Tuesday, January 29, 2008

What Does 2008 Hold in Store for Federer and Woods?

Tiger Woods and Roger Federer are the two most dominant individual athletes in the world. Woods just reasserted that dominance with a command performance in the Buick Invitational, winning by eight strokes over Ryuji Imada, who candidly admitted afterward, "First place was out of reach, I figured. My goal was to finish second." Woods obliterated the tournament record for margin of victory (five strokes), which had been shared by Tom Watson (1977) and Fuzzy Zoeller (1979).

Woods has won the Buick Invitational four straight years, the second time that he "four-peated" at a particular event; he also turned the trick at Bay Hill, now known as the Arnold Palmer Invitational, from 2000-03. Speaking of Palmer, with this victory Woods tied Palmer for fourth place on the PGA Tour career wins list with 62. Ben Hogan ranks third with 64 wins, Jack Nicklaus won 73 events and Sam Snead set what once seemed to be an unreachable standard with 82 wins. Palmer spoke briefly with USA Today and said that he believes that Woods can win the modern Grand Slam, win more events than anyone in Tour history and be the greatest player of all-time. He recalled that Woods sought him out for advice when Woods was a collegiate player at Stanford; Woods told Palmer his goals and asked how he should deal with anything that might prevent him from achieving them. Palmer added that Woods betters his competition in three areas: natural ability, physical fitness and mental ability. Woods once held all four Grand Slam titles simultaneously but he has yet to win each of them in a calendar year; on his website, Woods says that this year that accomplishment is "easily within reason." If Woods does beat the odds and sweep the Grand Slams at least part of the reason will be that he pursues perfection as relentlessly and tenaciously as the New England Patriots. Woods, sounding like golf's version of Bill Belichick, was perhaps the only person who was not impressed by his performance in the Buick Invitational: "I still have holes in my game that I need to fix."

Federer set records left and right the past few years but he showed a slight chink in his armor last week, losing in the Australian Open semifinals to eventual winner Novak Djokovic. That ended Federer's record run of 10 straight finals appearances in Grand Slams. He still maintained his number one ranking for a record 209th straight week but Djokovic may be the player who knocks him off of that perch. Djokovic is no flash in the pan and it is unlikely that this will be his last Grand Slam win. He is just 20 years old and he showed signs last year that he may be the next big thing in tennis. Djokovic defeated the first, second and third ranked players in the world at the time--Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Roddick--on consecutive days in the 2007 Canada Masters, the first time player to do that since Boris Becker in 1994.

Federer is at a very interesting age now--26, the same age when Bjorn Borg retired at the height of his powers after a year in which he won the French Open and reached the finals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Federer is considered by some people to be the greatest tennis player ever but, as I pointed out last year, Borg's career accomplishments match up very well with Federer's and Borg actually bests Federer in several categories, including being the youngest player to win 11 Grand Slams (25), Grand Slam winning percentage (.898, first all-time), winning Wimbledon and the French Open in the same year (Borg did this three straight years; no one else has done it even once) and winning three Grand Slam events without losing a single set (only three other players have won a Grand Slam without losing a set and none of them did it more than once). Borg won at least one Grand Slam title in a record eight straight years (Sampras matched this feat). One of my favorite Borg stats is that he did not lose to a younger player until 1977, when he was 21 years old and already arguably the best player in the world.

Federer is not going to retire soon but it is also not at all certain that he will keep winning titles and Grand Slams at his recent pace. Top level tennis is a game for the very young. Consider the career arcs of the career Grand Slam title leaders in the Open Era other than Federer (12) and Borg (11). Pete Sampras won 10 of his record 14 Grand Slam titles by the age of 26 and he held the year-end number one ranking from the age of 22-27. Sampras' rival Andre Agassi was one of the most productive "old" players, winning five of his eight Grand Slam titles after the age of 26. He reached a Grand Slam final at age 35, prompting Mats Wilander to comment, "...that tells me he wasted the first five years of his career, otherwise he couldn’t have lasted this long," a reference to Aggasi's indifferent early career performances. Jimmy Connors won three of his eight Grand Slam titles after the age of 26 and famously reached the U.S. Open semifinals as a 39 year old. Ivan Lendl won four of his eight Grand Slams after the age of 26. John McEnroe won all seven of his Grand Slam titles prior to the age of 26 and did not even make it to a Grand Slam final once after that age (he played until he was 33). Wilander won all seven of his Grand Slam titles by the age of 24 and did not appear in a Grand Slam final again even though he played until he was 32. Stefan Edberg won all six of his Grand Slam titles by age 26 and made it to only one Grand Slam final after that. Becker won five of his six Grand Slam titles by age 26.

Barring injury, Woods may have a decade or more of dominance ahead of him--but Federer is most likely already past his best days, though he could very well retain the number one ranking for another year or so and win several more Grand Slams before he retires. Borg did not pad his Grand Slam total with Australian Open titles (Federer has won three of them) but he set modern records for both Wimbledon (five) and French Open (six) titles. Sampras broke the Wimbledon record and Federer matched it last year but neither of them won the French Open. Unless Federer simply shatters Sampras' mark for career Grand Slams and/or displays the versatility necessary to conquer the French Open, Borg will still have a very valid claim to being the greatest tennis player of all-time.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Hate Speech Versus Tasteless Speech

The controversies over the remarks made by Kelly Tilghman and Dana Jacobson are blurring a very important line between hate speech and tasteless speech. Hate speech is a very serious matter and should be denounced without hesitation; tasteless speech should be evaluated in the context that it was delivered and reacted to accordingly. In case you missed it, Tilghman is the Golf Channel announcer who joked that the only way other golfers could stop Tiger Woods is to "lynch him." No one who watched what she said could possibly for one moment believe that she supports lynching Woods or anyone else; the phrase she chose is in horrendously bad taste but was not said with malicious intent. Tilghman clearly made a poor attempt at humor and she laughed as she was saying it. Jacobson is the ESPN anchor whose comments about Notre Dame and Touchdown Jesus at a roast for Mike Golic and Mike Greenberg reportedly have earned her a one week suspension by the network. As Greg Couch of the Chicago Sun-Times notes, there is some disagreement over exactly what she said--and there is a big difference between cursing about Touchdown Jesus and cursing about Jesus. What Jacobson has in common with Tilghman is that she made a very poor attempt at being funny.

Tilghman's faux pas happened on live television, while Jacobson's took place at a private roast. There is no question that both sets of comments are tasteless, stupid and not funny. However, when misguided attempts at humor are treated as if they are on the same level as actual hate crimes we run the risk as a society of completely losing perspective on what is really important. Tilghman and Jacobson both deserve to be reprimanded by their employers for poor judgment. However, it is ridiculous and repugnant for a longtime race baiter like Al Sharpton to use the Tilghman situation as a soapbox--the same Al Sharpton who perpetrated the Tawana Brawley hoax, incited the destruction of Freddy's Fashion Mart in Harlem and whose inflammatory rhetoric played a big role in the anti-Jewish attacks that took place in Crown Heights in 1991 in the wake of a tragic car accident that killed a seven year old boy. Sharpton's initial statement about Tilghman referred to her by the wrong gender, so it is a safe bet that he never even saw what she actually said, which means that there is no way that he could have placed it in its proper context: she was joking. The joke was not funny--in fact, it was completely inappropriate. However, to make Tilghman the poster child for racism in America is to overlook and not address actual, legitimate concerns.

Jacobson's ill advised attempt at being the female Don Rickles is even less newsworthy: crass comments are the norm at roasts and are regularly uttered on any number of cable TV comedy shows. That does not make it right--and maybe that is something we need to address as a society--but Jacobson's main "crime" is that she is not funny. Couch rightly points out that it is very worrisome that so much bile is being directed at Jacobson despite the fact that there has yet to be confirmation of whether or not she in fact even defamed Christianity or if she directed her jibe at Notre Dame football; this is yet another case of the media not letting the facts get in the way of a "good" story. People are literally protesting in the streets because ESPN has not fired Jacobson yet there is no definitive report about what actually took place at the roast.

While the media runs amok with the Tilghman and Jacobson stories, the real racists in America are delighted that the spotlight is not on them. All of the extra attention and anger being directed at Tilghman and Jacobson are worse than the proverbial sound and fury signifying nothing: they are serious impediments toward dealing with real problems; every minute devoted to this nonsense is one minute that has not been spent thinking about, exposing and confronting truly virulent hate speech and the violent actions that result from it. If you think otherwise, then ask yourself two questions: How exactly will society benefit if Tilghman and Jacobson are fired? Would you like for your career to be defined by the worst attempt at humor that you have ever made?

Thursday, January 24, 2008

This is Why You Play to Win All of the Games

With two weeks between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl, every conceivable angle--real and imagined, substantive and frivolous--will be examined before the New England Patriots and the New York Giants take the field to determine the 2007 NFL Champion. There will be plenty of time to talk about Patriots' perfection, the Giants' road winning streak and Tom Brady's injury status but one of the most interesting things about this matchup is that the two teams that are left standing are the two teams that played every game as if it mattered. The Patriots received a lot of criticism for not only playing as if every game mattered but for playing as if every minute of every game mattered: some people accused them of running up the score in games that were well in hand, but Patriots Coach Bill Belichick dismissed such criticism by noting that in the NFL no lead is safe, which is why he wants his offense to try to score every time it takes the field. Don't forget that New England's 2006 season ended in the AFC Championship Game when the Indianapolis Colts came back from a big deficit. The Patriots' dual themes this year are "60 minutes" (not the TV show, but the complete length of a regulation NFL game) and "finish," meaning to not let up on a play, a series, a quarter, a half or a game. The result of this fanatical attention to detail and heavy emphasis on execution has been the relentless destruction of every opponent to date and a season for the ages. The Patriots have not played perfect football but they have played harder for a longer time than all of their opponents and that is why they have a perfect record.

When the Patriots played the Giants in the last week of the regular season, the game was "meaningless"--at least in terms of playoff seeding. Of course, the Patriots had a chance to complete a perfect 16-0 regular season and the Giants had an opportunity to make history by thwarting them from doing so but many people wondered if it was worth it for either team to risk getting key players injured just prior to the playoffs. Belichick and Giants Coach Tom Coughlin eschewed such concerns and the result was one of the most entertaining and exciting games of the year. The Patriots earned their 16-0 season against worthy competition as opposed to obtaining it cheaply in a game contested by substitute players. It should be noted that this was also an opportunity for both teams to get some more experience playing in winter weather conditions, something that served them well in their subsequent playoff games. The Giants, particularly quarterback Eli Manning, also clearly derived some confidence from being able to perform so well against the league's best team.

In contrast, the Indianapolis Colts have a history of treating such games as glorified exhibition games--and they also have a history of losing at home in the playoffs after doing so, including this season. I don't think that this is a coincidence. Once you send a message to your team that it is OK to lose focus and that every game does not matter then it is not such a simple thing to rev things up again and declare that now the games are important again. The Patriots and Giants did things the right way and richly deserve the opportunity to play in the biggest game of the year.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Patriots Are One Win Away From Immortality

The New England Patriots did not play their best game but they held off the resilient San Diego Chargers to win the AFC Championship, 21-12. San Diego kept the game close even though several of their key offensive players battled injuries; quarterback Philip Rivers (19-37, 211 yards, 0 touchdowns, two interceptions) and tight end Antonio Gates (two receptions for 17 yards) went the whole way but running back LaDainian Tomlinson made only a cameo appearance before his knee injury forced him to be a spectator. Meanwhile, New England quarterback Tom Brady completed 22 of 33 passes for 209 yards and two touchdowns but he also had three interceptions and did not consistently display the pinpoint accuracy that enabled him to set the all-time playoff record for single-game completion percentage against Jacksonville last week. His longest completion went for just 18 yards--and that was Randy Moss' only catch. With their deep passing game stymied, the Patriots turned to their running game and Laurence Maroney delivered, gaining 106 of his 122 yards in the second half. As CBS' Phil Simms noted during the telecast, the Patriots literally have five or six different offenses, so if a team stops one of them then Coach Bill Belichick just switches to another one; few defenses are equipped mentally or physically to deal with everything that the Patriots can do in terms of their different personnel groups, clever play calling and good execution.

Chapter 18 of the Patriots' pursuit of perfection could be titled "All's Well That Ends Well." It certainly did not start off well for the Patriots: they were forced to punt on their first two possessions and Brady threw an interception the third time they had the ball. The Chargers converted that opportunity into a field goal to take an early 3-0 lead. New England answered that score with a 65 yard touchdown drive. The big difference in the game is that the Patriots converted most of their red zone opportunities into touchdowns but the Chargers had to settle for field goals. The Patriots led 14-9 at halftime.

The Chargers intercepted Brady on the Patriots' opening drive in the third quarter but again were only able to convert that opportunity into three points. The Patriots then drove all the way to the San Diego 2 yard line only to come up empty after yet another Brady interception, his first one in the red zone since New England's playoff loss to Denver two years ago. San Diego went three and out after that and the Patriots took a two score lead after an eight play, 67 yard drive resulted in a six yard Brady to Wes Welker touchdown pass. A little over 12 minutes remained in the game but for all intents and purposes it was over because it was obvious that the Chargers could not score a touchdown against the Patriots and there was not enough time left for them to kick enough field goals to overcome a 21-12 deficit (assuming that they could stop New England after each score). The Chargers' next drive stalled at the New England 36 and the Patriots took possession with 9:13 left in the game. Remarkably, San Diego never got the ball back because New England drained all of the remaining time off of the clock, alternating Maroney runs with some key catches by underrated running back Kevin Faulk. The Patriots could have scored more points had they wanted to but instead ended the game with a couple kneeldowns.

The uninitiated may downplay New England's win by citing San Diego's injuries, Brady's subpar statistics or the relative closeness of the final score but this was an impressive victory by a great team: most teams, even the very good ones, have a core set of things that they do well and if they are not able to do those things well then they will lose. For most of this season, the Patriots have featured a wide open, high scoring passing game, they have not run the ball that well and their red zone defense has been sporadic. In the second half against the Chargers, the Patriots changed their game plan and personnel groupings, abandoning the deep passing game in favor of multiple tight end formations out of which they ran the ball and threw short passes. They made some mistakes and Brady was not as accurate as usual but when they did not turn the ball over they scored touchdowns. On defense, the Patriots compensated for the offense's reduced production with great performances in the red zone. Yes, the Chargers were banged up at key positions but they are still a talented team--one that was good enough to defeat the defending Super Bowl champions on their home field last week. Even very good teams sometimes lose when they have off games but that is one of the things that makes this Patriots' team so special: they find a way to win no matter what. They may not always play perfectly but they are one win away from achieving perfection.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

What Will Happen On Championship Sunday?

Five of my first six predictions about this year's NFL playoffs were correct but my percentage took a hit on Sunday when a pair of 13-3 favorites lost. It is interesting to see how close I came to getting those games right, too. This is what I wrote about Indianapolis and Dallas respectively: "The Chargers certainly have enough talent to pull off the upset but a late (Peyton) Manning-led drive will give the Colts a 31-28 victory"; "(Terrell) Owens will play, he will limp slightly and Dallas will win, 24-21." Of course, the Colts lost to San Diego 28-24 after a late Manning-led drive faltered, while the Cowboys fell to New York 21-17 after Tony Romo's potential game-winning touchdown pass was intercepted in the endzone. In other words, you could say that I came within perhaps two plays of not only correctly picking those games but getting the exact score right. However, as a former Cowboys coach is fond of saying, you are what your record says you are, so I am 5-3 so far.

As a reward for traveling halfway across the country and beating the defending Super Bowl champions on the road, the bruised and battered Chargers get to venture completely across the country to take on the unblemished, 17-0 New England Patriots. Teams with similar itineraries to the Chargers' generally perform poorly because of the mental/physical fatigue from the extra travel (and the extra game; New England had a first round bye). The Chargers are especially worn down because starting quarterback Philip Rivers and All-Pro running back LaDainian Tomlinson each left the Indianapolis game with injuries and were not able to return. Tomlinson will likely play against New England, but Rivers' status is still uncertain. When the Chargers were at full strength in week two, the Patriots plastered them 38-14 but it is fair to say that San Diego is a much better team now--but not much better than New England. Whether Rivers or backup Billy Volek is under center, the Patriots' defense will be well prepared. The bottom line to beat New England is that you have to score at least 30 points because the Patriots rarely turn the ball over and when they don't turn the ball over they put points on the board.

Like Jacksonville, San Diego may keep things close for a half but New England will pull away and win easily, 37-17

The Dallas Cowboys had the best team in the NFC for most of the season, they beat Green Bay once and defeated the New York Giants twice but after Terrell Owens got hurt we found out just how vital he had been to the team's success. Dallas' offense ground to a complete halt during the six quarters that he missed. When Owens returned to action against the Giants last week, the offense showed some signs of life but breakdowns in pass protection, errant throws by Tony Romo and the fact that Owens clearly was still not 100% combined to doom the Cowboys. Even though Owens was back on the field weeks ahead of schedule, he was still enough of a threat that the Giants double-teamed him on the fateful last play of the game when Romo was intercepted; that illustrates not only how tough it is to cover even a hobbled Owens but also that teams simply do not fear the other Cowboys' players. None of this is meant to take anything away from the Giants, whose nine game road winning streak (including the playoffs) is very impressive. Eli Manning may have had the signature moment of his career versus the Cowboys, putting together some crucial TD drives and showing a lot of poise and composure. That said, it is difficult to believe that a Wild Card team is going to come into Lambeau Field and ruin the storybook season that Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers have put together; it looks like only the Patriots have the coaching, the depth and the focus to make the clock strike midnight for the Cheesehead Cinderallas but we'll talk more about that matchup if it in fact becomes reality. Green Bay could not have gotten off to a worse start against Seattle, with two fumbles leading to a quick 14-0 deficit, but the Packers still won in a blowout.

Green Bay will take an early lead, Eli Manning will throw an interception or two, and the rout will be on as the Packers roll to a 31-10 victory.

Bobby Fischer's Mixed Legacy

I was surprised and saddened to learn that former World Chess Champion Bobby Fischer passed away on Thursday at the age of 64. Actually, I was also a little surprised by how saddened the news made me. I never met the man and it is difficult to forget the glee that he expressed about the 9/11 attacks. I greatly respect Fischer's artistry and brilliance as a chess player but it's been a long time since he publicly displayed those qualities and it seemed doubtful that he ever would again. So why did I feel so sad to hear of his death? Emotions cannot really be explained or justified but after reflecting about this I think I understand the causes for my gut reaction: Bobby Fischer's death closes the book on any possibility that he will either play brilliant chess again or that he will recant some of the despicable comments that he said about America and Jews. Of course, from a purely rational standpoint it is easy to see that the likelihood of either of those things ever happening was exceedingly remote but now that he is gone his legacy--for better or worse--is complete.

The "better" part of Fischer's legacy--his contributions to the game of chess--will never be forgotten. He set many records and achieved many incredible feats, including becoming the youngest Grandmaster ever (age 15; that mark has since been broken by youngsters who train with computers, an advantage that Fischer did not have), becoming the youngest U.S. Champion ever (age 14), winning eight U.S. championships while losing only three games total and achieving a remarkable 11/11 result in the 1964 championship, winning 20 straight games against elite level Grandmaster opponents and winning the World Championship in 1972 by defeating Boris Spassky with a 12.5-8.5 score that included a game that Fischer forfeited by not showing up because he was not satisfied with the playing conditions. Fischer's record for the highest rating of all-time has since been broken but when Fischer was the top rated player he was further ahead of his contemporaries than any chess player has been in at least the past 150 years (dating back to when Paul Morphy, the first great American chess player, dominated the chess world briefly before he, like Fischer, faded into obscurity); the rating is just a number that only has meaning in comparison with other ratings and Fischer's dominance over even the other elite players of his day is amazing.

Fischer once declared that he was battling alone against what he called "the lying, cheating, hypocritical Russians," a statement that turned out to be largely true even if it sounded paranoid. For years, Fischer studied chess for hours and hours a day, learning several foreign languages so that he could read the top chess journals and books from around the world; he reintroduced old ideas that had been forgotten or considered unsound and he also came up with innovative new ideas. The top Soviet players were provided with state stipends and worked together in an organized fashion in order to maximize the chance that one of their number would always retain the world title; the Soviet Union could not compete with the West economically, scientifically or in many other ways but chess and Olympic sports were two areas that the Soviets sought to dominate in order to "prove" the superiority of communism over capitalism. It is no exaggeration to say that one lone American genius, by virtue of his talent, willpower and tenacity, overcame the collective efforts of the Soviets and wrested the World Championship from them after they controlled it for a quarter century. Fischer's will to win was legendary and induced a condition known as "Fischer fear" in his opponents; he quite openly stated that he was trying to crush his opponents and break their will and many of them spoke of the enormous psychological pressure that they felt when competing against such a talented, thoroughly prepared player who disdained draws and fought throughout every game with relentless fury until the bitter end: if you play competitive chess then you know exactly what I am talking about but if you don't, just think of Bill Belichick's New England Patriots and Tom Brady frankly saying, "We're trying to kill teams." Fischer combined Belichick's meticulous preparation with Brady's ability to stay focused and execute under pressure. Even if you don't know chess from checkers you have to appreciate any champion who hones his game to this extent.

Fischer's meteoric rise to the World Championship spawned a chess boom in the United States and put the game on the front pages of national magazines and newspapers and earned him guest appearances on mainstream talk shows. Like Tiger Woods--but to a smaller degree--Fischer's emergence resulted in bigger prize funds and elevated the status of his game among the general populace. Unfortunately, the "Fischer boom" went bust as its namesake never again played an officially sanctioned tournament or match game after his 1972 triumph (his famous 1992 "rematch" with Spassky was not sanctioned by FIDE, the world chess federation, and actually got Fischer into trouble with the U.S. government for violating trade sanctions against Yugoslavia). Fischer had vowed to not only break Emanuel Lasker's record and hold the world title for more than 27 years but he said that he would not duck any challengers and would put the title up for grabs regularly. He did neither of those things; Fischer, arguably the greatest player in the history of the game, reigned as World Champion for just three years before giving up the championship without playing a game because of disputes over playing conditions and the terms for a championship match. Fischer spent most of his remaining three decades as a recluse, periodically emerging to issue hateful statements, mainly directed against America and Jews; the man who had received a hero's welcome in America for defeating a Soviet champion turned completely against his own national and ethnic heritage. Other than his 1992 victory over Spassky--which included a few brilliant games and others that were ordinary by Grandmaster standards--Fischer had just two positive accomplishments during this period: he received a patent for the digital time delay clock that has become standard fare in chess tournaments and he invented a new form of chess that he called "Fischer Random" that he declared to be superior to the original game, which he considered to be outdated.

The "worse" part of Fischer's legacy reared its ugly head even when he was on top of the chess world, although his closest confidantes did the best that they could to both modify Fischer's conduct and make sure that press coverage of him focused on his remarkable abilities as a player. The forfeited game that almost scuttled the 1972 match was not an isolated incident for Fischer. He often feuded with organizers, sometimes justifiably so--playing conditions for even world class players were not great early in Fischer's career--but sometimes over things that seemed trivial or bizarre; Fischer might have captured the world title several years before he did if he had not stormed out of a qualifying tournament in a huff despite owning a commanding lead that all but assured a victory that would have placed him on the brink of challenging for the crown. Although it is often suggested that something went wrong with Fischer after he won the World Championship in 1972, he made strange statements during interviews and in private conversations years before that. His paranoia and growing anti-Semitism were evident for quite some time but it does seem like those features of his personality became more prominent as he got older.

Some people will say that Fischer should only be remembered as a brilliant chess player and that everything else should be forgotten; other people will say that Fischer's hate speech (and there is no other appropriate term for it) negates what he accomplished. Both of these viewpoints are wrong: it is true that Fischer's greatness as a chess player deserves to be honored but it is also true that his statements have irrevocably tainted and tarnished his name, if not his legacy. When terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center and attacked the Pentagon on 9/11, Fischer said that this was "wonderful" and he hoped that the United States would be destroyed. Those are not statements of political dissent; he expressed glee at the thought of innocent civilians being slaughtered by people who believe that the rest of the world must submit to their belief system or be killed. This is not a right wing issue or a left wing issue; if you believe that there is justification to deliberately kill thousands of innocent civilians then you have stepped well beyond the bounds of civil and rational discourse. It is entirely reasonable to disagree with America's foreign policy but it is quite another thing to openly hope for America's downfall and to celebrate a horrific crime. America is far from perfect but it is worth remembering that America has to build fences to keep people out, while historically her enemies have had to build fences to keep people from leaving--that is a pretty handy measure of whether or not a country is repressive; you can also use the "public square" test: in America you have the freedom to stand in a public square and express disagreement with the current government, an option that does not exist in the countries that Fischer and others laud at America's expense, countries where people are routinely jailed or killed for attempting to speak freely, support opposing political parties or worship a minority religion.

While Fischer's chess games contained an inner harmony and logic befitting an Einstein equation or a Mozart symphony, there was no order or logic to his political beliefs. Indeed, he called anyone who he considered to be an enemy a Jew--even if the person was not Jewish--and yet he had cordial relations over the years with a number of people who were in fact Jewish, including the famous Polgar sisters. It seems very likely that Fischer's anti-America and anti-Semitic statements resulted from mental illness--as opposed to the carefully thought out, malevolent world view of someone like Osama bin Laden--but that does not diminish the harm that is caused when someone of Fischer's prominence publicly says such horrible things. I have never seen Leni Riefenstahl's infamous film Triumph of the Will but it is considered to be an aesthetic and cinematic masterpiece; however, it is impossible to separate the quality of the art from the fact that she was figuratively--and possibly literally--in bed with Adolf Hitler, one of the most evil tyrants who lived. Her art was created specifically to serve evil purposes, while Fischer's art does exist separately from his hate speech, but that hate speech is nevertheless a permanent part of Fischer's overall legacy; Fischer even said that he did not want to be viewed as merely a chess genius because he thought that he had significant things to say about other issues. Ironically, Fischer accused fellow former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov of merely being a chess genius who knows nothing about anything else, even though Kasparov is a political columnist for the Wall Street Journal and a political activist in his native Russia.

Fischer cannot simply be remembered as a great chess player, nor is it fair to characterize him as nothing more than a hate monger. His chess legacy is eternal, as is the taint that he placed on his own name and reputation. Now that Fischer is gone and can say or do nothing else, that is how the matter will always rest.


One story about Bobby Fischer that captivated me years ago described how he almost met Wilt Chamberlain. The great writer Dick Schaap, who knew both champions, tried to arrange for Fischer to meet him and Chamberlain at Chamberlain's home but Fischer declined. More than 20 years ago, Sports Illustrated's William Nack wrote about this incident. Schaap later mentioned it in his autobiography Flashing Before my Eyes. This anecdote combines basketball, chess and writing and involves three people who I would have been interested to meet (and who have all since passed away, unfortunately), so it understandably made an impression on me. Over a year ago, I wrote a short story based on the premise that Chamberlain and Fischer did in fact meet each other: Not A Random Encounter. Keep in mind that this is a work of fiction.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Lesson #1 From the Ongoing Steroids Saga: Don't Lie to the Feds

Elvis Presley once sang, "You can do anything but lay off of my blue suede shoes." The federal government's motto in many instances--ranging from the Martha Stewart case to the ongoing performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) saga--seems to be, "You can do anything but don't lie to federal agents." As far as I know, no elite athlete has yet gone to jail for using PEDs, which are illegal without a doctor's prescription--but Marion Jones is about to go to jail for lying about her PED use and Barry Bonds, Miguel Tejada and others--including Roger Clemens if he is not telling the truth--may eventually be incarcerated for lying as well. At least as far back as President Nixon's administration we have heard the cliche "It's not the crime that gets you in trouble; it's the cover up" and we are certainly seeing plenty of examples of that now. Tejada must have been the most surprised person in America when his name jumped to center stage during Tuesday's hearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee regarding the Mitchell Report. Representatives Henry Waxman and Tom Davis asked the Justice Department to investigate whether Tejada lied when he was questioned in 2005 during the Rafael Palmeiro perjury investigation. Of course, this little drama within the wider scandal began when Palmeiro wagged his finger toward committee members and swore that he had never used steroids. After Palmeiro flunked a drug test, he fingered Tejada as the source of what he took, which Palmeiro still maintains he did not know to be steroids. Tejada denies using steroids, but the Mitchell Report produced two checks that Tejada wrote to his then-teammate Adam Piatt, who told Mitchell's investigators that he obtained steroids and human growth hormone for Tejada.

After the Mitchell Report was issued, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig almost broke his arm patting himself on the back for how well he has handled the PED issue. John Fahey, the President of the World-Anti Doping Agency (WADA), is not nearly as impressed with the measures--or lack thereof--that Selig is taking: "Professional baseball's response to Senator Mitchell's report is baffling. To suggest that it might continue to keep its anti-doping testing program in house...is demeaning to Senator Mitchell and the congressional committees who view doping as a serious threat to public health." That is really the crux of the matter. I realize that some fans say "Who cares?" and question why Congress is getting involved in this situation but this is absolutely a serious public health issue. Considering that MLB has obviously handled this matter completely ineptly for the better part of two decades, it is actually overdue that Congress steps in and tries to assert some control here. This is not simply a matter of letting Barry Bonds do whatever he wants to do with his body because he will face the consequences: all of society will pay a steep price if PED usage spreads from a few thousand pro athletes to millions of young, amateur athletes, a process that has already begun because the cheaters have made it difficult to perform at an elite level without joining their ranks.

In addition to the public health concerns, there is also the issue that sports should be conducted on a fair, level playing field (pardon the pun) without certain athletes gaining an advantage through criminal actions. Representative Betty McCollum eloquently addressed this aspect of the scandal: "Fixed games played by drug users illegitimately altered the outcome of the games. It's my opinion we're here in the middle of a criminal conspiracy that defrauded millions of baseball fans of billions of dollars." Selig and his partner in crime Donald Fehr, the head of the MLB Players Association, are very proud of how much MLB's revenues have soared under their watch--but, as Rep. McCollum stated, those funds were raised under false pretenses. Fraud and drug trafficking are two of the crimes covered under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. I'm no lawyer but if it can be proven that Selig and/or Fehr either actively knew about rampant PED use in MLB or were grossly negligent in trying to prevent such criminal activities because those activities were generating revenue for MLB then why can't the government prosecute Selig, Fehr and anyone else involved in what McCollum rightly called a "criminal conspiracy"? I realize that such a prosecution is unlikely to ever happen but think about the powerful message it would send.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Colts Will be Well Rested When They Watch the AFC Championship Game

When the Indianapolis Colts rested most of their starters and lost the regular season finale to the Tennessee Titans, I noted that this strategy had backfired on Colts' Coach Tony Dungy in 2005, when Indianapolis went into rest mode, closing the regular season by losing one game and barely winning another before being upset at home in the playoffs after a bye week. Sure enough, the same thing happened to the Colts this time around as the San Diego Chargers upset the defending Super Bowl champions 28-24 to advance to the AFC Championship Game. How much impact did resting have on the Colts? Their defense gave up more points and more yards versus the Chargers than they did in any of the 16 regular season games; their offense amassed a lot of yards but converted just 3 of 11 third downs, committed three turnovers and did not display much balance, gaining 402 passing yards but just 44 rushing yards. It is not clear whether or not Marvin Harrison was healthy enough to play against the Titans but if he was and the Colts simply rested him for the Chargers game that turned out to be a mistake, too; he fumbled the first time that he touched the ball and was not even on the field during the Colts' final possessions. I don't know if Harrison's subpar performance stemmed simply from rust or if he really is not healthy yet. However, the Colts may have been better served either using him in the Titans game or shutting him down for this year, because he contributed nothing against the Chargers and his fumble deep in Chargers' territory almost certainly took points off of the board.

Above and beyond the statistics, I object to the idea that certain games don't matter. If the Titans game truly did not matter, then the Colts should simply have forfeited it and not paid a game check to any of their players. By the way, a couple things should be clarified about how the Colts-Titans game affected the race between the Titans and the Browns for the final Wild Card berth. It is true that the Colts had no obligation to go out of their way to help either team; the real problem here is that the Colts handled this situation in such an egregious manner--keeping their top players in the game until the precise moment when certain individual statistical milestones were reached and then pulling them out--that they turned a regular season game into a glorified preseason game. That ripped off anyone who bought a ticket--and seems to have had the opposite of the intended effect by also sabotaging their first playoff game. Furthermore, while it is undeniable that the Browns could have earned a playoff berth on their own simply by beating a bad Bengals team the week before, it is also undeniable that the Browns won 10 games by playing against teams that gave their all. The Titans won nine games by playing against teams that gave their all and one game against the Colts' bench players. Rather than watching the Colts mail it in, I would have preferred to see a game between the Browns and the Titans.

The New England Patriots were criticized earlier in the season for allegedly running up the score but their approach is that every time they have the ball they are trying to score and every time the opposing team has the ball they are trying to stop them from scoring. Speaking of the Patriots, in the last week of the season they played the New York Giants in a game that was "meaningless" for both teams in terms of playoff seedings, although the game had obvious historical significance because the Patriots were trying to complete the first 16-0 regular season in NFL history. The Giants played their starters throughout the contest and, even though they lost to the Patriots, they used that performance to build momentum for their current playoff run, which includes road victories against Tampa Bay last week and Dallas on Sunday. While the Colts executed poorly against the Chargers, the Giants had no turnovers against the Cowboys and executed a flawless two minute drill to score an important touchdown just before halftime en route to a 21-17 win. No one can say for sure how much it hurt the Colts to rest players or how much it helped the Giants to fight so valiantly against the Patriots in a "meaningless game"--but it is wrong for a team to think for one minute that certain games don't matter and/or that it is possible to turn off one's focus for one week and then turn it back on for another week.

In the coming days and weeks, you will hear and read a lot of overheated nonsense about the Mexican vacation that Dallas quarterback Tony Romo took during the bye week but the big story of this year's Divisional Playoffs is the vacation that the defending champion Colts took during the final week of the regular season--and perhaps the second biggest story is the vacation that the Giants refused to take during the final week of the regular season.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Marion Jones' Descent From Olympic Hero to Common Criminal

Marion Jones has been sentenced to six months in jail and 800 hours of community service as punishment for lying to federal investigators about using performance-enhancing drugs to cheat her way to the top of the track and field world. All of her results since September 2000 had already been stricken from the record books and Jones had also been previously stripped of the Olympic and World Championship medals that she won after that time. Years ago, Americans believed that our athletes--unlike those from totalitarian regimes like the former Soviet Union, East Germany and China--competed without cheating. Remember when Carl Lewis lost to steroid user Ben Johnson in the 1988 Olympics only to be vindicated after Johnson failed a drug test? Lewis had been complaining for quite some time about how much drug use had permeated track and field; until Johnson was caught, Lewis had been derided in many quarters as a whiner and a sore loser. Lewis may have been one of the last track and field athletes who had integrity, because he did not buy into the mentality that it would be OK to cheat because other people were doing it.

Jones had no such qualms, either about cheating or about defiantly lying about it. Jones should get a day in jail for every time she publicly stated that she never used performance-enhancing drugs. Mark McGwire has deservedly caught heat for saying that he did not want to talk about the past but for many years it seemed like Jones could not stop talking about the past. In her 2004 autobiography titled Marion Jones: Life in the Fast Lane, she devoted a full page to declare, in bold red letters: I HAVE ALWAYS BEEN UNEQUIVOCAL IN MY OPINION: I AM AGAINST PERFORMANCE ENHANCING DRUGS. I HAVE NEVER TAKEN THEM AND I NEVER WILL TAKE THEM.

U.S. District Judge Kenneth Karas said of Jones' repeated, vocal denials of her cheating, "This was a worldwide lie" and added that he hopes her jail sentence conveys a powerful message: "There's a very strong inference that would make other athletes think twice before lying. Nobody is above the obligation to tell the truth.''

Jones' descent from hero to disgraced criminal is tragic but there is also good news here: a high profile cheater has been caught, convicted and sentenced. Perhaps this example will be enough to dissuade future athletes from risking it all for a chance to obtain fleeting glory.

Friday, January 11, 2008

NFL Divisional Playoffs Preview

Many NFL observers will tell you that this is their favorite weekend of the season: the Divisional Playoff round. As ESPN's Tom Jackson and others have mentioned, we will get to see the league's eight best teams in action, including the playoff debut of the first 16-0 team in NFL history, the New England Patriots.

I correctly picked the outcome of three of the four Wild Card Weekend games; the only game that I missed was New York-Tampa Bay, which I considered to be a "pick 'em" contest. Tampa Bay started off well, but the Giants got their running game going, forced some turnovers and received a solid effort from quarterback Eli Manning.

This weekend's action kicks off on Saturday afternoon when the 11-5 Seattle Seahawks visit Lambeau Field to challenge perhaps the most surprising team of the season, the 13-3 Green Bay Packers. Most of the numbers in this matchup favor the Packers, who had a better point differential than the Seahawks during the season (144 to 102) and went 7-1 at home; the Seahawks only posted a 3-5 road record. Seattle did win the most recent regular season game between these teams (34-24 in 2006) and in the Seahawks' previous postseason experience at Lambeau Field they forced overtime before losing 33-27.

Expect another close contest this time, with Green Bay prevailing, 28-24.

Even casual NFL fans will probably tune in on Saturday night to see if the 11-5 Jacksonville Jaguars can eliminate the Patriots. A recitation of New England's statistics and records set is hardly necessary; everyone realizes the kind of dominance that the Patriots have displayed this season. Can the Jaguars slow down the aerial attack of Tom Brady, Randy Moss and company just enough to have a chance to win? Jacksonville's game plan is obvious: run the ball for 150-plus yards, dominate time of possession, don't give up any explosive plays and force some turnovers. Obviously, all of those things are a lot easier said than done. Jacksonville may find enough running lanes in the first half to keep things close for a while but New England will eventually build a 10 or 14 point lead, putting a lot of pressure on the Jaguars to be productive in the passing game.

Jacksonville is a big, physical team that may have some limited success early in the game, but New England will win, 34-14.

The opening act on Sunday is an NFC East battle between the 10-6 New York Giants and the 13-3 division champion Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys won both meetings this season and lead the regular season series 54-35-2; remarkably, this is the first time these rivals have met in the playoffs. After losing 45-35 at Dallas in week one, the Giants have won eight straight road games, including last week's playoff victory in Tampa Bay. They are definitely the hot team in this matchup, while the Cowboys faded down the stretch; in fact, Dallas' offense has not produced a touchdown in the six quarters since Terrell Owens suffered a high ankle sprain. Officially, Owens is a game-time decision but since he played in Super Bowl XXXIX despite a broken leg most people expect that he will play. Owens had nine receptions for 212 yards and four touchdowns in Dallas' two wins over New York, so it is no exaggeration to say that the outcome of this game largely hinges on his status. Clearly, Owens will not be 100% but if he is healthy enough to demand double team coverage this will open up opportunities for Dallas to run the ball and to throw the ball to the other receivers. His impact may not necessarily come in the form of his own statistics but rather how his presence affects the defense. If Owens is hobbling and the Giants can get by with single coverage on him then the Cowboys are in big trouble. Owens had six 100 yard games this season and the Cowboys won each of them; on the other hand, his teams have gone just 2-8 during his career when he does not play. I hate to hedge but I have two predictions for this game:

If Owens plays and is not noticeably limping, the Cowboys will win, 31-20.

If Owens does not play or if he plays but is noticeably limping, the Giants will win, 24-14.

OK, that was a bit of a copout, so here is the prediction that I will live with, come what may: Owens will play, he will limp slightly and Dallas will win, 24-21; this is the pick that will "count" when I make a recap post next week, but I just wanted to emphasize how important Owens really is to Dallas' offense.

The defending Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts (13-3) host the 11-5 San Diego Chargers in Sunday night's finale. The Chargers won this season's head to head matchup 23-21 in week 10. Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning had one of the worst performances of his career in that game, throwing a career-high six interceptions. It is extremely unlikely that Manning will play that poorly again, so the Chargers will have to play even better this time around in order to win a road playoff game. Marvin Harrison, Manning's favorite target, is expected to return to action after missing several weeks due to injury. The Colts basically took off the last week of the season to be extra rested for this game, as I discussed here and here. Last week, the "rested" Buccaneers lost to the Giants, who played all of their starters in the final week in a very entertaining game against New England. It would certainly be fitting if the football gods "reward" the Colts with some extra rest after this game but I suspect that we are going to see the AFC Championship Game that everyone has been anticipating all along.

The Chargers certainly have enough talent to pull off the upset but a late Manning-led drive will give the Colts a 31-28 victory.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

How the Media Works--or Doesn't Work

The best tool that any consumer of media information can have is a healthy amount of skepticism. This is true whether the source is the internet, television, radio, a newspaper or any other platform. Truth, accuracy and fairness are rapidly heading toward extinction in favor of ignorance, bias and the rush to break a story first. Oklahoma State Coach Mike Gundy was widely ridiculed after his famous press conference rant but while most members of the media were delighted to mock him and thus not have to face the serious message that he delivered (albeit in an over the top fashion), I immediately wrote that he was right on target with his complaint.

My post titled "Why is the Media Out to get Terrell Owens?" presented a case study in how the media shapes the news instead of just reporting it. Owens' life story and the obstacles that he has overcome are every bit as inspirational as Brett Favre's. The only reason that Favre is celebrated as a hero and Owens is denigrated is because media gatekeepers have decided that this is the way each story should be framed. Favre has made mistakes--involving alcohol, painkiller addiction and meddling in a teammate's contract dispute, to name just three off the top of my head--but those incidents are either glossed over or portrayed in ways that emphasize how Favre overcame his difficulties; Owens' mistakes--you know the list, so I'm not even going to mention them again--are held up as reasons to ridicule him and question his value as a teammate and his worth as a person. Truth, accuracy and fairness demand that the media tell stories in an unbiased fashion, providing all the information so that the public can make its own judgments; ignorance, bias and the rush to break a story first demand that stories be thrown together quickly and packaged in a way to heighten passions--often in service of a biased agenda.

In "Keyshawn Johnson Versus Terrell Owens: The Real Tale of the Tape," I explained one popular technique that I strongly suspect was used to try to make Owens look bad. On ESPN's Sunday Countdown show, Johnson said some complimentary things about Owens but advised him to not publicly knock Bill Parcells, the Dallas Cowboys' previous coach. The next thing you know, Owens is on SportsCenter firing away at Johnson. How did that happen? In my post, I quoted Owens' comments, as broadcast on SportsCenter, in their entirety and then made this comment:

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.

If you don't believe that this is how the media often operates, consider what just happened in Chicago. On Wednesday, Rick Telander--a writer who actually does endeavor to get his facts straight--devoted his Chicago Sun-Times' column to explaining why he submitted a blank Hall of Fame baseball ballot this year: "No erasing empty feeling."

That afternoon, a Chicago radio host used the technique that I described above to try to incite a problem between Telander and former Cubs' outfielder Andre Dawson. In his Thursday column titled "Clearing the airwaves," this is how Telander explains what happened:

It's a pity that such a noisy brouhaha had been made out of my simple piece by a morning-radio talk-show host, who read a trifle of it to Dawson on air around 9 a.m, called me cowardly, then screamed to Dawson, "He screwed you!"

Dawson had responded that if I'd said what it seemed I'd said, to his face--that Dawson might have used steroids--what would happen next "wouldn't be pretty."

Telander contacted Dawson and cleared the air. It turns out that Dawson never read the column but just heard the radio host's interpretation of what Telander meant. Telander read the entire column to Dawson, who then replied--referring to Telander's disgust with MLB's ongoing steroids crisis--"I understand you now. I know that regardless of what I've accomplished, it doesn't count. Because nobody is trustworthy.'' Telander's original column in fact said that Dawson should be voted into the Hall of Fame; his message bore no relationship whatsoever to what the radio host irresponsibly screeched over the airwaves. Did the host simply not understand what Telander meant or did the host intentionally distort Telander's message just to create controversy? In the end, it does not really matter, because a lot of people who heard the show will never read Telander's follow up column that straightens everything out. That radio host literally and figuratively poisoned the airwaves. The sad thing is that this happens every day.

If you ever meet Mike Gundy in person, instead of snickering, shake his hand and thank him for trying to stem the massive tide of sewage being dumped on us by various media streams--and the next time you hear a radio host bellowing vile or inflammatory comments at the top of his lungs or the next time you read a story about how bad a person Owens (or anyone else who is on the media hit list) is, pause for a moment and use the most vital tool for any listener, viewer or reader: skepticism.

Clemens Saga Will Not End Well

Roger Clemens is a liar. No other conclusion can be drawn, unless you believe that the greatest pitcher of this generation does not give a "rat's (behind)" about being immortalized in the Hall of Fame. Clemens, like many great athletes, is a control freak and he realizes that in the wake of the Mitchell Report he no longer controls how many Hall of Fame votes he will receive; until recently, it seemed certain that number would be very high, based on Clemens' impressive on field numbers--but now the number of votes that Clemens eventually gets will likely be based on whether or not the baseball writers believe that the miraculous second act of Clemens' career was in fact a fraud created by performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs).

The Mitchell Report will probably be remembered as the Clemens Indictment, because just about everything else that was mentioned in it has been largely brushed aside--at least for now--as everyone from the casual fan to Congress evaluates the accusations against Clemens and his response to them. For anyone who somehow missed the story, Brian McNamee--Clemens' trainer for several years--provided the federal government with very specific descriptions of a number of occasions when he personally injected Clemens with PEDs. The timing of those injections coincides with Clemens' rejuvenation as a pitcher after several mediocre seasons. McNamee also testified that he injected Andy Pettitte with human growth hormone (HGH); Pettitte has subsequently admitted to receiving a few HGH injections, which he said were for rehabilitation purposes, not performance enhancement. Of course, Pettitte's excuse is garbage, because being able to come back quicker from an injury is in fact performance enhancement: you cannot perform at all when you are on the disabled list. Also, HGH use is legal when prescribed by a doctor and illegal when used as a performance enhancer, so why did Pettitte take HGH secretly if he was not using it improperly? Pettitte's admission casts Clemens in a bad light because it is very logical to wonder why McNamee would lie about Clemens if he told the truth about Pettitte. Remember that McNamee testified under oath and will go to jail if he committed perjury.

Clemens had an opportunity to talk with Mitchell's investigators before the report came out but declined to do so. That is why no one should feel sorry for Clemens or anyone else whose name popped up in the Mitchell Report. Most MLB players, at the instigation of the Players Association, refused to cooperate, in effect creating a Mafia-style omerta (code of silence) that could only possibly serve to shield the guilty; if most players are innocent then shouldn't the Players Association be protecting their interests--not to mention the greater interests of the sport--as opposed to helping the guilty to cover up their foul deeds? Clemens told Mike Wallace that he was blindsided by McNamee's testimony but we now know that this is a lie because McNamee called Clemens' agents a week before the report came out and representatives of Clemens met with McNamee a day before the report was released. Clemens initially responded to the Mitchell Report by issuing statements through his lawyers and his foundation but he quickly realized that the public was not at all impressed. Then he agreed to trot out Wallace, who has lost more speed off of his fastball then Clemens had lost by 1997, to toss some softball questions. Some of the things that Clemens said to Wallace are simply bizarre. Pettitte is his best friend and long time workout partner but Clemens claimed to have no idea that Pettitte took HGH. That hardly seems credible. Even more strange are Clemens' comments about the alleged side effects of PED use: taking PEDs will not make a third ear grow out of your forehead and it will not enable you to pull vehicles with your teeth--but it will speed up your recovery time between workouts and the androgenic properties of some of those substances will help you to build and retain muscle mass. That is why Clemens' statements about his work ethic are not only meaningless but actually are a backhanded confirmation of the extra help he received. How exactly can a person of his age continue to do such intense workouts without having his body break down? Clemens was an aging, mediocre pitcher for the four years prior to when McNamee claims to have started giving him PED injections. Then Clemens quickly returned to being an elite pitcher. Clemens also told Wallace that if he had taken PEDs then he would have suffered injuries to connective tissues, something that often happens to athletes whose muscles grow to the point that their ligaments and tendons are overworked. Could that be the reason why Clemens has drastically limited his pitching appearances in recent seasons, essentially becoming a part time player?

Clemens did not immediately file suit against McNamee, saying that this would be too expensive. Clemens has made more than $100 million during his career in base salaries alone, according to Phil Rogers of the Chicago Tribune. It defies logic that an innocent man would not be willing to spend a small fraction of that fortune to save his good name. Clemens--or his advisors--quickly realized this and eventually did file suit against McNamee. I strongly suspect that filing this lawsuit was strictly a public relations move and that it will eventually be dropped, like a similar action that Barry Bonds took against Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, the authors of Game of Shadows, the book that made an overwhelming case that Bonds cheated his way to the single-season and career home runs records.

Most of you have probably heard or read about the 17 minute phone conversation with McNamee that Clemens recorded. Different interpretations have been offered for what both parties said. The bottom line is that Clemens never explicitly asked McNamee "Why did you lie?" and McNamee never said that he did in fact lie. McNamee sounded like someone who was pained that he had to blow the whistle on someone who had been very good to him and Clemens sounded like a desperate person who was trying to manipulate a broke, scared and desperate man whose son is dying. If I were Clemens and I were innocent, the first thing that I would say to McNamee is "Why did you lie about me using steroids?" The second thing that I would say to McNamee is, "You know that this is not true. I never used steroids." I understand that Clemens cannot put himself in a position where it can be said that he is trying to coerce a federal witness but it makes no sense for Clemens to spend the whole conversation essentially speaking in code. "Why did you lie about me using steroids?" is something that he simply had to ask--but maybe Clemens did not want the world to hear McNamee's answer to that question. Clemens has known McNamee a long time and realized that as long as he danced around the issue that McNamee would do so as well. McNamee comes across not as someone who lied to betray a friend but rather someone who is pained that he had to testify under oath about things that could damage Clemens. When McNamee keeps repeating, "What do you want me to do?", the subtext that I hear is this: "Roger, the feds were going to put me in jail if I didn't tell the truth. You and I both know that I injected you with steroids. I had to fess up. You're my friend and I'll do anything that I can to help you now. My son is dying and I am a wreck. What do you want me to do?"

Clemens played that 17 minute tape at a press conference he arranged. He pledged to answer any and all questions but only lasted a few minutes before he got very testy, made his obviously false statement about not caring about the Hall of Fame and stormed off the stage. The good news is that the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform will not only hold a hearing about the Mitchell Report on February 13 but Clemens, McNamee, Pettite and others will be deposed under oath prior to that day by attorneys of the committee members--and if you get caught lying to them, you go to jail. Clemens cannot bully them and he cannot storm off if he does not like a question that they ask him. It will be very interesting to see what everyone says in those circumstances. Track star Marion Jones was just as vociferous as Clemens in her initial denials before she eventually admitted that her whole career was a sham.

Most of the accused PED users seem to be reading off of the same script, one that includes some combination of these elements: I was only taking a B-12 shot (Jose Canseco, who seems to be the only person who is completely honest about what happened in the so-called Steroids Era, wrote in his book Juiced that PED users routinely used the phrase "B-12 shots" as a euphemism for steroid injections); I did not know that I was injected with a steroid; I only used steroids a few times to help me recover from an injury. The latter excuse has become really popular lately, a convenient way for Pettitte and others to try to avoid perjury but also try to maintain the facade of not being cheaters.

MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, Executive Director of the MLB Players Association Donald Fehr and the MLB players themselves all must share the blame for the permanent black mark that PEDs cast over an entire era of baseball history. Anyone who says that this is a victimless crime is wrong. The victims are the modern players who did not cheat and who lost individual honors, games and money to the cheaters. The victims are players from previous eras whose records were shattered--and some of these players are probably not in the Hall of Fame because their numbers were dwarfed by the statistics put up by PED users. Other than Frank Thomas and a select few players who put up Hall of Fame caliber numbers in the past 15 years without a hint of cheating, I would not mind if the Hall of Fame put up a moratorium on voting in players from this era in order to give long overdue recognition to Jim Rice, Andre Dawson and other neglected stars. The victims are the fans who loyally invested their money to root for cheaters--if McNamee's allegations are true, Clemens received tens of millions of dollars since 1997 as a result of cheating to prolong a career that otherwise was on its last legs; think of how many other players have also essentially stolen money not only from the fans but also from the honest ball players. Most of all, the victims are the young athletes who felt pressured to take PEDs to be like their "heroes" and to keep up with other young athletes who were getting ahead by cheating. That is the real legacy of Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Rafael Palmerio, Jason Giambi, Ken Caminiti and all of the other players who were involved in this scandal.

This story will not have a clean or happy ending. Lives have been lost due to PED abuse, the MLB record book has been turned into tawdry fiction and many of the most guilty parties will likely never be punished.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Instant Replay: Ohio State Routed Again in BCS Championship Game

Once again, Ohio State started well in the BCS Championship Game--and once again, the tide turned with a vengeance. Last year, Ted Ginn returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown that gave Ohio State a 7-0 lead but he was injured while celebrating the score and Florida went on to post a 41-14 win. This year, Ohio State jumped out to a 10-0 first quarter lead before LSU ran off 31 straight points en route to a 38-24 victory. On the surface this looks like a championship game version of the movie "Groundhog Day": a fast SEC team routs a slow Big Ten team. However, there are some important differences between the two contests. After Ginn's return, Florida completely dominated the game, with lopsided advantages in first downs (21-8), total yards (370-82) and third down conversions (10-19 for Florida, compared to 1-9 for Ohio State). This year, the statistical tale of the tape was much more even and Ohio State actually outgained LSU in total yards (353-326) and rushed for nearly as many yards (trailing just 152-145) while posting a much better yards per attempt average (4.8 to 3.1). Despite this, the outcome of the game was not in serious doubt for most of the second half and the final margin would have been even worse if Ohio State had not scored a touchdown with barely a minute remaining in the game.

How did LSU dominate the scoreboard without dominating the stat sheet? The answer is "hidden yardage." Ohio State committed seven penalties for 83 yards, while LSU had just four penalties for 36 yards. The most costly Ohio State penalty came right after the Buckeyes stopped LSU on the first possession of the third quarter. The Buckeyes trailed 24-10 and were set to receive the punt. Obviously, a touchdown drive at that point would have made it anyone's game but instead Ohio State roughed the punter. LSU retained possession and soon scored a backbreaking touchdown. Ohio State had three turnovers compared to just one for LSU and the Buckeyes saw a good second quarter drive go for naught after LSU blocked a field goal attempt. Penalties, turnovers and special teams gaffes do not show up in total yardage statistics but they prevent teams from converting that yardage into points.

The penalties and turnovers are indicative of a team that lost its composure at times and Ohio State Coach Jim Tressel will deservedly receive some of the blame for that. However, it is important to remember that most college football experts believe that Ohio State reached the championship game a year early. Prior to the season, this young Buckeyes team was not even supposed to win the Big Ten. If Ohio State had lost two or three games as expected but beat Michigan and won a lesser bowl game then this would have been considered a successful season. Instead, because Ohio State "overachieved" (I dislike that word but it applies here) and reached the championship game, this season will be viewed by many people as a failure and perhaps even an indictment of Tressel's ability to win "big" games. The reality--which became apparent during the game--is that LSU simply has more good players than Ohio State does. No matter how disappointing this finish is to Ohio State's coaches, players and fans, the Buckeyes did have a successful season when you consider what this team was reasonably expected to do.

Other than "hidden yardage," the biggest factor in the game may have been LSU's pass rush. Ohio State's problems in this regard resulted not so much from protection breakdowns as from the inability of their receivers to get open against man to man coverage. Quarterback Todd Boeckman often had enough time to throw but no one got open and then defenders eventually made it into the pocket. ESPN's Lee Corso said that Ohio State is one or two outside playmakers away from being a championship team.

ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit took the "sky is falling" approach in his postgame analysis, saying that conversations with fans around the country convinced him that the Big Ten is perceived to be a second rate conference and that this result will only serve to reinforce that belief. That is just a silly thing comment on many levels. Even if fans think this, so what? NFL teams regularly draft Big Ten players who go on to have successful pro careers, so it is ridiculous to suggest that the Big Ten is not an elite conference. Is the SEC the best football conference right now? It certainly looks that way but that does not mean that the Big Ten is some small time league. Moreover, if ESPN viewers want to know what fans think then they can literally talk amongst themselves to find out. Herbstreit is a former player--at Ohio State, no less--who watches many games live and has access to players, coaches and game film and it is his job to explain whether or not the Big Ten is an elite conference, not simply to parrot what some fans told him during commercial breaks from the filming of College GameDay. He is in a position to provide an informed viewpoint, so there is no reason for him to waste airtime with the results of his unscientific "poll" of random fans.

People talk about the importance of the long layoff between the end of the season and the BCS Championship Game but they usually cite the fact that some conferences have a conference championship but the Big Ten does not; supposedly, the extra game enables teams to stay a little sharper (it must be added that conference championship games also expose teams to the possibility of a loss that would knock them out of BCS Championship Game contention). It turns out that the real reason that the layoff is a factor is not the cliched "rust versus rest" issue but rather that it enables players to heal from nagging injuries. There is so much time off that the BCS Championship game is literally played in another calendar year and sometimes figuratively seems to be part of a separate football season. Ohio State's Chris Wells scored the first touchdown of the game on a 65 yard run, the longest ever in a BCS Championship Game, and he finished with 146 yards on 20 carries. He put up good numbers during the regular season but was often hobbling around because of an ankle injury. The time off benefited LSU even more, because several key players who had been out of action or somewhat limited returned to full strength. My prediction of an Ohio State win was based too heavily on how LSU was playing at the end of the regular season; the outcome of this game may very well have been different if it had been played a month ago. I think that no one would dispute that LSU played better in the BCS Championship Game than in any other game this season, particularly considering what was at stake.

None of this takes anything away from LSU, a worthy national champion that successfully navigated a difficult conference schedule and beat a tough opponent in the BCS Championship Game.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Six Reasons Ohio State Will Beat LSU in the BCS Championship Game

One of the most topsy-turvy college football seasons ever concludes tonight when Ohio State faces LSU in the BCS Championship Game. Ohio State (11-1) is ranked number one, while LSU (11-2), the only team with two losses to play in a BCS title game, is ranked number two. Of course, it is only natural in this bizarre season that LSU has been installed as a four point favorite despite being lower ranked and having a worse record. Granted, a betting line is not actually a prediction but merely the way that bookmakers make sure that too much action does not go to one team or the other--and the public's perception of this game is heavily shaped by Ohio State's 41-14 loss to another SEC team, Florida, in last year's BCS Championship Game. Ohio State's 0-8 record in bowl games against SEC teams also does not inspire confidence but that statistic really has no relevance for tonight's game; the first time Ohio State faced an SEC team in a bowl game, Woody Hayes and Bear Bryant patrolled the sidelines.

While the first seven Ohio State losses to SEC teams in bowl games are easy to dismiss, Florida's blowout victory is hard to forget, particularly for the many Ohio State players who look at this game as a chance for redemption. Far from being a portent of doom, the sting of humiliation from that defeat has been a major motivating factor for the Buckeyes throughout this season. There is so much time between the end of the season and the championship game that the underdog team gets tired of hearing about how it has no chance to win; that is why six of the first nine BCS champions were underdogs going into the title game. The Buckeyes not only have that "standard" motivation working in their favor but they also have a core group of players who have vowed to not let their careers be defined by the Florida loss. That mindset is a major reason why I believe that Ohio State will beat LSU in a close game, 24-20. Here are five more reasons that Ohio State will win:

*** Defense wins championships and Ohio State ranked first in the nation in total defense (225.3 ypg), scoring defense (10.7 ppg) and passing defense (148.2 ypg). The Buckeyes finished third in rushing defense (77.1 ypg). LSU has a good defense, ranking between third and twentieth in those categories, but Ohio State has a great defense.

*** The coaching matchup of Jim Tressel versus Les Miles favors Ohio State. Even LSU's staunchest supporters will admit that Miles makes some curious decisions at times. That is not to say that he is a bad coach but Tressel has already assembled an incredible coaching resume, including five Division 1-AA national titles, a perfect 2002 season capped off by a BCS title, a 73-15 record at Ohio State and a 3-1 mark in BCS bowl games.

*** Ohio State has the best winning percentage in major college football since 2005 (33-4, .892) and the Buckeyes have won 30 of their past 32 games.

*** LSU not only lost two games to teams that are not championship contenders but the Tigers won three other games by a touchdown or less. Yes, Ohio State has that one Illinois blemish on its report card but no Division I team has a spotless record this season and the closest Buckeyes' win was a seven point decision over Michigan State, with the rest of their victories being by at least 11 points. People can say that the SEC is stronger that the Big Ten but try telling that to anyone who watched Michigan beat Florida on New Year's Day.

When Jim Tressel's coaching career is over I expect that he will have won multiple BCS championships and that he will have a winning record in BCS title games. His mark in such contests is 1-1 right now but a win against LSU will be the first step toward making both of the preceding predictions come true.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

NFL Year in Review/Playoff Preview

My 2007 NFL Preview contained some good predictions--I had the exact finishing order in two of the eight divisions and correctly identified six of the division champions--and some not so good predictions: I whiffed on all four Wild Cards and the NFC North standings are almost completely reversed from what I expected. As I mentioned in the introduction to that article, the NFL sees more teams go from worst to first than just about any other league for three reasons: (1) football is a violent sport and one key injury can wreck a team's season; (2) in a 16 game season, one loss carries the proportional weight of five NBA games or 10 MLB games; (3) many games are not decided until the closing minutes, so the difference between 10-6 and 6-10 could literally be a handful of plays. In other words, I knew going in that a lot of my predictions would not be correct because that is the nature of the sport. That said, let's take a closer look at what I predicted and what actually happened before I offer my thoughts on this weekend's playoff games and who will ultimately play in the Super Bowl.

I did a pretty good job with the AFC East. I had New England winning the division, Miami in the basement and Buffalo and New York also missing the playoffs. I whiffed on a couple of my "quick hits," though, because I expected Adalius Thomas to have a bigger impact than Randy Moss and thought that the Jets would "just miss the cut" for the playoffs this year.

I correctly predicted the exact order of finish in the AFC West. I said that the Chargers would win fewer than the 14 games that they won last season and that they would not make it to the AFC Championship Game; I was right about the first and we'll see about the second (I stand by that thought). I correctly called Oakland a "disaster area" and said that Denver and Kansas City would contend for Wild Card berths but fall short. Denver sort of contended--well, the Broncos weren't mathematically eliminated until near the end of the season--but Kansas City was just as bad as Oakland.

I knew that Pittsburgh would win the AFC North title but I--like everyone else--was surprised by the emergence of the Cleveland Browns, who actually finished with the same record as the Steelers but missed the playoffs by virtue of tiebreakers. I expected Baltimore and Cincinnati to be Wild Card teams. Not realizing that Derek Anderson would ultimately threaten the Browns' single-season touchdown record, I predicted that Brady Quinn would start playing by midseason and that he would have at least one 300 yard game.

I predicted the exact order of finish in the AFC South but thought that Jacksonville and Tennessee would "come up just short" in their Wild Card bids. Tennessee needed the Browns to lose to Cincinnati and the Colts to lie down like dogs but the Titans managed to make it in, while Jacksonville clearly is better than I expected.

I stand by my original AFC Championship Game prediction of New England beating Indianapolis.

I was right that Dallas would win the NFC East and that Terrell Owens would have one of the best seasons of his career, which certainly was not a given considering his age; Owens put up some of the best numbers ever posted by a 34 year old NFL wide receiver. I expected Donovan McNabb to remain hobbled and the Eagles to not make the playoffs but the Redskins and Giants both did better than I thought that they would.

Seattle won the NFC West as I expected but my "sleeper" team, San Francisco, literally fell asleep. I thought that the Rams would be bad but they were even worse than I expected, while the Cardinals were not as bad as I expected them to be.

Point blank, absolutely nothing in the NFC North went the way that I predicted. I did a little better with the NFC South, but of course everyone knew that Atlanta would be in the basement; would it be wrong to say that the Falcons' season went to the dogs?

I predicted that Dallas would beat New Orleans in the NFC Championship Game but that has been rendered impossible because the Saints did not qualify for the playoffs. Assuming that Owens is still a quick healer, I will stick with Dallas to win the NFC title, beating Green Bay. I realize that there is a significant chance that at least one of my conference championship game picks is wrong, because I went straight "chalk" and it we probably won't see the top two seeds on each side make it through unscathed--but New England, Indianapolis, Dallas and Green Bay truly have been the class of the league this year, a 16-0 team and three 13-3 teams that finished at least two games ahead of everyone else (and the Colts could have been 14-2 if it had mattered to them).

Here are quick takes on this weekend's games:

Seattle is a division champion, has a much better point differential than Washington (102 to 24) and has homefield advantage. All of that adds up to a 24-20 Seattle victory.

Pittsburgh has homefield advantage by virtue of winning the AFC North but Jacksonville has a better regular season record, won the head to head encounter this season between these teams and has a much healthier roster. Pittsburgh went 7-1 at home this year but that lone loss came at the hands of the Jaguars. It feels strange to pick Pittsburgh to lose at home but look for Jacksonville to prevail, 21-17.

On Sunday, we have another game in which a team with the better record visits a team that won its division. I'm not particularly sold on the NFC South champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, nor am I overly impressed by the New York Giants, their game effort against New England in the season finale notwithstanding. I look at this game as a "pick 'em," though the experts in Las Vegas afforded Tampa Bay the standard three points for homefield advantage. I think that the game will ultimately be decided by how well Tampa Bay deals with New York's pass rush; if the Bucs keep Jeff Garcia clean then he will make enough plays to win the game. I'll take Tampa Bay 19-16, perhaps on a field goal as time runs out; the Giants always seem to find a way to lose road playoff games.

The Chargers got off to a slow start this year but they are rolling and they have the easiest matchup of the first round, a banged up Titans team that could barely eke out a win against the Colts' scrubs. Norv Turner's sketchy record as a head coach gives me pause--particularly considering that the Titans' Jeff Fisher is a very good coach--but unless Turner has complete brain lock and forgets to give the ball to LaDainian Tomlinson the Chargers should win without too much difficulty; call it 35-14.

I am sticking with my preseason prediction that New England will beat Dallas in the Super Bowl.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Titans-Colts: Was the Fix In?

Many people went nuts earlier this season over the revelation that the New England Patriots filmed the signals used by opposing teams on the sidelines, even though former Cowboys Coach Jimmy Johnson and others noted that many teams do this and even though what the Patriots did would be perfectly legal if they had simply gathered the information from a network feed. Meanwhile, the Indianapolis Colts--the league's so-called bastion of integrity--apparently colluded with the Tennessee Titans to throw a game and certainly acted in a manner that affected the point spread.

After the Titans beat the Colts 16-10 in the final regular season game, clinching a playoff berth for the Titans while eliminating the Cleveland Browns from postseason play, I wrote, "Isn't it convenient that (Reggie) 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, (Indianapolis Coach Tony) 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." It turns out that I was right to say that this game was a "charade": MSNBC reports, "the Titans kneeled at the end of the game Sunday because they knew the Colts wouldn't call a timeout" and directly asks, "Did Indianapolis Colts and Tennessee Titans coaches have an under-the-table agreement at the end of last Sunday's game?" Titans quarterback Kerry Collins told WFAN radio, "Apparently there was some communication between Jeff and Tony." The result of that "communication" is that instead of running a regular play the Titans elected to simply have Collins kneel down. Fisher told the Knoxville (Tenn.) News-Sentinel, "Let me just say, I knew he wasn't going to use it. Tony and I were on the competition committee for a long time." Fisher added that it would not have made sense for the Colts to call a timeout because then the Titans would have kicked a field goal and gone up by nine with less than 30 seconds left. Rather than clearing the air, Fisher's comments open up a few cans of worms. One, this type of collusion is against the rules and far more nefarious than one team trying to observe a team's public, on-field signals (no one has suggested that the Patriots stole confidential information). Two, if the Titans had been forced to run more plays they might have fumbled or the kick could have been blocked and then the Colts might have won. Three, the point spread for this game was six, so a lot of people were affected by the decision to not push the lead to nine.

It is also worrisome to hear that Dungy said, "I think it is a feather in the cap of our division to get three teams in the playoffs." The Colts and Titans are supposedly rival teams but Dungy hardly sounds upset by the fact that a rival team made it to the playoffs. Can you imagine Denver's Mike Shanahan expressing joy if Oakland made the playoffs? I know that it is hard to picture Oakland qualifying for the postseason but you get my point.

The Patriots' videotaping "scandal" was the most overblown NFL story of the year. We later found out that the New York Jets, the team that ratted out the Patriots in the first place, had done the exact same thing and you can be sure that the same is true of many other NFL teams--but two coaches actively colluding during a game to affect the point spread and possibly the outcome is very serious. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell must not simply sweep this under the rug.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

No TO Means No TDs for Dallas

The Dallas Cowboys averaged 28.4 ppg this season, second in the NFL to the record-setting, 16-0 New England Patriots (36.8 ppg), but could not even produce a single touchdown on Sunday versus the Washington Redskins, losing 27-6; in fact, the Cowboys have not scored a touchdown in the six quarters since Terrell Owens suffered a high ankle sprain. Despite all the talk about quarterback Tony Romo and tight end Jason Witten, it should be obvious now that Owens provides the juice that makes Dallas' offense go. Pro Bowler Witten has virtually disappeared since Owens got hurt and the Cowboys' running game has vanished as well, accounting for just one net yard (!) against Washington. It is true that Dallas had already wrapped up the number one seed in the NFC playoffs prior to the Washington game and thus "had nothing to play for," as the cliche goes, but it is also true that other than Owens and injured center Andre Gurode the Cowboys played their regular offensive starters until midway through the third quarter.

Owens not only was the most dangerous receiver in the NFC this season--ranking first in touchdowns (15), first in receptions of 20+ yards (22), second in yards (1355) and third in receptions of 40+ yards (6) despite missing a game and a half due to the ankle injury--but he attracted so much defensive attention that he opened things up for other players. Some people say that Witten is Romo's favorite or most "dependable" target but Witten is not as productive as Owens nor does he attract so much defensive attention that he opens up opportunities for his teammates to make plays. Witten had more receptions than Owens but he had fewer yards, less than half as many touchdowns and just 58.3% of his receptions accounted for first downs; among players who had at least 20 receptions, Owens led the league in the latter category, with 85.2% of his receptions producing first downs. New England's Randy Moss beat Owens in total receptions (98-81), touchdowns (23-15) and receptions of 40+ yards (9-6), but Owens outdid Moss in yards per reception (16.7 to 15.2), first down percentage (85.2 to 75.5) and receptions of 20+ yards (22 to 18), so one could even make a case that Owens was the best receiver in the NFL this season.

Owens' output is even more remarkable considering that he is 34 years old. Albert Breer of The Dallas Morning News points out that 11 of the 18 "modern-era" wide receivers who are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame played until they were at least 34 and none of them were nearly as productive as Owens was this season; only Charlie Joiner even came remotely close, with 70 receptions for 1188 yards and seven touchdowns in 1981 (it must be remembered that some of those Hall of Famers played before the 1978 rules changes that made the NFL more of a pass oriented league). Owens caught more touchdowns than any other 34 year old ever has and his 1355 receiving yards in 14.5 games trails only Marvin Harrison's 1366 yards in 16 games in 2006. Jerry Rice still holds the record for the 34 and over group with 108 receptions in 1996, his last full season before a devastating knee injury that cost him virtually the entire 1997 season. Just to give you an idea of how remarkable the unparalleled Rice was, consider that he recovered and played seven more seasons before retiring at the age of 42, making more receptions (492, enough to tie with Walter Payton for 105th on the career receptions list) after what could have been a career-ending injury than many good receivers had in their entire careers.

Unlike some players who put up individual numbers without having much impact on their team's won-loss record, Owens has been to the playoffs with four different starting quarterbacks and his production has been remarkably consistent with each of them, as the chart at the end of this post shows.

Whether or not the Cowboys make it to the Super Bowl depends significantly on how well Owens' ankle heals before the team's first playoff game.

Terrell Owens' production in his first 21 games with various starting quarterbacks


Steve Young.....75.....1184.....11.....1996-97

Jeff Garcia.....127.....1804.....15.....1999-00

Donovan McNabb.....123.....1959.....20.....2004-05

Tony Romo.....121.....1978.....21.....2006-07

(ESPN "Sunday Countdown" graphic)