Owens' brash exterior is largely a front to mask how deeply he wants to be respected and appreciated for his accomplishments--and it is not an exaggeration to say that instead of providing this kind of positive reinforcement Coach Parcells dehumanized him. How else can you describe repeatedly referring to Owens as "the player"? Parcells very literally stripped Owens of his individuality and humanity. In contrast, Phillips made a point in his very first press conference to mention Owens by name; he obviously understands that this is not just a matter of being polite but something of deep symbolic significance. Maybe calling Terry Glenn "she" worked for Parcells back in the day and maybe bringing an empty gas can to the locker room and asking a player if he has anything left in the tank was a good motivational tool in another instance but that kind of treatment will never, ever work with someone like Owens. As John Madden said over and over when Parcells was coaching Dallas, Owens is the best player on the team and he produces when he is given the chance, so why not get him involved in the game plan early in the game? Yes, Owens dropped some passes last year but he also led the NFL in touchdown receptions despite playing with a broken finger that later required surgery.

For the record, Johnson accumulated 814 receptions, 10,571 yards (13.0 average) and 64 touchdowns from 1996-2006. Owens either has a very good memory or did some research, because Johnson did indeed have only one touchdown in 2001 when he caught a career-high 106 passes. Johnson is a three-time Pro Bowler and a member of the 2002 Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers (he had six catches for 69 yards in the Super Bowl). Owens had 801 catches for 11,715 yards (14.6 average) and 114 touchdowns from 1996-2006 and he has 74 catches for 1270 yards (17.2 average) and 14 touchdowns so far this season. Owens is a five-time Pro Bowler (and a lock to make it for a sixth time this season) and a member of the 2004 Super Bowl runner-up Philadelphia Eagles (he had nine receptions for 122 yards in the Super Bowl, returning to action less than two months after breaking his leg).

Monday, December 10, 2007

Only Michael Vick Can Write a Happy Ending to this Troubling Story

Michael Vick's 23 month prison sentence for his involvement in running a dog fighting operation will no doubt lead many people to conclude that his NFL career is over. However, we live in a society that can be very forgiving to anyone who shows sincere contrition, so don't assume that the NFL will stand in Vick's way if he changes his life around in the next two years. In a league in which quarterbacks can play at a very high level in their late 30s (hello, Brett Favre) and at a good level in their 40s (welcome back, Vinny Testaverde), it is very premature to say that Vick, who will only be 29 when he is released, will never play again.

The real questions for Vick now, as indicated in a column by
ESPN's Lester Munson, are that he is not showing signs of turning his life around. He has failed a drug test, lied about his drug use and failed a lie-detector test about his role in th dog-fighting operation--and those transgressions directly led to him receiving a sentence nearly twice as long as he might otherwise have gotten. It is vitally important for Vick to use these next 23 months to change his thought process and evolve into a better more mature human being--that is not only much more important than whether or not he will ever play pro football again but it is also essential for him to do in order to get the opportunity to play pro football again.

Billy Martin, Vick's attorney, said, "Never has someone fallen so hard, so fast and so far." This troubling story can still have an uplifting ending but only if Michael Vick has the resolve and the strength of character to admit his mistakes--not just for public consumption, but to himself; contrition means accepting that you were wrong and making amends for your conduct, not just saying that you are sorry so that people will sympathize with you.

Two Minute Drill: The Patriots Void Pittsburgh's Guarantee

While many pundits jumped off of the Patriots' bandwagon this week--or at least cautioned that the New England-Pittsburgh game would be close--I declared, "a game that is going to be touted all week as an upset in the making will turn out to be a 14 point New England win. You heard it here first." I even offered three possible offensive tactics that the Patriots might employ to good effect: (1) flooding the Pittsburgh secondary with five receivers to burn the Steelers' blitz; (2) using screen passes to the running backs to beat the blitz; (3) running Maroney right at the blitzers to keep them on their heels. The latter two scenarios did not play out (Kevin Faulk only caught three passes for 15 yards and the Patriots only ran for 22 total yards) but the Patriots definitely flooded the Pittsburgh secondary with receivers as Randy Moss (seven receptions for 135 yards and two touchdowns), Jabar Gaffney (seven receptions for 122 yards and one touchdown) and Wes Welker (nine receptions for 78 yards and one touchdown) all had big days. Tom Brady completed 32 of 46 passes for 399 yards, tossing four touchdowns without throwing an interception or being sacked even once. So much for the theory that Philadelphia and Baltimore provided a "blueprint" for slowing down New England's record-setting offense. New England shut out Pittsburgh 17-0 in the second half en route to a 34-13 victory and the Patriots did all of this against a defense that still ranks first in the NFL in both points per game (14.5 ppg) and yards per game (245.5 ypg) even after the numbers from this contest are included in their totals.

Of course, little-used Pittsburgh safety Anthony Smith--whose 15 minutes of fame are now officially over--authored the prologue to one of this game's subplots by guaranteeing a Steelers victory; the Patriots wrote the remaining chapters with their play on the field. "No matter what you say during the week, it comes down to how you play," said Brady. "I think the receivers probably get more motivated than the quarterback. He just happened to have those plays on him. He's the one who has to go back to his team." Coach Bill Belichick does not often comment about players from other teams but even he took a shot at Smith after the game, saying, "We've played against a lot better safeties than him, I'll tell you."'s Len Pasquarelli notes, "the Patriots called 33 consecutive pass plays, and they didn't have a designed run in the second half until only 2:49 remained in the game." Do you think that Smith's remarks influenced the Patriots' play calling a little bit? Is the sky blue? Does Bill Belichick wear a hooded sweatshirt? Are the Patriots trying to kill everybody? Yes, yes and yes. Moss offered this description of Brady, who is on the verge of rewriting the single-season records for quarterbacks: "Poise. Patience. And the determination to go out and kill you at any given time." Next up for the Patriots are the New York Jets, a 3-10 outfit coached by Eric "I sent the NFL after Bill Belichick and now I will have to pay the price" Mangini. No extra motivation there, right?

Moss is not impressed by what he has seen or heard from New England's two most recent opponents: "The Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers, as far as toughness and their mouths, have a lot in common. They do their talking during the week, and we do our talking on the field. I've played in the league 10 years, and I don't think I've ever heard a player say anything like that. To guarantee a victory--that was something hard. I don't know if his team had his back or not."

Speaking of Baltimore, the real Ravens stood up--or, more precisely, meekly submitted--versus the Indianapolis Colts in the Sunday night game. The Ravens are apparently so impressed with themselves for playing a close game with the Patriots--and so indignant about how the officials allegedly stole that contest from them--that they have nothing left in the tank. The Colts scored the game's first 30 points, cruising to a 44-20 win.

Baltimore and Cincinnati are surprise teams this season in the AFC North--but not for good reasons. The pleasant surprise in the division is the Cleveland Browns, who improved to 8-5 with a 24-18 victory over the New York Jets. The Browns made the win more difficult than it should have been, nearly squandering a 17-6 fourth quarter lead, but this is the kind of game that recent Browns squads have lost with depressing regularity; it is worth noting several reasons why this time was different:

(1) the Browns spent the third overall pick in the draft on left tackle Joe Thomas, who has shored up the offensive line, which now provides time for the passing game to click and also blasts open holes for the running backs. The Browns sealed the deal versus the Jets when Jamal Lewis' 31 yard touchdown run on third and four put Cleveland up 24-15 with 1:31 left in the game.

(2) Lewis is the most productive running back that the Browns have had literally in decades.

(3) Derek Anderson is a top notch quarterback who has a strong arm and usually does not look confused, two traits that have been sorely lacking in most of the Browns' recent quarterbacks.

The Achilles' heel for the Browns--and the reason that this team is competing for a wild card spot but is not a legitimate contender for a championship--is their defense. CBS' Randy Cross said that the defense plays well but it lacks consistency. Unfortunately, a couple things that the Browns' defense consistently does are give up a lot of yards (387 versus the Jets, nearly matching the team's league-worst average yield of 389.7 yards per game) and points (an acceptable 18 versus the Jets but a league-worst 27.4 ppg overall). If General Manager Phil Savage can add some playmakers to the defense to match the exploits of Anderson, Lewis, wide receiver Braylon Edwards, tight end Kellen Winslow and special teams wunderkind Joshua Cribbs then the Browns will finally be able to compete with Pittsburgh for supremacy in the AFC North.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Tom Brady is Unimpressed by Anthony Smith's Smack Talk

Pittsburgh Steelers safety Anthony Smith has just about used up his 15 minutes of fame. He has achieved some temporary notoriety for guaranteeing that Pittsburgh will beat the 12-0 New England Patriots this Sunday. Hopefully he is enjoying all of the extra attention and media coverage, because the next--and last--time a national audience will hear about him or see him is the inevitable lingering camera shot that will happen with about five minutes left on Sunday when the Patriots are up by a couple touchdowns. "There is Anthony Smith," the announcer will say as the camera shows a dejected figure sitting on the bench with his head down."His guarantee of a Steelers win became bulletin board material this week and we can all see the result."

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady had the best answer to Smith's remarks: "Well done is better than well said. That's been the motto of the team." Coach Bill Belichick denies that Smith has provided any extra motivation for New England: "We can sit around and put a bunch of stuff up on a board and write stuff down on paper and all of that. I think in the end it comes down to whether you can outplay the other team on Sunday or not outplay them. On a priority basis, that's what our priority is, trying to prepare well and play well." However, a few years ago when Indianapolis kicker Mike Vanderjagt said of the Patriots "I think they're ripe for the picking," Belichick admitted that he did sometimes use trash talk from opponents as a motivational tool.

There are two kinds of trash talk: one comes from guys like Muhammad Ali, Reggie Jackson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan--sometimes it appears in the media, but often it is said under one's breath to a competitor in the heat of battle, and it is almost always backed up by championship level play; the other kind of trash talk comes from nobodies who think that bold talk means more than solid preparation.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Were the Patriots Lucky to Beat the Ravens?

Today on ESPN's "First Take," former NBA guard Greg Anthony and Skip Bayless debated whether or not the Patriots were lucky to beat the Ravens last night. Bayless' take is that the Ravens would have won were it not for Baltimore defensive coordinator Rex Ryan calling timeout on one fourth down play where the Ravens appeared to have stuffed the Patriots and then the Patriots committing a false start on the next fourth down play that also seemed to be going nowhere; of course, New England converted a fourth and six after that penalty en route to scoring the game-winning touchdown. Anthony argued that players ease up after they hear an official's whistle, so it is impossible to say whether or not the Ravens really would have stopped the Patriots' initial fourth down play; as for the penalty being lucky, Anthony logically pointed out that in most cases when a team converts fourth and six against a good defense on the road that we praise that team for its execution. Listening to the two of them argue back and forth sounded very much like eavesdropping on someone who has actually competed at a high level and understands what that is all about trying in vain to explain those experiences to someone who has no idea what he is talking about.

Later on the show, former New York Giants Coach (and former Baltimore Ravens assistant coach) Jim Fassel offered his perspective on the timeout that Rex Ryan called. Fassel said that he had no problem with one of his assistant coaches calling a timeout provided it was a critical situation in the game and it was apparent that the team was not lined up correctly or had the wrong personnel on the field; there is not always time for the assistant to ask permission to call timeout or to have a whole discussion about it. As for the specific sequence in yesterday's game, Fassel said that he spoke with Ryan and what happened was the Ravens only had one defensive lineman on the field prior to the first fourth down play. The Patriots love to run a quarterback sneak right up the middle in such cases, so Ryan called the timeout to get the right personnel on the field; if he had not done so and then the Patriots successfully ran the sneak then Ryan would have been rightly criticized for having the wrong personnel group on the field. Fassel said that the smaller players that the Ravens had on the field went after the play so aggressively that it looked like maybe they would have stopped it anyway but that calling the timeout was the right thing to do strategically.

The bottom line is that, as Anthony correctly said, we will never know if the Ravens would have stopped the first fourth and one play if it had gone all the way through and we also will never know what would have happened without the false start penalty on the next play--but good teams find ways to win and bad teams find ways to lose. This year, the Ravens are a bad team and the Patriots are a very good team; the Ravens had an opportunity to stop the Patriots on a fourth and six play and did not do it. That--and other blown chances on both sides of the ball--is why the Ravens lost. Bayless always seems to look for ways to blame the losing team instead of praising the winning team for its poise and execution. Next time, Bayless should do what Fassel did: pick up the phone, talk to someone who was actually involved in what happened and apply that information to his analysis.

Two Minute Drill: Patriots Narrowly Preserve Perfect Season, "Charlie" Browns Lose and Chad Johnson Racks up Some Empty Yards

The Patriots are no longer blowing teams out but after a 27-24 win in Baltimore they are still undefeated. The new, overused buzzword now is "blueprint": is there a "blueprint" to beat the Patriots? As usual, ESPN analyst Steve Young cut through the nonsense and hype and got right to the heart of the matter, noting that football always comes down to fundamentals and physicality. The Ravens pounded the Patriots with their running game to the point that Young felt that they were on the verge of making New England crack; however, Young added that New England deserves much credit for getting off the mat and doing just enough to win the game. In the fourth quarter, Baltimore missed opportunities to win the game on offense and on defense. Willis McGahee gashed the Patriots for 138 yards on 30 carries overall but in the final period he only had four yards on six carries.

Back when Mike Tyson was invincible, he used to always say that everybody has a plan until they are hit in the face. Football is much the same way. It is a violent, brutal game. I have to laugh when people say that Tom Brady or Peyton Manning sometimes make poor decisions if teams hit them a lot; there is not a quarterback alive who plays as well under constant physical duress as he does when he has good protection. The Eagles and the Ravens each slowed down the Patriots a bit because they have defensive coordinators who specialize in bringing pressure on quarterbacks (and because they have the necessary personnel on their rosters to execute such a game plan). Looking at the Patriots' remaining games (home contests versus Pittsburgh, the New York Jets and Miami followed by the finale on the road at the New York Giants), the Steelers and the Giants are also teams who can put a lot of pressure on opposing quarterbacks--but there is no magic going on here; whether or not the Patriots go 16-0 will be decided by how well they execute football fundamentals and whether or not they are more physical than their opponents.

A lot of attention is being focused on what supposedly is ailing the Patriots' offense but Young made some more cogent observations when he pointed out that even in New England's two "bad" games the Patriots have still gained a lot of yards and scored a lot of points; what has changed dramatically is how many yards and points the defense is giving up, which of course limits the amount of time that New England's offense is on the field. Linebacker Rosevelt Colvin is out for the season, so it will be up to Bill Belichick to go back in the lab and patch up his defense a bit for the stretch run.

Young concluded by saying that every great championship and playoff team that he was on in San Francisco went through a lull during some part of the season. What is remarkable about the Patriots is that, as he put it, they have had the "benefit of 'losing' two games without actually losing them." In other words, they have made enough mistakes for Belichick to feed them tons of the "humble pie" that his players joke about, yet they still have the chance to make history by winning all of their games. We are also seeing why it is so tough to have a perfect season; teams must overcome injuries, mental and physical fatigue and also the worsening weather that can act as an equalizer in the latter part of the season. The Miami Dolphins may have a "perfectly imperfect" 0-16 season, yet the weather and field conditions were so bad in Pittsburgh that they had a good chance to upset the Steelers. Similarly, the fierce, howling winds in Baltimore had an effect on New England's high powered passing game, though of course Belichick and his players would not use that as an excuse.

It will be interesting to see how the bookmakers react to New England's "setback." The Patriots have been favored by ridiculously large point spreads in recent weeks because the bookmakers have been trying to balance the action and get people to bet against New England. Depending on where the line goes, New England could be a good value next week against Pittsburgh. A lot of people are going to assume that the third time against a blitzing defense will be the charm and that the Patriots will lose but look for Belichick to make make one or more of the following adjustments: (1) flood the Pittsburgh secondary with five receivers and have Brady pick the defense apart just before the blitz reaches him; (2) entice the blitzers forward only to throw screen passes over them to running backs Faulk and Maroney; (3) keep the blitzers on their heels by running right at/past them with Maroney. Pittsburgh has been a subpar road team all season, so a game that is going to be touted all week as an upset in the making will turn out to be a 14 point New England win. You heard it here first.

Right after the Cleveland Browns gave their long suffering fans reasons to believe, they went to the Arizona desert and turned into Charlie Brown after Lucy pulled the football away. Things went south for the Browns as soon the game began: Derek Anderson received an intentional grounding penalty on the Browns' first offensive play and soon after that he threw an interception that Rod Hood returned 71 yards for a touchdown. Later in the first quarter, Browns defensive back Leigh Bodden received a delay of game penalty for kicking the football after the Browns stopped the Cardinals on third down; Arizona eventually converted that gift into a touchdown, taking a 14-0 lead en route to a 27-21 win. "Just dumb," Bodden said of his mistake, an apt description that also fits the Browns' other gaffes, including several turnovers, mental errors and penalties.

This loss is not the end of the world for the Browns, though; they are still holding on to the sixth and final AFC playoff berth and they showed a lot of determination by battling back from the early deficit to have a chance to win on the final play of the game. Tight end Kellen Winslow made a great catch but could only get one foot down in the end zone after being pushed out of bounds. A force-out situation is not reviewable, so the call on the field stood. "If we'd have gotten that call, I'd have said the Browns are going to the Super Bowl. We've been getting every call, it seems. We didn't deserve to win," Browns receiver Braylon Edwards said. Edwards had another big game, catching seven passes for 149 yards and a touchdown. The Browns shot themselves in the foot before their last drive when Simon Fraser received a personal foul call on a kickoff return play; Cleveland sure could have used those extra 15 yards.

Next week the Browns travel to New York to battle the 3-9 Jets. Obviously, that is a very winnable game but keep in mind that last year the Jets were a playoff team and the Browns were not but the Browns beat the Jets anyway. After that, the Browns have a vitally important home game against the 6-6 Buffalo Bills, who are contending with Cleveland, Jacksonville and Tennessee for the two AFC wild cards. The Browns close out the regular season by visiting the disappointing Cincinnati Bengals and hosting the downtrodden San Francisco 49ers.

Speaking of the Bengals, they took the first step toward not fulfilling receiver Chad Johnson's vow that they would run the table, losing 24-10 to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Johnson led the Bengals with six receptions for 86 yards, but he did not have a touchdown and the best receiver on the field was Pittsburgh's Hines Ward, who caught 11 passes for 90 yards and two touchdowns. Ward's main claim to fame is being the MVP of Super Bowl XL; he is tough and he is a complete player, equally adept at catching and blocking. Johnson's main claim to fame--other than his "celebrations," which for some reason generate less criticism than those of the more accomplished Terrell Owens and Randy Moss--is becoming the first player since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger to lead a conference in receiving yards for four straight seasons (2003-2006; he ranks third in the AFC behind Reggie Wayne and Randy Moss this season). While this accomplishment does speak to Johnson's durability and consistency, it is not really the top achievement of its kind; Don Hutson led the entire league in receiving yards for four straight seasons (and a record seven times overall) and Jerry Rice led the NFL in receiving yards for three straight seasons (and six times overall). In contrast, Johnson finished fourth in the NFL in receiving yards in 2003, 341 yards behind Torry Holt and nearly 300 yards behind Moss, who also had 17 touchdowns compared to 10 for Johnson. Johnson ranked sixth in the NFL in receiving yards in 2004 and third in the NFL in receiving yards in 2005 before capturing his first NFL receiving yards title last season. Why bring this up now? One, it is important to provide some context to this oft-touted record of Johnson's. Two, a play late in the Pittsburgh game provided a great example of how Johhson is a guy who puts up numbers but does not necessarily help his team win games. The Bengals faced fourth and 17 from the Pittsburgh 44 with 1:24 remaining. Johnson ran a 13 yard pattern, caught a Carson Palmer pass and went out of bounds. NBC's John Madden said that he could not understand how a player could run a 13 yard route on fourth and 17; as he noted while play by play man Al Michaels chuckled, there is a huge marker on the sideline indicating where the Bengals had to go to get a first down, so there is no way that Johnson could not see it. In the boxscore and in the final season statistics, that play counts as a 13 yard reception but in reality it was a dumb play. Looking at the Bengals' record during Johnson's career, one suspects that there is a lot of similarly empty yardage in his conference-leading totals. In contrast, Hutson, Rice, Owens, Moss and Holt each played in at least one Super Bowl or NFL Championship Game.

Moving outside of the AFC North, much has been made of the final play of Buffalo's 17-16 victory over Washington when Hall of Fame Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs received a 15 yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for calling consecutive timeouts to ice Bills' kicker Ryan Lindell. Obviously, Gibbs should be familiar with the rule but what everyone (other than J.A. Adande on "Around the Horn") seems to have overlooked is that right after Gibbs called the first timeout Lindell nailed the kick from 51 yards. Gibbs took the blame for his gaffe but even without the timeout fiasco Lindell showed that he was capable of winning the game from the longer distance.

Monday, December 3, 2007

The BCS Mess Produces an Ohio State-LSU Championship Game: Let the Debate Begin!

One of the wildest and most unpredictable college football seasons ever will conclude on January 7, 2008 when #1 Ohio State (11-2) plays #2 LSU (11-2) in the BCS National Championship Game. Fox Sports' Jimmy Johnson made an excellent point when he noted that these two teams combined to hold the number one spot for most of the season and Chris Rose added that not long ago this was the matchup that most people probably wanted to see. Of course, in recent weeks each of these teams lost a game, only to move back into the championship picture after other contenders fell by the wayside.

Most fans do not believe that this BCS system is a good way to determine a national champion. Major college football is the only notable sport that selects its champion in such a haphazard manner and it is obvious that it would be a major improvement if the BCS were replaced with a playoff system. It is ridiculous to say that the entire football season is currently a playoff; if that were the case, then Ohio State and LSU would have both been eliminated already (as would everyone else except Hawaii, the only undefeated team).

How did we end up with the BCS system in the first place? To paraphrase Bill Walton, I am old enough to remember when the various bowl games had contracts with different conferences; for instance, the Big Ten champion always played the Pac-10 champion in the Rose Bowl. After all the bowl games were over, various polls would vote to determine the national champion. Sometimes the polls came to the same conclusion but often they did not. For instance, in 1988 Notre Dame was a consensus national champion, while in 1991 the AP selected Miami (Fla.) while the USA/Today ESPN voters chose Washington. Due to the traditional conference affiliations of the various bowls, the two top ranked teams did not necessarily face each other in a bowl game during that era.

In other words, the way that things were done in "the good old days" did not make any more sense than the way things are done now. That is why college football administrators started tinkering with the bowl format in the early 1990s. Their first move was to to create the Bowl Coalition, which lasted from 1992-94. The idea was to try to have the best of both worlds, preserving traditional matchups as much as possible while also trying to maximize the chance that the two top ranked teams played each other in a bowl game. In 1992, the system worked, as number two Alabama beat number one Miami 34-13 in the Sugar Bowl and won the consensus national championship. Number one Florida State beat number two Nebraska 18-16 in the Orange Bowl to claim the consensus 1993 national championship. Things got sticky in 1994 when Nebraska and Penn State each finished the regular season with undefeated records. Top ranked Nebraska beat third ranked Miami 24-17 in the Orange Bowl, while third ranked Penn State--by then already a member of the Big Ten, which was not one of the participating conferences in the Bowl Coalition--defeated number 12 Oregon (the Pac-10 champion) 38-20 in a traditional Rose Bowl matchup. The major polls all picked Nebraska first and Penn State second but any system that produced two undefeated teams at the conclusion of the bowl season was deemed unsatisfactory, so in 1995 the Bowl Coalition was replaced by the Bowl Alliance. The Big Ten and the Pac-10 still declined to participate but the new system guaranteed that the top two teams would face each other in a bowl game unless one of those teams was committed to the Rose Bowl due to being from the Big Ten or Pac-10. This format worked out for a couple years; in 1995, number one Nebraska beat number two Florida 62-24 in the Fiesta Bowl to win the consensus national championship and the 1996 season also produced a consensus champion when number three Florida State beat number one Florida 52-20 in the Sugar Bowl--but everything only worked out that time because number four Ohio State knocked off second ranked (and previously unbeaten) Arizona State in the traditional Rose Bowl matchup. The Bowl Alliance failed to produce a consensus champion in 1997: number two Nebraska beat number three Tennessee 42-17 in the Orange Bowl but after number one Michigan beat Washington State 21-16 in the Rose Bowl the polls disagreed: the writers kept Michigan in the top spot, while the coaches moved Nebraska up to number one--and that is what led to the creation of the BCS in 1998.

The BCS brought the Big Ten and Pac-10 into the fold but did not offer a good answer for what would happen if there were more than two undefeated teams at the end of the regular season--and that "doomsday" scenario was narrowly averted in 1998 when two of the three remaining unbeaten teams (Kansas State and UCLA) each lost their final regular season games, setting up a championship game matchup between 12-0 Tennessee and 11-1 Florida State. In 1999 the system worked without a hitch as two unbeaten teams, Florida State and Virginia Tech, played in the championship game. Things did not go quite so smoothly in 2000, as three one-loss teams vied for the opportunity to face undefeated Oklahoma; Florida State received the nod and Oklahoma beat the Seminoles to claim the title. If Florida State had won then Miami (which beat Florida State during the regular season) and Washington (which beat Miami during the regular season) would have had a legitimate beef.

In 2001, the Nebraska Cornhuskers lost their final regular season game after spending most of the season as the second ranked team but they retained that spot after several other teams suffered upset losses. Undefeated Miami beat Nebraska in the national championship game, which was hosted by the Rose Bowl, marking the first time in 55 years that the Rose Bowl participants were not the Big Ten and Pac-10 champions. The 2002 season may have been the best one of the BCS era: undefeated, second ranked Ohio State beat the undefeated, top ranked defending national champions Miami in double overtime in the Fiesta Bowl. Obviously, that matchup would have never happened prior to the BCS because Ohio State would have played in the Rose Bowl.

LSU claimed the 2003 BCS title by beating Oklahoma but AP voters selected USC as the national champion. In 2004, three teams were undefeated after the bowl season--USC, Auburn and Utah--but both the BCS and the AP voters tapped USC as the national champion. USC and Texas were the two top ranked teams throughout the 2006 season and Vince Young led Texas to a 41-38 Rose Bowl victory over USC to win the national championship. Last year, of course, Florida routed Ohio State in the first stand-alone BCS National Championship Game.

What we used to have in college football were traditional bowl matchups between rival conferences followed by polls to determine the final rankings. That method obviously could not be assured of producing a consensus champion every year but the various entities involved (the NCAA, college presidents, the television networks) could not agree on a playoff format, which led to the hybrid solution of the Bowl Coalition; that initial change was the first step toward destroying the tradition surrounding the bowl games and inevitably led us to where we are now: the old traditions are shattered yet we only end up with a consensus champion if everything breaks just right. The obvious, correct approach that should have been taken nearly two decades ago was to have a playoff after all the traditional bowl games were played; that would have kept tradition intact while at the same time maximizing the likelihood of producing a consensus champion. Now, several years after tradition has been cast aside, that solution would not fly because the involved parties are making too much money under the current system to accept a change. So how should the current BCS system be reformed? The obvious solution is still a playoff: select the top eight teams and have a three round postseason with the current bowl games being slotted into various rounds on a rotating basis. The NCAA, bowl presidents and conferences can work out the details about which bowls will host which games so that the financial ramifications (the number one concern of all the involved parties, despite their pious rhetoric about academics, tradition or anything else) are resolved to everyone's satisfaction. Obviously, even with an eight team playoff the ninth and tenth ranked teams will say that they have a beef but that would be preferable to the current system--and I seriously doubt that there will ever be a season when the ninth ranked team will have a legitimate claim to being the best team in the country (yes, Hawaii went 12-0 this year and is currently ranked ninth but that is because of their strength of schedule; if your program is trying to win a national title then you have to play tougher opposition).

An eight team playoff this season using the final BCS standings would include Ohio State, LSU, Virginia Tech, Oklahoma, Georgia, Missouri, USC and Kansas. Wouldn't you like to watch those teams square off on the final two weekends of December, with the National Championship Game being played in the first week of the new year? There could still be complaints about seeding or about possibly having to play a team that you already beat in the regular season but at least each of these teams would have a chance to compete for the title on the playing field instead of having their coaches appearing on TV stumping for pollsters' votes.