Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Monday Night Football Quick Hits: Terrible Towel Overtime Edition

As a Cleveland Browns fan, watching Pittsburgh play Baltimore is a "good news/bad news" proposition: the good news is that one of the teams will lose but the bad news is that one of the teams will win (a scoreless tie would be nice but unrealistic even for these two defensive-minded teams). Although I root against both teams, I have a confession to make: I greatly respect the Steelers' organization and I wish that the Browns would use that franchise as a template for how to build a team. The Steelers believe in playing physical football on both sides of the ball and their players are disciplined, tough and focused. The Steelers have had three head coaches during my lifetime: Chuck Noll won four Super Bowls, Bill Cowher won one Super Bowl and it would not surprise me if Mike Tomlin--who is only in his second season as Pittsburgh's head coach--wins a Super Bowl at some point. Intelligent, tough minded leadership translates into winning and that is why the Steelers are regularly a playoff team and often a Super Bowl contender. The Steelers don't panic, whine or make excuses; they just get the job done. I wish that the preceding sentences could truthfully be said about the Browns.

Pittsburgh defeated Baltimore 23-20 in overtime, the Steelers' 14th straight home victory on Monday Night Football, extending their own NFL record. This was Baltimore's fifth straight MNF loss, which is tied for the third longest active streak. The Steelers' offense looked horrible during the first half and Baltimore led 13-3 late in the third quarter. Two Steelers--including first round draft pick Rashard Mendenhall--suffered season-ending injuries during the game and the Steelers were forced to use fourth string running back Mewelde Moore but they stayed true to their formula of physical, disciplined football and turned the game around in a 15 second span. First, Ben Roethlisberger connected with Santonio Holmes for a 38 yard touchdown pass to cut Baltimore's lead to 13-10. Then, James Harrison forced Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco to fumble and LaMarr Woodley scooped up the ball and rambled seven yards into the endzone to put Pittsburgh up 17-13. Pittsburgh later extended the lead to seven before Flacco led Baltimore on a 76 yard scoring drive that culminated in a two yard Le'Ron McClain touchdown run to tie the score at 20. After stopping the Steelers, the Ravens had an opportunity to go for the win in a two minute drill situation but they elected instead to play for overtime. The Ravens won the toss but went three and out, after which the Steelers quickly moved into field goal range and Jeff Reed slid a 46 yard kick just inside the left upright.

Baltimore finished the game with more total yards (243-237), more first downs (16-11) and more time of possession (34:22-31:43) but the Ravens committed eight penalties for 72 yards while the Steelers only had five infractions for 29 yards. One penalty in particular really hurt Baltimore: Jarret Johnson committed a personal foul after an eight yard run by Nate Washington just three plays before Roethlisberger's touchdown pass to Holmes. The Steelers had not done much on offense up to that point but those big 15 yards tacked on to the end of the run gave them some momentum and put them in scoring range.

ESPN's Monday Night Countdown show focused on a lot of nonsense but while we are drowning in an ocean of hype and biased commentary, Steve Young provides an oasis of rational analysis. Prior to the game, Stuart Scott tried to hype up the so-called bulletin board material that Steelers running back Mendenhall supposedly provided by sending a text message to his friend, Ravens running back Ray Rice, who promptly revealed the contents of the message to the rest of the Ravens. When Scott asked what Mendenhall should learn from this, Young rightly dismissed the whole issue as a non-story, declaring, "I'll tell you what he found out: that Ray Rice is not his friend. That's what he found out. He didn't say this to the press. He didn't say it to the media. He said it to his buddy in a text message, which can be all kinds of hyperbole that they do between friends. To have your friend send it to Ray Lewis seems a little bit over the top." Scott interjected, "But why take the chance?" Young responded, "Who cares? It's just between friends. It's just for fun. Like he said, 'I would never say that publicly.' Of course he wouldn't, because he's not that stupid. Here's the bottom line, though: I always laughed at teams that would say, 'Steve, we're going to really try to kill you this week.' Really? It's the NFL; it's the fastest game in the history of sports. You can't be any faster; you can't want it any more. Everybody is paid a bunch of money. All this bulletin board stuff, I think, is college stuff. Pro football, especially the Ravens, they are going to come 100,000 miles an hour (anyway). It doesn't matter."

Steve Young is right. Talk doesn't matter. Hype doesn't matter. The Steelers are just a little tougher and a little smarter and that is why they beat the Ravens and took over first place in the AFC North. If Ray Lewis needs some text message from a rookie to get hyped up for a game then he is not as tough or smart as he wants everyone to think that he is. Pittsburgh has made the playoffs in three of the previous four seasons and won one Super Bowl during that stretch, while Baltimore has made the playoffs just once in the past four years, so anyone who knows that history is not surprised that Pittsburgh found a way to win this game. Mendenhall's comments had nothing to do with the outcome of the game.

Here are some notes/comments about Sunday's action:

This was not the Rose Bowl, the Orange Bowl or even the Poulan Weed-Eater Bowl. No, it was the Ineptitude Bowl, hosted by the winless Cincinnati Bengals and won 20-12 by the previously winless Cleveland Browns. With apologies to Gene Rayburn and "The Match Game," "How inept was it?" It was so inept that the teams combined for 15 penalties (nine by Cleveland, six by Cincinnati) and seven turnovers (two by Cleveland, five by Cincinnati). At the end of the game, the Browns received a delay of game penalty when they could not figure out how to get the right 11 players on the field to go into "victory formation" for a kneel down; to be fair, this is not a formation that the Browns have used very often recently. One play epitomized the mutual ineptitude that characterized this contest: late in the first half, Bengals quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick--playing in place of injured starter Carson Palmer--was intercepted by Eric Wright, who apparently thought that this was his opportunity to showcase his open field running skills and ability to choreograph blocking schemes; while Wright ran around and gestured to indicate what his blockers should do, Cincinnati running back Chris Perry rocked his world and knocked the ball loose. Chad Loco Cinco (who was a non-factor with just three catches for 28 yards, though he did catch his first TD of the season) recovered for the Bengals at the Cleveland 45 yard line for a gain of five yards and a first down. Cincinnati then advanced the ball 17 yards in seven plays to kick a field goal to take a 6-3 halftime lead. The Browns scored two third quarter touchdowns and then hung on for dear life to avoid falling into the AFC North cellar.

Browns' fans continue to call for quarterback Derek Anderson's head. Granted, Anderson has hardly distinguished himself this season but last year he was 10-5 as a starter and was selected to the Pro Bowl. He had the best season that a Browns quarterback has had since Bernie Kosar was in his prime. Anderson has the necessary physical tools to be a top of the line NFL quarterback. Yes, he needs to improve his decision making and his accuracy but if you carefully examine NFL history you will find that many championship-winning quarterbacks struggled to some extent before putting everything together. Eli Manning is a good example of this. I'm not saying that Anderson will definitely become a championship-winning quarterback but it is silly and counterproductive to focus so much wrath at him when the Browns are underperforming in so many other areas. Anderson struggled in the first half against the Bengals but in the second half he made some nice throws and led the team on the scoring drives that won the game. Roethlisberger did not look great for much of the game against Baltimore but he got it done when it counted. John Elway used to do that, too; think about it: you don't set records for fourth quarter comebacks unless you made some mistakes earlier in the game to fall behind in the first place. The thing that I hate most about the Browns' quarterback controversy is that it seems like some Cleveland fans are rooting against Anderson just so that they can crow about being "right" that Brady Quinn should be the starter. I want to see the Browns win and I would never root against the team's starting quarterback, whoever he may be. The Browns need to get everyone healthy and back on the field and then they can more fairly evaluate Anderson's performance. Right now, all that can honestly be said is that Anderson can make some throws that few other NFL quarterbacks can make but there are still some rough edges to his game that need to be smoothed out. By the way, Terry Bradshaw did not throw more touchdowns than interceptions in a season until his sixth season and he ended up leading Pittsburgh to four Super Bowl titles. The Browns have done a pretty good job of providing players and/or coaches for Super Bowl winning teams in the past two decades (Earnest Byner, Keenan McCardell, Matt Stover are just three of 59 former Browns who have participated in the Super Bowl since Tony Grossi became the Plain Dealer's beat writer for the Browns in the 1980s), so before they cast Anderson aside they better be sure that he is not going to be the next Jim Plunkett (a so-called bust for New England and San Francisco in the 1970s who led the Raiders to two Super Bowl wins).

The Washington Redskins earned an impressive 26-24 victory over the Dallas Cowboys in Dallas as Jim Zorn became the first Washington coach since George Allen to win his first game in Texas Stadium. Naturally, whenever Dallas loses the "experts" look for excuses to either blame Terrell Owens or assert that Owens is "selfish." Owens finished with seven receptions for 71 yards and one touchdown, plus two rushes for 11 yards. As usual, Owens not only made plays but he attracted extra defensive attention that opened up opportunities for his teammates. Dallas' problem was not on offense--the Cowboys gained 344 yards and converted six of 12 third down plays--but rather on defense: the Redskins gained 381 yards and controlled the ball for 38:09. Clearly, when the Cowboys had the ball they were productive but their defense was not able to get enough stops. Yet, instead of speaking this simple truth, the Monday Night Countdown crew devoted a whole segment to nothing but bashing Owens. Tom Jackson and Chris Berman both said that they have "read this book before and know how it ends," suggesting that Owens will soon be feuding with quarterback Tony Romo. This echoed an earlier Trent Dilfer lament that instead of talking about how well Washington played they were forced to discuss Owens. Guess what, Trent? No one is forcing you to do anything. You are one cog in the machine that calls itself the "Worldwide Leader" and you and that machine can focus your massive resources on whatever you choose to talk about, so nothing is stopping you from devoting a whole segment to what Washington did well as opposed to what Owens is supposedly doing wrong.

Isn't it interesting how Jackson and Cris Carter spent the first month of the season campaigning for the Jets to open up their offense and throw the ball more to take advantage of Brett Favre's talents but they think that it is a bad thing that Owens wants the Cowboys to open up their offense to take advantage of his skills? Owens has more touchdown receptions than anyone in NFL history other than Jerry Rice and the Romo-Owens tandem has produced more TD receptions than any other duo in the league since Romo became a starter. The bottom line is that the Cowboys should have Owens run the deep routes that he wants to run and that when he is single-covered or beats the defense Romo should throw him the ball, whether that is five times a game or 25 times a game; if the defense reacts by double-teaming Owens, then Romo should go elsewhere--but the onus is then on Romo and whoever is "elsewhere" to be productive. Berman, Jackson and the others on the Monday Night Countdown set made a big deal that 19 or 20 of the Cowboys' offensive plays versus Washington involved Owens but that number is meaningless without context. What really matters is how many times Owens was open, how many of those times he got the ball and how productive he was. If Romo threw Owens the ball when Owens was not open, that is not Owens' fault. Owens has said all along that he doesn't care how often he gets the ball as long as the team is winning, so if someone else is open then Romo should throw that guy the ball and keep the chains moving. Owens is not saying that the Cowboys should force the ball to him; he is saying that he wants to run certain routes so that he can get open more easily against the way defenses are covering him, thus enabling him to make more plays. Why is that a bad thing? How is that any different than the Jets opening things up to take advantage of Favre's arm strength? Why is Favre everyone's hero but everyone thinks that it is OK to crap on Owens night and day? I would not suggest that I know more about football than the former Pro Bowl players on the Monday Night Countdown set, so one is forced to assume that at some level they know that what they are saying is not true; they go after Owens either for reasons of personal animus or because the show's producers think that controversy makes for better, more entertaining television. Owens is not perfect--no one is--but you cannot convince me that he deserves even a fraction of the negative coverage that he receives.

Also, who the hell is Keyshawn Johnson to say that if the ball were thrown to him 20 times he'd make 20 catches and his team would win? Johnson also repeatedly said that Owens does not care about winning. The truth is that Owens owns the NFL single game reception record with 20, while Johnson was never the deep threat or reliable scoring option that Owens is, so the only place that Johnson is catching 20 balls is in his overactive imagination. Owens worked hard to rehab a broken ankle and was arguably the best player on the field during Super Bowl XXXIX, catching nine passes for 122 yards as his Philadelphia Eagles lost to the New England Patriots 24-21 as Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb ran out of gas down the stretch. Johnson did play on a Super Bowl championship team in 2002 with Tampa Bay but midway through the next season he was the third leading receiver on the squad when Coach Jon Gruden suspended him for the rest of the season for conduct detrimental to the team. Based on skill set and attitude, Johnson is quite possibly the last person on Earth who should ever open his mouth to comment about Owens' abilities, work ethic or commitment to winning. As for Cris Carter, unlike Johnson he was a great player but it is a little tiresome to hear Carter lecture Owens about character and commitment. Carter is a former drug addict whose off field problems came close to ruining his career; I give Carter all the credit in the world for straightening his life out but as far as we know Owens has never been in trouble with the law and he has always worked extremely hard to develop his God-given talents to the fullest. Owens is a self-made man who should be admired for his work ethic and dedication. Maybe he has not always said the right things but he has always done the right things on and off the field to be the most productive football player he can be. Give me a locker room full of guys like that and I'd gladly go to battle fully expecting to contend for a Super Bowl title every year. One of the reasons that Bill Belichick is so successful is that he ignores what the media says about players and he makes his own judgments. According to the media, Corey Dillon was supposedly a bad guy, a malcontent, but Belichick recognized that Dillon was just frustrated by the unprofessional atmosphere in Cincinnati (as opposed to one of ESPN's favorite receivers, Loco Cinco, who is a major factor in why that atmosphere is still unprofessional) and Dillon went on to be a major contributor to New England's Super Bowl winning team in the 2004 season. I guarantee you that Belichick would sign Owens in a heartbeat if Owens were available.

Isn't it amazing that the same guys who are killing Owens have nothing but good things to say about Steve Smith, a player who on two separate occasions assaulted one of his teammates? Smith has serious anger management issues and he should either be in jail or at the very least be receiving appropriate counseling but instead he is back on the field and the ESPN guys are falling over themselves to praise Smith because after he scored a touchdown he gave the ball to his most recent assault victim, Ken Lucas. If one of your co-workers broke your nose but he gave you a souvenir would you feel satisfied? Would you think that this gesture proved that he was a great guy? What hurts a team more: asking that the offensive game plan fully utilize your abilities or injuring a starting player on your own team and getting suspended? I'd love to hear the full version of what questions Owens was actually asked and the full version of his answers, because a classic mainstream media propaganda technique involves "creative" editing of soundbites; it "works" for everyone from "60 Minutes" to "SportsCenter."

This weekend was sheer heaven for ESPN's crew because they not only seized the opportunity to create a Terrell Owens controversy out of thin air but Brett Favre had a performance for the ages, throwing a career-high six touchdown passes (he had five TDs in a game on three previous occasions, most recently in 1998) as the New York Jets defeated the Arizona Cardinals 56-35. Favre had been hobbled during the week by a left ankle injury but he once again showcased his amazing durability and proved that he still has a lot of ammunition left in his rocket arm. Favre's Arizona counterpart, Kurt Warner, helped out the Jets with a schizophrenic performance that included 472 passing yards, two touchdowns--and six (!) turnovers: three interceptions and three fumbles lost (Warner fumbled a fourth time but Arizona retained possession). Favre rightly cautioned that after this win the Jets should not start printing up playoff tickets or Super Bowl tickets; he understands that Arizona has historically been a horrible road team--particularly on the East Coast--and that you cannot count on forcing seven turnovers (Anquan Boldin lost a fumble in addition to Warner's miscues) every week. The Jets' defense is leaky--giving up 35 second half points--and it remains to be seen if New York can beat high quality, tough minded teams. Nevertheless, when a soon to be 39 year old future Hall of Famer like Favre can add yet another line to his personal record book that is impressive, even if all of ESPN's crowing about Favre is going to look silly by the end of the season when the Jets don't make the playoffs.

Quote of the Week: "Two more flags and you would have had an amusement park."--Ron Jaworski after four penalty flags hit the turf following the opening kickoff of overtime during Pittsburgh's 23-20 overtime Monday Night Football win over Baltimore.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

"Earth Versus Space" Chess Match Begins on Monday

American astronaut Greg Chamitoff, who has spent some of his free time aboard the International Space Station by playing a series of chess games versus the staff at Mission Control, will take on a much bigger chess challenge starting on Monday: the entire world! The United States Chess Federation (USCF) is coordinating a game between Chamitoff and "all Earthlings." You can participate in choosing Team Earth's moves by visiting this page on the USCF website: Earth Versus Space Chess Match, 2008.

Team Earth's efforts will be led by the Stevenson Elementary School Chess Club of Bellevue, Washington, winners of this year's Kindergarten through Third Grade National Championship. Their club members will select up to four choices for Team Earth to select from, except in cases of obvious or forced moves, which will be submitted automatically. It is expected that each side will play one move per day on weekdays but the pace could be faster or slower based on a variety of factors, including Chamitoff's work schedule aboard the Space Station.

Here is a NASA press release about the game: NASA, U.S. Chess Federation to Begin Earth vs. Space Match. USCF Executive Director Bill Hall said, "We hope the excitement and interest this game generates will inspire students to become interested in chess. Chess is a valuable tool to lead students to become interested in math and to develop critical thinking skills, objectives we focus on in our work with schools nationwide."

This is really a great opportunity to foster interest in both the space program and chess, a wonderful game that can help students not only improve their critical thinking skills but also several other important traits:

1) Patience--To play chess well you have to be patient, both in terms of waiting for your opponent to move and also in terms of understanding that you cannot win instantly but you must lay the groundwork for success by incrementally improving your position.

2) Social skills--The stereotype may be that chess is an anti-social activity for "nerds" but in reality chess players develop their social skills not only in their interactions with opponents--learning how to "Win with grace, lose with dignity" as Grandmaster Susan Polgar says--but also by participating in tournaments that include players from a variety of backgrounds and age groups.

3) Understanding the connection between choices and outcomes--The choices you make determine the person you become. Chess provides dramatic and almost instantaneous affirmation of this truth, because when you make bad choices in a chess game you lose. Many educators have discovered that by involving "at risk" students in chess clubs they are able to guide those students along a path of making better decisions on and off the board.

Friday, September 26, 2008

USC is the Greatest...Um, On Second Thought, Never Mind

Is it really necessary to not only crown a national football champion barely a month into the season but also to confer the title of "greatest football team of all-time" when we are still in the month of September? How exactly did USC's victory over Ohio State "prove" that the Trojans deserve such lofty praise? Of course, those two questions have been rendered moot by Oregon State's 27-21 victory over USC on Thursday night--but those questions are not really moot, because they represent exactly what is wrong with the media today (and not just sports media, but sports media is what we focus on here).

In depth analysis has all but disappeared from the airwaves, the printed page and the internet (by the way, when did it become cute--as opposed to pretentious and stupid--to refer to the internet as "the internets"?); in depth analysis takes too much time (both to research and to present in a coherent fashion) and there are not many people who are really qualified to do it (on any subject) so instead of rational comparisons we are endlessly bombarded with hyperbole: everything is either "the greatest" or "the worst"--and that is when the content providers even bother to use the pretense that they are providing analysis at all, as opposed to simply running gratuitous coverage of salacious stories. I suppose that it won't be too long before we hear that USC just did the "worst choke job ever" versus Oregon State; don't laugh, people were actually talking--or at least whispering--about whether or not Jim Tressel's job should be on the line because Ohio State committed the grave sin of losing in two national championship games and then lost a regular season contest to the "greatest football team of all-time." Think about that for a moment--shut off your iPod, hit the pause button on your TIVO and stop sending/reading a text message--and really think about that and then ask yourself if it makes any sense that Tressel should be fired for losing twice in the national championship game and once to "the greatest football team of all-time." If USC were actually "the greatest football team of all-time," then wouldn't it be logical to expect Ohio State to lose? When you actually slow down and really think about what is being said/written/proclaimed about sports, the vast majority of it is stupid, contradictory and illogical.

People can say that blogs are destroying the media or that the "24 hour news cycle" (whatever that is supposed to mean) has created an insatiable demand for new content but what is actually destroying the media is quite simple: stupidity. ESPN would not go out of business if they did not create ESPN 8, ESPN 9 or whatever number they are up to now. The fact is, there is more content right now at ESPN (and FOX Sports and the Sporting News and every other big website--I'm not just picking on the self-proclaimed "Worldwide Leader") than even a supergenius with a 200 IQ and no other interests could possibly consume if he ceased living normally and decided to receive his nourishment intravenously while sitting on a toilet 24 hours a day with a laptop on his lap in front of a wall with a flatscreen TV doing nothing but "mainlining" sports information until his brain and/or other organs exploded. No, we do not "need" more content nor is there an insatiable demand for content, any more than there is an insatiable demand for the fast food that people are cramming down their throats in place of real food; what we have is a herd of people consuming preprocessed junk (food, entertainment, so-called sports analysis) because they are too lazy or ignorant to seek out anything of greater substance--and we have huge corporations that are more than happy to create greater and greater amounts of preprocessed junk, because it is much easier to create massive amounts of junk than it is to produce even small amounts of high quality material (it is also a lot cheaper to create the junk).

All that blogging has changed is it has created a horde of small time producers of junk who hope that they can emerge from the garbage pile and get hired by one of the conglomerates that produce junk on a massive scale (there are also of course a few bloggers who produce high quality, in depth work--they receive about as much attention as you might expect in such a marketplace).

USC is not "the greatest football team of all-time" nor was their performance on Thursday a horrible "choke job." USC is a very talented football team but there are a lot of talented football teams and it is difficult to go through a season undefeated. Also, college kids will be less consistent in their performances than seasoned professionals are, so upsets are much more likely at the collegiate level than in the professional ranks. In about two months, we can look at the body of work of all of the top college football teams and have a much better idea which teams really deserve to be in the national championship discussion. After Ohio State lost to USC, there was this almost palpable relief in some quarters that we won't be "forced to watch" Ohio State lose in the national championship game again. One, I did not know that anyone was "forced to watch" Ohio State's previous appearances. Two, what do those losses have to do with the worthiness of this year's Ohio State team to play for the national title? Three, if every other worthy contender eventually loses at least one game, who can say with confidence now that in December Ohio State will not be one of the top two teams in the country? Why can't commentators simply let the season play out instead of acting like they have Tourette's Syndrome and are obligated to blurt out definitive pronouncements every five seconds?

At the rate that things are going, in five years sports will be as unwatchable--at least without using the mute button--as news telecasts have been for at least the past 25 years and sports writing will be as tendentious, hypocritical and just plain ignorant as mainstream news writing has been for at least a similar period of time. Everything now is about personal agendas, the creation of hype to drive ratings and the seemingly deliberate removal of any semblance of intelligence, logic, patience and reason from any kind of discussion/dialogue. If that portrait sounds too grim, then go back and find a tape of the Sports Reporters circa 1995 (hosted by Dick Schaap, with perhaps Ralph Wiley, John Feinstein and Rick Telander as guests), watch it and then for comparison purposes watch Around the Horn, Pardon the Interruption or the current version of the Sports Reporters--and weep from the very depths of your soul.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Monday Night Football Quick Hits: Brett Favre is Not the Messiah Edition

Just to make things a little more interesting, the San Diego Chargers spotted the New York Jets seven points on Monday night--and then the Chargers cruised to a 48-29 victory that was even more of a rout than that score suggests; the Chargers led 38-14 after three quarters before the Jets tacked on some meaningless points against a prevent defense in the final stanza. The Jets' only points in the first 36 minutes came on David Barrett's 25 yard interception return for a touchdown to end San Diego's first possession of the game and Laveranues Coles' three yard touchdown reception after a 94 yard Leon Washington kickoff return. In other words, the Jets' offense failed to generate even one sustained scoring drive until the fourth quarter.

Although his bad pass gave the Jets an early lead after Barrett's interception return, Philip Rivers had a masterful overall performance (19-25, 250 yards, three touchdowns, one interception, 130.0 passer rating). He spread the ball around to eight different targets, none of whom caught more than four passes. LaDainian Tomlinson scored his first two touchdowns of the season but only rushed for 67 yards on 26 carries (2.6 yards per attempt average), so Rivers really did shoulder the primary offensive burden. Brett Favre may have been the headline story coming into this game but Rivers was easily the best quarterback on the field.

Favre's numbers may have come out OK in the end (30-42, 271 yards, three touchdowns, two interceptions, 92.5 passer rating) but, to borrow an old Mike Holmgren line from early in Favre's career, when the outcome was in doubt Favre was "all over the joint" with the football; he not only had the two interceptions but he threw two other sure interceptions that were dropped and he had several other wildly inaccurate passes. In the first three quarters, Favre had one touchdown, two interceptions and a 64.3 passer rating. As I've said all along, Favre will throw the ball up for grabs and it will not always end as happily for the Jets as it did in week one, particularly against the league's better teams. Favre is gutsy and durable and he still has the big arm but--like any other quarterback--he looks better when he has more talent around him. People seem to be forgetting how much other talent there was (and is) in Green Bay; the Packers' success last year was not just all about Favre, even though he did have a great season (his first one since 2004, something else that many people seem to have forgotten). The Jets were 4-12 last year and although they upgraded their talent on paper this offseason I still do not understand why the late signing of Favre convinced so many people that the Jets are really going places this year. The reality is that if everything breaks right for New York maybe they could go 9-7 and grab the last Wild Card berth but everything rarely goes right in the course of a 16 game season and I just don't believe that this is a playoff bound team.

It is either arrogant or incredibly naive to think that Favre can spend the summer throwing a few passes on a high school football field and then come in and run an NFL offense that he has never seen before. Actually, that is also an insult to NFL players and coaches who worked throughout the entire offseason in order to properly prepare for the 2008 campaign.

Before the season began, ESPN's Tom Jackson said repeatedly that quarterbacks travel to Hawaii and prepare for the Pro Bowl in just a few days so it will not take Favre very long to learn the Jets' system. To borrow one of Jackson's pet lines, "Really?" In the Pro Bowl, the defenders basically have to count "steamboats" before they rush the passer, exotic defenses are forbidden by rule and everyone is just trying to look good and not get hurt; there is absolutely no sensible, logical comparison between learning a simplified, Pro Bowl offense and learning a full offensive playbook that a team uses over the course of a 16 game season.

Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young has a much more accurate and nuanced take. He correctly predicted that the Chargers would blow out the Jets--I love how he is one of the few ESPN commentators who never buys the hype or tries to falsely build up a matchup--and he said that it will be a 10 week process for Favre to really learn the Jets' offense. Emmitt Smith then quite logically asked if the Jets brought in the wrong guy. Young replied, "I think they got the right guy; they just got him a month too late. The thing dragged on and I think they wanted to get him in early August or late July so that they could have that time before the real bullets flew."

Stuart Scott asked Young about all the plays in which Favre threw passes to areas of the field where there were only Charger defenders. How much of that was Favre's fault and how much of that was the receivers' fault? Young literally winced at the phrasing of the question before answering, "It's not a 'fault.' Football is glorified choreography. At the end of the day, it's dance steps and the more you do it, the better you are going to be at it. When you can do it for five, six, seven years like the Chargers have with this group of people then you are going to see that kind of play. When you have been doing it for four or five weeks, it shows up. It's not about fault; it's about time together to get the dance steps down."

The problem for the Jets and Favre is that by the time he really knows the Jets' system the team will be 5-5 at best and need to make a strong closing run just to make the playoffs. So there is some logic to Smith's question, because if the Jets are not going anywhere this year--and they're not--was it worth it to bring Favre in for a season or two as opposed to sticking with Chad Pennington or finding out what their younger QBs can do? Essentially, the Packers faced the same question--albeit with an overall roster that is much better than New York's--and they decided that the train had left the station without Favre. The Packers are 2-1 and I seriously doubt that they have any regrets. Imagine for a moment that the Packers are 1-2 and the Jets are 2-1; do you think that the media would make half as many allowances for Aaron Rodgers that they are for Favre? I'm not referring to Young, because he is quite accurately saying that Favre is not playing great and explaining why this is the case; I'm referring to everyone who blasted the Packers for getting rid of Favre and going with Aaron Rodgers: where are all the critics now? It has been nice to hear Cris Carter and Tom Jackson acknowledge how well Rodgers has played so far, because those guys were so certain not even a month ago that Rodgers faced more pressure than any quarterback ever and that Favre was just going to tear up the league starting in week one. Nevertheless, Jackson and Carter are still guilty of overstating what Favre can do; they kept insisting all week that the Jets should not have run the ball three straight times in the red zone last week versus New England and that Favre should have been given the opportunity to throw the ball. The Jets' offense was much more wide open this week but this did not lead to more scoring until garbage time--unless you count the points off of turnovers that Favre provided for the Chargers. We are seeing that maybe New York Coach Eric Mangini had good reasons to not have Favre chucking the ball all over the place inside the five yard line; if you can't run the ball into the endzone in that situation then your team is not going very far, anyway.

It would just be refreshing to see analysts--in all sports--simply report what their eyes are actually seeing instead of saying what their hearts hope to be true. Right now, too many sports analysts base their commentary on who they personally like and dislike as opposed to objectively talking about who is productive and not productive.

The reality is that Packers' management knew what it was doing, while the Jets' management decided to make a deal that created a lot of hype but will ultimately result in no playoff wins before the next quarterback takes over for Favre. Every "expert" who blasted the Packers and praised Favre should now be just as loudly praising Rodgers, apologizing to the Packers and correctly noting that Favre has hardly turned the Jets around. Tony Kornheiser spent all offseason drooling all over Favre but as everything fell apart around Favre on Monday night all Kornheiser could manage was a muted acknowledgment that Favre did not play well. Again, as Jackson would say, "Really?"

Here are some notes/comments about Sunday's action:

Obviously, the headline grabber from this weekend was Miami's 38-13 win over New England, reviving the storylines about how good the Patriots can be without Tom Brady and whether the remainder of this season is some kind of referendum on how good of a coach Bill Belichick is. Taking the latter point first, that is one of the stupidest discussion topics ever thought up by the mainstream sports media--and that's really saying something. As CBS' Phil Simms correctly and succinctly noted during last week's New England-New York Jets game, we found out a long time ago that Belichick is a great coach. As for the Brady question, it is certainly legitimate to wonder what the future holds for the Patriots with Matt Cassel at the helm but it is still way to soon to answer that question. Keep in mind that this loss ended an NFL record 21 game regular season winning streak by the Patriots and that their previous regular season defeat was a 21-0 decision to the Dolphins on December 10, 2006 during which Brady was 12-25 for 78 yards. For several years, the Patriots have struggled versus Miami and until Cassel plays a few more games we won't know for sure if this loss was just part of that trend or an indicator of something else. By the way, that 2006 New England team finished with a 12-4 record and made it to the AFC Championship Game. My prediction is that after this upcoming bye week the Patriots will go on an extended run--six wins in the next eight games or something on that order--that will lift them back into first place in the AFC East.

"My message today was...it ended up being really the power of the will," New York Giants Coach Tom Coughlin said after his team defeated the Cincinnati Bengals 26-23 in overtime. Some would say that the Bengals should derive hope from playing such a close game against the reigning Super Bowl champions or that this performance gives the Bengals a leg up going into next week's game against in-state, in-division rival Cleveland--but I disagree. Maybe if the Bengals were a young, rising team then they could bask in moral victories but this is a franchise that has made one playoff appearance during the Marvin Lewis era and has been rapidly staggering backwards ever since. The talent is there--certainly on the offensive side of the ball--but the discipline and focus is not. In other words, we know that this team is talented enough to challenge even the Giants and we also know that the Bengals are just as capable of looking sloppy and disinterested next week. More than likely, they will respond to this loss the typical way that losers respond: the closeness of the score will make them overconfident; a champion would respond by analyzing the mental errors and physical shortcomings that led to the defeat.

Dallas improved to 3-0 with a 27-16 win over Green Bay at Lambeau Field, the Cowboys' first victory at one of the sport's most revered venues. Marion Barber banged out 142 yards and one touchdown on 28 carries, while little-used Miles Austin was the surprise receiving star with two catches for 115 yards, including a 52 yard touchdown. Terrell Owens finished with just two receptions for 17 yards but he made two plays that showed off his speed: first, after Tony Romo (17-30, 260 yards, one touchdown, one interception) threw an interception in the endzone and Owens was blocked to the ground inside the 10 yard line, Owens got up and incredibly ran down Nick Collins and tackled him at the Dallas 43 yard line; later, when rookie speedster running back Felix Jones raced for a 60 yard touchdown, Owens caught up to him and matched him stride for stride as a blocking escort, preventing would-be tacklers who had the angle from cutting Jones off before he reached pay dirt.

After the game, Austin said of Owens, "Him having two catches, 17 yards doesn't explain what he did. He's attracting double coverage, triple coverage all the time. So for him to do that, it's almost bigger than him making the play." Just like in the second half of last week's game versus the Eagles, when Philadelphia shifted its coverage to Owens and opened up opportunities for Barber and Jason Witten, Owens had a major impact just by being on the field. He certainly can make catches even against double teams and in some games this year it may be necessary for him to do that but for now Romo is making the smart, high percentage play by attacking opposing defenses in their soft spots and giving other players chances to prove that they can make plays.

Although the Packers fell to 2-1, quarterback Aaron Rodgers was very solid: 22-39, 290 yards, no touchdowns or interceptions.

Question of the Week: "I always think that when I eat cottage cheese: How did the first guy who made this know when to quit?"--John Madden (during Dallas' 27-16 Sunday Night Football win over Green Bay).

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Monday Night Football Quick Hits: "Who Can Make a Play? I Can!" Edition

Marion "the Barbarian" Barber rushed 18 times for 63 yards and one touchdown and caught four passes for 51 yards and one touchdown as the Dallas Cowboys won a dramatic 41-37 shootout over the Philadelphia Eagles. Barber's one yard touchdown run with 4:35 left in the fourth quarter proved to be the game-winning points. Tony Romo went 21-30 for 312 yards and three touchdowns but he had a costly first half fumble in his own endzone that resulted in an Eagles touchdown. Romo also threw an interception that led to an Eagles touchdown drive. Donovan McNabb went 25-37 for 281 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions but he made two fourth quarter errors that seriously hurt the Eagles: a fumble on a bizarre double pump attempted hand off to Brian Westbrook at the Dallas 33 with the Eagles up 37-34 with just 8:59 left in the game and an overthrow of a 3rd and eight pass to a wide open Westbrook with 3:30 left and the Cowboys up 41-37. The first mistake led to Dallas' winning touchdown drive and the second mistake ended the Eagles' best chance to retake the lead (they got the ball back one more time deep in their territory but never got past midfield).

Terrell Owens finished with three catches for 89 yards, including two touchdowns. He had all of his production in the first half but he still had a major impact on the game in the second half, as ESPN's Steve Young--one of the best football analysts on television--noted after the game: "TO makes the big plays early, he gets open and I think he forces the whole defense to move in his direction. Great offenses in this league really have that second or third receiver, like Dallas Clark in Indianapolis. Jason Witten is a guy who gets open a ton of times (for Dallas)." As ESPN showed the highlights of Owens' two touchdowns, Young added, "These are the kinds of plays that open ballgames, these big touchdowns that affect the defense the rest of the game. When you get by the goal line, it's tough to score in the NFL. Well, let's put 10 guys on one side and TO on the other side. Did you see what happened the second time they ran that play? TO could do anything he wanted and they had to foul him (a pass interference call against Asante Samuel) to get to the one. That's the kind of player you need, supported by other great players, like Jason Witten." After that pass interference play moved the ball to the one yard line, Barber scored what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown. Emmitt Smith also noted that after Owens' two scores the Eagles were forced to double-team him, which created opportunities for Witten (seven receptions, 110 yards) and Barber. If you don't like Young's technical explanation of Owens' value, then you can always fall back on one of Owens' catch phrases from back in his 49ers' days: "Who can make a play? I can!"

With the Eagles leading 3-0, Owens opened the scoring for the Cowboys with a 72 yard touchdown reception, moving past Cris Carter into second place on the NFL's career touchdown receptions list (131). As Mike Tirico pointed out, Owens trails Jerry Rice by 66 touchdowns, so if Owens stays healthy it is not impossible for him to break the all-time record. Of course, maintaining a high level of production in one's mid to late 30s is very difficult for any player, let alone a wide receiver, which is what makes Rice's mark so incredible; I think that 197 will remain the target for quite some time and that Owens will not match it, but he may put the second place number all but out of reach for anyone who comes after him.

At one point early in the second quarter, Owens had 85 yards from scrimmage and the remaining Cowboys had -1 yard from scrimmage. After several fine runs by Barber put the Cowboys in scoring position, Owens scored Dallas' second offensive touchdown of the game on a nice four yard slant, putting the Cowboys up 21-20, enabling them to retake the lead after Romo's fumble on the previous possession. Owens is now second in NFL history with 30 2+ touchdown games; naturally, Rice (44) holds that record, too. Since Romo became Dallas' starting quarterback, he and Owens have hooked up for more touchdowns (28) than any other NFL tandem. That litany of records surprised Tony Kornheiser, who candidly admitted that he did not realize that Owens is that good. See how much you can learn if you actually watch the games and read the game notes instead of being obsessed with covering off field nonsense? Kornheiser said that controversy has "masked how good Owens really is" but who is responsible for that? Yes, Owens has exercised poor judgment in certain situations but I seem to recall Kornheiser and his Pardon the Interruption partner Mike Wilbon repeatedly praising Chad Johnson as some kind of lovable, harmless entertainer while at the same time relentlessly bashing Owens; those storylines reflect their biases, not any objective reality. If Kornheiser does not know that Owens is one of the greatest receivers ever he has no one to blame but himself.

As I've repeatedly indicated in this space, I grew up reading great articles by Kornheiser in magazines like Inside Sports back when Kornheiser was a great journalist who wrote insightful, in depth pieces. He is also capable of writing entertainment columns that are laugh out loud funny but the combination of his irreverent humor with his sports coverage often rubs me the wrong way now; I miss the Kornheiser I grew up with but I suppose that ESPN provides him several million reasons to prefer what he is doing now (not for nothing was the title of one of his books--a hilarious read, by the way--Back for More Cash).

After Owens' first half aerial heroics, Barber and Witten did serious work in the second half; Barber pounded the Eagles with tough runs and some timely receptions out of the backfield, while Witten found plenty of room to roam in the middle as Owens occupied two defensive players on the edge.

Despite the late mistakes, McNabb looked better than he has looked in quite some time. He broke tackles, made good reads and was very accurate with his throws. As Young said after the game, McNabb seems to have moved back into the elite category of NFL quarterbacks. Stuart Scott did a voiceover for a graphic that showed that McNabb has been an excellent September quarterback for the past several years, so we'll wait and see if McNabb stays healthy and productive for the entire season.

Here are some notes/comments about Sunday's action:

While some "experts" predicted doom and gloom for the New England Patriots sans 2007 NFL MVP Tom Brady, Matt Cassel played very solidly (13-23, 165 yards, no touchdowns or interceptions) as the Patriots beat the New York Jets 19-10 to improve to 2-0 and extend their NFL record regular season winning streak to 21. In his first home game as a Jet, Brett Favre went 18-26 for 181 yards and a touchdown but he threw a costly third quarter interception in his own territory that Cassel and the Patriots quickly converted into New England's only touchdown to give the Patriots a 13-3 lead. If Favre continues to throw the ball up for grabs against good teams, his interception totals are going to go up and his passer rating is going to go down. It is early, but based on what they have shown so far there is no objective reason to believe that the Jets are going to be a playoff team this year, let alone a Super Bowl contender; they squeaked by a weak Miami team and trailed almost the entire game against a New England team that some people thought would be vulnerable without Brady.

Of course, you cannot mention Favre without also talking about his Green Bay replacement, Aaron Rodgers. Green Bay is 2-0 now after a 48-25 victory over Detroit in which Rodgers went 24-38 for 328 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. His passer rating for that game was 117.0, even better than the 115.5 he posted in week one. Rodgers ranks sixth in the NFL in passer rating (117.8), while Favre is eighth (104.1). Obviously, there is a long way to go in this season but Rodgers seems to have the necessary tools to be a very good NFL quarterback, so it is understandable why Green Bay's management elected to stop riding the Favre "I'm retiring/I'm not retiring" carousel. Prior to week one, ESPN's Tom Jackson and Cris Carter seemed to almost gleefully predict doom for Rodgers but, to his credit, Jackson has now completely changed his tune. During the "Whiteboard Breakdown" segment on Monday Night Countdown, Jackson said that after two games Rodgers has been the best player in the league and he called Rodgers "a naturally gifted passer."

The most exciting game of week two took place in Denver, where Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler (36-50, 350 yards, four touchdowns, one interception) and Chargers quarterback Phillip Rivers (21-33, 377 yards, three touchdowns, one interception) engaged in an old fashioned, AFL-style shootout as their teams combined to produced 942 yards of offense. Denver made the winning score with just :24 left as Cutler hooked up with Eddie Royal for a four yard touchdown pass and then Denver Coach Mike Shanahan boldly went for the two point conversion, which also turned out to be a Cutler-Royal connection. NFL coaches usually go the safe route in that situation; this is just the third time that a team has won a game with a two point conversion since the NFL instituted the two point play in 1994.

Unfortunately, the ending of this game was marred by a bad call by Ed Hochuli, the usually reliable referee who has become famous for his prodigious "guns" and detailed explanations of calls. Two plays prior to the final touchdown, Cutler rolled out to pass but lost control of the ball. It was pretty obvious that he fumbled but Hochuli blew his whistle and ruled that this was an incomplete pass, nullifying San Diego's recovery. Once Hochuli realized that he had made a mistake there was nothing he could do because the play is dead as soon as he blows his whistle, as Hochuli explained after the game: "All we can do to fix it is put the ball at the spot that it hit the ground, which is why we moved it back to the 10-yard line and the down counts and it becomes third down."

Stat of the Week: Kurt Warner had more touchdown passes in the second half of last season (21) than any other NFL quarterback. In case you're wondering, 2007 league leader Tom Brady had 20 of his NFL single season record 50 in the second half of the season. Throwing a lot of touchdowns is nothing new for Warner; his 41 touchdowns in 1999 ranked third on the NFL single season list at that time and that is still the fifth highest single season total in NFL history.

This season, Warner is picking up right where he left off last year: after completing 19 of 30 passes for 197 yards and one touchdown in Arizona's 23-13 week one victory over San Francisco, he compiled a perfect passer rating (158.3) in Arizona's 31-10 destruction of Miami, completing 19 of 24 passes for 361 yards and three touchdowns. This is the third time that Warner had a perfect rating in a game, tying Peyton Manning's NFL record. Warner started the game 9-9 for 221 yards.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Cleveland Browns Enter Year 10 of the Three Year Rebuilding Plan

Rebuilding a downtrodden football team is not easy but there is a proven formula and timetable for success; I have frequently quoted Bill Walsh's words of wisdom on this subject and they bear repeating here (the following passage is from an October 5, 1998 Sporting News article by Walsh titled "Coaches Should Show Results in Year Three"): "I am often asked how long it should take to turn an NFL franchise around. My short answer is: three years. Not every team will win the Super Bowl in its third season under a new coach (as we did in San Francisco in 1981) but it is reasonable to expect at least some signs of improvement by that time...There are reasons why some teams are able to remain competitive year after year while others never seem to get over the hump...My point is that it takes a concerted commitment from ownership, the front office, the coaching staff and the players for a team to succeed. It's the old 'a-chain-is-only-as-strong-as-its-weakest-link-theory' theory. If one of the four areas is weak, it's extremely difficult to overcome that flaw."

The Cleveland Browns returned to the NFL in 1999, after a three year hiatus due to Art Modell moving his franchise to Baltimore. The "new" Browns have made the playoffs once in nine seasons (earning a Wild Card berth with a 9-7 record in 2002) and their 10-6 record last year raised hopes tremendously even though it was not good enough to qualify for postseason play; in their seven other seasons they have posted records ranging from 2-14 to 7-9, winning four or fewer games four different times. By any reasonable measure the franchise has completely flunked the Walsh test, vastly exceeding the timetable it should take to build a competitive team.

Last year, the Browns ranked in the top ten in scoring (eighth) for the first time since 1987 and they sent six players to the Pro Bowl but their defense was poor (ranking 21st in points allowed) and they fattened their record by beating sub-.500 teams. This season, the Browns face a tough schedule that includes several prime time matchups against strong playoff contenders--and the Browns certainly did not look ready for prime time last week when the Dallas Cowboys pounded them 28-10. The Cowboys accumulated 487 yards of offense and totaled 30 first downs. This Sunday night, a national television audience will tune in to see the Browns face the Pittsburgh Steelers, their long-time division rivals who have beaten them more times in a row than Lucy pulled the football away from Charlie Brown. Remember when the San Francisco 49ers beat the L.A. Rams so many times in the 1980s and 1990s that NFL Films captured some footage of San Francisco players on the sidelines laughingly mocking the "same old, sorry ass Rams"? There is absolutely no objective reason to believe that by 11 p.m. on Sunday the Steelers won't at least be thinking the same thing about the Browns, whether or not they actually say it.

As a lifelong Browns fan, I certainly wish that I could write a more cheerful pregame post but I am not delusional: the Browns' defense is still bad and due to injuries the offense has yet to hit its stride the way it did last season. The best case scenario for the Browns is that quarterback Derek Anderson and wide receiver Braylon Edwards quickly rediscover the 2007 end zone chemistry that enabled them to hook up for 16 touchdowns; the Browns are not going to stop too many teams this season but if their offense can crank out 30 ppg maybe--maybe--they can be competitive.

I still don't quite know what to make of the current Browns' regime of General Manager Phil Savage and Coach Romeo Crennel. After last season's 34-7 week one debacle versus Pittsburgh, I was convinced that Savage and Crennel should be shown the exit door. The unprecedented decision to trade week one starter Charlie Frye for a sixth round draft pick further convinced me that the Browns should be called "The Cleveland Titanic"--but then Anderson emerged as a Pro Bowler, the Browns went 10-5 the rest of the way and near the end of the season Cleveland had become "Believeland." Now, though, I wonder if that was just a mirage as opposed to real proof of tangible progress. There is no doubt that Savage has upgraded the overall talent level on the team but will he ever put together a legitimate playoff contender that is not fatally weak in one phase of the game? As for Crennel, I was very skeptical of him early last season but felt that I had to give credit where credit was due when the Browns turned things around. However, the Browns have consistently shown an alarming lack of discipline during his regime, as indicated by their conditioning level, blown assignments and silly illegal procedure penalties. I really hope that 2008 turns out to be a storybook season like 2007 did and that this time the Browns seal the deal and make it to the playoffs but that just does not seem likely.

The bottom line is that the Browns are in year 10 and counting of what should have been a three year plan. Savage and Crennel cannot be blamed for the first six years of failure but they have run the show now for more than three years with not one playoff berth to show for their efforts. Savage deserves credit for some of his excellent personnel moves but the job is not complete, nor is it clear that Crennel is the right coach to lead the Browns to a championship. I hope the Browns make me eat these words Sunday night and the rest of the season--but I'm afraid that they won't.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Terrell Owens and Philly: What Could Have Been

The Dallas Cowboys will face the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday Night Football with the early lead in the NFC East on the line. Although both teams have significant postseason ambitions, the storyline that many people will focus on involves two players who will not be on the field at the same time: Terrell Owens and Donovan McNabb. When Owens was an Eagle, the team made just the second Super Bowl appearance in franchise history and--despite playing with a broken ankle--Owens was arguably the best player on the field during Super Bowl XXXIX, which the Eagles lost 24-21 to the New England Patriots. Owens had nine receptions for 122 yards. McNabb went 30-51 for 357 yards and three touchdowns in Super Bowl XXXIX but he also threw three costly interceptions and he did not distinguish himself down the stretch in a very winnable contest. During the next season, Owens and the Eagles had a huge falling out that ultimately resulted in Owens landing in Dallas.

Ashley Fox of the Philadelphia Inquirer writes that the Eagles should have done more to retain Owens' services:

It didn't have to be this way. It didn't have to come down to falling in love with a 21-year-old out of California who has blistering speed and a monster ego, two valued commodities among football fans in this town. There's a lot to love about DeSean Jackson--the 40-yard dash time, the hands, the bravado, the instincts--but the Eagles shouldn't have to rely on a rookie to be their playmaker at wide receiver.

They had one. For a brief moment, they had it all. It could have worked. It should have worked. Had there been better communication from all involved, the Eagles might have a Lombardi Trophy by now. But as we all know, the Eagles' relationship with Terrell Owens ended in the nastiest of divorces, all because the parties involved--including Andy Reid, Owens, Donovan McNabb, and, yes, even the loquacious Hugh Douglas--failed to talk, air their grievances like men, and, ultimately, put in the work to save the marriage.

Shame on them all.

According to Fox, Douglas said, "I think there should have been more communication all the way around, just get everybody to air everything out. It takes nothing to say, 'Listen, I don't know what I did to [tick] you off, but whatever it is, can we just talk about it because we're trying to win football games?' At the end of the day, that's what needed to happen, because it would have been so much better. It's good now. You've got DeSean and everything. He potentially could be a pretty good receiver, but man, you just never know. We're talking two Hall of Famers [McNabb and Owens]. We're talking about two potential Hall of Famers. There should have been a way to work it out, because at the end of the day, the bottom line is you want to win, and if your egos can't survive that, what can you do?"

Douglas also noted that the Cowboys did not apparently have to do anything particularly extraordinary to turn Owens into a very happy--and productive--player: "To be honest, I don't know what they did down there, but it don't seem like they had to do a whole lot. Appease him, throw him some cash, which he deserved. I mean, hell, he left here and went to the Pro Bowl. He's a tough cat, man. He played with a broken hand. Tough cat."

On Thursday afternoon, Owens offered a very candid take on exactly why his relationship with McNabb turned sour:

"We obviously could have done some great things together but it wasn't me letting my pride get in the way." Owens believes that his popularity made McNabb jealous, claiming that at first he had a good rapport with McNabb, much like he has now with Dallas quarterback Tony Romo: "Well, I was really thinking that was the case in Philly before I think the fans and just the excitement of me coming there and being there, it became too overwhelming for Donovan. Other than that, I think at one point in time I will say that we had a good relationship. I think I got too big for Philly, too big for him. But here, Tony and I have a great relationship...I think everybody knows without harping on it too much. It is what it is. I can only do so much. Everywhere that I've gone, the cameras follow me. I'm going to get a great deal of fan support and a fan base. As I mentioned in the conference call [with Philadelphia media] earlier, I can remember being in that stadium and hearing them chanting my name. That couldn't bode well for Donovan to hear that. It was an every-week thing...I honestly can say that Donovan made me a better receiver in Philly but I think it would be hard for him to admit that I made him a better quarterback." With Owens as his primary target (77 receptions, 1200 yards, 15.6 yard per catch, 14 touchdowns in 14 games) McNabb had the best season of his career in 2004, posting career-highs in completion percentage (.640), yards (3875), touchdown passes (31) and passer rating (104.7). Those numbers shatter the second best marks of his career in those categories (.615, 3365, 25 and 95.5 respectively). In contrast, playing with various other quarterbacks Owens has had several seasons that were better than his 2004 production, so it is pretty clear that Owens helped McNabb a lot more than McNabb helped Owens.

When a reporter noted that the Eagles dominated the NFC when Owens was in Philadelphia but last year Owens' Cowboys had the conference's best record, Owens replied, "The common denominator was me being in both places, but I will let you make that assessment."

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Monday Night Football Quick Hits: Opening Week Edition

Aaron Rodgers passed his first test with flying colors, achieving a gaudy 115.5 passer rating by completing 18 of 22 passes for 178 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions as his Green Bay Packers defeated their division rival Minnesota Vikings 24-19 in the first game of Green Bay's post-Brett Favre era. Favre lovers/Green Bay haters in the media will have to look long and hard to find something to criticize about Rodgers' performance. There is obviously a long way to go this season but now the whole nation has had an opportunity to see why the Packers were ready to hand over the reins to Rodgers.

There is beating a dead horse and then there is shooting the dead horse, kicking it 50 times, pistol whipping it and whacking it with a folding chair a la a pro wrestler; the latter is a good metaphor for Tony Kornheiser's commentary during the early portion of the Green Bay-Minnesota game, when every single thing that happened precipitated an overwrought comparison of Rodgers to Favre. After a series of penalties resulted in the Packers facing a first and 33, Kornheiser went too far even for his compliant booth mates Mike Tirico and Ron Jaworski when he said that everyone will be watching this play to see if Rodgers can pull off the kind of magic that Favre does in such situations; Tirico and Jaworski calmly noted that teams do not routinely deal with that down and distance.

After Rodgers threw his first touchdown, Kornheiser suggested that the crowd was happy because Rodgers had made a Favre-like throw but Jaworski countered that the fans were merely celebrating the fact that their team scored: "You've got to let it go, Tony," he advised, before adding, "I'll go into the football. Aaron Rodgers did a great job with the play action. Korey Hall was about the fourth receiver in that progression. Great job in that regard by Rodgers." That in a nutshell is the problem with having someone like Kornheiser or Dennis Miller in the MNF booth: Jaworski virtually has to call a timeout to "go into the football"; Kornheiser and Miller are both intelligent and witty but they are not football analysts and their presence takes away air time from someone like Jaworski who can actually analyze and explain the game. I resent that ESPN thinks that it has to "add" something to the telecast in order to attract more viewers, whether that something is Kornheiser or the incessant parade of non-football related guests to the broadcast booth, a practice that mercifully is supposed to not take place as much this season. ESPN should just show the game, using their big budget to provide multiple camera angles and the best commentary from analysts who truly understand the intricacies of the sport; viewers who want to be "entertained" by something not related to sports have the option of switching to non-sports programming, while real sports fans do not appreciate such "extras."

During the Packers' next possession, Kornheiser continued to assault the dead horse mercilessly: "I've mentioned this before, the great gamble here. Not to disparage Rodgers--because he's good--but he was given a 13-3 team, and so the question becomes is this the right year to hand a 13-3 team over to somebody with inexperience, because they are knocking on the Super Bowl door. That is the great question in all of this." Does this add anything to the broadcast? Wasn't all of that pretty obvious even before Kornheiser said it in various ways 50 times? After the camera panned to Packers GM Ted Thompson, Kornheiser continued, "He's the guy who did it--he and (Coach) Mike McCarthy. They made this decision. Brett Favre said that he wanted to come back and they finally said the train has moved out of the station. I question that, because that was in July. They hadn't even loaded up the train yet. There were no passengers on it--"

Jaworski, sounding as exasperated as I felt, finally interrupted to provide some perspective: "I know, but Tony you forget that Brett Favre retired. He quit playing football. What were they supposed to do? Wait for him to come back? You've got to move on." That is good advice for both the Packers and Kornheiser.

Favre's Sunday debut as a New York Jet was impressive (15-22, 194 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions, 125.9 rating) but it is worth noting that he put up those numbers in a 20-14 win over a Miami team that went 1-15 last year. It was a quintessential Favre performance in every way: he showed off his arm strength, guts and gunslinger tendencies and he also put the ball up for grabs, most notably with his miracle touchdown pass to Chansi Stuckey, a desperation heave that should have been intercepted. Let's see what Favre and the Jets do against some better teams. The most remarkable thing about Favre is his astounding consecutive games streak; his durability is a product of conditioning, toughness and a little luck but I think that Favre also helps himself with his footwork. When he delivers a ball from a crowded pocket he often seems to throw off of his back foot, instead of planting his front foot like most quarterbacks and thus exposing himself to the type of devastating knee injury that Tom Brady just suffered. Throwing off your back foot is not something that coaches teach or that most quarterbacks can do efffectively on a consistent basis but--whether by plan or instinct--Favre seems to have a knack for avoiding the kill shots that have taken out so many quarterbacks.

ESPN's Tom Jackson and Cris Carter are a little too giddy in their predictions of how well Brett Favre will do in New York and how much pressure they think Aaron Rodgers is facing. This is understandable, because Jackson and Carter are former Pro Bowlers who surely identify more with Favre and his struggle with Green Bay management than they do with an unproven, career backup like Rodgers--but just because their take is understandable does not make it objective or correct. Favre is an old quarterback who has been an erratic postseason performer for years and who has annually been speaking about retiring. This summer he actually did retire and the Packers had a succession plan in place. When Favre later said that he could understand that Green Bay had moved on you either had to admire his boldness or wonder at how disconnected he is from reality. What did he expect Green Bay to do after he retired: fold the franchise? Of course they moved on, just like every other team in sports history has done after a great player retired. Jackson and Carter's commentary on this subject seems to be inspired more by bias than by an objective evaluation of Rodgers' skill set or a realistic appraisal of Green Bay's options after Favre flip-flopped; Green Bay management was correct to finally rid itself of the annual Favre retirement drama and to put Rodgers on the field full time before they have to decide whether or not to sign him to a long term deal.

As for the second Monday Night Football game--Denver's 41-14 rout of Oakland--suffice it to say that the Raiders should be sued for deceptive advertising if they don't scrap their "Commitment to Excellence" motto.

Here are some notes/comments about Sunday's action:

1) The biggest story by far is Tom Brady's season-ending knee injury. Naturally, many people are predicting doom and gloom for the Patriots because New England will be without the services of the reigning MVP, a player who tossed an NFL record 50 touchdown passes last season. Obviously, it is not a good thing to lose the best player in the league but it is very premature to write off a team that went 16-0 last season and is currently riding an NFL record 20 game regular season winning streak. Keep in mind that when Brady became the starting quarterback for New England in 2001 he had virtually the same credentials--or lack thereof--that Matt Cassel currently has: Brady was a 24 year old, sixth round draft pick who had been as low as seventh on the depth chart in college, while Cassel is a 26 year old, seventh round draft pick who spent his college career as a backup to Heisman Trophy winners Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart. Yes, that analogy crumbles a bit considering that Brady did achieve some success as a starter in college, while Cassel has not been a starter since high school, but it would be a mistake to underestimate the importance that coaching has played in the success that Brady and the Patriots have enjoyed. Brady was well prepared to step in and play because he was well coached and Cassel certainly looked well prepared as he compiled a 116.0 passer rating while completing 13 of 18 passes for 152 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions as New England beat Kansas City 17-10, scoring all 17 points after Brady got hurt. It is important to not just look at those numbers but also consider a couple of the throws that Cassel made, in particular his 51 yard completion to Randy Moss on a 3rd and 11 play from the New England one yard line and his 10 yard touchdown pass to Moss at the conclusion of that drive. The fact that Bill Belichick and the coaching staff trusted Cassel enough to have him throw a bomb out of the end zone--instead of doing a safe running play up the middle and punting the ball on fourth down--speaks volumes and the throw itself showcased that Cassel has a strong, accurate arm. The touchdown pass was also a very well thrown ball, placed where only Moss could catch it.

The bottom line is that Cassel has a good skill set, he has talented players around him and he is being coached by one of the greatest coaches ever. The critics are always looking for reasons/excuses to doubt the Patriots but the Patriots usually come through. Remember when Belichick released Lawyer Milloy prior to the 2003 season? Buffalo beat the Patriots 31-0 in week one and Tom Jackson declared that Belichick had lost the team because the players were so upset by how Belichick had treated Milloy--and then the Patriots made Jackson look foolish by winning 14 of their next 15 regular season games en route to their second Super Bowl victory. Sometimes when people pick against the Patriots I think that they are wishing more than they are analyzing.

2) In the August 25, 2008 issue of Sports Illustrated, Jim Trotter wrote about the real Chad Johnson, the Chad Johnson that "Ocho Cinco's" media friends usually whitewash before bashing Terrell Owens:

While football fans were watching Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson become a caricature of himself in the off-season, popping off repeatedly with demands to be traded--or, presumably, to be given a new contract--a small group of Bengals players turned their attention to coach Marvin Lewis. Almost from the moment Lewis took the Cincinnati coaching job in 2003, he assigned Chosen One status to Johnson. The former Oregon State standout could get away with anything. Walk out of a meeting without permission? Walk off the practice field and not return because the quarterback hadn't thrown enough passes his way? Put on a sideline skit after scoring a touchdown during a game? Johnson had done them all without significant consequences.

The Bengals looked terrible in their 17-10 loss to the Baltimore Ravens, producing just 154 yards of offense. "Ocho Psycho" had one reception for 22 yards. Considering that "Ocho Psycho's" teams have no record of postseason success while Owens has been a major contributor on playoff teams for three different franchises, it would be refreshing--yet unlikely--if the media would report the truth: "Ocho Psycho" is a major problem for the Bengals and a major contributor to the unprofessional attitude that has dogged the franchise for years. Most of the NFL's talented receivers are selfishly interested in their statistics but the great ones also want to contribute to a winning effort; "Ocho Psycho" gives every indication that he is primarily interested in his own numbers and his own drama as opposed to helping to build a winning team.

3) ESPN's virtual reality football field--featured on Sunday NFL Countdown and Monday NFL Countdown--is really cool; instead of having ex-players dressed in suits walking through plays, now Tom Jackson narrates the action as three dimensional versions of NFL players move up and down the field in very life-like fashion. Considering the enormous popularity of video games and fantasy sports, how long will it be before sports leagues are replaced by "leagues" of three dimensional, virtual reality players? Maybe that sounds crazy, but virtual reality players won't get season ending injuries or hold out for bigger contracts or get in trouble at three in the morning.

Monday, September 8, 2008

The U.S. Open is Still Club Fed

Roger Federer convincingly defeated Andy Murray 6-2, 7-5, 6-2 to claim his fifth straight U.S. Open title and end a frustrating 2008 season on a high note. Federer now owns 13 Grand Slam singles titles, one short of Pete Sampras' all-time record. Federer is the first male player to win at least five titles in a row at two different Grand Slams; he also won five Wimbledons in a row, a streak snapped this year by Rafael Nadal, who beat Federer in the French Open final, snatched the world number one ranking from Federer and won the Olympic gold medal in singles, a feat that Federer has never accomplished (Federer won the Olympic gold medal in doubles this year, alongside partner Stanislas Wawrinka).

One Grand Slam title and two other Grand Slam Finals appearances contsitutes a very good year for most tennis players but for Federer 2008 was disappointing because his air of invincibility was shattered not only by Nadal but also by lesser players who toppled Federer in other events. Federer was slowed early in the year by mononucleosis, so his U.S. Open win raises the possibility that he can regain the number one spot in 2009--but I don't think that will happen. Nadal is a younger player who has won more Slams than Federer did at a similar age and Nadal has a winning head to head record versus Federer. Nadal's Wimbledon-French Open double is something that has not been accomplished since Bjorn Borg pulled off that double from 1978-80. The obvious X-factor in this equation would be if Nadal suffered an injury but if that does not happen it seems unlikely that Federer will reverse the natural course of history: a younger rival has already surpassed him and the two questions now are whether or not Federer will break Sampras' record and just how many Slams Nadal will end up winning; Nadal could very well put Sampras and Federer in his rear view mirror in the next four or five years.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Chess in Space

American astronaut Greg Chamitoff has found a very interesting way to spend his spare time aboard the International Space Station: playing a series of chess games versus the staff at Mission Control. Chamitoff was not able to bring a magnetic chess set with him, so he has countered the lack of gravity by attaching Velcro underneath his chess pieces. Dylan Loeb McLain of the New York Times notes that Chamitoff is not the first astronaut to play chess in space--and no, the game between Frank Poole and Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey doesn't count: "In June 1970, the Soviet astronauts Andrian Nikolayev and Vitaly Sevastyanov, who were aboard the Soyuz 9 spacecraft, played a consultation game against the earthbound Viktor Gorbatko, another astronaut, and Nikolai P. Kamanin, a Soviet general who was the head of the astronaut training program. The game, played over the course of a few hours, ended in a draw."

Chamitoff crushed Mission Control in the first game, played at the rate of roughly one move per day, and he is currently playing six games at the same time--one against each Mission Control station. He came up with this idea not only because he enjoys chess but also because he thought that these games would increase camaraderie at Mission Control because the members of the flight control teams have to work together on their moves in order to try to beat him.

"Greg really has achieved his goal by getting us to realize that we can't beat him as a team unless we work together," said Heather Rarick, the lead flight director for Expedition 17. "This competition with the crew has been well received."

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Don't Be an Asterisk

Here is a new anti-steroids ad by the Ad Council:

If only it were that easy to identify steroids cheaters in real life! Still, the basic message is quite true: cheaters can only maintain a facade for so long. Just ask Marion Jones or Barry Bonds.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Forgotten Victims of MLB's "Steroids Era"

I've written extensively about the steroids/performance-enhancing drugs (PED) issue here, including a piece that explained how the "godfather" of steroids in America fooled medical experts into saying that steroids don't work and a post that talked about why steroids users should be banned for life. ESPN the Magazine's Rick Reilly recently wrote a column about some people who could be considered forgotten victims of MLB's "Steroids Era": clean minor league players who never got their shot at the big time because the cheaters outperformed them.

Reilly declares, "I think minor league players...should file a class action, restraint of trade lawsuit against Major League Baseball because they sat stewing in the minors while big leaguers were allowed to cheat...You think the steroids issue is dead, but it isn't. These guys live with the fallout every day. Their dreams died in big league clubhouse johns. I'm telling you: lawsuit." Reilly says that according to Stanford labor law professor emeritus William Gould IV, minor league players would have to establish three things in court in order to prevail with such an action. Here they are, in Reilly's words:

1) A correlation between steroid use and better performance. (Please.)

2) That baseball turned a blind eye to steroid use. (Exhibit A: baseball's own Mitchell Report. It blames Bud Selig and players association COO Gene Orza for allowing steroids to spread like crabgrass. Mitchell said there was a "code of silence" in baseball. You think? Oriole David Segui told his GM that he wanted to go to Florida to pick up juice, and the GM never reported it. A Twins visiting clubhouse attendant found a used syringe and told manager Tom Kelly, who never reported it. The thing has more conspiracies than an Oliver Stone movie.)

3) "Nonstatutory labor exemption considerations," Gould IV says. That's just so complicated it makes our head ache, but a good shark would gobble it right up.