News & Blogs
The Designated Player: Bruce Arena, Chris Klein, and the 'D' Word
By: timbersfan, 12:57 AM GMT on February 28, 2013
Funny things, soccer dynasties. This week alone we were treated to another installment of Arsene Wenger’s gradual transformation into King Lear (though at least he’ll be warm on the heath in his nice big coat, and can claim legitimately not to have seen most incidents). And in MLS, the marvelous Jose Luis Sanchez Sola is hitting drop-the-mic status early in the race for the Entertaining Coach of the Year Award, with his energetic trading of anyone on the Chivas USA side who can’t show lineage back to the Olmec. Which is one way to do it.
MLS has always had an ambivalent relationship with the idea of dynasties. On the one hand the culture and practices of forced parity seem designed to curb such excesses, yet on the other there’s a continual prompting toward the type of sustained marketing and competitive successes that come from, well, dynasties. It’s a little reminiscent of the 1980s Chinese version of “permissible small-scale capitalism” — one that’s allowed to thrive at arm’s length from state intervention, but never further.
It’s a relationship that at times seems to have frustrated the man who’s usually the first name to come up in any discussion of MLS dynasties, Bruce Arena. After his former side D.C. United (coached at the time by Thomas Rongen) beat L.A. Galaxy in 1999 to win their third MLS Cup in four years, Arena, the coach for the first two of those cups, declared, “Dynasties equate to quality, not weakness. Dynasties are great. The greatest thing it does, perhaps, is make everybody else in the league get better."
Yet by the end of 2012, Arena, after a four-year stretch in which he won another two MLS Cups and appeared in another final with the Galaxy, was more muted. He told L.A. fans not to worry and to expect “a competitive team” for 2013, and made statements to the effect that we could not have dynasties in MLS because of forced parity. Perhaps he was mindful of the example of that 1999 D.C. United side, who at that time had dominated the opening years of MLS only to fail to qualify for the playoffs in the next three years. Or perhaps Arena’s second stint of MLS coaching, following the eight years as a national team coach, had tempered his faith in what was possible in this very particular soccer nation.
So do we expect an inevitable downturn from the Galaxy now? There are plenty of knives sharpened for the champions. Certainly there’s some juggling of resources to be done by a side that had learned to maximize a particular style. As writer Jason Davis pointed out in a recent story previewing the Galaxy’s season, the loss of Beckham and, temporarily at least, Landon Donovan might not signal a collapse, but the emphasis on players like Juninho, Sarvas, and Magee shifts a lot when they are playing in a side that is no longer built around the Beckham's ability to stretch the field with long passes or the way Donovan can free up men with his runs off the ball.
Yet as player turned VP of business operations Chris Klein told me recently, “I’m not sure what Bruce would say, but we’re definitely not looking at this as a rebuilding or transitional moment just because David Beckham’s leaving. We feel that at the minimum going forward next season we’ll have the two best designated players in the league in Robbie [Keane] and Landon. We have the best young defender in Major League Soccer in Omar Gonzalez. We have one of the best young players who we’re re-signing in Juninho, so the base is here for us to continue to move forward.”
Klein was equally bullish at the rally two days after the MLS Cup that served as a victory lap and a farewell to Beckham. As the speeches and celebrations continued, I found myself repeatedly taking the rare opportunity to look up and down the line at this cross section of a successful modern soccer club, and to think again about what we might mean by an MLS dynasty.
It’s become one of the stock phrases of modern soccer gratitude that “not just the players and the coaching staff, but the entire organization deserve the credit.” Too often, such credit actually obscures the contribution of support staff by the indefinite nature of the praise, and in turn the role of a club’s working culture and off-field development becomes a rather vague discussion. And that’s a shame — particularly in a league like MLS, where forced competitive parity arguably puts more onus on the incremental advantages eked out by an “entire organization” than in other leagues and sports.
So a few weeks after the MLS Cup celebration I caught up separately with Bruce Arena and Chris Klein. I asked Arena what edge the Galaxy managed to consistently give themselves, allowing for the restrictions of forced parity. The first thing Arena said is actually an example that critics bring up to explain the Galaxy’s state of exception when it comes to a level playing field:
“One glaring area that everyone in the league would argue that gives us an advantage is, we use three designated players — that’s an on-the-field advantage. And there’s no question about that. If you do that, there’s no guarantees, but in theory you’d have perhaps an edge in talent on the field.”
He doesn’t mention New York by name, but the Galaxy are hardly alone in using the DP rule to its full extent, and have thus far been the most successful exponents of it by a distance.
They also have cash resources that are the envy of other teams. When I call Jason Davis to follow up on his analysis of the 2013 squad, he praises the job that Arena has done but claims that “arguably someone like Peter Vermes at Sporting Kansas City has a harder job given what he has to operate with.”
Yet when Arena arrived at the Galaxy, the scenario was one of special weapons and no tactics, with the club in chaos and woefully out of balance on and off the field following the difficult early days of the Beckham era. So club president Tim Leiweke’s 2008 decision to reassert control by giving Arena a mandate not only as head coach but as general manager laid the foundation for what might now be the rather quieter version of a dynasty — an organization geared toward long-term continuity rather than the short-term spin cycles of MLS-prompted first-team turnover.
Arena: “I think what helps us make all this stuff work is our organization off the field. Right now we have Chris Klein, he’s the president of our business operations. He understands, obviously, what I’m doing, what our needs are, and he supports that into ownership. In our academy level we have Jovan Kirovski, with great experience, heading up that area. Our coaching staff is experienced and supportive, our medical staff is among the best in the league. So every area off the field that helps utilize all of our resources and supports our first team is in place, and I think the success of our team is not only the team on the field, it’s the team off the field."
Significantly, Klein and Kirovski both played under Arena, as did Pat Noonan (assistant coach) and Curt Onalfo (the reserve-team head coach, who played under Arena in his college days at the University of Virginia). And of course there’s Arena’s longtime assistant Dave Sarachan, who’s also been with him since his Virginia days.
It’s not unusual for a coach to surround himself with staff he trusts, though Arena’s level of control is fairly unique in MLS. Arguably, if you have the right person for the job, like Arena, using a European-style managerial role provides an edge in that it clarifies certain areas of recruitment that might otherwise be complicated by conflicting visions of a coach and technical director or general manager. Arena is not opposed to that assessment:
"The way that we divide up the responsibilities is that the technical area I’m responsible for and the business area Chris Klein is. However, our responsibilities overlap in both areas and we understand that, but Tim has basically given me the charge to rebuild our team, and as much as I work with Chris Klein and we support each other, it’s the same with Tim Leiweke and myself, because Tim gets one area that he loves in terms of participating on the technical side — he is actively involved in the recruiting and assigning of our designated players.”
Klein is an interesting member of that triumvirate. In some ways he matches the profile of an Arena protégé as an experienced long-term professional, yet he was largely groomed by Leiweke, who noted his potential when Klein participated in the negotiations for the last collective bargaining agreement as part of the Players Union.
"Tim Leiweke came to me and we started discussing ways that I could get involved in the Galaxy and AEG when I was finished playing," Klein says. "A lot of those discussions were based on getting me the experience that I needed.”
MLS Players Union chief Bob Foose says he has fond memories of Klein's time in the union. "We kid him about going over to the dark side [management], but his absolute integrity is a real plus for the league."
So did the union man feel any sense of conflict in going over to management?
“Ha ... Not really. When I was playing I always had a love for the business side of the game and business in general. I got all my licensing to be a financial adviser, I was on the executive board of our players union, I was always looking for opportunities to stay involved in the game but stay involved in things that were off the field from a business standpoint ... The realities of our league is that the vast majority of our players cannot retire and take a year, two years, three years, and figure out exactly what they want to do with their life.”
Klein figured out what he wanted to do, and it sees him sitting alongside Arena at Galaxy management meetings and gaining his AEG experience by representing their 49 percent interest on the board of the Swedish team Hammarby.
Stability will be key this season for the Galaxy, too. Despite Klein's and Arena’s assertions that the champions are not about to start a transitional period, the two have been in lockstep over the offseason about the strategy to prepare the club's defense of their title and, perhaps just as crucially, make a better tilt at the Champions League than last season’s quarterfinal exit against Toronto. So after Arena complained about a postseason touring schedule that meant for him “the 2011 season never ended” until the Galaxy’s midseason revival in summer 2012, plans for a postseason tour this year were quietly dropped. As the VP leading the Galaxy’s business development, Klein could be forgiven for having been more adamant about the bottom line over such a tour, coming at the moment the man most associated with the rise of the Galaxy as a globally recognized brand was about to leave, but his answer is one of soccer pragmatism first:
"Our window for doing a postseason tour grows shorter and shorter as our league’s schedule gets longer and longer. We had opportunities to look at a postseason tour this year, but in the end looking at the rest that our players need, basically going two years almost nonstop, with Landon going on loan, Robbie being on loan, we made an internal decision not to do it this year.”
It’s possible that Galaxy history taught Klein to pick his battles. As a player he had a front-row seat when the front office, represented by Alexi Lalas, and then coach Ruud Gullit infamously clashed over the issue of friendlies (after which both were fired and Arena was hired). But there’s no such obvious dissent between Klein and Arena. “In my role now it’s a constant thing where we have to balance what’s right for the team and what’s right for us from a financial and marketing perspective," Klein says. "And that’s where Bruce Arena has done a tremendous job, because he gets it.”
Klein is excited about the future, too:
“Everybody talks about the fact that we have had ... David Beckham, Robbie Keane, Landon Donovan, but I think as an organization we’re equally as excited by the players that we’re starting to develop like Jack McBean, Jose Villarreal, Oscar Sorto — players that grew up within 10 to 15 minutes of the Home Depot Center, that grew up watching the Galaxy and are now playing for the Galaxy."
Kids born into the league?
“Absolutely. That’s important ... You now have young kids that grow up loving the Galaxy and to then be able to have the opportunity to possibly put the Galaxy shirt on and train at the Home Depot Center ... it takes it to a different level.”
Some of those kids may have been at the championship rally last December. If they were, they’d have seen Klein sitting down first in that long row of Galaxy personnel. Arena followed him, sitting with that familiar tilted head and enigmatic smile that appears half serenity, half hauteur. Around them the players and staff of the Galaxy filed into view one by one. It was an image that was perhaps all the more striking in that it drifted into a cumulative focus. Suddenly there they all were — the championship-winning Galaxy and all who made them. Compared to the forced jollity of an open-top bus celebration, it was rather modest for all the choreographed cheering, and in its own way rather affecting. To see an entire successful organization seated in a row, without an obvious suggestion of hierarchy, is quite something. And this was not just any organization, but the latest to have flirted with the “D” word. And whatever this season brings on the field, nobody’s talking about eras ending off it.
What Robbie Rogers's Coming-Out Means for MLS
By: timbersfan, 12:57 AM GMT on February 28, 2013
Last week’s news that Robbie Rogers had come out, while also “stepping away” from soccer, was both encouraging and discouraging for the context and reaction it received. Encouraging, in that Rogers’s announcement was met with overwhelming support, and that this was a young athlete in the prime of his career making the decision to come out. The discouraging aspect was that the coming-out was allied to the “stepping away” — with many of those supportive of Rogers’s decision sad that he didn’t see a way forward playing the game.
For his part Rogers doesn’t owe anyone anything, and as a young man who’d made his way in the modest financial climate of MLS, he’s hardly alone in having to think about life beyond the game sooner than other professional athletes. So it’s possibly a little more complex than a homophobic culture forcing him out of the game despite its lucrative lure — though god knows, when thinking about comparably paid careers in the wake of announcing one’s sexuality, it’s understandable to choose one where that decision was not considered fair game for on-field and off-field trash-talking.
Where it is a shame is that MLS, with its single-entity corporate culture and accompanying disciplinary code, and indeed relatively enlightened executive viewpoint (it’s hard to see Sepp Blatter tweeting out the equivalent of commissioner Don Garber’s encouraging comments after Rogers’s announcement), might have made an ideal league for Rogers’s presence as a player to move the conversation along and encourage others to live authentic lives.
MLS has instituted a zero tolerance policy for homophobia, with players Colin Clark and Marc Burch both receiving bans for comments caught by field microphones during games last year. In Burch’s case he missed the remainder of the Sounders’ playoff campaign, yet nobody at his club argued against the severity of the ban. Clark apparently treated his moment of shame with due seriousness, and seemed genuinely contrite over time — reaching out to the advocacy blog Gay4soccer (tagline: “Because soccer isn't gay, but once in awhile it kinda is.”) and later to Rogers, in the wake of last week's announcement.
For his part, Burch led off a video released by the Seattle Sounders in which players and Rogers’s former coach Sigi Schmid issued direct messages of encouragement to the player. The video segues into the MLS PSA for their “Don’t Cross the Line” campaign (No bullying, no racism, no sexism, no homophobia).
MLS isn’t always sure-footed in leading the way on social issues — there’s a cultural tension between the inclusive version of the sport taught to those who grew up playing the game here, and the uglier aspects of the global game, particularly the more unreconstructed examples of terrace culture, which sometimes seems to hold a lure as a mark of authenticity for certain American fans. MLS alternates between encouraging and policing fan culture in a manner that can appear prissy, if not downright hypocritical at times. But the lead offered by Rogers is the type of thing they actually do well at, since it lends itself to top-down mission statements of positivity and inclusivity. If those messages play well with a demographic that skews younger than other sports and is also the demographic more inclined to have progressive views on these issues, well, they might argue, so what? They’re no less sincere for that.
Heartwarming as some of the responses have been though, the fact remains that a genuinely integrated environment is built over time and not without dissent, sometimes from those who find themselves included on someone else’s terms. And that’s where the league’s commitment will ultimately be tested. At a policy and PR level, MLS has a fast reaction time — occasionally to a fault, more often to its credit. “Nimble” is the word the league favors, and at its best it’s a mindset that allows them to try new developments without fear, or hidebound by tradition. The flip side of that is a certain glibness that doesn’t always sit with the painstaking work of truly changing attitudes (which is ironic given the league’s cautious push into America behind a slow-growth business model).
That said, the MLS version of events may be being spun toward the feel-good side, but at least the subject is airing, thanks to Rogers’s bravery. I wish him well with whatever’s next for him. And hopefully his step out and away (and that of David Testo before him) helps others to step forward and stay.
The Rockets Reach for Greatness
By: timbersfan, 12:55 AM GMT on February 28, 2013
I t was only eight months ago that the perception of Daryl Morey and the Houston Rockets in some NBA circles had shifted from ahead-of-the-curve trailblazers to borderline laughingstocks who accrued little more than burned-up cell phone minutes. Dwight Howard had joined Chris Bosh and Carmelo Anthony on the list of superstars who had eluded the Rockets, despite iPad presentations and a nonstop flurry of gain-an-inch deals that had netted Houston some prime trade assets. By August, the Rockets had parted ways with two starting-caliber point guards, splurged on two unproven free agents in Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik, and on the surface looked like a franchise without a clear path up from mediocrity. The vultures (and critics) were circling: Perhaps Daryl Morey's approach just didn't work in real life.
Eight months later, after the stunning acquisition of Thomas Robinson — a top-five pick Houston nabbed without actually losing enough to get that high in the lottery — the Rockets are among the league's most-envied franchises. Their out-of-nowhere deal for Robinson drew a giant collective gasp around the NBA. They're 31-27 against one of the league's toughest schedules, a strong no. 4 in John Hollinger's power rankings, and a very good bet to make the playoffs for the first time since 2008-09. They have reinvented themselves around a superstar and an offensive system that represent the on-court actualization of NBA advanced stats — all 3s, free throws, and shots at the rim, accomplished at a hyper pace that makes Houston perhaps the league's most entertaining watch. "I've become a believer," says Kelvin Sampson, Houston's lead assistant. "It's fun to watch, and it's fun to coach."
Best of all: Houston should be able to carve out enough cap space this summer to make a run at any free agent, including Howard. And if they strike out again, the Rockets can simply carry over all that cap room to 2014 or 2015, both loaded with potential franchise players who might be happy to join up with James Harden. Heck, even if Houston splurges this summer on an almost-star such as Josh Smith, doing so would not necessarily prevent the team from reentering the free agency sweepstakes for a real star the following summer. "I don't think it's mutually exclusive," Morey says when asked whether spending this summer would take them out of the 2014 derby.
Houston still has a ton of upside assets, including a new one in Robinson, and by July 2014, some of those assets will have reached a point at which they could be both more appealing league-wide and more expendable from Houston's perspective. Deals attached to Lin and Asik already expire after the 2014-15 season; Chandler Parsons will be halfway through his ultra-cheap rookie deal after this season, and thus halfway to a big raise; and the rest of the roster is littered with young players.
But the Rockets aren't crowing. Morey understands how much work, and how much luck, went into landing Harden, and he realizes they need two more things to become a real contender: a second star and a good defense. "We haven't done anything yet," Morey says. "We are still on pace to be a no. 6–no. 10 seed. We still have a long way to go, but we definitely like our position better. We probably got the hardest part done, but now we have to get a second star to go with James. Until we become a real contender, it's fair for the critics to sit back and say, 'What have they really done?'"
The all-offense attack is fine, though Houston's decision to trade away its entire power forward rotation in the span of an hour last week will test the coaching staff. Patrick Patterson and Marcus Morris had both become proficient 3-point shooters, especially from the corners, a key skill for any power forward in Houston's pace-and-space system. Robinson is not a 3-point shooter, and the coaches don't yet know what to do with him. Learning the playbook is not an issue, because Houston doesn't really have a playbook. "We don't have to stop practice and say, 'OK, now let's go over our plays,'" Sampson says. "We don't have any plays. During the flow of the game, very rarely do we run an actual play."
The first option for Houston is always the fast break. If they can't manage that, the Rockets essentially just shift into pick-and-roll mode. There are a few pick-and-roll variations, and Houston can use two or three of them on the same possession — the Harden/Asik pick-and-roll in the middle; the Lin/Asik or Parsons/Asik pick-and-roll on the wing as a second option; a Carlos Delfino/Asik pick-and-roll as a crisis third option; and various sets that have Harden fly off two screens on the right wing, take a dribble handoff at the right elbow, and then run what amounts to a high-speed pick-and-roll toward the middle as a shooter — usually Delfino — fades to the right corner.
The results have probably been even better than expected internally: Houston is fifth in points per possession thanks mostly to a shot selection profile that represents the next phase in what teams like Orlando, San Antonio, and Denver have done over the last few seasons. Houston is second in the league in 3-point attempts, third in shots from the restricted area, first in corner 3s, and in the top 10 in free throws per shot attempt. Houston is on pace to average the fewest midrange 2-point shots in recorded NBA history, per both Hoopdata and NBA.com's stats database. It is just about the exact vision the front office and coaching staff outlined in a series of meetings that started after last season, and it's something they began to execute in the preseason — before acquiring Harden. "It started to come together in our last two preseason games, and we got really excited," Sampson says. "And then we got even more excited when we got James."1
Fitting Robinson in this scheme will be tricky because he can't shoot 3s. Houston can't stick him in the elbow areas, near the foul line, because stationing a big man there just gets in the way of Houston's pick-and-roll game. "The elbow is a no-fly zone for us," says Sampson, who does not hide his anxiety about the in-season trades. "My initial impression of the deal was: We're going to have to figure out how [Robinson] fits with us offensively. It is absolutely a concern."
But Houston wants to be a top-10 offensive rebounding team, Sampson says, and Robinson can help there. Another intriguing potential solution: Donatas Motiejunas, a 22-year-old Lithuanian 7-footer who has flashed a super-intriguing skill set in just 115 minutes this season — almost one-third of which came in Houston's first two games after the trade deadline. Motiejunas runs the floor hard, and Houston can stash him in the corners as a 3-point threat when they pair him with Asik. Motiejunas can hit from there, and he has already shown he can drive from the corners when defenders close out on him, dribble toward the lane, and fire creative interior passes. He has been diving hard on pick-and-rolls when Houston puts him in that role, and when it's Asik rolling down the lane, Motiejunas can flash to the opposite block for quick-hitting post-ups; he has a nifty, and very fast, jump hook.
The coaches love his motor. He plays defense hard and with an understanding of the team concept. Motiejunas will have to prove himself on the glass and in the post, but he stands as a very important piece for the remainder of this season if Houston is to clinch a playoff berth.2 The Rockets could also play even more with Parsons and Delfino at power forward in small lineups, a setup that has been very successful so far — though mostly in brief stints. But the coaches aren't ready to go that route, even if the front office thinks it could work. "You don't want to get stuck playing 40 minutes a game with your small lineup," Sampson says. "That's your curveball lineup, not your fastball lineup."
Morey has correctly noted that small-ball lineups tend to improve a team's offense and hurt the defense, though the gains on offense typically outweigh the vulnerabilities on D. He sees the league evolving to a point where the curveball and fastball can switch places. "It's just math," he says. "There are a larger supply of good players who are shorter, and getting more of those guys on the floor just works." Morey admits the game slows down in the postseason as defense becomes more important, but he's convinced small ball could succeed in that environment.3
Defense is the larger question for the Rockets, both this season and going forward. Houston is 22nd in points allowed per possession, though they rate slightly better than average when Asik is on the floor; they collapse into a Kings-level sieve when he sits. But even better-than-average typically isn't quite good enough for title contention, and Houston has massive problems along the perimeter. The Rockets want their perimeter players to help aggressively in the middle when necessary, but those perimeter players don't execute the "recover" part of "help and recover" all that well. Harden has a bad habit of turning his back completely to his man when he shifts his attention to the middle. He's blind to shooters who smartly shift a few feet toward the corners, and that extra distance makes it very hard for him to contest those 3-pointers in time. Here's Harden lingering needlessly into the middle as his man, Keith Bogans, fades toward the left corner:
And here's Bogans about to launch a wide-open corner 3 as Andray Blatche preps a nasty back-screen to take advantage of Harden's wandering focus:
Parsons is better at tracking the ball and his man at the same time, but when an opposing ball handler kicks the ball back out, he will often lunge for a steal instead of simply retreating to his guy. Lin and Harden are both guilty of the same sin now and then, and Harden will just stand and watch after a failed steal attempt instead of battling back into the play. That kind of gambling yields open shots and open driving in the lanes, and the latter can lead to drive-and-kicking. Here's Parsons sagging off Deron Williams to squelch a potential Gerald Wallace drive:
All's fine so far. But look at how Parsons leaps to try to steal or tip Wallace's kickout pass instead of scurrying right back to Williams:
This kind of gambling gives players in Williams's position the choice between an open 3 or an open driving lane, and the latter can lead to an open 3 someplace else. This is a big reason Houston's opponents have shot 37.2 percent from deep, the seventh-worst defensive figure in the league, on the fourth-most attempts per game. And Houston has allowed a lot of those juicy corner looks it loves to get on offense; its opponents have hit a whopping 43.5 percent on about 5.5 corner 3s per game, according to NBA.com.
"Some of my gambles have hurt us," Parsons says. "And Coach McHale will definitely let me know which ones."
Harden's fundamentals will eventually break down if teams put him through multiple screens, on and off the ball.4 Lin is prone to ball-watching and thus vulnerable to backdoor cuts along the baseline, breakdowns that can be fatal against opponents with shooting bigs who can drag Asik up toward the elbows.
Here is Bogans beating Lin backdoor over the weekend:
And here's Chris Paul about to catch a pass from Blake Griffin for a layup attempt:
It's a work in progress, of course. All of these guys are young; Morey claims Houston would be the least-experienced team to make the playoffs in NBA history, in terms of collective minutes played entering a season. And everyone is still learning to bring appropriate focus on defense while expending so much energy running back on offense. "Sometimes I think our offense takes away from our defense," Sampson says. Finding a second above-average defensive big is a must, both to keep the defense afloat when Asik sits, and to patrol the back line when Asik is guarding someone like Tim Duncan far from the hoop.
Houston should also look for a defense-first wing player ASAP. "We haven't quite reached the stage of fitting puzzle pieces yet," Morey says. "But we're getting closer, and we may think about adding a wing stopper."
Those are the small steps, and it must be a relief to be even thinking about them. A franchise that looked from the outside to be in chaos just eight months ago has taken some important larger steps, putting itself in position to take the next one. But the Rockets know better than anyone that putting yourself in position to do something big doesn't necessarily mean you'll get it done. We know they'll work like hell to find that second star, and that any premature schadenfreude at their failure to do so will be dangerous.
10 Things I Like and Don't Like
1. Houston's "McDonald's" Road Jerseys
As long as we're on a Houston kick, I have to get this out of the way: I love these red-and-yellow duds, even if the joke among Houston fans is that these uniforms double as an advertisement for fast food. Houston is generally a sharp-looking team, but its standard uniforms are just a hair on the bland side. These aren't.
2. The League's Leg-Kick Overreaction
We saw the latest evidence on Sunday in Dallas, when officials whistled Vince Carter for an offensive foul on a 3-point try in which Carter just barely extended his legs toward a defender after his release. The league has mandated a crackdown on the Reggie Miller move, and officials in some cases are overcorrecting by penalizing what really amounts to run-of-the-mill shooting mechanics. That's bad in a vacuum, but it'll prove good in the end if it turns out to be a phase in the process of officials finding the right happy medium.
JIM MCISAAC/GETTY IMAGES
3. Mirza Teletovic's Slow Curve
It's always tantalizing when an international star comes to the NBA, but Brooklyn's home loss to Houston over the weekend reminded me of the main reason Teletovic hasn't yet earned consistent minutes: He's still in the early stages of learning NBA defense. Houston's spread pick-and-roll attack flummoxed Teletovic, especially when it was his job to rotate from the weak side into the middle. This will come with time, and Teletovic's shooting will buy him that time.
4. Ben Gordon's Defense
Gordon isn't new to the NBA, so he has no such excuse for his total disregard of defense during another losing season for the Bobcats. Gordon's supporters would note that he might play a bit harder on a contending team, but he's not on a contending team, and he should at least reach a borderline acceptable effort level before mounting a childish one-man mutiny against Mike Dunlap. Gordon's too undersized to be anything like a stopper, but his defense — in every phase, half-court and in transition — has reached a new low.
5. The Josh Smith/Al Horford Pick-and-Roll
Larry Drew has gotten astonishing mileage out of this play, especially in crunch time and out of timeouts, considering it should be in every team's scouting report by now. Here's the latest gem — a go-ahead late-game Horford dunk:
The play happens so fast that the two Milwaukee players defending Atlanta's corner shooters don't have time to process which one of them should crash on Horford at the rim. Atlanta might even be better off running this so that Kyle Korver ends up as the weakside shooter, since no defender is going to leave Korver without thinking very hard about it.
6. Kemba Walker's Surge
Walker has come scorching out of the All-Star break, putting up 25 points per game on 53 percent shooting over Charlotte's last four contests. Walker can still go through some wild stretches in which he dribbles into a crowd without a plan, but if he can consolidate these gains over the season's last few weeks, the Bobcats' outlook gets a bit brighter.
7. Alan Anderson's Shot Selection
The good news: About half of Anderson's shots are 3s, and he's shooting a respectable 35 percent from deep while manning both wing positions off Toronto's bench. He also has a cool post-basket celebration you might not have noticed. After a 3, Anderson will take his left hand and run it once up and down his right arm. I asked him a few weeks ago what that was supposed to signify. The answer: Anderson is pantomiming the act of reloading a rifle or shotgun, since he has nicknamed his jumper "The Gun."
The bad news: The other half of Anderson's shots are very difficult 2-pointers, and he's making fewer than 40 percent of those while jacking up a lot of them on a per-minute basis. Anderson's a designated bench scorer, but he needs to dial back the contested jumpers and off-the-bounce midrangers.
8. The Lakers' Early Screening Action
The Lakers don't have an offensive system as much as they engage in a series of possessions that maximize their star talent and emphasize whatever happens to be working on a particular night. One thing that has worked pretty consistently: early screening action between guards and wings. Take this Steve Blake–Metta World Peace action from Sunday's win in Dallas:
This is a nice way to catch the defense off guard, and if the player defending the screener (Jae Crowder here) stays attached to that screener, Blake has a clear path into the lane because the Lakers start this action with no players on the same side of the floor as the Blake–World Peace screen.
L.A. also has cleared the right side for early Kobe Bryant/Steve Nash pick-and-rolls, a reprise of the Bryant/Ramon Sessions play that forced Denver into uncomfortable switches during the playoffs last season. Bryant and Nash can play either role in that combination, and Nash has even received some easy buckets by slipping into the paint after screening for Bryant:
9. The Versatility of Nene
It's easy to forget what a wonderful, multi-skilled player Nene is, with so much focus on his contract and his health. But, holy cow, is this guy good at just about everything — passing, cutting, screening, guarding in space, hitting open midrange jumpers, explosive post-up moves, boxing out, etc. My new favorite wrinkle: Washington has been using Nene as a ball handler in surprise pick-and-rolls it springs on defenses from unpredictable places. Watch out when a Wiz point guard enters the ball to Nene at the left elbow and cuts toward the foul line as if he's going to continue toward the baseline — a standard NBA action. Just when the defense assumes the normal NBA stuff is coming, that point guard will veer right into Nene's man, setting a pick for Nene to use on a dribble drive toward the hoop. He got a monster jam against the Raptors over the weekend out of this action.
10. The Brandon Bass–Jeff Green Pairing
This just hasn't worked well, regardless of whether Boston pairs these two in big lineups or small ones. Boston's opponents have outscored the Celtics by nearly 15 points per 100 possessions in the 500 minutes these two had shared entering Monday's game. Boston's overall scoring margin was exactly even going into that game, and no other two-man combination that had logged at least 200 minutes had a worse differential than -6.1 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com.
Maradona, Then and Now
By: timbersfan, 12:51 AM GMT on February 28, 2013
Diego Maradona made his international debut for Argentina in a friendly against Hungary on February 27, 1977, 36 years ago this week. He was 16 and already famous; he'd played in his first professional match, for Argentinos Juniors, as a 15-year-old the previous October, and scored his first professional goal less than a month after that. In a soccer-mad country, you don't score a top-flight goal as a teenager without everyone learning your name. But the truth is that he'd been locally famous for a long time. There's tantalizing video of the child Maradona practicing tricks, and what's impressive here is not so much the skill on display as the aura of total calm, even serenity, that this kid, who's maybe 11, possesses around a soccer ball. You watch other football-prodigy videos and it looks like the little circus-genius is about to give himself a heart attack; Maradona heads the ball up and seems to be waiting for it to come back down again, I mean waiting patiently, like someone who trusts that a loved one will always come home. Mostly he's just still, and you can see how the wise heads in Villa Fiorito, the shantytown1 outside Buenos Aires where he grew up, would have spotted the little mestizo kid, how word would have spread. It's different with this one. By the time he was 12 he was the halftime entertainment at Argentinos Juniors, where he was a ball boy. He'd do juggling exhibitions for the crowd, play keepie uppie with himself, a human YouTube channel already. You get the feeling he was just happy to be near a ball.
So that first match with Argentina wasn't really the beginning of anything, but it was a mile marker: Welcome to full international. Maradona came on for Leopoldo Luque in the 62nd minute at the Bombonera. He doesn't seem to have done much, though the match was more or less over by the time he entered. All the goals in Argentina's 5-1 win — a brace for Luque, a hat trick for Daniel Bertoni, a late consolation strike for Hungary's Sandor Zombori — had already been scored.2
Today the most striking thing about that game is how few details it seems to have left behind; late-'70s Latin America had yet to flip the "archive everything" switch.3 Spanish Wikipedia has a photo of Maradona that was apparently taken at the game. There's also a silent, heavily watermarked black-and-white video that you can find online; it's tagged "Debut de Maradona en la Selección Argentina" and features film-damaged footage of '70s-era Argentina playing against a team that could just about plausibly be Hungary, with no time or score given. The camera occasionally breaks away in the middle of a pass to show a sudden super-close-up of some guy photographing something — the match? — with a Nikon camera; these shots are the most coherent part of the film. I'm sure someone can tell me whether the skinny kid wearing the no. 16 shirt — Maradona's squad number with Argentinos Juniors at the time — who walks across the center circle at the 3:40 mark is definitely Maradona. I've been trying to JFK this out for an hour and I have no idea.
You don't have to see the match, though, to know what Maradona represented in 1977. He was pure, radiant promise. It's hard to believe this now, but Argentina had never won a World Cup, had rarely even contended for one. But this kid … there wasn't really a precedent for him. With his delicate face, his stumpy arms, his miniature barrel chest, and that astronaut's helmet of curls, he looked like a cross between Eva Perón and a Wurlitzer jukebox. He looked an elf with a Soloflex. But he moved like no one before or since. Watching Maradona run is one of the signal experiences in the history of spectator sports, so I want to try to do this justice: give him the ball, and the pitch would move to help him. I am absolutely convinced that he caused changes to take place in the surrounding terrain at a topographic level. I mean, suddenly the defenders were running uphill. Sections of the field reassembled themselves. Some kind of deep-earth conveyor belt hauled him forward and flung everyone else off-balance. You see this in some of his early goals with Argentinos Juniors; you can read it in the famous picture of six Belgians trying to mark him in the 1982 World Cup. He hadn't fully arrived as a player in his mid-teens, obviously, but there were glimpses. Everyone else on the pitch looked like they were working while he played.
There was a national clamor when he was passed over for the 1978 World Cup.4 According to a rumor that is probably not worth repeating, he wasn't selected because the junta preferred Norberto Alonso; juntas aren't known for their taste. In 1979, Maradona led Argentina to the World Youth Championship, taking down the Soviet Union 3-1 in the final. He was named the best player of the tournament. To be a fan in Buenos Aires at that point must have been like owning the sun. Argentina was the best soccer country in the world and its most talented player still hadn't turned 20. The future was blinding, Maradona was the future, and Maradona was a kid playing with a ball.
Skip ahead to now: a decade and a half after the end of the future Maradona once represented. A couple of weeks ago, his ex-girlfriend, Veronica Ojeda, gave birth to a baby boy, Maradona's fifth child depending on which court documents you download, and his second son named Diego. The first Diego Jr. was born in Naples in 1986; Maradona didn't admit paternity until 2004 despite having been legally declared the father by Italian authorities in 1993. With regard to that sequence, cue Wikipedia: "Diego Jr. met Maradona for the first time in May 2003 after tricking his way onto a golf course in Italy where Maradona was playing."5 The second Diego Jr., who is two weeks old, was born while his father was in Dubai, where he sort of lives now, despite having been sacked as the manager of Al-Wasl FC, where he was paid $4.6 million a year and given a private jet, in July 2012. His title in Dubai is now "honorary sports ambassador." There are a lot of duties involved with being an honorary sports ambassador, like standing near Caroline Wozniacki, which is what he was doing last week, when the Daily Mail reported that "he will only be able to see his new son, Diego Fernando, when his commercial obligations finish in June." (Other stories broken wide-open by the Mail's intrepid correspondent: Maradona "couldn't keep his hands off" the American player Bethanie Mattek-Sands, "who appeared delighted at the attention.") He is also repping a Kerala jewelry chain that wants to sell gold to soccer fans. In the meantime, your various tabloid Stradivarii are wailing that he abandoned Ojeda in order to go dancing "with the famous Indian TV celebrity Ranjini Haridas," which who knows.
In the further meantime, Italian authorities have escalated their tax-fraud campaign against him; he allegedly owes the Italian government something like $50 million in unpaid taxes from his time playing at Napoli; the Italian government confiscated both the Rolexes he was wearing when he landed in Naples in 2006, when he was wearing two Rolexes. This month he filmed a video in Dubai blaming other people for his tax problems. Other people are often to blame. He's maybe gained a couple of pounds since his gastric-bypass surgery in 2005, which once gave birth to the headline "Maradona's gastric bypass inspires obese Colombians" ("overweight Colombians are flocking to doctors for the same procedure — and want the government to pay for it"), but he no longer looks like a gender-curious manatee, so that's something. He is not, per recent reports, having a cocaine-induced heart attack, or chilling with Fidel, or running over a cameraman,6 or being the center of a deranged Englishman's machete-decapitation plot, or chilling with Chavez, or hiding behind a Mercedes while shooting at journalists with an air rifle, or picking Ariel Garce over Javier Zanetti to play in the 2010 World Cup because he saw Garce's face in a dream, or chilling with Fidel and Chavez at the same time (efficiency), or hurling gay slurs at Pele, or practicing any of the other hobbies he's chosen in his retirement years. He is still the center of his own religion, but it's been a while since he went after anyone else's pope.7
JAVIER SORIANO/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
So say that the two parts of this piece are the first and third in a three-panel series. What goes in the middle slot? What can you put in the center of the triptych to make the two extremes cohere? The answer is easy: It's Maradona's career. It's the Hand of God, the Napoli scudetti, the '86 World Cup, the greatest goal ever scored, the legend that seems to exist simultaneously as the apex of, and in a fog of complete ignorance regarding, irony. It's the whole machinery of soccer. It's more or less just life, if you're as good at something as Maradona was at soccer and as many people care about the thing you're good at.
But say you didn't know about any of that. All you have is panels one and three. You have to imagine the center. What could you make of a mechanism that took the young Maradona in at one end and rolled the old Maradona8 out at the other? What would its characteristics be? And does that tell you anything about the nature of global soccer?
I genuinely don't know, but the question tugs a little at the back of my mind every time he's in the news for doing something insane. He was that kid 36 years ago. Now he's an aging global icon who is unable to do either of the two things aging global icons want to do — relive or escape his own past. He seems bewildered these days, more than anything; for all his venality and bogus machismo, he seems hurt. As if he headed up the ball one day and still can't understand why it doesn't come back down.
By: timbersfan, 9:49 AM GMT on February 16, 2013
"No hay mas que hablar." This was the cabdriver's response to my friend, who upon entering the taxi had given our destination simply as, "Al estadio, por favor." I laughed to myself as we settled in for the ride, partly because I had spent most of the past two days looking for exactly "this" person — the kind of Madrileno who accepts Real Madrid not merely as a matter of fandom's course but as axiomatic — an inevitability. The kind of person who knows not only where you're going probably before you do, but also where you should be going if you're not already going there. Of course it would be the cabdriver.
There is, of course, more than just one stadium in Madrid. There are many storied bullfighting arenas, venues for basketball and tennis, and the Vicente Calderón — home to Atlético de Madrid — among them. But on Wednesday night, Real Madrid were hosting Manchester United in none of these, and our cabdriver — the quintessential chatty-cabbie-slash-archetypal-Madrileno-slash-par adigmatic-Madridista who was going to solve all of my writerly problems while bringing us to the game at the same time — had just accused my friend of supporting the visiting side. Would he stop the taxi if we gave the wrong answer? Or worse, find the caricatured thousands of ticketless English hooligans (pronounced with a particular Spanish flair) that the tabloids said were roaming the city and set us in their midst? Surely conscious of the enormity of the moment, our evening — and maybe — lives at stake, my friend responded as if in a ghost town standoff in a Western: "Hombre, yo no soy del rojo." This was, apparently, acceptable. To the Santiago Bernabéu we went.
As Champions League Round of 16 matches go, Manchester United versus Real Madrid is, as English commentators relish saying, "a mouthwatering prospect." Nos. 1 and 2 on Forbes’s list of The Most Valuable Teams In The World, there would have been little doubt that the weeks preceding would be filled with endless prognostications from the press corps of both respective nations, each of whom think they possess the best league in the world (quite possible, depending on your metric), and each of whom freely shout that opinion, loudest and longest and to whomever will listen (almost certain, by any standard of measurement). There were, and they did. It was, as Madrid manager José Mourinho said, "the game everyone has been waiting for." Even so, it's hard to avoid such histrionics, especially when teams with such rich and dramatic — and even personal — histories meet.
If you listen to enough commentary on Fox Soccer, ESPN, the BBC, Sky, ITV, or however you take your soccer in America, you'll eventually hear someone speak in hushed tones about "those European nights." Once you've managed to shake off the horrors of imagining some 60-year-old Englishman's illicit holiday in Marbella, you soon realize they're referring to the Champions League. Watching on television, it's often hard to tell exactly how deeply ingrained soccer is, even in the cultures with which we most associate it: For every die-hard Ligue 1 fan you meet, there's another who will clown you for pursuing what seems to them the definition of an anti-intellectual exercise. Not to mention as fans we can't always hear clearly what's being sung by the "spirited" crowds at matches. I've always wondered what it must be like to experience the buildup to a European soccer match without all of the normal filters I generally frequent and to experience the match not furtively on a laptop in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon, or on an absurdly extended lunch break with Italians whose work schedules seem ever-more flexible than mine. I wanted to know what it would feel like to come home to a match, so to speak — to watch it, after all of the hype and hysteria of the home nation's press, at the end of a long day. Or, OK, fine: on one of those European nights.
The days, however, I spent seeing if I could find the game, written on people's faces.
It wasn't without reservation that I paid the 19 Euros it costs to tour the Santiago Bernabéu. For whatever reason — impatience, a sense of frugality derived from specious economic principles, blatant cowardice — I try to avoid these things at all costs. Despite myself, I actually enjoyed the experience. The "Tour Barnabéu" leaves you largely to your own devices, perhaps to let the "grandeur of the club" sink in on its own. You proceed immediately up Tower B ("Torre B") to a panoramic view of the stadium's interior, from which you descend through the stadium's stairs and concourses into the Real Madrid Museum. This is where the club displays their enormous wealth, history, and success in varying degrees of tastefulness, cultishness, nerdish cataloguing of memorabilia, and genuine awe at their own accomplishment. "Nessun Dorma" from Turandot played as I entered the darkened hallway, but I didn't stay there long enough to see whether it played for every new entrant. Between floors you can take a picture in front of a green screen, posed with your arms held out to either side, and once you reach the tour's end — in the Real Madrid adidas Store, of course — you can buy that photo of yourself — except now you're locked in warm embrace with a beaming Cristiano Ronaldo or Iker Casillas. The choice is yours.
You can also walk down onto the technical area just in front of the two dugouts, sit in those Formula One–style seats that always look so attractive on television, and imagine yourself as Sir Alex Ferguson, haranguing the match's fourth official for a few minutes of extra time, or José Mourinho retying your scarf just so. (These are things that I did.) Then you can walk down into the visitor's locker room, showers, toilets (seriously), training area, and the press room before you wind your way up to the store (again: photo, warm embrace). For the most part, I followed two men around who really seemed to know what to do while on a stadium tour: One was a guy with an unmistakable Mancunian accent who wore a furry trapper's hat for the entirety of the tour and who posed for a picture taken by his two ladyfriends in front of a painted Real Madrid seal with the words "Always Real" prominently featured. The other was a dreadlocked white guy with a 2011-12 striped blue United kit with "CANTONA 7" printed on the back. Neither one stopped to take the green screen picture, which seemed somehow significant. (I didn't either.) However much fun it was, the tour was a poorly chosen sample for reading into how the city actually felt about the game, no matter how many times I replayed in my mind the way the guy in the furry hat described the ridiculous number of trophies on display ("Absolutely MENTAL").
Walking around on the morning of the match, it was difficult not to impose my own readings of people's attire or manner as somehow indicative of their rooting interests — or, indeed, level of interest at all — in the game. The trio of Asian girls in front of El Prado wearing commemorative match scarves — half in black and red, the other in white and gold — seemed interested, though they were too stylish to imagine personalized jerseys layered underneath their patterned waistcoats and fitted blazers. The Serbian father and son a few steps behind them — the son draped with a similar scarf, the father pointing out significant buildings ahead — were also a good bet. But the groups of old Spanish men perambulating at a pace that could scarcely be defined as movement? Are they part of the shadowy cabal of 'socios' that are apparently trying to unseat José Mourinho from the Madrid manager's position? Or are they just out for a morning walk? Are those already dog-eared, well-worn copies of 'Marca' and 'AS' under their arms? Or would they never be caught dead carrying around such hyperbolic tabloid trash? And can they see my own freshly bought copies peeking from the open pocket of my bag? Am I really that obvious?
This feeling of exposure, of revealing perhaps my own loyalties with a random article of clothing or poorly masked copy of an offending journal took on a more fraught dimension when I encountered a loose phalanx of Englishmen with various manifestations of St. George's Cross visible on their sleeves and breasts in one of the more intimate central neighborhoods of Madrid. Needing to get past, I calculated whether a hurriedly shouted rendition of "Giggs Will Tear You Apart" would establish either some vaguely defined City of Manchester bona fides (I have no claims to such), or whether launching right into "This is the One" was the right Manc move that would forestall a clattering. "Hey Guys, 'United 'Til I Die,' right?" I did not say this, because it seemed the very definition of tempting fate. Luckily, they proved less Gandalf ("You shall not pass") than all colorful shades of Bez, even at the relatively early hour. I brushed past without incident.
Watching Spanish sports broadcasts the night before the match is also an awful way to gauge the general public's feeling. The Spanish pundit's opinion of the outcome of the game ran a strictly defined gamut between cocksureness ("Of course the best Real Madrid beats the best Manchester United.") and an acutely reasoned sense of inevitability ("The only team that can defeat Real Madrid is, in the end, Real Madrid. It is only a matter of which Mourinho team shows up."). It was essentially like watching Bill Swerski's Superfans enacted by an ancient guild of Spaniards in Armani suits and Windsor knots. Then there is MARCA TV. Six Spaniards in a studio ostensibly discussing the impending match but there is nary a mention of tactics, of potential lineups, of the relative health and form of the players on either team. The entirety of the pregame hour or so I spent watching was devoted to interpreting, by varying degrees of smugness, the sincerity of Mourinho's press conference statements about Real Madrid, his future with the team (or in England), his relationship with Cristiano Ronaldo, his relative lack of warmth towards the Madridistas as compared to Chelsea or Inter fans before, and his "friendship" with Sir Alex. It was an exercise that equaled the previous night's boosterism only in negativity — and this from the supposed journalistic arm of the team. The thing I found most difficult to parse was the one gentleman on the far right of the screen who had a framed photograph of a smiling "Mou" (as they call him) alongside a few other trinkets. I couldn't quite tell if it was placed there ironically or not, but by that point it hardly mattered.
On the way to the stadium, we drove by seemingly thousands of people headed in the opposite direction, perhaps on their way home to watch the game, but perhaps not — people who were also part of the world, but for whom the game was not what they were "waiting for," according to Mourinho. For a second, you wonder whether it's all a trick — whether what looks like a sellout on television is really just artfully disguised seating, whether the crowd noise is amplified or piped in over the broadcast, whether anyone actually has time to read the hundreds of thousands of words written about these teams, these games. Then, the people who you are looking for — numbering around 80,000 to 90,000 — appear milling around on the streets outside the Bernabéu, swilling beers that are mockingly called "minis" because they are (American) football-sized things (there is no alcohol sold inside the stadium), the after-work crowd well-dressed for the 1950s in tweed and herringbone and newly bought team scarves draped over shoulders, or totally kitted-out in the event that Mourinho were to look beyond the end of his bench before bringing in a forlorn Kaká. Despite the elegant bedlam outside, people found their seats — each one featuring a white Madrid banner, ready to wave — in relatively orderly fashion, and it wasn't until I looked up from my notebook just as the familiar trumpet fanfare of the Champions League anthem played that it truly looked like every damn seat in the stadium was filled.
The Bernabéu sits 85,454, and we were seated near the top of its uppermost southern stand, directly above the Madrid ultras and behind the goal that Madrid attacked first. Watching a live soccer game from such a great height, one has the bizarre sense that there are two games going on: The first is happening almost in a vacuum down on the pitch, divorced from whatever is happening in the massive crowd around it. The game seems almost silent, as if on mute in a bar while people talk over the action. Somehow, you expect the players to react more to your shouts simply because you're there than when you shout at the screen. This I noticed as Danny Welbeck rose to unexpectedly head United in front about 20 minutes into the match. Watching and experiencing 80,000-plus people (give or take a few thousand United fans perched in the opposite corner of the stadium and otherwise scattered throughout) be silent at the same time is an uncanny experience. The goal just happened, and there was nothing anybody could do about it. The man sitting next to my friend, who had until that point been friendly and talkative, retreated deep into his hands, his elbows perched on the safety bar in front of us. Each time I looked over to see how he was doing, his cigarette (there is no smoking in the stadium either) had always been smoked to exactly the same point — neither my friend nor I ever witnessed him light another. The wonders of the Bernabéu.
The second "game within the game" happens when the rhythms of the crowd actually do seem to affect the play on the field. British announcers love to talk about how Old Trafford crowds seem to will the winner or late equalizer into the Stretford End net, but it was only now that I could sense how one might feel that happening. There is palpable tension any time Ronaldo is even anywhere close to the ball, either standing over it for a free kick, running down the wing, or hanging majestically in the air over his good friend Patrice Evra while waiting for a cross, as he did for his dramatic equalizer. Then, the stadium reacts instantly, symphonically, as what thousands had individually envisioned just seconds ago took place right before their very eyes. The rest of the game saw a constant oscillation between these two modes: a collective gasp at a piece of Robin van Persie skill along the sideline; the same for the countless space-creating shifts of weight by Mesut Özil; 80,000 whistles as United tried to build from the back; the sound of a stadium's hearts in mouths as a deflection from Welbeck trickles wide and a scuffed shot from van Persie is saved along the end line; the Bernabéu's stirring and classy ovation at the entrance of Ryan Giggs; and the same at a game-saving diving tackle from the Welshman. That the game ended in a tie on a corner that the referee refused to allow left everyone around me feeling slightly unsatisfied, like we had missed something along the way. Not that the game needed a winner either way — the game was exciting enough and this result makes the second leg at Old Trafford all the more intriguing — but the fact that all of these people would just slowly make their way to wherever they called home after collectively singing, shouting, and viciously cursing Wayne Rooney each time he lined up a corner seemed somehow absurd.
My friend and I left the stadium quickly and managed to find another taxi in the direction of home in a record amount of time. Before we got there, we decided to stop at a bar on the way, partly to process what we had just seen. The radio station in our cab played the entirety of Bobby Womack's "Across 110th Street" for the length of our ride, which, despite being an absolutely incredible song, worked to break whatever spell the evening had conjured. No one on the street outside the bar looked like they knew the score or could tell me how amazing David de Gea's improvised foot save in the 60th minute was. We walked in and ordered drinks, telling the bartender about from where we'd just come. "Ellos tambien," he said, gesturing at the man and the woman seated at the bar. Of course — of course — they had just come from the game as well. Why should I have thought any different? And to listen to the woman describe to us in great detail the place that we had just been, how watching tens of thousands of flags waving in unison never fails to impress her no matter how much she forgets that fact, it made the evening seem both alien and familiar at the same — not at all inevitable, but something that is joyously rediscovered time and again
By: timbersfan, 9:48 AM GMT on February 16, 2013
“(The American) is always in the mood to move on ... He is devoured with a passion for movement, he cannot stay in one place; he must go and come, he must stretch his limbs and keep his muscles in play. When his feet are not in motion, his fingers must be in action ... He always has to have something to do, he is always in a terrible hurry. He is fit for all sorts of work except those which require a careful slowness. Those fill him with horror; it is his idea of hell.”
—Michel Chevalier, Society, Manners, and Politics in the United States, 1839
“Sorry, but Thierry has to go now.”
Henry springs to his feet laughing as the press officer intervenes.
“Wow. I’ve got to come here more often.”
The small group sitting at a table in a Red Bull Arena executive box have asked maybe three questions of a player who usually has to endure more. This is MLS media day — a day when key players from every MLS team are brought to New York to film preseason spots with the league, sponsors, and TV partners, and somewhere among all this, find themselves ushered through a door to meet a few members of the local and national press in quick roundtable conversations. Henry, understandably, is in demand and now he bounces to his feet and bounds cheerfully out of the room, pursued by a team carrying clipboards. Those of us left in the box reset our recorders as Chris Wondolowski edges politely in to take his place.
Executive boxes are strange places at the best of times, meant to survive a glance, but not particularly withstand scrutiny. After all, they’re really corridors to the action rather than event sites themselves. So a walnut veneer suggests quality rather than delivering it; a carpet symbolizes luxury; and everything in the room theatrically conspires to suggest you would enjoy yourself more facing out of the window. In the box I’m sitting in now though, the windows in the box are papered over, presumably so that we, the loose-lipped, Twitter-happy members of the U.S. soccer media don’t give advance notice of the new MLS uniforms, apparently being modeled somewhere in the snow-covered field below us by a gaggle of frozen players. The blocked windows now make everyone more aware of the artificiality of their surroundings and, in turn, the artificial frame for these conversations, as players drift in and out of the room for our moment of access.
Access. One of the pleasures of a book like David Peace’s The Damned Utd and all of its intimate, dark-night-of-the-soul wrestling with the persona of Brian Clough was that it took the voice recorder where the reader wanted to go — to hear a first-person inner monologue that even the most artful interview can never get close to. With someone like Clough, for whom management was so much about the cultivation of his own larger-than-life persona and infecting his teams with his seemingly invincible self-belief, the desire to look behind the curtain and see even a fictional inner life of the wizard was irresistible. And in some ways it was a desire created by the elaborate front Clough himself had put up.
Likewise, when tourists on the Old Trafford stadium tour scraped up bits of chewing gum possibly masticated by the roiling jaws of Sir Alex, amid the (gross) absurdity of it all, I had to admit that I recognized the twisted logic behind that sort of fetishism — the fan’s idea that if they could just gain access to one more particle of information, or some edge of intimacy/ownership, then some bigger picture might reveal itself (presumably in spearmint runes). It perhaps relates to a belief that the helplessness of being a fan could somehow be mitigated by the feeling of empowerment that comes from being “in the know.”
There’s little of that sense of aura in MLS — and as a result the league has a relationship to player access that’s very particular, at times generous and frustrating in equal measures. At today’s event, we get to see every player, some at length, some very momentarily, as if we’re watching a sushi conveyor belt on which someone’s cranking the speed dial between three and 11. Dan Kennedy floats through, seeming folded in on himself — perhaps the personification of his increasingly isolated presence at Chivas. He thinks better of saying more and leaves. Steven Lenhart looks like he’s melting off his chair, as he maintains a kind of affable, stunned insolence. And throughout the day, I’m left with a minor key impression familiar to most people who watch the ever more highly defined, multicamera spectacle of contemporary sport, even one as eager to dent the public consciousness as MLS — the more elaborate the surface gets, the less penetrable it seems. Listening to the recordings afterward, I’m not sure if 20 minutes with Jay DeMerit evenly talking about the nature of leadership told me more than five minutes of Darlington Nagbe’s muted brevity on his position in the new Portland regime (up front in a 4-4-2, wide left and drifting inside in a 4-3-3, for what it’s worth). The players are unfailingly polite, animated at times, and in many of the ways that matter when humans try to meaningfully communicate with each other, utterly unreachable.
To be clear, MLS offers way more access to players than other top-level professional soccer leagues. Paradoxically, what that tends to mean is less a sense of getting to look behind the curtain, and more a sense that the curtain has been moved deeper into the stadium. I could be mean-spirited and paraphrase Dash from The Incredibles to claim that the result is “If everybody is special, nobody is.” But actually I like the fact that access is pretty egalitarian across the board, logistics permitting. I’m just not always convinced we’ve worked out what to do with it. A press officer I know from a Premier League club in England once glumly told me that he spent his days trying to find new ways of saying “no”; another colleague told of being lied to about a Chelsea player’s presence in the building for a pre-arranged interview, while the player ate lunch in full sight behind them. Yet most communications directors I’ve dealt with in MLS are unflaggingly helpful and spend their days trying to accommodate demands — even those at clubs like LA or New York in the era of Beckham and Henry. Those demands include national and sometimes international media, but also the wealth of bloggers who the league can ill afford not to cultivate — especially when the demographic of those watching, consuming, and now reflecting on the domestic game tends to skew younger than in other countries.
Some players adapt quickly to this open regime, patiently negotiating the more asinine questions or learning to play with them. For Henry, the press, while occasionally an unwelcome presence in the locker room, tend to give him an opportunity to riff, hold court, or just spar for fun. Others, like Robbie Keane, soldier on gamely through interviews, while giving the impression they’ve never read one themselves, and can’t for the life of them understand why any other player would want to.
A personal favorite moment was Tim Cahill’s face when the media arrived in the locker room after his first game in New York, upon the league-mandated 15 minutes after the final whistle. Reared on English changing-room sanctity, he appeared to be glancing around nervously, seemingly wondering if anyone else had noticed the apparent zombies-with-dictaphones apocalypse slowly invading the Red Bulls locker room. Was it down to him to take out the biggest one? In fairness he adapted very quickly, and by the last game of the season it was Cahill who stepped in front of the press corps to prevent his distraught teammate Kenny Cooper from having to answer questions about his penalty miss in the playoffs.
And as I’ve noted, the degree and type of access affects more than the players. Following Twitter on a big game day or a Jurgen Klinsmann press conference can be an exercise in chattering redundancy. A small version of this occurs at today’s event. Between interviews, quotes are tweeted out, blog posts edited, beat writers (of whom there are very few in the traditionally understood sense of the word) compose news stories for later in the day, and a constant tempo around the production and dispersal of information prevails. To be honest, it’s a rhythm I’m usually in lockstep with depending on the assignment; but today, with no immediate deadline pressing, I end up surreptitiously watching as the newsworthy stories and choice quotes leak out of the room.
As with Kennedy and Lenhart, other instant impressions present themselves. I can say that Saer Sene is rather wonderfully odd — lanky and accessorized like a geek designed by Jean Paul Gaultier. Zach Loyd is friendly but self-conscious, warily mindful of the transcript, while Patrice Bernier is a revelation — erudite and reflective on the game and the real-politik of Montreal’s expansion year. Aurelien Collin works a laid-back presence that stays just the right side of indifference, while Drew Moor has an almost uncomfortably open countenance — I must have seen him in profile at one point during the day, but he has one of those faces that seem to be earnestly facing you at all times. They’re all interesting round-table interviews in their way, and if there’s demand (and Grantland feels flush with transcription funds) I will gladly pass on what was said, news cycles notwithstanding. Also, just so you know that I’m not entirely feckless, I will be following this story with a couple of more detailed interviews with players who were present. It was a useful day.
But the overriding impression I left with was not of any single thing that was said, but of two cross-sections: one being the array of the successful modern MLS player — polite, sloppy-stylish and media trained — and the other being one that suggested itself between interviews as I walked the corridor to the bathroom or refreshment room. Seeing numerous repurposed rooms maintain a steady hum of photo, film, or interview activity, I keep finding myself glancing to my right, where giant windows revealed the frozen land outside the stadium, framed by a misty silhouette of downtown Newark. I imagined looking back through the window at this warren of publicity at work, then back at the view of an American city. The view seemed to offer a reproach of scale and indifference, or a reminder that for all the media access MLS might grant to its players, it’s the access America at large grants to MLS that will ultimately determine its fate.
By: timbersfan, 9:42 AM GMT on February 16, 2013
When we learned about Rajon Rondo's season-ending injury during ABC's Heat-Celtics game on January 27, every Celtics fan had the same reaction: So long, Puncher's Chance At Making The Eastern Finals.
We zipped through the seven stages of grief in about 45 minutes, barely noticing that the Celtics were playing better without Rondo. For once, they looked like a vintage Garnett-Pierce era Celtics team again. No more mailing in quarters, no more rolling over defensively, no more 22-second possessions followed by ghastly 20-footers. They fended off LeBron and the LeBronettes in double overtime with help from a rollicking, old-school Boston crowd that learned about the severity of Rondo's injury through tweets and texts. And somewhere along the line, more than a few Celtics fans e-mailed me or tweeted me the same two words.
Could it be? We started picking apart Rondo's game in our heads, even if most of us absolutely loved the guy. And believe me — I love the guy. Had I gotten another dog between 2010 and 2012, I absolutely would have named him "Rondo." That's my dude. Other than Larry Legend, he's the most original basketball player I have ever watched on a day-to-day basis. There will never be a Rondo 2.0. Unfortunately, there will always be Basic Cable Rondo and National TV Rondo.
Basic Cable Rondo gets bored easily. He pads his assist totals just to see if he can. He goes entire games without ever driving to the hoop or drawing a foul. He shoots 3s even though he should never, ever, EVER be shooting 3s. He pounds the ball 25 feet away from the basket for no good reason, frowns a little too often, only makes teammates better on his terms. He cheats passing lanes and gambles for steals too much. He pretends to lead without really leading. He's on hyperfocused cruise control, basically. The worst thing about Basic Cable Rondo? You know when he shows up. Right away. Within three minutes of the opening tip.
But National TV Rondo? Sweet Jesus do I love that guy. He's a walking triple-double. He's a beast. He's one of the best eight or nine players alive. You could give National TV Rondo four mediocre teammates and he could hang with any contender. Shit, that's practically what happened in the Eastern finals last spring — Garnett and Pierce were worn down from the shortened season, so was Ray Allen, and nobody else on the team was worth a damn except Brandon Bass. The Celtics came within one victory of beating LeBron in his prime. That's why you put up with Basic Cable Rondo — because National TV Rondo knocks your team's ceiling up a couple floors.
After Allen's acrimonious departure last summer, Rondo made a fuss about transforming the Celtics into his team, which apparently meant scoring more, leading more, doing more … and if you read between the lines, it really meant, "Hey, KG and Paul, step aside, I'm taking the wheel."
THE MEETING OF BILL & BILL
Set your DVRs because Bill Simmons' one-hour sit down with NBA legend Bill Russell premiers February 18 at 9 p.m. on NBA TV.• Check out a preview of Mr. Russell's HouseTo their credit, the old farts took a backseat. Pierce even deferred to Rondo at the ends of tight games, something I never expected to see. But things turned goofy early — Rondo became obsessed with keeping a double-figures assist streak alive. And not in a good way. He wasn't making the right decision every time, just the decision most likely to produce an assist. Defenses played Rondo for the pass on every drive and fast break, turning the streak into something of an ongoing detriment. I loathed the streak. It was a bad look for Rondo — you don't want your leader chasing numbers, even something as seemingly benevolent as assists.
The streak mercifully ended when Rondo got tossed for fighting Kris Humphries in a loss to the Nets, but questions about Rondo's ultimate destiny as a franchise player lingered. You are who you are after seven years in the league. Every night you could put Rondo down for 13 points, 11 assists and five rebounds. And every two weeks or so, he'd slap together four quarters that took your breath away. But Rondo wasn't just going to start averaging 22 points a game; it would have happened by now. For a Celtics team specifically built for him, that's the biggest reason they played a half-season of .500 ball. You're only as good as your best guy.
They couldn't ever beat Miami in a playoff series without Rondo — the only Celtic who could swing two games in a series by himself. But short-term? Maybe our boys would rally without him. We knew the schedule worked in their favor: Six of eight home games post-Miami (and Toronto and Charlotte on the road). We knew Rondo's departure would inadvertently create a more stable playing rotation — now, Avery Bradley, Courtney Lee and Jason Terry would get enough minutes, and so would the perpetually frustrating Jeff Green. We knew there was a chance — repeat: a chance — that Garnett and Pierce would rally as a subtle Eff You to Rondo, their annoying little brother who drove them bonkers even if he would always be family, someone who acted like a bit of a diva behind the scenes, someone who wouldn't exactly win a popularity contest with the people around the organization. An intelligent, demanding, thoughtful guy … yes. But frustrating. That's the word you always hear.
The bigger point: With Rondo, Boston had the league's 26th most efficient offense. This seems relevant since the NBA has only 30 teams. How much would they REALLY miss him on a daily basis? How hard was it to replace 13 points and 11 assists every night? Couldn't you replace 80 percent of those stats? It was conceivable, right? Either way, they had reached a fork in the road — if the season went south, they'd certainly have to trade Pierce (Warriors?) and Garnett (Clippers?) over sentencing them to Lotteryville. That was the right thing to do. At the same time, we needed a few more games. They showed some fight against the Heat. We hadn't seen this team fight more than four times all year.
You know what happened next. They reeled off seven straight Rondo-less victories to the delight (and semi-confusion) of their just-when-I-thought-I-was-out-they-pull-me-back-in nnnnnnnnn fans. Somewhere during that time, we realized two things.
1. We're not ready to say good-bye to no. 5 and no. 34 yet. Can't trade them. Can't trade them. Can't trade them. Celtics for life.
2. Even if it makes no sense whatsoever, our boys are playing better without Rondo.
Our eyes weren't deceiving us. The Celtics moved the ball dramatically better without Rondo, to the point that Steve Kerr texted me that they suddenly reminded him of Popovich's Spurs. Their playing rotation fell into place — they finally had enough minutes for everyone. Defensively, the Avery Bradley–Courtney Lee combo could be destructive; throwing in Green and Garnett, suddenly, this Celtics team could get stops. And these guys like playing with each other, which wasn't always the case. Everything crested with last Thursday's thrashing of the Lakers, then Sunday's epic triple-overtime toenail-biter-of-a-heart-attack home win over Denver (a.k.a. "The Blizzard Game"). Heading into the All-Star break, Celtics fans find themselves checking the standings and thinking, "If we can get to the no. 6 seed, we could beat Indy in Round 1, and the Knicks in Round 2, and then LeBron only needs to tweak a hammy and … "
You know who explained the post-Rondo Celtics better than anyone? Kevin Garnett. I know, I know … he wouldn't have been one of your top choices. Here's what he said after the Lakers game:
"Rondo does so many different great things for this team. You can kind of get lackadaisical. It's very similar to when you have someone cooking for you, and you're expecting that every day. But as soon as you start to feed yourself, all of a sudden you start making these gourmet dishes. You start having more people to the house. And you never know you really possessed that. It's kind of like that."
Perfect. That's the thing about the Ewing Theory … it takes various shapes and forms. Sometimes, we just overrated a player, or mistakenly believed he was more valuable than he was. Sometimes, an injury or departure can lead to more minutes for players who fit that team's style and framework better. And sometimes, it might take a simple injury for everyone to realize, We lost our way. We relied on that guy too much. I'm not doing enough. You're not doing enough. Let's step it up. You win a game or two, you build a little momentum, and before you know it, everything falls into place and you're a team.
That's what happened here. The Celtics fell into a collective rut with Rondo, for a variety of reasons, and only when Rondo disappeared did they realize it. They made the appropriate fixes. They keep chugging along. Fair or unfair, they look like the Celtics again.
Which raises the question …
Does this mean Rondo was a Ewing Theory guy?
For the answer, I thought we'd dive into my original Ewing Theory column, which ran on ESPN.com in May 2001 … just a few months before the single best Ewing Theory moment of all time happened. (We'll get to it.) The original column is in bold. My 2013 remarks are in regular font. Here we go.
You're probably tired of reading those "Where did these guys come from?" stories about the Seattle Mariners, who valiantly clawed their way to baseball's best record earlier this season, despite losing Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez over the past three years.
For most baseball fans, Seattle's spring surge was more inexplicable than Colby voting off Keith over Tina on Survivor last week.
Allow me to defend putting a Survivor joke in the opening paragraph of my column — that was Season 2, back when 30 million people were watching every Survivor episode, and Colby ABSOLUTELY should have voted off Tina. So there. Anyway, the 2001 Mariners finished a startling 116-46, a modern-day record that cemented their spot in Ewing Theory lore. Things finally fell apart when they lost to the Yankees in the 2001 ALCS, hitting just .211 in the series. (Translation: They didn't take enough steroids.)
How can a franchise prosper after losing three of the biggest stars in baseball? How does this make sense? I have a three-word explanation for you: "The Ewing Theory."
It's bigger than the "SI Jinx." It makes the "Curse of the Bambino" look like child's play. It's creepier than the "Curse of the Spinal Tap Drummers" and the "Curse on the Careers of Everyone Who Leaves NYPD Blue" combined.
The Ewing Theory outlasted everything except the Curse of the Spinal Tap Dummers. The SI cover jinx stopped mattering right around the same time that Sports Illustrated stopped mattering as much. The "Curse of the Bambino" died in 2004, and thank god. And the NYPD Blue Career Curse fell apart once this happened:
Quite simply, it's the most life-altering sports phenomenon of this lifetime. Here's everything you need to know about the Ewing Theory, in the form of a Q & A:
Q: What's the Ewing Theory? Where did it come from?The theory was created in the mid-'90s by Dave Cirilli, a friend of mine1 who was convinced that Patrick Ewing's teams (both at Georgetown and with New York) inexplicably played better when Ewing was either injured or missing extended stretches because of foul trouble.
The most common misperception of the Ewing Theory is that some think it was created because we thought the Knicks had a better chance of winning a title without Ewing. Not true. Ewing was only the CATALYST for the theory, and it was as simple as Dave wondering, "Do Ewing's teams always seem to play better when he's on the bench, or am I crazy?" We should also mention that (a) the '84 Hoyas won the NCAA title, and (b) there's no way the Gold Club trial would have been better without Patrick Ewing.
Curious to see if this phenomenon applied to other stars/teams, Dave noticed people were pencilling in the '94-'95 UConn Huskies for a .500 season because "superstar" Donyell Marshall had departed for the NBA. Dave knew better; a lifelong UConn fan, he thought the Huskies relied too much on Marshall the previous season and could survive without him.
Rondo alert!!!!!!!!! Think of KG in the kitchen making those gourmet dishes he never knew he could make.
Like Ali predicting the first Liston knockout, Dave told friends the Huskies would thrive in Marshall's absence — and that's exactly what happened. By midseason, UConn was ranked no. 1 in the country for the first time in school history; the Ewing Theory had been hatched.
How has someone not added "First athlete to definitively prove Dave Cirilli's Ewing Theory" to Donyell's Wikipedia page yet?
Dave introduced me to the Ewing Theory three years ago, and we've been tinkering with it like Voltaire and Thoreau ever since.
I gotta be honest — I don't know who those two guys are.
Eventually, we decided that two crucial elements needed to be in place for any situation to qualify for "Ewing" status:
• A star athlete receives an inordinate amount of media attention and fan interest, and yet his teams never win anything substantial with him (other than maybe some early-round playoff series).
The 2008 Celts won the title with Rondo as their fourth-best player. They made the 2010 Finals with him as their third-best player, and came within one win of making the 2012 Finals with him as their best player. Rondo's case loses major steam here.
• That same athlete leaves his team (either by injury, trade, graduation, free agency or retirement) — and both the media and fans immediately write off the team for the following season.
When those elements collide, you have the Ewing Theory.
My gut feeling on Rondo's 2013 case: If we're measuring it just by those two elements, then no, he's not eligible. The Celtics enjoyed too much success with Rondo. And they DID win the title with him. I don't think he qualifies. You'll understand why as we keep going.
Q: What's the best example of the Ewing Theory?
That's easy. During the '99 NBA playoffs, Ewing tore an Achilles tendon during the second game of the Eastern finals against Indiana. With Ewing finished for the playoffs and nobody else on the Knicks who could handle Rik Smits, the series seemed like a foregone conclusion. As an added bonus, since Ewing himself was involved, that made this the ultimate test of the Ewing Theory; in fact, I e-mailed Dave that week to say, "This is the greatest test yet."
That really happened. I swear. The karma for me being briefly excited that someone tore his Achilles tendon is going to come back and bite me at some point, almost definitely at USC's Lyon Center as I'm chasing after some 20-year-old around a double screen. Don't think I don't know this. (Belated: Sorry, Patrick.)
Dave's return e-mail oozed with confidence, as he told me in no uncertain terms, "Ewing's injury is the best thing that ever could have happened to the Knicks — they're definitely making the Finals now."
That e-mail exchange spawned the original version of the Ewing Theory column, which premiered on my old website in May 1999. (Two years later, I rewrote it and updated it for ESPN.com's audience.) I predicted the Knicks would outlast Indiana solely based on Dave's Ewing Theory. And that's exactly what happened. My 5,000 readers at the time couldn't have been more impressed. Related: It sucked to write Internet sports columns in 1999. Nobody was online yet.
So what happened? The Knicks won three of the next four and advanced to the NBA Finals for only the second time in 26 years. Had Jeff Van Gundy's crew shocked the Spurs in the Finals without Ewing, Dave might have his own line of "How-To" videos out right now. (A Knicks upset was simply too tall of a task against Duncan and Robinson, Ewing Theory or no Ewing Theory.)
I have to be honest: I'm not sure how to reconcile a watershed Ewing Theory moment (the theory's namesake PROVING THE THEORY) with my fervent belief that we should live our lives as if the 50-game lockout-shortened joke of a '99 NBA season never happened. I caught most of those Celtics home games in person that year … I'd describe the quality of play that season, with only a few exceptions, as "doughy and stoned." Which, coincidentally, was how I took in most of those games.
Q: What are other examples of the Ewing Theory in action?
Some classics from the past three years, in no particular order …21. Utah Utes, 1998Keith Van Horn's ballyhooed college career ends without Utah ever making a Final Four. Nine months later, the Utes shock everyone by making the NCAA title game.
Remember when the words "Keith Van Horn" and "ballyhooed" went together?
2. Tennessee Volunteers, 1998Even more ballyhooed than Van Horn during his college career, Peyton Manning leaves UT without either winning a national title or beating Florida — and the Vols win the national title nine months later.
Two of the Ewing Theory's lost tragedies? A-Rod and Manning, looming as two A-list examples before they screwed everything up by winning championships (Manning for the '07 Colts, A-Rod for the '09 Yanks). I'm still bitter. And screw you to the 2004 Texas Rangers (89-73 without A-Rod) for not winning three more games, grabbing the AL West and catapulting themselves into Ewing Theory lore.
3. Miami Dolphins, 2000Dan Marino retires and everyone prepares for a rebuilding year in Miami; the Fins end up advancing to the second round of the playoffs with Jay Fiedler. Jay Fiedler!
Marino lucked out by missing the Internet/Talking Head Sports Era: After making the Super Bowl in his second season, Miami played in one only conference championship for the last 15 years of his career (1985-1999), finishing just 6-8 in the playoffs over that stretch. Marino's career postseason stats: 18 games, 10 losses, 4,510 passing yards, 32 TDs, 24 picks, 77.1 QB rating. I'd keep going, but I don't want to provoke Bill Barnwell into writing a 6,500-word piece about how it's stupid to judge QBs by their playoff stats. He's on vacation.
4. Philadelphia Flyers, 2000After losing superstar Eric Lindros to a serious concussion in mid-March, the Flyers hold on for first place in the conference and defeat Buffalo and Pittsburgh in the playoffs. In the conference semis, the Flyers take a 3-1 lead when rumors swirl about a Lindros return. Stunned, the Flyers drop Game 5 at home, as Dave and I send frantic e-mails back and forth. Lindros finally returns in Game 6, and the Flyers squander that one, too; now people are blaming Lindros for killing Philly's momentum. In the climactic Game 7, the Flyers get expunged as Lindros gets knocked out with another concussion midway through the game. Season over.
Remember the days when we just casually mentioned concussions in sports columns like they were pulled hamstrings or something? Poor Lindros.
5. Boston Red Sox & Seattle Mariners, 2001 (ongoing)Written off after Nomar Garciaparra's wrist injury and Alex Rodriguez's departure, both teams cruise to the top of their respective divisions during the first five weeks of the season.
The Mariners kept it going through the first round; the Red Sox fell apart in sections, cementing their legacy as the Most Unlikable Modern Red Sox Team for a good 10 years until the Fried Chicken & Beer Boys zoomed past them. The 2001 Red Sox ended up being so unlikable that I handed out Godfather quotes as end-of-the-season awards. Make yourself a plate of bullet parmigiana and reread it if you're bored. And yes, Nomar triggered the Ewing Theory three years later, when the Red Sox traded him in July and three months later this happened:
6. St. Louis Rams, 1999Starting QB Trent Green tears an ACL during the preseason. Given up for dead, the Rams rally behind former Arena League football star Kurt Warner and win the Super Bowl, which might be the most unbelievable thing that ever happened.
Confused by two things here: Why did I include the '98 Wildcats when the '96 Wildcats also won the title? And why didn't I play up the '99 Rams more? Now THAT was a Ewing Theory team — post-Green injury, they were fetching 300-to-1 Super Bowl odds in Vegas. Bring up the '99 Rams to anyone who runs a sports book in Vegas and they will start dropping F-bombs.
7. Detroit Lions, 1999Stunned by Barry Sanders' retirement in August, everyone gives up on the Lions for the '99 season. The Lions respond by sneaking into the NFC playoffs.
I didn't sell this hard enough. The '99 Lions were coached by the immortal Bobby Ross; endured a QB controversy between Charlie Batch and Gus Frerotte; didn't have a running back break 550 yards for the season; were carried by 1,000-yard receiving seasons by Germane Crowell and Johnnie Morton (?????); and somehow grabbed the last NFC wild card even though they finished 8-8. How? The will of the Ewing Theory, that's how. And if you don't think Barry Sanders is a textbook Ewing Theory candidate, you're fooling yourself.
Q: What are some famous examples from the last few decades?3
In no particular order …1. The L.A. Lakers, 1972:NBA legend Elgin Baylor retires nine games into the 1971-72 season without ever winning a title. The '71-72 Lakers end up running off a record 33-game winning streak en route to their first-ever NBA title in L.A.4
I didn't play this up enough: The Lakers were 6-3 with the creaky Baylor, whose knees were made out of macaroni salad at that point. Of the many reasons why Elgin goes down as the most underappreciated superstar in NBA history, here's a stealth reason — I don't think many ringless guys would have walked away from that loaded Lakers team, no matter how much their knees were aching. But Elgin did. Now here's the part I undersold — Elgin retired after Game 9. The Lakers won Game 10, Game 42, and EVERY GAME IN BETWEEN. Thirty-three straight! The Ewing Theory has never moved faster or been more potent. Patrick Ewing has to be furious that we're not calling it the Elgin Theory.
2. Virginia Cavaliers, 1984: Three-time Naismith Award winner Ralph Sampson graduates without ever leading Virginia to a national championship. Amazingly, the Cavs regroup the following season behind Othell Wilson and Rick Carlisle, going just as far as Sampson ever took them by sneaking into the Final Four. A Hall of Fame Ewing Theory example.
Don't sleep on how crazy this was. Sampson was the three-time College Player of the Year and the most publicized college center since Bill Walton. And Virginia was playing during a loaded era for college hoops — remember, everyone stayed three or four years back then, so that '84 college season included every superior player from the '84 and '85 NBA drafts (MJ, Hakeem, Barkley, Ewing, Mullin, etc.). In the Final Four, Virginia lost to Hakeem's Houston team (Phi Slama Jama, The Sequel) by two points. Repeat: Hakeem Olajuwon was the starting center of the other team. You should not have been coming within two points of the 1984 championship game with Othell Wilson and Rick Carlisle … well, unless you had the Ewing Theory on your side.
3. N.Y. Yankees, 1996: Yankees icon Don Mattingly retires without ever playing in a World Series game. The Yanks replace him with Tino Martinez and immediately roll off four of the next five World Series titles, as Mattingly joins a weekly support group with Buck Showalter.
4. Cleveland Indians, 1997: Superstar slugger Albert Belle signs with the White Sox as a free agent. Eschewed as a threat to win the World Series without Belle, the Indians respond by making it all the way to the seventh game of the '97 World Series.
On paper, Mattingly should have been a monster Ewing Theory example, but three things overshadowed it: (a) everyone loved the Hit Man (even Red Sox fans respected him, for God's sake), (b) the transcendence of this poster, and (c) it was the Yankees. They got to spend gobs of money, everyone wants to play for them, and they've been ripping off World Series titles since the 1920s. Meanwhile, the '97 Indians were a couple of outs away from proving that God didn't hate Cleveland AND making Albert Belle one of the faces of the Ewing Theory. Alas.
5. World Wrestling Federation, 1997: Then-WWF champ Bret "Hitman" Hart signs a contract with Ted Turner's WCW federation (no. 1 in the TV ratings battle at the time). Aided by publicity from a real-life, backstage fight between Hart and WWF owner Vince McMahon after Hart's final match, the WWF rebounds in the Post-Hart Era and regains its no. 1 status within a year. Ironically, Hart's departure is considered the crucial turning point, because it gave birth to McMahon's new "bad guy" status and paved the way for the WWF to promote fresh stars like "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and Shawn Michaels. Even in fake sports, the Ewing Theory is indomitable.
We didn't know this in 2001, but we know it now — this is our single best Ewing Theory example. Eventually, the WCW federation folded. You know who purchased it and obtained control of its wrestlers and entire catalog of matches? That's right … the WWE. Really, we should call this the Hitman Hart Theory.
Q: Currently, who are some possible Ewing Theory candidates?
All right, I'll bite. Remember, we're targeting stars on teams that haven't won anything, as well as teams that would probably be written off without the stars we're about to mention:
Hold onto your seats, this is about to get fun.
• Drew Bledsoe: Every Patriots fan is nodding right now.
A couple of relatively remarkable things here. First, I suggested Bledsoe as my first candidate. Not fifth, not 10th … first. Second, Mo Lewis knocked him out of the lineup just four months later. Third, I started touting New England's Ewing Theory chances with Tom Brady on ESPN.com pretty much right away. Fourth, they improbably won eight of their last nine to make the 2001 playoffs. Fifth, they won the single craziest game in Patriots history (the Snow Game, a.k.a. the Tuck Rule Game), then beat Pittsburgh as double-digit underdogs, then shocked St. Louis as 14-point underdogs in the Super Bowl. Sixth, THE PATRIOTS HAD NEVER WON THE SUPER BOWL BEFORE. Again, Drew Bledsoe was the first Ewing Theory candidate I mentioned. Deep down, we (and by "we," I mean, "Patriots fans") all knew.
• Michael Vick: Textbook case. Everybody's already writing off Virginia Tech for next season, despite the fact that they never won anything with Vick. They might post a 12-0 next season.
Without Vick, Virginia Tech taunted Ewing Theory believers by winning their first eight games before crashing back to earth (they lost four of their last six). So that didn't fly. Vick's Ewing Theory powers also proved futile with the 2007 Falcons, 2012 Eagles and pit bull fighting.
• Chris Webber: Don't laugh. What happens if C-Webb leaves the Kings this summer, and they use the extra cap space to sign two second-tier free agents?
(Cut to every Kings fan nodding wistfully and saying, "Man, I wish it had played out that way.")
• Vince Carter: Watch the Raptors in two years, after Vince joins MJ in D.C. (and you know it's happening).
Didn't happen. Vince pulled down his pants and dropped a massive deuce on the Raptors franchise, forcing a damaging trade to New Jersey and mortally wounding the Raptors until … oh, wait, they've never recovered! My bad. And no, he never played with MJ in D.C. I think I might have been drunk during this part of the column.
• Griffey: The baseball version of Ewing.
Nope. In Cincinnati, Griffey stopped being Griffey. I'm one for five.
• Kobe Bryant: After they split him up from Shaq and he gets his own team.
Even if this didn't happen, I'm giving myself bonus points for predicting the Shaq-Kobe split even if it was relatively easy to predict.
• Pete Sampras: This one makes sense, if you think about it. Taking Sampras out of the men's tennis equation could make Wimbledon more interesting and allow younger, more charismatic players to rise to the forefront.
Bammo! Federer and Nadal! BOOM! I'm 2-for-7. If I can go four for my next 17, I can be the MVP of this column.
• Barry Bonds: It's unfair, but he fits the formula.
And that formula was made up of a variety of chemicals that ended with "-rone." Whoops.
• Manning: You can feel the "Manning goes down and the Colts rally behind James & Harrison" moment coming in the next few years, can't you?
My single biggest Ewing Theory disappointment — not having Manning and the Colts fall into the Ewing Theory's web. I'm still bitter. Final prediction numbers: 2-for-9.
While we're here, some Ewing Theory predictions that I wish I had thought to make back in 2001 include …
Jason Giambi — Left the A's for big bucks in New York, only the Moneyball A's rallied to keep making the playoffs without him — culminating in Michael Lewis's fantastic book, then Brad Pitt's overrated movie that gets worse every time I stumble across it on cable.
Brett Favre — Even though he won Super Bowl XXXI, that was Young Brett Favre, not "Possibly Holding On Too Long And Blocking Aaron Rodgers" Brett Favre. When Green Bay finally pushed Favre out, Rodgers won a Super Bowl three years later. Favre bounced from the Jets to the Vikings, briefly enjoyed a career resurgence, then got pounded like a piece of veal by the bounty-driven Saints before eventually leaving the NFL in disgrace after a dong photo scandal. That reminds me …
ESPN — We beat Favre's retirement yes-or-no dance into the ground for two solid years, then Favre retired, leaving us without a relentlessly annoying talking-head topic that would generate high ratings while deliberately infuriating sports blogs and bringing Richard Deitsch to angry tears … and then, TEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE-bow!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Donovan McNabb — How did I leave him off the list? What was I thinking?
Tracy McGrady — This would have been a reach (he was just breaking through for Orlando in 2001), but seven years later, the Rockets ripped off 22 straight wins without the services of Yao or T-Mac for a good chunk of them, then took the eventual Western champion Lakers to Game 7 of the conference semifinals. We have a picture of that team in the Ewing Theory Hall of Fame.
(And three more that I never could have predicted, but still … )
Tiki Barber — Was there any way to guess that Tiki would retire in 2006, followed by the Giants ripping off a Super Bowl title the following season? Of course not. But we should mention that Dave Cirilli gave his official Ewing Theory blessing to the Giants two weeks before Super Bowl XLII (via e-mail). I should have seen the worst Patriots loss of all time coming.
Wayne Rooney — Who remembers when Everton sold the then-teenage hotshot to Manchester United in 2004, then improbably finished fourth in the 2004-05 EPL season to qualify for the Champions League? Anyone? Hello? Where's Brian Phillips?
Jim Harbaugh and Andrew Luck — Let the record show that the 2012 Stanford Cardinal shocked an undefeated Oregon team (giving Alabama a second life and leading to an Alabama–Notre Dame title game), then won the Pac-12 title and the Rose Bowl … and neither Harbaugh nor Luck have won anything yet.
Q: Can the Ewing Theory apply to romance?
You betcha. Everyone has one friend who got dumped by their girlfriend/boyfriend, sending them into a tailspin. You worried about them and their well-being, you logged major phone time with them, you wondered if they would ever bounce back … and then, boom! Your friend started working out, dropping 15 pounds and suddenly looking better than ever. They also started going out three times a week, rekindling all their old friendships; within time, they had completely regained their mojo. And inevitably, when they finally started dating again, their new flame put the old one to shame. That's the Ewing Theory in a nutshell.
Or as it's also known, What Roger Clemens Did To Red Sox Fans. I should have thrown in PEDs.
(Semi-related: What's the best celebrity Ewing Theory romance? With apologies to Mila Kunis post–Macaulay Culkin, I'm going with Ben Affleck. Remember when he hit rock bottom after J.Lo dumped him and Gigli bombed? Well, he found Jennifer Garner, got his act together, rebuilt his career and eventually became an award-winning A-list director. That's right, J.Lo — you and your bubble butt are headed for the Ewing Theory Hall of Fame.)
Q: Can the Ewing Theory be applied to the entertainment world?
That's a little bit tougher, because people don't write off bands, TV shows and movies the same way we write off sports teams. With that said, there have been a number of Ewing Theory moments when an impending loss seemed devastating and ended up becoming a blessing in disguise. For instance:1. Beverly Hills 90210, 1994: After petulant star Shannen Doherty leaves the show, the producers import Tiffani-Amber Thiessen as the resident vixen during the watershed "Dylan's drinking again" season — maybe the greatest upgrade in TV history.
I never should have written the word "maybe." Our Mount Rushmore Ewing Theory examples: Bret Hart, Drew Bledsoe, Shannen Doherty and Elgin Baylor. Even if it's totally clichéd to see those four names together.
2. Van Halen, 1986: After David Lee Roth's sudden departure, everyone writes off the band when cheesy '80s singer Sammy Hagar is brought aboard. They end up releasing two successful albums ("5150" and "OU812") and not totally embarrassing themselves.
I've had another 12 years to think about it … I think they embarrassed themselves. Even if this happens to be one of the most secretly enjoyable six minutes and 16 seconds on YouTube:
3. Cheers, 1986: Shelley Long leaves the series to pursue a film career, the producers replace her with Kirstie Alley and the show eventually reaches no. 1.
This was a slight reach — Cheers during the first three Shelley Long years was superior to any other Cheers season. But you can't deny the "no. 1 overall" thing.
4. NYPD Blue, 1995: David Caruso leaves the show in the second season, presumably to star in movies with Shelley Long. The producers replace him with Jimmy Smits, revolve the show around Smits and Dennis Franz, and ratings actually improve.
We had Long in the 1980s and Caruso in the 1990s, but nobody in the 2000s … well, unless you want to make the case for Katherine Heigl. (And by the way, I won't stop you.) It's disappointing because I always loved when actors/actresses stupidly left TV shows thinking that they had some monster movie career waiting for them. Nowadays, there's too much money and prestige in television — someone like Jon Hamm is smart enough to milk Mad Men for as long as possible while also pursuing movies. Still, it's depressing that there wasn't a hardcore Long-Caruso case for the 2000s. Couldn't David Schwimmer have left Friends three years early so we could have made fun of him for the rest of eternity?
5. The Corleones, late '40s: After Sonny's tragic death and the near-assassination of Don Vito, the family's youngest son (Michael) emerges from exile in Italy and turns the Corleone family around, defying heavy odds and the skepticism of just about everyone (even his brother, Fredo).
Like what happened with the Buss family, only the opposite.
(One TV classic that was immune to the powers of the Ewing Theory: Three's Company. They never adequately replaced the Ropers or Chrissy Snow. But that's a story for another time … )
It's really not. Nobody younger than 35 cares about Three's Company. While we're here, a few more pop culture–related Ewing Theory thoughts for you …
• Vin Diesel and Paul Walker are Ewing Theory–proof. Don't you even dare. We need both. They can never leave the Fast & Furious franchise. I don't have to elaborate. Same goes for Jeff Probst and Survivor. But Chris Harrison? You can leave anytime.
• I was hoping for Ewing Theory action with Charlie Sheen and Two and a Half Men, but it never really happened. Kudos to Sheen for fighting it off.
• The most depressing Ewing Theory example ever? Joy Division's Ian Curtis committed suicide in 1980, causing the band to morph into New Order (a better and more successful band). The second-most depressing example? Courtney Love's music career post-Cobain (for the first few years, anyway). Let's just move on.
• The second-best TV example ever (trailing only Doherty-T.A.T.): The Daily Show after Craig Kilborn left in 1998 … and someone named Jon Stewart took over.
• The third-best TV example ever: Kathie Lee Gifford giving way to Kelly Ripa. Actually, that might be higher.
• The fourth-best TV example ever: Season 8 of Curb Your Enthusiasm after Larry and Cheryl broke up and Cheryl Hines disappeared from the show, leading to two Pantheon episodes ("Palestinian Chicken" and the "Mister Softee" episode featuring Buckner), three hilarious everyday terms for us to steal ("the social assassin," "Koufaxing" and "chat-and-cut") and Larry embracing his newfound single status and a self-proclaimed social assassin.
Q: Who were the prime "Shoulda-Been" candidates who somehow escaped the Ewing Theory's wrath over the years?
We'll make this list as cryptic as possible; you figure it out: Mike Schmidt; Walter Payton; Roy Hobbs; Wilt Chamberlain; Robin Quivers; Phil Esposito; Roger Clemens; Henry Kissinger; Bob Cousy; Julius Erving (with the Sixers); George Clooney; Dick Butkus; Cosmo Kramer; Ted Williams; Bo and Luke Duke; Dirk Diggler; Ernie Banks; John F. Kennedy; Andre the Giant; Greg Maddux; Warren Coolidge; Ray Bourque; Frank Deford; Paul Shaffer.
Look, I made that list and still can't figure out why half the names made it.
Finally, what would be the greatest triumph for the Ewing Theory?
The Mariners somehow winning the 2001 World Series — nothing would top that one on the Ewing Scale.
I was wrong. Three words: Tom F-ing Brady.
One last note: If you believe in omens, remember that A-Rod, Junior and the Big Unit might have all departed from Seattle over the past three years, but another marquee athlete was traded to Seattle last fall. His name? Patrick Ewing.
This was like crossing the streams in Ghostbusters — seven years later, the Sonics fled Seattle for Oklahoma City. It's almost like the Ewing Theory imploded on itself.
And now, without further ado, the Ewing Theory Power Rankings — a.k.a., our best bets to become Ewing Theory candidates at some point during the rest of this decade. Even if there's no way to predict this stuff, I'm still predicting it. In no particular order …
George Lucas — You know, if J.J. Abrams invigorates the Star Wars franchise.
Tom Brady and Bill Belichick Four Years From Now — I hate myself for typing this.
Matt Ryan, Adrian Peterson — Think about it.
Matt Lauer — My sneaky-favorite example … although I'm president of the Willie Geist Fan Club.
David Price — After he signs with the Dodgers for $300 million in two years. Says Grantland's Jonah Keri, "One of these years, the Rays are going to catch some luck on these playoff or near-playoff runs and fluke their way to a World Series win … so why not without the best left-handed starting pitcher in the American League?" I like it.
Steve Buscemi in Boardwalk Empire — I don't watch this show, but Grantland editor Dan Fierman swears that it's a dead-on example.
Brody in Homeland — Had they killed him off after Season 1, there would have been major Ewing Theory possibilities. FYI: There's still time.
Alex Ovechkin — This pick was approved by Katie Bakes.
Billy Beane — How great would that be?
Mark Zuckerberg — Ditto.
Carmelo Anthony — Fits all the criteria.
Pope Benedict XVI — Come on, I had to.
David Stern — Kudos to the Commish because he sniffed out his own Ewing Theory potential, then decided to hang on through February 2014 until the league was in good enough shape that nobody could say, "Things turned around because Stern left!" Yet another reason why he's one of the smartest dudes in sports history.
Rajon Rondo — Only if the Celtics make the 2013 Finals. And only then.
Bill Simmons — Here's how I could get foiled by my own favorite theory in two steps:
1. I get fired for saying something totally inappropriate/offensive on live TV during NBA Countdown.
2. Grantland takes off with new editor-in-chief Rembert Browne.
Sneijder confident in taking road less traveled to Turkey
By: timbersfan, 1:12 AM GMT on February 09, 2013
Wesley Sneijder, the Dutch national team captain, was on the phone from Istanbul, and I asked him something that had never entered my mind until this week: Is it realistic to think Galatasaray could win the UEFA Champions League? The Turkish club may be the most intriguing team in world soccer right now after pulling off a double-stunner in the past week to acquire Sneijder and Ivory Coast star striker Didier Drogba.
Sneijder chuckled a little bit at the question. He has won a Champions League, after all, with Inter Milan in 2009-10, and he knows how hard it is to raise the most important trophy in world club soccer. But doing it with Galatasaray?
"That might be a little too far," Sneijder said. "But we are still in the Champions League, so the next round will be Schalke, and it will not be easy. We have to go from game to game, but we have a high-quality team, so let's fight for it and see what happens."
More than a few people were surprised when Sneijder opted to sign in Turkey instead of one of Europe's Big 4 leagues. This is a guy who made a good case for being the world's best player in 2010, leading the Netherlands to the World Cup final and Inter to the Champions League title. Granted, Sneijder has seen a bit of a dip in the last two years, but he's still just 28 and a central figure for one of the world's best national teams.
Inter decided it didn't want to continue paying Sneijder's hefty salary and had kept him off the field recently, a clear sign that he needed to find a new club.
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"[Inter] wanted me to leave, so they didn't let me play anymore," Sneijder said. "I had a possibility to stay there because I had a contract until 2015, but I didn't want to risk anything because I want to play in the World Cup in 2014. So in the end I decided to move. The offer came from Galatasaray. I spoke to the people at the club and heard all the ambitions they have. They really want to grow, and I checked the quality of the Turkish competition. There's real competition. It's not like you come here and there are only two clubs like Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe. The quality is high."
It no doubt helps that Sneijder is making big money at Galatasaray. But he says that's not the only reason he opted for Turkey over the chance to join, say, an English Premier League team.
"For me, Galatasaray is like a step forward," he said. "The options I had in the Premier League, I didn't see them as really a step forward. If you're going to move to another country, the first feeling is the most important one. My feeling was really good with Galatasaray. That's why it wasn't difficult to make the decision in the end."
It's one thing for a club to say it has high aspirations, but it's another thing to back them up. By following up the Sneijder signing with the acquisition of Drogba from Shanghai Shenhua, Galatasaray is adding action to words. Both Sneijder and Drogba will be eligible to play in Champions League against Schalke in the Round of 16 starting on Feb. 20.
"He's one of the top strikers in the world," Sneijder said of Drogba. "They have a lot of ambitions here, so they're trying to become one of the biggest clubs in Europe as soon as possible. With a player like Drogba and his quality and experience, it will be even easier to win our games and go forward."
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As for Sneijder, he's having to work himself back into top form after not playing for Inter since Sept. 26. Over the weekend he made his Galatasaray debut, playing for 25 minutes in a 2-1 win over rival Besiktas.
"It's a huge difference between playing games and just doing training sessions," Sneijder said. "I didn't play for like two months. I played 25 minutes [on Sunday], so we'll have to do it like this, maybe 35 minutes [next time] and then next week a little more. And before long I should be 100 percent playing a whole game."
There's certainly plenty of enthusiasm for Sneijder in Instanbul. Just as the basketball star Allen Iverson was famously mobbed at the airport on his arrival when he joined Besiktas, Sneijder was impressed (and a little overwhelmed) by the chaos that greeted his arrival last week. To say the Turks are passionate about sports is something of an understatement.
"The people here are crazy about soccer," he said, "and if you do a good job they will love you even more. They told me you can expect a lot of people waiting for you at the airport. But when we arrived there were 75,000 people, and they stopped the airport. It was amazing, you know, something I'll never forget. And I've played many games in my career so far, but what happened in that stadium [on Sunday] was amazing. I can't describe it. You should see it and feel it, because it's different in comparison with all the other teams."
You'll note that Sneijder said the word soccer to a U.S. journalist without pausing and having to think about it. It's a small thing, but it's also a sign that he's already familiar with the United States. He has visited Los Angeles several times over the years with his wife, Yolanthe Cabau van Kasbergen, an actress and TV host, and he reiterated with me that someday he may very well be up for donning an L.A. Galaxy jersey.
"I've said many times I'm thinking about going there one day," Sneijder said. "But you never know. If you'd asked me five years ago if I'd be in Turkey now, maybe I would have said no. You never know where it ends, but I feel really happy here now."
What's more, Sneijder and Drogba have piqued the interest of global soccer fans by moving to Turkey. Suddenly, Galatasaray's Champions League future is drawing a lot more attention.
Read More: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/soccer/news/20130 131/wesley-sneijder-didier-drogba-galatasaray-tran sfers/#ixzz2KMOCrRUq
U.S. seeks statement-making victory in Honduras
By: timbersfan, 1:11 AM GMT on February 09, 2013
SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras -- From a player's perspective, the U.S.'s final-round World Cup qualifying opener here on Wednesday against Honduras is probably the most physically challenging test of any of the 10 qualifiers they'll play in 2013. Because this is the only single-round fixture date, some players like Clint Dempsey had to play 90 minutes on Sunday for their European clubs, fly to Miami on Monday to join the national team and then fly again to Honduras on Monday night.
"These single-fixture dates that fall in the middle of our seasons are always a challenge," said U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley, who played in Italy for Roma over the weekend. "It's important for every guy to come in with the right mentality and be ready from the time that plane lands in Miami. We have a good group of guys who have the experience of doing this for a few years. When you get ready for games like this when so much is on the line, you don't need a whole lot of motivation. There's a real sense on our team of excitement where we can see the World Cup on the horizon."
Dead legs and jet-lag will only be part of the equation in Wednesday's game (4 p.m. ET, BeIN Sport). So will the afternoon kickoff time, the better for the Hondurans to take advantage of the 85-degree heat. And so will the intimidating sold-out stadium, made possible by a national holiday being declared in Honduras for the game.
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"It's hard," said U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard, who played on Saturday in England for Everton and will get in two training sessions with the U.S. before the game. "You're trying to catch up on your rest with the jet-lag. It's not a lot of time to train and game-plan, but that's why the last couple years have been important. You build up that trust so you can get together at the drop of a dime and put it all together."
Make no mistake, Honduras is a tough opponent. The *Catrachos* qualified for their first World Cup in 28 years in 2010, and their team on Wednesday will include several of the players who reached the quarterfinals in last year's Olympics, beating Spain and losing 3-2 to Brazil along the way. Honduras has more athleticism and force than their Central American counterparts, combined with more traditional Latin American skill on the ball. It's why players such as Maynor Figueroa, Roger Espinoza and Wilson Palacios have been good fits in the hard-running English Premier League.
That said, the U.S. has enjoyed more World Cup qualifying success in Honduras than in Mexico and Costa Rica over the years. The Americans won at Honduras in 2001 (thanks to a majestic Clint Mathis free kick) and in 2009, a wild 3-2 victory that clinched the U.S.'s berth in World Cup 2010. For all the insecurity outside the stadium here—the U.S. State Department considers San Pedro Sula the world's most violent city—the atmosphere inside the Estadio Olímpico is friendlier and less openly hostile than in Mexico and Costa Rica. That's partly due to the running track and moat between the fans and the field, but Hondurans also seem more welcoming in general.
How will this game look? Expect a lot of pressure from the Hondurans, as well as some from the U.S., and keep a close eye on Bradley, whose bombing runs from midfield have become even more common in Italy lately. If there's going to be one other difference-maker for the U.S., it's Dempsey, who has been in good scoring form of late for Tottenham Hotspur.
As for Honduras, its lineup figures to have more current MLS players (four) than the U.S. (one). The punishing midfielder Espinoza has made a seamless transition so far from Kansas City to the Premier League, and Costly and Bengtson have been effective scorers at times for Honduras.
Earning a tie and leaving Honduras with a point would be a decent result for the U.S., even if Klinsmann says his team has come here to win three. But as Howard said on Tuesday, "I think a draw is always O.K. on the road in CONCACAF. But having said that, given that we have a few road games, it would be good to pick up a win somewhere along the way. Tomorrow would be a good win."
• United States (projected): Tim Howard; Timmy Chandler, Geoff Cameron, Carlos Bocanegra, Fabian Johnson; Danny Williams; Graham Zusi, Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones; Clint Dempsey, Hérculez Gómez.
• Honduras (confirmed by coach Luis Suárez): Noel Valladares; Arnold Peralta, Víctor Bernárdez, Maynor Figueroa, Juan Carlos García; Óscar Boniek García, Roger Espinoza, Luis Garrido, Mario Martínez; Jerry Bengtson, Carlo Costly.
Chandler ready to commit to U.S. (Finally)
The on-again, off-again saga of German-American right back Timmy Chandler is finally ready to end for good on Wednesday. After waffling for more than a year about committing to the U.S., Chandler is here with the team and (with Steve Cherundolo's injury absence) seems likely to start. By playing in an official competitive game (i.e., not a friendly) with the U.S. for the first time, Chandler would be cap-tied to the U.S. permanently.
To hear Chandler describe it, his decision-making process had a lot to do with German Jurgen Klinsmann being the U.S. coach. "I spoke with him a lot, and he told me what he wanted to make in the future with USA and at the Brazil World Cup," Chandler said here on Tuesday. "That's why I come here. I want to help the USA, and I hope I can do it ... This whole team is like a family, and I like it very much."
Chandler, an explosive 22-year-old flank player for Nuremberg in the Bundesliga, has the talent to be a starter for the U.S. in the coming years. He has played in nine friendlies for the U.S., but Chandler skipped the 2011 Gold Cup and last fall's World Cup qualifiers, which would have tied him to the U.S., and he only rejoined the U.S. team last November for the friendly at Russia.
In soccer terms, he could become American forever on Wednesday.
U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard smiled when asked about Chandler on Tuesday. "It was about time, you know?" he said. "There's been a lot of back and forth, probably too much if you ask me, but that's my opinion. We think he's a big part of the team. He's young, but he brings a lot of grit and he's a really good player. Obviously, commitment is a big thing for us, so if that's what he's going to do then we're excited. He's a fantastic player. To have Fabian [Johnson] and Timmy kind of book-end the back four would be great for us with their youth."
• It's hard to believe three-and-a-half years have passed since the last time we were in San Pedro Sula, when the U.S. beat Honduras 3-2 to punch a ticket to World Cup 2010. A couple things that stick out to me about that game: Twitter was already becoming a thing. It was also the last time Charlie Davies started for the U.S. national team. (His awful car accident took place in Washington D.C. a couple days later.) And it was right around the last time we saw a full-strength Oguchi Onyewu in a U.S. uniform. (He suffered a serious knee injury in the next game against Costa Rica.)
• When Klinsmann was asked about the U.S.'s difference-makers in Tuesday's press conference, he mentioned Jermaine Jones in the same breath as Dempsey and Bradley. Clearly, Klinsmann considers Jones to be one of the U.S.'s best players, so expect to keep seeing him in the lineup (unless he picks up another yellow-card suspension).
• The U.S. player selected to join Klinsmann at the formal press conference was Bradley, who sounds more and more like a future captain every day.
• The rest of the U.S. players had the chance to speak to media in a mixed zone before Tuesday's training session at the stadium, but Dempsey decided not to speak. Not sure why.
• Kind of a bummer how much security there needs to be here. I never usually stay in the hotel the whole time, but after hearing reports from the U.S. Embassy and getting mugged in Honduras the last time I was here, I'm not taking any chances.
Let's hope for a good game Wednesday ...
Read More: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/soccer/news/20130 205/united-states-honduras-soccer-preview-grant-wa hl/#ixzz2KMO02Hoj
U.S. wilts late at Honduras in Hexagonal opener
By: timbersfan, 1:10 AM GMT on February 09, 2013
SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras -- Three thoughts from the U.S.' 2-1 loss to Honduras in its first match of the final round of World Cup qualifying.
• This game felt like last year's loss in Jamaica -- only worse. The last thing the U.S. wanted to do was open the World Cup qualifying Hexagonal with a loss after winning their opener in all four previous final-round tournaments. But that's exactly what happened in a game that looked a lot like the bad 2-1 qualifying defeat in Jamaica last September. Both then and on Wednesday, goals by Clint Dempsey put the U.S. ahead, only for the home teams to mount furious comebacks that resulted in 2-1 victories. Make no mistake, Honduras deserved this win, maintaining more possession and creating more chances than the U.S. before Jerry Bengtson's 79th-minute goal provided the difference. On the decisive strike, both the U.S.' Tim Howard and Omar González were just a hair late, which was no coincidence during a second half when the U.S. seemed winded and tired in mid-afternoon heat that reached the 80-degree range.
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• This game had some terrific goals. The U.S. scored one of its most technically gifted goals in years when Clint Dempsey gave the Americans a 1-0 lead in the 36th minute. Usual hard-man Jermaine Jones, of all people, lofted a perfectly-weighted ball over the top of the defense that Dempsey picked out of the air on a volley that beat goalkeeper Noel Valladares. Volleying a pass that comes in over your back shoulder is one of the hardest things to do in soccer, and Dempsey did it perfectly, looking like Willie Mays on his famous over-the-shoulder catch. Yet Honduras' response was even prettier, with Juan Carlos García bicycling an astonishing blast past Howard after a cross from Víctor Bernárdez and a header from Maynor Figueroa. Yep, that's right: center back to center back to left back for one of the best goals you'll see, a highlight-reel special that sent the Estadio Olímpico Metropolitano into bedlam.
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• Now the pressure starts to mount on Jurgen Klinsmann and the Americans. The U.S. is the only team in the six-nation Hexagonal that has to play three of its first four games on the road, and if you asked me before this game I would have said the U.S. needed to pick up at least four points in its first three games: at Honduras, at home against Costa Rica and at Mexico. To do that, the U.S. will now need to beat Costa Rica in Denver on March 22 and get at least a tie at Mexico on March 26 -- something the U.S. has only done once ever in World Cup qualifying. There's more margin for error in the Hexagonal than in the semifinal round, thanks to 10 games and the fact that four of the six teams can advance to the World Cup, but starting off with a loss is going to make the U.S.' road more difficult than it would have wanted.
Read More: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/soccer/news/20130 206/usa-honduras-world-cup-qualifying/#ixzz2KMNl3G 3j
Loss to Honduras turns up pressure on Klinsmann
By: timbersfan, 1:09 AM GMT on February 09, 2013
SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras -- When Jurgen Klinsmann was hired to coach the U.S. men's national team in 2011, the goal was for the German World Cup winner to make history and take the U.S. to new heights at the World Cup.
And while Klinsmann has made some positive history -- the U.S.' first friendly wins at Italy and at Mexico -- he has also made the kind of history you don't want to be known for, and in important World Cup qualifiers, no less. Last September, the U.S. lost for the first time ever to Jamaica, a defeat that left the Americans scrambling until the last semifinal round game to advance.
In the U.S.' 2-1 Hexagonal-opening defeat to Honduras here Wednesday, Klinsmann made history again, presiding over the U.S.' first loss ever in a World Cup qualifier at Honduras -- and the first time the U.S. had failed to win its opening game in the history of the CONCACAF Hexagonal (which has been in place for four World Cup cycles).
"Obviously, it's not what we wanted," said Klinsmann afterward. "We wanted to start with a positive result, and we have to fix that right away now against Costa Rica in Denver in March. But we knew it was going to be difficult. ... There are no excuses. When you lose a game here, there are reasons for it. The reasons for it today were that too many players were underneath their usual performance. We made too many mistakes. ... We gave them far too much space today."
To hear Klinsmann say it, the U.S.'s problems weren't so much connected to the young four-man back line, all of whom were starting their first Hexagonal games, but to a sputtering midfield that often lost the ball as quickly as it won possession. "That's why we did the subs in midfield," Klinsmann said. "We didn't find our passing flow, we didn't combine well enough, we didn't hold the ball well enough. We often lost the ball far too early."
In particular, Danny Williams struggled in his role just in front of the back line, either losing the ball or not showing well enough for passes, which led to others booting the ball downfield. Jermaine Jones had one moment of brilliance -- a chipped ball that Clint Dempsey volleyed in for a 1-0 lead -- but was ineffectual otherwise and had to leave the game after cramping up, Klinsmann said.
What can get better in the midfield against Costa Rica next month? "At times, knowing how to tactically be a little smarter as a team," said midfielder Michael Bradley. "And to know that in different parts of these games, the ability to stay disciplined and connected without running crazy. In a smart, solid way to control situations. ... At times we did that well tonight, and as the game went on we got pulled around a little bit. They started to find some space between the lines."
"We need to find a way to get a better rhythm," said goalkeeper Tim Howard, who called the game a missed opportunity to grab a point on the road. "Sometimes just those ticky-tacky four- and five-yard passes, just to make them have to get behind the ball and defend. ... They waited for us to try and make the killer pass and turn the ball over."
Despite the issues in midfield, the U.S. did go ahead on a goal that came a bit out of nowhere. Had the Americans been able to take that lead into halftime, perhaps the second half would have looked different. Instead, Honduras equalized on a tremendous overhead kick -- "probably the goal of the century here in Honduras," said Klinsmann -- by left back Juan Carlos García after the U.S. defense let its guard down following a corner kick. Víctor Bernárdez had an unpressured cross from the left, owing to miscommunication between Fabian Johnson and Omar González, and in that situation nobody should be free enough to unspool a bicycle kick six yards from the goal without having a body on him.
Klinsmann took a big risk in this game with his back line, sitting captain Carlos Bocanegra and replacing him with 24-year-old Omar González, who was making his first start (in a road World Cup qualifier!) with center back partner Geoff Cameron. (The fullbacks were German-Americans Timmy Chandler and Fabian Johnson.) When Bocanegra plays, he's the one organizing the defense, not Cameron, and while Cameron and González did O.K., you could see that Bocanegra's leadership was missed. (Some of the miscommunication was evident on Jerry Bengtson's game-winning goal for Honduras.) My sense in listening to Klinsmann after the game, though, was that he's willing to continue using the young guys moving forward.
"We believe Omar is ready for the next step, ready for the international level," Klinsmann said. "The only way you find that out is to give him a chance and throw him in the cold water. Overall he has done well. There will always be moments there might be miscommunication between two center backs or chemistry [problems] with the No. 6 in front of the center backs. It takes time to develop. But the back line wasn't the reason we lost that game."
With Wednesday's loss, the pressure will now be turned up a little higher on Klinsmann. Yes, there is more margin for error in the Hexagonal than in the semifinal round of qualifying, but Klinsmann has been hired (and is being paid $2.5 million a year) to bring big changes to the U.S., both during qualifying and, more importantly, during the World Cup.
Yet the son of Klinsmann's predecessor was quick to remind everyone that this was only the first game of 10 this year. "I can't repeat this enough: This is a long road," said Bradley. "Is it disappointing today not to walk away with a point? Absolutely. But we can't lose our heads, can't let ourselves be thrown off course. These are the kinds of games we expect. You come here knowing it's going to be a really difficult game, and that's reality. Now we'll go back to Denver in March and know that it's going to be a really difficult home game against Costa Rica. But we need points. That's the pressure, but that's what we're used to."
Nobody ever said the Hexagonal was going to be easy. But after a history-making loss on Wednesday, the road to Brazil 2014 might be even harder than most had expected.
Read More: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/soccer/news/20130 206/us-loses-world-cup-qualifier-to-honduras/#ixzz 2KMNYPo00
Super Bowl Preview
By: timbersfan, 3:23 PM GMT on February 02, 2013
The last time a Super Bowl vaguely resembled the pregame plan was in February of 2007, when the Colts faded a kickoff return on the opening play of the game from the best return man in the history of football and rode their huge quarterback advantage to a win. Otherwise, for about a 10-year stretch now, Super Bowl previews have borne no resemblance to the game that's actually played out on the field. Nobody saw the Patriots' game plan coming to knock down Marshall Faulk in 2002. Presumably, no scribes suggested that Raiders head coach Bill Callahan was going to deliberately try to throw the Super Bowl the following year. Even when the favorite has covered the spread, the game has had some major quirk corrupt things. Ben Roethlisberger's two-pick, 29.3–passer rating game against the Seahawks. The injuries to Charles Woodson and Sam Shields tearing the Green Bay pass defense apart against those same Steelers years later (with Green Bay still holding up to win).
Of course, that's not stopping anybody from writing or reading Super Bowl previews. I don't know that there's something innately different about the Super Bowl, that pregame trends and levels of performance get muddied amid the pressure of the biggest game in most players' lives and produce a contest that bears little resemblance to expectations, but I can see the argument. Maybe if you took the Monday Night Football game from Week 9 each year and compared it to how each of those teams did over the remainder of the year, it would stand out as odd in the same way that these last dozen Super Bowls or so have stood out. Somebody like me would point out that the 10 Super Bowls at the end of the last century roughly amounted to chalk; outside of the one major upset (Broncos-Packers) and one minor one (Giants-Bills), the favorites cleaned up and the Super Bowl had a very boring decade.
The only thing I'm really confident about heading into Sunday is that Harbaugh Bowl II won't look much like Harbaugh Bowl I. That game was 14 months ago, but both the 49ers and Ravens have undergone fundamental shifts in terms of their personnel and style of play in the meantime. Baltimore evolved after injuries threatened their viability; San Francisco evolved by using an injury as an excuse to try to become a better long-term team. They each have an impressive blowout and an even more impressive comeback on their résumé this postseason, but to win a Super Bowl, they'll have to do the one thing nobody's done during these playoffs: beat a Harbaugh.
Back to Basics
As important as it is to win after the ball's snapped, teams can do a lot of good for themselves by dictating matchups and personnel sets that are in their favor before plays even begin. During this postseason, the Ravens have had to contend with the Broncos and Patriots — teams who try to create mismatches against tired defenses by running different sorts of no-huddle attacks. Baltimore has been able to withstand those attacks by staying in a Nickel defense that has done a good job of matching up against the sorts of personnel sets the Broncos and Patriots tend to run. In the Super Bowl, don't be surprised if the 49ers try to attack the Ravens with a seemingly counterintuitive strategy: forcing them back into their traditional 3-4 alignment.
Grantland on Super Bowl XLVII
Super Bowl Preview
By Bill Barnwell
After all the bets and the hype, it's time to break down the game and decide who will raise the Lombardi Trophy
The Niners Buck the System
By Bill Barnwell
All the numbers said San Francisco wouldn't be this good, so how did it happen?
How the Ravens Stay on Top
By Bill Barnwell
The intelligence and patience of Ozzie Newsome has made Baltimore into a team built for the long haul
Super Bowl Prop Bets
By Bill Barnwell
From the shrewd to the ridiculous, you can put your money down on just about any situation
B.S. Report: Two-Parter From New Orleans
By Bill Simmons
In Part 1, Rembert Browne and Cousin Sal talk about the actual game; PEDs then find time to break down their terrible lunch. In Part 2, Tracy Morgan talks about the finale of 30 Rock before Giants defensive end Justin Tuck stops by to remind Bill that New York beat the Patriots twice in the Super Bowl.
'We'll Build That Sucker'
By Hua Hsu
From David Dixon to Drew Brees, a cultural history of the Superdome, the site of Super Bowl XLVII
Band of Brothers: On Facing Off Against Family
By Ken Dryden
In 1971, my brother, Dave, and I were the first brothers to play against each other as goalies in an NHL game. Forty-two years later, we're still the only brothers to have done so.
How the Ravens Will Try to Contain Colin Kaepernick and the Diversity of the 49ers' Offense
By Chris Brown
"The running game in pro football has gotten so boring," former 49ers coach Bill Walsh remarked some years ago. "There's just four or five plays they can run. I think the whole thing is headed in the wrong direction, and it's really unfortunate." Even after his passing in 2007, Walsh's observation had held true for some time. That is, until now. And fittingly, it's the 49ers leading the way.
How Joe Flacco's Big Arm Can Exploit the 49ers' Secondary
By Chris Brown
After a decade of mostly familiar names, Super Bowl XLVII is set to provide some welcome new blood under center.
Exclusive: Bobby Bottleservice's Super Bowl Prediction
By Bobby Bottleservice
We sent special Grantland correspondent Bobby Bottleservice to New Orleans to report on the scene around the Super Bowl. Upon arrival, he immediately stopped answering our phone calls, but we finally tracked him down and asked if he would at least offer a prediction for the game. Here's what we got in return.
Norm Macdonald's Keeping Resolutions, Vol. 3: All-In
By Norm Macdonald
San Francisco. Baltimore. San Francisco. Baltimore. San Francisco. Baltimore.
My estimate is that the Ravens have had five defensive backs out in the familiar Nickel package on about 76 percent of their defensive snaps this postseason. At this point, the Nickel might actually be their best personnel package by virtue of playing to many of its players' strengths. It allows Terrell Suggs and Paul Kruger to focus on rushing the passer and moves the somewhat undersized Corey Graham into the slot, where he's done great work this postseason. When Baltimore moves into the 3-4, they swap out a cornerback — usually Chykie Brown — for a nose tackle, either Terrence Cody or Ma'ake Kemoeatu, while moving Graham to the outside. To tell the truth, Brown has been better at corner this year than Cody or Kemoeatu have been up front. Haloti Ngata also hasn't been at 100 percent for months now, and the 3-4 virtually requires him to be present for the Ravens.
While the Broncos and Patriots often like to stretch defenses by adding receivers, the 49ers are likely to show off just about every sort of offensive personnel set you can imagine over the course of a game. Like the Broncos and Patriots, they have a pair of talented athletes at tight end who are capable of lining up at any spot in the formation and exploiting a mismatch. And after Vernon Davis finally got involved in the offense for the first time in weeks during the NFC Championship Game, the Ravens might actually have to respect the presence of the player who dominated during the 2011 postseason.
Where the 49ers will really test the Ravens is when they go into run-heavy sets that bring on six or seven offensive linemen. They've gone with extra offensive linemen four to six times per game during the postseason, and it's not a gimmick for short yardage; the 49ers have quick offensive linemen who can get to the second level and create big plays out of those sets. And lest you think the Ravens can just bring on extra linemen themselves and sell out against the run when they see backup linemen Leonard Davis and Daniel Kilgore come onto the field alongside defensive tackle Will Tukuafu, think again; the 49ers are perfectly capable of calling for Kaepernick to throw a bomb up the seam to Vernon Davis or Delanie Walker out of that very alignment.
As Chris Brown noted in his Thursday breakdown of how the Ravens will try to stop the 49ers, the 49ers get you with their diversity. They're innovative, in part, by bringing back the past. The best way to stop any sort of running play, whether that play made its debut in 1962 or 2012, is by winning at the line of scrimmage. If the likes of Cody and Ngata get swallowed up at the point of attack, the 49ers will get to dictate their terms all evening.
How to Stop a Superhero
At the end of Brown's piece, he points out that the Ravens will probably have to blitz Kaepernick to try to force him into making the mistakes that come with inexperience; specifically, that the Ravens will try to get defenders into throwing lanes off of zone blitzes. It's a tactic that former Ravens defensive coordinator and current Falcons DC Mike Nolan tried against Kaepernick last week, and it nearly produced an interception by defensive tackle Corey Peters that might have sealed the game in the first quarter.
Assuming that Baltimore does spend a lot of time in their base 3-4 defense, the key player in stopping Kaepernick as a runner while possibly forcing an interception by stepping into a throwing lane will likely be Paul Kruger. At this point, Kruger is the most explosive, athletic player Baltimore has in its front seven, and he's arguably Baltimore's best bet in terms of having somebody who can actually physically motor his way into the path of a Kaepernick hot route before the ball gets there.
Before his breakout stretch during the second half of the 2012 season, Kruger's most famous play as a Ravens defender actually came on exactly the sort of play I'm describing. It was even against Dennis Dixon — a relatively inexperienced quarterback who had experience employing read option techniques (although it's unfair to compare Kaepernick to Dixon). The interception (on video here) came in overtime of a Steelers-Ravens game in 2009, and it was exactly the sort of process the Ravens would hope to get an interception out of on Sunday.
The Ravens line up on the play with four down linemen and six men in the box, so it's not their base defense, but they do execute a zone blitz on the play. The two interior defensive linemen and a linebacker rush the passer up the middle, while both ends drop back into coverage as a cornerback blitzes. Kruger sells his rush well, actually taking a full step in toward the right tackle before bailing and getting into a likely passing lane for Dixon.
Pittsburgh is likely calling for a quick throw to the sticks from Dixon on third-and-5 anyway, but the zone blitz and pressure up the middle only further encourages Dixon to get the ball out and try to hit what's most likely his hot read, the slant to Santonio Holmes. The throw looks open, since the cornerback on Holmes blitzes at the snap and Ed Reed looks slow to get over, but Dixon never even sees Kruger drop back into the path of the slant.
If you're a 49ers fan, you're noting that Kaepernick is a much better player than Dennis Dixon, and you're right. He probably doesn't panic under that sort of impending pressure and makes a more intelligent throw, or he scrambles out of the pressure and avoids the blitz altogether. Every quarterback makes mistakes, and the Ravens have to find ways to exploit the few weaknesses that Kaepernick has with the best possible defensive techniques they can come up with. For a player as accurate and efficient as Kaepernick, that might involve preying on the one thing he lacks: experience.
If any single player has taken over these playoffs, of course, it's Joe Flacco. While Colin Kaepernick has been thrilling to watch, there's a reason Flacco was listed at the top of last week's playoff stock watch; not only is Flacco winning and producing at the highest level, he's doing it in the run-in period for a new contract. Dot-com billionaires gaze in awe at Joe Flacco's timing.
It's always a dangerous game to try to draw conclusions from three-game samples, but the Flacco ascension really intrigues me. Is there something Flacco is doing that he wasn't pulling off a year or two ago? For a player who has always had his measures of value adulterated by his win totals, I wonder whether we're perceiving some sort of change in Flacco's performance solely because the Ravens are in the Super Bowl.
Here are Flacco's playoff numbers from the first five years of his career, split into convenient chunks of possible truths:
Year(s) Cmp Att Cmp% Yds Yds/Att TD INT FUM
2008-09 57 120 47.5% 660 5.5 1 6 0
2010-11 77 127 60.6% 872 6.9 7 2 3
2012 51 93 54.8% 853 9.2 8 0 1
That's really interesting. Obviously, the 2008-09 Flacco was something truly dreadful, but that hardly seems relevant now. That guy with those numbers still managed to go 3-2, which should tell you a lot about my prior skepticism. The 2010-11 Flacco, though, played almost as well in a four-game stretch as the 2012 Flacco has during his three-game run to the Super Bowl! It was a totally different sort of performance, as the 2010-11 Flacco was more conservative and checked down more frequently than the 2012 version.1
This year's Flacco looks like a quarterback out of the mid-'70s. He's barely completing more than half of his passes, but when he gets the ball out, it goes for big yardage. During the 2012 playoffs, Flacco has produced 15 completions of 20 yards or more, or one every 6.2 attempts. From 2008 to 2011, Flacco had a total of just 22 completions that produced gains of 20 yards or more, which is one every 11.2 attempts.
The most meaningful difference between the old Flacco and the guy who's shown up this January, though, comes in those two columns on the right. After averaging more than one turnover per game during his playoff career, Flacco has just one fumble against his record in three games. And you might be expecting me to argue that Flacco will regress and start turning the ball over as soon as Sunday, which is possible, but there might very well be something to the idea that a downfield-throwing Flacco is a turnover-averse Flacco: He has historically had a lower-than-expected interception rate on deep throws.
You don't need me to tell you what avoiding turnovers does for your offense. The hidden effect it's had has been to produce longer fields for Baltimore's defense to defend. Baltimore has faced 38 drives during this postseason, and exactly one of them has begun on their side of the field: New England's ill-fated drive at the end of the first half that ended up being bumbled into a field goal. And even that started on the Baltimore 43-yard line. Just eight of those 38 drives have begun past the opposing team's 30-yard line, and on those eight drives, the aforementioned field goal represents the only points Baltimore's allowed. So Flacco's put his defense in good positions, and when the defense has been in slightly choppier waters, they've come up with stops when they've needed them.2
Regardless of what the numbers say, the broader picture and the timeliness of Flacco's biggest drives mean that he's had a bigger impact on Baltimore winning these three playoff games than the numbers might indicate. All three of Baltimore's games have been close at halftime, and in the second half (and overtime) of these three playoff games, Flacco has been brilliant, going 30-of-52 for 489 yards with six touchdowns and no picks, producing a passer rating of 127.8. Sure, it very well might just be a three-game sample that means nothing in terms of predicative value, but you can't take away from what Flacco's done. The Ravens needed great quarterback play to get here, and Flacco's delivered.
Who's Better Rested Than Us? Nobody!
In my opinion, no head coach in the NFL does a better job of shifting around his game plan to attack the specific weaknesses of his opponent than Jim Harbaugh. It would stand, then, that the more time Jim Harbaugh gets to install his game plan, the better his team would play. A look at the numbers confirms that to an almost staggering degree.
When the 49ers have had eight or more days between games3 under Harbaugh, they've gone 11-1-1. Their only loss was to the Giants in the NFC Championship Game, and the tie came against the Rams in a game where they lost their starting quarterback to a concussion in the middle of the contest. In those 13 games, the average final score has been 28-17.
Jim Harbaugh hasn't been quite as effective on shorter rest. When his team has had exactly seven days of preparation, they've gone 13-6, albeit with a final score of 25-17. And while his team is 3-1 in its four games on short rest, that includes two narrow victories over the Seahawks and San Francisco's loss in Harbaugh Bowl I on Thanksgiving Night last year. Their average score in those contests has been a mere 17-15.
So, it's really a huge advantage that Jim Harbaugh gets two full weeks to prepare for the Ravens, right? Well, John Harbaugh's also getting two weeks to prepare for his brother, and his numbers aren't much worse with eight or more days of rest to work with. In those games, Harbaugh's Ravens are 16-4, winning by an average final score of 23-14. It seems reasonable to infer that the extra rest might mean a lot to an old defense that can't have much fun getting out of bed in the morning these days. Since the beginning of the 2010 season, the Baltimore defense has gotten extra rest 12 times and allowed 17 points or more exactly once, when the Texans scored 28 points in a contest in which they were down 28-7 at the beginning of the third quarter and had to desperately throw to catch up. The last time Baltimore impressed with a long week of work was, coincidentally, when they beat the Patriots two weeks ago. Since Harbaugh took over, the Ravens are just 8-7 in short weeks.
In the end, it's likely that each team received a boost from the extended rest. The 49ers got more time to prepare their schemes, and an undoubtedly tired Ravens defense got some welcome days without contact.
10 Final Thoughts on Super Bowl XLVII
1. I don't think David Akers will be as big of a problem as people suggest. Let's say that 49ers fans could choose right now to skip the entire game and decide the Super Bowl solely upon whether Akers could hit a 42-yard field goal. Would you take that bet? Probably not, but the implied odds from Vegas suggest that it would be smart. The 49ers moneyline, after adjusting for the Ravens moneyline and the vig, suggests that their "true" probability of winning from the market is 61.8 percent. Would you trust Akers to hit more than 61.8 percent of the time from the 42-yard line with the Super Bowl on the line? If he really couldn't hit more than 62 percent of the time from there in a dome, that would make him well worse than the worst NFL kicker in most given seasons. He can't be that bad.
2. I have no idea what to make of the special teams battle in this game. As the Football Outsiders preview notes, Baltimore's special teams were dominant during the regular season, but they allowed the two return touchdowns to the Broncos in the divisional round, and special teams in general remain the most inconsistent aspect of team play in football. Remember: San Francisco had the league's best special teams heading into the NFC Championship Game last year, and they probably would have won with even a below-average day from Kyle Williams.
3. Don't think that the 49ers are weak against the deep pass because the Falcons burned them two weeks ago. The Outsiders preview also notes that the 49ers had the league's best DVOA against passes that were thrown 15 yards or more through the air. Baltimore might succeed on a few deep throws to Torrey Smith & Co., but that will be because they're a very good downfield throwing team, not because the 49ers can't handle deep throws.
4. Bernard Pollard will almost surely try to take out Jim Harbaugh. Wouldn't that be the only way for him to top his previous reign of terror?
5. Watch for the Niners to try to take advantage of Cary Williams. Williams is Baltimore's weakest defensive back, even when they play in the 3-4 base and move Corey Graham from the slot to one side of the field. The Ravens also almost always leave their cornerbacks on one side of the field, so the 49ers can gameplan in advance to account for Williams being a sitting target on the left side of the field. Expect Michael Crabtree to spend the bulk of his day matched up against Williams.
6. The 49ers need to do something to wake up Aldon Smith. Although he showed a few signs of life last week by knocking down Matt Ryan once and recovering the fumble on Ryan's aborted snap, Aldon Smith remains a shadow of his former self since Justin Smith tore his triceps against the Patriots in Week 15. Justin Smith is back in the lineup, but he hasn't been the superstar end of old while playing on one and a half arms. If they can't rely on the Smiths (who saw this coming with "Death at One's Elbow") to twist and stunt their way into easy sacks for Aldon, the 49ers need to find other ways to get Aldon into impact pass-rushing situations. Aldon can't entirely be a creation of Justin Smith, right?
7. The Ravens need to do something to wake up Ray Rice. Since his two-fumble day against the Colts in the wild-card round, Rice has mostly been anonymous during Baltimore's run to the Super Bowl. Rice leads all backs in rushing with 247 yards, but he also leads all backs in carriers, and at 3.9 yards per pop, he's been overshadowed by the more explosive Bernard Pierce, who's averaging 6.3 yards per carry. Rice's versatility would normally lead me to suggest that they try throwing him the ball more to get him going, but with the likes of Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman around, that seems like the wrong plan.
8. Baltimore won Harbaugh Bowl I because the 49ers couldn't handle Terrell Suggs. Outside of perhaps the blowout victory over the Patriots in the 2009 playoffs, Suggs's destruction of 49ers right tackle Anthony Davis in the Thanksgiving-night game last year represented the best game of the pass rusher's decorated career. Suggs had three sacks, three quarterback knockdowns, two tackles for loss, and a forced fumble, and even those numbers understate his impact. The 49ers couldn't account for him and couldn't move the ball because of it. Obviously, that Suggs hasn't been seen since he tore his Achilles during the offseason and added a biceps tear after his return; he had his best game since the injuries hit against the Patriots, but it's difficult to imagine that Baltimore can reenact its sackfest from last year against Kaepernick on Sunday.
9. I can see any outcome beyond a Ravens blowout victory. This almost surely sets up a big reverse jinx, but I'm equally inclined to believe that a big 49ers win or a narrow win by either of these two teams is possible. A blowout 49ers loss would take some sort of unholy, Ankiel-esque collapse (or injury) from Kaepernick on the biggest stage, because even if the Ravens get out to an early lead, the 49ers should be able to throw the ball around on them and keep it relatively close.
10. I'm predicting a final score of 49ers 28, Ravens 17. Baltimore has exceeded my expectations during these playoffs, and I've picked against them twice in the last two rounds, only to see them win both times. Ravens fans see a little bit of the 2007 Giants in their team, and with the parallels between a retiring Ray Lewis and Michael Strahan along with an occasionally embattled quarterback taking a big leap forward, you can understand why.
But I'm picking the 49ers because I really believe they're going to dominate at the line of scrimmage and dictate the way this game is played. That should also remind you of the 2007 (and 2011) Giants, as both those teams beat up the Patriots at the line of scrimmage and messed up their timing on offense. San Francisco's offensive line has been its unexpectedly elite weapon all year. On Sunday, I'm expecting them to show up and win the game for the 49ers.
This article has been updated to correct the following errors: The Ravens allowed two return touchdowns to the Broncos, not rushing touchdowns to the Colts, in the divisional round; Ben Roethlisberger had two picks, not four picks, in Super Bowl XL.
Daring to Ask the PED Question
By: timbersfan, 3:22 PM GMT on February 02, 2013
I made a deal with myself a long time ago: My column needed to capture the things I discuss with my friends. Last week, I realized that wasn't totally happening anymore. Something of a disconnect had emerged between my private conversations and the things I wrote for Grantland/ESPN. In essence, I had turned into two people. There's Sports Fan Me, and there's ESPN Me.
Sports Fan Me is candid, jaded, suspicious of everyone. Sports Fan Me repeatedly gets involved in arguments and e-mail chains centered on the question, "Do you think he's cheating?" Sports Fan Me has Googled athletes' heads and jawlines, studied their sizes, then mailed before/after pictures to friends with the subject heading, "CHECK THIS OUT." Sports Fan Me has learned to trust his inner shit detector, to swiftly question any accomplishment that seems extraordinary or superhuman. Sports Fan Me hates that he feels this way, but he does, and there's just no way around it.
ESPN Me sticks his head in the sand and doesn't say anything.
ESPN Me occasionally pushes narratives that he doesn't totally believe in.
ESPN Me didn't have the balls to run two e-mails that you're about to read. They nearly landed in each of my last four mailbags. Each time, I pulled both e-mails (and my responses) from those columns at the last minute.
E-mail no. 1 (from David B. in Concord, North Carolina): "Why isn't anyone questioning Ray Lewis's miraculous recovery from a torn triceps muscle? At age 37, not only did he recover in 10 weeks from an injury that usually takes 6 months minimum for recovery, but, upon returning, he played at a higher level than before he was injured. Are sports 'journalists' incapable of learning from their own mistakes (we JUST HAD both the Baseball HOF vote and Lance admitting to steroid use), or is the sport just bigger than the truth?"
E-mail no. 2 (from Ben Miller in Fort Worth, Texas): "Instead of Beyonce, should we change the Super Bowl halftime show to just Adrian Peterson pissing in a cup at midfield? You just talked about how dumb we all look in hindsight when these super human baseball stars were shattering age-old records. Peterson nearly broke a 28 year old record in one of the most physically-demanding positions in sports less than 12 months after tearing his ACL & MCL!!! Respect the hell out of the guy and love his extreme work ethic, but think about McGwire's 70. Now think about it happening less than 12 months after tearing a pec. We probably call BS even back then at that point. You may want to take a cold shower and then mention it in a column just in case."
Sports Fan Me spent most of November and December debating the Lewis/Peterson topics with friends and coworkers, so Sports Fan Me wanted to run those e-mails. ESPN Me overruled him, believing it was unfair to speculate without any real proof … even though ongoing speculation has become as big a part of sports fandom as purchasing tickets or buying a replica jersey. That's the disconnect.
Before those Miami New Times/Sports Illustrated bombshells dropped this week and we started joking about deer-antler spray, I would have wagered anything that God didn't miraculously heal Ray Lewis's torn tricep. I never actually wrote this. Alluded to it, danced around it, joked about it … just never actually came out and wrote it. I stayed away from Peterson jokes for a different reason: His historic comeback (and historically great season) seemed conceivable. All Day might be a freak of nature, and if you take Dr. James Andrews at his word, the inside of Peterson's knee resembled a newborn baby's knee even after six NFL seasons. Watching Peterson regain his old form wasn't any more eye-opening than, say, Peyton Manning regaining his old form at age 36 after four neck surgeries.
Then again, I like Adrian Peterson. I thought watching him carry footballs was just about the most exciting thing that happened last year. I liked living in something of a sports-movie fantasy world in which our hero gets maimed, defies the odds, and returns better than ever (and sooner than we ever imagined). I wanted to believe in the notion that someone could be noticeably better at playing running back than anyone else. I loved the thought of telling my grandkids someday, "Yes, I was there for Adrian Peterson."
Will I look back at Peterson's remarkable season someday and say, "God, how did we NOT know? How stupid were we?" I say no.
But I don't know for sure. And that's the problem. There is no such thing as "the benefit of the doubt" anymore. Not in sports. Too many people took advantage. All the benefits are gone.
A few weeks ago, we finished a Baseball Hall of Fame voting process in which nobody was selected. Not a single guy. Keep in mind, the following stars were eligible: one of the greatest outfielders ever, one of the greatest starting pitchers ever, two of the most imposing sluggers ever, one of the greatest offensive first basemen ever, the single greatest offensive catcher ever, a member of the 500–home run club, and someone who reached base more than anyone in history except for 17 players. None of them made it to Cooperstown. Five were shunned because we were getting back at them — they cheated, they burned us, they let us down. Two were bypassed because of circumstantial evidence — we were pretty sure they cheated, and since they never defended themselves that passionately, they were out. The last guy missed out because of our anger toward the other seven guys, and because a few-dozen holier-than-thou baseball writers keep stubbornly protecting a fantasy world that no longer exists.
Really, those snubs were driven by our residual guilt about what we didn't do during baseball's steroid boom. We ignored their swollen noggins and rippling biceps. We weren't fazed by seemingly inexplicable surges in production, or even something as fundamentally perplexing as a 37-year-old doubles hitter suddenly hitting 50-plus homers. We didn't just look the other way; we threw heavy burlap bags over our heads and taped our eyeballs shut. And because we never stepped up, those enterprising dickheads bastardized baseball and ruined one of its most sacred qualities: the wholly unique way that eight generations of players relate to one another through statistics and records. Here, look.
MLB'S HOME RUN LEADERS BY SEASON
PLAYER AGE HOME RUNS YEAR
Barry Bonds 36 73 2001
Mark McGwire 34 70 1998
Sammy Sosa 29 66 1998
Mark McGwire 35 65 1999
Sammy Sosa 32 64 2001
Sammy Sosa 30 63 1999
Roger Maris 26 61 1961
Babe Ruth 32 60 1927
Babe Ruth 26 59 1921
Jimmie Foxx 24 58 1932
That list is dead. It means nothing. McGwire's generation made it fundamentally impossible to put power numbers into context for the rest of eternity, basically. And they did more damage than that. This past Christmas Eve, my son and daughter made Santa cookies, wrote him a letter, even left four carrots for his reindeer. As we were putting them to bed, I remember thinking, Man, I wish they could always stay like this. And by "this," I really meant, I wish they could always just blindly believe in things being true despite mounting evidence against them. For whatever reason, that made me think of Lance Armstrong. Was there even a difference? Our kids have Santa; we have Lance and Barry and A-Rod and everyone else.
LINDA CATAFFO/NY DAILY NEWS ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES
When Lance clinched the ESPY for "Most Pompous and Unapologetic Asshole" on Oprah's show a few weeks ago, everyone ripped him to shreds, because that's the pattern for us. The whole "innocent until proven guilty" mind-set will always be our default … until you burn us. If you burn us? Then, and only then, do we flip out. Nixon lied about Watergate; we never forgave him. Clinton lied about Lewinsky; we didn't forgive him for years and years. Countless baseball stars lied about cheating; we barricaded them from the Hall of Fame. Lance lied about absolutely everything; we turned him from a do-good hero into a defensive pariah. We hate people who lie to our faces.
But when you keep your head down and keep cheating? That's a little tougher. We're culpable in this respect: We have a tendency to look the other way as long as those great games and great moments keep coming. And it's not just with performance enhancers.
We look the other way when college basketball coaches pretend to care about academics as they're riding one-and-done players to titles, or when those same coaches gush about "the bond between me and those kids" and then defecate on it by jumping to another school for a little more money.
We look the other way when hardcore evidence emerges that the NCAA is just as corrupt and dishonest as some of the shadier coaches it's policing.
We look the other way when FIFA accepts bribes for World Cup bids, or when it turns out the NFL never really cared about player safety until there was a massive concussion lawsuit coming.
We look the other way when baseball teams win World Series even though they probably wouldn't have made the playoffs without significant help from steroids cheats.
We look the other way when NFL players are allowed to create any excuse they want for a four-game drug suspension (usually Adderall), or when David Stern tells a reporter that he doesn't see how PEDs would help NBA players (yeah, right).
We look the other way as the NBA keeps its own little Santa Claus streak going: Of all the running-and-jumping sports that feature world-class athletes competing at the highest level, only the NBA hasn't had a single star get nailed for performance enhancers … you know, because there's no way hundreds of overcompetitive stars with massive egos would ever cheat to gain an edge with hundreds of millions of dollars at stake.
We look the other way when the MLB, NFL, NBA and NHL players associations keep blocking blood testing in their respective sports (MLB finally started blood testing for the 2013 season), even though doctors keep telling us, "Hey, if we can have regular blood samples, it's a thousand times easier to catch cheaters."
My favorite recent look-the-other-way example: Juan Manuel Marquez couldn't knock down Manny Pacquiao for 36 solid rounds over three of their fights. Before their third fight, the 39-year-old Marquez aligned himself with a disgraced strength-and-conditioning coach named Angel Heredia (Google his name and PEDs; it's a fun 10 minutes), arrived in Vegas so ripped that he weighed in four pounds under the 147-pound limit, knocked Pacquiao down early with a vicious power punch, then coldcocked him a few rounds later with one of the single greatest knockout punches ever thrown. What did we do? We bought the fight, gathered in our living rooms. We oohed and aahed, tweeted our disbelief and forwarded the YouTube clip around. And when Marquez passed the bogus post-fight drug test — for the record, Keith Richards in 1978 after a night at Studio 54 could pass one of boxing's drug tests — everyone let the moment go.
Know this: Every boxing fan I know believes that Marquez enhanced his chances that night. But that's the thing: Our private conversations have nothing in common with public conversations, not just in sports, but with everything. If you're a public figure who says something offensive, we're going to rake you over the coals until you apologize … but if you make that same offensive comment under the protection of anonymity, whether it's on YouTube's comment section, Reddit, a message board or whatever, that's totally acceptable. What are we? Where are we? Do we even know anymore? In Chuck Klosterman's superb Grantland piece about Royce White this week, the embattled Rocket made a fascinating point about social media:
As much as we want to think that these are just people behind computer screens, those people are living next door to you. They are people behind computer screens in schools. In hospitals. Working in Washington, D.C. These are real people. How many times does this stuff have to happen before we admit something really disturbing is going on here? I think one person tweeting "Fuck you, go kill yourself" is disturbing. But when you get into the hundreds of those tweets? The thousands of those tweets? I see a lot of people out there with really volatile mental disorders that are not getting help. Because I go to their own Twitter pages, and I can see they're not just sending those messages to me. They're sending them to a bunch of people.
And that's where it gets messy. Anyone with a public forum should feel a certain responsibility to the greater good, whether you have a blog, a column, a podcast, a radio show or a steady TV gig. Of the myriad reasons why people have been bitching against ESPN lately, some are overblown or agenda-ridden, some are semi-legitimate, and some are undeniably legitimate. A good example: Rob Parker, who recklessly represented the alleged feelings of a segment of the African American community toward Robert Griffin III. Since he failed to do so thoughtfully or accurately, the ensuing backlash was speedy and deserved. He squandered that First Take pulpit, and when ESPN fired him, nobody was surprised. But what if that same show contained an exchange like this?
Talking Head No. 1: "Look, we've watched so many athletes let us down by cheating these past two decades, it's become impossible for me to digest Peterson's comeback or Lewis's comeback without wondering if they bent the rules."
Talking Head No.2: "You're saying they don't pass the smell test for you?"
Talking Head No. 1: "Exactly. I'm saying that athlete PED profiling has become part of following sports. And it's something we should be allowed to talk about on this show."
Talking Head No. 2 [suddenly scared]: "What do you mean?"
Talking Head No. 1: "I mean, we should debate whether guys are cheating in the same way we should debate whether they should be traded, or whether they're playing well enough, or whatever. You and I just talked in the green room about Lewis and whether he was cheating, remember?"
Talking Head No. 2 [shitting a brick]: "I thought we were off the record."
Talking Head No. 1: "No, screw that — let's talk about this. Is it fair to someone like Peterson to bring it up? I say yes. I say he's a professional athlete, living in a world in which dozens and dozens of guys either cheat and get caught or cheat and don't get caught, playing a sport with lax drug-testing rules. THAT'S PART OF SPORTS NOW! We pretend it isn't, but it is. What are we hiding from? Who are we protecting? What's the difference between wondering if Peterson had help with his comeback and wondering if he's going to break Dickerson's record? Either way, we're just speculating, right? Well, that's what we do! That's the whole point of this show! WE SPECULATE ON STUFF!!!!!!!"
Now, how would you have felt had you watched that exchange unfold on TV?
Your first thought: This is great TV.
Your second thought: That guy's getting fired. And fast.
Your third thought: This YouTube clip will have 100 million page views in three days.
Your fourth thought (about 10 minutes later): You know, that guy made some good points.
Think about that phrase again. Hasn't it become an essential part of following sports? Why won't we admit it? When you add up the names of everyone who either (a) definitely cheated or (b) almost definitely cheated, it's a "Who's Who" of influential athletes. You could cram them into their own Hall of Fame. Because of that, there's been residual damage … leading to PED profiling … leading to my aforementioned disconnect. When any athlete recovers from any injury well ahead of the expected time, deep down, we wonder. When any athlete defies the aging process in a seemingly supernatural way, deep down, we're suspicious. When any superstar reaches a level that doesn't seem athletically realistic, deep down, we're hoping he didn't cheat to get there.
SPORTS GUY'S SUPER BOWL PICK
I'm taking the Niners as 3½-point favorites in Super Bowl XLVII. For further details, please listen to Friday's B.S. Report from New Orleans when it becomes available — we'll be breaking down the game with Cousin Sal and Joe House, along with some of our favorite Super Bowl props. And if you missed Thursday's two-part B.S. Report with Tracy Morgan, Justin Tuck, Cousin Sal and Rembert Browne, CLICK HERE.
Playoff Record: 8-2
Regular-Season Record: 132-120-4
I had planned on writing about PED profiling in my deleted mailbag answer about Peterson, if only because it's so unfair that certain athletes (say, Marquez and A-Rod) make it impossible for something like Peterson's absolutely incredible comeback to happen without people wondering, "Hmmmmmmmm." We've been burned too many times by the words "absolutely incredible." Now we're here. So we wondered. And kept wondering. I probably received 700 "Do you think Peterson is doing this legitimately?" e-mails in November and December. Some were funny, some were thoughtful, some were crazy. All of them made me think.
Did I Google photos of Peterson's Oklahoma head and compare them to his Minnesota head? I did. And felt like a loser the entire time. Until I mentioned it to a buddy.
"Oh, I've done that," he said. "Everyone does that. That should just be a website. Before/after photos of athlete heads. They should all be in one place."
And I found myself nodding. That's a great idea for a website. He's right.
Does that make me a bad person? Am I damaged? You tell me. At the Grantland office, it's been something of a running joke: I call it my "Pee In The Cup" list. I never wrote about that list because ESPN Me overruled Sports Fan Me (smartly, in this case). Just know that it doesn't take much to get added to the list. Some of my favorite ways include …
• Skip the Olympics (which has much stricter drug testing) in your prime for any dubious reason and you're on the list.
• Enjoy your best season in years in your late 30s, four or five years after your last "best season," and you're on the list.
• If you're a skinny dude who miraculously managed to add 20 pounds of muscle to your scarecrow frame, you're on the list.
• If you chopped down the recovery time of a debilitating injury to something that just didn't seem possible a year ago, you're on the list.
• If you were really good and really ripped at a really young age, and now your body is breaking down much sooner than it should be breaking down, you're on the list.
• If you're exhibiting a level of superhuman endurance that has little correlation to the endurance of any of your competitors, you're on the list.
You're on the list for reasons that, sometimes, aren't even your fault. You're on the list because of mistakes your peers made, because the media foolishly trained itself to look the other way, because we learned the hard way that "absolutely incredible" usually comes with a catch. You're on the list because your players union negotiated ironclad drug-testing rules, ostensibly to protect your rights, but really to protect your right to cheat without being judged. You're on the list because our President claims to be a big sports fan but refuses to get involved, and apparently would rather see every sport go to hell over risking political capital and doing something about it. You're on the list because we don't have blood testing in your sport yet, or biological passports, or anything else that would allow us to know if you were competing fairly or unfairly. You're on the list because it's 2013 and we still have our heads stuck in the sand.
The following anecdote is 100 percent true …
NBA players get tested up to four times during the course of a season. The fourth time can happen at any point from October to June, but once it happens, that's it. So if your fourth test occurs after your 71st game, you're clear the rest of the way. It's a running joke within NBA circles, something of a get-out-of-jail-free card: Once you pee in that fourth cup, you're good to go. Put whatever you want into your body. Feel like smoking enough weed to make Harold and Kumar blush? Knock yourself out. Feel like replacing your blood with cleaner blood so you have more endurance for the playoffs? Knock yourself out. Feel like starting a testosterone cycle because you might have to play 25 grueling playoff games over the next 10 weeks? Knock yourself out. Remember how competitive these guys are. What would they do for an edge? How far would they go? And why are we giving them the choice?
The following anecdote is also 100 percent true …
Not everyone tests for elevated testosterone. For the leagues or sports that do, they must account for people with naturally elevated levels of testosterone. That threshold is higher than you think because they're accounting for biological outliers — some athletes might naturally have twice as much testosterone as the average person. All right, so let's say you're an NFL player that has to test three times higher than the "average" threshold before getting flagged. Conceivably, you could rely on a controlled amount of HGH, something that bumps you up … just not TOO high. Maybe you jack up your testosterone levels a little under three times higher than they should be. Guess what? That's still legal! Do they have patches that can briefly bump up your levels without prolonged traces? Yes, they do! Did one famous athlete (not an NFL player) use that patch on his testicles to bump his levels close to that threshold, fall asleep, keep his patch on too long and subsequently fail his next test? Yes, he did! It's amazing this doesn't happen more often.
The following anecdote is also 100 percent true …
When Bertrand Berry and Ty Warren suffered a complete tear of their triceps, it took them six months to recover. When Arizona left tackle Levi Brown suffered a complete tear of his triceps in August 2012, the Cardinals immediately put him on their season-ending injured list. When Ray Lewis suffered a complete tear of his triceps in mid-October, we thought he was finished for the season … only he returned to action a little more than two months later. During the third month of his "recovery," he made 17 tackles in a double-overtime playoff game in Denver. In 13-degree weather. At age 37.
So when Lewis's name landed in this week's PED scandal, nobody tumbled over in shock. We wasted the rest of Super Bowl week talking about him, wondering whether he cheated, watching his denial for signs that he was lying, Googling "deer antler spray" and talking about everything other than the game. Eventually, the moment will pass, like it always does. Nothing will change. Sadly, the collective irresponsibility of some sports media members — call it "cornballbrotheritis" — ruined any rational media member's chances to question the current environment. You don't trust our ability to handle such a loaded subject, nor should you. We've ruined your trust too many times.
I just know that athletes shouldn't be able to have it both ways. Don't hide behind your players unions and allow your player reps to fight against better drug testing, then flip out if Jalen Rose and I decide to have an impromptu "Who's On Your 'I Need To See You Pee In A Cup' Team This Year?" podcast. Again, we have the technology now. We can protect clean players from competing against dirty ones. Why aren't we using it? Henry Abbott's exhaustive piece on the NBA and PEDs made a fantastic point: Why did FIFA make biological passports (the single best way to catch cheaters right now) mandatory for the 2014 World Cup, but the NBA can't even convince its players to allow blood testing?
Really? You're that fearful of what we'd find in your blood, NBA players? If you're not fearful, why allow your representatives to make it seem like you're that fearful? How can you expect me NOT to wonder if you're cheating? Especially when so many other world-class athletes are cheating? Are you really expecting me to believe that Don MacLean, Matt Geiger, Soumaila Samake, Lindsey Hunter, Darius Miles, Rashard Lewis and O.J. Mayo — seven guys with a combined two All-Star appearances — were the only NBA players who ever used banned performance enhancers?
Let's see what's in everyone's body, once and for all. I think you'd be surprised. You'd wonder if some were glorified junkies. You'd be confused about why we placed such a belated priority on concussion awareness while continuing to ignore HGH and steroids and painkillers. Why wasn't the recent story about the NFL's Toradol waiver a bigger deal? What's the difference between taking HGH and Toradol, anyway? What does the word "performance enhancer" really mean? It's OK to borrow a dead person's ligament to regain your 95-mph fastball, but it's not OK to boost your testosterone for those same results? It's OK to travel to Germany to inject stem cells into your damaged knee to stimulate recovery and regeneration, but it's not OK to replace your blood with better blood to increase your stamina?
How did we decide what's right and wrong? Did we just arbitrarily make up a bunch of rules with no correlation to one another? Why won't our favorite athletes help us out by pushing for more accountability within their sports? The goal should be simple: total transparency. Every American professional league should have the best possible testing. Period. And if athletes don't think it's fair … well, I don't think it's fair that some of them cheat. So there.
AP PHOTO/BUTCH DILL
I believe that Ray Lewis cheated. I believe that to be true based on circumstantial evidence, his age, his overcompetitiveness, the history of that specific injury, and the fact that his "recovery" made my shit detector start vibrating like a chainsaw.
I believe in my right to write the previous paragraph because athletes pushed us to this point. We need better drug testing. We need blood testing. We need biological passports. We need that stuff now. Not in three years. Not in two years. Now. I don't even know what I am watching anymore.
I believe we need to fix this disconnect between our private conversations and our public ones. Cheating in professional sports is an epidemic. Wondering about the reasons behind a dramatically improved performance, or a dramatically fast recovery time, shouldn't be considered off-limits for media members. We shouldn't feel like scumbags bringing this stuff up. It's part of sports.
I believe that, if I played sports for a living, I would steer clear of performance enhancers no matter how many millions were at stake, no matter how famous they might make me, no matter how many titles I might win. I like to believe that, anyway. The truth is … I don't really know what I would do. And neither do you.
I believe Adrian Peterson came back naturally. I don't need to see All Day pee in a cup at the Super Bowl. Sports Fan Me and ESPN Me agree on this one. Of course, if you gave us a halftime choice between Beyoncé performing or Ray Lewis peeing in a cup, we're going with the peeing. Welcome to sports in the 21st century.