timbersfan's WunderBlog

Wanted: Strikers with confidence

By: timbersfan, 12:25 AM GMT on September 29, 2012

Arsenal and Chelsea are both unbeaten, but when the two London giants clash at the Emirates tomorrow (7:30 a.m. ET, ESPN 2) the most dangerous seats in the house may be those directly behind the goals. Both teams have been uncharacteristically profligate in attack this season. Chelsea have mustered a mediocre 24 shots on target. Arsenal's shooting accuracy percentage is 27.1 percent, bettering only the woefully uncalibrated Wigan, West Ham, Reading and Liverpool.


Although Roberto Di Matteo's team rode winning ugly all the way to Champions League glory last May, owner Roman Abramovich has made it clear he is judging the club by a different, more aesthetic standard this season. His desire hovers above every performance, creating an unrealistic sense of expectation. As a result, few teams have given their fans more to fret about while going top of the table. Di Matteo could be forgiven for internally channeling the sentiment of then-Brazil coach, Carlos Parreira, who vented his frustration to domestic critics in 2006, asking "Why do Brazil have to play beautifully and the others don't?"

This Arsenal team, meanwhile, have been the antithesis of Arsene Wenger's familiar style. Though defensively stubborn, conceding just two goals, they have appeared oddly shorn of composure in the final third of the field.

Both teams have been bruised by a sense of loss: Chelsea by the impending short-term absence of John Terry on disciplinary grounds; Arsenal by the curdling insecurity catalyzed by the departure of Robin van Persie. Last week, both teams needed late strikes by defenders to bail them out of games. Ashley Cole popped up in front of goal to pierce Stoke's resistance; Laurent Koscielny lashed the ball past Joe Hart to salvage a richly deserved point at Manchester City.



GettyImages / Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images
What's on El Nino's mind? Chelsea supporters will hope it's goals, as the striker has scored just nine times in 51 league games for the club.
As a result, Saturday's game is about more than the three points on offer. Chelsea will meet heavyweight opposition in the Premier League for the first time this season. The West Londoners will seek to eradicate lingering memories of their only real test this season, the Champions League opener against Juventus, from which they stumbled away unconvincingly with a 2-2 draw.

Top of the table they may be, yet on the field, the Blues carry the stink of an outfit built to pummel their opponents with size and power. Though Juan Mata, Oscar and Eden Hazard (responsible for seven of Chelsea's nine league goals with 1 goal and 6 assists) can provide elements of the fast-thinking, fleet-footed football Abramovich is said to crave, the pieces are yet to meld. Chelsea remain a team in transition. Too often, watching them is akin to flipping between two radio stations on a road trip.

Arsenal struggled in August but proceeded to dismantle both Liverpool and Southampton before battling defending champions City with gusto. Reports of their demise upon van Persie's departure now appear greatly exaggerated.

With Mikel Arteta imperiously imposing himself from a deep-lying position, Abou Diaby charging forward with his signature leggy energy, and the mischievous Santi Cazorla leading the league in passes crafted in the final third, the midfield have played with the joyful naivete of Dumbo upon learning to fly. A win against their London rivals will affirm their true stature as credible title-challengers in a season in which all of their competitors appear deeply flawed.

For all the attack-minded talent taking the field, neither team can boast a goal scorer ranked in the league's top 10. Despite the mounds of cash both teams have invested to boost their offensive capabilities, they are currently shamed by the likes of Southampton's $1.7 million signing Rickie Lambert and Swansea's early-season $3.2 million sensation Michu.


Arsene Wenger has admitted that the plan for replacing RvP's 30 league goals is to split the scoring burden and “share it around a bit." New arrival Lukas Podolski, who leads the team with two goals, may feel comfortable enough to contemplate having the Arsenal crest tattooed onto his right arm but $21.1 million summer signing Olivier Giroud is yet to score in the league.



GettyImages / Julian Finney/Getty Images
Olivier Giroud scored in the league cup this week, but also fluffed a penalty.
The Frenchman opened his account with a cultivated chip in the Capital One Cup against League One side Coventry City during a 6-1 demolition. He also fluffed a penalty, valiantly admitting that the presence of two English strippers who invaded the field clad only in their underwear did not contribute to his error. Wenger focused on the positive after the game, professing postmatch, "It was a good finish … at the moment I believe he is looking for confidence and that goal will help him.”

The savvy Wenger neglected to mention that Giroud's lack of confidence could have been reinforced by watching the pitiful Gervinho selected ahead of him against Manchester City. The Ivorian exhibited a display so lax, it bordered on the ironic.

In his early-season performances, Giroud has appeared out of sync, like a man eager to deliver a spoken-word performance while the rest of his teammates sing a tender choral arrangement. Wenger will hope this lack of form can be attributed to the Premier League learning curve. After scoring this week, Giroud admitted he had suffered from a lack of confidence. “The fact I hadn't scored played in my head... [the goal] lifts the weight off my shoulders,” he told the press. “This must be the beginning of a beautiful adventure.”

Giroud's opposite number, Fernando Torres, is another fragile psyche for whom the Capital One Cup offered a brief yet welcome respite. The Spaniard chipped in with a header during Chelsea's 6-0 romp over Wolves. He could, in truth, have scored a handful more.

Last week against Stoke, Torres appeared glumly inconsistent, as if experiencing every touch as an attempt to rekindle his self-confidence. The striker has scored just nine times in 51 league games for Chelsea -- a goal count equal to the number of eager proclamations that his form is “back.” He is fast becoming football's equivalent of the Black Orlov Diamond, cursing all those who manage him.

Last season, Torres conceded he suffered from a lack of confidence so crippling he became too "scared" to move into scoring positions for fear of failing. Back then, the powerful Ivorian Didier Drogba picked up the slack. Drogba has since moved to Shanghai Shenhua in China. Last Saturday, at the very same time Chelsea labored against Stoke, Drogba netted for his new club, triggering both a wave of nostalgia among Chelsea fans and a sense of absence.

Upon striking the winning penalty in the Champions League final, Drogba described the security of his mindset. "I was confident … I wanted to score for my teammates. I wanted to make Chelsea smile.”

If either Arsenal or Chelsea can field a striker with an iota of that self-assurance, they will move from blunt force to true threat.

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Welcome to the Elaborate Chat

By: timbersfan, 10:39 PM GMT on September 28, 2012

As the old saying goes, you're only as good as your readers. Fine, that isn't an old saying — I made it up. But since we spent the week riding reader e-mails with Tuesday's mailbox reaction piece and Thursday's posthumous replacement referee mailbag, let's keep the momentum going with Week 4 picks. I wouldn't call this a full-fledged mailbag — more of an elaborate chat. Next week, I promise to write a coherent column again or die trying. As always, these are actual e-mails from actual readers.

RAVENS (-12) over Browns

Q: Yes, God hates Cleveland. Yes, the Browns are the worst team in the league. Would they be the first team in history where the odds would have been better at the beginning of the year for an 0-16 season over an AFC championship (or even an AFC North Division Title)? I think I may start just betting on them to go 0-16 every year, that way when it does happen, I'll at least have some money in my pocket to waste on having a draft party to watch them get a 37 year old running back with the top pick. Speaking of, with Matt Barkley being the consensus best QB, I think the Browns will pass over him because Brandon Weeden is "their guy" and he'll go on to be the best QB in league history. Or, they'll draft Barkley and he'll be terrible, because, well, they're the Browns.
—JT Malloy, Washington, DC

SG: I picked the Ravens -12 last night for a variety of reasons, but mainly because of this e-mail. "Skunk of the Week" update: I'm 0-4 on Wednesdays and Thursdays and 24-19-2 on Sundays and Mondays. Would the odds have been better of me finishing 0-17 on Thursdays or winning the LVH's SuperContest? Probably Thursday, right?

Q: Are you kidding about getting the replacement refs out of here??? Do you know what is happening on Sunday Night on November 18th? Ravens-Steelers!! Don't you want to see these idiots overseeing the best rivalry in football? Everything is on the table. Full scale brawl. Someone getting hit so hard they literally get decapitated. I bet the Steelers would even try to do something dumb like retire Hines Ward's number. Personally, I can't wait!!
—Brandon C., Baltimore

SG: That was from the "Boy, was it fun looking for possible mailbag questions during the referee lockout" files. RIP.

Q: A friend of mine who lives a mile away from M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore says that the "bullshit" chant in the 4th quarter was audible out where she lives (Charm City Pride!) If the refs had ruled Cundiff-I-mean-Tucker's kick no-good, would the Baltimore fans have jumped the shark on Raider Nation and started the first ref riot?
—Austin Wall, Philadelphia

SG: Your consolation prize — there's never been a louder "bullshit" chant at a sporting event. Wouldn't you rather have that on Baltimore's résumé than a frightening riot? Let's add that to the "Welcome to Baltimore" sign on whatever the highway is there: "WELCOME TO BALTIMORE: HOME OF THE WIRE AND THE WORLD'S LOUDEST BULLSHIT CHANT."

Panthers (+7) over FALCONS

Q: On your podcast you were talking about Cam's checking out when things weren't going well. He's EXACTLY like Russell Westbrook. They look alike, they're reckless with their bodies, athletic as hell, and can be pouty as hell too. Great parallel.
—Daman, Los Angeles

SG: I'm disappointed you didn't go with Alex Ovechkin for the rarely seen Cross-Sport/Cross-Racial/Cross-Continent trifecta comparison.

Q: You blamed Cam Newton for last week's Giants loss. I am starting to think the Panthers' problem is Ron Rivera. The only person he has out coached is the interim interim coach for the Saints.
—Brad K., Winston-Salem, NC

SG: Yeah, but in Ron Rivera's defense, he worked the Saints' interim interim coach like a speedbag. You don't bring an interim interim coach into Ron Rivera's house! I'm grabbing the points this week for four reasons: There are too many people on Atlanta's Super Bowl bandwagon (à la the Niners last week); the Panthers will be beyond fired up after last week's stink bomb; everyone and his brother will be teasing the Falcons with a second team on Sunday (never good); and the Falcons can't run the ball well enough to protect a big lead. Remember that near-collapse against Denver in Week 2? I hate laying big points with teams that can't run the ball. It's just too bad Michael Turner isn't still alive.

Patriots (-4.5) over BILLS

Q: Can you look up the win-loss record of the Patriots when they're up by 6 or less with 5 or less minutes left on the clock in the 4th quarter? It can't be good. Whenever a halfway decent team has a chance to win the game on the last drive I feel like I'm going to puke. This is exactly how the Patriots lost both Superbowls to the Giants. I don't really have anything particularly clever or humorous to add in hopes of seeing this email in a mail bag but holy crap I hate the 4th quarter Patriots.
—Trent, Orlando

SG: You know, I thought about spending 25 minutes looking this up until realizing that I didn't want to know the answer. Remember the days when the Belichick/Brady Pats closed like Mariano Rivera when Mariano Rivera was still Mariano Rivera? What happened? Seriously, what the hell happened?

Q: When is the Curse of Vinatieri going to be talked about? How many close games have we lost since this guy left?
—Mykes Deal, Glassboro, NJ

SG: And … good God.

Q: Can you remember when the last time the Patriots closed out a big game with a stellar late-game offensive drive or with a big defensive play? Me neither. Are we near the "end" for the Patriots?
—John Lamontagne, Boston

SG: (Staring ahead grimly like Norv Turner does after a botched shotgun snap.)

Q: When was the last time the Patriots beat a really good team? Also, I can't wait for the Pats to win the next 9 games of their easy schedule, get every Pats fan to believe in them again, only for them to lose to Houston and then eventually lose in the first round of the playoffs. I hate life.
—Myles Deal, Glassboro

SG: This is torture. I want this to stop right now or I'm walking out of the mailbag and using a Replacement Columnist. If you're going to depress me about the Pats, at least be funny.

Q: No doubt Belichick is a great coach, headed for the HoF but his after game press conferences are PRICELESS. After the loss to the Ravens, watching him give his patented look of disgust at actually having to talk to the press was typical but I noticed for the first time all the disgusting sounds that emanate from him after each answer. Sucking on his teeth, burping into the microphone, the short grunting sounds, his Goodwill wardrobe … I say we have our official NFL hobo.
—Scott, Austin

SG: That gave me a slight smile. You're right, Belichick always plays the role of "coach" the same way an undercover cop would dress if he were pretending to be homeless. Maybe he doesn't want people to think he's a mastermind so he looks and acts like a hobo? Like, he's throwing them off the scent?

Q: So the mighty Patriots, in their home opener, hosted the plucky upstart Arizona Cardinals from the weak NFC West in week 2. Everything about the situation and the way the Patriots played reeks of a Milton Berle Game. Only they lost, which prompted me to think there should be a name for playing a Milton Berle Game and losing. I am thinking a Jeffrey Ross Game, but I am open to suggestions.
—Dave, Overland Park, KS

SG: Ding, ding! We have a winner! Now I'm cheered up again.

Q: With Brady, Vollmer, Connolly, Mankins, Solder, Wendell, Welker, Woodhead, Edelman, & Gronkowski, are the 2012 Patriots officially the whitest offense in NFL history? Even the 1773 Patriots had Crispus Attucks.
—Andy Sayegh, Shreswbury, MA

SG: Twice a year, I stumble across a stupendously good reader e-mail and think about stealing it, then pretending I never saw it, before ultimately deciding against it for karmic reasons. This is one of those times. My only nitpick: You could have tweaked the joke and said Brandon Lloyd was Crispus Attucks. As for the Pats-Bills game, anytime someone is favored by more than four but less than six, that means the betting public is totally confused by the game. The Pats are favored by 4.5, sticking this squarely in the Vegas Zone. But can you really see Brady and Hobo Bill Belichick losing three in a row because Ryan Fitzpatrick, Tashard Choice and a hobbled Fred Jackson went bonkers at home?

CHIEFS (+1) over Chargers

Q: Out or morbid curiosity today I looked at the wild card standings to see how far out my Royals were, for the same reason cutters inflict pain on themselves (to remind themselves their alive.) They're only 15 games out. Those are the kinds of thoughts you have as a Royals fan — only 15 games out of the wild card! But did you know the Red Sox were 18 games out? Kansas City fans are looking down on you. And you didn't think this baseball season could get any worse.
—Dennis M., DC

SG: That cut deep. If the Red Sox finish the season 3-3 or worse, they'll officially become the worst Red Sox team of my lifetime. Good times … never seemed soooo good! So good! So good! So good! Meanwhile, we're one realistic Chiefs victory away from the Chargers finishing September with a disappointing record as everyone wonders if Norv Turner's job is safe. Since this scenario has happened every September since 1939, I'm picking the Chiefs.

Seahawks (-3) over RAMS

Q: Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees are 2-9; Kevin Kolb is 3-0. Norv Turner is guaranteed to end this September with at least as many wins as Bill Belichick, and probably one more. The NFC West is in the conversation for the best division in football. And fans are talking reverently about the real NFL referees. Does anyone doubt the Mayans anymore?
—Dave, Oklahoma

Q: A Brief History of Seattle Sports:
1969 — Pilots leave Seattle, become Milwaukee Brewers
1987 — Sonics draft Scottie Pippen, trade him for Olden Polynice
1994 — Sonics become first No. 1 seed to lose to No. 8 in playoffs
2001 — Mariners win record 116 games, lose in 5 to Yankees
2004 — "We want the ball and we're gonna score" -Matt Hasselbeck
2005 — Seahawks make first Super Bowl, lose amid questionable officiating
2008 — Sonics relocate to Oklahoma City
2012 — Blatant error by replacement refs hands Seahawks undeserved victory

(Mayan prophecy looking more and more realistic.)
—Connor, Santa Clara

SG: Put it this way: There were more Mayan-related e-mails from Seattle readers than these two. Although I thought Connor should have gone further and included, "1997: Sonics break up GP and Kemp so they can get future alcoholic Vin Baker," "2000: Ken Griffey Jr. leaves," "2010: Kevin Durant makes first-team All-NBA" and "2011: Seattle establishes itself as the best MLS city in America."

Q: After seeing the end of the Seahawks-Packers game on MNF, I think I now know why you picked the Seahawks to make the Super Bowl. Unlike other prognositicators of the NFL, your true love is the NBA. Therefore, you have a deep empathy for the city of Seattle and its loss of the Sonics and Durant. Then, you connected that with the Mayan calendar ending in 2012 and you realized there was limited time left for karma to pay back the city of Seattle. I see no other way to justify your pick given the rookie QB, Pete Carroll and the violation of so many of your other rules. Am I right?
—Steve, Seattle

SG: I mean … you're not wrong. I'm feeling good about the Seahawks pick and see this week being "The Russell Wilson Breakout You-Wouldn't-Want-Him-In-Fantasy-But-At-Least-You' d-Halfheartedly-Look-Up-His-Stats-On-The-Waiver-Wi re Game." Long-term, it feels like the Hawks are one receiver short and don't have that one reliable guy who can always get open on third-and-6. Remember when they dealt a future no. 1 pick for New England's Deion Branch in the year after they made the Super Bowl? Could we see history repeat itself with Seattle dealing a future no. 1 pick for Wes Welker before next month's deadline? Who says no to that one? Why do I have the sinking feeling that we're headed that way?

Vikings (+4.5) over LIONS

Q: As a lifelong Twins fan I appreciated seeing the love for Kirby Puckett's Game 6 in your last mailbag, but he did not rob a home run in that game. If you remember, at that time the Metrodome had plexiglass lining the top of the fence in left field, and he leaped to catch the ball against the plexiglass. The ball was never going to clear it. Maybe more people would know that if the MLB realized it is 2012 and would allow the video on the internet.
—Scott, Stillwater, MN

SG: Exactly! How can I be blamed for screwing that up when Bob Bowman doesn't allow people to look up old baseball highlights on the Internet unless they go to MLB.com and get swallowed up by that MLB search engine vortex? I'm surprised Bowman hasn't taken the Baseball Furies off YouTube. And thank God he hasn't — that's become one of my son's favorite YouTube clips and led to him watching other "The Warriors" clips without us knowing, then randomly climbing up on the coffee table two weeks ago like Cyrus and screaming, "CAN YOU COUNT … SUCKERS?!??!??? The future is ours … if YOU … can count!" Immediately followed by three "Can you dig it?" screams in which he nailed the third one ("Cannnnnnnnnnnnn youuuuuuuuuuuuuuu diggggggggggggg ittttttttt?"). I've never been prouder of one of my kids while also being completely horrified.

(As for the Vikings getting 4.5 points, they won me over when they out-Ninered the Niners last Sunday with Christian Ponder looking like Rich Gannon 2.0. Meanwhile, the banged-up Lions haven't looked impressive even before Matthew Stafford If He Can Stay Healthy was listed as "questionable" and Calvin Johnson "probable" for Week 4. This line should be three.)

Indy's Bye Week (+6) over Pittsburgh's Bye Week

Q: I was beyond pleased at the justification of a great show represented by Homeland cleaning up at the Emmys. Do you think that, when coupled with his "Outstanding Lead Actor" Emmy, Damian Lewis taking home a couple of AVNs later this year will cement this as the greatest year for an actor in recent memory? He is an absolute lock in the "Antithesis of Making Love" and "Solo, Disturbing" categories.
—Drew, Newton, MA

SG: And you forgot to mention that he wrested the "Wait, That Dude Is British in Real Life???" title away from the guy who played Stringer Bell.

Niners (-4.5) over JETS

Q: The Jets just lost their superstar cornerback (Darrelle Revis). Mark Sanchez is ranked last in accuracy amidst starting quarterbacks, and is coming off two of the most atrocious games I've ever seen him play (and that's saying something). The Tebow experiment has produced, to be kind, very mixed results. Shonn Greene is on the verge of losing his starting job, if he hasn't already. Bart Scott is trying to fight reporters. What's that? Do you hear what I hear? NOBODY BELIEVES IN US. The Revis-fueled Ewing Theory begins right now! Get ready for a shocker on Sunday.
—Justin Kremer, Commack, NY

SG: This isn't as crazy as it sounds, even if the Jets got pushed around on both sides of the ball last week and couldn't have been more lucky to win that game (or that Ryan Tannehill happened to be playing in that game). There's a real chance that (a) we may have overrated the Niners because Green Bay and Detroit weren't as good as we thought, and (b) all the number dudes who keep screaming "REGRESSION! REGRESSION!" in the preseason might still be right about them. So blowing this one would tie into that.

Will the Revis injury eventually sink the Jets? Absolutely. Nobody has ever said the words, "I can't believe we won the Super Bowl without the guy who's clearly our best player!" (At least that I can remember.) But there's a small Ewing Theory potential for these first few weeks without him, right? And you don't exactly need a shutdown corner against the Niners, right? And NOBODY believes in the Jets right now, right? And it sucks to lay more than four on the road with Alex Smith, right? And you can't forget that this would be the perfect week for the plot to flip Tim Tebow's way in Fourth and God II: God Willing, right?

(So why take the Niners, you ask?)

Q: Is there any possible scenario that can better illustrate the New York Jets' lack of talent at quarterback than Sanchez bouncing a pass off Tebow's helmet?
—Jason Cote, New Haven, VT

SG: That's why. Even if every bone in my body is saying, "STAY AWAY FROM THE JETS!" (which is precisely what makes them so damned enticing), and even if there's an 18 percent chance of Bilal Powell's fantasy breakout weekend happening, I'm riding the "NFC is significantly better than the AFC" train on this one. If the Niners and Cards (both favored by more than four) win this week, NFC teams will be 11-4 against AFC teams this year. And it shouldn't have even been that close.

TEXANS (-12) over Titans

Q: Did Matt Schaub get Tysoned by Joe Mays? Or was he Evandered? I need to know the proper nomenclature for one athlete removing part of another's ear: are these things named for the perpetrator or the victim of the original act?
—Mark L, Jonesboro, AR

SG: Schaub was Evandered. The Titans are going to get Tysoned this weekend. See the difference?

Q: Did you know that the old Real World Austin house is now … VINCE YOUNG'S STEAKHOUSE?!?!??!?!?!?!?
—Juliet Litman, Los Angeles

SG: Juliet works for Grantland … and frankly, I couldn't be prouder of the hire.

Q: Is Chris Johnson submitting the worst fantasy football season ever given his high status (usually somewhere in the late first round or second on most draft boards) and lack of injury? It's gotten so bad that when I tell people I have him on my fantasy team, it's as if I just told them a relative of mine just contracted a life threatening disease. No good natured ribbing from buddies or telling you that I knew he was going to have a bad year. Just sympathy and surprising understanding. That's how you know it's bad right?
—Joseph, Los Angeles

SG: Sounds like you and every other Chris Johnson fantasy owner need to watch this clip.


Raiders (+7) over BRONCOS

Q: At the end of the Titans game, the Broncos had Brock Osweiler warming up to throw a hail mary and nobody is talking about it?? PEYTON MANNING CANT THROW A DEEP BALL!!!! Not to mention the balls he was throwing against Atlanta looked like Tebow was throwing them! What are the odds that he finishes the season in one piece?
—Steve, Medfield, MA

Q: Is it just me or does Peyton look like someone who simply cannot throw the football? His passes are not crisp tight spirals — they are lame duck fluttering in the air lobs. It's painful to watch, I am however glad that he is back in the NFL, because his commercials are awesome. There are three commercials that i do not skip on the dvr: Peyton in the Buick commercial with the "tune xm 60 outlaw" followed by the condescending see how awesome i am hand motion; Peyton in the fridge going on about tapenade; the Eddie Money Geico commercial. Are we sure that is Eddie Money?
—Tony, Cleveland

SG: That's definitely Eddie Money. As for Peyton … I have to be honest, I don't understand the respect that people are giving Denver at all. Manning's arm looks dreadful. Really bad. Like seeing a formerly great pitcher in the last year of his career when he's throwing junk and relying on pinpoint location, with no room for error whatsoever. I just don't see how this gets better. They have a terrible running game and a noodle-armed QB. They fell behind by 20 points in Week 2 and Week 3. What am I missing? And who would you wager on if I offered you the line, "Total Number of 2012 Peyton Manning Starts (-2) Total Number of 2012 Michael Vick Starts?"

Q: After years of hearing you criticize coaches who mismanage timeouts, waste challenges and screw up easy in-game scenarios, it's time for you to recognize a new coach who has nailed it so far: Oakland's Dennis Allen. (Yeah, the guy who looks like he's a coach's son, yep, that's the coach.) In Sunday's win over Pittsburgh Allen executed four things for which coaches deserve to be recognized. One: he's limiting the Oakland penalties — just three for 25 yards against Pittsburgh. (Insert Raider conspiracy theory about regular refs not working this game here). Two: he held all three timeouts until crunch time. (It didn't end up mattering, but still.) Three: He nailed a unique formation on fourth and one, inside the five, that forced the Steelers to jump offside for an automatic first down. Four: he called for a perfectly timed (although terribly executed) onside kick late in the game. As a Raider fan who sat through Lane Kiffin, Art Shell, Norv Turner, Bill Callahan, Hue Jackson and Tom the Cable Guy in recent years, I appreciate what Allen has been able to do thus far, especially penalty-wise. Consider this: Oakland is THIRD IN THE LEAGUE in fewest penalty yards per game!!!! (Insert second conspiracy comment here)
—Jeff, Portland

SG: Before the season, I predicted Greg Schiano would have the highest WARM ("Wins Above Raheem Morris") of any new coach. Maybe it's Allen? I'm intrigued by the Raiders — you can chalk up Week 1's loss to the long-snapper catastrophe and Week 2's loss to playing an East Coast game in Miami's heat in black uniforms. They showed up for Week 3, that's for sure. And they're going to beat Denver in Week 4 when Carson Palmer out–washes up Manning. The upset special: Raiders 26, Broncos 20.

CARDINALS (-6) over Dolphins

Q: I type this to you as the Dolphins assume their now-familiar position of last place in the AFC East. In South Florida in the post-Marino era, it has become tradition at around Week 3 or 4 to call it a year and start scanning Kiper's Big Board for the next Chad Henne or John Beck. But this one hurt more. I'm not angry at Carpenter for choking, or Philbin for horribly botching his attempt to "ice" Nick Folk (although the image of Rex Ryan cackling on the sideline will forever be burned into my retinas). This year, it's different. I've finally realized that the Dolphins will never win. Ever. Not as long as I'm alive. A decade of incompetence has created a permanent, Lions-esque stink that I'll have to pass onto my kids. My only consolation is appearing in your mailbag-picks column, serving as the reason for why you changed your mind about picking Miami this week. You're welcome.
—Zach, Parkland, FL

SG: Um, I was already picking the Cards. This is awkward.

Q: Where did Kevin Kolb's game against the Eagles rank on your Vengeance Scale? Philly over-inflated his value, and traded him to a team that stupidly gave him a massively huge contract. By any applicable measure, Philly helped Kolb out MASSIVELY and people are talking like Kolb had some type of revenge to take out on Philly? It's the first ever white-whine revenge game! Kolb's supposed to be pissed at Philly for giving him a job helping him make the most money he will ever make ever. I'd vote a -57 on the vengeance scale.
—Jake Amberg, Greensboro, NC

SG: You can't go lower than zero, so it would have to be a straight zero. But you're right. There was no vengeance. I gotta be honest — I don't know what to make of Kolb. They're clearly terrified of putting him in precarious positions; when they jumped out to that big lead against Philly, they couldn't take the car keys away from him fast enough. He led a really impressive game-winning drive against Seattle when he was ice-cold. He never melted down in New England even as everyone patiently waited for him to melt down. He's rejuvenated Larry Fitzgerald enough that Fitz sprinted down the field during last Sunday's fumble return TD like he was part of the defense. And yet, every time they show him on the sidelines screaming instructions with his goofy baseball closer facial hair going, I start laughing (as does everyone else who's watching the game with me). There's just a lot going on. But if he can remain "competent" (repeat: just competent), then … well, read this next e-mail.

Q: The Cardinals are officially good. Calais Campbell is maybe the biggest human being I've ever seen besides Shaq (and he's 20% faster). Patrick Peterson is electric. You could make the case that he's 50% of Arizona's offense, and Larry Fitzgerald is the other half. Kevin Kolb does just enough, and if he starts imploding, John Skelton is going to be just as serviceable. Can't discount Whisenhunt's WARM either. Arizona could be 7-0 heading into their Monday night game against the 49ers (Miami, Rams, Bills, Vikings coming up), and considering the Vikings just beat the 9ers playing exactly the same way as Arizona, THEY COULD TOTALLY WIN THAT GAME.
—Liam, San Jose

SG: You're talking to the guy who started Arizona's defense in both fantasy leagues this week. This might be the last week to steal some real value with the Cards — I thought they should have been favored by 10 against the Bush-less Dolphins. Also, let's hope that's the last time anyone writes the words "Bush-less Dolphins."

Bengals (-2.5) over JAGUARS
BUCS (-2.5) over Redskins

Q: Your next mailbag should be an NHL Lockout Armageddon with tons of vitriolic emails from NHL fans about the Lockout. Oh this is the only one you got? Never mind, carry on.
—Jonathan Blair, Antrim, NH

SG: In Canada, they're freaking out about the NHL lockout and reacting the same way we did after the Seahawks-Packers game. In America, they're saying things like, "This is great, we don't have to pay for preseason games" and "I've always kind of wanted to see what happened with a 50-game schedule followed by the playoffs, anyway." And yet, we have seven Canadian NHL teams and 23 American NHL teams. I know, I can't figure it out, either. In other news — the Bengals are this year's good Bad Team in the AFC, and you'd be a fool to take the 2012 Redskins on the road getting less than three in any location not named "Cleveland."

Q: Which party had wildest celebration and how did it play out?

1) The 1972 Dolphins Super Bowl watching party for the David Tyree catch?
2) The Jack Nicklaus day after Thanksgiving morning in 2009?
3) The NFL referee Monday night football watching party at Ed Hochuli's house for the Seattle/Green Bay game?
—Steve G., Salt Lake City

SG: Here's my theory on the day after Thanksgiving in 2009: I think Jack Nicklaus heard the news, went out and bought a bottle of 20-year-old Pappy Van Winkle, found an antique shotgun with 300 rounds of ammo, then drove to a secluded spot in the woods 25 miles away from any other human being. He got out of his car, started jumping around and screaming like he won the Super Bowl, did this for 20 solid minutes, then started swigging whiskey and shooting at things while whooping it up. Eventually, he drank the entire bottle, got back into his car and just started happily ramming into trees until the car stopped moving. Then he passed out in the driver's seat, woke up the next morning and walked home. Anyway, my answer is Jack Nicklaus.

PACKERS (-7.5) over Saints

Q: Congrats on being the only one able to see that the Saints were in for a complete meltdown. Spending the summer at the Olympics thing saved you from getting hit with all the hype about how Breesus saves and losing the best offensive coach in the game isn't that big of a deal. The truth is that Roger "18 Game Season in Johannesburg" really went all out on player safety here and completely crushed a small market team. Thank goodness, too, those concussion lawsuits are looking scary and the NFL needed an edge. You've had some readers who have suggested that we just throw away the season. LULZ. Saints don't get a pick until the third round. There is no silver lining here. This is one of our golden years and it is gone. We are not Green Bay or the Steelers — Brees is all we have and all we ever had, and once he goes, we're done. My only hope for next weekend is that Brees ties Unitas for consecutive TDs and Matthews doesn't kill anyone. Packers have to be giving 14 here.
—Lucas, College Station TX

SG: And then there's this: The Packers have gone against four straight top-notch defenses dating back to Round 2 of the playoffs (Giants, Niners, Bears, Seahawks), which misled everyone into thinking that they might not be potent anymore. This game is flashing a gigantic "DEFINITELY TRADE FOR AARON RODGERS IN FANTASY IF THE GUY WHO HAS HIM IN YOUR LEAGUE IS DUMB ENOUGH TO CONSIDER IT" neon sign.

Q: Who has the higher 2012 WAR? The locked-out officials or Sean Payton?
—Harrison, New York

SG: There hasn't been a battle this heated since Kat Dennings and Christina Hendricks boobed it out at the Emmys. But when you consider the replacement refs nearly caused a national riot, wouldn't the Saints have to finish 0-16 for Payton to have a higher WAR than the locked-out officials?

Q: You wrote in Thursday's mailbag, "I'm excited to see how David Stern reclaims his 'Evil Commissioner' throne these next few weeks." How prophetic. Not even 30 seconds after reading that line, I saw this link on the front page of ESPN.com: "NBA finalizing flopping procedures." Opening the article gives us a picture of DJS himself, with the quote "If you continue to do this, you may you have to suffer some consequences. What those exactly should be and what the progression is, is to be decided, because ... we just want to put a stake in the ground that says this is not something that we want to be part of our game."

Let's translate that. "I can't believe I've been dethroned as the Evil Commish. I am officially activating the emergency plan. We don't have details yet - this caught me totally by surprise - but suffice it say that we are about to implement a rule whose enforcement is 100% subjective and opens the door to Tim Donahay-style point fixing. Stay tuned." Didn't take him long.
— Rob, Mesa, AZ

SG: A valiant effort by the notorious DJS? No question. But I never realized how much "evil commissioner" ground he lost until I watched this GIF (via Fantasy Football Fools). There's a lot of work left, my friend. There's a lot of work left.



Giants (+1) over EAGLES

Q: Can you run this fake email from Andy Reid? "So I finally get something to go the way it should in a game by way of my patented Reid Timeout Technique. I find that using a timeout at the 15:00 of the second quarter to be quite good. It's like extending the T.V. timeout, and boy do I love those Papa John's commercials. Listen, you can't take the timeouts with you. Just so happens that when we drove to the 1 yard line with 00:16 to go in the half I had no timeouts, so I passed 3 times. Okay so the first 2 missed the field by a little bit, but on the third try my soon-to-be concussed QB got whomped for a sack-fumble which the Cardinals took to the house for a 14 point swing. At least I know I put my star RB in the right position to succeed... the sidelines. And what's all this talk about turnovers lately? Are we talking apple, or peach?"
—Philee Guy 9

SG: Here's all you need to know about the 2012 Eagles season: The guy who has Vick in my West Coast Fantasy League picked up Nick Foles a week ago.

Q: I've determined the perfect analogy for what it's like to root for the Philadelphia Eagles in the Andy Reid era. It is just like when you cockpunch your friend, but instead of cockpunching you back immediately, he waits until a later time to get his revenge. You know this person is going punch you in the nuts, and that it is going to hurt really, really badly. Every time you see this person, you wonder if this is the day they punch your member. You know it's coming, you just don't know when. Sooner or later, every eagles fan is going to get cockpunched by this team this and every season. And the crazy thing is, some of them will actually act surprised.
—John, Philly

SG: Actually, that was all you needed to know about the 2012 Eagles season. I apologize.

Q: What does Martellus Bennett look like? DESCRIBE WHAT MARTELLUS BENNETT LOOK LIKE... DOES HE LOOK LIKE A BITCH?
—Jules, LA

SG: Say "what?" again! Say "what?" again!

Q: A Rating System needs to be established for Pro Sports like the Movies. My friend brought his 6 year old daughter to an Eagles Game and was complaining about the behavior of the fans in his section. Would you bring your 6 year old to a Chris Rock Comedy Special? A Wu Tang Concert or to see the Hangover 5 in a few years? This guy has been to numerous Eagles Games and knows the deal. Here is a Rating outline for Professional Sports for Parents who feel the need to bring their stupid kids to Games.

Rated G: MLS, WNBA, Minor League Baseball.
PG 13: MLB, NBA, Pro Wrestling
R: NHL and NFL
NC17: Nascar (that's like child abuse).
—Leon Nazian, Fairless Hills, PA

SG: My only quibble: People drink at hockey games, but people get drunk at NFL games. I probably took my daughter to 25 Kings games last year. Not once did I ever think, I wish she wasn't here, this is getting ugly, and even better, she learned how to sarcastically sing names and yell at rival players that they sucked. It's rowdy but good-natured. You can't always say that about NFL games. So I'd have the NHL as a soft "R" and the NFL as one of those hard-"R" movies that were nearly rated NC-17 until the director clipped three seconds out of the big sex scene and took out some full-frontal. In a related story, I would NOT advise taking kids to this week's Giants-Eagles game … especially if it goes the way I think it's going to go. You realize the Giants are 33-17 in their last 50 regular season road games, right?

Bears (+3.5) over COWBOYS

Q: You know how Lays is do a contest where you need to make up a flavor? I have an idea. Lay Cutler. A chip that would initially taste good, but would break in your mouth, leaving an unbelievingly bad taste in your mouth for months to come.
—Izy Muller, Boca Raton

SG: How dare you take an unprovoked shot at Smokin' Jay Cutler like that! The Smokin' Jay Cutler meme is 1-and-0! I couldn't be less sold on this Cowboys team. And FYI: Chicago's defense hasn't played a bad game yet. I'm just sayin'.

Q: My friends and I always called Joe Pa and Al Davis "Weekend at Bernie's" because it was pretty obvious that both were legally dead and their respective football teams just dressed them up for game days and dragged them around in the press box and on the side line. Now that both have been put to rest, I am wondering who is the now the current "Weekend at Bernie's" figure in football. It has to be Jerry Jones right? He is getting old, making more and more stupid decisions that make you wonder is he is all there and have you seen him lately, he is starting to look like the evil emperor.
—Nate, Kearney

SG: As much as I want it to be Jerry, I just think it's too early to give him the Bernie Lomax title. The day they show a zoned-out Jerry sitting in his luxury suite and not glancing up self-consciously the moment he's on the TV … I mean, THAT is when we'll know that Jerry went Lomax on us. There's no Bernie right now unless you want to make the case that Fox is CGI-ing Dick Stockton. And as Greg Schiano would say, don't think there isn't a case that can't be made there.

Q: I was watching porn the other day and it made me think about something ... Male pornstars are just like NFL referees! We want them to do their jobs but at the same time not get in the way. Does that make any sense?
—David Jones, Charlottesville, VA

SG: Yup, these are my readers.

This Week: 0-1
Last Week: 8-8
Season: 24-23-2

Permalink

The Chris Johnson Problem

By: timbersfan, 12:25 AM GMT on September 28, 2012

I would never, under any circumstance I can currently imagine, write a column that argues against the concept of fantasy football. It would feel no different from writing a column against the electric guitar. I first started playing fantasy football in 1990, before the Internet did the work and before yardage bonuses had been invented, and the only way to score was through touchdowns and field goals (I recall Jerry Rice putting up five touchdowns against the Falcons and wrecking the whole system). The number of years I've played fantasy football is now greater than the number of years I have not. I've been in one specific league since the latter half of Bill Clinton's presidency; it is, as far as I can tell, the longest manufactured relationship of my life. So this is something I care about, more than I probably should. I'm not coming at this from some position of disagreement with the "authenticity" of fantasy sports, nor do I think there's anything uncool about obsessing over math. I don't think worrying about individual statistics more than the outcome of any given game is philosophically troubling (in fact, it might be preferable). Fantasy football has increased my enjoyment of the NFL. I'll never stop playing. I love it.

But sometimes you have to love something in order to see its flaw.

I am increasingly uncomfortable with the way fantasy football changes our perception of people who are actually alive. This wasn't a problem when I started in '90, because — at the time — only obsessives even knew what is was. The people who cared about this activity were weirdos to begin with. But now 30 million people play every week, and there's a whole media industry constructed around it, and there are FX sitcoms that use it as a narrative device, and it seems to be the primary way casual fans interact with the sport on a week-to-week basis. There is a massive, ever-expanding class of Americans who cannot remember a connection to pro football that did not involve the drafting and owning of skill players who work on their personal behalf. And the result, I fear, has been the mild dehumanization of humans we were already prone to perceive as machines.

Now, I realize dehumanization is a melodramatic word to use when discussing millionaires. I would guess that most people reading this column would love to be "dehumanized" in any context that pays them $9 million a year. But this isn't about feeling sympathy for pro athletes. That's not my point. What I'm proposing has more to do with how a few grains of personal investment prompt normal people to think about strangers in inaccurate, twisted, robotic ways. It's about how something fun quietly makes us selfish, and it's about the downside of turning real people into algebraic chess pieces.

The person who is making me think about this is Chris Johnson.

Chris Johnson played college football for East Carolina, a mid-major program that was just under .500 during the four years he played there. If you closely followed college football, you knew who he was; if you didn't, you might only remember his last game as a senior (he had 408 all-purpose yards in the 2007 Hawaii Bowl against Boise State). He was the fifth running back selected in the 2008 NFL draft (not the fifth player overall — the fifth running back). He was taken by the Titans in the first round, mostly because he ran a 4.24 at the NFL combine. In some ways, that speed galvanized the central criticism pro scouts had about his future — there was suspicion he was just a track man who couldn't break tackles or make defenders miss. His potential greatness was specific and situational (some thought he would mostly subsist as a kick returner). The running backs drafted ahead of him were Darren McFadden, Jonathan Stewart, Felix Jones, and Rashard Mendenhall. The jury is still out on McFadden, but it's probable that Johnson will end his career with more yards than at least three of those peers (and maybe more than all of them). In 2009, he broke the league record for yards from scrimmage with 2,509 while scoring 16 touchdowns. He was the offensive player of the year on a team that went 8-8. But he held out during training camp in 2011 for a new contract, and he has not been the same player since getting that money. Through three games this season, he's gained a paltry 45 rushing yards in 33 attempts. The conventional wisdom is that he might be done (or — at the very least — will need to start over from scratch in a city that isn't Nashville).

So that's Chris Johnson.1

This being the case, what are reasonable things to say about Johnson's career, assuming he never has another significant season? An optimist might suggest he wildly overachieved — he came out of nowhere and was (briefly) the best runner in the league. A pessimist might say his early success was a statistical aberration and that he eventually became the player he always was (i.e., a fast guy who is only fast). A pragmatist would argue that he had a good career that was both surprising and disappointing, almost like someone who got hurt in his prime (even though the only true injury seemed to be to his motivation). I think all of these statements are justified. However, none of them are particularly common. The most universal analysis of Johnson's career is the one being expressed by fantasy owners, which essentially boils down to this: "Fuck Chris Johnson." This is because fantasy owners do not look at Chris Johnson's career as a reflection of Chris Johnson's life. They see Chris Johnson's career as a reflection of themselves. They personalize his experience and hold it against him.2 That's always what happens when something exists to you only as a commodity: You will care more about yourself than about the thing that you own.

In 2009, Chris Johnson had one of the greatest fantasy seasons of all time. As a result, people are going to remember him as a failure they hate.

Last week I saw an episode of ESPN's PTI, and the two pundits were playing a parlor game called Over/Under. One of the scenarios they had to predict was the number of yards Johnson would gain in Week 3 versus the Lions. The "over/under" was 21 (he ended up with 24, so whoever manufactured the math gets a gold star). The specificity of this question seemed curious to me, and a little unwarranted: Why were people thinking so hard about a running back's lack of production on a team that had yet to win a game? But then, of course, I remembered that this is how almost everyone now thinks about pro football,3 pretty much all the time. It's been hardwired into the modern experience of following the sport. At this point, what's more maddening than a running back who finishes a game with exactly 99 yards? Only the discovery that his backup had a one-yard touchdown.

There is an endless list of NFL running backs who've had great seasons for mediocre teams. In 1981, George Rogers gained 1,647 yards for the 4-12 New Orleans Saints. In 1984, James Wilder had 1,544 rushing (and 685 receiving) yards for a Tampa Bay squad that won only six games. I could probably cite 10 more examples without using the Internet. But what's different about Johnson's 2009 campaign is that — because of fantasy — his profile became paradoxically exaggerated. His efforts particularly mattered to people who saw added value in the Titans being 8-8, because that meant they'd have no choice but to feed Johnson the rock for three quarters before throwing him garbage-time swing passes against all the prevent defenses Tennessee would inevitably see when trailing by 17. Thirty years ago, Johnson would have been some underrated dude putting up stats in games that didn't matter; in the fantasy era, he became "a good investment." Which does not mean he was beloved (as a player, or as a person, or even as an idea). His fantasy base had no geographic loyalty to where he played and no particular appreciation for his past. He was perceived more like an employee. Moreover, the connection these owners forged with Chris Johnson started from the premise that he was awesome — and not just that he was awesome, but that awesomeness was required in order for him to be satisfactory. If you had the first pick in a 2010 fantasy draft, you almost certainly selected Chris Johnson. And he had a nice year, all things considered.4 But he was already doomed. He was doomed because the (fantasy) world had made a collective transition over the value of Johnson's livelihood. In the minds of fantasy participants, Chris Johnson solely existed to make them seem smart. If someone's league dues were $50, he was supposed to help them make $500. A man they had never previously cared about could now only disappoint them (because being the best fantasy player in theory meant he had to be the most productive in practice). He could rip them off somehow.

This is a very different experience than turning against a struggling player on your favorite team. A die-hard Titans fan might feel betrayed by the way Johnson is playing this year, but at least that fan loved him once; a fantasy owner never cares about the past, because he or she has no connection to anything outside the present. If you start from the premise that Chris Johnson owes you production, you will only remember the things Chris Johnson fails to do. Those failures will be the main thing you remember about his career. It's the difference between making a friend and buying a friend.

I don't mention this because I feel particularly bad for Johnson, because I don't. I mention it because it's a dangerous impulse, and I am as guilty as anyone else. The moment you start looking at the lives of public figures as a hobby is the moment they stop existing as people.

In the September 27 issue of Rolling Stone, there's an amazing, insightful interview with Bob Dylan — one of the best I've ever read. Many of the quotes are unworldly.5 But it was one of Dylan's more banal statements that made me (again) think about Chris Johnson. Dylan was talking about how audiences view his true personality, and his belief that this perception is irrelevant. He compared it to watching a movie or a play: "When I see an actor on a stage, I don't think about what they are like. I'm there because I want to forget about myself, forget about what I care or do not care about. Entertaining is a type of sport."

If I mentally transpose the words "entertaining" and "sport," Dylan's sentiment gets close to what I'm trying to express (and what I want to feel, but can't). There was a time when I watched football in order to not think about my day-to-day life, but fantasy sports slowly changed that — in fact, my affinity for fantasy only makes it worse. I turn the players I draft into tiny parts of my life, which stops me from remembering that they have no relationship whatsoever to who I am. It makes me unconsciously think of them as extensions of myself. And I wonder if this is more problematic than I want to accept. Do I have any right to get angry at Chris Johnson? Does anyone? The fact that Johnson is killing fantasy owners should not factor into his legacy. But it will. I can see it happening, right now, before my eyes. It will end up being more galvanizing than the improbability of his 2009 greatness. "We can't change the present or the future," says Dylan in that same interview. "We can only change the past, and we do it all the time." He's totally, completely, undeniably right. And we're doing it to Chris Johnson, right now.

Permalink

The Goldengate Mailbag

By: timbersfan, 12:22 AM GMT on September 28, 2012

Before unveiling my Thursday-night "Skunk of the Week," let's rip through an impromptu mailbag saying good-bye to the NFL's replacement officials. We already ran a slew of e-mails from my readers on Tuesday (without my responses); this edition will be more mailbaggish, only I'm limiting myself to shorter responses just so we can hit as many as possible.

On a personal note: I have been writing the "Sports Guy" column for ESPN/Grantland since April of 2001. Not counting something that happened with a Boston team, I can only remember four other events during those 11-plus years provoking a reader response like Monday's Packers-Seahawks game did: 9/11, The Decision, Tiger Woods's car accident, and Game 4 of the 2006 NBA Finals (because of the officiating). There's a reason ESPN's 90-minute SportsCenter that followed Monday Night Football did an astonishing 4.5 rating (the highest SportsCenter rating in 17 years, by the way), just like there's a reason people spent 36 straight hours tweeting like crazy, flooding various mainstream websites and sports blogs, calling sports radio shows and even sending me funny/thoughtful/anguished/enraged e-mails. The ongoing saga of America's Pastime 2.0 getting absolutely mangled, with no sign of an imminent resolution, left everyone flabbergasted.

As always, these are actual e-mails from actual readers. These e-mails were written during the 48-hour span after that Packers-Seahawks game ended.

Q: Are fans completely powerless here? What if fans at all the games this week refuse to buy concessions? Or NFL merchandise? Would that hurt the owners at all, or would it hurt other people? Do the fans have any leverage at all?
—Chris, Alameda, CA

SG: Now that it's settled, wouldn't you say we used our leverage? We complained and bitched and moaned until the NFL finally sucked it up and did something. The biggest thing we had going in our favor was something Peter Berg once referred to on my podcast as the Doorman Rule. Berg always worried that NBC was going to cancel his Friday Night Lights show, but his biggest asset was the interactions that everyday people had with NBC's higher-ups. As Berg described it (I'm doing this from memory), there was a two-minute stretch from when then-NBC honcho Jeff Zucker left his fancy apartment, rode the elevator, walked out his apartment complex's door and climbed into his limo en route to work. During those two minutes, he might run into three or four people — someone in the elevator and/or the lobby, the doorman, maybe someone outside as he's waiting for the limo to pull up. And at least one of those people might make small talk with him and say, "Hey man, I love Friday Night Lights." For someone like Zucker, those comments would carry a ton of weight because it's really one of his only chances to cross paths with real people. So Berg was saying that, as long as you're a Doorman Show, you always have a chance no matter what your ratings are.

OK, now flip that around — let's say you're Goodell or one of the 32 owners. Imagine it's Tuesday. Do you want to run into anyone during that two-minute walk to the limo? Aren't you dreading the fuming guy in the elevator, or the doorman who's thinly smiling at you while hoping deep down that you get run over by a car? That's the biggest reason this lockout got settled — as soon as the commissioner and these owners were put in the position of dreading interactions with everyday people, this was over. So I'd argue that we DID have leverage, and we used it the old-fashioned way.

Q: Like the rest of America, I am trying to figure out what just happened to the Packers. I haven't felt this much confusion, anger, curiosity, frustration since … Monday Night RAW!! That's what the NFL has become. Goodell is Vince McMahon! All we needed was Jim Ross yelling 'Mr. Goodell, how could you, you son of a ---' as the TV cuts out to a syndicated episode of Mad About You.
—Chase, Denver

SG: Lockout settlement aside, kudos to Roger Goodell for turning the NFL into the go-to league for all WWE jokes. And congratulations to David Stern for a great run — he held that WWE fort for nearly 20 years before Goodell just wouldn't be denied. Now we just need some enterprising Internet junkie to superimpose Goodell's head on Vince throughout this YouTube clip and the transition will be complete.

Q: Can we get Little League World Series style graphics about the scab refs? Think: hometown, favorite player, day job, what they want to be when they grown up, etc.
—Chris Cohen, New York

SG: Please, for the love of God, let's remember this idea for the next time we have replacement refs.

Q: When does the 24/7 style reality show following one beleaguered Replacement Ref Crew start? The trials, the tribulations, the tears! Tell me this wouldn't be scintillating TV!
—Peter H., Arlington

SG: And this one, too.

Q: Am I the only one hoping this referee lockout continues? I mean seriously, is this not the single most entertaining NFL season of all time so far? Don't get me wrong, I love football more than anything and I really do hate that the refs are causing a great game to become a joke. But how much fun is it to watch these guys in striped shirts do a job that they are 100% unqualified to do? Isn't this what we as an American society enjoy watching (re: "Boom goes the dynamite" guy)?. Watching the games just to see how the players, coaches, announcers, and fans react to all these calls is pure gold. And speaking of the fans, was there anything that made you feel more proud to be an American then hearing the Ravens fans loudly chant "Bullshit!" in unison on national TV? Come to think of it these referees are pulling us together as a nation. Go USA!
—Paul, Monroe TWP, NJ

SG: Now that it's over, I'm with Paul — that was a wildly entertaining three weeks even if the NFL's credibility went in the tank. I enjoyed reading the outraged columns, watching talking heads flip out, hearing sports radio hosts have a collective coronary, sifting through the relentless snark on Twitter, looking forward to Steve Young's indignant rants after every Monday Night Football game, seeing the creative memes and YouTube clips, making Roger Goodell jokes, even listening to Cris Collinsworth be simultaneously disgusted (by the officiating) and delighted (that the lawlessness has led to a more physical game that resembles what we loved back in the '70s and '80s). There was definitely a sense that we were all in this together — fans, players, writers, bloggers, coaches and talking heads all wanted the same thing, for once — and I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy the camaraderie.

At the same time, we were putting players in danger, compromising the playoff picture and blurring the winning/losing line to the point that the wrong team clearly won consecutive night games. (Note: You're not gonna believe this, but I thought the Pats got jobbed on calls that night, especially down the stretch.) To say "that's too big of a cost" would be an understatement. Fast-forward three months: What happens if it takes 11 wins to capture the NFC wild card … and Seattle finishes 11-5 and Green Bay finishes 10-6? We're in the same situation we were in when a really good 1987 Giants team got screwed by their replacement losses and ended up missing the playoffs for reasons that had nothing to do with football. So if that DOESN'T happen, then ultimately, I think we'll remember Replacement 2012 as somewhere between "phenomenally memorable" and "strangely enjoyable."

Q: I run a weekly confidence pool with about 20 of my high school friends. After Monday night's disaster half the league is demanding their money back until the real refs return. Roger Goodell's NFL: Where Even Degenerate Gamblers Vowing To Boycott Happens
—Rich Searls, Chicago

SG: If you were really degenerate gamblers, you wouldn't be deterred by the fake refs. I'm just saying.

Sincerely,

The Guy Who May or May Not Have Parlayed Seattle's Moneyline and the Under on Monday Night

Q: Let's put all the replacement refs in one house until the negotiations are resolved. "This is the true story … of ten Division II college football referees …forced to live in a house … work together in a job for which they are severely underqualified and have their lives taped … to find out what happens … when Roger Goodell stops caring about the quality of NFL games … and the referees start getting incompetent … The Real World."
—Matt, Woodbridge, VA

SG: "This week on Real World — Lance blows the biggest call of the Monday-night game, then brings two Seahawks fans back to the house and has a threesome with them in the hot tub!"

You just reminded me of something — isn't it weird how little we knew about these replacement referees even as they were having such an enormous impact on America's most popular sport? Here in L.A., the local NBC station led its 11 p.m. news with a story about Lance Easley, the ref who called Tate's Hail Mary catch a TD — apparently he's from California and works as a vice president of a bank in Santa Maria. You know what I learned during this piece? That Lance Easley tried to become a Division I college referee and didn't make the cut. Now he's directly impacting Monday Night Football games? How amazing is that? Was he living a lifelong dream? Did he think this would lead to something better? Was he bummed out the next morning? Did he feel like he made the right call and took unnecessary heat? What did his friends say to him? Will this end up being something of a scarlet letter for him, or something much cooler — a fun story for him to tell at a cocktail party in 15 years? At the very least, Bravo needs to green-light The Real Housewives of the Fake NFL Officials soon. I want to know more.

Q: So last night I decided to try and pick up chicks impersonating replacement ref Don King's speech pattern. Needless to say, they talked to me as if I was mentally challenged and I didn't bring anyone home. Upon further review, it wasn't a good call to try something like that but it was better than any call Mr. King had made Sunday.
—Justin B., Pleasanton

SG: Ladies and gentlemen, one last time, your 2012 NFL replacement referees! The best thing about replacement ref Don King was that he doubled as Replacement Don King, because when's the last time you've seen the real Don King or thought about him? Even better, could two people be less similar than Don King and Replacement Don King? I think they should host a week of PTI together.

Q: I know everyone writing in to you about the MNF ending is comparing it to the WWE, but really the 4th quarter of that game is the baseball scene from The Naked Gun. Frank Drebin is the totally overwhelmed replacement ref (First pitch right down the middle … … Strike?). He gets caught up in the excitement of the game and starts making ridiculous calls to endear himself to the home crowd (Steeeerike Three! . The "I Love LA" montage was every penalty and challenge that took place in the final quarter, complete with the carnival-like music when Drebin makes sure the pitcher isn't cheating. Finally, Ed tells Drebin "don't let them get the third out" ("don't let the Packers win the game"). Catcher blocks the plate with three balls, but runner is safe (Jennings interception, ref signals touchdown). Refs arguing ("he was safe!" [equals] touchdown, "he was out!" [equals] interception. Players, managers, commentators are all thoroughly confused (Jim Palmer: "Now there's a sight I've never seen before" [equals] every word out of Mike Tirico's mouth between the "touchdown" and the extra point). Part of me is tempted to go back and see if the crowd was chanting "Enrico Palazzo" at the end of the game.
—Dave, Wayne, PA

SG: Come on, watch that clip again. Frank Drebin had WAY MORE control over that Angels game than the replacement refs had on Monday.


Q: Is there any way that this whole NFL replacement ref ordeal will just end up as Nick Cage switching faces with all of the refs? It'd be an epic sequel to Face/Off …
—Michael O'Brien, Columbia, MO

SG: You had me at the words "an epic sequel to Face/Off." I feel the same way about Face/Off 2 that I felt about Fast Five and I feel about Taken 2 when it opens next week: I'm just in. I don't need to know anything else. I don't need reviews, I don't need a trailer, I don't need to know who else is involved. Just tell me when and where. And apparently, I'm not alone — Fast Five made a boatload of money, and so will Taken 2. So why hasn't Face/Off 2 gone into production yet? What's the holdup? What are we waiting for?

Q: Have you ever seen NFL refs so intimidated from fans in your life as they were on Sunday night? After the "Bullshit!" chant with 2:20 left the ref never called anything against the Ravens. In 2:20 of game clock they blew the whistle early on a dropped fair catch, a offensive pass interference missed, a play called out of bounds with a knee down 3 yards in the field of play, and probably 3 holdings calls on the offensive line, and to top it off we dont even get a replay from the field goal cam to see if the ref blew the call. And they say fans can't effect the game, here is a direct case where they did.
—Joe Curtin, Waltham, MA

Q: Something I haven't run across in any media about the refs is THEIR state of mind. Have you seen the looks on these guys's faces when they're taking five minutes to discuss a call? They're anything but happy to be there. They're TERRIFIED! I was a lowly 16-inch softball league umpire for five years. Got 25 bucks a game, never had to run a player and was happy to have the job. But any ref (ump, line judge, arbiter, whatever) will tell you that the biggest compliment to your performance was that nobody even noticed you were there. These replacement refs are noticed by everyone, even more than the regular refs, and are doing the best they can under the worst possible circumstances. They may be overmatched with the speed and complexity of the pro game, but I'm pretty sure they're not "just happy to be there." As the ref standing under the right upright looked up at the final kick of the Pats-Ravens game and signaled a shaky game-winner, I texted my friend with this: "I would rather be in charge of a nuclear silo during the Cuban Missile Crisis … "
—Kevin G, Charleston, SC

SG: Lumped those two e-mails together because this was the best possible reason for the NFL to settle sooner than later. Sticking these increasingly petrified replacement referees in a hostile playoff setting would have (a) created an almost seismic home-field advantage, (b) led to an inevitable catastrophe, and (c) led to Roger Goodell waking up with a replacement ref's head in his bed.

Q: Were you aware that there is a replacement referee, Craig Ochoa, whose experience includes reffing in the Lingerie Football League? THE LINGERIE FOOTBALL LEAGUE!! There hasn't been a worse resume since pizza boy E got to manage Vince Chase and Anna Faris.
—Dave Snyder, Pittsburgh

SG: You left out the part in which he got fired! Who was the MVP of the 2012 Replacement Ref Fiasco? Was it Craig Ochoa, Fake Don King or Lance Easley?

Q: Instead of replacement refs, wouldn't it be more entertaining to just let the NFL players call their own penalties, just like pick-up hoops at the Y? Who wouldn't love to see Mark Sanchez calling off-sides on every play he was about to get sacked? Personally, I'd like to see Champ Bailey's reaction to someone calling P.I. on him. And to make it even more interesting … give each time, say, 5 vetoes per game where they can completely just disregard the call? The only thing we'd lose from the current state of the game would be the classic 6 second pauses between the name of the foul and what the result is with these current guys (I don't know about you, but i lose it every time they do this).
—Kyle Clifford, Evergreen Park, IL

SG: In pickup hoops, there's always one guy who calls a foul every time a drive doesn't go exactly how he wanted it to go. So assuming the NFL adopted this idea, which they wouldn't, but whatever, which star QB would be the one who kept driving everyone else crazy by calling cheap fouls to save his own butt? (Thinking.) Dammit, the answer is Tom Brady, isn't it? I can't believe I brought this up.

Q: I am a young teacher at an inner city school and the refs remind me of my classroom. Me, the ref has zero respect from the students, the players. They didn't even know I existed. And the harder you tried to come down on them, the more they don't care. They knew I couldn't stop them. I really wanted to handle them in the class, but I couldn't. Then you gotta call an administrator (Goodell) and instead of detention they get fined. And the principal has to stand by you because they hired you last minute and made you move across the country in less than a week.
—Matt, Charleston, SC

SG: It's true, every replacement ref was basically Prezbo from The Wire. There was no chance of anyone pulling off a Michelle Pfeiffer/Dangerous Minds moment, either. By the way, when was the last time you watched Coolio's "Gangsta's Paradise" video for Dangerous Minds? It's hilariously dated. What chain of events needs to happen for Coolio and Michelle Pfeiffer to shoot something together again? And how can I help?

Q: During the summers of my childhood I remember staying up late and watching Happy Days on Nick at Nite with my dad. We'd stay up reminiscing about what he did during his childhood and how Happy Days was such a huge part of the popular culture during that time period. For my generation the NFL has become our Happy Days — we spend our weeks looking forward to Sundays and our summers pining for the falls in which we get to delay our shitty work lives by one more day watching the greatest reality television show ever created. As punishment for the slow and painful ruination of Americas favorite pastime, can I ask you as your first act of Sports Czar to lock Goodell, the regular referee's union rep and DeMaurice Smith (for the way he handled the lockout, the Saints, concussions, etc.) and have them watch the "Jump the Shark" episode until their eyes and skin melt, like in Raiders of the Lost Ark, so that they may fully realize what it is they are doing to an American staple of popular culture?
—Patrick Bradley, Garden City

SG: I think they finally realized it. Still, wouldn't a Sports Czar have come in handy these past few weeks? On Tuesday afternoon, he or she could have appeared on various shows and said things like, "I talked to the President — he's as upset as anyone" and "I tried to warn everyone that we were headed for a disaster; nobody would listen!" At least we would have felt like someone was trying. The general lawlessness of sports right now — between the secondary-ticket market craziness, the NHL lockout, the NFL's ref crisis, the lack of regulation in boxing, the lack of Wi-Fi in football stadiums, the concussion crisis and everything else — almost demands a Sports Czar, right? This isn't a full-time job? Couldn't we elect this person every three or four years? How would they make sports worse? Well, unless Gary Bettman got the job.

Q: You mentioned a reader's idea that Romney should offer the referees $50 million to come back (as a political ploy). You realize that Romney is about as anti-union as you can possibly get? If he threw his money at the striking refs it would go against every previous position he ever took as a public … oh wait that is perfect for Romney!!
—Charles, Los Angeles

SG: (Afraid to say anything.)

Q: You picked Oakland, Baltimore and Philly as the favorites for our first replacement referee riot. Ummm — did you forget the actual riot caused in Cleveland when non-replacement refs belatedly overturned a fourth down conversion against Jacksonville and cost the Browns a shot in the playoffs? You could not purchase a bottle of beer at a sporting event for almost a year after the Dawg Pound figured out that they were projectiles. Never ever underestimate the anger of a Cleveland fan. Philly fans booed Santa — that's cute. Raiders fans dress like its Halloween — so do little children. Browns fans momentarily changed how people were allowed to drink in stadiums.
—Schultz, Cleveland

Q: We rioted against the real refs? Remember?
God may hate Cleveland, but deep down, we kind of hate everyone else.
—Adam, Cleveland

SG: My bad, my bad. I have no excuse. Cleveland's already lost enough. At the very least, you should have been the no. 2 co-favorites with Philly. By the way, only Cleveland fans would complain about being left off a "Which fans are the most likely ones to be involved in a replacement referee riot?" debate.

Q: It's become clear that Roger Goodell is a Manchurian Candidate planted by FIFA to ruin the NFL and increase soccer's popularity in the US. Nothing else makes any sense why a multi-billion dollar enterprise would risk its entire product over relatively small amount of money.
—Geoff Schneider, NYC

SG: Come on, know your facts. This was about pensions. If they gave the refs a pension plan, then they'd have to give league employees a pension plan and improve the players' pension plans in their next deal. By the time the whole thing is over, they'd barely have enough money left to … oh, wait, they would have had plenty of money left. I forgot. You're right, Goodell might be an Italian FIFA operative working undercover. It's in play. Maybe he got caught and that's why the lockout ended.

Q: When sports historians are looking back a 1,000 years from now, that Packers-Seahawks game will be the approximate cause of the rise of soccer in the United States of America.
—Brian Capp, Scottsdale, AZ

SG: And FIFA undercover operative Giancarlo Goodellio will be praised as the guy who pulled it off.

Q: Where did Packers/Seattle rank on your list of pantheon gambling endings?
—Tony, Plymouth, MI

SG: For my money (literally), The Music City Miracle will always be first. Playoff game, swung every bet, came out of nowhere … you just can't top it. From there, it's a short list of unforgettable moments like Chris Duhon's meaningless one-legged 3 to cover 2004's Duke-UConn Final Four game, Adam Vinatieri's two-point run on Sunday night against a team that had already left the field, Robin Ventura's Non-Grand Slam, the Monday Night Miracle (Vinny and the Jets), Monday's Seahawks-Packers game and Troy Polamalu's disallowed fumble return TD that cost the Steelers a cheap cover on Sunday night in 2008 (against San Diego). When I'm running ESPN someday, you'll get to relive all of them in our new weekly prime-time series, Broken Thumbs.

Q: When Roger caves and brings back the refs, isn't it going to be incredible the ovation the refs get? I think every home team, instead of announcing the starting lineups before the game, should announce the officials. How would it not be hilarious to have Ed Hochuli run out to 65,000 fans going crazy for "FROM MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN, NUMBER 85 … " And then Ed doing a Ray Lewis-esque entrance dance?
—Bob, Pittsburgh

SG: Co-sign!!!!!!! COOOOOOOOO-SIGNNNNNNNNNNN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Q: Isn't this referee lock-out a (depressing) reflection of where we are right now in the U.S. as a country and a culture? We care more about winning than producing the best outcome (Goodell wanting to win the lockout against the refs, as opposed to working out a mutually beneficial compromise in a timely fashion). We have created a set of rules that, while complex, have allowed us to debate outcomes, especially true because we do not have faith in those who are deciding those outcomes. (I think if that same play had happened, but been ruled an interception, there still would have been a big fuss about it, because we don't trust the replacement refs; our lack of faith affects our reaction.) We get enraged and we vent, but we don't DO anything. We can see that what is in front of us isn't working, but we sit and complain and keep working and trying to "win." Same with the election. We complain about attack ads, we complain about the rules that govern campaign financing, but in the end we will sit back and vote and not DO anything. We care more about winning than we do about creating the best outcome. Have I mentioned that I hate election years? And yes I did have to look up how to spell microcosm.
—Brian, California

SG: That got pretty deep. I think we need to loosen things up a little.

Q: In Replacements 2 (straight-to-DVD obviously), I see Artie Lange playing a once great referee. He was at the top of his game until a blown call in the Super Bowl shattered his confidence and led him down a dark path of alcohol abuse and lethargy. Cue the 2012 Referee strike and a desperate league seeks out the services of this once revered ref. Cue the hijinks, drama, and ultimate redemption for our hero. There's an opportunity for some great cameos here. Wouldn't this be great? Wouldn't you have to watch it a couple of times (even if it's just for a We Found it On Neflix Instant Watch column)? Isn't this what Artie Lange's career needs? How quickly can you get your Hollywood connections on this?
—Micah L, Washington

SG: My favorite part of this e-mail — Micah thinking he found the perfect way to invigorate Artie Lange's career by giving him the starring role in a straight-to-DVD movie sequel.

Q: The best solution to this whole situation is selling ad space on the refs' uniforms. Give the refs 80 or 90 percent of the revenue to use however they want … better pension? Here's $10 million from Budweiser, your new official beer. Higher game checks? Great, just announce the Verizon Call of the Game whenever you have to explain a challenge. Need sweet new authentic zebra skin shirts for the Super Bowl? Cool, Visa just became the preferred card of refs everywhere. This is a win/win for both sides, the NFL doesn't have to pony up any more money and they refs get all the perks they want. You could even make more money by selling ads for specific refs and games. Ed Hochuli's guns, now brought to you by Gold's Gym. As sports czar, we need you to make this happen.
—Mike, Newington, CT

SG: Re-running this e-mail from Tuesday's mailbox and adding this point — what better way for the NFL to humiliate the returning referees than giving them their money (which they did), then forcing them to wear sponsored uniforms every week to pay for that money? It's Week 8 in the NFL, and don't forget, today's referees will be sponsored by Trojan's Vibrating Tri-Phoria!

Q: For years I've heard you talk about creating the position of Sports Czar. I haven't heard much detail about exactly how the office would work, but I'm curious as to how you'd address the current NFL referee situation. How much power would you have to dictate the negotiations? Could you come in and mandate the terms? Would you be able to fire Goodell? I'm leaning towards voting you as Sports Czar, but how you would handle this situation will be the deciding factor.
—Drew, Charlotte, NC

SG: Thanks Drew! Every vote for this fake election counts. The answer to your question depends on how much autonomy the Sports Czar had. Would I have more power than Roger Goodell/Giancarlo Goodellio? Would I have the authority to supplant Goodell in the negotiations and order a deal to get done? How much would the owners respect me? How much would President Obama empower me? Could I use political leverage/capital to get this done, and what would that leverage/capital be? For instance, let's say three NFL teams wanted help funding new stadiums — could the Sports Czar potentially say, "If we get this ref deal done for the sake of America, then I'll try to help you with X, Y and Z"? I can't answer that question without knowing exactly how much power I'd have — too many hypotheticals.

(Important note: See how I ducked that question? I just boosted my chances for the Sports Czar spot — that answer was handled like a savvy politican!)

Q: Is it just the pro wrestling fan in me or are the replacement refs actually making these games MORE exciting? All we're missing is refs turning around to argue with the home team quarterback, missing the completion into the endzone, and turning around after one of the defensive players has hit the receiver with a chair (in the back--concussions, you know) and grabbed the ball to rule the play a fumble recovery by the defense. Or a referee knocked unconscious in a collision late in the game so he can't see the home team frantically calling timeout, forcing our hometown heroes to drive down the field with the clock still running, with the ref coming to just in time to signal the winning touchdown. I LOVE this game!
—Earl H., Stamford

SG: Speaking of wrestling, how much better would Monday night have been if Jim Ross announced the winning play? Here's the final throw by Wilson, it's headed toward the end zone … and it's intercepted by the Packers! (Pause.) Wait a second. (Pause.) NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! NOOOOOOOOOOOOO! NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! MY GOD … NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Is there still time? Why can't WWE start a YouTube series called "J.R. Retroactively Announces Real Sporting Events"?

Q: You know how you can tell the scab-refs are doing a great job? I was reading all 30 stories on how they blew the Packers-Seahawks game when I saw a link to a Grantland story about them doing such a horrible job and reaching the "breaking point". I then realized that story was posted Monday afternoon and was about Pats-Ravens. Pretty bad when the worst officiated game of all time holds the title for about 20 hours.
—Kevin Dodgson, NYC

SG: Yeah, that was like the Pacquiao-Bradley fight being the undercard for the famous Bret Hart/Shawn Michaels match from Montreal. People keep asking if we're working on a 30 for 30 about the replacement-ref fiasco someday — don't you feel like we need a decade or more to fully digest what happened? I mean, these guys did the impossible. They briefly ruined the NFL, the single safest entertainment bet in America. I don't know if you can put that in its proper perspective until something like 2025.

Q: I know I'm in the minority here, but I don't think enough people truly appreciated the beauty of the chaos that occurred on Monday night. It had everything! There was a streaker, Rodgers got hit with more sacks than Jenna Jameson's chin, refs single handedly decided the outcome of the game, and Steve Young exploded. The only way I could possibly have envisioned this being any better would be if the game were in Philadelphia and the call went against the Eagles. A shirtless Ed Hochuli would charge onto the field with his arms outstretched screaming "Are you not entertained?!"
—Bryson, Shelbyville, IL

SG: Come on, you stole that Jameson joke from Peter King.

Q: Am I the only one who thinks there needs to be a "Replacement Referee Mode" on the next Madden? It would add such an element of randomness. Just imagine it: Your quarterback executes the perfect fade pass for a touchdown to take the lead, but right as you're turning to your buddy to give him crap, you see that the Madden Replacement Referee has flagged you for roughing the punter. You would never know what to expect.
—D.R., San Antonio

SG: They already have that mode — it's called "The No F---ing Way Game." Usually happens in franchise mode when you're 5-0 or 6-0, then a chip activates inside the game and kicks it into "There's No F---ing Way You're Winning This Game" mode (which I've written about a hundred times). Maybe Madden could actually brand this moment as a "Replacement Refs" game — you're 6-0, and suddenly you see Replacement Don King and Lance Easley on the field and think, Oh no … oh God.

Q: My entries into the "What should we call what happened in Seattle" sweepstakes:

• The Seattle Screwjob
• Speechless in Seattle
• The Northern Pacific Railroading
• Blown Calling in Cedars
• The Replacement Killers
--Andrew D., Chicago

SG: I still like Goldengate … but "The Replacement Killers" is pretty damned good. Maybe that's what we'll call next year's Lifetime movie about a fake ref named "Vance Beasley" throwing a Monday-night game to pay off gambling debts (starring my man Tom Cavanagh, of course).

Q: I don't know whether I hate these new refs for ignoring vicious hits or whether I love them for bringing back '80s and '90s football, in which receivers going over the middle should (and will be) punished for doing so. I can't decide. No matter what the ultimate decision is with this lockout, either the NFL needs to cash in on it by putting out some NFL Hits videos of these first few weeks (like they had in the '80s and '90s) OR they need to hire back the real refs that would (at the very least) penalize a helmet-to-helmet hit that nearly killed Darius Heyward-Bey in Week 3 vs. Pittsburg. FYI — according to the refs on the field, that was a clean, perfectly legal hit … that knocked him unconscious and sent him to the hospital. I had to rewind the DVR five times to fully appreciate the damage done. I know I'm a bad person for doing so, but dammit, that reminded me of old-school football. Remind me to send some money to Heyward-Bey's nursing home when he has early-onset dementia at age 45. Meanwhile, I'm going to continue watching the new (old) NFL.
—Shannon, San Diego

SG: Hold on, I'm trying to figure out how many lines Shannon just crossed there. I think we ended up at three. He raised a good point, though — offenses had been taking advantage of the safety-first rules by repeatedly sending receivers over the middle, but during those first three weeks, they were putting those receivers in real danger because the repercussions for a monster hit just haven't been the same. In my mind, the Heyward-Bey hit should have ended the lockout — I watched that live with some friends and, for about three seconds, we actually thought he was dead. No flag! Nothing! I wrote this last spring, I wrote it the past few weeks and I'm writing it again: There isn't a more hypocritical league than the NFL. After all the belated, fear-of-lawsuit-induced fuss they made about player safety these past two years, they just spent the past few weeks putting their players in danger and failing to police their play properly. I just wish the Super Bowl was in New Orleans this season so Goodell could spend that week getting booed everywhere he went.

(What? The Super Bowl is in New Orleans???? Are you kidding???? This is fantastic! I wouldn't order room service that week, Rog.)

Q: Easy and awesome Halloween idea: Replacement Ref. You just have to look like a regular ref, and then you get to act like a jackass all night! Tried to sneak into a bar and got caught? I didn't know the rules! I'm a replacement ref! Spill a drink all over the sexy bee at the Halloween party? Whoops! I'm a replacement ref! Threw up all over the taxi? I WAS NOT PREPARED FOR THIS KIND OF PRESSURE. I'M A REPLACEMENT REF.
—Aaron, Chicago

SG: Plus, you wouldn't have to buy a drink all night. Where's my wallet? Has anyone seen my wallet? I think I lost it! I'm a replacement ref!

Q: I'm considering dressing up as Roger Goodell for Halloween. I figure all you'd need to do is wear a suit, stuff the pockets to overflow with fake money and wear one of those gold Caesar crowns. Then you could get a stationary shop to make a custom "Fines" post-it pad so that you could walk around handing out fines indescriminately all night. $10,000 for spilling beer!! Did I leave anything out that would make the costume better?
—Ben A., Chicago

SG: Yeah — you need to spend the night talking about how important safe sex and abstinence are, then have unprotected sex with a stranger at 3 a.m.

Q: This whole replacement-ref things has me convinced of one thing, though: Roger Godell (purposeful misspelling) thinks he's 1997 Eric Bischoff. He bros up all the new guys; tries to play-up to his stars while taking pot-shots at guys we've heard-of but don't have an emotional investment in … all be cause he thinks he's the genius who will knock-off his rival who's league is coming off of a bit of a down-turn (NBA/Stern). At first, everyone buys in to the "I'm the Commish and I'm a bad-ass, just like they did in WCW with Bischoff when he introduced the nWo. "Boo! Stern! Boo! Vince! Yay new-not WWF!" But after about a year of making huge mistakes and then trying to make up a preposterous story-line to cover it, it eventually becomes a disaster than people still can't bring themselvs turn off. "Dear God! That's! That's! That's David Arquette! What in name of New York City is he doing on the football field!?!? … (long pause) … Folks, I've been told that David Arquette has been named special guest referee of Super Bowl." This will not end well.
—Chuck Norton, Atlanta

SG: So if you're scoring at home, Roger Goodell has now been successfully compared to not one but TWO different "evil" wrestling promoters in the same posthumous ref lockout mailbag. Even the Notorious DJS in his prime couldn't have pulled that off. That reminds me — I'm excited to see how David Stern reclaims his "Evil Commissioner" throne these next few weeks. Normally, this is the point of the year when the NBA always does something weird to get people talking. He's REALLY going to have to step it up this year. Will he ban tattoos? Will he ban NBA players from tweeting? Will he announce that any player or coach who makes a political statement before the election is fined $100,000? Will he look the other way as Minnesota makes a concerted effort to field the first team in six decades with no black players? Oh, wait, that's already happening.

Q: After the review of final play of the of the Packers/Seahawks game, what if the referee went to announce the result of the review and added personal reasons why it was upheld. "The ruling on the field stands … because I want to buy a Porsche with my winnings?" Or, "The ruling on the field stands … because the bank was going to seize my house unless I came up with the money this week." Then Tim Donaghy could serve as an analyst on NFL Replacement Officials Live, trying to get into the head of how each game will be fixed. It would be ESPN's newest hit!
—Roy, Louisville

SG: I wish ESPN could have a do-over on the ref lockout. We should have had Replacement Ref 24/7 and Fake Referee Real World. We should have used those Little League "Get to Know the Refs" graphics on Monday Night Football. We should have been simulcasting MNF games on ESPN2 with Jim Ross announcing them. We should have had Tim Donaghy, Earl Hebner and a bummed-out John Buccigross hosting NFL Replacement Officials Live. Thank God we're booking Don King and Fake Don King for a week of PTI — it's the least we can do.

Q: In season 8 of Homeland, does Sgt. Brody become the commissioner of the NFL?
—Kevin, Portland

SG: Too soon.

Q: The greatest part of the fiasco on Monday Night Football? Following the madness on Twitter. One of my co-workers is a die-hard Raiders fan and brought up the point that Twitter literally would have exploded had it existed the night of the Tuck Rule. Along those lines, we started wondering about some of the other crazy sports moments that would have been exponentially more entertaining had Twitter existed. Another co-worker brought up O.J. and the white Bronco which is an absolute no-brainer. If Joe Lunardi was doing this bracket style, what are the other 1-seeds? Tyson biting off Holyfield's ear? Artest going into the stands? The Stanford-Cal band on the field? It can't just be "greatest moments ever" though as there has to be a certain "WTF just happened/is happening" component.
—Micah, West Hartford

SG: I'm almost positive I answered this question before, but let's run it back. Tyson/Holyfield seems like it should be up there on paper, but it was a pay-per-view, which limited the total audience. For me, OJ's Car Chase and the Artest Melee are the Bird and Magic of this question — you can't mention one without the other. They had the perfect blend of "WTF is happening?," "I need to alert other people that this is happening" and "I'm compelled to share my disbelief with the disbelief of others," which makes for the perfect Twitter storm. But OJ's car chase wasn't funny in the moment because we all thought it was going to end with the Juice killing himself on live TV. That part can't be forgotten. There was nothing funny about the Bronco Chase until police took him into custody. And even then, it was more dumbfounding than anything.

Meanwhile, the Artest Melee was frightening/insane/mesmerizing for about eight minutes — would anyone have even been able to pull their eyes away from the TV long enough to tweet? — and then, starting with Jim Gray's hilariously terrified report from courtside, what happened became funny (in a macabre way) once we realized nobody had been hurt. You also had the "What the hell just happened?" element — it would have taken hours just to figure out exactly what went down and who was who (for instance, that the guy punching Fred Jones was Ben Wallace's brother), and we also would have been reading tweets and reports from media people who were there. Throw in the YouTube clips and the GIF of Jermaine O'Neal punching out Turtle and I can't imagine how we would have topped the Artest Melee as a Twitter night. Remember, that was a night that led to not one but TWO columns from me. A two-column night! How can that not be the no. 1 pick?

Q: How great was Monday for Twitter? Moves ahead of the Womens World Cup vs. Japan as the #2 moment in Twitters history. Top 5:

#1. Bin Laden's Death
#2. Seahawks-Packers
#3. World Cup USA vs. Japan
#4. Tebow's TD against the Steelers
#5. Clint Eastwood's Chair Riff
Man Twitter is the best. Seriously.
—David C., San Jose

SG: I can't believe you left The Decision off there. For me, it's the first three plus The Decision. Here's what I loved about Monday Night: It nailed the three WTF/need-to-alert/share-my-disbelief categories while also managing to IMMEDIATELY be funny. I can't remember a funnier hour on Twitter. I really can't. My only regret was screwing up my "Mike McCarthy should have ran back out onto the field naked from the waist down" joke right before the extra point. Wrong tense. Should have written "run back." And to think, I write for a living.

Q: Monday night may have been one of the most bizarre nights I've ever experienced in my 24 years of living. I met some neighbors on my street late night on Saturday, including this 22-year-old woman with full on metal braces. Evidently my drunken self left quite the impression just by talking for ten minutes. Fast forward to Monday night, watching the Packers-Hawks game in bed and I hear a banging on my front door around 11:25 p.m.. This happens three times in ten minutes so I finally go down to answer. There is the girl who just met me standing there in nothing but a sweatshirt, no pants or nothing and its 50 degrees out, asking me what my plans are this weekend and proceeds to ask me out on a date. She suggests we go to an apple orchard nearby and then dinner. I'm speechless. She is a 4 out of 10 and that's being kind. I hand her my number and just tell her to text me sometime. I didn't want to give the wrong number in the fear that this girl knows where I live and who knows what may happen if I lied. She leaves, I go back to my room trying to figure out what just happened. And then Russell Wilson tosses a ball into the endzone with :01 left in the 4th quarter.
—Greg B. Philly

SG: Yup, these are my readers. And on that note, let's get to my Thursday Skunk of the Week.

I always lean toward grabbing 12 or more points in any NFL game unless one or more of the following conditions apply:

A. I'm going against a home team playing a night game.

B. I'm going against a top-five team playing at home.

C. A + B.

D. I don't trust the QB on the road team even a little.

E. The road team doesn't have one of those offenses that can easily get you a garbage-time touchdown cover when you're trailing by 17 with 90 seconds left.

Tonight's Browns-Ravens game (Baltimore favored by 12) somehow hits all five of those checkmarks … and we didn't even mention yet that it's Brandon Weeden's first nationally televised game. Yikes. Vegas can't make this line high enough. I'm laying the points. Baltimore, you've been sprayed.

Last Week: 8-8
Thursday Record: 0-3
Sunday/Monday Record: 24-19-2

Permalink

ranks reax w3

By: timbersfan, 12:23 AM GMT on September 27, 2012

Three weeks still isn't a significant sample size from which to derive true meaning about how bad a certain pass defense might be, but I've watched enough of the Washington Redskins to believe this isn't solely a trend. Drew Brees in Week 1 was one thing, but Sam Bradford and Andy Dalton have combined for 638 passing yards since. As luck would have it -- and not Andrew Luck, who is on bye this week -- the Redskins will be playing another brutal pass defense this week in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Remember that Detroit Lions-Tennessee Titans game in Week 3, with 85 points, 1,000-plus yards, a Hail Mary that was legitimately completed and overtime? That should be Redskins-Buccaneers.

However, when polishing off my Week 4 rankings, it seemed like Buccaneers wide receiver Vincent Jackson was perhaps the lone beneficiary of that extra sweet "matchups" jolt. I've got him in my top 10, and surely my colleague/Redskins fan Matthew Berry is aware that his fave team doesn't defend so well, but who else is there to take advantage? There are just way too many thriving quarterbacks to bump average Josh Freeman into starter territory, though I came close at No. 12, and Robert Griffin III is already safely there. The Redskins don't have, shall we say, sure things among their wide receivers, which is a shame, and the Bucs' top tight end, Dallas Clark, is averaging two fantasy points per game. Running backs Doug Martin and Alfred Morris are already top-20 choices.


So while the Lions-Titans game featured the best wide receiver in the biz (Calvin Johnson), a potential top-10 talent when healthy/trouble-free (Kenny Britt) and other interesting productive and/or upside names (Nate Washington, Nate Burleson, Titus Young, Kendall Wright), what else can Buccaneers-Redskins provide for fantasy goodness? I'd recommend a healthy Pierre Garcon, but he might not even play. It's tough to like Leonard Hankerson, Aldrick Robinson or Santana Moss -- yes, he's still playing -- as flex choices. The Bucs' Mike Williams has two touchdown catches but just seven receptions overall. He's my No. 32 wide receiver of the week, but he probably wouldn't be ranked at all in a tough matchup. Man, these are the two pass defenses that have allowed more than 1,000 yards so far, but who can step up?

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AP Photo/Bill Kostroun
The Bucs' Vincent Jackson could be in for a big game with a shootout looming.
Fantasy owners shouldn't try to fit the proverbial square pegs into round holes. Yes, it's certainly possible the Bucs' Arrelious Benn or any number of Redskins break out with a Kevin Ogletree Week 1-type performance, but there's proper fantasy depth when it comes to quarterbacks, wide receivers and tight ends. It's a passing league. We cannot say the same for running back, which is why it was far easier in Week 3, for example, to tout Mikel Leshoure and Andre Brown. They saw opportunity and ran with it. In deep formats, which can't always be reflected in our standard league rankings, I see Benn and Hankerson being Week 4 lottery picks, but basically, it's all about Vincent Jackson for this game. Enjoy him.

Quarterback: You'll see the staff doesn't appear concerned about Aaron Rodgers. He ended up first. I know the reasons to like Michael Vick as a top-10 guy, but between the turnovers and risk -- more than every other passer, really -- that an Osi Umenyiora squashes him to the sidelines in the first quarter, I can't go there. Vick is 13th for me. I ranked Matthew Stafford as a standard-league starter, but if he cannot play, Shaun Hill would land at No. 17 for me. Nobody seems too concerned about Alex Smith against the New York Jets now that Darrelle Revis is gone. And I really wanted to move Christian Ponder up more. He's playing well. But there are safer, veteran options. As I noted in a video defending Rodgers, the best QB in fantasy is currently tied for 20th with Mark Sanchez in standard points. But Sanchez is actually on pace for exactly what he produced last year, when he was the No. 10 QB. So 10th last year is good for only 20th so far this year? It's early, but potentially significant. There is plenty of good quarterback play available.

Running back: Last week, Steven Jackson of the Rams was an iffy real-life start. He started, and a few minutes later stood on the sidelines with an ice pack on a knee. Then he played again. This is what scares me about Reggie Bush. I was the only one who didn't rank him in the top 20. What if he starts and leaves early? Jackson doesn't make anyone's top 20, either. My top 10 running backs mirror the staff top 10, but I did rank Trent Richardson, Stevan Ridley, Michael Turner, Morris and Leshoure a bit better than the average. Why can't Richardson run on the fearsome Ravens? He can. There's little variation in the staff running back ranks because so few options are reliable. I would trust neither Andre Brown nor Ahmad Bradshaw this week, for example, and the staff has them 24th and 25th, flex territory. Cedric Benson earned a more favorable rank, due to the matchup with the New Orleans Saints. Benson has no competition. By the way, when evaluating Washington's Morris after Week 1 I wrote that Mike Shanahan is so unpredictable that he could sign a free agent like Ryan Grant off the street and start him in Week 2. Well, Grant is actually a Redskin now. So when does he start, Week 5 or 6?

Wide receiver: The Pack is back! Greg Jennings looked healthy in the Monday-nighter, and it's time to trade for your favorite Green Bay wide receivers. What about the Saints, though? Marques Colston has been quiet, with 13 fantasy points so far. Lance Moore has more catches, yards, touchdowns and targets. Colston remains ranked better, but the Packers have permitted only 376 passing yards so far. Drew Brees might not reach 300 this week. In addition to Tampa Bay's Jackson and Williams, others I liked more than the average were Malcom Floyd, Danny Amendola, Kenny Britt (assuming he plays), Brandon LaFell and Brian Hartline. I was not as high on DeSean Jackson, Anquan Boldin, Santonio Holmes and Denarius Moore.

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Is This Real? Michael Vick, Franchise Quarterback

By: timbersfan, 12:20 AM GMT on September 27, 2012

The Eagles might have a 2-1 record, but anybody who has seen them play this year would struggle to reconcile their winning record with any sort of winning play on offense. Philadelphia's produced the league's second-best defense per DVOA, but their offense ranks 31st by the same metric. The root cause is easy to figure out: Through three games, Philly's offense has produced 12 turnovers. Since 1990, only five teams have turned over the ball more frequently than the Eagles have during their first three games.

Unfortunately, the root cause of all those turnovers is also pretty clear. Michael Vick remains the league's most terrifying quarterback, but his unpredictable, unteachable athleticism has gone from scaring opposing fans to bewildering his own. It's telling that Andy Reid — who knows exactly what he's saying when he talks to the media — suggested this past Monday that the team was with Vick "right now" but would "evaluate it as we go." Granted, Reid spent the better part of a half-decade slowly benching Donovan McNabb through similar methods, but this is the first time that there's been any questions about Vick's status as the starter in Philadelphia.

The question we pose today, then: Is the guy who has stunk up the joint these past three weeks the "real" Michael Vick?

Let's start with the numbers and see just how far Vick has fallen. During his career, Vick's seven seasons as his team's primary starting quarterback have produced an average of just under 13 starts per year. It is a remarkable coincidence for the purposes of this column that Vick has just finished his 26th regular-season start as an Eagles player (excluding a game against the Redskins in which he left with an injury after one quarter). That's basically two full seasons of Michael Vick, Eagles starter. How has his performance shifted during those two seasons?

Starts Cmp Att Cmp% Yds Y/Att TD INT
1-13 261 424 61.6% 3,399 8.0 24 8
14-26 273 465 58.7% 3,603 7.7 17 18
Well, that's an unpleasant swing. You could live with the declines in completion percentage and yards per attempt, but Vick's touchdown-to-interception ratio absolutely collapses, falling from 3-to-1 to under 1-to-1. It's tempting to say that he turned into the old Michael Vick, but even the Falcons-era Vick threw 71 touchdowns against 52 picks. Falcons Vick threw interceptions on 3.0 percent of his passes; Eagles Vick threw picks on 1.8 percent of his passes during his first 13 starts with the team before seeing his rate more than double to 3.9 percent.

If you're an Eagles fan, that's the scariest part of this whole downward swing. I've written a bunch in the past about interception rates and how random they can be from year to year, but if you look at Vick's career interception rates, the outlier isn't what Vick's done over those last 13 starts; it's what he did during his early days as the Eagles starter. Vick's disappointing performance over these past 13 games could be much closer to the "real" Michael Vick than the guy who ran rampant over the league in 2010.

Is there a consistent, correctable trend that shows up across those interceptions? Perhaps. I went back and watched each of Vick's 18 interceptions over his last 13 starts from both the TV angles and, where available, on coaches' film. As it turns out, there are two very distinct types of interceptions that account for virtually all of Vick's turnovers.

One is on the tipped pass. Three of these plays are passes that were either tipped or intercepted at the line of scrimmage, which has been a problem for Vick because of his propensity to throw from almost a sidearm angle. Football Outsiders counted 19 passes that were tipped at the line or knocked down there for Vick last season, which was tied for the league lead with Matt Hasselbeck.

In addition, there are those Vick passes that are tipped by a receiver and then caught by a member of the opposing team. That's happened to Vick five times over the past 13 starts, including twice against the Browns in Week 1. Often, these picks look a lot like Vick's second interception from that game. Vick forces a throw into some meaningful amount of traffic, and while it's a high-velocity throw, it doesn't have the accuracy to be gathered in. Instead, the Philly receiver throws up a desperate hand to try and make a ridiculous catch, the ball takes a deflection, and it ends up in the hands of a nearby defender. Combine those two groups into one "tipped" category, and that's eight of Vick's 18 picks.

The other primary drivers of Vick interceptions are players who Vick seemingly fails to pick up on before he makes his throw, guys who ghost into the passing lane after the pass is out and intercept it before the ball gets to his receiver. These undercutting defenders have been responsible for six of Vick's ten remaining interceptions. Examples would include Nick Barnett's pick-six of Vick last season (a play also affected by an impending hit), and Bernard Pollard's interception of Vick in the end zone in Week 2. In each case, Vick tries to make a throw to a receiver moving horizontally on a crossing route or a slant, only to fail to properly account for the moving members of the defense. Vick passes in these situations basically turn into failed frogs from Frogger. Of the other four, one was a Hail Mary play that was intercepted, and another basically amounted to one.

The good news is that the tipped interceptions shouldn't happen quite as frequently as they have been. Some of those passes have to hit the ground once in a while. On the other hand, the bad news is that it's hard to imagine Vick's propensity for being blind to those lurking underneath defenders in zone improving very much. Vick makes plays by making snap decisions on the run and trusting his athleticism to make both throws and runs that other quarterbacks wouldn't be able to sniff. The cost of doing business with Vick might be a few of those picks per season.

Vick could also use a bit of help from his teammates. After fumbling just five times on 801 touches during his first three seasons in the league, Shady McCoy has two fumbles in three games. A return to form would help make Vick's life a lot easier.

Unfortunately for the Eagles, these ugly starts in terms of turnovers tend to continue through the regular season. As I mentioned earlier, just five teams since 1990 have produced a higher turnover total over their first three games than the Eagles. In each case, while those teams saw their turnover rates dip below their crazy opening three-game average, they didn't bounce all the way back to league average. They offered up 130 giveaways in 65 games, an average of exactly two per game. Philly's offense needs to turn the ball over less frequently than that to stay healthy and productive, a move that Vick might find difficult to master. His interception rate might dip down to that 3.0 percent rate from his Falcons days, but chances are that we're looking at the "real" Michael Vick for his first extended stretch since he joined the Eagles. The Michael Vick from 2010 might not have enjoyed such real change after all.

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I Survived a Raiders Game

By: timbersfan, 12:19 AM GMT on September 27, 2012

I didn't think there'd be much math at an Oakland Raiders tailgate, but there I was on Sunday, staring at a hulking dude with a silver-painted face, faded army fatigues, and a no. 95 SKULLMAN jersey, trying to mentally extrapolate how many chest bumps he's been a part of in his Mohawked life.

I had just watched him engage in at least three such collisions in the span of 30 seconds, though obviously that wouldn't be the constant rate. But even if you assumed a less frenetic pace, you could see how the chest bumps would add up. Under the right conditions — crisp Bay Area weather, an exciting Raiders team, easy traffic, the health of various underground markets — it seemed reasonable that SKULLMAN could hit four figures in a day.

He had the body for it, certainly: big and mean, looking a little bit like Spike Hammersmith from Little Giants if he grew up and decided to get back at his dad. He had football pads on his upper body, which would help take the blows. But SKULLMAN is a guy who, according to one article, "hasn't missed a game for a decade" — and that article itself was written over a decade ago. SKULLMAN, it seemed to me, was the exact type of Raiders fan I'd always heard about: intense, pretty badass, and more than a little unhinged. It was all making sense.

But then a friend of mine broke the spell. "I didn't peg SKULLMAN for a Blue Moon guy," he said, pointing out the telltale bottle that SKULLMAN was holding in his spiked-leather-gloved hand. "That doesn't seem very hard-core."

Raider Nation, as it turns out, might just be like us.


KATIE BAKER/GRANTLAND
It's always fun to get a glimpse of other cultures, to learn their special customs or watch people interact in their natural habitats. You know: like going home with your college roommate for Thanksgiving dinner, or watching anything on Bravo. When it comes to the NFL, mingling with foreign fans is a similarly valuable learning experience, the lesson being this: No matter who, where, or what we are, we're all willing to make asses of ourselves for some football. It's just that some of us go to greater lengths than others.

Like all good dark kingdoms, the Oakland Coliseum (Just like the Oakland A's, I refuse to call it O.co) has an imposing façade; it looks more like a Cold War–era concrete bunker than a house of athletics and entertainment and, theoretically, joy. (Actually, what it most reminded me of was the Cliff Lodge at Snowbird in Utah; I'd love to see a meet-up between the two buildings' typical inhabitants.)

Arrive at the game via train and you're funneled through a long cage that forms a metal rainbow between the station and the Coliseum. As you near the end of the overpass, it's hard to know which detail to first behold. The curlicues of barbed wire forming a found-object Arc de Triomphe? The iconic Raiders logo that looks like it would turn into a hologram overlay of a skull and crossbones if you tilted it ever so slightly? The solemn, proto-fascist promise of a COMMITMENT TO EXCELLENCE?

No, what captures your eye (and holds it against its will) is the red O.co sign, tacky as a price tag left on a gift. With its strange mélange of fonts, it's hard to know whether the sign was the bland result of too many focus groups, or whether the whole thing was slapped together at the last minute by a harried marketing intern. I was mildly surprised to learn that "O.co" was neither a type of female condom nor the name of an oxygen bar (do those things still exist?) but rather last year's hip new rebrand of Overstock.com — so hip, in fact, that the world was never ready for it.

Befitting its Bay Area location, the Coliseum has seen its share of odd corporate naming-rights deals from tech and dot-com companies through the years. (I'm kind of sad "the Net" didn't last.) And this is no exception. After rolling out O.co last summer in conjunction with purchasing the naming rights to the Coliseum, Overstock.com quietly backed away from the rebranding effort by last fall; AdAge called the whole thing one of "The Biggest Follies of 2011." (One big problem: Everyone was typing in "O.com.") The arena is nevertheless still supposed to be called O.co, even though it never is. The team's lease is up in 2013; it's unclear what will happen then.

Before we parted ways to go to our seats, I asked a friend of mine who has season tickets if there were any concessions food he'd recommend. He was silent for a minute.

"Honestly, I can't think of any," he said.

Raider Nation," Hunter S. Thompson wrote before the Raiders-Buccaneers Super Bowl in January 2003, "is beyond doubt the sleaziest and rudest and most sinister mob of thugs and whackos ever assembled in such numbers under a single 'roof,' so to speak, anywhere in the English-speaking world."1 I guess he had a point: For a group of people mostly shrouded in black, their personalities are certainly colorful.

What I enjoyed most about being surrounded by the Raiders aesthetic is how inclusive it actually is. Really, one way to describe it would be to quote Principal Rooney's assistant in Ferris Bueller's Day Off: "The sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wastoids, dweebies, dickheads — they all adore him. They think he's a righteous dude."

In this case, though, she'd be referring to Al Davis, the fiercely love-hated godfather of the franchise2 who died last year and is remembered with an eternal flame at the Coliseum. ("Don't laugh," my Raiders season-ticket-holder friend reprimanded me when he told me about it.) This weekend, Marcus Allen helped light the torch, a classy move that ended a long-running feud between one of the franchise's greatest players and Davis, who once called him "cancer." In the season home opener, Ice Cube — whose "Raider Nation" song remains the team's fan anthem and who directed a 30 for 30 about the Raiders — did the torch-lighting honors.


Raiders fans are an eclectic bunch: You've got your garden-variety eye-patched pirates, and your little kids in jerseys. (I saw more than one young boy with his hair gelled by his parents into spikes.) You've got your cholas y sus novios, the eyebrows of one competing with the chin straps of the other for the title of Most Carefully Manicured. There are guys playing loud, table-slapping games of dominoes in the parking lot. There are families — families with matriarchs who post comments like these on the website CafeMom:

We're Raiders fans and go to games often and yeah this type of crap happens all the time. Last season I saw a two family fight. Dad vs Dad, Mom vs Mom and Teen boy vs Teen Boy, it was crazy, and one of the cops tackled one of the mom's to the ground, and I heard her skull crack … games are still fun though, even if we lose … :(
Then there are the sort of people who, with their snapback hats and snap-up Eazy-E jackets, look like they've been airlifted Straight Outta L.A., where the Raiders played (and fully developed their outlaw/gangsta image) from 1982 to 1994. There are the fanatics who, with their face paint and their snarls, remind me of the "Metallica Rules!" guys in the Any Given Sunday locker room3 (I'd put SKULLMAN in this group, actually). And then there are those whose relation to a pirate (or even a more loosely defined "raider") is tenuous at best but whose body armor and all-spiked-everythings make them look, satisfyingly, like a more monochromatic Bowser.

Oh, let's not forget the token primate: Gorilla Rilla, the "official mascot" of the south end zone section of the Coliseum that's known as the Black Hole. Gorilla Rilla is a man-beast so popular that his recent marriage warranted an article on the official Raiders team website, although I guess that shouldn't be too surprising: Not only did he wed a fellow member of Raider Nation known as Jungle Jane, he did so in front of "over 1,000 people" gathered at the 10th annual Rally in the Valley, a Raiders fan fest in Fresno put on by the "Knights of the Shield Raider Booster Club."


One of the most amazing things about Raider Nation is how well it has sustained itself through some very dark days. (The Wikipedia entry deadpans, hilariously: "Why the Oakland Raiders would have such a dedicated fan base is not clear.") The Raiders made the playoffs in 2000, 2001, and 2002 — in '02, they got spanked by the Buccaneers in the Super Bowl, 48-21 — but otherwise they've missed the postseason every year since 1993.

Given the team's sad recent history, there was an air of preemptive resignation inside the Coliseum for much of the game — reasonable, given how Carson Palmer's very first pass was intercepted, or how the Steelers straddled halftime with a field goal and a touchdown to build a 10-point lead in the third quarter, or how the Raiders just couldn't seem to get through to Ben Roethlisberger. Still, a series of four straight first-down conversions by Palmer ended the third quarter with the Raiders on the march and none of the fans in any particular rush to try to beat traffic.

Facing third-and-nine on Pittsburgh's 33-yard line at the start of the fourth quarter, Palmer threw to Darrius Heyward-Bey, who was sandwich-smashed between two Pittsburgh players and crumpled to the ground. On TV, the injury was replayed in slow-motion and clucked over and broken down while medics attended to Heyward-Bey.

Inside the Coliseum, though, from my seats on the far side from that end zone, it was almost impossible to know what was going on; the two ancient replay screens on the scoreboard failed to show what had happened (understandable but still aggravating) and cell reception was spotty.4 Competing theories floated around as to who was actually down, but everyone agreed that it was bad. When Heyward-Bey was finally carted off, strapped to a stretcher, he gave a thumbs-up as he went. The crowd roared.

The Raiders would score a touchdown on that drive, recover a Steelers fumble a few minutes later, and come back to tie the game with a field goal. They would finally sack Roethlisberger, and force Pittsburgh to punt with less than two minutes to play. They would take over possession, drive everyone bonkers with a couple dud plays (Raiders fans are good at always expecting the worst), and ultimately get into a decent enough position, 43 yards away, to give Sebastian Janikowski a shot to win the game with a kick.

When he did exactly that, the Coliseum went nuts; it was a reaction that sounded more like something out of Week 13, not Week 3. But it was an undeniably huge win for the Raiders, who know that you don't get to those important late-season situations without toughing out wins early on. It was, at the very least, a good start. And why not celebrate that?


KATIE BAKER
Because no one had left the game early, it took forever for everyone to get out. I shuffled through the concourse alongside fearsome ax-wielding ghoul-men whose painted-on scowls were contorted by blissed-out, dopey grins. I could hear one jersey-popping sore winner berating a Steelers fan: "You just came to Oaktown!" he shouted, three times for good measure. "And you just got mugged!" In front of me, a woman wearing black-and-silver Mardi Gras beads was somehow holding a tiny baby without having a meltdown at all the people around us.

A guy in a "Just win, baby!" shirt staggered through, high-fiving everyone and everything in his path and nearly elbowing the kid in the head. When he realized that (a) he had just missed, and (b) I had seen the whole thing, he winked at me then whispered loudly and passionately at the child: "You're a good baby. You're a RAIDER BABY" with such beatific certainty that I expected it to be followed up with an "everything the light touches … is our kingdom." (The Coliseum, unfortunately, more closely resembles the Elephant Graveyard than Pride Rock.)

A few minutes later, as we waited to squeeze onto the barbed-wire bridge that would lead us back to the train station, a Beatles sing-along broke out with the word "Raiders" in place of where "Hey Jude" should be in the chorus. It was odd, but it was also oddly touching. We might as well have linked arms and done the can-can to "Sweet Caroline."

Raider Nation may be the strangest and snarliest and scariest group of fans in the league, but really, they're no different from anyone else. They just want their team to do well. They want to go home and wipe off the makeup and actually be able to stomach watching SportsCenter for once. They want to be happy. Is that too much to ask? Even Dobermans ask for a belly rub once in a while. I assume a SKULLMAN is no different. He just wants the Raiders to win once in a blue moon. Barring that, I guess, he'll just have to stick to drinking it.

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Controlled Chaos

By: timbersfan, 12:19 AM GMT on September 27, 2012

Down 17 points early in the fourth quarter of their Week 2 game against Houston, the Jaguars were pushed to desperation. Hoping to start a comeback, Jacksonville lined up with four wide receivers for second-year quarterback Blaine Gabbert. The Texans defense, orchestrated by longtime NFL head coach Wade Phillips, countered by bringing a blitz. Linebacker Bradie James joined the Texans' front in its pursuit of Gabbert, and as Houston's line twisted and slanted their way to the quarterback, the extra rusher allowed defensive end J.J. Watt to get free and bring Gabbert to the ground.

The sack, like most outcomes in football, was a product of some other, often unnoticed factor. Watt gets the credit, but without James's disruption, he would not have been able to bring down Gabbert. And the ripples go further than that. The other reason for Jacksonville's faltering has nothing to do with rushers. Despite having four wide receivers running routes, no one was open. Phillips had called for a blitz, and although Gabbert was surrounded by Texans, it was the coverage that sealed his fate.

The word "blitz" is maybe the most exciting word in football. Like a football Mexican standoff, it conjures up the ultimate him-or-me scenario — a mass of defenders in single-minded, blind pursuit of the quarterback, and an offense that knows it might be only a missed tackle away from a long touchdown. Former Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden once gave a clinic lecture about the blitz aptly (and neutrally) titled, "Hang Loose — One of Us Is Fixin' to Score." A blitz is the closest thing we have to football bedlam.

Phillips's call wasn't quite bedlam. The "zone blitz" Houston brought combines the do-or-die nature of a traditional man-to-man blitz with a more conservative zone coverage behind it. Zone blitzes are not particularly new, but while the "blitz" element continues to receive the most attention, it's the continuing changes in the coverage behind it that make zone blitzes the most important defensive tactic in modern football.

In the mid-1980s, defenses across the NFL faced a common problem: how to stop the precision-passing offenses becoming so prevalent throughout the league. Most notably, it was how to stop the San Francisco 49ers, led by resident NFL offensive genius Bill Walsh. Walsh, one of the most meticulous men football has known, had studied the passing game with and under some of the game's masters — Paul Brown, Sid Gillman, and Al Davis — but had taken the next step by planning every detail, every subtle movement by quarterback, offensive line, and receiver. Walsh transformed passing from a combustible, high-risk, high-reward strategy into something certain and predictable. His quarterbacks completed a higher percentage of their passes, didn't throw interceptions, and didn't take sacks. He'd kept the reward and reduced the risk, and defenses needed an answer, fast.

Walsh's protégés were hired around the league. One of them, offensive assistant Sam Wyche, became head coach of the Bengals, and upon his arrival enlisted Cincinnati defensive backs coach Dick LeBeau as his new defensive coordinator. As Tim Layden explains in his book, Blood, Sweat and Chalk, LeBeau had experimented with the idea of combining a blitz with zone coverage prior to Wyche's arrival, and when the new head coach endorsed the idea, the zone blitz became LeBeau's focus as a defensive coordinator.

For advice, he traveled to Baton Rouge to meet with Louisiana State University head coach Bill Arnsparger, a well-known defensive guru. Before he got to LSU, Arnsparger coached some of the NFL's greatest defenses, first with the Baltimore Colts in the '60s and later the Miami Dolphins — both teams led by Don Shula. He and Arnsparger won two Super Bowls in Miami, where Arnsparger coordinated the famed No Name Defense. One of those Dolphins defenders — he in fact had a name: Bob Matheson — was a linebacker whom Arnsparger began using as a defensive end in their 4-3 scheme, an early predecessor to today's hybrid defenders. Together, Matheson and Arnsparger sparked two of football's most enduring defensive tactics: the 3-4 defense and, maybe even more important, the zone blitz.

"With Bob there, with linebacking skills," Arnsparger told Layden, "we were able to rush five guys and cover with six. That's what you need to run a zone blitz." Arnsparger continued to develop the zone blitz through the early 1980s, later relying on converted linebacker Kim Bokamper as the versatile defensive lineman who could drop into coverage. By the time he left for Baton Rouge — and long before he would coordinate a defense in his sixth Super Bowl, this time with the San Diego Chargers — Arnsparger had refined his theory of the zone blitz. As he explained in his book, Arnsparger's Coaching Defensive Football:

What makes the zone blitz successful is that it allows the defense to bring outside linebackers and safeties to one side or both sides without using man-to-man blitz coverage. Normal blitzes use man-to-man coverage. The offensive line and one or two backs are assigned to block the defensive line and linebackers. In the zone blitz, the linebacker blitzes along with a secondary player, but the offensive pickup is different. It is different because defensive linemen who usually rush are now dropping out to short inside zones to replace the linebacker and secondary player that blitz. Because of the blitzer's path, it is difficult for the offensive linemen to adjust.
LeBeau had clearly come to the right man. Not only was Arnsparger employing the types of tactics at the college level that LeBeau wanted to bring to the pros, but — true to form — Arnsparger had thought through the entire theory of the tactic as well. "Bill's catchphrase was that he wanted to get 'safe pressure,' on the quarterback," LeBeau told Layden. "And that expression stuck with me because that was a very succinct way to summarize exactly what I was looking for. Safe pressure. I walked out the door saying those words to myself."

LeBeau, currently the defensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers, has, like Arnsparger, had his strategies vindicated by his success. To go with his Super Bowl rings and the success of his own protégés, LeBeau is a member of the NFL Hall of Fame. For the last quarter-century, innovations by Arnsparger and LeBeau have been the one counter to a football world full of would-be Bill Walshes determined to show off their offensive genius. Today, the zone blitz is ubiquitous, and the accolades recently — and rightly — afforded to LeBeau confirm what many already know.

LeBeau's trip to the bayou is only half the story. The other half comes from about 10 years ago. Unsurprisingly, those would-be Bill Walshes — and even Bill Walsh himself to some extent — did not simply concede defeat to LeBeau's newest tactic. Instead, offenses tried to find ways to counteract it. "I always felt that we contributed greatly to the development of the run-and-shoot offense," said LeBeau. "Teams were just looking for quicker and quicker ways to attack, to the point where it might not even matter where the pressure was coming from." He's right. The run-and-shoot offense, as well as later iterations of spread offenses, arose in a world replete with zone blitzes, and much of their design centered on identifying and exploiting any weaknesses those blitzes left.

The biggest of those weaknesses came from what was originally a strength — the zone coverage behind the blitz. Many of the earliest zone blitzes Arnsparger called in Miami were not actually "blitzes" as we think of them now. The Dolphins would rush only four players in total, simply swapping out a rushing linebacker for a zone-dropping defensive lineman. As a result, these defenses were just as sound against the pass as zone defenses that had been run for the past 50 or so years. Defenders dropped to a spot, watched for a receiver in that area, and broke on the ball as it was released. Even with the threat of blitzes, quarterbacks eventually started exploiting the many soft spots on the field.

Nick Saban, currently the head coach at Alabama, was the defensive coordinator under Bill Belichick when the two were with the Cleveland Browns in the early 1990s. While speaking to high school coaches at a recent clinic, Saban summed up the early problems of traditional spot-dropping zone coverage: "Well, when Marino's throwing it, that old break on the ball shit don't work."

The answer that Saban, Belichick, and many others developed was "pattern-match" coverage — essentially man coverage that uses zone principles to identify the matchups. As Saban explained at the 2010 Coach of the Year Clinics Football Manual clinic:

You can play coverages in three ways. You can play zone, man, or pattern-match man. Pattern-match man is a coverage that plays the pattern after the pattern distribution. That means you pick up in man coverage after the receivers make their initial breaks and cuts. We number receivers from the outside going inside. If the number-one receiver crosses with the number-two receiver, we do not pick up the man coverage until they define where they are going.
In other words, the zone blitz had come full circle. What began as a way to blitz without playing man coverage had started incorporating man coverage all over again, this time in an entirely new way.

Using pattern-match principles allowed defenses to overcome the deficiencies in both the manic, risk-heavy man-to-man blitzes and the easy-to-exploit soft spots in the zone-coverage scheme. There was now a way to keep the safety of the zone and the tighter coverage of man-to-man. Defenses had finally done for blitzing what Walsh had done for passing — keeping the reward but eliminating the risk.

The nuances of a pattern-match zone blitz are, as one would guess, rather extensive, but the principle is simple. "I had the opportunity to work for [current New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator] Steve Spagnuolo," said University of Pittsburgh secondary coach Matt House at a coaching clinic in Pittsburgh this past summer. "He had a great analogy talking about zone pressure. He said, 'All you do is roll out the basketball and tell the players to play three-on-three.' The players will talk, communicate, and switch on the picks. We do the same thing in zone-dog coverage."

The most common modern zone blitz is the "fire zone," a five-man blitz behind which the defense plays coverage with three defenders deep and three underneath. The only limit to the countless arrangements of the five blitzers is a defensive coordinator's creativity, but the coverage assignments are more finite.

Although the idea of pattern-match coverage is to defend the offense after the receivers show their routes, it's still useful for the defense to identify where the receivers are when they line up. Against the Texans, the Jaguars lined up in a basic four-wide-receiver set with two wide receivers to each side and running back Maurice Jones-Drew lined up to Gabbert's left.


COURTESY OF CHRIS BROWN
The three deep defenders essentially divide the field into thirds, with the cornerbacks effectively playing the outside receivers — the first receivers from the sideline — on any downfield routes. Were these outside receivers to run immediately to the inside, however, such as on a shallow crossing route, the corner would make an "under" call and play his deep third zone like a traditional zone player. If that outside receiver moves far enough inside to become the innermost receiver in the pattern distribution, he becomes the middle linebacker's responsibility, a coverage known as "no. 3."

The most interesting assignment goes to the outside, underneath defenders, labeled in the diagram as "SCF/Seam" but also known in the NFL as "Bronco" coverage players. These are the true pattern-match players, and they have the toughest job. It's their responsibility to determine whether the play is man, zone, or some combination thereof, all based on what is most favorable to the defense.

Fire zones are essentially three-deep coverages, and offenses have known how to attack three-deep coverages for years. There are two common methods of doing so. The first is sending four receivers vertical, with the idea being that three deep defenders shouldn't be able to play four deep receivers. The second is sending the outside receiver vertical while the tight end or slot runs a deep out or a curl/flat combination. The pattern-match fire zone therefore is specifically designed to handle these tactics. Broadly speaking, these "SCF/Seam" or "Bronco" defenders will play man-to-man on the second receiver from the sideline so long as he runs vertically down the seam or runs a deep out of any kind. If the receiver breaks hard to the inside, the Bronco defender passes him off to the inside defenders and looks for another receiver coming through his zone.

"SCF" and "Seam" are the two most common methods of teaching this technique. "SCF" stands for Seam-Curl-Flat, and literally tells the defender the order of his priorities: Watch the seam, drop to the curl area, and let the quarterback's throw take you to the flat. The SCF technique is played from inside to out.


The "Seam" technique, which is Dick LeBeau's now-preferred method, works much the same way as SCF, only from the outside in. The theory is that in the NFL, if the defender isn't aligned to the outside, the quarterbacks are so good that they will hit the out-breaking routes all day. The "Seam" technique also has implications for how and when defenders will switch off certain receivers, but, just like a matchup zone in basketball, more important than the scheme is the communication and discipline used to make it go.

The upshot of pattern-match zone blitzes is that when executed correctly, they are the best of all possible worlds: They're attacking, multi-defender blitzes in which the defense plays zone coverage against pass patterns designed to beat man-to-man coverage against pass patterns — all verticals — designed to defeat zones.

The pattern-match zone blitz is not a magic bullet that solves any problem dynamic modern offenses might present. Every scheme has its strengths and weaknesses, and it's still up to the players to bring the diagrams to life. But blitzing is as old as football itself, and as long as Rodgers, Brady, and Manning are playing quarterback, to blitz, teams must cover as well.

More than a decade after their meeting in Baton Rouge, Arnsparger, another Super Bowl appearance under his belt and now retired, visited LeBeau at the Bengals training camp in Georgetown, Kentucky. "I watched a practice, and afterward Dick and I chatted. I thanked him for his kindness and congratulated him on developing the zone blitz to the point where it is today," Arnsparger writes. "The scheme has grown a great deal since the beginning. Like everything in football, when you see something good, you add your ideas and make it better — and the zone blitz is no exception." Great coaches do not necessarily seek to fundamentally change the game, but instead are stewards for a time — for their players, for the ideas of the day, for football itself — merely doing their best to leave each better than they found it.

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A rundown of runs

By: timbersfan, 11:12 PM GMT on September 25, 2012

On the Bundesliga's fourth matchday of the new season, the second-longest unbeaten run in league history finally came to an end. It happened entirely unexpectedly, as is often the case when runs collapse, though the setting was very fitting indeed.


PA Photos
Jakub Blaszczykowski shows his frustration as Dortmund suffer defeat against Hamburg
Reigning league champions Borussia Dortmund, undefeated since losing away at Hannover 96 on September 18, 2011, were beaten by a Hamburg side that had lost every competitive game this season. The result means that Dortmund's run of unbeaten league matches was stopped at 31 and that they won't have a shot at the record. This record, set between January 1982 and January 1983, stands at 36 games and is held by... Hamburg.

Another run continued during this game, though. No Bundesliga tie has produced more goals than Hamburg versus Dortmund. The tally stood at 319 before Saturday's game kicked off and it's now 324, as the home side prevailed 3-2 in an entertaining, though unusually error-strewn, game.

Unusual for Dortmund, that is. While this wasn't the first match in which Borussia wasted a plethora of chances (Hamburg's in-form goalkeeper Rene Adler was clearly the man of the match, so much so that he could figure in the Germany set-up again soon), it was the first in a very long time in which the entire backline, including goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller, gave the impression of not being totally focused.

Dortmund's weakness, however, was not the reason why Olaf Thon, a 1990 World Cup winner, said: "Although the season is still young, I think I have seen the new league champions: Bayern Munich." Rather, it was Bayern's strength. Away at Schalke, the Munich giants accomplished a potentially tricky task with such ease and elegance that you have to wonder what could stop them this season.

Probably not injuries, considering how many options coach Jupp Heynckes has and how much faith he obviously has in every squad member: against Schalke, Bayern were without Franck Ribery (and, of course, Mario Gomez, who has been out since August but hasn't been missed so far) and could afford to bench Javi Martinez, yet the team was just as solid and easy on the eye as they had been on Wednesday, when Valencia were convincingly beaten in the Champions League.

Speaking of the Champions League, while all three Bundesliga sides won their games, they also each missed a penalty. This strange run continued on Thursday in the Europa League, when Gladbach wasted a penalty deep into stoppage time and thus dropped two points. And it was still very much alive on Sunday, when Leverkusen failed to crown a good performance against Gladbach by bagging all three points because an otherwise much-improved Andre Schurrle only the hit the post from the spot and Bayer had to content themselves with a 1-1 draw.

The best penalty taker over the last few seasons, incidentally, has been Hoffenheim's Sejad Salihovic, who converted 14 of 16 spot-kicks in the past four years. This season, though, it seemed as if the Bosnian wouldn't get too many chances to improve these figures. He didn't seem to feature in the plans coach Markus Babbel has for a new Hoffenheim and was used only as a sub. To add insult to injury, he also set an embarrassing record three weeks ago, against Frankfurt, when he came on after 66 minutes, was booked three minutes later - and booked again only 60 seconds after that.

On Sunday, Salihovic came on again deep into the game - but this time he made his presence felt in an entirely different way. With eight minutes left, his header gave Hoffenheim a deserved 2-1 lead against a Hannover 96 team that seemed tired or uninspired or both. Hoffenheim went on to win 3-1 and earn their first three points of the season. It was not only an important win for the club and for Babbel, it was also a good first proper day on the job for Hoffenheim's new general manager - Andreas Muller.


PA Photos
Markus Babbel had been working as both "manager" and "coach" at Hoffenheim
The former Schalke player and business manager took over this post last Wednesday - from Babbel. In Germany, it is unusual for someone to work in the English style, as both coach and general manager, which is why the term "manager" is not used in Germany for the person who stands at the sidelines - he is usually the "coach". Felix Magath, however, is a prominent exception to the rule and Babbel had been another one since March, when Hoffenheim fired business manager Ernst Tanner.

After the terrible start to the new season, though, Babbel told the club early last week that he'd like to concentrate on his coaching job and asked Hoffenheim to find a manager type. This man is Muller, who was Schalke's business manager between 2006 and 2009 but hasn't worked in football in the past three years.

He's got his work cut out for him, as Hoffenheim's problems on the field have been accompanied by an unusual debate about the power supposedly wielded by the agent Roger Wittmann (Mario Basler's brother-in-law). Former coach Ewald Lienen has criticised the fact that there are too many players represented by Wittmann in Hoffenheim's squad (Salihovic, incidentally, is one), calling this situation "unhealthy".

It's not the first time this issue has been raised. Ten years ago, there were no fewer than ten players represented by Wittman's company Rogon in Kaiserslautern's squad, which supposedly caused a rift first in the team and then in the club as a whole.

We started this rundown with a few runs and that's how we should end. Fortuna Dusseldorf drew 0-0 with Freiburg to become the first promoted team not to concede a single goal in their first four matches. And Eintracht Frankfurt won a fine football game 2-1 away at Nurnberg to become the first promoted team to win their first four games.

Which means that, all of a sudden, Tuesday's game between Eintracht and Dortmund in Frankfurt looks like a very interesting match in which the visitors, given their current form, are not necessarily overwhelming favourites. Yes, Tuesday's game. There is a midweek matchday in Germany - an "English week" as it's called here.

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Trouble in Title Town?

By: timbersfan, 11:10 PM GMT on September 25, 2012

I definitely asked for it.

Why didn't I simply roll out of bed at 8:29 for the 8:30am Super Sunday kickoff and watch the Liverpool-United smackdown in the lunatic isolation of my own home like any sane person? What possessed me to travel a half-hour out of my way to the dark heart of United-dom, the aptly named Football Factory, a soccer den of inequity lurking in the shadow of the Empire State Building?

And why did I allow myself to be surprised upon encountering a roiling sea of the most hideous jerseys I ever laid eyes on? Some were white with red trim and black lettering, others a subtle red plaid with white lettering, but the color combinations paled in comparison to the noisome lettering on the back of all of them, a sight that made me nauseous long before I knocked back three beers by halftime.

"V. Persie," they screamed smugly.

No, I haven't gotten over it, even though Arsenal is doing just fine, thank you, without the rat-faced Dutchman. The Gunners remain undefeated after a hard-earned 1-1 draw against Man City at Middle Eastlands on Sunday, while discovering that goals scored by players other than RvP still count the same. But I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I can barely stomach the odious images of van Persie scoring for United, followed by Sir Alex's risible AARP jig as if he had anything to do with the Dutch Benedict Arnold's development as a player.

And, of course, that's exactly what happened in the emotional cauldron of Anfield on Sunday: van Persie converted from the spot to give United the very definition of a fortuitous 2-1 win over a valiant Liverpool side that was controversially reduced to 10 men after Jonjo Shelvey's 39th-minute red card.


GettyImages / Paul Ellis/AFP/GettyImages
Though Pepe Reina guessed correctly on Robin van Persie's penalty, he couldn't keep it out and thus couldn't prevent more heartbreak for Liverpool.

It's rare that my Gooner heart aches for anyone else wearing red, but after all the sorrow and loss in the wake of the Hillsborough Report, it's hard not to feel for Liverpool, who outplayed, outmuscled and out-sang their bitter rivals.

Unfortunately, they didn't outscore them, but when you play with no pure strikers and you're not wearing the Spanish national team jerseys, these things happen. It also didn't help that United got a man-of-the-match performance from Mark Halsey. Put another way: If I'm Halsey, I wouldn't walk alone on Merseyside in the near future.

The referee gave United the benefit of the doubt on the three calls that decided the game: Shelvey's two-footed lunge on Jonny Evans (who himself was hurtling studs-up toward the Liverpool midfielder), the non-decision regarding Evans' step on Luis Suarez's foot in the United area, and awarding the Charmin-soft penalty against Glen Johnson for barely tickling the back of Antonio Valencia's heels in the box. Such has been the Scousers' luck this season that everyone's favorite mockumentary, "Being: Liverpool," should consider changing its title to "Being: Liverfoiled."

Ferguson would no doubt disagree and say that champions create their own luck, but he clearly wasn't happy with United's strangely listless display on a day that demanded intensity and commitment. The proof was evident in his postgame platitudes: "A win's a win, so we've got to be pleased with the result, but not the performance."

In fact, as Shelvey trudged toward the tunnel after his hotly contested dismissal, the crusty Scot took it upon himself to demonstrate the kind of combativeness his team was lacking. Whatever he said to Shelvey -- and it's safe to assume it wasn't "Tough luck, son, come by for a glass of cabernet afterward" -- sparked all sorts of angry gesticulations and finger-pointing.

"Where I come from," the Romford-born Shelvey later told the British press, "people don't grass people up to get someone sent off." (For those of you not familiar with the term "grassing up," think back to "The Sopranos" and, SPOILER ALERT, why Tony whacked Big Pussy.)

Even after Shelvey's dismissal, United continued to be overrun in midfield. Fergie thought he had the panacea for that lethargy in the guise of Paul Scholes, who replaced Nani at the start of the second half. And not surprisingly, the ginger ninja had an immediate impact, but not quite as Sir Alex had imagined.


GettyImages / Michael Regan/Getty Images
Luis Suarez has managed a reasonable 17 Prem goals in 49 games for Liverpool, but on 213 shots (79 on target). If the Reds are to rebound, he must improve.

Less than a minute after he brought up the age curve on the field by about ten years, Scholes allowed Liverpool's teen sub Suso to skin him on the left and send in a cross that United failed to clear. The ball caromed to Liverpool captain and big-game specialist Steven Gerrard, who cushioned it on his chest and lashed a swiveling volley into the bottom right hand corner.

Yet the Kop had barely finished celebrating when United drew even through an equally nifty piece of skill from Rafael, who curled the ball off the inside of the far post from a nigh-impossible angle. The goal touched off a delirious scene in both the away end at Anfield and at the Football Factory in New York City. It was hard to tell who roared louder, but I can attest that more beer was spilled at the latter.

The Liverpool fans at the bar, outnumbered five to one, were holding their own in the sing-a-thon that rocked the place, until the 76th minute when Halsey pointed to the spot for Johnson's "foul" on Valencia. Suddenly instead of rollicking chants, the air was rent with expletives that called into question Halsey's judgment and four generations of ancestry.

Because Arsenal were up next on the big screen, I probably should not have risked cashing a karmic chit with the soccer gods, but I couldn't help myself. I silently prayed for RvP to reprise his comically lame penalty dink against Southampton from two weeks ago. Instead, he put his foot through the ball, and though Pepe Reina guessed correctly, the shot had too much power for the Spaniard to keep it out. What followed was the nadir of the morning. I barely heard the rejoicing of the hundreds of the United fans around me as RvP wheeled away in celebration and pointed to the badge on his shirt, a gesture that I fear will haunt me at least another 20 times this season.

I ordered another pint and looked around for someone with whom to commiserate. And then I saw it, a large red banner hanging on the right side of the room. "Home of the New York Gooners," it proclaimed, and I knew I was not alone in my pain. To stand in their midst and hear them bellow for 90 minutes made me feel as if I were inside the Emirates. But it was louder and the chants were wittier.

He plays on the left, he plays on the right, Caaaazooooorlaaa!
He's Arsenal's dream when money is tight, Caaaazooooolrlaaa!
Santi! Santi! Santi!

So technically gifted is Santi Cazorla that his talent is infectious. When you see Carl Jenkinson execute a Cruyff turn on the byline as he did against City, you can appreciate how influential the Spaniard has been to Arsenal's confident start to the season.


GettyImages / Stuart MacFarlane/Getty Images
Santi Cazorla (on right) has helped transform the Gunners' attack, giving it more depth and variety. He's also making his teammates, like Mikel Arteta, much more effective.

In short, he's made everyone around him not named Theo Walcott better, transforming Arsenal from a team desperate to get the ball to the feet of certain Dutch ingrate to one that has a veritable smorgasbord of attacking options. I'm still not convinced, however, that the Gervinho who scored three goals in the past two games is a Didier Drogba doppelganger. More likely, the real Gervinho is the Ivorian who took the field for Arsenal on Sunday, the one whose idea of a first touch is to keep the ball inside the park. Against City he wasted chance after chance, none more farcical than in the 16th minute when Aaron Ramsey's clever through ball sent him clear on goal only for him to push his dribble halfway to London and into the grateful arms of Joe Hart.

But so rampant was Arsenal in the first half-hour that you would never have known it was the visiting team. That changed 10 minutes later when City scored and the Etihad blew a gusher.

Arsenal has worked hard this season to exorcise their slapstick defending at set pieces. Indeed, the Arsenal rear guard, anchored by its captain Thomas Vermaelen and the deceptively quick-witted Per Mertesacker, had proved the toughest defense to breach in the Prem. Yet old habits die hard, and when Joleon Lescott rose above a flailing Vito Mannone to meet David Silva's corner (seemingly the only time all game Silva connected with a blue shirt) with a thumping header, all of Arsenal's slick interplay looked to be for naught.

But this is not the same City team that would crush an opponent's windpipe at home as it did last season in winning the title. For one thing, neither Mario Balotelli nor Carlos Tevez have been anywhere as dangerous as they were during the championship campaign. As if to underline their role in City's stuttering start to the season, or perhaps just to give everyone a good laugh, the cameras panned to the duo huddled side-by-side on the bench with a coat draped over them to keep the rain off their expensively coiffed heads.

Though Mancini claims he hasn't fallen out of love with either of his prodigal strikers, Tevez didn't get on the field until the 68th minute, while Balotelli waited till the 85th to make a cameo. By then, Arsenal was level, thanks, appropriately enough, to poor set-piece defending by City that resulted in Arsenal's Forgotten Defender Laurent Koscielny smashing home the equalizer in the 82nd minute. The Frenchman, such a revelation in the heart of Arsenal's defense last season, was injured in preseason and lost his starting spot to Mertesacker. But with Vermaelen a late scratch due to injury, Koscielny made the most of his chance against City, though he nearly consigned himself to squad purgatory when he inexplicably passed the ball directly to Sergio Aguero in front of the Arsenal goal.

How Maradona's son-in-law spurned that gift from God I will never know but he did, and it did not go unnoticed at the Football Factory.

"This one's on me," said bartender/owner/walking EPL encyclopedia Jack Keane, as he bought the New York Gooners a round on the house. I'd like to think Jack's generosity betokens a secret passion for Arsenal but he was quick to disabuse me.

"I'm a lifelong United supporter," he said. "I'm just happy to see City suffer."

Permalink

Trouble in Title Town?

By: timbersfan, 11:10 PM GMT on September 25, 2012

I definitely asked for it.

Why didn't I simply roll out of bed at 8:29 for the 8:30am Super Sunday kickoff and watch the Liverpool-United smackdown in the lunatic isolation of my own home like any sane person? What possessed me to travel a half-hour out of my way to the dark heart of United-dom, the aptly named Football Factory, a soccer den of inequity lurking in the shadow of the Empire State Building?

And why did I allow myself to be surprised upon encountering a roiling sea of the most hideous jerseys I ever laid eyes on? Some were white with red trim and black lettering, others a subtle red plaid with white lettering, but the color combinations paled in comparison to the noisome lettering on the back of all of them, a sight that made me nauseous long before I knocked back three beers by halftime.

"V. Persie," they screamed smugly.

No, I haven't gotten over it, even though Arsenal is doing just fine, thank you, without the rat-faced Dutchman. The Gunners remain undefeated after a hard-earned 1-1 draw against Man City at Middle Eastlands on Sunday, while discovering that goals scored by players other than RvP still count the same. But I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I can barely stomach the odious images of van Persie scoring for United, followed by Sir Alex's risible AARP jig as if he had anything to do with the Dutch Benedict Arnold's development as a player.

And, of course, that's exactly what happened in the emotional cauldron of Anfield on Sunday: van Persie converted from the spot to give United the very definition of a fortuitous 2-1 win over a valiant Liverpool side that was controversially reduced to 10 men after Jonjo Shelvey's 39th-minute red card.


GettyImages / Paul Ellis/AFP/GettyImages
Though Pepe Reina guessed correctly on Robin van Persie's penalty, he couldn't keep it out and thus couldn't prevent more heartbreak for Liverpool.

It's rare that my Gooner heart aches for anyone else wearing red, but after all the sorrow and loss in the wake of the Hillsborough Report, it's hard not to feel for Liverpool, who outplayed, outmuscled and out-sang their bitter rivals.

Unfortunately, they didn't outscore them, but when you play with no pure strikers and you're not wearing the Spanish national team jerseys, these things happen. It also didn't help that United got a man-of-the-match performance from Mark Halsey. Put another way: If I'm Halsey, I wouldn't walk alone on Merseyside in the near future.

The referee gave United the benefit of the doubt on the three calls that decided the game: Shelvey's two-footed lunge on Jonny Evans (who himself was hurtling studs-up toward the Liverpool midfielder), the non-decision regarding Evans' step on Luis Suarez's foot in the United area, and awarding the Charmin-soft penalty against Glen Johnson for barely tickling the back of Antonio Valencia's heels in the box. Such has been the Scousers' luck this season that everyone's favorite mockumentary, "Being: Liverpool," should consider changing its title to "Being: Liverfoiled."

Ferguson would no doubt disagree and say that champions create their own luck, but he clearly wasn't happy with United's strangely listless display on a day that demanded intensity and commitment. The proof was evident in his postgame platitudes: "A win's a win, so we've got to be pleased with the result, but not the performance."

In fact, as Shelvey trudged toward the tunnel after his hotly contested dismissal, the crusty Scot took it upon himself to demonstrate the kind of combativeness his team was lacking. Whatever he said to Shelvey -- and it's safe to assume it wasn't "Tough luck, son, come by for a glass of cabernet afterward" -- sparked all sorts of angry gesticulations and finger-pointing.

"Where I come from," the Romford-born Shelvey later told the British press, "people don't grass people up to get someone sent off." (For those of you not familiar with the term "grassing up," think back to "The Sopranos" and, SPOILER ALERT, why Tony whacked Big Pussy.)

Even after Shelvey's dismissal, United continued to be overrun in midfield. Fergie thought he had the panacea for that lethargy in the guise of Paul Scholes, who replaced Nani at the start of the second half. And not surprisingly, the ginger ninja had an immediate impact, but not quite as Sir Alex had imagined.


GettyImages / Michael Regan/Getty Images
Luis Suarez has managed a reasonable 17 Prem goals in 49 games for Liverpool, but on 213 shots (79 on target). If the Reds are to rebound, he must improve.

Less than a minute after he brought up the age curve on the field by about ten years, Scholes allowed Liverpool's teen sub Suso to skin him on the left and send in a cross that United failed to clear. The ball caromed to Liverpool captain and big-game specialist Steven Gerrard, who cushioned it on his chest and lashed a swiveling volley into the bottom right hand corner.

Yet the Kop had barely finished celebrating when United drew even through an equally nifty piece of skill from Rafael, who curled the ball off the inside of the far post from a nigh-impossible angle. The goal touched off a delirious scene in both the away end at Anfield and at the Football Factory in New York City. It was hard to tell who roared louder, but I can attest that more beer was spilled at the latter.

The Liverpool fans at the bar, outnumbered five to one, were holding their own in the sing-a-thon that rocked the place, until the 76th minute when Halsey pointed to the spot for Johnson's "foul" on Valencia. Suddenly instead of rollicking chants, the air was rent with expletives that called into question Halsey's judgment and four generations of ancestry.

Because Arsenal were up next on the big screen, I probably should not have risked cashing a karmic chit with the soccer gods, but I couldn't help myself. I silently prayed for RvP to reprise his comically lame penalty dink against Southampton from two weeks ago. Instead, he put his foot through the ball, and though Pepe Reina guessed correctly, the shot had too much power for the Spaniard to keep it out. What followed was the nadir of the morning. I barely heard the rejoicing of the hundreds of the United fans around me as RvP wheeled away in celebration and pointed to the badge on his shirt, a gesture that I fear will haunt me at least another 20 times this season.

I ordered another pint and looked around for someone with whom to commiserate. And then I saw it, a large red banner hanging on the right side of the room. "Home of the New York Gooners," it proclaimed, and I knew I was not alone in my pain. To stand in their midst and hear them bellow for 90 minutes made me feel as if I were inside the Emirates. But it was louder and the chants were wittier.

He plays on the left, he plays on the right, Caaaazooooorlaaa!
He's Arsenal's dream when money is tight, Caaaazooooolrlaaa!
Santi! Santi! Santi!

So technically gifted is Santi Cazorla that his talent is infectious. When you see Carl Jenkinson execute a Cruyff turn on the byline as he did against City, you can appreciate how influential the Spaniard has been to Arsenal's confident start to the season.


GettyImages / Stuart MacFarlane/Getty Images
Santi Cazorla (on right) has helped transform the Gunners' attack, giving it more depth and variety. He's also making his teammates, like Mikel Arteta, much more effective.

In short, he's made everyone around him not named Theo Walcott better, transforming Arsenal from a team desperate to get the ball to the feet of certain Dutch ingrate to one that has a veritable smorgasbord of attacking options. I'm still not convinced, however, that the Gervinho who scored three goals in the past two games is a Didier Drogba doppelganger. More likely, the real Gervinho is the Ivorian who took the field for Arsenal on Sunday, the one whose idea of a first touch is to keep the ball inside the park. Against City he wasted chance after chance, none more farcical than in the 16th minute when Aaron Ramsey's clever through ball sent him clear on goal only for him to push his dribble halfway to London and into the grateful arms of Joe Hart.

But so rampant was Arsenal in the first half-hour that you would never have known it was the visiting team. That changed 10 minutes later when City scored and the Etihad blew a gusher.

Arsenal has worked hard this season to exorcise their slapstick defending at set pieces. Indeed, the Arsenal rear guard, anchored by its captain Thomas Vermaelen and the deceptively quick-witted Per Mertesacker, had proved the toughest defense to breach in the Prem. Yet old habits die hard, and when Joleon Lescott rose above a flailing Vito Mannone to meet David Silva's corner (seemingly the only time all game Silva connected with a blue shirt) with a thumping header, all of Arsenal's slick interplay looked to be for naught.

But this is not the same City team that would crush an opponent's windpipe at home as it did last season in winning the title. For one thing, neither Mario Balotelli nor Carlos Tevez have been anywhere as dangerous as they were during the championship campaign. As if to underline their role in City's stuttering start to the season, or perhaps just to give everyone a good laugh, the cameras panned to the duo huddled side-by-side on the bench with a coat draped over them to keep the rain off their expensively coiffed heads.

Though Mancini claims he hasn't fallen out of love with either of his prodigal strikers, Tevez didn't get on the field until the 68th minute, while Balotelli waited till the 85th to make a cameo. By then, Arsenal was level, thanks, appropriately enough, to poor set-piece defending by City that resulted in Arsenal's Forgotten Defender Laurent Koscielny smashing home the equalizer in the 82nd minute. The Frenchman, such a revelation in the heart of Arsenal's defense last season, was injured in preseason and lost his starting spot to Mertesacker. But with Vermaelen a late scratch due to injury, Koscielny made the most of his chance against City, though he nearly consigned himself to squad purgatory when he inexplicably passed the ball directly to Sergio Aguero in front of the Arsenal goal.

How Maradona's son-in-law spurned that gift from God I will never know but he did, and it did not go unnoticed at the Football Factory.

"This one's on me," said bartender/owner/walking EPL encyclopedia Jack Keane, as he bought the New York Gooners a round on the house. I'd like to think Jack's generosity betokens a secret passion for Arsenal but he was quick to disabuse me.

"I'm a lifelong United supporter," he said. "I'm just happy to see City suffer."

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The problem with Southampton

By: timbersfan, 12:30 AM GMT on September 22, 2012

The league table doesn't lie -- and neither do the record books. Bottom of the Premier League with no points, Southampton is faced with a statistical barrier to survival: no newly promoted side has lost its first four matches and escaped relegation.

There are mitigating circumstances: three of the Saints' first four games were against Manchester City, Manchester United and Arsenal -- last season's top three in order. For a newly promoted club, these are known as "bonus" matches where no points are expected. And besides, Southampton played well against the two clubs from Manchester.

More concerning was the 2-0 home defeat to Wigan. That, coupled with the nature of the 6-1 thrashing at the Emirates last weekend, has prompted questions about the safety of Nigel Adkins' job. It would be tremendously harsh if Adkins was dismissed in the coming months, especially considering he guided Southampton to consecutive promotions in order to reach this division in the first place. The bookmakers believe he is the favorite to leave his job first, and the usual names -- which these days generally include Rafael Benitez, improbable as it may be -- have been discussed as a potential replacement.

Of this season's promoted trio, Southampton is undoubtedly the most exciting side. West Ham is a classic Sam Allardyce team -- direct and combative, yet unimaginative -- and he'll probably guide them to comfortable survival. Reading is a decent side but its performance against Tottenham this past Sunday was remarkably tame. The Royals won't be embarrassed this season though they're difficult to get excited about.

Southampton, on the other hand, is a very likeable side. There are plenty of creative midfielders, plenty of direct attackers and a couple of handy strikers. The problem, however, is at the back -- Southampton has neither outstanding individuals nor collective organization. Regardless of the opposition, conceding 14 goals in four matches is a disastrous record.

Statistically, Southampton is equally fascinating. According to WhoScored.com, the Saints have conceded the most shots in the league. It’s also telling that they’ve won fewer aerial duels per game than any other side while conceding the fewest fouls. Their method for winning the ball is through interceptions, where they are the league leaders, and their attacking is attractive -- they’ve played fewer long balls than any other team.

This leads to a simple conclusion -- Southampton is too nice. The defense isn't fierce enough, the center backs aren’t dominant enough and the squad lacks players who rough up the opposition. Which is fine. In fact, it's quite pleasant and contributes to the Saints being the most interesting of the newly promoted sides. But the opposite approach, probably best fitting Allardyce's football -- is more of a guarantee of survival.

As a newly promoted side, attractive football must be finely calibrated in order to achieve survival. Swansea did it last season, but there was much greater structure to their play. The ball was retained for longer periods, so the Welsh club could press without tiring and win possession quickly. Its midfield remained compact without the ball while the wide players defended the flanks reliably. The movement of attackers was integrated, so when Swansea conceded possession, the team was evenly distributed across the pitch to prevent the opposition from exploiting obvious spaces.

Southampton has been much more anarchic: in addition to lacking physical power, its defensive shape is poor, a combination that has played into its opponents' hands. They play too high up the pitch and the defense receives little protection from the midfield.


no_source / Michael Regan/Getty Images
Morgan Schneiderlin has established himself as a solid and elegant holding midfielder, but the Saints' overall lack of mettle gives opponents plenty of opportunities to attack.

Morgan Schneiderlin is a good holding midfielder and has completed more tackles and interceptions (combined) than any other player in the league this season. But elsewhere, Southampton is far too open. Its wingers are casual in retreating to their defensive positions, which is acceptable in the Championship (opposing full backs tend to have limited technical quality) but suicidal in the Premier League.

Against Manchester United, Southampton conceded three goals from deliveries into the box from wide -- granted one was a corner, but a constant theme was United enjoying too much time on the flanks. Against Arsenal, Kieran Gibbs was constantly free to overlap down the left -- he forced Southampton into two own goals.

What is the defensive approach? Well, as the statistic mentioned earlier suggests, it is based around interceptions in midfield, combined with a high defensive line. That was the wrong approach against Arsenal, though -- the Gunners played with a quick attacking trio of Lukas Podolski, Gervinho and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain who thrived on the space in behind. Gervinho looked like a world beater, which is less of a reflection on his own talent and more a damning assessment of Adkins’ strategy.

Going forward, Southampton has some terrific attacking options. Adam Lallana is an outstanding talent who deserved his England call up; Rickie Lambert is a fine striker capable of scoring varied and spectacular goals; Emmanuel Mayuka was highly impressive in Zambia’s victorious Africa Cup of Nations tournament and will lead counter-attacks; Gaston Ramirez is Southampton’s record signing and a potential superstar. Jay Rodriguez, Jason Puncheon and Guiherme "Guly" do Prado are more established at a lower level but are decent alternatives. Southampton will score goals this season given its attack with speed and variety.

Unless the approach at the back changes, though, Southampton will concede more than they score. Overall, the Saints are reminiscent of Roberto Di Matteo’s West Bromwich Albion side of 2010/11, who were promoted and played some sparkling football to much media fanfare but were terrible defensively as they slipped towards relegation. Di Matteo was sacked, and West Brom chose Roy Hodgson as his replacement, enticed by his rigid defensive organisation. It was an effective move -- West Brom combined individual attacking talent with defensive structure and comfortably survived.

The situation is fairly simple: Southampton has talented attackers, but lacks defensive steel. They must add that quality in order to survive -- if Adkins can’t provide that in the next few matches, his departure is inevitable.

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Wilshere return brings promise of Spanglish trinity

By: timbersfan, 12:29 AM GMT on September 22, 2012

The last time Jack Wilshere played competitively for Arsenal was May 22nd, 2011, as Arsenal drew 2-2 with Fulham on the final day of that season.

The idea that he might not play again for well over a year was unthinkable, yet that's exactly what happened. Instead of forging a potential partnership with Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri, Wilshere will return to the Arsenal team looking to forge an understanding with two different players entirely.


no_source / Stuart MacFarlane/Getty Images
Arsenal will get a huge boost when Jack Wilshere finally returns to first team action.
Neither Mikel Arteta or Santi Cazorla were at Arsenal the last time Jack wore the famous red and white but the prospect of the Spanish - English - Spanish triumvirate is mouth watering to say the least. Obviously there are other options in the Arsenal midfield, the return of Diaby is a real boost while Ramsey, Rosicky, Frimpong and Coquelin make it a crowded place, but Wilshere's versatility and quality mean he'll play often.

It's worth remembering that in his first, and only, full season, Arsene Wenger deployed Wilshere as, ostensibly, a defensive midfielder. He and Alex Song (his most regular partner) were tasked with anchoring the Arsenal midfield while Cesc was given more licence to roam in the attacking third of the field. It was part of the manager's education for a player who has always been more naturally attacking in his instincts, but Wenger said at the time, "In our midfield he plays everywhere, he can play in any position because he is tactically intelligent.

“He can defend and he can attack, he's a midfielder. For me a midfielder is not exclusively one position. He is a guy who defends when the team does not have the ball and attacks when we have the ball."

Which goes some way to explain why Wenger was willing to replace Song with Arteta, to great ends thus far, but also shows that Wilshere's return provides the manager with genuine options and a real insight into why another midfielder wasn't on the shopping list this summer.

If necessary he can do what Arteta does – although the likes of Frimpong and Coquelin are more naturally suited to that role – and he can play in the position Cazorla occupies. Throughout his youth career he was seen as an attacking, creative midfield player and I have no doubt that's where he'll end up. In the meantime there's the space between Arteta and Cazorla, and when he's back in action and at 100% it's an exciting prospect to consider Wilshere as the link man for the two Spaniards.

It's as technically proficient a midfield as you could hope for and while there's a certain lack of physicality when you remove Abou Diaby, Wilshere's energy and willingness to make tackles in midfield means it wouldn't be as a big a handicap as some might suggest. He also gives the team another creative outlet and a time when there's renewed focus on the quality of Arsenal's team play, having somebody who works as hard and selflessly as Wilshere can only be a good thing.

It is an ideal scenario and the reality is that Wilshere is still some way away from making his first team return, and further again from being 100% match fit. However, it's little wonder there's such enthusiasm for his comeback, he's got a lot to offer and Arsenal will be much the better for it.

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The incredible Tim Howard

By: timbersfan, 12:28 AM GMT on September 22, 2012

It's hard not to love Tim Howard. On the field, the New Jersey-born goalkeeper is a tightly wound bundle of athletic intensity. Off it, he conveys the nobility and earnestness of a throwback gentleman-athlete.

In his seventh season at Goodison Park, Howard talks about Everton in a way others might characterize Howard himself, "This is such a hardworking, no-nonsense team, as blue-collar as it comes," he explains with a quiet pride. "Everyone respects us. Supporters of other clubs always tell me they cheer for Everton when their team is not playing."

Despite well-documented financial limitations, Everton has conjured up top-seven finishes in five of the past six Premier League seasons, a remarkable feat in an era that has seen the league table seemingly predetermined by budgetary muscle. Howard believes the secret of Everton's success lies in the unique bond that exists between the club and its players. "I can say this hand on heart: You will not find a more committed bunch of guys in Europe," he declares.

Howard arrived at Everton after a spell in MLS with the New York/New Jersey MetroStars and some time at Manchester United, but the U.S. international is clear that Goodison Park feels different than anywhere he's played before. "There is no arrogance like at other clubs I have belonged to. Here, there are zero egos," he explains. "You simply won't find that anywhere else. We all really love playing for this team."

Goalkeepers are often portrayed as a breed apart, condemned to a lonely struggle understood only by NFL kickers or Albert Camus aficionados (a writer who, perhaps uncoincidentally, was quite a handy shot-stopper in his day). Yet when asked how he retains his personal motivation playing for a club who have no realistic chance of winning the Premier League, Howard sounds like the consummate team player.

"We get paid to do a job and that job is to fight as hard as we can," he asserts. "All of us are committed, both to each other and to the family nature of this club that we want to live up to. I have been to a few cup finals and I want to get back to that, particularly with Everton. Bringing a trophy back to the city and the club is my main goal. We don't lack for motivation."

But team spirit can only get you so far. Early-season optimism, caused by a swashbuckling opening-day victory against Manchester United and reinforced by the dismantling of Aston Villa, has burned off following a comprehensive defeat at West Bromwich and the frustration of Monday night's controversial 2-2 tie with Newcastle.

As such, Howard is realistic about what lies within the realm of possibility for his team. "We have a limited budget compared to everyone else so competing is tough, but I believe we can earn a Champions League place if we can put together a run like we did from Christmas to the end of last season," he says. "That is what we will deem a success, and our consistency will be key."


GettyImages / Andrew Yates/AFP/Getty Images
Tim Howard embodies the yin-yang of the goalkeeper: passionate on the field, peaceful off it.

Consistency is a word that will still sting following Monday night's draw. Though two controversial refereeing decisions grabbed the headlines, Everton's display was erratic, intoxicating in the first half only to falter in the second. The loss of Nikica Jelavic's intelligent movement proved to be a game-changer. The Croatian striker is expected to be out for two weeks, joining midfield anchor Darron Gibson in the treatment room.

Howard was blunt when assessing the impact of their absence. "Injuries are a factor we cannot combat. Manchester City loses a star and can instantly replace him with another $40 million acquisition. When we lose a top player, we lose our power," he explained. "We have a first-team squad of about 15 players. We simply cannot take many more injuries."

The thin nature of Everton's squad is compounded by their status as a selling club, one forced to surrender its prized talents to rich Champions League contenders. Over the summer, Howard announced he would "cry" if Leighton Baines left the club. Transfer rumors still surround the coveted left back as well as Everton's mop-topped man-o-war, Marouane Fellaini, yet Howard remains optimistic when asked if they might depart. "I don’t think the manager will let that happen," he declared. "We lost Joleon Lescott, Mikel (Arteta), Timmy (Cahill) and (Jack) Rodwell but we are still kicking. The manager has shown he will dig his heels in so our players won't go for cheap. We will not struggle."

Howard is poised to play his 188th straight game when Everton plays Swansea City on Saturday, a record run for a player at a single club. Everton managed to do the double against the slick-passing Welsh side last season, yet Howard remains wary of the Swans' challenge. "They dominate possession whether they win or lose, which lulls you to sleep and creates gaps when a defender is not tuned in. As opposed to other teams where the danger men are clear, Swansea's threats come from all over the field, so I expect to spend the afternoon shouting even more than normal to make sure my guys pick up runners coming on the blindside."

Howard confessed that he'd had limited opportunity to analyze the free-scoring Michu's tendencies on game film, saying, "Faced with a new signing, you just have to go with what your instinct tells you."

The goalkeeper admits he sees a similarity between his club side and international team. "The United States is cut from the same cloth as Everton. We are both underdogs who punch above our weight by operating as a hard-working unit," he says, before identifying a key difference. "Everton has an easier time finding new talent as they can simply buy new skilled players. We Americans are all from the same mold -- hard-working runners. It is not a bad mold, but it means we do not always have the creativity we need."


GettyImages / Marc Serota/Getty Images
Howard, on the U.S. team's recent struggles: "I agree we need to do a better job of settling the score."

Howard believes the team is making progress under Jurgen Klinsmann. "We were a very good team under Bob Bradley. The jump to the next level will be all about getting details right."

When asked whether the U.S. should still be struggling against the likes of Jamaica and Guatemala, Howard does not flinch. "That criticism is fair. We ask the same question as a squad," he says. "CONCACAF is a strange bird. You face teams at home and it is a walk in the park, but away from home they feel like a whole different proposition. I agree we need to do a better job of settling the score. On paper the results do not make sense, but look around the world and you will see that most teams find the pressures of World Cup qualification difficult."

The American No. 1 admits that the World Cup looms large. "As a kid I always dreamed of being a professional goalkeeper, and back then, that had nothing to do with the Premier League, which I had no idea existed. It simply meant representing the U.S. in the World Cup. I had a poster of the 1990 team on my bedroom wall and I wanted to do exactly what Tony Meola did." The power of the poster still holds for Howard. "I want to qualify for the next World Cup and make some noise. We need to better 2010's performance, when we were on the brink of the quarterfinals."

Howard admits a return to MLS is a possibility when his contract runs out at Everton in 2016. "I will be 37 years old then and I saw my friend Kasey Keller enjoy it and do well once he returned," he says, "but I will have to wait to see how I feel when my contract is over. Right now, MLS makes me smile and think of good days ahead."

Whatever he decides, the North Brunswick native is not worried about forgetting where he comes from. When asked if he is afraid of losing his American accent like the mid-Atlantic-brogued Brad Friedel, Howard chuckles. "Brad's accent is a put-on," he declares. "I will just stick to my roots."

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The Miseducation of J.R. Smith

By: timbersfan, 12:26 AM GMT on September 22, 2012

Earl Smith Jr. found salvation in his jump shot. Smith could always shoot, and in basketball a shooter can live forever. In college, he clashed with his coach at New Jersey's Monmouth University, unable to understand why the second team remained the second team, even when they were routinely drubbing the starters in practice. When he'd finally had enough, he confronted his coach, said everything he wanted to say, and stormed off. That was the end of Earl's college career. But his shot never left him. He frequented Belmar's Jersey Shore League for the next decade, making cameos in other semipro leagues, popping up whenever a team needed someone who could stretch a defense.

In 1985, Earl passed on his genes, his basketball acumen, and his name to his first son: Earl Joseph Smith III. He placed toy hoops in every nook of the house. He taught the boy to bend with his knees and push with his arms as he shot. By the time the boy turned 3, he could sink free throws on a regular basis. Earl instructed the boy to do push-ups — not too many, but enough to build strength — and to use the form as an inverted model for his jump shot. When another son arrived two years later, the brothers practiced plays coordinated to numbers. They gave and went on one. They picked and rolled on two. They jabbed and back-doored on three.

"Defense was the last thing I taught them," Earl explained, "because you can make it without defense."

Earl wasn't wrong. The elder of the two brothers now admits that his father "taught me every fundamental that I know, especially my shooting technique." That jumper sustains his NBA career — but it doesn't define a successful one. You know the boy as J.R. Smith, a perplexing, polarizing player and personality. Smith is one of the last members of the NBA's much-debated prep-to-pro generation. He's made money in bunches, more than $25 million in his career, and he will find a team long after his athleticism erodes — like his father, he will always be able to shoot. But he's also defined by something that isn't tangible: untapped potential. Eight years into his star-crossed career, coaches and fans still don't know what to make of J.R. Smith.

Even today, Earl Smith Jr. remains confident that the NBA would have beckoned if only his path had veered a little differently. He measured himself against NBA players like Vinnie Johnson, Eddie Jordan, and James Bailey while holding his own in the Jersey League. His association with those players linked him to a rapidly evolving NBA during the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Larry and Magic brought the NBA to the masses. Television ratings swelled, contracts ballooned, players flew first class. Free agency ensured that rosters became less fluid from year to year. Salary discrepancies between stars and bench players had been thrown out of whack. "The new salaries had made it more difficult," David Halberstam once wrote in The Breaks of the Game. "It had heightened natural tensions between teammates as it increased the differences that always existed."

That same period laid the groundwork for the basketball philosophies of several other basketball lifers who would shape the education of Smith Jr.'s oldest son. John "Pott" Richardson began his climb to more than 400 wins while coaching the Piners of Lakewood High School in New Jersey. Dan Hurley started honing his game under the tutelage of his father, Bob. Byron Scott capped a successful collegiate career and became a fixture of the "Showtime" Los Angeles Lakers under Pat Riley. Meanwhile, George Karl coached the CBA's Montana Golden Nuggets, stealing bit by bit from mentors Larry Brown, Doug Moe, and Dean Smith. And Mike Woodson launched his NBA career under the Knicks' Red Holzman after playing for Bobby Knight at Indiana. They would all eventually cross paths with J.R. Smith. Their inability to make a lasting impression remains the most confounding thing about a confounding career.

Richardson first noticed J.R. Smith when he dominated the Lakewood youth leagues as a 12-year-old. He called him "a court rat." Smith eventually landed at Lakewood after pit stops at Steinert High and McCorristin Catholic High — a red flag, in retrospect — as people quickly noticed Smith's body didn't resemble the body of a typical high school kid. Richardson remembers the Camden High kids, from Milt Wagner to his son, Dajuan, always seeming more physically mature. Like men playing against boys. Now he had one for himself.

"He's the only guy I ever coached," Richardson said, "that had that [physical] structure and could play outside, face the basket at six-five, six-six."

The second thing everyone noticed? Smith's jump shot. With a simple flick of the wrist, Smith could drain 3s — or as Richardson called them, "4-pointers" — from laughable distances. The coach started pushing his young star, demanding that he finish first in sprints and stay late to work on that jumper. Smith obliged, never challenging his coach for fear he'd be benched. Richardson still laughs at Smith's athletic prowess — like his ability to throw down putback dunks in one seamless motion, or the bombs he launched that were closer to half-court than to the 3-point line. Smith also prospered on Lakewood's football team, where he played all over the field — wide receiver, linebacker, cornerback, safety, even quarterback — saved two games with field goal blocks, scored a deciding touchdown on a blocked kick, and routinely caught touchdown passes on soaring fade routes with one hand.

"He obviously made the right decision to concentrate on basketball," said Nick Eremita, Lakewood's coach at the time. "But I coached high school football for over 20 years and without a doubt, he's an NFL-type player."

Clemson offered Smith a football scholarship based solely on watching his game film, something that didn't surprise his coaches. Dave Oizerowitz, Lakewood's offensive coordinator at the time, likened Smith to "a more athletic and probably a faster Plaxico Burress." Oizerowitz added, "He was really just scratching the surface. But the best thing about him? He was a great kid. He always had this big smile on his face and was always popping into the office, asking, 'Coach, how are you doing?'"

Smith gave up football after transferring to St. Benedict's Preparatory School in Newark, where he repeated his junior year and played against better competition. "I graduated high school when I was 16," Earl Smith Jr. explained. "I said my sons ain't gonna do that. If I can get that extra year out of them, it makes a world of a difference."

Even though it would be Smith's fourth high school in three years, Randy Holmes, an assistant to Richardson and one of Smith's mentors, agreed with the move. He admitted that "in order to get where [J.R.] had to get in life, he had to leave Lakewood. He had to. He could have scored 50 points at Lakewood, but that wouldn't have really done anything for him. He would have been All-State. I don't know if he would have been able to go to North Carolina or the NBA. The critics would have said, 'Who has he played against?'"

Richardson learned of the transfer while reading the local newspaper. The Smiths never discussed the decision with him, though he knew it was inevitable.

"They weren't forthright about it," Richardson says. "But it's OK. All is forgiven. It's in the past."

You might remember a string bean kid named Kevin Garnett declaring for the NBA draft right out of Chicago's Farragut Career Academy High School. The NCAA wanted him to skip his freshman basketball season and prove himself academically. Garnett had other ideas. Two decades earlier, three ballyhooed high schoolers — Darryl Dawkins, Bill Willoughby, and Moses Malone — started playing professional basketball right out of high school. Only one of them reached his potential: Malone, who eventually won three MVP awards in Houston and Philly, but only after unsatisfying stops in Utah, St. Louis, and Buffalo. In 1989, Shawn Kemp entered the NBA without playing college ball, becoming a high-flying sensation for the Seattle SuperSonics. That opened the door for Garnett in 1995, then a superior high school player but someone described by Michael Wilbon in the Washington Post as not "physically ready to play under the basket in the Big Ten, much less against Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson. His skill level isn't high enough; he isn't savvy enough."

Garnett proved his skeptics wrong, quickly playing big minutes for Minnesota and embarrassing every team that hadn't scouted him. When high schoolers Kobe Bryant and Jermaine O'Neal followed his lead, NBA scouts reluctantly began haunting high school gyms. No one wanted to miss the next Garnett or the next Kobe. And yet … everyone agreed this was heading in the wrong direction. "I just always felt it was somewhat uncomfortable going into a high school gym and evaluating high school players," said Pete Babcock, a former general manager of the Atlanta Hawks. "It wasn't where you should be. It was just uncomfortable."

You wouldn't have found many people who believed J.R. Smith could jump straight to the NBA. Dan Hurley remembers his father — a Hall of Fame coach at Saint Anthony High School in Jersey City,1 known for his disciplined, demanding style — dropping in on St. Benedict's games and rolling his eyes at Smith's shot selection. Dan Hurley loved Smith's work ethic, though. In two years, he never had to kick him out of a single practice, saying now that Smith wanted to get coached and that Smith would have run through a wall for him. The St. Benedict's teachers also liked Smith; he quickly became one of the school's most popular kids. He lived on campus and was in bed by the 11 p.m. curfew every night. "He was a guy that never expected anything," said Father Edwin Leahy, St. Benedict's headmaster. "A lot of these guys can be prima donnas. There wasn't any of that in him."

Leahy can only remember one incident in which Smith was suspended for a game — after he and teammate Alex Galindo left campus without permission. The reason? They wanted haircuts before a big game.2 Meanwhile, tales of Smith's exploits began to spread. Once, he outscored an entire team for three quarters before Hurley mercifully removed him from the game. Another time, he pulled off a 360-degree dunk as, teammate Bashir Mason remembers, "people literally, in the middle of the game, started running out of the stands and running onto the court." St. Benedict's claimed the state championship during Smith's (second) junior year. The next season, Smith set school records for points scored (700), 3-pointers (108), and field goal percentage (.541). Says Hurley now, "It was amazing what he was able to do so effortlessly, as a shooter and scorer. God blessed him."


CHRIS GRAYTHEN/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES
Smith entered the 2004 McDonald's All-American game as something of a national unknown. That changed quickly — he sank five 3s, scored a game-high 25 points, and claimed co-MVP honors with a man-child named Dwight Howard. Eventually, Smith eschewed a commitment to North Carolina and declared for the 2004 NBA draft, a night that could have doubled as a high school graduation. A record eight high schoolers were selected in the first 19 picks, highlighted by Howard going first to Orlando over established college center Emeka Okafor.3 After New Orleans grabbed Smith at no. 18, he told the Asbury Park Press that "sitting on the bench, I would take that as a lesson, whereas other guys might take that as an insult. Everyone's not going to play right away. It's just a reality, especially when you're a rookie. Not everybody can be LeBron or Carmelo."

If only it had been that easy. Smith's first NBA coach was Byron Scott, someone who wasn't accustomed to losing — the 2005 Hornets lost 64 games — and babysitting teenage shooting guards. Scott takes a more diplomatic stance these days, remembering Smith's rookie season as "a little bit tougher than he probably expected," but also that "we knew he was going to be a hell of a player. We also knew it was going to take some time." Smith didn't do himself any favors by practicing his half-court shot when his teammates queued up at the free throw line, or joking around in the locker room after losses — two habits that irked Scott and Hornets veterans.

"It was probably tough on both of them," former Hornets guard Speedy Claxton said. "Byron was old-school. He grew up under Pat Riley. He's probably one of the most hard-nosed, disciplined coaches there is. J.R. was used to being the man and probably got away with a lot in high school. It was a power struggle between them."

Smith's father believes Scott didn't help J.R. nearly enough, calling him a "good friend" before adding, "You've got a kid out of high school, you treat him as an adult, and you can't do that. He's with men and he's done something wrong, you need to guide him with your hand and say, 'No, you don't do that.' Or every time he comes with his shirt out, you fine him. You've got to nurture him. That's with anything."

Holmes, Smith's mentor from his Lakewood days, moved with Smith to New Orleans, where he witnessed the realities of the professional game affecting Smith's confidence. "For the first time in his basketball career, he wasn't the man," Holmes said. "Coaches really got on him. Byron Scott is old-school. It's his way or no way. You can just sit on that bench and rot if you don't do what the coach wants you to do or you don't get it."

Their already tenuous relationship was irrevocably shattered during Smith's second season, which the Hornets split between New Orleans and Oklahoma City in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. They went months without speaking to each other. Smith's playing time and scoring dropped, despite the addition of spectacular rookie point guard Chris Paul — someone who should have made Smith better in every way. When Scott benched him while the Hornets were depleted by injuries, Smith vented to the Times-Picayune about his coach's "big" ego, bemoaning their lack of communication, while essentially begging for a trade.4 The Hornets accommodated him in 2006 by flipping P.J. Brown and Smith to Chicago for Tyson Chandler. Six days later, Chicago sent him to Denver for two second-round picks.

Asked what he learned about dealing with coaches, Smith ominously told the Times-Picayune, "Just play your game, because you'll probably be around a lot longer than they will." Now with his third team in as many seasons, Smith ran the risk of becoming another cautionary tale, someone mentioned in the same sentence as Korleone Young and Leon Smith. Meanwhile, NBA commissioner David Stern was becoming increasingly mortified by the collective immaturity of the league's younger players and the effect it was having on NBA scouting. In 2006, the NBA mandated that American-born players must be at least 19 years old and at least one year removed from high school to be draft-eligible for the league. Stern wanted to push even further, lobbying for an age minimum of 20 — he wanted NBA personnel out of high school gyms altogether.

Naturally, Earl Smith Jr. disagrees with that stance: "Come out of high school and [you're] in the top 30 of the NBA draft. You go to college, you get exposed. Now, you're out the draft. You've got to get the money when you can go and make a few million dollars without doing that manual labor. You can get an education later. I know how hard it is. I worked a long time to even try and make a million dollars. It don't come easy."

If Earl really believes his son didn't need those two years in college, that may be all you need to know about J.R. Smith's NBA career.

"J.R. Smith ready to revise career: The young guard hopes to earn starting spot, alter troublesome perception developed with Hornets" — Denver Post, October 8, 2006

"J.R. Smith starring as The Graduate: Young Nuggets guard maturing into steady and coachable player" — Denver Post, April 6, 2008

"Smith showing maturity: Jail time this summer has given J.R. a new purpose for game, life" — Denver Post, September 26, 2009

"Smith displaying signs of progress: Nuggets guard vows to improve and, yes, defend" — Denver Post, October, 10 2010

"Every October, I wrote the same feature story: 'Is this the year J.R. turns it around and grows up?'" said Benjamin Hochman, the Nuggets beat writer for the Denver Post who also covered Smith in New Orleans. "You get J.R. talking about how he's matured and George Karl saying how he hopes J.R. will play more defense and be part of a system. Every year, J.R. would not mature and not grow as a player or as a person."

No relationship has ever captured the NBA's conflicting generations better than Karl and Smith — even years later, it's impossible to forget the incredulous expressions on Karl's face whenever Smith launched one of his patented 25-footers at the worst possible time. They were doomed from the start. Earl Smith Jr. remembers riding a stationary bike in the Nuggets' training facility and seeing Karl enter with his assistants, unaware that Earl was J.R.'s father. "I'm going to bust that Smith kid's ass," Smith overheard Karl say to his staff before realizing that his father was present. Smith Jr. encouraged Karl to coach his son; Smith promised to remain just a father. But Karl and J.R. Smith clashed early and often, mostly over playing time.

For someone like Karl, a basketball lifer who learned at the feet of Dean Smith at North Carolina and has watched the NBA dramatically evolve over three decades, J.R. Smith presented a special kind of challenge. After particularly poor play from Smith in Game 4 of a playoff series against the Spurs in 2007, Karl memorably hissed, "I just love the dignity of the game being insulted right in front of me."

When Karl reflects on his time with Smith, he sees a systemic problem: Too many young players, he said, are more concerned with claiming new contracts than championships. Karl witnessed the power struggle firsthand, watching Carmelo Anthony's contract desire fracture a potential playoff contender. "When you're fighting for a contract, it gets confused," Karl said. "Then when you have AAU basketball and NCAA basketball and the power of entitlement, the power of the posse, you don't know who's in a guy's ear all the time.

"I've got two and a half hours with 15 guys," Karl continued. "There's no leader in the world or coach in the world that can motivate or energize all 15 of them. There are probably going to be three or four that are going to feel left out. There are going to be two or three that are going to feel picked on."

Nuggets fans couldn't understand why Karl refused to unleash a player with such obvious talent. "There's always the potential of a volatile relationship when you have a young kid trying to find his way paired with an established, veteran, successful coach who likes things the way they like them done," said Rex Chapman, the team's vice-president of player personnel at the time. "[Smith] came in and he didn't know who he was. He tried to be Carmelo. We traded for Allen [Iverson]. He tried to be like Allen. It wasn't until a year or so later that J.R. really started to become more comfortable with himself and tried to be J.R. Once he did that, we saw a real growth in his game as well as a more mature guy off the court."

Karl typically voiced his displeasure with Smith through the media, a tactic that didn't endear him to Smith or his family. "You start talking about a young kid and you're the head coach and you're going to the media and saying, 'He'll shoot you in the game, he'll shoot you out,'" Smith Jr. said. "Now the media picks up on it. You know what I told [J.R.]? I told him, 'Every time you get in, shoot it. He's going to take you out anyway. So you might as well shoot it.' And that's what he did."


You know what I told J.R.? I told him, 'Every time you get in, shoot it. He's going to take you out anyway. So you might as well shoot it.

— Earl Smith Jr., J.R.'s father
J.R. Smith turned his body into a bright canvas during his Denver stint.5 Flames shot up his shooting arm with the words "Through the Fire" streaking underneath. His nickname, "Swish," appeared under his chin. A rendering of his mom is on his chest and cartoon characters and the words "Just Klownin" are on his back. He has the words "In Love With My Money" inked on him as well the letters "D-E-M-I," in honor of one of his two daughters, on the knuckles of his right hand.

For a while, Smith's transgressions seemed harmless — just an immature kid acting out. But his troubles eventually turned tragic.6 In 2007, Smith illegally sped past another car, hurtled through a stop sign, and broadsided another vehicle. Andre Bell, Smith's high school friend and passenger, died from injuries he sustained in the crash. Neither Bell nor Smith was wearing a seat belt. Smith spent only 24 days in jail in the summer of 2009 for reckless driving. The Associated Press reported that Smith racked up two more speeding tickets and three license suspensions in New Jersey between the crash and sentencing. The NBA suspended him for seven games, but the repercussions of that accident will never fade.

"It affected us in a million different ways," Father Leahy said. "They were great friends. He's got to live with that day for the rest of his life. Could he have made another decision? Should he have made another decision?"

Smith vowed to grow up after the accident, dropping "J.R." and briefly changing his name to "Earl." It didn't last long. Neither did his renewed commitment to defense or his ability to accept his role as a game-changing scorer off the bench, which Karl insisted was Smith's ultimate professional destiny.

"I never understood this," Smith Jr. said. "I'm looking at all the other NBA teams and who they've got coming off the bench. There's no spark. You're supposed to play your best five. I still don't understand that to this day. 'We needed a spark off the bench.' Well, you've got seven other players who are supposed to be NBA players, they all should be sparks. Think about it. You're paying all these guys this money and you don't got no spark on the bench? Well, you shouldn't have nobody on the bench."

"That's commentary of people that really have never coached," Karl responded after hearing Smith's take.7 "Not starting doesn't mean a thing. The guys who finish the game are the guys who are most important. They are the ones who coaches are going to cater the game to and structure the game around. Sometimes it's easier for a talented player to come off the bench. Just the thought process of being a starter is overrated, and I think it affects players. I don't deny that it affects players. But as a coach, I think the power of the bench is as important to me as the five guys who start the game."

J.R. Smith is clear about the best and worst parts of his time in Denver. The highs? The fans. The lows? "The coaching. I think if our coaching would have brought us together more, we would have had more success."

Smith remembers his relationship with Karl changing dramatically after the Knicks and Nuggets' brawl in 2006, which resulted in a 15-game suspension for Carmelo Anthony; Smith believes Karl never fully forgave him for Smith's part in instigating the melee. In Smith's five seasons with Denver, the talented Nuggets routinely flamed out early in the playoffs, with one notable exception. In 2009, after respected veteran Chauncey Billups arrived, Denver stretched the Lakers to six games in the Western Conference finals. "We couldn't do nothing with Kobe at that time," Smith says now, skipping over the fact that they played the same position.

After Anthony pushed for (and received) a blockbuster Knicks trade in 2011, Smith left Denver the following summer and eventually joined him there. Karl admits that "it ended in a way that I'm not totally satisfied," before adding, "I'm disappointed that I couldn't connect a little better and be the guy that led him to the next step, the next stage of specialness. In the same sense, I think both of us tried. I don't think it was a relationship that was ugly. I wish I would have been able to give him more time and answer his questions rather than be the dictator of his future. J.R. kind of came to us as a player that no one wanted, and we already had Melo. We already had, I think, A.I. on the team. We already had Marcus Camby and Nene. We had a lot of guys that needed my attention. I think we could have had more success if he was one of our top two or three guys early in our stint together, where maybe I would have spent more time explaining what I wanted, explaining where I wanted him to go and what I wanted him to do rather than being the dictator of what was going on."

After last season's lockout ended, Karl's Nuggets became one of the league's surprise success stories, surging into the playoffs and dragging an experienced Lakers team to seven games. Ironically, they were given a major boost by midseason acquisition JaVale McGee — like Smith, a talented enigma who never reached his potential on his previous team. (You could say Karl is batting one for two.) Over the summer, the Nuggets traded for Andre Iguodala, another low-maintenance, high-reward player who weaves right into Denver's fabric. "This is the most excited I've been in the summer for a long time," Karl admitted. For the first time in years, the Nuggets might actually have great chemistry.

Jim Cleamons helped the 1972 Lakers to a championship as their lockdown defender. He sat on Phil Jackson's benches in Chicago and Los Angeles, and he watched how Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant approached practice and games for the better part of two decades. Cleamons also struggled to harness a famously spoiled team of young millionaires — the 1996 Mavericks, who imploded when Jason Kidd, Jim Jackson, and Jamal Mashburn couldn't get along — and assisted Scott during Smith's rookie season. He believes Smith couldn't handle himself as a professional or an adult because he wasn't prepared for the NBA lifestyle.

"There's so much about the game that [high schoolers] do not understand," Cleamons says, "that you cannot tell them that they don't understand because it's basketball and they've been playing basketball since they were in elementary school. But they haven't played it at this level against grown men who they haven't heard about and don't have any respect for, but are actually pretty good even though they are not All-Star, marquee players. It's not J.R., it's the system."

Cleamons saw Smith up close recently, when he coached China's Zhejiang Guangsha last season. His squad beat Smith's Zhejiang Golden Bulls twice after Smith signed there during the lockout. To nobody's surprise, that relationship ended badly — Smith and the Golden Bulls both claimed the other did not live up to their contractual obligations. The organization claimed Smith missed nearly every practice, even though he led the team in scoring with 36.4 points per game.

"He definitely played more liberated," Cleamons laughed. "The fact is, they want Americans to score. He knew he was the guy. I don't think there was a game he didn't try to get 50 or 60 points, just because he could."

Smith filed a lawsuit to recoup the nearly $1 million the organization docked him. His father said the team reneged on other services stipulated in his contract — even basic amenities, like a driver and a stipend for food. "I didn't visit," he said, laughing. "They told me some horror stories. I know myself. I'd probably be in [a Chinese] jail right now."8

Smith landed in New York in time for the team's brief 2012 playoff run. Sophisticated Knicks fans appreciate what George Karl appreciated: In the right situation, Smith can be a game-changing scorer off the bench, a streaky and dangerous player, someone who feeds off the intensity of the home crowd. Maybe it's not the identity Smith wanted for himself, but it's better than nothing. He never became Kobe Bryant, but he avoided becoming Korleone Young, too. If you listed the careers of all the high schoolers who jumped to the NBA from 1995 through 2004, Smith would probably finish above the mean. Of the 35 players drafted out of high school since 1998, only five have made an All-Star team. And Smith enjoyed the fourth most productive career — behind Howard, Al Jefferson, and Josh Smith — of the eight high schoolers drafted in his class. At the same time, everyone agrees he could have been better.

"We're talking out of both sides of our mouths," Cleamons says, "and [young players] are caught in the middle because they are impressionable, because they want to play and they want approval. We want to talk about them doing things and then when it doesn't happen, we want to throw them under the bus and say, 'They haven't done this. They haven't done that.' Well, is it their fault? Or is it the way we teach them? Is it our expectation of what we want from them? It's the whole kit and kaboodle. It's pure unadulterated American capitalism vs. coaches who are trying to win ballgames and championships — and the kids are caught in the middle."

In August, J.R. Smith seems relaxed at the J.R. Smith Youth Foundation annual golf event. He shakes hands and shares hugs with family, attendees, and Knicks officials before finally ducking into the clubhouse of Lakewood's Eagle Ridge Golf Club. His daughter Demi sits at his side, playing games on his iPhone. Smith keeps a careful eye on her as he navigates an interview with a reporter.

"The perception is I'm a sex, drugs, and rock and roll type of person," he says. "The reality is I'm kind of like an ocean. Everything is calm, calm, calm. I'm good. When the ball goes up in the air, the waves start rocking."

Smith has always been considered a selfish player, a gunner looking out for his own numbers. But there's another side to Smith that the public rarely sees. He paid for his brother Chris's9 tuition when Louisville reverted his scholarship status to walk-on in order to land a bigger recruiting class. His foundation helps pay school and camp tuition fees for underprivileged children. Smith also contributed money to relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina.


I'm not going to sit here and tell you I'm the white angel. But I'm not the dark demon, either.

— J.R. Smith
Eight years into his NBA career, many are losing hope in Smith realizing his All-Star potential. He's not completely sure where the blame lies. "It's a teenager trying to grow up in a man's world," Smith said of his trying relationships with Scott and Karl. "Coming from Jersey and the McDonald's All-American Game, I'm expecting to be treated a certain way because all my peers that I came out with, everyone was being treated a certain way, so I kind of felt entitled to that. It was more than just earning it. It's definitely a fault of mine as well as theirs. It goes hand in hand. I just can't point the finger at them. A few actions I made probably didn't help, too. I'm not going to sit here and tell you I'm the white angel. But I'm not the dark demon, either."

How did a once-coachable kid with a supportive family become such a hassle for NBA coaches? Was this simply teenage rebellion writ large? Richardson wonders if these last few years, right down to the tattoos, represent Smith "making up for lost time," emerging as "expressions of certain freedoms." Holmes agrees, pointing out that Smith wasn't permitted much of a social life by his parents. "He never went to a prom or anything, rightfully so," he said. "That was part of his liberation, expressing himself, getting out of that mode."

There might be something to that. Or it could be simpler. Had J.R. Smith gone to North Carolina for two years, he might be a five-time All-Star right now. We'll never know. When Mike Woodson took over New York's head coaching job after Mike D'Antoni's dismissal last March, he mentioned Smith's maturation as being crucial to his success. "He has to be more professional about how he handles things," Woodson told reporters. "My job as a coach is to make sure he gets there."

For the next two months, Smith played more minutes, took more shots, and played capable (sometimes even inspired) defense for Woodson. "It's the best relationship I had with a coach ever, other than playing with my dad," Smith said. "He definitely treats you like a man, from what I understand, until you've proven otherwise. He's such a level-headed person and he wants to see his players do well. He puts his personal agenda and goals aside to see his players do well. A lot of people wouldn't do that. A lot of coaches, players, or GMs, owners, wouldn't do that."

Now 27, Smith reupped with the Knicks10 this summer for two years and $5.6 million (he holds an option for the second year). Woodson will continue to mentor him. Or try to mentor him. Growing up with 11 siblings, Woodson learned how to juggle all kinds of personalities. He's considered a "player's coach," someone who allowed Smith and Anthony significantly greater freedom in his offense. You won't see many appalled head shakes from Woodson after one of Smith's patented 25-footers with 18 seconds left on the shot clock. He wants his guys to play freely, maybe even a little recklessly — a blessing and a curse for someone like J.R. Smith.

"Coach Woodson reminds me of my head coach and how he dealt with J.R.," Holmes said, comparing Woodson to Richardson. "He gets on J.R.'s case, but at the end of the day, J.R. knows it's business and he doesn't mean any harm by it. J.R. responds well to that type of coach."

That doesn't mean things are stable for Smith. In March, he sparked a brief media firestorm when he tweeted a photo of a woman's posterior, drawing a $25,000 fine from the NBA to go with his 24 hours of sports blog ignominy.11 Then he was arrested in Miami two months later for his failure to appear in court — this time, for operating a motor scooter without a proper driver's license. For the last four months, he's been drama-free. Whether anyone believes that can last … that's another story.

"Like a lot of guys in this sound bite culture, he can come off as unsympathetic at times," Chapman said. "But the one thing is when you're around J.R. day in and day out, it's really hard not to like him."

It's something you'll hear about J.R. Smith over and over. Says Mason, now the head coach at Wagner College: "If I called J.R. right now and said I needed him to come to campus and talk to the guys, there's no doubt in my mind that he would be here in the drop of a dime to help me out. He would do that for anybody that he was close to or in our circle. He's just a loyal guy. I've got no issues being in the foxhole with him. He would have my back no matter the situation."12

How could such a loyal guy give so many coaches so many headaches? We know he's the product of a now-defunct system that favored expectations over achievement, a system that allowed young players to feel entitled when they hadn't actually earned anything yet. But how does that explain descendants of Dean Smith, Pat Riley, and Bob Knight coaching Smith without ever getting through? Was he just destined to become a memorable player who never truly reached his potential — no different from his father, just playing on a larger stage? When will people like Rex Chapman stop saying things like, "He's got all the tools to be an All-Star; consistency is probably the one thing that will keep him from getting there"?

Leave it to the only man who followed him from New Orleans to Denver, the one who's written his story time and again, to put J.R. Smith's career in perspective. "Talent-wise," said Benjamin Hochman, "J.R. Smith should be better than J.R. Smith."

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Carolina's Chaos

By: timbersfan, 12:25 AM GMT on September 22, 2012

The Panthers team that came out on the business end of a 36-7 stomping by the Giants Thursday night has an author: Marty Hurney, Carolina's general manager for the past 10 seasons. It's easy to pile on a team and their architect after a blowout loss, but the nature of how the Panthers lost to the Giants and Hurney's history over the past several years got me thinking about just how incredible Hurney's continued employment is. His lengthy tenure in Carolina is a testament to the bizarre economics of the NFL and a reminder of just how different the goals of NFL fans and NFL general managers actually are. The top priority for most NFL fans is to see their team win a Super Bowl, preferably as quickly as possible. The top priority for most NFL general managers is to hold on to their seat at the GM's table. Virtually all of Hurney's recent decisions point toward the latter being his primary motivation, and it's going to cost Carolina their shot at making a significant leap forward until he leaves.

By all accounts, it's a surprise that Hurney's still on the job. The 2-14 season that the Panthers endured during the 2010 campaign should have been enough to get the moving companies working overtime at team headquarters. It did signal the end of head coach John Fox's tenure with the team, one that began with Hurney in 2002, but Hurney quietly signed a contract extension that offseason.

That year came with an unfamiliar offensive formation, one in which the team's most expensive player lined up about 500 miles to the north. To try to squeeze out a bit of cap space for the 2009 season, the Panthers gave embattled quarterback Jake Delhomme — who had just thrown five interceptions in a playoff loss to the Cardinals — a five-year contract extension that reduced his cap figure for that upcoming 2009 campaign. In return, the Panthers were forced to give Delhomme a $12.7 million guaranteed salary for the 2010 campaign, without any terms that would offset that guarantee if the Panthers chose to release Delhomme and the quarterback signed elsewhere. As it turned out, that's exactly what happened; when the Browns mysteriously gave Delhomme a $7 million deal for the 2010 campaign, Delhomme somehow pocketed $20 million to be one of the league's worst quarterbacks. Maybe his agent should have become general manager.

Beyond Delhomme, though, the team was seriously flawed. Hurney had repeatedly dealt future first-round picks to try to move up in the existing year's draft, a move that ended up with Hurney trading his 2010 first-round pick to the 49ers for the chance to take the legendary Everette Brown with the 43rd pick of the second round in 2009.1 Brown lasted two years before being released. Without a first-round pick in the 2010 draft or cap space because of the Delhomme deal gone wrong, Hurney needed to find contributors in the 2010 draft. Instead, he missed wildly. The team took Jimmy Clausen with the 48th pick and ran him out as the starter far too early, and followed that move with a series of mis-drafts at receiver, perpetuating Hurney's annual effort to try to find someone to play across from Steve Smith. They drafted Brandon LaFell and Armanti Edwards in the third round when the likes of Emmanuel Sanders, Eric Decker, Jimmy Graham, and Aaron Hernandez were available.

Fortunately, while he did deal his 2011 second-round pick to the Patriots for the right to draft Edwards,2 Hurney wasn't able to get rid of the first-round pick that ended up becoming the first overall selection in last year's draft. While the Panthers were lucky to have Cam Newton fall into their lap, Hurney's draft has otherwise produced mixed results. He used a pair of third-round picks on defensive tackles Terrell McClain and Sione Fua. McClain, the first pick of the third round, was cut after one year; Fua is a backup behind the guys who got run over by Andre Brown last night.

As bad as all that was, though, Hurney's true disaster came through re-signing the talent at the core of that 2-14 team. That's part of the benefit of hiring a new general manager when you go 2-14; you get a fresh set of eyes that isn't emotionally committed to the talent currently on the roster in the same way that a GM who scouted and drafted that talent is. General managers occasionally overpay a homegrown player under the logic that they know him better than the marketplace, but the Panthers took that to a new level. Over several weeks last summer, Hurney handed out eight contract extensions to starters on that 2-14 Panthers team, including two that set records for players at their particular positions. Of those eight, one was defensible (the record-setting deal given to center Ryan Kalil) and two represented merely mediocre value (those of James Anderson and Charles Godfrey). The other five were, to borrow a term from Jonah Keri, crizazzlebeans. They seemed ill-advised at the time and, in most cases, look dramatically worse a year later. Those deals included:

A five-year, $50 million deal for Jon Beason that guaranteed the former "Seventh Floor Crew" member $25 million and made him the highest-paid inside linebacker in league history. The deal, signed in July 2011, came amid reports that Beason had been struggling with an Achilles injury for several months. Beason went on to tear his Achilles tendon during the opening week of the season, an injury that cost him the remainder of that campaign and will have deleterious long-term effects on his career. Beason is back, but he's not the same guy; the old Beason wouldn't have tried to two-hand touch Andre Brown3 in the first quarter last night.
A five-year, $36.5 million deal for Thomas Davis, a talented linebacker coming off of ACL tears in consecutive seasons. Davis tore his ACL again just weeks after signing his extension. It's a deal that has been pilloried here in the past, but the argument boils down to one simple question: What other team wanted to give Davis a long-term deal with any guaranteed money? Carolina gave Davis a $7 million signing bonus when no other team in football would have been likely to give him even a million dollars in guaranteed money. Davis played in the first two games of the 2012 season, but was inactive against the Giants on Thursday night.
A six-year, $76 million contract for Charles Johnson, which guaranteed a player with 21.5 sacks over four seasons an incredible $32 million. The Johnson deal was the sort of contract that causes lockouts and dramatically shifts the cost of unproven pass-rushers skyward. It's a deal that probably prevented the likes of Cliff Avril from signing long-term contracts this offseason, and one that will make it wildly difficult to lock up actual stars like Clay Matthews as they approach free agency. The Panthers felt like they had to pay an exorbitant sum to keep Johnson from hitting the free market, but nobody in the league would have come close to giving him this sort of money. Johnson, the leader of a pass rush that seemed more like a Chamber of Commerce for Eli Manning last night, has nine sacks in 18 games since signing his deal. And his is the best of the five!
A four-year, $12 million deal for Olindo Mare, yet another example of a team being fooled by a kicker. After a disastrous season for the Saints in 2007, the Seahawks signed Mare for the veteran's minimum and got three years of above-average kicking from him. Just like the last-place team in baseball that insists on spending big bucks on a closer, the 2-14 Panthers decided that they were a kicker away from seriously winning and gave Mare a four-year deal. He missed a number of meaningful kicks in 2011 and was released after one season. Mare is currently a free agent and probably, because of his leg on kickoffs, better than half the kickers who signed franchise deals this offseason.
A five-year, $43 million deal for DeAngelo Williams, one that guarantees him $21 million. Hurney gave Williams this contract despite the presence of former first-round pick Jonathan Stewart on the roster, which which many perceived as a sign that the team would eventually shop Stewart around the league. Instead, just one year later, the Panthers gave Stewart a six-year, $37 million deal that guarantees him $22.5 million, which adds up to $80 million in contracts for a pair of running backs that might not be better with the ball than their quarterback. Williams had just 836 yards rushing last year, and outside of a 1,515-yard season in 2008, he's averaged 706 rushing yards and four touchdowns per season. For that, he got a deal roughly similar to the one Ray Rice just picked up. Hurneymania!!
As a result of all that largesse, the 6-10 Panthers entered this offseason nearly $10 million over the cap and unable to make any sort of foray into free agency. Holes at wide receiver and defensive tackle and depth issues on the offensive line and in the secondary weren't properly addressed, forcing the Panthers to bring in borderline rotation guys from other teams like Dwan Edwards and Haruki Nakamura to start. When the injuries inevitably show up, the players behind them are even weaker.

That was the biggest difference between the Panthers and Giants last night. Giants general manager Jerry Reese is one of the best-drafting general managers in all of football, and you saw that in the players who were making plays. Brown had been cut and bounced around the league after his Achilles injury, but the Giants originally drafted him in the fourth round of the 2009 draft. Ramses Barden hadn't made an impact before Thursday, but he was a third-round pick that same year. Victor Cruz was an undrafted free agent nabbed by the team for the minimum. That's depth the Panthers can only dream of. One of the ways Reese accomplishes that is by holding on to his draft picks. Instead of sacrificing future picks to try to get that "must-have" player today, Reese gives himself as many lottery tickets as possible. The Giants have drafted at least one player in each of the first four rounds since the Eli Manning trade finished up. Reese manages his team like somebody who expects to be there in five years. Hurney runs the Panthers like he expects to be retired in five years.

Because Hurney signed all those players to big contracts, though, he became an essential part of this iteration of the rebuilding project in Carolina. Why fire Hurney now? His team deserves a shot to prove that it's good, right? And what would be the benefit to firing Hurney now, anyway? If the Panthers fired Hurney after last season, they would have had to pay him the leftover money on his contract while hiring someone new to play the same role. That new GM would have inherited a 6-10 team with no cap flexibility that just spent tens of millions of actual cash, which means that nobody in their right mind would have wanted the job. Hurney made himself essential by blaming his problems on Fox and improving an inessential team to adequacy — and even that's up for debate. The average two-win NFL team wins an average of 3.1 games the following year, meaning that the Panthers only outperformed that expectation by 0.9 wins. And the average 2-14 team doesn't spend themselves into a stupor to get out of the gutter.

The guy who bankrolled all of these moves — the same person who has kept Hurney employed for a full decade now — is Panthers owner Jerry Richardson. Richardson is a former player held in high regard among his fellow owners around the league, but remember that he's the same guy who reportedly dismissed the likes of Drew Brees and Peyton Manning during the lockout negotiations by insulting their intelligence and asking them if they knew how to read the revenue chart. It seems ironic that an owner who doesn't trust the players to understand basic economics has entrusted his team to a general manager who doesn't seem to have a strong grasp on it, either.

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The Mailbag: Referee Armageddon

By: timbersfan, 10:45 PM GMT on September 21, 2012

My first experience with "replacement" anything was with my favorite TV shows growing up, usually when they were going well and one of their actors stupidly pushed for more money. Three's Company replaced Suzanne Somers with Jenilee Harrison, which was like replacing Magic Johnson with Jerry Sichting. That didn't work and wasted a year of John Ritter's prime (which is unforgivable, frankly). Fantasy Island dumped Tattoo for the guy who eventually became Mr. Belvedere. That didn't work, although the thought of tiny little Tattoo saying things like, "I'm the key to this show, I need more money!" was high comedy. The nadir happened when Dukes of Hazzard replaced Bo and Luke Duke with their moronic look-alike cousins, Coy and Vance. That didn't work to startling degrees, to the point that "Coy and Vance Duke" became something of a go-to joke over the next 15 years.

None of those shows ever recovered, unleashing a four-decade link for me between the words "replacements" and "didn't work." Still, I can't remember that strategy bombing worse than it did during Week 2 of the 2012 NFL season. The overmatched officials achieved the unthinkable: They actually ruined a 36-hour stretch of football. It was practically an act of American sabotage. Destroy an NFL weekend and you're messing with America, right?

Needless to say, my e-mail box was flooded with pissed-off missives from readers who just wanted to vent. As always, these are actual e-mails from actual readers (except for the ones that were clearly made up).

Q: After watching a phantom pass interference call in the Steelers-Jets game, I wondered how susceptible is the NFL to a Tim Donaghy type scandal right now? At the time of the fishy play, the Jets were down by ten in the 2nd half with a spread around 5 and a half. We already know the NFL's background checks for replacements were next to nothing. (See: the New Orleans Saints' fan wearing Saints stuff on his Facebook page that went unnoticed until the 11th hour). If I am one of the replacement refs and my normal annual salary is around $25,000, I might be taking calls from "Tony the Shark" in New York.
—Ryan Galvin, St. Paul

SG: Plus, the fake refs were so dreadful in Week 2, how could we tell if they crossed the line and decided to start throwing games? It would be like Honey Boo Boo's mom deciding to act dumber than usual. You did? I had no idea! What Donaghy achieved was much tougher: He artfully manipulated the scores of dozens of games (usually skewing them higher, to cover "over" bets) without raising any real suspicion. Replacement officials would only need to make a couple of crucial calls that couldn't be reviewed: One bad pass interference, two dubious holding penalties, and suddenly, they're home free. Or, they could swing the other way and do nothing as all hell is breaking loose … you know, like every official as the Giants were committing holds left and right during the Helmet Catch. (Sorry, I had to.) Either way, we'd never be able to tell because the bar has been lowered so dramatically already. For instance …

Q: You know that moment everyone was waiting for? When the replacement officials blew a call that literally changed the outcome of a game, which inevitably led to the NFL coming to its senses and paying the extra money to return the league to respectability? That already happened! It was the offensive pass interference call against Jacoby Jones in the Ravens-Eagles game. Flacco threw a perfect ball to extend the Ravens' lead to ten with about 4:00 to play — essentially ending the game. Asomugha clearly never turned to play the ball, hence defensive PI, but it didn't matter as Jones was still able to reel it in. And then somehow they called it on the WR?!?!?
—Joe, Baltimore

SG: Exactly. The perfect example of a totally fishy call that everyone chalked up to sheer incompetence. Because the Eagles won without covering the 2½ point spread, nobody wondered if something more sinister was going on. But if the NFL keeps rolling these fake refs out there, one of these fishy calls is eventually going to swing a game AND a point spread … and that's when the whispers will start. You know how easy it would be to pay a fake ref $50,000 to throw three calls on one game, then spread $2 million of bets around at 15 Vegas casinos for that same game? The answer: Easy. Especially if that ref was plucked from his career as the head manager of a Costco in Anaheim. However it plays out, it's going to make for an incredible Lifetime movie starring Tom Cavanagh someday.1

Q: On Monday's BS Report, you and Sal talked about the shoddy replacement refs and home teams doing better against the spread this year, but you did not connect the dots. Of course the home teams are doing better! Inexperienced refs are going to be more likely to favor home teams — and hence be "popular" with the crowd — than experienced pros. My prediction is this home team resurgence lasts exactly as long as the replacement refs do.
—Kristan, Brisbane, AU

SG: Now we're talking! If we have to endure these replacement refs, we might as well profit from them, right? Before the Giants covered in Carolina last night, home teams were 19-11-2 against the spread, and home underdogs are 8-3 … so it's easy to think, Yeah, the refs favor the home teams! Unfortunately, the actual numbers don't back it up: 55.1 percent of the calls in Weeks 1 and 2 favored home teams, as opposed to 54.8 percent last season. That's a negligible difference. And yet, the three worst-officiated games in Week 2 clearly favored the home teams: St. Louis, Atlanta and Baltimore. So who knows? I'm monitoring this one.2

Q: Goodell should be making Godfather offers to the real refs at this point. The Redskins-Rams game looked less like a football game and more like Sidney Dean and Billy Hoyle playing Dwight the Flight and Willie Lewis after trash talking them. The biggest issue is the officials' inability to keep control of the game. Guys are jawing at each other, hitting after the whistle, and amping up the animosity on both sides. For Skins/Rams, you could see the tension rising almost play by play, until it boiled over into Josh Morgan morphing into a 5-year-old, and possibly changed the outcome of the game. To challenge one of your long-standing gripes about NFL rules (double unsportsmanlike penalties), this was one game that sorely needed them. Players kept retaliating because they weren't being protected by the refs, but also because there was little to no retribution for retaliation (until Morgan).
—Mark M., Fairfax, VA

SG: I'd rather adopt a yellow-card/red-card system like the one soccer uses, but you're right — double unsportsmanlikes are better than the current strategy of "Just whistle the guy who does something irrational after a play and never assume he was provoked." Anytime things have clearly swung in Cortland Finnegan's favor and he's bragging about it, it's time to reevaluate things … right?

Q: With all of the replacement ref controversies (e.g. blatantly missed calls, Saints Homer Ref and Fantasy Football Ref, to name a few) destroying the integrity of the game, what team's fan base do you think is the odds on favorite for going crazy and starting a riot (a la Lakers fans after winning a championship) when a missed/questionable call costs their team the game? Not a gambling man, but I'd put my money on Raiders or Eagles fans. Thoughts?
—Miguel, Burbank, CA

SG: Thanks for the unprovoked potshot at Lakers fans and thanks for a really good question. I mulled it over for about 15 minutes and changed my answer multiple times before realizing that it was nearly impossible to pick between Eagles fans and Raiders fans — it's like picking sides in the Lindsay Lohan–Amanda Bynes Career Destruction contest. They're both the odds-on favorites, with Baltimore fans trailing slightly behind. (FYI: Those were the three fan bases mentioned in a reader's "Who would win a Hunger Games–type battle between Raiders fans, Eagles fans and Ravens fans?" mailbag question last April and nobody challenged those three picks.) So I'd have the final odds looking like this: Raiders (-130), Eagles (even), Ravens (+150), The Field (+250).

Here's the catch: I see Eagles fans taking it personally that they weren't favored, increasing their odds of a referee riot because they'd be in "Nobody Believes in Us!" mode. So I wouldn't favor the Eagles, but for that same reason, I'd wager on the Eagles. Either way, you know Roger Goodell has lost control of both his marbles and the 2012 NFL season when fans are seriously debating things like "Which fan base is going to riot over the referees first?" and "How easy would it be to bribe a replacement ref and swing a game?" Stay classy, Roger.

Q: Can you create a "Bad Officiating Crew League" next year? I call dibs on the Falcons-Broncos crew … wait, I want the guys who did the Rams-Skins game. No wait, I want the Ravens-Eagles crew. Actually, just flip a coin for me.
—Brian Lang, Philadelphia

SG: We briefly tried to figure out the BOCL before realizing it would be too hard to keep track. To do the league right, you'd need categories like "Number of times the home team's fans chanted that you sucked," "Number of flags you meekly picked up while pretending that it never happened," "Number of times the announcers knew the rules but you didn't," "Number of near-melees that threatened to become the biggest brawl in NFL history" and "Longest and most interminable delay between the thrown flag and the resolution of that flag." Either way, I'd pick the Rams-Redskins crew first in any BOCL draft — they looked the other way as the Rams were doing everything short of hitting Robert Griffin III with two-by-fours.

Q: I was thinking of what Steve Young said last Monday Night about the current refereeing debacle, basically that the NFL doesn't care about the fans' disgust of the situation as it doesn't affect their bottom line. The extent of everyone's outrage seems to be expressed through intermittent booing at the games and bitching on the Internet from home. Could you imagine if this situation happened in a major European soccer league? If the EPL or La Liga brought in amateur referees who regularly gave phantom cards and muffed penalty kick call[s], there'd be rioting. I'm not saying NFL supporters should take it that far, but there has to be more of a backlash. It is times like these that I wish American sports fans were more organized.
—James Lynn, Austin

SG: If we couldn't stop "The Wave" from happening these past 20 years, I'm pretty sure we can't pull off an "Occupy NFL" movement. Really, these replacement refs mesh perfectly with life in 2012 — a time when we love going on the Internet, getting self-righteous and complaining about shit with no real payoff. You know who the biggest failures have been? The players. If they're as disenchanted about the officiating as they claim, then why not threaten to boycott games until the real officials come back? They could say it's a safety issue — that they don't feel safe playing a violent sport when it's being overseen by incompetent officials. If they threatened to boycott the first quarter of Sunday's early games in protest, we'd see the real officials return in about 1.39 seconds.

Q: How bad are the replacement refs, you ask? I'm watching Blue Crush 2 instead of the Broncos-Falcons game after waiting 10 minutes while they dealt with the fallout from Knowshon Moreno's fumble. Blue Crush 2. This movie is like a porno, except that they completely forgot to add the sex. What!? Grant is an elephant poacher? Please just pay them already.
—Chris, South Boston

SG: Absolutely. I've watched just as much football these first two weeks as I did every other season. At no point did I ever even consider saying, "The officiating is too shoddy, I can't watch anymore." But Young was 100 percent right on Monday night — as long as ratings aren't affected and players aren't getting needlessly hurt, is there really that much of a downside here for the NFL? If anything, all the kvetching about officials has …

A. Made everyone appreciate the real referees, a group of people that weren't exactly held in high esteem these past few years.

B. Pulled everyone's attention away from things like "How long did the NFL know about concussions before they did anything?" or "Why is Goodell trying to railroad the Saints?" or "Are we really supposed to believe that NFL players aren't using PEDs when their pectoral muscles are just randomly ripping off their bodies?" or even "So why did Junior Seau kill himself, anyway?"

It's the old David Stern ploy — create an annoying diversion right before the season and get everyone riled up. Only in this case, Goodell REALLY needed the diversion. It's hard to remember a sports commissioner needing a diversion more than Goodell heading into the 2012 season, actually. And unless one of his signature players foils this little ruse by getting seriously injured — something that easily could have happened to Griffin during one of the umpteen times St. Louis cheap-shotted him — he probably pulled it off. We're all still bitching about the refs. If you can come up with a better explanation for why the NFL would compromise the quality of its league just to save a little more than $1.5 million per team, I would love to hear it.

On to the Week 3 picks …

(Home teams in caps.)

PANTHERS (-2.5) over Giants

Q: Sports Guy, I thought you had seen enough of Big Blue over the past few years to have this figured out. But after reading your Thursday skunk pick this week, I was floored by your prediction of Bennett regressing. I'll throw the pieces out there and let you put the puzzle together … Steve Smith (the other one), Mario Manningham, Victor Cruz, Kevin Boss, Jake Ballard, now Bennett. Receivers/tight ends don't come to the Giants and regress! How many ex Giant pass catchers are you jumping all over for fantasy after they leave the swamp? Eli and his doofy face still has everyone fooled. Keyser Soze!!
—Ari, New York

SG: Hold on, I'm not done vigorously nodding while simultaneously punching myself in the head. How did I miss the Giants last night? Who loves being counted out more than they do? Who loves playing on the road more than they do?3

Unrelated: Are we sure Cam Newton is an elite quarterback right now? Are we sure he's not the Tyreke Evans of football, one of those Über-athletic guys who puts up fantasy numbers but can't be trusted against quality teams? I thought he was appallingly, shockingly, mind-blowingly atrocious last night. His career numbers right now: seven wins, 12 losses, 23 TDs, 22 picks, 787 rushing yards. Oh, and here were his seven victories: 2011 Tampa (twice), 2011 Washington, 2011 Indianapolis, 2011 Jacksonville, 2011 Houston (with T.J. Yates), 2012 Saints (with an interim interim coach). Not exactly a murderer's row. I'm not crossing him off or anything, just saying that Cam's next four games (at Atlanta, home for Seattle, home for Dallas, at Chicago) are suddenly looming as an "early fork in the road" test for him. His career record might be 7-16 a month from now. Yikes.

Rams (+7.5) over BEARS

Q: There was a QB in the early-to-mid 2000s that had a decent start to his career and fooled many into (temporarily) believing he was a franchise player. Only he eventually evolved into a turnover machine who just didn't have what it takes to consistently lead a team to victory. Said QB was relegated to the bench and mop-up duty after his seventh season. Today, there is an active QB currently in his seventh season as a starter, yet he's nowhere close to sniffing the bench or being pegged as a flop. Many believe that he could be a starter for a Super Bowl winning caliber team.

QB #1: 83 starts; 45-38 record; 62.7% career completion percentage; 119 TDs; 99 INTs; 19,440 career yards; 7.0 YPA; 82.7 QB rating

QB #2: 80 starts; 42-38 record; 60.9% career completion percentage; 120 TDs; 91 INTs; 18,742 career yards; 7.3 YPA; 83.9 QB rating.
Jay Cutler is QB2. Who is QB1 you may ask? Brian F-ing Griese. Please … tell Barnwell that Cutler is not just Cutler at this point in his career. He is Brian Griese 2.0.
—Chris, Falls Church

SG: I respectfully disagree with you, Chris. Barnwell nailed the thing that makes Smokin' Jay Cutler who he is — like Tony Romo, he's going to stink out the joint two to three times per season. You just need to learn to ride out those stink bombs and hope they don't happen in January. More important, there NEVER would have been a "Smokin' Brian Griese" meme. Cutler owns him there. Hell, he might own the McKayla Is Not Impressed meme. And every other meme that's happened. How can we call him anything other than Smokin' Jay Cutler from now on?

Q: Two years ago the NFC West sent a 7-9 team to the playoffs. Is it possible that this is now the best division in football? How did this happen??
—Hunter, Washington, DC

SG: The short answer: It's 2012 and these are the kinds of things that have been happening in 2012. (Would a Washington-Baltimore World Series even be one of the top five weirdest sporting moments of 2012?) The NFC West suddenly has a potential juggernaut (San Francisco), two potential wild-card teams (Seattle and Arizona) and the best "fourth" team in any division (the frisky Rams, who should give the Bears a good battle on Sunday). This doesn't make sense, which is precisely why it makes sense. I am fully prepared for Alex Smith and Kevin Kolb to share the 2012 MVP. That reminds me …

49ers (-7) over VIKINGS

Q: When we get the inevitable Harbaugh Bowl this February, can we all petition to have them both move back to their parents' house during media week, and then have HBO film it 24/7 style?
—Kamal G., San Diego

SG: I love this idea almost as much as I love the thought of Jack Harbaugh stealing commercials away from Archie Manning. Besides, the words "have HBO film it 24/7 style" have never led to a bad place — I'd even watch a 24/7 series promoting a celebrity boxing match between Chad Johnson and Terrell Owens, two top-five picks in any "Sports Figures Who Just Need to Go Away" fantasy draft.

(The first round, in case you were wondering: Gary Bettman, Roger Clemens, Roger Goodell, Chad Johnson, Terrell Owens, James Dolan, Lance Armstrong, every former cycling teammate of Lance Armstrong, Bob Bowman, and Gary Bettman a second time because he should count twice.)

Q: You agreed with a reader who wrote that any time "a player hits a home run and steals a home run in the same game, that should be called a 'Mike Trout.' My response?

Kirby Puckett, Game 6, 1991 World Series
Kirby Puckett, Game 6, 1991 World Series
Kirby Puckett, Game 6, 1991 World Series
Kirby Puckett, Game 6, 1991 World Series
Kirby Puckett, Game 6, 1991 World Series
Kirby Puckett, Game 6, 1991 World Series
Kirby Puckett, Game 6, 1991 World Series
Kirby Puckett, Game 6, 1991 World Series
Kirby Puckett, Game 6, 1991 World Series
Kirby Puckett, Game 6, 1991 World Series
Kirby Puckett, Game 6, 1991 World Series
Kirby Puckett, Game 6, 1991 World Series
Kirby Puckett, Game 6, 1991 World Series
Kirby Puckett, Game 6, 1991 World Series
Kirby Puckett, Game 6, 1991 World Series
Kirby Puckett, Game 6, 1991 World Series
Kirby Puckett, Game 6, 1991 World Series
Kirby Puckett, Game 6, 1991 World Series
Kirby Puckett, Game 6, 1991 World Series
—Alex, Minnesota

SG: It's a great point. I blew it. Let's call it a "Kirby Puckett."

BROWNS (+3) over Bills

Q: Did you just pick me to cover a spread? What the hell is going on here?
—B. Weeden, Cleveland

SG: Look, it was either "grab three points with Brandon Weeden at home" or "Lay three points with Ryan Fitzpatrick and Chan Gailey on the road." Rock, meet hard place. Fortunately, I read that Gailey answered the question, "Why hasn't your team won on the road in over a year?" by saying, "I don't know. If I knew, I would have fixed it." No, you wouldn't have! You're Chan Gailey! When in doubt, grab the points.

Lions (-3.5) over TITANS
Jets (-2.5) over DOLPHINS
Texans (-2) over BRONCOS

Q: You realize I'm averaging 1.1 yards per carry? And that we nearly had to round up to get to 1.1? Just send me the Daunte Culpepper Fantasy Football Serial Killer trophy now — we don't need to wait four more months.
—Chris Johnson, Nashville

SG: And as far as I can remember, you'd be the first two-time winner! Somehow you roped people into spending first-round picks or 30 percent of their auction budget on you for reasons that remain unclear. It's going to be awkward when Mikel Leshoure quintuples your rushing total on Sunday. Still, I'm not willing to hand out the Culpepper after just two weeks, even after you blamed everyone else for your horrible numbers. We still need to see how Cam Newton's season plays out, right?

(As for the Lions, Texans and Jets, I see these games playing out like that Panthers-Giants game did — three superior teams taking care of business on the road. Well, unless the Dolphins can force the Jets to wear black uniforms and wilt in the Miami heat like the Raiders did last week. They can't do that, right? Are we sure?)

COWBOYS (-8) over Bucs

Q: So this past Thursday, my wife and I are watching PTI. We're both huge fans of yours, so naturally we're excited to see you pop up opposite Uncle Tony at the start of the show. I stop paying attention for *maybe* 30 seconds, and the next thing I know, my wife starts yelling, "Quick! Play it back! Sports Guy just said something about Tony Romo's boner!" Of course, I dismissively respond by saying she must have misheard you, but she is adamant that you said this, so we play it back and … she was right. Now, call me a Sports Guy apologist, but immediately I shift into spin mode — "Aw, he didn't mean it that way!" and "People use the word 'boner' innocuously to describe screw-ups all the time!" and "I'm sure nobody else took it the way you did — shame on you, wife!" — but then she Googles "Sports Guy Tony Romo Boner," and (as we're watching on DVR on a three-hour delay) we found there were websites already talking about it like it was a key moment in our nation's history, I conceded defeat right then and there.
—Chris G., Brooklyn

SG: First of all, I couldn't be prouder that I was involved in anything that led to someone Googling "Sports Guy Tony Romo Boner." I'm adding that to my career highlight list. Second, saying the word "boner" on national TV and keeping a straight face was the greatest moment of my TV career — which, admittedly, isn't saying anything if you're assessing my mediocre TV career, but still. Third, if this helped open the door for "boner" to make a comeback as a word that described a massive sports mistake, then I did my job. When I was growing up in the '70s, "Fred Merkle's boner" in 1908 was one of baseball's most famous moments. Don't believe me? There's a long Wikipedia page devoted to "Merkle's Boner"! I urge you to go there right now and read about Fred Merkle's gigantic boner. By the way, I turn 43 next week.

Q: Can we thank Greg Schiano for bringing back the triple negative? "I don't know if that's not something that's not done in the National Football League, but what I do with our football team is we fight until they tell us game over," Schiano said.
—Max Handrus, Thailand

SG: Incredible! Not even Dan Dierdorf could successfully pull off a triple negative. I'm not so sure that the Greg Schiano era hasn't been something that isn't totally entertaining so far. And for the record, I fully support any situation that leads to Tom Coughlin's face turning dark maroon, whether it's swarming the line during a kneel-down situation, running up the score, annoying him during a press conference, farting on a team plane … I don't care how we get there, just that we get there.

COLTS (-3) over Jaguars

Q: Who on earth came up with the idea for a segment called "Stephen Jackson Eats Fried Ribs in Slo-Mo"? Can you possibly explain the thinking behind this? The same channel posted Jackson shooting threes in the gym the same day. So did they say to themselves — hey, that workout footage isn't enough, we should follow Stephen and see what he eats for lunch!? I nominate this clip for Grantland's YouTube Hall of Fame.
—Reinis, Riga, Latvia

SG: We did a ton of brainstorming before we launched the Grantland Channel on YouTube … at no point did anyone ever say, "We should hunt down Stephen Jackson and videotape him eating fried ribs in slo-mo."4 And frankly, I'd like to apologize to America on behalf of me and the Grantland staff. By the way, Stephen Jackson eating fried ribs in slow motion will be three times more entertaining than this Colts-Jags game.

Chiefs (+9) over SAINTS

Q: With the Saints starting off the season 0-2, what do you think are their chances of pulling a 96/97 Spurs season, making up a mysterious injury for Drew Brees and tanking the rest of their games in order to secure a top draft pick? Sure, they could still make the playoffs, but does Drew Brees really care about having another playoff appearance under his belt? No! He cares about championships and they aren't going to win one this year. So why not go for the high draft pick instead?
—Ben, Milwaukee

SG: Makes sense on paper, especially if they blow this Chiefs game (and I see them either blowing it or coming close). The problems in order: Why would Brees ever go for this? Isn't Chase Daniel significantly better than the likes of Curtis Painter and Dan Orlovsky last year? What if Daniel pulled a Matt Cassel and kept the Saints competitive? And couldn't you make the case that the Saints are getting a high draft pick whether Brees plays or not? Have you watched them this month? They make the Red Sox seem crisply run by comparison. I'd put the odds for a fake Brees injury at 10-to-1.

Q: At first I was with you in thinking Sean Payton would be likely to help the Saints out by placing calls from random pay phones and holding meetings at Jersey turnpike diners (a la Goodfellas). But as I watch the Saints struggle without him I'm starting to realize that the exact opposite is true. Why would Sean Payton help the Saints when he has absolutely no incentive to do so? If he helps them and they're just as good without him he becomes a primo candidate for the Ewing theory and looks completely replaceable, but if they struggle without him and then he comes back and they're good again he looks like the genius/visionary/guru gushing announcers have always told us he is. You compared it to your experience with Grantland, but the New Orleans Saints aren't Sean Payton's creation; he works for them. A better analogy would be if you were back at ESPN and they suspended you for some reason. Wouldn't you NOT secretly help ESPN but instead watch them crash and burn without you while you patiently wait for your suspension to run out so you can come back as the savior/golden boy/invaluable asset you always knew you were? Of course you would you egomaniacal son-of-a-bitch.
—Mike M. Chicago

SG: That was this month's winner of the "Backhanded Compliment" award. But Mike was 1,000 percent right — it's in Sean Payton's interests (and really, the interests of every quality head coach) for the 2012 Saints to look comically rudderless and unprepared for this entire season, sparking the inevitable slew of "SEE, COACHING MATTERS!!!!!!" and "I guess this was Sean Payton's team all along!" stories. When I was suspended for two months during the summer of 2008 and had to pretend publicly that I was "finishing my book," I rooted for ESPN.com to suck that entire time.5 Do your thing, Sean Payton. Don't feel guilty about it. You're headed for a top-five draft pick and universal acclaim.

Bengals (+3) over REDSKINS

Q: Isn't it entirely possible that the Big Four commissioners are colluding at this point? I'm fairly convinced Roger Goodell hired Gary Bettman to kill off hockey, which he's doing a great job at. David Stern had Roger Goodell levy Bountygate, which drives up demand for Hornets tickets. And Bud Selig is … Bud Selig. I'm telling you, it's entirely possible.
—Paul Algu, New Orleans

SG: The only thing I'd definitely believe is that Goodell, Selig and Stern are all paying Bettman to destroy the NHL. Here, look.

Q: Once again the NHL is breaking my heart. The NHL is like that bad boyfriend, who keeps breaking up with you, ironically right after you thought things were going really well, and then eventually begs for you back. You know that you care about him more than he cares about you, and there's nothing you can do about it. And he knows that you're so in love, that you'll always keep going back for more. Now is the time that you begin eating a lot of ice cream and drinking wine by the bottle, telling yourself over and over again that you are done and will never take him back. On the outside you appear to show some resolve, but on the inside you are just desperately waiting for him to come back. This is so depressing.
—Ashley R., Rahway, NJ

SG: The NHL, everybody! Look at the bright side, fellow NHL season-ticket holders — we don't have to pay for preseason games, and we're probably heading for a 60-game regular season followed by an action-packed playoffs. That's not exactly the worst outcome on the planet. Speaking of bad outcomes, I'm writing off the Redskins after the Orakpo/Carriker injuries. Brutal.

CARDINALS (+3.5) over Eagles

Q: When you predicted the Arizona Cardinals would go 1-15 this year, were you predicting the team's win/loss record, or were you predicting your personal record picking the winner of the games they played?
—Kevin, Phoenix

SG: (Searching for a comeback.)

Q: What was Bill Belichick's WARM (Wins Above Raheem Morris) for that last minute of the Pats-Cards game?
—David, OKC

SG: Negative-two. That was the worst-coached minute in recent Patriots history. It was almost like Belichick decided, "Instead of winning by one point, it would be much more fun to destroy every suicide pool in America."

Q: So what excuse are you going to use for the Patriots losing to the lowly Cardinals? So far everyone is saying the Patriots offense just didn't execute. Could it be that the Cardinals defense is really good? Will you be the first sports writer to give the Cardinals credit rather than blaming the Patriots?
—Rob, Allentown, PA

SG: You came to the right place. Look, I thought Arizona's defense was terrific in Week 1 and even mentioned that the Pats line was far too high in the Week 2 podcast with Sal. A few days passed. I started thinking about Kevin Kolb on the road, trailing by 10 and trying to "make things happen." I panicked. The rest was history. But I've watched both Arizona games in their entirety — their defense is really good and you're preaching to the choir. That's why I picked the Cards AND benched Michael Vick in my East Coast fantasy league.

Q: Bill, are you sitting down? Because this NFL stat of the week will blow your balls off. Four NFL Teams have gone 9-2 in their last 11 regular NFL games. The first three are easy: Green Bay, San Fran, and New England. The fourth? No, not Baltimore. Sorry, not Houston. Wrong, not Atlanta. The answer? The Arizona Cardinals. Their only losses during that stretch? At San Fran and at Cincinnati. And they are getting more than a field goal at home this week vs. Philly? This is my gift to you. Enjoy it.
—Danny Kneecaps, Atlanta

SG: That was your gift to me? You just blew my balls off. I don't have balls anymore. How was that a gift?

Q: If Peyton Manning had chosen Arizona — which Chris Mortensen said Arizona eliminated itself (not Peyton eliminating Arizona off his list) — would they currently be the second best team in the NFC with that defense and someone who could throw to Larry Fitzgerald?
—Quinn Saturday, Bloomington

SG: That's a pretty good "What if," right? Fitzgerald has done nothing and we've seen exactly two decent drives from an Arizona QB in two weeks … and somehow, they're 2-0. But after seeing Manning throw those fluttering ducks on Monday night, why would any defense do anything other than say, "Hey, Denver, we're taking away the short stuff, you're going to have to throw over the top on us"? I need to see a few more Manning games before I can properly answer this question. We only know one thing for sure: Manning totally blew it by not going to San Francisco, and maybe … I mean, maybe San Francisco dodged a bullet with how it turned out. Do we know for sure that the 2012 Niners are better off with Alex Smith rather than Peyton Manning? Not yet … but it's in play.

(Those last two sentences are reason no. 344 why the Mayans might have been right about 2012. This headline was reason no. 345.)

Q: By all means Simmons keep driving the anti-Eagles bandwagon. You have no idea how refreshing it is to be the nobody believes in us team. Keep ignoring the fact that we have the no. 1 yardage offense and no. 4 defense. Keep ignoring the fact we outgained Cleveland 500 to 200 and Baltimore 500 to 300. I'll do my part and get sucked in again by Reid come playoff time, convince myself it's different, only to be sucker punched in the NFC championship game.
—Colin, Philadelphia

SG: Ladies and gentlemen, the 2012 Philadelphia Eagles! I will say that I loved Inside the NFL's footage of Michael Vick defiantly strutting around the Eagles locker room after their Baltimore win yelling, "I'd go to war with y'all anytime!" It was the inverse of how I felt seeing Chad Johnson co-hosting that show a month after he allegedly head-butted his wife and one day after Steve Sabol died.

Falcons (+3) over CHARGERS

RAIDERS (+4) over Steelers

Q: My friend just crowned me Czar of Opinions on Hot Older Working Women.
—Daniel S., Atlanta

SG: Yup, these are my readers. (Sorry, we had to get that one over with a little bit earlier this week.) And yup, I'm begrudgingly sticking to last week's "The Chargers will start out 2-0, get everyone thinking that they've finally turned things around in September with Norv Turner, then turn the ball over 29 times at home against the Falcons" prediction even if I don't feel remotely as good about it. Atlanta's performance on Monday night left me a little cold — if you're allegedly a Super Bowl contender, and you're playing a team at home on Monday night that spots you four turnovers and a 20-0 lead, how are you sweating out the final five minutes of that game?

(On the other hand … Norv Turner going 3-0 in September??? Really??? Norv blankly staring out to the field like he just witnessed a murder is my favorite September tradition other than my birthday. The Football Gods can't take that away from me. Come on.)

RAVENS (-2.5) over Patriots

Q: You have no idea how terrified I am for Sunday night's Pats-Ravens matchup. Yet another chance for Bernard Karmell Pollard to single-handedly ruin a Patriots season by injuring an irreplaceable part of our offense. Luckily the top candidate for this year's season-crushing injury (Hernandez) is already out this game so he can't get injured further. Somebody's gotta stop this madness, right?
—Lee Y., New York

SG: Total Revenge Game for the Ravens, no Hernandez, New England's legitimately shaky offensive line, Baltimore's belief that they've been better than the Pats these last few years, the inexplicable Welker situation that's been hijacking the local headlines in Boston, another Gronk/porn-star story, a fired-up Sunday-night crowd, Pats assassin Bernard Karmell Pollard … I mean, I don't think I've ever felt worse about a big Patriots game. And that's usually when they thrive most. Who loves a "Nobody Believes in Us" situation more than the Belichick/Brady Pats (with the possible aforementioned exception of the Coughlin/Manning Giants)? Had Baltimore prevailed in Philly, and if the Patriots didn't need the Simmons Stink so much right now, I'd be picking the Pats. Instead, I'm picking the Ravens to win 38-10. And it won't even be that close.

(By the way, if Pollard injures another Patriot in this game, you have to admit, this would be the single creepiest running streak in sports. Has any fan base ever feared a random player more than Patriots fans fear Bernard Karmell Pollard? I don't even fear him just with football anymore. If you handed one of my kids to Bernard Pollard even for three seconds, I think I'd have a stroke. When is Bernard Pollard retiring? How many years away are we?)

SEAHAWKS (+3.5) over Packers

Q: I believe the Pats actually helped you out with their loss to Arizona because we know now that the Cards are no longer WHO WE THOUGHT THEY WERE! This in turn means that the Seahawks maybe aren't WHO WE THOUGHT THEY WERE EITHER! (Never mind the Hawks win over the Cowboys, that's not as important as the fact that they were competitive with the actual best team in the NFC … the 2012 Kevin Kolb-led Arizona Cardinals!!!!) Seattle's Week 1 loss no longer looks so bad and the Seahawks Super Bowl train is back on the tracks full steam ahead!
—Brian, Olympia, WA

SG: LET'S DO THIS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Q: The Seahawks are overrated at home. The last three years: 14-11 at home. In 2008: 2-6. Does that sound scary to you? As for the rest, Pete Carroll and the Seattle fans are like soccer Moms who think their kid is the best, even though he sits on the bench and can't kick a ball that isn't moving. They always think they're better than they are.
—Mark, Seattle

SG: Um … LET'S STILL DO THIS!!!!!!!!!!!!!! For the record, I never climbed out of the Seahawks bandwagon even when it was upside down and on fire. The semi-upset special: Seattle 27, Green Bay 23.

Q: You have to write about Steve Sabol and NFL Films. The slow motion action, the orchestra music that nobody ever listened to unless it was playing in the background to NFL football highlights, the Voice of God booming through the television to the viewer, etc. Simple brilliance. Guys our age cut our NFL football teeth on NFL Films. I don't think his passing is getting the recognition it deserves. We lost a legend.
—Dave Sherman, Warren, PA

SG: I enjoyed Chuck Klosterman's brief eulogy of Sabol and would only add this: You could argue that the NFL would have been 99.9999 percent as fun/compelling/entertaining over the past 50 years if you removed ANY person except for a small handful of legitimate influencers: Pete Rozelle, Bill Walsh, John Madden, Roone Arledge, maybe Howard Cosell (depending on how you felt about him), definitely Sabol … however many people make your final list, the point is, it's not the longest list. But if 50 different knowledgeable football fans made their own lists, only Rozelle, Madden, Alredge and Sabol would appear on all 50.

No other sport had its own version of Sabol — he was an original prototype, a true visionary and someone who made it easier to like football, understand football and care about football. You also have to give Steve and his father massive amounts of credit for seeing the future (that football was the most visual of all the professional sports, and that they had to do everything possible to capture this), for their commitment to excellence (even in the 1970s, back when nobody really cared about this stuff, they were blanketing football fields with state-of-the-art cameras, hoping it would pay off down the road), and for being responsible for more goose bumps than any two people ever. What an inspiring family.

Rest in peace, Steve Sabol. And thanks for everything.

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Oscar's star turn lifts Chelsea in draw

By: timbersfan, 12:22 AM GMT on September 21, 2012

After a allowing a two-goal lead to slip against the main challengers in your Champions League group, it's natural to feel rather deflated. The tendency is to look at team deficiencies and point the finger at those culpable for a precious two points dropped against Juventus, but there are plenty of positives to take from the 2-2 draw.

The most obvious of those was the performance of Oscar. The Brazilian showcased his exceptional ability on his full Blues debut, with his two goals just part of the story. His selection in the starting eleven was a gamble from Roberto Di Matteo, but the youngster paid his manager back with an eye-catching contribution before his withdrawal in the second half.

In truth, he struggled to make much of an impact until his deflected shot opened the scoring on the half-hour mark, despite showing plenty of purpose in the number 10 role. The strike, though, filled the youngster with confidence and his second goal a couple of minutes later was a thing of beauty, leaving everyone in Stamford Bridge wide-eyed and open-mouthed. His tricks and flicks were all measured and to the benefit to the team, every backheel purposeful rather than indulgent. Given room to operate, he began to dictate Chelsea's forward momentum and became the central figure in the home side's display.

There were positive contributions throughout; John Obi Mikel was particularly effective in disrupting Juventus' rhythm, stepping into challenges and winning the ball back in crucial areas. It's just a pity that his distribution was at its usual poor standard. Despite his vital interventions, his lack of care on the ball led to the equaliser, the crowd pouring derision on one of their favourite targets. In his defence, the whole team struggled to keep hold of the ball in the last 25 minutes and the pressure had been building as Chelsea ceded possession cheaply again and again. Di Matteo's system became narrower with each passing minute, leaving few options when the ball was won back, and it seem more than a coincidence that the Blues' fluency dipped once Oscar had exited the stage.

Nevertheless, the game could have been won had the referee pointed to the spot following Andrea Barzagli's challenge on Eden Hazard. From my vantage point in the Matthew Harding stand it appeared to be a clear penalty but with the fifth official deciding not to get involved, all appeals were waved away. Yet there was still another chance to wrap up the three points; had Juan Mata’s shot found the inside of the post after some scintillating interplay with Hazard, then Oscar would have competition for goal of the game.

Injustice and near misses aside, it's hard to escape the feeling that on the balance of play, 2-2 was a fair result. Prior to Chelsea taking the lead, Mirko Vucinic and Claudio Marchisio both spurned excellent chances and the ease with which they got behind the defence was a portentous warning of Fabio Quagliarella's match-saving strike.

Opening the campaign with a point is far from being a disaster especially when the performance is placed alongside the last two outings against Atletico Madrid and QPR. Chelsea were brittle in the first game and insipid in the second but while they ultimately ran out of steam against Juventus, there was a lot to cheer about.

And in Oscar, Chelsea have a star in the making.

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Mancini's frustration, Milanese malaise

By: timbersfan, 12:21 AM GMT on September 21, 2012

Roberto Mancini looked positively livid after watching his Manchester City side draw 1-1 at Stoke. It's not hard to see why.

Peter Crouch scored Stoke’s opener after rather cravenly handling the ball not once but twice without referee Mark Clattenburg appearing to notice. (After the match, Crouch grinned and said "Yeah, you could say there was a suspicion of handball.") Mario Balotelli went down in a heap after clashing off the ball with Andy Wilkinson -- replays were inconclusive -- and again, Clattenburg did nothing. In the Stoke goal, Asmir Begovic turned into some combination of Gordon Banks, Lev Yashin and Godzilla, pulling off a string of magnificent saves. And in the dying minutes Ryan Shawcross, the epitome of grit and guts, pulled off a dramatic goal-line clearance.

Begovic and Shawcross were doing their job -- they're not supposed to make it easy for City -- and Clattenburg perhaps less so, but the whole affair left Mancini with the familiar frustration of fans, whereby players seem to have brilliant days when they happen to be your opponents and referees seem to make mistakes that hurt your side. Not that Mancini, the beneficiary of one of the biggest spending sprees in history (at least until Paris St. Germain catches up), expects much sympathy.



GettyImages / Michael Regan/Getty Images
A draw at Stoke might not seem like a bad result, but Roberto Mancini had plenty to gripe about. Will those points prove costly in the title race?


After all, he's paid handsomely to deliver and he'll get another shot Tuesday night, as City open their Champions League campaign away to Real Madrid. The fact that he'll be squaring off against Jose Mourinho -- the man who replaced him at Inter -- simply adds a delicious subtext.

As a result, there isn't much time to think about what might have been at the Britannia. But should the two points dropped end up being critical to City's fortunes come the end of the season, don't be surprised if this all comes up again.

Misery for Mourinho
Statistically, this is the worst start ever for a Mourinho-coached team. Real Madrid stands just two points above the relegation zone and, more worryingly, it's already eight points behind Barcelona and no longer controls its own destiny in La Liga.

So it's not really a surprise that he was hard on his players after Saturday’s defeat at Sevilla. ("We were bad in the first half and bad in the second half.") What came next was somewhat more surprising.

"[Our results] are about a state of mind and of two or three who aren’t thinking like the rest," he said. "They are the minds of players which are not committed and for whom football is not a priority in their lives. There aren't many involved and it's complicated, but I'm coach and if there are those less committed then it is my fault."

He added: "Right now, I don’t have a team."

It’s shocking stuff. Of course, occasionally, you do get managers who single out players for criticism, though to be fair, it’s very rare and some coaches simply never do it. (Mourinho himself usually sticks up for his men, at least in public.) But what is nearly unprecedented is a manager throwing his players under the bus without naming them.

It's one thing for a coach to take on a player head on, even in public. Quite another to not name names. Why? Because all it does is create a cloud of speculation. Which players back Mourinho? Which ones are against him? Which ones have lost interest? Who the heck knows?

What this means is that players will now likely be singled out and named as being in Mourinho's cross-hairs. They might be, they might not be. But either way, it won’t be good for the squad.

Mourinho's record -- and above all, the fact that you can count on one hand the number of players he's coached through the years who are willing to speak ill of him -- suggests that you give him the benefit of the doubt. But it takes a massive leap of faith to believe that what he said in Sevilla on Saturday night was a good idea.

Bold Buttner raises eyebrows
It’s hard to remember a more impressive Old Trafford debut than that of Alexander Buttner against Wigan on Saturday. The Dutch left back scored a wonderful goal, set up another and was a constant forward-looking presence on the flanks.

This may act as a spur to Patrice Evra to raise his game and keep his spot as a starter. Or it may signal the start of a process that will end with the passing of the baton. Either way, you feel that United's left defensive flank is in good hands.



GettyImages / Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images
Alex Buttner was a revelation for Manchester United this past weekend -- but how did the bombastic left back go largely unnoticed by clubs and the Dutch national team for so long?


What's remarkable about Buttner is that he did not seem to be on anyone's radar before the summer. He spent five years in Ajax's youth team but was then let go and joined Vitesse Arnhem. He made his debut for Vitesse as a 19-year-old and was a starter over the past two seasons. And yet he has yet to be capped for Holland (a team that, lest we forget, started 18-year-old Jetro Willems at Euro 2012 with disastrous results) and managed just one appearance at the Under-21 level.

It's not as if Holland have had Roberto Carlos and Paolo Maldini playing left back for them these past few years. If the Wigan game is a fair indication of Buttner's skills, then you have to ask legitimate questions of the Dutch FA's inability to spot his talents.

Milanese malaise
Milan fell 1-0 at home to Atalanta on Saturday night, the first time since 1930 that the Rossoneri lost its first two home games. We can all rattle off Massimiliano Allegri's mitigating circumstances, starting with the sale of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva and ending with the notion that they could seamlessly be replaced by Giampaolo Pazzini and Francesco Acerbi, respectively.

Allegri was without Riccardo Montolivo, Robinho, Cristian Zapata and Pato (though, frankly, his absence is something to just about take for granted these days) this past weekend, but the Milan manager still has to bear responsibility. If you're going to have a guy like Pazzini up front, you need to figure out a way to get him chances, because unlike Ibrahimovic, he's not going to create his own. You'd expect Robinho and Montolivo to do that and fine, they weren’t there. But you need to have a better plan than the one seen at the San Siro.

Now there are rumors of switching to a three-man defense. Really?

You can see the logic in that it frees up the wing backs to deliver crosses for Pazzini. But if you play three at the back you need strength in depth at center half, something that the likes of Zapata, Acerbi, Philippe Mexes and Daniele Bonera do not provide.

Malaga down, but far from out
Talk about overcoming the odds.

It looked as if the bottom had fallen out of Malaga this summer. The Qatari owners had shown themselves to be cut from a rather different cloth than the folks who look after PSG. A rather less impressive cloth, as it turns out, given that after an initial spending spree, the money dried up. (And as a result of unpaid debts, UEFA decided to withhold prize money "until the balances are settled," something that could take a rather long time.)

Going into the last 48 hours of the transfer window, Santi Cazorla and Jose Rondon -- Malaga's best player and its leading goal scorer last season -- were sold. Ruud Van Nistelrooy retired, Enzo Maresca and Joris Mathijsen left as free agents. And, on top of everything else, it was revealed that Julio Baptista would be out until Christmas.

The last-ditch signings, all of them free -- Oguchi Onyewu, Roque Santa Cruz, Javier Saviola and Manuel Iturra -- looked liked bodies drafted in to make up the numbers. Maybe that’s just what they are (time will tell as they’ve played 135 combined minutes thus far) but in the meantime, the rest of the squad has responded with pride and quality.



GettyImages / Oliver Hardt/Getty Images
Hannover's Szabolcs Huszti was right to celebrate his game-winning goal against his club's biggest rival, though he was also right to feel aggrieved at the speedy double booking he received for his exploits.


Malaga is second in La Liga, two points behind Barcelona. It's going to be a long, hard slog, starting with Zenit in the Champions League on Tuesday, but the performance Manuel Pellegrini was able to coax out of his squad has been nothing short of sensational. And it rather makes you wonder whether maybe he wasn't forgotten a bit too quickly after being bounced from the Bernabeu.

The problem with overzealous referees
Bookings for excessive celebrations are part and parcel of the game now. Fine. You rather accept that. But what happened to Hannover's Szabolcs Huszti on Saturday is way over the top. He scored the opener against Werder Bremen and then set up Leon Andreasen who made it 2-0. But then Thomas Schaaf's men stormed back to make it 2-2, only for Huszti to score the winner in the third minute of injury time with a dramatic overhead kick.

An assist and two goals -- one of them a gorgeous last-gasp winner -- in a derby match entitles you to some level of festivity, yes?

In this case, it was a bit too much for referee Deniz Aytekin, who decided to book Huszti twice: once for removing his shirt in celebration and once for jumping into the crowd to celebrate with his fans. So he gets a red card and a ban.

You hear a lot about referees and common sense. The rule about excessive celebration exists to prevent time-wasting and to avoid provoking opponents. Huszti did neither. If you really want to be a pedantic, book him once. But a double yellow? When the game is over? For celebrating with the folks who pay his wages?

Sometimes beleaguered match officials don't help themselves.

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How can Chelsea stop Andrea Pirlo?

By: timbersfan, 12:20 AM GMT on September 21, 2012

This week, Roberto Di Matteo faces his most difficult tactical dilemma since winning the Champions League this past May: how can he prevent Andrea Pirlo from dominating when Juventus travels to Stamford Bridge on Wednesday evening?

Pirlo has played in England many times, but this is probably the first time that the Juventus midfielder has been pinpointed as the opposition's key man. His performance against England at Euro 2012 has finally given him the credit he deserves within Britain -- until then, he was shaping up to be another modern-era legend that this country has struggled to appreciate.

It's a particular phenomenon when it comes to Serie A players -- Francesco Totti has never received due acclaim for his Roma displays because he rarely played well against English opposition. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is another; even after scoring twice against Arsenal in 2010, it was back to the old line when he played poorly against Tottenham the next season -- why doesn't he do it against English clubs?

Even Lionel Messi received this criticism until he headed in the crucial second goal against Manchester United in the 2009 Champions League final.

It's a strange, rather arrogant insistence that a player is only great once he's done it against one of our sides, and such an approach is best ignored. But for anyone who has witnessed the genius of Totti or Ibrahimovic over the years, it's incredibly frustrating for such players to be belittled with such a flimsy argument.

Until as recently as June, Pirlo was another example. A consistent performer with Milan for 10 seasons and a regular in the knockout stages of the Champions League, his steady, unfussy style never grabbed the headlines. Instead, Kaka was the Milan player who demolished English clubs -- particularly in the first half of the 2005 Champions League final against Liverpool and the 5-3 aggregate win over Manchester United in 2007.

Pirlo's last appearance in England, by contrast, was a disappointment. He played the deepest-lying midfield position in a 4-0 thrashing at Old Trafford in 2010, pressed and harried out of the game by Park Ji-Sung, who was used by Sir Alex Ferguson in an advanced midfield role. Even now, it's not uncommon to hear Park’s name mentioned shortly after Pirlo's -- "He's a good player, but remember when Park did a job on him that time?"

Maybe the perception that Pirlo had declined was England's problem in Kiev. Lining up at the base of an Italian diamond, Pirlo was utterly magnificent, spreading the play calmly to the full backs but also hitting long, straight balls over the England defence for Mario Balotelli to run onto. England's utter failure to deal with him was chiefly the fault of Wayne Rooney, lazily dropping back from his second striker position and largely ignoring instructions from Roy Hodgson (and shouts from goalkeeper Joe Hart) to mark Pirlo. Surely a player widely praised in England over the past decade -- a Xavi Hernandez, Zinedine Zidane or Andres Iniesta -- wouldn't have been allowed such room.

Part of the problem, of course, is that Pirlo plays so much deeper than those three. His positioning means he is up against creative players who are reluctant to help defend, and it's interesting that the best two marking jobs on him have been performed by natural wide midfielders -- Park in 2010, and Milan's Urby Emanuelson last season.

How Chelsea deals with him will be fascinating. Pirlo's main quality is his ability to set the tempo of the game, yet he can struggle when the opposition makes the game too frantic for his tastes. It's not necessarily being pressed that he has problems with -- Spain did that in the opening game of Euro 2012, yet Pirlo was still the most impressive midfielder on display -- but against a single, hard-working midfielder told to stick tight, he can encounter difficulties.

So what is Di Matteo's strategy? There are broadly four possibilities -- first, to sit deep and allow him space, instead trying to minimize space in the final third. Second, to create a high-tempo match as a whole, denying Pirlo his preferred environment. Third, to ask an attacker to drop onto Pirlo when out of possession. Fourth, to play a more defensive, hard-working player in an advanced, man-marking role.



GettyImages / Olly Greenwood/Getty Images
Ramires is one of the players who could be tasked with the job of marking Pirlo.
The first option is unlikely -- it's exactly what Di Matteo would have done last season when Chelsea won the Champions League with defensive-minded displays, but now he's building a more offensive, positive side. The fourth prompts the question about which player Chelsea would use there -- Raul Meireles would have been a natural, Michael Essien another option. With those midfielders sold in the summer, it's probably Ramires who represents the best solution, though Di Matteo prefers him on the right side of midfield.

With those strategies dismissed, we’ll probably see a combination of approaches two and three; Chelsea will attempt to create a high-tempo match and Di Matteo will tell his central attacking midfielder -- possibly Juan Mata, maybe Eden Hazard -- to pick up Pirlo when Chelsea loses possession. Mata is intelligent tactically and Hazard doesn't mind chasing back -- but Pirlo finds space cleverly and won't mind pulling his opponent into an area they’re uncomfortable in.

It’s not quite as simple as "stop Pirlo, stop Juventus" -- Antonio Conte's side have made some clever additions in the summer and possess a range of midfield weapons. But few other players in this season's Champions League have the ability to dictate a top-level match, and Di Matteo must prevent Pirlo being Juventus' key player.

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Cam Newton and the Diversity of Carolina's Zone-Read Package

By: timbersfan, 12:19 AM GMT on September 21, 2012

In Week 1, the Carolina Panthers’ listless offense turned over the ball twice, gave up three sacks, and registered a grand total of 10 — yes, 10 — rushing yards. Last week against the Saints, Carolina exploded for 35 points and 219 yards on the ground while Cam Newton averaged an amazing 12.7 yards per pass attempt. The Panthers looked like the offense it was for much of last season, and they did it by getting back to what is, for them, basics — the read-option running game.

Newton is a one-of-kind offensive weapon, and his abilities to both be a threat to run the ball and make accurate run-game reads make everyone on the Panthers offense better, including his wide receivers. Steve Smith had Carolina’s biggest play of the day — a 66-yard catch in which no one on New Orleans's defense was within 20 yards of him. As Newton explained after the game, Smith was the direct beneficiary of Carolina's dynamic rushing attack: "Of all of the people on this field to be wide open, you would think Smitty would be the last person,” Newton said. “But that is what type of pressure the zone read gives us."

That’s the beauty of the Panthers' offense when it’s rolling. Newton led the Panthers in rushing, but Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams each added more than 50 on the ground, and Smith, Brandon LaFell, and even Mike Tolbert were dangerous receiving options. "You do read option, read option, read option and then get them to play seven or eight in the box and you've got so many variations of plays and passes you can run off that," Newton said.

The most exciting part about the diversity of the Panthers' attack, though, isn’t the mix of traditional and spread offenses, or the number of players who touch the ball. It’s the diversity within their read-option package.

The most well-known read-option run play is the "zone read" — a traditional zone-blocked running play coupled with the quarterback making a read of a back-side defender. The purpose of the zone read is really nothing more than to keep this defender from attacking the running back; otherwise it's just an old-fashioned run play.

Ron Rivera's Panthers had good success with these basic zone-read plays against the Saints, but they've also started to incorporate more advanced read-option schemes, ones that can better keep defenses off-balance and incorporate a wider diversity of blocking schemes and best utilize Carolina’s weapons. These are the plays New Orleans had no answer for on Sunday.

One of them is a play Newton made famous at Auburn — the "inverted veer" or "dash read" play. Unlike a typical zone read where the quarterback reads a back-side defender, the inverted veer reads a player on the front side — the quarterback and running back head in the same direction. Coupled with "power" run blocking with a pulling guard, the defense is outnumbered to the play side, and blocking lines up nicely.

Against the Saints, Panthers offensive coordinator Rod Chudzinski took Cam's old inverted veer one step further by running an outside run coupled with a read of an interior defender — a “sweep read.” Carolina ran this play several times against the Saints, but the best example came in the third quarter and resulted in DeAngelo Williams bursting around the left end for a 27-yard gain.



On the play, Williams runs laterally to the left while Newton puts the ball in his stomach and makes a read. The key to this play is whom Newton is reading. Unlike the typical zone read or the inverted veer, here Newton is reading an interior defensive tackle instead of an edge defender like a defensive end.

This may seem like a little change, but it’s enough to open an entirely different world of offensive options. Most NFL teams are spread-option dilettantes that never get beyond reading the defensive end (if that), and defensive coordinators scheme accordingly. With Newton, the Panthers are quickly becoming experts though, and the ability to read multiple defenders can make even a carefully calibrated defensive game plan totally, woefully wrong. Once the offense develops a system for reading different defenders, they can choose whom they want to pick on.



Notice what reading the Saints' defensive tackle — here, the shade nose guard or "one-technique" — does for the Panthers. By leaving him unblocked, the play-side guard, Amini Silatolu, is able to pull and lead-block for Williams while everyone else on the line blocks back to seal off defenders.



Just after the snap, you can see the play design working perfectly. Silatolu begins his pull as the Saints linebackers hesitate, not knowing if Newton will hand off or keep it. The unblocked defensive tackle does exactly what he's been taught — aggressively attack. Unfortunately for him, what he’s been taught takes him completely out of position, and Newton simply hands off to Williams as the running back sprints to the left. Had the Saints defender tried to take away the sweep, Newton would've had an easy gain straight upfield. The beauty of the play is that, although it's a read-option, based on the defensive tackle’s predicted assignment, Newton is not likely to get the ball. Changing the read defender allows the Panthers to use read-option principles without Newton taking unnecessary hits.

The final advantage gained by leaving a defender unblocked is that it allows others to be double-teamed, and here, center Ryan Kalil solidifies the blocking upfront by attacking the other defensive tackle. Note, too, the extra defenders to the right who are waiting on Newton and unable to help as Williams runs the other way.



As the unblocked defender stands useless next to Newton, and Williams and his escort run unimpeded around the left end, it quickly becomes apparent that this play is going to work.



Williams was eventually tackled, but not until downfield blocking from his receivers helped him scamper for 27 yards. It’s difficult to run for big gains in the fast, athletic NFL, but Carolina's scheme — and Newton, even when he doesn't have the ball
— makes it a lot easier. Carolina’s opponent this week, the New York Giants, is filled with players like Jason Pierre-Paul, who are almost impossible to block one-on-one. It’s players like him that have the Panthers following an old coaching adage — if you can’t block a guy, read him instead.

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The Sports Guy's Thursday NFL Pick: Here's Your Skunk of the Week

By: timbersfan, 12:18 AM GMT on September 21, 2012

Welcome to the Thursday Skunk of the Week, in which I spray my stink on an unsuspecting team that probably felt great about their chances until I became involved. In Week 1, I sprayed the Giants by comparing Jerry Jones’s last 15 years to my dog crapping all over my house on Labor Day. You might remember Tony Romo subsequently picking the Giants apart en route to an opening-night upset. In Week 2, I sprayed the Bears by raving about Brandon Marshall’s impact on their franchise — not just this season, but historically, as their first great receiver maybe ever. Marshall disappeared that night in Green Bay, catching just two passes and dropping a wide-open touchdown in a Packers blowout.

Tonight, Carolina is giving 2.5 points at home against the banged-up Giants. I thought this was an easy pick: The Giants look like a mess defensively; they can’t run the ball; they’re missing a bunch of guys (including Ahmad Bradshaw and Hakeem Nicks); they’re playing on the road with just four days of rest; they have to deal with Cam Newton doing Cam Newton things for four quarters; and their coach's head is still shaded dark-maroon thanks to Greg Schiano. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why anyone would take the Giants getting less than three tonight. And that’s before we get to this e-mail from Matt V. in East Northport, New York.

"I finally figured out why Eli is the most durable QB right now. Everyone, including me, laughs at Eli's hilariously unathletic dives and sacks. After watching the seventh consecutive hour of KneeldownGate, it finally hit me. You know how drunk drivers often leave crashes uninjured because they are oblivious and don't brace themselves? Eli does the same thing! Not the drunk driving part, the not bracing himself part. The real question now is whether it is intentional or not."
So to recap: We have a "hilariously unathletic" QB, playing on the road with no weapons other than Victor "I’m Gonna Be Triple-Teamed" Cruz and Martellus "I Can’t Believe You Just Paid $26 for Me in Your Fantasy Waiver Auction, I’m About to Regress" Bennett, competing in a throwaway game that the Giants don’t totally need (and probably want to escape without further injuries) … and on the other sideline, we have a decent Panthers team with a sneaky-good running game and Cam Newton in "I can’t wait to impress a national TV audience!" mode? And I’m giving less than three points? Carolina, you’ve just been sprayed.

The pick: Panthers 34, Giants 17

Last week: 8-6-2
Season: 16-14-2

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Deconstructing Sergio Aguero's "Twitterstorm"

By: timbersfan, 12:18 AM GMT on September 21, 2012

Anybody needing any further evidence of the hold that the cherished young men who play for our beloved clubs have over our hearts and minds need only look to what happened Tuesday night with Sergio Aguero.

The Manchester City striker, still not 100 percent fit after his injury, was an unused substitute in Real Madrid's dramatic 3-2 victory. But it was afterwards that he made headlines. Spanish journalists stopped him on his way out and asked him why he didn't join Real the summer before last, when he left Atletico Madrid to join City. Was it true that he said he would never play for Real given his past with their crosstown rivals?

"If Real Madrid had been interested in me, then I would be here," he said. "I had no option but to join City."

He also made it a point to refute the quotes attributed to him recently in which he allegedly said that "he would never play for Real Madrid because [he] played at Atletico."

In the age of Twitter, it took no more than a few seconds for those words to bounce around the world. The technical term for the reaction is "Twitterstorm." Some City fans despaired. Others called the press liars who had clearly twisted his words. A largely silent majority -- you would hope -- put their faith in the fact that Aguero has shown no signs of wanting to leave Eastlands and, in fact, repeatedly says he's happy at City.

Aguero himself had to turn to Twitter to clear things up: "Just to make it clear, I'm very happy to be [at Manchester City]. It's the best decision I could have taken." He added that he felt "comfortable" and "appreciated."

This is a textbook case in which somebody answering questions honestly can wreak havoc on our emotions. Nothing Aguero said was contradictory. It's just that, when it comes to clear thinking and feeling secure, some supporters are like pre-teens with their very first girlfriend. "If [INSERT NAME OF POPULAR BOY IN SCHOOL] had asked me out, I'd be dating him right now. But I needed a date for the junior high semi-formal and you're the only one who asked me, so I had no real option."

That's the gist. At 12, it can be soul-destroying. As fans -- even as adults -- well, we don't always quite grow up when it comes to our heroes.

But apply some logic and it's not so difficult to find a rational explanation for what Aguero said.

In the summer of 2011, when Atletico put him up for sale, he was linked with a move to Real Madrid. No "formal bid" ever came from the Bernabeu (though, on its own, that doesn't mean much, as clubs usually only make "formal bids" when they've made enough informal ones that they know the "formal bid" will be accepted). Juventus made an inquiry but he was too expensive. So he ended up at City for around $60 million.

Since then, his father-in-law -- who isn't just any in-law, but a certain Diego Armando Maradona -- has said on more than one occasion that moving to City was a mistake and he should have joined Real. Throw in the fact that Aguero was quoted -- incorrectly, according to him, but nobody knew that at the time -- as saying that he would never play for Real and yeah, it's fair to ask him why he didn't move across town and whether it's true that he could never pull on the white shirt.

You can only assume his answer was accurate at the time: that if Atletico had accepted an offer from Real he would have taken it. It's not a knock on City. It's neither heretical nor offensive to suggest that in 2011, to a 23-year-old kid from Quilmes, all things being equal, signing for a club like Real Madrid (he wouldn't even have needed to move house) might be more attractive than going to Manchester where he'd have to learn a foreign language, adapt to a new league and join a club that -- however ambitious and wealthy -- won't be matching Real's history and pedigree any time soon.

But that doesn't mean Aguero isn't happy where he is now. Nor does it mean, regardless of what his father-in-law might say, that he has some regret. Maradona is a living legend, but he doesn't speak for Aguero and he's not his agent. No more than your father-in-law (if you have one) speaks for you or advises you on your career.

And what about the implication that Aguero is open to joining Real Madrid one day? Isn't that a reason to worry? Maybe. Or it could just be that Aguero was being polite. He spent five seasons at Atletico, but he's not a Francesco Totti, Gary Neville or Xavi, guys who would rather be lobotomized than join their arch-rival. He's never played that role. He's a professional who, frankly, has nothing to gain by ratcheting up the rivalry with Real Madrid and saying he'd never join them.

What matters now is that he's at City and, when fit, he's extremely happy and productive. It's not just his words that point to this; it's his behaviour and his actions. But, of course, that's the rational mind speaking. And sometimes logic isn't enough to chase away our insecurities.

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Paris Is Rising: Marco Verratti's Giant Steps

By: timbersfan, 11:58 PM GMT on September 19, 2012

The last time we checked in with Paris Saint-Germain they drew their third consecutive match of the season and were sitting 13th in the Ligue 1 table. Showing just how fickle I was, I went home after the 0-0 draw with Bordeaux and canceled my trip to Lille. That was a mistake. Against Lille, PSG got their first win of the season as Zlatan Ibrahimovic opened the scoring after just 27 seconds to quiet the home crowd, and settled the match with his second goal after collecting Javier Pastore’s through ball. Friday night PSG returned to action and recorded its second consecutive win of the season behind goals from Ibrahimovic and Pastore. With the exception of the excellent Marco Verratti (more on him later), it was a workmanlike, no-nonsense performance. But if the victory was unimpressive, it was also never in doubt, as Toulouse rarely threatened and PSG controlled the tempo from start to finish.

The win moved PSG to fourth in the table, and they are now six points behind league leaders Marseille, who continued their perfect start to the season with a 1-0 win over Nancy.

Carlo Ancelotti, for the first time this season, played the same lineup in consecutive matches and the performance had a hint of coherence that we didn’t see earlier this season. Finally, the grease is starting to touch the wheels and Ancelotti is accomplishing more by doing less. For now, he has shelved the idea of using Javier Pastore as a deep-lying playmaker and instead has given him a free role just behind Ibrahimovic. Blaise Matuidi remains a starter in spite of himself and Ancelotti seems to want him high up the field, which is understandable only if his thinking is that Matuidi is less of a liability to the team the farther away he is from his own goal.

The defense kept its third clean sheet of the season, but there will be changes at the back as club record signing Thiago Silva’s introduction to the side is imminent and the addition of Dutch right back Gregory van der Wiel will give Christophe Jallet some competition for the starting spot on the right of the defense. No matter what changes Ancelotti may introduce, the sure thing for PSG is Ibrahimovic’s consistency. Against Toulouse he scored his fifth goal in four matches, an easy tap-in after some good work from Jeremy Menez. Ibrahimovic still looks like he’s regaining his fitness and is not yet at his best, but he continues to deliver goals when he’s in the starting lineup. Javier Pastore’s first goal of the season, a delicate lob over the onrushing keeper, reminded everyone of his quality.

But the story from Friday night wasn’t the consecutive victories or the two goals. After the match all the talk was about PSG’s teenage midfielder Marco Verratti. Just five matches into the season, Verratti has already established himself as PSG’s best midfielder. While I’ve settled on calling Verratti “the Shadow” for his elusiveness, the Paris media has called him everything from le petit prince du Parc to le parrain du milieu, the godfather of the midfield.

What separates Verratti from his more experienced teammates is uncertainty — the uncertainty of just how good he is. At 19, he’s not yet sure what he can or cannot do. He hasn’t yet found the limits of his talents, so he tries everything. Each time he touches the ball the game ceases to be 11 vs. 11 and becomes a one-man show. No matter how frenetic the pace of the match, once Verratti is on the ball everything slows down as he takes his time to invent something. Whether it’s a 30-yard lobbed pass like for the Pastore goal or a pirouette to leave a defender stranded, Verratti does it all while making it look as effortless and tidy as a five-yard sideways pass. The highlight of Friday night came when Verratti picked up the ball in his own box early in the second half. The easy and advisable thing to do would have been to either hoof the ball clear upfield or put it out of touch so the defense could regroup. Instead, Verratti looked up and decided to take on the defender. First he went around him, then fell to the ground, still controlling the ball, regained his feet, beat another defender, then started a passing sequence that brought the crowd to its feet for the loudest cheers of the night. The crowd might have loved it, but the opinion of the only man who matters was different.

“He is very confident and comfortable on the ball, but he needs to take fewer risks when he is in front of the defense,” Ancelotti said. Ancelotti is an old man who has seen it all, and he knows that one day Verratti will get caught in possession too close to his own goal and PSG will pay dearly for it. Verratti also has a reckless side when he doesn’t have the ball that was evident in the 33rd minute against Toulouse, when he lunged in with an ill-intentioned two-footed tackle that earned him a yellow card. The tackle came just seconds after PSG were denied a free kick after what appeared an obvious foul, and it was silly for Verratti to take matters into his own hands, but those are some of the growing pains that Ancelotti will have to deal with this season as Verratti sorts out the boundaries of his own abilities.

Watching Verratti, and then hearing Ancelotti voice his fears about Verratti’s cavalier style of play the day after the match, reminded me of the classic French film The 400 Blows, a kind of French cinematic equivalent of The Catcher in the Rye. The film and the novel are both about misunderstood youth, and Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows) chronicles the mischief of 12-year-old Antoine Doinel: smoking cigarettes, drinking liquor, stealing, acting up in class, landing himself in a jail cell with prostitutes, and ultimately sent to reform school by his parents. Much like Holden Caulfield before him, Antoine proves that, for better or worse, boys will be boys. On Friday night, Marco Verratti reaffirmed that. While he might have given old man Ancelotti a heart attack with some of the things he did, Ancelotti must accept that the occasional recklessness and precociousness is the price he pays for the defense-splitting passes that Verratti brings to the team.

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AC Milan in the Age of Financial Fair Play

By: timbersfan, 11:57 PM GMT on September 19, 2012

Earlier this summer, a group of AC Milan fans gathered for a vigil outside the club’s headquarters near via Turati in the center of Milan. They came with flowers and candles and recited prayers. At the end, they laid their beloved club to rest. The banner outside read, “AC Milan, December 16, 1899–July 22, 2012.” On it, a message that served as a final twist of the knife: “He lacked affection for his loved ones.” Milan received the “you’re dead to me” treatment from its fans the day it sold Thiago Silva and later Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Paris Saint-Germain. The previous season the club allowed Andrea Pirlo to join Juventus instead of renewing his deal. The thinking inside Milan was that Pirlo’s best days were behind him. The midfielder responded by leading Juve to an undefeated season, winning the Scudetto along the way. He then turned in a performance for Italy at Euro 2012 that cemented his position as one of the greatest midfielders of his generation.

The sales of Milan’s top players has resulted in the lowest number of ticket sales in the Silvio Berlusconi era. In place of its experienced stars, Milan brought in the 17-year-old Frenchman M’baye Niang and Barcelona castaway Bojan Krkic on loan. The club once known for extending the careers of senior players now boasts a forward line, which also includes Alexandre Pato, with an average age of 22.5. Early returns from the youth movement have not been positive. Milan lost to Atalanta at home on Sunday, marking the first time in 80 years that the club lost its first two home matches.

These are new days for AC Milan. When the club begins its Champions League campaign Tuesday night against Belgian side Anderlecht, it will do so under a heavy cloud of financial uncertainty. More bluntly, Milan looks like little more than also-rans this year. And if you want to know how it all went pear-shaped for AC Milan, just follow the money.

Most football fans have probably never heard of Fininvest. It's a company in the Berlusconi empire that is, or was, largely responsible for bankrolling AC Milan’s success. A quick look at Fininvest’s balance sheet reveals that in 2011 it covered AC Milan’s operational loss of ¬68.9 million (roughly $90 million) and losses of ¬71.7 million ($94 million) in 2010. Milan’s own financial reports from 2010 show that total revenue for the club stood at ¬227.7 million, with expenses topping ¬329 million. The biggest expense was players’ salaries, which amounted to ¬192.8 million, making Milan third only to Real Madrid and Barcelona in wages. Bizarrely, Milan spent 88 percent of its revenue on wages. Two other things affected the downturn in Milan’s financial fortunes. The TV rights for Serie A were once negotiated on a team-by-team basis, and with Milan’s success on the field came greater demand for the rights to broadcast its matches. That changed when the Serie A clubs decided to negotiate the rights collectively and split the pot. Milan also doesn’t own their stadium, the San Siro, which means it cannot derive funds from events that are held there.

In July 2011, a court levied a fine of more than $700 million against Fininvest for improper judicial conduct that aided the company in its 1991 acquisition of Italy’s largest publishing company, Mondadori. Without the endless pipeline of Fininvest funds to paper over Milan’s financial cracks, Berlusconi had to turn off the faucet, sell his best players to lower the wage bill (the sale of its biggest stars will save Milan close to $150 million in wages), and put his faith in youth. “The financial situation doesn’t allow spending any longer like in the early '90s. We have to build great teams thanks to youngsters and through a scouting network,” Berlusconi said. It is a tough pill to swallow for Milan’s fans, but it is also a decision that many other clubs will face in the not-too-distant future. It would be naive to believe that Berlusconi suddenly found religion and is tired of throwing money into an endless pit. Rich men buy sports franchises knowing they will operate at a loss. The real force moving Berlusconi and the rest of Europe in the direction of fiscal responsibility is UEFA president Michel Platini.

Platini means business and clubs are running scared. Last week UEFA sanctioned 23 European clubs for financial mismanagement that included failure to pay taxes, transfer fees, and player salaries. As part of the sanctions, UEFA will withhold prize money from those teams participating in this season’s Champions League and Europa League.

It is easy to cast Platini as a self-righteous crusader. After all, who is he to tell clubs how much money they can spend? If Berlusconi and the rest of Europe want to drive off a financial cliff, let them. Ever since Roman Abramovich moved the fiscal goalposts of the sport with his purchase of Chelsea FC, the culture of financial excess has spread across Europe. It’s not unreasonable to imagine a doomsday scenario like what happened with the Wall Street banks where as a result of profligate spending the system implodes. The most recent UEFA benchmarking report revealed that the collective debt of European clubs was close to ¬8.5 billion. Bankruptcy already claimed one of the most storied clubs in Scotland when earlier this year Rangers FC declared bankruptcy and emerged as Rangers NewCo, currently playing in the Scottish third division. Portsmouth FC, FA Cup winners in 2008 and runners-up in 2010, is now a bankrupt club and a court is tasked with figuring out who will own the club after the bankruptcy proceedings. These are not one-off examples but part of a wider trend that Platini wants to stop. If Berlusconi got the message, it’s likely that other big clubs will fall in line instead of risking suspension from Europe’s most lucrative competition.

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Paris Is Rising: The Magic of the Champions League

By: timbersfan, 11:56 PM GMT on September 19, 2012

The singing continued into the streets surrounding Parc des Princes last night long after the match ended. As fans exited the stadium the chants of "Allez Paris!" and "Paris est Magique!" were heard just as loudly as they were in the stadium. Down Rue du Sergent Maginot they went singing in reverie and into the Metro station at Porte de Saint-Cloud with the sounds of "Ô Ville Lumière" echoing in the narrow subway tunnel. "Ô Ville Lumière sens la chaleur de notre cSur ..." This was not a night for restraint, as waves of young men, beer now leaking from their pores, were completely unhinged, banging on the train doors, yelling obscenities with big smiles on their faces, and still in full voice from what they witnessed just moments ago.

Once on the train, the boys from the banlieues knocked out the lights in the train car and sang all the way from Porte de Saint-Cloud past Ranelagh, and Rue de la Pompe, and perhaps long after Saint-Augustin, where I got off the train. It was now long past 11 p.m., and at each subway stop old men and women who just wanted to get home for a quiet night’s sleep cowered and hurried to other subway cars that weren’t populated by a wild mob of Paris Saint-Germain fans. The sounds they wanted to escape were those of satisfied hunger.

Eight years they waited for this. Champions League football at Parc des Princes. The fans in the Auteuil and Boulogne stands were in full voice from the word "go." If anyone thought of sitting last night, that option was removed with the chant of "Ceux qui ne sautent pas sont Marseillais!" (If you don’t jump you’re a Marseille fan.)

For the first time this season Paris Saint-Germain blew away their opponents. Dynamo Kiev was out of their depth from start to finish and their fans, a smattering of shirtless, barrel-chested and beer-bellied Ukrainian men, were mostly silent throughout. The match ended 4-1, but could easily have been worse. By halftime the result was beyond doubt. The only question, for me, at the start of the second half was if Taye Taiwo, an ex-Marseille player now on Kiev, would be booed and whistled as mercilessly in the second half as he was in the first. The answer was yes and the chants of “Taiwo! Taiwo! Dans ton cul!” (Taiwo! Taiwo! Up your ass!) never eased up.

PSG opened the scoring in the first half when Jérémy Menez, whose penetrating off-the-ball runs left the Kiev defense dazed and confused, was brought down in the box after a quick change of direction. Zlatan Ibrahimovic calmly dispatched the penalty into the back of the net to give PSG a 1-0 lead. The rout was on. Minutes later Thiago Silva scored from a corner on his debut and then fellow Brazilian defender Alex slotted home another corner to give PSG a 3-0 lead at halftime. By the 57th minute it was all exhibition stuff and the home crowd started the "Olé!" chants.

Carlo Ancelotti once again got the team selection right, going with an inexperienced midfield-three (average age of 23) of Blaise Matuidi, Clement Chantome, and Marco Verratti. Chantome’s work rate was impressive and Verratti was imperious. The youngster completed 82 percent of his 78 passes and was again the only player who didn't score a goal whose name was chanted. Last night the rest of Europe saw what everyone from Pescara to Paris already knew. The kid is the real deal.

After a few false starts, the team is starting to find its feet. The subtle tactical switch of playing Menez at the point of attack with Ibrahimovic dropping deeper, playing almost as a creative midfielder, has confused defenses in PSG’s last two matches. The main beneficiary so far has been Javier Pastore, who scored in his second consecutive match when he netted PSG’s fourth goal in stoppage time. Pastore now seems to have little responsibility beyond running onto through balls and pressuring opponents high up the field, and the freedom has brought some flashes of his form last season, when he scored 13 goals. The introduction of Thiago Silva brought calm to the defense. Silva is comfortable on the ball and a good distributer when PSG switches from defense to attack.

The biggest blotch on the night wasn’t Kiev’s goal but that Mamadou Sakho, who was a starter in every other match this season, did not play. Sakho revealed earlier this week that his cell phone ringtone and the sound of his alarm clock is the Champions League anthem, but a thigh injury kept him on the sideline last night. With Silva and Alex’s performance last night, it’s hard to see him forcing his way back into the side when healthy. If there was disappointment with Sakho’s absence, you couldn’t tell by listening to the crowd. It was pure joy. This is what the Qatari money has brought to Paris: Champions League football and a fan base that’s been hungry for it. When I got off the train at Saint-Augustin, the boys in the blacked-out train car chanted "À la prochaine, à la prochaine, à la à la à la prochaine." See you next time.

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The Designated Player: Thierry Henry's Internal Monologue

By: timbersfan, 11:55 PM GMT on September 19, 2012

Forget Opta chalkboards, Adidas MiCoach sensors, and electronic goal line monitoring — as technological innovations coming to U.S. soccer go, this is the big one. At a secret Manhattan launch event last Tuesday night, held for a select group of journalists (one), a series of mind-blowing demos took place. And while the ability to animate Clint Dempsey’s face via Kinect proved a fun diversion, there was no doubt what the main attraction was — the live feed of Thierry Henry’s inner monologue.

I was thrilled to see this. Not for reasons of prurience — and given that the five official minutes of the demo were devoted to a carefully selected period when the New York superstar was staring at his fish tank plans, there wasn’t much danger of him straying into dangerous territory anyway. But Henry is such a fantastic jumble of cultural reference points — as a fierce competitor, he not only plays hard on the field, but cannot bear the thought that someone, somewhere, might be better at living in the city he currently occupies. To access his thoughts is to not only see a philosopher genius of the sport, but a gazetteer of the cultural life of the city. With this public service in mind, I only felt half bad about stealing the password (“arseneknows247”) and using it during Henry’s diva-like performance against Columbus last Saturday — when not only was he in irresistible form, he was full of insights into his team and adopted home.

Warning: The feed is slightly erratic, and occasionally Henry actually lowers his thoughts beyond audible level to mess with his own mind, or lapses into Cockney/French rhyming slang — in those cases I’ve made the best possible guess at what he’s saying, but inaccuracies may have crept in. Also, certain sections, such as a long crossed-wire internal discourse on Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, which Henry attributes to Afrika Bambaataa, have been erased for reasons of accuracy/relevance. For what it’s worth, Henry was wandering back from offside at the time he was pondering this.

With those caveats — and the fact that this technology is in very early beta stage — in mind, I give you the Henry files, Part 1 …

The teams emerge from the tunnel. Henry pretends not to care, but is sure to arrive at the field slightly before everyone else. His thoughts gradually settle on the game:

Montage, montage, montage, silly rock music ... zeeeeeeeee ... c'mon, to me, now ... and we're walking, out of the tunnel, and again, the turf. The child in front of me is too slow. But I can't carry him. What am I supposed to do? It's like I've been saying, if it's grass, cut it. I point him to the children in front of the visitors: "These are good mascots — we must respect them." The child cries harder, but that is the standard we must reach. I look over to Rafa, the one who understands, but he is picking the pocket of the assistant referee. I catch his eye ... ooooooooeeeeee ...
(It is never quite clear whether certain noises originate with Henry or can be put down to electronic interference — I have included them when unsure.)

In the second minute, a lobbed pass finds Henry. He stays on balance, taking a rather tame shot on target, though it is saved easily by Andy Gruenebaum in the Columbus goal. A moment later Columbus take the lead as Arrieta goes past Connor Lade at right back and sends a cutback across goal for Mirosevic to convert.


Ah, my old friend, drop for me, drop for me ... Yellow inches into my peripheral vision as Marshall turns slowly after me. “Chad” — I have now met a Chad. This is America. I remember the reverie well — December, 2000, as the fifth goal against Newcastle went in. My mind was still in Florida with chads — dimpled, hanging ... would I ever immerse myself in this place? Yellow awakens me again. Marshall turns upfield. Gruenebaum is down holding the ball. Merde. It has happened again. How did a goal not occur? I must regard the turf in doubt.

Now the yellow shirts drift away from me as I stroll back upfield. They are a team I admire and respect. Barbasol has been around for 90 years — tradition and passion. I may be with Gillette, but you can still look at other smooth shaves to appreciate. Keep up with the world game. Now look, they have scored — see! We have made things hard on ourselves. I say ourselves not myself — there is no "Je" in team, though there is an "I" in equippe ... I watch the one who looks like "Stone Cold" Steve Austin pick the ball out of the net. Yes, I know this! I had Mickey Rourke (Mickey Rourke!) walk me along the boardwalk of Asbury Park to explain the wrestling and sometimes now I have Lindpere dive from the crossbar onto Holgersson in training, like an Estonian Triple Etch. It builds the team. As for the goal, I feel nothing. McCarty scurries back to get the ball on the spot quickly — I am impressed? No. He enters my zone and he whispers to me that that is Mirosevic's third goal of the season and Arrieta's third assist. I nod curtly to show him I know this, glance at Higuain on the Crew bench, and send the redheaded one to research all such siblings in American soccer.
Henry is playing off the shoulder of the last defender a lot in this game, rather than dropping deep as he sometimes does. In the ninth minute Rafa Marquez sends a long ball over the top that Henry traps first time and pokes home past Gruenebaum to level the scores.


Find the game. Find the game. Yes, but it's like I've been telling you all year, I have the game, but where do you keep it? You look at how the Heat won last year — did LeBron stay in the air? No. You must pound on the court and touch the wood. That's why I drop deep — to touch, to feel my roots. Today, though, the one they call Gaven is running around in that area, wild-eyed and possibly mildly rabid — he reminds me of the covers of the Woodstock-era bootlegs of The Band that David Seaman used to play me forever at Arsenal. His beard is an affront to his sponsor. Mine, too, perhaps, but I have a frame for my thoughts. I leave him to mercies of the Australian, who is bounding round the middle at random, strewth-ing into things. Ah. NOW! NOW! Rafa is pausing by the halfway line with the ball — I know this look. I first saw it in our Barça days, when Puyol sullied his fragrance launch in Sitges. A mix of recognition and contempt. I cannot get involved, but NOW! NOW! I leave Marshall to his dreams of milk, and the pass arrives. Boff! Goal. Yet I am off-balance to celebrate. Ach! Sensing my despair, the others leave me be, but for McCarty, who scampers up to me weeping in relief. Hush, little one ...
New York continue to press in the first half, though the next good chance is a free header for the Crew’s Marshall, just a few minutes after the goal, as New York defend a free kick using a wall consisting of the diminutive Connor Lade.

Marshall's header goes over — he is strangely magnificent, though, like an ox before felling. I feel the awe I always feel in the presence of authenticity — one I feel alone. My first day in New York I had the Ream boy over to Soho to wire my apartment from the lamppost, in tribute to Kool Herc. Ream was ... stoic, to be fair. I still see his face talking to the cop. So solemn. Ha. New York City cops. Cagney. Lacey. Wheeeee ... Look at Connor leap to be the wall. I am proud of him. You can see Mirosevic wonder if he is far away or small. The Columbus player jogs back up the field confused by this depth-of-field question and the Australian runs into him hard — “Love tap, mate,” he grins. In London he would have served me my Carling.
Shortly afterward, an Henry run creates a half-chance for his strike partner Kenny Cooper.


Now Cooper is running. This should be magnificent, but isn't. I step back and he barrels sightlessly past ... to where? What goes on with him? So large, so gentle, so strange. If the game is a newspaper, he folds it into a hat. The ball arcs over from deep again and I run. The angle is acute but I cut across the goal and Cooper's unsubtle shot is cleared from the line. My angle to reach him for the pass was narrower than my angle to goal, but I chose to share, to educate, to grow the game here. Another slow trudge upfield. I remember to wince.
The game is 1-1 at halftime.

I let the Swede speak. “In a way ... In a way ... ” — it is like I have been telling him all year, if there is a way, we would find it. McCarty is in the corner setting my TiVo for Boardwalk Empire, then switching to Twitter when he thinks I'm not looking. Pearce is preening discreetly — I remember his first night in New York. I took him to the site where the Mercer Hotel had stood, grabbed him by both shoulders and told him the Dolls played there. I introduced him to Fab Five Freddie and we lamented the decline of the East Village. Pearce wanted to know “where the laydeez were at.” We left him near an NYU dorm. Arriviste. Now Conde has him in a headlock and is demanding money. I pretend not to see from under my towel. The game is there to be won, but we must respect Columbus — not literally, of course, but there is much to be learned from teams of their genre. The Australian is talking about “the MLS” in the corner. I look up to fix him with a steely glare — “THERE IS NO DEFINITE ARTICLE.” “No worries, mate,” he chirps, before returning to talk of “running through walls for this team.” Later I will stand in the middle of the field, place my hands on my hips, and look to the heavens — I will be thinking of this moment. I am trying to grow the game here.
The game remains deadlocked until 10 minutes from the end, when an Henry shot is tipped over by an amazing save by Gruenebaum.


Le Toux has arrived on the field — strange to think of us sharing a heritage — perhaps we saw the same VHS of Angel Heart once, but his passing is alien to me. Here comes one now. Too sharp, too accurate. I translate it pointedly, from right foot to left, and breathe, envision, and place ... NON! Gruenebaum’s touch is good — onto the bar and away. NON! I summon despair, dismiss it again, and jog to the corner flag. I need to be alone ...

... I send the corner in with disconsolate accuracy after my miss. Sure — accuracy, but if there are no results, what are we doing here? McCarty has been agitating to be allowed in the box at corners and I wordlessly watch the ball fly off his head and in. So. He races away with a joy I find touching. He is not thinking of the 2015 season when I am gone. Am I the only one seeing the bigger picture? When I summoned Gandolfini and made him tell what happened when The Sopranos faded to black, did I accept his first answer? No. A long night, but we got there. So it is here. The bench cavorts at this instance. I ask what it means. Gruenebaum is hurt and I walk over to tell him that "Columbus Crew Stadium is a soccer-specific stadium in Columbus, Ohio, and the home stadium of Major League Soccer club Columbus Crew. Built in 1999, Crew Stadium was the first soccer-specific stadium built for a professional soccer team in the second pro era of American soccer. The stadium currently seats 20,145." He seems to appreciate it.
With the Gruenebaum injury delay adding nine minutes of stoppage time, the game is still tense going into time added on. In the 93rd minute New York win a corner and Henry, seeing the substitute keeper has come too far forward and off his line, boldly banks a direct shot off the back post and in for a beautifully taken Olímpico goal.


Sadly for scholars looking to verify Henry’s intentions to score direct from the corner, at this point the feed becomes very scrambled and distorted, though it is possible to make out heated references to Wayne Woodrow “Woody” Hayes, Rascal Flatts, and sundry other onetime Columbus residents who’ve made it as far as Wikipedia, along with the phrases “I see you Jack Nicklaus” and “Wendy’s restaurants, can you hear me, Wendy’s restaurants? Your boys took one hell of a beating!” All the while Henry is pointing at his eyes — possibly indicating some overheating of the monitoring technology behind them.

In the moments after the goal, as the game drifts to a close, Henry can be seen with his back to the field on the right wing. He appears to have calmed down, but he also appears to be conspicuously ignoring the play behind him. A last fragment comes through:

What can you do? I have been saying this the whole time. Yes, I meant it, but that is the paradox — not much means much. It’s a goal but it’s also a story. I said so to Junot Diaz ...I did not “say” it, but c’mon, this is New York. When you know, you know. Are we still here? Kurtis Blow the whistle already ... It’s a joke, but at the same time we’re a point behind the Fire and two behind Sporting. Still, there’s pleasure in the win until I glance at the Columbus bench. Coach Warzycha has paired tan slacks with a black-and-yellow polo shirt — this confuses the hell out of me, and angers me as something I cannot know the origin of. Truly this country is vast and incomprehensible, but I have a thirst to learn. Together we will grow.
At this point, I swear I see Henry look right at me in the press box and tilt his chin in my direction. I hear a single solitary “fin,” and the feed cuts out for good. He winks and jogs up the tunnel to whisper his postgame interviews. I may have been played.

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The Tao of Gronk

By: timbersfan, 11:54 PM GMT on September 19, 2012

In sports, there's a way to be rich and famous that makes you want to stay poor and unknown. Ricky Williams has that. So do Chad Ochocinco, Terrell Owens, Michael Vick, and Ben Roethlisberger: this sense that the money and the celebrity and all their trappings (the drugs, the women, the spending, the access to reality-television producers) are just inducements to misery. It all sounds like so much fun. People tweet about you. The lucrative endorsements pile up. Maybe you date a Kardashian or present Best Kiss while onstage in the midst of a Rihanna–Jessica Biel sandwich. But watching it at home, fun isn't what you feel. It's stress. The success is heavy. It's expensive.

On the other hand, there are guys who just can't believe it. I mean, they just can't. They're rich and famous and playing record-breaking football on a team that rarely loses. They're young. They're popular. They're living the dream. These are guys like Rob Gronkowski, the scalably tall, unstoppably exuberant 23-year-old New England Patriots tight end. In July, Gronkowski, his brother Gordie, and some friends made human wheelbarrows on the red carpet at the ESPY Awards. Rob dropped a People's Elbow on Gordie. According to this site's editor-in-chief, Bill Simmons, he then led a moment of group urination — "crossies" — in a men's room stall, sprinted up a down escalator, and went wild with excitement when told he was, indeed, at an establishment that tolerates shirtless partying.

The whole evening might have been a stunt. But "stunt" isn't what you feel with Rob Gronkowski. Brian Wilson showing up to 2011's ESPYs in a spandex bodysuit made to look like a tuxedo — that's a stunt, as amazing as it was. With Gronkowski, those metrics of intentionality don't mean anything. This is who he is. Another player, at this point, might inspire people to come forward with accusations of harassment. We'd hear tales of disrepute, wantonness, and profligacy. There'd be dirt. That, of course, is Gronkowski's singular feat. He's an ass, not an asshole; a drinker, not a drunk. He became a star last year because there's an enticing innocence to the naked photos and horseplay and group urinating. He appears to live life like a Nickelback cover of "Call Me Maybe."


ALLEN BEREZOVSKY/GETTY IMAGES
The NFL is long on stars, ones with problems and without. But Gronkowski is the only one who seems genuinely beside himself. Success hasn't gone to his head. It's gone to his arms and his pecs and his calves and his Twitter account. It's gone to his party budget. He set NFL tight end records last year for receiving touchdowns, touchdowns, and receiving yards. These are achievements people watch in awe, yes. But you also watch Gronk stalk into the end zone and spike the football with hilarious too-muchness, and think about the way, in a teen comedy, the quarterback's friend would hurl a keg or destroy a kitchen.

Isn't that also part of what's to be loved about Gronkowski? In the NFL, he's singular. In culture, he's a type. We call him "Gronk," the way we call Seann William Scott "Stifler" or the WWE's Mike Mizanin "The Miz." He should seem scarier, rapey-er, frattier, loonier, cartoonier than he does. He's like some of his forebears — Brian Bosworth and Jeremy Shockey, for instance — but minus the polarizing cockiness and behavioral extremity. It's just hard to beware a guy who does a human wheelbarrow in a suit on his way into an awards show. You don't see menace in those eyes. You see "TGIF." You see the dude who brought Spuds MacKenzie to the party boat.

Despite his size, Gronkowski presents no threat. When he poses for the cover of ESPN The Magazine's body issue wearing a pair of enormous foam fists, it's entirely possible to see the fists and never once think about any other anatomical correlation between the size of a man's hands and the size of what's in his jock strap. It would be entirely impossible to see, say, Vernon Davis, a tight end for the 49ers, and do the same. That owes more to how we perceive a strapping naked white guy versus how we perceive a strapping naked black one. But with Gronkowski, some of the reason for his fame is that he's unloaded. There's no baggage. He's just a guy, one with freakish athleticism, sure. But off the field, the freak could also be in your pledge class. A lot of elite stars in the NFL are men you aspire to be (Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, to name two). Others are men you already are. For young guys and guys who remember being young, Gronkowski is one of the latter. He's actually the ultimate example of those men.

He doesn't seem vain or overly concerned with his appearance. He's not insanely muscled or "manscaped." At some point last year, he played in a Mohawk that looked cut by a Weed Whacker. I've never seen him in clothes that suggest a style greater than "I hear these make me look civilized." He doesn't have an image to promote or protect. He seems … free.

For now. During the summer, the Boston Globe reported that the Patriots management rebuked Gronkowski. It seems they want the carousing and nudity and fun to end. It's unsurprising. Robert Kraft and Bill Belichick run the sort of tight ship for which someone whose nationally known nickname sounds like an energy drink, a death metal sub-sub-genre, and an urban dance craze ("Kids. They're Gronking!") can, himself, seem mutinous. Was Gronkowski's jock-jam summer a distraction or the sort of positive exclamation of individualism a place like New England needs? I don't know that regulation is called for, even if it will further enhance his play, if he'll abide it. The season is young, so we'll see. But Gronkowski strikes me as the sort of caged bird that won't sing.

Before the front-office wrist slap, Gronkowski could be the kind of star he is because his personality doesn't appear to cost him anything. Men like Tim Tebow or Sanchez or Michael Vick don't have the luxury of being as naturally "wow" as Gronkowski is. Their attempts at being carefree would smack of being careless. Gronkowski isn't carrying a franchise or a region on his shoulders. He isn't bearing the burdensome self-consciousness of blackness. If nothing else, his behavior is an exclamatory rejection of heaviness and expectation, of those stupid, oppressive, and undying social institutions that he had nothing to do with creating or fostering and doesn't want to uphold. He signifies certain privileges of whiteness — casual public nudity, being nationally celebrated for acting like a fool — without embracing them. Really, his race is just fun.

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The End of the Locker Room Omertà

By: timbersfan, 11:53 PM GMT on September 19, 2012

Scene: In Vegas, around the hour the craps tables are filling with fresh meat, a boxing trainer sits in a gym. He picks his front teeth. When his phone rings, he knows it's his young champion — actually, a member of the champ's entourage — telling him there will be no training tonight. You catch a look on the trainer's face. The look says his fighter is going to get his head knocked in, and the trainer might not even mind.

Scene: It was Ozzie Guillen's eyes that betrayed him. Normally his eyes are almost dead, even when Ozzie's saluting Castro. But when Ozzie heard the team president say the word "suspend," he squeezed them shut. When he heard "five games," his eyes got as big as home plate.

Scene: "I wish it was different." The wide receiver said nothing. "It's not good news." Still nothing. "I'm certain you can overcome this thing." At that moment, Chad Johnson had two problems. He'd lost his job. And his greatest weapon, his language, had been put on the PUP list.

Not bad, huh? Wish I'd written that stuff. It all comes from reality TV: from HBO's 24/7 and Hard Knocks series, and Showtime's The Franchise. I take no pleasure in being the schmuck writer who points out that TV sports documentaries — also called "vérité sports" — have gotten really good. And not just good, but observant. TV is recording the small, telling details of an athlete's life, capturing noisy moments and quiet moments, doing the delicate labor that sportswriters — if properly motivated — pride themselves on doing. So on behalf of writerdom, I ask: What the hell is going on?

When sports television roared to life in the 1950s and '60s, print reporters regarded microphone-toters as their idiot cousins. TV fussed over winners; TV made a devil's pact with leagues by paying rights fees; TV accepted a sound bite in lieu of real insight. "If television ever grows up to the point where it asks adult questions of the competitors," sportswriter Leonard Shecter wrote in 1969, "there will be no function left for the newspapers but to enshrine what has already been said on television."

Sports television wasn't always so dumb. There was Howard Cosell, NFL Films, Roy Firestone and his tearjerkers, Outside the Lines and Real Sports, and a murderer's row of word whizzes that ran from Red Barber to Marv Albert. But what the TV crews didn't do — at least off the field — was play small ball. Gay Talese followed Floyd Patterson after a loss to Sonny Liston and recorded the details of his deflation; television producers would have plopped Patterson in a chair and hoped he'd cry.

Within a few decades, sports TV began to show signs of real curiosity. In 1982, a director named Mike Tollin embedded with Rickey Henderson during his 130-steal season. "There was no such thing as reality television," Tollin says now. "It was under the aegis of documentary filmmaking, which sounded safer and less threatening." The Henderson show never found a buyer, but Tollin went all-access again three years later with the Tampa Bay Bandits of the USFL. His film, The Final Season, had elements we associate with the new TV sports docs: Tollin filmed Bandits owner John Bassett's cancer treatments. Steve Spurrier, then the Bandits' coach, got so fed up with the cameras that he took to leaving his wireless microphone in the bathroom. So Tollin and his producers attached a mic to the shoulder pads of Tampa Bay's third-string quarterback, who stood close enough to the Old Ball Coach to capture his every word.1

It wasn't until in the 1990s, when reality TV became a thing, that producers could sell cable networks on sports series. The Osbournes begat Joe Philbin. But the new sports docs — which also include ESPN's 30 for 30, NBA TV's The Association, Fox's Being: Liverpool, HBO's On Freddie Roach, and various promos from the UFC — tend to be, with few exceptions, Very Serious in Tone. They're studies of a working life: one that's doomed to end in injury, trade, or lack of talent. It's no wonder the narrators (Liev Schreiber on Hard Knocks, Clive Owen on Being: Liverpool) go John Facenda rather than Chris Harrison.

The key question — "How do they get great stuff?" — has a simple answer. The producers are in business with the leagues. The NBA produces The Association and airs it on NBA TV. NFL Films' Ken Rodgers, who has been the supervising producer of the last six seasons of Hard Knocks, says, "We talk with teams right away as a company, a fellow company of the NFL."

Similarly, when Mike Tollin was dreaming up The Franchise with Showtime executive David Nevins, they decided they needed to partner with Major League Baseball. It not only solved the problem of acquiring footage, but it put nervous players at ease. Danny Field, a field producer on The Franchise, says, "I come in almost every day with an MLB production hat, the same logo that's on the back of their hat."

Producers realized athletes, like actors, let their guard down when they've got something to sell. So on 24/7, Julio César Chávez Jr. parades around in pink bikini underwear in hopes that this will get viewers to buy his pay-per-view fight. The Miami Marlins wave in The Franchise's cameras as they begin play in a new stadium with nearly $200 million in new contracts — even though the show, as it turns out, will document the roster's dismantling.

A sportswriter might sniff at such a partnership. But the docs have reset the rules of covering athletes. Jim Bouton would have been exiled to Canada for revealing the kinds of things that are typical on any one episode of Hard Knocks and 24/7. This is an era in which a players-only meeting includes players and TV cameras.

Watching Chad Johnson get cut on Hard Knocks almost felt like trespassing. Roster moves are usually entombed in cliché. (After meeting with Johnson, coach Joe Philbin droned to the local media, "With any type of these decisions, it was not an easy one.") But here we were in the room and on Philbin's couch — and from a writerly perspective, at last realizing Shecter's prediction about merely transcribing what we saw on TV. The access was so complete it was nearly immoral.

But with Hard Knocks, moral questions were settled before training camp even started. The NFL Films crew had gotten the OK to film anything and everything. When Philbin showed Johnson into his office, producers didn't need to ask either man for permission. They merely activated a robotically controlled camera that had been mounted in Philbin's office for weeks.

When Miami closer Heath Bell confronted Ozzie Guillen on The Franchise, camera guys were already in his office, bullshitting with the manager. Bell was so eager to get something off his chest, producer Danny Field reports, that he ignored the film crew and launched into his complaint.2

Both The Franchise and Hard Knocks allow their subjects to watch rough cuts of each episode. But producers say management usually uses its removal rights only on stuff that affects competitive balance: coaching signals, play diagrams, etc. (The Houston Texans' J.J. Watt, who had 1.5 sacks against the Dolphins in Week 1, said Hard Knocks helped him learn Miami's snap counts.)

This is telling, because it suggests that while what we're seeing is private in the Ball Four sense, it's not exactly a trade secret. "It's not like we're going to give the ingredients that go into Pepsi and have the people from Coke watching," says Miami Marlins president David Samson, who became a major character on The Franchise.

Both producers and subjects insist TV sports docs are real. "We never staged anything," Samson tells me. "We never had a moment and said, 'That moment was great, let's get the cameras in here and do it again.'" But as Tollin, The Franchise's executive producer, puts it: "If you know two guys are having an issue and it's probably going to come to a head and they're probably going to talk about it … is it OK to suggest they might talk in this place at this time where the camera might be? My answer would be 'yes.'" In a conventional reality TV show, a producer might say, "Go confront your momager." In sports reality TV, a producer might say, "If you're going to confront your manager, could you do it around 4 p.m. and let us come along?"

The portraits that emerge from these shows — of Johnson and Samson and Chavez Jr. — are fairly complicated. Or, you might say, withering. In either case, they're the most complicated/withering portraits that sports teams have ever signed off on.

So what happened? "I think a lot of it is the 21st century kicking in," says Field. In the era of fantasy sports and endless trade rumors, we're fascinated about how teams are put together. So why not show the Marlins brass talking about their veterans "crapping the bed"? The comparable literary account is Michael Lewis sitting in with the A's scouts in Moneyball.

The other part of the 21st century that kicked in: We have now seen Brett Favre's non-tumescent penis on the Internet. Thinking of the clubhouse as the Kremlin is ludicrous. Better for an athlete to reveal his flaws and, with an assist from producers, craft a warts-and-all portrait that will actually charm fans.

That's what so striking — and, for me, jealousy-inducing — about shows like Hard Knocks and The Franchise. The leagues have finally realized that players are more appealing when they have problems with their bosses, when they get fired, when they wander around in pink underwear — when they show the world that the guy underneath the jersey is a fuck-up just like the rest of us. To which a sportswriter, trying to peek inside the clubhouse without a robotic camera, might add: This is what we've been saying all along

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acok recap

By: timbersfan, 8:50 AM GMT on September 15, 2012

The novel spans mostof the year 299 After the Landing.

In the Seven Kingdoms

The civil war in the Seven Kingdoms complicates further when the Greyjoys make their entrance. Robb Stark's attempts to secure an alliance with the Greyjoys are rebuffed and answered with a massive assault along the west coast of the North. Ironborn raiders seize control of Moat Cailin, Torrhen's Square and Deepwood Motte, whilst raiding the Stony Shore.

At Winterfell, Bran Stark is left in charge of the castle and begins suffering from strange dreams.He finds two new friends when Jojen and Meera Reed, children of Eddard Stark's close friend Lord Howland, arrive from Greywater Watch and take an interest in his dreams.

Meanwhile, Stannis Baratheon declares himselfKingof Westeros with the support ofthe lords ofthe Narrow Sea and Melisandre, a red priestess of the eastern god R'hllor. Enraged when his brother Renly also makes a claim for the throne, Stannis chooses to besiege his own home castleof Storm's End to force Renly to march east and treatwithhim. Catelyn Stark, who has journeyed south to discuss a possible alliance against the Lannisters, also accompanies Renly. The ensuing parley ends in acrimony and Renly resolves to destroy his brother with his larger army. However, withoutwarning a mysteriousshadow comes to life in Renly's own tent andkills him. Shocked,Catelynand the only otherwitness,the warrior-maid Brienne ofTarth, flee the scene. Having lost Renly, the StormLords have no choice but to declare for Stannis. Storm's End itself only falls, however, when Stannis' loyal Ser Davos (a former smuggler) sneaks Melisandre below the castle in a small boat. To his horror,Melisandre 'gives birth' toa 'shadow' which enters Storm's Endandslaysits stubborn castellan.

In King's Landing, Tyrion Lannister arrives to act as Hand in Lord Tywin's stead. Whilst intriguing against his sister Cersei, Tyrion improves the city's defenses.Learning of Renly's death, Tyrion resolves on two courses of action. Knowing that the Tyrells will not be happy following Stannis, he decides to make them a betteroffer. He also resolves to bring the Martells of Dorne into the waronhis side.He sends Littlefinger to treatwiththe Tyrells andsends other messengers to Dorne. He wins Littlefinger's support by promising to make him the Lord of Harrenhal. The negotiations are solidified by marriage arrangements. Lord Mace Tyrell agrees to wed his daughter Margaery to King Joffrey, whilst Prince Doran Martell agrees to marry his son Trystane to Joffrey's sister Myrcella.

Theon Greyjoy leads a small force of ironmen north and captures Winterfell, taking Bran and Rickon Stark captive. Theon's sister Asha suggests he raze the castle and flee before othernorthmenarrive toreclaim it, but Theon petulantly tries to hold ontohis newcastle. Eventuallya strong force of northmenarrive anddiscoverwhat appear to be the corpses of Bran and Rickon Stark. However, as the disgusted besiegers begin to mount theirassault on Winterfell, the contingentof House Bolton, led by Lord Roose Bolton's bastard son Ramsay Snow, turn on the other northmen and drive them off. Theon eagerly opens the gates to his new 'allies', only to be betrayed and taken captive. Winterfell is burned and the Boltons return tothe Dreadfort. Shortly after, Bran and Rickon emerge from hiding, unharmed and decide to split up. Osha, a wildling woman serving in Winterfell, agrees to take Rickon to safety, whilst Bran and the Reeds travelnorth to the Wall.

Robb Stark leads his northern army into the Westerlands and emerges victorious from a numberofbattlesagainst Lannister forces, winning a battle at Oxcross and storming Ashemark and the Crag. Tywin reluctantly emerges from Harrenhal and attempts topassthe fordsnearRiverrun, where he is stopped by Edmure Tully, Catelyn's brother and the infirm Lord Hoster's heir. Although thisprevents the Lannisters from falling on Robb's rear, it allows them to rapidly march south to join their new allies, the Tyrells.

Arya Stark, posing as a boy named Arry,is takennorthby Yoren as a new recruit for the Night'sWatch. However, they are attacked by Lannister freeriders led by Ser AmoryLorch and Yoren is killed on the shores of Gods Eye. Arya escapes, along with Gendry, Hot Pie, and LommyGreenhands, and in the process saves the lives of Jaqen H'ghar, Rorge, and Biter, three criminals Yoren was bringing to the Wall,who run off on their own.Shortlyafter,Arya, Gendry,andHot Pie are capturedbymenunderthe command of Gregor Clegane; Lommy, whowas wounded, is killed. Theyare taken to Harrenhal and put to work as servants in the undermanned castle.

Whilst Arya poses as a servant at Harrenhal, going by the name "Weasel", H'ghar, Rorge, and Biter reappear as members of the Brave Companions. Forsaving his life during the attack,H'gharpromises torepayAryabykilling three men of her choice. Forher three choices,Aryaselects Chiswyck, a soldier in Gregor Clegane's forces, Weese, her servant overseer, and Jaqen H'ghar himself. The first two murders he carries out withoutquestion;inlieu ofthe third choice, Arya leverages H'ghar to help her slay the Lannister soldiers guarding RobettGlover, who had been taken prisoner by the Brave Companions.AfterGloveris freed,the Brave Companions turn theircloaks andjoinwiththe North. Control of Harrenhalis cededto RooseBolton, whom Arya serves as cupbearer.

H'ghar gives gives Arya a mysteriousiron coin andtells her to find him in Braavos if she should ever desire to learn his secrets. He then adopts a newidentityandleaves. Bolton executes Lorch inthe castle's bearpit andorders a Northern foot army to advance on Duskendale to threaten King's Landing from the north, informing them that the orders come directly from Robb Stark. Arya kills one of Roose's guards and escapes HarrenhalwithGendry andHot Pie.

Stannis Baratheon'sarmyreaches King's Landing and a combined assault is launched by bothland andsea.Tyrion traps the Baratheon fleetinthe mouth ofthe Blackwater Rush with a huge chain and destroys Stannis' fleet by detonating barrels of wildfire on nearby ships. Despite heavy losses, some of Stannis' men establish a foothold on the north shore until a brave sally led by Tyrion dislodges them. Tyrion is nearly killed when he is betrayed by one of the Kingsguard, Ser MandonMoore, but is saved by his squire, Podrick Payne. The battle ends when Stannis is unexpectedly flanked by Tywin and the Tyrells and barely manages to escape with a few thousand soldiers anda handful of ships.

In Riverrun, Catelyn's grieves over the supposed death of her sons, Rickon and Bran.While questioning the captive Jaime Lannister, she reaches for a sword and...

On the Wall

The Night's Watch advances northwards from the Wall into the Haunted Forest. They stop at Craster's Keep, wherea wildling man named Craster serves as an informant for the Watch. They continue north and make campat a ruined fortress known as the Fist of the First Men, which serves as a strong defensive position.Concerned aboutthe whereabouts and activities of the King-beyond-the-Wall Mance Rayder, Lord CommanderJeorMormont sends Jon Snow and Qhorin Halfhand on a reconnaissance mission through the Skirling Pass.

In the pass, Snow and Halfhand discover much wildling activity in the mountains. However, theyare cornered and Halfhand commands Snow to infiltrate the wildlings by pretending to betraythe Watch. In order to convince the wildlings, Snow is forced to kill Halfhand. A wildling girl named Ygritte, agrees to speak on Jon's behalf to Mance Rayder, who is advancing on the Wall with an army in the tens of thousands.

In the East

Despite her three infantdragons, DaenerysTargaryen's followers have been much reduced.The vast Dothrakiarmy formerly commanded by her husband, Khal Drogo, has broken into individual factions and she is left with only her bloodriders, Ser Jorah Mormont, and a hundredorso others. Nevertheless, theyproclaimher the 'Mother-of-Dragons' and 'the Unburnt' andswear tofollow her.

Daenerys strikes east across the forbidding Red Waste and loses many of her followers to the harsh conditions before stumbling uponthe ancient,abandoned cityof Vaes Tolorro. They find clean water and fruit and enjoy a much-needed respite. Daenerys' bloodriders scoutthe surroundingregion and find a safe route to the great trading cityof Qarth on the Jade Sea. The Qartheen dote on Daenerysandher dragons, but her attempts tosecure help claiming the throne of Westeros do not succeed. She goes to the House of the Undying to form an alliance with its powerful warlocks, but instead she is shown confusinganddisturbing images. Her dragon Drogon burns down the House ofthe Undying, sparkingthe enmityofthe Qartheen and encouraging Daenerys to leave the city. An assassin hired by the warlocks attempts tokill Daenerysinthe city's harbor, but it is thwarted by the arrival of two strangers: a fat warrior named Strong Belwas and his squire, an old but hale warrior named Arstan Whitebeard. They claim to be agents of Illyrio Mopatis, come to take Daenerysbackto Pentos. Daenerysagreestoaccompanythem backtothe Free Cities.

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t-s

By: timbersfan, 12:24 AM GMT on September 15, 2012

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) -- On a day normally reserved for American football, football of the other sort will take a national stage Saturday with a rivalry match between the Seattle Sounders and the Portland Timbers.
The NBC-televised game gives a wide audience a taste of soccer in the Pacific Northwest, with its fervent supporters' groups, the songs and chants, and the choreographed fan ''tifo'' displays in the stands.
And of course there's the match.
Many who happen across the broadcast may not be aware of the game's implications to the teams involved. The outcome could determine the winner of the Cascadia Cup, the annual head-to-head competition between the Sounders, the Timbers and the Vancouver Whitecaps.
It could also send Seattle to the Major League Soccer playoffs.
''As a player these are the games that you always want to be a part of, and when you're done as a player you will always remember,'' Timbers captain Jack Jewsbury said.
The original Cascadia Cup was introduced in 2004 when the Timbers, Whitecaps and Sounders were part of the United Soccer Leagues' first division. Fans pooled their money to buy a 2-foot tall trophy, which went to the team that finishes with the best record in head-to-head matches among the trio, based on a points system.
But the roots of the rivalry between the teams actually date back to 1975, when all three teams played in the North American Soccer League.
Saturday's match will be the first on national network television since 2008, when ABC broadcast the MLS Cup. NBC will also air the matches between New York and Chicago on Oct. 6, and New York at Philadelphia on Oct. 27.
Earlier this season when the Timbers played the Sounders on ESPN, the match drew the third-largest TV audience ever for an MLS regular season game.
''It's big. It's big for the rivalry, it's big for the league. It shows the continued growth of the game and certainly the game in the Northwest,'' Sounders general manager Adrian Hanauer said about the network broadcast. ''Hopefully, a bunch of people that normally might not see it come across it and tune in and see the atmosphere down there. Hopefully, it's a good game and we pick up some more fans.''
MLS Commissioner Don Garber said the match was targeted at the start of the season by the league and NBC on the strength of the rivalry.
''There's a very special situation that exists for Major League Soccer in the Pacific Northwest that's actually over-delivered on our expectations,'' Garber said. ''People in the community have a real love for the game and a real commitment to their favorite teams. That's driven I think by the great history of professional soccer in the Pacific Northwest.''
The match itself is also intriguing because the Timbers would claim the Cascadia title with a victory. That would soften the blow of what has been a difficult season.
Portland (7-14-6) sits in last place in the league's Western Conference and is coming off a 3-0 loss to the Colorado Rapids last week. In July, the Timbers dismissed coach John Spencer, replacing him with GM Gavin Wilkinson for the rest of the year. The team recently announced it has hired University of Akron coach Caleb Porter as its head coach for the 2013 season.
The Sounders (13-6-8) will clinch a playoff spot with a win. They extended their unbeaten streak to four games with a 2-1 victory over Chivas USA last Saturday.
Denying the Timbers the Cascadia Cup seemed the most important task this week.
''I've been fortunate to play in some derby games in Europe, and I knew the expectations in those games. It doesn't matter what you've done all season - we don't perform in this game, we know our fans will kill us, we know the coaching staff wouldn't be too happy,'' Sounders forward Eddie Johnson said. ''This is like our World Cup final, we've got to go in there and approach like this is our MLS Cup this weekend. We want three points and nothing less, because if we don't win, we're out of the Cascadia Cup.''
Fans were already lining up outside of Jeld-Wen Field on Friday afternoon in anticipation of the match.
Still a mystery was the Timbers Army's plan for a tifo. Supporters' groups for the two teams have made it their own competition to out-do each other with the coordinated fan displays.
Last season the Emerald City Supporters set the bar high by unfurling massive banners over the south end of Qwest Field (now CenturyLink Field) proclaiming ''Decades of Dominance'' that depicted former Sounders players and an image of a fist crushing a Timbers logo.
The Timbers Army answered when the Sounders visited with a 17,000-square foot ''King of Clubs'' display covering the north end of Jeld-Wen.
''I've been involved in the rivalry as a player, as a general manager and as a coach,'' Wilkinson said. ''You always want to come out on the right side, and that's having won the game. The Cascadia Cup has always meant a lot to me, it's meant a lot to the fans, and it's one way to salvage the season.''

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After Tottenham transfer, Dempsey can now focus on what's important

By: timbersfan, 12:16 AM GMT on September 15, 2012

KINGSTON, Jamaica -- There's a scene at the end of the fourth season of Breaking Bad, the remarkable TV series about a high school teacher who tries to make it as a meth kingpin, that reminds me of the recent transfer saga involving U.S. soccer star Clint Dempsey. No, it's not an exact comparison -- Dempsey isn't dealing meth; this wasn't life-or-death -- and if you don't want any spoilers you should go read another story.
But in the scene, the formerly unassuming teacher, Walter White, is on the phone with his wife, who's watching a TV news report of a bomb blast at a retirement center, one that has taken out the longstanding kingpin -- who, incidentally, wanted Walter White dead.
"What happened?" asks his wife, who gets a two-word reply.
"I won."
WAHL: PREVIEWING FRIDAY'S U.S.-JAMAICA MATCH
Dempsey could have said the same thing after his high-stakes gamble paid off and he was successful in forcing a $9.5 million transfer from Fulham to Tottenham Hotspur last Friday. The move came down to the last hour on the last day of the transfer window, and it was entirely possible Dempsey wouldn't win, that he'd be forced to stay at Fulham or make a lateral move to another club.
"I just remember calling my wife and my mom and almost wanting to break down in tears because it was a tough time," Dempsey says of the uncertainty. "Going into that last day and night there were still a lot of question marks. It wasn't clear-cut this was going to happen. Some other things came up and you're going through that struggle, which was not fun for anybody. It was difficult for Fulham and for me, not knowing how it's going to end. It's just about having that faith, holding onto hope that something was going to happen that both parties were going to be happy with.
"In the end that was accomplished, but the deal didn't get done until right about 9 p.m., and that was when a fee was agreed. But then you had to look at all the logistics, trying to get to Tottenham's training ground, trying to make sure all the paperwork was through, doing the [physical], signing the contract and having everything sent back before the deadline at 11. Everything was sent through at like 10:58, so you're there, but you're still like, 'Is this official yet?'"
Finally Dempsey heard: Yes, it's official. And all the stress melted. He had become the highest-salaried soccer player in U.S. history, signing a guaranteed three-year contract with a club option on a fourth season.
"It's an opportunity for me to play three more years guaranteed at such a high level and gives you an opportunity to see where you are and if you can make it," says Dempsey, who had the best European season ever by an American in 2011-12, scoring 23 goals in all competitions for Fulham. "For me, it's always been about being able to look myself in the mirror and say, 'You tried your best. You challenged yourself. And you'll be able to die a happy man in the sense of your career, knowing that you were able to see if you could do it or not.'"
Dempsey won. He made a step up to Tottenham, a team that finished fourth in the Premier League last season and is a contender to qualify for next year's Champions League. What's more, he was able to stay in London, though his family will change houses to be closer to the Spurs practice facility and the international school his daughter attends.
And now he can get to focus entirely on soccer again. Dempsey may not start for the U.S. in its World Cup qualifier against Jamaica here on Friday (8 p.m. ET, beIN Sport), not least because he hasn't played a game in nearly three months, but he has been preparing himself as though he could start. "I don't know what my chances are, but I've been working hard," he says. Upon arriving at the U.S. camp in Miami this week, Dempsey was given a VO2 test, wearing a mask and running on a treadmill, and he says U.S. trainers were satisfied with his base-level fitness.
In addition to helping the U.S. as it tries to put a stranglehold on semifinal-round qualifying for World Cup 2014, Dempsey knows that two high-level games and training in hot and humid conditions will help him hit the ground running when he returns to Spurs next week.
Will Dempsey be an immediate starter at Tottenham, or might it take a while? "That's a good question," he says. "You don't know. That's the gamble you take when you make a move to a new team. You don't know where you're going to fit in exactly, you don't know how you're going to gel. The great thing for me is being able to be back in a team environment and be able to work on match fitness."
Dempsey is a hybrid attacking player. In his first conversation with Spurs manager André Villas-Boas, he said he'd be comfortable in any position where he can get the ball on the half-turn and run at defenders. "I'm not someone who really enjoys playing with my back to the goal, like a traditional target striker," he says. "I like either being a withdrawn forward or someone who plays on the left or the right. I'm also not a traditional winger. I'm someone who kind of comes inside and tries to get in those pockets and do a lot of link-up play. You don't really see me taking a player on on the outside and getting a lot of crosses in. That's never really been my style, though it doesn't mean I can't work on those things.
"It'll be interesting to see where I'll fit in, because I don't know what his plans are in that sense. I have to show him where I'm at, obviously, and he'll see what the best fit will be. Any position that I can get into the attack and get goals is what I enjoy. I think a strength of mine is late runs into the box and being able to get on the end of things. We'll just have to wait and see."
Dempsey, who wore No. 23 at Fulham, said he chose to wear No. 2 at Tottenham after he learned other choices were unavailable, including No. 8 (his most common national team number), No. 11 (the number he wore in high school and club soccer) and No. 23 (which he first chose at Fulham because it was Michael Jordan's number).
The number 2 makes sense: It was the first number Dempsey ever wore in kindergarten, as well as in college at Furman and with the New England Revolution. He's had the nickname "Deuce" ever since Nike coined it in his first ad campaign, "Don't Tread on Me," in 2006. In fact, Dempsey says his most prized possession in his house is his No. 2 jersey from kindergarten that his parents framed and inscribed: TO OUR LITTLE MAN WHO KNEW HE COULD. LOVE, MOM AND DAD.
(True story: With the choice of wearing No. 2 or the more symbolic No. 10 as a rookie with the Revolution, Dempsey chose No. 2. "With the Revs at the time, there was talk of the No. 10 not being a lucky number," Dempsey says. "Players on the team who wore it before, things didn't work out for them. It was kind of like the Madden game curse." Curious about which players had worn the No. 10 in New England history, I asked my Twitter followers, and @Retrofuturist00 sent me this link. The not-so-illustrious list includes Beto Naveda, Edwin Gorter, Mario Gori, Mauricio Ramos, the late Câte, Alex Pineda-Chacón and Jorge Vázquez before Dempsey and Edgauras Jankauskas and Rajko Lekic after him. Some curse that is.)
Now that Dempsey has made his move to Spurs, he doesn't have the desire to publicize what went down behind the scenes with Fulham, except for one thing: "I did not refuse to play. There were some things that were said that were not true." Nor does he have any issues with Liverpool, which showed interest in him but didn't value him as highly as Fulham or Spurs did. "I wish them the best," Dempsey says. "It's a team that has a lot of history and a manager who did a great job with Swansea last season. I liked the way they played."
And what of the continued U.S. Soccer trolling by CNN host and Arsenal fan Piers Morgan? Dempsey takes the high road on the tweet Morgan sent to his 2.6 million followers: "Would serve Dempsey right if nobody buys him. Arrogant twerp."
"Everybody has a right to their own opinion," Dempsey says. "The things that matter the most to me are what my family and my friends think of me. Those are the people who are with you through the good times and bad, the people who know who you are as a person, who know what you stand for."
Last Friday night, after the final scrambling had ended and Dempsey had posed for a photograph with his new Spurs shirt, he joined his agents Lyle Yorks and James Skelland for a late celebratory dinner at a London hotel. Stressed and busy, none of them had eaten all day before that. Earlier in the evening, they had raced across London to Spurs Lodge in hopes of closing a last-second deal with a team nobody in the public sphere had thought would sign Dempsey. Now, after weeks of painful uncertainty, it was done.
"It's just nice for it to be over with and know where I'm at," Dempsey says. "It really couldn't have worked out any better. I'm blessed. I feel like God was looking over me. You get spiritual, because you don't have anything else. The situation is out of your control to a certain extent, so you try not to worry about it, but every day you're looking at your phone seeing if you got any calls, any news. You're trying to train as hard as you can so you can be the best you can be for whatever team you're going to play for."
Dempsey won. Now he can be just a soccer player again -- for Tottenham and for the U.S. national team.


Read more: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2012/writers/gran t_wahl/09/06/clint-dempsey-tottenham-usa-jamaica/i ndex.html#ixzz26UcfZ37u

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When Will Jay Cutler Be Cured of Having to Be Jay Cutler?

By: timbersfan, 12:09 AM GMT on September 15, 2012

The dominant narrative surrounding Jay Cutler — to an extent unmatched by any player in the NFL — is that he needs to be fixed. That Jay Cutler is a few small changes away from being the quarterback we want him to be. That there are flaws so patently obvious and easy to fix that one new offensive coordinator or receiver1 or city will do it. Imagine if there were a Jay Cutler who didn't throw four picks in one game! Or one who didn't yell at his teammates when they screwed up! Or one who didn't walk around with that smug look on his face all the time! We lash out at Jay Cutler after his bad games like we're fighting with our significant others. If Jay Cutler would just put the dishes in the dishwasher instead of leaving them in the sink, we'd all have gone to the Super Bowl a long time ago.

Let's turn this question on ourselves, though, because it's going to tell us a lot about how we judge football players irrationally. Why does Jay Cutler have to get fixed? Why can't he just be a pretty good quarterback who delivers one or two terrible games a year? Isn't that good enough?

The problem is that we've somehow convinced ourselves that quarterbacks mill around at one level until they have a notably impressive game or season and establish a permanent new level of play, like they were characters in an RPG. That's nonsense, but we've spent the majority of Jay Cutler's career trying to pinpoint the moment in time when he took that big leap forward. We were sure Cutler had emerged as a franchise quarterback when he won that epic 39-38 game over the division rival Chargers in 2008. We were positive Cutler had taken the leap when he pushed a team whose most notable receiver was Devin Hester to an 11-win season and the NFC Championship Game in 2010. And we were definitely 100 percent onboard with the new Jay Cutler who led his team to a five-game winning streak last year just as he suffered a season-ending thumb injury. We keep telling ourselves that we've found the real Cutler, a guy who has eliminated his old faults and won't go back up the pipe to World 1-1.

The reality is that Cutler has followed up each of those big moments with disappointments, and we've used them as proof that Cutler's really a fraud and that those triumphs weren't actually meaningful after all. That shouldn't be a referendum on Cutler. It should be a referendum on us, the fans who are reading good and bad games as unassailable proof of Cutler's ultimate value as a player when they're really just peaks and valleys. What's true is that those peaks and valleys tend to be more extreme for Cutler than they are for other players, but it's not like Cutler transforms into a different player from one game or season to the next; he's still the same guy. We deride his poor decisions and time spent bumbling around in the pocket when he has games like Thursday night's, but those qualities aren't far removed from the "aggressiveness" and "ability to extend the play" that you hear about Cutler when he's doing well.

Compare Cutler to Brett Favre, for example, and it tells us a lot about why we get down on Cutler. Like Cutler, Favre was prone to awful games in which he'd toss up a bunch of interceptions, get down on his teammates, and generally look like a disaster. Just like with Cutler, we'd project our images of how Favre looked and acted onto our opinions of how he played. Because Favre was emotional and fiery, we saw him as a team leader. Cutler's aloof stoicism and smugness have become the calling card for his critics, despite the fact that his teammates love him.

It's more than that, though. We let Favre get away with those bad games because he won a Super Bowl relatively early in his career, at which point he was free to produce all the stinkers he wanted. You wouldn't be surprised to hear that Favre trails only Drew Bledsoe for most four-interception games since 1990. You know who's tied with Favre, though? Tom Brady, another player who won early in his career and gets insulated from the sort of critiques Cutler suffers from when he plays poorly.2 How viciously would we have excoriated Cutler if he had been the one at the helm of that dismal Patriots loss to the Ravens in the 2009 playoffs? Or the Jets loss in 2010? What if Cutler had been the one who scored 14 points in Super Bowl XLII? Because Brady had already won his Super Bowls and established himself at some higher level of performance, we see those disappointing performances as bad games. If they had been Cutler starts, those would have been career-defining failures.

The one current player who gets treated similarly to Cutler is Tony Romo, which makes for a juicy juxtaposition. At this very moment, we are celebrating Romo for finally getting over the hump and beating the Giants in a nationally televised game.3 We are in the middle of debating whether or not this is a new Tony Romo, a guy who has somehow changed (at age 32) into somebody who can handle the pressure of having every set of eyes on him. I promise you: Nothing has changed about Tony Romo. The difference between the "old Romo" and the "new Romo" amounts to the foot by which he missed Miles Austin on last year's would-be game-winning pass against the Giants in Week 14. A few weeks from now, Tony Romo is going to throw an interception at the wrong time and his team is going to lose. At that same time, it's entirely possible that Jay Cutler will be in the middle of a hot streak for his Bears, and we'll be swapping the titles of "healed" and "sick" that are currently bestowed on Romo and Cutler, respectively.

As fans, we need to let those labels go. Tony Romo is not turning into some drastically different player at 32, nor should he; he's a very good quarterback. Jay Cutler is not going to stop taking risks and holding on to the ball after 2,500 NFL passes, nor should he; he's also a very good NFL quarterback. There is not going to be a game or a season that satisfies any of us that Jay Cutler is fixed until he finishes that event by hoisting the Lombardi Trophy over his head. And if he does that, he's still going to be the same erratic, aggressive Jay Cutler that he is today. Favre was Favre. Brady is Brady. Let's accept that Cutler is going to be Cutler.

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The Mailbag–Week 2 Combo Platter

By: timbersfan, 12:08 AM GMT on September 15, 2012

My readers were dumbfounded when I picked the 2012 Seahawks to make the Super Bowl. By Sunday night, I was equally dumbfounded. Somehow, Seattle couldn't hold a fourth-quarter lead against an ice-cold Kevin Kolb. An ice-cold Kevin Kolb??? I spent Monday and Tuesday regrouping, and by Wednesday, I was ready to start cranking out excuses. (Come on, you knew this was coming — it was a bigger lock than Adrian Grenier being available for the new Entourage movie.) Climb into the Excuse Machine with me, would you?

I thought about using these first three excuses before realizing they were total reaches:

Excuse No. 1: Spending a month in London and immersing myself in the Olympics inadvertently murdered my feel for the 2012 NFL season. That's four weeks without SportsCenter, the NFL Network, sports radio, NFL Live, and USA Today Sports Weekly. That's four weeks of missing out on Skip and Stephen A forcing each other to argue about Tebow. That's four lost weeks of Grantland office arguments — including multiple chances for me to say, "I'm thinking about picking Seattle to make the Super Bowl," followed by Robert Mays recoiling in horror and saying, "Are you on bath salts again?"

Excuse No. 2: In London, they call soccer "football" and get snotty anytime you refer to the NFL or college football as "football." By embracing London and English people in general, that meant I was embracing their definition of "football." Maybe the real football gods took it personally. That means I have to renounce London, deny that I ever considered moving there permanently, stop saying things like "one of my biggest regrets is never studying abroad there," and go back to despising British people and making Revolutionary War jokes. Consider it done.

Excuse No. 3: Had either Doug Baldwin or Braylon Edwards held on to game-winning touchdown passes on totally catchable throws, the Seahawks would be 1-0 and I'd be selling tickets for obstructed seats on the sold-out bandwagon. Even if you might debunk this by saying, "Isn't that a bad sign that your Super Bowl sleeper threw game-deciding passes to Doug Baldwin and Braylon Edwards?," I can pick that argument apart in three words: Yeah, but still.

(This next excuse might have some legs, though … )

Excuse No. 4: We're 14 weeks away from the Mayans being proven wrong about 2012, but one of their less-ballyhooed predictions came true: "In 2012, Bill Simmons will suffer a prolonged and humiliating gambling swoon." A quick recap …

• In August of 2011, I made a Patriots/Super Bowl wager (5-to-1 odds) and eventually ended up with a dream gambling scenario for Super Bowl XLVI — the Patriots being favored by three points, making it impossible for me to lose if I hedged the right amount with the Giants. Did I hedge? Of course not! You can't hedge with your favorite team! But hey, at least the Pats didn't blow the game in the most agonizing way possible.

• In March, I bought my daughter a $20 Stanley Cup ticket for the Kings (15-to-1 odds!) that, of course, she lost during the playoffs. Disappeared in her room. Vanished. The good news — I became the first father in history to console a sobbing 7-year-old girl after she lost a $300 Vegas ticket. Welcome to gambling, sweetie!

• My post-lockout NBA strategy of "Keep going the other way against Miami, they'll eventually choke" couldn't have worked out worse. I lost not once, not twice, not three times … oh, and don't think I didn't have a series bet on the Spurs trouncing Oklahoma City in the Western Conference finals.

• On the B.S. Report, my buddy JackO and I made a Yankees/Red Sox victories wager with the following stakes: The winner gets to pick a framed photograph that the loser HAS to display in his living room for one solid year. That's right, not only did I just endure the single worst Red Sox season of my lifetime, but I'm going to have to spend the winter staring at a framed "CORE FOUR" photo, a giant oil painting of a shirtless Roger Clemens, or even worse, a painting of A-Rod as a centaur. Just shoot me.

• Three weeks ago in Las Vegas, a city that I once considered a friend, I suffered my biggest one-night blackjack/craps shellacking — one of those "You know it's bad when the dealers are apologizing to you" nights. I even came out of retirement and smoked four cigarettes trying to regain my old gambling mojo. Didn't work. Instead of winning my money back, I won three days of bronchitis.

• We should mention that, in the weeks leading up to that Vegas trip, I fully intended to lay serious wood on the Niners for the NFC title, then backed off because of Bill Barnwell's now-infamous "The 49ers will regress!" column, as well as the Las Vegas Hilton's sportsbook manager telling me that an inordinate number of sharps had jumped on San Francisco (dropping their Super Bowl odds dramatically as a result). Well then! I switched my focus to Seattle and Seahawks cult leader Russell Wilson … and the rest was history.

• I tied every Week 1 NFL parlay to the Seahawks, only to be foiled by Kevin Kolb. Did I mention that my entire weekend was foiled by Kevin Kolb? I mentioned that, right?

So why am I carrying such an unlucky stink these days? My convoluted theory: For the past year or so, I've been playing full-court basketball pretty regularly, even though it's the fourth most reckless thing you can do in your early 40s behind smoking heroin, skydiving and dating Lindsay Lohan. I've been on borrowed time for a torn ACL or Achilles for a solid year. Every human being carries a certain amount of luck; it's just a question of how you disperse it (or how the Luck Gods choose to disperse it for you). With me, the Luck Gods clearly decided, "He loves playing basketball so we're giving him this, but NOTHING ELSE."

Even Grantland has been afflicted: During a week that kicked off with my dog crapping all over my house, we lost my Week 1 "Guess the Lines" podcast with Cousin Sal thanks to a hard-drive crash, then 75 percent of Bill Barnwell's mammoth NFL Preview disappeared after his computer was stolen in Boston. Should I sacrifice a live animal to turn things around? Should I douse my laptop in chicken blood? Should I burn the Super Bowl XLII/XLVI Blu-rays and scatter their ashes in the Pacific Ocean? If you have any ideas, e-mail them to us — we might even film a few for Grantland's new YouTube channel.

In the meantime, avoid being swayed by my football picks until I shed this invisible miasma. Oh wait — you always went against me, anyway? My bad. Last night was a great example: I wrote a Triangle post picking the Bears in Lambeau and making the case that Brandon Marshall was their first great receiver. What happened? Marshall totally no-showed the game, surfacing only to drop a wide-open touchdown pass that doubled as the biggest moment of the night (well, other than the 19 picks that Jay Cutler threw). That prompted a reader named Bolu to e-mail me …

"You have an amazing gift this NFL season that needs to be exploited in massive capacities. In your first three NFL pieces, you have been incredibly wrong. You have not just been wrong, you have predicted the direct opposite of what actually happened. Do you think you should just write the opposite of what you are thinking or do you think once you write it, even if its the opposite of what you are thinking the opposite of that will happen therefore what you are thinking actually happens. Last question, what is the over/under of what your readers can make if they go with the inverse of what you predict. Actually if you answer that, the opposite will happen. Ah! Its all confusing."

I agree. My head hurts. Consider this pseudo-mailbag crossed with Week 2 picks as a token of my appreciation during these trying times. As always, these are actual e-mails from actual readers — except for a couple that I clearly made up.

Home Teams in Caps

BENGALS (-7) over Browns

Q: After reading your column predicting various NFL outcomes and ranking quarterbacks, I lost sight in my left eye from the stupidity of your thoughts. I can only hope that God will damn the person who coerced me into following this link to the un-ending colon of hell.
— Brad, Chico

SG: Or, to become a Cleveland fan. There's a decent chance that "The Un-Ending Colon of Hell" will become the DVD title for the 2012 Browns season.

Q: Brandon Weeden got lost underneath an American flag. Can that please be worth some points in the BQBL?
— Brian, Quincy

SG: We're kicking ourselves — we thought we covered every "Bad Quarterback" scenario, never anticipating anyone getting attacked by a flag and then going 12-for-35 with four picks. This should have been worth between 500 and 700 points. And really, earning a reader e-mail like the next one should have been worth an extra 200.

Q: And now, for your reading pleasure, a list of performances that are better than Brandon Weeden's QB rating from Sunday (5.1 out of 158.3, 3.2%)

• Caddyshack II's Rotten Tomatoes rating (8 out of 100)
• Michael Jordan's 1994 Batting Average with the Birmingham Barons (.202)
• Eli Manning's "Man Coverage" rating in Madden 13 (8 out of 99)
• Number of bullets the cow from Me, Myself and Irene survived (9)
• Number of kayaking medals Hungary won in the 2012 Summer Olympics (6)
• Master P's Zombie Shuffle score on Dancing With The Stars (8 out of 30)
• Number of disambiguation entries in Wikipedia for the word "panini" (7)
• Shaq's career 3-point percentage (1 of 22, 4.5%)
• Number of days David Arquette was the WCW World Heavyweight Champion (12)
• Nick Swisher's Swinging Strike Percentage … as a Pitcher (8%)
• And finally, Colt McCoy's worst-ever QB Rating (27.0)
— Travis Marttila, Roseville, MN

SG: Weeden also led Week 1 in the unofficial categories of "Most Passes That Made Any Group of Buddies Watching Football Together Immediately Laugh Out Loud" and "Most Certain You Felt That Someone Was Going to Throw a Game-Ending Pick." Weeden's game-ending pick was so obvious, I was toggling channels, forgot to switch back to the Browns in time, then thought to myself, Crap, we're going to miss Weeden's game-ending pick during those two seconds of darkness before the next DirecTV channel comes up … and, of course, we missed it. You can't rest for a second with Brandon Weeden.

Then again, has there ever been a better match between a QB and an NFL team? In their last 14 games dating back to last season, Cleveland has scored just 14 offensive touchdowns (with four coming in garbage time). In their last 65 games dating back to September 2008, Browns quarterbacks have only thrown for 250 yards or more six times (including just three 300-yard games). Over that same time, they threw under 200 yards 39 times (including 27 times under 150 yards). People joke about Weeden being a ghastly pick; I think he was perfect. If you're going to flame out at quarterback every season, why not find the biggest Duraflame log you can get? I applaud Cleveland's courage and resilience with the Brandon Weeden Era. Sometimes you just have to embrace who you are.

Chiefs (+3) over BILLS

Q: So what's my excuse this season? I can't use the cracked ribs one anymore.
— R. Fitzpatrick, Buffalo, NY

SG: You don't need excuses! You're Ryan Fitzpatrick! You're the $59 million man! You can't cover a measly field goal at home against Romeo Crennel and the mediocre Chiefs? Really? That's it, I'm parlaying "Chiefs +3" with "Eric Berry getting at least one massive revenge hit on Steve Johnson."

Q: I am one step closer to being in the Gordie Howe Sex Club (GHSC). Gordie played during five different decades of the NHL; my goal is to sleep with a woman who was born during five different decades. This past weekend I finally slept with a woman from the 1990s (I had '60s, '70s, '80s). I am really excited now that I have knocked out four different decades. After sharing the news we got to debating whether I should suck it up and go for a woman that was born in 1959 or wait until 2018. I figured I needed to get the Sports Guy opinion. Should I go old or go young?
—Mark J., Los Angeles

SG: Hold on, I'm not done cleaning the vomit from between my teeth after realizing that my daughter was born in the 2000s. I say you go for the 1950s — you only have a couple more years of leeway there. Then you can grab the 2000s down the road and beat Gordie. By the way — when I saw the subject of Mark's e-mail said "Gordie Howe's Sex Club," I took a deep breath before clicking on it. I was prepared for anything: Ice Storm–type key parties from the 1970s, Eyes Wide Shut–type parties with the entire Red Wings team, a gay hockey version of Fight Club, you name it.

Vikings (-1.5) over COLTS

Q: Is my Vikings team sneaky-good or am I crazy?
— A. Peterson, Minnesota

SG: You might be sneaky-good. More important, the Colts are sneaky-bad and can't block anyone; I clearly picked the wrong AFC sleeper to stumble into 10-6 and a playoff spot. Then again, we're heading into Week 2 and I still can't figure out for the life of me who the right AFC sleeper is. How are we squeezing six playoff teams from the AFC? Other than Baltimore, New England, Houston, and maybe Denver, do you trust any other team? The NFC seems much deeper this year, so we're swinging into "When in doubt, pick any NFC team over any AFC team" mode until further notice.

Q: You mentioned Jim Irsay's deranged Twitter account (in your Friday column). I had never seen it before, so I found it and this is the first thing I read: "Charles Manson fell N2 blender with Andy Kaufman,1972! SeriousFunGuy was pasteurized;although institutionalized 4 times,his flavor is Stable"
— Jacob Kalish, Akron

SG: You're right, "deranged" might not have been strong enough.

Q: I'm writing to formally welcome you to the Off List**. In retrospect, I should have made this official long ago. There is no excuse for vacillating as long as I did, except to explain that by nature the Off List requires contemplative, nuanced thinking. It demands more than decent taste and fairly accurate vision. But the important thing is that I got here, and it feels great (really looking forward to laminating this and keeping it in my purse). There are a myriad of reasons why you've been tossed around as a potential Off Lister, the crux of which is to simply wax 'I love the way you write.' But the lynch pin was a casual footnote found in one of your Olympics columns. When you referenced having recently completed The Dream Team and The Presidents Club I got irrationally excited for several reasons. First of all, great books. Secondly, it warms the cockles of my soul to hear someone is out there buying Nancy Gibbs' work. But the clincher was that I had just finished the former and was about to dive into the latter. Call it a small world, call it kismet, call it no big f-ing deal (this being the most popular line of reasoning for my friends). Either way, I was sold. HE JUST READ THE BOOKS THAT I READ/STARTED? PLUS, [and cue the litany of things I could rattle off]? Uh, yes please.

So congratulations? (I temper this with a question mark because in all likelihood you are infinitely creeped out. Personally I would be ecstatic.) Chris Hayes, Paul Rudd, Jason Segel and Seth Meyers are ready for the initiation rite when you're free.
**The Off List is your five celebrities that cause others to raise their eyebrows and look at you quizzically (in juxtaposition with the List, that of which consists of empirically good looking stars that are universally deemed bangable). It's deeper than lust, profounder than aesthetic, more fun than a chiseled physique!
— Jessica D., Minneapolis

SG: And the road to my first Texted Dong Photo scandal begins …

DOLPHINS (+2.5) over Raiders

Q: You hiring at Grantland? I feel like I could be the next Lombardi for you guys. Lemme know … soon. Like, within the next two weeks.
— Jeff Ireland, Miami

SG: There will never be a "next Lombardi!" How dare you! Nobody combines hard-core NFL wisdom, Mad Men references, Mafia movie references, Andy Reid jokes, and a five-decade appreciation of doughnuts like Mike Lombardi. Important note: I'm picking this crummy Miami team for three reasons: Carson Palmer is involved; the Raiders played late Monday night (and now they're coming back east for a 1 p.m. game); and it's supposedly going to be suffocatingly sunny and humid, with Miami smartly forcing Oakland to bake in their black jerseys for three hours. Do you want to take a dehydrated Carson Palmer on the road? Me neither.

Q: With all the talk in soccer about utilizing goal line technology, where is the talk of using it for football? Is there another sport where this could have more use? Every weekend, a couple portly guys in polyester pants trundle out with the chains, make potential game changing measurements that are frequently specific to less than a centimeter and no one ever discusses putting a chip in the ball? How is this possible??
—James Park, Seattle

SG: You're saying it's a mistake to use the same system we used back in the 1920s, before we had penicillin and airplanes that could fly across the Atlantic? Look, it's much more important for the NFL to concentrate on things like suddenly pretending to care about player safety right now. That technology crap can wait.

That reminds me, my favorite part of last Sunday was seeing all the random lead officials who were pulled out of their random jobs, then thrown into a baziillion-dollar league and forced to explain calls 25 to 30 times per game to a stadium of 60,000 people as well as a TV audience of millions. I thought the announcers should have said their real jobs every time they threw it to them, as in …

"To find out if the touchdown has been overturned, let's go to Jerry Smith, the general manager of three Chik-fil-A's in Orlando."

"Was it a fumble? Let's hear from Bob Johnson, who owns his own insurance agency in Plano, Texas."

PATRIOTS (-14) over Cardinals

Q: Uh-oh … people are counting on me again.
— K. Kolb, Phoenix, AZ

SG: Yup.

Q: Not including The Real World/Road Rules/The Challenges, where does Nick's lead-up and decision to keep the money rank on the all-time greatest moments in reality t.v. history? If it's top-3, can we officially refer to that as "The Decision" now?
— Ben, Washington D.C.

SG: I'm totally fine with calling it Decision 2.0. I have to be honest … I thought it was the single greatest reality-TV moment of all time.1 Nick was like Kevin Spacey at the end of The Usual Suspects — suddenly, he wasn't walking with a limp anymore, and he had a legitimately evil glow to him. It was awesome. (Note: I made this connection before reading Dave Jacoby's reality TV column today — he also wondered if Nick pulled a Keyser Söze, which means we're either hanging out too much or Nick should change his name to Nick Söze.) More important, it was the first time in Chris Harrison's life where he promised something would be the "most shocking episode ever" and actually delivered. For years and years, he was like the reality show host who cried wolf. Then he finally came through. All in all, we're in the middle of a reality-TV boom — between Bachelor Pad, the season finale of The Onion's Sex House (a tour de force), Brandon's untimely demise on Real World (see Jacoby for details), and the debut of The Challenge (America's fifth professional sport, which kicks off again on Wednesday), this might have been the single best reality-TV month ever. By the way, I turn 43 in two weeks.

Bucs (+7) over GIANTS

Q: Why am I always more worried when we're playing at home than on the road?
— Every Giants Fan I Know, Tri-State Area

SG: Dating back to the beginning of the 2006 season, the Giants are 32-17 on the road and 25-23 at home. That's why.

Q: Why hasn't Vegas fully picked up on this yet?
— Every Giants Fan I Know, Tri-State Area

SG: I … I don't know.

Q: Grew up in New Jersey listening to the FAN for my whole childhood — first Dog leaves, then Francesa falls asleep on air. Can you and Sal just take over the show with your Mike and the Mad Dog impressions?
— Jordan, Boston

SG: See, I'm going the other way — if there was ever solid proof that we need a full-time Mike and the Mad Dog reunion next year when Dog's Sirius contract expires, wasn't it Mike falling asleep during a show? He'd never be able to fall asleep with Dog five feet away! Why are we fighting this? Can't they just get back together? Reason no. 3,890 why we need a Sports Tsar. (And by the way, reason no. 3,891 is "Somebody needs to stop Pacquiao and Marquez from fighting a fourth time.")

PANTHERS (+3) over Saints

Q: Here's a conspiracy theory: Drew Brees had his contract deal locked up for months prior to his signing, allowing [him] and Sean Payton to talk every day while he remained an unsigned player and not an NFL employee. I choose to believe in this theory for three reasons: 1) Sean Payton would do anything to influence this team under the table as both a coach and as an Eff You to Goodell; 2) Drew Brees still signed an absurd contract that shows no sign of any actual negotiating technique; and 3) it gives me some hope that the Saints may not be incompetent.
— Trey, New Orleans

SG: I co-sign any and all conspiracy theories involving the 2012 Saints. Although my theory that Sean Payton would spend the season secretly barraging his coaches with advice from dummy Gmail accounts was disproven last Sunday when the Saints showed up totally unprepared for the Redskins, then never made any adjustments whatsoever as the game went along. Just to be safe, I'm adding "Never lay more than seven points with a team being led by an interim interim head coach" to my Gambling Manifesto. By the way, I'm predicting one of the all-time Eff You performances from Steve Smith in this one. He tried to throw us off the scent this week — I'm not falling for it. The over/under on "big Steve Smith catches followed by him pounding his chest and violently trash-talking the nearest Saint" in this game is 4.5 … and I'm banging the over.

Ravens (+2) over EAGLES

Q: I'm pissed off! Sunday had all the makings of a textbook Andy Reid road defeat — we were playing a dreadful team on the road, a team we should have killed by 30 points, and yet, we played recklessly, turned the ball over a bunch over multiple times, refused to keep giving the ball to our electric running back when he couldn't be stopped, and even had our erratic QB throw 56 times for reasons that remain unclear. And yet, this freaking Brandon Weeden guy, he just wouldn't let us lose! What the hell? Am I losing my touch here? I really wanted to start the 2012 season off by having my team take a gigantic shit. Instead, we're 1-0. What do I do now?
— A. Reid, Philly

SG: Don't let that game keep you down, buddy. Keep doing what you're doing. The Ravens are really good. If you execute last Sunday's game plan again, you have a chance to lose by 25-30 points. PS: This might be your last chance to grab the Ravens at a discount price to win the Super Bowl. Right now they're 12-to-1 … to put that in perspective, New England (+450), Denver (+800), Houston (+700), Green Bay (+700) and San Francisco (+500) all have significantly better odds. Wouldn't you put the Ravens up there with anyone? What am I missing?

Q: Had Jack Horner stood by the Colonel, they'd be tearing down his statue, right?
— Tacks, Clarence Center, NY

SG: (Nodding.)

JAGUARS (+7) over Texans

Q: We just beat the worst team in football by 20 points at home in Week 1, mainly because they screwed up and let Ryan Tannehill loose for reasons that remain unclear — suddenly, people are treating us like the '85 Bears. We're laying more than a touchdown outdoors against a half-decent Jags team that always plays us tough. My career record is 48-49. Oh, and I'm 4-14 on the road against AFC South teams. Tread carefully. That's all I am saying.
— G. Kubiak, Houston

SG: And you left out one thing — it's Shad Khan's first home game! As the son of someone with long hair and an awesome 'stache, you really think I'm picking against Shad Khan during his first home game???


SCOTT CUNNINGHAM/GETTY IMAGES
RAMS (+3.5) over Redskins

Q: Alfred Morris!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Ha ha ha! I did it again! Enjoy Helu and Royster on your fantasy team! Suck it, Simmons! SUCK IT!!!!!!!!
— M. Shanahan, Washington

SG: He might be evil. Like, genuinely evil.

Q: I noticed a misspelling in your NFL quarterback rankings last week. RGIII's name is spelled "Robert Griffin III," not "Russell Wilson." You can thank me later.
— Scott, Austin

SG: Look, you're preaching to the choir on RG3 — he played with a ton of poise in New Orleans and even passed the Four TV Test (when you're watching four games at the same time and a player is so exciting that your eyes keep gravitating toward his TV). That doesn't mean the Skins should suddenly be giving more than a field goal, on the road, to a Rams team that played well in Detroit. The Redskins pulled off something of a gimmick offense last week (Bill Barnwell broke it down on Tuesday, Chris Brown on Wednesday) to minimize Griffin's potential for mistakes — it's hard to imagine the Rams studying that Saints tape without unearthing a few easy ways to contain it. And the Redskins got super-duper lucky in Week 1: They recovered all four fumbles AND lucked out when the Saints dropped a pick. Let's see the Skins win one that everyone thinks they're going to win — if they pull this off, I'm sold.

SEAHAWKS (+3) over Cowboys

Q: I hate you Bill Simmons and I hope your Romo bias leads to you getting raped to death by a pack of marauding bikers. Please exit life screaming and in agony.
— Baz Murphy, Dublin, Ireland

SG: Now that was some hate mail! Hold on, it's only going to get worse.

Q: I was drunk when I first read your NFL predictions column so I am about to read it again. I have some hazy memory of you picking a Pete Carroll-coached team with a rookie QB to go to the Super Bowl. Clearly, this was just the vodka talking and not what you actually wrote. Am I right?
— Nick, New York

Q: On a scale of 1 to Randy Travis, how drunk were you when you made your Seahawks SB pick?
— Greg, Denver

SG: If you were wondering, the words "drunk" kept popping up during the readers' reactions to my Seahawks pick.

Q: "Keyser Soze … KEYSER SOZE." We all remember the french fried Hungarian laying in a hospital bed … DYING … screaming Keyser Soze over and over. I think that is going to be you by about Week 12 of the NFL season. After weeks of lost teasers and the realization that your NFC West division champion bet is impossible to win, Cousin Sal is going to set you on fire. As the Sports Gal, House and Barnwell huddle around your bed crying you will be screaming "RUSSELL WILSON … RUSSELL WILSON!" A nervous Cousin Sal will be pacing back and forth in the hall in front of your room muttering "Russell Wilson is Seneca Wallace, Seneca Wallace is Russell Wilson." In the end I hope you recover enough to watch Brady crap the bed in the playoffs. Get well in advance.
— Jax Joseph, Los Angeles

SG: The best part of that e-mail was the subtle demolition of Brady right near the end, after I had already been set on fire by Cousin Sal. Like Jax was saying, "This e-mail might not have been over-the-top enough, I wonder if I can work in a Patriots potshot just to really bring it home?"

Q: 49ers: 1
Seahawks: 0
Sports Guy: -1
— Anshirk, Munster, Germany

SG: Wait, now I'm getting heckled from Germany?????????

Q: Are you really hopping off the Seahawks bandwagon that quickly? It was one game! You said they would go 11-5 or 12-4, so that's just one loss. Even if you really don't think the Seahawks will win the Super Bowl (I can't blame you after that performance), can you just pretend and give it three or 4=four weeks. If at that time they are winless with Wilson hurt, you can say you were being threatened or something. Seattle has had enough heartbreak, you know that, please spare us this. We need someone to believe. Thanks from a disgruntled and depressed Seahawks fan.
— Robert, Seattle

SG: I have a news flash for you, Robert — I'm not even considering a bandwagon exit until Seattle loses a home game. The Seahawks have the best home-field advantage in football. If they can go 8-0 at home and 4-4 on the road, that's 12-4, right? And how can anyone pick against the 'Hawks during the same week they basically locked down a new NBA arena? My pseudo-upset special: Seattle 22, Dallas 20.

Jets (+5.5) over STEELERS

Q: In your Book of Basketball you created new stats for the NBA. For the NFL we also have to make a new stat called "Roethlisbergers." A Roethlisberger would be when a quarterback on 3rd and long (at least seven or more yards) converts the 3rd down after scrambling around or breaking away from a sack. Against the Broncos it didn't matter that it was 3rd and 15: my buddies and I knew that Ben would convert — we were hoping that the o-line would continue with all those false starts just so Pittsburgh would have a longer down to convert. And time after time he converted. Please we need this stat!!
— AJ Turk

SG: Put it this way: This is a much better use of the phrase "Pulling a Roethlisberger" than the one we had these last three years. By the way, I think the Jets win this game outright. All the preseason scorn and ridicule inadvertently pushed them into "Nobody Believes In Us" mode, right?

Q: In honor of Mike Trout's night against Tigers I would like to propose the following: If a player hits a home run and steals a home run in the same game, that should be called a "Mike Trout." I would really appreciate your help in popularizing this.
— Colin, Wegener, Whittier, CA

SG: So if you're scoring at home, we now have to keep track of "Roethlisbergers" and "Trouts."

Q: The script for 4th and God Part Two (scroll to bottom) is coming along nicely — our hyped young hero (Tebow) came up short in the opener while the hotshot bad guy (Sanchez) played a flawless game. Now, people are beginning to doubt our hero and even worse maybe he begins to doubt himself. I can't wait for Tebow taking over in Game 5, turning the team around, suffering a terrible injury in Week 12 (while also losing his girlfriend and mourning the death of a close relative) then making an improbable comeback (Cue: "You're the Best … Around") leading the Jets into the playoffs as a truck load of manure piles into Mark Sanchez's convertable. It's going to be a great season, God willing. Actually, that should be the subtitle, Fourth and God II: God Willing.
— Adam Tomlinson, Toronto

SG: Am I devastated that Adam Tomlinson thought of Fourth and God II: God Willing before I did? And then some. Let's recalibrate my 2012 predictions by switching my Jets and Colts predictions, then adopting Adam's Fourth and God II scenario. Only one possible nitpick: Should we steal a page from Rambo: First Blood Part II here and call it Tebow: Fourth and God, Part II? (Thinking.) Nahhhhhhhhh. Fourth and God II: God Willing is better. I just hope it comes out before I get raped to death by a gang of marauding bikers.

CHARGERS (-6) over Titans

Q: Why hasn't "the PUP list" made the leap into everyday conversation? It's a versitile catch-all for when somebody can't come through. "I thought it would be great, but he drank too much and ended up on the PUP list." Or, "I wanted to go to the gym but couldn't get myself off the PUP list."
— Heather B., Washington Twp., NJ

SG: Or even, "I was looking forward to his football picks this year, but he backed the Seahawks and eventually ended up on the PUP list." By the way, I'm predicting a blowout San Diego victory followed by a batch of "Maybe Norv and the 2-0 Chargers have finally figured out September!" stories, followed by the Chargers turning the ball over 29 times against the Falcons in Week 3.

49ERS (-7) over Lions

Q: How is this study on West Coast teams playing night games on the East Coast going to affect your (fictional) betting this year?
— Diane Raetz, West Milford

SG: Positively! I already loved the Niners in the Awkward Handshake Bowl — this just pushed it to another level.

Q: I'm sure you're getting killed by numerous folks for your Seahawks Super Bowl prediction. I'm not trying to pile on, but how many of your own gambling manifesto rules did you break with that Seahwaks pick for Week 1 & the Super Bowl? A rookie quarterback making his first NFL start on the road no less? A 61-year-old coach? A 61 year old coach named Pete Carroll ?!?! The flip side of that coin: writers like you and Barnwell gave Jim Harbaugh all the ammunition he needed for a "Nobody believes in us!" start to the 2012 season. Did you see Patrick Willis' interview on NBC before Sunday night's game? I'm paraphrasing here, but he said "all the people out there sayin' that we're not gonna get back to where we was, they don't understand, we're on a mission."
— Brian Aveson, San Francisco

SG: I have run out of ways to hate myself for last week's column, especially when I'm the self-appointed "24-Hour-a-Day Watchman for the 'Nobody Believes In Us!' Teams. Just one question: What happens now? We swung from "Nobody Believes In Us!" to "Everyone Believes In Us" within three hours at Lambeau. How does Harbaugh manipulate that situation? What if they start out 13-0 — a possibility when you check out their schedule and realize they might be favored every week until their Week 15 showdown at New England? Maybe it becomes "Nobody Believes In Us … That We'll Go 16 And 0!!!!!" Regardless, Jim Harbaugh for president in 2016.

FALCONS (-3) over Broncos

In your argument against Peyton Manning carrying Denver to a Super Bowl, you forgot Kurt Warner with Arizona. He was clearly a "35+ year old QBs who carried a contender's offense, right?"
— CJ, Boston

SG: He sure was. And to think, I thought I had run out of ways to hate myself for last week's column. My apologies to Kurt, God and puppies.

Q: After watching Manning beat the Steelers opening night I couldn't help but think of the parallels of Manning with your favorite wrestler Shawn Michaels. Both suffered career threatening injuries; both missed extended time and seriously considered retiring because they were unable to do even the simplest of tasks their professions demanded; both saw eras they helped usher in take off without them and were quickly replaced by young stars (HBK with Austin and the Rock, Manning with Rodgers and all the 4,000 yard passers); everyone hoped they would comeback as good as before but feared their returns to the ring/field for their physical safety; both came back as changed men who appreciated their second chance; and both ended up being better than we thought. Keeping with that theme — do you think we'll get a Manning vs. Brady playoff showdown a la Undertaker vs. HBK at WrestleMania, or will we see a Manning-Luck playoff battle reminiscent of the Jericho-Michaels feud?
— Adrian Escalera, El Centro

SG: First of all, you killed that e-mail. Great job. The Manning/HBK parallels are legimately eerie and you didn't even include the belated championship ascent of Manning's brother (Eli) and HBK's "brother" (his best friend and D-Generation X cohort, Triple H). If you're right, then we're destined for a Brady-Manning AFC Championship showdown à la Undertaker-HBK at WrestleMania. I need to see more, though. Manning coming through at home in a night game (once upon a time, the biggest lock in sports) against an overrated Steelers team didn't totally sway me — they barely touched him that whole game. Even if he charges into Atlanta's dome on a Monday night, then no-huddles their crowd to death and outguns Matt Ryan, I'm not going to be totally sold.

Here's the week for me: Week 5 in New England against Brady, Belichick and a rejuvenated Patriots defense that will go after him for three hours. It's not quite WrestleMania, but it's definitely the Survivor Series at the very least. If Manning wins that game, I'm sold.

Q: Your preseason selection of Russell Wilson as the most important QB of the season … I'd bet my dick against you being right. Literally. Then I'd have to spend the whole NFL season figuring out what to do with my 2nd dick when I won my dick bet.
— Jack, Cleveland

SG: Yup, these are my readers.

THIS WEEK: 0-1
LAST WEEK: 8-8
SEASON: 8-9

Permalink

Finally, closure for Hillsborough injustice

By: timbersfan, 12:32 AM GMT on September 14, 2012

"If it bleeds, it leads" isn't just an editorial mantra. It's how the media often deals with foreign news. You get a big hit, ideally with pictures, on day one and some instant reaction on day two. What happens over the ensuing months -- the inquiries, the understanding of the "how and why," the victims and families getting on with their lives -- is much less of a story the further away you are.

For the past 23 years, even as campaigners in England carried on their struggle for justice in the Hillsborough tragedy, reminding everyone that what had been peddled by some as the truth -- that drunk, ticketless Liverpool fans had caused the deaths by forcing their way into the stadium -- was in fact a lie and a cover-up, too much of the rest of the world was largely oblivious.

The original fraudulent narrative fit nicely with the zeitgeist of 1989. English clubs had been banned from European competition after the 1985 Heysel tragedy in which 39 supporters lost their lives. At the time, blame for Heysel was squarely placed on Liverpool-supporting hooligans and, to a lesser degree, the police and organizers, whose security measures on the day were wholly inadequate.

"They did it at Heysel; they did it again at Hillsborough."

That was the prevailing view among many across Europe. As recently as last year, I was involved in a radio debate on hooliganism when that same lie was repeated: Liverpool hooligans caused death at Hillsborough, just like at Heysel. I'm prone to giving people the benefit of the doubt, so I'll say it wasn't malevolence. It was ignorance. It's the same ignorance I find talking to casual fans from other European nations and elsewhere.

And that's why my hope now is that the findings of the Hillsborough Independent Panel and the words of British Prime Minister David Cameron -- "The report is black and white … Liverpool fans were not to blame" -- resonate as widely and as loudly as possible.

But there's another major message to take from this day. I spoke to the chief of police of a major Italian city. He deals with policing and supporter safety every week. I met him a few years ago when an English club was drawn to play a European game in his city. In addition to talking to the British police, which is normal in these situations, he was keen to liaise with visiting fans so he could better understand their needs and figure out the best possible way for his police force to do their job, which is to maintain order and safety.


no_source / Getty Images
Hillsborough Independent Panel members answer questions during a news conference for the release of the unpublished papers that revealed a cover-up of the worst kind.
He had read the Taylor Report which, way back in 1990, established that the main cause for the Hillsborough tragedy was the failure of "police control." He asked me why there had been no follow-up, why those law enforcement officials responsible had never been taken to task.

"As policemen we have a stressful and difficult job, but we also have an obligation for transparency and accountability; without it we don't have trust," he said. "We are human, we make mistakes. The difference is that when law enforcement makes a mistake, or is even accused of it, you have to fully investigate and apportion responsibility. If you don't, you lose faith in the institutions. And when that happens, the job of all police becomes that much more difficult and dangerous."

In this case, not only were the authorities not fully investigated; it has since emerged that, on 164 occasions, witness statements by police officers and emergency services, as well as other documents, were redacted, selectively edited or otherwise doctored to shift blame on the supporters. This, folks, is what you call a cover-up, of the kind that weakens trust in all authorities and makes their job more difficult. It's one of the worst possible crimes law enforcement can commit, because it doesn't just affect the direct victims, it also affects their very own colleagues.

This doesn't mean that today is not a happy day. It is, because uncovering truths, however painful, is better than living in an echo chamber of suspicion and cynicism. And it shows that, at least on this occasion, at least in the long run, the system eventually worked.

It's also an occasion to remember the other times when fans went to watch a game and never returned. And how, in many of the cases below, the truth remains murky.

Bolton, England: March 9, 1946: 33 dead
Lima, Peru: May 24, 1954: 318 dead
Kayseri, Turkey: Sept. 17, 1967: 40 dead
Glasgow, Scotland: Jan. 2, 1971: 66 dead
Athens, Greece: Feb. 8, 1981: 21 dead
Moscow: Oct. 20, 1982: 66 dead
Bradford, England: May 11, 1985: 56 dead
Brussels: May 29, 1985: 39 dead
Kathmandu, Nepal: March 12, 1988: 93 dead
Orkney, South Africa: Jan. 13, 1991: 42 dead
Bastia, France: May 5, 1992: 18 dead
Johannesburg: April 11, 2001: 43 dead
Accra, Ghana: May 9, 2001: 127 dead
Abidjan, Ivory Coast: March 29, 2009: 19 dead
Port Said, Egypt: Feb. 1, 2012: 79 dead

Here's hoping the victims of these disasters and their families might one day also find peace and closure.

Permalink

The Designated Player: Sympathy for the Devil

By: timbersfan, 12:08 AM GMT on September 14, 2012

I’m interviewing Peter Walton, the general manager of the new Professional Referees Organization, in his office in New York, and something’s nagging at me. He’s reminding me of someone, or something, that I can’t place. It’s not as simple as his accent — a flat, slightly nasal, Midlands English — though that’s what first alerts me. Nor, having focused on that, is it quite the tempo of his speech: precise, clipped phrases, words chosen with a tidy economy — and always at a pace with which there’s no danger of conversational momentum carrying him into dangerous territory. It’s around the time that Walton says “this year is about evolving, understanding, and collecting data” that it hits me — he’s reminding me of the Health and Safety Executive.

If there’s one unspoken entity that resonates with anyone conditioned by a childhood in England, it’s the HSE. A kind of mild-mannered Spanish Inquisition for the monitoring of loose wires, sand buckets at gas pumps, and curvature of glass tabletop edges, the HSE are more than a legislative body — they’re an undertow of caution that runs through the British psyche, since the first time someone thought to add “Here be monsters” to a parchment map. It’s a kink that means that no matter how far that British child may later travel and rebel, there will always be some part of him that is conditioned to preempt imaginary dangers. Even at Altamont, where the Stones had taken their break from the constraints of buttoned-down, postwar English austerity as far as it could go, to a freewheeling spiral of silk-scarfed, louche bedevilment, they still could not outrun this powerful instinct within them. It’s possibly why in the midst of the murderous mayhem captured in Gimme Shelter, you can clearly hear Sam Cutler, their fellow countryman and tour manager, crying out from the heart in adenoidal indignation, “You’re rendering that scaffolding dangerous!” The phrase, and the instinct it reflected, resonated at such a deep affective level of Anglo conditioning toward a legislated common sense that it even embedded itself within the chemically addled psyches of the Happy Mondays 20 years later.


So anyway, I’m chatting with the new English boss of MLS and U.S. soccer referees and in a Proustian rush of anxiety, I think of the Health and Safety Executive. Sorry. Suddenly finding myself hoping to dear God that the seat I’m sitting on is load-bearing, I cautiously proceed.

Peter Walton arrives at PRO after nine years as a Premiership referee. He refereed his last game in England on a Saturday this March, and on Monday he was in New York. Prior to being a Premiership ref he was an assistant and officiated in several memorable games, from the Cantona FA Cup Final in 1996 to the Euros that same year. He's reffed Zidane up close ("what a player ... "), officiated Brazil games ("Dunga. Red card"), and he's also lived through an age that transformed not only the game in his native land, but also the professionalization of referees ("recovery time — that's the main benefit"). It was during the latter process and a sequence of training trips to Ecuador, Venezuela, and Guatemala to deliver FA "master classes" in refereeing that Walton first got what he calls a "buzz" from developing the training culture for his peers. Now he's been brought in by the joint stakeholders of MLS and U.S. Soccer to do the same in this part of North America.

And in bringing that Health and Safety image up I should say that it’s not that Peter Walton’s perspective or ambition appears limited or limiting (he's just taken on a decade's worth, and a continent's worth, of work) — rather, what’s striking is a particular tenacious sensibility that’s less interested in dramatic face-lifts than in ensuring that the scaffolding is in place for work to start safely. Charged with bringing some of the most unfairly (and occasionally fairly) maligned officials in world soccer up to the standard of “world’s best by 2022,” the approach Walton describes seems measured, sane, and systematic — mixing sensitivity to the existing personnel and monitoring systems, with a desire to set clear standards for improvement. Anyone expecting a gunslinger arriving to clean house (“I’m looking for the one they call ... Salazar ... ”) may be initially disappointed by Walton’s assessment spreadsheets, “decision curves,” and talk of “cultural sensitivity” — but of those who have voiced misgivings so far, many of these are some of the same critics who are the first to jump down the throat of league management for a perceived excess of rapid innovations. There’s nothing rapid about Walton’s mooted project. I wonder how equipped the new man is for immediately handling the terrible restlessness that underpins American sporting culture — and by extension its commentariat?

“The most immediate challenge has been handling expectations,” says Walton. “The expectation of everybody. They suddenly find they’ve got this company whose sole ambition is to improve the standard of officiating throughout North America, with this ultimate goal that people around the world will look at North America and say, 'That’s where we want to be.' The trouble is managing expectation — I start here and it’s almost as if 'everything is going to change tomorrow.' But we’re dealing with humans here. We’re dealing with culture. We’re dealing with the league and how the league’s evolving and the playing side’s evolving and it’s not going to happen overnight.”

The weight of expectation is perhaps more keenly felt for Walton as an Englishman arriving in North America to do this job. Starting in a period for the sport when the English hegemony at a marketing and branding level is near its cultural peak globally (with North America no exception), Walton’s appointment had the potential to read as an imperial one, especially in a working environment where the practitioners are already under a level of scrutiny that often seems informed as much by cultural cringe as objective analysis. MLS referees, like referees anywhere, have bad games, but there are arguably few other places in the world where each poor decision, let alone game, becomes an immediate local referendum on general standards in the league — beating up on MLS refs is a sport in itself. It’ll be one of the toughest perceptions to shift for the new man, though that’s not how he wants to frame the challenge:

“I’m not here to establish English referees. I’m here to make sure we have good North American referees. The culture and the game we’re looking at on this vast continent is totally different to what I’d be facing in England — for me to come here to try to clone people to become English referees is a non-starter. The type of football they’re faced with, the culture they’re faced with ... the climate they’re faced with at times is just so different. So from the onset my idea is to build what’s right for this market. So in the first year, the public, coaches, players won’t see too much difference ... this year is about evolving, understanding, and collecting data.”

Of the potentially meaningful stats to have emerged so far, the results of the standard referee monitoring are perhaps the most interesting:

“Out of 256 games so far this season, we’ve had 47 (below standard games) — 18 percent or thereabout. That’s a benchmark. That’s all it is ... I manage by exception. I gather the reports on a Monday morning and look for below-standard performances that I then personally review and if needs be feed back to the referee’s coach.”

So what are the criteria for assessing performance?

“Each game that we operate in we have three avenues of information coming back in to me. One is from a coach, who will usually be an ex-referee from the North American system (there are currently 27 referee coaches working with PRO). Each referee has a coach assigned to them who watches the games and gives me a critique against a set bunch of criteria. Secondly, we have a command center here in New York that relays the games live, and each Saturday or Sunday I’d have two or three people in there collecting data about how the TV projects key match incidents, managing of players, quality of fitness — to give me a parallel report to the coaches. And the third source is from the MLS match evaluator — who is nothing to do with PRO — who as well as their report on the general running of the event for the league, also gives me an understanding about the empathy of the referee towards the players, how they deal with the technical area, how they use their own personality to impose themselves — rather than technical data about the application of law, it’s more a generic question of how does this person fit into this entertainment business.”

The latter phrase seems a curious choice of words, but in fact this is one of two times Walton mentions the entertainment business. The second time is when I push him not just on the model for information flowing to him, but on the feedback from referees to journalists and the public regarding controversial decisions. At this point he draws a distinction between information on the application of law (which he sees as helping referees do their job by fulfilling an educational role) and media requests to justify subjective opinion, which is (rather more dismissively) “a matter of entertainment.”

That question of referee feedback is another challenge with a particular local quality to it. A peculiar trait of MLS compared to other leagues is a general expectation of transparency and media access to players and club officials, within a league that still needs all the publicity it can get. MLS has also grown up in a digital age where the speed of reaction time and distribution of that reaction is becoming exponentially quicker. A careless remark near a microphone, let alone a bad tackle, can be tweeted, debated, and mob adjudicated before halftime. And from the outside there seems to be a corollary between the events that cause the most visible furor and the extent of the retrospective actions of the MLS disciplinary committee. The actions of the latter are another story, but somewhere in the mix are the match officials themselves. And despite the fact that a mechanism exists where within 30 minutes of the final whistle a nominated pool reporter can ask up to three questions of the referee on the application of law in key decisions, in the open-source world of MLS, even this relative openness tends to be regarded as a bottleneck.

Walton doesn’t worry himself unduly over this (“Do your job on the day — don’t second-guess yourself”) — as he sees it, the most concerning challenge of his new job is not cultural, but geographical:

“This is a vast country. If I call a meeting in London I can have everyone there in three hours. I call a meeting in Manhattan, it can take two or three days.” He cites the importance of face-to-face meetings being vital to creating the trust for dialogue, though — particularly with the MLS coaching corps. “My air miles are going through the roof — because it’s really important that people see “Who is this guy who sits in New York and does the role he does?” — That’s why I went x amount of thousands of miles to see Bruce (Arena) for 40 minutes, rather than just pick the phone up to him. Because we need to have a relationship and some trust, and I need to be able to say, 'When I give you an answer you don’t agree with, you still have to accept it' and for them to still feel able to ask the supplementary question.”

Putting to one side the difficult mental image of Bruce Arena struggling shyly with whether to ask a question of an official, supplementary or otherwise, I become dimly aware that I’ve been ushered calmly through our own exchange with barely so much as a final warning. Trying to summon my inner Rafa Marquez to see if I can get Walton to react, I glance round the room and notice a can of the spray that MLS refs use to mark the placement of free kicks and defensive walls and ask him what he thinks of it.

“I like it! I didn’t at first. I thought it was a gimmick that was just being used to appease other people outside the game, and when I got here it was probably one thing I was going to take away. But within two weeks of arriving I was phoning my colleagues in England up to tell them they were missing a trick. And in fact we had a visit mid-season from David Dein, who sits on the FA Council, and is an ex-vice chairman at Arsenal, and I gave him a little spray to take home and I told him 'This is good stuff' — so hopefully you’ll soon see it appearing in leagues around the world.”

If it shows up in England it’ll have to get past Health and Safety first. You could have someone’s eye out with that.

Walton smiles and ushers me out. As he does so, he is insisting that a good referee is someone whose name you struggle to remember.

Pleased to meet you — hope you guess my name ...

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Armchair Analyst: Three things we learned from the US win over Jamaica

By: timbersfan, 12:29 AM GMT on September 13, 2012

"There's a nervousness about the USA just at the moment."
— Ian Darke, ESPN

That was the comment at the 84th minute, and I have to agree with him. The US national team was scattered throughout the end of the game on Tuesday night, and if they want to make it through the rest of qualifying unscathed, they'll have to rectify that.

But here's something: While the US as a whole were nervous and scattered — not a surprise since they were playing with three d-mids by that point, which as we've seen tends to have dire consequences — the back four looked just fine. For as cringe-inducing as the midfield and finishing can be, if the defense holds up (and it largely has since Geoff Cameron was given a starter's role), there's plenty of reason to be confident in US prospects.

Anyway, three more thoughts about the 1-0 win over Jamaica:

Playing with 2 or fewer d-mids sure makes a lot of sense

When Graham Zusi goes forward, he doesn't lose the ball. When Maurice Edu goes forward, he usually does.

Zusi was excellent for his entire shift, and deserves whatever plaudits are going to come his way (and there will be plenty). Edu is a very good player when used in the right spot. But they are not interchangeable.

The other change was playing Jose Torres at left mid (a risk) and Clint Dempsey in a free role underneath Herculez Gomez (common sense). Torres verged between "acceptable" and "pretty damn good" in his time on the pitch, generally performing well in traffic and opening space for Fabian Johnson on the overlap. It wasn't a "make the game yours" role — it was a "make it easier for someone else to make the game his" role. It's nice to see him used right.

Danny Williams did a lot of convincing at d-mid

Kyle Beckerman's taken a lot of undeserved stick over the past few days since Klinsmann put him in a no-win situation.

But the fact is, Beckerman is not a superior athlete. He's a d-mid that's very, very good when his team's in possession, but very, very susceptible to late challenges and being overwhelmed physically when his side's chasing the game. That's what happened Friday.

Williams isn't as polished, but his athleticism makes him a little more versatile, and a little better at snuffing out the screw-ups of others. Beckerman still has a spot, but Williams should probably be the starter at d-mid next month.

Our whole goal as a soccer culture has to be identifying guys like Gomez earlier

I tweeted this during the game, and professional skeptic Greg Lalas pointed out that maybe it's not a shortcoming in our development scheme. Instead, maybe it's a problem with other countries who are liable to give short shrift to late-developing players.

Greg's mostly wrong, of course. The reason being that in other countries, "late developing player" means 21, like Miroslav Klose, or 23, like Didier Drogba, or even 26 like Luca Toni (an outlier).

Gomez got his first look at age 25 — younger than Toni — but didn't get his first real shot until he was 28. And he's not an exception to the rule.

Consider that Geoff Cameron was 26 before he was moved to central defense full-time. Consider that Chris Wondolowski was 27 before he really got his shot in MLS. Consider that Zusi was an afterthought until the age of 25.

Obviously the development academy will help, as wil lthe rising tide (and profile) of the NASL and USL Pro and the expansion of the MLS Reserve League.

But it really can't come fast enough for me. If there's one thing I'm impatient for in US soccer, it's this.

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Is This Real? The Incredible Mr. Sanchez

By: timbersfan, 12:27 AM GMT on September 13, 2012

On Wednesdays during the 2012 NFL season, we'll be filing a new column called "Is This Real?" to the Triangle. You can probably guess what a column called "Is This Real?" is about, but for the unadventurous among us, this weekly piece is going to take a look at some player, team, or aspect of performance that's been surprising and gauge how likely it is to keep happening over the rest of the year. Sound good? Not really? Well, we're doing it anyway.

This week's topic is Mark Sanchez and the newfound passing attack of the New York Jets. After going the entire preseason without scoring an offensive touchdown, the Jets promptly dropped 48 points on the Bills in Jersey on Sunday. That performance was paced by Sanchez, who had what was arguably his most efficient game as a pro, going 19-of-27 for 266 yards with three touchdowns picks against a lone interception. After serving as a punchline for most of the offseason, Sanchez was every bit the franchise quarterback the Jets paid for on Sunday. So, then, was Sanchez's performance for real? And will the Jets be able to throw the ball like this in future weeks?

Let's start answering that by pointing out an obvious-but-forgettable fact: There's more to a good aerial attack than a quarterback. Certainly, the quarterback has the biggest role to play in any successful passing offense, but it wasn't just Sanchez struggling in August; his receivers were dropping passes and missing practices, and as Jets fans have been trying to forget, they lined up professional turnstile Wayne Hunter at right tackle for most of the preseason. The team traded Hunter to the Rams for fellow bust Jason Smith before the season began, but with Smith still learning the playbook, new offensive coordinator Tony Sparano inserted former Eagles tackle Austin Howard into the lineup at right tackle. If the Jets were going to be able to keep Sanchez and Tim Tebow upright when they dropped back to pass, Howard was going to need to hold his own on the end.

On Sunday, that's exactly what happened. More than anything, what was truly notable about the Jets passing game was how much time and space Mark Sanchez had to throw. Buffalo's collection of dominant defensive linemen wasn't able to sack Sanchez once in 28 drop-backs, and they only forced him to scramble on a single occasion. Even a generous description of the word "hurry" would require just one hand to count the number of times the Bills bothered Sanchez in the pocket.

Notably, that applied to the specific matchup in which you would expect the Bills to have a significant advantage. Across from Austin Howard for most of the game was free agent catch Mario Williams, making his debut in a Bills uniform after signing a mammoth deal with the team during the offseason. Williams was supposed to benefit from the talent of players like Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams next to him, freeing Williams up from double-teams and giving him the opportunity to beat up overmatched tackles in one-on-one situations. Well, Williams got plenty of one-on-one shots at Howard (the tackle estimated afterward that he was alone versus Williams on 50 percent of the Jets' offensive snaps, but it was the guy playing in just his fifth NFL game who won most of those battles. Howard was able to neutralize Williams on every one-on-one situation short one, in which Williams beat Howard and knocked Sanchez down as he threw. It didn't stop Sanchez from completing his pass, though, and it was the closest Williams came to Sanchez all day. The Jets also got an excellent day from left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson, who came in for some criticism from Jets fans last year, as he managed to limit Mark Anderson to a single quarterback hit on the other side of the line.

What Sanchez did with that free time was nothing short of revelatory. It's always dangerous to take your feelings about a player and project them onto his performance on the field, but Sanchez definitely looked like a more comfortable, confident passer on Sunday than he had either during the preseason or toward the end of the 2011 campaign. His throws were strong and well-timed, coming out on a rhythm at the end of his drop-back. Outside of his interception, he really didn't have a challenged throw or a break that he was lucky to get away with; he was hitting open receivers in stride or throwing covered receivers open with passes into space.

Sanchez created his first two passing touchdowns of the day with pump fakes and double moves. In each case, he was able to do so with time granted by the offensive line and the anxious, chattery feet of the Buffalo secondary. Much as we wrote regarding the Saints yesterday, the Bills are an aggressive defense that relies heavily on creating turnovers. Sanchez's pump fakes and the routes of his receivers were able to freeze cornerbacks Leodis McKelvin and Stephon Gilmore, the latter making his NFL debut, creating space behind them for scores. Sanchez almost exclusively picked on that pair, leaving starter Aaron Williams alone for most of the day.

And those receivers! It was a very nice day for a much-maligned crew. Second-round pick Stephen Hill, the subject of some well-placed doubt by Rex Ryan, was an absolute monster at times. On Sanchez's second pass attempt of the game, Gilmore tried to jam Hill at the line, only for Hill to knock him so far backward that he created an easy completion for himself. After that, Gilmore stopped jamming as much. Hill moved around the formation and even picked up a first down on a Darren Sproles–style two-way route out of the backfield. Imagine a 6-foot-4, 209-pound Darren Sproles. Bit parts like Jeremy Kerley and Jeff Cumberland also played big roles against the Bills; Santonio Holmes was truthfully an afterthought, and his initial first down came on a play in which he ran the laziest route in recent memory by sauntering forward and just parking himself at the sticks. Buffalo's zones were so slow to react that even a lackadaisical Holmes could get open.

Of course, there's some stuff in there that we know won't stick around. The Jets converted 10 of 14 times on third down, recovered each of the three fumbles that hit the ground during the game, and scored on an interception and a punt return before the game got out of hand. That must have felt good for a team that allowed seven defensive touchdowns last season.

Sanchez also didn't have a flawless game. During those rare times when the Bills did get pressure on him, Sanchez's accuracy waned dramatically, with throws that had previously hit a receiver in stride now showing up at their feet. He picked up an interception by trying to do too much, bouncing a shovel pass off of Cumberland's arms at high speed on a desperate third down and creating an easy pick for the Bills. He also fumbled on that aforementioned scramble, a far-too-frequent occurrence for one of the league's most frequent fumblers.

So, is Sanchez's performance for real? Yes and no. It's going to be difficult for the Jets to keep him this unmolested in the pocket all year, as there's just simply going to be a player or two who gets through per game and takes Sanchez down for a sack. That's reality. What the Jets showed on Sunday, though, is that they have an offensive line capable of winning the pass-blocking battle versus an elite defensive line. And when they were able to do that, Sanchez was consistently able to make good decisions and well-placed throws. So, pending the offensive line — especially Howard — this one's actually a tentative "Yes." Don't be surprised if the Jets passing offense is better than you think in 2012.

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A Bad Night in Kingston Leaves USMNT Needing a Win in Columbus

By: timbersfan, 12:17 AM GMT on September 12, 2012

For 36 seconds, things unfolded perfectly. The final strains of Jamaica’s amazing national anthem were still echoing around Kingston's Independence Park when Clint Dempsey slotted home a rebound of Herculez Gomez's shot, giving the United States men's national team a 1-0 lead over Jamaica in an important World Cup qualifying match. The winner of the game would take sole possession of first place in four-team Group A, halfway through the third round. The top two teams advance to the final "Hexagonal" stage of qualifying.

After Dempsey's goal — the quickest U.S. WCQ tally ever — the USMNT looked set to run their undefeated streak against Jamaica up to 19 matches. But it wasn't to be. The Stars and Stripes, missing Landon Donovan and Michael Bradley, failed to connect passes, failed to create chances, and failed to deal with Jamaica’s team speed. They conceded few opportunities in the run of play but allowed free kick goals by Rodolph Austin in the 23rd minute and Luton Shelton in the 62nd minute and left "The Office" with a 2-1 defeat.

The loss, while showing a few troubling trends, is not a disaster for the U.S. According to ESPN's Soccer Power Index, which predicted the home team would win more than 42 percent of the time with the U.S. just below 30 percent, it wasn't even an upset. The teams meet again on Tuesday in Columbus, Ohio, where the Americans are a massive favorite. A result in Kingston would have been a bonus, but it was far from a necessity.

That said, the defeat does mean the Americans need three points in the home portion of the back-to-back. (The Americans have a good chance to advance with a loss or a tie, but anything less than a win would be embarrassing and the public outcry would be unbearable. Klinsmann wouldn't lose his job, but you'd really start to wonder.) The U.S. should prevail — they are, Kingston aside, a better, deeper team than the Reggae Boyz — but a team that's scored zero or one goals in 14 of 17 matches needs to make changes. Some of these will be by default; others need to come from up top, from coach Jurgen Klinsmann, whose golden sheen looks less shiny after the poor performance in the Caribbean.

The Americans had tremendous difficulty keeping the ball in Kingston after the first 15 minutes — 25 if you want to be generous. Part of the issue was the quality of the field surface, which was terrible. Watching the game reminded me of trying to putt on a recently aerated green. The U.S. team isn't using that as an excuse, but it is a fact. The rough surface, combined with Jamaica’s team speed and decision to press every pass, troubled the Americans. "You take more touches trying to get the ball under control, and they're so athletic they're on top of you and tackling you when you did that," Dempsey said after training in Columbus on Sunday. The field will be better on Tuesday night, which works in the U.S.'s favor.

Concerns about the field aside, the central midfield trio of Jermaine Jones, Kyle Beckerman, and Maurice Edu didn't maintain possession and didn't do enough to facilitate the attack. The three are defensive-minded players first, and showed it with their lack of imagination going forward. They didn't spread the ball wide, preferring to continually shove it through the middle. That plan failed, repeatedly, and neither the central midfielders nor the coach had a solution. Forwards Herculez Gomez and Jozy Altidore barely saw the ball. Worse, the midfielders were late to a number of challenges and repeatedly gave up free kicks in dangerous areas. Referee Marco Rodriguez whistled the midfield trio for 11 combined fouls. Beckerman and Edu committed the infractions that led to the first and second goals, respectively. The U.S. lost the battle for the middle of the field — partially because of Jamaica's formation, which frequently left the three Americans alone against five opponents, and partially because Beckerman, Edu, and Jones simply were not good on the night.

The absence of Donovan and Bradley, both injured, was glaring. For all the talk of Donovan's goals, his ability to create something and then pass is his most important quality at this stage of his career. On Tuesday, Brek Shea — who created the goal to beat Mexico — will take on a bit of this role, and Sporting Kansas City's Graham Zusi could see time out wide as well. Bradley, who does a little bit of everything extremely well, is harder to replace, but the U.S. will get by without him. But it shouldn't be surprising that a team missing two of its three most important offensive players struggled. (Dempsey, who hadn't played a competitive match in months, is the other. His contributions, however, come more in sporadic bursts than with the consistent, continued excellence that Bradley especially provides over 90 minutes.)

There were a few bright spots in Kingston. Geoff Cameron had a second straight strong performance as one of the two center backs. His partner, Clarence Goodson — whose surprise start had usual center back and team captain Carlos Bocanegra watching from the bench — was solid if not spectacular, although he'll miss the rematch because of yellow-card accumulation. Michael Parkhurst filled in adequately for injured Steve Cherundolo at right back. Tim Howard, as usual, did his Tim Howard thing in net.

Roughly 96 hours after Dempsey's goal, the U.S. and Jamaica will once again line up across the field from each other. This time, the Americans have the advantage of an inspired home crowd. (More than 5,000 supporters watched Sunday's practice.) Win and the Red, White, and Blue will sit tied with the Reggae Boyz (and, possibly, Guatemala) for first place with two matches remaining. That's not the ideal scenario. Far from it, in fact. But there are concerns about qualifying every four years. The U.S. should be fine, but they'll need to be perfect for a lot longer than 36 seconds.

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San Fran's Super Sequel

By: timbersfan, 12:15 AM GMT on September 12, 2012

Regression schmegression. If the 2012 Niners were supposed to end up looking like a poor man's version of last year's squad, a natural place for their drop-off to begin would have been on Sunday, when they had to leave the friendly confines of the NFC West and head to the relative fortress of Green Bay, where an opening-day defeat likely waited. Instead, San Francisco showed up, outplayed the Packers from start to finish, and left with the most impressive win of the young Jim Harbaugh era under their belts. In doing so, they raised serious questions about the Packers and challenged my perception that the Niners wouldn't be able to sustain their level of play in 2012. Make no mistake: This was every bit a 2011 49ers victory, just one with a higher level of play against superior opposition.

The Niners followed the game plan that was laid out in last year's blueprint to beat the Packers to a tee. They won the turnover battle by virtue of a key interception from linebacker NaVorro Bowman;1 outside of a Mario Manningham fumble that bounced harmlessly out of bounds, Alex Smith's offense was never in danger of producing a turnover of their own. The last two teams to make it through a game against the Packers without turning the ball over were the 2011 Chiefs and the 2010 Patriots, the two teams responsible for Green Bay's last two regular-season defeats.

The defense also did a great job of keeping Aaron Rodgers in the pocket and preventing him from improvising with his receivers. Outside of a couple of plays, the San Francisco pass rush was able to contain Rodgers, even if it wasn't always able to bring him down. Frequently, the threat of an unblocked or underblocked rusher was pressing enough to force Rodgers to throw a short, contested pass with little chance of yards after catch. If it seemed like the Packers' playbook on Sunday consisted entirely of sight adjustments on five-yard throws to Jermichael Finley, it wasn't really all that far off. A series of unimaginative play calls didn't help matters, either. The Packers called designed run plays nine times, each of which went to Cedric Benson. Every single one of those plays was called on first down. The Packers didn't call for a single draw on second down, nor did they try to throw more frequently on first to throw the Niners off. There's something to be said for not totally abandoning the run when it's not working, and the Niners' run defense is good on every down, but it felt like the Packers sacrificed nine first-down plays to San Francisco for unknown reasons.

The Niners offense also exploited the middle of the Packers defense. Last year, the Packers were weak in the middle because of the absence of star safety Nick Collins; Collins has yet to return to football, but the Packers are also now without underrated inside linebacker Desmond Bishop for the 2012 season, and his absence helped produce plenty of miscommunication on Sunday. The Packers seemed beset by blown coverages throughout the game, particularly over the middle of the field. One such blown coverage led to Randy Moss's touchdown catch in the first half. It's hard to argue that anybody in the Green Bay secondary is playing at the same level that they were during the Super Bowl run in 2010, and when that's combined with a poor pass rush and notable moments of miscommunication, big plays ensue.

Most notably, though, the Niners simply gashed the Packers on the ground with their rushing attack. Last year, while San Francisco's running game carried the bulk of the offensive load, a series of eight-man fronts prevented Frank Gore & Co. from producing gaudy statistics. That wasn't a problem on Sunday, as the San Francisco offensive line created innumerable holes for Gore and Kendall Hunter to run through. The pair combined for 153 yards on 25 carries, 16 of which went for four yards or more. Their biggest play of the day was "just" the 23-yard touchdown run by Gore, but they were consistently effective in creating manageable situations for Smith while occasionally ripping off a demoralizing first down. A 16-yard run on second-and-15 by Gore from his own 10-yard line was enough to get San Francisco out of the shadow of its own end zone. With Moss and Manningham playing limited roles in the victory, perhaps the idea behind signing Team M&M was merely to create more running lanes for Gore and Hunter to run through.

For the Packers, questions now arise as to how good their defense really is. For the Niners, though, the big question coming out of their win is whether or not the rushing offense will really be this impressive during the remainder of 2012. If it truly is, it's going to be close to impossible for anyone to take away a lead from San Francisco this season. And if that's the case, well, all the regression statistics we've referenced might end up being worthless after all. If this Niners team shows up every week for the remainder of the year, they might even top 13 wins. That's how impressive this performance was.

Weakness of Schedule

In handicapping opening-week performances, remember that strength of schedule and context really do matter in figuring out just how effective the players in question are likely to be going forward. It's easier to figure out quality of opposition after a few weeks of action have been played, but there are already some good indications lying around.

For example, take Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan. On paper, Ryan's game was brilliant: 23-of-31, 299 yards, four touchdowns (three passing), and just one interception. Kansas City can be a tough place for a visiting quarterback, but the more notable item is that the team was missing linebacker Tamba Hali (suspension) and corner Brandon Flowers (injury), arguably the team's two best defenders. Naturally, while the Falcons were rumored to be preparing for a more wide-open offense all season, they found a defense without Hali or Flowers to be very amenable to the Matt Ryan League MVP Bandwagon. While Ryan still might have a few big games in him, he doesn't get to play a defense missing two Pro Bowl–caliber guys every week.

Jake Locker is another. Before Locker was forced out of the game with a shoulder injury, he had put up respectable numbers against the Patriots: 23-of-32, 239 yards, one touchdown, one pick. Remember, though, that Locker spent most of that game playing catchup against the league's weakest pass defense of a year ago. It looks like Locker will be able to return quickly from his injury, but don't expect him to have such an easy time accruing stats against the likes of Houston and San Diego in upcoming weeks.

On the other hand, properly recognizing quality of opposition can give us insight into how a team or player might have changed compared to the previous season. This Sunday's Buccaneers-Panthers game is a perfect example. Last year, the Bucs allowed more rushing touchdowns and the second-most rushing yardage of anyone in football. Fantasy owners who saw that Jonathan Stewart was unable to play this Sunday undoubtedly focused their efforts on getting DeAngelo Williams on game day, but it was mostly for naught. They certainly didn't get much for it. That much-maligned Buccaneers run defense held Williams, Cam Newton, and their brethren to just 10 yards on 13 carries. If that's for real, obviously, it might be Tampa Bay's ticket back into the NFC South race.

Don't automatically write off Ryan and Locker and fall for the Bucs D because it's easy to establish their quality of opposition. As with anything related to small samples in football, more snaps means more reliability. We'll know more about each of them with each passing week.

Thank You for Not Coaching

It's pretty easy to pick on Browns coach Pat Shurmur this morning, so let's spare him the cheap jokes and get to the facts. When D'Qwell Jackson picked off Michael Vick and took the return back to the house for a 27-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter of Sunday's game, the Browns took a 15-10 lead before attempting the conversion. Shurmur sent his kicking team out there and picked up an extra point to go up 16-10. On their final meaningful drive, though, the Eagles scored a touchdown and picked up the deciding score on the extra point, winning 17-16 after Brandon Weeden threw his fourth pick of the day.

This isn't an egregious decision because it came back to haunt the Browns; it's a critical failure because Shurmur chose the option that added virtually nothing to his team's chances of winning.2 Kicking the extra point gave the Browns a 16-10 lead with 14 minutes to go; the only advantage it gave them was having the ability to tie if Philadelphia kicked two field goals. That's far less likely to occur than the Eagles scoring one touchdown. The value added by a successful two-point conversion is significantly greater, more than enough to justify the risk of going for two. The footballcommentary.com two-point chart suggests that the Browns should have gone for two unless their chances of converting were below 24 percent, a conversion rate that even the league's worst rushing attack would find attainable.

Furthermore, it's an awful decision because it employs exactly zero foresight. You don't need to be thinking about win probability models or game theory to realize that going from a five-point lead to a six-point one in the fourth quarter is basically worthless. Coaches have charts that tell them when they should kick or choose to go for a two-pointer, but a second-generation coach like Shurmur should have easy decisions like this instilled in his DNA. There are some two-point decisions that require a closer consideration of the variables than the simple numbers indicate. This wasn't one of them.

Often, these sorts of scenarios end up being theoretical exercises because, eventually, the game situation after the decision morphs into something totally different, rendering the conversion decision mostly irrelevant in the bigger picture of the game. This was the rare example of a poor coaching decision that seemed ill-advised on the surface and immediately came back to bite the team in question. Situational play-calling tends to be overrated in terms of judging a coach's total effectiveness, but Shurmur's decision was so bad that it raises fundamental questions about his core competency.

Fun in Week 1

Sunday also delivered a number of blowouts from teams that should be in or around the playoff picture in 2012. Perhaps it was no surprise to see the Patriots inflict a 21-point defeat upon the Titans, but there were also impressive 20-point victories by the Bears, Jets, and Texans, each of whom have sights set on appearing in the playoffs. Last year, while a blowout Bills victory in Kansas City didn't augur anything great to come in January for Buffalo, Houston's 27-point win over the Colts basically announced that change had arrived in the AFC South. That's the charm of a Week 1 blowout. It's staking a claim to the new season and daring the rest of your schedule to prove you wrong.

Is that actually what happens, though? Do teams who record a blowout victory in Week 1, like those four teams did this year, often march their way into the playoffs? Well, sorta. Since 1990, 38 of the 64 teams that won in Week 1 with a margin of victory of 20 points or more made the playoffs, which is a 59.4 percent clip. That's not bad.

Of course, there's some bias built into that. Teams who win by 20 points or more are frequently really good football teams, and teams with a win up on the opposition are inherently more likely to make the playoffs than those without one, regardless of whether they won by one point or 20. A better question to ask, then, is whether teams who produce a blowout in Week 1 are more likely to make the playoffs than teams who produced blowouts later in the season.

That's not really the case. Teams who produced these sorts of blowouts in Week 2 made the playoffs 69.7 percent of the time. And teams who produced them in Week 3 made the dance 74.6 percent of the time. So the Week 1 blowout is cool, but it doesn't really mean anything more than a blowout in any of the other weeks.

A Note of Thanks

I just wanted to finish up with a brief note of thanks to all the people who sent in kind thoughts after I mentioned my unfortunate life incident in Simmons's column last week. It was really touching, actually; even people who insisted that I was impossibly stupid and bad at my job for saying that their favorite team wasn't going to do so hot this year managed to sneak in a warm remark or two. I'm still operating at well below 100 percent here (and my 100 percent, as you might know, often isn't very good to begin with), but things are getting better and I'll be restoring football coverage to full service this week, with posts on the Triangle from Tuesday through Thursday.

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NFL Run & Shootaround: Robert Griffin, the First

By: timbersfan, 12:14 AM GMT on September 12, 2012

RG3 and Newton's Law

In a lot of ways, the Cam Newton–Robert Griffin comparison makes sense. Each is an athletic, dynamic quarterback capable of making plays with his arm or his legs. Each has a Heisman Trophy to his credit, and each emerged from relative anonymity to claim it. And after yesterday’s 40-32 win for the Redskins, each has a stunning NFL debut to his credit.

There are plenty of differences in how each got to that point, though, and with Griffin’s performance against New Orleans — 19-for-26 for 320 yards and two touchdowns — there also seems to be a difference in how far along each was by Week 1.

Newton’s arrival in the consciousness of college football fans truly was sudden. The junior college transfer (by way of a checkered stint at Florida) hadn’t even won his starting job until spring practice. What followed was one of the more surprising and dominant college seasons in memory, and including a national championship and a sudden rise to the near-consensus no. 1 pick in the draft. When Newton came out and threw for more than 400 yards in Week 1 last year, it was nothing less than shocking.

Auburn’s offense was tailored to Newton; it was a system designed in such a way to utilize Newton’s ability as a runner and combine minimal-read passing plays as a means of hitting big plays when the defense failed to play the Tigers honestly. Anything resembling an NFL playbook would be a considerable departure from what he used during his one year under Gene Chizik. Carolina still uses Newton like no other team in the league uses its quarterback, but his progression as a passer, especially in an offseason with a lockout, came almost overnight.

Griffin may have appeared in the national college football consciousness in what seemed like an instant, but his maturation as a quarterback was something fans of the Big 12 watched for years. When Griffin became Baylor’s quarterback in 2008 — following a long road of coaches trying to dissuade him from the position — he was an athletic marvel that provided a bright spot in what had been a dark time for Baylor football. Griffin ran for more than 800 yards in his first year as a starter, and at times gave opposing defenses fits. As a passer, though, there was still much to be desired (59.9 percent completions, 2,091 yards). After missing the 2009 season with a torn ACL, Griffin returned in 2010 and completed more than two-thirds of his passes while throwing for 3,500 yards and 22 touchdowns. And in 2011, well, we know about that one.

His world-class speed leads people to label Griffin as a running quarterback, but the truth is he’s a developed passer in the same mold as Andrew Luck. Newton’s 400-yard explosion in last year’s opener was the result of a shootout that required Carolina to let the offense loose and let Newton make plays. Griffin was given his own version of freedom, but it dealt with what type of play Washington would run rather than what sort of improvisation each play would involve. Using many of the same basic offense principles he used at Baylor (shotgun formations, run/pass options), Griffin surveyed the defense and tended toward a series of quick, easy throws that helped establish a rhythm and comfort that allowed the game to come to him. Instead of a padded 400-yard total dictated by the flow of the game, Griffin and the Redskins were the ones doing the dictating. There’s no denying that Newton is a special talent, and the element he brings to Carolina's offense isn’t seen anywhere else in football, but Griffin is something different, and after yesterday afternoon, maybe something even more imposing. — Robert Mays

In the Name of Andray Blatche, Get Excited

I haven't had a chance to consult Elias yet, but I'm pretty sure that was the greatest debut by a rookie QB in the history of organized football. Or awfully close.

[Elias editor: Sure. This sounds totally right.]

Of course, now is exactly the wrong time to prematurely over-superlative-julate. But here's the thing (no. 1): No one who roots for the team in burgundy and gold has seen a QB with this combo of athleticism and poise and brain-for-the-game and youth in quite a while. Sure, we had a nice run with Rypien, and it was very fun watching Doug Williams catch fire at the right time, but watching RG3 yesterday was an entirely different experience. All that was at stake yesterday were the first impressions of an entire fan base wondering whether the next 10 years of the franchise's trajectory will be as frustrating and disappointing as the last 10 years.

And here's the thing (no. 2): The whole team is better when the QB has his shit together. I'm sure there are 50 metrics that correlate data points like time of possession and run-pass balance to increased odds of success (I see you, Barnwell), but all I know is what my eyes were telling me. And my eyes said that was the most consistent offensive performance from every player not named Fred Davis, and the most inspired effort by a defense featuring unheard-of newbies in critical positions, and the best-coached game we've enjoyed from the entire coaching staff (I'm letting Danny Smith off the hook for the blocked punt because Cundiff went 4-4) in a long, long, long time. Or at least since the team started 6-2 a few years ago under the incomparable Jim Zorn.

Anyhow, it's going be nothing but breathless hyperbole around here for as long as my man RG3 can keep it up. But if the Nats can clinch a winning record for a D.C. baseball team for the first time in 43 years, and Andray Blatche can find another team that will pay him to play basketball, then anything is possible. Right? — Joe House

Five Over-the-Top But Totally Appropriate RG3 Analogies Following His Dismantling of the New Orleans Saints in His NFL Debut, to Commemorate the Beginning of an Era of Super-Elite QB Play and Multiple Championships in Our Nation's Long-Suffering Capital

1. Like Peyton Manning with Peyton Manning's pre-2011 neck, John Elway's arm, Joe Montana's calm in the pocket, and Andrew Luck's nothing (that guy is so overrated).
2. Like a gazelle with a rocket-launcher mounted to its shoulder, and an instinct for murdering cornerbacks.
3. Like Superman with a Kryptonite immunity.
4. Like Jesus if he decided to save Washington Redskins fans instead of all of humanity.
5. Like Robert Griffin III, there are no correct analogies for the greatest signal-caller the league has ever seen. Eventual lifetime QB Rating: 5,000.

[Dies of happiness in a McDonald's PlayPlace ball crawl stocked entirely with Redskins Super Bowl rings] — Mark Lisanti

Go Ask Russell, When He's 10 Feet Tall



There's a one-pill-makes-you-smarter joke here, but this isn't about Joe Haden. Ask any savior and they will tell you, "You've got to spend some time in the wilderness before you get to the mountain. And then you've got to climb the mountain, but that's a whole other thing." That's in the Bible, right? Anywho, Russell Wilson, the greatest athlete of the 21st century and the man who figured out the scientific process to make Cheddar cheese as well as the unofficial discoverer of the Pacific Ocean, played his first real NFL game on Sunday, and ... well ... yeah.

As Matt Flynn would no doubt tell you, preseason games should not be the be-all, end-all determining factor as to whether someone should start at quarterback in the NFL. As a Philly fan, I've seen any number of Kafkas and Kolbs that looked like young Steve Youngs in exhibitions and old, old, old Steve Young when doing it for real.

Watching Russell Wilson get lost in the forest of Okung, you couldn't help but feel like he might not just be a little undersize, but also in over his head. It didn't help that Patrick Peterson was busy proving, play after play, that he is part bird of prey, but everything Seattle had going seemed to be a little too improv. And I'm talking like ... 12:45 a.m. second-to-last-skit, bad–Saturday Night Live improv. The most consistent play the Seahawks had seemed to be "Pass Interference, Right."

Pete Carroll kind of backed himself into a corner here by giving Wilson the keys from the jump. Think about it: He is a classic, mid-season, "We're 2-5 and we're gonna give Wilson a chance now" case. Then, boom, change of pace and the Seahawks rattle off four in a row with Wilson replacing Flynn. As a lover of football and someone who is a little vertically challenged, I want Russell Wilson to succeed as much as the next (short) guy. But I have a feeling the change of pace is going to be Flynn, sooner or later. — Chris Ryan

Glaring Gambling Loss of the Week, With Cousin Sal

My most glaring gambling loss this week came when I bet a friend that after a blown call one of the NFL replacement officials would be physically assaulted by a player. I guess we still have tonight's doubleheader and the time bomb known as Ray Lewis. Either way, I give the replacement officials a solid C+ for their performance thus far. Their benevolence in allowing the Seahawks an extra timeout was one of the very few botched calls that stand out.

I'll say this, though: I'm never more nervous in a game not involving my own team than when one of these temps has to make an on-field announcement. The all-around uncertainty is cringe-worthy. Every time one of these guys turns on the mic I feel as if my father is about to do stand-up at The Apollo. The best was in last night's game when Big Ben got sacked on a play that didn't happen due to a false start. The referee kept looking to find Broncos head coach John Fox to see if he wanted to decline the undeclinable penalty. Finally, after getting no feedback from Fox, he proceeded with the announcement. "There was a false start on the play. The penalty is accepted ... oh ... [now excited that he's figured it out — like an adult who realizes where he left his car keys] it can't be declined because the play never happened. Five-yard penalty. Repeat second down." Oy. I recommend they spend a solid 60 hours playing Madden '13 between now and Sunday. Dress casual. — Sal Iacono

Welcome to Atlanta

Making bold predictions is a part of the art form that is completely baseless journalism. I, for one, am no stranger to this. An example:

Rembert Browne@rembert
Serena's not losing.
9 Sep 12 ReplyRetweetFavorite
Is saying this, as Serena was down 5-3 in the final set of the U.S. Open final, a bold move? Not at all. It's a win-win. If I'm wrong, it's simply me showing unadulterated support for my girl, even at the toughest of times, and if I'm right, I'm a genius. Serena ended up winning 7-5 in that third set, so yes, I'm a genius.

Here's an example of when a bold proclamation is not a win-win:


Warren Sapp predicted the Kansas City Chiefs would beat the Atlanta Falcons 41-0. On television. While wearing a blue shirt and an Earl Grey tie. How'd that prediction work out for the man who once sacked quarterbacks and starred in Trina videos?

Falcons defeated the Chiefs: 40-24. Obviously.

Don't step foot in Atlanta without asking my permission, Warren. I'm not scared. You can't just sack me in these streets; this is real life. I'll charge you with battery. — Rembert Browne

Feels Like the First Time

I once dated this girl who grew tired of hanging out in bars with me and my music-nerd friends. "Every time," she'd say, "we just end up sitting around a table with a bunch of dudes who only want to talk about how Spoon is ineffable." This wasn't entirely fair — sometimes we also had a version of the same conversation about Joe Walsh, which usually led to the girl signaling that it was time for us to leave by pretending to fall asleep, because communication is important in relationships — but her point was that whenever me and my crew gathered somewhere where beer was for sale we'd end up building a conversational sweat lodge and leaving her outside, excluded by reason of bewilderment. I understand this a little bit better every time I watch football, which I do not follow. I don't mean from week to week; I mean I can't follow it on a minute-by-minute basis any more than I could an Ionesco play in unsubtitled Klingon. It's like a learning disability. Basketball, baseball — these are sports I grasp because on occasion I have played them, badly. Five minutes into a football game and I'm back in 10th-grade algebra staring at a board full of menacing glyphs that refuse to give up their meaning.

Yesterday I watched a bunch of the football — I can't say for sure how much, but it was a lot. Five television screens in Man Who Fell to Earth configuration on which various games were toggled back and forth by an expert toggler. I was surrounded by people who knew what was happening and found my football dumbness amusing and tried to explain things to me, "tried" being the key word. I locked in on the commercials the way you can pick out a voice speaking English in a crowded street in a foreign country; they were oases of comprehensibility. The same ones, on a loop: David Boreanaz's big Jack Kirby head, the Geico caveman in a cheerleader's outfit, KFC reintroducing the Chicken Little as a fried-chicken sandwich with nothing but mayonnaise and two pickles on it. I understood this instantly and totally: The new Chicken Little was KFC coming straight at Chick-fil-A, or more precisely, coming straight at fast-food consumers who'd sworn off Chick-fil-A due to their stance on gay marriage but still wanted a weird chicken sandwich with pickles on it. It was a Chick-fil-A sandwich without the homophobic aftertaste, built to slide down a rainbow of tolerance and inclusion into hungry American mouths. Colonel, you magnificent bastard, I thought. You've done it again.

It was all so clear. I felt smart. It was the last time that would happen for the rest of the day. At one point a 4-year-old in a Gronkowski jersey walked into the room, giving out fist-bumps. I tried to project a genial Jason Bateman–like fun-adult vibe. "Do you know who this is?" he said, indicating his team colors. He didn't say it like it was a test, although that's how it felt. He was just excited. I said, yeah — it's a Gronkowski jersey. That much I knew. He's playing today, I said, thereby exhausting my Rob Gronkowski knowledge. "Yeah," the kid said, "which screen is he on?" I stared at the screens, each as impenetrable as a nuclear-bomb schematic, and said, "I don't know, buddy. I don't know." I was Mean Joe Green, sheepish, without a towel to throw. The feeling was ineffable. — Alex Pappademas

Uninformed Head Coach Hot Seat Power Rankings

All season long, speculation will run rampant about which coach is on the hot seat. In some cases this speculation will be rooted in reporting, based on sources and sound logic. This is not one of those cases.

1. Ron Rivera
Didn't run the ball enough. Looks like he is an internal affairs officer or precinct sergeant in a 1980s cop movie.


It's something about those shades. Sergeant Rivera! This job is all I got!



2. Ken Whisenhunt
Does anyone else think the only reason he's still cashing a weekly check is because Bill Bidwill is scared of him? He definitely looks like someone who sells Uzis out of a gas station on Sons of Anarchy. No? Just me?

3. Andy Reid
This is what my ulcer looks like: Pass Attempts, 56 ... Rushing Attempts: 30.

4. Rex Ryan


5. Mike McCarthy
(A) Not entirely sure what this dude contributes. (B) What's up with the lapel style on his windbreaker. (C) There are too many coaches named "Mike." — Chris Ryan

Failed Touchdown Celebrations of the Week

(GIFs by HeyBelinda)
Vernon Davis


Rob Gronkowski


Act of Patriotism of the Week: Brandon Weeden



Asset Management

For a long time, the New England Patriots have done what they can to make the NFL draft the least fun possible for the team’s fans. Each year, when the Pats are on the clock somewhere in the mid-to-late 20s, the inevitable happens. The logo at the bottom of the screen changes as viewers learn that, again, Bill Belichick’s team has traded down in the first round.

The argument has always been that New England is accruing assets — an extra second here, an extra first there. The problem has been how poorly they’ve done in maximizing those assets. Having three second-round picks doesn't matter much when a team consistently misses on two of them.

The issues have mostly been on the defensive side of the ball (even with some misses on offense, the Gronkowski-Hernandez rights a lot of wrongs), and that’s what made one of the standout plays of Week 1 so encouraging for Pats fans and so discouraging for the rest of us. New England’s first-round haul this year included Syracuse pass-rusher Chandler Jones and Alabama’s best-player-on-the-best-college-defense-in-recent- memory Dont’a Hightower. Jones was a force all throughout training camp, and Hightower — a do-everything inside linebacker that would probably be insulted by that designation — couldn’t be a more perfect fit in New England’s defense.

It took all of a quarter and change for the two to simultaneously announce their arrivals yesterday. With about 11 minutes in the second, Jones swam his way around former All-Pro Michael Roos and jarred the ball from Jake Locker near the goal line. And who else would be there to scoop it up and carry it in but Hightower. With New England, it often just doesn’t seem fair. — Robert Mays

Quote of the Week: Michael Vick

"I've got to get out of Cleveland."

America's Team



I was there. Section 232A, Row 9, Seat 8. I was the quiet, respectful Cowboys fan, unlike the dude two rows behind me, who was singing “DeMARco MUR-ray!” throughout the fourth quarter. The last time I saw him, the Jersey cops were taking him somewhere. He’s my new hero.

Philbrick was all over the scenery, but let me add a few things. One, Giants fans are awfully easy to shut up. I’d always thought of them as Jets fans without the hard hats — wealthier, slightly older, and more demure — but Wednesday’s game took that juxtaposition to another level. At the beginning of the game, you couldn’t hear anything — and by “you,” I mean Cowboys tackle Tyron Smith, who had three false starts. By the second half, the crowd was pretty dead. The Giants fan in front of me — LT throwback jersey, fake Super Bowl ring — was hugging his pals instead of watching the game. That’s a bad sign.

When Kevin Ogletree caught the game-sealer right before the two-minute warning, MetLife emptied quickly and the only ones remaining were us Cowboys fans. You may have experienced this joyful sensation: empty road stadium, garbage time, just you and your friends hanging around and high-fiving. As I was walking back to the bus, I heard someone say, “Cowboys fans are the worst.” Not true — but on that night, sure, what the hell. — Bryan Curtis

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Here's the NFL Thing We Used to Call 'Fabs and Flops'

By: timbersfan, 12:12 AM GMT on September 12, 2012

On Tuesdays last year, we here at the Triangle brought you the most-named column in football, "The Fabulous and the Flops," in an attempt to reveal some of the numbers flying beneath the radar about each NFL game from the previous week. This year, we're shifting things around; instead of a little blurb or two on every single game from the previous weekend, our focus will move to deeper analysis of a few selected games each week. The hope is that you'll gain some insight into what actually happened on the field that you wouldn't get from a highlight package or game recap, aided by a mix of statistics and game tape (including that vaunted All-22 film). The hope is also that we'll come up with a wordier name than "The Fabulous and the Flops".

This week, we're going to start in New Orleans, where Robert Griffin III torched the Saints as part of a stunning Redskins upset. You've seen that slant to Pierre Garcon a million times by now, but what did the Redskins change about their offense to fit RG3? And what does it tell us about how the Redskins — and Saints — might look going forward?

Read 'Em and Win

In his introduction to the professional ranks, RG3 brought along a trusty old friend: the Baylor offense. As our colleague Chris Brown noted on Twitter, the Redskins imported some of the concepts and simple reads from the Baylor playbook to give Griffin a low-risk opening sequence to work with. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan crafted a game plan that built upon each look he'd presented to the defense on previous plays, creating space for Griffin while remaining one step ahead of the competition. And that competition? Well, the Redskins couldn't ask for a much better defense to go up against playing this style of football than the Saints. The end result was a truly impressive offensive showing, but one that might struggle to reoccur in the coming weeks.

It all starts with how the Redskins positioned RG3 in their backfield. Regardless of the down, distance, and situation, the Redskins rarely lined up Griffin directly under center in a traditional formation. Instead, RG3 spent most of his time alternating between the Shotgun and the Pistol, a shallower Shotgun formation where the quarterback lines up with a running back behind him. (More on the Pistol from Chris Brown here.) The Redskins kept RG3 off the line of scrimmage on virtually every meaningful offensive snap of the game, and just as it did with Cam Newton a year ago, the threat of a running quarterback kept linebackers frozen and allowed the Redskins to stretch the field both horizontally and, eventually, vertically.

Part of the credit for that shift must go to the younger Shanahan, who was humble enough to mix in the concepts of an unfamiliar game plan with the tried-and-true concepts of his family's more traditional attack. Even more impressive, though, was how Shanahan called his game against the Saints. After starting the game with a bubble screen, Griffin lined up in the Pistol and executed a simple zone read, a two-option run that's a hallmark of notable college offenses from the past decade. When Griffin saw defensive end Cameron Jordan crash down to defend against a possible handoff to halfback Alfred Morris, Griffin simply ran around the vacated end and went untouched for 12 yards.

The Redskins then used that simple zone read, that first impressive carry from Griffin, as a base for their entire offensive scheme. Two plays later, they faked the handoff to Morris out of the Pistol again and threw a quick hitch to the right side of the field, with Garcon going for an easy eight yards. They ran it to the left side on the next play for an even easier first down. When Jordan was more disciplined and didn't crash down into the line of scrimmage, Griffin handed the ball off to Morris for a few yards up the gut. And then, after another quick play fake out of the Pistol, they threw a swing pass to Brandon Banks that turned into a first down when one Saints defender (Patrick Robinson) fruitlessly ran himself out of the play trying to get an interception and another (Malcolm Jenkins) missed a key tackle.

That's part of the reason why this offense was so successful in this particular matchup against this specific defense. If there was a player who could serve as a representation for the Saints and their style of defense over the past few years, it would be departed cornerback Tracy Porter, a speedy ball hawk who skipped on the day they taught sound tackling. A low-risk, high-percentage offense like the Redskins going up against a defense like New Orleans is like a baseball team that puts a lot of balls in play going up against a terrible defense that relies on strikeouts from their pitching staff. (The Saints were also without defensive leader Jonathan Vilma, who might have helped shift the Saints into better positions pre-snap and done a better job of reading those Washington plays on the fly.) By virtually eliminating the possibility of an interception and forcing the Saints to successfully defend against screens and quick hitches all day, the Redskins created tons of opportunities for the Saints to screw up and put their weaknesses on display. Of course, that's exactly what ended up happening.

That long touchdown pass to Garcon actually came on one of the most conventional plays the Redskins ran all day. On their first drive, the Redskins only lined up with RG3 under center once, producing a short gain on a running play. They opened up their second drive in the I-Formation and the Saints promptly pushed 10 men toward the line of scrimmage, leaving a single high safety in coverage. At the snap, Jenkins (27) blitzes toward the ball in the hopes of shooting in and making a play in the backfield, but the play-action freezes him long enough to create a throwing lane for Griffin. Roman Harper (41), the high safety, tries to crash the play and either make a big hit on Garcon or create an interception, but his angle of pursuit is abysmal and he ends up coming in behind the route. Garcon makes an impressive catch, and then he gets help from teammate Josh Morgan (an excellent downfield blocker), who takes out one defensive back just before occupying a second one with his eminently blockable self, creating a one-on-one race to the end zone that Garcon wins over Robinson. It was a well-designed play in the context of a broader game plan that turned into a highlight when the Saints threw in a simple mistake.

As the game wore on, the Redskins sprinkled in more wrinkles to their basic offensive strategy. They began running Morris outside on sweeps out of the Pistol, and even busted out a very traditional triple option on a play that nearly got Griffin killed. And then, occasionally, things would break down and Griffin would throw 30-yard strikes across his body to the sideline as if that were something human beings do on a regular basis.

It was certainly fun to watch, but we have our doubts about the Redskins being able to keep up this sort of performance over the rest of the season. Obviously, they'll play defenses that are more disciplined and better at tackling than New Orleans. The Redskins also had the element of surprise on their hands; Washington ran a few Pistol plays during the preseason, but they otherwise used a vanilla attack that would have offered little to the Saints on film. The cat's out of the bag now. Tape isn't enough for teams to shut down the Redskins, but it will give them ample time to practice and prepare. The game plan also requires a ton of movement by Washington's offensive linemen in terms of getting off the line of scrimmage and moving downfield and/or to the sidelines to block; that's going to create wear and tear and tucker them out as the season goes along. It's notable that the Redskins didn't really run the ball all that well, as their 44 carries only produced 3.5 yards per pop. Morris got 28 carries and produced just 96 yards, which doesn't bode well for his viability as the starter over the next 15 games.

In addition, there were some ways in which the Redskins just got lucky. RG3 didn't throw many contested passes, but one of them was a would-be interception in the end zone that Patrick Robinson wasn't able to hold on to. There were four fumbles in the game, and the Redskins ended up recovering each of them. That included a fumble by Marques Colston on a play in which he was streaking into the end zone, only for the ball to roll out of the back of the end zone and produce a touchback for the Redskins. There was even a fifth fumble called back by a questionable declaration of forward progress; Washington recovered that one, too. The Redskins did a good job on Drew Brees, but they were mostly able to shut down Saints drives by forcing New Orleans into third-and-really-long situations. Four of New Orleans's first six drives ended with them having to pick up double-digit yardage on third down, including two different third-and-20 scenarios. Nobody has any plays in their playbook for third-and-20.

The Redskins are going to be a very fun team to watch this year. They made the Saints look downright foolish on defense on Sunday, and when they've got their offense going, it's going to make other defenses look bad, too. We just feel like they might have had the perfect combination of factors on Sunday to produce a great game. Redskins fans with their heads in the clouds after Griffin's debut might want to lower their expectations from "instant Hall of Fame offense" to "pretty good offense with some hiccups" going forward.

What in the Cam Hell

Meanwhile, as Griffin blew up in New Orleans, the patron saint of lazy comparisons was getting shut down due south in Tampa. Cam Newton might have been without one-half of his $50 million backfield, but the combination of Newton and DeAngelo Williams was expected to be plenty of bad road for the dismal Tampa Bay rush defense. Instead, the Buccaneers shockingly held Carolina's rushing game to just 10 yards on 13 carries, which ended up being a huge factor in their 16-10 upset victory. Did the Panthers suddenly get terrible, or did the Buccaneers suddenly develop a stout run defense?

You won't be surprised to hear that it's a bit of both. We went back and rewatched every running play the Panthers tried to execute, and there were a variety of notable factors that popped up.

First was just how well the Buccaneers' defensive line played against an offensive line that's regarded as excellent run blockers. Do you remember Gerald McCoy? You know, the guy who was drawing legitimate comparisons to Ndamukong Suh when they were both at the top of the 2010 draft class? He dominated the Panthers on Sunday. He sliced up Carolina's second running play of the day for a loss, and the Panthers consistently struggled with keeping him out of their backfield. He threw in a sack and two knockdowns of Newton in the passing game, too.

McCoy's linemates were also consistently able to drive Carolina offensive linemen into the backfield and eliminate rushing lanes for Newton, Williams, and Mike Tolbert. The Panthers were running zone read plays similar to the ones that Griffin and the Redskins were experimenting with in New Orleans, but while the Redskins were able to freeze linebackers with their fakes, Carolina's fakes just gave the Bucs linemen more time to drive their blockers into the eventual ballcarrier. In particular, guards Amini Silatolu and Geoff Hangartner were notably unable to do much more than get bowled over and apologize to Newton in the huddle. (Another play saw several offensive linemen simply let their blockers through like a screen, only to find that Newton was in the process of beginning a triple option. It didn't get very far.) The likes of Roy Miller and Michael Bennett aren't household names, but they were enough to get the job done versus Carolina on Sunday.

Once the Buccaneers got ahead by two scores, the Panthers had to go pass-heavy and neglect the run (if not entirely abandon it), which limited the number of carries that actually could be part of our analysis. As the weeks go on, we'll begin to get a clearer view and be able to determine which side was truly the catalyst for this unexpectedly poor rushing performance. If you want a percentage split, it seemed like the stifling of the Carolina running game was 60 percent Buccaneers defensive line and 40 percent Panthers offensive line, but ask us again when the Bucs finish up their upcoming three-game slate with the NFC East, where they'll line up against the Cowboys, Giants, and those aforementioned Redskins.

Scobee a Star

The Jaguars and Vikings exhibited just how silly it is to outlay significant cash on a kicker during their back-and-forth tilt on Sunday. For all their investment in Josh Scobee, the Jaguars lost this game because their kicker was badly outperformed by a guy making close to the league minimum: rookie sixth-rounder Blair Walsh. You probably saw Walsh's clutch kick from 55 yards to tie the game at the end of regulation, one of four field goals Walsh put through the uprights for the Vikings on Sunday. What led up to that successful kick, though, was a dismal day for Scobee.

Walsh's 55-yarder came after the Vikings moved the ball from their own 31-yard line to the Jacksonville 37 in 20 seconds. They took over on the 31 because Scobee's kickoff was, well, disappointing. Instead of squibbing it or kicking it deep for a touchback, Scobee split the difference and shanked his kickoff to the 8-yard line, where the Minnesota upback had to take ownership of the ball. That's not quite as bad as John Kasay's kickoff out of bounds in Super Bowl XXXVIII that set up the Patriots for their final drive, but had the Vikings let Scobee's kickoff go, it very well might have given them the ball on the 40, too. Either way, Scobee needs to execute on that kickoff.

That kickoff came after a late touchdown pass from Blaine Gabbert to Cecil Shorts and a two-point conversion, one that was necessitated when the Vikings blocked a Scobee extra point in the first half. It's impossible for us — let's just say we have limited special teams coaching experience — to pin the blame for a blocked extra point on one particular player, but the missed "chip shot" shows just how little a kicker like Scobee can really do about situations in which teams get a good rush and create a block. (Also, see the Shane Lechler/Raiders punting fiasco from the late Monday-night game.)

Scobee's other notable transgression was entirely not his fault; he kicked an 18-yard field goal. That field goal was Mike Mularkey's call, who chose to kick the field goal from the 1-yard line in a 0-0 game with 48 minutes to go. You can make all the arguments you want about momentum and coming away with something after a long drive, but the facts are simple; you're almost always going to get more out of going for it than you are by kicking a short field goal. Unless it's the fourth quarter and you're aiming for a particular scoreline, your goal as a coach should be to increase the score differential by as many points as possible, and that's going to occur by going for it in this exact scenario. To continue the baseball metaphors, Mularkey kicking a field goal from the 1-yard line is like a coach setting up a sacrifice bunt in the second inning of a 0-0 game at a hitter's park. In fact, because a failure would still pin Christian Ponder & Co. inside their 1-yard line, it's even more egregious. Brian Burke's fourth-down calculator suggests that it's an easy decision to go for it unless you think your odds of making it are 32 percent or less.

The game's other notable players had hit-or-miss nights. Blaine Gabbert looked great when the Jaguars offensive line was able to keep Jared Allen & Co. off of him, but that's not a surprise; the Vikings might have the least-pedigreed secondary in football. When the Vikes had even a little bit of pressure on Gabbert, he began to bumble. Gabbert even underthrew a shovel pass that might have gone for a first down, a contrast to when John Skelton overthrew a would-be touchdown on a shovel pass elsewhere in the day. Gabbert's long touchdown pass to Shorts was undoubtedly a professional career high for both, but he'll struggle against better secondaries.

Adrian Peterson, to interrupt all this back-patting, played much better than we expected. He certainly wasn't making guys miss with his moves like the old All Day, but he was effective enough in the open field and seemed to grow stronger as the night went along. Even more promising was that he woke up on Monday with no swelling in his surgically repaired knee from his 17-carry day. The two touchdowns probably overrate how meaningful his role in the game was, but even if Peterson was at 85 percent or so on Sunday, that's enough to justify him being on the active roster. He's not all the way back, but he's back. We'll be wrong about plenty of things in 2012, but the healthy return of an elite player like Peterson is one of the more exciting things to be wrong about.

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Armchair Analyst: Positives and negatives of Porter in Portland

By: timbersfan, 12:16 AM GMT on September 07, 2012

Do you like the Caleb Porter signing for Portland? Because I do.

Here are a couple of positives:

He'll likely keep Darlington Nagbe playing like this. Way back in February, everybody in Timbers camp assured me that Nagbe was one of the most talented players in the league. Then head coach John Spencer went so far as to say he's the most talented player in MLS.

I shook it off as a coach predictably trying to build the confidence of a youngster who'd shown flashes, but didn't seem to have the mindset (or a clear position) to be successful. Nagbe didn't score enough to play as a second forward, didn't pass aggressively enough to be a No. 10, and didn't work the flanks like a winger. Barring the Goal of the Year vs. Sporting KC, his 2011 season was, frankly, disappointing. He was a guy you'd want on your side in five-v-five keep-aways, but not in a game that counts.

GOAL: Nagbe puts the Timbers ahead



And that continued to be the story until about three weeks ago. Something clicked, and now Nagbe is a devastating force any time he's in the final third. Y.P. Lee doesn't get left on his rear too often, but that's exactly what happened this weekend when Nagbe scored the opener in the 2-1 win over the Whitecaps.

I'm happy about this not just because the Timbers deserve a bit of luck, but because Nagbe is in the process of getting his US citizenship (and is reportedly fairly close). And anyone who's playing this well, and is that tidy with the ball, will hopefully translate that to the international level.

Porter, of course, coached Nagbe at Akron, and brought the best out of him there. So purely from a "Selfish US Fan" perspective — yes, I like this hire.

I also like what Porter's done with Akron. Recruiting to northeast Ohio is, we'll say, just a bit harder than recruiting to Westwood or Chapel Hill. He had a vision for his program, and saw it out against fairly significant odds.

That success in the college ranks is actually a pretty good predictor of MLS success. It's something I had the chance to talk with Frankie Hejduk about last season, as he was riding the wave to his second Shield/Cup double with one of the great teams in MLS history. He'd done so before, back in 2008 with the Columbus Crew — one of the other great teams in MLS history.

To paraphrase, Hejduk felt that the biggest similarity between the 2011 Galaxy and 2008 Crew was the way the teams were managed. Bruce Arena and Sigi Schmid — the two best managers in MLS history (apologies to Dom Kinnear) — had created an atmosphere that Hejduk compared to college, an atmosphere of competitiveness but unity that he said doesn't often exist at the professional level.

Coming from a guy who's played in the UEFA Champions League, the CONCACAF Champions League, a pair of World Cups and won the Supporters' Shield winners in three different decades, that observation has some weight.

Porter, by all accounts, is cut from the same cloth. A lot of people see a college background as a handicap, but Frankie and I see it as a plus.

And here are the negatives:

Porter's Under-23 Olympic qualifying team was lamentably rigid. He stayed with the 4-3-3 come hell or high water, and the US both burned and drowned. The Canadians exposed his squad badly, and then he failed to adjust for the group finale against El Salvador. You want to forget, but you remember.

It's a case of him failing to make the best use of his available resources. This past U-23 group was loaded with pacey wingers and fullbacks who can cross, and big, strong forwards who can finish those crosses. A 4-4-2 was called for given the personnel — imagine El Salvador trying to contain Terrence Boyd and Will Bruin, just for a moment if you would. It's laughable.

But the adjustment never came. It was 4-3-3 to the very end, and it was ugly. The good news for Timbers fans is that he hasn't been that rigid at Akron, so perhaps it wasn't really his call with the U-23s.

He gets cute and plays guys out of position far too often for my tastes. Sometimes the best bet is just to keep it simple, and he seems to be against doing that a bit too often. I don't know if it's because he's young or if it's just how he's wired, but it definitely puts a ceiling on my expectations from him.

Anybody who watched MLS in 2011 — anybody! — could've told you that Perry Kitchen (another Akron product) was going to struggle at central defense in Olympic qualifying. It was also fairly apparent even at that point that Amobi Okugo would end up being a backliner.

Yet Kitchen spent the tournament in the heart of defense, while Okugo played defensive mid. Five months later, that's practically inconceivable.

Not to sell the job short, but 90 percent of managing is keeping the players pointed in the right direction emotionally and then putting everyone in the right spots on the pitch. I have little doubt that Porter will be successful at the first (I can't stress this enough: Every single player I've talked to who's played for him at any level absolutely loves him).

For the second ... if I were a Timbers fan, that's where my worries would be.

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Are the Portland Timbers suffering from selective amnesia?

By: timbersfan, 12:15 AM GMT on September 07, 2012

Caleb Porter isn’t the first manager to have failed his most recent audition and still get hired to a new position anyway. But with Wednesday's announcement that the Portland Timbers had tabbed the Akron University coach to be their new manager, his recent stint as coach of the U.S. U-23 national team doesn’t project well.

Of course, Porter's hiring was met with the usual platitudes from his new employer, with Timbers owner Merritt Paulson stating that his new manager is "the best young soccer mind in the country."

That may be, but it doesn't mean he's ready to be a professional coach.

Last March, Porter was tasked with qualifying the U-23s for the London Olympics. It was his first experience both leading and going up against professional players, and to say it didn’t go well would be an understatement. Not only did the U.S. fail to qualify, but the team didn’t even make it out of the group stage. The fact that this flameout took place on American soil, in the complete absence of any hostile crowds, only added to the shock and embarrassment.

Evidently, such a performance counted for little in the minds of the Portland brass. Granted, it took a fair number of crazy events for the Americans to crash out, some of which were beyond Porter’s control. For one, there is just no accounting for some of the goalkeeping errors that plagued the U.S. throughout the tournament. Yet Porter didn’t help himself with a tactical approach that failed to account for the absence of key players like holding midfielder Alfredo Morales, which left him with precious little protection for a back line that looked more suspect with every game.


no_source / Frederick Breedon/Getty Images
Should Caleb Porter's struggles with the U.S. team in Olympic qualifying have given the Portland Timbers cause to pick another manager?

It was as if Porter’s tactics fit the team he wanted to have, rather than the team he actually had; this lack of flexibility played a major part in the team’s failure to qualify, and such an approach will not work in MLS. Just ask Aron Winter, who burned through precious cycles trying to shoehorn his side into a 4-3-3 without the requisite players to make it work.

This isn’t to say that Porter should be punished in perpetuity for failing to get the U-23s to London. If one coaches long enough, there are bound to be failures and disappointments. And Porter has certainly proven at Akron, which he led to an NCAA championship in 2010, that he possesses some good qualities, such as his knack for identifying and developing young players.

But it’s difficult to accept that a whole lot has changed in Porter’s coaching makeup in the five months since Olympic qualifying. There needed to be more distance between that debacle and his next move. And the résumés of some of the other candidates interviewed look broader and deeper than that of Porter, especially as it relates to MLS and the professional game. Colin Clarke’s teams in Dallas enjoyed regular-season success, but playoff heartbreak, and he has done consistent work in the A-League and NASL since then, most notably with the Puerto Rico Islanders. Preki’s stint in Toronto is no doubt a blight on his managerial career, but the work he did at Chivas USA under a limited budget was impressive. Richie Williams, another reported target, also would have been a solid choice given his work in New York over the years, both as an interim head coach and an assistant.

Does Porter at least give Portland something it needs in terms of a coach? Without question; his aforementioned success in developing younger players will come in handy, as will his prior relationship with former Akron player Darlington Nagbe, who remains one of the team’s key players moving forward. And it’s not as if the league is devoid of examples of college coaches successfully making the move to MLS -- Schellas Hyndman in Dallas is the most recent example -- although his close relationship to owner Clark Hunt played a significant role in that appointment.

But succeeding in MLS requires managing veterans as well as youngsters. And although the Kris Boyds of the world likely will base their judgments on their personal observations of Porter, working with older players will prove to be a significant challenge for him.

Then there is the task of navigating the salary cap and the value judgments such an activity demands. It no doubt will be argued that this is the task of Gavin Wilkinson, who remains the team’s general manager. But when it comes to the current construction of the team’s roster, it must be said that Wilkinson hasn’t covered himself in glory. And if you believe that it was former coach John Spencer who made most of the personnel decisions in Portland, then that will place even more responsibility on Porter.

It seems clear that no matter what happens, Porter will become a better coach for his experience in Portland. Whether the Timbers will become a better team is far less certain.

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Can these five sides turn their fortunes around?

By: timbersfan, 12:14 AM GMT on September 07, 2012

Crisis? No. Concern? Most certainly. Five of Europe's top clubs -- the type of sides who would regard Europa League qualification as a minimum requirement, and Champions League qualification as an achievable goal – go into the season's first international break yet to record a victory. Are these five sides set for disappointing campaigns, or are they simply having to weather the storm?

Liverpool
Brendan Rodgers' first transfer window at Anfield turned into a disaster. He admitted that Andy Carroll wouldn't have been allowed to leave if he'd known a replacement wasn't forthcoming, and a look at his bench in the 2-0 defeat to Arsenal told a depressing story. Stewart Downing was the closest thing to an attacker, but Rodgers had previously spoken of his intention to try Downing as a left back, after a miserable debut campaign produced neither a goal nor an assist.

On the pitch, Martin Skrtel's inexplicable error against Manchester City – a woefully under-hit backpass that allowed Carlos Tevez to equalize – has cost Rodgers more than just two points. Psychologically, the importance of getting that first win is huge, and doing it against last season's champions would have made it extra special.

There have been some positives – Liverpool played excellently against City, Joe Allen has settled well in midfield and Raheem Sterling has shown great promise in his first two starts. But there are concerns at the back, where Liverpool doesn't look suited to a high defensive line, and up front, where Luis Suarez continues to frustrate. The midfield was also a problem against Arsenal, with three players doing roughly the same job, and Nuri Sahin seemingly unsure of his positioning.
The majority of these woes will be solved with time on the training ground, but as Liverpool's next two games involve a tricky trip to Sunderland and a home game with Manchester United, there's no guaranteed win on the horizon.

Valencia
No need for Mauricio Pellegrino to panic – Valencia's winless start is primarily because of its terrible fixture list at the beginning of the campaign. Trips to both the Santiago Bernabeu and the Camp Nou within the first three games means that Valencia's toughest two matches of the season are already out of the way.

Valencia equipped itself well in both matches. At the Bernabeu it rode its luck at the back, but was desperately unlucky when captain Roberto Soldado's goal was wrongly disallowed for offside at 1-1, the eventual result. At the Nou Camp on Sunday evening, Valencia had Barcelona on the back foot for the majority of the second half, although it eventually lost 1-0. The major cause for concern was the 3-3 home draw with Deportivo, where Pellegrino's side was 2-0 and 3-1 up, and ended the game with six bookings and Ricardo Costa sent off.

Overall, Pellegrino has changed relatively little at Valencia. The club has basically played a 4-2-3-1 system since his mentor Rafael Benitez was in charge a decade ago, and the new arrivals – right back Joao Pereira, left winger Andres Guardado and ball-playing midfielder Fernando Gago have fit smoothly into the side. Valencia combines patient passing with energetic wing play, and Soldado remains one of La Liga's most lethal strikers.

With Malaga and Athletic Bilbao losing key players this summer, it would be a huge surprise if Valencia finished outside the top four – but after Unai Emery recorded three consecutive third-place finishes, Pellegrino will be determined to match his predecessor.

Tottenham
Spurs made six major signings in the summer -- Jan Vertonghen, Emmanuel Adebayor, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Hugo Lloris, Clint Dempsey and Moussa Dembele – yet the talk was of the man they didn't manage to purchase. Porto midfielder Joao Moutinho was set to link up with Andre Villas-Boas for the second time, but the transfer wasn't completed, and Luka Modric hasn't been replaced with a player of the same caliber.


GettyImages / Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images
Not landing Porto midfielder Joao Moutinho will haunt Spurs manager AVB.
At least Dembele can play in the center of midfield (although his game is more direct and aggressive), so Villas-Boas can't complain that he's completely lacking in that zone. The problem, as with last season, is that the first couple of games were played with a ramshackle squad; only now can players build meaningful relationships and fully understand their roles.

Spurs were slightly unfortunate to lose to Newcastle on opening day, but should have defeated both West Brom and Norwich at White Hart Lane, conceding late equalizers in both. Maybe that's a sign of poor fitness levels, although it's also worth noting that Villas-Boas removed a striker for a central midfielder at 1-0 up in both games, inviting pressure the defense was unable to withstand.

The Portuguese coach has reportedly already annoyed Lloris, and man-management skills appear to be his main weakness after his ill-fated spell at Chelsea. Assuming that incident isn't a sign of things to come, Tottenham should be a decent side once Dempsey and Dembele get up to full speed.

Sporting Lisbon
It's now a decade since Sporting won the league, and it has spent the past three years in the relative wilderness, unable to mount a serious title challenge. But even if it's forced to endure another season gazing up the table at Porto and Benfica, there's motivation for Ricardo Sa Pinto's side to perform – from last season, the third-placed team in the Portuguese league now goes into a playoff for the Champions League.

Sporting has only played two games so far this season, one fewer than the majority of the division, but a total of one point and zero goals sums up the frustration. The 1-0 home defeat to Rio Ave, which narrowly escaped relegation last season, was Sporting at its worst – all possession, no penetration, and a constant danger it would be exposed on the counterattack.

The club purchased relatively wisely in the transfer window, but mainly functional players such as holding midfielder Gelson Fernandes, defenders Khalid Boulahrouz and Marcos Rojo and utility player Danijel Pranjic. As the only side in the Portuguese league yet to score a goal, the lack of creativity is obvious.

Mati Fernandez, sold to Fiorentina in the summer, was infuriating, inconsistent and frequently injured, but he did provide a spark of excitement. Youngster Adrien Silva has been charged with replacing the Chilean, but he plays a much deeper role, and he's been withdrawn by Sa Pinto at halftime in both league matches so far, indicating that a change of strategy might be required for Sporting to return to the Champions League for the first time since 2008-09.


GettyImages / Dino Panato/Getty Images
Francesco Guidolin, visibly distraught after the Braga match, is too good a coach to allow Udinese to feel sorry for themselves.
Udinese
We fear for Udinese every season. It was in this position last year – it lost to Arsenal in the Champions League playoff, and had lost three of its best players: Alexis Sanchez, Gokhan Inler and Cristian Zapata. Would this be the season it finally slipped away from the top? No – it still finished third. This season, Udinese has lost Samir Handanovic, Mauricio Isla and Kwadwo Asamoah, while its Champions League exit against Braga on penalties was even more heartbreaking.

This year could be tougher. Francesco Guidolin was visibly distraught after the Braga match – reports that he was set to quit the club were quickly denied, but it felt like his last chance of Champions League qualification had slipped away.

Frustratingly, that two-legged tie also hampered Udinese's start to Serie A. It rested the majority of the side for the 2-1 defeat at Fiorentina on the opening day, then was mentally and physically exhausted for the 4-1 home loss to Juventus at the weekend, when it had to play for 80 minutes with 10 men. It has only recorded three shots on target in 180 minutes of football.

Guidolin is too good a coach to allow Udinese to feel sorry for themselves for a sustained period, but with rivals strengthening significantly over the summer, another third-place finish will be very difficult to achieve this season.

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Is Financial Fair Play working?

By: timbersfan, 12:11 AM GMT on September 07, 2012

I had the opportunity to spend a little bit of time with Michel Platini and the rest of the UEFA top brass in Monaco last week, and unsurprisingly, Financial Fair Play was one of the big talking points. It's pretty obvious that FFP will be one of the defining issues of Platini's tenure as president and may impact whether he goes on to head FIFA, as some say he hopes to do, or whether he disappears into the background when his mandate is up.

FFP basically limits the number of losses a club can sustain. If you're one of those wonkish types who enjoys reading legalese, you can get your kicks by checking out the full regulations here. The penalties for FFP noncompliance include a limit on squad size in UEFA competitions such as the Champions League and Europa League, fines and withholding of prize money and, ultimately, exclusion.

There is still plenty of confusion around FFP in some quarters. Some of it can be cleared up rather easily; some of it requires some conjecture and guesswork. Here's my attempt to shed some light.

Q: What's to stop a wealthy owner from simply doing a bogus deal between one of his other companies and his club to inflate revenue? For example, an owner could sign a $200 million sponsorship deal between his ball-bearing company and his club and they'd instantly have all this extra money to spend.

A: Many point to the very lucrative sponsorship deal that Manchester City signed with Etihad, an airline that happens to be owned, like City, by Sheikh Mansour as an example of this. UEFA is pretty vigliant here. The regulations say that sponsorship deals will be "benchmarked" against those struck by other clubs. So, for example, if Barcelona has a $50 million sponsorship agreement with someone and it's the highest in the world, then a smaller club with less reach than Barca can't very well claim a $200 million deal. Or, rather, UEFA will calculate only a proportion of that and assume the rest is bogus or a covert "gift" from the owner.


GettyImages / Xavier Laine/Getty Images
Thiago Silva signed with PSG for a transfer fee reported to be around 42 million euros.
UEFA has made it very clear that it has closed all loopholes in terms of getting around the FFP regulations. This includes other types of transactions between a club and "related" companies. Again, using City as an example, the club can't sell a pen to one of Mansour's other companies or Mansour himself for $100 million. Or, rather, City could, but only the benchmarked value of the pen would count toward FFP.

Q: Do you really think UEFA can enforce those rules? What if there's a legal challenge?

A: UEFA seems pretty confident that it can. The way the rules are written, it has the ultimate discretion to determine who's compliant and who isn't. A club that's not satisfied can take the matter to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), but that's it. No more appeals.

I'm not a lawyer, but I can imagine the only possible legal challenge would be with the legality of FFP itself rather than a specific judgement. I guess anything is possible, but given that both the clubs and the European Commission are behind FFP, UEFA feels pretty confident that it can't be successfully challenged. And, even if it is, the case would likely take years.

Q: So if these rules are coming in and wealthy owners won't be able to rack up huge losses year after year, how do you explain the massive spending of Chelsea, Manchester City, Paris St. Germain and, most recently, Zenit, with its $100 million swoop for Hulk and Axel Witsel?

A: I don't know. I guess they have a plan to massively increase revenue down the road. Because that's another point that people are missing. If you read Annex XI of the FFP regulations (boring, I know), the suggestion is that as long as clubs are moving in the right direction and have some plan to reach break-even, they'll be OK. Ultimately, it's all at UEFA's discretion.

Q: A-ha! And the fact that Zenit is sponsored by the Russian conglomerate Gazprom, which also happens to be a major UEFA sponsor, or the fact that PSG is French, just like Platini, means it'll get an easier ride from UEFA?

A: Some make that argument. I don't buy it. First, Platini explicitly said the rules will apply to PSG exactly like they apply to every other club. His credibility is at stake, and remember, he has ambitions beyond UEFA. As for Gazprom, it's a big company and it sponsors plenty of things. But it's not as if it owns UEFA or, indeed, that its sponsorship is that crucial to the organization that it would do Gazprom's bidding. Unicredit has a similar sponsorship deal with UEFA, and it's actually a part-owner of Roma (mainly because of the debts piled up by the previous owners), yet nobody has suggested that Roma has been allowed to run roughshod over UEFA rules.

Q: OK, but surely Platini won't have the courage of telling huge clubs with huge fan bases like City or Chelsea or PSG they can't play in the Champions League, will he? I mean, the sponsors and broadcasters who paid good money for the rights would never stand for it, would they?

A: I think what everybody forgets is that these FFP rules were negotiated and agreed with the European Club Association, which represents clubs across Europe. Among the biggest proponents were big profitable clubs like Bayern and Manchester United. Now, they have their own reasons for backing FFP, namely they're already profitable, so if some of their competitors have to curb their spending, it's to their advantage.

But what will happen is that if Platini doesn't enforce FFP, some of Europe's biggest clubs -- which have got their financial house in order -- will be furious.

The bottom line is that FFP has the backing of most of the big clubs in Europe and, if they see the rules aren't being enforced, they won't stand for it. They might even threaten to walk out. And if you think not having City or PSG in the Champions League would hurt broadcasting and sponsorship revenue, well, that's nothing compared to not having Bayern and Manchester United.

So many have focused on exclusion from the Champions League as a punishment for violating FFP. And, sure enough, it's the ultimate sanction. Not participating in the Champions League means a huge loss of revenue and, just as important to some of the vainer owners, loss of prestige. But I think that will only come down the road, if at all. UEFA will give clubs every chance to comply. And, to be honest, if somebody insists on overspending year on year, I think there's another way it will be handled.


GettyImages / Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Sheikh Mansour's Manchester City splashed the cash to help fuel the club to the Premier League title last campaign.
Q: Really? What's that?

A: Well, the next level down of punishment is fines. And I think that's the direction we're headed, mainly because it suits everyone. I could see it working a bit like the luxury tax they have in the NBA or Major League Baseball. Imagine you have losses of, say, $50 million when you're allowed losses of only $20 million. You might end up paying a fine of one dollar for every dollar that you go over the limit. So, in this case, you'd pay UEFA $30 million in luxury taxes. That money could be used in different ways. Some could go to grassroots initiatives or UEFA-backed charities. Some of it could be distributed to other Champions League clubs. And some could go into prize money.

That way, a guy like Sheikh Mansour or Roman Abramovich could still spend as much as he likes, but there would be a major disincentive to doing so. And his spending would end benefiting other clubs.

It's just one scenario. UEFA is extremely cagey when you bring this up and insist that it's confident that everyone will meet FFP so there's no need to even contemplate this. But I don't fully buy it. As I see it, if you're going to have FFP, this is the only viable compromise.

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The adaptable Geoff Cameron

By: timbersfan, 12:10 AM GMT on September 07, 2012

Geoff Cameron is a man who has mastered the art of the steep learning curve.

"Last week, I got absolutely smashed in a tackle playing for Stoke against Swindon," he explained. "I complained to the referee and somehow I was the one who received a yellow card."

Cameron quickly realized the increased level of physicality was not the only thing he would have to adjust to in England. "The lads explained to me after the game that when referees hear my American accent, I should prepare myself for some funny treatment."

Luckily for Stoke, Cameron is a man who has proven he's quick to listen and learn. The Massachusetts-born Premier League player was just 9 years old when the 1994 World Cup arrived in the United States. "We went to watch Marco Etcheverry train with Bolivia," he remembers fondly. "Sitting in the stands, I turned to my dad and told him I wanted to be an international soccer player and have thousands of fans come to watch me play the game I love."

Cameron’s father was a diehard hockey fan, but he did not blink before imparting a lesson that has become the cornerstone of his son’s career: "If you work hard, develop discipline and demonstrate desire, you can achieve anything."

Cameron proceeded to follow this advice with passion, honing his game in Attleboro, Mass. The town is known as "The World’s Jewelry Capital," but it also offered an experience the gifted player identifies as key to his success. "The area is so ethnically diverse, I was able to learn alongside Portuguese and Latin [American] kids," he said, "and so my game was built on exposure to three very different styles of soccer: European, South American, and North American."

The young Cameron also modeled his style on that of his favorite international player, striker Joe-Max Moore. "I was drawn to his work ethic," he said. "Moore was a player who never stopped running, put in a shift, got stuck into tackles and above all, always put the team first."

These traits can be applied to Cameron as he matured into a 6-foot-3 player blessed with technical ability, pace and power who broke through in 2008 as a midfielder converted to center back in MLS by the Houston Dynamo.

Cameron’s talents were quickly recognized. "(Assistant coach) John Spencer pulled me aside in my first year and whispered in my ear he believed I had what it takes to be a U.S. international [player]."

The mere suggestion astonished him. "At the time, I was a rookie on a squad that had just won the MLS Cup twice in a row and my goal was merely to crack the team."

In February 2010, Spencer was among the first to congratulate Cameron, dispatching a succinct yet delighted "I told you so" email after the player made his international debut as a second-half substitute against El Salvador. The experience was emotionally overwhelming for Cameron.

"To pull on a jersey that represents the country in which you grew up, knowing kids are looking to me as a role model like I used to watch Joe-Max Moore was chilling," he said. "Putting my hand over the team patch during the national anthems gave me goose bumps."

With Stoke, Cameron’s Premier League baptism last month against Arsenal was as nerve-wracking as his international debut had been poignant. "I was tossed into the team after flying in and only training twice," he said.

He remains modest when reflecting on the man-of-the-match performance he collected after the 0-0 draw. "I just followed [Stoke manager] Tony Pulis' instructions to keep the ball moving, get stuck into tackles, and keep moving."

GettyImages / Bob Levey
Geoff Cameron's talent was always apparent, though it wasn't until the Houston Dynamo converted him from midfielder to defender that he received national team attention.

Cameron admits that "being tossed in" has become something of a career mantra as of late. He played at the heart of a makeshift backline during the U.S. men's friendly in Mexico in August, a historic 1-0 win. "I prefer being thrown in as I didn’t have time to sit down and think I was about to go and mark Chicharito and worry that he is a hundred times better than me."

National Stadium in Kingston, Jamaica, while not the Azteca, will provide Jurgen Klinsmann's U.S. team with a distinct set of challenges in Friday night's World Cup qualifier. "We have never won there and from what I have heard, it is a very hard place to play," Cameron said. "The humidity, the pitch conditions, the crowd and the speed of our opponents will make it difficult."

Cameron knows many of his Jamaican adversaries from past MLS games. "Omar Cummings is very fast and a great finisher up top, while Ryan Johnson is a beast of an opponent who will run and jump at you all game long."

Cameron offers a hint at Klinsmann’s game plan when he said: "You look at [Jamaica] and have to marvel at their athleticism. In fact, they almost appear to rely on that attribute too much, which is a trait we can look to exploit."

Both teams are tied at the top of the four-team Group A with four points, and although the U.S. holds a slender lead on goal difference, it will enter the game without the injured Landon Donovan and Michael Bradley.

When asked if he would enjoy the opportunity to drive the American midfield in a similar role he has played at Stoke, Cameron remains practical. "I have played center midfield a good part of my professional career. I like it because I can open my legs up a little but I prefer center back. I read the game really well and can get stuck in, initiating attacks from the back and spraying balls from deep. That is the position that has gotten me into the national team and Jurgen has made it clear that is the role that offers me the best chance to get to the World Cup, which is my ultimate goal right now."

Cameron said that despite the whirlwind success of the past year, he still has a lot of lessons to learn that can come only with the benefit of experience. "I can be too eager to step forward," he said. "I have to learn to mitigate risk, which is a contrast to playing midfield where you can take all the risks in the world."

Few American players can teach Cameron more than U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra, who is expected to play as his defensive partner in Kingston. "At center back you are directing traffic in front of you and you spend most of the game shouting -- either telling your forwards to step back and cut down the angles and your midfielders to cut down the passing lanes -- but Boca has had a wealth of experience in the international game and at World Cups and he is an amazingly positive guy who talks you through the game and aims to fill you with confidence," Cameron said.

Confidence is something that the Stoke City player appears to be developing. When asked if he is aware an English commentator recently referred to his long throws as "quarterback-style," the American laughed out loud. "It’s the first time I have heard that. That is a man [who] obviously knows little to nothing about the NFL."

Cameron admits that it feels good to be in a locker room where he is known simply as "Cam," after being affectionately labeled "The Yank" at Stoke, and he is locked onto the immediate challenge at hand.

"My focus is making sure we take six points from the next two games so we can close out this part of qualifying and set out for the next round," he said.

It is a declaration said with the kind of self-assurance that truly can be described as "quarterback-style."

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Is England's new hope Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain?

By: timbersfan, 12:09 AM GMT on September 07, 2012

Sixteen years ago, England traveled to Moldova in a similar situation: It was the first game of a World Cup qualifying campaign, and England fans wanted to see change.

The mood was rather different -- on the back of Euro '96, when England valiantly reached the semifinals on home soil -- there was genuine enthusiasm about the national side. A new coach, Glenn Hoddle, was an interesting thinker who proposed some innovative ideas -- a Christmas tree formation was considered, as was using Jamie Redknapp as a sweeper. England wanted change in order to evolve and improve upon existing core principles.

But the game was mainly about David Beckham's debut. He went on to captain the national side, won more caps than any outfield player in England history and dominated storylines for more than a decade. The Manchester United midfielder was the pinup boy for the new England.

Since then, England has fallen out of love with international soccer, and the desire for change partly originates from the sheer boredom with the existing set of players. It is simply tiring to have the same old debates about the same old faces. Can Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard play together? Can one put aside hatred of John Terry and/or Ashley Cole to support them in national team colors?

The England national side has been more of a soap opera than a soccer team the past year, but at least the writers of East Enders and Coronation Street regularly kill off cast members to keep things fresh. There wasn't such weariness in 1996. No one was particularly tired of Redknapp, say, or the world's most expensive player in Alan Shearer -- although that feeling of boredom is now ubiquitous in their second careers as television pundits.

So who can current manager Roy Hodgson turn to for this much-needed change? There isn't a significant generation of talent ready to take the place of the old guard -- it would be foolish to cast aside seasoned internationals Gerrard and Lampard in favor of players struggling to assert themselves at club level. A year ago, it seemed likely that Jack Wilshere and Tom Cleverley would feature in England's Euro 2012 squad, possibly on the same team alongside a more defensive player. Those two are England's most promising young creative midfielders -- yet in the past 12 months, Cleverley has completed 90 Premier League minutes just once, and Wilshere hasn't played a single game.

But does Hodgson intend to structure his side around this type of player? After all, he doesn't care about the “modern guff” of possession statistics. Instead, his sides are told to withstand pressure before breaking quickly and purposefully with the ball. Hodgson might be more interested in possession statistics when compared to total shots -- take these figures for the 20 Premier League teams last season, knock up a simple scattergraph, and Hodgson's West Brom side was one of the most efficient sides in possession. It had significantly more shots than you'd expect for its time with the ball.


GettyImages / Michael Regan
"He gives you the license to take people on, but so long as it's in the right area," Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain said of England coach Roy Hodgson. "You don't want to lose the ball in an area where a counterattack [for the opposition] could be on."
That's not necessarily good or bad, but it's what Hodgson wants.

For a man reluctant to make bold statements through tactics or personnel, he has shown significant interest in Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. First impressed by the Arsenal youngster against Milan in the Champions League, it was a surprise that Hodgson included him in his 23-man Euro squad, even more so when Oxlade-Chamberlain started the tournament against France.

Oxlade-Chamberlain played OK in Donetsk, and was unfortunate to be dropped for the next game against Sweden. But the problem for England's attackers throughout the tournament was that they didn't receive the ball in dangerous positions. England were never going to dominate possession (the formation didn't help, but when your third-choice midfielder is Jordan Henderson, you can understand why Hodgson went with a midfield duo). The greater issue was the poor transitions from defense to attack, a key part of Hodgson's game plan. The ball was used poorly and slowly when it was won in the defensive third, so the quick attacking players never had the opportunity to run at the opposition.

Hodgson would have been delighted to see Oxlade-Chamberlain's performance for Arsenal in its 2-0 win Sunday at Anfield. Arsenal's new-look defensive shape (widely credited to new assistant manager Steve Bould) was disciplined, narrow and compact, with two banks of four behind the ball. Throughout the first half, in particular, it won the ball in deep positions, then broke purposefully down the flanks. Lukas Podolski's first goal arrived in this manner, and Oxlade-Chamberlain did the same job on the other flank.

The former Southampton player is a tactically complex player, but he suits Hodgson's style. He's a wide midfielder rather than a winger, and despite the similar journey of Theo Walcott, the two are very different. Walcott stays wide, and is effective only in central positions when exploiting the opposition's high defensive line, whereas Oxlade-Chamberlain likes to compete in the middle of the pitch, having grown up as an attack-minded central midfielder.

Hodgson's Fulham side reached the final of the Europa League in 2010 with two inverted wingers, fielded on the "wrong" side according to their natural foot, encouraged to break narrowly toward goal rather than hug the touchlines. Damien Duff and Simon Davies hit the opposition defense directly while they were unbalanced and lacking protection from midfield, but for Oxlade-Chamberlain, it doesn't matter which flank he plays on -- he'll do that anyway. "I like to come inside and link the play," he says. "If I'm successful out on the wing then that's fine, but I think there's more to my game."

Hodgson encourages dribbling, although does so with caution. "He gives you the license to take people on, but so long as it's in the right area," Oxlade-Chamberlain said. "You don't want to lose the ball in an area where a counterattack [for the opposition] could be on."

With Adam Johnson and Young injured and Stewart Downing omitted, Oxlade-Chamberlain should get another chance. As with Beckham in 1996, the desire for change and the tactical demands of the manager gives Oxlade-Chamberlain a great opportunity to become one of England's key players.

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Terrence Boyd's painful decision

By: timbersfan, 12:07 AM GMT on September 07, 2012

When it comes time for a player with dual citizenship to decide which country to represent at international level, the choice is almost always fraught with emotion. Does the player represent the country where he was raised, or does the family's culture hold sway? Is it simply a case of who calls first, or does the player hedge his bets, hoping that his preferred choice eventually comes calling?

For U.S. international forward Terrence Boyd, the emotional challenges weren't so much about culture or country, but rather reliving the pain of a broken family, one that never completely heals.

Boyd's path to the national team is similar in many ways to other American expatriate soccer players. He was born in the German city of Bremen, to an American serviceman and a German mother. When Boyd was an infant, the family moved to the U.S., settling in the New York City borough of Queens. But the relationship between his parents deteriorated and ended in divorce. Boyd's mother, Karen, returned to Germany with young Terrence in tow, and his father, Anthony, was soon out of his life.

Years passed and Boyd's soccer career blossomed, thanks in part to the guidance of his stepfather, Mario Graschulis.

"I don't think I would have become a pro without him because I am a lazy guy," Boyd said as he sat at the U.S. team hotel before last month's friendly win over Mexico. "I think everything worked out for me. It's funny, because we did so much extra work back in the days. We were running, training. The first time I was in a nightclub was when I was 18. I wasn't allowed to go partying. He was really strict, but he helped me to stay out of the trouble and all the s--- that could do some problems for you. I'm a guy who is trying to get better every day, and that focus, I got it from him."

Boyd eventually signed on with the youth team of Hertha Berlin and spent last season with the reserve team of Bundesliga champions Borussia Dortmund. Under the direction of another American expatriate, former U.S. international David Wagner, he developed into an intriguing forward prospect, eventually signing on for this season with Austrian side Rapid Vienna.


My parents broke up and he didn't care for me, so I don't care for him.

-- Boyd on recalling what he went through to get his passport, which required his father, Anthony, to sign some documents.
"Terrence is strong in the work with his body," Wagner said via email. "He knows were the goal is, and he is able to fight for the team. He has to work on his combination game, on his technique to have a better first contact. If he works hard in the future, he can step up to the highest European level, like the German Bundesliga, Premier League, or Serie A."

But it was in Berlin that Boyd's American adventure began. U.S. U-20 international Bryan Arguez was also part of Hertha's youth system, and in late 2010 he alerted Thomas Rongen, then the head coach of the U-20s, that there were some Americans on Hertha's books whom he should look into recruiting for the squad. Rongen soon invited Boyd to a training camp with the U-20s. There was only one problem: Boyd didn't have a U.S. passport, and acquiring one required getting his father to sign the necessary documentation. As Boyd recalled what he went through to get his passport, there was little ambiguity as to his feelings toward his father.

"My parents broke up and he didn't care for me, so I don't care for him," he said.

Yet Boyd had to seek him out, without even knowing precisely where to look. At Rongen's urging, Boyd turned to social media and located a cousin on Facebook, who got him in touch with his paternal aunt, who agreed to act as a go-between to get the necessary paperwork signed. And while there would be no reunion with his father, the process did allow Boyd the chance to reconnect with some of his American relatives.

"When I first got the number for my grandmother, she was totally going nuts," Boyd said. "The last time I was in the States was when I was a baby. They were crying, all the old ladies. My grandpa was like, 'It's OK, it's cool.' He doesn't even know what soccer is. But it was very emotional."

The papers were signed soon thereafter, and since then Boyd has represented the U.S. at U-20, U-23 and senior level.

"Boyd was one of the few [recruited] guys who, from day one, it was like a great honor for him -- and I think he's shown that, and always talked about that -- to represent the United States," Rongen said. "I'm sure he went through an emotional hardship to get his passport, but he was so determined."

It's a choice that still seems fraught with contradictions. On one hand, Germany never provided Boyd with any international opportunities, which practically made the decision for him. On the other, it seems incongruous that he would choose to suit up for the country of the parent who abandoned him.

Yet Boyd has clearly made an emotional bond with the U.S. team. His reaction at failing to qualify for the London Olympics with the U.S. U-23 national team was pure devastation, and he still feels regret at how the qualifying tournament ended, despite his two goals in the group finale against El Salvador.


GettyImages / Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images
"Even if Germany would call now -- and I know they can't -- for me it's like a heart thing," Boyd says.
"I think we already thought that we were qualified when we started it," he said of the qualifying tournament. "It's so bad, because we have so many talented players in our group. It's just a big disappointment, not only for us, but for U.S. soccer."

That upset turned to joy against Mexico, and he celebrated as exuberantly as anyone when the U.S. prevailed last month against El Tri, thanks in part to his backheel that was eventually converted by Michael Orozco-Fiscal.

"Even if Germany would call now -- and I know they can't -- for me it's like a heart thing," he said. "The U.S. is playing me; I think I have a future here. Why should I not play for the U.S.? It's such a big honor to play for such a big country. For me, it's the best country in the world."

And one where his connection, as brief as it has been, runs deep.

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The Future of U.S. Soccer: The Unlikely Rise of Clint Dempsey

By: timbersfan, 12:20 AM GMT on September 06, 2012

On Friday, transfer deadline day in European soccer, Clint Dempsey did what he’s done his entire career when facing a challenge: He succeeded. Heading into the day, Dempsey essentially didn’t have a team to play for. He was coming off a career year, probably the best ever by an American in Europe: 23 goals for his club, Fulham, 17 in the English Premier League, fourth in the league behind international superstars such as Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie. But when the 2012-13 Premier League season started a few weeks ago, he wasn’t playing for Fulham. His manager, Martin Jol, said he refused to play. Dempsey tweeted that there were two sides to the story.

We may never know exactly what was communicated between Dempsey and Fulham brass and why he didn’t play for the Cottagers in the first three matches of the season. What we do know is this: After last season, Dempsey, always seeking the best competition, voiced his desire to play for an elite English club, one capable of playing in the Champions League. Liverpool, while not in the Champions League this season (or last season), is one of the most successful clubs in the history of European club competition. The Reds expressed interest in Dempsey, publicly and privately, and all summer long, Liverpool fans have awaited the news that the club had finally signed the American.

That never happened. Rumors remained rumors. Early on Friday, Aston Villa made an offer (reportedly for £7 million)and Fulham accepted it, but Dempsey rejected the move. Liverpool reportedly made an offer, one that, again reportedly, insulted Fulham. Then Tottenham Hotspur, who finished fourth in the Premier League last season, got into the action. They made an offer: a reported £6 million transfer fee. Dempsey took it. Tottenham tweeted a picture of him with a Spurs jersey. When the final terms of the deal came out, Dempsey became the highest-paid American soccer player ever.

A discussion about Dempsey’s achievement on Friday, just a few days before he joined the U.S. national team for its upcoming home-and-away World Cup qualifiers against Jamaica, makes for a fitting end to this series on player development in the U.S.: His circuitous route to success — America sent this kid from Nacogdoches, Texas, to Tottenham Hotspur, a storied London club in one of the world’s richest and best leagues — speaks to all the potential and pitfalls facing American youth soccer players.

The first post in this series addressed U.S. Soccer’s Development Academy, which the U.S. Soccer Federation formed in 2007 with the aim of providing American kids better coaching, more training, and fewer — but more meaningful — games. It also gives more kids a quality training environment, with roughly 3,000 youths in its 80 clubs.

Prior to the Development Academy, certain programs, particularly the U-17 national team residency in Bradenton, Florida, (formed in 1998) worked to identify and train elite young American players. Recent national team regulars Jozy Altidore, Kyle Beckerman, Michael Bradley, and Oguchi Onyewu all attended Bradenton.

From the standpoint of player development, what’s so compelling about Dempsey is that he succeeded outside of many American development initiatives. As a teenager, he didn’t train at Bradenton with a youth national team and he didn’t play for a European club. He progressed through a more traditional model, the one American players have been taking for several decades: In high school he played club soccer and on his regional Olympic Development Program (ODP) team. He played three years of college soccer at Furman — where he led the team to a couple of conference titles and two NCAA tournament appearances, and was an all-conference player each year and All-American once. Notable achievements, but nothing that suggested he would have a successful international career. In fact, when he entered the MLS SuperDraft in 2004, FC Dallas, his hometown club, passed on him twice.

But Dempsey has two traits that have been instrumental in his success: The first is his drive. When you talk to anyone who’s ever played with or coached Dempsey, they always mention his competitiveness. Dempsey has had to prove himself at every level: in college, with the New England Revolution in the MLS, with the national team, at Fulham.

L.A. Galaxy assistant coach Dave Sarachan, who coached Dempsey as an assistant for the USMNT, said: “When you’re picking teams, he’s a guy that you want.”

Cobi Jones, a veteran of the ’94 and ’98 World Cup teams and the leader in all-time appearances for the USMNT, described Dempsey this way: “Clint went through the ranks. [He] comes off as a fighter.”

Dempsey’s other defining trait is his creativity. As Adam Spangler details in this profile of Dempsey, Dempsey is a product of his Nacadoches environment, where he played with his brothers and friends, trying to imitate Maradona. Many people attribute his success to that independent development. Sarachan remembers that when Dempsey first played on the national team, “he was a guy that played very free and with confidence.” He recalled that Bruce Arena once said, “He tries shit.”

By stereotype, American soccer players aren’t supposed to play free and “try shit.” They’re not supposed to chip goalies from 18 yards out, which is exactly what Dempsey did in 2010 against Juventus.


Nothing about Dempsey’s youth accolades suggested he would one day earn the largest transfer fee ever paid for an MLS player ($4 million), or save his EPL club from relegation (which he did for Fulham in ’07).


Or score the goal to give the U.S. its first-ever victory over Italy (which he did in March).


The second post in this series discussed the era of determination, the Americans who qualified for the 1990 World Cup and played in the ’94 World Cup. Jones, a member of that group, said of today’s young players: "There will always be people that are gonna be missed and they’re gonna come through a circuitous route ... [Players] are going to make it because they’re some type of fighter."

The U.S. Soccer Federation’s Development Academy will provide thousands of young American soccer players better coaching, training, and competition than their predecessors. But to make it, those kids will need to develop one thing that's all but impossible to teach: unrelenting determination. Just ask Clint Dempsey.

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The Inaugural NFL Trade Value Rankings, Part 2

By: timbersfan, 12:11 AM GMT on September 06, 2012

If you missed Part 1 of my first-ever attempt at an NFL Trade Value Column, click here. Here's Part 2. PS: Check the footnotes for Bill Simmons's "director's commentary" on my selections.

Group VI: The Undervalued Defensive Stalwarts

37. NaVorro Bowman
Bowman went from backup to All-Pro in one season, arguably outplaying Patrick Willis while making just under $500,000. Playing alongside Willis helps, of course, but the Niners' run defense didn't miss a beat while Willis was sidelined with a hamstring injury last season. Bowman was basically the defensive equivalent of Victor Cruz last season, just without the dance routines after huge plays.1 If he were on offense, who knows? Maybe he'd turn into Flynt Flossy after touchdowns. Maybe he's more of a Yung Humma guy. No shame in that.

36. Lardarius Webb
Webb doesn't exactly have the first name of a speedy cornerback, you know? It fits him like the name Trackstar Barnwell would fit me.2 He's a phenomenal player, though, who was starting for Baltimore as a rookie before tearing his ACL. After being targeted by opponents during the 2010 season, Webb healed up and turned into a shutdown corner last year. The Ravens gave him a six-year deal worth $52.74 million that only guarantees him $20 million, which is chump change for a guy who hasn't even hit his peak yet.

35. Brandon Flowers
The Chiefs look like geniuses for locking up their star cornerback early, considering inferior players like Finnegan and Brandon Carr got bigger deals in free agency. It would also be nice if Justin Timberlake played him in a crazy dream sequence from a Richard Kelly movie.

34. Joe Haden
The scary thing is that Haden, at 23, might be better than either Webb or Flowers. Judging cornerback play is an inexact science, but Haden's reputation is right there alongside that caliber of player. His big rookie contract guaranteed him $26 million off the bat, so he's not exactly a bargain; he's also likely to be subject to a four-game Adderall suspension this season. But Haden just submitted an age-23 season that was better than Darrelle Revis's age-23 season … and Revis broke out as a superstar the following year.3

Group VII: Please Send Money

33. Larry Fitzgerald
As great a player as Larry Fitzgerald is, isn't he at the point where his contract is about to become onerous? His contract extension, signed in 2011, guaranteed him $50 million and doesn't have many outs to keep the total value below the listed maximum of $128.5 million. Fitzgerald has option and roster bonuses due in 2012, 2013, and 2015 that keep him extremely expensive both in terms of the cap and cash on hand. It would be one thing if the Cardinals surrounded him with a great passing attack, but they have no quarterback with which to extract all of Fitzgerald's value.4 He also encouraged the Cardinals to take longtime Fitzgerald protégé Michael Floyd with the 13th pick in this year's draft, costing them a shot at filling dire holes on the offensive line or on defense.

32. Matthew Stafford
Matthew Stafford signed a six-year, $72 million deal with $42 million guaranteed. Andrew Luck just signed a four-year, $22 million deal that had all its money guaranteed. Old Draft Pick Syndrome! Stafford put up impressive statistics last year, but note that his best games came against the Chargers, Broncos, Panthers, Buccaneers, and twice against the Vikings, all of whom had dismal pass defenses. He wasn't the same guy against the Bears, Packers, Cowboys, Falcons, and 49ers. Stafford also needs to complete a second healthy season before his trade value can rise any further.5

31. Rob Gronkowski
On his old deal, Gronkowski would have been somewhere around the top 10 for this list, since the Patriots would have had him for peanuts for the next two years. His new deal isn't awful, but it's a significant raise and a long-term commitment to a player who might have just had the best season of his career. This seems low, but just wait a year for the Gronkowski backlash. If he struggles with some minor injuries and his touchdown total gets cut in half, you don't think every ex-Patriots player within arm's reach of a microphone is going to suggest that Gronkowski doesn't take the game seriously and spends too much time Gronking around at clubs?6

Group VIII: (Most of) The Best Young Linemen in the Game

30. Haloti Ngata
Ngata used to be underrated, but now that every telecast of a Ravens game for the past two seasons has devoted at least one segment to how underrated Ngata is, he's probably just about accurately regarded by the public. Announcers should just start slipping untrue Chuck Norris–y facts about Ngata into those stock segments to see what they can get away with. "Oh, Haloti Ngata, what an athlete. He was a fantastic rugby player in high school, starred at the University of Oregon, and actually won the WWF intercontinental championship from Mr. Perfect at the age of 4 at a show in Tonga!"7

29. Duane Brown
If I'm going to knock Arian Foster's value by talking about how good Houston's zone-blocking system and his offensive line are, shouldn't somebody on his offensive line get the leftover credit? The guy reaping those plaudits is Brown, who's an excellent left tackle in all facets of the game. The Texans also locked him up to an extremely friendly contract this month that will guarantee him just $22 million for the next several years, a bargain for a Pro Bowl–caliber blind-side protector.

28. Ndamukong Suh
Some of Suh's luster disappeared last year, as he fell from 10 sacks to four and was suspended for stomping on a Packers lineman on Thanksgiving Day. You can argue that the mistake was less about Suh and more about the Lions' culture, especially on defense, I guess. If that lineman had sued and Jim Schwartz had ended up on the stand, would he have shouted about having ordered a Code Red? Yeah, probably. The other concern is that Suh's rookie contract is enormous; he's got a $40 million guarantee, making him another subject of Old Draft Pick Syndrome. He's still going to be a perennial candidate for the best interior lineman in football as long as he's healthy, though.8

Group IX: Joe Flacco, I Guess

27. Joe Flacco
Joe Flacco is like the Kwame Brown of the NFL. For all the faults you can remember from watching him play, you can make a pretty great case for him on paper: He's a 27-year-old quarterback who's started 64 NFL games at roughly a league-average level of performance. He hasn't missed a single professional start, he's won five playoff games, and he's making a reasonable $9 million during the final year of his rookie deal. No, he doesn't match up to any of the quarterbacks who are about to show up ahead of him. It only takes one team in desperate need of a quarterback, though, to value a player like Flacco as a superstar. If he hits unrestricted free agency this offseason, you really don't think that a desperate team like the Jaguars or Cardinals won't pony up $40 million in guaranteed money for Flacco? If he's competent this year, it will happen.9

Group X: Wideouts du Jour

26. Julio Jones
25. A.J. Green
They're going to be paired together until one of them gets hurt or suffers a significant decline in performance. Green clearly won the battle during their rookie season, but the collective boner that the fantasy football world has for Julio Jones this upcoming season is actually quite impressive.10 I mean, Jones is getting drafted before Larry Fitzgerald, Adrian Peterson, and Maurice Jones-Drew, let alone a full round ahead of Green. Also, more fun with rookie contracts: Green ($19.7 million) and Jones ($16.2 million) have contracts whose total value is less than the guarantee given to Pierre Garcon ($20.5 million) by the Redskins this spring. Garcon doesn't even have a 1,000-yard season on his résumé.11

24. Mike Wallace
With Wallace finally returning to camp and signing his restricted free-agent tender on Tuesday, he sneaks back onto the list. He's obviously a bargain at $2.7 million for one year, but anyone who acquired him would have to give him a new deal that tops Garcon's contract. If Wallace is looking for an agent, Grantland's still free, Mike. The after-the-fact arguments about Wallace that have popped up during the offseason — he isn't a great route runner, he drops too many passes, he's a product of the Steelers system — simply aren't accurate.12

Group XI: Linebacker U (and One Guy Who Could Play Linebacker)

23. Brian Orakpo
Outside of appearing in the worst series of NFL ads to play during the 2011 season, Orakpo hasn't really gotten much better after his impressive rookie campaign in 2009. Washington's addition of Ryan Kerrigan was supposed to free Orakpo from constant double-teams and get him to the next level in 2011, but that didn't really happen. There's nothing wrong with the player Orakpo is, since most teams would kill for a consistent 10-sacks-per-year pass rusher who draws a ton of penalties, but it feels like there's more here waiting to be unleashed.

22. Patrick Willis
21. Aldon Smith
Arguably the best linebacker in football when he's healthy, Willis isn't higher on this list because he plays the relatively unvalued position of middle linebacker. As much as teams pay lip service to the leadership and steadiness provided by their "defensive captains," they just don't shell out for the likes of Willis, Curtis Lofton, and Stephen Tulloch in free agency the way they go after pass rushers and cornerbacks. Willis's deal with San Francisco, signed two years ago, pays him $7 million less than Chris Long. Great baseball teams build up the middle, but in the NFL, great defenses apparently get built on the edges.

Is Willis a better player than Smith? Of course. Now, would you rather have Willis with his mammoth seven-year, $53 million deal at a position where talent is relatively cheap, or would you rather have Smith on a four-year, $14 million contract that's all guaranteed? A few teams would go for Willis, but more would go for the 22-year-old who had 14 sacks in his rookie year and hope that they've found the next DeMarcus Ware, an asset worthy of a $100 million deal.13

20. Von Miller
I put Miller ahead of Smith — even though Miller has a slightly larger contract and had fewer sacks last year — because Miller's a more complete player. Smith spent last year serving as a situational pass rusher. He was great at it, and he's moving into a bigger role in 2012, but Miller, on the other hand, spent last year serving as a three-down linebacker. Smith never had a game like Miller's ridiculously clutch performance against the Jets. That puts Miller slightly ahead across their respective developmental curves.

19. Jason Pierre-Paul
And I think JPP is slightly ahead of Miller and Smith because he plays for the Giants, the league's best finishing school for athletic-freak pass rushers. It's the nature-vs.-nurture argument extended to football. Guys like Pierre-Paul and LaMarr Woodley are undoubtedly talented players capable of making a pro impact, but putting them in New York and Pittsburgh, respectively, ensures they end up getting the most out of their skills. And while Pierre-Paul is already in his third year at this level, he's just two months older than Miller and eight months older than Smith. I think he'll end up being the best pro of the three.14

Group XII: Second-Tier Quarterbacks Run

18. Jay Cutler
17. Michael Vick
16. Robert Griffin III
15. Philip Rivers
14. Ben Roethlisberger

Whoa. Whoa. Hold on one second, right? What's the rookie doing amid a group of Pro Bowlers?

Remember: This is a Trade Value piece, not a power rankings or a performance list. The Redskins just gave up three first-round picks and a second-rounder for the specific purpose of acquiring RG3, and other teams who were in the running weren't far off from that proposal. It's impossible to define the trade market for a player like Rivers or Roethlisberger, but you may remember that Cutler was traded in 2009 for a pair of first-rounders, a third-rounder, and Kyle Orton. Unless you think Kyle Orton and a third-rounder are worth more than a high first-round pick and a second-rounder, the Redskins valued RG3 higher than the Bears and Broncos valued Cutler. And that was after Cutler had already established himself as a Pro Bowl–caliber starter.

Now, start applying that same offer to the rest of the league. Would that have been enough to pry Vick away from the Eagles? In light of a somewhat disappointing 2011 season and Vick's seemingly endless streak of injuries, three first-rounders and a second-round pick looks like a pretty good haul. I don't know that the same offer would work for Rivers and Roethlisberger, each of whom are more solidly entrenched as the long-term franchise quarterback in their respective cities. I would personally rather have Rivers than Roethlisberger because Rivers gets hit far less frequently, but I think most NFL teams would choose Roethlisberger by virtue of his playoff success.

The other factor that pushes RG3 so high is his team-friendly contract. The Redskins owe him only a little over $21 million for his four-year deal; Rivers and Cutler each had a cap figure above that $21 million total in 2009 alone. If the Redskins get even above-average play from Griffin over his first three seasons in the league, RG3 automatically becomes one of the biggest bargains in football.15

Group XIII: Non-Quarterbacks Who Would Not Keep You Up at Night If They Were Your Team's Best Player

13. Joe Thomas
Thomas is actually the best player on the Browns and they stink, but the problem is that the Browns have two great players — Thomas and Haden — and haven't gone out of their way to get Barry Church from the Cowboys yet. (Sorry.)16 Thomas is the league's best left tackle and, by acclamation, the league's best offensive lineman. You think Peyton Hillis got close to 1,200 yards by himself?17

12. Calvin Johnson
Why is Megatron so relatively far from the top of the list? Old Draft Pick Syndrome. Johnson's rookie deal eventually created an untenable cap hold on the Lions for 2012 — $22 million — and pushed them to give Johnson a seven-year, $132 million extensionl in March that guarantees him $60 million. As good as Johnson is, an $16.5 million-plus average for a non-quarterback is really difficult to stomach. The Lions basically priced themselves in for a five-year run from Johnson that repeats his 96-1,681-16 season from 2011; over the previous three years, his average seasonal line was 74-1,145-10, which is roughly equivalent to what Greg Jennings (75-1,223-8) did over the same time frame. I'm not saying that Johnson's season was a fluke, just that it might have been a career year. If he can repeat that performance for another year or two, the contract will have been worth it; if he falls back to his previous level of performance, he'll be overpaid.18

11. Patrick Peterson
Pro-Football-Reference.com has a stat called Approximate Value that the site uses as an (admittedly vague and imperfect) measure of overall player performance. Last year, do you know who led all non-quarterbacks in Approximate Value? If you don't know that I'm about to say Patrick Peterson, you're probably not paying very close attention!

That seems wrong on its surface, but if you think about it for a second, isn't Peterson a viable candidate for best non-quarterback in football? He dramatically grew as a defensive player during the season, starting off as a liability and finishing as a guy who followed the opposing team's no. 1 receiver around the field. He won two games with punt returns and nearly sealed a third. He now has as many punt-return touchdowns in his career as any other active player besides Devin Hester — pretty impressive for a 22-year-old. At the very least, considering he makes a relative pittance and has his entire career ahead of him, Peterson has to be in the discussion for most valuable non-quarterback property in the league.19

10. Clay Matthews
Yep, Matthews had a down season last year. Which do you believe is the real Clay Matthews, though: the guy who had 22.5 sacks in 28 starts over 2009-10, or the one who had six sacks in 15 starts last year? Matthews's sack total declined, but according to Football Outsiders, he still led the league in non-sack hits that knocked down the quarterback (23), suggesting that he was a half-step away from many more sacks. The Packers drafted fellow USC linebacker Nick Perry in the first round and shifted Matthews to the opposite side of the field, moves that should create more breathing room for Matthews. And while he will eventually get a new deal, Matthews is still on a rookie deal with a total value of under $10 million, one that will pay him $2.3 million combined over the next two seasons. If one of the Smith/JPP/Miller group have a second consecutive season like their 2011 campaign and don't get a new deal, they move up to this spot. Until then, Matthews is the best low-cost defender in football.

Group XIV: Two Quarterbacks, One Step Away

9. Matt Ryan
After last year's playoff debacle, it's a make-or-break season for Ryan. If the Falcons really do move to a pass-heavy scheme under new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, we'll all finally get a definitive opinion on just how good Ryan really is. Right now, he still has that weird "proven winner"/"can't win in the playoffs" dichotomy thing going on, but it's unclear whether he can advance past the above-average four-year run of his career to a new level of performance. If he takes that leap this year, Ryan becomes one of the four best quarterbacks in football. If he remains the same guy it seems like he's always been, the Falcons are stuck guaranteeing the eighth-best quarterback in the game $60 million.20

8. Cam Newton
Newton ahead of Ryan? For now, yeah. Ryan's a better passer than Newton, but he also gets to play with Julio Jones, Roddy White, and Tony Gonzalez; Newton plays with Steve Smith and the Rules and Regulations, Smith's backing band of ragtag misfits. Newton's running value also serves to make up much of the difference in passing performance between the two. Newton's four years younger, but more notably, his contract is an absolute pittance. He's getting $22 million fully guaranteed over four years; that's going to be a sliver of Ryan's signing bonus in his next deal. And with a full camp and preseason under his belt for the first time, shouldn't Newton be even better in 2012?

Group XV: The Franchise Defenders

7. DeMarcus Ware
Year after year, Ware just seems to truck on as the league's most impressive front-seven defender. He still hasn't missed a game as a pro, and with a 19.5-sack season in 2011, he became the second player in league history to post two seasons with 19 sacks or more, following Mark Gastineau. Ware now has 66 sacks over the past four years, a feat that only Reggie White's topped, and he does all this without shirking his responsibilities against the run. His contract, a seven-year, $79 million deal that set the market in 2009, locks him up through 2016 for $37 million (should the Cowboys choose to let it play out). Ware was part of the 2005 draft class, which was widely regarded as one of the weakest crops in league history in advance of the Reggie Bush/Vince Young/Matt Leinart crop in 2006; that 2005 draft sure looks a lot better with Ware and Aaron Rodgers coming off the board in the middle of the first round.

6. Darrelle Revis
Sure, he was a step away from holding out for the second time in three years, but what else can you ask of the league's best defender? Schematically, he turns a defense of over-the-hill veterans, journeymen, and inexperienced youngsters into a surprisingly dominant unit, thanks to Revis's ability to cover half the field. Unlike Asomugha, Revis's predecessor as the best cornerback in football, Revis is comfortable playing both inside and outside. And if you don't believe that the Jets get results, consider that they had the best defense in the league against no. 1 receivers last year, per Football Outsiders. Oh, and he just turned 27. This isn't just a Hall of Famer in the prime of his career. There's a distinct possibility that we're witnessing the best cornerback in the history of football at his athletic peak.21

Group XVI: The Untouchable Signal Callers

5. Eli Manning
Well, here goes nothing …

4. Andrew Luck
It's aggressive to list Luck this high before he's even taken a professional snap, but it's also correct. By all accounts, Luck is the best quarterback prospect since Peyton Manning. He was a significantly better prospect than Robert Griffin, and the Redskins gave up three first-round picks and a second-rounder to acquire RG3. If that's the going rate for Griffin, how much would it have cost to pry the first overall pick away from the Colts? The Herschel Walker bounty — three first- and second-rounders, a third-rounder, and five players — would not have been enough to get Luck. Would it have taken five first-rounders? Two whole drafts? An existing franchise quarterback and then some?

And would a team make that same offer for Eli Manning? I can't imagine that they would. As great as Eli was during the 2011 season, he's made the Pro Bowl twice and never sniffed a regular-season MVP award. Although it looks like he hasn't aged a single day since he arrived in New York, Eli's already 31 years old and in the middle of a $106.9 million deal that's got him locked in for four more years at a total of about $56 million, a deal that will likely be supplanted by a new contract over the next 18 months. The Giants would never trade Manning, but if Eli suddenly wanted out of New York and refused to play again until he departed, the Giants would get less for him than the Colts would have gotten for Luck.22

Last time beating this dead horse: If the league were still under the old salary structure for rookies, this wouldn't be anywhere near as clear-cut of a case. Luck would be sitting on a $40 million guarantee that would surpass the figure Eli got in his second contract, and while Luck appears to be the real deal, the slim chance that he gets shellshocked by hits and turns into David Carr would be too much of a salary-cap burden for some teams to bear. Luck's first contract, though, is a four-year deal that guarantees him only $22.1 million. That has virtually no downside, and the upside — that the Colts will have one of the league's five best quarterbacks for a base salary of $2.4 million in 2014 — is astounding.23

3. Drew Brees
How often does a team change its offensive style in midstream without missing a beat? The Patriots did it when their tight ends replaced Randy Moss and took some of the load off Wes Welker, but what the Saints did last year was even more impressive. After years of running their offense through Marques Colston and a bevy of inconsistent deep receivers, they shifted courses and built it around a castoff running back (Darren Sproles) and a tight end with limited football experience (Graham). Brees used the transitional year to set NFL records for completions, completion percentage, and passing yardage, throwing in a league-leading 46 touchdown passes and 3.5 percent sack rate for good measure. Remember that he also went 40-of-63 for 462 yards with four touchdowns in the playoffs against the mighty 49ers pass defense in San Francisco, the same one that held Eli Manning to 316 yards on 58 attempts and seven third-down conversions amid 21 chances. It's not his fault that the defense allowed 36 points and a career game from Alex Smith.

2. Tom Brady
Maybe both sides would at least think about a Brady-for-Luck trade, but neither the Patriots nor the Colts would end up consummating it.24 The only player for whom the Patriots would clearly move Brady is the no. 1 player on the list …

Group XVII: The King

1. Aaron Rodgers
Six years, $65 million, just $20 million guaranteed. The Cardinals have already spent close to $20 million on Kevin Kolb, as have the Raiders on Carson Palmer. It's not just that Rodgers is the best player at the most important position in football; it's that he's getting paid like one of the worst starters in football at that spot to do so. There is a chasm of value between Rodgers and anybody else in football. And with that, Grantland's first annual NFL Trade Value column is in the books.25

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The Inaugural NFL Trade Value Rankings, Part 1

By: timbersfan, 11:49 PM GMT on September 05, 2012

The Inaugural NFL Trade Value Rankings, Part 1
Bill Simmons joins Bill Barnwell to rank the NFL's top 50 most valuable assets
By Bill Barnwell on August 31, 2012
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Imagine growing up with a Ferrari in the garage that your dad only took out once a year. Wouldn't it drive you nuts? You would become a teenager, start taking driving lessons in a Corolla, occasionally get to drive the family Altima, and eventually, you would buy a 989 Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser station wagon from your boss for $1 to serve as your first car, just like I did. All along, though, you would wait for the day where you would finally wake up to a set of Ferrari keys and a note of caution on your nightstand. After countless hours of showing your dad that you knew how to drive, you'd get a chance to take a legend out onto the street.

I have been trusted with the keys to the Ferrari of Grantland. This is our first NFL Trade Value Column. And just like any proud-but-suspicious father, Simmons is going to be riding along and backseat driving throughout — you can read his thoughts on my rankings in the footnotes, almost like the director's commentary for a DVD. And just like a director's commentary on a DVD, you can mute him whenever you want.

TRADE VALUE RULES


1. Contracts matter. Larry Fitzgerald is a better receiver than Jordy Nelson, but Fitzgerald's in the second year of a contract that will guarantee him about $50 million, while the Packers have Nelson locked up to a four-year deal that guarantees him only $5 million.

2. Contracts don't matter as much as they do in the NBA version of this column. NBA contracts are guaranteed and clearly defined. NFL contracts have unguaranteed base salaries and bonuses that are often paid early in a deal, even as the cap hit stretches across the length of the deal. Those bonuses then accelerate onto the current cap in the event of a trade, but the team can also get out of the contract without having to pay the unguaranteed base salaries if they wa— you're falling asleep. Wake up. For the purposes of this column, we're considering both the specific nature of the current point in the player's contract (e.g., Joe Flacco having just one year left on his contract) as well as the broader terms of the entire contract (e.g., the entirety of Flacco's deal).

3. Age matters. Justin Smith might have been the most valuable defensive player in football last season, but he turns 33 in September. Jason Pierre-Paul's nowhere near as complete of a player, but when he turns 33, your third-grader will be heading off to college.

4. Pretend that every team can fit each player on this list within their cap and that they have a below-average starter at the position in question. The Packers aren't going to deal Jermichael Finley for Matt Ryan because they have Aaron Rodgers, even though that trade would happen in a heartbeat if the Packers had Matt Flynn as their starter.

5. Positional scarcity matters. Quarterbacks are more valuable than pass rushers, who are more valuable than wide receivers, who are more valuable than interior linemen. When in doubt, we looked at how organizations valued top players at each position when re-signing their own or shopping in free agency.

6. It's a question of degree. The Chargers might not deal Philip Rivers for Cam Newton, but they'd have to give the possibility of acquiring a younger, cheaper, healthier guy some thought. The Panthers would never deal Newton for Rivers.

7. This list runs in reverse order. If Rob Gronkowski is 20th on the list, the Patriots would probably at least consider dealing him for one of the first 19 players on the list, but they wouldn't bother having a conversation for players 21-50.
Of course, this is a much more difficult column to put together than the NBA version.1 I've got to weigh the relative merits of four times as many players across more than a dozen different positions while working with the obtuse financial system of a league that rarely ever makes challenge trades. It wasn't easy. When I was struggling, I turned to the official video of the NBA Trade Value Column, the YouTube clip of "Roundball Rock" that has Simmons's head transposed atop that of John Tesh. It gave me the natural energy boost of soft rock's most motivational sports television anthem with the added kick of nightmare fuel, ensuring I'd stay awake for nights to come. After days of tinkering and toying, I had a 50-player list that actually seemed like it might make some sense.

A number of "name" players were excluded from our top 50 because of injury concerns, whether they're out for the season (like Terrell Suggs and Jason Peters) or recovering from serious injuries and haven't officially established their previous level of play (like Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles, Eric Berry, and Kenny Britt). From a short list of 150 players, I worked my way down to 70 before consigning 20 more to Honorable Mention. These guys aren't ranked quite as intently as the players who actually made the top 50, but let's discuss them in rough order of distance from the pin:

Steve Smith and Cortland Finnegan: In hindsight, doesn't it seem obvious that Smith would be somebody who would absolutely respond to the motivation of basically being written off by the league because he spent a year with Jimmy Clausen as his quarterback?2 On the other hand, Smith is 33 and undersize; the last time a guy Smith's age and height went for 1,000 yards in a season was Drew Hill in 1990. It's still unclear whether 2011 was a last hurrah or a return to form. Meanwhile, Finnegan is basically Smith's defensive doppelgänger — even if he's five years younger, $27 million guaranteed is high for a cornerback who has made exactly one Pro Bowl in six seasons.

Cameron Wake: Wake drew nearly twice as many holding penalties as anyone else in football last year, but he also finished with just 8.5 sacks. That 14-sack season in 2010 was great, but because he spent a good chunk of his 20s in Canada, Wake's already seven months into his 30th year. He's only three years younger than John Abraham, who debuted when I was in high school. He's not young, I'm saying.3

Jordy Nelson: That contract extension is brilliant, and Nelson was definitely a force last year, but he's also the secondary target in a dominant passing offense, a player archetype that often rates as the most overrated in football. His 2011 performance was reminiscent of Austin Collie's 2010 half-season (albeit with no games missed); you saw what happened to Collie with a lesser quarterback in 2011.

Maurice Jones-Drew: Great player, but you read the same articles I did when MJD hit the trade market a few days ago. It's not like teams were offering up first-round picks for the privilege of giving Jones-Drew a new contract. In fact, the Jags might have gotten less than the Dolphins did for Vontae Davis earlier this week. And Davis isn't exactly sniffing this list.4

Ray Lewis: It's still crazy that the league's players voted him as the league's fourth-best player before last year when he was almost surely the fourth-best player on his own defense. Here's a good example of the difference between a top-players list and a trade-value list, as Lewis has far more value to the Ravens than to any other team. Lewis is still a productive player, but he's 37 and makes $5 million at middle linebacker, a position where teams often scrimp and save their money.5

Wes Welker: Ditto Welker, who has a perfect role carved out for him in an offense with a great quarterback. Of course, that team is also trolling him now, giving out deals to both of their tight ends while basically ignoring Welker's calls. Can you really imagine him split out wide catching passes from Brandon Weeden in Cleveland, though?6

Tamba Hali: Every time I think about what Tamba Hali does while he's not pass rushing, I remember him getting blocked handily by Jason Campbell on a Raiders reverse for a touchdown at the end of the 2010 season.

Andrew Whitworth, Joe Staley, Mike Iupati: Three offensive linemen who deserve more recognition; Whitworth (Bengals) and Staley (49ers) are both excellent tackles who reliably protect the blind sides of two of the league's more limited quarterbacks; Staley would be on this list if he had a better track record of staying on the field. Iupati, who lines up next to Staley at left guard, should have made the Pro Bowl last year. He's also making about one-third of what big-name guards like Carl Nicks are commanding in free agency. With that being said, as talented and cheap as he is, it's just impossible to get interior linemen onto this list.7

J.J. Watt: Watt's always going to be under the radar because he's a 3-4 defensive end and doesn't accrue numbers, but after a tremendous rookie season, Wade Phillips suggested that Watt is going to be a Hall of Fame lineman. A year ago, Phillips compared Watt to Phil Hansen. Maybe we should see where Watt falls in the Hansen–to–Hall of Famer chart after his second year before getting him into the top 50.8

Chris Long: Because he toils in obscurity for the Rams, Long's abilities get noticed solely by people in the St. Louis area and Sunday Ticket subscribers whose remotes suffered an untimely demise while the Rams game was showing on their television. He really is a great defensive end, though, and Long's 13-sack season in 2011 was the first time his numbers matched his level of play. The problem is his contract. The Rams re-signed him this offseason to a five-year deal that guarantees him nearly $37 million, a stunning total for such a short duration. That guarantee happened because Marty Hurney gave Charles Johnson a similar contract after Johnson had one double-digit sack season and Hurney thought locking up the core of a 2-14 team was a good idea. And that's where lockouts come from!

Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu: What are the odds on Reed and Polamalu ever combining again for 32 games in a given season, as they did in 2011? Again, this is the difference between performance and trade value; Reed's about to be 34 and flirts with retiring every year, and Polamalu's 31 but never seems to be anything resembling 100 percent. They're both expensive players at safety, a place where teams cut costs, and play a freelance role that doesn't exist in most schemes.9

More NFL Preview Coverage

Avoiding Football's Poison Pen

The Fantasy Shrink Is In

The NFL's Technology Cornucopia

The NFL's Cloudy Crystal Ball

The Mortality of MLB vs. NFL

The Tight End Revolution Will Be Televised

Broncos Busted

Buc-ing the System

A (Miami) Dolphin Tale

The Niners Won't Strike Gold in 2012

The Over/Unders: Player by Player

The Over/Unders: Team by Team

Climbing Out of the NFL Abyss

Fantasy Insomnia!

Gang Green Forecast

Who Is the Best Running Back in Football?

Odds Are, You're Ready for Some Football

Playing (the Franchise) Tag

Look Before You Leap

The NFL's Holy Grail

The Top Battles to Be QB1
Charles Woodson: Woodson's been healthier than Reed or Polamalu, and been as effective on a per-play basis as either of them, but he's also going to be 36 in October and is moving to safety in Green Bay's base defense this season.10

David Harris: Harris is an anachronism. As a run-stuffing middle linebacker, he really has no equal in football beyond Patrick Willis, but that's a skill set that's a better fit for 1982 than 2012.

Vernon Davis: Davis's average seasonal line as the 49ers' starting tight end is 57-708-6. You can mix and match his 13-touchdown total from 2009 with his playoff performance last year and wishcast some superstar performance from him going forward, but he just doesn't have the production of a top receiver at tight end in this era. Davis is a great blocker, but you can get 90 percent of Davis's ability as a blocker for the veteran minimum.11

Arian Foster: Perhaps Foster makes it onto the list at his old salary, but the combination of his new deal and the possibility that he's Mike Anderson and not Terrell Davis keeps him off.

Vince Wilfork: Chris Brown did a great piece before the Super Bowl on how the Patriots' hybrid defense is built around Wilfork, but it's also worth noting that the aforementioned Patriots hybrid defense is terrible. Wilfork's not the problem, of course, but he also has a big contract and he's on the wrong side of 30. There are younger, cheaper versions of him on the actual list.

Grantland's Top 50 starts with the most difficult player to gauge on the entire list.

Group I: Oh Look, It's Peyton Freaking Manning

50. Peyton Manning
Oh, just the greatest quarterback in league history in a historically unprecedented situation — this should be easy to figure out. There's virtually no chance that Manning is actually the 50th most valuable asset in the league, but when you average out all the possibilities — maybe there's a 30 percent chance he's one of the 10 most valuable guys in the league, a 30 percent chance he's a money pit, and a 40 percent chance he's somewhere in between — 50th feels about right. If he comes back and he's the Peyton Manning from 2010, two years older and with worse receivers, this is probably just a little low. Then again, he's 36 and one positive neck examination away from making a guaranteed $58 million over the next three years.12

Group II: Reasons to Doubt the Scouting-Coaching Complex

49. Victor Cruz
Imagine going back 18 months and telling somebody in February of 2011 that Victor Cruz was a more valuable trade asset than Peyton Manning. I mean, tell them other stuff that's more important first, but get to that eventually before you come forward in time. Once Cruz moved into the rotation at wideout in Week 3 last year, he averaged 108.5 yards per game, a figure that nobody's hit over that many games since 1995. More important, Cruz was an undrafted free agent who made $405,000 last season. He'll make about $500,000 this year before hitting the collusion-friendly waters of restricted free agency, so the Giants could have him for two more years at about $3.5 million total before even having to franchise him. He's the biggest bargain in the entire league, even if his yardage total comes down in 2012. At the very least, he's the most cap-friendly Giants star since the Icebox.13

48. Jimmy Graham
Let's move from the college backup at UMass to Graham, who just caught 99 passes and took over as the star receiver in a dominant passing attack during his third year of organized football. You know Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hours theory? Jimmy Graham apparently somehow fits about 204 hours into a normal day. And as a third-round pick, he is making an exorbitant $540,000 this year.14

Group III: Guys Who Know Clay Matthews

47. B.J. Raji
Remember how I said there were cheaper, younger versions of Wilfork? Wilfork might be a better player than Raji, but it's not by much, and Raji's just under five years younger. That's five fewer years of carrying around a 330-pound frame. Raji's entire five-year deal is also for less money ($23 million) than Wilfork's guarantee ($25 million). It's also a shame that Raji, a Boston College product, didn't get to see the rebuilding of BC landmark Eagle's Deli and the ceremonial removal of the Mike Mamula jersey that had been hanging on its walls for a decade.15

46. Brian Cushing
Cushing was incredible as a 4-3 outside linebacker in 2009 and almost as good as a 3-4 inside linebacker in 2011. In between was a 2010 season marred by that weird PED suspension and court case where he blamed his positive drug test on overtrained athlete syndrome. In a year, it will be safe to throw out that 2010 season as the outlier and wonder if Cushing is the best linebacker in football who doesn't rush the passer.16

Group IV: Pile of Defensive Ends

45. Justin Smith
It says a lot about Smith when you consider that he plays as a 3-4 defensive end (or occasionally as a tackle) and still manages to show up on the stat sheet; he has 22 sacks over the past three seasons, more than any other player of a similar vein. As good as the guys behind him are, there's a reason Smith was named team MVP last year; he could easily have been the AP Defensive Player of the Year, too. The only problem? He turns 33 next month.

44. Julius Peppers
43. Trent Cole
42. Jared Allen
41. Mario Williams
Picking between these four guys is mostly a function of what you're looking for as a team. Do you want the best all-around player today? That's Peppers, the best run defender of the four. Cole's the best value, producing an automatic 10 sacks per year for about half of what he'd get if he ever hit the free market. Allen's the best pass rusher, but the guy who's likely to perform the best over the next three to five years is Williams, who is three to five years younger than the rest of the group. Of course, you have to pay the Buffalo Premium that was priced into Williams's deal if you trade for him, too.17

Group V: Those With Sore Backs From Carrying Dismal Units

40. Nnamdi Asomugha
Everyone jumped off the Asomugha bandwagon awful quick, huh? After carrying Oakland's secondary on his back and emerging as one of the top two cornerbacks in football at the end of the decade, embattled Eagles defensive coordinator Juan Castillo (his actual name now, I think) moved Asomugha out of his comfort zone at cornerback and onto some sort of hybrid Charles Woodson shit that didn't suit Asomugha whatsoever. Sticking a guy who uses the sidelines as an aid like nobody else in the league in the middle of the field makes a ton of sense, right? Maybe that's the sort of move you would make if you didn't have any experience at any level as a defensive coordinator! Asomugha will be back on the outside full-time this year, which means he should be the best cornerback in the NFC.18

39. Ray Rice
The only running back on this list, Rice is the entirety of the Ravens offense and still the early favorite to claim the best running back in football crown. His new contract makes him more expensive, but $24 million in guaranteed money on a five-year deal is still 20 percent less than what Chris Johnson got and two-thirds of Adrian Peterson's guarantee.19

38. Jake Long
Long's the first guy afflicted by a problem you'll see come up a bunch along the rest of the way: Old Draft Pick Syndrome. That's not age I'm referring to, it's salary. When Long was drafted by the Dolphins in 2008, he immediately became the highest-paid offensive lineman in league history. Starting a player off at that level basically warps his salary expectations for his entire career. Long got five years and $57.75 million with $30 million guaranteed in his first contract, and he's turned into a very good left tackle. So what do you give him for his second contract? Joe Thomas saw his guaranteed money basically double between his first deal (as the third overall pick) and his second one, going from about $23 million to $44 million. What do you do with Long, then? Do you bump his guarantee to $60 million? $50 million? If he was an undrafted free agent who played just as well as the real Long did, you'd probably be able to get him for $25 million to $30 million in guarantees on a six-year deal. You can't credibly go to Long's agent and offer to give him the same sort of deal as the one he got out of school, which is partly why the Dolphins still haven't locked Long up to an extension. He could hit unrestricted free agency next year, and while you would assume that a normal front office might lock up their best player or choose to franchise him, this is the Dolphins.20

Permalink

NFL Opening Night: The Cowboys Will Ruin Your Rug

By: timbersfan, 11:48 PM GMT on September 05, 2012

My dog Rufus has three talents and only three. He can dog-paddle into the Pacific Ocean, battle the waves and retrieve tennis balls for hours no matter how far you throw them. He can weasel into any garbage bag with already-eaten barbecue ribs in it — no matter how tightly you seal the bag, no matter how much time you spent saying, "We have to make sure that Rufus doesn't get into the garbage" — much like Danny Ocean's gang can break into any Vegas casino. And after he devours those disgusting barbecue bones, he will crap on at least one rug or kill himself trying. You could give Rufus 500 yards of hardwood floor and two inches of rug and he'd figure out how to crap on the rug. That's just his thing.

On Saturday night, we made it too easy for him: Some friends came over, some barbecue was consumed, there was some sloppiness with garbage-can maintenance … you can guess what happened next. Suddenly, it became a staring contest. My wife and I weren't letting it happen this time. We made Rufus sleep in our room and removed the rug. We shut the door so he couldn't escape. When our son made an unexpected middle-of-the-night visit and climbed into bed with us, we both woke up and said simultaneously, "We have to shut the door." We made it through the night sleeping with one eye open. No rugs were ruined.

The next day, a somber Rufus laid low and only unleashed one poop (on a walk) that wasn't nearly as hellacious as we expected. Hmmmmm. Maybe he didn't eat as many bones as we thought. He slept for much of the day. My wife tried to walk him on Sunday night; he wasn't interested in going that far. He was roping us into his poop vortex, only we didn't realize it yet. We were getting suckered by a golden retriever with a 30 IQ. That night, we fell asleep with Rufus lying on the floor next to our bed — with our door shut, just to be safe — only when our son snuck into our bed again, this time, we didn't wake up.

It was the only opening that four-legged bastard needed. The next morning, my wife went downstairs first to make coffee. I was still half-asleep and wondering how our snoring son had gotten there. Suddenly, I could hear my wife screaming. Bloodcurdling screams. Screams you'd make if you found dead bodies in your house. Screams like the babysitter made in When a Stranger Calls.

Only this was a different kind of mass murder. See, Rufus had decided to kill not one but two rugs in our house. He pooped everywhere he possibly could. There was real strategy to the pooping, too. His ability to completely avoid the hardwood floor while obliterating two rugs was almost supernatural — like Aaron Rodgers picking apart a secondary or something. I have never seen so much perfectly placed poop in my life. It was almost like Rufus took a fire hose and meticulously sprayed poop around the room without hitting any walls or floors.

One of the rugs wasn't just destroyed; it was practically a biohazard. We didn't know whether to throw it out or call the Centers for Disease Control. The other rug was semi-destroyed but salvageable, as long as we turned it so the post-cleaning poop stains were moved directly under the sofa. (Which is disgusting, when you think about it.) I found myself admiring his discipline, even as I fought the urge to walk him into traffic or throw him tennis balls for three straight days until he sank to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. For nearly 36 hours, he waited and waited and waited and waited, his stomach churning, knowing we'd eventually drop our guard and unwittingly enable his poopocalypse.

What does this have to do with tonight's Giants-Cowboys game? There's an exceedingly good chance that Jerry Jones, as an NFL owner, has turned into a post-ribs Rufus. Year after year, he ruins at least one rug as Cowboys fans shrug their shoulders and say the football equivalent of things like, "Well, we're stuck with him, it's not like we can just drop him off at the pound and start over, right?"

The Cowboys do everything in the flashiest way possible, obscuring their staggering lack of success in recent years. Starting with the 1997 season, they've finished exactly .500 (120-120) and won exactly one playoff game, making all the classic mistakes that a recklessly owned sports franchise makes: using deep pockets to assemble a first-rate front office, then ignoring that front office's input and relying on the whims of their owner; splurging for "name" players, despite a seemingly prohibitive salary cap, and saying they'll figure it out later (then being unable to do so); and most important, steadfastly believing they have to win the draft, free agency, the state-of-the-art stadium battle and everything else that's not actually a game or a season.

When a franchise worries about the perception of what it's doing instead of what it's actually doing, trouble usually ensues. We just watched this happen to the Red Sox. When a franchise underestimates its fans and assumes they're not smart enough to value things like patience and planning, and that it needs to keep them interested with splashy moves the same way a parent would hand a screaming kid an ice cream cone, trouble usually ensues. Again, we just watched this happen to the Red Sox. Which makes me think the Cowboys will be our next big-market flame-out. What's been a safer wager than shorting the Cowboys as a Super Bowl contender these past 15 years, or shorting any of those "Look, everybody, we did something!" teams in general?

Just ask Knicks fans and Redskins fans. When your fans fully expect you to crap on the carpet before it even happens, that's officially the point of no return. We reached that point with Jerry a few years ago. Maybe he's a shrewd businessman, but there's a huge difference between making big-picture business decisions and big-picture football decisions. That's why Dallas keeps having to throw out those rugs. And that's why you can't feel great about Dallas's 2012 Super Bowl hopes, much less their chances on national television tonight.

On the other side, you have the Giants hosting tonight's 2012 opener and flying under the radar as always. Saddled with 2012's toughest schedule and blown off the back pages locally by "TEBOW VS. SANCHEZ!!!!!!!!!!!!," everything has fallen in place perfectly for the defending champs — few coaches play the "Nobody Believes In Us!" card better than Tom Coughlin. They'll scrap their way through the next four months, lose a couple of stupid games to inferior teams, pull out a couple of ballsy victories on the road, somehow pull out another 10-win season … and like always, everyone will be terrified to see them lurking in the playoffs as one of the best single-elimination teams of this generation. They're as predictable as the Cowboys in their own little way. Most football fans don't even know who owns the Giants, just that they have the last name "Mara," and that they're doing a good job. Once upon a time, that was the only thing that mattered.

Anyway, I'm laying 3.5 points with the Giants over Dallas tonight. For the rest of my Week 1 picks and a few 2012 predictions, come back Friday afternoon. Oh, and check out Grantland's new YouTube channel if you haven't already.

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