Thursday, August 28, 2008

2008 NFL Preview

The introduction to my 2007 NFL Preview so precisely summarizes the perils of NFL prognosticating that I am simply going to reproduce it here word for word:

There are several reasons that it is not uncommon to see NFL teams go from worst to first (or first to worst) in one season: (1) football is a violent game and one injury to a key player (particularly a star quarterback) can change the balance of power in a division; (2) the season is very short, so one NFL game carries the same impact in the standings as five NBA games or 10 MLB games; (3) games frequently come down to the last two minutes, so the difference between being 10-6 and 6-10 may literally be a few plays spread out over four games. The foregoing explains why Las Vegas has enough money to build bigger and bigger casinos and why it is silly to pretend to predict the exact records that each NFL team will compile during a season--it is tough enough just to figure out who will make the playoffs.

Last year I correctly picked six of the eight division champions. On the other hand, all four of my Wild Card predictions were wrong.

Without further ado, here are my 2008 NFL predictions.

AFC East

1) New England
2) Buffalo
3) New York Jets
4) Miami

Quick Hits:

* You may have heard that the Jets have a new quarterback--some guy named Favre. What no one seems to be paying much attention to is that the Dolphins also have a new quarterback--Chad Pennington, who used to be the Jets' quarterback. A lot of people rag on Pennington's arm strength but he is the NFL's career completion percentage leader and just two years ago he started all 16 games as the Jets went 10-6 and made it to the playoffs. Won't ESPN and the rest of the mainstream media circus have a fit if Pennington has a better season than Favre? If Pennington stays healthy--granted, a big if--don't be surprised if he does just that.

* New England fans have every right to be concerned about Tom Brady's health but assuming that he is functional by the time the regular season starts the Patriots will once again win the division title and be a legit Super Bowl contender. Their overall winning streak was stopped by the Giants in Super Bowl XLII but the Patriots have won 19 consecutive regular season games dating back to 2006 and they have won 22 of their last 23 regular season games. They open the 2008 regular season with games versus the Chiefs, Jets and Dolphins, a bye week, a trip to San Francisco and then a visit to San Diego.

* It's put up or shut up time for the Dick Jauron regime in Buffalo after a pair of 7-9 seasons. The Bills have not made the playoffs since 1999. Call it the Doug Flutie curse: in 1999, Flutie led the Bills to a 10-5 record, Wade Phillips "rested" him in favor of Rob Johnson in game 16 and then Phillips started Johnson in the playoff game versus the Titans. Johnson went 10-22 for 131 yards, Tennessee won courtesy of "The Music City Miracle" and the Bills have never been the same.

AFC West

1) San Diego
2) Denver
3) Kansas City
4) Oakland

Quick Hits:

* The Chargers are the class of this division but it remains to be seen how much Shawne Merriman's knee injury will hamper his performance.

* The Broncos have not won a Super Bowl since John Elway retired but Mike Shanahan's teams are usually in the playoff hunt; Denver had a down season last year but figures to contend for a Wild Card berth in 2008.

AFC North

1) Pittsburgh
2) Cleveland
3) Baltimore
4) Cincinnati

Quick Hits:

* Year in and year out the Steelers are the most stable organization in this division on and off the field.

* High hopes in Cleveland have been tempered a bit by a rash of injuries and the reality that the Browns face a very tough schedule loaded with nationally televised games.

* The Ravens are still trying to develop a quality starting quarterback.

* The Bengals are an organization that is in disarray on and off the field.

AFC South

1) Jacksonville
2) Indianapolis (Wild Card)
3) Tennessee (Wild Card)
4) Houston

Quick Hits:

* Peyton Manning will not likely be completely healthy by the start of the season and 36 year old Marvin Harrison is coming off of an injury-riddled campaign, so look for the Jaguars to finally break through and win the division title. That said, if the Colts get completely healthy by playoff time they could very well go farther in the postseason than the Jaguars do.

* The Texans are improving but they are in a killer division, so it will be very difficult for them to make the playoffs unless injuries take down at least one of the teams in front of them.

AFC Championship:

New England will not go 16-0 again--14-2 sounds about right--but the Patriots will host the AFC Championship Game and beat the San Diego Chargers.

NFC East

1) Dallas
2) Philadelphia (Wild Card)
3) New York Giants (Wild Card)
4) Washington

Quick Hits:

* No Osi Umenyiora and no Michael Strahan means no Super Bowl repeat for the Giants. They were a Wild Card team in 2007 and they will struggle to earn a Wild Card in 2008.

* Some teams have to go through a bit of heartbreak before they reach the top. The Cowboys are very talented and after a great 2007 regular season they came up just short against the eventual Super Bowl champions.

* If Donovan McNabb stays healthy then the Eagles should be good enough to challenge for the division title.

* The Redskins will probably have a solid record but it is their misfortune to be in such a highly competitive division.

NFC West

1) Seattle
2) Arizona
3) San Francisco
4) St. Louis

Quick Hits:

* In recent years this division has emerged as the poster child for mediocrity. That said, Seattle has been the one bright spot and the Seahawks have enough weapons to be a Super Bowl contender.

* If Kurt Warner stays healthy then the Cardinals could challenge for a Wild Card berth.

NFC North

1) Green Bay
2) Minnesota
3) Detroit
4) Chicago

Quick Hits:

* The race between Green Bay and Minnesota for the division title will be fierce, because the second place team may not make the playoffs.

* If Detroit's defense improves then the Lions could be a dark horse contender for the division title.

NFC South:

1) Tampa Bay
2) New Orleans
3) Carolina
4) Atlanta

Quick Hits:

* Jeff Garcia is a perennially underrated quarterback and the Buccaneers are putting together a good defense, so look for Tampa Bay to have a strong season.

* New Orleans and Carolina will bounce back from their disappointing 2007 seasons but they will not quite be good enough to keep up with Tampa Bay.

NFC Championship:

Dallas will defeat Tampa Bay.

Super Bowl:

New England will defeat Dallas.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Monday Night Football Quick Hits

Darren Sproles did his best LaDainian Tomlinson imitation, rushing 13 times for 102 yards and one touchdown as San Diego edged Seattle 18-17 in the Monday Night Football preseason finale. Here are some quick hits about the game/telecast:

1) Before he became a TV celebrity, Tony Kornheiser was one of my favorite sportswriters. He used to craft in depth, insightful articles for a variety of publications, including Inside Sports, a now-defunct magazine that at one time featured a lot of very high quality writing. Kornheiser was not in the MNF booth this week due to his recent hernia surgery and, while I wish him a speedy and full recovery, it must be said that I did not miss him during this telecast. Kornheiser's MNF role--whether by his own choosing or the decisions of the director and producer--consists of making pop culture references and allegedly supplying historical context but in reality simply narrating over a montage of pop culture images at the beginning of the telecast. I much prefer to hear Ron Jaworski explaining exactly what is happening during the game; Jaworski is a true student--and teacher--of the game. If I wanted pop culture references or one liners then I would tune in to Comedy Central. Kornheiser is smart, funny and talented, just like Dennis Miller--but I don't want to see or hear either of them in the MNF announcers' booth.

2) Stat of the night: Most yards from scrimmage per game, NFL history (min. 100 games played): LaDainian Tomlinson, 126.4 ypg; Jim Brown, 125.5 ypg; Barry Sanders, 118.9 ypg.

3) When Michele Tafoya asked San Diego defensive end Luis Castillo about the possibility that Pro Bowl linebacker Shawne Merriman might miss the entire season, Castillo's response hit the perfect note: Castillo clearly stated that Merriman is a great player who will be sorely missed but Castillo also expressed confidence that Merriman's substitute, Jyles Tucker, will perform well. I immediately thought back to the 2004 season when then-Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens suffered a devastating injury--a sprained ankle combined with a broken fibula--less than two months before the Super Bowl. When Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb was asked how the Eagles would do without Owens, he blithely replied that the Eagles had already made it to three straight NFC Championship Games without Owens. Even though that was an accurate statement, it was the wrong thing to say and the wrong way to say it; unlike Castillo, McNabb failed to find the delicate balance between praising the injured star's importance while also displaying confidence in the abilities of his backup. McNabb's flub understandably rubbed the sensitive Owens the wrong way and set the stage for the deterioration of the McNabb-Owens relationship.

4) Jaworski noted several times that Seattle quarterback Charlie Frye (19-29, 219 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions) made "stick" (i.e., accurate delivery into a tight space) throws and manipulated the defensive coverage with his eyes. Last season in Cleveland, Frye became the first NFL quarterback since the NFL-AFL merger to start week one and then get traded prior to week two. Seattle Coach Mike Holmgren is a noted quarterback guru, so it will be interesting to see how Frye develops in Seattle. Maybe this was just a one game, preseason fluke, but Frye was not converting lucky plays: the abilities to read coverages and make "stick" throws are things that should stand him in good stead for the rest of his career. I wonder how much of Frye's growth is just a result of a natural maturation process and how much of it has been accelerated by the coaching that he is receiving. Granted, Derek Anderson became a Pro Bowl quarterback in Cleveland after Frye's departure, but Anderson's success was based more on arm strength and derring-do than "stick" throws or manipulating coverages; in fact, touch and reading defenses seem to be Anderson's weaknesses, as evidenced by his completion percentage and interception rate. Did Frye fail in Cleveland because he was simply thrown into the fire too soon or because he never received the proper coaching to develop his talent?

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Truth is Once Again the First Casualty in the Latest Example of "Shoot, Ready, Aim" Reporting

In a January 8, 2008 post titled How the Media Works--or Doesn't Work I wrote, "The best tool that any consumer of media information can have is a healthy amount of skepticism. This is true whether the source is the internet, television, radio, a newspaper or any other platform. Truth, accuracy and fairness are rapidly heading toward extinction in favor of ignorance, bias and the rush to break a story first." We have just seen another example of this with the recent online feeding frenzy regarding U.S. pole vaulter Jenn Stuczynski and her coach Rick Suhr. In case you missed it, after Stuczynski won the silver medal, she walked over to the stands and NBC's microphones captured part of her conversation with Suhr. He offered what could be interpreted to be some harsh criticism and soon became the object of much scorn as ignorant people bombarded him with nasty emails or said hateful things about him on blogs and message boards. People wondered why Stuczynski put up with someone who seemed like such a jerk. The answer is simple: he's not a jerk, the NBC microphones only captured part of the story and a lot of irresponsible people went off half-cocked instead of having the sense and decency to find out the truth.

Stuczynski was indeed moved to tears--not by what her coach said or how he said it but by the visceral, vituperative and cruel responses that total strangers have made to Suhr. She told ESPN The Magazine's Luke Cyphers, "What he said to me is nothing that made me sad. I'm a 26-year-old professional athlete. I ask him to be fair coach. I don't ask him to be a cheerleader. I want you to tell me when I jump good, and I want you to tell me when I jump bad. I think a lot of people don't understand that this is my job. This is what I do for a living, and I have to be good at it, and I have to get better at it. And we celebrated it. But at that moment, I wanted to know why I didn't make that bar."

Much was made of Stuczynski's supposed downcast look after her talk with Suhr but there is a simple explanation for that as well: "There were all these things on the ground that I didn't want to trip over," including some of the NBC camera equipment that was filming her.

Cyphers' article concludes:

When the Internet storm erupted, Stuczynski felt powerless, and a little hopeless. She says Suhr has received countless angry emails from people who think they're protecting her. Meanwhile, her family and her coach's family have heard comments about whether the coach went too far, and wondering why Stuczynski is putting up with a guy who couldn't even say congratulations.

But she, her coach and her parents went out to dinner after the competition and celebrated. "And people don't hear the things he says leading up to the meet, or the texts he sent me all week saying, We can do this, you know? That's what's so frustrating."

Stuczynski, who gave the interview at the Beijing airport as she readied to travel to her next meet in Zurich, admitted the days after the medal were some dark ones.

"After this all came out I just wanted to go home," she says. "But you can't let outside stuff affect you. They say you have to have tough skin, it comes with the business, so I guess you have to take the punches."

She's always enjoyed the media, she says, but this will take some time to sort out. "It reminds me of reality TV," she says. "The clip wasn't cut, but you only see parts of it—you don't understand the whole thing. And it's like how can you fix it? How can you make people see the truth?"

NBC showed this whole sequence on tape delay, so the network could have easily sought out Stuczynski and Suhr to clarify what happened during their exchange--but that would not make for dramatic TV.

I wonder if all the people who rushed to condemn Suhr and send him nasty emails feel proud of themselves now. Was it worth it to get a little more traffic for a website? Is there anything more stupid and hypocritical than claiming that you are sticking up for an athlete when you are really just rushing to judgment and ultimately causing the athlete the very kind of misery from which you say that you are protecting her?

I've never understood the rush to be the first to break a story, whether it's ESPN or a tiny blog. It seems to me that it is much more important to get the story right, to present the relevant information accurately and then add commentary that is well thought out. There are far too many articles, posts and news reports that are hastily thrown together and poorly considered. Also, the internet seems to provide a form of "liquid courage" for people to make declarations that they would never say to another person's face.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Natalie du Toit Embodies the Essence of the Olympic Spirit

South African swimmer Natalie du Toit lost her left leg just above the knee when she was struck by a car in 2001 but she did not lose her spirit or her dream of being an Olympian. Her fourth place finish in the World Open Water Championship in May earned her the opportunity to compete in Beijing in the 6.2 mile swimming marathon, a pounding endurance test that lasts nearly two hours. Du Toit finished 16th, 1 minute 22 seconds behind the gold medalist, and although she was later awarded "a special gift" for her performance Du Toit made it clear that she did not come to the Olympics to receive special recognition or even necessarily with the gold medal or bust attitude that many Olympians have: "A dream is something that you set for yourself, not that others set for you. And to realize that dream, you don't have to be a champion. You don't have to be the best and win that gold medal. You just have to give it your all. You can't be afraid to try and today I was not. For me, today was a dream come true."

Du Toit's swim and her eloquent words are wonderful expressions of the Olympic Spirit in its purest form.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Bolt From the Blue: Usain's Stunning Run Makes One Wonder

Great athletes inspire joy and wonder with their tremendous performances. That is certainly true of Usain Bolt's breathtaking world record time in the 100 meter dash finals of the Beijing Olympics, but his sprint to glory inevitably leads to a different kind of wonder, as in "I wonder how in the world he was able to do that?" Bolt lowered his own world record by .03 seconds despite taking what amounted to an unprecedented "victory lap" toward the end of his sprint. If he had not mugged for the crowd he could very well have posted a 9.55 or even 9.5 flat but even while slowing down he still blew away the field with a 9.69.

Bolt looked like a man among boys or a superman among elite athletes but it is sad to say that the first thing I thought of when I watched Bolt explode past the best sprinters in the world was the 1988 Olympic 100 meter dash finals, when Ben Johnson authored a similarly breathtaking and improbable performance. Johnson clocked in at 9.79, a number that would not be officially matched again for 11 years. Of course, we soon learned that Johnson's rocket-like burst was propelled by illegal rocket fuel--namely the steroid stanozolol--and thus Johnson's world record was stripped from the books and the gold medal was awarded to Carl Lewis. It is important to remember that even though Johnson was caught by a drug test many of the recent drug cheaters routinely passed drug tests until their wrongful actions were discovered by other means; perhaps the most notable person in that category is Marion Jones, who for years stridently denied that she cheated.

I have no concrete reason to suspect Bolt of doing anything wrong but what he did is literally hard to believe for many reasons, not the least of which being that this is not even his best event and he has been running the 100 for little more than one year. He also overcame the seventh slowest start time of the eight finalists and an untied left shoelace. Bolt has an atypical build for a sprinter, towering over his competitors at a lanky 6-5. Is it really possible through normal means to become the best 100 meter sprinter of all-time in a little over a year when you don't even have the prototypical 100 meter sprinter's body? Next to the other runners Bolt looked like Shaquille O'Neal racing those jockeys in the TV commercial.

There is a larger issue here than even just this one race. The Associated Press published a chart detailing the history of the 100 meter world record. Donald Lippincott, the first name on the chart, ran the 100 in 10.6 seconds in 1912. That mark stood for nine years before being lowered to 10.4 by Charles Paddock, who also held the record for nine years until Percy Williams ran a 10.3. The all-time great Jesse Owens ran a 10.2 six years later in 1936 and he held the record for 20 years before Willie Williams ran a 10.1. Four years later Armin Hary ran a 10.0. Then we enter the era in which the times were recorded to the hundredths of a second and in 1968 Jim Hines broke the 10 second barrier with a 9.99. Later that year Hines ran a 9.95. That mark stood for 15 years until Calvin Smith ran a 9.93. Five years later, Carl Lewis bettered that with a 9.92. In 1991, Leroy Burrell ran a 9.90 and later that year Lewis ran a 9.86. It took Burrell three years to inch the record to 9.85 and another two years for Donovan Bailey to run a 9.84. Three years later, Maurice Greene ran a 9.79, the biggest increase in the record since times were recorded in three digits. Greene's standard stood for six years before Asafa Powell ran a 9.77 in 2005. Since that time, the record has been tied or broken six times--once by Justin Gatlin, three times by Powell and twice by Bolt--and the number has moved by .08 seconds, an increase that historically has taken a lot longer than three years. Keep in mind that if Bolt had not showboated then the record would have moved by well more than one second since Powell first clocked 9.77.

Logically, one would assume that there is a physical limit to how fast a man can run 100 meters and one would also assume that the closer we get to reaching that limit the harder it would be for sprinters to break the world record. As indicated above, the first world record stood for nine years, the second one stood for nine years as well and the third one lasted six years until it was broken by Owens, who is one of the greatest athletes of all-time. Owens' mark lasted 20 years. The advent of electronic scoring made it possible to more precisely record the numbers, else we would not have been able to distinguish between Hines' 9.99 and Burrell's 9.0--and it still took 23 years to move the record those .99 seconds. After that, when in theory it should be more difficult to lower the record, it has seemingly become easier to break the 100 meter record: It only took eight years to go from Burrell's 9.0 to Greene's 9.79 and then just nine years to reach Bolt's stunning 9.69.

Maybe the current sprinters are simply reaping the benefits of better training programs, better equipment and better diet but the rapid progression of the 100 meter record certainly seems odd and is eerily reminiscent of how MLB sluggers suddenly started regularly cranking out 50-plus home run seasons after decades in which that number was only reached by a select few players.

To borrow from the X-Files' Fox Mulder, I want to believe that Bolt's record is as genuine as the unabashed joy that Bolt showed even before the race was over, but with seemingly more track stars sprinting through the record book than subway passengers going through the turnstiles in New York it would be naive to not at least wonder what is really going on in track and field. Sadly, that speculation also applies to the Olympic swimming pool, where world records are more commonplace this year than Happy Meals at McDonald's. Is that because of the new space age suits, a swimming pool that is considered to be conducive to fast speeds or something else? Frankly, I don't know but forgive me if I am a little skeptical when I watch a race and see four or five competitors zooming past that green world record line as if it had been set by a swimmer wearing cement shoes.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Mario Andretti's "Educated Right Foot"

Mario Andretti will be the Guest of Honor at the 35th Anniversary Rolex Monterey Historic Automobile Races. The event takes place on August 15-17 at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and will salute the Alfa Romeo, the first marque to be featured at the Historics in 1975. “We are extremely pleased to have Mario Andretti join us at the Rolex Monterey Historic this year. He is a living legend for all of us, and we’ll join together to celebrate the anniversary of his winning the World Championship in 1978,” said Steve Earle, President of General Racing Ltd., the event founder and organizer. Andretti will drive a few demonstration laps in his Formula One Championship winning Lotus 79 and participate in autograph sessions on both Friday and Saturday.

Andretti said, “The Rolex Monterey Historic is the premier historic auto racing event in the country. I am pleased to be a part of these festivities and look forward to spending time with fans and enthusiasts from across the country who travel to Monterey for this wonderful event. Laguna Seca has always been one of my favorite tracks. For a driver, it’s a truly technical and challenging course that provides immense satisfaction. For a spectator, it’s phenomenal because of the many vantage points to watch the action.”

Andretti coined the phrase "the educated right foot" and he did some PhD level work with that appendage during a career that spanned five decades and included four Indy Car national championships (1965-66, 69, 84), an IROC series championship (1979) and a United States Auto Club (USAC) national dirt track championship (1974) plus victories in several of the world's most storied motor racing events: the Daytona 500 (1967), the Indianapolis 500 (1969), the Pikes Peak Hill Climb (1969), the 12 Hours of Sebring (1967, 1970, 1972) and the 24 Hours of Daytona (1972). Andretti is the only driver to win the Indy 500, the Daytona 500 and the Formula One World Championship and the only driver to be named Driver of the Year in three different decades (1967, 1978, 1984). In 1992, a panel consisting of previous Drivers of the Year plus 12 journalists voted him Driver of the Quarter Century. The Associated Press and RACER magazine separately named him Driver of the Century and RACER later named him Greatest American Driver Ever.

Rapid Rise to Prominence

Andretti started out racing on dirt tracks as a 19 year old in 1959. He quickly moved up to the USAC midget and sprint car ranks. Andretti made a big splash in 1965, winning Rookie of the Year honors at the Indianapolis 500 after qualifying fourth and finishing third in the race. He also had a fateful encounter in the pit area with legendary team owner Colin Chapman. Andretti told Chapman that he wanted to drive Formula One cars someday and Chapman replied, "When you're ready, call me." Andretti became the youngest Indy Car national champion that year and he defended his crown in 1966, winning eight out of 16 races.

Andretti had an insatiable appetite for racing: "It seems to me that there was a period in my life, a long period, where I just couldn't get enough, couldn't get enough of it. My wife would say--never complain--but she would say, 'Geez, can't you take a weekend off?' And if you look back, not for one year or a couple years but for many, many years, I just would not. I would run sprint cars, I would run sports cars. A lot of the guys would have the weekend off and usually you had the lull in between, even in Formula One. And I'd be up and away from Zandvoort to Atlanta and all that sort of thing. I did that for years and years. Teo Fabi did that for six months. What I'm saying is that some guys try that and either burn out or it doesn't make any sense. I don't fault them. I think they are smart. I think I was probably the stupid one. But for me, it worked."

Amazing Versatility

In 1966, Andretti drove 14 different cars in 51 races at an astonishing variety of circuits, including Indy Car, NASCAR, Can-Am and endurance events, claiming 14 victories in four different rides. "I never had any difficulty moving between disciplines. You get in a car, you switch off everything else and you focus on what you're at," Andretti once said. "Like I'm doing the Sebring 12 Hours on a Saturday, I fly out Saturday night, Sunday I'm racing a sprint car on a dirt oval. World of difference in the skills required but the passion's the same."

Andretti won a series-best eight out of 21 Indy Car races in 1967--including four in a row and five out of six in the middle of the season--but missed out on capturing a third straight national championship when he had to make a pit stop to refuel with three laps left in the final race of the season. Despite the failed attempt at a "three-peat," Andretti had much to be happy about in 1967: he won the first of his three Driver of the Year awards after wrestling a poor handling Ford to victory in the Daytona 500 and capturing the first of his three wins at the 12 Hours of Sebring.

In 1968, Andretti made his Formula One debut, driving for Chapman's Lotus team and setting a track record at Watkins Glen, becoming the first Formula One driver to earn the pole position in his first race. Andretti did not finish the race due to mechanical problems but at one point he was running second behind Jackie Stewart, who would win the first of his three Formula One World Championships in 1969.

Bobby Unser narrowly outpointed Andretti (4330-4319) for the 1968 Indy Car title but in 1969 Andretti dominated the circuit, winning nine of 24 races and claiming the national title 5025-2630 over Al Unser. One of Andretti's nine victories came at the Indy 500, his first and only win in that event.

Andretti only won one Indy Car race in 1970 and dropped to fifth in the national championship standings but it was still a memorable year for him. He earned his first Formula One podium finish, third place in the Spanish Grand Prix. Andretti's victory in the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1970 was particularly special, as he explained to Motor Sport magazine's Keith Howard in 2007: "What motivated me more than anything was the fact that the leading Porsche was being driven by Steve McQueen, although Peter Revson did most of the driving because Steve was so slow. I figured, 'Jeez, we can't have a Hollywood star winning the race.' I didn't really fit in the coupe--I had to reach for the pedals a bit...I drove like a madman to catch him and pull out a cushion, then sure enough the reserve light came on. There was no speed limit in the pits so I came in real quick. In those days you had to turn the engine off and get out of the car so I threw myself on the ground...(After refueling) I just buckled my lap belt and blew out of the pits again...It was the most satisfying endurance win of my career because I drove really hard and I don't think the car would have won otherwise. It was incredibly satisfying."

Andretti earned his first Formula One victory in the 1971 South African Grand Prix. Andretti drove part time for Ferrari's Formula One team in 1971 and 1972 but he still participated in most of the Indy Car races in addition to winning several endurance sports car events. He further displayed his versatility by winning the 1974 USAC dirt track title and finishing second in the Formula 5000 standings in 1974 and 1975. Andretti had a brief and unsatisfying stint with Vel's Parnelli Jones Formula One team but when they pulled the plug on their operation early in the 1976 season Andretti joined forces again with Chapman's Lotus team and decided to commit fully to pursuing his dream of winning the Formula One Championship.

Although Andretti's partnership with Chapman would prove to be very successful it was not without a certain degree of creative tension. Andretti told Motor Sport's Nigel Roebuck, "When we first got together, Colin says, 'Mario, I always want to make a car as light as possible.' I says, 'Well, Colin, I want to live as long as possible. I guess we need to talk.'" Andretti added, "Working with him was no trip in Paris but I guess you're always going to have problems with a genius, right? All in all Colin was a wonderful chapter in my life--he was such a maverick."

The Lotus cars had some reliability issues in 1976 but Andretti finished the season on a very strong note, placing third at both the Dutch and Canadian Grands Prix before capturing the pole in the season finale at Japan and then lapping the field in a driving rain to win the race. Andretti placed sixth in the driver standings. In 1977, Andretti earned seven poles and won four races en route to a third place finish in the driver standings.

Capturing the Formula One World Championship

Andretti almost ended up racing for Ferrari in 1978. Ferrari officials told Andretti that they couldn't put a price on his ability, which Andretti later said was "very flattering but also very clever, because it puts the ball right back in my court." Andretti wanted Chapman to increase his salary to $500,000 a year (Chapman had offered him $350,000 plus $10,000 per championship point), so Andretti started the negotiations with Ferrari by asking for $750,000 per year. They agreed without blinking--Andretti later said that maybe he should have asked for $1,000,000 per year--so Andretti told Chapman about Ferrari's offer and Chapman put together enough sponsorship money to match it.

Everything came together for Andretti and Lotus in 1978. Driving a pioneering "ground effects" Lotus 79, Andretti earned eight poles and six wins in 16 races to claim the Formula One Championship. This success was marred by tragedy in the Italian Grand Prix, the third to last race of the season, when Andretti's teammate Ronnie Peterson suffered critical injuries in a fiery crash and died the next day. Peterson was running second in the championship chase and, in a cruel irony, his death clinched the title for Andretti.

Andretti and Lotus were not able to maintain the momentum from their dream 1978 season. Andretti started out the 1979 season reasonably well--with one third place, two fourth places and a fifth place in the first five races--but then his unreliable rides retired from seven straight events, killing his chances to repeat as champion. After similar problems plagued the team in 1980, Andretti switched to Alfa-Romeo for the 1981 season. He had just one top five finish and eight DNFs in his final full Formula One campaign.

In 1982, Andretti ran the full Indy Car schedule for the first time since 1974 and finished third in the driver standings. When Ferrari needed a driver for the final two Formula One races, Andretti took the pole at the Italian Grand Prix and finished third. Then, in his Formula One swan song, Andretti qualified seventh at the Las Vegas Grand Prix but retired after only 26 laps due to mechanical problems.

Frustrations at Indy, 24 Hours at Le Mans

During Andretti's great career only two goals eluded him: a win at the 24 Hours at Le Mans and a repeat win at the Indy 500.

A young Mario Andretti must have thought that he was absolutely going to rewrite the Indy 500 record book. He followed up his strong rookie performance in 1965 by winning the pole position in 1966 and 1967, setting track qualifying records each time. Although he only finished 18th and 30th respectively in those races, he qualified second and won the Indy 500 in 1969, just his fifth appearance in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. However, as the years went by Andretti would prove to be consistently fast in qualifying and early in the race only to suffer some kind of mishap that thwarted him from winning. Between 1970 and 1980 he qualified in the top ten seven out of 10 times (he skipped the 1979 race because the Monaco Grand Prix was held the same day) but he only finished in the top ten three times--never higher than sixth--and on six occasions he placed 20th or worse.

His heartbreaks at Indy--which came to be widely known as "the Andretti curse" or "Andretti luck"--only became more painful in the 1980s. He moved up from 32nd position to second place by the time the checkered flag fell in 1981 and the day after the race he was awarded the win after Bobby Unser was penalized for passing during a caution period. For five months Andretti was a two-time Indy 500 champion but Unser successfully appealed the ruling and was once again named the winner. In 1982, Andretti ran well all month and qualified fourth but Kevin Cogan got anxious during the final warmup lap and swerved wildly, wrecking four cars--including his own, Andretti's and A.J. Foyt's. Foyt was able to compete, though his car did not finish the race, but Andretti's day was over before it began. Andretti's teammate Gordon Johncock, who had been slower than Andretti all month, won the race. In 1985, Andretti qualified fourth and led more laps than anyone during the race but Danny Sullivan performed his famous "spin and win": Sullivan spun out but Andretti deftly avoided him and soon took the lead; later, Sullivan passed Andretti and led the final 60 laps, while Andretti finished second. When asked about finishing second, Andretti later remarked that to him second place is merely "first loser."

Andretti completely dominated the month of May at the Indy 500 in 1987: he easily won the pole position and he led 170 of the first 180 laps. With just 25 laps remaining, Andretti led Roberto Guerrero's second place car by a full lap and he enjoyed a nearly two lap lead over Al Unser. Then, Andretti's car slowed down on lap 177 due to electrical problems. Unser, a three-time Indy 500 winner who did not even have a ride at the start of the month and was replacing the injured Danny Ongais, took advantage of Andretti's misfortune and became the oldest winner in Indy 500 history (47).

Andretti put together good runs that came up just short in 1989 and 1991 (finishing fourth and seventh respectively) but the worst heartbreak happened in 1992. It seemed like it could be a glorious day for the Andretti family as Mario, his sons Michael and Jeff plus his nephew John all qualified for the race. However, Mario crashed on the 73rd lap and broke several toes, Jeff suffered serious leg injuries after a crash on the 115th lap and then Michael--who led 160 laps in a performance reminiscent of Mario's in 1987--dropped out of the race on the 189th lap due to mechanical problems. In 1993, Andretti led 72 laps--more than twice as many as any other driver--but finished fifth. Mario Andretti raced at Indy for the final time in 1994, qualifying a solid ninth at the age of 54 but completing just 23 laps before being sidelined by a fuel system problem.

Andretti ranks third in Indy 500 history in laps led and fifth in laps completed and he is one of just six drivers to lead each of the different 200 laps at least once at some point. Unfortunately, he only led lap 200 one time.

Andretti raced at Le Mans nine times between 1966 and 2000, when he was 60 years old and had been retired from all other forms of racing for six years. In fact, four of Andretti's runs at Le Mans came after he retired as an Indy Car driver. Andretti and co-driver Lucien Bianchi did not finish in both 1966 and 1967. Andretti's numerous other commitments kept him away from Le Mans for 15 years. In 1982 he returned to the race with his 19 year old son Michael. Their car passed the initial inspection but when it was lined up on the grid a technical violation was found and since it was too late to fix it the car never ran in the race. In 1983, the two Andrettis were joined by Phillippe Alliot and that trio finished third. Five years later, Andretti teamed up with sons Michael and Jeff to finish sixth despite losing a cylinder near the end of the race. Andretti, Bob Wollek and Eric Helary finished second in 1995; they had dropped back to 25th place after Andretti crashed into a slower car that braked sooner than he had expected but they battled back from six laps down to get back on the lead lap. Mechanical problems relegated Andretti and his teammates to a 13th place finish in 1996 and in 1997 Andretti crashed a noncompetitive ride, did not finish and was classified 27th. In 2000, Andretti's team briefly ran at the front before finishing 15th.

Competitive Until Retirement

After Andretti returned to the Indy Car circuit full time in 1982 it did not take long for him to reclaim his place at the top. He placed third in the series standings in 1982 and 1983 before winning his fourth national title in 1984. During one stretch in 1984-85, Andretti won nine out of 21 races, placed second in three others and captured 10 pole positions. He won three of the first four races in the 1985 season (and placed second in the Indy 500) but his car was running at the finish in only three of the remaining 10 races and he dropped to fifth in the final national championship standings. Andretti did not win another national championship but he ranked in the top 10 in the standings--usually placing in the top six--until his final season (1994), when he ranked 14th.

Andretti claimed his final Indy Car victory at Phoenix in 1993 at the age of 53, becoming the oldest winner in series history. That year he also set a closed course record (since broken) by taking the pole at the Michigan 500 at 234 mph. When he retired from Indy Car racing he had won 52 of 407 races, earned 67 poles and led 7587 laps. He ranks second all-time in Indy Car wins, first in pole positions, first in laps led and first in wire to wire victories (14). He is the only Indy Car driver to win races in four different decades and the only driver to win races (in any discipline) in five decades. He had at least one top three finish in an Indy Car race for 31 straight years! Counting all forms of motor racing, his career record includes 111 wins and 109 poles in 879 races.

Post Retirement Racing

As noted above, since his retirement Andretti has participated four times in the 24 Hours at Le Mans. In 2003, he stepped in for the injured Tony Kanaan with the idea of qualifying Kanaan's car at the Indy 500 and possibly even driving in the race if Kanaan did not recuperate in time. Andretti had not driven an Indy Car for nine years but he did more than 50 practice laps on April 23, posting a best one lap speed of 225.4 mph, which would have ultimately been good enough to qualify for the field if he could have maintained that pace for four laps. However, Andretti's practice session ended when his car struck some debris left behind from Kenny Brack's accident moments before; Andretti's car spectacularly flipped end over end but fortunately landed right side up and Andretti emerged unscathed. The mishap was not Andretti's fault and could have happened to anyone but the 63 year old wisely announced the next day that he would not be attempting to qualify for the race.


Various issues of Motor Sport magazine

"Mario Andretti Retires" by Bruce Martin, 1994 Indianapolis 500 Yearbook

Monday, August 11, 2008

Spitz Snubbed by Olympic Organizers, TV Networks

If Michael Phelps wins a record eight Olympic gold medals in swimming, Mark Spitz will not be in Beijing to congratulate him. In the 1972 Munich Olympics, Spitz not only won seven gold medals in swimming but he (and his teammates in three relay events) set seven world records, a remarkable display of dominance that will likely never be equaled, not even by Phelps. Spitz' record has already lasted 36 years, longer than such iconic standards as Babe Ruth's single season mark of 60 home runs (34 years, broken by Roger Maris) and Jim Brown's career rushing total of 12,312 yards (19 years, broken by Walter Payton). It would only be natural to assume that Spitz would be at the Olympics to congratulate Phelps and possibly award him his final medal if Phelps breaks the record. However, Spitz is understandably disappointed that he was not invited to the Olympics by the organizers, FINA (the international body that governs swimming) or the television networks: "I never got invited. You don't go to the Olympics just to say, I am going to go. Especially because of who I am. I am going to sit there and watch Michael Phelps break my record anonymously? That's almost demeaning to me. It is not almost--it is."

Spitz adds, "They voted me one of the top five Olympians in all time. Some of them are dead. But they invited the other ones to go to the Olympics, but not me. Yes, I am a bit upset about it."

Spitz believes that Phelps will break his record, noting, "He's almost identical to me. He's a world-record holder in all these events, so he is dominating the events just like I did. He reminds me of myself." It is worth noting, though, that Spitz did not have an opportunity to compete in eight events: "If they had the 50m freestyle back then, which they do now, I probably would have won that too."

I don't know if Spitz was deliberately snubbed for some reason or if this was just a ridiculous bureaucratic oversight but whoever was responsible for this decision should be ashamed. It is important to recognize and embrace history. Mark Spitz should be given a place of honor at the Beijing Olympics.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Opening Ceremony, the Olympic Ideal and the Real World

The Opening Ceremony for the Beijing Olympics was a breathtaking and beautiful tribute to the highest hopes of the human spirit and a marvel of precise technical and artistic execution. The Opening Ceremony detailed important moments in Chinese history, conveyed the message that China is at its best when its society is open to the world and stressed the importance of harmony/balance for individuals and for humanity's relationship with the delicate ecology of Earth. In short, the Opening Ceremony perfectly embodied the best aspects of the Olympic Ideal. However, any sensitive, thinking and aware person cannot help but be disturbed by the huge contrast between the themes of the Opening Ceremony and the reality of life not just in China but throughout the world.

China has constructed magnificent facilities to house the Beijing Olympics but in the process the government forcibly evicted many of its citizens from their homes with little or no compensation. It is wonderful to speak of harmony/balance but China's commercial and industrial activities have literally poisoned the air in Beijing and created a very real health risk. While China has spared no expense to put on a great show, millions of her people have to survive on the equivalent of a few dollars a day. This is actually quite typical conduct for a totalitarian regime: Nazi Germany tried to impress the world by the way that it hosted the 1936 Olympics and for decades the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc countries attempted to "prove" the superiority of communism by winning the most Olympic medals, trying to distract attention from their failing economies, repression of dissent/free speech and numerous human rights violations.

China has ruled Tibet with an iron hand for 58 years, causing much suffering and refusing to allow Tibetans to exercise the freedoms that we take for granted in the United States. China refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of the democratically elected government of the Republic of China (Taiwan); you may have noticed during the Opening Ceremony that the delegation from Taiwan was required to refer to itself as "Chinese Taipei" and forbidden to wave its national flag during the March of Nations; the delegation carried generic Olympic flags instead.

China's repressive domestic and regional policies are disturbing enough but China is also actively involved in supporting the actions of other totalitarian regimes around the world. A recent report by the New America Foundation states that China is the "most egregious violator" of the worldwide arms embargo against Sudan, a country ruled by an Islamic extremist government that is committing genocide against its non-Muslim population. China is not only virtually singlehandedly arming the Janjaweed group that is carrying out Sudan's murderous policies but China is also heavily involved with Sudan's oil industry. The New America Foundation report describes China as "the supplier of last resort for dictators and human rights abusers," citing China's military exports to Zimbabwe, Myanmar and rebel groups in Congo.

Any hope that the Olympics could provide some respite from the troubles of the real world was horrifyingly shattered when a knife wielding assailant killed the father in law of the coach of the U.S. men's volleyball team, stabbed two other people--inflicting life threatening wounds on the murder victim's wife--and then committed suicide by jumping out of a window. The attacker's motives are unknown but just two days before the Opening Ceremony the Turkistan Islamic Party released a video containing threats about terrorist attacks during the Olympics, including suicide attacks; that group has claimed responsibility for several recent terrorist attacks in China.

Thankfully, there has not been any physical violence within the Olympic venues but the Iranian delegation committed a flagrant and disgraceful desecration of the Olympic Ideal by refusing to let an Iranian swimmer compete against an Israeli swimmer. This is not the first time that the Iranian delegation has been guilty of this kind of misconduct and it really raises the question of whether Iran should be permitted to send a delegation to the Olympics at all. By not setting and enforcing standards of proper conduct, the international community gives a free pass to the very people who seek to destroy any hope of turning the Olympic Ideal into a reality.

During ancient times, the Greek city states enacted a truce during the Olympics but in the modern world the opposite is the case: a bloody conflict in the former Soviet republic of Georgia began on the eve of the Olympics, has reportedly already claimed at least 2000 lives and could very well escalate into a full fledged regional war.

Yes, it was breathtaking and inspiring to see the lighting of the Olympic torch. Yao Ming said that he was moved to tears and it is easy to understand why--but while the torch serves as a beacon of hope for what humanity is capable of at its best, real flames of death are burning around the world.

It is all too easy to spout trite sayings about how these Olympics could be a springboard to making the world a better place or that the symbolism employed during the Opening Ceremony represents a message of hope from China to the world, a signal of China's benign intentions. Unfortunately, many people thought exactly the same way about the 1936 Olympics, only to receive a rude awakening very quickly.

I'm not saying that people should not enjoy the tremendous competition taking place during the Olympics; I watched several events on Saturday and in just a few hours I will be watching intently--and then writing about--the basketball game between Team USA and China. However, at some point, in some way, we--humankind--have to really consider what we are doing to each other and to this planet. Some commentators gloss over the differences between China and the United States as "cultural misunderstandings" but it goes a lot deeper than that. The United States is a democracy that upholds freedom of speech and freedom of religion; despite a political discourse that is at times equally bitter and tawdry, there are regularly scheduled elections in the United States and an orderly transfer of power when incumbent politicians are voted out of office. China is a totalitarian country that ruthlessly suppresses free speech and the free exercise of religion. The United States is not perfect by any means but there is a big difference between a free, open society and a closed, repressive society--and that is why millions of people risk their lives to try to come to the United States in order to escape from totalitarian countries.

For those of us who are blessed to live in safety and comfort in the United States, it is all too easy to speak empty phrases about "cultural misunderstandings" but China's policies--and the policies of other totalitarian regimes--are a matter of life and death for millions of people in China, Tibet, Sudan and countless other countries. There is a temptation to close one's heart and mind to problems halfway around the world and turn our attention inward but Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sagely observed, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." That statement is a philosophical truth, a prophecy--and a warning.

Simon Wiesenthal survived the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust and could have resumed his career as an architect but instead he devoted the rest of his life to bringing Nazi war criminals to justice. He explained his life choice this way: "When we come to the other world and meet the millions of Jews who died in the camps and they ask us, 'What have you done?' there will be many answers. You will say, 'I became a jeweler.' Another will say, 'I smuggled coffee and American cigarettes.' Still another will say, 'I built houses,' but I will say, 'I didn't forget you.'"

What will we say to the victims of today's atrocities?

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Jets Acquire Favre, Maybe He Will Even Play for Them

Jay Glazer of Fox Sports reports that the Green Bay Packers have traded Brett Favre to the New York Jets. Terms of the deal have not been officially confirmed but Glazer indicates that Green Bay will receive a conditional draft pick, the value of which will be determined by Favre's performance.

Neil Everett and Stuart Scott were hosting FavreCenter when the story broke, so naturally all other sports news immediately went down the memory hole as viewers were treated to Favreapalooza 2008--highlights from his best games, plus reports from every single ESPN reporter, some of whom were probably awakened from a sound sleep so that they could breathlessly inform the nation of every word that Favre spoke to them earlier in the day before the trade had even happened (in other words, Favre quotes that were already outdated). I half expected Everett and Scott to dial up Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann to get their takes and I was surprised that Kenny Mayne did not have a "Mayne Event" feature about Favre as a Jet.

Initially, ESPN acknowledged that Glazer broke the story but pretty soon we were informed that Michael Smith had confirmed it and not long after that Glazer and Fox Sports went down the memory hole as well. By the 3 a.m. FavreCenter, ESPN will be nominating itself for an Emmy, a Pulitzer Prize and a Nobel Prize for being the first to deliver this news and thus ending our long national nightmare.

Apparently, the Favre sweepstakes came down to the Jets and the Buccaneers. The Jets want Favre because they have no faith in either of their incumbent quarterbacks, while the Buccaneers want Favre because Jon Gruden's dream is to have a roster consisting entirely of quarterbacks. Gruden was an assistant coach in Green Bay and has a history with Favre, so Favre preferred to go to Tampa Bay, which is also closer to Favre's Mississippi home. Naturally, since the entire world--nay, the entire universe--revolves around Favre, before news of the trade came down several ESPN reporters speculated that Favre is "driving the train" because he would not approve of any trade other than one sending him to Tampa Bay, thus forcing the Packers' hand because they don't want to have Favre around anymore. By the way, that's quite an accomplishment--to go from iconic figure in franchise history to despised old man who everyone hopes just goes away.

So, after the announcement that the Jets acquired Favre, Everett seemed completely dumbfounded that Favre did not get his way. After all, why shouldn't Favre get every last thing to go exactly his way? Why shouldn't Favre hold every single team in the NFL hostage? Maybe Favre can get a Clemens-like deal in which he only has to play in home games.

Moments of unintentional comedy abounded in FavreCenter coverage in the moments after news of the trade broke. Everett asked Sal Paolantonio if he (Paolantonio) would have agreed to the trade if he had been in Favre's shoes or if Favre should take his ball and going home to re-retire because Green Bay did not send him to Tampa Bay. Of course, this is a loaded question for Paolantonio to answer since he is not an NFL analyst but rather a sideline reporter who will be covering games in New York. Paolantonio called a great audible, telling Everett that he (Paolantonio) did not have such a choice in front of him and he really enjoys working for ESPN. Later, Everett asked Paolantonio how much this trade really helps the Jets. Paolantonio chuckled nervously and reminded Everett that he will be reporting from Jets' games this season (in other words, stop asking questions that I cannot answer honestly because drunken fans will be throwing beer on me if I do). Paolantonio sidestepped that land mine by saying that it is only logical to assume that the addition of Favre will improve the Jets and help them contend for a Wild Card berth, adding that otherwise it would not make sense for New York to acquire Favre.

Then Chris Mortensen joined the party and revealed that Favre really had his heart set on going to Tampa Bay. Mortensen would not rule out the possibility that Favre could decide to retire in light of this setback but then Mortensen backpedaled a bit and said that Favre saw some positives about being a Jet, too. Favre is a real piece of work. First, he grudgingly acknowledged that the Packers would probably needed to move on after he retired. Did Favre expect the franchise to simply fold after he retired or to go into suspended animation until he really, really, really retired? Now, after creating such a fuss for the past few weeks there is at least a possibility that Favre may simply stay in Mississippi, leaving the Packers, Jets and Buccaneers to clean up all of the damage caused by this turmoil.

Of course, the FavreCenter coverage would not be complete until each reporter explained how the Favre story personally impacted his life. Scott informed viewers that he had seen Favre at the ESPYs and asked how Favre was doing. Favre started to tell Scott how emotionally draining this whole ordeal has been but Scott stopped him and let Favre know that he was off duty so it was not necessary for Favre to go into such detail. Then they hugged and sang "Kumbaya" (I made that part up, though it would not surprise me if it happened). Mortensen said that it is tough covering a story that has become such a huge part of the 24 hour news cycle but that it was important because Favre is one of the greatest players ever; I half expected him to add that he got Favre's autograph at the ESPYs after Scott was done consoling Favre. Look, covering the Vietnam War was tough; covering the Iraq war is tough. Covering a diva quarterback who cannot bear being out of the spotlight is not tough.

Tampa Bay got the best deal here, because the Buccaneers escaped unscathed--Gruden deftly avoided offending any of the 25 quarterbacks on his roster and now can go back to business as usual. The Packers have had their whole offseason trashed and now every single snap that Aaron Rodgers takes will be dissected in super slow motion on FavreCenter. Good luck, kid--you're going to need it. Meanwhile, Favre's arrival in New York certainly means that Chad Pennington--who Mortensen said is a much beloved figure in the locker room--will be shipped out. I'll bet all of Pennington's friends on the team are thrilled about that. Yes, I know, this is a business and guys get traded and cut every day but the Jets are bringing in a guy who has already indicated before he even got there that he'd prefer to be in Tampa Bay. Like most older players, Favre does not want to practice and does not want to go to meetings--he just wants to play. He'll be a great example for all of the younger players on the team. The Jets were 4-12 last year and, even though they were 10-6 two years ago, it is more than a little stretch to believe that they will overtake the Patriots in the AFC East.

What happens if the Jets start 3-5--which would be a big improvement over last year--and Favre decides to really, really, really retire? Also, I don't care how many passes Favre has thrown to high school kids in the past month or two, he cannot possibly be in game shape mentally or physically. He's about to turn 39 and, believe it or not, he is not indestructible. Based on Favre's age, the amount of offseason conditioning Favre has missed and the risks of playing football when you are not fully committed to being on the field, I think that there is a good chance that he will sustain an injury that will end his remarkable consecutive games streak.

Bottom line--this will not end well for Favre or the Jets and it will be difficult for the Packers unless Rodgers plays extraordinarily well right out of the box. Congratulations, Tampa Bay--by losing the Favre sweepstakes you are in fact the big winner!

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Art Monk Highlights 2008 Pro Football Hall of Fame Class

Today the Pro Football Hall of Fame welcomed the Class of 2008: Andre Tippett, Fred Dean, Emmitt Thomas, Gary Zimmerman, Darrell Green and Art Monk. Green, who amazingly played cornerback in the NFL for 20 years, was the only first ballot selection in that group. Tippett helped New England make it to the first Super Bowl appearance in franchise history but the Patriots fell 46-10 to the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XX. Dean was a Pro Bowler with the San Diego Chargers but he really made his mark after the San Francisco 49ers acquired him in the middle of the 1981 season; he proved to be the final piece to their Super Bowl puzzle and helped the team to victory in Super Bowl XVI after that season and again in Super Bowl XIX. Similarly, Zimmerman was a standout offensive lineman for Minnesota but did not win a Super Bowl until he went to Denver, where he was John Elway's blindside protector for several years, including 1997 when the Broncos won their first Super Bowl title. Emmitt Thomas helped the Kansas City Chiefs win Super Bowl IV and he ranks ninth on the NFL's career interceptions list with 58. He has enjoyed a distinguished 26 year career as an assistant coach, winning two more Super Bowl titles along the way, and this season he will be Atlanta's head coach.

Although those five players each enjoyed great careers, the headliner of this year's class is without question Art Monk, as indicated by the fact that he gave the last speech of the night--and could not begin for four minutes due to a rousing standing ovation from the fans AND the assembled Hall of Famers. ESPN's Tom Jackson noted several times that the current Hall of Famers have been waiting for years for Monk--a finalist on seven previous occasions--to join them. Frankly, it is baffling that Monk had to wait that long. Apparently, this had something to do with him not being considered accommodating to the media during his career but if that is true than every writer who voted against him should be ashamed; this is not supposed to be a popularity contest but rather a recognition of football greatness. Monk set a record for single season receptions (106 in 1984) that stood for eight years and for almost three years he held the career reception mark, retiring with 940 catches, a total that currently ranks seventh on the all-time list. He also set a record by catching at least one pass in 183 straight games, a streak that is still the third longest ever. Monk is the first receiver to catch at least one touchdown in 15 straight seasons and he was a productive member of three Super Bowl championship teams. He is one of those players who everyone understood was a Hall of Famer during his career--during one of his highlight clips the announcer even called him a future Hall of Famer--but somehow slipped through the cracks once the official voting process began.

Before the induction ceremony, Jackson and Trey Wingo talked about Monk's protracted wait to receive this honor but they cut short that segment--and said little about the other five inductees--in order to give viewers yet another breathless update about Brett Favre, whose selfishness has now not only hurt the Green Bay Packers but also shamelessly intruded on the night during which six classy players received the highest possible football honor. I am disgusted that ESPN could not wait three hours to talk about how many millions of dollars Favre can extort from the Packers in exchange for doing what he said he planned to do all along: retire. Jackson took Favre's side and said that Favre should call the Packers' bluff, show up in camp and dare the team to end his NFL record streak of consecutive starts. Jackson added that Favre should not accept money to not play because in his heart Favre wants to play. Here's a news flash for Jackson and ESPN: if Favre really wanted to play then all he had to do was not retire in the first place.

I wondered what all of this was about until the story surfaced a couple days ago that the Packers are working on a deal to pay Favre $20 million or more as part of a "personal services contract." Basically, it's all about the Benjamins: Favre is extorting the Packers to pay him not to play. Then Chris Mortensen had the nerve to say that Favre loves the Packers too much to want to hurt the team or be a distraction--while in the same breath saying that if the Packers won't take Favre back then Favre wants to go to a team in their division so he can kick their butts twice a year; nothing shows your love for the Packers quite like beating them twice a year after ruining their whole offseason.

I've largely avoided writing about this whole Favre saga because I find his conduct so disgusting but when he interferes with the Hall of Fame ceremony that is going too far. I realize that he did not directly interfere with the ceremony but by making a public spectacle of himself he has encouraged this saturation coverage of his every text message and phone call. Football fans tuning in to the Hall of Fame ceremony deserved to hear about this year's honorees, not more Favre nonsense. Perhaps when Favre is eventually inducted the commentators can spend the minutes before that ceremony talking about Tippett, Dean, Thomas, Zimmerman, Green and Monk. That would be poetic justice.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Number One Stunner: Federer's Record Reign May be Over

Ivo Karlovic, the 6-10 Croatian who is the 22nd ranked tennis player in the world, defeated number one ranked Roger Federer 7-6 (6), 4-6, 7-6 (5) in the third round of the Cincinnati Masters tournament. Karlovic blasted 21 aces past Federer, including a 140 mph screamer that nearly knocked the racket right out of Federer's hand. Federer has been the top ranked player in the world for a record 235 consecutive weeks (Pete Sampras still holds the all-time mark with 286 total weeks as world's number one player) but the end of his reign is very much in sight; if Rafael Nadal wins the Cincinnati Masters he will officially pass Federer in the rankings.

It seems like Nadal has had to endure the Trials of Hercules to get to this point; Bum Phillips used to say that Don Shula "can take his'n and beat your'n or he can take your'n and beat his'n" and Nadal has done something similar to Federer this year: he beat Federer on Federer's favorite surface--the Wimbledon grass--and Nadal smoked Federer on the French Open clay that Nadal has tamed like no one since the great Bjorn Borg. Despite those victories in the two biggest tournaments of the year and despite an active 31 match winning streak Nadal still has not officially surpassed Federer even as the allegedly best player staggers from one early tournament exit to another throughout the year. Someone needs to take the ATP ranking formula back to the lab, because you don't have to be a tennis expert to figure out that Nadal is clearly the best player in the world and has been for several months at least.

Last year I said that Nadal had a great chance of pulling off the French-Wimbledon double--a feat that had not been accomplished since Borg incredibly did it from 1978-80--and I have repeatedly made the observation that it was extremely premature for people to trumpet Federer as the greatest player of the Open Era, let alone the greatest player of all-time. As I mentioned in a January 8, 2008 post, Borg has an edge over Federer in several key areas:

1) Youngest player to win 11 Grand Slams (25).
2) Career Grand Slam winning percentage (.898, first all-time).
3) Winning Wimbledon and the French Open in the same year (Borg did this three straight years; no one else had done this even once until Nadal accomplished the feat this year).
4) Winning three Grand Slam events without losing a single set (only three other players have won a Grand Slam without losing a set and none of them did it more than once).
5) Borg won at least one Grand Slam title in a record eight straight years (Sampras matched this feat).

Borg remains the greatest player of the Open Era; he was king of both the French Open (six titles) and Wimbledon (five titles) in an unprecedented fashion and he achieved that mastery by the age of 25, retiring from active play shortly thereafter following a year in which he made three Grand Slam finals and won one Grand Slam title. Sampras, due to his longevity at the top and the fact that he holds the career Grand Slam singles record (14), ranks second; Sampras did not have Borg's multi-surface versatility and played several years longer than Borg to move past him on the career list of Grand Slam singles winners. For now, Federer is third but Nadal is several years younger than Federer, owns a decisive head to head advantage and has already won five Grand Slam titles at an age when Federer had just claimed one Grand Slam title; Nadal certainly has a chance to surpass Federer not just in the current rankings but in the mythical Open Era rankings. I will not make the mistake that others did with Federer and prematurely crown Nadal but Nadal's achievements are very impressive and he seems more than capable of winning several more Grand Slams in the next few years.