Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Analyzing the "Harbaugh Bowl"

Super Bowl XLVII will likely always be called the "Harbaugh Bowl" (or "Harbaugh Bowl I" if brothers Jim and John Harbaugh face each other more than once in the NFL's biggest game) but the outcome will not be decided by coaching--the two excellent coaches will cancel each other out--but rather by matchups and the ability to execute under pressure.

The 2000 Baltimore Ravens won the franchise's first and only Super Bowl with a dominant defense supplemented by just enough timely scoring: their blueprint was to hold opposing teams to fewer than two touchdowns (they gave up a league-best 10.3 ppg during the regular season and an astonishing 5.8 ppg in four postseason games) and then figure out how to muster up at least 14 points from the offense and special teams (and, occasionally, the defense). The 2012 Ravens score 4.1 ppg more than the 2000 Ravens did and they allow their opponents to score 11.2 ppg more than the 2000 Ravens did; the 2012 Ravens gave up 19 ppg in their three playoff wins prior to the Super Bowl but they scored 30 ppg. Quarterback Joe Flacco may be the best long ball passer in the league, so the 2012 Ravens can threaten the entire field and thus spread the defense out to pave the way for the Ray Rice-led rushing attack.

The San Francisco 49ers were established as the early favorite and even though the initial line has tightened a bit the oddsmakers still lean toward the NFC Champion. Second year quarterback Colin Kaepernick became a starter when Alex Smith suffered a concussion and Kaepernick kept the job by proving that he could provide a big play dynamic that Smith lacks; Kaepernick initially made his name as a runner but he also has a strong arm and he reads defenses surprisingly well considering his lack of NFL experience. The 49ers are a big, physical team on both sides of the ball, ranking fourth in rushing--the hallmark of a physical offensive team--and second in points allowed. Kaepernick shredded the Green Bay Packers with 181 yards rushing (setting the NFL single game record for rushing yards by a quarterback in the regular season or playoffs) in a 45-31 Divisional Round playoff win and then he picked apart the Atlanta Falcons with 16-21 passing for 233 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions in a 28-24 NFC Championship Game win.

The biggest key to the Super Bowl will be whether or not the Ravens can contain the running game featuring Frank Gore, LaMichael James and Kaepernick without getting gashed by Kaepernick's precision passing. My rooting interest in this game is well-documented--my heart does not want to see Ray Lewis lead Art Modell's former team to victory--but that does not affect my ability to objectively analyze this contest: I would pick the Ravens if I thought that they were the better team but, even though they may be able to match the 49ers' physicality, the Super Bowl will be decided by two or three explosive offensive plays created by the hands and/or feet of Kaepernick. San Francisco will win, 31-21.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Pro Football Hall of Fame Must Never Enshrine Art Modell

When Art Modell passed away last September, this is how I summarized his legacy: "In one of the most famous scenes in cinematic history, Marlon Brando (playing boxer Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront) laments, "I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let's face it." Modell could have been a Cleveland hero, a beloved figure and a Pro Football Hall of Famer but instead he is widely viewed as a betrayer. His downfall is his own fault but that does not make it any less tragic; indeed, the hubris and shortsightedness that often leads to ruin are the very essence of tragedy."

Modell is a Finalist for enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Terry Pluto brilliantly explains why Modell's career falls far short of Hall of Fame quality. You should read the entire article but here is a particularly noteworthy passage:

When it comes to winning, the strongest statement for Modell in the Hall of Fame is really a case for Blanton Collier to be in the Hall of Fame. 

Modell bought the Browns in 1961. He fired legendary coach Paul Brown a year later. Many Browns fans still hold that against him. After researching my book, Browns Town 1964, most of the members of that championship team told me that Modell made the right move. Brown had become rigid and very impatient with his players. 

Collier was a Paul Brown disciple, only with a personality better suited to the players of that era -- and a more modern approach to the game. In Brown's last four years in Cleveland, his records were 7-5, 8-3-1, 8-5-1 and 7-6-1. In Collier's first four, the Browns were 10-4, 10-3-1, 11-3 and 9-5. 

Collier made them a better team, period. 

From 1962-69, the Browns went to the NFL championship game four times in eight years, winning in 1964. Collier's record was 74-34, a .688 winning percentage. Collier also ran the football side of the front office.

Collier retired as head coach in 1971. In the next 25 years, the Browns were 187-188 ... with 12 winning seasons. Modell went through seven coaches after Collier, and only two had winning records -- Nick Skorich (30-24) and Marty Schottenheimer (44-27). Modell's playoff record after Collier was 4-10. 

That is Modell's resume as the Browns' owner: one good coaching hire leading to a brief period of success, followed by a quarter century of mediocrity culminating in financial ruin--something that is very difficult to do in a league that is flush with cash and that makes a point of distributing that cash as evenly as possible. Even the infusion of cash Modell received by fleeing to Baltimore only temporarily made him solvent and just a few years after traitorously abandoning the loyal Cleveland fans Modell was forced to sell his team--negating the very reason he gave for moving in the first place (namely, to keep the team in his family). It would be a travesty if the Pro Football Hall of Fame opens its doors to Modell; the only Halls of Fame he belongs in are the Hall of Mediocrity and the Hall of Betrayal.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

NFL Playoffs Potpourri

Here are some quick-hitting facts and observations about the 2012 NFL playoffs:

1) Peyton Manning had a great comeback season in 2012, leading Denver to a 13-3 record and the top seed in the AFC playoffs, but his Broncos went 0-1 in the playoffs one year after Tim Tebow's Broncos went 1-1 in the playoffs; both squads lost in the Divisional Round. Manning has won just nine of his 20 playoff starts and his teams have lost their first postseason game a record eight times. Manning's teams have earned the number one seed three times; in 2009, his Indianapolis Colts lost in the Super Bowl but in both 2005 and 2012 Manning's teams failed to win a playoff game. In 1999, 2005, 2007, 2010 and 2012 Manning's teams lost their first playoff game despite owning home field advantage. Is Manning so great that he enables his teams to win more games than they should win in the regular season only to be defeated by superior teams in the playoffs or does Manning choke in the postseason? Ironically, John Elway--who dumped Tebow and signed Manning--faced a very similar question for most of his career until he led the Broncos to back to back Super Bowl titles. My take about Manning is that he is indisputably a great player but that he consistently performs below par in the playoffs and that it is reasonable to say that based on the quality of his supporting casts throughout his career his teams should have enjoyed more postseason success.

2) Tom Brady won his first 10 playoff starts--including three Super Bowl appearances--but he has a Peyton Manning-like 7-7 record in his last 14 playoff starts, including two Super Bowl losses as a favorite and Sunday's AFC Championship Game loss to Baltimore as a home favorite. Would Brady be viewed differently if he had started out his playoff career 7-7 only to then reel off 10 straight victories? It seems like Brady's tremendous early run has made him somewhat immune to criticism because not much is made of how inconsistently he has performed in the postseason since the New England Patriots won their last Super Bowl title; Brady has posted a passer rating of at least 100 in five playoff games since 2004 and the Patriots won all five of those games--but he followed up each of those games with a game in which he posted a passer rating no higher than 74 and the Patriots went just 3-2 in those contests. Baltimore has been a particularly tough playoff opponent for Brady, defeating his Patriots two out of three times while holding Brady to passer ratings of 49.1, 57.5 and 62.3. Brady had 14 touchdowns and just three interceptions in his first 10 playoff games but in his last 14 playoff games he has accumulated 28 touchdowns and 19 interceptions--and if you take his six touchdown, one interception game versus Denver last season out of that mix then he barely has more touchdowns than interceptions in his other 13 playoff games since 2004. Brady's three Super Bowl wins and the overall level of excellence that he has demonstrated in both the regular season and the playoffs have established him as one of the greatest quarterbacks ever but Brady's extended run of playoff mediocrity since 2004 will keep him a notch below Otto Graham (seven championships and 10 championship game appearances in 10 seasons) and Joe Montana (four Super Bowl wins without a Super Bowl loss) unless Brady closes his career with quite a flourish.

3) In the past year we have lived through "Linsanity" and "Tebowmania" but Colin Kaepernick is one win away from crafting a story that would top both of those phenomenons combined--at least in substance, if not in hype. Kaepernick, a second year midseason replacement for an efficient veteran quarterback (Alex Smith) who led San Francisco to the 2011 NFC Championship Game, began his playoff career by setting an all-time record for single game rushing yards by a quarterback (181) as the 49ers defeated the Green Bay Packers and then he authored an efficient passing performance (16-21, 233 yards, one touchdown, zero interceptions) as the 49ers beat the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game. Brady's Super Bowl run began when he replaced an injured Drew Bledsoe, just like Kaepernick stepped in after Smith suffered a concussion; might Kaepernick turn out to be not just a brief phenomenon but rather a truly great player?

4) The 49ers went 6-10 during the 2010 season. In January 2011, they promoted Trent Baalke from Director of Player Personnel to General Manager. Days later, Baalke hired Jim Harbaugh as the team's head coach. Harbaugh brought out the best in Alex Smith and led San Francisco to a 13-3 record. This season, Harbaugh helped develop Kaepernick into an extremely effective starter as the 49ers marched to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1994 season. San Francisco's quick rise is yet another validation of Bill Walsh's dictum that it only takes three years to turn around an NFL team if the owner selects the right general manager and if that general manager then finds the right coach and the right quarterback. The Cleveland Browns' general managers and coaches since 1999 should wear ski masks when they cash their checks because they are stealing money; there is no excuse for a team to be horrible for more than a decade when the ownership has consistently been willing to spend money; the Browns' problem is that this money has been spent freely and extravagantly but not wisely.

5) No matter what anyone says or writes in the next two weeks, Ray Lewis' legacy is defined by the fact that at the very least he obstructed justice in a still-unsolved double murder--and he may, in fact, have actually participated in that double murder. Keep that in mind as various media members enthusiastically participate in the transformation of Lewis from great football player into some kind of secular saint/prophet. Of all the Biblical quotes that Lewis could choose to repeat, it is odd--considering his role in the aforementioned double murder case--that he keeps saying that no weapon formed against him or his team shall prosper. Did he utter those words on that fateful night in 2000 as two young men were brutally stabbed to death? If the Baltimore Ravens win the Super Bowl and dedicate that victory to Lewis and to the memory of Art Modell that will be a truly sad moment not just in NFL history but in American history. I hope that Lewis is sincere about dedicating his life now to being a good person but he has still yet to fully explain his role in the double murder--let alone atone for that role--and Modell broke the hearts of a Cleveland fan base that loyally supported him and his team for three decades.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Mike Anders is Gone Too Soon but His Joyful Spirit Will Never be Forgotten

I will never forget Mike Anders' smile.

This picture represents how I will always remember Mike--a big, welcoming smile on his face and an M&Ms tie hinting at his whimsical, non-conformist nature. It is shocking and saddening to speak of Mike in the past tense but I recently found out that Mike and both of his passengers died on Mike's 58th birthday when the plane that Mike was piloting crashed into a house in Florida; the house was totaled but the homeowner jumped out of a window and survived. Susan Crockett is understandably grateful to be alive but when she credits God for keeping her safe that raises the uncomfortable and unanswerable question, "Why did God not keep Mike and his friends safe?" I have spent a lot of time thinking about/agonizing over that issue (not just relating to Mike but as it pertains to all of human history) but this article is meant as a tribute to Mike, not as a forum to debate theology or theodicy.

I first met Mike on October 15, 1994 when I played in a chess tournament called Road to Isengard, held at the Cincinnati Country Day School located just outside of Cincinnati, Ohio. Mike was a teacher at the school and he organized the tournament in two sections, one for scholastic players only and one open to players of all ages. I scored 4/6 in the Open section, tying for 6th-10th place out of 32 participants. The tournament was well run, it featured strong competition and Anders' joyful personality was infectious--he related well to everyone, regardless of playing strength or age. I was hooked and for the next seven years I was a regular participant in Mike's tournaments, driving over an hour from Dayton more than three dozen times to cross swords with Masters, Experts and rising young players from Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and other locales. During that period I improved my rating from the low 1900s to as high as 2114, in no small part because of the fertile chess landscape that Anders lovingly cultivated. After Mike left Cincinnati Country Day, he became a beloved teacher, golf coach and chess organizer in Kentucky, as described in this wonderful portrait of Mike's selfless devotion to Clinton County High School.

Even after Mike's relocation he was still a presence on the Ohio chess scene, flying to various tournaments to sell books/merchandise or work as an assistant director, all the while visiting with old friends and making new ones. I looked forward to seeing Mike at the Columbus Open--where he set up shop outside the main tournament hall and spent the whole day shooting the breeze--and at the Kings Island Open, where he worked as one of the directors in the main playing area. The Kings Island tournament often coincides with Veterans Day and every year during one of his pre-round announcements Mike would ask all of the veterans in the tournament hall to stand and receive a well deserved round of applause. Prior to the last round, Mike would say that if each player returned the next year and brought just one friend then we could double the attendance and make the biggest tournament in Ohio even bigger and better. Those statements provide a glimpse at Mike's personality, his thoughtfulness and the fun way that he tried to promote chess.

I only played one rated game versus Mike--and he beat me, even though I outrated him by more than 350 points at the time. A search of the U.S. Chess Federation's Member Services Area, which contains data from 1991 until the present, reveals that I am one of the highest rated players Mike ever defeated; Mike had a peak post-1991 rating of 1774, he was usually rated between 1600-1700 and his final rating of 1654 placed him above the 84th percentile among USCF members. All chess players are proud of their upset wins, so as a tribute to Mike here is his 4/17/99 win against me in the Melee at Amon Hew tournament, one of Mike's Cincinnati Country Day events (each of which was named after some incident or personality from the Lord of the Rings saga). The game was played with a G/55 time control (plus a five second delay):
Friedman,David (1962) - Anders,Mike (1610) [A04]
Melee at  Amon Hew G/55, 17.04.1999
1.Nf3 b6 An uncommon reply, though GM Veselin Topalov used it in December 1999 in a short draw versus GM Boris Gelfand. 2.g3 Bb7 3.Bg2 e5 4.d3 d6 5.0–0 Be7 6.Nbd2 Nf6 7.e4 0–0 8.Nc4 Nc6 9.c3 White has not achieved anything special in the opening--a defect in my playing style at that time--and Black has easily equalized. 9...Ba6 10.Qa4 Nb8 11.Ne3!? [11.Qc2=] 11...Qd7!? Black could have won a pawn: 11...Bxd3 12.Rd1 Bxe4 13.Nxe5 Bxg2 14.Kxg2 Qe8 15.Qxe8 Rxe8 16.Nf3 Nc6³ 12.Qc2 Nc6 13.Nf5 g6!? 14.Nh6+² Kg7 15.Nh4!? [15.a4 Nd8 16.b4²] 15...Ng8 16.Nxg8 Rxg8 17.Qd2 Bxh4!? [17...Rge8] 18.Qh6+ Kh8 19.Qxh4 h5 20.Bh3 Qe8 21.Qg5 Qf8 22.Qe3 g5!? Mike liked to attack, even at the cost of weakening his position. 23.Bd7 Nd8 24.Rd1!? I maneuvered to set up a central pawn break but 24.Qe2 g4 25.f3± emphasizes the weaknesses in Black's K-side pawn structure. 24...Bc8 25.Bxc8 Rxc8 26.d4 Nc6 27.b3 Qg7 28.Bb2 Kh7 29.Rd2 Rce8 30.d5 Ne7 31.c4 g4 32.Rf1 Instead of opening the game to my advantage eight moves ago, I wasted time and gave Black the opportunity to consolidate. The position is now equal again. 32...Ref8 33.f3 f5? This mistake brings White's B back to life. [33...gxf3 34.Qxf3 Qg6=] 34.f4± Qh6 35.Rdf2 exf4 36.Rxf4 Ng6 37.exf5 Nxf4?? This should have been the losing move but White is also better after 37...Rxf5 38.Qe4 Rxf4 39.gxf4± 38.Rxf4? [38.Qe7+ Rg7 39.Qxf8 Nd3 40.Qxg7+ Qxg7 41.Bxg7+-] 38...Re8= White missed a win but still has full compensation for the sacrificed Exchange and the game should be drawn with correct play. 39.Qd3!? 39.Qc3 is much more active. 39...Re1+ 40.Kf2 Rge8 41.f6+?? The losing move. White is still in the battle after 41.Bc3 R1e2+ 42.Qxe2 Rxe2+ 43.Kxe2 41...Qg6–+ 42.Qxg6+ Kxg6 43.Kg2 R8e2+ 44.Rf2 The R trade is forced and Black's remaining R will dominate White's B. 44...Rxf2+ 45.Kxf2 Rh1 46.Kg2 Rd1 47.Bc3 Rc1 48.Bd4 Rc2+ 49.Kg1 Rxa2 50.b4 Ra4 51.Bc3 Ra3 0–1

Even though he won his first three games, Mike did not play in the last round of that event so that no one would be forced to have a bye; Mike was a fierce competitor but his first priority as a director/organizer was to ensure that everyone who came to his tournaments had a good time, so he gave up a chance at clear first place. I won my last two games and tied Mike for first place along with Brandon Kreines, who was then a promising junior player.

Mike loved to fly and he often raved about the great freedom he obtained by buying his own small airplane; he could easily start the day in one part of the country and end the day hundreds of miles away enjoying a meal at a fine restaurant and good conversation with friends. When I heard that Mike's plane nosedived into a house I knew that something must have gone terribly wrong very quickly, because Mike would have never endangered someone on the ground if there had been any way for him to crash/emergency land in an open area; during his final conversation with the air traffic controller, Mike mentioned that there were "three souls"--not just three people, but "three souls"--aboard the plane and I believe he did everything he could both to protect those souls and the souls on the ground. It is unbearably sad to think about Mike's final moments but I smile when I think of all the good times I had playing in his tournaments in the late 1990s/early 2000s and when I think of the many pleasant conversations we had in recent years at the Columbus Open and at Kings Island. The 2012 Kings Island tournament--where I tied for first place in the U2100 section--is the last time that I saw Mike. I don't remember all of the specifics of our last conversation--how was I to know that it would be our last conversation?--but I remember him smiling, as always, and I remember that he congratulated me for how well I was playing. I also know that I regularly made a point of telling him how much I loved his Country Day tournaments and he always reciprocated by telling me how much he appreciated that I attended them more regularly even than many players who actually lived in the Cincinnati area. It is so important to tell the special people in your life why they are special and I am glad that I made sure Mike knew how much I enjoyed the way that he organized those events. I had a special moment recently at the Dayton Chess Club when Riley Driver publicly acknowledged my devoted participation in club events, a gesture that truly touched me, and just like I appreciated what Riley did for me I hope that Mike really understood the sincerity of my praise.

We all have to cherish every day because life can end in an instant. If someone has made a positive impact on your life, thank that person as soon as possible because you may not get another chance to do so.

Rest in peace, Mike; you will always be remembered for your joyful nature and for the many lives that you touched.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Ray Lewis' Legacy

Ray Lewis is indisputably a great football player and he may be the greatest middle linebacker of all time. Ever since he announced that he will retire after the Baltimore Ravens finish their playoff run, there has been a widespread outpouring of respect, admiration and even love directed at Lewis. Lewis is praised not just for his athletic skills and accomplishments but also for his leadership, his character and his humanitarian efforts. Little to no mention is made of his role in a brutal double murder. Lewis was initially one of three men charged with killing Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar outside of an Atlanta club a few hours after Super Bowl XXXIV (January 31, 2000). After several months of lying to investigators and stonewalling the prosecutors, Lewis avoided a jail sentence by pleading guilty to obstruction of justice and agreeing to testify at the trial of his co-defendants Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting.

The Fulton County medical examiner described the fatal injuries to Baker and Lollar not as random stabbings but rather as "well-directed wounds into vital areas." In other words, this was not a bar fight that got out of control with people swinging wild, uncoordinated punches but rather two cold-blooded murders. Lewis denied participating in the violence, a stance contradicted by some eyewitnesses. Ultimately, prosecutors could not prove that Lewis murdered Baker and Lollar but sworn testimony indicated that Lewis actively covered up whatever actually happened, as noted in the AP story describing Lewis' plea agreement: The bloodstained white suit Lewis wore that fateful night has never been found, Lewis' limo driver stated that Lewis told the limo passengers "Just keep your mouth shut and don't say nothing" and a limo passenger said that Lewis' girlfriend Jessica Robertson burned a photo of Lewis' entourage (thus making it very difficult for prosecutors to track down possible assailants and/or witnesses). Blood matching Baker's was found in Lewis' limo and, as part of the plea agreement, Lewis admitted that he gave a misleading statement to police in the immediate aftermath of the crime.

I don't know if Lewis is guilty of double murder but these are the facts:

1) Lewis' friends became involved in an altercation with Baker and Lollar, with Lewis present on the scene and a witness to what ensued.
2) Baker and Lollar received fatal stab wounds as a result of this altercation.
3) Lewis testified that Sweeting told him that "Every time they hit me, I hit them" and that he (Sweeting) admitted that he had a knife in his hand when he was throwing punches.
4) Lewis testified that Sweeting, Oakley and Kwame King (a third Lewis friend who was present during the violence but not charged with a crime) each bought knives at a sporting goods store one day before the Super Bowl.

If Lewis did not kill one or both murder victims it is reasonable to assume that he knows who did. Lewis participated in a cover-up for several months until he and his high-priced attorneys arranged the plea bargain that kept him out of jail and saved his football career. Oakley and Sweeting were eventually acquitted--in no small part because Lewis and his entourage provided minimal cooperation, at best, with investigators--and the double murder case has never been solved. Lewis eventually reached out of court civil settlements with the families of both victims.

We will continue to be bombarded with adoring articles and TV stories about Lewis but everyone who soaks up the Lewis hagiography should also take the time to remember Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar. Ray Lewis' life is not worth more than Jacinth Baker's or Richard Lollar's just because Lewis is a great football player--and while Lewis deserves praise for his work ethic and accomplishments, Baker and Lollar deserve more than just being swept down the proverbial Orwellian memory hole while media sycophants rush to not just give Lewis his due as a player but to almost canonize him as some kind of great humanitarian. Lewis is a great football player but how can one possibly atone for participating in and/or covering up a double murder?

Is it realistic to expect ESPN, the NFL Network and other media entities to devote substantial coverage to the Baker/Lollar case as Lewis' career winds down? No, it is not--but it is disgraceful that those media entities go so far overboard with their praise of Lewis the person without even mentioning that he pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in an unsolved double murder. Making 10 or 15 tackles in a playoff game does not prove that you are a warrior or a leader or a hero; stopping two murders from happening--or at least telling the truth about those murders so that the killers are brought to justice and the victims' families receive some small measure of closure--is something that a warrior/leader/hero would do. More than a decade later, we are still waiting for Ray Lewis to prove that he is truly that kind of warrior/leader/hero.

Here are two stories about Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar:

'There is no justice'

Ray Lewis' Trip To The Super Bowl As A Star Kindles Renewed Anger In The Families Of 2 Men Killed After Last Year's Game