Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Monday Night Football Quick Hits: Saints Go Marching In Edition

Drew Brees moved 323 yards closer to breaking Dan Marino's single season passing yardage record (5084 in 1984) as his New Orleans Saints cruised to a 51-29 win over the Green Bay Packers. His performance--completing 20 of 26 passes for four touchdowns and no interceptions--is made even more remarkable by the fact that he put up those numbers against one of the league's top secondaries, a ballhawking group that had intercepted 16 passes prior to Monday night, returning six of them for touchdowns. With five games remaining, Brees already has 3574 yards and is on pace to finish with nearly 5200 yards; Arizona's Kurt Warner is also on pace to throw for more than 5000 yards. Aaron Rodgers helped the Packers nearly match Brees score for score in the first half but he was not nearly as sharp in the second half, finishing 23-41 for 248 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions. New Orleans improved to 6-5, while Green Bay dropped to 5-6. Ironically, Green Bay still has the better postseason prospects because the Packers have a shot to win the mediocre NFC North, while New Orleans is in last place in the NFC South and probably will have to earn a Wild Card in order to make the playoffs.

After the teams exchanged punts, the Packers took advantage of good field position to take an early 7-0 lead on a one yard run by John Kuhn. It did not take long for New Orleans to answer--one play to be exact, a 70 yard TD pass from Brees to Lance Moore and then the rest of the first half was an old fashioned shootout. A 24 yard Garrett Hartley field goal just before halftime put New Orleans up 24-21 and at that point it seemed like whichever team had the ball last would win. However, the Packers simply could not keep up the pace in the second half. New Orleans took the opening kickoff and drove 80 yards in 6:26 to push the lead to 31-21 after a 16 yard TD pass from Brees to Billy Miller. Rodgers threw an interception on the second play of Green Bay's next possession and Jason David's 42 yard return put the Saints at Green Bay's three yard line, setting up a Deuce McAllister TD run. McAllister set the franchise record for career touchdowns (54) on that play. The Packers never seriously threatened after that point.

Even with the bad performance (interceptions kill a passer rating very quickly), Rodgers still ranks 10th in the NFL with a 90.5 passer rating (he had been in the top five prior to this game). Naturally, with Brett Favre leading the New York Jets to a victory over previously undefeated Tennessee to remain in first place in the AFC East there will inevitably be comparisons between New York's record and Green Bay's record. Favre ranks sixth in the NFL in passer rating (94.1), though Rodgers was slightly ahead of him until the Saints game. Last year, Favre had a similar passer rating (95.7) as the Packers went 13-3 and made it to the NFC Championship Game, where his interception was the decisive error that enabled the New York Giants to advance to the Super Bowl. Would the Packers be a 13 win team this season if Favre were still their quarterback? Not necessarily. The fact is that Rodgers has been nearly as productive this year as Favre was last year but the team has noticeably declined in other areas; the Packers gave up 291 points in 16 games in 2007 but have already conceded 260 points in 11 games in 2008. ESPN's Mike Tirico made an excellent point: the Packers' choice of Rodgers over Favre should not be evaluated on a week to week basis; after all, just a few weeks ago the Jets looked like a mediocre team while the Packers were 4-3 after a convincing 34-14 win over Indianapolis. Green Bay decided that Rodgers will be their quarterback not just this season but for the next decade or so, while Favre is a short term solution--and someone who retired and did not seem to be mentally up for the long grind of an NFL season.

Obviously, Favre has shown that he is still fully committed to being a top notch NFL quarterback. The Jets made key acquisitions at several other positions and decided to roll the dice that the 39 year old veteran would be the right man to lead them back to the playoffs. Earlier in the season, Steve Young said that it would take until week 10 for Favre to get fully acclimated to the Jets' offense, which Young thought would be too late to make a difference this season. Young's week 10 prediction was spot on--Favre posted a 117.7 passer rating in week 10 after having ratings of 76 or worse in the previous four games--and the Jets have been rolling ever since.

We'll never know how the Packers would have done with Favre this year--or how the Jets would have done with Chad Pennington, who has played quite well for Miami. What we do know is that Rodgers appears to be someone who can be a very good quarterback for years to come and that is something that the Packers could not have known for sure if Favre's presence had kept Rodgers glued to the bench. This may literally be a win-win scenario for all of the involved parties--or a win-win-win scenario if you consider that Pennington arrived in Miami because of the chain reaction that started with Favre leaving Green Bay for New York.

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

*During the much hyped Deion Sanders interview of Terrell Owens (which aired Sunday morning on NFL Network), Sanders asked Owens if he is the same player now that he was before. Owens insisted, "I'm definitely the same guy. All I can say is I'm doing what is asked of me. I'm running my routes. It's not like I'm not open." Sanders then asked why the Dallas coaching staff does not make a point of featuring Owens in the game plan. Owens replied, "I don't think that it is difficult at all to get me featured...If I get in this interview and say 'I need the ball more and we need to do this and we need to do that' then the heat is going to be on me. So I've just been quiet." Sanders acknowledged this and said that everyone in the media has been waiting for Owens to "blow." Fellow NFL Network analyst Steve Mariucci--who coached Owens in San Francisco--told Sanders that Owens cannot be happy with his lack of touches. Owens admitted that this is true, adding, "He's right. I don't like it. If (offensive coordinator Jason) Garrett is smart enough to know what has made me successful in all my years he'll go back to the offense and the type of formations and the things that I did that were successful in San Francisco. Look what I did in Philly. The difference is, in Philly and San Francisco, I was very much involved in the offense. It was a West Coast Offense where I was a priority...When I came here it was with the idea and the notion that we have a chance to win a championship. I want to bring a sixth Super Bowl championship to the city of Dallas. To have the numbers I have, to not really be involved--it is discouraging, it is frustrating." Owens emphasized that his top priority is winning a championship, not on putting up great individual numbers but he very sensibly noted, "You can't obtain that championship if I'm not involved in the offense. I think that a lot of people see that. When I get my hands on the ball, things happen. I can't throw it AND catch it. I can only do one thing...I think everybody knows my playmaking ability. It's not that I can't play. It's the system I'm in that's not allowing me to do the things that I did." Sanders said to Owens that the Cowboys used the same system last year but Owens countered, "You have to understand that teams have game planned us all summer...These defensive coaches have studied us all summer. They saw how we beat them. We're not getting the same routes. We have to go back to the drawing board."

After having his say with his words, Owens spoke even louder with his play in a 35-22 Dallas win over San Francisco, hauling in seven receptions for 213 yards and one touchdown. This is the second best yardage total of his career (he had 283 yards in a 2000 game when he set the still-standing all-time NFL single game record with 20 receptions), the fourth best single game yardage total in Dallas history and the most yards gained by a Dallas receiver since Tony Hill had 213 yards in a 1979 game. As Owens is fond of saying, "Who can make a play? I can!" Owens put it a different way after this particular game: "They unleashed me today." He also reiterated what he said to Sanders: "I've been telling you guys all along, it's not anything wrong with me. Performance-wise, I can play...It showed." Owens is 35 years old but he looks as fast and as strong as ever.

ESPN's Tom Jackson always says that Dallas should feature running back Marion Barber and should not cater to Owens' whims--but it makes no sense to suggest that a team's best player should not be featured. Jackson is right that it is important for an offense to establish a running game and to have good balance between running plays and passing plays, but Barber is a bruiser, a short yardage back, while Owens has the ability to make plays that dramatically shift field position--like his 75 yard touchdown early in the San Francisco game. Barber had 59 yards on 19 carries--with a long gain of just nine yards--and the Cowboys won anyway. Barber's longest gain of the season is just 35 yards, so he is obviously not a home run threat. In contrast, Owens ranks second in NFL history with 136 receiving touchdowns and he has led the league in that category three times; even during this "down" season he ranks fourth with seven receiving TDs, just one behind Randy Moss and Calvin Johnson for second place. If the Cowboys use him properly during the final five weeks of the season then Owens could very well catch up to leader Anquan Boldin, who has 11 TD receptions.

*For a brief moment it seemed as if Chad Johnson may have finally figured things out. He told Deion Sanders of the NFL Network, "OK, this is what I learned the most. This is for anybody else that is coming along after me and for anybody that is playing on the other 31 teams: as an individual, no matter who you are, no matter how good you are, unless you play quarterback you will never dictate or run any organization ever. So don't ever pull what you saw me pull in the offseason, because you will lose." Alas, Johnson was just experiencing "spasms of lucidity," to quote Ferdie Pacheco's memorable line about Riddick Bowe. Prior to Cincinnati's game on Thursday versus Pittsburgh, the Bengals deactivated Johnson due to his insubordinate conduct; he reportedly was late to a team meeting, did not pay attention once he arrived and then got into a confrontation with Coach Marvin Lewis. Anyone who has closely followed Johnson and the Bengals knows that this is nothing new; Ocho Loco has often feuded with coaches and teammates. Where are all the people who have bashed Terrell Owens but said that Ocho Loco's antics are cute? The reality is that Owens has been a key performer on playoff teams for three different franchises, while Johnson has been a vocal distraction for a team that is perennially awful. His words and conduct do not set a good example for his teammates. Coach Lewis explained, "I think that any time you have to sit a player down, it sends a message to players because that's the only thing they get and understand. I don't know how many times I've said that. Money sometimes isn't as important to players as people would think it is. But playing time is important."

*Brady Quinn went 8-18 for just 94 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions for a passer rating of 21.3 in Cleveland's 16-6 home loss to Houston, who had lost eight straight road games; Derek Anderson--who Quinn replaced as the starter two games ago--came in for Quinn late in the third quarter and played the rest of the way, going 5-14 for 51 yards, no touchdowns, one interception and a passer rating of 17.3. Anderson's bad numbers should be considered in context: he had no practice reps with the first team this week, he is a notoriously slow starter who needs a quarter or so to get into rhythm and he was victimized by several droppped passes, including a potential touchdown that Braylon Edwards muffed. I think that Quinn could develop into a good quarterback eventually but he does not give the Browns a better chance to win now than Anderson, a 2007 Pro Bowler, does. That is why Quinn started the season on the bench. Unfortunately, the rudderless Browns organization apparently has rabbit ears, the latest example of this being General Manager Phil Savage's profane email exchange with a fan. The fans clamored for Anderson to be benched and the Browns obliged but making Anderson the scapegoat for all of the Browns' failures has hardly helped to right the ship.

Rich Gannon, a former NFL MVP, had some interesting observations during the CBS telecast. He blasted Edwards for lacking concentration and for not finishing a slant route on the pass that became Quinn's second interception; Gannon noted that Edwards made a similar mistake a few weeks back when Anderson was the starter. After Edwards dropped a gorgeous stick throw from Anderson, Gannon exclaimed, "That wasn't a good throw. That was a great throw! Watch him stick here right into this tight coverage. Look at him (Edwards) coming out of the break. He's lackadaisical coming out of the break. You have to come out of the break with a sense of urgency. Y0u have to expect the ball. He's lollygagging coming out of these breaks, the quarterback's throwing it in there and he's not even expecting it. I tell you what, Kevin (Harlan), I wouldn't even throw it to him. I hate to say that but if the guy's not going to put in the effort you need--I don't like picking on anybody and I think Braylon Edwards is a great guy, a Pro Bowl guy, but he's putting some things on film right now that bother me. We talked about his focus, attention to detail and it's shown up all season long."

Gannon said that he attended Cleveland's Friday practice, the final one before the game. That is when teams really want to be sharp and set the tone for what they are going to do on Sunday. Instead, Gannon saw dropped passes and miscues, so it did not surprise him that Cleveland's offense struggled against Houston, which is hardly a powerhouse team.

*Matt Cassel--who Cris Carter repeatedly has called a "high school quarterback"--passed for 415 yards in New England's 48-28 win over Miami, becoming just the fifth player since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger to have consecutive 400 yard passing games. His performances enabled the Patriots to accumulate more than 500 total yards in both of those games, the first time the franchise has accomplished that in the post-merger era. The one weakness in Cassel's game this season had been his inability to deliver the deep ball--which made Randy Moss a nonfactor after his record setting 2007 season--but on Sunday he hooked with Moss eight times for 125 yards. Tom Brady has had one 400 yard passing game in his entire career so far; it is obviously way too soon to say that Cassel is better than the 2007 NFL MVP but it is not too soon to at least suggest that at this stage of his career Cassel may be better than Brady was at a similar stage of his career. The common denominator for both players is the "mad scientist," Bill Belichick. Brady and Cassel deserve full credit for their talent and their work ethic but Belichick is the one who is designing the game plans that enable not only them but the whole team to shine. Remember when not too long ago some people suggested that the Patriots would flounder without assistant coaches Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel? To paraphrase Bill Russell's reply when someone asked how well he would have done against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, that question is phrased the wrong way. How exactly are Weis and Crennel doing without Belichick? It is also worth pointing out again that most of Bill Parcells' coaching success--including both of his Super Bowl wins--came when Belichick was on his staff. Greatest coach of all time is a subjective, nebulous distinction but there is a small group of people who could be considered worthy of that title: Paul Brown from the 40s and 50s, Vince Lombardi from the 60s, Chuck Noll from the 70s and Bill Walsh from the 80s are the standard bearers from their respective decades and Bill Belichick's accomplishments in the 2000s rank right alongside what those coaches did.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Monday Night Football Quick Hits: "Wide Right" Edition

The Cleveland Browns were on the verge of becoming the first team in NFL history to blow leads of at least 13 points in three consecutive games but Rian Lindell's 47 yard field goal attempt went wide right and the Browns escaped with a 29-27 win in Buffalo. Bills' quarterback Trent Edwards had a ghastly performance that included three first quarter interceptions and resulted in a 50.3 passer rating overall but the Browns only scored two field goals as a result of Edwards' gaffes. The Browns put together one sustained drive all game, an impressive 96 yard second quarter march that culminated in a two yard Josh Cribbs' TD run that gave the Browns a 13-0 lead; the Browns' other touchdown came on a 72 yard burst by Jerome Harrison, the speedy running back who many observers believe should be receiving more playing time. Phil Dawson's 56 yard field goal with 1:39 remaining--which turned out to be the game-winner--was set up by a 28 yard "drive" that stalled when Braylon Edwards dropped a third down pass that would have been good enough for a first down that would have either set up a much shorter kick with less time on the clock or possibly enabled the Browns to score a touchdown. Instead, they had to rely on Dawson making a difficult kick in Buffalo's swirling winds and then hope that a defense that had given up nearly 1000 yards in the previous two games could manage to keep Buffalo out of field goal range; as it turned out, the defense failed at this modest task but--as Denny Green might say--the Bills "let them off the hook" thanks to Lindell's miss, a rarity for a kicker who has been very dependable both from that distance and in late game situations when the score is close. In other words, the Browns won but they really did not play that much better than they played in the games that they lost this season and to suggest otherwise is to put lipstick on a very ugly pig.

Brady Quinn earned his first win as an NFL starter, though his statistics were hardly anything to brag about: 14-36, 185 yards, no touchdowns or interceptions and a 55.9 passer rating that was only marginally better than Edwards'. The best thing that can be said about Quinn right now is that in 79 pass attempts spanning two starts plus one drive in a game last season he has yet to throw an interception or fumble the ball. The Browns also are not plagued by false start penalties and some of the general sloppiness that took place when Derek Anderson was the starter. However, to be fair it must be added that Anderson was not committing those penalties and when he put up numbers like Quinn did against Buffalo many Browns fans screamed for his head; ESPN's Trent Dilfer and others insist that the Browns made the switch to Quinn precisely because the fans complained so much about Anderson. Barely a month ago, Anderson went 18-29 for 310 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a 121.3 passer rating as the Browns tagged the New York Giants with a 35-14 loss that remains the only blemish on the Super Bowl champions' record this season. Then, in the next game against Washington, Anderson went 14-37 for 136 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions and a 57.9 passer rating in a 14-11 loss. Note that Anderson's statistics against Washington and Quinn's statistics against Buffalo are virtually identical; the only difference between the Washington game and the Buffalo game is that at Washington Dawson missed a 54 yard field goal with 25 seconds left. Marcus Stroud almost blocked Dawson's game-winner against Buffalo, so the Browns are literally within a fingertip of remaining winless in the Quinn era.

There is no question that the Browns got off to a disappointing start this season but that had more to do with injuries, dropped passes and gaffes by other players than it did with Anderson, even though it is true that he did not play as well as he did last season. Anderson was a Pro Bowler in 2007 after throwing 29 TD passes--one short of the franchise's single season record held by Brian Sipe--and he bounced back from Cleveland's 0-3 start this year to post a 3-2 record in his last five games as a starter before being benched, which ironically means that Anderson and the team were playing their best football right before he lost his job to Quinn. Anderson had seven touchdowns and just two interceptions in those five games; the two losses were the aforementioned setback versus Washington after Anderson drove the team into position to attempt to kick a tying field goal and a 37-27 loss to Baltimore after the defense could not hold a 14 point second half lead. Anderson had a solid 80.2 rating versus Baltimore and even though his horrible "pick six" interception in that game has been replayed over and over on TV the reality is that if the defense had not already blown the big lead then he would not have been in a situation in which he felt desperate to make something happen--and the thought of punting the ball to Baltimore and relying on the defense to get a stop could certainly make anyone feel desperate.

I'm not trying to bash Quinn or make excuses for Anderson; my point is that quarterback play is not the team's primary problem. The Browns' biggest issue is that the team lacks focus and toughness, which is why virtually every week there is a breakdown offensively, defensively and/or on special teams. The problem is not one particular player but the general way that this team is coached. Anderson is a strong armed quarterback who provides a deep threat but is not particularly mobile; Quinn is much more mobile but primarily throws short to intermediate passes, though I think that casual observers are underestimating his arm strength. With the right game plans--and provided that receivers hold on to catchable passes, which has been a problem no matter who is throwing the ball--the Browns can win with either quarterback. Since Quinn is apparently the choice for the rest of the way, the Browns should continue to try to come up with game plans that play to his strengths. However, all of the fans who clamored for him to be the starter need to understand that he is a young player who will inevitably have to go through growing pains. The Browns fans mistreated Anderson and I hope that they don't show the same fickleness toward Quinn.

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

*As you probably have already heard, prior to Philadelphia's 13-13 tie with Cincinnati in the Ineptitude Bowl, Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb did not know that regular season NFL games end in a tie if no one scores during the sudden death overtime. During his postgame remarks, McNabb candidly admitted his ignorance of this rule and then wondered aloud what would happen if no one scored during overtime in a playoff game or the Super Bowl (Donovan, if you are reading this, please be advised that postseason games do not end in ties; the teams keep playing overtimes until someone scores). Monday Night Countdown devoted a whole segment to the implications of McNabb's lack of knowledge. Several people on the set of that show usually defend McNabb and throw Terrell Owens under the proverbial bus, so I was very curious to see what they would say about McNabb's error. Fortunately, everyone got it right: the bottom line is that there is absolutely no excuse for an NFL starting quarterback to not know the rules. As Trent Dilfer said, the quarterback is supposed to be the "coach on the field" who informs his teammates about the "nuances" of the game but this is not even a nuance: this is "remedial" information or, as Tom Jackson so aptly put it, "common knowledge" among not just players but any serious NFL fan.

Jackson prefaced his critical comments about McNabb by stating that everything about McNabb's life--from his time at Syracuse to the business acumen that he has displayed--suggests that he is very intelligent and Jackson said that a talk show caller who described McNabb as a "cementhead" was most likely using that term as a euphemism for something else. Jackson did not elaborate any further but the elephant in the room is obvious: McNabb is black and literally for decades some ignorant fools perpetuated the pernicious myth that blacks lack the intelligence and leadership skills to play quarterback. That is why Warren Moon spent the first part of his pro career in the CFL and why many talented black quarterbacks--such as Marlin Briscoe--were forced to switch to other positions. It is so indescribably stupid to think that skin color affects the ability to play quarterback that I am not even going to say anything else about that sordid history. What matters in this instance is that McNabb's mistake has nothing to do with being black or with how well qualified blacks are to be NFL quarterbacks, so I hope that race does not become a distraction when discussing this issue.

The question is not whether McNabb is intelligent but rather why he has not fully applied his obvious intelligence to becoming the best leader that he can be. Cris Carter rightly scoffed at the notion that the outcome of the game was not affected by McNabb not knowing the rule; of course the outcome of the game was affected. This falls into the category of "situational football." Keyshawn Johnson, Tom Jackson and Dilfer all described how the best NFL coaches go over various situations with their players so that they are prepared to deal with anything that happens. A big part of what makes Bill Belichick the best coach in the NFL--and arguably the best football coach of all-time--is his relentless focus on situational football; remember four years ago when his Patriots took an intentional safety versus Denver and used the resulting field position shift to come back and win? One of my favorite NFL Films clips eavesdrops on Belichick teaching various players the ins and outs of certain rules and specific situations; he makes it perfectly clear that if you don't understand situational football then you cannot be on the team. The Monday Night Countdown crew rightly said that even though McNabb should be held accountable that Coach Andy Reid is also to blame for not paying greater attention to detail; Jackson observed that the lack of attention to detail is also reflected in Philadelphia's poor conversion rate in short yardage third down situations.

In 2004 at the National Sports Collectors Convention in Cleveland, I had a fascinating conversation with Tom Brown, who started at safety for the Green Bay teams that won the first two Super Bowls (he also played briefly in MLB for the Washington Senators). One of the things that we discussed is what changed when Vince Lombardi was no longer Green Bay's coach. Brown told me that Lombardi knew what every single player was supposed to be doing at all times, so the slightest error by anyone in practice was immediately corrected. When Lombardi departed, that attention to detail left with him and the resulting slippage in "small" areas led to an overall decline in the team's performance. The importance of coaching is not revealed by sideline tantrums during games or witty comments in press conferences; the great coaches do their work on the practice field, outside of the public eye.

The Eagles had an opportunity to beat Belichick's Patriots in Super Bowl XXXIX but their poor clock management down the stretch proved to be an important factor in New England's three point win. Owens later said that McNabb was hyperventilating in the huddle and could barely get out the play calls at the end of the game; the media pounced on Owens for that and other perceived "sins" but you may have noticed that few if any Eagles spoke up for McNabb while many of them remained on good terms with Owens. Those players know what's up, even if a large portion of the general public is content to be fooled. McNabb is a very talented player who has accomplished a lot during a fine career but there has always been something missing that kept him from ascending to the elite level of a Tom Brady or a Peyton Manning--and that press conference in Cincinnati provided a glimpse of the lack of awareness, lack of focus and/or lack of preparation that has prevented a Pro Bowler like McNabb from attaining that status.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Dramatic Overtime Win Lifts Jets Into First Place in the AFC East

Brett Favre drove the New York Jets downfield to set up a game-winning field goal in overtime, lifting them to a 34-31 victory over the New England Patriots and into sole possession of first place in the AFC East. Favre completed 26 of 33 passes for 258 yards, two touchdowns and--very importantly--no interceptions; after the game he admitted that he was very aware during this contest that if he made even one careless throw that the Jets would probably lose. Matt Cassel, who ESPN's Cris Carter repeatedly refers to derisively as a "high school quarterback," had the best game of his brief career--and one of the best performances in team history--completing 30 of 51 passes for 400 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Cassel also led the Patriots in rushing with 62 yards on eight attempts. Cassel is just the third quarterback since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger to throw for at least 350 yards and run for at least 60 yards in the same game, joining former NFL MVPs Rich Gannon and Steve Young. Cassel had the best rushing total for a New England quarterback since noted scrambler Steve Grogan ran for 65 yards in consecutive games in 1978.

The Jets marched downfield after the opening kickoff and took a 7-0 lead on a seven yard pass from Favre to Leon Washington. In the early going, the Patriots moved the ball with ease only to stall in the red zone, kicking two field goals. The Jets also tacked on a field goal but then they broke the game open with two second quarter touchdowns, a 92 yard kickoff return by Washington and a 15 yard pass from Favre to Jerricho Cotchery that put the Jets up 24-6. The Patriots maintained their poise and finally reached the endzone just 15 seconds before halftime when Cassel connected on a 19 yard TD pass with Jabar Gaffney.

During the halftime show, the NFL Network studio crew interviewed Cincinnati wide receiver Chad "Ocho Cinco" Johnson. Deion Sanders asked Johnson what he learned in the wake of all of his offseason "shenanigans." Johnson replied, "OK, this is what I learned the most. This is for anybody else that is coming along after me and for anybody that is playing on the other 31 teams: as an individual, no matter who you are, no matter how good you are, unless you play quarterback you will never dictate or run any organization ever. So don't ever pull what you saw me pull in the offseason, because you will lose." Has Johnson actually learned from his past mistakes or is he just on his best behavior for the moment in order to increase his value so that the Bengals can get trade him (which is what Johnson wanted before the season began)?

The Patriots received the opening kickoff of the second half and moved into Jets territory but their drive was stalled by a Ben Watson fumble. New England's defense held the Jets to 20 yards in the third quarter but the Patriots did not score until the last play of the period when Cassel connected with Watson for a 10 yard TD. Cassel passed to Gaffney for a two point conversion that cut New York's lead to 24-21.

New England forced a Cotchery fumble on the first possession of the fourth quarter and tied the score with a field goal but the Jets countered with a drive that consumed nearly half of the fourth quarter and culminated in a one yard touchdown run by Thomas Jones. After the teams exchanged punts, Cassel and the Patriots got the ball back on their 38 yard line with 1:04 remaining and no timeouts left. Cassel smoothly led the Patriots down the field, making completion after completion and spiking the ball to stop the clock when necessary. As a long suffering Cleveland Browns fan, I have to interrupt this recap briefly to mention that I don't think that the Browns have had a two minute drill--and, technically, this was a one minute drill--run that efficiently since Bernie Kosar was at the helm (the Browns have won some games with last second heroics but usually more out of mad scramble, desperation plays than disciplined execution). I don't know which sin is more unforgivable--that Art Modell fired Bill Belichick or that Modell moved the Browns to Baltimore. During the past decade, Belichick should have been building a dynasty in Cleveland instead of New England; he is the last Browns coach to win a playoff game and, ironically, he did so against New England, then coached by his mentor, Bill Parcells (who has not had nearly as much success as a head coach on his own as he did with Belichick coordinating his defenses). Every time I watch the Patriots play, I can't help but contrast how well coached they are and how disciplined they are with how poorly coached the Browns are. Also, while the Patriots won't use this as an excuse, it is worth mentioning that they are playing without the 2007 NFL MVP (Tom Brady), the heart and soul of their defense (Rodney Harrison), their leading rusher from last year (Laurence Maroney) and two-time Pro Bowl linebacker Adalius Thomas. How many teams could absorb that many blows and still be so competitive? The reason that the Patriots can do this is that they are so well coached; also, Belichick and the team's front office have done a great job of building a deep roster. During the telecast, the NFL Network's Adam Schefter said that the Patriots set an unofficial NFL record for most games missed by starting players during their 2003 Super Bowl season, broke that record in 2004 and could threaten the mark this season.

Back to the Patriots' last drive: they reached the Jets' 16 yard line with eight seconds left. Facing a fourth and one, Cassel rolled out and delivered a strike to Randy Moss, who was "posting up" Ty Law in the endzone like they were playing basketball. Cassel made a brilliant throw and Moss' catch and toe tap were also fantastic.

Unfortunately for Cassel, the Patriots lost the coin toss and never got a chance to take the field in overtime. Favre was sacked on the first play of the possession but made a 16 yard completion to Dustin Keller on third and 15 to keep the drive going. The Jets methodically moved into field goal range and Jay Feely nailed a 34 yard kick at the 7:15 mark.

Earlier this season, ESPN's Steve Young--who may be the most perceptive football analyst on TV--said that it would be a 10 week process for Favre to really become acclimated to the Jets' offense. Young's take directly contrasted with what Tom Jackson and Cris Carter said, namely that Favre could have an immediate impact. Young said of Favre, "I think they (the Jets) got the right guy; they just got him a month too late. The thing dragged on and I think they wanted to get him in early August or late July so that they could have that time before the real bullets flew." I agreed with Young's concerns and really thought that by the time Favre and the Jets got in sync the season would be too far gone. However, the Jets managed to win some games while getting used to Favre (and vice versa) and, lo and behold, in week 10 Favre had arguably his most efficient performance as a Jet. Favre candidly admitted after the game that he has been going through an adjustment process but that the good part is that the team has been productive as that took place.

The Jets face a tough game at Tennessee and a loss in that contest coupled by a New England win at Miami could once again put the division title up for grabs but there is no getting around the fact that so far Favre and the Jets are doing better than I expected. After the 2008 NBA Finals, Kevin Garnett looked straight into the camera and said to all of his critics and doubters, "What can you say now?" What can I say now to Brett Favre and the Jets? All I can say is I was wrong--and congratulations on a big win.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Monday Night Football Quick Hits: Kurt Warner for MVP Edition

Kurt Warner went 32-42 for 328 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions as the Arizona Cardinals defeated the San Francisco 49ers 29-24. The 49ers jumped out to a quick 7-0 lead after Allen Rossum returned the opening kickoff 104 yards for a touchdown; the Cardinals trailed the rest of the way until Warner connected on a four yard TD pass to Anquan Boldin with just 4:16 remaining in the game for what proved to be the decisive score. Both teams made numerous errors in the fourth quarter and the outcome was not determined until the Cardinals stopped Michael Robinson on third and goal from the two yard line as time ran out. As usual, ESPN's Steve Young summarized things best: "For a while I thought whoever screwed up last would lose the football game...It was exciting but rather inept football."

This game contained many interesting storylines/subplots above and beyond being a matchup of division rivals:

1) A young Arizona team emerging as a viable playoff contender under the leadership of graybeard--literally, before he wisely shaved off his facial hair--quarterback Kurt Warner.
2) In contrast to the quarterback position--where Warner won the job from the presumed heir apparent Matt Leinart--at running back the Cardinals have turned to youngster Tim Hightower, apparently signaling the beginning of the end of the career of Edgerrin James.
3) Mike Singletary's vocal attempts to whip his 49ers into being some semblance of a competitive team.

The 6-3 Cardinals now enjoy a four game lead in the anemic NFC West, with the 49ers, Seattle Seahawks and St. Louis Rams tied for second (or last, depending on how you look at it) at 2-7. The Cardinals have improved on both sides of the ball but Warner is clearly leading the way by playing at an MVP caliber level; in fact, as the Monday Night Countdown crew discussed, if Warner had not already done enough to merit consideration as a Hall of Famer he is putting the finishing touches on his Canton resume with his performance this season. Warner ranks first in the NFL with a 106.4 passer rating, which would be the 12th best single season rating of all-time if he can maintain it (his 109.2 rating in 1999 is tied for the seventh best all-time). Warner ranks second behind only Steve Young in career passer rating and he has now thrown for at least 300 yards in 45.1% of his career games (46 out of 102), by far the highest such percentage (with a minimum of 100 games) in NFL history (Hall of Famer Dan Fouts is a distant second at 28%). Warner already owns two regular season MVPs (1999, 2001), one Super Bowl ring (1999) and one Super Bowl MVP (1999) in two Super Bowl appearances. Tom Jackson rightly noted that there are already quarterbacks in the Hall of Fame who did not achieve all of those things. Warner ranks first all-time in passing yards per game, second in completion percentage and fifth in yards per attempt, a statistic that many people consider to be the most important measure of a quarterback's effectiveness. Frankly, I think that Warner has already done enough to be a Hall of Famer but this season he seems intent on removing any possible doubt from the equation.

Only a few months ago, Warner was considering retirement but when the Cardinals told him that he would be given a legitimate shot to win the starting job from Matt Leinart he jumped at the opportunity and ran with it. Warner told Young after the game that the NFL is not always fair, that a lot of political things go into decisions about who plays and that it frustrated him to sit on the bench last year when he knew that he was good enough to start. The 37 year old Warner is proving that age is just a number, not something that should define or limit a person's opportunities, and it is wonderful and fun to watch him be a full time quarterback again. As Ron Jaworski said during the game, the most important aspect of being a good quarterback is accuracy and Warner is one of the most accurate passers ever.

It is ironic that at the same time that Warner's star is ascending again four-time Pro Bowl running back Edgerrin James--the leading active rusher and the 13th leading rusher of all-time--has been replaced as Arizona's starter by rookie Tim Hightower. When running backs lose it they often lose it quickly and they rarely get it back. James averaged at least 4.1 yards per attempt in six of his first seven seasons but in 2006 and 2007 he averaged 3.4 and 3.8 yards per attempt respectively with a long gain of just 27 yards; this season he is averaging 3.5 yards per attempt with a long gain of 16 yards. Meanwhile, Hightower had 109 yards on 22 carries in his first start, a 34-13 win at St. Louis last week, but he only rushed for 25 yards on 11 carries versus San Francisco. Warner said that he knows exactly how James feels but that James is continuing to be a great teammate and a great presence in the locker room.

During the game, Tony Kornheiser mentioned that Singletary views the locker room as almost a sacred place, takes a "paternal" interest in his players and views the team as a family unit. Kornheiser asked if players will buy into Singletary's approach in an era of high salaries and free agency. Anyone who understands human psychology and what it takes to be a good head coach realizes that this is a naive question: no matter what is at stake financially, most people want--no, crave--to be part of something bigger than themselves, something that they find to be intensely meaningful. Good players will embrace the changes that Singletary is making in the culture surrounding the 49ers and the bad players who don't will be promptly shipped out. Singletary and the 49ers' management have to use the second half of this season to find out which players they can build around and which players are not skilled enough and/or not focused enough to be part of a winning program.

As the 49ers tried to come from behind in the waning moments, Kornheiser attempted to make the outcome of this game into some kind of referendum on Singletary's chances to be the long term answer at head coach--but that is preposterous. This is only Singletary's second game as head coach and it would be asinine to make such a huge, franchise transforming decision on the basis of one game, win or lose. Singletary should be judged on the body of his work throughout the remainder of the season and he should have the opportunity to discuss with management his vision of how to turn the team around.

Singletary's passion and dedication are evident and admirable but by the same token he has to be held accountable to do his job effectively just as much as he rightly holds the players accountable to do their jobs. Young mentioned that Singletary must improve at game management, particularly clock management. Young also noted that the 49ers put inexperienced quarterback Shaun Hill in some precarious situations on several occasions with questionable play calling--and the final play call, running Michael Robinson up the middle with the game on the line, simply made no sense. After the game, Singletary said that offensive coordinator Mike Martz thought that there would be a "cavity" through which Robinson could run but the only "cavity" concerning that play is the hole in the head of anyone who thought (1) this would work and (2) it was the best possible call in that situation. Why not use Pro Bowl running back Frank Gore? Why not roll Hill out with a pass/run option? Whether or not Martz made the Robinson call, ultimately it is Singletary's responsibility to know his personnel and to veto calls that make no sense. I suspect that if Singletary is retained as the head coach he probably will want to hire a different offensive coordinator, one whose mindset more closely matches his own. That is not to say that Martz is a bad coach but Singletary seems to have a different philosophy than Martz does and for a team to be successful the coaching staff needs to have the same ideas about how to play the game.

Singletary certainly seems to understand both what he needs to do and the standard to which the players must hold themselves accountable: he candidly admitted that the 49ers' late game clock management was poor and when someone asked him if he was "happy" that the players displayed energy and intensity he scofffingly replied that happy is not the right word--he expects his players to have energy and be intense and he believes he should be sent home if it ever gets to the point that they don't display those qualities. Singletary is a rookie head coach who will make some mistakes but he is also a breath of fresh air because of his passion and candor, so I hope that he will be provided a full and fair opportunity to build a team in his image.

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

*The Browns lost to the Broncos 34-30 on Thursday, blowing a two touchdown second half lead at home for the second consecutive game. Cleveland's defense seemed to have improved early in the season but now it is an unmitigated disaster area, giving up 564 yards versus Denver; that is the third worst total in the 803 game NFL history of the franchise, dating back to 1950 when the Browns were one of three All-America Football Conference (AAFC) teams that joined the more established league. The Browns have surrendered 993 yards in the past two games, the most that the team has ever allowed in consecutive contests--and considering how bad the Browns were right after they returned in 1999 that is really saying something.

Running back Jamal Lewis, who played for Baltimore's Super Bowl championship team in 2000, is disgusted by the attitude of some of his Cleveland teammates: "This is the NFL, you can't call it quits until the game is over. But it looks to me like some people called it quits before that. Denver was down, but they didn't call it quits. They kept their heads up and they finished. We didn't do that two weeks in a row--at home. Some people need to check their egos at the door and find some heart to come out here and play hard. This is a man's game. The way we went out there and played two weeks in a row, finishing the same kind of way, it's not there. I think there are some men around here that need to check their selves, straight up. That's it. Honestly, I've never seen anything like it ever in my life as long as I've been playing. I'm not cut from this kind of cloth. I play physical football, and I come out here and give it my all. I give it my all all week. To come out and be up by whatever--this is the NFL. You can't call it quits until the game is over."

Although Lewis' terminology may not have been quite correct--it would be more precise to say that the Browns lost focus, rather than to say that a team that was leading "quit"--but his overall message is right on point and a most telling indictment of a team that had several Pro Bowlers last season but lacks mental toughness and discipline. I'd go into battle with Lewis, Josh Cribbs, Joe Thomas and a few others but there are too many Cleveland players who clearly do not prepare properly during the week or focus on the task at hand during games.

The headline story for the Browns prior to the Denver game was about Brady Quinn replacing Derek Anderson as the starting quarterback. Quinn played well (23-35, 239 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions) but from a team standpoint there was no difference: with Anderson at quarterback the previous week versus Baltimore, the Browns built a big lead and lost; with Quinn at the controls the Browns did exactly the same thing. In other words, quarterback is not the central problem for the Browns. I think that the Browns can win with either quarterback but it has also become sadly apparent that they can lose with either quarterback. One obvious difference with Quinn at the helm is that the Browns looked a bit crisper, committing fewer false start penalties and seeming to be more organized. The NFL Network's Deion Sanders said that the Browns used a simplified game plan that enabled Quinn to be effective and that it also helped Quinn to play against Denver's weak defense, so the jury is still out until Quinn plays well against some tougher teams. Marshall Faulk wondered aloud why the Browns did not come up with a similar game plan to help Anderson shine--and that is a very good question, because Anderson definitely has the skills to be a very good quarterback. Barring injury, Quinn will almost certainly be the starter the rest of the way and Anderson will most likely be traded in the offseason--but I have the feeling that if Anderson lands on the right team, which is to say a team with a competent coaching staff, he will become a very productive quarterback. I have visions of him coming back to Cleveland wearing a different uniform and throwing for 350 yards and four touchdowns as his new team stomps the Browns.

The Browns' organization is flawed from the top down and until that is straightened out the team will not be successful. Bill Walsh used to always say that it should only take a well run team three years to become competitive. The Browns returned to the NFL in 1999 and have made the playoffs one time. During that period they have never been competitive for a sustained stretch--there was a one and done 9-7 playoff year in 2002 followed by four losing seasons and then a 10-6 campaign last year followed by this season's 3-6 showing. That is pathetic and inexcusable decade and reflects poorly on the ownership: the Lerner family has yet to hire the proper football decision makers capable of building a winning team.

*During Sunday evening's SportsCenter, John Saunders said that after Tom Brady suffered his season-ending injury in week one, "Most people thought that New England's season went down with him," adding that "nobody" thought that Matt Cassel--who Cris Carter keeps referring to as a "high school quarterback"--could competently take his place. Saunders needs to spend more time at BEST, because I have repeatedly said that with Cassel at the helm the Patriots can still be a dangerous playoff team, a point that I emphasized in my recap of New England's 41-7 victory over Denver and in last week's Monday Night Football Quick Hits, when I noted the similarities between Cassel's production so far and Brady's statistics right after he took over for the injured Drew Bledsoe in 2001:

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.

Some people speculate about what Belichick's career won-loss record would have been like without Tom Brady but it is just as valid to ask what Brady's career would have been like without Belichick; Belichick did an outstanding job of coaching Brady and bringing him along from being a backup quarterback to a solid starter to a Pro Bowler to an MVP. It is obviously far too soon to say what kind of player Cassel will ultimately become but any objective person can clearly see that Belichick and his staff have done an excellent job of coaching Cassel.

The Patriots will face the New York Jets on Thursday night with first place in the AFC East on the line. The Jets demolished St. Louis 47-3 on Sunday but their defense--and St. Louis miscues--set up a lot of those scores. Brett Favre threw for just 167 yards and one touchdown, though he did complete an outstanding 14 of his 19 attempts. Favre has put up decent statistics in his first year in New York but his replacement in Green Bay--Aaron Rodgers--and the quarterback that the Jets sent to Miami--Chad Pennington--are both having better seasons than Favre is. Pennington has rallied the 1-15 Dolphins to a 5-4 record, placing them just one game behind the Patriots and the Jets. While it is true that Green Bay has slid from 13-3 last year to 4-5 this season, that has much more to do with their leaky defense than with the quarterback change: Favre had a 95.7 passer rating last season, while Rodgers has a 93.3 passer rating this season. Favre's rating as a Jet this year is 89.8 and he leads the NFL in interceptions with 12, while Rodgers only has five interceptions.

Look for Favre to toss three interceptions versus New England as the Patriots beat the Jets to take over clear first place in the AFC East. The Jets have a better record than I expected them to have at this point but 6-3 could become 6-6 very quickly: after traveling to New England the Jets visit Tennessee and then face a Denver team that is fighting to stay on top in the AFC West.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Michael Crichton: The Decline in Media Quality is a Threat to Freedom

World renowned author Michael Crichton passed away on Tuesday. Even if you don't know his name, you almost certainly are familiar with his work: he wrote the novels "The Andromeda Strain," "Disclosure" and "Jurassic Park" and he created the TV series "ER," for which he won an Emmy, a Peabody and a Writer's Guild of America Award. More importantly, Crichton was a visionary. That does not mean that every single one of his predictions was right but rather that he possessed the intelligence, imagination and foresight to look at a current trend and make a reasonable projection of where it would lead. In 1993, he predicted, "To my mind, it is likely that what we now understand as the mass media will be gone within ten years. Vanished, without a trace." Naturally, when a decade passed and the New York Times was still in business, some people chose to mock Crichton's prognostication but he stuck to his guns, declaring, "I assume that nobody can predict the future well. But in this particular case, I doubt I'm wrong; it's just too early." Many geniuses are "too early" to profit from their ideas and artistry--think about the impoverished artist Vincent Van Gogh, whose canvases now sell for tens of millions of dollars--so Crichton was fortunate (literally and figuratively) that as a writer he found an outlet for his creativity that was not only rewarding to him intellectually but also financially. I often pose this question: What would have happened to Swiss patent clerk Albert Einstein if he had been born 100 years earlier and there existed no way to prove his seemingly outlandish theories correct by measuring the perihelion of Mercury? The answer is that the man whose name and image became synonymous with genius would likely have lived a life of obscurity; decades after he passed away, if someone preserved his papers, scientists would be able to reconsider what he wrote and then conclude that he had been far ahead of his time--"too early," in Crichton's words.

Obviously, this analogy is not meant to suggest that Crichton was a genius on par with Einstein; the point is that farsighted individuals may seem like misguided fools to their contemporaries, particularly if there is not a simple, objective way to prove what is true and what is false. In the specific instance of Crichton's prediction about the media, it does not seem like it will take decades for his analysis to be vindicated. Jack Shafer, Slate's editor at large, declared in a May 29, 2008 article, "As we pass his prediction's 15-year anniversary, I've got to declare advantage Crichton. Rot afflicts the newspaper industry, which is shedding staff, circulation, and revenues. It's gotten so bad in newspaperville that some people want Google to buy the Times and run it as a charity! Evening news viewership continues to evaporate, and while the mass media aren't going extinct tomorrow, Crichton's original observations about the media future now ring more true than false. Ask any journalist."

In a sidebar interview with Shafer, Crichton had some chilling commentary about the current state of the media. I placed a particular passage in bold because anyone who still watches TV news broadcasts--whether from the old broadcast networks or any of the cable stations--should try Crichton's little experiment:

* "Factual content approaches zero, and accuracy is not even a consideration. I think many younger reporters aren't really sure what it means, beyond spell-checking. And in any case, when the factual content approaches zero, accuracy becomes meaningless.

Why do I say factual content approaches zero? The easiest way is to record a news show and look at it in a month, or to look at last month's newspaper. That pulls you out of the narcotizing flow of what passes for daily news, and you can see more objectively what is actually being presented. Look at how many stories are unsourced or have unnamed sources. Look at how many stories are about what "may" or "might" or "could" happen. Look at how many news stories have opinion frames, i.e., "Obama faced his most challenging personal test today," because in the body you probably won't be told much about what the personal test was, or why it was most challenging (which in any case is opinion). In summary, reliance on unnamed sources means the story is opinion. Might and could means the story is speculation. Framing as I described means the story is opinion. And opinion is not factual content."

Crichton decried the polarization that has infected our society and resulted in the demonization of anyone who holds a differing opinion:

*"I grew up in the 1950s, supposedly the heyday of conformity, but there was much more freedom of opinion back then. And as a result, you knew that your neighbors might hold different views from you on politics or religion. Today, the notion that men of good will can disagree has disappeared. Can you imagine! Today, if I disagree with you, you conclude there is something wrong with me. This is a childish, parochial view. And of course stupefyingly intolerant. It's truly anti-American. Much of it can be laid at the feet of the environmental movement, which has unfortunately frequently been led by ill-educated and intolerant spokespersons—often with no more than a high-school education, sometimes not even that. Or they are lawyers trained to win at any cost and to say anything about their opponents to win. But you find the same intolerant tone around considerations of defense, taxation, free markets, universal medical care, and so on. There's plenty of zealotry to go around. And it's hardly new in human history."

Crichton essentially abandoned mainstream media sources, explaining, "I long subscribed to three newspapers, the L.A. Times, the N.Y. Times, and the WSJ. I canceled the L.A. Times a year ago, with no discernible loss. I skim the other papers. The rest of my time is spent on the Web. I would say 95 percent of my information-gathering time is spent on the Web." He concluded, "I do think that in essence, anybody on the Internet can get the equivalent of a wire service feed, and that means you are not waiting for the news. By the time 6 o'clock rolls around, or you open the paper the next morning, you already know the headlines and the talking points. The problem is that the TV and the newspaper don't give you much more than you already have. Hence the endless decline. I might add as a personal note that we have been talking about the quality of the media and the quality of information they pass on, but from a broader perspective, the present situation scares the hell out of me. A democracy needs good information. A rapidly changing, highly technological society in a global economy really needs good information. We don't have it. We don't have anything remotely approaching it. On the contrary, we have an increasingly constricted media run by increasingly partisan forces, to the detriment of our society. For example, the tendency of media to lock in a single story day after day, like the Hillary [Clinton in] Bosnia story, effectively prevents a leader from getting any other message out. Even in its decline, the media is all we have, and thanks to Sullivan, it operates entirely free from litigation, or other forms of regulation that might make it more responsive to public needs. Not good."

It is merely annoying when ESPN turns SportsCenter into "FavreCenter" or tries to act like Terrell Owens is the root of all evil--but the problems with the way that the media covers sports are just a microcosm of what is wrong with the way that the media covers events of far greater significance, events that are literally of life and death importance. As Crichton said, "We have an increasingly constricted media run by increasingly partisan forces"; the same corporations that bring you biased sports coverage bereft of sound journalistic standards also bring you biased news and political coverage bereft of sound journalistic standards.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Monday Night Football Quick Hits: Steel Curtain Edition

The Pittsburgh Steelers spotted the Washington Redskins a 6-0 lead and then their defense bludgeoned Washington into submission in a 23-6 victory. The Steelers improved to 6-2 and they now not only own first place in the AFC North but they also have the second best record in the entire AFC, trailing only the 8-0 Tennessee Titans. The Steelers have the second best defense in the AFC, allowing only 116 points, 13 more than the Titans have given up. Pittsburgh's starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger completed just 5 of 17 passes for 50 yards and one interception but he scored a touchdown on a one yard quarterback sneak to put Pittsburgh up 10-6 just before halftime. Roethlisberger reinjured his already balky right shoulder on that play and did not return to action in the second half but the Steelers did not miss a beat as backup quarterback Byron Leftwich went 7-10 for 129 yards and a touchdown, including a big 50 yard completion to Nate Washington that set up a Willie Parker touchdown run on the opening drive of the third quarter. The Steelers held NFL rushing leader Clinton Portis to 51 yards on 13 carries; he had rushed for at least 120 yards while averaging at least five yards per attempt in each of his previous five games, a feat matched by only Jim Brown and O.J. Simpson. Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell has had four games this season with a passer rating of over 100 but Pittsburgh harassed him into his worst game of the season by far, intercepting two of his passes, sacking him seven times and limiting him to a pitiful 4.8 yards per attempt average.

The team stats don't really tell the complete story of this game: Washington gained 221 yards of total offense--just three fewer than the Steelers did--but nearly a fourth of that total came on a meaningless drive in the final minutes that ended in a Campbell interception. A better indicator of Pittsburgh's dominance is Washington's 3-15 third down conversion ratio. It is also worth noting that both of Washington's scores--two early field goals--came after "drives" in which the Redskins did not make a single first down; Washington recovered an onside kick on the first play of the game but could not advance the ball and then a bit later the Redskins intercepted Roethlisberger but again could not gain any ground.

Portis summed things up best: "We were hoping to go out and play our football, play smash-mouth football. Instead, we got smashed."

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

*Dallas, widely considered to be the most talented team in the NFL before the season began, fell to 5-4 after losing 35-14 to the New York Giants. Brad Johnson, starting at quarterback for the Cowboys in place of the injured Tony Romo, was benched after he completed just 5 of 11 passes for 71 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. His first interception almost certainly would have been a touchdown if he had thrown an accurate pass to Terrell Owens on a slant pattern; instead, Corey Webster picked off Johnson's errant throw and returned it 57 yards. The Giants scored a touchdown on the resulting drive to go up 14-0. Johnson was the starting quarterback for Tampa Bay's Super Bowl championship team in 2002; he had 22 touchdowns and just six interceptions that year, leading the league by having just 1.3 % of his pass attempts picked off, but now he is a 40 year old veteran who has already been intercepted five times in just three games as Romo's substitute. The blame here lies not so much with Johnson but rather with whoever in the Cowboys' organization failed to sign an adequate backup quarterback; few starting quarterbacks play all 16 games, so it is imperative to have a backup who can at least be reasonably effective in spot duty. Clearly, Johnson is not capable of filling that job at this stage of his career.

After the game, members of the media tried to goad Owens into making inflammatory comments but he simply replied, "My opinion doesn't matter. I can say it all day. I can give you my opinion right now but all y'all are going to do is bash me on my opinion." Fox Sports' Terry Bradshaw said, "I've got to applaud Terrell Owens. He's done an excellent job of being very, very judicious with his words." Jimmy Johnson added, "I do feel bad for him because they (the media) try to bait him into saying something that's controversial."Even Tom Jackson--a frequent critic of Owens--begrudgingly conceded during Monday Night Countdown that Owens has displayed a lot of maturity with his comments to the media this season.

*The Cleveland Browns squandered a 27-13 second half lead at home versus the Baltimore Ravens and suffered a 37-27 loss that probably ended their playoff hopes. Quarterback Derek Anderson hardly distinguished himself (17-33, 219 yards, two touchdowns, one interception) but he was also victimized by a dropped Braylon Edwards pass on a perfect throw that should have resulted in a long touchdown. The signature memory from this game will no doubt be Anderson's errant screen pass that Terrell Suggs intecepted and ran back for a game-clinching touchdown with 2:43 remaining.

The Browns have already announced that second year man Brady Quinn will start get his first regular season start at quarterback on Thursday night versus Denver. Quinn has looked good in limited preseason action the past couple years but who knows how well that will translate into regular season play; I fear that the Browns may be rushing him into the fray too soon and without a good enough supporting cast around him, two conditions that doomed 1999 number one overall first pick Tim Couch, who possibly could have been a good NFL player in a different circumstance. ESPN's Trent Dilfer, who won a Super Bowl ring as a starting quarterback for Baltimore and briefly played in Cleveland, declared that the Browns' decision reflects the "many layers of dysfunction" in the team's organization, starting at the very top with owner Randy Lerner. Dilfer said, "Number one, it is known that you do not bench a quarterback when you are on a bad football team. You bench a quarterback when it is a good football team and the quarterback is holding you back. This is a bad football team. More importantly, I played in Cleveland for a year and I was shell shocked how this organization at the very highest level is so influenced by public opinion. They listen to the talk radio. The owner for the Cleveland Browns makes knee jerk decisions to fill seats and you cannot be successful in the National Football League now or long term if you are basing your decisions about what the public wants."

The Browns made an exciting run in the latter part of last season but I fear that my initial concerns about Romeo Crennel's coaching and Phil Savage's decision making in the front office were in fact quite well founded; after the Browns lost their home opener 34-7 versus Pittsburgh last season, I wrote, "Savage and Crennel need to put a better product on the field quickly or owner Randy Lerner needs to send their Keystone Kops routine packing and bring in a real football administration that will generate wins instead of excuses." The Browns seemed to show some signs of progress but now it looks like that was just a mirage that masked the reality that the Browns are a disorganized, dysfunctional, losing organization.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Viswanathan Anand Becomes 15th World Chess Champion

You would never know it based on the lack of mainstream media coverage but a significant cultural, artistic and sporting event just concluded in Bonn, Germany: Viswanathan Anand defeated Vladimir Kramnik 6.5-4.5 to become the 15th classical World Chess Champion. This is the same title held by legends like Bobby Fischer (1972-1975) and Garry Kasparov (1985-2000). Fischer's 1972 World Championship match versus Boris Spassky and Kasparov's five World Championship matches versus Anatoly Karpov drew coverage and attention ranging far beyond the chess world, largely because Fischer and Kasparov were charismatic individuals who captivated people not only with their exciting styles of play but also with their colorful personalities.

Anand and Kramnik are not as charismatic as Fischer and Kasparov, nor will either of them ever be ranked ahead of Fischer and Kasparov as all-time greats, but the Anand-Kramnik match featured some very spirited chess. You can find all 11 games here. International Master Malcolm Pein also annotated each game at The Week in Chess site. Anand defeated Kramnik because of superior pre-match preparation, an ironic twist of fate considering that excellent pre-match preparation is the primary reason that Kramnik beat Kasparov eight years ago to win the title in the first place; there is no greater proof of the beauty and depth of this game than the fact that even though chess has been played for thousands of years and in recent years many positions have been subjected to deep computer analysis by powerful engines, it is still possible to invent novelties (previously unplayed opening moves), as Anand dramatically demonstrated on several occasions. Kramnik prefers to play a slow, maneuvering game in which he methodically increases the pressure on his opponent's position without taking a lot of risks but Anand created dynamic, unbalanced positions that forced Kramnik to engage in the kind of open combat that he tries so hard to avoid. The lone bright spot for Kramnik happened in game 10 when he turned the tables on Anand, played a novelty of his own and crisply won in 29 moves. However, that proved to be Kramnik's only victory, as Anand clinched the World Championship by drawing the 11th game.

The Anand-Kramnik match is historically significant because it completed the process of reunifying the World Chess Championship title, which had been split up since 1993 a la the alphabet soup of championship belts that proliferated in professional boxing. From 1886 to 1993 there was a fairly orderly succession of universally recognized World Chess Champions who won the title by defeating the previous champion in a match (the lone exception being when Alexander Alekhine died in 1946 while holding the title; a match tournament was held in 1948 to crown his successor). In 1993, Kasparov and his challenger Nigel Short split from chess' governing body--the Federation Intenationale des Echecs (better known as FIDE, the International Chess Federation)--because of FIDE's corruption. Kasparov and Short created the Professional Chess Association (PCA) and held their championship match under its auspices. Kasparov defeated Short to retain what would be called in boxing the linear title but FIDE countered by stripping Kasparov of his FIDE crown and reinstating Karpov (who Kasparov dethroned in 1985) as FIDE World Champion. The two competing groups each held a championship cycle in 1993-96, with Kasparov beating Anand to retain his PCA/linear title while Karpov toppled Gata Kamsky to keep the FIDE crown.

The PCA folded shortly the Kasparov-Anand match and Kasparov struggled to put together an organization to sponsor a match for him to defend his title. Eventually, he played Kramnik in 2000 and Kramnik--who had previously trained with Kasparov and thus was not intimidated by him--used some terrific opening preparation to pull off the upset over Kasparov. In his 2007 book How Life Imitates Chess, Kasparov candidly explains exactly how his former student ended his 15 year reign at the top of the chess world (pp. 33-34):

Years of success had made it difficult for me to imagine I could lose. Going into that match, I had won seven consecutive grand slam tournaments in a row and I wasn't aware of my own weaknesses. I felt I was in great form and unbeatable. After all, hadn't I beaten everyone else? With each success the ability to change is reduced. My longtime friend and coach, Yuri Dokhoian, aptly compared it to being dipped in bronze. Each victory added another coat.

When he played black in our match, Kramnik shrewdly chose a defense--the Berlin variation of the Ruy Lopez--in which the powerful queens quickly came off the board. The game became one of long-range maneuvering rather than dynamic, hand to hand combat. Kramnik had evaluated my style and had rightly assessed that I would find this kind of tranquil play boring and that I would unwittingly let down my guard. I had prepared intensely and was ready to fight on perhaps ninety percent of the chess battleground, but he forced me to play on the ten percent he knew better and that he knew I would least prefer. This brilliant strategy worked to perfection.

Instead of trying to wrest the games back to positions where I would be more comfortable, I took up his challenge and tried to beat him at his own game. This played right into Kramnik's hands. I was unable to adapt, unable to make the necessary strategic changes quickly enough and I lost the match and my title. Sometimes the teacher must learn from the student.

In light of how Kramnik beat Kasparov, it is worth noting that Anand made sure that he did not once face Kramnik's dreaded "Berlin Wall"; in fact, Anand turned the tables on Kramnik and reversed what Kramnik had done to Kasparov: while Kramnik forced Kasparov to play in sterile, queenless positions, Anand compelled Kramnik to play fighting chess with the queens on the board.

In 1998, FIDE changed the structure of its World Championship, shifting from match play to tournaments with fast time controls; many people felt that this devalued the title. Kasparov never played in those new FIDE events and Kramnik declined to participate after he beat Kasparov to grab the linear title (Kramnik had nothing to gain and everything to lose from a prestige standpoint by playing in FIDE's World Championship competitions). Karpov retained his FIDE crown in the first FIDE World Championship under the new rules in 1998 but then he chose not to defend his title in 1999 due to his dissatisfaction with the rules. The next four FIDE World Championships produced three champions who most non-chess players have probably never heard of, though Anand did manage to win the title in 2000.

Meanwhile, Kramnik retained the linear title by drawing a match with Peter Leko in 2004. Kramnik has never been a great match player--as Kasparov hastened to point out as soon as the Anand-Kramnik match concluded--and he understandably avoided a rematch with Kasparov. In 2005, Kasparov--who was still the highest rated player in the world--retired from competitive chess because the only challenge left for him was to beat Kramnik and it was obvious that Kramnik would make sure that he never played Kasparov again in a match; Kramnik fully understood that the psychological ploys and special opening preparation that he used so successfully against Kasparov in 2000 would not work in a rematch and that if they crossed swords on the "ninety percent of the chess battleground" that Kasparov later referred to in his book then Kasparov would almost certainly reclaim the World Championship title.

In 2005, Veselin Topalov won the FIDE World Chess Championship and a match pitting him against Kramnik was arranged to finally reunify the FIDE and linear World Championships (the latter is often called "classical" because it is based on match play at traditional time controls as opposed to FIDE's recent use of tournaments with fast time controls to determine their World Champion). Kramnik drew the regular portion of his match with Topalov and then retained his title by winning tiebreaker games at a faster time control. Although Kramnik's victory over Topalov temporarily reunified the World Chess Championship title, in 2007 FIDE held an eight player World Championship event in Mexico. Kramnik reluctantly participated--he felt that the title should be determined by a match, not a tournament--and he finished second, while Anand emerged as the victor.

Although it obviously is quite an accomplishment to win a FIDE World Championship tournament at a fast time control, I have never considered those tournament winners to truly be world champions: Kasparov was the World Champion, Kramnik beat him in a classical match and therefore Kramnik deserved to be considered the rightful champion until someone dethroned him by beating him in a match. It is truly a shame that Kramnik avoided playing a rematch with Kasparov but it is good for chess that Anand's convincing win in Bonn reunifies the title. Next year, Anand is scheduled to defend his crown in a match against the winner of a match between top contenders Topalov and Kamsky. Wouldn't it be something if after the dust clears Kasparov unretires and tries to reclaim the title? I doubt that he would do that--he is very engaged in his political work in Russia and the farther one gets past the age of 40 (Kasparov is 45) the tougher it becomes to compete at the highest levels in chess. Nevertheless, I believe that a fully committed and focused Kasparov would still be able to win a classical match against Anand, Kramnik, Topalov or any of the other top players; a Kasparov return now or within the next year or two would be more like Michael Jordan's first comeback with the Chicago Bulls as opposed to Jordan's injury riddled second comeback with the Washington Wizards.