Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Monday Night Football Quick Hits: Titans Topple Colts Edition

Playing error-free if unspectacular football, the Tennessee Titans beat the Indianapolis Colts 31-21 to take firm control of the AFC South, a division that the Colts have won for five straight years; the Titans--the only undefeated team in the NFL (7-0)--opened up a four game lead over the Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans. Dating back to last season, the Titans have won 10 regular season games in a row, the longest active streak in the league and tied for the best such run in franchise history. Kerry Collins has somehow acquired the derogatory tag of "game manager" even though he has led a team to the Super Bowl (the 2000 New York Giants) and he ranks 15th in NFL history in career passing yards (including third among active players in that category, trailing only Brett Favre and Peyton Manning). Collins completed 24 of 37 passes for 193 yards versus the Colts; he did not throw any touchdowns or have a connection longer than 23 yards but he methodically and efficiently led an offensive attack that controlled the ball for 34:14. The Colts stacked the line to thwart Tennessee's strong running attack and Collins deftly took advantage of this to complete short and midrange passes that steadily moved the chains. As Ron Jaworski put it, a "caretaker" is a quarterback who the coaching staff does not trust to make throws but there is nothing bad about being a savvy veteran quarterback who understands how to take what the defense is giving and is able to make stick throws on third down. Collins is "managing" games for the Titans in the best sense of the word.

Manning's Colts led 14-6 early in the third quarter but down the stretch Manning did not get the job done, twice failing to convert fourth down plays as the momentum shifted to the Titans. Manning completed 26 of 41 passes for 223 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. The Colts simply look like a shadow of the team that used to annually open seasons with the type of undefeated run that the Titans are currently enjoying. Manning does not look sharp at all, but that is not entirely his fault; his pass protection is not nearly as good as it used to be and Marvin Harrison (one reception for 12 yards) seems to have rapidly declined from being an elite receiver to a very ordinary one. Not only will it take a monumental collapse by Tennessee and a very strong closing kick by the Colts for Indianapolis to win the division title but in the wide open AFC it is entirely possible that the Colts will miss the playoffs entirely this year. Seven AFC teams have better records than the Colts and four others match their 3-4 record, with San Diego just a half game back at 3-5.

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

*New England owns a share of first place in the AFC East with a 5-2 record after defeating St. Louis 23-16. The Patriots were playing without three of their running backs and operating on a short week after their 41-7 Monday Night Football win over Denver. Matt Cassel completed 21 of 33 passes for 267 yards and one touchdown, though he did have two interceptions. ESPN's Cris Carter keeps maligning Cassel as a "high school quarterback" because prior to Tom Brady's week one injury Cassel had not started a game since high school--but what difference does it make when Cassel last started a game? The only thing that matters now is whether or not Cassel is prepared to start for the Patriots. Cassel has a respectable 84.6 passer rating and the bottom line is that the Patriots are on pace for 11 or 12 wins. Cassel cannot match the record breaking standard that Brady set last year but it is useful to remember that in Brady's first year as a starter--when, like Cassel, he was an inexperienced player stepping in for an injured veteran--Brady was not Brady either or at least he was not the Brady of recent vintage: the Patriots closed the 2001 season with six straight victories en route to winning the Super Bowl but in those six games Brady had just six touchdowns and five interceptions, compiling a passer rating below 64 in three of those contests (his passer rating overall that season was 86.5); during the three game playoff run Brady had one touchdown pass and one interception, accumulating passer ratings of 86.2, 84.3 and then 70.4 in the Super Bowl. I'm not saying that the Patriots are going to win the Super Bowl this year--but given Bill Belichick's track record it would be foolish to totally dismiss their chances. I've always called Belichick the "Mad Scientist" and I mean that in a very positive way: he goes into his "laboratory," looks at game film of the opposing team and concocts the perfect game plan to take away what that team does best. The Patriots are not going to be a dominant team this year in terms of margin of victory but they will be a very tough out in the playoffs.

*Chad Pennington completed 22 of 30 passes for 314 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions as the Miami Dolphins defeated the Bills 25-16. Pennington's 117.9 rating versus Buffalo marks the fourth time in seven games this season that he has had a rating of at least 100 and he is now tied with Washington's Jason Campbell for fifth in the NFL in that category with a 100.5 rating. The New York Jets willingly discarded Pennington in order to make room for Brett Favre but so far Pennington is performing much better than Favre, who ranks 13th in the NFL with an 89.5 rating. Pennington is second in the league in completion percentage (.693) and he is also second in yards per attempt (8.47), contradicting his reputation as someone who cannot deliver big plays. Pennington has thrown just three interceptions, while Favre is tied for the league lead with 11. The Dolphins went 1-15 last year but are 3-4 this season; the Jets have also improved, already posting a 4-3 mark after going 4-12 last year, but it should be noted that with a healthy Pennington in 2006 the Jets were a 10-6 playoff team, while the Dolphins have been on a downward spiral for quite some time. In other words, Pennington is truly playing a key role in revitalizing a moribund franchise, while it is far from certain that Favre will be able to even bring the Jets back to where they were two seasons ago with Pennington at the helm--despite the fact that the Jets upgraded themselves at several other positions in the offseason.

*Favre led the Jets to a 28-24 come from behind win over the Kansas City Chiefs, who fell to 1-6--but the reason that the Jets had to rely on a late touchdown pass from Favre to Laveranues Coles is that Favre tossed a season-high three interceptions, including a fourth quarter pick that Brandon Flowers returned 91 yards for a touchdown after Favre carelessly threw into double coverage. There has been so much talk about Favre's revival season last year that people seem to have forgotten that in the previous three seasons he had 64 interceptions--including a league-high 29 in 2005--against 68 touchdowns; also, in his last eight playoff games he has a 3-5 record, 14 touchdowns and 16 interceptions: his comeback victories receive a lot of publicity but the reality is that his recklessness constantly puts his team in jeopardy. Jets' fans booed Favre after the third interception, a strong suggestion that the honeymoon may already be over for Favre in New York. After the game, Favre testily observed that the booing was "a little premature" but in a sense the booing was prescient: the fans have already figured out how the Favre saga is going to play out--there will be some thrills but ultimately the Jets will fall short, most likely not even qualifying for the playoffs.

*The Dallas Cowboys have been criticized for being a glitzy and glamorous team full of Pro Bowlers who lack toughness but--with starting quarterback Tony Romo sidelined by injury for the second consecutive week--the Cowboys showed their tough and gritty side, grinding out a 13-9 victory against a tough Tampa Bay team that began the day holding down first place in the NFC South. With Brad Johnson (19-33, 122 yards, 1 touchdown, no interceptions) playing in Romo's place, the Cowboys employed a very conservative offensive scheme and ramped up their defensive intensity. Johnson's longest completion was a 14 yard dump-off pass to running back Marion Barber. Terrell Owens had five receptions for a team-high 33 yards. Owens' numbers may not look like much but it is important to note two things: (1) his output represented a sizeable portion of Dallas' total passing yardage; (2) he was open downfield on several occasions but Johnson was unable to deliver the ball on time and on target.

*Derek Anderson spread the ball out to eight different receivers, completing 14 of 27 passes for 246 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions as the Cleveland Browns defeated the Jaguars 23-17 in Jacksonville. The Browns squandered two late chances to put the game away, settling for a field goal to make the score 20-17 after having first and goal at the one yard line and then settling for another field goal in the wake of a zero yard "drive" after recovering a fumble on the kickoff return following the previous field goal; a touchdown in either case would have all but clinched the game but instead the victory was not secured until Matt Jones was unable to haul in David Garrard's pass in the endzone as time expired. The high powered offense that Cleveland displayed last season has only shown up sporadically this season but the Browns' defense is markedly improved. Although Anderson had a fine performance, the player of the game was defensive tackle Shaun Rogers, who the Browns acquired in an offseason trade; Rogers had nine tackles, a sack, numerous quarterback pressures and a blocked field goal that forced the Jaguars to have to go for a touchdown in the game's waning moments.

*No NFL team has ever gone 0-16, although the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers went 0-14 in 1976 and extended that losing streak to 26 by dropping the first 12 games of the 1977 season. There have been some pretty sorry teams that managed to go 1-15 and I have long thought that no NFL team will ever go 0-16--but the Cincinnati Bengals seem well equipped to make a run at that dubious distinction: their starting quarterback Carson Palmer may be out for the year, there is no discernible leadership or pride among the players who are ostensibly the team's leaders (hello, Ocho Loco), the team seems to be getting worse as the season progresses and the players seem to have tuned out Coach Marvin Lewis. This is the fifth 0-8 start in Bengals' history; the previous four times, they won in week nine but next week they face a physical Jacksonville team that is still very much in the playoff hunt.

*Vernon Davis may not be a knucklehead but he acted like one on Sunday and it was so refreshing to see San Francisco Coach Mike Singletary banish the tight end to the locker room (see Quote of the Week, below). Teams need to stop coddling players who do not demonstrate the work ethic, discipline and/or focus that is necessary to be successful in pro sports. It is true that players ultimately win games but the players have to be led by a coach who crafts a solid game plan, creates a winning culture, commands respect and demands accountability; if that kind of leadership is not in place then a team will not be successful.

Quote of the Week: "I'd rather play with 10 people and just get penalized all the way until we have to do something else rather than play with 11 when I know that right now that person is not sold out to be a part of this team. It is more about them than it is about the team. Cannot play with them, cannot win with them, cannot coach with them. Can't do it. I want winners. I want people that want to win."--San Francisco Coach Mike Singletary, talking about why he banished tight end Vernon Davis to the locker room in the middle of San Francisco's 34-13 loss to Seattle after Davis committed what Singletary considered to be a stupid penalty and then had a nonchalant attitude about the mistake.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Paterno, Penn State Pursue Perfection

If living well is the best revenge, then Joe Paterno should be one of the happiest people on Earth. The 81 year old coaching legend may have a bum wheel that could necessitate offseason hip replacement surgery but his brain is as sharp as ever; Paterno's Penn State Nittany Lions are well coached, well prepared and they play with great discipline--and that is why they improved to 9-0 with a 13-6 victory at Ohio State, earning Paterno's 381st career win, an NCAA Division I (or what is now called FBS) record. Penn State had no turnovers and no penalties and scored what turned out to be the winning touchdown with backup quarterback Pat Devlin running the show after starter Daryll Clark was injured. Paterno led Penn State to national titles in 1982 and 1986 but he also had four undefeated teams (1968-69, 1973, 1994) that were not officially crowned as champions. If the Nittany Lions can win at Iowa on November 8 and then take care of Indiana and Michigan State at home their 12-0 record should earn them a berth in the BCS National Championship Game.

This is the 10th time that a Paterno team has started a season 9-0, which is an NCAA record. Penn State is currently riding a 10 game winning streak overall, tied with Texas Tech for the longest active winning streak. Paterno has had 14 10 game winning streaks during his 43 year coaching career; Alabama is the only program that has matched that mark during this time frame.

This season began with critics carping that Paterno is too old and out of touch and then ESPN piled on with a slanted report slamming him as if he is running some kind of outlaw program, a charge that is truly farcical: this is a man who once suspended star running back Curtis Enis for the Citrus Bowl because Enis accepted a suit from a sports agent; do you really believe that Paterno suddenly morphed into a win at all costs coach with no conscience? It is also important to remember that a few years back Paterno did not suspend a player who had been accused--but not convicted--of a rather serious offense; Paterno talked to the young man, believed that he was innocent and instead of taking the easy route by suspending him Paterno allowed him to continue to play. Paterno took some heat from the critics at that time but the player was ultimately exonerated. These examples indicate that Paterno is willing to suspend a star player when that player steps out of line but he is also willing to go to bat for a player even in the face of heavy criticism. Paterno is no saint and every major football program has some problems but he has a better track record of doing what is right for the right reasons than just about anyone else in the sport's history. Unlike Bob Knight (college basketball's all-time wins leader), whose personal conduct often does not measure up to the standards that he demands from his players, Paterno has never done anything to embarrass himself or his school. Joe Paterno is not only a class act but he is also a brilliant football coach and if he wants to coach until he is 101 I say more power to him.

Stat of the Week: Prior to this game, Ohio State and Penn State each had exactly 380 wins since Paterno became Penn State's head coach in 1966; Ohio State compiled their wins under the direction of four coaches: Woody Hayes, Earle Bruce, John Cooper and Jim Tressel.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Rays and Phillies Combine Old School Wisdom With New School Thinking

The superficial take on the World Series is that it pits a new school, "Moneyball"-style Rays team versus an old school, by the book Phillies team. After all, Rays' General Manager Andrew Friedman, 31, got his start in the business world and relies on statistical analysis to construct his roster, while Phillies' General Manager Pat Gillick, 71, is a classic old school talent evaluator; USA TODAY's Bob Nightengale writes, "If you want to really get to know a player, Gillick says, you don't look at numbers. You look at his heart and soul." However, as Nightengale points out elsewhere in the same piece, a major reason that these two teams are so successful is that they have blended old and new approaches instead of blindly relying solely on observation or exclusively on statistics: "There's an obvious age difference between Pat and Andrew," Rays scouting director R.J. Harrison tells Nightengale. "But they are more alike than people think, and, I think, so are the philosophies of the two organizations. Pat Gillick is the ultimate general manager and is a traditional scouts' man, but Andrew has an incredible foundation of old-school ideas in this game, too. It's just that he incorporates statistical analysis to go along with it. You have to stay current and have to remain flexible to survive in this game and that's what we've done."

Some people try to create a schism between those who primarily believe in the value of observing players firsthand versus those who primarily believe in the value of using statistical analysis to evaluate players. The reality is that any organization that is intelligently run utilizes the best aspects of both of these approaches. I have never criticized statistical analysis in theory but only specific examples of faulty statistical analysis; I definitely think that it is important to incorporate statistics into the player evaluation process but I fervently disagree with anyone who says that any set of numbers can wholly replace the input of a scout who has an "educated eye." It also must be said that it is much simpler to effectively and meaningfully apply statistical analysis to baseball than basketball; baseball is a game that is played station to station and consists of a series of discrete one on one showdowns between the pitcher and the hitter, while basketball is a game of constant motion involving 10 players interacting in ways that are not easy to quantify and, indeed, are frequently quantified inaccurately even with regard to the simple box score numbers that "stat gurus" simultaneously deride for being insufficiently descriptive and yet use as the foundation for their more sophisticated metrics: the old phrase "garbage in, garbage out" applies here, because to the extent that the box score numbers are subjective and/or simply wrong, the metrics that are based on those numbers are also skewed.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Favre Not Delivering What Jets Fans Expected

Sports Illustrated's always insightful "Dr. Z" (Paul Zimmerman) offers a harsh but fair description of Brett Favre's impact thus far on the New York Jets. Zimmerman writes, "Favre came with the reputation as strongest arm in the league, a serious long-baller who would turn out the lights with his rockets"--but this season Favre is averaging just 9.9 yards per completion, one of the lowest figures in the league, an output that Zimmerman derides as "a checkdown number, a play-it-safe figure." Zimmerman also points out that the supposedly weak-armed Chad Pennington, who Favre replaced in New York, is averaging nearly two more yards per completion than Favre.

Zimmerman dismisses any criticism of the talent surrounding Favre, correctly noting, "...he's got a big league pair of wideouts in Laveranues Coles and Jerricho Cotchery. Rookie Dustin Keller is an athletic tight end drafted for his ability to stretch the field. Leon Washington is a speedy little running back who has broken many long ones in his career."

Despite Favre's conservative approach in terms of stretching the field, he still has thrown eight interceptions, the second highest total in the NFL this year.

The Jets are using the signing of Favre to try to sell prime seats that they describe as "an exclusive experience unlike any other"--and with prices starting at $5000 they certainly should be. Zimmerman says out that Favre will be retired by the time those seats are actually available in 2010 and that is why Zimmerman calls the seat auction "a real deception" and a "heist" while terming the entire Favre experience in New York a "con job."

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Monday Night Football Quick Hits: Patriots Not Dead Yet Edition

Everyone who is gleefully hoping to shovel dirt on the figurative graves of Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots will have to wait at least one more week. The Patriots bounced back from last Sunday's 30-10 loss in San Diego to rout the Denver Broncos 41-7. After the game it is easy to note all of the Broncos' flaws to try to diminish the significance of this win but Denver was--and still is--in first place in the AFC West while many people were questioning whether the Patriots will even make the playoffs this year in the wake of Tom Brady's season-ending knee injury. Matt Cassel had his most efficient performance of the season, completing 18 of 24 passes for 185 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and a gaudy 136.3 passer rating. The Patriots totally gashed Denver on the ground, chewing up 257 yards on 38 attempts for a 6.8 yards per carry average. Sammy Morris had a career-high 138 yards rushing--and he only played in the first half! Randy Moss caught five passes for 69 yards and a season-high two touchdowns, adding to his impressive Monday Night Football resume and moving into a tie for second place on the NFL career-list for multiple touchdown games by a wide receiver (30; Jerry Rice holds the record with 44). The Broncos committed eight penalties and turned the ball over five times as they looked sloppy in all phases of the game (in addition to their offensive and defensive woes, their special teams gave up a 44 yard punt return that set up a New England touchdown).

Everyone--including Matt Cassel--understands that Cassel is not Tom Brady but it is important to remember that at a similar stage of his career Tom Brady was not "Tom Brady"--NFL MVP and multiple Super Bowl champion--either. If Brady could be called a Jedi Master at quickly reading defenses and then delivering the ball to the right place on time and on target, then Cassel is merely a Padawan learner right now. As Ron Jaworski astutely and repeatedly noted during the MNF telecast, Cassel holds on to the ball too long and yet despite taking that extra time he still misses open receivers. If reading coverages is like mastering a foreign language, Brady is a speed reader while Cassel is sounding out each word syllable by syllable--but Cassel has a good arm, is accurate (.663 completion percentage) and he avoids the big mistake (four interceptions in six games, solid 86.8 passer rating). He has obviously been well coached and he is just as obviously a good student, so it is reasonable to expect that by the end of the season he will be better at reading coverages; the game "slows down" as a player gains experience, particularly if that player is hard working and intelligent.

Tony Kornheiser noted that many people--and he candidly included himself--wrongly thought that Belichick should have signed a veteran quarterback instead of turning the team over to Cassel, who Cris Carter is fond of calling a "high school quarterback" (I don't understand why Carter keeps taking shots at Cassel but if Carter really thinks that there are any high school quarterbacks who could run a pro team the way that Cassel is leading the Patriots right now then maybe Carter is having a relapse of his drug problems). Jaworski explained to Kornheiser that Belichick understood that bringing in a journeyman veteran who does not know New England's offense would have been a setback for the team, so Belichick wisely chose to install Cassel as the starter, stand firmly behind him and not cut back the playbook at all. While the "experts" deride New England's prospects, Belichick is preparing his team for another long playoff run. Obviously, the Patriots will not be as dominant as they were last season, nor will they be prohibitive favorites when the postseason begins--but they will be a very tough out for someone.

While the Patriots' quarterback situation is OK right now, injuries are piling up at other positions; prior to the Denver game, New England placed running back Laurence Maroney on injured reserve and near the end of the game safety Rodney Harrison was carted off the field after sustaining a knee injury. Harrison is not quite the player that he was a few years ago but if he is out for an extended period--which certainly seems likely--the Patriots will miss his toughness, intelligence and leadership.

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

*I just don't understand what the deal is with Derek Anderson. He is not a stiff; stiffs don't lead teams to a 10-5 record and make the Pro Bowl while tossing 29 TD passes, as Anderson did last year after becoming the starter in the second week of the season. Anderson has a very strong arm, he can make tough throws into small windows and he has the toughness to stand in the pocket and take a hit in order to deliver the deep ball--but sometimes his accuracy and touch completely desert him and he overthrows a receiver by 10 yards or fires the ball into the ground instead of between the receiver's numbers. During Cleveland's 14-11 loss to Washington, Anderson looked terrible for most of the game before coming alive in the fourth quarter and almost leading the Browns to an improbable come from behind win.

Granted, Anderson has not been helped by Cleveland's shaky offensive line play or by the numerous catchable passes his receivers have dropped this season but that does not explain the wide fluctuation in his performance level. He is almost like a streak shooter in basketball, a guy who could light someone up for 40 points on one night and then go 0-10 from the field the next night. The problem is that in basketball such a player usually comes off of the bench and when he is not shooting well the coach can put him back on the bench in favor of someone else who may not be a shooter but who can contribute in other ways. Anderson is the starting quarterback and it would not work to platoon him with Brady Quinn; that would just result in having two QBs who are out of sync. Nor does it make sense to simply cast aside a Pro Bowl player in favor of an untested second year pro. This is where coaching comes into play; someone on the Browns' coaching staff has to sit down with Anderson and go over film from when Anderson played well and find a way to get him to use the fundamental techniques (footwork, reads, throwing motion, etc.) that he employed on those occasions on a more consistent basis. The talent is there and the Browns are right to not give up on him too quickly but not giving up is not enough; they also have to provide Anderson with the proper coaching and instruction.

*Before the season began, all the "experts" kept telling us how Brett Favre was going to singlehandedly turn the Jets around while Aaron Rodgers would falter under high expectations in Green Bay and ex-Jet Chad Pennington would prove incapable of throwing the deep ball in Miami. The NFL season is nearly 40% over, so let's take a "midterm" look at how those three players have performed so far:

Rodgers currently is tied for fourth in the league in passer rating (98.8); his rating is not only better than Favre's rating from last year (95.7) but it is better than the ratings Favre posted in every season of his career except 1995. Rodgers may not maintain that level for the whole year but it is fair to say that he has hardly crumbled under the weight of high expectations.

Pennington ranks eighth in passer rating (97.4). The deep ball will never be Pennington's strong suit but he has 17 completions of 20+ yards this season, two more than Favre does. The Dolphins, 1-15 doormats last season, are a very competitive 2-4; they have scored 120 points while giving up 130, defeating both teams that played in last year's AFC Championship Game, New England and San Diego.

Favre ranks 13th in passer rating (92.3). Favre electrified Jets' fans by tossing a career-high six touchdowns against Arizona but in the two games since then--a 26-14 victory against winless Cincinnati and Sunday's overtime loss to Oakland--he has one touchdown and four interceptions. He threw for fewer than 200 yards in each of those games, compiling a 73.9 passer rating versus Cincinnati and a 47.8 passer rating against Oakland. In addition to the two interceptions Favre had on Sunday he easily could have had another one in overtime when he wildly put the ball up for grabs.

On a purely statistical basis, Rodgers and Pennington are performing at least as well--if not better--than Favre, who has hardly turned the Jets into anything other than the mediocre team that I predicted that they would be. The Jets are not going to make the playoffs and the Favre farewell tour will end up just being a wasted year for them. Next offseason will sure be interesting for the Jets as Favre retires, unretires and retires while the front office tries to formulate a game plan for the team's future. Good luck with that, guys--I'm sure that Green Bay's management is not only happy that they got rid of that problem but also that they have found someone who can be their starter for the foreseeable future.

*Jeff Garcia completed 27 of 36 passes for 310 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions and a 109.7 passer rating in Tampa Bay's 20-10 win over Seattle. He is just so much fun to watch, in part because he does not fit the template for a prototypical NFL quarterback--Garcia is too short, too skinny and he often looks frenetic in the pocket but the bottom line is that he can play. The great Bill Walsh believed in Garcia when nobody else in the NFL did and Garcia made the Pro Bowl three straight times as Steve Young's successor in San Francisco. Last year, at 37, Garcia made the Pro Bowl again, this time as a Buccaneer. Garcia and Tampa Coach Jon Gruden got into some kind of beef in the offseason and Gruden benched Garcia but now Garcia is the starter again and it will be difficult to justify replacing him if he keeps putting up passer ratings well over 100.

*ESPN's pundits are positively salivating over Dallas' midseason swoon. Tom Jackson seems giddy that the 4-3 Cowboys have lost two straight games and are dealing with a host of problems. Naturally, he places a significant amount of blame on Terrell Owens, who he now refers to as "two," which I guess is supposed to be a cute way of saying Owens' initials--but it wasn't cute when Jim Rome did it and it is not any more cute when Jackson does it. When I look at Dallas I see a team that lost its Pro Bowl quarterback, has a defense that is leaking like a sieve and has a meddlesome owner who signed two thugs (Adam Jones, Tank Johnson) in the offseason--and non-productive thugs at that. For the life of me I cannot understand how anyone can possibly justify mentioning Owens' name in the same breath with those two individuals. What do they have in common? Whatever you may think of Owens' comments over the years, no one can deny that he works hard in practice and he plays hard in games. He keeps himself in shape, plays hurt and the only "trouble" that he has ever been in consists of media-fueled soap operas of no significance. By the way, how are the teams that got rid of him doing? Are San Francisco and Philadelphia really better off without Owens? I realize that those organizations have multiple problems, but getting rid of a Pro Bowl player sure did not help. In contrast, Tennessee has moved on very nicely without Jones, while the Bears do not seem to miss Johnson at all.

Last I checked, Owens does not play on defense, nor can he throw the ball to himself, so it makes no sense to blame him for Dallas' recent slide. How can someone like Jackson who is not in Dallas' locker room speak about who is or who is not a leader on that team? I remember a few years ago when Jackson asserted that New England players don't like Bill Belichick and were on the verge of mutiny due to Lawyer Milloy being cut. That was a bunch of misinformed crap and Jackson's "analysis" of Owens and the Cowboys is equally misinformed. The only thing that Jackson has said about the Cowboys that makes sense is that their problems start with their owner. Jerry Jones should have never signed Adam Jones or Tank Johnson and Jerry Jones should be a much less visible and much less vocal presence on the sidelines and in the locker room. That said, once Romo gets back--or even after backup Brad Johnson has one more week of practice--the Cowboys will most likely get back on track toward a double-digit win season, assuming that Coach Wade Phillips finds a way to fix some of his team's defensive problems.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Monday Night Football Quick Hits: Giant-Killing Browns Save Season Edition

Never has the cliched phrase "On any given Sunday" seemed more apropos than in the wake of Cleveland's 35-14 victory over the previously undefeated New York Giants. The defending Super Bowl champions were not only 4-0 this season prior to facing the Browns but they were riding an 11 game road winning streak that was tied for the second longest in NFL history--and that number did not even include their epic Super Bowl victory over the 17-0 New England Patriots, because the Super Bowl is considered to be a neutral site game. The Browns' sole victory prior to Monday night was a 20-12 decision against the still winless Cincinnati Bengals.

The Giants ran the ball well--outgaining the Browns 181-144 on the ground--but they never got their passing game in gear. Eli Manning threw three interceptions, one more than he had tossed in his previous eight games (regular season and postseason) combined. Midway through the fourth quarter, the Giants had an opportunity to score a touchdown to cut the Browns' lead to 27-21 but Eric Wright picked off Manning and raced 94 yards for a touchdown, the fourth longest interception return in Browns' history. Manning completed 18 of 28 passes but he only gained 196 yards and he had just one touchdown; that adds up to a 57.1 passer rating, his worst of the season.

The Browns were so dominant offensively that they neither punted nor committed a turnover; ESPN play by play announcer Mike Tirico noted that this is the first time a Giants' opponent has achieved both of those things in the same game since 1936, when the NFL began tracking turnovers.

Several key Browns' offensive players had superb performances. Statistically, Derek Anderson was the worst starting quarterback in the league during the season's first month but against the Giants he had one of the best games of his career, completing 18 of 29 passes for 310 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions en route to compiling a gaudy 121.3 passer rating. Wide receiver Braylon Edwards had a career night, catching five passes for 154 yards and one touchdown; he also caught a pass from Anderson for a two point conversion. Running back Jamal Lewis had his best game of the season with 21 rushes for 88 yards and one touchdown.

Anderson and Edwards both made the Pro Bowl last season, when the Browns went 10-6--the same record that the Giants posted before getting hot and romping through the playoffs--and narrowly missed qualifying for postseason play. Before this season, many people had high expectations for the Browns, who will appear on national telecasts more often than the Giants this season. Anderson and Edwards both suffered injuries during the preseason; in the early weeks of the regular season they struggled not only to regain form individually but also to reproduce the chemistry that enable them to hook up for 16 touchdowns last year, a record for a Browns' receiver. Many Browns' fans have been clamoring for Anderson to be replaced by Brady Quinn, a first round draft pick from last year.

A couple days before the game, ESPN's Ron Jaworski described to The Plain Dealer's Tony Grossi why Anderson struggled early in the season: "I think he's lost his confidence. He's a little tight-elbowed. He's not just dropping back and feeling good about what he's doing." Jaworski also noted that a lack of continuity on the offensive line has led to more pass rush pressure on Anderson and Anderson has compounded that problem by not reading the pressure very well: "It's got him playing a little bit skittish in the pocket. He's been struggling mechanically a little bit. In the past, I'd see him make a lot of the throws that he's missing this year. The pressure begins to cloud your decision-making, so you're forcing some throws, not reading the blitzes, getting the ball out of your hand. There will always be bodies around you and you have to learn to throw from different platforms. He did make some plays at the end of the Bengals game, so that should be a confidence-builder."

None of those problems were evident on Monday. The most important thing to understand about all this is that even a very good quarterback can have a bad game--just look at how Manning played in this game. However, there are very few quarterbacks who can make the reads that Anderson did against the Giants and deliver the ball with such accuracy and velocity. Watching this game made it crystal clear why the Browns have been so reluctant to bench Anderson. It is important to keep in mind than Anderson is still a young player. Remember all the bad things that people said about Eli Manning before he won the Super Bowl? It takes quarterbacks time to develop and it does not help matters to yank them out of the lineup at the first sign of trouble; sometimes that is necessary but it should be avoided if possible.

Interestingly, the one ESPN commentator who picked the Browns to beat the Giants is Steve Young, who I think provides some of the deepest and most thought provoking football analysis available on any of the NFL pregame or postgame shows. I didn't expect that the Browns would win this game but when I saw that Young picked them I thought that maybe they have a chance after all. Young said that the Anderson we saw on Monday is the one that we will probably see the rest of the year, adding that Anderson's performance was "top five quarterback material. That's how good I thought he was but I think he has to be consistently that way. He's capable of being that good of a quarterback. I'm excited for the potential of Derek Anderson's career and I'm also excited for Brady Quinn whenever he gets a chance."

I was in Chicago over the weekend, so before I headed home I stopped by the ESPN Zone to watch Monday Night Countdown and the game, figuring that there would literally be wall to wall coverage there since ESPN promotes and cross promotes itself incessantly. Ironically, although ESPN Zone showed Monday Night Countdown on several TVs, they did so without audio until the conclusion of game four of the National League Championship series; one of the employees told me that they have a policy of not giving precedence to pregame shows--even their own--over live events. So, ironically, I went to ESPN Zone to watch Monday Night Countdown but missed most of the show! Fortunately, the NLCS game ended in time to catch the final third of Monday Night Countdown and all of the game.

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

The biggest story in the NFL this weekend prior to Cleveland's shocking win was that Dallas quarterback Tony Romo broke the pinkie finger on his passing hand during Arizona's 30-24 overtime victory over the Cowboys; in an instance of truly adding injury to insult, not only did Dallas lose Romo but punter Mat McBriar suffered a broken foot on the punt block that the Cardinals returned for the game winning touchdown. Romo is expected to be out of action for a month, which means that he will likely miss three games (the Cowboys have a bye during that period). Brad Johnson, who quarterbacked Tampa Bay to a Super Bowl title five years ago but is 40 years old and has not started a game since 2006, will take over for Romo. Johnson is less mobile than Romo and his arm is not as strong as Romo's but Johnson is also much less apt to commit the careless turnovers that Romo does; in 2002 and 2005 Johnson had the lowest interception percentage of any passer in the league and he ranks 19th all-time on the career list in that category. Romo does not have a terrible interception percentage but his percentage is worse than Johnson's and Romo also leads the NFL in fumbles this season with six.

Shifting gears from a playoff contender to a perennial pretender, a big reason that the Cincinnati Bengals' season is over before it began is that the team's two Pro Bowl receivers selfishly put their personal issues and contact gripes ahead of team priorities. Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune recently wrote:

An example of how business can affect football is evident in Cincinnati.

In the off-season Bengals wide receiver Chad Ocho Cinco said he wanted to be traded and to emphasize his point, he did not show up for workouts. His teammate T.J. Houshmandzadeh also did not show up for workouts because he was entering the final year of his contract and apparently wanted to make a statement about what the Bengals were or were not offering him.

"Neither guy came to camp in shape to play football," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "They have admitted to that. They did not participate in the off-season [workouts] and it showed. They both got injured in camp. They had very little time with the quarterback. Until we got to the third game of the year, they were not up to speed.

"If you don't participate in the off-season and you come to camp and you're standing on the sideline all the time, what good are you to me? You can't have a football team that way, or at least I don't know how to."

In the regular season both Pro Bowlers subsequently got off to slow starts. Ocho Cinco, who ranked third in the league in receiving yards in 2007, ranks 80th after five weeks.

And their team is 0-5.

Lewis said both receivers have worked into the flow now. He said Ocho Cinco has worked extremely hard to rehab his shoulder injury.

But the damage has been done.

"Those guys have forgotten a little bit how they got to be the players they were," Lewis said.

The Bengals fell to 0-6 after losing 26-14 to the New York Jets. The Jets overcame a subpar performance by Brett Favre, who had a season-high completion percentage (25-33, .758) but averaged fewer than six yards per attempt and threw two interceptions but only one touchdown. Despite the off game, Favre has tossed 13 touchdowns so far as a Jet, tying an NFL record for most TD passes by a veteran QB in his first five starts with a new team; is it just me or some rather arcane records being tracked now? Don't get me wrong--I love those kind of stats nuggets.

Running back Thomas Jones scored three short touchdowns for the Jets, two on the ground and one via the air. Loco Cinco actually had his best game of the year but when your season-highs are five receptions for 57 yards you are not having much of a season. Houshmandzadeh contributed seven receptions for 49 yards. Neither receiver reached the end zone.

Cleveland's Monday night upset capped off a very wild NFL weekend in which five games were decided by scores in the final two minutes of regulation or in overtime: Minnesota 12, Detroit 10; Atlanta 22, Chicago 20; St. Louis 19, Washington 17; Houston 29, Miami 28; Arizona 30, Dallas 24 (OT). The Bears' loss was particularly galling, not only because of the sudden turn of events but also because it it was their third defeat by three points or less; they are eight points away from being 6-0 but they also could very well miss the playoffs. Kyle Orton's touchdown pass to Rashied Davis with 11 seconds left seemed to be the winning score but then the Bears made the questionable decision to use a squib kick on the ensuing kickoff. The Falcons took advantage of their good field position by completing a 26 yard pass with one second left to get into range for Jason Elam's game winning 48 yard field goal.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Ernie Davis' Triumph Over Racism Needs No Embellishment

Ernie Davis' death from cancer at the age of 23 is first and foremost a human tragedy; looking beyond the loss that his family and friends suffered, NFL fans will always wonder what he might have accomplished had he lived long enough to play for the Cleveland Browns. Davis led Syracuse to a national championship in 1959 and two years later he became the first black athlete to win the Heisman Trophy, a remarkable cultural shift just five years after his Syracuse predecessor--Jim Brown--was snubbed for that honor due to the color of his skin; in protest of that travesty, Dick Schaap resigned as a Heisman Trophy voter.

"The Express"--which opened in theaters today--tells Davis' life story. We all know that any Hollywood movie that is not expressly labeled as a documentary--and even some movies that are called documentaries--will take some poetic/dramatic license, because real life is just deemed to be too boring. Jeff Merron, who writes for Page 2 at ESPN.com, compared Davis' real life to the "reel life" that is depicted in "The Express." In general, "The Express" is an accurate portrayal of Davis' life and times but the movie's depiction of when Davis' Syracuse team played West Virginia appears to be distorted in several ways. "Express" forcefully contends that the referees and the hostile crowd would not tolerate Davis scoring a touchdown but, as Merron notes, the reality is that the only time Davis faced West Virginia--in 1960--he gained 125 yards on 14 carries and scored two touchdowns. "The Express" portrays the West Virginia fans as boisterously hostile and racist but there is no evidence that the foul behavior depicted in the movie actually happened during that game. In fact, Dick Easterly--Syracuse's quarterback at that time--recently refuted the movie's account of those events: "I apologize to the people of West Virginia because that did not happen. The scene is completely fictitious."

This kind of historical revisionism is a lot different than making some minor alterations to a script to heighten drama. Davis and other black athletes in that era faced plenty of real life racism, so it is doubly wrong to smear the reputations of people who did not mistreat him: such a lie not only harms innocent people but it lets the real racists off scot-free. There is no need to make up hateful things that did not happen and it would be infinitely better to forcefully portray the people who really were racists--and call them (and/or their schools) out by name. "Express" did exactly that in its accurate account of the despicable treatment that Davis received in the 1960 Cotton Bowl and in several other games--but adding something to the mix that did not happen weakens the film instead of strengthening it.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

McNabb's Leadership Questioned

The Philadelphia Eagles have a 2-3 record and are in last place in the tough NFC East, 2.5 games behind the 4-0 New York Giants. The Eagles blew out the horrible St. Louis Rams 38-3 in week one, defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers 15-6 in week three and have lost three close games to the Dallas Cowboys, Chicago Bears and Washington Redskins.

You may recall that Terrell Owens received a lot of criticism for questioning Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb's performance under pressure, specifically in Super Bowl XXXIX but also in general. The Cowboys have a 26-11 record since acquiring Owens, who has combined with quarterback Tony Romo to form arguably the deadliest QB-WR tandem in the league. Dallas made the playoffs in 2006 and 2007 and seems to be a lock to make the playoffs this season. Meanwhile, the Eagles went 10-6 in 2006 but they have been on a downward trend overall since getting rid of Owens: 8-8 last season and then this year's sub-.500 start. That adds up to a mediocre 20-17 record.

Philadelphia Daily News columnist Les Bowen, who admits to being a frequent defender of McNabb over the years, now believes that McNabb must "take ownership of this mess and fix it." Bowen declares:

Donovan McNabb's assertions about the Eagles being better than teams that keep beating them rang really hollow on Sunday. McNabb didn't come off as fiery or even defiantly optimistic--just clueless, especially when McNabb, challenged to support his view, could provide no real evidence.

It was a little like McNabb's forlorn cry last year, when he declared that the road to the NFC East title still ran through Philadelphia, at a point when the Birds were well on their way to finishing last in the division. Nobody got inspired.

Bowen singles out McNabb's lack of leadership and composure in a crucial goal line situation last Sunday versus the Redskins. The Eagles lost three yards on third and one from the 2 and had to settle for a field goal but Bowen says that McNabb should have taken charge before that play happened:

McNabb--whose postgame analysis of the play was absolute unintelligible gibberish--needed to call the timeout there, when he saw the misalignment. Or he needed to grab (tight end L. J.) Smith and send him over to the proper spot. Or maybe, before all that, he needed to make it clear to (Coach Andy) Reid that sore chest or no, he was ready and willing to run a quarterback sneak to pick up the first down. That would have been leadership, much more effective than asserting how good your team is after an embarrassing loss.

When the Eagles first got rid of Owens, most members of the media piled on against Owens, but Michael Irvin--then a commentator for ESPN--said that the Eagles were "losing their ass to save their face" (i.e., appeasing McNabb for public relations purposes but actually making the on field product worse). The won-loss records of the Cowboys and Eagles since that time, plus Owens' high level of production as a Cowboy (185 receptions, 2866 yards, 15.5 avg., 33 touchdowns) show that Irvin was right. One of the obvious things that the Eagles need is someone who can make big plays down the field and who can get the ball into the endzone. In other words, they need Owens, who led the NFL in receiving TDs in 2006, ranked third last year despite missing a game due to injury and is currently tied for the NFL lead in receiving TDs this season. Don't forget that McNabb had by far his best season in 2004, the one complete season that he played with Owens.

Monday Night Football Quick Hits: Wacky Night in New Orleans Edition

Reggie Bush's record setting night was not enough for the New Orleans Saints, who dropped a 30-27 decision to the Minnesota Vikings after Ryan Longwell made a 30 yard field goal with just 13 seconds left. Bush became just the 12th player in NFL history to return two punts for touchdowns in the same game. He also set franchise records for single game punt return yardage (176), career punt return touchdowns (four) and single season punt return touchdowns (three, with 11 games still remaining in the season). ESPN employed an MPH graphic that indicated that Bush reached a peak speed of over 22 MPH during one of his returns, which is remarkable, especially considering that he was wearing a helmet and pads. Adrian Peterson gained just 32 yards on 21 rushes for the Vikings but Gus Frerotte had a solid game (19-36, 222 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions) and Minnesota forced four turnovers in addition to scoring a touchdown on Antoine Winfield's 59 yard return of a blocked Martin Gramatica field goal in the first half. Gramatica also missed a field goal with 2:04 left in the fourth quarter that could have put New Orleans up 30-27; instead, the Vikings drove downfield, bled the clock down and won despite being outgained from scrimmage by 105 yards (375-270).

ESPN's Tony Kornheiser said that this performance was Bush's "A Star is Born" moment but that is just another example of hype gone wild. The last player to have two punt returns for a touchdown in one game was Detroit's Eddie Drummond in 2004. Last I checked, Drummond is not a star and is probably not even as well known as Mr. Drummond from "Diff'rent Strokes." You simply don't become a star in the NFL merely by returning punts for touchdowns; you can become a phenomenon for a brief time like Dante Hall used to be or like Devin Hester is now but even if you are a great punt returner you are likely going to have fewer than 10 TD returns in your whole career. Gale Sayers was a great punt and kick returner but he earned his stardom because he was also perhaps the most electrifying running back in the NFL during his brief, injury-filled Hall of Fame career; Sayers had two career punt return TDs and six career kickoff return TDs while playing four full seasons and parts of three other seasons. Bush has yet to prove to be a great--or even significantly above average--NFL running back. He rushed 12 times for 29 yards against Minnesota. Bush is a prolific receiver in terms of number of catches--he already has 199 receptions in just 33 career games--but he is not a highly productive receiver in terms of yardage or touchdowns; he has averaged 7.4 yards per reception in his career and caught six touchdown passes. He had seven receptions for 64 yards and no touchdowns on Monday night. The most apt comparison to Bush right now is probably Eric Metcalf, who made three Pro Bowls during his 13 year career. Metcalf never became a great running back but he caught 541 passes for 5572 yards (10.3 avg.) and 31 touchdowns; he also had 10 punt return touchdowns and two kickoff return touchdowns. Metcalf holds the NFL career record for punt return TDs, ranks fourth in career punt return yards (3453), 12th in career kickoff return yards (5813) and 12th in career all purpose yards (17,230). Metcalf was a very good NFL player but he was not a star--certainly not a star in the breathless way that Kornheiser means, someone who is one of the elite players in the entire league. Metcalf was a very valuable special teams performer who was also a productive receiver. If Bush continues to do well as a returner and increases his yards per reception average then he can reach the same level that Metcalf did.

During Monday Night Countdown it was great to see the footage from this weekend when the San Francisco 49ers retired Steve Young's number eight. Stuart Scott asked Young what stood out most for him from the ceremony and Young singled out two things: (1) It means a lot to him that his number is right next to Bill Walsh's name on the Ring of Honor, because Walsh believed in Young when many people didn't, told Young that the West Coast Offense was tailor-made for him encouraged him to go out and perform at a high level; (2) Young's children are not old enough to remember his playing career but now they are old enough to have some understanding of what he did, so this ceremony was an opportunity for him to share some aspects of his career with them.

Later, when Scott shifted gears and talked about today's quarterbacks, saying that there are "some great signal callers in this league," Young replied, "There are a few," adding that New Orleans' Drew Brees is "in the 'A' group because he's decided to make it his craft, his profession. He's got into the depths of the playbook and he understands the little, tiny things. Watch him tonight: he is great at being able to just make a little flick of the shoulders to move linebackers and open up lanes for the tight ends. He is ahead of the game. Most quarterbacks who leave the huddle in the NFL, they have the play in their mind, the motion and then they are going to watch the defense and react. Drew actually starts to dictate terms, like Peyton Manning, like Tom Brady. They dictate to defenses and they go after parts of the defense. You'll see that today. He is one of the best in the NFL today, no question." Young is an outstanding analyst because he does not buy into hype and because he explains specifically what a player does well or does not do well. He often speaks of quarterbacking as a "craft" and that is certainly the approach that he took toward the position when he played in the NFL. He respects and understands the nature of this craft and that is why he not only played so well but why he can explain the game with such clarity and depth. Brees, completed 26 of 46 passes for 330 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. Even though his second interception was a Hail Mary fling on New Orleans' final offensive play, Brees was not as crisp or accurate as he had been in the first four games of the season. Obviously, it does not help matters that Marques Colston and Jeremy Shockey are out of action due to injury. Still, Young said that this performance did not change his opinion that Brees is one of the top five quarterbacks in the NFL. Young cited several plays in which Brees made subtle shoulder, head and pump fakes that very few QBs can do. He noted that Brees can make full field reads that most QBs cannot make and that many coaches will not even let their QBs try to make.

The Vikings entered this season with high expectations but, like the Saints, they are only 2-3 and just hanging around the outskirts of playoff contention. They had hoped that Tarvaris Jackson would be their quarterback of the future but after starting the season 0-2 Coach Brad Childress benched him in favor of Frerotte. Although Frerotte has led the team to a 2-1 mark as a starter, his statistics are only marginally better than Jackson's. Since it looks like both Wild Card teams will come out of the NFC East, the Vikings and Saints each will likely have to win their divisions to make the playoffs; the Vikings are tied with Green Bay and one game behind the Chicago Bears right now in the NFC North, while the Saints are in last place in the NFC South, two games behind the Carolina Panthers.

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

Early in the Indianapolis-Houston game, Dan Dierdorf said, "Anybody who says modern NFL players don't need training camp doesn't know what they're talking about. Even Peyton Manning needed it." So why do Tom Jackson and Cris Carter keep insisting that the time that Brett Favre missed before signing with the Jets doesn't matter? I realize that Favre had a great game last week and that he currently leads the NFL in passer rating but the Jets' two wins--and Favre's two best performances--came against teams that did not make the playoffs last year, though Miami and Arizona certainly seem to have improved this season. Versus New England and San Diego, Favre had four touchdowns and three interceptions in two losses and it was obvious that the Jets were using a limited playbook because Favre does not yet know the whole offensive system and is not completely on the same page with his receivers. Two weeks ago, Steve Young said that it could take until week 10 before Favre really knows the Jets' system and that assessment seems a lot more realistic than what Jackson and Carter have been saying.

Indianapolis' come from behind 31-27 win--during which the Colts scored 21 points in just 2:10 in the fourth quarter--brings to mind an idea that Dick Vermeil expressed a long time ago: late in the game when everything is on the line you simply cannot make a critical mistake that wipes out everything good that you did earlier. That is what losing players and losing teams do and in order to become a winning player or a winning team it is essential to get out of that habit. This requires concentration, focus and discipline. The Texans dominated for most of the game and led 27-10 with fewer than five minutes remaining but there is a reason that their organization has never experienced sustained success. Backup quarterback Sage Rosenfels--who started in place of the ill Matt Schaub--played very well for most of the game but in crunch time he simply did not understand what he needed to do to give his team the best chance to win. In chess, strong players know that when you have an advantage you "play against your opponent's play"; in other words, instead of trying to capture every last pawn on the board, you determine what your opponent's most dangerous piece is and you make sure that he cannot harm you with it. Similarly, the Texans did not need to score any more points or to make any heroic plays; they needed to protect the ball, run the clock down, punt if necessary and make the Colts have to traverse a long field just to score one time. Instead, Rosenfels tried to take on half of the Colts' defense during a wild, leaping scramble, was stripped of the ball and Gary Brackett returned the resulting fumble 68 yards for a touchdown. Rosenfels compounded this error with another fumble that put the Colts in easy scoring range and before you knew it the Texans lost the game.

For a good portion of the past week, many members of the media have tried to manufacture a Terrell Owens controversy out of thin air, using out of context quotes and amateur psychoanalyzing. Prior to Dallas' 31-22 win versus Cincinnati, Dallas owner Jerry Jones tried to settle things down by saying of Owens, "He's a terrific playmaker and we want to get him the ball. We'll overly try to get him the ball. There's no question about that. We should. It ought to open things up for other places on the offense." Naturally, those logical comments made several of the people on the set of ESPN's Sunday NFL Countdown apoplectic. "Let's keep this simple," Tom Jackson said. "They are at a tipping point and here's what it is. Are you going to continue to force the ball to Terrell Owens and exclude people like Felix Jones and give Marion Barber eight carries in a game that you lost when you've been running the ball as well as you have? I'll say this: what else was Jerry Jones going to say? Was he going to say, 'No, we're not going to throw the ball to him as much'? Because he knows what the reaction would have been. Again, I've read the book, I've seen the ending and so has Jerry Jones."

Next, Keyshawn Johnson--author of Just Give Me the Damn Ball!--told the lovely fairy tale of how he used to be a selfish player before he saw the light and then won a Super Bowl; the fairy tale is not that he used to be selfish but rather that he became unselfish--the season after his Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the Super Bowl he was the third leading receiver on the squad when they deactivated him for the remainder of the season due to conduct detrimental to the team. Johnson was never as good of a player as Owens and he was more disruptive than Owens has ever been. As I wrote last week, "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."

Mike Ditka and Cris Carter were more restrained in their comments. Ditka simply noted that for some reason many wide receivers seem to think that they are open on every play and they also have an aversion to blocking (of course, the latter criticism certainly does not apply to Owens, as we have clearly seen on several occasions just this season). Carter said that he thinks that Dallas quarterback Tony Romo is too smart to fall into this, whatever that means.

Owens is one of the best wide receivers of all-time and a first ballot Hall of Famer, so it is a shame that so many people who should know better spend so much time speaking negatively about him. Much to the dismay of Owens' critics, he did not do anything disruptive on Sunday and in fact played an important role in Dallas' victory. Owens finished with two receptions for 67 yards--including a very important second half 57 yard touchdown--and one rush for eight yards. Although Owens had a quiet first half statistically, he made his presence felt because the Bengals had to account for him defensively. CBS' Phil Simms used the telestrator to demonstrate how Tony Romo's four yeard TD pass to Jason Witten was set up by Owens, who started out in the backfield and then ran a pattern in the right flat, attracting multiple defenders, creating a gap for Witten.

Owens became just the eighth player in NFL history to catch 900 passes and the third fastest to reach that milestone (178 games). He also moved into a fourth place tie with Marshall Faulk on the career touchdowns scored list (136).

The Cowboys jumped out to a 17-0 lead and seemed to be well on their way to routing the Bengals but turnovers--including a fumble and an interception by Romo--helped Cincinnati to get back into the game. With Dallas clinging to a 17-16 lead, the Cowboys recovered a Chris Perry fumble and that is when Owens made his big TD reception, outrunning the entire Bengals secondary after he caught the ball over the middle. The Bengals answered with a Palmer touchdown pass to T.J. Houshmandzadeh but their two point conversion attempt failed and the Cowboys sewed up the win with a clock chewing drive that culminated in a touchdown reception by Patrick Crayton after the ball sailed right through Miles Austin's hands.

After the game, Tom Jackson said of Chad Johnson, "He's a good kid. A little mixed up, but a good kid." This is what I just don't get. I'm not saying that Johnson is a bad person, though I don't think that he is a good teammate--but why do Jackson and so many others look at Johnson as some kind of lovable eccentric but they speak of Owens as if he is the devil incarnate? During the game telecast, Phil Simms hit the nail on the head about Johnson when he said that teams reflect the attitude and mindset of their leaders and that Johnson and Houshmandzadeh both have to be aware that as team leaders their conduct sets the tone for everyone else. Simms mentioned that he discussed this before the game with Cincinnati Coach Marvin Lewis and that Lewis, while understandably careful about how he chose his words, agreed that Johnson and Houshmandzadeh must be mindful of how their actions affect the entire team--which is a diplomatic way of saying that they are not quite the leaders that Lewis wants them to be.

In his postgame standup, Owens did something great: he simply made a short statement and did not answer any questions, thus not providing anything for the media to misinterpret or take out of context; if the media is going to continue to distort his words and paint him as a bad guy then he should respond in exactly that fashion, fulfilling the bare minimum in terms of being available. For the record, here is what he said: "I'm going to make this short and sweet, man. I'm not going to answer too many questions but I've just been dealing with a lot of stuff. This was a great team win. We fought hard to get back in this ball game. There has been a lot of criticism that I have taken all week and it's more about me just giving God all the glory for the opportunities he gave me today. It was frustrating out there but I just kept with it and my teammates stuck with it. I'm about more than being number 81, it's about more than a star being on my helmet. God put me in this situation to let everybody know that I am a man of God no matter what criticisms I may take or that people may point at me. I'm standing here today just to profess my faith in God and the ability he gave me to show that on the football field today. God used me for his glory and reality is where glory resides and that's all I've got to say."

Quote of the Week, I: After Tony Kornheiser noted that Minnesota owner Zygi Wilf often listens to talk radio to get a sense of what people think about his team, Ron Jaworski declared, "Anyone who is going to make decisions based on talk radio should not be in the position of owning a team." Kornheiser responded, "Thank you. I do talk radio. So does Mike (Tirico)."

Quote of the Week, II: "Nothing sadder than a man who has lost his sole."--Greg Gumbel after Joseph Addai's shoe fell apart during Indianapolis' 31-27 win over Houston.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Has the "Lost Art" of the Stolen Base Really Been Rediscovered?

It has been suggested that the lost art of the stolen base has been rediscovered this year but the numbers do not really bear this out. This year's NL leader, Willy Taveras, stole 68 bases, 10 fewer than last year's NL leader (Jose Reyes, 78); this year's AL leader, Jacoby Ellsbury, had the same number of steals (50) as last year's AL co-leaders (Carl Crawford and Brian Roberts). NL players stole 1482 bases in 2008 compared to 1564 in 2007; AL players stole 1317 bases in 2008, compared to 1354 in 2007. Those totals pale in comparison to 1999, when NL players set the modern (post 1900) league record with 1959 stolen bases; AL players stole 1462 bases that season, which is not the modern AL record but is the second highest total for that league between 1999 and 2008.

Sports Illustrated's coverage of the supposed rebirth of the stolen base included an amusing contradiction. In Chris Ballard's September 15, 2008 story titled "The Art of the Steal," Davey Lopes--who ranks 25th in career steals with 557 and is currently a baserunning coach for the Phillies--said, "You hear guys say, 'He's at full speed at two steps.' Usain Bolt, the guy who just won the Olympics, he isn't at full speed at two steps. If a guy's at full speed at two steps, then he's slow. You follow me?" However, in the September 22, 2008 issue, there is this statement by Ron Fimrite from a September 6, 1982 story about Rickey Henderson setting the single season steals record (courtesy of the SI Vault): "There may be faster men in the big leagues--Willie Wilson? Kirk Gibson? Tim Raines?--but none reaches maximum speed quicker than Henderson, who needs but two steps to do so, and none hits the base with such force."

Friday, October 3, 2008

Bravo, Al Neuharth: Joe Torre's Biggest Critic Admits He Was Wrong

I recently suggested that USA TODAY founder Al Neuharth, arguably Joe Torre's biggest critic, should be big enough to admit that he was wrong about the man who led the Yankees to 12 straight playoff berths and four World Series titles. This year, of course, Torre guided the L.A. Dodgers to the postseason--and they currently enjoy a 2-0 lead over the favored Chicago Cubs--while the Yankees sans Torre did not qualify for postseason play.

The print edition of Friday's USA TODAY contains Neuharth's annual MLB playoff picks and if Neuharth is a bit late this time around--the playoffs have already begun--at least he is indeed big enough to finally concede that he was wrong about Torre:

When Joe Torre was dumped as New York Yankee manager last October, I said good riddance. I had jumped on Joe often because he failed to make the World Series for seven straight years, despite the highest paid players in baseball.

But he did lead the Yankees to the playoffs for 12 straight years. In this first Torre-less year, they packed their bags in September and went home before the playoffs began.

Torre, in a new, three-year, $13 million job running the Los Angeles Dodgers, is in the playoffs and a serious World Series contender.

When you mess up, you should fess up. I did, so I do.

In downgrading Torre, I wrote the Yankees have so much talent that even the batboy should be able to manage them well enough to get into the playoffs each year.

This year, they didn't make the playoffs, but it wasn't the batboy's fault. New Manager Joe Girardi must take the blame.

Neuharth wavered heavily with his picks, choosing "maybe" Boston or Tampa Bay in the AL and "maybe" L.A. or Chicago in the NL. He concluded, "If you're glad that I'm not as cocksure about my picks as I used to be, maybe you should give thanks to Torre."

I give Neuharth credit for stepping up, unlike the Yankees' Hank Steinbrenner, who made excuses for his team and tried to belittle what Torre accomplished this season. No one is right 100% of the time but it takes a person of character to admit that he was wrong. Bravo, Al Neuharth!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Interview with Gary Andrew Poole, Author of The Galloping Ghost: Red Grange, an American Football Legend

Red Grange was one of America's great sports heroes in the 1920s. His colorful agent, C.C. Pyle, was a forerunner of Don King in many ways. Together, they helped to build the foundation for the modern NFL by arranging for a barnstorming tour that brought Grange across the country to play football for the Chicago Bears in front of sellout crowds in the L.A. Coliseum, the Polo Grounds and other prominent venues. The NFL was a fledgling operation at that time and this tour demonstrated that there was potentially a large audience for the sport if it was presented and promoted in the right way.

Gary Andrew Poole has authored the definitive biography of Grange: The Galloping Ghost: Red Grange, an American Football Legend. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Poole about Grange's story.

Friedman: "What initially inspired you to write a biography of Red Grange?"

Poole: "That’s a good question. Basically, I was at a football game with my daughter. I was watching the game with 90,000 people around me and millions watching on TV and I just thought to myself, 'Where did this crazy football phenomenon begin?' I’ve been to plenty of games and all that but just this sort of childlike question hit me. So I looked into football history, searching for that one person you could draw the line back to, and that was Grange. I’d heard about Grange, of course, and I knew a little bit about him but when I got into it I realized that he was sort of an unexplored icon. There really had not been that much written about the guy and I just thought that he was such a compelling figure that I wanted to write about him."

Friedman: "What did you learn about Grange that most surprised you and that you think would most surprise readers of your book who maybe only have the casual familiarity with him that you had before you started doing all of that research?"

Poole: "If you look back in football history, people always mention that game against Michigan, when he had four touchdowns in the first 12 minutes. I always wondered why that game was really that big of a deal—it obviously was an outstanding performance, he scores the four touchdowns in the first 12 minutes and throws for a touchdown later and runs for another one and I even discovered that he picked off a couple passes but I didn’t understand the context of why it was so important and why Grange was so important to a generation of men and women. I mean, I had 90 year old people calling me and writing me letters who were still passionate about the guy. I guess what surprised me was just how little was known about him and how nobody had really put these great performances—and that was just one of many—into context."

Friedman: "How long did it take for you to research and write the book and what was the biggest challenge you encountered along the way?"

Poole: "It took me about three years. The biggest challenge really was that these games and the glory period of his life happened in the 1920s. I’m a journalist by trade and I’ve done a lot of historical research as well but it’s hard to dig up stuff on somebody who played in the 1920s. There aren’t a lot of film clips, there aren’t that many recordings and I didn’t want to do just a glorification of this guy, I wanted to tell a real story, so it took me quite a bit of effort to get that back story for the book, as opposed to just recounting game summaries."

Friedman: "In the book you mentioned Grange’s 'photographic eyes.' What role did Grange’s 'photographic eyes' play in the success that he had as a football player?"

Poole: "It was known to some as the 'Grange eye.' There are two parts to this answer. He always said that he was very good at focusing on the field of play and that he could tell where everybody was moving and what was going to happen. It was almost like he could look into the future, like he had this photographic 'blink, blink, blink, blink' where he knew what was going to happen before it happened. He could predict movements. The other part of that is that writers and his coach were always astounded by this thing called the 'Grange eye,' which was not just his ability to see what was happening but this ability to almost tell when someone was behind him. He had a tendency when he was running and was about ready to be tackled to make a quick movement, a lateral movement or a twisting movement to avoid tackles. This thing really astounded everybody around him and he had a hard time explaining it. I guess it was a just a sixth sense that he had that really set him apart from a lot of running backs in that day. He had world class speed and he had football speed as well, so he could move out of difficult situations."

Friedman: "When I read that phrase and when I hear you talking about it, that immediately brought some things to mind to me from my experience covering basketball. Larry Bird’s first coach, Bill Fitch, called him 'Kodak' because it was like Bird was taking pictures of everybody on the court. Also, this thing that you are talking about in terms of visualizing where everyone was and seeing things before they happen: Magic Johnson had a similar ability and LeBron James has talked about being able to see plays before they happen and not just being able to see where everybody is but also where everybody is going."

Poole: "In football, they always talk about—particularly with rookies—that everything looks so fast. That ability to slow things down, that kind of plays into it. In sports, I think that those little things separate people. I’m sure that there are people who can shoot as well as Larry Bird or dribble as well as Magic Johnson but that little thing where they can anticipate action—you saw that all the time with Bird’s passing and with Magic’s passing. The players playing with them were always in awe of how they could deliver the ball at that perfect time and that perfect place."

Friedman: "Would it be fair to describe C.C. Pyle as the Don King of his era?"

Poole: "Yeah, I think that’s a pretty good comparison. He called himself the P.T. Barnum of sports. Pyle was the first real sports agent. He got together with Grange and really helped to propel Grange from a star to a superstar when he set up this barnstorming tour. After Grange played his last football game in college, he joined the Chicago Bears and went on this grueling 19 game barnstorming tour that Pyle set up. I think that Pyle is sort of an underrated figure in sports history and football history because back when he joined forces with Grange the NFL was sort of a nothing league and the owners really were not good at promoting themselves and promoting the league. Pyle just had a silver tongue and a great ability to promote Grange and football itself."

Friedman: "The reason that I thought that the comparison was apt is that throughout the book you describe Pyle making these grandiose statements and these grandiose claims of what he was going to do and how he would convince people to go along with his way of doing things, which reminded me of the way Don King’s public persona is. Also, if you look at King’s career, he seemed to run a lot of his boxers into the ground because it seemed like he was primarily concerned with how he could make money for himself quickly, not necessarily what was in that fighter’s interest in terms of how much time to take off between fights or things of that nature. You could really see something similar in the way that you wrote about that grueling barnstorming tour during which they played so many games in such a short period of time. He basically just destroyed Grange physically instead of maybe having a long term idea of spreading this out a little bit, making it last longer and making more money instead of going for the quick, instant gain."

Poole: "I think that your analysis is right on. He did drive Grange to exhaustion. He basically treated him like a piece of meat. I don’t know a lot about Don King. I’ve never met him personally or covered him that much but that seems like a pretty good comparison."

Friedman: "Did it surprise you that Grange did not seem to have more resentment towards Pyle in terms of the work load and in terms of what happened with the money? They made so much money so quickly but it was almost like blood money—it was Grange exerting all of the blood, sweat and tears to make the money and in a short period of time that money was gone. Yet, the sense that I got from your book is that Grange always spoke highly of Pyle."

Poole: "Yeah, it did and it didn’t. I think that most people would be upset at Pyle, who did drive Grange into the ground and who invested in some wild schemes and really blew Grange’s money but Grange at the end of the day was a guy who took responsibility for his actions. He was a very humble guy and he just wasn’t a person who—at least publicly—would say anything bad about anybody."

Friedman: "It is very difficult to compare players from different eras. The rules are different and so many other things are different but what current or recent football player do you think is most similar to Grange either in terms of skill set of style of play?"

Poole: "That’s a good question and a very fun question. Could I give just a little context? Back when Grange was playing, they played both ways—offense and defense. The ball was much rounder, so it was very difficult to pass. There were no hash marks, so a team could pretty easily get pinned along the sideline, making the play calling pretty predictable. It was not unusual to kick on first or second down because it was much more of a defensive game. Lastly, it was not the specialty game that it is today and if players got hurt they typically stayed in the game because if you went out of the game you could not return until the next quarter. That said, Grange really changed the way that football was seen in a lot of ways. It was very rugby-like before he came on the scene and he had this incredible breakaway speed, sort of like Devin Hester. When he caught the ball on a kickoff, there was a great chance that he was going to score and the whole place was electrified when he touched the ball. He had that breakaway speed ability on punt returns and kickoff returns. He was a decent passer. He was also a tough guy. He could run through the middle like a LaDainian Tomlinson or someone like that. He was a strong straight-ahead runner as well. So those are two comparisons. He was pretty good on defense; it was not unusual for Grange to run for a couple hundred yards, throw for a hundred yards, pick off a couple passes and make quite a number of tackles. So he was a good all-around player and he wasn’t a bad kicker as well."

Friedman: "I put some thought into this while reading your book and the players I came up with were Tomlinson and then going back a little bit, Walter Payton—a versatile guy at 5-10, 5-11. None of the modern players are playing offense and defense except someone like Deion Sanders; that is just the difference in the game now. In terms of being a threat to run, pass and catch, Tomlinson is that way and Payton used to do that. In terms of the elusiveness and the ability to run back kicks, I thought of Gale Sayers, based on what I have read and seen about him. Also, the shortness of Sayers’ career is similar to Grange; Grange’s career lasted longer but his prime before he got worn down was short. Like Grange, Sayers also had a knee injury before they developed the modern ways of dealing with that."

Poole: "I think that those are very good comparisons. If you read about Grange and the way that he was described, people were much more straight ahead runners back then and his twists and turns really awed people. Running backs were not doing the type of crazy moves that Grange was doing, like a Payton or a Barry Sanders would later do."

Friedman: "Payton was not a really big guy for his era. Grange was not big for his era. Payton had that philosophy, the title of his book—Never Die Easy—and he was always trying to deliver that blow to would be tacklers. I noticed in your book that Grange was elusive but if it came to it, he would try to run a guy over. If he could not get around a guy he was not at all afraid of contact. That is also where I got the Payton comparison; Tomlinson also has the great stiff-arm. Tomlinson uses his elusiveness but if he cannot get around a guy he will run him over and Tomlinson is not a real big guy."

Poole: "I think that if you are going to compare some people those are good comparisons. Grange was not super big for his era. He was 5-11, 175 pounds. He was playing both ways. He was not lifting weights or drinking protein shakes."

Friedman: "Obviously, when you are compare from 70 or 80 years distant there really is no way to compare playing both ways or the difference in the substitution rules, that back then if you came out you had to stay out for the whole quarter; in some ways, you really can’t compare because the game is so different. What would you say is Grange’s most significant accomplishment?"

Poole: "If you’re going to pinpoint a game, I would say that it was when the University of Illinois went to play the University of Pennsylvania. If you look pre-1920s, the Midwest had some very good teams: Michigan, Illinois, the University of Chicago, Notre Dame, of course. But it was still seen as an East Coast, upper crust, Ivy League game in a lot of respects. So Grange went to play against the University of Pennsylvania in 1925 and this was seen as a gigantic matchup. Here was the University of Illinois playing the University of Pennsylvania which was, believe it or not, a powerhouse back then. Grange was on a team that wasn’t very good. They had a losing record and his line was really terrible and not blocking very well for him at all. All the great writers of the day were there—Grantland Rice, Damon Runyan of 'Guys and Dolls' fame, Westbrook Pegler, who eventually won a Pulitzer Prize. The eyes were on him. It was raining and snowing. The field was incredibly muddy and people were literally betting that he would not gain more than 10 yards but he ended up with 363 yards and three touchdowns. He had an amazing day and it really brought a lot of fame to him. The writers could barely contain themselves. It showed the media elite on the East Coast that the game had changed a bit. It also lent a lot of credibility to Grange when he turned pro a couple months later. It brought a lot of people to the stands. People were enamored with seeing him after hearing about this performance at the University of Pennsylvania. He then went on this 19 game tour that sold out everywhere—Wrigley, the Polo Grounds, Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. People were dying to see him, so I think that game really was even more significant than the Michigan-Illinois game which is often touted as one of the most significant games in college football history. I think that was his most profound moment. The guy always rose up to the biggest games, just like Tiger Woods or Michael Phelps or Tom Brady before his knee injury."

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Joe Torre Has the Last Laugh

It is deliciously ironic that the cover story in the sports section of the print edition of Tuesday's USA TODAY is about Joe Torre. The ex-Yankees manager led the L.A. Dodgers to the playoffs while his former club missed qualifying for the postseason this year after earning 12 straight playoff berths--and four World Series titles--with Torre at the helm. The reason that this story is so ironic is that Al Neuharth--the USA TODAY founder who periodically writes Op-Ed pieces for the paper--has consistently been one of Torre's most outspoken critics. I've never figured out why Neuharth feels such animosity toward Torre, who has won the seventh most games of any manager in MLB history and is certainly a future Hall of Famer--but Neuharth never misses an opportunity to take not so subtle digs at Torre and to blame Torre for supposedly not getting the most out of the Yankees. Neuharth was absolutely convinced that once the Yankees got rid of Torre they would become World Series champions again. Not surprisingly, Neuharth has been silent about that subject recently. I wonder if in Neuharth's annual World Series prediction column he will have the guts and character to admit that he was wrong or if he will make some lame excuses for the Yankees and find some way to take a shot at Torre's Dodgers.

The reality is that Torre did a brilliant job of not only dealing with overbearing Yankees' owner George Steinbrenner but also with handling the day to day challenges of managing a talented ball club operating under intense media scrutiny and tremendous pressure to win the World Series every year. It was classless for the Yankees to not mention Torre at all in conjunction with the final season of Yankee Stadium and it was equally classless for Steinbrenner's son Hank to suggest that Torre's accomplishment this season is somehow diminished based on the relative strength of the Yankees' AL East opponents compared to the Dodgers' NL West opponents. Both teams faced various challenges this year and the bottom line is that Torre successfully navigated the Dodgers through their rough spots while Joe Girardi was not able to do likewise for the Yankees. It can hardly be considered a coincidence that after Torre switched teams New York missed the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade while the Dodgers made the playoffs for just the third time in 13 seasons.

The Yankees impugned Torre's character by asking him to take a huge pay cut, with the stipulation that he could make up the difference financially if the Yankees made it to the World Series; the not so subtle intimation was that Torre needed extra motivation to get the most out of the team and Torre not surprisingly considered that insult to be the last straw after he tolerated years of similar nonsense from George Steinbrenner.

The ending of the whole Steinbrenner/Torre saga in New York reminds me of when Henry Ford II fired Lee Iacocca. As Iacocca recalled in his autobiography, he gave Ford a piece of his mind after Ford dropped the hammer: "Your timing stinks. We've just made a billion eight for the second year in a row. That's three and a half billion in the past two years. But mark my words, Henry. You may never see a billion eight again. And do you know why? Because you don't know how the f--- we made it in the first place!" Iacocca was an innovator who created the popular Ford Mustang and who helped to build Ford Motor Company into a powerful competitor to industry leader General Motors, while Ford II was, in Iacocca's words, "an old pro at spending money but he never understood how it all came in. He just sat in his ivory tower and said, 'My God, we're making money!' He was there every day to throw his weight around, but he never knew what made the place tick." That sounds like a pretty good description of Steinbrenner, who certainly deserves credit for being willing to spend the money to make the Yankees into contenders but who just as certainly does not know nearly as much about baseball strategy as he thinks that he does. Billy Martin, the manager who Steinbrenner notoriously hired and fired several times, once reportedly said that Steinbrenner was born on third base and thought that he had hit a triple. Girardi is a very solid manager and Steinbrenner will spare no expense to bring the Yankees back to the top but how likely is it that Girardi--or any other manager--will put together a dozen year run like the one that Torre just had in New York? Steinbrenner made a mistake forcing Torre out, Neuharth was dead wrong to continuously call for Torre's ouster and it would be nice if both men would be big enough to admit that they were wrong--but being rich and powerful means never having to say that you are sorry.