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By: timbersfan, 10:01 AM GMT on December 28, 2013
The NFL All-Pro Team
Politics aside, let's put together a superlative NFL team that actually makes sense
By Bill Barnwell on December 27, 2013
All-Pro and Pro Bowl teams are meaningful because of what they indicate, not because of what they create. Nobody actually cares about going to the Pro Bowl. You know that. I know that. We all see just how little players care about the game itself during those five minutes of the Pro Bowl we tune into before realizing it's the Pro Bowl and finding something else to do. Pay close enough attention and you'll see the electorate vote for guys who were benched for poor play (like Jeff Saturday or Brandon Meriweather) or for players on scholarship (Andre Gurode). It's brutal.
Where all this does matter is in terms of a player's legacy. Pro Bowl appearances and All-Pro teams are probably our best way to determine what the vast majority of people thought about a player during the run of his career. Saturday might not have been a Pro Bowl–caliber player last year, but he didn't make it to a tropical locale six times (and to the All-Pro team twice) by total fluke. Likewise, it says a lot about the possible Hall of Fame candidacy of somebody like Charles Tillman that he has only managed to make it to two Pro Bowls (and one All-Pro team) so far in his career.
I don't have a vote in those matters, but as somebody who watches as much football as humanly possible, I naturally give a lot of thought to the best players at each position, and that naturally lends itself to putting together an All-Pro team. There is still one week of games left, but it would take a lot for me to move somebody off of or onto this team based on one week of performance. There are various roster constructions for the three different All-Pro teams that get produced each offseason, so I'm going to build the team in a way that makes sense to me: 11 guys on each side. No automatic spot on the team for a fullback. It has 3-4 defensive ends going up against 4-3 defensive tackles and 4-3 ends going against 3-4 outside linebackers.
As you might suspect, the team starts with the most obvious choice of all:
Peyton Manning, Broncos
Manning will surely make his seventh appearance as the first-team All-Pro quarterback in the real awards when they're released; that would make him the first quarterback so honored since Otto Graham, who was pulling off that feat in a 12-team league. He will also become the first five-time NFL MVP when nobody else has won more than three trophies. He is the most decorated individual player in NFL history, and at 37, he just had his best season. All that's left for him to figure out at this point is how to make his forehead not turn red after taking off his helmet. We are downright blessed to watch him play.
Second Team: Russell Wilson, Seahawks
Jamaal Charles, Chiefs
LeSean McCoy, Eagles
Doesn't it seem weird that there's no nickname for Charles at this point? Most running backs at least have some nickname slapped on them by the time they hit their peak. The closest Charles has come is some knockoff fast guy/big guy stuff back when he was teamed up with Thomas Jones in 2010. Not only has one never stuck, it feels like it has never been attempted. In any case, he's the best running back in football, and in the list of reasons why the Chiefs have scored the sixth-most points in football, he's no. 1, the field position provided by the defense is no. 2, and there's a pit of despair before you get to no. 3.
That being said, if you wanted to make a case that Shady McCoy has been a better back this year, it wouldn't be impossible. McCoy has averaged marginally more yards per carry than Charles has over 28 additional carries. Charles has more receptions and receiving yards than McCoy, but that has required more plays: Charles has caught 67 percent of the passes thrown to him and averaged 9.9 yards per catch, while McCoy has caught 82 percent of the passes thrown in his direction and picked up 10.5 yards per reception. Charles has nobody around him, but are Alex Smith and Dwayne Bowe really that much more fancied than Nick Foles and DeSean Jackson? Their production has been about equal. I guess you can make the case that McCoy's playing in Chip Kelly's system, but he's been significantly more effective than backup Bryce Brown, and he was a success in Andy Reid's system, too …
Second Team: Adrian Peterson, Vikings; DeMarco Murray, Cowboys
Calvin Johnson, Lions
Josh Gordon, Browns
The only skill-position player who I think would really get much argument as an obvious pick (homer fans aside) is Gordon, and that's only because his national profile hasn't yet caught up to his level of performance. He leads the league in receiving yards and is 152 ahead of anybody not named Calvin Johnson, and that's despite missing the first two games because of suspension while spending virtually his entire season catching passes from Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell. Gordon is averaging 120.3 receiving yards per game, and the only player to top that figure since the merger in a non-strike season is Johnson in 2012. Yes, the Browns are force-feeding him the ball, as only Andre Johnson and Pierre Garcon have more targets per game. You know what, though? He's being force-fed the ball by Weeden and Campbell. If you can still approach rare receiving heights with those guys at the helm, you're probably pretty good.
Megatron is Megatron.
Second Team: A.J. Green, Bengals; Antonio Brown, Steelers
Jimmy Graham, Saints
With the seemingly perpetually injured Rob Gronkowski sidelined by a torn ACL, Aaron Hernandez in jail, and Tony Gonzalez retiring, the ranks below Graham at tight end are rapidly dissipating. Graham also played a couple of games below 100 percent this season, but his injuries over the past few years have been more of the nagging type. And after Graham, there's … Jason Witten? Vernon Davis? Graham was the fourth-most valuable player in fantasy football this year in terms of value-based drafting. You can probably make a reasonable case he should be a top-five pick in drafts next year, assuming that he's still on the Saints roster. Sure, he might be a wideout in tight ends' clothes. At this point, though, the position could use the help.
Second Team: Vernon Davis, 49ers
Tyron Smith, Cowboys
Joe Staley, 49ers
Having spent his first two professional seasons dealing with distressing family issues, it seems impossible that Smith could have played as well as he did during that time. Now, having turned 23 just two weeks ago, Smith is in the running to be called the best offensive lineman in football. He gets some help from Tony Romo, but it would be generous to describe anybody else on his offensive line as average. STATS credits Smith with just four penalties and 1.5 sacks allowed this year.
Staley has spent the year battling injuries, but he hasn't missed a game or seen his play slip from its previous elite level. I can't think of a tackle in the league who does a better job of getting to the second level after chipping on a combo block than Staley, which is what helps create so many of those big runs for Frank Gore and the 49ers. He has also committed just two penalties all season, which is close to impossible for a left tackle, let alone one who plays in the (pass) pressure cooker of the NFC West.
Second Team: Trent Williams, Redskins; Joe Thomas, Browns
Logan Mankins, Patriots
Josh Sitton, Packers
Mankins is currently getting some extra attention by virtue of the Patriots moving him from left guard to left tackle after starter Nate Solder went down with a concussion two weeks ago. You can count on one hand the number of left guards in the league who could make that move without drowning. Mankins was a tackle at Fresno State before moving inside as a pro, during which he's been the consummate Bill Belichick player: versatile, physical, and angry. The Patriots have had to lean on their running game to manufacture yards this year because of receiver issues, and Mankins has been the guy who has made that possible. The Patriots are second in Adjusted Line Yards behind left tackle and tops in the league in runs to the middle of the line, which are the two areas where Mankins would have the most noticeable impact.
Sitton is seemingly the one constant on a Packers offensive line that is annually riddled with injuries, as he has missed just two games since becoming a starter in 2009. His play hasn't dropped despite moving from right guard to left guard, and he has helped keep rookie left tackle David Bakhtiari solvent during an uneven campaign for the fourth-round pick. Sitton also attributes his ability to stay on the field to beer and pizza, which is enough to vote him onto the All-Pro team of my heart.
Second Team: David DeCastro, Steelers; Evan Mathis, Eagles
Ryan Kalil, Panthers
One of the quiet reasons why the Panthers have been better this year has been the return of their star center. Kalil missed 11 games last season with a Lisfranc fracture, and his presence is unquestionably one of the reasons why Ron Rivera is so comfortable going for it on fourth downs. It's also hard to argue that he gets a lot of help; Kalil is playing alongside left guard Travelle Wharton, who didn't attract any offers this offseason and signed with Carolina in September, and second-year undrafted free agent Nate Chandler at right guard. Carolina's ability to run in the interior is built upon Kalil's shoulders.
Second Team: Alex Mack, Browns
Defensive Ends/Edge Rushers
Robert Mathis, Colts
Robert Quinn, Rams
I think Quinn would be a shoo-in for Defensive Player of the Year if he wore a Colts jersey. As is, he still might win anyway. He's not all that dissimilar a player from Mathis; they both have ample athleticism, a preternatural ability to get underneath a retreating tackle from impossible angles, and uncanny timing for getting to the quarterback right as he's about to hand the ball to them on a silver platter. On the podcast, Robert Mays and I both compared Quinn to a rich man's Osi Umenyiora (or, better put, a younger, better Osi Umenyiora). Mathis is a little smarter than Quinn. It would be easy to say that he has lost a half-step but gained the knowledge to make more out of the steps he still has, but I watch him go around the corner at 32 and it doesn't look much different from how it looked at 23. Mathis is also playing in a front seven with average-or-worse players around him (besides Jerrell Freeman), while Quinn plays with several star-caliber talents in his front seven. It's an awfully close call picking between these two. I'm happy I don't have to for this team.
Second Team: Greg Hardy, Panthers; Mario Williams, Bills
Interior Defensive Linemen
J.J. Watt, Texans
Muhammad Wilkerson, Jets
The numbers are down for Watt — he'll need a half-sack in Week 17 to make double digits for the year, and he has knocked down just six passes after batting 16 a year ago — but the impact is far from gone. He's still a wrecking ball who makes professional offensive linemen look like college walk-ons. Watt still spends enough time in the backfield that he can actually claim it as a residence on his tax returns. He just doesn't have the output that screams unholy freak terror like he did a year ago. That regression was always going to happen. That he's still this good is one of the few bright spots Texans fans can take away from 2013.
Wilkerson is not quite at the same level as Watt, but he's pretty clearly the best player on the league's best run defense. (Go ahead and fire Rex Ryan.) Wilkerson's ability to fire through gaps allows him to make weekly plays in the backfield and irreparably alter running plays that quickly become losses. His ability to disrupt blocking schemes and hold his own at the line of scrimmage creates opportunities for the likes of David Harris to clean up behind him. Wilkerson is that rarest of creatures: an underrated player from a New York team.
Second Team: Calais Campbell, Cardinals; Jurrell Casey, Titans
Lavonte David, Buccaneers
Vontaze Burfict, Bengals
The 4-3 outside linebacker is quite possibly the league's most underappreciated position. David and Burfict do a lot to change that. David has been tattooed with the memory of that "late hit" on Geno Smith that cost the Buccaneers their opening game of the season, but he could have carried Smith into the end zone on his shoulders for a game-winning touchdown in Week 1 and still made this team. David's downright unblockable at times; not because of his brute strength or because he's an irresistible force, but because he's just so freaking gifted. He seems to create space for himself on every single play and find ways to spring himself into a clear path to the ball carrier without being bothered. If Xavi were a linebacker, he would be Lavonte David.
Burfict is, I dunno, Ravel Morrison? Burfict has fewer plays where he seems to vanish off the field and then suddenly reappear in front of the ball carrier than David, but he also has the freakish range and speed to do just about anything he wants. Burfict is channeled talent and aggression mixed with a much-deserved chip on his shoulder. You hear guys who get passed up in the draft talk about how they want to take it out on the other 31 teams. Burfict plays like that on every snap.
Second Team: Thomas Davis, Panthers; DeAndre Levy, Lions
Luke Kuechly, Panthers
Luke Kuechly IS Ray Lewis. Like, he's Ray Lewis to the extent that I'm genuinely concerned about the identity of the guy who does Monday Night Football coverage for ESPN. How did they regenerate him at 22? One other way Lewis compares to Kuechly: Lewis had a habit of producing his best performances in big games, and Kuechly has been enormous in Carolina's key wins this year, notably its victory over the Saints last week. I wouldn't go crazy over tackle numbers — they're inflated by official scorers, and Kuechly's 26 tackles included plenty of "assists," which suggests it would have been more like 18 tackles if the Panthers had been playing a road game — but his tape from that game compares favorably to the work of any one player in any one game this year. If you redid the 2012 draft today, Kuechly would be the third pick behind Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson. He's that good.
Second Team: NaVorro Bowman, 49ers
Patrick Peterson, Cardinals
Richard Sherman, Seahawks
I don't really understand how Peterson is underrated, but he is. He doesn't have quite as high of a profile after having the best return season in league history as a rookie, but put it this way: In 2012, the Cardinals had the league's second-best pass defense. They had Peterson guarding the opposing team's top wideout on most snaps. After the season, they let their three other starters in the secondary leave in free agency. In 2013, the Cardinals have had … the league's third-best pass defense. Doesn't that tell you something about how freakishly good Peterson is?
Sherman has the reputation as the best cornerback in football, and it's not undeserved. He's a dominant physical presence and is known as a playmaker, thanks to his league-leading 16 interceptions over the past two seasons. (The only other corners in double digits are Tim Jennings, who gives up as many big plays as he allows, and Peterson, who doesn't.) The only knock on Sherman is that he might not even be the best player in his own secondary.
Second Team: Aqib Talib, Patriots; Alterraun Verner, Titans
Earl Thomas, Seahawks
Eric Weddle, Chargers
I don't know what else Thomas could do to get better, to be honest. He hasn't acquired a second starter for the Mariners or restarted the Sub Pop Singles Club yet. It's still too early to start figuring out which freeway the city should name after him, but not by much. He's basically a perfect football player.
Weddle is a great player mired amid a pretty awful secondary. San Diego's lack of a pass rush has kept the team's defensive backs trapped in coverage for far too long this year, but Weddle has done an admirable job of holding up while chipping in with his fantastic instincts as a run defender. Now, if the Chargers can just work on the other 10 spots …
Second Team: Devin McCourty, Patriots; Jairus Byrd, Bills
Justin Tucker, Ravens
What, you were expecting anybody else?
Second Team: Stephen Gostkowski, Patriots
Johnny Hekker, Rams
St. Louis has had the most productive punting unit of any team in football; Football Outsiders estimates that the Rams have produced 18.1 points of field position from punts over their first 15 games, which is 6.5 points better than any other team. Hekker's punts have produced an average of 43.8 net yards, more than any other punter. Some of that is his coverage team, but much of it is what Hekker has managed to pull off for the Rams.
Second Team: Andy Lee, 49ers
POSITION FIRST TEAM SECOND TEAM
QB Peyton Manning, DEN Russell Wilson, SEA
RB Jamaal Charles, KC Adrian Peterson, MIN
RB LeSean McCoy, PHI DeMarco Murray, DAL
WR Calvin Johnson, DET A.J. Green, CIN
WR Josh Gordon, CLE Antonio Brown, PIT
TE Jimmy Graham, NO Vernon Davis, SF
T Joe Staley, SF Trent Williams, WAS
T Tyron Smith, DAL Joe Thomas, CLE
G Logan Mankins, NE David DeCastro, PIT
G Josh Sitton, GB Evan Mathis, PHI
C Ryan Kalil, CAR Alex Mack, CLE
DE Robert Mathis, IND Mario Williams, BUF
DE Robert Quinn, STL Greg Hardy, CAR
DT J.J. Watt, HOU Jurrell Casey, TEN
DT Mo Wilkerson, NYJ Calais Campbell, ARI
MLB Luke Kuechly, CAR NaVorro Bowman, SF
OLB Vontaze Burfict, CIN Thomas Davis, CAR
OLB Lavonte David, TB DeAndre Levy, DET
CB Patrick Peterson, ARI Alterraun Verner, TEN
CB Richard Sherman, SEA Aqib Talib, NE
S Earl Thomas, SEA Devin McCourty, NE
S Eric Weddle, SD Jairus Byrd, BUF
K Justin Tucker, BAL Stephen Gostkowski, NE
P Johnny Hekker, STL Andy Lee, SF
By: timbersfan, 9:59 AM GMT on December 28, 2013
The Sports Guy embarks on a mission to try to salvage the most abysmal NFL handicapping season of his career
By Bill Simmons on December 27, 2013
Could I go 16-0 against the spread this weekend and still finish with the most abysmal handicapping season of my career? Improbably, unbelievably … yes!1 I'm 28 games under .500 with one week remaining, not counting the three times I pooped in the fridge and ate a whole wheel of cheese. It's been a legendary run of stupid picks, poor instincts and dreadful luck that included my worst NFL weekend ever (2-13), as well as 16 straight weeks without 10-plus wins (which is practically impossible).
The good news? Unlike Gary Kubiak, Mike Shanahan and Leslie Frazier, I can't get fired from this column. I run Grantland! I'm the Jerry Jones of this place! I can keep going .500 or worse, year after year after year, while repeatedly assigning myself Grantland's gambling corner without earning it. And nobody can do anything about it. I wish there were a way to sit in a fancy luxury suite watching my terrible picks unfold as my son-in-law picked his nose and hung on my every word.
Anyway, we're on a slightly shorter word count for the Week 17 picks because I didn't want to screw over Grantland's editing staff over the holidays with a rambling 8,000-word opus that included 50 typos and 20 probably-incorrect-and-needed-to-be-checked factual statements. Thanks to Mike Philbrick, Dan Fierman, Megan Creydt, Craig Gaines, Patricia Lee and Danny Chau for saving my bacon dozens and dozens of times over these last few months, as well as for talking me out of at least 15 inappropriate jokes, five really inappropriate jokes and three REALLY inappropriate jokes. Happy holidays to them, happy holidays to you, happy holidays to the writers and editors who helped make Grantland such a consistently good website in 2013, and happy holidays to every reader who sent in a funny/informative/enlightening/insane email that ended up making this column. And remember, tonight thank God it's them, instead of youuuuuuuuuuu.
(Home teams in caps … )
TITANS (-7) over Texans
D.C. Daceys (+3.5) over GIANTS
VIKINGS (-3) over Lions2
The Stakes: Put it this way … all six head coaches might be gone by Monday afternoon.
If you watch even two minutes of any of these games, it's safe to say that (a) you love one of those teams a little too much, (b) you want one last chance to scream at the TV at one of those coaches, (c) you want to make sure your team (in this case, the Texans) gets Teddy Bridgewater, (d) your team needs a starting QB and you're scouting Kirk Cousins so you're not blindsided by the $45 million free-agent offer he gets, (e) you have a severe gambling problem, (f) you hate yourself, (g) Bane showed up for one of them and you wanted to see the carnage.
Since we're here, I'd like to apologize to the entire Lions fan base for writing last week that they had graduated from the Sympathy Zone, just two days before their pathetic collapse against the pathetic Giants prematurely ended their pathetic season. The Lions have won exactly one playoff game in 56 years. They've suffered more Thanksgiving humiliations than anyone other than the turkey population. They've hired 13 head coaches since 1964 — not including the soon-to-be-fired Jim Schwartz, not one of those coaches landed another head coaching job. Their most successful coach since 1973? Wayne Fontes … who finished 66-67. I could keep going. Just know that three Lions fans emailed me the "When I die, I hope the Lions will be my pallbearers so they can let me down one more time" joke.3
MEANINGFUL BUT INEVITABLE
Broncos (-13) over RAIDERS
SEAHAWKS (-11.5) over Rams
The Stakes: Denver and Seattle clinch no. 1 seeds by winning, so they're dying for you to throw them into a three-team, 10-point teaser. (Fine, twist my arm.)
A few random points here …
• I love when athletes go out of their way to break cool records. One of my favorite random sports moments ever: Larry Legend unabashedly going for a team-record 60 in New Orleans nine days after McHale scored 56.
So when Peyton Manning threw four TD passes in already-decided fourth quarters in Weeks 14 and 16 to break Tom Brady's record? I totally supported the stat-padding. You always go after a cool record. Always. Brady's biggest mistake was not padding his stats more in 2007 — he could have easily gotten to 55-57 touchdowns and put that record away for life. Still, if Brady did in 2007 what Manning did in Week 15 and Week 16, the media would have had a Justine Sacco–level freak-out. It's just a fact. Remember pieces like this and this? In 2013, you're the Sportsman of the Year. Pretty funny. Anyway, I predict Evil Manning goes for the 55/55 combo (55 TDs, 5,500 yards) and tries to put that record away. That's exactly what he should do. When are we seeing 55 TDs and 5,500 yards again?
• Joel in Des Moines has a different prediction for Week 17: "Manning goes 15-for-37 with 213 yards passing, 2 TD and 1 INT … that would give him a season completion percentage of 66.6, as well as 666 pass attempts and a Week 17 QB rating of holy smokes — 66.6! It's a stretch, but not impossible. I'm rooting for Evil Manning to have the most Satanic season of all time!" So am I, Joel. So am I.
• After I questioned SI's choice of Manning for Sportsman of the Year, Drew from Jersey dinged me for missing "the obvious choice — 43-year-old Mariano Rivera recovered from a torn ACL to become a top closer again. While doing this, Mariano met with the crew and staff of every stadium he visited during the season as part of his retirement tour. There is no more universally respected and loved athlete in America. If SI was really trying to pick the man that represented what sports is all about in 2013, the choice is Mariano and it isn't close." Totally agree. They didn't pick Mo for the same reason they didn't pick David Ortiz — they had already written about him. I'm revising my rankings to Rivera first, Ortiz second, Tim Duncan third, Manning fourth, and Aaron Hernandez last.
• Maybe this helped Manning's "Sportsman" case: A Minneapolis reader named Owen sent along a picture called "Mustachioed Peyton Manning from the 1870s!" I don't know where it came from, I don't know how he found it … but WOW!
• Telling email from James in Houston: "I had a layover in San Francisco on my way to Seattle before Christmas. Prior to departing, one of the flight attendants announced we were headed to 'the home of the future world champion Seattle Seahawks.' I'm not sure if this was just part of the rivalry between the two cities or a bad omen that the Seahawks fans are already celebrating a championship. Already celebrating a championship is the opposite of 'nobody believes in us,' right? When's the last time an 'everybody believes in us' team won it all? One of the last Patriots Super Bowls?"
Maybe James explained why Seattle blew last week's Arizona game? A football team's butt can only hold so much blown smoke. The last contender to clinch "consensus favorite" status in December and actually win that year's Super Bowl? The 2004 Pats. So even if I think the Seahawks are thumping St. Louis in one of those get-back-on-track thrashings, really, their best move would be stinking in this Rams game, sneaking out an ugly victory in the last few minutes, then heading into the playoffs as the no. 1 seed with question marks like "Their offensive line is shaky" and "They don't have anyone who can make a big play!" In other words, dump more smoke out of their ass. You do NOT want to be the favorite heading into January.
FALCONS (+6.5) over Panthers
PATRIOTS (-9) over Bills
Jaguars (+11) over COLTS
The Stakes: Indy could potentially steal a no. 3 seed (if Cincy loses) or a no. 2 seed (if New England loses, too). Meanwhile, New England and Carolina can lock down no. 2 seeds with wins and maybe even no. 1 seeds if Denver and/or Seattle choke (see above). Your best bet for wonkiness: Atlanta upsetting the Panthers at home. Major Letdown Game potential for Carolina? No Steve Smith? A rocking Atlanta dome? Tony Gonzalez's last game ever? Thousands of gamblers blindly throwing Carolina into two-team teasers? Be afraid, Panthers fans. Be very afraid.
Quick note on the Pats: Their best 12 players in April were Tom Brady, Vince Wilfork, Rob Gronkowski, Jerod Mayo, Aaron Hernandez, Logan Mankins, Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer, Aqib Talib, Devin McCourty, Shane Vereen and Rob Ninkovich in some order. Only four of them finished the Baltimore game last week; six aren't coming back. As fellow Pats fan Jay Jaroch points out, "We had four guys starting for us in Baltimore — [Sealver] Siliga, Chris Jones, [Matthew] Mulligan, and [Josh] Kline — who were signed off the street. Not rookie free agents, not guys signed off some other team's practice squad. Four dudes who were signed off their couch." Manning has Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, Wes Welker, Eric Decker and Knowshon Moreno; Tom Brady has Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Aaron Dobson, Matthew Mulligan and LeGarrette Blount. And somehow the Pats are 11-4, but in all four losses, they had the ball in the final two minutes with a legitimate chance to win or tie.
Look, I can see Ron Rivera winning Coach of the Year — we'll always remember the Riverboat Ron transformation, and that wasn't exactly an easy team to coach (especially with its schedule). He did a fantastic job. But if Andy Reid beats out Belichick for taking over a talented team, being gift-wrapped a cream puff schedule and losing the only two games they played that truly mattered? That's ridiculous. You're telling me Andy Reid could have led the 2013 Patriots to a 12-4 record? Please. Would you rather have Belichick or Reid coaching your team right now? Be honest. I thought so. And that concludes another episode of "I Know I'm a Huge F-ing Homer, But You Have to Admit, I Made Some Pretty Good Points."4
That kind of flawed brilliance deserves a mini-mailbag speed round …
Q: If Tony Romo is "bad sex" as one of your readers so brilliantly put it in last week's mailbag, what does that make Minnesota's QBs?
SG: Prison sex.
Q: Is there still time for Cleveland to flip Anthony Bennett for a first-round pick, or are people wise to that trick after Cleveland managed to dump Trent Richardson?
SG: There's plenty of time to flip the Notorious DNP for a first-round pick! We just had an NBA team willingly trade for $37 million of Rudy Gay! Anything is possible.
Q: Isn't the 2013 Bears season a direct comparison to the movie The Replacements? Josh McCown is Shane Falco and Jay Cutler is jerk QB Eddie Martel. Josh/Shane leads the team to a few wins when Jay/Eddie comes back and expects to start (and does). Isn't this all leading to a halftime meltdown by Jay during the Packers game when he starts insulting his WRs? Then Josh swings in, say he can win with these guys and leads a 2nd half comeback to vault the Bears in the Super Bowl!
SG: When you're banking on your team's parallels to a sports movie that yielded the unforgettable Keanu quote, "Pain heals, chicks dig scars, glory lasts forever," I can't decide if this is a good thing or a bad thing. By the way, I may or may not have written 2,720 words about The Replacements once.
Q: The NFC West was 30-10 against the rest of the league? That's insane. They'll probably send THREE teams to the playoffs!! What is going on here?? Remember when the Cowboys, Eagles and Giants used to own this league?
—Eric Lam, San Francisco
SG: Only three years ago, I wrote a column wondering if the NFC West was the worst division ever. That division has definitely enhanced its performance, there's no question.
Q: For us living in the Niagara Region — with dual cable from Toronto and Buffalo areas — you grow up rooting and cheering for four franchises out of your 14 Sympathy Zone teams: Raps, Leafs, Bills and Sabres. In other words, one more than Cleveland — scientific proof that Niagara Falls is the worst place in the world.
—Jim, Niagara Falls
SG: Jump! Jump! Jump! Jump!
(Just kidding … we feel for you, Jim.)
Q: I heard you threatening to quit fantasy football again. After playing for 15 years I finally had had enough and stopped playing three years ago. It was by far one of the best decisions I have ever made! Do it. You'll be amazed it took you this long.
—John G, Carlsbad, CA
SG: Having Aaron Rodgers's collarbone sink both of my fantasy seasons was the final straw. I'm quitting. Fantasy football makes me feel inadequate, stupid and unlucky, only there's no Fantasy Football Cialis lady bringing me a fantasy boner pill and a giant plate of nachos to cheer me up at the end. I just hate it. Huge time suck with a 90 percent chance of feeling like a loser when it's over. What's the point again?
Q: You will appreciate this. Me and my friends borrowed from soccer and created a relegation/promotion system for our fantasy football league. The A-League consists of the top 12 teams, while the B-League is a small six-man league. Each year, the bottom two A-League teams are relegated. The B-League promotes the regular season champion and playoff champion to the A-League; if one player wins both titles, the 2nd place finisher gets the other promotion. The B-League is not allowed to play for money. There is no trophy. It's purposely kept at six teams in order to ensure it never becomes respectable. You're only playing for a promotion. Everyone who gets relegated assumes they'll waltz through the B-League and be back the next year, but the B-League is the Wild West of fantasy football. With only six teams, large rosters, and generous points, you can't predict who will win week-to-week because everyone has an amazing team on paper. We are now four years in. We've had founding members be relegated, last-place finishers win the playoffs and sneak a promotion, and newly promoted teams make the playoffs. Next year, four of the original six B-League teams will be in the A-League. Thoughts?
—Peter, Madison, WI
SG: One of the five or six greatest ideas I've ever heard. I am back in with fantasy football! WOO-HOOO!!!!!!! GET ME IN A RELEGATION LEAGUE YESTERDAY!!!!!!!
Q: I'm not advocating for anything surpassing that Scottie Pippen/Mr. Submarine commercial (from last week's column), but I have another poorly produced local ad that's worth your attention. It features Zack Kassian (then a junior hockey player, now of the Vancouver Canucks) and some random Russian guy promoting Subway. It's an all-timer for awkwardness and prompter reading.
—Cam Stuerke, Kelowna, BC
SG: Absolutely tremendous! Even better — you inadvertently worked in an original Grantland sponsor! And you made me hungry. Well done, Cam. By the way, after the dramatic debut of Scottie's Mr. Submarine ad last week, I received so many submissions of other poorly produced commercials starring athletes that I'm saving them for their own post. Thanks to everyone who sent something in. Ladies, let's have a party!
MEANINGFUL BUT INEVITABLE … AND ALSO SUPER-FRUSTRATING
Bucs (+13) over SAINTS
CARDINALS (PK) over 49ers
The Stakes: This is easy …
If the Saints win, they're the no. 6 seed. If the Saints lose and Arizona wins, the Cards get the no. 6 seed. If the Saints win and Carolina loses, New Orleans gets the no. 2 seed.
If the Niners win, they get a no. 2 seed if Seattle loses and a no. 1 seed if Seattle AND Carolina lose.
If the Bucs win, their season just "really sucked" instead of "totally and irredeemably sucked."
You know how this will play out — New Orleans and Arizona both prevail, leading to 48 hours of Talking Head Guys saying, "I'll tell ya what, guys — if the Cardinals were in the AFC? I'd pick them to make the Super Bowl. I would PICK THEM TO MAKE THE SUPER BOWL IN THE NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE, GUYS!"
But seriously — what a shame that the Cards won't make the playoffs. Not because there should be a rule that any non-playoff team that wins three or more games than a division winner should get to take that division winner's playoffs. Not because they have the league's best defense right now, and not because no team should be able to win 11 games with Carson Palmer in 2013 unless it's a semi-pro team. No, I'm upset because we can't bet against Palmer in Round 1. THIS IS BULLSHIT! We were cheated!!!! Come on, Mike Glennon — there's still time to save this!
Playoffs or no playoffs, the Cardinals still came away from 2013 with the Sneaky-Good Coach of the Year (Bruce Arians). As for the rest of our Sneaky-Good Watch for Week 17: Bruce Arians … a 107-catch season for Pierre Garcon (!?!?!?!?) … all sideline shots of a trying-not-to-seem-pissed-off RG3 … the Eddie Lacy/Le'Veon Bell/Keenan Allen ROY battle … Julian Edelman's 2013 stats vs. Wes Welker's 2012 stats (not as far off as you'd think) … Matt Schaub's chances to become a TV analyst next season … the Brad Meester catch … every Giovani Bernard highlight run … the Bengals' Round 1 blowout potential (they've topped 40 points four times in the past two months) … Marty Hurney's draft record … Arizona winning in Seattle despite four Palmer picks (??????) … Indy quietly putting together a compelling case as a home dog in Round 1 … Nick Foles having an outside chance to finish with 30 TDs and a 15-to-1 TD/INT ratio … I'm not so sure that this isn't not going to be Dan Dierdorf's last regular-season game.
MEANINGFUL IN A TOTALLY CONFUSING WAY
Ravens (+6.5) over BENGALS
Jets (+5.5) over DOLPHINS
STEELERS (-7) over Browns
CHARGERS (-9) over The Absolutely Nothing To Play For Chiefs
The Stakes: By winning, Cincy clinches a no. 3 seed (and no. 2 seed if the Pats lose). Everything else is super-duper confusing. Basically, the Ravens/Dolphins/Steelers/Chargers have to win if they want the no. 6 seed. If all four lose, Baltimore gets it. If all four win, Miami gets it. In any other scenario, the no. 6 seed is decided by every possible super-complicated tiebreaker short of "Each team nominates one player for a 'Whip It Out' contest."5 After crunching the probability odds, my illegitimate son Bill Barnwell reports that Miami has a 67.7 percent chance; San Diego is 15.5 percent; Baltimore is 14.1 percent; Pittsburgh is 2.7 percent; and 88.9 percent of NFL fans will say, "Who cares? Any of those teams will lose in Cincy, anyway."
My prediction: Pittsburgh blows out The Secretly Tanking Browns, Baltimore barely loses in Cincy and Miami shockingly falls to the J-E-T-S JETS JETS JETS.6 Hey, there's life for the Steelers yet! We head into the late games with Pittsburgh's fans banking on Kansas City's second string to come through in San Diego … only to watch in horror as Phil Rivers fist-pumps, finger-points and psycho-grins his way to a convincing victory that will inevitably be blacked out in Southern California because Roger Goodell hates everyone who lives in Los Angeles. Your 2013 no. 6 seed in the AFC, defying 6-to-1 odds against it happening … the Chargers of San Diego! Could you talk me into taking Phil Rivers in Cincy in Round 1? Actually … yes! YES YOU COULD!
(Cut to everyone in San Diego screaming, "NOOOOOOOOO! BILLY ZIMA SKUNKED US! NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!)
Without further ado, our last Shakey's Pizza Watch of the 2013 season: Miami's offensive line … Matt Stafford: 23 turnovers and counting, 10.6 QBR in last six fourth quarters, effectively below-average unless Calvin Johnson is 100 percent … Rex Ryan's dwindling chances of getting fired (especially if they upset Miami) … Mike Tomlin's clock management at the end of the Green Bay game (and in general) … a Week 16 without the token "Don't Get Divorced" Saturday game … NBC choosing Dallas-Philly as its flex game over Green Bay–Chicago, then Romo going down within 24 hours … Carolina's passing attack without Steve Smith … Brady's high fives … New Orleans now likely needing to win four times away from the Superdome to win the title (yeah, right) … Seattle's offense against any good defense … all the love on Monday for Candlestick Park (a hellhole and a dump by all accounts) … every S.F. fan who gets mad at the previous sentence even though Candlestick Park, by all accounts, was a hellhole and a dump … Von Miller blowing out his ACL during the same season in which he magically added 16 pounds of solid muscle to his already muscular body … me creating the Jim Caldwell All-Stars for "Most Lifeless Sideline Demeanors" but somehow leaving off Dick Jauron, Dave Wannstedt, Dom Capers and Lovie Smith.7
Special thanks to Shakey's for fake-sponsoring that segment all season, and thanks to Jon from Scottsdale for sending along this ancient picture of Lynda Carter wearing a Shakey's Pizza T-shirt.
Seeing an iconic '70s babe in a historically gross pizza chain's T-shirt really put me through the gamut of emotions. If you built a Hall of Fame for '70s Babes, our first induction class would be Farrah Fawcett, Jaclyn Smith, Cheryl Ladd, Lynda Carter and Jayne Kennedy. One year later, Catherine Bach, Jacqueline Bisset, Pam Grier, Cheryl Tiegs and Bo Derek would get in. And at that point, Jonah Keri would write a 4,500-word column comparing the twice passed-over Stevie Nicks to Tim Raines and claiming that Randi Oakes had a higher career Babe WARs than Bach. Yeah, right. I'm just happy to introduce a whole new generation of horny guys to the days when Lynda Carter was throwing 102 MPH.
WIN OR GO HOME
BEARS (+3) over Packers
The Stakes: The NFC North. Who wants it? (Waiting.) Seriously … who wants it? (Still waiting.) Um … does anyone want it?
You have to admit, the Packers couldn't have played this any more perfectly. They didn't rush Rodgers back or risk his health long term. They inadvertently proved that Rodgers heals at the same rate as normal human beings, moving him into a two-way tie with Derrick Rose on the "Well, At Least We Know HE'S Not Cheating" Power Rankings. They developed a legitimate star running back in Eddie Lacy, and they somehow didn't blow their playoff spot, even after trotting out the likes of Seneca Wallace, Matt Flynn, and Scott Tolzien these last seven weeks. Now they only have to win five straight games and they're Super Bowl champs? Stranger things have happened. I can't think of anything specific right now, but stranger things have happened. Let's break this baby down.
Cousin Sal's Week 17 Prop Bets
Even after we gave soon-to-be-a-dad-again Cousin Sal the week off, he couldn't resist sending along five gambling props for Sunday.
• DeMarco Murray under 19.5 carries vs. Eagles (-115)
"With Tony Romo unlikely to play, it would seem as if the Cowboys would rely more on Murray, who has 1,073 yards in 13 games." I read that observation on ESPN.com yesterday and quickly realized that, whenever you see a sentence that reads "it would seem as if the Cowboys would …" you have to go the other way. There's no reason to think Jason Garrett will change his unorthodox play-calling. Trust me, he's calling these perplexing plays. Remember when Princeton used to graduate smart people? 20,000 jermajesties
• Broncos -7 first half over Raiders (-120)
With an unheard-of 600-point season looming large, Denver is in no-effing-around mode. And after watching them close out their last few games, I can safely conclude that the Raiders are in complete effing-around mode. This one gets out of hand early. 15,000 jermajesties
• Saints to score over 30 points vs. Bucs (-115)
I don't know if you've come across or if anyone has reminded you of this statistical tidbit yet — but New Orleans apparently plays better at home than it does on the road. The Saints have scored 30-plus points in five of their seven home games; at almost even odds, with their season on the line, that makes this a solid play. 25,000 jermajesties
• 5/2 odds that the Hubert Humphrey Metrodome implodes at exactly the same moment Jim Schwartz and Leslie Frazier exchange postgame pleasantries
If I were these two I'd arrange for an extra-long handshake à la DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince. If the greeting extends into 2014 and no one in business affairs is paying attention, these lame ducks could possibly squeeze out an extra paycheck.
• 1/6 odds that for the fourth consecutive year, the gift cards I leave taped to the top of the trash for the garbage collectors get either discarded as waste or stolen by local punk thugs
If anyone has a suggestion for giving your sanitation workers a holiday gift without having to meet them in front of your house at 5:15 a.m., I'm all ears.
Why the Packers will win: They're a Team of Destiny at this point. They only have to waltz into Chicago and beat a staggering Bears team that just gave up 85 points in the past two weeks to Nick Foles and Jason Campbell? Really? That's it? The Bears only won five of their last 12 games, beating Eli and the Giants, Green Bay in the Broken Collarbone game, Baltimore in overtime, Dallas in a Monday-night romp, and a tankeriffic Cleveland team by seven. Any of those victories knock your socks off? Me neither. Throw in the bizarre "Wait a second … are we sure Jay Cutler is better than Josh McCown???" subplot and the Packers have this locked up.
Why the Bears will win: Has there ever been a more glaringly obvious bandwagon pick than the Packers? How often have we overrated one bad performance for the following week? Shouldn't it mean something that Football Outsiders' DVOA system ranks Chicago 12th and Green Bay 21st, and has the Packers as football's fourth-worst defense (and that was before Clay Matthews's broken thumb knocked him out for the regular season)? What about Lacy limping around on a sprained ankle, or Rodgers and his collarbone repeatedly bouncing off the hard turf in the Probably Freezing Windy City? Wouldn't the Bears winning a topsy-turvy home game that they reclaim and blow eight times — including at least one Devin Hester kick return TD, one defensive touchdown and one Cutler pass picked off in Green Bay's end zone — be the most Bears-y possible outcome here?
The Pick: Billy Zima likes grabbing the home dog here. Besides, as Paul-Michael in Wisconsin writes, "After jinxing the Packers season by building your fantasy teams around Aaron Rodgers and Randall 'Don't Call Me Reggie' Cobb, you owe it to Packers fans to put your stink on da Bears and take the points." Done. Chicago 36, Green Bay 31. Now I can't lose. Well, except for the searing hatred of everyone from Chicago.
Eagles (-6.5) over COWBOYS
The Stakes: For Philly, the NFC East title. For Dallas, a humiliation/ass-kicking/public degradation from the 49ers in Round 1.
A Portland reader named Max B. put it best: "Is there anything more fitting than the Cowboys losing Romo just as he's figuring out how to be clutch? Even the Cowboys' Injury Bug isn't clutch." What a bummer. So much for the Romo Chronicles, NBC's best drama by default. I have a feeling "The Kyle Orton Experience" is getting cancelled after one week. Let's break this baby down, anyway.
Why the Cowboys Will Win: Because they're the Kardashians of football … and like the Kardashians, they never, ever, EVER go away. Because a Niners-Eagles Round 1 battle in Philly would be way too much fun, which means it's destined not to happen. Because DeMarco Murray is going to run amok against a subpar Eagles D. Because Kyle Orton won't end up being as bad as you remember; in 2013, any QB can look decent for three hours. (Well, except for Blaine Gabbert.) Because Dez Bryant is destined to explode for one of those 220-yard, 3-TD games now that fantasy season is over. Because they're home dogs, and because everyone and their brother is picking the Eagles. Because Romo's shadow isn't hanging over Kyle Orton anymore, even if it would have been oodles of fun if Romo never had back surgery and showed up for Sunday night's game at the last possible minute, leading to Al Michaels giving us the NFL equivalent of this moment.
Why the Eagles Will Win: Because it took me 20 solid minutes to come up with enough points for that last paragraph. Here's a prediction: Romo or no Romo, I don't think the Eagles will punt in this game. That Cowboys defense sucked even before Sean Lee went out for the year. Football Outsiders has it ranked 30th out of 32 … and it has Philly's offense ranked second. Yikes. If that's not enough, the wife of die-hard Cowboys fan Cousin Sal (see accompanying sidebar) is scheduled to have his third kid on … that's right, Sunday night!
The Pick: You're telling me the Cowboys are shocking the world and making the playoffs without Sean Lee and with Kyle Orton as Cousin Sal watches the game from a hospital delivery room on his iPhone browser? That's the single most ridiculous thing I've ever heard. Eagles 48, Cowboys 20. Have a great holiday weekend and thanks for reading all season.
Last Week: 7-9
By: timbersfan, 12:48 AM GMT on December 28, 2013
US soccer 2013 review
From USA's World Cup qualification to Sporting KC's MLS Cup, from Robbie Rogers coming out to Clint Dempsey's move to Seattle
Friday 27 December 2013 09.00 EST 3 comments
Clint Dempsey left Spurs for the Seattle Sounders. Photograph: George Holland/ZUMA Press/Corbis
We reflect on a busy year of soccer in north America, from USA's World Cup qualification to Sporting Kansas City's MLS Cup triumph, from Robbie Rogers coming out as gay to Clint Dempsey's move from Spurs to Seattle.
The USA started the season with the traditional MLS-heavy January team camp — one that culminated with a tepid draw against Canada and then defeat in their opening game of the Hex in Honduras. With Landon Donovan out of the team for a needed rest and the opening wobble in World Cup qualifying, Klinsmann's methods were then the subject of a critical article by the then Sporting News reporter Brian Straus, who cited various disgruntled anonymous sources within the team camp. The story caused a flurry of controversy before the USA's next game vs Costa Rica, though that was nothing to the flurries of snow that fell in Colorado for said game, which was played out in frankly farcical circumstances, with teams of groundstaff shovelling out ever more wobbly field markings, en route to a US victory.
That victory proved to be a turning point for the US, who went on a march that ended with them topping their qualifying group — even finding time to first beat Mexico in Columbus by the now traditional dos a cero, then helping their rivals scrape a route to Brazil by a late, late Graham Zusi header in Panama. Zusi was just one of a number of MLS players who consolidated their claim for a place in next year's squad with his performances this year, making the most of Donovan's initial absence. Sporting KC's Matt Besler joined Omar Gonzalez as an unlikely first choice central defensive partnership, while Seattle's Brad Evans made the most of Klinsmann's vision of him as an answer at the problem right back spot — popping up with an important goal on the road in Jamaica in qualifying.
In the summer, the USA truly hit their stride, with striker Jozy Altidore in particular hitting a streak of goalscoring form that saw him net crucial World Cup qualifying goals alongside a confidence-boosting outing against Germany to mark the USA centenary. Donovan too returned in ebullient form and drove the USA to an emphatic Gold Cup win, after a run that also included a cameo burst of group stage goals by San Jose's Chris Wondolowski, who played most of the year with a foot injury, but kept his squad hopes alive for 2014.
The World Cup draw, when it came, was one of the toughest imaginable, with the USA up against Germany, Portugal and Ghana — all of whom they have significant and not altogether successful World Cup history with. But Klinsmann seemed unperturbed and his policy of setting up tough friendly games for his side whenever possible certainly looked vindicated by the sanguine manner in which his players received the draw. US Soccer too seem confident that they have the right leader in the German — securing him on a four year contract extension just last week. Whatever happens in Brazil, it seems Sunil Gulati wants the USA's top-to-bottom structural overhaul under Klinsmann to continue apace.
What ended in December on a frozen field outside Kansas City, began in the heat of Fort Lauderdale in January, as all the MLS coaches, including new faces such as Caleb Porter at Portland, "Chelis" at Chivas USA (whose entertaining reign would last only briefly but leave some great quotes), and the then interim coach of New York, Mike Petke, gathered to run the rule over the hopefuls at the combine. The combine is also the only time of the year the head coaches actually get to be together, and this is where the league tends to reveal the various rule changes to the assembled teams — changes that fans tend to find out about by accident 9 months later, after falling foul of them. More on that in a moment.
When the season began, defending champions LA started cautiously, if more solidly than their poor start the previous season, but the loss of David Beckham and the early absence of Landon Donovan on his infamous sabbatical, told on a side in transitional mode. Robbie Keane was his usual threat and a good call for MVP, but the surprise was the start made by playoff specialist Mike Magee, who launched the early scoring streak that would end up with him dragging Chicago to the brink of the playoffs, and himself winning the league MVP award, following his mid-season trade to the Fire.
That trade was the result of a reshuffle that brought in Robbie Rogers in mid-season. Rogers, a former US international, came out as gay early in the year, took a break from the game and then returned to train with his hometown Galaxy side, before signing for them and making his debut as the first openly gay active professional soccer player. The jury is still doubt on the soccer merits of the move, despite the undoubted social significance of Rogers' return. Certainly, as Rogers initially struggled for fitness and form, the career year exploits of Magee in Chicago put additional pressure on him and his coach. Rogers began to show signs of settling towards the end of the year, but it wasn't enough to see the Galaxy go deep in the playoffs — RSL eliminating them at Rio Tinto stadium in the Western Conference semis.
Ah yes, RSL. In what turned out to be head coach Jason Kreis's final season, RSL went close on many fronts despite ending up empty-handed. In doing so, they demonstrated what was a particular achilles heel for them this year — the inability to close out games having put themselves in winning positions. The win over Galaxy was the exception, as they found a late goal from the ever more promising Chris Schuler to progress at the champions' expense, en route to the final. There they took a second half lead against Sporting KC in MLS Cup, rattled the woodwork a couple of times and looked to have confounded the hosts, only to concede an equalizer and then lose on the tenth penalty of a shootout that at one point had them a kick from the title.
It was the second final RSL had lost that year — having been stunned at home in the Open Cup by DC United (whose disastrous regular season in MLS had been the subject of a running #sadstats gag on Twitter). And in the Supporters Shield race too, Salt Lake were in the running until the final couple of weeks, but ended up finishing behind New York, Sporting and the Western Conference winners Portland Timbers. Still, as coach Jason Kreis was fond of pointing out, this was a team that continuously put themselves into important games with their consistency, and given that significant personnel had left RSL in a cap-enforced turnover in the off-season (and indeed gone on to significantly enhance the campaigns of Shield rivals such as the Red Bulls and the Timbers), this was still a remarkable season for a team who will now miss a formidable coach.
Speaking of formidable coaches, Portland Timbers were one of the turnarounds of the season under Caleb Porter. Remarkably consistent, their back to back defeats in the Western Conference final — to an RSL side who were the one team Porter didn't figure out all year — were the only consecutive losses of their season. They played a compact attacking game, with new leases of life for the likes of Rodney Wallace, and exponential improvements from Diego Chara and Darlington Nagbe. Diego Valeri had some inspired touches as the Designated Player playmaker, and Will Johnson was a rock in midfield.
If the Timbers had a weakness it was a central defense bailed out by Johnson, Chara, and goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts on occasions, and one that was more than good enough to see off the rival Seattle Sounders attack in a blustery conference semi-final series, but which was found out by the rather more polished diamond midfield counters of Salt Lake in the Western final. But despite missing out on an MLS Cup appearance, the Timbers look on a solid footing on the field for the first time in their MLS lifetime, and Porter had long silenced those doubting his ability to step up from the college game by the end of the year.
Portland's Cascadia rivals Seattle will want to forget 2013 as soon as possible. A ten game summer run with only one loss saw the Sounders with the Supporters' Shield being theirs to lose in the run in. They duly lost it on the run in. A home draw against eventual winners New York was followed by a humiliating road defeat to an improving Colorado side who should be better again next year, then a 4-1 embarrassment against Vancouver. Seattle never recovered, and despite the much-celebrated arrival of Clint Dempsey, he was never integrated into the side in time to be either fit, or a key player in the run-in, even with Sigi Schmid reshuffling the team around him. By the time Shalrie Joseph was sent out as a nominal center forward in the game at Portland that ended Seattle's season, the Sounders knew the game was up. Schmid held on to his job, just about, but this was another post-season disappointment for Seattle, made worse by the coup de grace being delivered by the suddenly muscular little brothers from Portland.
In the East, Montreal raced out into an early lead with eye-catching road wins in Cascadia (including what would turn out to be a very rare win in Portland), before seeing a stretched squad stumble on the run-in. Marco di Vaio showed his scoring class throughout the year, and will be back to torment defensive lines and offside adjudicators next season, but the Impact faded badly in the second half of the season and despite scraping into the playoffs they ended the season in a chaos of red cards, as they were comfortably dispatched by a Houston team on their usual post-season run into form.
Despite getting past New York in the conference semi-finals, Houston couldn't reach a third consecutive final however, as Sporting KC brought some hard-won game management experience to bear to ease them out at Sporting Park. Sporting had gone close to the regular season title yet again — leaving New York needing a final day win to take the Shield, but with the Red Bulls eliminated from the playoffs the path was clear for Sporting's excellent stadium to finally host an MLS Cup, in the year it had already seen an All-Star game.
Sporting duly delivered — and what was most notable about their achievement was that in each series of the playoffs, including the final, they had to come from behind to win — and never panicked in doing so. This was a team that matched coach Peter Vermes's belief that they were finally ready to learn the lessons from disappointments past. It means they'll repeat the Champions League experience next year, having already secured a place in the quarter-finals of this season's competition with a perfect group stage.
Joining Sporting in next year's Champions League will be Open Cup winners DC United, Western Conference winners Portland Timbers (replacing MLS Cup runners up RSL in one of those surprise rule changes we mentioned)...and New York Red Bulls. Yes, after 18 seasons of being nearly men, New York finally delivered, winning the Supporters Shield under former player and first year head coach Mike Petke.
The Red Bulls had started slow, but gradually shaped into a competitive team in Petke's image, with defensive steel courtesy of Jamison Olave and goalkeeper Luis Robles, and as the season went on, the increasingly significant presence of midfielder (and occasional clutch attacker) Tim Cahill. Cahill's role as Petke's avatar on the field saw the New York team go from easy marks against determined opposition, to determined opposition themselves. They fell short again in the playoffs, but the cultural change, let alone the silverware, was part of a remarkable season for New York, who also ended up in the game of the season — coming from behind (of course) to beat Real Salt Lake (giving up a late lead of course) for the result that was eventually the difference between these sides for the Shield.
By: timbersfan, 6:18 AM GMT on December 27, 2013
The End of the Andre Villas-Boas Experiment at Tottenham
By Mike L. Goodman on December 17, 2013 2:30 PM ET
PAUL GILHAM/GETTY IMAGES
And just like that, Tottenham Hotspur’s Andre Villas-Boas experiment is over. Less than a year and a half after being hired, and only 16 games after being gifted with seven new first-team players to integrate into his squad, Villas-Boas was shown the door by Spurs chairman Daniel Levy (technically, it was a mutual agreement of both parties) after a disastrous 5-0 home defeat to Liverpool. The unsettling thing about the abrupt end to the AVB era at Spurs is that it feels like the reasons for his departure didn’t have all that much to do with the problems facing Tottenham Hotspur this season.
It sure seems like the three primary motivators for Villas-Boas’s exit were a 3-0 home loss to West Ham on October 6, a 6-0 road loss to Manchester City on November 24, and Sunday’s evisceration at the hands of Liverpool. Gabriele Marcotti reported that it wasn’t until after a postmatch meeting between Villas-Boas and Spurs brass that the management team at Tottenham decided to make the move. And now that he’s gone, behind-the-scenes stories are beginning to surface examining the relationship between Villas-Boas and the rest of Spurs' power structure. But, it’s worth asking this: Without those three games, would those relationships have ever been an issue? Would that meeting have even taken place if Paulinho hadn’t been shown red and Spurs had limped to a lame 2-0 loss, or if that hadn’t been the third lopsided scoreline of the year? Should the difference between a blowout and a routine loss really be enough to cost Villas-Boas his job?
If the fraying of Villas-Boas’s ties to Levy and director of football Franco Baldini (a former admirer of the manager, who had reportedly tried to hire him at Roma, and who Villas-Boas supported for the Spurs director of football job), and the eventual departure wasn’t based on embarrassment, what was it based on? Certainly not on the balance of Villas-Boas’s results. Spurs sit only five points away from a Champions League spot and eight off Arsenal in first place. In fact, their 27 points after 16 games is one more than they had at the same point last season. And last season Spurs finished with 72 points, their Premier League high-water mark and the highest point total ever not to qualify for the Champions League.
And not to harp on two or three games, but the sheer amount of goals conceded to City and Liverpool are certainly explainable, even if they aren’t excusable. A three-goal deficit at halftime to Manchester City ballooned into six when Villas-Boas brought on a second striker in a vain attempt to chase the game. And while it may have been suicidal, and naive, and a host of other negative soccer clichés, what was the alternative? Batten down the hatches and hope to get out alive only losing 3-0? Is that really preferable in a manager?
The same could be said of this weekend’s Liverpool match. Minutes after Tottenham's third substitution, leaving Paulinho as the only player resembling a holding midfielder on the field, the Brazilian got himself red-carded, and all of a sudden a two-goal deficit turned to five. None of which is to say that Spurs played well in those games. They didn’t. They played horribly, and the manager is responsible for those performances, but Villas-Boas’s aggressive decisions were probably some of the better ones he has made. Managers should be active in chasing games when they’re behind; you literally have nothing to lose by opening the game up and hoping you nab two goals before they do — except apparently your job.
The irony here is that there are significant concerns with this Spurs team, some that have existed for the bulk of the season, and some that have only recently reared their ugly head. Spurs' attacking difficulties have been well documented. In the wake of losing Gareth Bale to Real Madrid, Tottenham have scored only 11 non-penalty goals this season (they also have three penalties and an own goal to their credit); only newly promoted Crystal Palace and Hull City have fewer. That’s really, really bad. Despite that, Erik Lamela, the most expensive of Spurs’ summer acquisitions, and one of the brightest young attackers in all of Europe last year, has gotten a grand total of two starts and four substitute appearances (and many of those were not in his preferred right wing slot). Instead, Villas-Boas had chosen Andros Townsend and his 46 shots and one goal, or the speedy but never particularly incisive Aaron Lennon. And that’s only one example. Spurs have a deep squad, one that has seen a lot of turnover in the last two seasons, and one (with the possible exception of Lamela) without any real recognized stars. Regardless of who Villas-Boas chose to start as part of his front six — striker, the band of three behind him, and the two central midfield slots — there were always other options lurking. That’s a high degree of difficulty for a manager, and one that will always leave him open to second-guessing, especially when a team struggles to score as much as Spurs did (even though, as some of the advanced metrics suggest, some of the lack of goals is attributable to Spurs playing under a dark cloud of horrific luck).
The poor attack, and the attendant lineup questions that went with it, didn’t cripple Spurs, in large part because their defense has been incredibly strong for most of the season. Until the Manchester City woodshedding, Spurs had only given up six goals total in their previous 11 games (and three were in that debacle at home against West Ham). They may not have clicked on attack, but Villas-Boas’s unique style of defense was firing on all cylinders. An extremely high defensive line combined with an aggressive, pressing set of midfielders handcuffed opponents and limited goal-scoring opportunities. Since then, they’ve given up 15 and haven’t kept a clean sheet, and while 11 of those goals came in only two games, they also conceded twice to Manchester United, and once each to Fulham and Sunderland. It doesn’t seem like much, but when you aren’t scoring and defense is your calling card, it’s enough.
It‘s actually the performances in the three Premier League games between City and Liverpool that should have been the cause for concern. While drawing with United and defeating Fulham and Sunderland seemed to stabilize the Villas-Boas ship, Spurs actually put in deceptively bad defensive performances during those matches. Before the Manchester City game (remember, this includes one awful West Ham performance), Spurs conceded on average 9.4 shots per game from an average distance of 20.1 yards with five coming from inside the penalty area (thanks to ESPN Stats & Info for the numbers). Against United, Fulham, and Sunderland, Spurs averaged 11.7 shots conceded from 18.3 yards out and eight in the penalty area. Those were the good games.
Is there a definitive reason for the defensive decline? Probably not (there may not, in fact, be any reason, because a five-game sample is incredibly small), but there are certainly several factors to take into consideration. First are the injuries. Spurs are without their top three central defenders and their top two left backs (which double-counts Jan Vertonghen as both their best CB and backup LB). Second, in games against Sunderland and Fulham, Spurs fell behind, coming from a goal down in both games, their only two successful comeback results of the season, which likely changed the game dynamics (although it again raises the question of why the heck they can’t score without a noticeable degradation in their defending). Third, Villas-Boas didn’t help his defense out at all. As he has throughout his tenure, he stuck to his defensive principles with a high line and aggressive midfield, regardless of whether he had the personnel to execute it. Against Sunderland, Spurs won despite fielding a back line that included one central defender who always looks uncomfortable playing the system (Michael Dawson), one who is a midfielder by trade (Etienne Capoue), and a left back who is a natural right-sided defender (Kyle Naughton) (and also not very good). Villas-Boas got away with it because Sunderland are Sunderland, but against Liverpool that back four got absolutely torched. A change of tactics might not have altered the outcome of the game (Liverpool really did look breathtakingly good), but it almost certainly would have made his defenders’ lives easier.
Spurs clearly have some issues, enough issues that it’s worth asking how long Villas-Boas should have been given to work them out. How long is a reasonable amount of time to give a manager to find his best lineup out of a raft of new players? How long should Levy and Baldini have waited for Spurs’ unlucky conversion percentage to turn around? How much time should Villas-Boas have gotten to figure out how to deal with his injury-riddled back four?
Conversely, it’s also worth asking, exactly what do Spurs gain by not giving Villas-Boas until at least the end of the season to make the attempt? The goal for Spurs is obviously Champions League qualification. So, the real question is, how likely is it that Spurs improved their chances at qualification by parting ways with Villas-Boas now? And how much do they need to improve their chances in order to make giving up on Villas-Boas worth it? Quantifying that is impossible. But, taking into account Villas-Boas’s strong record with the club, and the relative paucity of available accomplished coaches out there to step in, and adding in the fact that Spurs apparently made the move suddenly, and do not have a succession plan in line, it seems pretty unlikely that whoever they bring in (Tim Sherwood in the interim, at least) is going to be such a big improvement over Villas-Boas over the next 22 games that it justifies this sudden course correction.
Whatever the right amount of time to give Villas-Boas was, it was certainly more than 16 games. Spurs would have cost themselves very little by giving their coach until the end of the season, and they’ve potentially cost themselves a lot. The downside to keeping Villas-Boas is basically a disappointing upper-mid-table finish with the potential to run it back next year with basically the same cast of characters and a new coach, while the upside is he rights a team that isn’t even particularly that far off course, and guides them to a Champions League spot himself. The downside to firing him is that you’ve cost yourself the possibility of a decade of stability, while the upside is that whoever the new guy is immediately awakens a Spurs juggernaut that cruises to qualification. Unless Spurs' brass feels like that last part of the equation can happen (and in a league as competitive as the Premier League this year, how easy could it be?), it’s pretty hard to see losing Villas-Boas as a positive.
Not that any of those things appear to have really been under consideration at Spurs. This doesn’t have any of the hallmarks of a weighted careful analysis. For the third time this season, and the second time in a month, Spurs got embarrassed, and the powers that be didn’t like it. So, Villas-Boas got called into the principal’s office and the principal decided he didn’t like his attitude and out the door he went. It’s a powerful message for whoever his successor ends up being. Your main job is not to embarrass your bosses; then worry about winning the games.
By: timbersfan, 6:15 AM GMT on December 27, 2013
Sword and Shield
Looking back on the NFL's very bad year
By Hua Hsu on December 26, 2013
About five years ago, "protecting the shield" became a thing. The phrase was introduced and repeated over and over by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell — he was "protecting the shield" whenever he had to discipline a player or wayward owner. He "protects the shield" when he negotiates with the unions, hugs a first-round draft pick, or cuts league ties with Bradley Cooper. "Protecting the shield" is his way of dramatizing his solemn, possibly chivalrous duty to the league, its image, and its billions of dollars of annual revenue, and he has said it so many times, you'd be forgiven for thinking the words actually make sense. Every workplace wants you to feel like you're part of a community. For the modern NFL, it's Goodell's mythical shield — that red, white, and blue logo — that is every player's Constitution, Holy Bible, and secret handshake. It's a shield Goodell protects to the tune of $30 million a year. It's a shield that shields you from wondering how perverse it is that your workplace is asking for you to protect it — but from what?
Has a professional sports league ever had a worse year than the NFL in 2013?1 Consider everything that has happened since the Ravens won the Super Bowl. The most prominent controversy involves the most basic physics of the sport. In October, Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada published League of Denial, a book exploring the NFL's generally negligent attitude toward the neurological disease suffered by many former players. When ESPN backed out of the book's companion Frontline documentary,2 it only amplified the sense of widespread conspiracy. Two feature films about the NFL and concussions are in the works as well. In late August, the league agreed to pay $765 million to settle a lawsuit brought by 4,500 ex-players spanning multiple generations. Some have opted out, either in hopes of a larger individual payout or to force the NFL into disclosing what it actually knew. Others are beginning to realize their initial suspicions were correct: The NFL got off cheap.
All this seemed to exacerbate the distance between the boss and the employees, the cold realities of business and our stray desires, a fan's NFL Films–guided memory of the clever, cunning Jim McMahon and how he seems today. Player safety has taken on a different meaning in the CTE era, as Brandon Meriweather pointed out last month: "You just have to go low now, man. You've got to end people's careers. You got to tear people's ACLs and mess up people's knees. You can't hit them high anymore." Questions turned to whether Meriweather — not exactly one of the league's calmer souls — was a dirty player. But his underlying questions were what other players have begun asking, too: Can I trust the shield to protect me?
TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
It feels quaint now that the lights went out during the Super Bowl. This was the year the NFL locker room became even weirder than one might have ever imagined, such that Jonathan Martin just had to pack up and leave. You have to be pretty comfortable with violence to love the sport, but the playacting of warfare ceased to feel metaphorical. Former Pro Bowl tight end Aaron Hernandez stands accused of at least one murder, possibly others. Amid the zillions of thinkpieces extrapolating some link between tattoo density and gang violence, the most chilling reaction came from one of Hernandez's former peers. When 24-year-old linebacker Rolando McClain retired in May, he would later say he "was feeling like Aaron Hernandez or something, like I just wanted to kill somebody." John Moffitt, a 27-year-old offensive lineman, left the game as well; he wanted to do some reading and thinking while he still could. That you could just walk away, as McClain and Moffitt did, seemed supremely bizarre, especially given that their modest horizons simply promised little more than "anything but football."
It was the year the Redskins continued to exist as such. Jimmy Haslam, new owner of the Cleveland Browns, stands accused of defrauding consumers of millions of dollars owed to them in fuel rebates. Higher-ups often speak of the integrity of the game as something one nasty player can ruin. But integrity becomes a joke when bad behavior is modeled by the boss, not the workers. A party boat full of dudes with pistols tucked into their sweatpants will never rival the childish petulance of Daniel Snyder.
You might say this is an arbitrary, overly negative accounting of the NFL's 2013 — that it overlooks the emergence of Russell Wilson and Vontaze Burfict, the comeback of Alex Smith, the erratic wizardry of Ron Rivera and Chip Kelly, the old-man lures and snares of Megatron. Sure, it's this unceasing cycle of HD-rendered personalities and self-regenerating dramas that keeps the NFL's viewership numbers streets ahead of any sport in America. But it's beginning to feel like the NFL is nearing a crossroads. A cluster of scandal and tragedy will always trigger some "soul of ___ball" crisis-talk among fans and critics. And the NFL, vexed by drugs and labor issues, already suffered through a rough 1980s.3
When we speak of the integrity of the game — of protecting the sport rather than the shield — it's more than just the assorted mistakes of a few twentysomethings. It's the growing sense that the business protects only itself — that the growing interest in concussions and head trauma will reveal a knowing conspiracy rather than mere negligence. It's the possibility that participation in Pop Warner football will continue to decline, and who knows what that will mean a decade from now? It's the reality that a player like Jonathan Martin or Anthony Hargrove will become the only name we circle out of a sprawling, toxic hierarchy — we have long ignored the ones at the top because we usually have no need to know who they are. A lot of the challenges facing the NFL right now aren't about the players; they're about how the league and its franchises and locker rooms are run. It's about the very organizational logic of calling it "the shield" and asking for protection. It's the growing chasm between those who actually govern the league and their interchangeable employees. It's the perverse logic that allows owners to convince us that players with teasingly brief careers are overpaid while the tenured commissioner heads a nonprofit for a far greater salary. The issue isn't whether Goodell actually has any private fears about a player dying on the field; it's that he probably should. Of course all of this is willfully naive and little of it ultimately matters. The NFL is doing more business than ever, the players larger than life and the structure invisible until we are forced to reckon with it. It is a business that works hard to remove us from the physical immediacy of the game, to give us something else to think about while the chains are being moved. Maybe this is why the NFL has redoubled its efforts in Europe and Asia, where the American pastime unfolds like an exotic video game. Each year, we hear reports about how attendance at games is falling while NFL profits continue to surge toward Goodell's not-that-crazy goal of $25 billion in annual revenues.4 At this point, maybe it's by design that the live experience of going to a football game has become the afterthought — here and abroad. It's a much better product when experienced from a distance.
The brute physicality of football remained an abstraction for me until a few years ago, when I was at a game, shivering, waiting for a player to be carted off on a stretcher. In the absence of a commercial, you remember that it was the bruising hits that first drew you in. One generation applauds "Thunder and Destruction," the next looks forward to yelling, "JACKED UP!" at the TV. There's no righteous path, only the wrong intentions of the present. A lot of people need protection. A shield is just a barrier.
By: timbersfan, 6:24 AM GMT on December 26, 2013
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2013 YEAR IN REVIEW
Grantland's Athletes of the Year
By Grantland Staff on December 20, 2013 10:45 AM ET
Grantland's writers on their favorite athletes of the year.
Brian Phillips: As of this writing, Cristiano Ronaldo has, between Facebook and Twitter, 90,992,874 followers. That's more than three times as many as LeBron James. It's four Kobe Bryants. It's about 7 million more people than live in California, New York, and Texas combined. He's less than a month away from almost definitely (you can throw out the almost) winning the FIFA Ballon d'Or, the award given to the best soccer player in the world, and thus almost definitely (ditto) ending the three-year winning streak of his only real rival, FC Barcelona's Leo Messi. Ronaldo plays — stars, dominates — for Real Madrid, the biggest soccer club in the history of the world. He stands, collar popped and rhinestone-studded belt gleaming, at the giddy peak of his profession. He is one of the most recognizable human beings on the planet. And he is still underrated.
2013 in Review
What We Learned: The 2013 Roundtable
Our experts weigh in on the continued proliferation of advanced stats, the year's most exciting sports moments, and what to look for in 2014
The Year of Un-Innocence
Why 2013 made it impossible to watch sports with a clear conscience — and why we kept watching anyway
The Year in Prodigies
Andrew Wiggins, Jadeveon Clowney, and what happens when we get too excited about athletes too soon
The Year in "Holy S---!!!"
The most surreal moments and humans we saw in sports in 2013
I'm only talking about English-speaking countries here, but still. Ronaldo's cultural profile in England and America is just the strangest thing; it's as if Einstein had been perceived as not one of the cooler scientists because he had dumb hair and worked at Princeton instead of Yale. For a whole bunch of reasons — he ditched the Premier League; he's not Messi; Madrid is, in a really kinda silly way, still seen as the evil foil for Barcelona; dumb hair — Ronaldo is just easier not to think about. He's great, but he's inconveniently great. He has 68 goals in 59 games this year, and "Did you see what Ronaldo did yesterday?" opened exactly seven English-language bar conversations.
People! It is time to recognize the glitzed-out Speedo gods among us. Ronaldo's individual abs may have their own Hunger Games stylists, but he is an astonishing soccer player. I once mocked him for being "thuddingly dainty”; I barely remember what I was talking about. To see him working at the center of the Madrid attack is to see a purposeful dervish, somehow willing the hurricane into shape while dancing in the eye of it. Revere him! Buy his products!
Zach Lowe: The idea that Roy Hibbert might be, in some weird way, the most important player in the NBA is just a massively fun story. Let's clarify: LeBron is the most important player in the NBA. But Hibbert has emerged as the closest thing in existence to a LeBron antidote, and he happens to play for a team building toward a third straight playoff matchup against the Heat.
Hibbert famously couldn't do a push-up when he arrived at Georgetown. He suffers from asthma, and he always has an inhaler around his locker in case he needs a puff. The inhaler adds to the charming air of social awkwardness Hibbert carries — rare for a star-level player. He sometimes doesn't make eye contact, he laughs in kind of a weird way, and he can get a bit nervous during media scrums. He's happy to chat one-on-one, before or after games, if the conversation is good. He is a normal person in a strange, macho world. He once tweeted a photo of a woman pooping on the streets of New York City. He can look out of his depth playing offense for entire games, missing bunnies and lurching around, and then suddenly put up 20-10 lines for an entire series against the Heat.
But mostly, the dude protects the rim better than anyone else on earth. It was news two seasons ago when LeBron was working on a floater as an anti-Hibbert weapon. Now everyone has Hibbert-only shots — floaters they don't use against anyone else, runners they launch a step or two farther out than usual. Hell, LeBron challenges the guy only late in close games, when everything else is going to shit for Miami. Hibbert made "verticality" a thing. A few GMs have estimated his annual on-court value at around $25 million or $30 million, double his actual salary.
This was not even in the realm of possibility five years ago. People wouldn't have laughed at you for suggesting this was possible for Hibbert, because you would never have even suggested it was possible. "Maybe the Pacers could get some rim protection by signing DeSagana Diop on the cheap" was a more reasonable statement in 2008, when Hibbert was fouling everything in sight, than "Maybe Hibbert will turn into an All-Star."
But here we are. What a remarkable rise. The Eastern Conference finals can't get here soon enough.
Holly Anderson: College football's seasons are short, its good-byes frequent. Players violently shoulder their way into our hearts, stay a little while, and move on, and our window of time in which to enjoy them can be narrowed significantly by any number of factors: grades, injuries, the Ever-Popular-And-Mysterious Violation Of Team Rules, or NFL-ready skill sets that peak early. All of this makes it maybe ill-advised to get too attached, but every year new personalities determined to make us love them anyway permeate our cynicism. And when it came time to decide which of this year's crop of departing players we'd miss the most, we came up with a little list topped by one very large gentleman.
We thought we might have seen the last of ebullient Notre Dame nose tackle Louis Nix III right around this time last year, and he wouldn't have been wrong to go. He was a high-profile player on a team headed to the title game, and harbored aspirations of using an NFL paycheck to give his mother a comfortable life. That same mother sent Nix right back to school, where his 2013 season was truncated by a torn meniscus, and if we wouldn't have begrudged him an early entry to the pros last year, we're openly cheering him forgoing his final season of eligibility now. Life goes quick (unlike a box of Irish chocolate); careers go quicker, and Nix is projected to go in the first round. Get paid, kiddo, and commence pampering your mom. We'll watch vigilantly for the return of Chocolate News, and will never, ever forget the time you sang a country love anthem to Kashi cereal.
Rafe Bartholomew: This is difficult to admit, but I'm beginning to run out of things to say about Gennady Golovkin. I've written about the middleweight champion boxer four times in the past 15 months, and it's getting hard to come up with new ways to describe the brutal, thudding power of his punches or the ruthless efficiency of the footwork he uses to stalk opponents and cut off their escape routes in the ring. I've made all the jokes: his tendency to call rivals "good boy" after he has knocked them out; the dainty bow he performs to acknowledge the crowd after victories — put him on a stage and you might wonder, "Why is this ballet dude smeared all over with blood?"; the gold-embroidered blue rug he wears to the ring, like the heir to some grand carpet-store dynasty. That's what makes him my athlete of the year. No, he's not fighter of the year, even though he went 4-0 with four knockouts in 2013; other boxers beat better opponents on bigger stages. But Golovkin is the athlete I cleared my schedule to see — I've attended all his U.S. fights and desperately hope to keep the streak alive — and he's the athlete that got me so geeked to write about him that I shot my literary wad. Or, to use a less icky, more boxing-appropriate phrase: I punched myself out. It's uncommon, and pretty damn fun, to discover an athlete whose performances are so thrilling and whose character is so weird and engaging that you end up talking in circles about him. On and on, the same Golovkin quotes and stories and jokes, and you don't care about stopping. He's that much fun.
Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall
Robert Mays: It’s been a while since Bears fans were surprised. For the past five years, fall has followed pretty much the same script. The hope each year was that the defense would be great enough, and the offense competent enough, for Chicago to squeak into the playoffs. Even when Phil Emery started his tenure as the team’s general manager with a splashy trade for Brandon Marshall, the Bears offense never rose beyond these expectations. Cutler force-fed Marshall 12 times a game. The Bears didn’t score much.
This season has been different for a lot of reasons — notably the brainy, offensive-minded head coach who actually looks like a scientist — but there's no bigger surprise than Alshon Jeffery. As a rookie in 2012, Jeffery was fine — serviceable when healthy, but nothing spectacular. This year, he’s been the most exciting Bear since Devin Hester arrived.
Nothing creates a following faster than an instant hero, and although Jeffery was a first-round talent and a player the Bears traded up to get, his ascension has seemed to come all at once. When he broke Chicago’s single-game receiving record against the Vikings last month, he was actually breaking his own record — one set earlier this season. But that game in Minnesota was something different. That touchdown catch down the sideline was maybe the play of the year, and was just the start of what’s become the cult of Alshon.
I have a policy — one that many people share — of avoiding products or jerseys associated with current players. Careers are too short. Success is too fleeting. It’s too easy for that Tommie Harris jersey to soon look very silly. I broke that rule yesterday, with an Alshon Jeffery T-shirt I’m certain I won’t regret. No matter how it all goes from here, this fall — watching something begin — is worth remembering.
Sean Fennessey: There's an awful in-joke in my family that I should not be allowed to attend Mets games. When I go, they lose. It is the rule of law. I attended 17 consecutive Mets losses. (N.B. The Mets lose a lot.) Two seasons ago, I broke the spell, watching R.A. Dickey baffle the Dodgers at Chavez Ravine to the tune of three hits and 10 Ks in eight innings of warlock-ball. New city, new rule. It's all wins now.
That was wrong.
In August, I returned to Dodger Stadium for a Mets game, seated alone behind home plate to see an angel with a hand cannon.
That's an essential GIF from the good folks at FanGraphs. Matt Harvey has four pitches, including the kind of hard fastball that recalls speeding locomotives or bowling balls dropped from skyscrapers. Batters exiting the box after the Harvey Experience look like this. Also, he walks around New York City dressed like this, dates supermodel Anne V, and is working with an uncommon sense of humor. Squint and you can see a little Broadway Joe in him. (The closest we've come to a nickname for Harvey is "The Dark Knight of Gotham," which, no, and "The Real Deal," which makes him sound like a bantamweight from Bronxville. My nickname suggestion: "Heat." Simple. Effective. Alliterative. Recalls Michael Mann's masterpiece. Heat Harvey. Tell me this can't work.)
In the run-up to August's game in L.A., Harvey had started the All-Star Game at CitiField, led the league in strikeouts, and surrendered just three runs in his previous 30 innings. The guy looked like a snorting bull out there. I was expecting him to gore Yasiel Puig on the spot. Then the spell returned and Harvey got rung up for four runs on eight hits in six innings. He labored. His velocity dipped below 93 mph. He rolled his shoulder in that way that pitchers sometimes do shortly before they reveal an injury. And so it was. Less than two weeks later, Heat was diagnosed with a partial tear in his elbow. In October, he elected to have Tommy John surgery. An angel lost its wings.
Still, there was never a more exciting time in sports for me this year than Matt Harvey Day. Once every fifth, I essentially counted on a one-hitter. It will be 16 months before I see it again, and it may never be the same. But we'll always have this photo.
Chris Ryan: Chip Kelly arrived in Philadelphia and got Mike Vick eating salads, had everyone else drinking personalized protein shakes, and ran exhausting 11-on-11 practice drills while blasting the Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack. The NFL coaching fraternity can be a pretty dour collection of struggle-faced hardasses. One thing that unites the Mike Shanahans, the Mike Munchaks, the Bill Belichicks, Jim Schwartzs, and Mike McCarthys, is a feeling that the presence of the media and even the fans (I know, I'm projecting) is a distraction from their gridiron fight against Satan to pass into heaven and rest at the angel feet of Vince Lombardi. Chip Kelly knows that heaven is a place on Earth, and his offense is the house band. For him, life's too short, NFL games take too long to start, referees are hilariously too slow, and press conferences are for LOLs.
Chip Kelly didn't do anything athletic all year, but nobody in sports brought me more joy.
Charles P. Pierce: The Ohio State–Michigan game would have been entertaining enough without the brawl that erupted after a kickoff. And the brawl would have been entertaining enough had Ohio State's Marcus Hall not been ejected. And Marcus Hall would have been entertaining enough had he not reacted to being ejected the way he did.
Every year, we make a whopping big deal out of the traditional rivalry games — more so now since conference realignment has blown so many of them up. (Nebraska-Oklahoma, to name one prominent one, doesn't exist anymore. Jerry Tagge wept.) So we cling to the ones we have, and we poison innocent trees over them, and we make terrific 30 for 30 documentaries about them. Michigan against Ohio State is one of those. Marcus Hall imbibed this from his youth. So his return guy takes a cheap shot and throws a haymaker from somewhere outside of Hamtramck. This results in the return guy getting his helmet torn off and thrown across the field. Marcus jumps in to protect the honor of Ohio from these helmet-tossing barbarians. This gets him thrown out of the game. The Michigan game! Fate is unkind to Marcus Hall, and now he has to walk up a tunnel lined thickly on both sides and above with Michigan people. So what does Marcus do?
Right there on TV, in front of god and the world, Marcus throws an emphatic double bird, both hands proudly over his head, both middle fingers proudly extended.
I mean, what would you have done?
As I've said before, if Marcus Hall ever pays for another meal in Columbus, people should be ashamed of themselves. Woody Hayes would have bought him a house.
Andrew Sharp: "Jesus Christ, are you kidding me?"
I don't know whether I was addressing Steph as Jesus Christ or questioning Jesus about Steph, but this was my response to Steph Curry throughout last year's playoffs. This is still my response to Steph Curry, a year later, when he's still wreaking havoc and pulling up from anywhere and baffling everyone.
Most great athletes are like aliens. Even Peyton Manning is 6-foot-5, 240 pounds. If you saw him in person you'd feel every bit as tiny as you are. But Curry is just a regular guy, at least on the surface. Steph Curry is just a regular guy who this year transformed from an injury-prone point guard everyone assumed was soft into one of the two or three most ruthless players in all of sports when he's on. It shouldn't be possible for a 6-foot-3, 185-pound guy to render entire teams helpless, but that's what makes it twice as incredible to watch. We've had all kinds of people to love in sports this year, but nothing's been more entertaining than Steph Curry becoming STEPH CURRY over the past 12 months.
Sean McIndoe: The hockey world has never been quite sure what to do with Washington winger Alexander Ovechkin. It’s an issue with his personality. By which I mean, it's that he has one.
He’s Russian, which means our instinct is to call him “enigmatic,” but he’s really not all that hard to figure out. He loves playing hockey, and he shows it. Specifically, he loves scoring goals, and that works out well for him because it’s something he does rather a lot. And when he does, he gets excited and jumps around and does silly prop comedy. Hockey players aren’t supposed to do that.
And so when Ovechkin’s goal totals dropped steeply for the two seasons from 2010 to 2012, more than a few fans rejoiced. And when both he and the Capitals struggled through the opening weeks of the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, it felt like an appropriate time to do a little victory tap dance on the grave of Alexander Ovechkin, generational superstar.
Ovechkin scored 23 goals in the season’s last 23 games, finishing with a league-leading 32. He won his third Hart Trophy as MVP. He was named a postseason All-Star at two different positions (don’t ask). And this season, he’s been even better. He’s got 28 goals in 32 games, giving him an outside shot at reestablishing the 50-in-50 club that’s been dormant since the onset of the Dead Puck Era.
For some, it won’t matter. He’ll still be divisive, and he’ll still make people angry every time he cracks a smile, and he’ll still take the blame every time the Capitals get eliminated from the playoffs, no matter how well he plays. He just has that effect on some people. Don’t be one of them. Just enjoy one of the greatest offensive players the league’s ever known, in his prime, doing what he does best.
Mallory Rubin: There were a lot of terrible things about Manny Machado's September 23 left knee injury: the way his foot hit the bag; the way his leg instantly swung sideways like a piece of stretched-out Silly Putty; the way he crumpled to the ground in pain. The only good thing was how much it hurt everyone else.
That's not a sadomasochistic statement; it's a reflection of how long it has been since an Oriole had the power to really make people feel happy or sad. Manny's injury meant something, and not just in Baltimore. It mattered to people who love defense, and doubles, and seeing youth served. It mattered to everyone who loves baseball.
The Orioles didn't make the playoffs last year, Manny's first full season in the bigs. Meanwhile, a couple of parking lots over, Joe Flacco sparked the Ravens' improbable postseason run. So how can a Baltimore sports fan like yours truly elevate the 21-year-old from the third-place team above the Super Bowl MVP? Well, very easily. Flacco won a title, but he did so with the amount of charisma you'd expect from a guy who spends his postseason nights dining at Bonefish. Manny may not have the hardware — though he did win a Gold Glove! — but he has everything else: the ear-to-ear smile, the impossibly bright future, the power to evoke the past.
Seeing Manny go down felt like watching the Red Sox Cowboy Up 50 seasons in a row, hearing the Yankees toast The Captain on infinite loop, and feeling the Rays use their stingers to cut through my heart.
But you can't feel loss if you never had hope. And that's the gift Manny gave me this year.
Rembert Browne: This is disgusting.
That's six years of Roger Federer's Grand Slam playing career. Fourteen wins and 10 non-wins, six of which were runner-up performances and none of which came short of a third-round showing. 2013 reminded us that this is very much the past, as Federer went a calendar year without appearing in a Grand Slam final for the first time in 11 years.
Federer no longer being the favorite going into a Slam isn't necessarily uncharted territory — what with the dominance of Djokovic, the comeback of Nadal, and the rise of Murray — but what is new is Federer as "no. 4." Even if you don't see him as the fourth-best tennis player, for the first time in this era, a level-headed argument can be made that there's a Big Three in men's tennis and he's not included.
Counting Federer out also isn't a new thing. It took 10 Slams, between 2010 and 2012, for him to capture a title. During that period, talk of his decline swirled. But then he won Wimbledon in 2012 and the talk was put, temporarily, on the back burner. Because of the way in which he lost in 2013, though, we're back at that point.
Australian Open: Semifinal loss to Andy Murray
French Open: Quarterfinal loss to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
Wimbledon: Second-round loss to Sergiy Stakhovsky
U.S. Open: Fourth-round loss to Tommy Robredo
What's most interesting about these Federer losses is what they represented for his opponents, and ultimately what happened next.
Andy Murray: Defeats Federer in the semifinals of the Australian Open, 6-4, 6-7(5), 6-3, 6-7(2), 6-2, his first career victory against him in a Grand Slam tournament. Next match: Loses to Novak Djokovic in the finals, 6-7(2), 7-6(3), 6-3, 6-2.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: Defeats Federer in the quarterfinals of the French Open, 7-5, 6-3, 6-3, first French player to reach the Roland Garros semifinals since Gael Monfils in 2008, only the second player to defeat Federer at the French and Wimbledon (Nadal). Next match: Loses to David Ferrer in the semifinals, 6-1, 7-6(3), 6-2.
Sergiy Stakhovsky: Defeats Federer in the second round of Wimbledon, 6-7(5), 7-6(5), 7-5, 7-6(5), ending his streak of 36 straight Grand Slams where he at least made the quarterfinals. Next match: Loses to Jurgen Melzer in the third round, 6-2, 2-6, 7-5, 6-3.
Tommy Robredo: Defeats Federer in the fourth round of the U.S. Open, 7-6(3), 6-3, 6-4, ending his career winless drought against Federer after 10 prior losses, reaches his first career U.S. Open quarterfinal. Next match: Loses to Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals, 6-0, 6-2, 6-2.
Four players, four losses, and none relatively close. Federer may have been out of the tournament, but in those next matches, his presence was still felt.
Even if Federer's not the player he once was, even if it's easier to catch him on an off day, and even if we live in a reality where he loses tennis matches, it's clear the process of beating him, and the subsequent internalization that you just beat him, takes its toll. In a game that's so mental, it must be hard to rally after beating Federer, since so many of the past decade's careers have centered on the inability to do just that. Regardless of when it takes place in a tournament, it must feel like reaching the mountaintop. Like outplaying Jordan, or hitting a walk-off on Rivera, ousting Federer is still the sport's premier individual achievement, a career validation of sorts. That will be the case until he decides to call it quits.
Mike L. Goodman: It’s not often that an athlete ascends both to the pinnacle of his profession and the Tyson Zone in the same year. But in 2013, Liverpool's Luis Suarez managed it. Let’s examine the three most momentous events in the Uruguayan striker’s year. First, he received a 10-game suspension for gnawing on the arm of Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovich as the 2012-13 season nears its end. Liverpool fans stood by their man despite the suspension (this following an eight-game suspension the previous season). Suarez promptly thanked fans for their support by demanding a transfer during the offseason. The Fenway Sports Group refused to sell. Liverpool fans soured on their two-timing star but couldn't quite manage to quit him. He still had six games left to serve on his suspension. Not a problem. After returning to the field, Suarez immediately won the fans back by having perhaps the greatest goal-scoring stretch in the history of the Premier League. All is forgiven (again). Sixteen games into the season, Suarez leads the league with 17 goals scored, despite having played in only 11 games, an average of more than 1.5 goals per game. Since 2010, exactly zero people have managed to score 1.5 goals per game over the course of a season. In fact, only Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have topped the one goal per game mark. Will Suarez have the greatest season in history? Will he be banned from the Premier League for antics too insane to imagine? Will England turn on him en masse (again) when Uruguay faces the Three Lions in the World Cup? OK, so that last question’s an easy one. The rest, it’s impossible to say. That's part of the fun.
Katie Baker: "I'm not mature, though," Patrick Kane insisted during a glorious ESPN The Magazine conversation. With two Stanley Cups and a playoff MVP on his résumé, the 25-year-old has already had the the kind of career that a lot of guys a decade (or many!) his senior will never know, but this time last year, no one would have disputed his statement. At least not after his drunken Cinco de Mayo rampage after the Blackhawks were knocked out of the 2012 playoffs.
Kane showed up at a Wisconsin frat party, flirted or fought with just about everyone in his path, passed out at (and was later kicked out of) a bar, and did all of this while wearing a conspicuous neon T-shirt with a picture of himself, shirtless and hammered, on the back. (The attire was fitting; if you're not already familiar, wait till you have a few hours and then Google "Patrick Kane drunk.") Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman issued a terse statement: "We're obviously disappointed how it played out and Patrick is aware of that fact." When Kane signed with a Swiss team during the NHL lockout, European papers prepped fans by explaining that he wasn't exactly a "model professional." His mom lived with him abroad; they made sure to bring a suitcase full of Kraft mac and cheese.
All this is part of what made 2013 so important — and ultimately, so impressive — for Kane. In what could have been a year dogged by tsk-tsks and rumors, he finished fifth in the league in points, helped the Blackhawks win their second Cup in four seasons, and earned the Conn Smythe. He still partied his balls off afterward, but this time he didn't end up splashed across gossip pages. He has 20 goals and 26 assists through 37 games this season, and is second on the NHL scoring leaderboard to only Sidney Crosby. In November, Kane recorded a point in all but two games; in December thus far, he has picked up a goal or an assist in each and every one. Barring catastrophic injury (knock on wood), he'll not only play for the U.S. in the Sochi Olympics this February, he'll be expected to keep up, and even ramp up, this frenetic pace.
Kane's personality has always stood up to his play. He can be cocky — but who wouldn't be if you could do things like this? He can be annoying — just ask his best frenemy (oh, and best teammate), Jonathan Toews! He can be phenomenally stupid, in the grand tradition of famous guys in their twenties with dollars to burn. But he's also the kind of athlete who gives everything and hides very little. When he fell into a slump early in this year's postseason, he was remarkably honest. He brims with star power at the exact time that the NHL is, slowly but surely, inching its way back into broader popular consciousness.
"I'll read articles about myself, and they always have to go back to what happened off the ice," Kane said. (Guilty!) "The media likes to ask me, 'Are you more focused this year? Are you more mature?' That question ticks me off because what happened in the past seems like long ago. I'm not that person anymore. I'm sure there's something I've changed here and there."
Still, he admitted, "At the same time, I do still feel like the same person." And we wouldn't want it any other way.
Bill Barnwell: I’m a cynic, so I always used to scoff when I read those stories about how a city was healed or united by a sporting event or a team doing well. Things can’t be that simple, right? And then Boston, my adopted hometown for most of my adult life, was hit by a senseless, tragic bombing. I wasn’t in town for the bombing, but I’d made my way back to Boston one week later when a manhunt for those bombers kept me and many of the people I know up all night and shut down the city for an entire day. It was surreal and unimaginable.
And then, after the immediate relief that surrounded the arrest, I can’t imagine that I was the only one who woke up the next day not knowing what to feel. (Beyond hungover.) I was waiting to head to a wedding that had nearly been canceled the day before during the lockdown and turned on the pregame festivities before the Red Sox game, which saw many of the city officials being applauded by the crowd and the team. And then David Ortiz got the microphone.
Nobody's ever delivered a line more perfectly than David Ortiz snarling, "This is our fuckin' city." I'm convinced of it. And when David Ortiz said that in front of a huge crowd and a television audience, I laughed harder than I might ever have laughed in my entire life. It was so unexpected and simple and perfect. It felt like the first time I'd laughed in a week. I started getting messages from friends who had seen the clip and had the same reaction. We crowded around a phone at the wedding to watch it again on YouTube. We'd all gone through stages of grief, fear, and panic before relief. David Ortiz's F-bomb was the first time any of us had felt joy since before the bombing, the first time when at least I felt that it was OK to laugh again. That transcends sports. I was wrong about what an athlete or a team could do for those other cities. David Ortiz accomplished something on that day without ever swinging his bat.
TAGS2013 YEAR IN REVIEW, DAVID ORTIZ, BILL BARNWELL, NFL, CHRIS RYAN, MLB, BRANDON MARSHALL, KATIE BAKER, NHL, NBA, CRISTIANO RONALDO, ROBERT MAYS, RAFE BARTHOLOMEW, LUIS SUAREZ, SEAN MCINDOE, CHIP KELLY, ROY HIBBERT, BRIAN PHILLIPS, ALEXANDER OVECHKIN, PATRICK KANE, STEPH CURRY, CHARLIE PIERCE, SEAN FENNESSEY, MATT HARVEY, ZACH LOWE, LOUIS NIX, GENNADY GOLOVKIN, ANDREW SHARP, ALSHON JEFFERY, HOLLY ANDERSON, MIKE L. GOODMAN, MARCUS HALL
Previously from Grantland Staff:
Exclusive First Look: Million Dollar Arm Trailer
NBA Shootaround: Just Another Game
The Overlooked and Underseen Movies of 2013
Grantland Writers Roundtable: Jonah Keri, Zach Lowe, Bill Barnwell, and Sean McIndoe on the Year in Sports
The Overlooked and Underappreciated TV of 2013
What We Learned: The 2013 Roundtable
Speeding Motorcycle of My Heart: The Year in KimYe
Career Arc: Tony Gonzalez
Career Arc: Tony Gonzalez
After the Antihero
Safe at Home
The Year of the Movie Apocalypse
What We Learned: The Grantland 2013 Roundtable
©2013 ESPN Internet Ventures.
All rights reserved. Interest-Based Ads
By: timbersfan, 6:01 AM GMT on December 22, 2013
The Island of Dr. Simbeau Lives!
The return of the unholy marriage of the Sports Guy's mailbox and NFL picks — Week 16 edition
By Bill Simmons on December 20, 2013
A Minneapolis reader named Paul Z. pulled me into a virtual log cabin and wrote, "You've had the worst run of NFL picks in your life. Nothing is going right, so you try to ignore the NFL by indulging in distractions. The first Birdmester recap with Jalen. An email exchange with Gladwell. Body language doctors. Are you kidding me? You've become the Potemkin Editor in Chief. I want a real NFL article this week. I want some picks I can believe in. It's been hard, I get it. Family, the holidays, the NBA. I'm not saying it's going to be easy. You're going to have to go through hell, worse than any nightmare you've ever dreamed. But when It's over, I know you'll be the one standing. You know what you have to do. Do it. Do it."
Now that's a pep talk! Who's ready for another trip to Dr. Simbeau's Island? We're breeding reader emails from the past three weeks with Week 16 picks and creating a teeming holiday pickbag. As always, these are actual emails from actual readers.
(Home teams in caps)
Cowboys (-3) over D.C. DACEYS
Q: I was watching SportsCenter with my mom the other day, and they were talking about the possibilities of Washington trading RGIII and keeping Kirk Cousins. My mother (an avid Washington fan) said she wouldn't be surprised if they traded RGIII. I told her that was ludicrous because Dan Snyder loves Griffin. She responded "Dan Snyder doesn't have a heart" and walked away.
—Robbie, Severna Park
SG: Dan Snyder … the Football Scrooge! At least we know the answer to the question "What would have happened if James Dolan had bought an NFL team?" I hope Snyder used this picture as his Christmas card this month.
Q: I know you'll get this email about a thousand times, but how long until Mike Shanahan takes upstart quarterback Kirk Cousins with him to that new franchise in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he is given full management control?
SG: Come on, that's an insult to the great Tony D'Amato. I always thought D'Amato's performance in Any Given Sunday mirrored Al Pacino's performance at that specific point of his career — one last hurrah, one last moment when his career meant something, only he could take a flawed movie-team so far. And he was never really the same afterward. Pacino released S1m0ne, and D'Amato probably went 12-36 in Albuquerque and got canned. In Shanahan's case, he squandered his Albuquerque chances by botching this Redskins tenure. Especially the end. His version of the "Inches" speech would have been a little different.
On this team, we fight for that extra few million dollars in paychecks that we don't deserve. On this team, we tear ourselves, and everyone around us, to pieces for that extra few million. We CLAW with our fingernails for that extra few million. Cause we know when we add up those millions, that's gonna make the difference between WINNING AND LOSING! Between LIVING AND DYING! I'll tell you this — in any public feud, it's the guy who is willing to die and/or humiliate himself for that extra few million who is gonna win that money …
Q: Listen I get Cleveland fans bitching about how God hates their city and teams. But I think a case could be made that the Cowboys are the most heartbreaking team since 1996.
SG: You mean, a case to get someone from Cleveland, Buffalo or Minnesota to punch you in the face?
Q: I've been a Cowboys fan living in Boston my entire life. Everyday I just wish the Cowboys could make the same decisions as the Patriots. This is the worst torture any human can endure. It kills me Bill. Every day! The worst part? Patriots fans don't heckle me anymore! They don't keep telling me that Romo is the worst QB in the league! The Cowboys have officially reached the sympathy zone (when your team is in such bad shape, that other fans feel bad for you). What are the other sympathy zone teams? I think it's the Browns, Bills and Jaguars. NBA: Bucks, Bucks, Cavs, Bobcats and Bucks. MLB: Royals.
—Nick, Lynn, MA
SG: I love this idea, even though your Vikings omission inadvertently strengthened their Sympathy Zone case because every Vikings fan angrily thought, Hey, what about the Vikings? For the record, I don't think the Cowboys qualify — those three Super Bowls didn't happen THAT long ago, and most football fans root against Jerry Jones and believe he deserves anything that happens to him. The Sympathy Zone comes down to two things. First, if you tell someone you're a fan of Team X and you're embarrassed even as you're saying it, your team qualifies. Second, if the other person instinctively tries to console you, then your team definitely qualifies. Here's the prototypical Sympathy Zone conversation:
Person A: "What's your favorite football team?"
Person B: [Immediately embarrassed.] "Well, I'm from Buffalo, so … "
Person A: "Oh no!"
Person B: "Yeah, I'm a lifelong Bills fan."
Person A: "Sorry, man."
Anyway, I liked your list — the Sacramento Kings and Pittsburgh Pirates definitely graduated from the Sympathy Zone in 2013. And the Lions probably did, too. I would add the Astros, Sabres, Raptors, Maple Leafs and the Indians (so we have all three Cleveland teams). Nick's biggest miss: How did he not include the Cubs? The Cubs are the Beatles of the Sympathy Zone. I ranked them no. 1 on my "Most Tortured Franchise" list three years ago and nothing's changed. As for the no. 1 active player in the Sympathy Zone …
Q: Tony Romo is the most fascinating trainwreck in all of sports. I have never watched a player who could be equally unstoppable and self-destructive in the same game. I am in awe.
—Jeffrey M., Chattanooga, TN
Q: Watching Tony Romo play quarterback is a little like watching the Zapruder film.
—Chad Hughes, Denver
Q: Tony Romo is bad sex.
Q: On a scale of 1 to a giant plate of nachos, how excited are you for the 2017 NFL season when you can bet against a 37-year-old Tony Romo in his first season with the Minnesota Vikings?
SG: A rarely seen crossing-the-streams moment for the Sympathy Zone! I can totally see it. It's destiny that Romo ends up on the Browns, Vikings or Bills — much like Anthony Bennett dating one of the Kardashians, it's the logical final chapter.
Q: Am I the only one who sees the parallel between Dirk and Tony Romo? Both play in Dallas, Dirk played for a bunch of good but not great Mavs teams, had some "choke" moments (missing free throws in '06 finals, '07 Warriors series) before finally pulling it together for one of the most enjoyable playoff runs in recent memory.
SG: Plus, Dirk is German, and many of Romo's worst losses make their viewers feel like they're watching German degradation-porn movies. That's another parallel. The biggest difference: Dirk won an MVP award four years before that title, whereas Romo hasn't come close to winning anything. I just think he needs a new team. You're telling me that if you flipped Romo and Drew Brees these last three years, the Cowboys and Saints would have finished much differently?
Brees: 30-16, 329.4 YPG, 67.4%, 123 TDs, 43 INTs, 12 fumbles, 8.2 YPA, 103.6 rating
Romo: 23-23, 275.8 YPG, 65.3%, 88 TDs, 38 INTs, 17 fumbles, 7.6 YPA, 96.1 rating
Brees went 72-37 with Sean Payton and 7-9 without him; everyone excused the 7-9 by saying, "Well, he didn't have Sean Payton!" Um … since when did Romo have anyone remotely close to Sean Payton??? He's spent the past seven years saddled with Wade Phillips and Jason Garrett, and with Jerry Jones picking his teammates. Doesn't that count for anything? Nobody needs a new team more than Tony Romo. And if we're being honest, Cowboys fans probably need a new QB, too. It's like a bad relationship — too much has happened. Just deal him to Cleveland for Jason Campbell and Cleveland's top-five pick already.
Q: Has anyone touched on the fact that Jason Garrett and Brody from Homeland not only look alike but have striking similarities? Could it be possible that the Maras recruited a young Garrett and injected him in the Dallas organization to destroy the Cowboys?
—Koz, Woodcliff Lake, NJ
SG: And you left out the most obvious parallel, which we're taking over to the footnotes so I don't spoil last Sunday's show for people out there who hate themselves and haven't finished this debacle of a Season 3 yet.1 As for this Dallas-Washington game, I'm predicting a stadium full of Cowboys fans along with a few "SHANAHAN MUST GO!" signs sprinkled in, lots of prolonged camera shots of a depressed RG3, and Romo winning a shootout with Kirk Cousins to set up the NFC East title game against Philly. It has to end this way. Has to.
BILLS (+3) over Dolphins
Q: Have the Dolphins had the most bland ten years in the NFL? I have no significant memories of them over the last 10 years.
SG: You mean, other than the Incognito scandal launching a month-long bullying story that hijacked every TV channel? Let's see … since 2004, the Dolphins are 66-92 and have played just one playoff game (getting killed by the 2008 Ravens). They've had seven different head coaches. Eight different QBs led them in passing, including A.J. Feeley and Cleo Lemon. Their best fantasy guys were Ronnie Brown and Brandon Marshall. Just racking my brain for those 10 years, I have four Dolphins memories — they launched the whole Wildcat trend, they gave up six touchdowns in the first half to the 2007 Pats (the apex of the 18-1 season, hands down), their GM asked Dez Bryant if his mother was a prostitute, and they somehow won 11 games with Chad Pennington's noodle arm. That's pretty bland. I see their playoff push ending this Sunday, in the blandest way possible. This has all the makings of a "Maybe our season sucked again, but at least it was fun when we ruined Miami's playoff chances, so we have that going for us!" feel-good home game for Buffalo. There's a reason they're in the Sympathy Zone. Speaking of sympathy …
Q: The four most chilling words in gambling … "Here comes Billy Zima!"
—Alex Futter, West Lafayette, IN
SG: Billy Zima sank to a new low last week — laying 10½ with Denver over San Diego, hoping to infect the Broncos with my bad mojo. When you're making picks solely to skunk teams you dislike, that's gambling rock bottom. Well, until you pull a Berman and make one game worth 20 games so you can finish .500, which I'll be doing next week in a last-ditch effort to improve my final record. The good news: two more weeks until I redeem myself in the playoffs! You just wait! After Week 17, we're burying Billy Zima and he's never coming back.
Q: Thank-you Bill Simmons and your horrendous NFL picks, for reminding the entire world that gambling is a sin.
—Pastor Craig Hadley, Redlands, CA
SG: In the words of Cliff Poncier, "This negative energy just makes me stronger, we will not retreat!" TWO MORE WEEKS! You just wait!
Q: Well, tonight thank God it's them … instead of youuuuuuuuuuuu!
SG: Thanks, Bono! I needed that. You know what? Let's take a quick break to enjoy the greatest Christmas song ever made. How does it have fewer than 2 million views on YouTube? We live in a world in which Justin Bieber's "Baby" has been viewed 500 times more than "Do They Know It's Christmas?" Bah humbug.
Vikings (+8) over BENGALS
JAGUARS (+4.5) over Titans
Q: Did you know that, if NFL games were 58:43 mins long, the Vikings would be 9-5 and on the verge of a second playoff berth in two years?
—Evan, State College PA
SG: Did you know the Vikes and Jags are a combined 7-5-1 in November and December? Remember when people were joking about Minnesota's disastrous QB situation, or writing mean-spirited columns about how the Jaguars might be the worst NFL team ever? (Oh wait, that was me.) Now they've managed to become not-totally-that-awful. So congratulations! By the way, the no. 2 seed fell into Cincy's lap on Sunday thanks to a practice squad cornerback saving Miami's win over the Patriots, and the Bengals responded by laying a total stink bomb in Pittsburgh on NBC? What does THAT tell you?
Q: You write about coaches' demeanor on the sidelines all the time, and you're always spot on. Isn't it time for The Jim Caldwell All Stars — the coaches with the most uninspiring sideline demeanor that screams confusion and in-over-his-headedness, without actually screaming anything ever. Caldwell, Leslie Frazier, Art Shell. That's your start. Let's go.
SG: I can't believe you picked two Mount Rushmore guys (Caldwell and Shell) and somehow left out Romeo Crennel, the Thomas Jefferson of uninspired sideline demeanors. The rest of the Caldwell All-Stars: Wade Phillips, Raymond Berry, Gary Kubiak, Chris Palmer and my personal favorite, the immortal Rod Rust, who coached the 1990 Pats to a 1-15 record while doubling as a propped-up corpse. My Lack of Sideline Demeanor Mount Rushmore: Caldwell, Shell, Crennel and Rust. And actually, they may have been posing for Mount Rushmore during every minute they coached.
Colts (+7) over CHIEFS
SEAHAWKS (-10.5) over Cardinals
Q: On your BS Report with Sal, you said the Colts could be this year's nobody-believes-in-us playoff team. Is it wrong that as a Colts fan I have been hoping for this outcome for weeks? I wanted them to finish 8-8 followed by everyone writing them off in Round 1. We can still get to 9-7 if we blow these last two games Simmons!
—Bobby, Carmel, IN
SG: The 2010 Seahawks are your blueprint, right? In your dream scenario, you finish 9-7, then the Chiefs waltz into Indy in Round 1 as five-point favorites (à la the Saints in Seattle, when they were giving 10). The game starts, Luck catches fire, the crowd psyches out Alex Smith, Trent Richardson resurrects his career with a Beast Mode run like Marshawn Lynch did, and suddenly you're in Round 2. Remember, nobody believes in the Colts right now. If the Giants fire Tom Coughlin, Indy should hire him as a "consultant" before Round 1.
Anyway, I'm riding the second-year QBs this week — Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson are a combined 43-17 in the regular season right now. Seems like the right move. Speaking of Wilson, did you know he became the fourth QB to throw for 50-plus touchdowns in his first two seasons (along with Peyton Manning, Carson Palmer and Dan Marino), and that Luck needs six more to become the fifth? Did you know Wilson is the first QB to win 23 games in his first two seasons? Did you know Wilson is three more home wins from breaking Danny White's record of 16 consecutive home wins to start a career? Did you know Wilson's .767 winning percentage trails only Tom Brady (.772) as the highest of all active quarterbacks with at least 15 starts? Did you know Jacksonville drafted a punter (at pick no. 70) right before Seattle took Russell Wilson (with pick no. 75)? This entire paragraph is amazing.
Seems like the perfect time to unleash our Sneaky-Good Watch for December: Kirk Cousins's chances to get overpaid … Cordarrelle Patterson's you-better-kick-away-from-me-ness … the length and breadth of Geno Smith's CFL career … Rex Ryan's TV career … Robert Quinn's DPOY chances … Jurrell Casey … Stephen Gostkowski's first-team All-Pro chances during any season that didn't have 2013 Justin Tucker in it … the Gus Bradley era … the Bells of Detroit … Shane Vereen's fantasy stock … Denver's offense producing the no. 1 QB, no. 5 RB, nos. 3,10 and 16 WR, no. 3 TE and no. 4 kicker in fantasy (amazing) … Julian Edelman as Mini-Tron … Kaepernick whenever Crabtree and Davis are playing … this Dr. Z short by NFL Films … Josh Gordon being only 22 years old … Indy's "NOBODY BELIEVES IN US!" potential … any postseason with Phil Rivers in it … the LaDainian Tomlinson era (do you realize he's the last guy to win two rushing titles in a row?) … Eli's chances to become only the 12th QB to throw for 30 picks (five away!).
And one sneaky-good holiday gift: If you're searching for something at the last minute, why not give a loved one an entire year of the Grantland Quarterly? Heck, it can even be someone you just like, or someone you kinda sorta tolerate. They'll be getting Volumes 9 through 12 of our best pieces from the next 12 months, organized in four hardcover books souped up with killer drawings from some of our favorite artists. Isn't that more fun than computer printouts? If you order this weekend and use the promo code FRIDAY, you'll get 15 percent off, as well as a video e-card that alerts your gift recipient. How can you resist? Go to the Grantland Store for more details.
Q: The NFL shop almost let me customize a Seattle 12th-man jersey with "Adderall" as the player name, but stopped it at the last moment. If it wasn't against the terms and conditions and I wasn't a poor student, I'd buy Billy Zima one for Christmas.
—Natalie, Davis, CA
SG: Thanks for thinking of me, Natalie. It's the holiday spirit that counts.
Q: Howdy, my boyfriend loves your blog so much. He watches it religiously, this might be a stretch but I want to ask him to marry me. And I wanted to know if in one of your shows you'll ask for me. It would mean the world to him.
SG: Only states that have legalized marijuana generate emails like this one. But hey, let's give it a whirl: Justine's boyfriend, since you're watching my blog right now, will you accept Justine's marriage proposal and become Mr. Justine?
Q: Your last mailbag mentioned your unwholesome love of poorly produced local commercials starring athletes. Allow me to introduce you to the glory that is Marshawn Lynch: Plumber Extraordinaire.
The best thing about it? Whenever I'm watching a Seahawks game and I need to take a dump, I'm always sure to tell my fiancee "I'll be right back, I'm going to go beast mode on the plumbing."
—David Hasler, Seattle
SG: I loved it! That's the second-best possible match of a Seahawk and a product, only trailing those fake penises that can cheat urine tests. Since we're here, my readers sent me some of their favorite poorly produced commercials, including Pierre Garcon as a pizza delivery guy … Haloti Ngata doing the Risky Business dancing for an ATM fee ad … Jonathan Ogden for Gebco … Richard Sherman inexplicably cackling for a Chevy commercial … Brian Orakpo and Alfred Morris for Eastern Motors … San Antonio's Big 3 being goofy … Dustin Pedroia and Jim Rice for Sullivan Tire … Stevan Ridley awkwardly chest-bumping a Cadillac Norwood boss … and a Cleveland McDonald's commercial built around Braylon Edwards (!), Charlie Frye (!!!) and a running joke about Frye's name (!!!!!!!!).
But two submissions stood out. The first one came from many readers, but we'll let John from Rhode Island explain: "How did you not mention the Eastern Motors commercial? It has everything!! LaVar Arrington looking like he's going to kill someone? Check. A Kevin Jones appearance? Check. Carmelo Anthony, Laveranues Coles, Brendan Haywood, and Clinton Portis? Check. A dancing secretary, a guy doing an awesome phone dance? Check. And on top of it it is catchy as hell. You can turn this into a four-minute song and it would easily make the top 100. Check it out Bill and give it the love it deserves!!"
Tremendous! If you made a wish list for essential elements in a terrible local commercial featuring athletes, bad lip-syncing ranks right at the top. Of course, that Eastern Motors commercial can't hold a candle to Scottie Pippen's Mr. Submarine commercial from the early '90s. I had never seen it before, and as Kevin from Chicago points out, "I don't know what's more awesome — the 12-inch vertical sub, or the mid-court picnic with Scottie, Kim and Cheryl?" The answer, obviously, is both. Click on this clip or I'm never talking to you again.
"This is one six-footer I can't handle one-on-one. Ladies, let's have a party!" If there's a greater moment on YouTube, I haven't found it. We're making Mr. Submarine the Poorly Produced Local Athlete Commercial champion unless somebody can top it.
Steelers (+2.5) over PACKERS
Bucs (+4.5) over RAMS2
Q: If the XFL was brought back right now, wouldn't every defensive player in the NFL sign up? How has nobody tried starting this up yet? The "offensification" of the NFL looks like it has the potential to rip the league apart from the inside out. A serious league competitor with a more defense-oriented approach could make things very interesting.
SG: Vince McMahon definitely missed his window here — if he relaunched the XFL next year by playing up the whole, "Football has gotten too soft, if you want to watch football the way it's meant to be played, watch us," and specifically targeted the testosterone/MMA culture, that would be a pretty fascinating business play. In the New XFL, we don't put dresses on our quarterbacks, we don't let our receivers just run across the middle without fearing the consequences, and we have a bunch of hungry guys who will do anything to stay in this league! Admit it — you'd watch the first weekend of games while hating yourself the entire time. Also, the New XFL would lead to a slew of the most self-righteous and unintentionally funny "Hot Sports Take" columns ever written by anyone not named "Dan Shaughnessy."
Q: It takes like six or seven weeks for a normal human being to recover from a fractured collarbone. It's taken Aaron Rodgers seven weeks and counting. Can you think of better evidence that Aaron Rodgers doesn't use PED's?
—John, Brown Deer, WI
SG: I love that someone from Wisconsin sent me this email. But you could make a solid case that Rodgers should have been selected as SI's Sportsman of the Year for being the first superstar to take a realistic amount of time to recover from an injury in, like, 22 years. If Rodgers played for the Seahawks, he would have been back in 12 days. (Sorry, I had to.)
JETS (-2) over Browns
Q: In Week 14, the Browns announced their sixth starting quarterback change of the season and their 978th since building their stadium on an ancient burial ground in 1999. What is the record for the number of different starting quarterbacks by one team in a single season??? This seems like a record the Browns are destined to own, if they don't already. I couldn't find this on the Internet, so please help, I need to get started on my "Weeden/Hoyer/Weeden/Campbell/Weeden/Campbell/TBA" jersey.
—Jordan, Canton, OH
SG: First of all, I actually wasted time trying to figure out this record and wasn't Internet-savvy enough to do it, only it wasn't important enough for me to enlist a Grantland intern, either. So I guess we'll never know. Second, I would totally buy a "Weeden/Hoyer/Weeden/Campbell/Weeden/Campbell/TBA" Browns jersey if those letters could be crammed on one jersey. Third, the Browns have started the most quarterbacks since 1999: 20 by my calculations. So you have that going for you, Jordan. And fourth, do you realize that Cleveland QBs have thrown for 3,943 yards, 24 TDs and 17 INTs this season??? With two games to go! Those are real stats! If Jasobriandon Campoyereeden were a person, he'd be sixth in the NFL in passing yards and seventh in TDs. This is why Browns fans have been so calm lately.
Q: This is the time of year Browns fans start doing crazy stuff like this.
—Will G., Miami, FL
SG: Whoops, I spoke too soon. Look at the bright side, Browns fans. You might throw for 4,500 yards and 35 TDs with Jasobriandon Campoyereeden. You won the Trent Richardson trade about as convincingly as anyone has ever won a football trade.3 You have two first-rounders next spring, you easily could have finished 8-8 if Brian Hoyer never got injured, you have one of the league's biggest game-breakers (Josh Gordon), you have a smart front office that knows what it's doing, and if you blow these last two games (and I think you will, even if it means running the Wildcat with Brandon Weeden, Fozzy Whittaker and 77-year-old Jim Brown), you might get a top-three pick. I'd say things have never looked better for the 21st-century Browns.
(You know … except for … well … )
Q: After the Pats-Browns game, I realized that saying "God Hates Cleveland" misses the point. It's much more refined and elegant than that. God doesn't just hate Cleveland, he mocks Cleveland. He toys with Cleveland the way a predator toys with its prey. He tortures Cleveland, extracting every bit of fan base hope and optimism before crushing their dreams in the cruelest possible way. Frankly, I take my hat off to God. Hating Cleveland would be so easy. But this kind of soul crushing takes creativity and real effort. Hats off to the Big Guy in the sky.
—Parker, Ross, CA
SG: Fine, so maybe things don't look THAT good for the Browns. But it's not like the Jets are uplifting, right? For what it's worth, I asked Grantland's resident self-hating sports fan Jets fan, Sean Fennessey, whether he'd rather be the Jets or the Browns going forward. The answer? "The Browns, no question. Better picks. Better defense. Better people running the team. Josh Gordon. I'd rather be the Browns." So yeah!!!!!!!!!!! LET'S DO THIS, CLEVELAND!!!!! Come on, laugh at the Jets with me.
Q: The Mark Sanchez and Shonn Greene action figure two pack is 'on sale' for $20 at Toys R Us (a whole $3 off regular price). Should I feel worse for the central warehouse manager at Toys R Us who has run out of space at the warehouse because the Sanchez/Greene toy crates are definitely not going anywhere, or should I pity the young Jets fans who will be getting this gift from their well-intentioned grandmas? Note to Toys R Us — repack the Sanchez figures in two packs with an o-lineman figure as a recreation of the butt fumble and it will sell out faster than Steve Sarkisian.
—Scott, Redmond, VA
SG: Sadly, they DID sell out of that item. You can't find it on their website anymore. Thank god for eBay! That's a solid joke Christmas gift, which got me thinking — couldn't the NFL corner the joke Christmas gift market? Wouldn't a Sanchez Butt Fumble action figure sell like hotcakes? Who wouldn't want to collect the entire set of Jim Caldwell All-Stars? What about a talking Dan Dierdorf triple-negative broadcasting doll? Or a fake courtroom set replete with attorneys, a hearing judge and multiple members of the Seahawks defense appealing a failed drug test? (Sorry, I had to.)
PANTHERS (-3.5) over Saints
Q: So I was making my weekly picks for the work football pool and came to the Carolina-New Orleans game, was having trouble deciding, then asked myself "What would Riverboat Ron do? He'd f---ing go for it, that's what!" So I picked Carolina, but what I really want to know is when Riverboat Ron releases a self-help book for timid people, what's he going to call it? Fourth and 3? Kick Ass with Analytics?
—Cory, Johnstown, PA
SG: First of all, I love your reasoning behind the Panthers pick. I feel the same way. Yes, the Saints are coming off a dreadful loss in St. Louis. Yes, Sean Payton fired his kicker and benched his left tackle, giving the Saints the kick in the ass they need. Yes, all evidence points to the Saints in this one. But it's time to believe in the Panthers. Let's f---ing go for it.
As for your question, self-help books usually have titles that grab you while also spending a little too much time describing the book. An example: Awaken the Giant Within: How to Take Immediate Control of Your Mental, Emotional, Physical and Financial Destiny. Or, Eat That Frog!: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time. Following that model, that means Riverboat Ron's book would have one of the following two titles.
• We're Goin' for It: 25 Ways That Aggressive Football Decision-Making Can Shape Your Life
• Plowing Ahead: How a Football Coach Stopped Thinking Scared, Started Thinking Bold and Changed His Team's Destiny
Broncos (-10.5) over TEXANS
Q: Do you realize that the AAAstros and Texans are on a combined 0-27 streak? And a Bulls fan has the nerve to wonder if they're cursed.
—Jeremy Walker, Beaumont, TX
SG: And that streak is about to climb to 0-28 after Evil Manning tries to finish off the touchdown record so he can take Week 17 off. Hey, do you realize the Rockets are the only Houston team to win a professional sporting event since Sept. 15? The good news …
Q: Of course it's fate that, with two games to play, Evil Manning needs exactly 666 yards to break the record.
—Danny Limb, Knoxville, TN
SG: Nobody believes me! The guy whose jersey number equals 6 + 6 + 6 now needs 666 yards to break Drew Brees's record and you don't think this is weird at all?
Q: Here is the proof that Manning is evil — did you know Coach Fox called him an "Evil Genius?"
—Lance Heuer, Santa Barbara
SG: See? John Fox is trying to warn us! We're filming the real-life Damien Omen movie right now and nobody seems to care!
Q: Check out this story about Peyton Manning responding to wedding invitation — this is pretty cool, right? But to be fair, the lady who sent the invitation should've known Peyton doesn't show up to cold weathered events.
—Trent Chabot, Charlotte, NC
SG: Ten minutes after Trent sent me that email, a chandelier fell on him and killed him instantly.
Q: Like you, I thought it was ridiculous that S.I. named Manning "Sportsman of the Year." But who should've been the pick instead? Weak year right?
—Josh, London (via Conn.)
SG: The problem is that they already wrote the Sportsman of the Year story in early November, when they wrote about David Ortiz, the 2013 Red Sox and the 2013 Boston Marathon. They couldn't run it back. And since there wasn't another logical pick, they went into "let's just pick a decent candidate who's due for a cover story from us," and they landed on Manning while hoping he eventually breaks the touchdown record to justify it.
Personally, I would have picked Tim Duncan. He's one of the eight best basketball players ever, only he needed a final chapter … and last spring was it. His throwback performance in the first half of Game 6 was absolutely unforgettable, and I will never forget seeing Duncan crouched at midcourt in the final minute of Game 7, knowing that he just missed a 3-footer that he'd made for his entire life, and unable to go back in time to fix it. Greatness, competitiveness, leadership, dignity in defeat … I don't know what else is left. The most memorable sports story of 2013 was either (a) the Red Sox winning the World Series seven months after the marathon bombings, or (b) San Antonio coming the closest anyone's ever come to winning an NBA title without actually winning it, then handling the whole thing with class afterward.
So I would have gone with Ortiz or Duncan. You could have even talked me into Ray Allen, since he made the greatest shot in NBA history. Manning would have been my no. 4 pick. Russell Wilson would have been my no. 5 pick. And finishing last … Aaron Hernandez.
Raiders (+10) over CHARGERS
Q: Was just reading your mailbag and had to stop once I saw your list of players with 100 percent approval ratings. You missed someone between Sweetness and Megatron. He is the only player to actually not make me throw up in my mouth when saying I'm a lifelong Raider fan. His name Vincent Edward "BO" Jackson. Please explain your reasoning for leaving him off this list.
—Tom Bucci, Ardsley, NY
SG: Um … I'm an idiot? Does that work? Speaking of idiots, you'd have to be one to lay this many points with the Chargers at home (10-11 over their last 21 games). Don't they blow this specific December game every season, or am I hallucinating that?
Q: I grew up in Cincinnati, OH and we had Shakey's Pizza there. Once we were out with a friend who was on leave from the Marines and he kept picking up shit on the table like a straw or napkin and telling us he had been trained to kill a man with it. He was being a total douche and then he starts messing with this guy's girlfriend at the next table. The guy was being pretty cool but our friend was playing the Marine thing way too much and wouldn't stop hitting on the girl. The other guy's pizza gets to his table and as soon as the waitress leaves he picks the pizza up and dumps it on our friend, who proceeds to scream all the way to the hospital because of the hot sauce and melted cheese that we can't get off of him. We're standing in the ER and one of my friends looks at me and says, "I guess the other guy was trained to kill a man with a Shakey's pizza." It may have a funny name but it makes a formidable weapon …
—Brian Morgan, Oceanside, NY
What a perfect segue to the Shakey's Pizza Watch for December! Here we go: Matt Stafford in bad weather … Denver's secondary … DeMarcus Ware as a game-changing defensive guy … Hakeem Nicks's free-agent offer … Case Keenum's Romo 2.0 potential … Matt McGloin's chances to get overpaid … Percy Harvin's hip, and the Percy Harvin trade in general … Eli's leash with Giants fans … the 2013 Jets draft … Washington's inexplicable burial of Alfred Morris … the Mike Munchak era … the Mike Munchak era a second time … every Cincy punt without Kevin Huber (you know that one's coming back to bite them at some point) … San Diego at home … the Football Gods for taking away Gronk and Honey Badger on the same day … any time the words "interim coach" and "Wade Phillips" are in the same sentence … Pittsburgh's sideline karma … any gambling season when Kellen Clemens, Matt Flynn and Matt Cassel beat possible playoff teams on the same December day … anything and everything involving Jim Schwartz … me for picking the Lions AND throwing them into a three-team tease even with Jim Schwartz prominently involved … me again, because I'm stupid … please, stop me from laying this many points with the Lions … my god, I can't help myself …
LIONS (-9) over Giants
Q: Is it possible that New York has become, at least for now, the worst sports city in America? The Knicks, Nets, Giants, Jets, and Islanders are all below .500; the Rangers are hardly above, and the Yankees didn't do much. The Yankees and Mets had disappointing seasons and it doesn't look that much better for next year either. Hey, at least the Red Bulls are good right? — wait are they? I really don't know.
—Mike, New York
SG: I like where you're going with this! Especially when the Giants are about to lose by 50 points this week. Here's New York's record using the most current standings for each league:
It's a good thing New Jersey is hosting this year's Super Bowl — at least New York can say it came close to a title. Thank you, thank you, I'll be here all week. Sweet Jesus, does this make me happy. Let's celebrate with the best email of the mailbag.
Q: Ron Burgundy's return reminds me of a very important question: which NFL studio crew wins out in an Anchorman style back alley brawl?
—Welshy, Ottawa, ON
YES! YES! YES! I am so ready for this one. In order …
Let's all agree that Fantasy Football Now's crew (Tim Hasselbeck, Matthew Berry and Robert Flores) gets slaughtered within 15 seconds.
Let's cross off NBC (Dan Patrick, Rodney Harrison, Tony Dungy and Bob Costas) and NFL Network (Deion Sanders, Steve Mariucci, Michael Irvin, Marshall Faulk and Rich Eisen) — the opposing crews would just target Harrison and Irvin knowing that nobody else could beat them.
As for CBS, Shannon Sharpe's whoop-ass potential makes that crew mildly interesting, but they're saddled with two QBs who won't want to get hit (Boomer Esiason and Dan Marino), as well as a 56-year-old coach (Bill Cowher) and the nicest guy in sports media (James Brown). That's not nearly enough unless someone makes fun of Marino for never winning a Super Bowl — and even then, it's probably not enough. I'm crossing them off.
So really, it's a two-crew showdown. For Fox, the Howie Long–Michael Strahan combo looks just about unstoppable on paper. Both of those guys are still in shape. Curt Menefee could beat up any other studio host except Chris Berman (a sneaky-gigantic guy). Terry Bradshaw would be the Token Crazy Guy in the brawl — he's the one most likely to gnaw someone's ear off or kill them with a trident. And Jimmy Johnson could deflect anything with his hair. That's a great quintet: size, speed, craziness and hair. Meanwhile, ESPN's six-man crew features two wide receivers (Cris Carter and Keyshawn Johnson) and three guys over the age of 55 (Berman, Mike Ditka and Tom Jackson). So without the sixth guy, we'd be in major, major trouble. But you know who that sixth ESPN guy is? That's right … Mr. Ray Lewis.
(Hold on, I have to watch this YouTube clip 200 times in a row before I keep typing.)
(You know what? Let's move on. Your Anchorman/NFL Crew winners … the Worldwide Leader, ESPN!)
RAVENS (-2) over Patriots
GRANTLAND'S 2013 YEAR IN REVIEW
•The Grantland 2013 Roundtable
•Athletes of the Year
•The Year in Movies
•The Year of Un-Innocence
Q: Am I the only guy who gets really uncomfortable every time Dan Dierdorf calls Rob Gronkowski 'The Gronk'? I can't be the only one, right? Call him Gronk, Gronkowski, Big Robby G … just stop 'The Gronk.' Can you please make this stop? You're our only hope.
—Zach, Boston, MA
SG: Remember the days when Patriots fans had nagging problems like "I wish Dierdorf would stop saying 'The Gronk'"?
Q: How far do you think you have to go back on ancestry.com to find out how T.J. Ward and Bernard Karmell Pollard are related?
—Joey Langone, Long Beach, NY
SG: Too soon. Too. Soon.
Q: The section of your Malcolm Gladwell exchange about enjoying athletes when they're in decline is why the Patriots are far more interesting this year than they were in 2006. Tom Brady is in decline. There. I said it. But it's riveting! Perhaps even more so because he's still not undoubtedly the best ever.
—Tom S., Foxborough, MA
SG: I'm not enjoying this trip to Dr. Simbeau's island anymore.
Q: Justin Tucker's 61-yard game-winner has to be the greatest field goal in NFL history (not including Super Bowls). He just hit 31 in a row, playoff hopes on the line, 61 yards away, A batshit crazy Donkey Kong Suh (spelling?) tearing through the line!!! I'm so excited!!!! I still can't feel my penis!!!!
—Sean M., Finksburg
SG: And undoubtedly the greatest fantasy moment involving a kicker — not just because it happened during the fantasy playoffs, but because he brought up the fantasy thing in his postgame interview. Could you make the case for Tucker being a top-five MVP candidate? He's made 33 straight field goals, multiple game-winners and multiple four-plus field goal games. He has made 16 of 18 kicks from 40 yards or more. He made what has to be the greatest regular-season field goal ever — a 61-yarder on Monday night to keep Baltimore's playoff hopes alive. He also created the field goal cycle on Monday, making field goals in the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s. He passes the Eye Test in this respect: The surest thing in football right now is either (a) Josh Gordon in the open field with nobody in front of him, (b) Jerry Jones picking his nose in a luxury suite, or (c) Tucker nailing any field goal. And if you switched him with any other kicker — even Stephen Gostkowski, who's been terrific — the Ravens are probably three or four games worse.
There's a precedent here: Washington's Mark Moseley winning the MVP during the strike-shortened season in 1982, when he made 20 of 21 field goals for the eventual champs (including multiple game winners). It's one of the weirdest voting choices ever, in any sport, as covered in this 2011 Grantland piece. My take hasn't changed: There wasn't a standout candidate, and Moseley was the last straight-on field goal kicker — and the last ever, as it turned out — during a time in which football fans were feeling xenophobic about all the foreign soccer-style kickers coming into the league. I always felt like that was a "Let's throw a bone to the American dude who kicks straight-on!" vote. Can you blame them? We were under attack!4
Anyway, don't be surprised if Tucker catapults himself into the MVP race on Sunday, if only because these two teams are destined to play a nail-biter — not just because of the excellent history of Ravens-Pats games, but because the 2013 Pats are living out the lost season of ridiculous Friday Night Lights endings that never happened. I fully expect to lose this game on a 65-yard field goal by Tucker that hits the crossbar, bounces straight up, lands again on the crossbar, sits there for three seconds, then slowly rolls over for the winning three points. Damn it all.5
Bears (+3) over EAGLES
Q: While watching the Monday night game and seeing Mike Ditka waiting to be honored, puffing out visible breaths in the cold air, I wondered something: Does Ditka have the most photographed breath of all time?
—Albert Barbieri, Boston
SG: There's no question. Can we add this on Ditka's Wikipedia page ASAP? By the way, here's the weirdest game of the week: If the Cowboys beat Washington, then the NFC East is decided by Week 17's Eagles-Cowboys game (making Week 16 meaningless for Philly). But if the Lions somehow blow the Giants game and the Packers beat Pittsburgh, then the NFC North is decided by Week 17's Packers-Bears game (making Week 16 meaningless for Chicago). Basically, this game is one giant stay-away. I'm taking the points in the All-Offense/No-Defense Bowl to be safe.
Q: I know you're probably getting a mix of email from grateful readers betting against your NFL picks and others poking fun at your current record. I take a third view: I see this lighting a fire in you, making you give proper time to the NFL (cue a montage with lots of highlights and Cheetos), and making the year you go 11-0 in the playoffs.
—Michael S., San Francisco
SG: And Michael didn't even know about this good omen … I met Andy Dufresne this week! HE'S ALIVE!!! (And check out Red — he looks 30 years younger! He has really taken to that Mexican lifestyle in Zihuatanejo.) As far as I'm concerned, my gambling year can be separated into two sections: BD (Before Dufresne) and AD (After Dufresne). It's officially Week 1 AD. Just remember, hope is a good thing, and no good thing ever dies.
Q: Last March Madness myself and 10 of my friends went to Vegas for the opening weekend to indulge in excessive gambling, binge drinking, and far too many cigars. Out of the many storylines from the trip the best may be from an afternoon that we each wore a different jersey from the '92 Dream Team and walked the strip (started at Hooters and ended at Casino Royale). We were missing David Robinson, and Pippen went MIA after a lukewarm blackjack table halfway down the strip. The reaction from strangers was nearly 100 percent positive, although the guy that wore the Laettner jersey took a lot of shit. At CR we got the attention of half the casino from playing a group game of Wheel of Fortune, drank countless $1 Michelob's, mingled with prostitutes, swapped stories with the most BS filled blackjack dealer alive, and drank more Michelob's. Moral of the story? Dreams really do come true in Vegas.
—Brice, Clear Lake, SD
SG: I can't decide if that's the greatest idea I've ever heard, or if we just spiraled into the "Yup, these are my readers" portion of this column.
Q: This new girl just started working in my office and she just bent over to pick up something, and I noticed she was wearing a thong. On a Tuesday. In Philly. In December. She's hot. How am I supposed to focus the rest of the day? I haven't gotten any work done. This should be an allowable excuse to leave work early.
SG: I think we have our answer.
49ERS (-13) over Falcons
Q: Since we have TAINT (Touchdown After INT), FART (Fumble And Return Touchdown), and now PUBES (Punt Blocked, Eventually Scored) I figured it was only fitting to add TITS (Turnover Into Touchdown Scored). I would also like to make a request that we, loyal Simmons fans, use these in our everyday lives. Example: "Player X couldn't get the TAINT but at least the offense got the TITS" or "Thats now two TITS they've converted." As a female writer, we need TITS.
—Rachel, Tampa, FL
SG: It's a full-fledged holiday free fall.
Q: All the attention that the Cialis/Viagra commercials have been getting in your mailbag has me thinking. Why on earth have Bob Seger and the pharmaceutical industry not teamed up to create the single greatest ED commercial ever? "Like a Rock" was practically written to be played in the background of an ED commercial. The whole song works great but particularly at 3:50 into the song until the end. This would be one of the greatest things ever. Please use your connections and make it happen Simmons. Listen for yourself.
—Rob F., Raleigh
SG: All hell has broken loose.
Q: Is there a porn spoof yet about PTI? Like maybe "Pardon the Intercourse" and hosted by Tony Kornholer and Michael Willbone?
—Greg D., Indianapolis
SG: What the hell is happening?????????
Q: Like Larry Sanders, I once found myself at the center of a club brawl. As with the Sanders melee, once the pushing and shoving started, the cocktails were the first casualty and the floor was instantly liquified. Throwing a punch guaranteed losing your feet and going to the ground. One of my buddies made a genius adjustment after picking himself up from a tumble. He reacted to a punch thrown his way by keeping his feet as stationary as possible, covering his head, and getting low. Whoever threw the punch fell immediately and my buddy subsequently kicked him the head. This friend of mine, not a roughneck by any means, put on a performance so prolific we nicknamed him Pele The Destroyer. Good times. The downside is I often lie awake at night wondering how many men he may have killed. Life is about tradeoffs I guess.
—Strobis, Valdez, Alaska
SG: Yup, these are my readers. Happy holidays, everybody.
Last Week: 6-9-1
By: timbersfan, 9:47 AM GMT on December 20, 2013
It's not very easy for an NFL team to find a bargain in free agency. The vast majority of players who would be considered bargains on NFL rosters are guys who are still on their rookie deals, players whose salaries are artificially capped by the CBA. The fluid nature of contracts around the league and the high attrition rate inherent with football also dictate that the few veterans who are bargains don't stay that way for very long. Because contracts are nonguaranteed, teams are more likely to offer an undervalued player a new deal to keep him happy; you almost never see a situation like, say, Evan Longoria playing baseball for pennies on the dollar for six years in Tampa.
Of course, every year there are veterans who succeed and grossly outperform their contracts. They get misjudged by the market because they were injured or previously on a bad team or move to a place where they fit the scheme better, but for one reason or another, they become much more valuable. Today, let's celebrate those players by naming an NFL All-Bargain Team.
To be clear — and I'm going to put this in bold in the hopes of putting the comment fires out before they start to burn — this list does not include players who are on their first professional contracts. That means no Russell Wilson or Robert Quinn or J.J. Watt. Everybody knows those guys are undervalued. I'm also not including players who were rookie free agents who signed with a team after the draft and made their roster, so no Marlon Brown. This list is for veterans who were available to the entire league, either during this offseason or in a recent offseason, and who have delivered far more than their small contracts would suggest. All the contract data for this article comes from Spotrac.
Quarterback: Josh McCown, Chicago
Contract: One year, $865,000
Re-signed by the Bears this offseason after he hit the market, the older McCown brother has been nothing short of a revelation during his time in the stead of an ailing Jay Cutler. After completing 58 percent of his passes, averaging 6.3 yards per attempt, and throwing interceptions once every 25 attempts before this year as a pro, McCown's run as the Chicago starter saw him complete 66.8 percent of his passes while averaging 8.2 yards per attempt and throwing a lone interception in 220 attempts. It's likely the hottest stretch of his life — the proverbial pinch hitter who hits .400 in 150 at-bats after the starter gets hurt — but he's been a lifesaver for the Bears. As a free agent, he'll have the option to stay with the Bears (where he would likely receive a hefty raise) or pursue an opportunity with a quarterback-needy team.
Running Back: Danny Woodhead, San Diego
Contract: Two years, $3.5 million
Left out of the Patriots' plans after the emergence of Shane Vereen as their receiving back, Woodhead has been part of the league's most underrated running back platoon alongside Ryan Mathews this year. He has the third-most receiving yards of any running back in 2013, and his versatility as a willing pass-blocker and capable inside runner makes him an essential player to the Chargers. Even better, his cap hold for 2013 is a mere $1.25 million, rising to $2.25 million next year. He's been one of the best signings in free agency.
Running Back: Rashad Jennings, Oakland
Contract: One year, $630,000
Signed as a low-ceiling backup to the oft-injured Darren McFadden, Jennings's effectiveness as a short-yardage runner and a power back between the tackles has been a surprise. Jennings has averaged 4.6 yards per carry on his 149 attempts, scoring six times, while throwing in a career-high 31 catches. Oakland's goal as a team right now should be to try to find players who can contribute to their next great football team; at 28 and with little tread on the tires, Jennings can still be that guy. Also considered for a spot at running back: Joique Bell.
Wide Receiver: Julian Edelman, New England
Contract: One year, $1 million (including $250,000 in earned incentives)
It seems like Edelman has been with the Patriots forever, and he has, but he actually hit the unrestricted free-agent market this offseason and returned to New England. The only other team that even had him in for a visit was the New York Giants, and they passed on him almost immediately. The Patriots locked him up on a one-year contract and have seen him pay dividends, with Edelman on pace for a 100-catch season. Like Woodhead, Edelman was an afterthought in the New England offense a year ago; now, as the top receiver Tom Brady has left, Edelman is a star.
Wide Receiver: Kris Durham, Detroit
Contract: One year, $555,000
Durham is not exactly setting the world on fire across from Calvin Johnson, but as a guy who has started most of Detroit's games this year as the team's third wideout (or even its second wideout with Nate Burleson and Ryan Broyles out), Durham has been a relative bargain. His 36-476-2 line includes an enormous catch up the sideline during Detroit's furious comeback win over Dallas. Most of the guys outplaying their contracts at wideout are rookies (notably Josh Gordon); the only other candidate who came to mind was Ted Ginn.
Tight End: Dallas Clark, Baltimore
Contract: One year, $1 million
A total afterthought who the Ravens made a desperate play for after Dennis Pitta went down on the opening day of camp, Clark's been a checkdown target for Joe Flacco and a chain-mover on third down. His 31-343-3 line also undersells one of the more surprising facets of Clark's recent history: He has stayed mostly healthy. Clark was a healthy scratch last week in Week 14, but otherwise he has suited up for every game over the past two years.
Tackle: King Dunlap, San Diego
Contract: Two years, $4 million
After a mostly disappointing run in Philadelphia, it was a surprise when the Chargers brought in Dunlap and eventually revealed that they planned on suiting him up as their starting left tackle. Dunlap has missed time with concussions, but when he has played, he has actually been a viable option at the most important position on the offensive line. Part of that is the scheme he's in, but that's still impressive considering Dunlap's cap hit for this year is just $1.8 million.
Tackle: Anthony Collins, Cincinnati
Contract: Two years, $2.8 million
It should tell you something that when the Bengals have had issues with their guards getting injured, they've kicked star tackle Andrew Whitworth inside to guard and brought Collins in off the bench to play left tackle. As Cincinnati's nominal swing tackle and sixth offensive lineman, Collins has the athleticism to protect quarterbacks on the left side; the only thing he lacks is experience, as he has been stuck behind Whitworth. With Whitworth (say that five times fast) moving inside for the remainder of the season and Collins getting an extended look at left tackle through a possible Bengals playoff run during the final year of his deal, it seems likely the Kansas product will get a hefty raise this year in free agency from a team in search of a protector on the blind side.
Guard: Matt Slauson, Chicago
Contract: One year, $815,000
A competent interior lineman with the Jets, Slauson didn't attract much interest from teams once the free-agent market opened. Phil Emery saw an opportunity, and the Bears swooped on Slauson with a one-year deal to play either guard spot. The arrival of Kyle Long in the subsequent month's draft and the end of Gabe Carimi's time in Chicago eventually saw Long start at right guard and Slauson fill in on the left side, where he's been part of football's most improved offensive line.
Guard: Geoff Schwartz, Kansas City
Contract: One year, $700,000
Once a Carolina utility lineman, Schwartz was signed for depth by the rebuilding Chiefs this offseason, but settled in as their sixth offensive lineman and spot starter before working his way into the starting lineup at right guard ahead of Jon Asamoah. He should get a look somewhere this offseason as a starter. Schwartz also has one of the best Twitter accounts of any active player, complete with references to the account for his dog, Oslo Pepperoni.
Center: Manny Ramirez, Denver
Contract: Two years, $1.4 million
Ramirez is the third center the Broncos turned to after J.D. Walton and Dan Koppen went down with long-term injuries. Despite playing a demanding role in front of Peyton Manning, Ramirez has held his own. The Broncos were sufficiently satisfied to give the former Lions lineman a two-year contract extension that will kick in next year. Fernando Velasco, who filled in for the injured Maurkice Pouncey in Pittsburgh with a week's worth of prep work and did an admirable job before going down himself, would also have fit here.
Defensive End: George Selvie, Dallas
Contract: 2 years, $1.4 million
Selvie has cooled off a bit after a stunning start to the season, but he's had an incredible year for a player who looked closer to being out of football than he did to starting for a playoff contender. A college star early in his career at USF before being overshadowed by Jason Pierre-Paul, Selvie went from being projected as a first-round pick after his sophomore season to coming off the board as the 226th overall pick of the Rams in 2010. He was tossed around by some of the worst teams in the league — the Rams, Panthers, Jaguars, and Buccaneers — before the Cowboys signed him this July. With Anthony Spencer hurt, Selvie moved into the lineup as a starter and has accrued seven sacks in 14 games. Even better for the Cowboys, Selvie is signed for one more year at $730,000. Imagine that: a bargain in Dallas!
Defensive End: Shaun Phillips, Denver
Contract: 1 year, $1 million (plus $400,000 in likely-to-be-earned incentives)
My suspicion (and Phillips's claim) is that Phillips might have taken less money than he could have gotten elsewhere to go play in Denver and rebuild his value on a Super Bowl contender, but you can't argue with the production for the price. Phillips has 10 sacks, an interception, two forced fumbles, and five pass knockdowns, which is worth a lot more than $1 million. Jerry Hughes of the Bills would have been in the running here had Buffalo not inherited his rookie contract from Indianapolis.
Defensive Tackle: Terrance Knighton, Denver
Contract: Two years, $4.5 million
Another cast-off signed by the Broncos to replenish their defensive line depth, "Pot Roast" signed to work with his former coach in Jacksonville, Jack Del Rio, and he's been a relatively stout run defender up front. Knighton fits in under Bill Parcells's "Planet Theory": There are a limited number of enormous human beings in the world with legitimate athleticism, so when you find one, acquire him. Knighton is one of those guys.
Linebacker: John Abraham, Arizona
Contract: Two years, $4.6 million
I counted out Abraham on our preseason podcast because he was a backup pass-rusher who had nearly retired during the offseason due to lack of interest. That goes to show what I know. Both starting outside linebackers for the Cardinals suffered season-ending injuries in the same week, which thrust Abraham into the starting lineup, and he hasn't looked back. After not recording any sacks through the first six games of the season, Abraham has now produced 11.5 sacks in his last eight games. That's 2.5 sacks more than anybody else in football. He has now moved into the top 10 in all-time sack leaders, and if he keeps this up, he's going to have a viable argument as a Hall of Famer.
Linebacker: Jerrell Freeman, Indianapolis
Contract: Three years, $1.5 million
This is the first year of the All-Bargain Team, but if I had done a list last season, Freeman might have been the team MVP. Signed out of the CFL after playing his college ball at Division III Mary Hardin-Baylor and failing to make the grade with the Titans, Freeman's been a rock on an otherwise erratic Colts defense. He might be the second-best player on the team after Andrew Luck, which is pretty cool for a player whose cap hit is under $500,000 this year. I get on Colts general manager Ryan Grigson a lot for some of his moves, but it's hard to argue that signing Freeman was anything short of a masterstroke.
Linebacker: Daryl Smith, Baltimore
Contract: One year, $1.1 million
The second-best player on a likely playoff team isn't enough? How about a guy who has filled in for a franchise player and a Hall of Famer on a defending Super Bowl champion and played well enough that nobody grumbles about missing Ray Lewis? Smith languished in the market for months before the Ravens signed him to play inside linebacker, and he's become a key player on the Baltimore defense. Smith makes the play calls and wears the dotted helmet to communicate with defensive coordinator Dean Pees, and his range in coverage means that he's actually playing better than Lewis was last year. Oh, and with Lewis on the Ravens' cap for $3 million in dead money this year, Smith actually makes about one-third of what Lewis "makes" this year. Not a bad deal.
Linebacker: Karlos Dansby, Arizona
Contract: One year, $2.25 million
Another veteran linebacker who had to bide his time on the market before finally signing with the Cardinals, Dansby has played better than any of his replacements have in Miami and done so at a fraction of the cost. He has lined up alongside Daryl Washington to form one of the best one-two punches at inside linebacker in football, and he has played so well that one NFL personnel director told ESPN's Mike Sando earlier this week that Dansby deserved Defensive Player of the Year consideration. I wouldn't go quite that far, but Dansby has delivered far beyond his price tag in the desert this year. Vontaze Burfict, another candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, would fit in here if he weren't on his first contract as an undrafted free agent.
Cornerback: Adam Jones, Cincinnati
Contract: Three years, $5.3 million
Having successfully returned to the league under Marvin Lewis's stewardship in Cincinnati, Jones decided to re-sign with the Bengals this offseason on a three-year deal. He had shown flashes of great play in Tennessee before his legal troubles arose, and while it took him a while to get going again in Cincinnati, he has reemerged as an above-average starting cornerback this year. He has gone from being an afterthought to taking over as the team's top corner with Leon Hall injured, a role he should fill heading into next season.
Cornerback: Captain Munnerlyn, Carolina
Contract: One year, $1.1 million
The Panthers let Munnerlyn hit the free-agent market last offseason before re-signing him to a one-year deal. He was expected to compete for a spot as a slot corner, but with injuries and poor play ahead of him, Munnerlyn has stepped in and become the team's top cornerback. Alongside undrafted free agent Melvin White (who would be on this list if it included rookie UFAs), the Panthers have the cheapest pair of starting cornerbacks in football. They also have the league's fifth-best pass defense. Much of that is the pass rush, but the secondary deserves at least a small amount of credit. Marcus Cooper would be on this team, but he's still on his rookie deal from the 49ers in Kansas City. And Brandon Browner would have been a perennial candidate for this spot in recent years as a CFL refugee, but injuries, erratic play, and his eventual suspension keep him off the list this year.
Safety: Mike Mitchell, Carolina
Contract: 1 year, $725,000
Another member of the Carolina defense appears! Mitchell has filled the Donte Whitner role for the Panthers, as a bruising safety who uses his infamous speed to get in the box and make plays. He has lit up the stat sheet this year, with 2.5 sacks, four interceptions, seven pass deflections, and two forced fumbles. Carolina might not have the cap space to keep him next season, and he's limited in coverage, but Mitchell has gone from nearly out of the league to a starter on a top-five defense.
Safety: Rafael Bush, New Orleans
Contract: 1 year, $555,000
The defense finishes up with Bush, a special teams dynamo who filled in as a starting safety earlier this year with injuries to the back of the Saints secondary. His defensive snaps have gone down as the season has gone along and Roman Harper has returned to the lineup, but Bush showed enough in his early-season stint to see regular reps as a nickel safety somewhere next season.
Using the average annual values of their deals, those 22 players will combine to make just more than $26 million in 2013, which is $4 million less than the $30 million Joe Flacco cleared this year (including his base salary and signing bonus). Of those players, 13 of them — more than half — will become unrestricted free agents after this season, and I suspect they will combine to make much more than $26 million in 2014. In the NFL, bargains aren't bargains for long.
By: timbersfan, 9:45 AM GMT on December 20, 2013
What We Learned: The Grantland 2013 Roundtable
Our experts weigh in on the continued proliferation of advanced stats, the year's most exciting sports moments, and what to look for in 2014
By Grantland Staff on December 19, 2013
As we head into the final days of December, Grantland asked four of its writers — Jonah Keri, Sean McIndoe, Bill Barnwell, and Zach Lowe — to participate in a year-end roundtable discussion with Chris Ryan on the year in sports. We covered some advanced stats, the state of team building, moments of the year, and things to keep an eye on in 2014. Enjoy.
Behind the Numbers: Pitch Framing, SportVU, Corsi, and More
The four of you use advanced statistics to analyze your particular sports. What was a metric that you found especially useful this year?
Jonah Keri: The advance in our ability to measure the effects of pitch framing was a big one. The notion that a catcher could net more strikes for his pitcher (or take strikes away) by the way he positioned his glove and body is something we all intuitively believed, but couldn't properly quantify. Now, we have stat tables that rank catcher runs saved via pitch framing the same way we do for home runs, stolen bases, and strikeouts. We also have writers constructing intelligent essays on the topic to further our understanding of framing and how the best framers are able to hone their abilities.
We still have a long way to go, though. Whenever a new stat floats into our consciousness, we have a tendency to get overexcited about it, because quantifying a skill once thought to be unquantifiable (or at least tough to measure) is pretty cool for those of us who look at baseball (or any sport) in an analytical way. Still, I have a hard time believing that Jose Molina is so good at framing that over a full season he saves about as many runs that way as, say, Todd Helton produced with his bat in his prime. I talked to a bunch of savvy front-office types last week in Orlando, and they felt the same way.
Moreover, framing has become such a dominant part of the conversation in 2013 that we risk overdoing it with that stat and losing sight of other analytical questions that warrant exploration. On catchers alone, I'd love to know how much a great game-caller like Yadier Molina helps his team by doing something as simple as walking out to the mound to calm down Carlos Martinez in a big spot during the playoffs. Are some catchers secretly providing incredible value to their teams because they have great instincts when it comes to pitch sequencing, calling the right pitch at the right time so often that pitchers never shake them off, leading to fewer runs scored by opposing hitters? And while we're here, when will we perfect the technology to start cloning Molinas?
Hey, anything is possible. What about you, Sean? What stat did you find particularly interesting/useful? Was there anything in hockey that had the same kind of effect that pitch framing had in baseball?
Sean McIndoe: Having to follow the baseball guy in an analytics discussion just serves to highlight how far hockey is lagging behind the other sports, and how much of our "advanced" stats aren't really all that advanced. We're probably a good 25 years behind baseball thinking right now, and still having to fight battles with people who think that concepts like "shot attempts" are too complicated.
That's changing, slowly, but we've got a long way to go. There's some good work out there — I've written about the stuff Eric Tulsky and friends are doing on zone entries, and I like the direction that Chris Boyle is taking with his shot quality project — but a lot of the battle right now is still around educating people on some basic concepts.
As for a stat that's over-relied upon, or at least not always very well understood, I'd point to some of the basic possession metrics that come up most often. Over a large enough sample, something like Fenwick Close tells us more about future performance than just about any other stat, including goals for and against. But people seem to want something that correlates to winning perfectly, and that's not how stats work. You hear people saying things like, "Well, this team outshot that team tonight and they still lost, so Fenwick or Corsi must be worthless." That's dumb for a lot of reasons, but old-school types still think they're scoring some sort of takedown with it.
You still hear bad arguments like that in baseball circles, too, but it's rare and usually gets dismissed out of hand as obviously disingenuous. Hockey will get there too someday, but it feels like we've still got a long way to go.
Zach, you've been reporting from the front lines of a pretty huge development in NBA analytics with the popularization of SportVU cameras and data. How has SportVU changed your understanding of the game?
Zach Lowe: We're just so early in the SportVU revolution. Most teams are only figuring out how the system works, and what basic data the company behind the cameras (STATS LLC) can provide. But in reporting my feature on the Raptors' use of the system, it was interesting how emphatically their model of ghost defense suggested that having the right help defenders take an extra step or two toward the basket had a real deterrent effect on scoring — that packing the paint, even in an exaggerated style, is a helpful tactic. "The guy with the ball has to see bodies between himself and the rim," the thought goes.
It will be interesting to see how universal that truism is, especially as the league orients even more dramatically around 3-point shooting. We've also seen some early research arguing that teams should be sending an extra player to the offensive glass instead of worrying so much about transition defense. But that is inconclusive, and the publicly available data so far mostly reinforces what we already know — drives to the basket produce good things, certain players run around more than others, Marc Gasol touches the ball at the elbow, etc. We'll learn more about the bigger questions once teams devote more resources to the cameras, though teams are so secretive that ferreting out the juicy nuggets will be tough. But there's lots to learn about both team-level strategies and individual players.
The NBA is fairly receptive to "advanced metrics" now, though it varies a ton by team, and especially by coaching staff. But "analytics" can mean anything, really. I mean, some "advanced stats" aren't really all that advanced. True shooting percentage includes 3s and free throws. Rebounding rate is a simple percentage. Points per possession is an elementary school–level ratio. Plus/minus is easy, and though the math behind the best adjusted plus/minus settings is very complicated, the general idea is easy to understand. Lineup data is intuitive. Threes are mostly better than long 2s. Duh.
There are still stray scouts, coaches, and team execs who don't like advanced numbers, but they are mostly living in an outdated world and conjuring geeky straw men who love math but don't watch games. There are places where there is almost no synergy between the analytics staff and the GM, or between an analytics-oriented front office and the coaching staff actually controlling the on-court product. Even some open-minded coaches enjoy it only when the numbers support what they already believe.
But the anti-math dinosaurs are on their way out, especially with a new wave of GMs in place.
Determining Value and Building a Team
Bill, let's move on from the advanced stats conversation and talk about team building. I've been especially interested in your work on the construction of the Chiefs and Panthers. Those are two special cases, since both clubs were largely built by GMs who are no longer there (in Scott Pioli and Marty Hurney). Do you feel like, both in those cases and in general, we're a little impatient in our evaluations of NFL front offices?
Bill Barnwell: I think the biggest thing to take away from the sudden turnarounds of the Chiefs and Panthers is just how tiny the NFL season is and how drastically a team's fortunes can change from year to year because of it. Take a 16-game chunk out of any season from baseball, basketball, and hockey, and you're bound to get results that vaguely approximate what you know about the teams over the larger sample that each sport eventually provides, but you'll also end up with the occasional bad team that puts together a hot stretch against an easy schedule, or the great team that struggles mightily because it plays a tough stretch or has some injury issues. That's three weeks in baseball, but it's an entire season in football. I think it does teach you that there has to be some level of patience with the people running football teams, because teams are almost always not as good as their highs and not as bad as their lows. I'm pretty confident that, say, Ozzie Newsome is good, but that's because I've seen him work for a decade.
I don't know that the league's general managers are a particularly progressive bunch. Some are, of course. Others are just guessing. The vast majority of the GMs in football come through the ranks as scouts before eventually becoming general managers, and there's just so much more to being a GM than there is to scouting talent. It's the gap between evaluating players and valuing players. The progressive GMs in the bunch, whether it's with numbers or an acutely trained mind (or, more accurately, both), traverse that gap comfortably. The ones who aren't progressive don't, and even worse, they don't even appear to think to do so.
The biggest trend in building NFL teams this year is that the middle class of veterans is getting squeezed by the salary cap. (I wrote about this at length.) In the half-decade before this most recent CBA, the salary-cap space available to teams spiked by nearly 50 percent before the league became uncapped altogether in 2010. Teams priced in raises for veterans with that space, and virtually every team in football had enough cap space available to do whatever it wanted most offseasons. That was great for veteran free agents.
Now, though, the cap has stopped rising. Since the new CBA was signed, the cap has barely risen. If the reported estimated cap of $126.3 million is true, the amount of money available to teams will have risen just 4.9 percent in three seasons. We're now seeing the league adjust to that changing financial landscape. Veterans due hefty base salaries are being released, and when they hit free agency, they're getting deals that are a fraction of what they were expecting. Teams are simultaneously valuing draft picks more than they ever have, which leads to a rags-and-riches mind-set around the league. That has led to the wild swings from year to year of top-heavy teams like Atlanta, Houston, and even Carolina, who need their stars to be healthy and effective to play great football.
Jonah, I know "value" is something you've written about a lot this year. Your two top lessons from this season were basically the same thing: Be careful how you spend your money. You just got back from the winter meetings; did you feel like, given the success of clubs like the Red Sox, Cardinals, and Pirates, there's a feeling of thriftiness/spending wisely in the air? Are franchises learning these lessons?
Keri: Watching what's happened this winter, I really haven't seen much of that at all. If anything, some of the cash influx — from regional TV deals but now also with every team getting an additional $26 million a year with the new national TV deal that kicks in next year — should probably be spent more aggressively. Granted, this year's free-agent class is a weak one. Still, we've gone from 62 percent of MLB revenue going to salaries a decade ago to just 42 percent today. That's thanks in part to revenue streams simply soaring too fast for salaries to possibly catch up, but also partly due to the whole notion of value/Moneyball/whatever you want to call it.
It's not exactly a revolutionary strategy, but the teams most willing to open their checkbooks without obsessing too much over value stand to gain an edge over the competition. And we're not just talking about the Yankees, Dodgers, and Red Sox throwing their weight around. There's certainly some downside to Robinson Cano's 10-year, $240 million contract. But the Mariners were absolutely drowning in money, Cano was by far the best available player on the market (and one of the 10 best in the game), Seattle hasn't seen relevant baseball in years … why the hell not spend some cash?
Extending the idea beyond the occasional Cano-level free agent, the next logical step is for teams to use their stacks of cash to lock up their best young players to long-term deals. Mike Trout and Bryce Harper won't be easy to sign, given how much they stand to make if they wait. Still, everyone has a price. And whether it's those two young stars, or even less-experienced players like Jose Fernandez, Gerrit Cole, and Wil Myers, the logical way to balance profits with wins might be to make the kids some offers they can't refuse.
Sean, the Blackhawks have won two Stanley Cups in four years. They ate the NHL alive last season and are back for seconds this year. You've written about the way Chicago has built its team before — basically hanging on to its top-tier talent. Is Chicago the first dynasty of the salary-cap era? Is there a Blackhawks model that other clubs can follow? And do you think it's sustainable? What would be the other-sport analogy for these guys?
McIndoe: Chicago's not a dynasty in the traditional sense, but it may be as close as an NHL team can come in the cap era. Teams aren't supposed to have four-year windows like the Blackhawks have managed, and winning twice in that span is impressive.
As for their model, they started off the traditional way: They stunk. Then they were lucky enough to get two generational stars in the draft to build around. But the tricky part was building up the rest of the core around Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, and that's the part that other teams will find tough to imitate. Anyone can bottom out and hope to get a stud with a top pick, but you'll also need to find someone like Duncan Keith in the later rounds or pluck a Patrick Sharp that another team is giving up on too early.
It's hard to compare the NHL to other sports, but if the Blackhawks remind me of any other team it may be someone like the Patriots. They identify their core stars, lock them up, and then are almost pathologically ruthless at cutting bait on anyone else. Remember, this is a team that walked away from its starting goalie after its first Cup win because it thought an arbitrator gave him too much money. They want to be top-heavy with superstars and then supplement that with depth from within. It has worked so far, although the Blackhawks wavered from it a bit this year when they gave big money to guys like Bryan Bickell and even Corey Crawford. That's worth watching.
Favorite Moments of 2013
Zach, I'm curious, with a couple of months of distance, whether you've thought about/revisited the NBA Finals, either the tape or just spending time remembering it. It really was a symphony of great basketball; are there any moments from the Finals, outside the obvious Shuttlesworth and headband-free heroics, that you'll treasure?
Lowe: Tony Parker's crazy game-winning shot in Game 1 stands out beyond the obvious drama of Games 6 and 7, two of the most nail-biting NBA experiences I can recall. Those were two games in which I completely, and accidentally, shed my "coldhearted observer" perspective and just marveled in the experience of those two teams, and all those historically significant players, going so hard for the ultimate prize.
Manu Ginobili's rise from the semi-dead in Game 5, in San Antonio, was exhilarating. It's no secret I love the guy's game, and to watch him struggle for much of that series, including the subsequent two games, was tough. But he responded well to Pop starting him in Game 5, and the crowd just went bananas from the first time he touched the ball. It was the kind of game that made you believe in hokum like "fans lifting players" to a higher level. Maybe it's not hokum? Dwyane Wade coming alive in Game 4, after a dismal first three games, was just as exciting — only without the home crowd element. A proud, proud dude, delivering the daggers in a must-win.
Kawhi Leonard's dunk on Mike Miller was monstrous, and Leonard didn't even flinch in celebration. Stone cold. Tim Duncan's vintage first half in Game 6, and the utter astonishment he felt at missing that bunny late in Game 7. Danny Green in Game 3, just a wave of demoralizing shots. The only thing that takes the series down a half-peg, in historical terms, was that the middle four games were mostly noncompetitive. But the thing that struck me during those games was that the winning team was playing at such a high level that the games remained entertaining. You appreciated the execution, the perfection.
And LeBron, with the season and the Heat legacy perhaps on the line, just putting his head down and going to the rim over and over. Those are the best moments, and we saw another one in the first Miami-Indy matchup of this season — when LeBron arrives in crunch time, realizes the team's normal stuff isn't working, and concludes there is nothing left to do but go full bore at the basket every single time.
Two really wonderful teams that play the right way. Great basketball. I'd take a sequel.
Bill, what was your favorite NFL moment from the past year? The huge momentum swing due to the blackout in the Super Bowl? [Ducks.]
Barnwell: It has to be Chip Kelly's first possession of the regular season, right?
There were more important series, of course, but in terms of just pure entertainment, watching a befuddled Washington team desperately move around while the Eagles sprinted up the field and laid waste to them was incredible. And then, somehow, it ended with Washington scoring on a fumble return for a touchdown, but that was exciting because that meant Kelly got to come back out for another possession. In one series, they made the most exciting offense in the league last year look and feel boring and stodgy. In terms of being wildly entertained and wanting more, nothing topped that.
Sean? Favorite moment on ice?
McIndoe: This year's NHL playoffs were fantastic, featuring plenty of great series and some genuinely astonishing comebacks (one of which I remain too traumatized to talk about). But at the risk of being too obvious, the best moment was the very last one: the Blackhawks' stunning 17-second comeback in Boston to capture the Stanley Cup. It's the reactions that make it. The crowd instantly goes from doing the "Tuuu-kka" chant to horrified screams on the first goal. And Dave Bolland's reaction to the game winner is amazing. I love that he throws his gloves off for no reason. Everyone who's ever played hockey has rehearsed that exact moment in their heads for their entire life, and when it actually arrives for him he genuinely has no idea what to do.
What about on the diamond, Jonah?
Keri: Maybe more than any of the major North American team sports, baseball is very much a regional game. Carlos Beltran building on his reputation as a one-man playoff wrecking crew might've been amazing to watch as a Cardinals fan, but plenty of Cubs fans would've shrugged off his heroics, or worse. Objectively, David Ortiz going from defiant avatar for an entire city at a time of crisis to October planet eater (again) was a phenomenal story, but there are plenty of people who've tired of Boston's success and who would've wished for a different outcome. Still, the Yankees remain the undisputed champs when it comes to vitriol from other fan bases. So when the start of every Yankees series in 2013 turned into a SkyMall presentation for Mariano Rivera, you could forgive some fans for getting a little fed up with the whole spectacle.
But man, if you didn't get choked up — or at least crack a grin — over everything that happened at Rivera's final game at Yankee Stadium, I don't know what to tell you. Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte walking to the mound to go get their dominating and humble teammate of nearly 20 years? Pettitte signaling for the right-hander from the bullpen to replace Rivera? Mo's smile once he realizes what's taking place? The thunderous applause from the capacity crowd? Rivera hugging his two teammates on the mound a beat longer than you expected, crying into their shoulders? Players from both teams exiting their dugouts to give him a standing ovation? Chants of MA-RI-A-NO booming through the stadium, echoing through the Bronx? Rivera carving through the Rays lineup, as he'd done so many hitters before? Then, at game's end, Rivera sitting by himself in the dugout, pondering the final pitch of his Hall of Fame career? And finally, Rivera walking back out to the mound, kneeling, scooping up a handful of dirt, and trudging back to the dugout one last time?
What are some stories or trends we should be watching out for next year?
Lowe: There's a lot of potential transition in the league right now — a lot of moving parts. We get to watch LeBron's quest for a three-peat, and the Heat's approach to the future, with basically the entire team hitting free agency. We could see a pile of midseason trades as bad teams jockey for draft position. The New York teams are not going to just stand pat and accept being awful, though Brooklyn is showing some signs of finding its footing. The Kevin Love talk will get louder if Minnesota hovers around .500 or worse. Memphis is in a tough spot. New Orleans and Detroit have weirdly unbalanced rosters and big-name players who could move. Boston is set up to deal in any direction. Ditto for the Hawks. Oklahoma City has a move to make at some point. Chicago is so depressing, with some interesting avenues to pursue. Cleveland is loaded with trade assets. Sacramento's new ownership has already made two in-season deals.
The league is just really interesting right now, from a transactional standpoint. And every deal teaches us something about how smart NBA people are responding to the new CBA, learning to value players and work the cap. That, plus the SportVU revolution, makes for a fascinating year or so.
Keri: I'll be watching to see how (or if!) teams spend all that new money coming into the sport. With the Yankees apparently hewing to the $189 million luxury tax, the Red Sox exercising prudence, and even the Dodgers making noise about getting younger and more financially flexible, there's an opportunity here for some small- and medium-revenue teams to take the plunge and go all out to try to win the World Series.
We've already talked about the Mariners … what about a team like the Rays? They've won 90-plus games four years in a row, making them one of baseball's three winningest teams over that stretch. But they've also made the World Series just once since '08, and of course never won it all. Even assuming the $100 million contract extension they gave Evan Longoria was an early withdrawal on the sport's new TV money, what's stopping the Rays from, say, hanging on to David Price this season if they don't get a blockbuster offer for him? Or making a splashy acquisition at the trade deadline if they're contending in July? The Royals, the Pirates … there are multiple other quality teams out there, traditionally considered weak sisters on the revenue and payroll side, that could stretch their budgets and give their fan bases legitimate hope for not only a competitive season, but maybe a pennant and a shot at winning it all.
Barnwell: I'll be keeping my eye on the NFL's TV contracts. It seems extremely likely that the NFL will carve out another block of games to sell to networks in its efforts to hit $25 billion in revenue, and I'm intrigued to see where that deal goes. My suspicion is that it could very well be with a nontraditional partner that nobody expects.
McIndoe: If there's a theme to 2014, I suspect it's going to be the continuing collision between hockey's old school and a more modern approach to the game. The schism isn't new — I remember getting a sense of it as a child — but it really feels like we're building toward a real shift in how we think about hockey.
Part of that is the whole advanced stats debate that we've already touched on, but it goes much deeper. I've been following the fighting debate for three decades, and this is the first time I've ever felt like we were really on the verge of a significant change. There's an ongoing debate over what kind of hitting should be allowed, and how safe the game should aspire to be. We spent years arguing about visors and icing and smaller goalie equipment, and this year those changes all finally happened.
Everything that was supposed to be sacred and untouchable is suddenly under fire. This year will even mark the beginning of the end of Hockey Night in Canada, which could also mean that Don Cherry's four-decade reign over Canadian TVs is coming to a close. Meanwhile, the league will keep chugging toward yet another round of expansion, one that will pit old markets like Quebec City and Toronto against new ones like Seattle or even Las Vegas.
It goes without saying that newer isn't always better. You might think this is all long overdue or you might think it signals the end of hockey as we know it. But either way, it's hard to deny that it's happening. Maybe 2014 is the year that the old school retrenches and makes a stand. I can't say I like its odds.
By: timbersfan, 9:33 AM GMT on December 19, 2013
What Really Went Wrong With Robert Griffin III?
By Chris B. Brown on December 18, 2013 3:30 PM ET
DAVID EULITT/KANSAS CITY STAR/MCT VIA GETTY IMAGES
Last week, the Washington Redskins benched quarterback Robert Griffin III. We've heard all sorts of explanations: that Griffin had taken too many hits; that the franchise needed to see what it had in backup Kirk Cousins; that head coach Mike Shanahan was trying to send the message that he's the coach and Griffin merely the player; even that Shanahan was pulling a George Costanza and trying to get fired. There's a kernel of truth in all of those explanations — well, probably not the Constanza theory — but after going back and studying the film from every game of Griffin's last three seasons, I'm certain that Griffin's play was the main reason he didn't suit up Sunday and won't play Washington's final two games.
Despite the torrent of leaks, media reports, and bizarre press conferences, we know very little about how Washington actually came to this decision or about the team's overall future direction. But we know one thing: Griffin will still be Washington's starting quarterback in Week 1 next season. Despite the fact that Griffin hasn't played well, despite the injuries, and despite the dalliance with Cousins, Washington simply has too much invested in Griffin to move on just yet. For now, Griffin's future is still the Redskins' future. But if the quarterback wants to keep his job long term, he must play better. And I think he will.
The D.C. Shutdown
The End of Year 2 for RG3
"There was nothing in the NFL more exciting than watching RG3 at his peak last year, and this year there was nothing more depressing than watching him get throttled every week. I'm so glad it's officially over."
Grantland NFL Podcast
The NFC playoff contenders, and the benching of Robert Griffin III.
—Bill Barnwell and Robert Mays
Is Kirk Cousins the Answer in Washington?
"No franchise in the NFL is fueled by turmoil more consistently than Washington. Even for the fans who have suffered through the agonizing valleys of the Daniel Snyder era, this has been a particularly brutal season."
What the Hell Happened to RG3 and Washington?
"Washington is now 3-8 and done in an NFC East race that hasn't been particularly tough. It's a big fall for a team that won the same division a year ago, but in some ways, it's not an altogether surprising one."
I'm not sure any modern-era quarterback produced a more magical two-year run than Griffin's 2011 and 2012 seasons; and if someone did, it probably didn't span across his last year in college and his rookie NFL season. Griffin followed up his dazzling Heisman-winning season at Baylor with an even more impressive NFL Rookie of the Year campaign, passing for 3,200 yards, posting a 4:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and managing a stellar 102.4 passer rating. Oh, and he also rushed for 815 yards and seven touchdowns while leading the Redskins to the playoffs, doubling their win total from the previous season. But Griffin's two-year run ended in grisly fashion, and the lasting image of his rookie campaign will always be his already injured knee finally giving out as he crumpled helplessly to the turf.
The offseason was filled with promises of Griffin's triumphant return, and while he managed to start the season opener, he was a shade of his former self. It wasn't just his running ability. Everything was off.
Coordinator Kyle Shanahan's offense hasn't done Griffin many favors. Last season, the Washington offense evolved into a dangerous hybrid of the West Coast, the Denver Broncos' stretch running game, the Nevada pistol read-option, and the Baylor spread. With Alfred Morris carrying the load on the ground and Griffin slinging strikes off play-action, Washington was tied for first in the NFL in yards per play. But Griffin's legs were the glue that held these pieces together. Defenses, while also trying to defend more traditional looks, faced the constant threat of Griffin keeping the ball on a read-option, running a bootleg pass, or simply scrambling for a key first down — or touchdown.
But while playing with a diminished Griffin this season, the Redskins seem to have junked most of the Baylor influence and instead alternated erratically between Shanahan's stretch run game, the pistol, and the "bunch" passing plays that NFL defenses have faced for years. The Redskins have been running three disparate offenses that don't add up to one coherent whole.
Washington's disjointed schemes don't entirely absolve Griffin, however. Game plan issues aside, Griffin still missed open receivers, throws, and blitzes this season. I don't remotely buy the notion that Griffin "can't read defenses" or is merely a "one-read quarterback" (whatever that's supposed to mean), as I've seen him locate secondary receivers and I know he understands defensive coverages. Still, one doesn't need to be Peyton Manning to know this isn't how it's supposed to work:
That kind of stare-down throw into coverage wasn't Griffin's biggest issue this season. Griffin's footwork is what really got him off-kilter, though in fairness, this issue likely stemmed from his injuries and lost offseason. While much is rightfully made of a quarterback's vision, a quarterback's footwork is what tells him where his eyes should be in a well-designed passing attack. A quarterback's every step should be tied to his receivers' routes. "His feet are telling him when to move to no. 2 and no. 3” in his passing progression, explained current 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh some years back. Mastering that has been a recurring problem for Griffin since his surgery.
Griffin's footwork not only hurt his reads, it hurt his accuracy. "Body position is absolutely critical," Redskins quarterback coach Matt LaFleur recently told ESPN's John Keim. "If you don’t have good body position, your balance is off and your accuracy will be off. It’s absolutely critical you get your body in correct position to make the correct throw." LaFleur added that, for Griffin, this season has "been a constant work in progress."
It wasn't all bad, however. As you can see in this GIF, there were times this season when Griffin dropped back, manipulated the safeties with his eyes, and hit a secondary receiver.
It's not a question of whether Griffin can do it. It's about consistency. Griffin's inconsistent footwork can't be dismissed, but it is fixable. As LaFleur observed to Keim, it's hard to focus on the fundamentals "when you have so much going on and [are] so focused on the game plan."
There's one area of Griffin's game that truly concerns me, though. And if we believe Mike Shanahan, it was also his biggest worry: Griffin takes too many hits. More accurately, he takes too many big hits. Even more accurately, Griffin, more than any other player I've seen, seems preternaturally gifted at taking the biggest hit imaginable in almost every circumstance. It sounds like hyperbole, but in nearly every game there are three, four, five, and sometimes six or more times that Griffin goes flying as though some Wile E. Coyote explosive detonated in his face.
There are many, many, many, many examples of Griffin getting lit up, either resulting in injury or coming dangerously close. For Griffin, it's partly about the read option, but not entirely. Eagles head coach Chip Kelly has a mnemonic for quarterbacks when they run the ball: "touchdown, first down, get down." The idea is that the quarterback takes what the defense gives him — but absolutely no more.
"If [the quarterback has] open grass and there's nobody in front of you, hopefully you'll run all the way," Kelly explained this summer. "If you can go 60 yards and run it in, God bless you. We're not telling them to hook slide. We're just telling them that when contact is imminent, our guys are not 250-pound bowling balls. They're going to run you over."
Griffin not only gets hit in the pocket and during read-option runs, but he also seems to find new and creative ways to take a beating.
It sounds harsh — and a little ridiculous — to say Griffin can improve as a quarterback by not running into walls or allowing himself to be tossed around like a rag doll when he's trying to throw blocks on reverses, but it's true. Hits like these have a cumulative effect that will diminish Griffin's ability to play quarterback. As Kelly noted, quarterbacks "have to understand the best ability is durability. They have to go out and play the next snap."
Despite all that, I'm still optimistic about Griffin's future. He was one of my favorite all-time pro prospects when he came out of Baylor, and, unless injuries ultimately shorten his career, I still believe he'll be a fantastic NFL quarterback. Inconsistent play is the norm for young quarterbacks, not the exception. It's hard to find a person who doesn't think Andrew Luck will be a star (and I agree), but Luck still had a four-game stretch this season in which he threw two touchdowns compared with five interceptions; Colin Kaepernick appears to be playing better now that he has a more complete set of healthy receivers, but he has delivered some clunkers this year, including a game against the Seahawks in which he averaged negative yards per passing attempt after factoring in sacks and interceptions. And it's only rubbing salt in the wound for Ravens and Giants fans to note that, at least statistically, Griffin's 2013 season rates out better than all but two of Joe Flacco's six seasons, and that it took Eli Manning until his fifth season to have a better passer rating than the one Griffin managed this year — a year pretty much everyone declared "awful."
It's going to be a long offseason for Griffin, particularly since it's essentially already begun. He should feel secure that he's going to be the team's starter moving forward and be able to focus this offseason on becoming a more complete player. In Week 15, Cousins delivered some good and some bad, but finances dictate that Washington remains Griffin's team, at least for now. And while I'd be shocked if Griffin's former college coach, Art Briles, winds up as Washington's next coach, the man who replaces Shanahan will surely have to present Dan Snyder and general manager Bruce Allen with a plan that prominently features Griffin.
Becoming a great NFL quarterback does not require a genius IQ or mastering a secret set of techniques. It requires understanding defenses, possessing the ability to methodically and consistently identify open receivers, and throwing the ball to those receivers decisively and accurately. To paraphrase Warren Buffett, the way one becomes a great quarterback is strikingly simple — but not at all easy.
For the next several months, Griffin should only worry about becoming a better quarterback. Getting the opportunity to do that is all any player can want. In the fall of 2014, we'll find out how much progress Griffin has made.
By: timbersfan, 9:31 AM GMT on December 19, 2013
Xavier Henry's L.A. Story
How a lottery washout resurrected his career on the Lake Show
By Jonathan Abrams on December 18, 2013
Xavier Henry pump-faked and shot the lane. He saw the rim but never his unsuspecting victim. He took flight a step past the free throw line, cocking the ball back in his left hand. Thwack. Henry's spectacular fatality of a dunk over Jeff Withey, the Pelicans' rookie center and a former Kansas teammate, was an instant, unforgettable posterization. And the message was clear: Jump, 7-footers. Or risk the wrath of Xavier Henry jumping over you.
The dunk, during an otherwise quiet November game at Staples Center, garnered so much attention that Henry later texted Withey to check in on him. "He said he was doing all right," said Henry, the Lakers' 6-foot-6 swingman. "It was just one of his 'welcome to the league' moments. He said he learned not to take no charges no more."
But the play reverberated beyond SportsCenter, YouTube, and Withey's soul for those close to Xavier Henry. It meant something. It was a literal leap in the right direction, as Henry attempts to right his career after some lost years. "It's been difficult both physically and mentally for him, his family and me as well, knowing what type of talent he is and the ability and skill he has," said Mark Heusman, a conditioning expert who has worked with Henry since he was in high school. "It's just been difficult to see him struggle through this and not be able to show off what he has."
Henry, who is just 22 years old, was once the prize of a recruiting clash between Kentucky, Kansas, and Memphis. He is a former lottery pick who's in his fourth NBA season with his third NBA team. He is finally making his mark with the Lakers, although his contract is not guaranteed. His career has been hindered by stops and starts, injuries, and acclimating to the rigors of the NBA. He's fighting for his NBA life.
"[That dunk] probably came out of nowhere for people that haven't really seen me play the last few years," Henry said.
That includes just about everyone. Henry is a prime example of how a talented young player can quickly get lost amid the league's shuffle. The Lakers are a patchwork team, having played without Kobe Bryant for the first 19 games of the season, trying to salvage their today in hopes of a better tomorrow. In a deep Western Conference, the team is surprisingly holding steady. Few anticipated this much. Fewer still expected Henry to be one of the reasons why.
It's pronounced ZAH-vee-ay. He was born in Belgium, where Xavier's father, Carl Henry, played professional basketball. The name was taken from one of the team's trainers. "That's how they pronounced the spelling there of Xavier," his mother, Barbara, said. "We thought it was pretty unique."
Henry was always a unique kind of kid. He wanted to jump to the NBA right after his senior prom. "He would have went from high school to pro [if he could have]," Carl Henry said. But the NBA blocked that pipeline after the class of 2005, installing a rule stating that to be eligible for the draft all players must be one year removed from high school.
Xavier Henry debated playing overseas for a season to get around the rule. But no player to that point who tried that had returned to the U.S. with much success. When he settled on attending college, Kansas — the alma mater of both his parents — figured to have the upper hand. But John Calipari knew the family well and served as a Kansas assistant when Xavier's father played for the university. Calipari also had a reputation for annually sending his players to the NBA. So Henry committed to the Memphis Tigers. Then Calipari bolted for Kentucky, and Henry reopened his recruitment. Eventually, he joined Kansas, where he teamed with his brother C.J., a professional baseball washout who decided to return to basketball.
Henry averaged 13.4 points for the Jayhawks in 2009-10, second behind Sherron Collins. That team featured eight future NBA players, including Markieff and Marcus Morris and Thomas Robinson. But after a 33-3 season, they were stunned 69-67 by no. 9 seed Northern Iowa in the second round of the NCAA tournament, a shocking upset. Henry took just six shots in that game. He was gifted, but rarely aggressive, and with a team full of pro prospects, he was never asked to dominate.
JAMIE SQUIRE/GETTY IMAGES
Kansas coach Bill Self met with Henry after the season. Self recommended that he enter the draft. Despite a modest first season, analysts and mock drafts predicted Henry to be a surefire lottery pick. Self was sure that Henry had the body and the maturity to handle the NBA at a young age. C.J. Henry had faced the same decision a few years earlier with baseball. He had been a heavily recruited basketball player and told himself that he would attend college should he slip to the second round of the baseball draft. The Yankees selected him in the first round.
"You take a chance coming back in any sport and not turning professional," C.J. Henry said. "When you do that, I think health is the biggest determining factor."
Injuries sidetracked C.J.'s baseball career. His brother was healthy at Kansas, but Xavier was unsure about whether to declare for the draft or not.
"I was a kid, 18," Xavier said. "I had a lot of fun my freshman year of college. It didn't end the way I wanted it to, of course. I had mixed emotions about coming back and doing better in school and for the team and my coaches and for everybody who supported us. But coach let me know that it was probably the best time."
So Xavier declared with the expectation of becoming a lottery pick. "He enjoyed Kansas, I enjoyed Kansas," Carl Henry said. "It was just time for him to leave. Should he have stayed? He could've stayed another year. We'll never know what would have happened."
Xavier Henry, like most players who depart early, likely would have benefited from a longer college stay. He weighed that risk against his stock falling. Another year would allow professional scouts more time to pick apart his game. Another year would also subject him to the risk of an injury.
"Like a lot of kids, I think he was ready to make a lot of money," Self said. "It's hard to fault anybody when they leave, because everybody chases the American dream. Why shouldn't these kids? Now, could he have stayed another year? Yeah, he could have — then you risk a lot of things. My thing is, if a kid's a lottery pick, then it'd be hard for me as a coach to try and convince him to stay."
AL BELLO/GETTY IMAGES
The Grizzlies selected Henry 12th overall in the 2010 draft, just two picks after Indiana took Paul George.
Lionel Hollins coached Memphis at the time. Hollins is the kind of craggy old-school coach who believes rookies should earn their playing time. Still, he started Henry as a rookie, preferring O.J. Mayo as a spark plug off the bench. Henry showed flashes of promise once the season started, playing team ball and feeding the ever-waiting hands of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol.
Xavier Henry was developing into an NBA player. But all Carl Henry could do was cringe. He wanted his son to shoot more. "If he's wide open and somebody is open closer to the rim, guess what? He's going to pass the basketball to the guy closer to the rim," Carl said. "He's going to do everything the coach tells him to do. And I think that's his biggest downfall. I would have been shooting the ball. The Memphis coach told him, 'We have enough scorers,' but when you're wide open, shouldn't you shoot the ball?"
Carl knows how fleeting an NBA career can be. He played in just 28 games for the Sacramento Kings in 1985-86. "I didn't get to play that much because they had a lot of veterans on that team and we had a new coach that didn't like rookies," he said. "So basically I winded up sitting on the bench. But when I did play, I was not shy about putting the ball up. I'll tell you that."
He played overseas after declining an opportunity to return to the NBA with the San Antonio Spurs. He said he could make more money in Belgium. When his career ended, Carl returned to Oklahoma to become a trainer and his sons' AAU coach. In high school, both Xavier and C.J. "loved to shoot it," said A.D. Burtschi, their coach at Putnam City High School in Oklahoma City. "You noticed I didn't say they both loved to defend? They both loved to shoot it and were great scorers."
But Xavier Henry adapted to playing off the ball at Kansas, picking and choosing his spots to score, a style he tried to develop in Memphis.
"I knew it wasn't going to be easy to always be on the floor with those guys and to be able to play," Henry said. "You have to learn more than just playing for yourself. You have to play for everybody and make everyone else's job easier as they make your job easier."
In the NBA, everyone loves a willing role player. Carl Henry wanted his son to be more aggressive, but said Xavier must walk his own path. "I can't do it from home," Carl Henry said. "He has to go out and play the game."
Then injury struck. Knee problems forced Xavier to miss 34 games in his rookie season. Henry complained of soreness in his right knee in late December. Several tests failed to clarify a specific injury until he was eventually diagnosed with a "sprain." It would be the first in a dizzying string of setbacks.
"Early on, he had a little success," Hollins recalled. "He didn't shoot the ball very well, but he could get to the basket. He tried to defend. He knew where he was supposed to be. He wasn't a long ways off and as time went on, he lost a lot of confidence. And you've got to be on the court and play. If you're injured and can't play, you're not going to develop, period."
Meanwhile, NBA life went on. "Unfortunately, teams don't have all of that time, especially if you're a winning team," Hollins said. "Usually if a guy's not doing it right or if they're hurt all the time, they're looking to move on because it's really a 'who's producing now' league and the developmental part of it is developing players that are going to be able to play."
Hollins inserted Tony Allen into the starting lineup. The tenacious Allen quickly came to personify the city and the team's grit-and-grind image.
"It became sort of a Wally Pipp–Lou Gehrig thing because Tony Allen took his place and went on to become an All-Defensive player," said Chris Wallace, Memphis's general manager.
David Joerger replaced Hollins, who coached the Grizzlies for parts of seven seasons, in June after a 56-26 season. But Hollins — who described Henry as an agreeable, coachable young player — lamented the expectations of young players.
"If you're not contributing and you're not doing what you're supposed to do on the court, the worst thing you can do is give a player time and let him just go out there and make a bunch of mistakes, because it's not deserved," Hollins said. "It's not earned. People think it's a rite of passage to go from high school and college to playing in the pros. You've got to earn it and you've got to not make the mistakes. You've got to be tough. You've got to be aggressive. You've got to do all the things that earn you a right to be on the court."
Ingesting all of that isn't easy for a 19-year-old struggling with injuries for the first time. The Grizzlies qualified for the playoffs in 2010-11 and claimed the franchise's first series win. Memphis hoped to capitalize on that momentum the following season. Then, forward Darrell Arthur suffered a season-ending injury and Zach Randolph missed nearly three months with a knee injury. The losses decimated Memphis's front line. An opportunity presented itself for Henry, but his injury still nagged him. During the lockout, the organization couldn't monitor his progress. So in January 2012, Memphis dealt Henry to the New Orleans Hornets for forward Marreese Speights.
"Xavier became the price of doing business to try and bring Speights back to try to salvage the season," Wallace said. "If we play it patient, we're not making the playoffs and that would have been a real downer and doused the momentum we were building, not just on the floor competitively, but in the efforts to recapture the hearts and minds of our fans."
Henry missed five of the first 11 games of 2012-13 while recovering from an ankle injury. He struggled adapting to New Orleans's defensive scheme. He made a brief D-League appearance.
"I think the toughest thing for [Henry] is that he was at Kansas for only a year before he left early for the draft," Monty Williams, New Orleans's coach, told the Times Picayune in March 2012. "Then he goes to Memphis and is hurt, so he doesn't get the same teaching. Then we have a lockout. That's two years where he hasn't played consistently."
Henry had arthroscopic surgery to repair a lateral meniscus tear in his right knee that summer. New Orleans shifted Henry back and forth between forward and guard the following season. He played erratic minutes in 50 games. Just three injury-wracked years into his professional career, his momentum had been stymied. Suddenly, his career was on the ropes.
The clock that started ticking upon Henry's NBA arrival went off this summer. New Orleans elected to not pick up Henry's option. He had entered the league full of promise. Three years later, he had almost nothing to show for it.
ANDREW D. BERNSTEIN/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES
The Los Angeles Lakers are a hodgepodge of former lottery- and first-round-pick reclamation projects: Jordan Hill, Wesley Johnson, Shawne Williams.
After Dwight Howard left L.A. for Houston over the summer and Kobe Bryant continued his rehabilitation, the Lakers rounded out their roster with one-year contracts to preserve space for next year's free-agent crop. In most situations, a jumble of players on one-year contracts mixed with a team not expected to make the playoffs is a recipe for selfish play. But the Lakers have banded together thanks to the play of Henry, Williams, and Johnson.
"It's keeping faith and believing in yourself," said Mike Conley, Henry's Memphis teammate and a point guard who took a while to find his own footing in the league. "At that point in your career, people are going to say things about you and you've just got to stick to your guns, get better every day, and prove people wrong."
Henry and his cohorts are still trying to carve out their own NBA identities. He sparked the Lakers to an opening-night upset win over the Clippers with 22 points. Earlier this month, he racked up 27 points in a thrilling loss to Portland. His dunk over Withey remains one of the young season's highlights.
"This is his fourth year, which would make it his rookie year [if he stayed in college]," Hollins said. "He's just now playing with aggressiveness and playing with a little more toughness and a purpose that you would expect a player to do. I just think a lot of these kids that are coming out one-and-done, they're so young and definitely immature, both physically and mentally, and not really ready or able to cope with the rigors of playing in the NBA."
Henry can still surprise like he did early in the season. But his minutes are as uneven as his play. (He made one basket in 13 minutes against Detroit, a game before playing 29 and converting nine field goals against Portland.) Bryant's return will clearly siphon away more minutes. He'll need to earn his time. Henry's NBA future is still being written.
"He's had some really good games," said Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni. "He got lost a little bit, but I think he's coming back now. He's feeling a little bit comfortable. He's had a little ups and downs, but he's done real well."
No one can say whether Henry made the right decision in leaving Kansas after one season. Could he have returned for another year, worked on some weaknesses, learned the game, and seen his draft stock skyrocket? Sure. He also could have suffered the same injuries that limited his NBA career while in college and never been drafted in the first place.
"It's just one of those tough life decisions that you have to pick one way or the other," Henry said, "and once you make that decision, you have to live with the consequences no matter what."
By: timbersfan, 9:29 AM GMT on December 19, 2013
Setting the Rams on a Path to Redemption
By Bill Barnwell on December 18, 2013 2:30 PM ET
STREETER LECKA/GETTY IMAGES
There's still a lot of football to be played in 2013, but nobody has a more interesting offseason ahead than the St. Louis Rams. The 6-8 Rams have had a disappointing season, with quarterback Sam Bradford suffering a season-ending injury and top pick Tavon Austin struggling to gain a steady foothold in the offense, but they have much to look forward to in 2014.
That primarily comes as a result of the Robert Griffin III trade the Rams executed with Washington before the 2012 draft. After Griffin's fantastic rookie season, St. Louis was widely panned for making the deal, but with Griffin injured and disappointing for most of 2013, the decision to trade away the second overall pick for a bounty of picks in return now seems like a masterstroke. The last pick St. Louis will receive from that trade is Washington's first-round selection in the 2014 draft, a pick that will be near the top of the opening round. Currently, St. Louis is set to receive the second overall pick from Washington to go along with its own pick, which currently sits at no. 14. Throw those picks in with a young core, led by Defensive Player of the Year candidate Robert Quinn, and the Rams have every reason to believe they can contend in 2014.
Things aren't quite as easy as they seem. The Rams still have a lot of work to do, and there are major holes on their roster that will force them to make tough decisions. What might the Rams do as they head into the 2014 offseason? Here's one path that would seem to make sense:
The Salary Cap
Although the Rams are a relatively young team and have the benefit of all those cheap draft picks from the RG3 trade, they have a number of highly paid players on the roster (notably, defensive stalwarts Chris Long and James Laurinaitis) and have invested heavily in free agency over the past several seasons. As a result, St. Louis's cap situation isn't anywhere near as rosy as you might think. According to Spotrac, the Rams already have $123.6 million committed to the salary cap for 2014, which is expected to fall at $126.3 million. That's without signing any of their pending free agents or fitting salaries for their draft class — with two first-rounders, remember — underneath the cap. If anything, the Rams will need to create space for themselves heading into 2014.
That's possible, but it's going to come with some repercussions, too. The most obvious move the Rams could make is to release Bradford, who has been a microcosm of this team during his time in St. Louis: bursts of promise amid long-running injury woes and disappointing performances. Bradford showed some signs of improvement during his seven-game run at the helm this year, but he remains an extremely conservative passer who seems either unwilling or incapable of taking shots downfield. Put it this way: There are people who think Bradford's an absolute bust, and there are people who think Bradford has the potential to be a viable starter, but I can't think of a single person around the league who ever suggests to me that Bradford is a sure superstar quarterback anymore.
Honestly, for the Rams to justify paying Bradford his going rate, he needs to be a superstar. Because Bradford was a first overall pick under the old collective bargaining agreement, he's in the middle of a massive contract that pays him like he's already one of the best quarterbacks in the league. And 2014 is the first year in which Bradford's contract can be moved without incurring suicidal cap penalties. As an example, if the Rams had cut ties with Bradford before the 2013 season, he would have counted for $23.3 million on their cap, nearly twice his $12.6 million cap hold while on the active roster. That's not moveable.
In 2014, Bradford's cap hit balloons to $17.6 million. With just two years left on his deal, most of Bradford's enormous signing bonus has already been counted for on St. Louis's cap. If the Rans were to cut or trade Bradford, they would only incur $7.2 million of dead money charges on their cap next season. That means that moving on from Bradford would release $10.4 million in cap space for the Rams in 2014 while taking Bradford off the cap altogether for 2015. Given that the Rams will have the second pick in a quarterback-laden draft pool, it's hard to imagine they won't move on from their former top pick and find a better use for that $10 million elsewhere on the roster.
Bradford isn't the only veteran with an outsize contract. Cornerback Cortland Finnegan was a prize signing for the Rams from Tennessee just two offseasons ago, but his tenure in St. Louis has been a disaster. Finnegan has played poorly when on the field and has struggled to stay healthy, with a "thigh" injury (NFL code for a hamstring issue) and then a fractured orbital bone sidelining him for most of 2013.
The Rams will have to pay Finnegan a $3 million roster bonus that is guaranteed for injury this offseason, but they still might want to consider releasing him. Finnegan has a $6 million base salary and will cost $10 million (including that roster bonus) on next year's cap. The Rams could release him early in the offseason and save $4 million on their cap in the process, or they could choose to designate him as a post–June 1 release, which would save them $6 million on next year's cap while pushing $2 million of the dead money from Finnegan's deal onto the 2015 salary cap. It would be tough to swallow the hit on Finnegan's contract after paying the Jeff Fisher favorite a whopping $27 million over two years, but those figures are a sunk cost by now. The release would give the Rams valuable cap space to use on a player who can perform better than Finnegan.
Two offensive linemen could also leave town. The Rams could cut ties with guard Harvey Dahl, who is due $4 million that could be saved in full if the team releases him. They might also opt to dump center Scott Wells, who has played just 19 games in his two seasons with the team while breaking his leg and his foot. Releasing Wells would wipe away a $6.5 million cap hold while placing just $2 million in dead money on St. Louis's 2014 cap. In all, releasing Bradford, Dahl, Finnegan, and Wells would combine to likely save the Rams just less than $25 million in salary-cap space for next year.
The Rams also have several starters/near-starters who will become free agents this offseason. They'll want to at least consider bringing some of them back. The team's biggest unrestricted free agent is offensive lineman Rodger Saffold, who was the team's left tackle before Jake Long came to town. Saffold was disappointed by the move, which took him out of the pay market for left tackles and sent him packing to much cheaper positions. He was expected to play right tackle this year, but a knee injury kept him out at the beginning of the year, and he has actually now shifted inside to play right guard. The Rams will be thin at offensive line if they follow our moves, so signing Saffold to a contract extension and slotting him as a starter at one spot on the offensive line makes sense.
Left guard Chris Williams is a stopgap on a one-year deal, and he probably will not be re-signed. The Rams will also lose linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar, who has had a disappointing year after being suspended for violating the league's PED policy, resulting in his release (and subsequent re-signing) by the Rams. He's probably gone. The only other occasional starter hitting the road would be safety Darian Stewart, who the team will likely let go without much of a fight.
If the Rams make those moves, they will be exceedingly thin on the offensive line and have no quarterback of any note. They would also need two new starting members in their secondary, with the Rams requiring a starter across from Janoris Jenkins at cornerback. Rookie third-rounder T.J. McDonald would probably move into the starting lineup at safety, while fourth-rounder Barrett Jones would compete for playing time at center. The Rams would likely look into the market to find a cornerback to replace Finnegan, at least at a price that won't bust their budget. They could be a landing spot for Tarell Brown, who appears set to leave the 49ers after last year's bonus fiasco after his contract runs out this season.
So, let's say the Rams sign Brown, re-sign Saffold, and renegotiate Wells's contract. They would still have plenty of cap space with which to pay their rookies and consider contract extensions for somebody like Quinn, who will demand one of the highest salaries in the league as an extraordinary young pass-rusher. That leaves them in need of a quarterback, an offensive lineman or two, and an outside linebacker. Hey, what do you know? The Rams will have their pick of those guys at the top of the draft.
There's still plenty of maneuvering to go on between now and draft day in early May, but if things go as planned right now, the Texans would likely take Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater with the first pick of the 2014 draft. That would leave the Rams choosing between four options with the second selection:
Jadeveon Clowney. Clowney would be the consensus second pick if Bridgewater came off the board first (assuming they both enter the draft), and he has once-in-a-generation athleticism, but Clowney plays defensive end, and the one thing the Rams definitely don't need is a defensive end. They are set at end with Quinn and Long manning the starting spots. You could make the argument that the Giants have invested heavily in what seemed like "extra" defensive ends and found them valuable reps by moving them around the defensive formation, but given St. Louis's weaknesses elsewhere, a Clowney selection would be inefficiently using the resources at hand.
Instead, if Clowney is just so good that nobody else looks at the numbers side of the scouting report, the Rams are probably better off trading the pick altogether. Rams fans are likely sick of moving down, but in doing so, the Rams would pick up a first-rounder and some other goodies in the process while selecting a player who has a better fit on their draft board, even with the lower grade.
A Quarterback. It's not clear who the second-best quarterback in the draft is after Bridgewater, but that's what the evaluation process is for. The Rams can ensure they have their pick of the post-Bridgewater quarterbacks to man their team on a relatively small contract. This would be another very reasonable move.
Jake Matthews: A Texas A&M guard who kicked outside to replace Luke Joeckel after the former A&M left tackle was drafted with the second pick in this year's draft by the Jaguars, Matthews is a prototypical left tackle candidate who could bide his time on the right side until Long gets hurt, at which point Matthews would become the team's long-term left tackle. That would also allow them to move Saffold inside on a permanent basis, which would solve one of the problems there.
Anthony Barr: The most intriguing option, to me, is UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr. Scouts have compared Barr to Von Miller in terms of his versatility and ability to impact plays as a pass-rusher. He had 10 sacks as a senior in college — blowing away Clowney's total during his final year at the helm — and here he would slot in on the outside, playing alongside Laurinaitis and Alec Ogletree, who is in the middle of a fine rookie campaign. It would fill the final hole in St. Louis's wildly expensive, ridiculous front seven, but Barr would almost be a luxury item for a team with Quinn and Long already rushing the passer. It's a good problem to have.
The Rams could use their own first-round pick, currently set to fall at no. 14, on a secondary choice. They could opt for a quarterback if they passed on one with the no. 2 pick, or use the second pick to shore up the offensive line. In any case, they have plenty of options.
And Then …
And then, the Rams will have a different look for 2015. They'll have a new quarterback and likely have at least part or all of a new secondary to go along with him. Fisher will almost surely stick around for at least one more year, but rumors suggest he could move on from offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer to try to find somebody who will get more out of the team's two biggest offensive weapons, Austin and Jared Cook.
It might not work. The Rams might get squeezed out of the Bridgewater hunt and end up taking a guy who doesn't immediately play well while Griffin gets better and plays at his previous level. At the very least, the Rams would have a different identity. After years of struggling through the Bradford era, the Rams finally get to find — and define — the next era of St. Louis football.
bs v mg
By: timbersfan, 9:45 AM GMT on December 14, 2013
Gladwell vs. Simmons V
The evolution of celebrity and the PED debate highlight another illuminating email exchange between Malcolm Gladwell and Bill Simmons
By Bill Simmons and Malcolm Gladwell on December 13, 2013
Editor's note: Every so often, Gladwell and Simmons carve out a few days to swap long-winded emails, then those emails are published on the Internet. It has happened in 2006, 2009, 2009 again, and 2012. This week, they did it again because Gladwell claimed he "had a ton of stuff to hit," which really means, "I'm promoting a new book." (The book: David and Goliath, which you can find here and here.) Simmons sent the first email on Tuesday morning.
SIMMONS: Chris Paul just sent one of my favorite tweets ever. Check this out.
Look at everything Chris accomplishes in fewer than 140 characters. He successfully promotes a YouTube video of a commercial costarring his teammate and his adorable young son. He also manages to plug his sponsor's Twitter account, his teammate's Twitter account AND his son's Twitter account. Which brings up the crucial point here … Chris Paul's son has his own commercial and his own Twitter account.
HE'S 4 YEARS OLD!!!!!!!
Well, I couldn't resist Googling him, partly because he's the single cutest kid on the planet. Did you know Little Chris has his own Instagram account with a whopping 132,000 followers? Or that a YouTube clip of Little Chris playing basketball at 14 months has more than 212,000 views? Or that a locker-room clip of Little Chris claiming he beat Grant Hill in H-O-R-S-E has 1.3 million views? Or that a clip of Little Chris imitating Blake Griffin's game face at a postgame press conference has 1.5 million views? What the hell is going on here?
Gladwell — the last time we traded emails for a back-and-forth, we wasted a chunk of time discussing brands and athletes. Did you ever think you'd see an athlete's child evolving into something of a mini-brand? Is Chris using his son to enhance his own brand, or did he just say to himself, "My son is so freaking cute, I need to share him with the rest of mankind"? Why am I secretly rooting for Little Chris to get his own Disney Junior sitcom, or maybe even his own NBA.com digital series? What does this say about sports in 2013? How did we get here? Can you imagine explaining this entire paragraph to someone 20 years ago?
GLADWELL: I think that's exactly right. No part of this makes sense 20 years ago. What no one would have understood in that era is that fame, on any level, could be achieved without effort. Because there's no effort here, right? It's 140 characters and it's a form of collateral celebrity that started because someone shot 20 seconds of random cell phone footage of Chris Paul's son three years ago and put it on YouTube.
SIMMONS: How pissed are Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian? For them to become famous, they had to make homemade sex videos, then pretend they didn't want their costars to leak those sex videos (even though they totally did). It's so much easier now. Also, I guarantee that's the first segue from Chris Paul Jr. to Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian that's ever been written. And hopefully the last.
GLADWELL: Hold on. Paul to Hilton to Kardashian to … Johnny Carson! I just read the new book about him by his lawyer and confidant Henry Bushkin. It's really about what it means to have been a celebrity in the 1960s and 1970s, and reads like something from another century. So Bushkin tells the following story: Carson used to hang out at a bar run called Jilly's, on 52nd Street and Eighth Avenue in Manhattan, which was a big mob hangout. One night, Carson got very drunk and hit on an attractive woman at the bar who turns out, unfortunately, to be the girlfriend of a major Mafia guy.
Carson gets thrown down the stairs and escapes more serious injury only because "Jilly," who is everything the name "Jilly" would suggest, steps in. The mobster then puts a contract on Carson's life, who — terrified — holes up in his apartment and misses three consecutive shows. Desperate, NBC gets in touch with an agent at William Morris known to have an in with the mob, who brokers a deal with Joseph Colombo, the head of the Five Families, in which the contract is lifted in exchange for NBC agreeing to cover the Italian American unity rally on Columbus Day.
SIMMONS: Say no more. I just ordered the book on Amazon.
GLADWELL: Now is this story completely true? God knows. But let's run with it for a moment. First, a side point. Just a few years before, remember, JFK had gotten in trouble because he slept with Judith Exner, who was the girlfriend of the mobster Sam Giancana. Now Carson gets in trouble for hitting on a mobster's girl in a bar. Was this some sort of rite of passage for celebrities back then? And have you ever seen pictures of Sam Giancana and the major mobsters of the Five Families? How on earth did they get the girls?
SIMMONS: That's easy — there weren't enough NBA players, rappers, hip-hop artists and cable-TV stars yet.
GLADWELL: OK. Second, to my point. Think of the sequence here. Carson, one night, hits on a girl. That act, in ascending order, requires the intervention of (a) big Jilly, (b) the most powerful television network on the planet, (c) the agent with the mob account at William Morris, (d) the head of the Five Families and (e) the programming department at the local NBC affiliate. The 1960s and 1970s were the time in recent American history when conspiratorial thinking was at its peak. People assumed back then that there was a lot going on beneath the surface. Can you blame them? There was a lot going on below the surface.
SIMMONS: Maybe that's why the 1970s produced such a memorable slew of paranoid thrillers: The Parallax View, The China Syndrome, The Day of the Dolphin, Marathon Man, Three Days of the Condor, Capricorn One, The Conversation, All the President's Men … it just keeps going and going. I love when America's psyche spills over into a movie epidemic. And thank god, because if that didn't happen, then we never would have had Rocky IV. It's weird to think of Johnny Carson involved in a conspiracy, though.
GLADWELL: And it just not plausible today, is it? There are 4 million Americans with top secret security clearances. How can you make a legitimate cultural argument for the presence of some shadowy secret government when 4 million people are in on the shadowy secret government? But in 1970, the Mafia throws the biggest star on television down the stairs and then puts a contract on him, causing him to lock himself in his apartment for three days and for millions of Americans to be forced to watch live coverage of the Italian American unity rally, and none of that became public. This is tabloid malpractice.
SIMMONS: Wait, it seems like you were inordinately mesmerized by this Carson book. Was it because you didn't realize that he was such a flawed human being? Or were you blown away by how different celebrity culture was in the 1960s and 1970s compared to now?
GLADWELL: Well, it made me think that the average level of celebrity behavior must have been much worse 50 years ago than today. So suppose we channel our inner Nate Silver and come up with a universal celebrity misbehavior metric. We grade each public incident on three dimensions, each measured on a scale of one to 10. First, the stature of the celebrity. Second, the degree of impairment at the time of the accident. And third, the severity of the transgression. Your grade is the sum of those three scores.
SIMMONS: Hold on, hold on — we need to name this thing. And as much as I want to force-feed O.J. into the acronym, I love your "universal celebrity misbehavior" metric because "UCM" is such a strong acronym. I could see Bill James re-releasing Popular Crime just to reassess every famous murder with UCM.
GLADWELL: Why has it taken so long for the Moneyball revolution to come to Hollywood? I don't get it. Because the UCM finally makes it possible for us to make rational judgments about scandals. So, take Tiger Woods's run-in with his wife's 9-iron. As a celebrity, Tiger is a 10. His impairment, a sex addiction, maybe painkillers, and probably alcohol, is also a 10. And I'm going to go out on a limb and say that cheating on your Swedish model wife with so many hookers that she may have believed it was in her best interest to smash the back window of your SUV with a golf club is, at the very least, a nine. That's 29 out of 30. Future generations will now be able to look back on that night and understand that it was the Apollo moon landing of the modern tabloid era. In fact, as much as I like UCM, maybe we should refer to this score as someone's "Woods Number" in honor of the contemporary champion.
To put that 29 in perspective, I think that in the normal course of affairs, it's really, really hard for anyone to score above a 20, for the simple reason that as your celebrity score rises your ability and willingness to max out on the transgression and impairment scales fall. I have no doubt, for example, that, say, Lindsay Lohan or Axl Rose are routinely putting up sevens and eights on transgression and impairment. But they just don't have the stature they used to.
SIMMONS: I love "UCM," but I really, really, really love "Woods Number." When someone accomplishes something so fantastic that it gets named after him or her, that's the holy grail — whether it's the Fosbury Flop, the Mendoza Line, Tommy John Surgery, the Gordie Howe Hat Trick or the Woods Number. I wish there were a way to make it more golf-y, though. Like, Oscar Pistorius was probably a 7 + 5 + 10 for 22 out of a possible 30. Does that mean he finished eight shots over par? You're right, too soon. Regardless, let's all agree that O.J. Simpson accomplished the only perfect 30 Woods Number. Congratulations, Juice.
GLADWELL: There's another element here. We have to give out points for consistency. So Pistorius records an impressive 22. But he's one and done. In fact, his stature score is boosted artificially by his transgression score, which means it ought to have an asterisk, like Brady Anderson's 50–home run season in 1996. Same with Juice. He's a one-hit wonder. But Carson is on another level entirely. At the time of the Jilly's incident, Carson had 17 million nightly viewers, and that's when America had almost 100 million fewer people. He's a 10 in stature. He's clearly wasted, so let's give him seven there, and the head of the Five Families puts a hit on him. That evening is an effortless 27, and the thing the Bushkin book makes clear is that Carson routinely laid down big Woods scores, day in, day out, well into his sixties. One night he gets blind drunk at Chasen's in West Hollywood. He lunges across a table for the throat of another talk show host, Tom Snyder, and heads to a bar (where, in one of those awesome small-world moments, the greeter is a pre-celebrity Richard Simmons). When he gets home, he climbs over the fence at his house as opposed to going through the gate, gets kicked out the next day by his wife and ends up, quite happily, in the arms of his wife's best friend. What is that, a 20? A 21? And that's just Carson on a typical night. I am in awe.
SIMMONS: Don't you think celebrities acted more irresponsibly back then partly because there were fewer checks and balances? No Internet, no camera phones, no TMZ, no Us Weekly,1 no "blind item" gossip sites. And also, we made so many more excuses for poor behavior back then. Think about Ted Kennedy's unfathomable car accident at Chappaquiddick. Leaves a party with a lady who isn't his wife. Drunkenly drives off a bridge. Swims to shore as his passenger dies in the sinking vehicle. Doesn't tell the authorities about the accident until almost 10 HOURS LATER. And somehow, he only ends up with a suspended two-month jail sentence. Did he step down as senator of Massachusetts? No! Did he say "screw it" and run for president in 1980? Yes! Can you imagine if that happened now? By the way, Ted Kennedy makes a great run at the Woods Number there. He's a 10 in stature. He's at least a nine on the "impaired" category since, you know, he drove off a bridge. And leaving the scene of an accident and not telling anyone about it … that might be a 13 out of 10? Did Ted Kennedy get to 30 there? Do you think he's perturbed in the afterlife that you didn't name it the Kennedy Number?
GLADWELL: Chappaquiddick, by the way, happened in the summer of 1969. Carson at Jilly's? Late 1969, early 1970. Is it possible the 1969-70 drinking season was the juiced-ball era of celebrity misbehavior? I mean, you're exactly right. The numbers that were being put up that season are surreal. I think what happens is that public reaction to an individual Woods score is not absolute but relative: It's a function of a score's relationship to the average Woods Number of that era. To someone in 1969, Chappaquiddick is not as big a deal as it would be today because the average American is numbed by the sheer number of public figures turning out sensational performances. It's kind of like John Olerud's 1993 season, when he had a 1.072 OPS and an on-base percentage of .473 — and because that was in the middle of baseball's offensive explosion everyone was, like, ho-hum. We need an AUCMI—an Adjusted Universal Celebrity Misbehavior Index.
SIMMONS: I would argue the juiced-ball era lasts into the late '70s. Check out this 1977 clip of a bombed Ed McMahon slogging his way through a Tonight Show segment as Johnny Carson openly mocks him. Can you imagine if this happened in 2014?
GLADWELL: McMahon was there that night at Chasen's. In all things, even drunkenness, he was Carson's second banana.
SIMMONS: You mentioned being numbed — now I feel like we're numbed the other way. We're so accustomed to celebrities making calculated-for-my-brand decision after calculated-for-my-brand decision that it's disorienting to see them act like normal human beings. Did you catch David Blaine's magic special on ABC? Here's a guy drinking kerosene and ramming needles through his hand, and I was much more riveted by his strategy of performing tricks for celebrities … and inadvertently turning them into actual people. Kanye West came off like a totally normal guy hanging out with his wisecracking buddy who just happened to be Woody Harrelson. Jason Sudeikis came off like a dude trying a little too hard to be funny because he was worried that this magician with creepy powers might steal his hot fiancée. Jamie Foxx came off like a doting dad with a bunch of lively friends. Even Will Smith and Jada Pinkett came off like a totally affectionate couple with two normal kids — in other words, the opposite of anything you'd ever read about them on the Internet.
And the whole time, I was thinking to myself, This is brilliant … these people spend so much time/energy/money presenting whatever persona they're trying to present to the general public, even hiring STAFFS OF PEOPLE to help them perpetuate that persona and protect them from anyone who's threatening it, and little did they know, they just had to invite a magician over to their house to blow their minds with a camera crew rolling. I mean, Tom Cruise had to be furious that Blaine didn't ask him to appear in that special.
GLADWELL: A lot of this discussion of celebrities reminds me of the idea in social psychology called the fundamental attribution error. It's the observation that in explaining other people's behavior we tend to overestimate the importance of things like character or personality and underestimate the role of situation and context. So a woman slips and falls, and we think she's clumsy. But we overlook the fact that she stepped on a banana peel. This is a tendency very deeply rooted in our culture, and I think it has a lot to do with our relationship to celebrity. We're constantly reaching conclusions about what we think celebrities are like, deep down. But in fact the behavior we observe is just a function of the crazy situations celebrities always find themselves in.
I mean, you thought you saw the real Will Smith. But let's not forget that he was in a famous person's house, surrounded by other famous people, watching another very famous person ram a needle through his hand, all the while being filmed for national television. How does either of us know what it means to be "normal" in that situation?
SIMMONS: Speak for yourself.
GLADWELL: By the way, Will Smith being a doting husband is a 10/0/0. That's a good five shots under par.
SIMMONS: Wait, I'm about to get weird. OK, weirder. Kobe's comeback on Sunday night made me realize the difference between "celebrities" vs. "true celebrities." Just about anyone can become a celebrity, as covered earlier — it happens because you're talented, you're related to someone famous, you're in the right place at the right time, you're in the wrong place at the wrong time, or even by total accident.2 Our country is loaded with celebrities, but only a few of them are "true celebrities." And here's what I mean by that. When you achieve celebrity because of actual talent (and not circumstance), then you parlay the "talent + celebrity" formula into ongoing high expectations for future work, that makes you a true celebrity.
Take DiCaprio — terrific actor, super famous, made smart choices, works with quality directors, spent the past 12 years establishing a consistently high level of work. He avoids sell-out roles; you'd never see him starring with Denzel in 2 Guns, or grabbing $5 million to make a 10-minute appearance as Rashida Jones's new boyfriend in Valentine's Day. He keeps to himself, avoids the Us Weekly/talk show circuit, and does a splendid job of making everyone feel like he only values (a) making movies, (b) hanging with his buddies, (c) hitting Lakers games, and (d) banging models. He has The Wolf of Wall Street coming out later this month — if you love movies, it's IMPOSSIBLE not to be excited about that one. This movie catches him at his "true celebrity" apex, basically. It's one of many reasons why Grantland's Wesley Morris believes that Leo will win his first Best Actor award.
Now, compare Leo with Kobe Bryant right now. Ever since the tail end of Clinton's presidency, people attended Lakers games thinking to themselves, I'm seeing Kobe tonight. We don't need to rehash the highs and lows of his career again. But he mattered for 15 solid years, and as recently as last April, you could watch Kobe play in person — with high expectations — and get your money's worth. That made him a "true celebrity."
GLADWELL: Hold on, has anyone ever successfully transitioned from "accidental" celebrity to true celebrity? It must be very hard to make that jump. A generation of manufactured adolescent bands has produced exactly two "true" stars: Beyoncé and Justin Timberlake, and even then think about how hard Timberlake had to work to be treated as a true celebrity. Why? Because as much as we may momentarily embrace the kind of contrived celebrity that comes with a boy band, deep down we don't trust that kind of fame. DiCaprio is different. He earned our respect, and so we were willing to forgive him so much more and stay loyal to him for so much longer. Is that what you are saying about Kobe?
SIMMONS: Absolutely. Timberlake is a nice example — he built up enough "true celebrity" goodwill that everyone gave him a free pass for his acting-driven sabbatical from music, and even last March's disappointing comeback album. (The second disappointing comeback album — not so much.) Back to Kobe — last April, we never ruled out a history-defying comeback from that ruptured Achilles because we knew he'd work harder than anyone to make it back, even if it meant drinking placenta juice, or dipping his injured leg in extraterrestrial semen. What happens? He returns in a record 240 days, followed by everyone bringing their "true celebrity" expectations to Sunday night's Toronto game. We were judging him by his track record, not the reality — that he's a tentative 35-year-old in a young man's sport, someone shaking off a dangerous level of rust, someone who doesn't trust the lower half of his body anymore (and shouldn't). The game starts and Kobe looks a step and a half slower. He can't beat anyone off the dribble. He can't defend anyone. He's missing that same gunslinging bluster that made him special. It's clear within 45 minutes that there's a hellacious amount of rust, and that we need a borderline miracle for Kobe to truly matter on a basketball court again.
At the end of the first half, you might remember Kobe holding the ball for a final shot as the Lakers crowd stood and cheered. You would have thought it was 2006 again. But I was sitting there thinking, I watched this happen with Bird during those final two Celtics years, I watched it with MJ during those two Wizards years, and I'm watching it now — these fans are cheering for a basketball ghost. What happens? Kobe runs the clock down like old-school Kobe, tries to beat DeMar DeRozan off the dribble, does a little spin move in the paint, attempts a turnaround jumper … and DeRozan easily stuffs it. And Lakers fans made the same collective groan that Celtics fans made anytime the same thing happened to Bird in 1991 and 1992.
And yet, some of those Bird games doubled as some of my favorite Bird games. Like his last Boston Garden game: Game 6 against the '92 Cavs, with Bird saddled by a 20-pound back brace and taking heat for hurting Boston's chances. The Celtics planted him at the top of the key and revolved everything around his passing. He barely moved the whole game, but it worked. (Fourteen assists!) And we went f-ing bonkers for four quarters. It was like a religious experience. Giving anyone great a handicap — whether it's old legs, a bad back, a waning voice, diminished reflexes or whatever — can lead to fond memories, too. That's why Ali beating Foreman was so unforgettable. Same for Nicklaus winning the '86 Masters, or a supposedly washed-up Sinatra owning Madison Square Garden in "The Main Event." Same for Bird. And, maybe, same for Kobe right now. Which is why I find this particular comeback so compelling.
GLADWELL: I'd never thought of that before. A good part of our appreciation of great athletes comes from seeing them in decline. What's my favorite golf tournament? It's Tom Watson, at age 59, almost winning the 2009 British Open — and not because, at 59, he turned back the clock but because, at 59, he brilliantly adapted his game to his own physical limitations. What is the most memorable moment of Bobby Orr's career? It's when he was named the MVP of the 1976 Canada Cup even though he could barely walk before or after each game.
SIMMONS: Now here's where you tell me that you never actually watched that performance because you didn't have a TV growing up, but you'll never forget reading about it in Sports Illustrated in some snowed-in library in Ottawa.
GLADWELL: Ottawa? Please. Ottawa was Paris compared to the town where I grew up.
SIMMONS: So even if Kobe is downshifting to a scenario in which 2009 Watson/1976 Orr is his best-case scenario, that's not the worst thing in the world … right? People mistakenly remember MJ's failing with the Wizards run; it's just not true. Even at that advanced age, seeing him in person was unforgettable. We were paying for MJ's gravy train celebrity, not the true celebrity, but it didn't matter. It's the same reason Springsteen and U2 still sell out. It's the same reason why I won't forget being there for Bird's final Garden game, or you'll never forget reading about Orr's 1976 heroics in the basement of a Saskatoon library. And it's the same reason why Kobe's "comeback" can't fail even if he ends up being only 50 percent of his former self. His last few seasons will center on chasing Kareem's scoring record and riding that gravy train. And if we get one throwback performance per month, even better.
GLADWELL: So here's my question: How does this affect the arguments about PEDs? A good part of the reason athletes take drugs, after all, is to arrest that kind of late-career decline. Should this be a part of the anti-doping argument?
As you know, I've had mixed feelings for years about doping. It's not that I'm in favor of it. It's just that I've never found the standard arguments against doping to be particularly compelling. So professional cyclists take EPO because they can rebuild their red blood cell count, in order to step up their training. I'm against "cheating" when it permits people to take shortcuts. But remind me why I would be against something someone takes because they want to train harder?
SIMMONS: Or why blood doping is any different from "loading your body with tons of Toradol" or "getting an especially strong cortisone shot"? I don't know.
GLADWELL: Exactly! Or take the so-called "treatment/enhancement" distinction. The idea here is that there is a big difference between the drug that "treats" some kind of illness or medical disorder and one, on the other hand, that "enhances" some preexisting trait. There is a huge amount of literature on treatment/enhancement among scholars, and with good reason. Your health insurance company relies on this distinction, for example, when it decides what to cover. Open heart surgery is treatment. A nose job, which you pay for yourself, is enhancement. This principle is also at the heart of most anti-doping policies. Treatment is OK. Enhancement is illegal. That's why Tommy John surgery is supposed to be OK. It's treatment: You blow out your ulnar collateral ligament so you get it fixed.
But wait a minute! The tendons we import into a pitcher's elbow through Tommy John surgery are way stronger than the ligaments that were there originally. There's no way Tommy John pitches so well into his early forties without his bionic elbow. Isn't that enhancement?
SIMMONS: An organic 30 for 30 short plug! Thank you!
GLADWELL: Or what about this: There was a great piece in The Atlantic a few years back by the philosopher Carl Elliott on beta blockers, which are the class of drugs used to treat hypertension. It turns out that beta blockers are really good at reducing performance anxiety. Classical musicians and people with a fear of public speaking take them all the time. So should a golfer be allowed to take beta blockers before a major competition? Should a basketball player who gets really nervous at the line be allowed to take beta blockers before a championship game? Are beta blockers treatment or enhancement? Elliott makes the case that they are treatment. He says that they don't improve a performer's skills, but rather they prevent anxiety from "interfering" with their skills. A beta blocker won't turn a bad putter into a great putter. Rather, it will prevent nerves from getting in the way of a golfer performing according to his true ability. Elliott thinks of anxiety like asthma. And we wouldn't prevent a runner from taking asthma medicine, would we?
I find that argument pretty convincing. But once I've conceded that beta blockers are OK, how can I say no to an aging Alex Rodriguez who wants to take testosterone in order to extend his career a few more years? Every day there are commercials on television telling middle-aged men that their falling testosterone is a condition that requires treatment. So why don't we consider A-Rod's desire for more testosterone in the same light as we consider treatment for nerves or asthma, as an attempt to correct a deficiency that interferes with the expression of his talent?
I don't have a good answer to any of those questions. And that's the point. The treatment/enhancement principle sounds really clear and straightforward on paper. But in real life it gets confusing really fast. The only honest position, I think, is to admit that the doping issue is really hard and confusing and that the opinions most of us have on this need to be reevaluated.
SIMMONS: If there's anyone out there who doesn't wonder how NBA stars weigh 265 pounds but have only 3 percent body fat, or ludicrously bulked-up NFL stars retire and magically morph into lean talking heads, or washed-up 35-year-old starting pitchers become expensive 40-year-old free agents again, or tennis players miraculously play grueling five-hour matches at majors without being hospitalized afterward, or aging boxers in their late thirties suddenly knock out opponents that they couldn't come close to knocking out in three previous fights over 36 rounds, then I don't know what to tell you.
The truth is, I don't think people care unless the guys actually get caught. I asked 31 friends by email yesterday, "If you had to guess a percentage from 0 percent to 100 percent, how many NFL players do you think use PEDs in some form right now?" Every respondent had both a college degree and a job. Three even played college football. Here were their answers:
"At least 80" … "65%" … "40% (probably naive)" … "65%" … "30%" … "60%" … "70% — if the Seahawks plane goes down it drops to 55%" … "75%" … "50% — in that sport, HGH use is almost mandatory" … "50%" … "30%" … "70%" … "I would guess 15%, I don't think it's full blown steroids like the '80s" … "88%" … "73% — all linemen and some other positions" … "25%" … "80%" … "At least one-third, wouldn't be surprised if it's as high as 40%" … "65%" … "35%" … "40%, but I would guess 85 percent have experimented with them" … "50%" … "minimum 60% — no question!" … "55% — and honestly, that feels like it might be low" … "25%" … "80%" … "I'd say half" … "66%" … "70%" … "With the caveat I don't even know what a PED is anymore, I'd say 65% are using something to help them heal faster, which feels morally acceptable on just about every human level" … and "I would say 80 percent, roughly — I just don't think people are supposed to look like that."
These were all smart people who LIKE football. None believed football is even close to being clean. You tell me — is it funny or tragic that the League of Denial spent so much time over these past two seasons policing head-hunting and dangerous hits, yet never stops to wonder if these injuries happen because everyone is way too big and way too fast? And why did I agree with the last two guesses in the previous paragraph even though they're in open conflict? I'd say 65% are using something to help them heal faster, which feels morally acceptable on just about every human level and I would say 80 percent, roughly — I just don't think people are supposed to look like that. Yes and yes. Isn't that the basic issue right there? People aren't supposed to look like that … but you can't really blame them.
GLADWELL: All of which brings me back to the point you were making about Bird and Kobe. What you are saying is that a big part of the pleasure of sports lies in watching great athletes apply their genius to physical and psychological constraints. Watching Bird, and the rest of the Celtics, adapt so brilliantly to a bad back is an unforgettable experience. So here is a second, completely different argument against PEDs. They rob the game of that kind of drama. Cyclists take EPO in the Tour de France to prevent themselves from physically breaking down in the last week of the race. But what if we want to see cyclists cope with the physical breakdown that comes in the last week of one of the world's most grueling races? From a fan's perspective, maybe there is as much pleasure from watching athletes cope with physical imperfection as there is from watching the kind of perfection that comes from medical assistance.
I like that argument a lot. But it doesn't make the task of figuring out what to allow and what not to allow any easier. It just turns the PED debates in sports into an even more complicated argument about aesthetics. And is there anything about the owners of professional sports teams in the United States that makes you think them capable of adjudicating complicated aesthetic questions? When was the last time you saw James Dolan reading Aristotle's Ethics?
SIMMONS: OK, so why wouldn't Obama appoint an American sports czar? In theory, this person could deal with the five professional sports leagues (that's right, I included you, MLS!) as well as the PGA Tour, FIFA, ATP/WTA, the Olympic Committee, and whoever the hell runs boxing. (Oh, wait — nobody runs boxing! Our Sports Czar could figure that out, too.) He could teach the NCAA that words like "corrupt" and "hypocritical" are actually detrimental things that should be fixed. He could intervene whenever a dastardly owner is trying to steal a franchise from a city (hello, 2017 Milwaukee Bucks!) or some greedy billionaire is extorting a city to pay for his new arena. He could develop relationships with the five major commissioners, as well as important network executives like John Skipper, David Levy and the guy in charge of Fox Sports Zero Point One. He could create committees to study ACL tears, concussions and staph infections, and he could lead the way in determining whether ANYONE under the age of 15 should play tackle football. And he could handle everything that bothers you — good and bad — about PEDs going forward, maybe even create an all-encompassing policy and state-of-the-art drug testing.
That's a real job, Malcolm. Think how important sports is to American culture, think how far it spreads, think how much money's at stake, and think how much time it consumes.3 Why wouldn't this be its own job? Do you realize how many special czars (or czar-like positions) have been appointed by American presidents over the years? We've had eight AIDS czars, a foreign aid czar, an auto recovery czar, two bank bailout czars, a bird flu czar, a birth control czar (a birth control czar!!!!), two climate czars, a copyright czar, four cyber security czars, nine drug czars, five energy czars, five faith-based czars (WTF???), a food safety czar, a homelessness czar … I mean, here's the list if you want to see everybody. We couldn't have a sports czar? Why not try it?
GLADWELL: It has to happen! Let me give you another argument for the czar, which is that he could finally put the NCAA in its place. I'm actually still angry about the way the NCAA treated Penn State after the Jerry Sandusky scandal. (And by the way, please call it the Jerry Sandusky scandal, not the Joe Paterno scandal. The person who molested young boys was Jerry Sandusky.) Now, I've written, in The New Yorker, about how we falsely assume that catching child molesters is really straightforward, and that anyone who has a child molester in their midst must be guilty of some kind of cover-up.
That's nonsense. The skilled ones, and Jerry Sandusky was very skilled, are consummate con men. So I tend to be a good deal more forgiving of Paterno than most. There's a reason why clinical psychologists receive extensive training, and that's because spotting predatory behavior requires extensive training. (If you doubt this, just spend an afternoon in the library reading the psychological literature on child molesters. It will chill you to the bone. Many go for years without being caught, because child molesters are really good at concealing their crimes.) But let's leave that question aside for a moment and just consider the technical question here.
A former employee of Penn State University is suspected of molesting children. He is arrested and charged by the authorities. The university has a set of internal procedures designed to deal with those kinds of criminal activities, and to apportion responsibility for those school officials who acted negligently. The legal system in the state of Pennsylvania also has a set of laws and procedures, in both the civil and criminal arenas, to deal with crimes of this nature. Both acted. That's the way the system is supposed to work. So what does the NCAA do? It jumps in and levies a series of harsh sanctions against the Penn State football program. Can someone tell me where the NCAA found the authority to do that? The NCAA, in its simplest form, is a cartel designed to exploit amateur arbitrage: That is, to profit on the spread between the cost of minimal-wage athletic labor and the value of television sports contracts. Or something like that. Reasonable minds can differ. What they are not is a body with any standing to weigh in on criminal matters concerning university employees that have already been dealt with by the appropriate authorities — merely because the employee in question happens to have once been connected to a sports program. This is crazy! If a bank discovers that one of its tellers is molesting children, the FDIC doesn't suspend the bank's charter and punish every other employee and customer of the bank! Now, I'm not the only one to think this. I've spoken to lots of legal experts who said exactly the same thing. So why does the NCAA get away with this kind of aggressive over-reaching? Because for some reason, when it comes to many of the bigger questions raised by sports, we all shut down our brains. Bring on the czar! By the way, is anyone still reading at this point?
SIMMONS: More like skimming.
GLADWELL: I'm reminded of the trick the great Michael Kinsley once played, when he was editor of the New Republic. He went to a bookstore in Washington and placed a piece of paper somewhere in the second half of every copy of a then-worthy Washington best seller called Deadly Gambits. The note said: "If you get this far, call me at the following number and I'll send you $20." No one ever did. So: 212-555-1123. Anyone? Anyone?
And while we're at it, can I point out that I agreed to this to promote my new book David and Goliath and we're 7,000 words in and you haven't mentioned it once? I feel like you are pulling a Tom Sawyer on me. The fence is painted, Simmons. Can you please just agree that it is a fine book that would make an ideal Christmas gift?
SIMMONS: I loved the book and thought it would fit perfectly into any stocking. My favorite thing about the book: You devoted an entire chapter to a forward-thinking rich guy who revolutionized youth girls' basketball by full-court pressing for entire games. You leave this chapter thinking, That dude is so smart! What a smart guy! And yet, only a few months after your book came out, this same person — who now owns the Sacramento Kings — thought it would be smart to make a Hail Mary trade for two years and $37 million of Rudy Gay. This is now retroactively the funniest chapter in the history of books. Congratulations, Gladwell.
Speaking of big contracts, when Kobe signed his two-year, $48.5 million extension, many media members (including me) made the overwhelmingly valid point that someone who had just spent the past two years repeatedly saying "I only care about getting a sixth ring" had inadvertently made it much, much, much, MUCH harder to win that sixth ring. (You know, because of the salary cap restrictions, and the inherent flaw in building 40 percent of your team payroll around an aging player coming off a devastating leg injury and playing in his 19th and 20th seasons.) Kobe lashed out at that mind-set by blaming the latest collective bargaining agreement for placing an unfair responsibility on elite players. Nowadays, any star who doesn't sacrifice his own cap figure for more help, like Tim Duncan did in San Antonio, seems selfish.
And as Kobe said, why should HE be the one sacrificing money? Why wouldn't his exceptionally wealthy owners do that? Even in Kobe's waning years, the Lakers still struck an incredible deal for him. Add up his promotional value and merchandising value, his star appeal for season-ticket sales and television ratings, and the reality that the Los Angeles market responds to stars only (and he's one of the biggest). Could you argue he's worth $60 million a year to the Lakers? You realize that the NBA's media-rights deals are about to go through the roof, right? It's a hugely successful league that hinges on the night-to-night appeal of, say, 18 to 20 stars from year to year. And yet the owners shrewdly created a salary structure in which someone like the Mariners' Robinson Cano can get more than twice as much in guaranteed money than NBA superstars.
It's a Jedi Mind Trick, Gladwell. How did they pull this off? And give me an answer that's not just "Billy Hunter is the most incompetent union head in the history of union heads and you'll be able to do a phenomenal 30 for 30 doc about him someday."
GLADWELL: If I'm not mistaken, we had a conversation during the lockout about how the players should have just walked away from the league for good. Kobe, LeBron, Durant and a handful of others could have picked sides, drawn up a 10-team league, rented out some college stadiums and cut a TV deal with some cable channel. Boom. They're off. Now, I'm quite sure that what we were talking about is a good deal more complicated in practice. But at the very least the players should have threatened to go off on their own. I mean, they knew years in advance that the collective bargaining agreement was going to be back on the table. Who walks into a high-stakes negotiation with nothing in their back pocket?
NBA 2.0, incidentally, could have been a great deal more entertaining than NBA 1.0 is — not to mention a whole lot more lucrative for the players. I think we even got to the point where we figured out which billionaire ought to be approached for seed capital. Larry Ellison! Who better? The most competitive man in the world! A man willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars trying to win a regatta.
SIMMONS: Jay Kang and I tried to bait Ellison into this idea in 2011! He didn't bite.
Sports Guy's Week 15 Picks
(Home team in caps)
BRONCOS (-10.5) over Chargers (LOSER!)
Pats (-1) over DOLPHINS
D.C. Daceys (+7) over FALCONS
Bears (-1) over BROWNS
Texans (+6) over COLTS
JAGS (+1) over Bills
Eagles (-6) over VIKINGS
BUCS (+6) over 49ers
Seahawks (-7) over GIANTS
RAIDERS (+5.5) over Chiefs
PANTHERS (-11.5) over Jets
Packers (+7) over COWBOYS
TITANS (+3) over Cards
RAMS (+6.5) over Saints
STEELERS (+2.5) over Bengals LIONS (-6) over Ravens
This Week: 0-1
Last Week: 9-7
GLADWELL: And while we're at it, this would be a fine time to install one of your favorite ideas, which is to restructure an American sports league like British soccer. We could have a basketball league with a first division and a second division, where the worst team every year gets relegated to division two and the best of the rest gets promoted. That creates end-of-the-season drama at both the top and the bottom of the standings. Can you imagine if the Los Angeles Bryants got sent down? Fifty million dollars a year and Kobe's traveling to South Dakota twice a month to play the Rapid City Ray Feltons.
Could something like the L.A. Bryants have happened? Maybe. But the problem is that talented people assume, naively, that the fact of their talent means the world will treat them fairly. The opposite is true. The fact of their talent simply means that there are twice as many parasites lined up to take a cut. There's that incredible moment in Keith Richards's autobiography where he describes going to Chess Records in Chicago in the 1960s and seeing a man on a stepladder, whitewashing the ceiling. It's Muddy Waters. The exact Richards quote is: "I know what the Chess Brothers were bloody well like, if you want to stay on the payroll, get to work."
Then of course, so we can come full circle here, there's Johnny Carson. When Henry Bushkin took over as his lawyer, he discovered that Carson was making a pittance: NBC was deferring the bulk of his contract, and Carson's end of the management company used to handle his endorsements was owned not by Carson but by Carson's manager, who was also taking a 20 percent cut of Carson's salary and sticking Carson with the bill for a fancy office in midtown. And who was Carson's manager? Sonny Werblin, one of the owners of the Jets and the chairman of Madison Square Garden. Why am I not surprised by that? The avarice of the modern sports owner goes back a very long way.
SIMMONS: You just described why Kobe grabbed that $48 million. He noticed when Oklahoma City made sure it locked down Durant and Westbrook to long-term extensions before trading their buddy Harden. He noticed when the Kings sold for $75 million more in 2013 than the Warriors fetched in 2010. He noticed that owners nearly shut down a season to put themselves into a much more lucrative place; meanwhile, salaries for NBA stars are drifting the other way. He noticed that the last CBA ended up being such a coup for owners that Golden State's franchise value jumped by THREE HUNDRED AND FIFTY MILLION in three years. He noticed that the league is growing exponentially in countries like China and India. He noticed that the league will be juggling 10-figure offers for its media-rights package soon, and he definitely noticed a waiting list of billionaires trying to buy into the league. Now you're asking him to take a 250 percent pay cut so the Lakers allegedly have a better chance to win … when they could sell that team tomorrow for something like $1.5 billion? No thanks.
And I'm torn on this one, Gladwell. I love Duncan for telling the Spurs, I'll take way less than my market value to stay here ($10 million per year, to be exact) because I want to make sure we keep winning. And I'm fully aware that Kobe came off like a hypocrite for publicly playing up that self-serving I'm all about Ring No. 6 rhetoric when it was really I'm all about Ring No. 6 … as long as I'm getting paid a shitload of money, too. But would alpha dogs like Jordan and Bird have wanted any part of a massive pay cut for some ambiguous greater good? Would Carson and Letterman have gone for it? What about Hanks or DiCaprio? Isn't that part of being a superstar — getting paid like one? What if Duncan is a trusting sap who got bamboozled by his front office and his wealthy owner? And what if Kobe's defiance was one of our only honest sports moments lately? He couldn't stop himself from saying how he felt, which was basically, Wait, these guys are RAKING IN MONEY! Why should I be the one taking a pay cut????
You know why I believe Kobe is right? Find me an NBA team for sale right now. Four years ago, you could have seriously pursued one-third of the league. Right now? Crickets. You couldn't get a franchise if you tried. The Chris Hansen–Steve Ballmer group in Seattle is doing everything short of slipping Rohypnol into people's drinks at the NBA owner meetings and they can't find a team. They'll overpay by $300 million. Doesn't matter. It's a 30-house beach and nobody's moving right now. The rich get richer, like always. Kobe may have screwed up any chance for his sixth ring, but I appreciated the point he proved. I don't know if it was David pulling one over on Goliath, but it was definitely something.
By: timbersfan, 6:19 AM GMT on December 13, 2013
Premier League Pass & Move: Human Sacrifice! Dogs and Cats, Living Together!
By Grantland Staff on December 9, 2013 3:30 PM ET
ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
What Is Even Happening?
Chris Ryan: December is not April, as Everton manager Roberto Martinez and Newcastle boss Alan Pardew made sure to mention over the weekend. Big results against Arsenal and Manchester United saw the Everton and Newcastle managers answering questions about their respective clubs' Champions League qualification chances.
December is not April. But it's not October, either.
This is the Premweird League this year. Take off your seat belt and turn into the spin. When Arsenal and Everton play one of the matches of the year, a 1-1 draw at the Emirates, and the result has serious implications for the title chase and Champions League places, then you know something is happening in the league. For different reasons and to varying extremes, Chelsea, City, and United are all having trouble getting out of bed in the morning. Personally, I don't really care who builds their teams like a Kenny Powers–Rick Ross GIF ...
I'm just happy to see a couple of new teams, and a new class of players, at the top of the table. Going into the Christmas rush of matches (it's almost Boxing Day, guys!), we should all consider ourselves on Santa's nice list, since we will be getting Ross Barkley, Gerard Deulofeu, Mesut Ozil, Aaron Ramsey, Jesus Navas, and, apparently, Dani Osvaldo under our tree ...
It's so exciting to watch these guys play like world-beaters every week; it's such a pleasant experience to watch City and Chelsea and not have the result be a foregone conclusion; it's awesome to see Southampton, West Brom, and Everton taking out "top four" teams and challenging for their places at the table; and, regardless of your allegiances, it's just nice to see Arsenal and Liverpool getting in the title race mix and it will be fascinating to watch them play the likes of City, Chelsea, Newcastle, and Tottenham over the next few weeks. The best part? You know there are more twists and turns coming: Tottenham could start putting together a run, maybe once Christian Eriksen comes back; United could make a Moyse-ian, second-half push; and I don't know about you, but I think that's Marouane Chamakh's music they're playing!
Chelsea in Trouble
Mike L. Goodman: Jose Mourinho, as he frequently does, summed it up best. "I don't feel comfortable enough to tell you what I think about the game. We're in trouble. It is a concern [conceding so many goals]. I don't like it, I don't organize my teams to be like this."
What’s particularly amazing about the amount of goals his team has conceded is that Chelsea haven’t experienced any of the hallmarks of a club suffering from a defensive crisis. In fact, over the last two games, they’ve given up a grand total of six shots on target.
Those six just all happened to go in the net. On the other hand, let’s look at a team like Tottenham Hotspur, who also played two games on the road against bottom-dwelling opponents. Unlike Chelsea, they won both games (against Fulham and Sunderland), but gave up only two goals in the process.
That’s 10 shots on target and only two goals conceded. And those are the numbers behind the patching up of a leaking Spurs ship.
So, either Chelsea have played the last couple of games under a cloud of some bad luck, or Petr Cech has suddenly forgotten how to walk.
In the interest of fairness to Cech and his ambulatory ability, it’s worth pointing out that four of the six goals he’s conceded have been from set pieces, where ideally you’d like your defenders to clear the ball before the team has a shot on target, and when they don’t there’s often nothing a goaltender can do. And the other two? Well, first was this from Stephen Ireland.
And then this from Oussama Assaidi.
(GIFs via @FeintZebra)
If you give up only two shots on target from open play, and they happen to be those two beauties, then Mourinho’s right, you are in trouble. Luckily for Chelsea, that’s unlikely to be the case on a regular basis.
Joe Allen Forever
Ryan O'Hanlon: Last night, the Daily Mail reported that Steven Gerrard is facing six weeks on the sidelines after suffering a possibly pulled hamstring in Saturday’s 4-1 win over West Ham — and the Liverpool fan writing this didn’t once consider locking himself in a closet, safe from more bad news in the void of hanging sweaters and darkness.
To be clear: Steven Gerrard is a god.
He’s also still a very good soccer player, despite being 33 years old. But as is always the question when athletes age: Will he change his game to fit his deteriorating body? It wasn’t clear, initially, with Liverpool’s captain. He was always at his most dominant when running, shooting, passing, and tackling (well, maybe not tackling) as hard as he possibly could. The defining characteristic of the in-his-prime Gerrard was how big everything he did was; the field almost didn’t seem to fit all the things he made happen. But when your body won’t work as well anymore, it needs to get smaller. After playing more than 30 total games for his club every season since 1999, Gerrard played only 39 EPL games over the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons, combined. There was even a very brief period when it looked like the team was better off with Lucas and Charlie Adam (who is 27!) as its midfield pairing. Then the club hired Brendan Rodgers, whose quick, short-passing style seemed ill-fitted to the aging Stevie. So, as logic would suggest, he became a holding midfielder and led the team in appearances (46) and chances created (93) last season.
One day, Steven Gerrard — oh no — won’t play for Liverpool. However much time he ends up missing, the next couple games are a brief, if distorted, look into the future. While it's crazy to suggest that the team will be better off without the man who leads them in assists, key passes per game, and passes per game, it’s probably not the end of the world. The Lucas-Gerrard pairing has been good at best and shoulders much of the blame for the team’s worryingly high shots-conceded-per-game number. Could Joe Allen, who was great against West Ham, or Jordan Henderson be a better fit with Lucas? Will Coutinho take on the even-bigger creative role he seems ready for? Plus, Suarez. Although, with games against Tottenham, Chelsea, and Manchester City before New Year's, that closet might not be unoccupied for long.
So You Want to Be a Referee?
Goodman: Mike Dean awarded a controversial penalty to Fulham against Aston Villa on Sunday. Or rather, it would have been controversial if anybody really cared about the match. You can see the play as it unfolds, complete with an absolutely gorgeous pass by Dimitar Berbatov at the 1:30 mark. Also, take a second to enjoy the ultimate Berba-ness of that Berbatov penalty. The only thing that could make that penalty more Berb-tastic is if he were actually puffing on a cigarette while he took it.
Reasonable minds can differ on whether the contact between Fulham’s Alexander Kacaniklic and Aston Villa defender Leandro Bacuna was in fact worthy of a penalty (just so you know, though, reasonable minds that think it wasn’t a penalty are wrong. Bacuna trails his left foot and takes out Kacaniklic’s legs), but that’s not really the point. The play develops at high speed, which means that, despite being very well positioned, Dean was a half-field away when he had to make a difficult, game-altering decision. Watching the replay of the foul, it’s clear how far behind the play he is. It’d be one thing if Dean were lazy, or slow to react, or out of position, but he isn’t, he’s exactly where he’s supposed to be.
All of which serve to highlight exactly how insane it is that the world expects one referee to accurately call a soccer match. Would it really be that hard for the sport to evolve to a system that involves having two referees, each of whom control one half of the field? Basketball has gone from two referees to three, baseball from three umpires to four, and hockey has evolved from a one-referee, two–assistant referee system to a two-referee, two-assistant system. The NHL initiated the change for the 2000-01 season, and the Olympics instituted the four-man system for the 2010 Winter Olympics. In other words, sports evolve.
Twilight of United?
Brett Koremenos: What Sir Alex Ferguson was able to accomplish at Manchester United is unlikely to be matched by anyone, much less another United boss. David Moyes’s first season in charge of Manchester United is making Ferguson’s final campaign as manager seem like one of his greatest accomplishments. During the 2012-13 season, Ferguson authored a master class on how to mix and match personnel and styles to maximize performance. Under Moyes, the glaring flaws of the roster have become far more evident.
The limitations in the midfield, both centrally and out wide — where an 18-year-old has quite possibly been their best and most consistent performer — can no longer be ignored. The back line has also looked increasingly old and unreliable. Patrice Evra, responsible for Newcastle's winning goal over the weekend, has become a huge liability on the left. The options both centrally and on the right, with the exception of the ever-reliable Nemanja Vidic, have also been less than inspiring. Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie are still world-class players, but Rooney has always been something of a positionally ambiguous talent, and Moyes's insistence on playing those two together has blocked Shinji Kagawa from being used properly as a creative no. 10.
All the complaints levied against Moyes — late squad selection, bungled summer transfer window, overly conservative play, and sparing use of Kagawa — don’t take into account that maybe, just maybe, United isn’t that good. And maybe other teams know it. Just look at how Everton and Newcastle played against Moyes’s team. They knew that they could match them on talent, and they knew that the mystique that surrounded the team — that feeling that United were never done until the final whistle, and that the final whistle wouldn’t blow until Ferguson was good and ready — seems to have left Old Trafford.
By: timbersfan, 6:17 AM GMT on December 13, 2013
The Designated Player: Lessons and Memories From the MLS Cup Final
By Graham Parker on December 10, 2013 12:05 PM ET
ALLISON LONG/KANSAS CITY STAR/MCT VIA GETTY IMAGES
Saturday’s MLS Cup final wasn’t a game for the ages, though it ended up being a pretty engrossing one and did have its own mythical qualities for future generations. It was the coldest MLS Cup final ever, featured a penalty shootout that went to the 10th round, and we saw Sporting captain and keeper Jimmy Nielsen labor through what may be his last game with broken ribs.
So the highlight reel will tell its story, and it won’t be wrong exactly. But the memories of those who were there at any particular game will always differ slightly from the official history. For one thing, I’ve always believed that, try as we might to impose the logic of highlights onto personal sporting memories, the mind has a way of misbehaving — it always chooses its own, strange thumbnails.
That’s why when I think of the 2013 MLS Cup final, I’ll always think first of a tackle in the 85th minute, when Sporting Kansas City’s Seth Sinovic made a block on Alvaro Saborio that prevented a shot on target.
In the greater scheme of things, it may or may not have been the most important tackle the left back has ever made, though Nielsen, already struggling with the conditions and his fitness, was doubtless relieved not to have to dive at another Saborio shot, having already conceded one goal to the striker. But for me, the moment represented a number of threads leading in and out of this game, and said much about these two teams, where they’ve come from, and where they’re headed. And it’s a moment that has stuck with me as the image of the game, even after more obviously significant moments and all the dramatic iconography and one-on-one story lines of the penalty shootout.
It was a play that reminded me of another tackle. As I watched the play unfold, with Sinovic supporting his center back while monitoring the potential pass from Luis Gil, then following it for his interception on Saborio, there was a second of recognition when the sequence finished.
It meant that while looking at the replay on the press box screen behind me, I did so with an afterimage of Sinovic jumping forward, a half-second late, in the Western Conference final against Houston, at almost the exact same spot on the field as the Saborio tackle. In that ghostly moment, as Oscar Boniek Garcia checked past the stranded defender hurtling in the wrong direction before scoring, Sinovic looked like nothing so much as Geoffrey Green’s famous 1953 description of England’s Billy Wright being wrong-footed by Ferenc Puskas “like a fire engine going to the wrong fire.” In the RSL incident, a better balanced Sinovic doused the fire before it could spark.
That moment against Houston was subtly part of the buildup to the final. For one thing, it was one of the more obvious illustrations of the effect the climate could have on a match. As a few press members crowded into Peter Vermes’s office at Sporting’s Swopes Park training ground the Thursday beforehand, the coach had discussed the “miscommunication” before the Houston game that meant an already freezing field got watered before temperatures dropped even further, rendering the field treacherous in parts.
The image of Sinovic skidding helplessly past Garcia, as Sporting fell behind early, had been used more than once last week, as critics of a cold-weather final feared for the telling effects of worse conditions Saturday night. Vermes was adamant it wouldn’t have an effect. But with the idea of MLS switching to a winter schedule having been given a rather high-profile test case by its showpiece game of the season, the possibility of the weather providing a telling moment loomed over the final.
There’s certainly an argument to be made that the weather played its part. Vermes had placed a lot of stock in the field’s undersoil sub-air system and the fact that the pitch wouldn’t be watered this time around. But as temperatures fell close to single digits, it was clear that one side of the field that rarely sees direct sun at this time of year was frozen solid. Teams favored the other side, goalkeepers could not push off properly for saves, and Ori Rosell, the unsung but very important midfield enforcer who has been just as much of a constant as Sinovic this season, was forced out early in the game with a twisted ankle. When Nielsen was beaten for the opening goal, it looked as if he couldn’t get the propulsion to dive anywhere near the ball in time.
But Sinovic stayed on his feet when it mattered most. I’d spoken to him the day before the game and he’d been typically honest about his part in the Houston goal in the previous game:
“It was a poor defensive play by me. I came in a little bit too quick. Should have realized it was going to be slippery and hard, and I won’t make that mistake again. We’re ready for it.”
After the final I grabbed a word with Sinovic in the raucous home locker room and we talked about the game and what it meant to a Kansas City boy who knows the history of this onetime afterthought of a franchise. (“No one knows better than me. It’s awesome.”) Then I mentioned the Saborio block coming on almost the same spot as the Garcia goal. Sinovic smiled in relief at the memory. “It was difficult because there was one side of the field that was very similar to the Houston game, and it was tough, because you had to slow yourself down, but like I said, it was one of the things we were ready for.”
Of course, lessons learned by playing Houston are nothing new for Sporting KC. I've spoken with Vermes on more than one occasion about the Eastern Conference final a couple of years ago when Sporting were killed off on a late counter by the Dynamo while chasing a goal. After the match, in a champagne-soaked locker room, Vermes recalled being "very immature against Houston.”
Then I asked Vermes about Sinovic and reminded him of his small game-to-game adjustment between the conference final and MLS Cup, and the contrast between the moment of the Garcia goal and the Saborio interception:
“Yes, that’s right. That’s the great thing about that group: They learn. And they bought into it, and that’s a big reason for success.”
I’ve written twice this season about the recent dynamic between Sporting KC and Real Salt Lake, one of those particular type of rivalries that sometimes appears for a few years in world football then disappears along with the generation that sparked it. In MLS, the circumstances of personnel make those rivalries very rare. I think I’ve used the phrase “institutional knowledge” about both teams this year, and there’s no doubt that the systemic continuity of RSL’s playing and recruitment philosophy, and the cumulative game-management experience of a still-young Sporting KC side are key to their success.
For RSL, losers in two finals this year, but also competitors in two finals that few expected them to get to, their biggest test may be ensuring a similar continuity if/when Jason Kreis leaves for New York. They may also have to face the question of whether the man whose shot Sinovic blocked, Alvaro Saborio, for all his undoubted qualities as a finisher, is going to be the player they build around. “The team is the star,” goes the saying in Salt Lake, and there’s some evidence the team does better overall when Saborio is out.
For Sporting, they have the later stages of Champions League soccer to look forward to early next year along with qualification for the same tournament. They also must cope with the same issues Kreis and RSL have already had to deal with: When you coax your young players up through the ranks, you also coax them through the salary-cap ceiling. At some stage this Sporting team will break up (if the departures of Julio Cesar, Kei Kamara, and Roger Espinoza don’t already represent such a rupture). Some of the lessons from defeats and victories past will leave with them. For now, Sinovic & Co. will return next year as champions and see where the lessons from that takes them.
Leaving the stadium, wincing at the wind chill, I remembered another line from Sinovic about how well Sporting’s trainers look after the players’ conditioning, “making sure little things don’t turn into big things.” I think of that image of Sinovic’s tackle: a little thing on the way to a big thing. It’s what I’ll remember.
By: timbersfan, 6:16 AM GMT on December 13, 2013
Champions League Pass & Move: The Sweet 16
By Mike L. Goodman and Spike Friedman on December 12, 2013 1:01 PM ET
ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
A look back at the week's Champions League action.
There’s Something About Dortmund
Mike L. Goodman: As a team, Borussia Dortmund are everybody’s darlings. They’re the little guys that made it big. They play an exciting, high-energy, swashbuckling, attacking style that everybody loves to watch. They have a coach in Jurgen Klopp who manages to be awesome and the best all the time, even when he’s just gotten kicked out of a game for being a huge dick. Everybody agrees they do it the “right way,” whatever the right way is.
All of that is true, but without some truly extraordinary luck against Malaga in the quarterfinals of last year’s tournament, would anybody care? Or without those two goals in injury time that moved them through to play Real Madrid, would they be just another good team that you’ve mildly heard about that plays in Germany? Small moments make legacies.
So of course Dortmund did it again this year. It took until the 87th minute to get the goal they needed to advance to the knockout stages. But, having done that, they also ended up winning the group through absolutely no fault of their own, thanks to Napoli’s 2-0 defeat of Arsenal. That means their round of 16 opponent gets chosen from a pool of Galatasaray, Olympiacos, Manchester City, Zenit St. Petersburg, and AC Milan. Except for Manchester City, Dortmund will be heavily favored to move through against any one of those opponents.
On the other hand, we have poor Arsenal. Arsenal, who haven’t won a trophy in eight and a half years and counting, were on pace to win the group before that goal. Now they’ll be paired with somebody out of the murderers’ row of PSG, Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Atletico Madrid. Instead of a story line about the continued revitalization of Arsenal this year, they’re faced with the prospect of a fourth consecutive round of 16 exit from the Champions League.
Then there’s Napoli, perhaps the hardest done of them all. Napoli are the first team in the current format of the Champions League to gain 12 points in the group stage and not advance. They defeated both Arsenal and Dortmund at home, and did everything you could possibly ask them to do in an hour and a half nobody will remember. But hey, at least Napoli manager Rafa Benitez gets to defend the Europa League title he won last year with Chelsea. So there’s that.
Manchester City: Can’t Win for Winning
Spike Friedman: Despite what the Premier League table shows, Manchester City has been the class of England. Pretty much every metric aside from their standing in the table (currently fourth) shows their dominance; both the relatively crude goal differential numbers as well as their shot dominance numbers indicate they are a truly great team in a league otherwise ruled by parity. City only trails the league leaders because of a series of individual defensive errors suffered on the road.
So while City and Bayern Munich were both guaranteed advancement into the round of 16 heading into the final match of the group stage, how they performed would serve as a litmus test for City. Additionally, a big City win could hand them the group and an easier slate of potential opponents in the knockout stages. But initially it appeared as if they would fail to meet the challenge. City ran out something of a B-plus lineup against Bayern’s top assortment of healthy players, and there appeared to be a gulf in class. Bayern quickly got a first goal through Thomas Muller doing his Thomas Muller thing. Shortly thereafter, Mario Gotze took a set-piece rebound and turned it into a goal. Bayern was up 2-0 in less than 20 minutes, and the rout appeared to be on. Once again, City would succumb to a poor defensive effort on the road.
Then David Silva grabbed a goal before halftime as Bayern’s back line suddenly looked vulnerable. After the break, Dante would concede a penalty cashed in by Aleksandar Kolarov, and James Milner would find an improbable winner as Philipp Lahm suddenly looked like any fullback in the world other than Philipp Lahm. The scoreline would finish at 3-2. A moral victory for Manchester City! They won at Bayern! No one wins at Bayern! What downside could there possibly be?
There is no shame in winning narrowly at Bayern, except City manager Manuel Pelligrini left star striker Sergio Aguero on the bench, even when a single goal in the final 20 minutes could have won City their group. A non-move that seemed questionable at the time has since been explained: Pelligrini did not know the scoreline needed for his team to grab the group win. Apparently he believed his team would need to win by a three-goal margin, and he was holding Aguero unless the team got to 4-2. Now, much like Arsenal, City will likely face a title contender in the next round rather than a relative also-ran.
The Year of the Big Four
Goodman: Most of the biggest games from the last round of group-stage matches pitched mediocre teams from the major European leagues (England, Spain, Germany, Italy) against smaller teams from around Europe. And while Juventus was unable to get the win they needed against Galatasaray in Turkey, both AC Milan and Schalke prevailed at home against Ajax and FC Basel, respectively. The results mean that of the 15 teams from Europe’s biggest leagues, 12 will be in the round of 16. That stands out even more when you consider that only 13 of those 15 teams could possibly advance, since two groups contained three teams from those leagues (Manchester United, Bayer Leverkusen, and Real Sociedad were together, and obviously Dortmund, Arsenal, and Napoli). In effect, Galatasaray defeating Juventus was the only instance of a team from a smaller league going through at the expense of a larger one. Throw in PSG as another big-time team, and 13 of the 16 slots in the knockout stages are filled with teams from big leagues. The little guy this year is represented only by Zenit St. Petersburg, Olympiacos, and Galatasaray.
While the most talented teams may have moved through, the tournament is certainly worse off for not having more “mid-majors.” Obviously, teams like Shakhtar Donetsk, Celtic, or Porto (all of which advanced to the round of 16 last year but failed to move out of the group stages this season) aren’t serious contenders to win the Champions League, but they are certainly strong competitive teams and ones that most of us are unlikely to see on a regular basis outside of the competition. And what makes it particularly galling is that three of the big clubs that advanced are in distinctively mediocre form. Manchester United and AC Milan are traditional powerhouses yet each sit ninth in their respective domestic leagues while Schalke are sixth in the Bundesliga.
It’s not that the bigger clubs don’t deserve their success; they do. But it gives the feel of an NCAA tournament in which the Sweet 16 is populated by the seventh-place finisher in the Big East and a bottom-feeding school from the Big 10, instead of the Virginia Commonwealths and Butlers of the world. Part of the appeal of tournaments is giving the best teams from littler stages a chance to test themselves against the strongest in the world. It’s too bad there’s going to be very little of that in the knockout stages of the Champions League this year.
The Turkish Elements
Friedman: The scenes out of Istanbul on Tuesday as Galatasaray hosted Juventus in a de facto one-match playoff for advancement into the round of 16 were stunning. The Turk Telekom Arena was besieged by Mother Nature as a mixture of hail and snow forced the match to be suspended after only 32 minutes had transpired.
When play resumed Wednesday the field was a mess; continued precipitation meant that the ground had become equal parts ice and mud. The surface was barely playable, and both sides would need to adjust to deal with the conditions. The question was, who benefited most? Juventus only needed a draw to advance, so both teams' inability to create any sort of meaningful build-up play favored the Italians. However, Galatasaray’s strike force of Didier Drogba, Burak Yilmaz, and Wesley Sneijder were perhaps most capable of snatching a goal with "Route One"–style tactics.
Most of the match played out in Juventus’s favor. Through the first 80 minutes, Gala, despite a host of chances, were only able to put a single shot on target: a Drogba strike well-saved by Gianluigi Buffon. Despite creating 11 chances, only one came in the box, as players didn’t trust their control enough to take an extra touch or make an extra pass. And unless you are Oscar, you are probably not beating Buffon from outside the box.
But it was route one that would provide the winner for Galatasaray in the 85th minute. A long ball knocked down by Drogba to Sneijder, that Sneijder then put far post around a helpless Buffon would prove the difference. Galatasaray was through despite the elements, and Juventus doomed to toil in the Europa League.
Sneijder’s finish was clinical, and Gala’s tactics in the second half of the two-day fixture gave the team a chance of snatching a goal, but Juventus has no one but themselves to blame for needing a result in the final match of the group stage. You cannot drop points at Copenhagen and at home to Gala without effectively leaving your tournament life up to chance. That they would crash out in a match where playing football was all but impossible will haunt the Bianconeri. It will also haunt Serie A, which only got a single team through to the knockout stages and will likely wind up with a further damaged UEFA coefficient.
Atletico Madrid Are Really, Really Good
Goodman: Ateltico Madrid are kind of easy to forget about. They don’t have the glitz and glamour of crosstown rival Real Madrid or the style and panache of Barcelona. And because their group featured FC Porto, Zenit St. Petersburg, and Austria Vienna, nobody really cared that they blew the doors off it, acquiring 16 points in the process. But here’s the thing: Atletico may be the best team in Spain this year. With a record of 13-1-1, they only trail Barcelona on goal difference in La Liga, and they sit three points ahead of Real Madrid.
Atletico play a fairly simple style, but they play it extremely well. They let their opposition have the ball, and then they counterattack ruthlessly. According to Whoscored.com, they average 47.4 percent possession. A figure that low would be unheard of in the upper echelons of the Premier League, Serie A, or the Bundesliga (except for Bayer Leverkusen, who play a similar style). Despite having so little possession, they are still fifth in the league in shots taken with 218. In other words, when they take the ball from you, they play fast. The team is built around two young stars in 21-year-old midfield playmaker Koke and the breakout of the year, striker Diego Costa. The two of them, complemented by a host of other strong role players, including veteran striker David Villa and winger Arda Turan, orchestrate an attack that whips down the wings and through opposing defenses at lightning pace.
This Atletico team seems engineered for Champions League success. When many of Europe’s elite sides clash, it becomes a battle for possession of the ball, with both teams looking to control and dictate play. The team that does the better job often wins. However, Atletico don’t need that. Much like when Bayern Munich ceded the ball to Barcelona in the semifinals of last year’s Champions League — content to use their pace and physicality to ruthlessly counterattack — Atletico is constructed specifically to exploit teams that want the ball.
Don’t be surprised by Atletico making a very deep run in this year’s Champions League, leaving supposedly “better” teams in their wake, with players shaking their heads and wondering what happened.
By: timbersfan, 6:08 AM GMT on December 08, 2013
How would you handle your biggest professional failure?
Would you erase it from your memory like it never happened? Would you point fingers at those who failed you? Or would you wallow in it? Would you let your failure define you and your career?
Caleb Porter took a long, hard look at himself, stared his failure in the face and studied every tiny detail. Then he punched that failure in the nose ? knocked it out cold ? and started working again.
You know the basics: Porter was named the coach of the 2012 U.S. men’s Olympic soccer team, and that team failed to qualify for London, losing once (to Canada), tying once (with El Salvador) and going out in the group stage on a freak stoppage-time goal, a goalkeeper error, that Porter and his players won’t ever forget.
But what you don’t know is what Porter did next. He wrote a book about it. Working 12 hours a day for more than a week ? “my wife hated me,” he says ? Porter put together a 150-page report examining every aspect of his time in the U.S. job. In the bound report, of which only 10 copies exist, Porter detailed every training session, every game, every piece of strategy in his tenure. He reflected on what he could have done differently and what he did well.
“I felt it was something I had to do to learn from it,” says Porter, who had built an NCAA powerhouse at Akron from 2006 to 2012. “International coaching is very cruel. I lost one game in five months, and in the end it wasn’t enough. And now I’m a failure and I can’t coach and I don’t know what I’m doing. But you have to listen to that. It was very humbling, and it hardened me too. To go into a pro environment you have to have thick skin and deal with that. I needed that in some ways to be ready.”
Says Portland owner Merritt Paulson, “Caleb didn’t just go back and lick his wounds. He wrote an entire analysis on the team and his experience. And he fingerpointed at himself.”
There was something else that Porter’s Olympic autopsy revealed in him, too, he says:
“It made me really, really hungry.”
How hungry was Caleb Porter? Hungry enough to accept a pay cut and a loss of job security to take over as the Portland Timbers coach this season. Hungry enough to overhaul the Timbers, turning a team that had a minus-22 goal differential last season into one that was plus-21 this season. And hungry enough to challenge anyone who was doubting him?over his Olympic failure, over being a college coach?to earn a finalist nod for the 2013 MLS Coach of the Year award.
Portland has a big task ahead on Sunday to overturn a 4-2 first-leg deficit against Real Salt Lake in the MLS semifinals (9 p.m. ET, ESPN), but is there anyone who doubts that Porter’s team is capable of performing the feat in the pro-Timbers madhouse that is Jeld-Wen Field?
WAHL: Three thoughts on Portland’s first-leg loss to RSL
At least one thing is certain: Portland will be ready at kickoff. From a preparation standpoint, Porter is extreme. Paulson says he has given stadium tours to friends at 7 a.m., only to find Porter already deep into his workday. (“One of my biggest jobs with Caleb is to get him not to burn out,” Paulson says.) Porter’s players see the evidence as well, says Timbers captain Will Johnson, one of several key additions to the team this season.
“He’s a very intense guy, very dedicated and passionate, all those things you can see on the sidelines,” says Johnson. “But there’s so much more under the surface. He’s very intelligent soccer-wise, and he’s a tireless worker, a total perfectionist and a great man-manager. The way he handles the locker room is the most impressive thing. He gets everybody to buy into the team concept. Everyone’s motivated and ready when they’re needed to step up.”
After multiple knee surgeries ended Porter’s MLS career at age 25, he became a coach, first as an assistant at his alma mater, Indiana, and later as a head coach at Akron. His first salary at Indiana was $24,000 a year. At Akron he started at $70,000. But Porter was constantly studying the game, developing his philosophy, or as he likes to call it, his “blueprint.”
For three years in a row, Porter and his Akron staff went on educational trips to Europe, studying firsthand some of the world’s top clubs: Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, Rafa Benítez’s Liverpool, Roy Hodgson’s Fulham, Marcelo Bielsa’s Athletic Bilbao. Porter’s crew watched training sessions, spoke to reserve-team coaches and marinated in the culture of the clubs.
“I would try and pick up as much as I could watching these pro training sessions, seeing their methodology at work, seeing matches as they took shape,” Porter says. “For me it was invaluable to study those teams for essentially six weeks every year. During the whole time I was with my staff talking about the game, bouncing things off each other. It was an education. A lot of the things I do in training come from the time I was over there studying those teams.”
It’s an ongoing process. Paulson says he recently saw Porter nose-deep in the Guardiola biography “A Better Way of Winning,” by Guillem Balague. For his part, Porter says his teams and his tactics are always evolving, but he also has a few bedrock principles about he wants his guys to play.
STRAUS: CCL confusion reigns; Timbers may have already qualified for ’14-15
“I’ve always believed in a pressing game and a possession game,” he says. “Yet within that I’ve learned you need to be adaptable and pragmatic. Bayern and Dortmund are pressing teams, but they’re also good on the counter. Bayern can play possession, go direct and hit you on set pieces and on the break. You can win in a lot of different ways. But I still believe if you want to be a dominant team you have to have control, and to have control you need to have the ball.
“This team has the ball a lot, but we won’t die in beauty, and if we need to go direct this team can go direct. If we need to drop off, we can do that too.”
Nobody expected Portland to make such a big turnaround in Porter’s first year, but smart player acquisitions (Johnson and Diego Valeri foremost among them) and a few well-timed tweaks during the season have kept Portland at the top of MLS’s Western Conference.
One of those tweaks came when Porter tightened up the Timbers’ defense after a start that saw the team scoring regularly but leaking too many goals. Another change came after the last time Portland lost 4-2 at Salt Lake, in August. It was the only time all season that the Timbers have lost two straight games, and Porter made some adjustments ? the back line ended up becoming Michael Harrington, Pa Modou Kah, Futty Danso and Jack Jewsbury ? while calling himself out and challenging his players to be better.
“If we didn’t have the right guys in the locker room, if we hadn’t built a healthy culture, if there wasn’t mutual respect, the wheels could have fallen off,” Porter says. “You see that all the time around our league, whether the coach is making excuses leading to more failure or the players are pointing fingers at the coach. But you can lose the locker room in one game if you don’t have it built the right way.”
There’s that question again: How do you handle failure? Portland and Porter have had two weeks to digest their 4-2 first-leg defeat to Salt Lake, their only loss in the last 11 games. RSL’s win knocked them back on their heels. How will the Timbers respond? What new tweaks has Porter made with his team?
The Timbers coach has already won over his owner, Paulson, who extended his contract recently, to say nothing of Portland, where Widmer Brothers recently introduced a special “Caleb Porter” beer (“Big Hearts and Brass Balls”). The beer, which may soon come in bottles, made its debut in Portland’s home regular-season win over archrival Seattle.
“It made it even sweeter that we won the game against Seattle,” cracks Porter. “Because no one wants a beer named after a guy that loses.”
And to that, everyone in Portland will raise a
By: timbersfan, 10:08 AM GMT on December 07, 2013
Line Play Nerdery of the Week
Robert Mathis, OLB, Colts v. Andrew Whitworth/Anthony Collins, Bengals
Evan Mathis, G, Eagles v. Ndamukong Suh, DT, Lions
Two of the better line-play matchups of the week happen to come in games that mirror each other across conferences. Each pair of these teams shares the same record, and as everything currently stands, these are probably matchups between the 3- and 4-seeds in both the NFC and AFC.
The Bengals and Colts are almost assured of winning their respective divisions, thanks to the Colts’ win over the Titans last week and the general mediocrity that defines three quarters of the NFC North. What this game really means for each team is a tiebreaker advantage for seeding purposes. The 3-seed would get the benefit of playing the “winner” of the Dolphins-Ravens-whomever jumble, while the 4-seed hosted Kansas City.
Indianapolis seems like it will be the team on the losing end of that race, but even as the Colts have fallen off in recent weeks, Robert Mathis has continued his surprisingly stellar season. The surprise isn’t that Mathis was capable of 15.5 sacks in 12 games — he’s consistently been one of the better pass rushers in the league for the past decade, even if much of that time was spent overshadowed by Dwight Freeney. It’s that he’s having his best season at age 32, and without much help in the pass-rushing department. Mathis has more than half the Colts’ sacks, and no other defender has more than 3.5. As the primary (and maybe sole) focus for protection schemes, he’s still getting to the quarterback regularly.
Mathis does a majority of his pass rushing from the right side, which brings us to the noteworthy shuffling on the Bengals’ offensive line. With everyone healthy, Cincinnati’s left side typically consists of Andrew Whitworth at left tackle and Clint Boling at left guard. Whitworth is one of the better left tackles in all of football, but on more than one occasion this year, he’s bumped inside to guard because of injury. That was the case last week, when Boling went down with a knee injury likely to cost him the rest of this season.
This leaves the Bengals with a decision to make. Right guard and former first-round pick Kevin Zeitler should be back this week, so his replacement, Mike Pollak, could be freed up to replace the injured Boling while Whitworth returns to tackle. The other option, which appears to be the more likely one, is keeping Whitworth at guard and playing third tackle Anthony Collins on the left side. Either configuration should be worth watching, if for a different reason. If Whitworth plays left tackle, the Whitworth-Mathis matchup will be a battle between two of the league’s best. If it’s Collins, how he holds up against Mathis should be a good indication of how good that version of the Bengals line could be as it moves toward the playoffs.
Over in the NFC version of the playoff preview, there’s more certainty about getting to see two of the league’s elite go at it. Ndamukong Suh is again having an All Pro season, even if his sack total doesn’t reflect it. The Lions’ defense has played its best football over the past four weeks, which have included some of Suh’s best games of the season. He’ll have to deal with Evan Mathis on Sunday, who signed a nice extension with the Eagles this offseason after demonstrating he's one of the best guards in the league while playing on the “prove it” deal he got after coming over from Cincinnati. Mathis may be the best run-blocking guard in the entire league right now — strong enough to dominate at the point of attack, mobile enough to get to players on the second level — and this game should involve plenty of running. The weather is supposed to be terrible in Philadelphia on Sunday, and the job Mathis can do against Suh should play a huge role in how well the Eagles are able to run the ball against a Detroit defense that hasn’t given up much on the ground all year.
Kawann Short, DT, Panthers
The faces of the Panthers’ defense have rightly been those of Carolina’s past two first-round picks, Luke Kuechly and Star Lotulelei, but Kawann Short has also played a part in shoring up the interior of this defense. A second-round pick from Purdue, Short was billed as the pass-rushing complement to Lotulelei’s stout run defense, and that’s proven to be true in his first 12 games. Short is still just a rotational player for the Panthers, but he’s managed seven quarterback hits in fewer than 250 snaps. One of the keys to the Saints’ success in the Drew Brees era has been keeping a clean interior of the pocket for their (barely) 6-foot quarterback, and that means the ability of players like Short and Greg Hardy to collapse that pocket will be more important than it’s been all season. The Panthers have an almost spotless drafting record in the past two seasons, and it already looks like Short can be added to that list.
Cornerback-Wide Receiver Matchup of the Week
Broncos v. Titans
Typically, this is a section reserved for individual matchups, but it’s really too difficult to choose one here. Denver-Tennessee is a chance to watch maybe the NFL’s best group of wide receivers face off against the league’s best pair of cornerbacks. Alterraun Verner and Jason McCourty are the reason Tennessee is a top-10 team in pass-defense DVOA against opposing wide receivers. Both are having career seasons, and there have been games (see both outings against T.Y. Hilton) that they’ve been able to completely swallow the best receiver on opposing teams.
If the Broncos have proven anything in their two meetings against Kansas City, it’s that they’re going to find the matchup in the secondary they think they can exploit and go to it over and over. In that case, it was rookie Marcus Cooper. With Tennessee, it might be third cornerback Coty Sensabaugh, but there’s a chance that with Julius Thomas back healthy, the Denver passing game features a lot of both him and Knowshon Moreno. Tennessee is 24th in pass-defense DVOA against tight ends this season and 17th against running backs. McCourty and Verner should be able to take away some combination of Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, and Wes Welker, but the problem with Manning and the Broncos is their ability to attack teams from every spot on the field.
By: timbersfan, 10:06 AM GMT on December 07, 2013
The Road to Redemption
Everything may be going wrong for the Texans right now, but they will be charging out of the cellar quicker than you might think
By Bill Barnwell on December 6, 2013
Swept by the Jaguars. That ignominious title phrase is attached to the 2013 Houston Texans, who couldn't overcome a two-touchdown deficit and a staggering 177 yards in penalties on Thursday night. Their 27-20 loss to the Jaguars in Jacksonville dropped the Texans to 0-2 against the Jaguars and 2-11 altogether this season. While the Jaguars celebrated an improbable win streak in their locker room, the Texans will return to Houston on the heels of their 11th consecutive loss.
It's going to get worse for Texans fans, but then it is going to get better. Perhaps quicker than it might seem right now. The last time the Jaguars beat a team twice in one season came in 2011, when they beat the Colts in Week 10 before finishing up the job at home in Week 17. Indianapolis's loss in Jacksonville that day locked up the no. 1 pick in the 2012 draft for the Colts, who used it to take Andrew Luck. That's gone well for them. And if you're looking for reasons to believe that the Texans are going to turn things around quickly, well, start with the fact that the Jaguars might just have done their divisional brethren the very same favor.
The No. 1 Pick
Heading into this week, Football Outsiders suggested that the Texans had a 59.7 percent chance of ending up with the first pick in the much-ballyhooed 2014 draft, with no other individual team enjoying odds above 10 percent. That figure will only rise after this loss; the Jaguars, who had an 8.9 percent chance of claiming the top pick, will now find it virtually impossible to claim a top spot that seemed surely theirs just a month ago.1 Houston is now 2-11, leaving it 1.5 games "ahead" of Atlanta, Tampa Bay, and St. Louis (via Washington). Its remaining schedule is brutal; the Texans travel to play Luck and the Colts next week and then host the mighty Broncos. It seems extremely likely they'll be 2-13 heading into their season-ending trip to Tennessee.
As the Texans were picking up their 11th loss of the season, the consensus choice as the likely first overall pick in the 2014 draft was leading his team to its 11th win of the year. Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater isn't regarded as a surefire prospect the same way that Luck was during his final season in school, but he's been regarded as the top pick in the draft for most of the 2013 college campaign. The easiest way for a bad team to get better fast is to massively upgrade at quarterback, and given how disappointing Houston's set of quarterbacks have collectively been this year, even an average season from Bridgewater could be worth several wins.
If the Texans don't like Bridgewater, of course, they can settle for the once-in-a-generation freak pass-rusher instead. South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney hasn't produced the sort of dominant season that might have been expected from him after The Hit, but he is still expected to produce double-digit sacks on a yearly basis as a pro. The Texans wouldn't be the best fit for Clowney, since they currently play a 3-4, but they could draft Clowney and either choose to play him at outside linebacker or move to a 4-3, which would allow them to line up Clowney alongside J.J. Watt, already the most feared lineman in the league.
Or they could try to pick up the best of both worlds. With the first overall pick in a draft where there's a true franchise quarterback available, the Texans are sure to field juicy trade offers reminiscent of the haul that the Rams received from Washington in the Robert Griffin III deal. Maybe Houston trades the first pick to the Rams for their two first-round picks and ends up with Clowney and, say, local star Johnny Manziel. The point is that the Texans have options. Part of rebuilding quickly is getting a really high draft pick at exactly the right time. The Texans appear to have pulled that off.
The numbers suggest that Houston is a pretty bad football team, if perhaps one not quite as terrible as its record might indicate. The Texans were 30th in DVOA heading into the week, but they were closer to league-average than they were to the 32nd-ranked Jaguars.2 They were 28th in Pro-Football-Reference.com's Simple Rating System. And even after losing 11 freaking games in a row, their point differential is a mere minus-100, which is better than the Jaguars (minus-178) and Jets (minus-123).
The Pythagorean expectation suggests that the 2-11 Texans have the point differential of a team that should really be 4-9, and while there certainly doesn't seem to be much joy in "deserving" to be a four-win team in December, that gap is usually an indicator of impending success. The 2012 Lions were the only team in football to underperform their point differential by that large of a margin, eventually producing a 4-12 record with the point differential of a 6.5-win team. As with the vast majority of teams with that large of a gap from year to year, the Lions have been much better this season; Detroit is already 7-5 and likely to win the NFC North.
Those Lions also have a lot in common with this year's Texans. Detroit started off the year exhibiting competence before collapsing, although its competent run lasted a lot longer; it began the season 4-4 before losing its final eight games of the season. More notably and meaningfully, the Lions rarely got blown out during that losing streak. They were competitive with a number of talented teams, including, coincidentally, the Texans. Of those eight losses, five were by seven points or fewer.
That has also been true of this year's Texans. During this 11-game losing streak, the Texans have been blown out only three times, with the Ravens, 49ers, and Rams laying a beatdown on them before Halloween. Their other eight losses have all been by one touchdown or less. Houston's two wins at the beginning of the campaign were also in one-touchdown games, meaning that Houston is now 2-8 in games decided by one score or less in 2013. That just doesn't carry over from year to year. In fact, if you want proof of that, the best example might very well be last year's Texans; with virtually the same roster,3 last year's Texans were 5-0 in games decided by one touchdown or less. There's no guarantee that the Texans will go back to an undefeated record in close games next year — they're not "due" to win a ton of them — but the chances that they'll be this bad in close games next year are close to negligible.
You may have noticed that the Texans are a bit sloppy with the football. While Bill Belichick longs to bench the entire Houston team, the Texans are stuck with Matt Schaub or Case Keenum slinging possible interceptions for them the rest of the way. Their turnover differential is a grotesque minus-14; through 13 weeks, only the Jets are worse.
While turnover differential isn't a product of total luck by any means, teams with differentials this bad tend to get better the subsequent year. Houston is on pace to finish with a turnover differential of minus-17; since 1990, teams with a turnover differential between minus-20 and minus-15 have produced an average turnover differential the following year of plus-0.8; in other words, they're just about league-average the following year. Detroit is the only team in that category from a year ago, and while they're still turning the ball over for fun, their differential has fallen from minus-16 to minus-8 through 12 games. The teams who were behind them in the rankings were Kansas City and Philadelphia, which were tied for last at minus-24; they've combined to post a turnover differential of plus-21 this year.
Houston's offense has gotten much of the attention for its turnovers this year, but it's actually been more of a defensive problem. The Texans have just five interceptions this season, the league's lowest total. They're 24th in giveaways, 26th in interceptions, but and they're 32nd in takeaways. Whoever plays quarterback for Houston next year will turn the ball over less frequently, but the defense will almost surely create more takeaways.
The Texans are also less likely to allow opposing defenses to score touchdowns on them. Schaub's issues with pick-sixes went viral earlier this year, and after T.J. Yates allowed a long pick-six during his brief stay with the team, it became the battle cry of the rebuilding republic. The Texans have now allowed opposing defenses to score six times on them this year, which is wildly frustrating and very unsustainable. Again, remember that virtually the same roster went out during the regular season a year ago and didn't allow even one defensive touchdown. Last year's defensive-touchdowns-allowed brigade included Arizona (seven), Philadelphia (seven), Detroit (six), and Kansas City (five). Opponents have a combined six defensive touchdowns against those four teams this year. That could very well be Houston next year.
Every team has injuries, but the Texans have a particularly brutal stack right now. On offense, they lost Schaub, Arian Foster, Owen Daniels, and even star tackle Duane Brown for lengths of time. On the flip side of the ball, even beyond the nagging injuries to Watt, the team lost stars Brian Cushing and Danieal Manning for the season. The Texans will still deal with some injuries in 2013, but they're among the most snakebit teams in the league this year.
How Soon Is Now?
All this isn't to say that the Texans are necessarily locks to win 10 games and the AFC South next year; a lot of things have to go right around a rebuilding job like this for the returns to be seen so quickly. That said, the successes of the Colts and Lions should buoy Houston spirits. The Texans are bad now, but their path to relevance is shorter — and will be traveled quicker — than that of many other bad teams.
By: timbersfan, 1:26 AM GMT on December 07, 2013
Team MP W D L GF GA Pts
Brazil 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Croatia 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Mexico 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Cameroon 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Team MP W D L GF GA Pts
Spain 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Netherlands 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Chile 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Australia 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Team MP W D L GF GA Pts
Colombia 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Greece 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Côte d'Ivoire 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Japan 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Team MP W D L GF GA Pts
Uruguay 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Costa Rica 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
England 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Italy 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Team MP W D L GF GA Pts
Switzerland 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Ecuador 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
France 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Honduras 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Team MP W D L GF GA Pts
Argentina 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Bosnia-Herzegovina 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Iran 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Nigeria 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Team MP W D L GF GA Pts
Germany 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Portugal 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Ghana 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
USA 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Team MP W D L GF GA Pts
Belgium 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Algeria 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Russia 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Korea Republic 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
By: timbersfan, 9:57 AM GMT on December 06, 2013
Ryan Giggs is gently juggling a football. He looks slight and pale, and is looking down intently at the ball through his floppy fringe. You’d think he was doing so shyly until you see how relaxed his shoulders are. Thousands of people are watching him and the cameras are rolling, but the 17-year-old Giggs ignores them, slow dancing with the ball.
Two decades later, the footage from that moment will crop up in a montage at the start of Class of 92, a documentary about Giggs and his peers — David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt, Gary and Phil Neville — from the famous Manchester United FA Youth Cup–winning team of 1992. The shot will be nestled among a flood of broadly contemporary images of Poll Tax riots, early Oasis gigs, royal divorces, Conservative prime ministers — and soundtracked by a song by James, the indie wing of the Acid House–infused music that swept Manchester (and, Mancunians will tell you, the world) at the start of the '90s.
What makes the sequence remarkable is that Giggs is still somehow our contemporary, while the filmic moments surrounding his juggling act now seem unmistakably historical. Yes, Giggs has aged like everything else, and is an anomaly, playing top-flight soccer at the age of 40, but there’s still something remarkably dissonant about knowing he lives and plays “here” while watching him juggle that ball among the flickering images from “there.”
Of course, typical of footballers, he got here by stealth, almost incidentally, via an accidental history punctuated by occasionally passing "Go" to collect a champions medal (13 times, in Giggs's case). That’s what’s most fascinating about watching the sequences of Class of 92 in which the six players are reunited at a Manchester dinner table to swap stories, or in the one-on-one recollections to camera — there are the expected broad strokes of reminiscence, but there are just as many moments where it becomes clear that the big-picture knowledge of making history is not something these athletes could allow themselves at any given moment in their careers.
It’s also a version of history that’s necessarily at odds with the myth-making that goes on around Sir Alex Ferguson, whose contributions to the film are sensibly kept to a supporting role. Strangely, the film reminds me of nothing so much as seeing Julian Temple’s The Filth and the Fury documentary about the Sex Pistols, and the way it allowed the band the right to speak their own history rather than inherit the Malcolm McLaren myth of them as puppets. According to the Ferguson legend we’re asked to believe, he had a dynastic plan all along. For the players, such plans may or may not include them at any given moment. That was their day-to-day reality during over a decade of dominance.
At one point, the six joke ruefully about the varying methods with which Ferguson used to tell them they’d been dropped, and while none was short of self-belief in doing what he did, there was little sense of collective destiny when they were just youngsters making their way. As Giggs describes, during the team’s terrible start to the double-winning 1996 season — the one that infamously prompted Alan Hansen to say "you can’t win anything with kids" — they didn’t have the frame of reference and experience to know “it was going to be all right.”
The film predictably climaxes with the 10 days in 1999 during which they won the league, FA Cup, and Champions League. But there’s something very fresh and present-tense about it all. Phil Neville, for example, recalls thinking "his Manchester United career [was] over" after he gave away a last-minute penalty during the famous 1999 FA Cup semifinal replay against Arsenal. Of course, that penalty would be saved by Peter Schmeichel, and later Giggs would win the game with one of the most celebrated individual goals ever seen.
Set against this are recollections from Trainspotting director Danny Boyle, Stone Roses bassist Mani, and, remarkably, Tony Blair that give some context to the time and culture that produced the players. These rather stilted moments actually inadvertently reinforce the sense of longevity of these players’ contributions. Blair, in particular, talks of being prime minister and seeing football become a central part of the country’s identity, and the sense of optimism that swept him and his party to power. It’s not so much the self-serving way in which he tries to ally the spirit of the achievements of the young United team with those of his own government that’s so jarring; it's that the likes of he and Boyle are so comfortable with their role of brokering the meaning of the past. They’re operating from a clear consensus that it’s a past that is long gone while at least one of the players they’re describing within this reification of the past is still living the reality of being only as good as his last game.
I’m glad Class of 92 exists in the form it does and is being released at the time it is, though — it feels like witnessing the final moment before the time capsule gets closed. As the film unfolds, and the talking heads around the players pontificate on the meaning of British culture in the '90s, the six players themselves mix talk of games for the ages with memories of nicknames, hazing, and constant irreverence toward each other — always with an absolute sense of loyalty and appreciation for what each man brought to the field, yet aware enough to know that a history without all the humor and moments they shared away from the cameras would only ever be a partial one.
I’m also glad that at least one of the players is still playing. Before long, even Ryan Giggs will retire and the inevitable process of sentimentality and partisan contrariness that governs all sporting discourse will further and further distort how he, Beckham, Scholes, Butt, and the Nevilles are remembered, and how they can possibly be retrieved for future generations. For the moment, as that footage of Giggs juggling amid the debris of the past reminds us, the Class of '92 is still keeping the ball in the air.