Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Brett Favre Adds Another Chapter to his Legend and Another Clip to His Highlight Reel

Just when you think you've seen it all, Brett Favre uncorks an 82 yard touchdown pass on the first play of overtime to lift the Green Bay Packers to a 19-13 road win over the Denver Broncos. Jay Cutler had just driven Denver 89 yards in just 2:27 to set up a tying Jason Elam field goal as regulation time ran out. Then the Packers won the coin toss and Cutler never got on the field again.

Before the game, ESPN ran a feature showing Favre's greatest Monday Night moments; by the time SportsCenter recapped this game, that feature had a new ending. Believe it or not, this is Green Bay's first overtime road win since Howard Cosell's last Monday Night Football telecast (December 12, 1983). The only longer overtime TD pass is Ron Jaworski's 99 yard connection with Mike Quick in 1985. Speaking of the man once known as the Polish Rifle, Jaworski got a taste of what Favre can still do after asking him about the whispers that he has lost some arm strength. Jaworski later told ESPN viewers that Favre responded by planting his foot on the 50 yard line and firing a "laser"--Jaworski's word--that hit the pylon in the end zone (the game winning pass traveled 54 yards in the air).

Jayson Williams once compared Michael Jordan to a Doberman who you must never challenge or even look straight in the eye. Of course, Jordan is not the only competitor who feeds off of slights, real or imagined. So it is not at all surprising that Brett Favre bristled at the notion that he has lost any of his fabled arm strength. There have not been many opportunities for Favre to go deep due to Green Bay's anemic running game. As Favre said after this game, if you can't run the ball then play action fakes are useless. Fortunately for the Packers, Denver's run defense is terrible, so the Packers gained enough yardage on the ground for Favre's play action fakes to be meaningful; Ryan Grant, who had only six carries this season prior to Monday night, gained 104 yards on 22 attempts. Shut down cornerbacks Dre Bly and Champ Bailey are supposed to be the crown jewels of the Broncos' defense but Bly got burned on the game-winning pass and Bailey was torched on a 79 yard TD pass from Favre to James Jones in the first quarter.

Favre finished the game with these gaudy numbers: 21-27, 331 yards (his fourth 300 yard game this season), two touchdowns, no interceptions and a season-high 142.4 passer rating. The Packers are 6-1, tied with the more celebrated Dallas Cowboys for the best record in the NFC. Even Favre seems surprised at their reversal of fortune from last year's 8-8 record: "I feel like I've been on some better teams, but it's hard to doubt this team." The turnaround actually began with four straight wins to close out the 2006 campaign. At the time, those wins did not really seem to mean that much but in light of Green Bay's quick start this season it now looks like that is when the Packers' defense--the unheralded hero of Green Bay's season--began to jell, giving up only 42 points in those four contests. Road games on November 22 and November 29 against division rival Detroit and Dallas will go a long way toward showing if Favre's Halloween heroics are just a trick or if Green Bay's 2007 season will turn into a treat for the Cheeseheads.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Two Minute Drill: Is Patriots-Colts the Most Anticipated Regular Season Game in NFL History?

You may have heard that next Sunday the 8-0 New England Patriots will travel to Indianapolis to play the 7-0 Colts. This is the latest in a season that two undefeated NFL teams have ever met. Is this the most anticipated regular season game in league history? With the proliferation of 24 hour sports talk radio, cable/satellite television and the internet it will certainly be the most hyped up regular season game ever. Maybe I'm forgetting something obvious, but the only remotely similar game that comes to mind is the Monday Night Football game in 1985 when Dan Marino's Miami Dolphins--with the 1972 Dolphins watching from the sidelines--knocked off the unbeaten Chicago Bears in 1985, preserving the '72 team's place in history as the NFL's only perfect team. Normally I wait to run the "Two Minute Drill" until after the Monday Night Football game but several things about this week's action already caught my eye:

1) While the Patriots pursue perfection of the technical craft of football, it seems like everybody is a critic. First there was that ridiculous nonsense about the Patriots "spying" to obtain publicly available information. Looking near the bottom of the standings, where I see the 1-7 New York Jets, the one thing that is very clear is that Eric Mangini should have spent more time coaching his team and less time worrying about how Bill Belichick is coaching his (speaking of former Belichick assistants, how about that theory that the Patriots would fall off after Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel left? Have you heard much about that one lately?). Now, ESPN's John Clayton suggests that Belichick and the Patriots are taking out their frustrations by running up the score. What is New England supposed to do? Stop playing and just hand the ball over to the other team? Clayton is right about one thing: "Belichick has assembled perhaps the most dominating team in NFL history, and he's intent on destroying all opponents in his path."

2) The Colts are not only 7-0 this season but they are 12-0 dating back to last year. They are the defending Super Bowl champions, they have beaten New England three straight times--and they are underdogs at home against the Patriots. You don't suppose the word "disrespect" might be mentioned a time or two behind closed doors in Indianapolis this week? Of course, they are way too classy to say such a thing publicly. Also, they are too smart to do so. They know that New England was pounding them up and down the field in the first half of last year's AFC Championship Game. However, the Patriots wore down in the second half and possessed neither enough reserves on defense to withstand the sustained pressure of the Colts' offense nor enough playmaking wide receivers to keep scoring points--and they still came within perhaps one first down of winning. Now the Patriots have completely upgraded their receiving corps and added Adalius Thomas to their defense. New England is going to beat Indianapolis by at least 14 points.

3) How 'bout them Lions? Everyone acted like Jon Kitna had lost his mind when he said that Detroit would win 10 games this year. Well, Detroit has already won both of this year's meetings with the Chicago Bears, last year's NFC champions, and they have a 5-2 record.

4) Earlier in this season, I was critical of Browns Coach Romeo Crennel because his team looked disorganized and unprepared. It is possible that I spoke too soon about that. One does not want to get too excited about back to back wins against the NFL's two perfectly imperfect teams--the winless Dolphins and Rams--but this is the first time that Cleveland has won two games in a row since October 2003. The Browns still commit too many foolish penalties and the defense is raggedy at times but the offense looks like the best that the Browns have had since the days of the Kardiac Kids, when Brian Sipe won an MVP while throwing to the likes of Ozzie Newsome, Reggie Rucker, Greg Pruitt and Dave Logan and handing off to Mike Pruitt. Strong armed quarterback Derek Anderson is playing very well, ranking sixth in the NFL in passer rating and second behind Brady with 17 touchdown passes. Running back Jamal Lewis is dinged up but already has had a 200 yard game this year. Kellen Winslow's knee is not completely healthy--and may never be--and he is still a beast; he ranks eighth in the league in yards per catch (17.2), which is remarkable for a tight end. Randy Moss can already book his trip to the Pro Bowl but Braylon Edwards has to be given serious consideration at the other wide receiver spot in the AFC. He is tied for second in the league with nine touchdown receptions, ranks third in total receiving yards (669) and is fifth in yards per catch (18.1).

5) The Bengals have to be considered one of the most disappointing teams. Pittsburgh's 24-13 victory on Sunday in Paul Brown Stadium is the seventh straight by the Steelers in Cincinnati; at this rate, they might as well rename the stadium after the Rooney family because the Steelers treat it like their home field. The Bengals talked big about playing a physical game and then watched the Steelers roll up 390 yards, including 160 rushing yards on 33 attempts. What we are finding out is that the Bengals are much better at talking big than playing big. Speaking of which, how are you doing, Chad Johnson? Yes, he is a talented receiver and it is impressive that he set a record by leading a conference in receiving yards for four straight seasons but I don't understand the media's love affair with him. Albert Einstein figured out many of the laws of the universe by conducting thought experiments, so let's try one concerning the self proclaimed "Ocho Cinco": imagine if a receiver--call him Owen Terrell--did the exact same things that "Ocho Cinco" has done for the 2-5 Bengals this year: chewing out his quarterback on the sideline on national TV, pledging to celebrate after every touchdown no matter how much he gets fined and in one of his celebrations donning a jacket proclaiming that he will eventually be inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. How do you suppose the media would react to that? Throw in the fact that the receiver's team is sinking in the standings and has never won even one playoff game during his career. Would the media respond that these antics are cute, harmless and not a distraction? At least one local beat writer insists that Johnson is not the problem and that the defense should be blamed for the Bengals' disastrous season. Granted, Johnson is not the whole problem--but is he even part of the solution? When Coach Marvin Lewis bellows in the locker room that there is too much selfishness on the team, who do you suppose he is talking about? Yet the same guys who kiss Johnson's hindquarters every week on national TV will tell you that they are waiting for either #81 to blow up in Dallas or New England. Guess what? That's not going to happen--and look how great the former teams of each #81 are doing now that they got rid of the alleged "cancers" in their midst; you can find them about the same place in the standings that you find the Jets.

Stat of the Week: Derek Anderson is the first Browns quarterback to throw at least three TD passes in consecutive games since Brian Sipe did it in 1983.

Sweep Success: Red Sox Claim Second World Series Title in Four Years

Will everyone please stop talking about "the curse"? If there ever was a "Curse of the Bambino," it certainly has been more than exorcised after the Boston Red Sox claimed their second World Series title--and second World Series sweep--in four years with a 4-3 win over the Colorado Rockies. The longer this series went, the more an air of inevitability seemed to descend over the proceedings; whenever the Red Sox needed a hit they got one, they seemingly drove in every runner who reached scoring position and they proved that they could not only blow out Colorado but that they could also muster just enough clutch hitting and pitching to win the close games.

Boston set the tone in the top of the first inning as leadoff hitter Jacoby Ellsbury doubled. Ellsbury advanced to third base on Dustin Pedroia's ground out and he gave the Red Sox a lead that they would never relinquish by scoring on David Ortiz' double. Aaron Cook got Manny Ramirez to ground into a double play to end the inning but this was hardly the start that Colorado wanted.

Similarly to game two, after Boston took an early lead the game became a real pitching duel for the next several innings. Any time the Rockies even hinted at making a threat the Red Sox quickly snuffed it out. For instance, in the second inning, Todd Helton hit a leadoff double--but then the next two Rockies hitters made outs, Brad Hawpe walked and Yorvit Torrealba grounded out to end the inning. The Rockies were never able to get a clutch hit in this series until they fell too far behind and their attempts at rallies always came up short.

In the third inning, Kazuo Matsui hit a one out double but the Rockies stranded him at second as their next two hitters struck out. In the fifth inning, Boston once again showed what you are supposed to do when you get a runner in scoring position. Mike Lowell, the World Series MVP, led off with a double and after J.D. Drew grounded out Jason Varitek singled him home. For a while it looked like that might be enough to get the job done and the Red Sox definitely seemed to be in control when Lowell led off the seventh inning with a home run.

Trailing 3-0 and down to their last nine outs, Colorado answered back in the bottom of the seventh with a leadoff homer by Hawpe but the Rockies managed only one other hit in the inning. Pinch hitter Bobby Kielty immediately reestablished Boston's three run lead with a leadoff homer in the eighth inning. The Red Sox actually left a couple men on base after that but now Colorado needed to score at least three runs before making six outs.

It cannot be said that the Rockies quit; it seems like they simply ran out of gas. Todd Helton singled in the eighth inning and Garrett Atkins' home run again brought Colorado to within one run. Boston responded by bringing in ace closer Jonathan Papelbon, which signaled that the end was near. Papelbon had not yet allowed a run in the 2007 postseason and that did not change as he retired the final five Colorado hitters to earn the save.

Although the two Boston World Series sweeps will forever be linked together in the popular imagination, they were accomplished by two almost completely different squads. True, some of the big names from 2004 are still around--Ortiz, Ramirez and Schilling to name three--but Boston's management has done a good job of bringing in productive veterans while at the same time developing young players who could very well also play key roles in possible future title runs. The Yankees and the Red Sox both have famously large payrolls but it is becoming very obvious that one team has spent a lot more wisely than the other. Manager Terry Francona seems to get overshadowed by the numerous big names and outsized personalities who are on the roster but it is worth noting that he is the first manager in MLB history to win the first eight World Series games of his career. Such things do not happen by accident and whenever conversation turns to the subject of the game's best managers his name must be included on the short list now.

Life is good for New England sports fans: the Red Sox are the World Series Champions, Boston College is ranked second in the BCS, the Patriots are unbeaten and look unbeatable and the Boston Celtics have brought in two All-Stars to team up with Paul Pierce. That is why no Boston sports fan should be allowed to say anything about a "curse" any more. If you want to talk about sports "curses," dial up a Cubs fan, an Indians fan or a Browns fan--it has been more than 40 years since any of them have cheered for a championship team.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

"When You Get Squeezed, What Comes Out of You is What's Inside"

The October 22 issue of ESPN the Magazine contains a very interesting Buster Olney interview with Atlanta Braves pitcher John Smoltz. Oakland A's GM Billy Beane told Olney that the MLB playoffs are a crapshoot, adding, "The Cardinals proved my point last year," so Olney led off by asking Smoltz if he agrees with that assessment. Smoltz replied, "Believe me, talent doesn't always win. But that's not luck. It's a mind-set--a will to win, to walk, to sacrifice, to do all the little things, whatever it takes. The teams that win it all typically do those little things better than anybody else. We went to the playoffs 14 straight seasons, but we won only one World Series. Why? Because we didn't execute the finer things...Our formula over 162 games made us better than anybody else, but the formula for a short series is totally different. I believe the successful formula in the postseason is power pitching and contact hitting. To me, the 1996 Yankees were the ultimate team; they didn't have any statistical category that blew anybody away. They just did the little things together. They were the most disciplined-hitting team I've ever seen. That made it very difficult to beat them."

Smoltz told Olney that if last year's Detroit team played St. Louis 10 times that the Tigers' pitchers would not likely make five errors again. "But pressure in that environment makes you do things you otherwise never would and it's the players who handle that part of it who have the best chance of succeeding. I know a lot of great players who couldn't care less if they ever played in a playoff game, because that's not the environment they want to be in. Over 162 games, they're going to shine because they're more talented but in a short series, where everything is magnified--they don't want to be there. They don't have the makeup." Wouldn't you love to know which specific players Smoltz is talking about--and if any of them play for the Yankees?

Smoltz concluded by telling Olney that he is immune to pressure: "There's a reason I'm 15-4 in the postseason: I want the ball. I want to be in those situations. I fully accept the responsibility. I've lived it and I know that certain players give themselves and their teams a better chance to be successful because they can deflect all that negative energy...I believe that when you get squeezed, what comes out of you is what's inside."

Rocktober is Rapidly Turning Into a Rocky Mountain Low

Boston struck early, Colorado finally showed signs of life late but in the end it all added up to a 10-5 Red Sox victory over the Rockies in game three of the World Series. The Red Sox are now one win away from not only a championship but from their second World Series sweep in three years; Boston Manager Terry Francona is the first skipper in World Series history to win his first seven career games.

After two scoreless innings Boston provided a flashback to game one's power surge: Jacoby Ellsbury led off with a double, Dustin Pedroia safely bunted him over to third and David Ortiz' double knocked in a run. Colorado intentionally walked Manny Ramirez and Mike Lowell made the Rockies pay with a two-run single. After a single and a walk, Boston starter Daisuke Matsuzaka helped his own cause (don't you love that cliche?) with a two-run single, bringing Ellsbury to the plate for the second time in the inning. This time he delivered an RBI double.

Both teams' bats were silent until the sixth inning. Matsuzaka yielded the mound to Javier Lopez after giving up back to back walks but Colorado finally did some damage as Brad Hawpe and Yorvit Torrealba each delivered RBI singles. Mike Timlin then came in for Lopez and got the Red Sox out of the two on, one out jam.

The Red Sox went down quietly in the top of the seventh inning and the Rockies made their first--and perhaps final--bid to turn this into a competitive series as Matt Holliday's three run homer electrified the home fans and cut Boston's lead to 6-5. However, the electricity was cut off, hope died and the series effectively ended after the Red Sox put up three big runs in the top of the eighth, powered by their weapon of choice in games one and three: the double--two of them actually, one by Ellsbury and one by Pedroia. Ellsbury finished with four hits, including three of Boston's seven doubles; he is the first rookie in 61 years to club four hits in a World Series game (Joe Garagiola was the last rookie who did this). Colorado managed just one hit in the eighth inning, Boston tacked on an insurance run in the ninth and the Rockies managed just a Hawpe triple in the bottom of the ninth.

Colorado entered the World Series on one of the greatest season-closing runs in sports history but the Rockies' fairy tale story seems to be nine innings away from a most unhappy ending.

Organization Wins Championships

Former Chicago Bulls General Manager Jerry Krause once famously said "Organizations win championships." That was interpreted as Krause trumpeting his own value while taking a shot at Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and the other players on the team. Obviously, the players are the ones who directly win or lose championships but what Krause was trying to say, in his uniquely hamhanded manner, is that it takes a committed effort from everyone in an organization--from the owner on down to the last player on the bench--in order to attain ultimate success. Another way to put this is to simply say, "Organization wins championships."

Championship teams are highly organized and focused. Everything they do has a purpose. They not only translate that purpose from practice to the arena but they are able to execute with purpose in the most highly pressurized situations; they are oblivious to any form of adversity. The NBA's San Antonio Spurs and the NFL's New England Patriots are quintessential examples of this kind of purpose in action over a sustained period of time. Jim Tressel's Ohio State Buckeyes embody these traits as well.

The top ranked Buckeyes improved to 9-0 with a 37-17 win in Happy Valley over the Penn State Nittany Lions. The Buckeyes have now won 19 straight Big Ten games, tying the conference record set by Michigan from 1990-92; Ohio State's last conference loss was a 17-10 decision at Penn State on October 8, 2005. This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Buckeyes but it could instead turn out to be one of the beat seasons in school history. Yes, some difficult games remain on the schedule--including the always tough annual showdown with Michigan--but Ohio State is looking stronger and stronger as the season goes on, displaying a level of consistency that the other top teams have not been able to match on a week to week basis.

This is Tressel's seventh season at Ohio State and it is really remarkable how completely he has transformed the program. John Cooper, his predecessor, posted a 111-43-4 record in 13 seasons but only four of his teams finished a season ranked in the top ten. Ohio State never won an outright Big Ten title during his tenure (they tied for the conference championship three times). Cooper went just 4-7 in bowl games and he was an abysmal 2-10-1 versus Michigan. Even more galling than the sheer number of defeats versus the dreaded "school up north" was the fact that the Buckeyes clearly had the better team on paper on several occasions, particularly in 1993, 1995 and 1996. Many of Cooper's Buckeyes went on to play in the NFL, so recruiting was not Cooper's problem (one would have to be an idiot to not be able to recruit for Ohio State considering the school's tradition and ample resources). No, Cooper's problem was that his teams were not as organized or disciplined as other top teams. They beat a lot of teams just based on sheer talent but how many times did Cooper's teams ever beat anyone who was even remotely close to the Buckeyes in talent? Cooper was college football's Bob Huggins.

Tressel inherited an 8-4 team from Cooper and coached the Buckeyes to a 7-5 mark in 2001. The next year, Ohio State went 14-0 and won the school's first national championship since 1968. Over the next four seasons, Ohio State won two more Big Ten titles and finished in the top four three times (including a BCS Championship Game loss last year). Including this year's 9-0 start, Tressel is 71-14 at Ohio State; add in his record at Youngstown State--including five Division 1-AA national titles--and Tressel's career mark is 206-71-2. Tressel has coached some talented Buckeye teams but it could be argued that none of them has been as star studded as some of Cooper's squads in the 1990s. The difference is that Tressel's teams are more organized and disciplined than Cooper's were.

This has been a wild college football season and there probably will be a few more twists, turns and upsets before it is over. I don't know who is going to win the national championship--but I would not bet against Ohio State as long as Tressel is on the sidelines.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Schilling, Bullpen Stifle Rockies in Game Two

After bludgeoning their way to a game one victory by pounding out 17 hits and scoring 13 runs, the Boston Red Sox relied on great pitching to beat the Colorado Rockies 2-1 and take a 2-0 lead in the World Series. Boston starter Curt Schilling added to his postseason resume by giving up only one run in 5.1 innings before handing the ball over to relievers Hideki Okajima and Jonathan Papelbon, who combined to strike out six while allowing only one hit in the final 3.2 innings. Okajima earned a hold and Papelbon picked up the save.

Colorado struck quickly in the first inning. Willy Taveras was hit by a pitch, advanced to third after Matt Holliday's infield single and then scored when Todd Helton grounded to first. The Rockies only had two base runners total in the next three innings. Meanwhile, Mike Lowell walked in the bottom of the fourth and eventually scored the tying run after a J.D. Drew single and a Jason Varitek sacrifice fly. Schilling walked leadoff hitter Troy Tulowitzki in the fifth inning but then retired the next three Colorado hitters. Boston manufactured the eventual winning run in the bottom of the fifth when David Ortiz walked, Manny Ramirez singled to advance him to second and Lowell's double brought Ortiz home. This was hardly the bombardment of extra base hits that Boston unleashed in game one but it was just enough to get the victory. Schilling retired Kazuo Matsui to start the sixth inning but, after he gave up a single to Holliday and walked Helton, Boston Manager Terry Francona brought in Okajima, who promptly retired the next two batters. Colorado's last chance came in the eighth inning when Holliday's single brought the go ahead run to the plate with two outs--but Holliday fell asleep at the switch and got picked off. Papelbon retired the side easily in the ninth inning. The next two games will be in Colorado on Saturday and Sunday; a third game will be played in Colorado on Monday if the Rockies get at least a split over the weekend.

ESPN's Jayson Stark points out that in many ways the 41 year old Schilling is the main story of the night. Schilling no longer throws heat the way that he did in his younger days but, as Lowell explains, Schilling "comes as close to executing a game plan as anybody I've seen...There's just a good flow to the game, because you know that whatever he wants to do on the mound, he's able to do it." Stark--with an assist from the Elias Sports Bureau--mentions that Schilling's game two performance is one for the record books: Schilling is now the only pitcher who has won a World Series game in his 20s, 30s and 40s, he is just the second pitcher to win a World Series game in his 40s and the span between his first World Series win and this one--14 years--is the second largest ever (Jim Palmer's first and last World Series wins were 17 years apart). Schilling's career postseason record now stands at 11-2 in 19 starts, including a 4-1 mark in seven World Series appearances. Stark contrasts Schilling's workmanlike 82 pitch performance in game two with his 147 pitch complete game shutout win versus the Toronto Blue Jays in game five of the 1993 World Series and says that Schilling's effort on Thursday is actually more impressive; back then, Schilling could just reach back and blow guys away with an overpowering fastball but now he has to rely on "guts" and "grit," as Schilling's 41 year old teammate Mike Timlin--who was a pitcher for the 1993 Blue Jays--puts it.

Colorado obviously faces a very daunting task now. Teams with 2-0 leads have gone on to win the World Series 39 out of 50 times (78%). Even if the Rockies win the next two games they will have to find a way to conquer Josh Beckett in game five and then win one of the last two games in Boston. Colorado's run of 21 wins in 22 games--including a 7-0 start in the postseason--seems like a distant memory now.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Boston Bashes Colorado 13-1 in Most Lopsided World Series Opener Ever

Wait--I think that the Red Sox just scored again. Yes, game one of the World Series was pretty low on suspense as Boston took a 3-0 first inning lead over Colorado and rolled to a record-setting 13-1 victory. That is the biggest margin ever for a game one World Series victory but take heart, Rockies fans: the two previous teams that won openers by 11 runs, the 1959 White Sox and the 1996 Braves, went on to lose the World Series. Also, to paraphrase what Danny Ainge once said after a blowout loss in the NBA Finals, Colorado will not be starting out game two down by 12--and unlike basketball, in which a team or player can exploit the exact same mismatch each time down the court (or take advantage of another opening if the opponent uses a double team), game two will feature completely different matchups. As the cliche goes, momentum in baseball is next day's starting pitcher.

Still, no matter how you look at it, Boston's performance in game one was most impressive. Starting pitcher Josh Beckett struck out the first four batters he faced, something no pitcher has done in World Series play since Sandy Koufax struck out the first five Yankees he saw in a 1963 World Series game. Beckett has emerged as the Sandy Koufax or Bob Gibson of this era and after this game his career postseason ERA is 1.73, the third lowest in MLB history (with a minimum of 70 innings pitched). Boston was just as impressive offensively, pounding out 17 hits, including eight doubles, the most in a World Series game since 1925. Every Red Sox starter got at least one hit and eight different players had at least one RBI. David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez continued their torrid postseasons; Ortiz went 3-5 with two runs scored and two RBI, while Ramirez went 3-4 with three runs scored and two RBI.

Dustin Pedroia hit a leadoff home run on the second pitch that he saw to get things started for Boston. Colorado answered Boston's three run first inning with one run in the second inning but then the Rockies' bats pretty much went silent for the rest of the night as Colorado managed just six hits. Beckett struck out nine while allowing just one walk in seven innings and relievers Mike Timlin and Eric Gagne contributed three more strikeouts in two innings to close the game. Colorado starter Jeff Francis allowed six runs in four innings (13.5 ERA) but Franklin Morales really got hammered, giving up seven runs in two thirds of an inning, which adds up to an ERA that looks like a good NFL passer rating (94.5). He also committed the first balk in World Series play in 11 years.

Colorado had won 21 of 22 games prior to this, including a 7-0 record in the National League playoffs. It will be up to rookie pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez to outduel veteran Curt Schilling in game two on Thursday night if the Rockies are to avoid facing an 0-2 deficit. Jimenez was just 4-4 in the regular season but he only gave up two runs in 11.1 innings in two postseason starts, both of which Colorado won. Schilling went 9-8 this season but he is 10-2 in his postseason career, including a 2-0 record in three starts this year.

Don't be surprised at all if Colorado wins game two. The main difference between these teams appears to be Beckett--and the Rockies won't see him again for several more games.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Two Minute Drill: Four NFL Teams Are Still Chasing Perfection But Only Two Are Happy About It

The Indianapolis Colts improved to 6-0 with a convincing 29-7 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars on Monday night, setting up the next "game of the year"--a showdown with the 7-0 New England Patriots two weeks from now. It should be noted that the Colts and Patriots both face good teams next week--the 4-2 Carolina Panthers and the 4-2 Washington Redskins respectively. It was funny to watch ESPN's postgame show and hear Steve Young refuse to hype up the Patriots-Colts contest, despite the best efforts of Stuart Scott. Young's take is that the only significance of that game is that it may decide homefield advantage for what he considers to be an inevitable rematch between the teams in the AFC Championship Game--the real game of the year in Young's opinion, because he expects the winner to become the Super Bowl champion. Young steadfastly maintains that both teams are too experienced to let one regular season game define their season, hearkening back to when his 49ers used to play against Emmitt Smith's Cowboys. Smith countered with an interesting point, saying that even if the losing team is not devastated the winning team will have even more confidence going into an eventual playoff matchup. He added that in the years that the Cowboys beat the 49ers in the regular season they also beat them in the playoffs. Young did not back down, maintaining that the regular season game will be fun to watch but the only real game of the year will be the AFC Championship Game.

Meanwhile, two other teams are pursuing a different, much less desirable form of perfection: the 0-7 Miami Dolphins and the 0-7 St. Louis Rams. The Rams have games left against 1-6 Atlanta, 2-4 New Orleans, 2-4 San Francisco and 3-4 Arizona, so it is extremely unlikely that they will go 0-16; of course, the way these things go sometimes is that a doormat team jumps up and bites a much superior team, so even Pittsburgh and Green Bay should be wary, particularly if the Rams are still winless when they play them. The Dolphins have two games left against 2-4 Buffalo and a home game against the 1-6 New York Jets, so it is also unlikely that they will go 0-16. Offhand, I cannot recall a recent season which had two undefeated teams and two winless teams after seven games (I'm waiting for the Elias Sports Bureau to make an announcement at some point about this).

Here are some quick thoughts about other NFL subjects as week seven draws to a close:

1) Tom Jackson's popular "Jacked Up" segment has been eliminated without fanfare from ESPN's Monday Night Countdown. "Jacked Up" was energetic and entertaining and Jackson always emphasized that he never included players who were seriously injured or plays in which a penalty was called--but showing clips of players being knocked senseless simply does not fit in well with the NFL's recent efforts to deal with the long term effects of concussions and spinal injuries, so ESPN made the right call here.

2) Keyshawn Johnson's ESPN interview with Cincinnati's Chad Johnson made for very interesting viewing. It was surreal to see the guy who once said "Just Give Me the Damn Ball!" attempting to be a voice of reason. The sad thing is that, as Keyshawn said afterwards, Chad simply does not get it. Yeah, Chad has put up some numbers in recent years but his team has not accomplished anything and his relentless self-promotion has become a major distraction. Chad's friends in the media tried for a while to act like he was cute but Terrell Owens and Randy Moss were bad guys but that nonsense simply could only be spouted for so long. Owens played a major role on a Super Bowl team and has had several signature playoff games (Green Bay, New York Giants and the Super Bowl versus the Patriots). Moss has also played on very successful teams and had big playoff performances. All Johnson has done is rack up a lot of regular season yardage. Meanwhile, the word out of Cincinnati is that the Bengals believe that they cannot even try to rein in Johnson's act because they fear that his response would be to completely shut himself down. In general, I prefer the Jim Brown/Jerry Rice/Barry Sanders school of act like you've been in the endzone before but what I've never understood is people who blast Owens or Moss but praise Chad Johnson (yes, I mean you, Tony Kornheiser and Mike Wilbon--but you are not the only guys by far). I don't find any of those guys' dances/acts more or less entertaining than the others'. My criticism of Moss, prior to this season, is that he left the field once before a game was over and that he said that nobody else on his team cared about how badly the team was playing so why should he. Moss did not seem to have the same work ethic or focus that Owens does. What we are finding out this year is that when Moss has the right support system around him he can still be a very, very good player; Owens has always been a productive player, even in the midst of various controversies.

3) Here is the stat of the week, courtesy of ESPN's Monday Night Football telecast: 47 players have rushed for at least 7000 yards in the NFL but Jacksonville running back Fred Taylor is the only one who has never been selected to the Pro Bowl. Taylor is closing in on 10,000 career yards and will rank among the top 20 rushers in NFL history before the end of this season.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Tom Brady Is Rewriting the NFL Record Book

It used to be fashionable to wonder what would happen if Peyton Manning and Tom Brady traded places. In other words, if Manning had always played with a defense like New England's would he have won three Super Bowls, as Brady did? If Brady had been blessed with Manning's offensive weapons then what kind of numbers would he put up? We no longer have to speculate about these things--the Colts' defense stepped up in last year's playoffs, helping Manning to capture his first Super Bowl title, and in this offseason the Patriots completely rebuilt their receiving corps. After years of making do with good but not great receivers, Brady now has Randy Moss, Donte Stallworth and Wes Welker. The result of this embarrassment of riches is that Brady is well on his way to setting new standards for NFL quarterbacking.

The Patriots 7-0 and possibly headed toward a perfect season after their 49-28 win over Miami. Last week Brady tossed a career-high five touchdowns as the Patriots routed the previously unbeaten Cowboys but he topped that by throwing five TDs in the first half against Miami as New England rolled to a 42-7 halftime lead. Brady started the game 11-11 for 220 yards and four touchdowns. He seemingly left the game for good in the third quarter but after Jason Taylor intercepted a Matt Cassel pass and ran it back 36 yards for a touchdown to make the score 42-21, Coach Bill Belichick put Brady back in to restore order. Brady promptly drove New England 59 yards in 2:19, capping matters with a 16 yard touchdown pass to Welker. Brady finished with these unreal numbers: 21-25, 354 yards, six touchdowns, no interceptions, 158.3 passer rating. The latter number is the highest possible score in the NFL's passer rating system. Brady's rating through seven games is 137.9 and he has posted a rating of at least 100 in each game. His 27 touchdowns are six more than anyone has previously had at this point in a season and he is on pace to finish with 62, 13 more than Manning's record. To put this in perspective, Brady is a three-time Pro Bowler whose career-high in touchdowns is 28. Not surprisingly, the Patriots are on track to break the NFL single season records for points scored (556 by the 1998 Vikings; New England is on pace to score 638) and touchdowns (70 by the 1984 Dolphins; New England is on pace to score 82 touchdowns).

Is Brady the greatest quarterback ever? That sounds like a sacrilegious question but Brady only needs one Super Bowl ring to match Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana (four each). What are we supposed to think if Brady wins his fourth Super Bowl after shattering the single season statistical standards set by the likes of Manning and Dan Marino? Yes, there is still a long way to go--including a showdown in just two weeks between Brady's Patriots and Manning's Colts--but it is not too soon to at least consider the possibility that Brady is about to significantly upgrade his already prominent place in football history.

Other than injury, the only things that may stop Brady are weather or the Patriots clinching everything in sight with several weeks to go. As Bob Costas pointed out during NBC's Sunday night game, several of New England's late season games will be played outdoors in cold weather cities, so Mother Nature may at least slow Brady down. It is also possible that Brady's playing time may be limited once the Patriots clinch having the best record in the AFC.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The End of the Joe Torre Era in New York

Technically, the New York Yankees did not fire Manager Joe Torre but they certainly made him an offer that he could refuse: a one year contract with a 33% reduction in base salary. Is that really a fair deal for someone who led New York to 12 straight postseason appearances and four World Series titles? I realize that most people cannot identify with someone who balks at being paid $5 million per year and who could earn $3 million more in bonuses by leading the Yankees to another World Series crown--but the market value for managers has already been determined, so it is a slap in the face to Torre to slash his salary, offer him only one year--effectively making him a lame duck--and act as if he needs additional financial motivation to be at his best during the postseason. Based on his comments during a press conference, the latter stipulation really stuck in Torre's craw. He also clearly believes that his early fantastic success in New York led to him being held to an impossibly high standard: "When you win four World Series in five years and appear in five in six years, are we all spoiled? Yeah, probably. But just because you spend the most money, you just don't phone it in."

Money is the central issue here--not just the money offered to Torre but also the huge Yankees payroll of $207 million that makes owner George Steinbrenner believe that a World Series title is his annual birthright. As the Yankees have found it in recent seasons, though, spending a ton of money is not enough; the money has to be spent properly. Unless we are to believe that some time in the past several years Torre forgot how to manage (or lost his motivation) the blame for the Yankees not winning the World Series should be focused on the players and/or the management team that signed them. Torre has proven that when he has the horses he delivers the goods. It will be very interesting to see how many years--or decades--it takes for the Yankees to win their next four World Series titles, let alone claim that many in a 12 year period.

There is one more unanswered question left about the Torre situation: What did Torre ever do to cause USA Today founder Al Neuharth to despise him? For years Neuharth has made a point of regularly writing that Torre is overrated and should be fired. Naturally, he is elated that Torre is no longer managing the Yankees: "Any one of a dozen or more tried--or untried--managers could do a better job than Torre did. The Yankees have so much talent that even the batboy probably could manage them successfully through the regular season." That surely must be one of the stupidest things ever written about sports. Cool headed leadership is a critical ingredient in any successful venture and to suggest that anyone could compile a record as glittering as Torre's is an insult not just to Torre but to anyone who truly understands what it takes to be a great leader.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Two Minute Drill: First Impressions Aren't Everything

First impressions are important but sometimes they can be misleading. Consider the New York Giants. They lost their first two games by a combined score of 80-48 and seemed to be headed for a disastrous season--but since then they have reeled off four straight wins, including Monday night's 31-10 rout of the hapless Atlanta Falcons. Also, New York's two losses do not look quite so bad now considering that they came at the hands of Dallas and Green Bay, each of whom is currently 5-1. Here are some brief thoughts about several other NFL teams after week six.

1) The Michael Vick-less experience in Atlanta is less than thrilling. Leaving aside Vick's legal problems for a moment, from a purely football perspective his absence has been disastrous for the Atlanta Falcons. Any idea that the Falcons would not miss him that much because they were only 7-9 with him last year looks patently absurd now; Atlanta fell to 1-5 after losing to the Giants. As Micheal Ray Richardson once famously said of his New York Knicks, "The ship be sinking" (Richardson's reply to the question of how far it could sink was even more priceless; "The sky's the limit"). People seem to have forgotten that Vick led the Falcons to a road win at Lambeau Field in the 2002 playoffs and then carried Atlanta to the 2004 NFC Championship Game; in 2003, an injured Vick only appeared in five games and the Falcons dropped to 5-11, so what is happening now really should not surprise anyone. Vick's deficiencies as a pure pocket passer are well documented but his impact as a runner and playmaker is undeniable. This is a case where Atlanta's record very much speaks for itself. Getting back to Vick's legal issues, Atlanta's tumble in the standings not only proves Vick's value but reinforces the correctness of the arbitrator's ruling that he must pay back signing bonuses that he received from the team; that money was paid for services that he was expected to render in upcoming seasons and since he will not be around to do so he absolutely has no right to keep that money.

2) The Cleveland Browns improved to 3-3 by beating the winless Miami Dolphins, 41-31. This is the latest point in a season that the Browns have had at least a .500 record in quite some time; as I previously noted, the last time the Browns even made it to 2-2 was 2005, Romeo Crennel's first season as head coach. The Browns went 4-8 the rest of the way. After the Browns got embarrassed by Pittsburgh in week one I thought that they were heading for another 4-12 season but the Browns have finally started to demonstrate some signs of legitimate progress--mainly at the offensive end, where the team has several playmakers. Derek Anderson looks the part of a prototypical quarterback--big, strong armed, confident--and his performances are starting to catch up with his appearance. He ranks third in the league with 14 touchdown passes, trailing only Tom Brady and Tony Romo. The Browns have averaged 32 ppg in his five starts, winning three of them. The last time the Browns averaged that many points in a five game span was weeks 8-12 of the 1968 season.

4) In my 2007 NFL Preview, I listed several reasons why NFL teams are more likely to go from worst to first (or vice versa) in one season than teams in other sports. This season, several teams seem poised to undergo tremendous changes in fortune. Three of the NFC's four division champions in 2006 are currently in last place (technically, the Saints are a half game ahead of the Falcons at 1-4). The Chicago Bears had the best record in the NFC in 2006 and made it all the way to the Super Bowl. This year, not so much: at 2-4, these Bears are dangerous only to themselves. New Orleans went 10-6 last year, winning the NFC South and making it all the way to the NFC Championship Game. This year, the Saints are 1-4 and all but out of playoff contention. The injury to Deuce McCallister obviously has had an impact but their problems go deeper than just that. The Philadelphia Eagles went 10-6 last year but are 2-3 in 2007. Meanwhile, Green Bay (from 8-8 to 5-1) and Tampa Bay (from 4-12 to 4-2) appear to be much improved and are currently leading their respective divisions. The changes in the AFC are much less dramatic. The Patriots and Colts are still on top in their divisions. Pittsburgh is in the process of bouncing back from a rare non-playoff season but Baltimore is right in the hunt to repeat as the AFC North champion. San Diego got off to a horrible start but is now 3-3, which is good enough to tie for first place in the AFC West. The New York Jets have dropped from a solid 10-6 record and a Wild Card berth last year to 1-5 this year. The Cincinnati Bengals were only 8-8 in 2006 but many people--including me--expected a better result from them in 2007; instead, they are 1-4 and going nowhere fast. As I mentioned above, the Cleveland Browns--about whom I have been more than a little skeptical--are showing some signs that they may actually be a surprise team in the AFC this year and perhaps meet the Bill Walsh "deadline" that I have referenced here on several occasions: Walsh maintained that, done right, it should only take three years to turn around even the worst NFL team. The Browns are in year three of the Romeo Crennel era and perhaps progress has finally shown up just in the nick of time. The defense has still not improved and it remains to be seen if the Browns can beat good teams but no one expected them to be 3-3--not even people in the organization. Until fairly recently, the Miami game was spoken of as an opportunity to make rookie Brady Quinn the starting quarterback. As the Browns head into their bye week, any talk of Quinn replacing Anderson has been completely silenced.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Patriots Rout Cowboys 48-27 in "Duel in Dallas"

One game of the year down, at least one more to go. The New England Patriots improved to 6-0 by defeating the previously unbeaten Dallas Cowboys, 48-27. New England and Indianapolis (5-0) are the only remaining undefeated teams in the NFL; each team needs to win two more games to set up the next game of the year on November 4--a rematch of last year's AFC Championship Game between New England and Indianapolis. There could be three more games of the year this season: the November 4th game, a seemingly inevitable New England-Indianapolis showdown in the AFC Championship and a possible New England-Dallas rematch in the Super Bowl.

The final margin was much larger than than the 31-21 New England win that I expected but most of my other predictions about this game were pretty solid: New England held Tony Romo's favorite target, Jason Witten, to three receptions and kept him out of the end zone; Romo played much better than he did last Monday but was not able to sustain enough drives to keep pace with New England's revamped offense; the game was indeed close at halftime and New England did pull away primarily by using the passing game; Owens bounced back to lead Dallas in receptions (six) and he scored one touchdown.

New England jumped out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter but Dallas stayed calm and battled back to cut the margin to 21-17 by halftime. The Cowboys forced the Patriots to go three and out on the opening series of the second half and then capped off a seven play, 74 yard drive with an eight yard Romo touchdown pass to Patrick Crayton. This was the first time that the Patriots trailed in the second half this season. Amazingly, the Cowboys did not get another first down the rest of the game and were outscored 27-3 (the field goal was set up by a long kickoff return).

Tom Brady has been an outstanding quarterback throughout his career but he has never had a receiving corps like the one he has now with Randy Moss, Donte Stallworth and Wes Welker, who are complemented by tight end Ben Watson and third down back Kevin Faulk. Last year, the Colts improved their defense and Peyton Manning went from being a record-setting quarterback to a championship-winning quarterback; Brady has already won three championships but this year he may experience the best of both worlds by shattering some of Manning's records and winning a championship. The November 4th game will be a very interesting measuring stick but based on what we saw last year I expect the Patriots to win; New England had a big lead in the AFC Championship Game but the offense stopped scoring in the second half and the defense ran out of gas, neither of which is likely to happen this time around. If Brady had had just one more solid receiver last year the Patriots probably would have held on and won. This year it looks like the Patriots' offense is playing flag football or those seven on seven drills when the quarterback is not hit. An injury to Brady is probably the only thing that could derail the Patriots, because in previous seasons Coach Belichick has shown that even when seemingly essential players at other positions go down he can find adequate replacements.

Marion Jones Returns Her Ill Gotten Gains

Marion Jones has returned all five Olympic medals that she won by cheating and has accepted a two-year ban from competition. All of her results since September 1, 2000 have been forfeited. It is not yet certain what will happen to the prize money and bonuses that she received since that time. Jones' cheating tarnished not only her legacy but also that of her teammates on Olympic relay teams, who are being asked to return their medals also. U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Jim Scherr said, "We of course do not think the relay medals were won fairly. We would impress upon those athletes to return their medals to the IOC if that is within their conscience to do." In a previous cheating instance, also involving the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the USOC urged that only sprinter Jerome Young be stripped of his medal because he only competed in the prelims. Jones ran in the Olympic finals, so therefore the medal round results are tainted.

In a sad commentary about just how rife with cheating Olympic sports are, Katerini Thanou, the Greek sprinter who won the silver medal in the 100 meters in the 2000 Olympics and would presumably be awarded Jones' gold medal, must first resolve a doping case of her own that dates back to 2004. Also, two of Jones' teammates on the bronze medal winning 4x100 team in Sydney--Torri Edwards and Chryste Gaines--have served doping bans since the 2000 Olympics; obviously, those two are the last people who should complain about giving up medals.

After pleading guilty to two counts of lying to federal investigators, Jones tried to curry favor in the court of public opinion, tearfully saying, "Making these false statements to federal agents was an incredibly stupid thing for me to do, and I am responsible fully for my actions. I have no one to blame but myself for what I have done. It is with a great amount of shame that I stand before you and tell you that I have betrayed your trust. I have been dishonest, and you have the right to be angry with me. I have let [my family] down. I have let my country down, and I have let myself down. I recognize that by saying I'm deeply sorry, it might not be enough and sufficient to address the pain and hurt that I've caused you. Therefore, I want to ask for your forgiveness for my actions, and I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me."

She deserves credit for admitting without qualification to being "stupid" and "dishonest," which is much better than the typical public apology to "anyone who I may have offended." Yet, though her tears may distract some people, if you listen closely her words still don't ring true. In her court testimony she maintains that when was taking steroids she thought that she was taking flaxseed oil--yet she admits that after she stopped taking the substance she realized that it had enhanced her body and improved her performance. Are we really supposed to believe that she did not notice these changes until after she stopped taking the substances? It makes no sense for Jones to say that she took steroids for years but only realized what they actually were after she stopped taking them. She competed in a sport in which tenths of a second are huge and the smallest edge can mean the difference between winning a gold medal and finishing fourth, yet she had no idea that her performances were being artificially enhanced? Jones has already proven that she has no compunction about brazenly lying, so there is no reason to believe those portions of her apology that ring hollow; in other words, there is no reason to believe that she feels remorse for anything other than the fact that she got caught.

Friday, October 12, 2007

What to Watch for When New England Plays Dallas

The showdown this Sunday between the 5-0 New England Patriots and the 5-0 Dallas Cowboys has an excellent chance of living up to all of the pre-game hype. These are the two teams that I picked to go to the Super Bowl, a prediction that is looking better with each passing week (with the exception of some shaky moments in Dallas' win over Buffalo but even the greatest teams have one bad game in a season). Here are some things to watch for during this game:

1) New England has been especially dominant in the first quarter this year, while Dallas is coming off of its worst game of the season. Nevertheless, look for the Cowboys to start quickly at home, possibly even scoring a touchdown on their first offensive series.

2) Jason Witten has been Tony Romo's favorite target this year. Look for Bill Belichick's defense to force Romo to go elsewhere with the ball. As Bill Parcells mentioned on ESPN, Belichick specializes in identifying what a team wants to do and then taking that away.

3) Romo's turnover-fest last week was an aberration and he will not cough up the ball six times this week. However, Belichick will look at film of that game, find out what coverages Romo was having trouble reading and give him a steady dose of them. Romo will exercise better judgment in terms of ball security but that does not mean that he will read those coverages well enough to sustain drives.

4) Dallas' passing defense ranked 24th in the NFL in 2006 but has improved to 12th this season--but Tom Brady is on course to rewrite many single-season passing records now that his entire receiving corps has been dramatically upgraded. The game may still be close by halftime but at some point New England will gain some separation by picking up big chunks of yardage by passing.

5) Terrell Owens will bounce back from his subpar game last week to put up good numbers this week, including at least one touchdown.

6) New England will win, 31-21.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Should the Yankees Fire Joe Torre?

It is widely assumed that George Steinbrenner and the New York Yankees are going to fire Manager Joe Torre, whose postgame visage after the Cleveland Indians eliminated the Yankees 3-1 in the ALDS veritably screamed "dead man walking." Is this the right move for the Yankees to make?

In order to answer that question, one must first evaluate two aspects of Torre's performance as manager of the Yankees: (1) Have the Yankees reached their maximum potential during his tenure? (2) Is it realistic to believe that there is someone else who could accomplish more with the current roster? The answer to the first question is very clear: the Yankees have been by far the best MLB team during Torre's time at the helm. The Yankees have posted an 1173-767 regular season record during Torre's 12 years in New York. That works out to a .605 winning percentage, which is an average record of roughly 98-64 each year. He has led the Yankees to the playoffs every year, capturing 10 division titles and two Wild Card berths. The Yankees won four World Series championships in his first five seasons with the team (1996, 1998-2000) and made it to the World Series two other times (2001, 2003). Torre has led the Yankees to at least 100 wins four times and they had fewer than 90 wins only once--in 2000, when they won their last World Series. His overall postseason record is 76-47 (.618). Torre won the AL Manager of the Year Award in 1996 and 1998. No other manager or team has even come close to matching the sustained success that Torre and the Yankees have had during this time. Only the Florida Marlins have won even two World Series and they did it with different managers each time (Jim Leyland in 1997, Jack McKeon in 2003). Torre's six World Series appearances dwarf the totals posted by his nearest rivals in the past 12 years: Leyland has been to two World Series (one victory), Tony LaRussa has been to two World Series (one victory) and Bobby Cox has been to two World Series (no victories). Yes, that's right--Torre has as many World Series appearances and more World Series wins since 1996 than the next three managers combined. I suppose that it is possible that someone else could have achieved even more in New York during this period but I seriously doubt it.

The only negative on Torre's resume, if it can be called that, is that the Yankees have not been to the World Series since 2003 and have not won a World Series since 2000. Considering the team's bloated and star-studded payroll, this is viewed as a failure in some quarters--but the reality is that just because someone is a highly paid player that does not mean that he will be a productive player. This year's Yankees had a middle of the road pitching staff that ranked seventh out of 14 AL teams in ERA. The Indians team that beat them in the ALDS had a better record and a more consistent pitching staff that ranked third in the league in ERA. In 2006, Torre led the Yankees to the best record in the AL despite a similarly mediocre pitching staff that ranked sixth in the AL in ERA. They lost in the ALDS to the pitching-rich Detroit Tigers, who ranked first in the AL in ERA and eventually made it to the World Series. If anything, the numbers suggest that Torre--and a lot of good hitting--carried the Yankees to better regular season records than they otherwise might have had recently. Perhaps some of the pitchers--or the executives who spent exorbitantly to acquire them--should be updating their resumes instead of Torre.

The second question could be called the Marty Schottenheimer question; Schottenheimer led the San Diego Chargers to a 14-2 record in 2006 but was fired after his team lost in the playoffs to the New England Patriots, the closest thing that the NFL has had to a dynasty in recent years. Schottenheimer has been criticized for not winning "the big one," which is similar to the knock against Torre in recent years--but both Torre and Schottenheimer have consistently put their teams in position to win "the big one." Meanwhile, Schottenheimer's replacement, Norv Turner, has already led the Chargers to more losses in a month than they had all of last year and it is not at all certain that the Chargers will even make the playoffs, let alone win a title. To win a championship a team must first make it to the playoffs. One constant of the Joe Torre era is that the Yankees participate in postseason play every year. It is reasonable to wonder if the Yankees will take a Norv Turner-like step back if they fire Torre.

Perhaps the Yankees need a new voice in the clubhouse. Perhaps Torre will tell Steinbrenner to take the job and shove it before the ax falls on him--well, that probably won't happen because Torre is too classy and loves managing the Yankees too much to do that. If Torre is still willing to put up with Steinbrenner's blustering and the overbearing scrutiny of the New York media then the Yankees would be well advised to keep him and instead spend their time and money upgrading their pitching staff. We have already seen on several occasions that Torre can deliver championship goods when he has a championship roster, so instead of getting rid of him it makes more sense to supply him a complete roster with which to work.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Patriots Pursue Perfection; Browns Can't Win Two in a Row

On the "X-Files," Fox Mulder's credo was "I want to believe." Cleveland Browns fans completely understand the mixture of hope and desperation that animates those four words. This season, the Browns have alternated wins and losses each week. Granted, that is an improvement over the steady diet of losses that the team has been shoving down its fans' throats for years but it is amazing that the team has not managed to win even two games in a row in more than three seasons. Since Cleveland beat Baltimore last week that meant that the Browns were "due" to lose this week--and having to travel to New England to face the powerful Patriots all but guaranteed another Browns defeat. Sure enough, the Patriots cruised to a 20-0 first half lead en route to a 34-17 victory. The Browns twice got within 10 points in the second half, trailing 20-10 and then 27-17, and even became the first team this season to hold the Patriots scoreless for an entire quarter (the third quarter) but no matter how you spin it, look at it or add it up it still amounts to nothing more than another entry in the right hand column of the standings, making the Browns 2-3 for the season.

In light of the Browns' wins over division rivals Baltimore and Cincinnati, it has become a popular notion in some quarters to suggest that the Browns have turned the corner and are on the road to respectability. CBS' Dan Dierdorf noted during the Patriots-Browns telecast that the Browns were one last second field goal away from being 3-1 coming into the Patriots game and several other announcers on various networks alluded to the Browns being a pleasant surprise this year. I'm more inclined to agree with Bill Parcells' simple dictum: you are what your record says you are. The record says that the Browns are a sub.-500 team, which is quite familiar territory since the team's rebirth in 1999. There is no doubt that General Manager Phil Savage has done a good job of upgrading the team's talent level, adding productive players such as Braylon Edwards, Kamerion Wimbley, Jamal Lewis and this year's first round pick, Joe Thomas. Brady Quinn may very well be a franchise quarterback in the making. Still, it does not matter if you have all the talent in the world if that talent does not produce victories. I have mentioned several times that Hall of Famer Bill Walsh said that it should only take three years to turn a team into a contender, so rather than praising the Browns for showing some signs of life in the third year of the Savage/Romeo Crennel era the standard should be set a little higher; the Browns should be expected to be a better than .500 team this year. Yes, the Patriots may go 16-0 and they may win the Super Bowl; that makes it easy to settle for so-called "moral victories" like holding New England scoreless for one quarter or keeping the game closer than New England's previous opponents did--but only losers allow themselves to think that way for even one second. If you doubt that, consider some of the comments New England Coach Bill Belichick made after this game. Remember, his team won the game.

"It's good to win. It's always good to win and be 5-0. I don't think that was either team's best game out there today, but in the end we were able to make a few more plays. We'll take it and move on to Dallas. It was a physical game. There was a lot of hard hitting out there. I just don't think on our end it was executed the way we are capable of. But, as I said, in the end we made enough plays, and that was good, but we left some out there too. I think we just have to do a better job all the way around in all three areas of the game, and the coaching, and I think we can play better than that."

In response to a question about how his team's preparation changed because New England had a short week (after winning last Monday night), Belichick replied, "I just think we have to do a better job. I think we can play better than we played. We just didn't play as well as I think we're capable of playing in any phase of the game. We have to do a better job of coaching. When the players don't play well, then that's a reflection of the coaching. I think we just have to do a better job all the way around--long week, short week or any other week."

Look at Belichick's message to his team: we won, but the performance was not acceptable; we can play better and having a short week to prepare is no excuse for the mistakes that we made. Notice that he ultimately held himself accountable for his team's shortcomings. These words came from a coach of a 5-0 team that just won by 17 points, becoming just the fourth team in league history to open a season with five straight wins by at least 17 points. That is the mental approach of a champion; champions relentlessly pursue perfection and they measure themselves not by how well their opposition plays but by how closely they came to achieving their own maximum potential. Belichick knows that his team can play better than it did, so winning by 17 points is pleasant but not entirely satisfactory. If anyone in the Cleveland organization is patting himself on the back for giving the Patriots a good game--which is not even really a true statement anyway--then the Browns will never reach a championship level.

In a post titled "The Difference Between Winners and Champions", I mentioned that great champions like Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Roger Federer and Garry Kasparov share the same mindset despite competing in vastly different endeavors. I have also noticed that great champions observe and learn from the techniques and approaches that other great champions use, so it does not surprise me that Belichick is an admirer of Tiger Woods: "I've not met Tiger, but I use him as an example to our team, saying that if the greatest pro athlete of our time works as hard and is as committed to being as good as he is, we can, too," Belichick recently told Golf Digest.

Friday, October 5, 2007

In the Steroids Era, Can Any Sports Record be Trusted?

Barry Bonds' name has become synonymous with steroids because a mountain of evidence indicates that he used performance enhancing drugs to boost his productivity en route to breaking the most hallowed record in sports. Bonds has never tested positive, so some people cling to that thin reed to proclaim his innocence (never mind that users can cycle their dosages or use masking agents to easily foil the tests). Olympic star Marion Jones also has never tested positive and has vehemently denied using steroids--and many people defended her. Now it seems that those people were fools, because the Washington Post reports that Jones now admits that she used steroids and lied to cover this up. Jones will plead guilty in federal court to two felony counts for lying about the steroid use and what the Washington Post calls "an unrelated financial matter."

The Jones case is troubling on many levels. Her admitted steroids usage predated the five medals--including three golds--that she won in the 2000 Olympics; needless to say, all of those performances are now forever tarnished. She should be stripped of those medals and everyone who finished behind her should be moved up one spot, with the appropriate medals awarded as necessary. Jones still claims that she did not knowingly take steroids--the same stance that Bonds allegedly took when he testified to a federal grand jury--but she now admits that she eventually realized that she had in fact taken steroids and then lied about this to federal authorities. If Jones could take steroids, win medals, pass drug tests and all the while maintain a defiant public stance that she never used performance enhancing drugs then what should we believe about Bonds, Lance Armstrong and countless other elite athletes who have set records and/or won championships while under a cloud of suspicion? It is becoming very obvious that the drug tests only catch people who are stupid or reckless, so Bonds and Armstrong can trumpet their "clean" tests all they want; in the end, all that probably means is that Bonds and Armstrong have not been as stupid or reckless as some of their fellow competitors.

Nearly 20 years ago, Carl Lewis sounded the alarm about drug use in track and field but he was branded a whiner and a sore loser. Then Ben Johnson blew by him in the 1988 Olympics as if his legs were powered by jet fuel--and, in a way, they were. Johnson apparently fell into the stupid and/or reckless category, as he flunked a drug test, was stripped of his gold medal and his name became synonymous with cheating. It seems like our standards have gone down since then and our tolerance for wrongdoing has increased. Every day we hear about more athletes who have flunked drug tests or whose names have come up during federal investigations yet the overall response seems to be a collective shrug as opposed to communal outrage. Steroids and performance enhancing drugs are illegal if they are used without a doctor's prescription; they also can lead to very bad side effects, so even if you don't care what happens to the elite athletes who use them this is still important because kids and teenagers look up to these athletes and are in turn deciding to use PEDs. Perhaps only economists are able to convince themselves that PEDs don't in fact enhance performance but it is worth noting that PEDs most certainly do; that is why so many athletes take them. If athletes really believe that these substances should be legitimate, then they should petition to have the laws changed; then all competitors would be on a level playing field. Of course, a level playing field is the last thing that cheaters want. That is why they cheat in the first place and then lie afterwards to cover up their wrongdoing.

Marion Jones is every bit as despicable a figure as Ben Johnson was and she deserves to be stripped of her medals and ostracized by the sport just as he was. It seems like the dark secrets of the Steroids Era are rapidly being cast into the light of day and the more we find out the more it is natural to ask a very simple--and very disturbing--question about the many record-breaking sports feats that we have seen in the past 10-15 years: Was any of this authentic?

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

The 1964 Phillies and 2007 Mets Should Not be Viewed as Harshly as They Are

Mention the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies and any knowledgeable baseball fan will instantly think "late season collapse." This year's New York Mets, depending on who you ask, either joined the Phillies or supplanted them as the prototypical example of a team fading into oblivion (or "Bolivian," as Mike Tyson would put it) at the last possible moment. The Phillies were 90-60 and had a 6.5 game lead in the National League standings after their 3-2 win over the L.A. Dodgers on Sunday September 20, 1964. They lost nine straight games and the St. Louis Cardinals rallied to not only win the pennant but also beat the Yankees 4-3 to capture the World Series crown. Similarly, the Mets were 83-62 and had a 7 game lead in the National League East standings after their 4-3 win over the Atlanta Braves on Wednesday September 12, 2007. They lost five in a row to cut their lead to just 1.5 games, won four out of five to seemingly right the ship but then closed the season by losing six of their last seven games to finish one game behind, ironically enough, the Phillies. As Darth Vader would say, "The circle is complete."

The anguish experience by Phillies fans in 1964 and Mets fans in 2007 is palpable. In New York, the question of the day is who to blame for the Mets' collapse and Phillies fans have debated the same question about their team's infamous "Phold" literally for decades. However, I remember watching a show about that Phillies team on ESPN a few years ago--probably one of those wonderful "SportsCentury" pieces--and several veteran baseball observers emphasized that Philadelphia, under Mauch's leadership, had in fact done quite well (I hate the word "overachieved") to be in first place that late in the season and that the team should be remembered more for getting the most out of its abilities than for those few losses at the end. That is an interesting take but how does one quantify this? One way is to use a statistic developed by Bill James that is called "Pythagorean Winning Percentage," which Baseball-Reference.com describes as "an estimate of a team's winning percentage given their runs scored and runs allowed...it can tell you when teams were a bit lucky or unlucky." According to PWP, the 1964 Phillies would have been expected to go 88-74--four games worse than their actual record. Here are some other numbers from that season: the Phillies ranked fourth in batting average, fourth in home runs, 10th in stolen bases, fourth in team ERA and ninth in complete games pitched. Keep in mind that in 1964 the National League consisted of 10 teams and there were no divisions. Most of the pitching staff's complete games (25 of 37) were tossed by their two aces, Jim Bunning (19-8) and Chris Short (17-9). Mauch has been criticized for overusing those two pitchers in those fateful final games but if you look at the rest of his rotation he did not really have any other good options. Mauch guided a team that was middle of the pack in batting average and ERA to the brink of a pennant and chose to rely on his two best pitchers to seal the deal. As heartbreaking as that collapse was to Philadelphia fans, no one can honestly say that the Phillies were clearly the best team in the National League in 1964--and if they were not clearly the best team can they really fairly be said to have "blown" the pennant? The season lasts 162 games and it does not matter when your winning streaks or losing streaks happen--all of the games count exactly the same in the standings. The Phillies did not have the best team but they made a gallant run at the pennant anyway.

PWP says that the 2007 Mets would have been expected to go 86-76--two games worse than their actual record. The Mets did rank second among 16 National League teams in batting average and fourth in runs scored but, like Mauch's Phillies, they did not have a great pitching staff, finishing seventh in ERA, ninth in complete games and eighth in saves. During the fateful 5-12 stretch that concluded their season, the Mets gave up eight or more runs eight times and lost each of those contests; their pitching, never great throughout the season, completely fell apart at the end, culminating in the first inning of their last contest when Tom Glavine--a future Hall of Famer who led the Mets in innings pitched, went 13-8 this year and has won 303 games in his career--gave up seven runs and retired just one batter. The Mets lost 8-1 to the Florida Marlins, enabling the Phillies to claim the division title after a 6-1 victory over the Washington Nationals. No cold logic, hard facts or mountain of statistics will console Mets fans but the numbers show that the Mets did not clearly have the best team in the N.L. East. Granted, this team had more talent relative to its competition than the 1964 Phillies did and the Mets did win the division in 2006 with a 97-65 record, so expectations for the Mets were justifiably high this season. Nevertheless, when you consider all of the statistics, the Mets' collapse--while noteworthy from a historical standpoint and very dramatic to watch--is not entirely inexplicable.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Two Minute Drill: Quick Thoughts After the First Quarter of the NFL Season

New England's 27-13 victory over Cincinnati on Monday Night Football means that the NFL season has now reached the quarter pole. Here are some things to consider about what we've seen so far.

1) The Cleveland Browns' 27-13 win over the Baltimore Ravens--who went 13-3 and won the AFC North last year--has raised a lot of eyebrows and apparently even convinced some talking heads that the Browns might be for real this year (whatever that means). There are definitely some things to like about this edition of the Browns: Jamal Lewis' hard nosed, tough running, the down field threat posed by Kellen Winslow and Braylon Edwards and the kick return skills of Josh Cribbs. However, lost in the euphoria of the Browns' victory on Sunday is the fact that Baltimore did not punt even once. In other words, the Browns literally could not stop the Ravens' somewhat anemic offense. Fortunately for Cleveland, two Ravens' drives ended in missed field goals and a third was short circuited by an errant Steve McNair pass that was picked off. However, Baltimore running back Willis McGahee gashed the Browns (104 yards on 14 carries), which should not surprise anyone since the Browns are 30th out of 32 teams in rushing defense. If you cannot stop the run then you will not win consistently in the NFL. The Browns have done a poor job defending against the run for years and until that changes victories like Sunday's will be the exception, not the rule.

2) After the San Diego Chargers fell to 1-3, a mournful-looking LaDainian Tomlinson said that his team had done too much talking early in the season and now was the time to stop talking and start producing. He is right--and he should have delivered that message to his team a month ago. I expected the Chargers to fall off a little bit after firing Coach Marty Schottenheimer but this team has too much talent to be in last place. When the talent is present and the results are lacking that suggests an absence of leadership...

2b)...which leads us straight to Norv Turner, Schottenheimer's replacement. Anyone who doubts the importance of coaching or who believes that anyone can be successful as a coach if he has a talented roster needs only to watch Turner transform a 14-2 team into a complete train wreck (or watch Flip Saunders inherit a championship-level Detroit Pistons team and lose earlier and earlier in the playoffs each year).

3) During Philadelphia's 16-3 loss to the New York Giants on Sunday Night Football, NBC analyst John Madden repeatedly noted that none of the Eagles' receivers were able to gain any separation from their defenders and that this was part of the reason that the Giants recorded 12 sacks. I realize that Brian Westbrook was out and that he is a big part of the Eagles' offense and I know that just a week before the Eagles put up 56 points--but it was not too long ago that the Eagles had a receiver who certainly could get separation and make plays: Terrell Owens. When the Eagles got rid of him, Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin, then an analyst for ESPN, said that Philadelphia was trying to save face but that sometimes when you save face "you lose your ass." Not the most delicate way to put things, to be sure, so let's look at this from a numerical perspective: Owens' Cowboys are 4-0, the Eagles are 1-3 and Owens ranks eighth in the league in receiving yards while also ranking in the top ten in yards per catch, receiving touchdowns and first down receptions.

4) Owens had a quiet day statistically in Dallas' 35-7 win over St. Louis on Sunday but Patrick Crayton had seven catches for 184 yards and two touchdowns. That gives Crayton 83 receptions and nine touchdowns in just over three seasons in the league, so it does not appear that he is a superstar in the making. How did he get so open? Teams have to roll their coverages over to Owens, which creates opportunities for other players. If you saw the highlights of one of Crayton's touchdowns then you noticed that he beat one on one coverage on the play--and you also caught a glimpse of Owens racing downfield to make a block, one of the underrated aspects of his game. Also, on the touchdown run by quarterback Tony Romo the middle of the field was wide open in part because of all of the attention that Owens draws. Yeah, it sure is a good thing that the Eagles got rid of Owens--well, it's a good thing for Dallas.

5) During the Monday Night Football game, ESPN's Michele Tafoya noted that Cris Carter, Randy Moss' teammate with the Minnesota Vikings, told her that Moss does not want to be a team leader and that he functions best in an environment where there is a lot of structure around him. That sounds awfully familiar; as I explained last week, "Moss is not a leader and his own statements prove that...However, what Moss has demonstrated from day one in New England is that he is a very good follower. Belichick, Brady and New England's Super Bowl veterans set a tone for professionalism and work ethic and Moss has by all accounts completely bought into it. You don't want Moss to be the strongest voice or most dominant personality in your locker room but put him on a team that already has leaders in place and then all Moss has to do is play--and no one questions that he is a very, very gifted athlete." The mainstream media likes to lump Owens and Moss in the same category but they in fact have completely different personalities. Owens is a leader: he is outspoken, self-motivated and has a great work ethic. Moss, on the other hand, kind of goes with the flow; if the guys around him are working hard, then he will work hard but if they are not working hard then his attention tends to drift. When Owens said his piece about Donovan McNabb and the media killed him for it you may recall that the other Eagles' players hardly rushed to McNabb's defense. The fact is that Owens was a leader on that team and he articulated some things that others thought about McNabb--that he is too close to the ownership and that he faltered a bit down the stretch in the Super Bowl--but did not say publicly.

6) While San Diego's Turner is apparently too smart to give the ball to Tomlinson in the second half of a close game--never mind that Tomlinson set the single season scoring record last year--New England's Bill Belichick demonstrated on Monday night the value of simplicity. With the Cincinnati Bengals down to two healthy linebackers--and also very focused on stopping New England's high powered passing attack featuring Moss--the Patriots handed the ball off eight straight times to running back Sammy Morris during a second quarter drive. Once the Patriots got down to the seven yard line, Tom Brady threw a perfect jump ball to Moss for the touchdown. Sometimes being smart simply means not trying to outsmart yourself and not getting away from whatever is working.

7) Everybody loves Bengals receiver Chad Johnson. Tony Kornheiser tells us repeatedly that Johnson's antics are not mean spirited and that they do not detract from his team's focus and Mike Wilbon and others echo those sentiments, all the while portraying Owens as essentially the devil incarnate. Anyone who watched the Patriots-Bengals game knows that Carson Palmer threw an interception just before halftime. The pass was intended for Johnson and it was immediately apparent that there was a serious miscommunication between the two players. Johnson jawed at Palmer all the way back to the bench and gave him an earful on the sideline before walking away. As the players headed to the locker room at halftime, Johnson was in Palmer's ear again. ESPN reported that at least part of his message to Palmer was that he knew what route he was supposed to run and that he did the right thing. After the game, Palmer took the high road and said that the miscue was his fault, though ESPN analyst (and Hall of Fame quarterback) Steve Young insisted that the replay showed that Johnson had made a bad read and that he also should have made a better effort to prevent the pass from being intercepted.

In the locker room, Cincinnati Coach Marvin Lewis screamed so loudly at his players that his tirade was easily audible through the walls to the reporters outside: "If you don't want to be on this team, please don't show up! You don't call the offense, you don't call the plays. You just play. Nowhere in the NFL do guys act like this. We've got to figure this out." He couldn't have been referring, at least in part, to media darling Chad Johnson, could he? Of course, since everyone at ESPN loves Johnson, his conduct and the detrimental effect that it had on his team was almost completely ignored. A couple times, Mike Tirico made comments to the effect that Palmer and Johnson need to work things out because the game is going forward, time is running out and the Patriots are dominating. Kornheiser had nothing to say on the subject. Imagine what his reaction would be if Owens were to have a similar confrontation with Romo. The point here is not whether Johnson or Palmer is right about this particular play and I realize that sideline confrontations happen all the time in the NFL. The important issue here is how the media anoints favorite sons and then accords them nothing but positive coverage while at the same time deeming certain people to be villains and giving those people largely negative coverage. The reality is that sometimes a heated confrontation between two players can clear the air and ultimately be a positive thing and sometimes a heated confrontation is a symptom of a team that is dysfunctional. Without taking the time to really research what happened it is impossible to know the truth--but that does not stop many media members from reflexively bashing certain players while praising others. Coach Lewis' locker room rant and the fact that he has had to admonish Johnson on previous occasions for being disruptive are two strong indicators that Johnson's confrontation with Palmer was not a positive thing.