timbersfan's WunderBlog

Talking in a Storm

By: timbersfan, 11:46 PM GMT on October 31, 2012

Are you still sitting at the computer? You know the hurricane is outside the window, right? You can track it with your eyes!"

"I want to take in as much of this as I can before the power goes out."

"You mean you want to take in as much of the hurricane as you can before you're forced to realize that you are CURRENTLY INSIDE A HURRICANE, is that it?"

"The photos people are posting are insane, though. Did you see that one of the shark swimming down the street in New Jersey?"

"That was Photoshopped. Doesn't it bother you that the Internet does this to everything?"

"Does what to everything?"

"Well, you like sports, so take sports. It used to be, I'm guessing, that following sports meant going to a ballpark, I mean physically going, and watching a team play. Then later, it meant listening on the radio. Then watching on TV. Now you have 15 Chrome tabs open at all times, and whenever I walk past your screen, it's always got a graph with a weird red sine curve on it. And that's 'following sports.'"

"But I mean, that stuff is just a representation of what happens in real games."

"Is it? Because I'm kind of wondering whether it's actually vice versa. I'm kind of wondering whether you think this Google map exists to help you track the hurricane, or whether you think Sandy out there — which is hurting real people, by the way — exists to give you something to follow on a Google map."

"Is that even an either/or, if the meteorological models are precise enough?"

"It's all models, that's my point! Didn't you say the other day that you thought everything that happened on earth was part of the FiveThirtyEight election-forecast model?"

"I said that every time I watch a squirrel in the backyard, I expect to read a post later where Nate Silver explains that 'our model is designed to account for the effect of squirrels that take four hops on the brick path before scurrying up the willow tree.'"

"Yeah, Nate Silver was able to jump from writing about baseball to writing about politics because the data were congruent, even though those are two utterly different parts of human experience."

"OK, but he's writing about polling, not politics."

"And what blog have you checked more than any other news source during the last two elections?"

"My point is that saying polling and baseball can both be reduced to useful statistics isn't the same as saying that politics is indistinguishable from sports. It's a pretty basic commonality."

"My point is that the way you process information about a thing affects the way you think about the thing, inevitably. If you have this tool that lets you analyze baseball and politics and hurricanes in the same way, then doesn't your brain start to perceive those things as just different types of content to fill an identical form of thought? That's what the Internet does; it turns your whole life into a data-retrieval and organization problem. It doesn't matter what's going on, whether it's the Champions League final or an earthquake or a war, you've got Twitter open, you're cataloging the exact same dumb jokes and memes and waiting for the exact same second-by-second updates. I do it, too; half the time I've already formulated the exact phrasing of the Google search I'm going to run about something before I've even finished taking in what that something is."

"Well …"

"And the endpoint of that is that you're so determined not to miss anything with the hurricane that you're barely aware of the fact that the hurricane is here and trying to take off your roof."

"Well, fine, but I want to stick up for data and the Internet for a second. I get that you're not making the old Moneyball-ruined-sports argument — that we need to get back to soul and poetry or whatever — but saying that reality is overwhelming and we shouldn't be blind to that fact."


"But couldn't you make that argument about anything? Or at least any new technology? It used to be that people really felt the full depths of darkness, and then the light bulb rolled into town, and now night isn't that big a deal. Night is virtual!"

"It's going to be a big deal soon, if this storm has its way."

"So but if you make 'be overwhelmed by the realness of reality' into an absolute virtue, then you wind up, I don't know, in the 17th century, huddled around a candle, scared of the constellations. And EVERYTHING is an emergency. Did you get a splinter? You are going to be eaten by wolves. It's because we can turn reality into data and not just gape at it in terror that we have evacuation plans and 911 and everything else that will keep this storm from being a bigger disaster than it would have been otherwise. So if I'm following it on the level of data rather than the level of immediate experience, isn't that better? Shouldn't we all do that, at least until we're in physical danger?"

"I'm not prepared to call your shark-on-the-street photos a beacon of civilization, but say you're right. Where do you live, then? Doesn't your whole life turn into that time we had a Super Bowl party and you complained that having real people around made it harder to focus on websites?"

"Well, after a certain point, why do you have to live anywhere? I mean, a couple of cities that I love are pretty significantly underwater right now. A good chunk of Manhattan looks like Venice. The New York subway is flooded. Trees are being ripped out of the ground. Does it really make me less connected to the rest of humanity to follow all this at once? Just look at the photo montage on the front page of The New York Times! Maybe I'm too abstracted or whatever, but to me this is just a way of knowing what's happening in the world, rather than staring out my own window and going 'wow, it's really raining.'"

"OK, and it's only because of models that we knew this was coming in the first place, so fine. I am not manning the pro-17th-century anti-all-technology yes-to-wolf-bites platform here. But isn't there some sort of necessary cutoff? Don't you have to make the transition back to your actual surroundings at some point? You can say what you want about knowing what's happening, but clearly there's also a risk of being alienated from your own experience. And if the house blew down, you would notice."

"This is a terrible connection to make, but God, at a sub-sub- hurricane level, I think that's one of the reasons I love sports. It can be all weird red sine curves and photobomb jokes for the longest time, and then suddenly there's two seconds left in the fourth quarter and the Hail Mary is diving toward the endzone, and for that little stretch, the world is pure event."

"After which you immediately tweet about it."


"And calculate the fantasy implications."

"Yes! But you asked about being present in your own experience. And that's not only relevant during a hurricane."

"So … "

"So you can still be overwhelmed by reality."

"But it's harder than it used to be."

"It's harder than it used to be, exactly."

Meet the New Chelsea

By: timbersfan, 12:23 AM GMT on October 31, 2012

Nineteen minutes into Chelsea’s 2-1 win over Arsenal earlier this season, Eden Hazard had already suffered five fouls. The Belgian attacking midfielder was giving the Arsenal defenders fits because it wasn’t clear if Hazard was playing on the left wing, the right wing, or as a deep-lying playmaker. The truth is, he was playing all three. While the two goals came from set plays, it was the fluidity of Chelsea’s movement that caused Arsenal trouble throughout the match as Hazard, Juan Mata, and the 20-year-old Brazilian Oscar were putting on a show that had rarely been seen during the Roman Abramovich era.

So far this season Chelsea have played the kind of attractive football they have been so good at stifling opposition sides from playing. The arrival of Hazard and Oscar has given Chelsea the dynamism and style they previously lacked. Hazard, the two-time Ligue 1 Player of the Year, has taken little time to adjust to English football, having scored two goals and registering four assists already. Oscar, 21, plays with an intelligence that defies his age, announcing his arrival in European competition with two goals against Juventus in his first Champions League match. There are also indications that the career of Fernando Torres — who recently admitted that, last season, things got so bad that he stopped caring whether Chelsea won or lost — has been revived. So far Torres hasn’t had to worry about Chelsea losing — the team is undefeated and sitting atop the Barclays Premier League table.

This was supposed to be a season of rebuilding for Chelsea as they ushered out the generation that brought them their improbable Champions League trophy last season. Didier Drogba plies his trade in China and there is talk of Frank Lampard potentially joining an MLS side when his contract is up. The club is still unwilling to give Ashley Cole his desired multi-year contract extension and John Terry’s well-publicized racial abuse case now makes the “captain, leader, legend” mantra a little hollow.

The old Chelsea sides owed their success to clinical efficiency, a kind of means-to-an-end football that was emphasized during Jose Mourinho’s tenure and persisted long after.The Champions League victory last season was perhaps fitting because it was emblematic of an era of Chelsea football: all-hands-on-deck defending with an eye for an opportunistic goal when an opponent least expected it. It was the former Arsenal captain Cesc Fabregas who once said that Chelsea would lull you to sleep then break as if they were on motorbikes for a counterattacking goal. Nowhere was that more evident than Didier Drogba’s goal in the first leg of the 2011-12 Champions League semifinal against Barcelona.

Just a few weeks into the Premier League season and it appears that the old Chelsea is behind us. The new Chelsea side is managed by Roberto Di Matteo. But it is possible that, after spending more than a billion dollars, the side is finally one that owner Roman Abramovich, along with the rest of the world, can love.

They might not yet have the mechanical brilliance of Barcelona, but what Chelsea has is something more dynamic than the death-by-a-thousand-passes Barca approach. Chelsea play three attackers behind Torres. They have no defined positions; Mata, Hazard, and Oscar are free to set up shop wherever there is space, and it leaves defenders confused regarding whom they should pick up.

Having midfielders who keep the ball on the ground has made Torres more dangerous this season, and he has shown flashes of the player he once was while playing for Liverpool. Chelsea’s fullbacks have also benefited from the new attacking style. Right back Branislav Ivanovic has already equaled last season’s league goal tally with three, and Ashley Cole scored the winner in a tough match against Stoke earlier this season.

Chelsea will try to make it seven wins out of eight this season when they take on Tottenham on Saturday. In the opposing technical area will be former Chelsea manager Andre Villas-Boas. In his short time as Blues boss last season, Villas-Boas recognized the need to change the way Chelsea played, but his heavy-handed style did not go over well with the older players in the dressing room, and he was eventually fired. Villas-Boas can feel somewhat vindicated when he looks at the way Chelsea play now; it's the kind of style he wanted to implement. This weekend, he will have a front-row seat to see what his version of Chelsea, a new Chelsea, might have looked like.

Wilshere and Cleverley give England hope

By: timbersfan, 12:21 AM GMT on October 31, 2012

This time last year, it seemed that either Tom Cleverley or Jack Wilshere would have a part to play in England's Euro 2012 campaign. Fabio Capello was adopting a defensive-minded, counterattacking approach that required a bright young midfielder to be the "transition player," the man to turn defence into attack with a swift forward pass or sudden burst of acceleration. Cleverley and Wilshere were both options.

As it happens, the former didn't start a league game after October, the latter didn't play all season and Capello wasn't the Three Lions' coach for Euro 2012 anyway.

With Michael Carrick and Roy Hodgson suffering from some form of communication breakdown, Paul Scholes not tempted out of international retirement and both Gareth Barry and Frank Lampard injured, England's midfield options at Euro 2012 were pitiful. Steven Gerrard and Scott Parker are both fine footballers, yet Gerrard tired in the second half of matches and Parker hadn't looked fully fit in months.

Hodgson's tactical inflexibility means that a 4-4-2 (or some subtle variety therein) was always likely to be England's default strategy, but even those who favour an alternative would have struggled to create a three-man midfield from England's squad. Fresh from an underwhelming debut campaign with Liverpool and thus low of confidence, Jordan Henderson was the only other proper central midfielder, with utility players Phil Jones or James Milner also in the mix.

Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
Tom Cleverley may have struggled to cement his place in the Man United first team, but he's acquitted himself well in recent action for England.

In England's first post-Euros friendly, a 2-1 win over Italy at a neutral venue, Hodgson was criticised for calling up Tottenham's Jake Livermore. The 22-year-old isn't a particularly promising player and rarely impresses for his club -- but who else did Hodgson have to pick?

Thankfully, this dilemma should soon disappear as both Cleverley and Wilshere are back. For the first time, both started for their parent club in the same Premier League weekend; the last time Wilshere played for Arsenal, Cleverley was still on loan at Wigan. This offers England hope in the engine room of midfield, the zone where successive managers have failed to get the balance right given an over-eagerness to include star individuals at the expense of structure and discipline.

This past weekend, their matches were very different. Wilshere was one of Arsenal's better players in the narrow 1-0 win over QPR, slotting seamlessly into a side completely unfamiliar to him -- Mikel Arteta, Lukas Podolski, Santi Cazorla and Olivier Giroud were all playing elsewhere during Wilshere's lone season as a Gunners first-teamer. He passed the ball quickly and scampered into the final third, providing another creative threat alongside Cazorla and clearly suiting his new No. 10 shirt.

Cleverley, on the other hand, had a disappointing game. Forced back toward his own goal by the boundless energy of Ramires, he conceded possession too cheaply and looked overawed by Chelsea's creative talents. He was the first Manchester United player substituted, replaced by Javier Hernandez, who eventually scored the winner. He would have wished for a game like Wilshere's -- playing with his side on the front foot and dominating possession.

Yet Hodgson clearly admires both players. Cleverley started both of England's World Cup qualifiers earlier this month, albeit in unfamiliar roles. Hodgson is keen to use Wilshere in next month's friendly against Sweden, although Arsene Wenger is likely to block this move given that he's just returning from a lengthy injury lay-off. "It is a friendly," he said. "Jack should skip that -- what is important now is that he gets back to full fitness for this team. Once he is back he will play for England again."

VI Images/Getty Images
England should look to Germany's example for how to balance its midfield: Sami Khedira (L) and Bastian Schweinsteiger (R) communicate well on attacking and defensive duties.

The question is this: can they play together? On paper they are similar -- certainly not holding midfielders and not quite outright attacking midfielders, yet both more flashy than simple "box to box" players. Both are technical and creative but are used deep in midfield for their clubs alongside a calmer, more secure player. They are also alike in terms of personality -- naturally combative and aggressive, each determined to have a big influence upon every game.

Using them together might throw up a new "Lampard or Gerrard" style debate, but there's a slight difference: Gerrard and Lampard both found their peak as the highest player in a midfield three (whether the format was 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3) while these two are currently most at home as the "second" midfielder in a trio. But the point remains -- ideally Wilshere or Cleverely would have a holding mid behind, but given Hodgson’s preference for a 4-4-2, that's very unlikely.

However, Hodgson can look to Germany's relative success with Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger's flexible partnership at the heart of the side. Both Cleverley and Wilshere are, in a sense, very German in style. The majority of top Bundesliga sides are based around 4-2-3-1 formations with the midfield duo generally featuring at least one direct, vertical player who can slide forward from deep. Nuri Sahin, Sven Bender or Toni Kroos (when fielded in that role) are fine examples of recent players produced in the German system.

The key to Khedira and Schweinsteiger's relationship is understanding and communication, which works well in combination with a counterattacking approach; when one goes, the other sits. That might work well for Hodgson's England as he is a reactive manager, not one concerned with possession. His goal should be to incorporate more technical players into a side that uses the ball efficiently, meaning that Germany (and not Spain) should be the template.

Wilshere and Cleverley might be on the same pitch this weekend as the two teams meet on Saturday morning. With great respect to Paul Scholes -- the man most likely to start in place of Cleverley -- a match featuring both players in similar roles would be a fascinating comparison. Hodgson should be at Old Trafford on Saturday to see if either -- or both -- can be pivotal in his England side ahead of the 2014 World Cup.

Rob of the green

By: timbersfan, 12:19 AM GMT on October 31, 2012

There was no better place to be in New York on Super Sunday than inside the roiling cauldron of the Football Factory nestled in the shadow of the Empire State Building. For one thing, the pub is below ground and has that Montana feeling of an end-of-days high-tech bunker. If all the hysteria over Frankenstorm was to be believed, where would you rather be -- at home curled into a ball beneath your desk remembering that your can opener is unfortunately electric, or standing in a bar with a dozen TV monitors and a forest of beer taps? Hundreds of rival supporters opted for the latter scenario, choosing to ignore the impending gloom with a drinking game that saw them ordering a pint every time a player ended up face down on the pitch, which by my unscientific count occurred every 37 seconds.

Yes, I was pleased with my survivalist instincts.

John Peters/Man Utd/Getty Images
Don't come back now, ya hear: Fernando Torres' sending off turned the tide for Fergie's side.
From the moment Luis Suarez executed a Klinsmann-esque belly flop in front of the Everton bench following Liverpool's first goal all the way through to the 75th minute of United's tainted 3-2 victory over Chelsea when Javier Hernandez scored the winner from an offside position, no one at the Football Factory paid the slightest bit of attention to the fact that, while EPL officials were showing why video replay is inevitable, New York's civic leaders were effectively shutting down the city in the face of what they deemed a coming apocalypse.

"Hey Jack, you think a lot of people were scared away because of the storm?" shouted a well-lubricated Chelsea fan with a sense of irony at bartender Jack Keane amid a sea of blue jerseys.

"What storm is that, mate?" replied Jack, "the storm in Chicharito's boots?"

You should understand that Jack's exceptionally witty for a United fan.

It was a day when tribal emotions were frayed even more than usual, thanks to some uncharacteristically provocative comments ahead of the Merseyside derby from the normally vanilla Everton manager David Moyes.

In the 10 years he has been performing miracles at Goodison Park, Moyes has managed to stay below the radar of tabloid headlines by saying very little that could be construed as interesting, let alone controversial. So it was something of a shock to see him stick his head above the parapet this past week and take aim at the most recent scourge of the Premier League -- those despicable diving cheats.

"They will turn supporters away from the game," Moyes proclaimed Friday," if they think players are conning their way to results."

Though Moyes didn't name names, it is highly unlikely that he had his captain Phil Neville in mind. Yet it was the veteran defender who saw yellow in the second half and looked so embarrassed you'd have thought he had soiled more than his reputation. It's not like Neville hasn't seen his share of yellow -- and red -- cards during his combative 17-year career, but his specialties are verbal abuse and overly zealous tackles, not shameful pratfalls caused by changing air currents. Far from driving us away from the game, though, Neville's dive only drew gales of laughter at the Football Factory.

Of course, Moyes' jibe was directed toward the gravity-challenged Suarez. But you couldn't expect the Uruguayan to take Moyes' comment, um, lying down. And you also couldn't expect Moyes to find Suarez's subsequent celebration to be anything but childish and petty. The fact that the dour Scot took a few menacing steps toward the prone and grinning Suarez is further proof that among his many managerial gifts -- motivational tactics, fiscal prudence, defensive organization -- a sense of humor isn't one of them.

You could argue that Suarez's 1-0 swan dive was karmic retribution for Moyes, but the Everton manager enjoyed the last laugh, as a perfectly legitimate Suarez goal at the death was wrongly ruled offside, denying Liverpool a dramatic victory and a much-needed two additional points.

Matthew Peters/Getty Images
Roberto Di Matteo and Ferguson debate the finer points of the game.
But then poor adjudication doesn't seem to amuse many managers these days. Take Roberto Di Matteo, for instance. The normally unflappable Italian flapped wildly when Chelsea's Fernando Torres was dismissed with 21 minutes left in Sunday's fractious battle with Manchester United at the Bridge. Torres was already on a yellow for a DeJongian high kick on Tom Cleverley at the end of the first half when he went sprawling about 20 yards from goal after Jonny Evans appeared to clip him from behind. Clattenburg went to his pocket as Evans, not for the first time in the game, looked on in horror. The United defender had earlier hacked a clearance against his own post and now it seemed that he had given away a free kick in a dangerous position. It was only when Clattenburg brandished a second yellow card at Torres that the blood returned to the defender's face.

"She fell over" the United supporters chanted gleefully at the Football Factory, while the Chelsea fans rented the air with howls of outrage not seen since Jack burned the breakfast quiche. When Sir Alex joined the debate and got up in Di Matteo's grill, I thought it was all about to kick off at the bar, but the Blues mob was content to simply shout "F--- off, Fergie"

Since Clattenburg had already dismissed Branislav Ivanovic for scything down Ashley Young from behind as the United winger ran clear on goal, Torres' ejection meant Chelsea would have to fight on -- 9 versus 12. When the camera panned to an impressively impassive Roman Abramovich in the stands, I wondered if he was making a mental note to himself to start buying referees along with world-class midfielders. After all, it was largely through their supremely gifted, skillful and high-priced holy trinity of Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar that the Blues were able to overcome an early 2-0 deficit to draw level with 37 minutes to play, only for Clattenburg to derail their heroic comeback with one dim-witted call.

And the worst was yet to come.

With 15 minutes remaining, United pressed their numerical advantage as Robin van Persie, who had already scored one and caused an own goal by David Luiz, cracked a fierce shot that Petr Cech tipped onto the post and then frantically scrambled off the line. But the ball went only 6 yards to an onrushing Rafael, who lashed a hard shot vaguely goalward that was turned in by Chicharito. The only problem was that the Mexican was a half-yard offside when Rafael unleashed his shot. Chelsea had been Clattenburged-squared, and it didn't sit well with their fans, who expressed their disgust by throwing missiles from the stands, obviously intended for the referee but missing their mark and instead apparently injuring a steward.

There is no truth to the rumor that Torres had been teaching them how to aim.

So to a resounding chorus of boos, both at the Bridge and the Football Factory, United embezzled three points from Fort Stamford for the first time in a decade. While Ferguson's men can point to their fair share of Bridge grievances over the years -- most memorably Didier Drogba scoring a title decider while 2 yards offside -- Sunday's jackpot of one own goal, one offsides goal and two red cards certainly let the Red Devils enjoy the rub of the green.

Or, as Chelsea fans saw it, the rob of the green.

Arsenal at the Crossroads

By: timbersfan, 12:15 AM GMT on October 31, 2012

Sometimes a manager loses it and reaches a point where he must admit that perhaps the game has passed him by. Like a golfer who suddenly gets the yips he must accept that, whatever it was that made him capable of doing the things he once did, it ain’t in him no more. None of it. Arsene Wenger looks increasingly like a man whose best days are long behind him. The Arsenal manager has now gone seven years without winning a trophy, and even a heavily labored 1-0 win against Queens Park Rangers on Saturday — thanks to a goal that looked suspiciously offside — did little to suggest that things will be different this season. We are still in the thick of autumn, yet Arsenal already look as if they will be a footnote in the story of how this season’s Premier League title was won. After consecutive losses against Norwich and Schalke, Wenger admitted last week that, with less than a third of the season behind them, his team has hit a wall. You wonder if any of it matters to the longtime Arsenal boss, who said last week that qualifying for the Champions League was more important than winning a trophy. Wenger, who has an economics degree, has turned Arsenal into a money-making enterprise, making a profit in an era when Chelsea and Manchester City continue to rack up record losses. But he is now in danger of becoming a parody of himself, a man who elevates everything over the result itself.

I’ve always been fascinated with the Arsenal manager because in a world where only wins matter, he posits that there is something bigger than winning. For him, football is an abstraction, a game in which aesthetics are valued as much as, if not more than, trophies. He continues to construct a team that entertains its fans, punches above its weight in Europe, and eventually falls agonizingly short of what’s required to win silverware. There was a time when it wasn’t always like this, when Wenger won trophies while entertaining. Arsenal won its last Premier League title with a team that cost slightly more than Manchester United paid for Rio Ferdinand. The team included World Cup winners Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pirès, and Gilberto Silva. The combined cost of the starting back four of Ashley Cole, Sole Campbell, Kolo Touré, and Lauren was less than seven and a half million pounds.

Wenger hasn’t lost his eye for cheap talent, and right now I’m sure he is looking at video of a 16-year-old from Kathmandu who has a silky first touch. You could build a great starting lineup of ex-Arsenal players from recent years. In defense you have Ashley Cole, Gael Clichy, William Gallas, and Touré, a midfield four of Cesc Fabregas, Alex Song, Samir Nasri, and Mathieu Flamini, with Robin van Persie and Emmanuel Adebayor starting as forwards. That list has to make for painful reading for Arsenal’s fans, as it is clear now that they are a feeder club for the Premier League and the rest of Europe. No other conclusion is logical. Ever since Roman Abramovich shifted the financial goalposts and Manchester City's ownership group moved them even further, Arsenal has found it difficult to compete. The talent Wenger nurtures eventually jumps ship for bigger salaries elsewhere. Robin van Persie more than doubled his wages when he left Arsenal for Manchester United, and it’s likely that Nasri did the same going to Manchester City. It’s easy to look at these players as mercenaries, but the truth is they went to clubs that not only gave them more money but also offered them a better chance of winning. Ashley Cole won the Champions League with Chelsea; Clichy, Nasri, and Touré won the Premier League title with Manchester City; and you wouldn’t bet against Song and Cesc winning something this season with Barcelona.

In the current financial climate, Arsenal are already priced out of big-name players long before the bidding starts. Arsenal was one of the first clubs in England to be interested in Eden Hazard, but once the Belgian star became available the choice was between Manchester United and Chelsea, as Arsenal could not stump up the eventual transfer fee of over £30 million.

The danger is that if Arsenal go chasing waterfalls they just might drive themselves off a cliff. They have reason for concern; the recent financial struggles of teams like Portsmouth and Rangers serve as signposts on the dangerous road ahead. Even well-established European giants like AC Milan are feeling the pinch, as a wage-slashing summer sale of their top talents has the club nestled firmly in a relegation battle in Serie A. Spending more won’t guarantee trophies, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that in Europe’s top leagues last season the wealthiest clubs in each competition — Real Madrid, Juventus, Manchester City, and Porto — all won the league title. Paris Saint-Germain spent their way to second in Ligue 1, racking up 79 points, a record for a second-place team in France. Borussia Dortmund in Germany seem to be the exception to the rule.

Wenger has said frequently that Arsenal cannot compete with its wealthier rivals, and he seems to be weathering the storm until UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules make an impact. It’s unclear, though, how much that will change Arsenal’s fortunes as the club falls further down the Premier League pecking order, having been leapfrogged by Manchester City and Chelsea in recent years. If Wenger wants Arsenal to be anything more than an inconvenience for the Premier League’s top sides on their march to the title, he needs to loosen the purse strings and spend, but doing so would require admitting something to himself: It is time to accept that his vanity project of pretty football has failed, and that Arsenal are now little more than lovable losers. If Wenger cannot win in this brave new world and bring Arsenal fans the success he once did, he should step aside and give someone else an opportunity. That is if the majority owner, Stan Kroenke, wants fans to believe that he cares more about winning than about turning a profit. Wenger has taken the club as far as he can. One day there will be a statue of him outside the Emirates Stadium. He deserves it. Arsenal fans are fond of saying “In Arsene We Trust.” He earned their trust with a track record of winning in his early years. With another trophy-less season very much a possibility, how much longer can the owners and Arsenal's fans afford to entrust Wenger with the future of club?

Winter Is Coming to Philly

By: timbersfan, 12:14 AM GMT on October 31, 2012

The last days of the Andy Reid era are finally upon you, Eagles fans. When Reid booted longtime confidant and short-time defensive coordinator Juan Castillo out onto Pattison Avenue during Philadelphia's bye week, he scapegoated one of his strongest allies to distract the teeming hordes from the serious problems with his football team. (The time to fire Castillo was during the offseason.) He pinned his hopes on the possibility that new coordinator Todd Bowles would keep the defense strong while Michael Vick's astronomical turnover ratio regressed to the mean and delivered a competent offense in the process. He fired Castillo because he didn't have a viable replacement for Vick.

The problem with firing Castillo is that the move eliminated the last distraction for the Eagles. There aren't any more excuses for Reid, Vick, or the third member of the Philadelphia troika whose disappointing play over the past couple of years might lead to his departure from town. Nnamdi Asomugha has been a better player than Vick has this year, but the ease the Falcons had in beating Asomugha for the game's defining long touchdown pass on Sunday said a lot about how the Eagles haven't gotten the final puzzle piece they were looking for when they signed him in the summer of 2011.

Some plays are harder to diagnose than others. Julio Jones's 63-yard touchdown from Sunday is one of the easier ones. Watch the play and you'll see Asomugha get caught in no man's land on a go route up the sidelines by Jones. He doesn't jam Jones at the line of scrimmage, and while Asomugha often relied on his proprioception to use the sidelines as a weapon in Oakland, Jones runs right by him and has a downright easy path to a touchdown. It's not just that Asomugha gets burned; it's that he doesn't even get near Jones. That makes it such a remarkable play.

Over the past year and a half, when Asomugha's been involved in that sort of ugly play, it's often come attached to some sort of excuse from the team (or, to be fair, from people like me). When you get a player like Asomugha, who was so good in Oakland for so long, everybody's natural inclination is to try to find ways to justify his presence at a disaster. Oh, that's not Nnamdi's fault; there was miscommunication and the play wasn't his responsibility. Or it was really safety Kurt Coleman's fault. Or it was Juan Castillo's fault for shifting Asomugha out of his traditional role and into the middle of the field. Now Castillo is gone, and Asomugha just had someone blow by him up the sidelines for an easy touchdown. As tempting as it is to blame everything on Coleman all the time, even he wasn't responsible for this one.

It's not fair to say that Asomugha's been a bust in Philadelphia, since he has put together stretches of above-average play and helped make the life of opposite corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie easier. But when the Eagles signed Asomugha, they weren't signing a guy playing at that level; they went into the market and gave Asomugha a five-year, $60 million deal expecting to get Nnamdi Asomugha, the guy who shut down an entire side of the field for the Raiders for three years. Since he arrived in town, it has felt like we've all been waiting for the real Nnamdi to show up, like he's some schematic change or settling-in period away from being the superstar cornerback most everyone expected him to be. After Jones made him look so ordinary on Sunday, it feels easier to just accept that he's never going to be that player in Philadelphia.

Just as Reid is handicapped by his paucity of alternatives on the offensive side of the ball with regard to Vick (whose well-publicized issues were covered several weeks ago), there's not much he can do about Asomugha. For whatever strengths Bowles has as a defensive coordinator, he can't implement a new defensive scheme that's designed to give Asomugha more help in a matter of a few days. There's nobody behind Asomugha on the depth chart who would offer anything resembling Asomugha's level of play, and the safeties playing at the back end of the scheme are still erratic and prone to costly mistakes. And even if Asomugha did play at his expected level of performance, Philadelphia's pass rush remains virtually nonexistent; on Sunday, their two sacks of Matt Ryan represented the first time since Week 3 that the Eagles took down an opposing passer for a loss. Their sack rate is at just 3.4 percent, a figure that only the Jaguars look up toward. Last year, even with Castillo at the helm, they were operating with an 8.8 percent sack rate. More pressure means less time for receivers to get open downfield, which reduces the burden upon Asomugha and those safeties.

The particularly damaging thing for Reid is that he's moved more and more into a personnel role over the past few seasons, notably winning a power struggle with former team president Joe Banner this past year that forced Banner out of the organization and to the ownership group that eventually bought the Browns. More so than five or 10 years ago, the decisions to sign Asomugha and lock up Vick after his breakout season fall on Reid's shoulders. And because of those moves and how they haven't worked out, Reid is virtually out of cards to play. He can try to rebuild around a new core this offseason, but if the rumors are true, Reid won't be at the helm if the Eagles don't make the playoffs this January. He'll shuffle through his offensive-line options once or twice more over the next few weeks, but the only move he has left this season is to go nuclear and bench Vick for Nick Foles. (And if that move works, Reid deserves a lifetime contract.) For whatever space the Castillo firing granted him, Reid seems to be unable to extricate himself from Asomugha and Vick, the stars he expected to be his lead players on either side of the ball. When the curtain draws on the Reid era — and right now there's somebody holding the rope and gesturing like it's time to start pulling — his bets on Vick and Asomugha will serve as two of the biggest reasons why the Dream Team never fulfilled its promise on paper.

Even the Heart Palpitations Are Bigger in Texas

When the Giants came back to beat the Cowboys in Texas during Week 14 a year ago, the difference between winning and losing amounted to about four feet. Tony Romo overthrew Miles Austin by about that margin on what would have been a game-sealing third-down conversion. Of course, those few feet ended up being all the difference in the world to the Giants; that victory gave them a chance to win the division with a second triumph over the Cowboys in Week 17, and once the Giants got into the playoffs, they continued their hot streak and promptly won the Super Bowl. It's hard to imagine such a small margin in one game having such a huge impact on a season, and it's even more difficult to imagine the Cowboys and Giants deciding a game upon an even smaller gap.

Of course, that's exactly what happened on Sunday. Dez Bryant's stunning catch on a Hail Mary came down to about three inches of finger striking on the wrong side of the chalk at the back of the end zone, a difference that negated a stunning Cowboys comeback and restored a narrow Giants victory. For whatever impact the win will have on the fate of these two teams come playoff time, the important thing is to not erase everything you learned about them from the first 59 minutes and 50 seconds of the game.

Take the concept of resiliency, an important value for teams in the "Nobody Believed In Us" era of leaguewide motivation. If Bryant's hand stays inbounds and the Cowboys win, the vast majority of stories after the game would fete Dallas for being so resilient after going down 23-0 within 17 minutes, with their surprising mental toughness fueling their stunning comeback before culminating in the biggest surprise of all, Bryant's career-path shifting catch. Just as Bryant responded to the adversity produced from his early fumble on a punt return by coming up with the game-winning catch when his team needed him the most, the struggles and rough patches that marked the early stages of Bryant's career were now about to give way to the stardom his talents seemed to predict, thanks to the healing powers of his game-winning catch.

Bryant's hand didn't stay inbounds, and so now it's the Giants who are resilient. They're the ones who withstood the Dallas onslaught and went from having a 93 percent Win Expectancy with four minutes left in the second quarter to trailing 15 minutes later without batting an eye. Because they've overcome adversity throughout Tom Coughlin's tenure, these weathered veterans of two playoff runs believed in themselves, executed when they needed to, and came out on top when it really mattered. And that Bryant kid was out of bounds, so who cares?

What should you actually take away from the game? Well, if you want to walk away with just one thing, remember how great the Dallas defense was against one of the league's best offenses. Rob Ryan's group had an excellent game despite losing elite inside linebacker Sean Lee to a season-ending toe injury last week. Allowing 29 points doesn't sound particularly impressive, but consider where those points came from. One touchdown came on a Jason Pierre-Paul interception of Tony Romo. New York's other touchdown came on a drive that started on Dallas's 31-yard line, thanks to another Romo interception. The Giants had three other drives that started in Dallas territory, including one that began on the Cowboys' 15-yard line, and Dallas was able to hold the Giants to field goals on each of those drives. Contrast that with the Cowboys, who didn't begin a single possession inside Giants territory all day.

Otherwise, when the Cowboys defense had something resembling normal field position, they shut down the Giants. New York had 10 meaningful possessions that began on their side of the field, with an average starting field position right in front of the 20-yard line. Those 10 possessions produced a total of six points. Six! Dallas held Ahmad Bradshaw to 3.5 yards per carry, shut down the passing game after an early big play for Rueben Randle, and allowed the Giants just 11 first downs while stopping them on 12 of their 15 third-down conversion attempts. That's downright heroic work against this offense, a performance that will be forgotten because of how it was affected by starting field position and Bryant's near-miss at the end of the game.

In reality, it's just lazy to assign football teams metallurgical properties. Teams are as resilient as their luck and their execution, and while the Cowboys were able to work their way back from a devastating early deficit, the Giants were just a tiny bit better in the fourth quarter. About three inches better.

Jeromey Stoked, Caught a Pass Today

Before I get to the league's more notable coaching decisions, a quick aside to document and even honor one of the more bizarrely dismal performances I've ever seen from one player on a single snap. Chargers right tackle Jeromey Clary has been one of the worst regular starters in football over the past several years, especially in pass protection. Because the Chargers are run by A.J. Smith, they gave Clary a four-year, $20 million deal before the 2011 season and promptly watched him lead the team in sacks allowed for the fourth consecutive season (per Football Outsiders).

With that all being said, it's not a surprise that he allowed a hurry of Philip Rivers on a key third-down play just before halftime against the Browns. When Rivers tried to avoid the on-rushing Jabaal Sheard and get the ball out of his hands, Sheard tipped the attempted pass up into the air. Despite the visible protests of Rivers, Clary promptly caught the pass, 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage, and then advanced it forward two yards for a cumulative eight-yard loss. The completion forced the Chargers to use their final timeout and turned a 33-yard field goal attempt into a much more difficult (especially in awful conditions in Cleveland) shot from 43 yards out. It's a stunning piece of awful work.

The natural argument against railing on Clary for catching the pass is that he was in the heat of the moment and wasn't thinking. Well, to some extent, that's true, but you know what's also true? An offensive lineman is taught to never catch a tipped pass. In virtually every scenario, with perhaps a fourth-and-short play aside, it's going to be better for a blocking lineman to bat the ball down than it will be to have him catch and carry it. The risk of a turnover from a guy who doesn't carry the ball is enormous, and the possible upside — the likelihood that he's going to waltz through the defense and gain significant yardage without injuring himself — is minimal. And in a league where ballcarriers can stop themselves on the 1-yard line and eat up the remaining clock, as Brian Westbrook did several years ago, Clary should know the game situation and realize how stupid it is to catch a ball 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage.

Thank You for Not Coaching

This was actually a very impressive week for the league's assembled book-abiders and risk-avoiders, as gusty conditions in many stadiums east of the Mississippi forced teams to be more aggressive on fourth-and-short in and around the red zone. That's the play-calling location where the vast majority of points thrown away by teams pop up, and while their aggressiveness did not often come by choice, it was a sight for these sore eyes.

Fear not, though, because some of our old favorites still managed to put together curious decisions, even in games where they were otherwise intelligent. Let's start with Pat Shurmur, who went for it on fourth-and-short early on and converted it with a Brandon Weeden sneak. That drive finished with a Trent Richardson touchdown run, one that served as the margin of victory and Cleveland's only score in a 7-6 affront to televised football.

Shurmur made up for it, though, with one of the lowest-reward challenges you'll ever see. On the very first play after the score, Philip Rivers threw a pass from his own 18-yard line to Robert Meachem for six yards. The catch looked a little off, though, and Shurmur promptly threw his challenge flag. In the first quarter. Of a 7-0 game. To get six yards. On first down. Deep in San Diego territory. Shurmur's challenge, per the calculator at Advanced NFL Stats, did not improve his team's chances of winning by even 1 percent.

For that incredibly tiny improvement in his chances of winning, Shurmur ran the risk of not being able to challenge a game-changing turnover at some point over the next 45 minutes of action were he to lose a second challenge. It doesn't matter whether Shurmur is 100 percent sure he'll win this first challenge or not; it's like being granted two wishes and using one of them to have a genie take out the trash for you.

Pete Carroll had a generous challenge of his own during his team's narrow 28-24 loss to the Lions on Sunday. His challenge came on a third-and-8 with 6:38 left in the third quarter and the Seahawks protecting a three-point lead on their own 45-yard line. There, Matthew Stafford was able to find Titus Young for a nine-yard gain and a first down, but Carroll was unsure about the catch's validity and chose to challenge. Sounds reasonable, right? Well, I left out one important fact: The referees had also called Brandon Browner for a defensive holding penalty on the play, one that the Lions declined but could choose to accept if the challenge was upheld and the pass was ruled incomplete. Since both scenarios give the Lions a first down, and defensive holding is a five-yard penalty, the difference between challenging and not challenging here is a grand total of four yards. With three offensive downs still to come before any field goal attempt, those four yards mean nothing. Even worse, Carroll was wrong and the Seahawks didn't even win the challenge!

The Bears, finally, were able to get lucky and make a comeback to beat the Panthers despite themselves at times on Sunday. Lovie Smith made a bizarre decision early in the fourth quarter, when he chose to kick a field goal on fourth-and-5 from the Carolina 15-yard line while trailing, 19-7. You'll note that a field goal would only make the score 19-10, keeping the game in two-score territory with a limited amount of time available. The Advanced NFL Stats calculator suggests that the Bears should have gone for it if they thought their chances of succeeding were better than 31 percent, a figure that they were likely ahead of. They ended up being bailed out by a Cam Newton pick-six several minutes later, which combined with their offensive touchdown on the ensuing drive to give the Bears the lead.

Of course, it wouldn't be much of a column without Ron Rivera. The embattled Panthers coach faced a tough decision on the opening drive of the game on Sunday, as his Panthers came up just short on third down and were forced to face a fourth-and-1 from the Carolina 49-yard line. Because they're the Panthers and that's what they do, they decided to punt and play the field-position game, a move that stood out as even weirder when Carolina promptly went for and converted a later fourth down. When Rivera eventually does get fired, Panthers fans might rejoice at first, but they'll later get to thinking. "Sure, he wasn't a great coach," one of them might say, "but at least he played by the book and never went for it on fourth down. That I can respect."

Rivera Runs Through It

Finally, another quick take on what seems to be the league's easiest target. During this past week of upheaval in Carolina, Rivera began to leak and then implement plans to move the Panthers into a more conventional offensive setup, removing much of the zone-read package that they highlighted last year and replacing it with a traditional power-running attack. The team also suggested that they would use Jonathan Stewart as their featured back at the expense of DeAngelo Williams, who is reportedly on the trading block. Well, to be fair, Rivera has a very specific plan: "I want to see one guy pound and get a rhythm, then see the other guy pound and get a rhythm."

That speaks to just how desperate Rivera is to keep his job — and how lost he is in actually figuring out why the Panthers are struggling. Carolina's running game is hardly the problem with their team; they were seventh in yards per carry (at 4.6 yards per pop) and 11th in rushing DVOA heading into Sunday. With their new plans in place, the Panthers faced an admittedly excellent Chicago run defense and ran for just 119 yards on 36 carries, an average of 3.3 yards per attempt. Take out Cam Newton's runs, and Carolina's expensive backfield used that power-running scheme to average just 2.6 yards per carry.

There's an old Bill James corollary that holds that bad organizations blame their problems on their best player. The Panthers are approaching their issues in a similar way. They're removing the unique aspects of their offense that played to Newton's strengths a year ago, concepts that have since become nearly ubiquitous around the league, and are replacing them with a conventional alignment that minimizes Newton's responsibilities and places a heavier load on their injury-riddled offensive line and tight ends. Moving Newton out of the shotgun and under center will also make it more difficult for him to scramble and/or go through his reads as a passer, which should offset any gains provided by the more traditional play-action opportunities in the power scheme. It's reminiscent of how the lesser Jim Mora tried to shoehorn Michael Vick into being a conventional quarterback by forcing him to play in a traditional West Coast offense during their time in Atlanta.

If the Panthers are really going to turn things around, it's not going to come through abandoning the things that they do best and pretending that their best player is responsible for their problems. In reality, they need to get healthier, dump the bad contracts from the Marty Hurney era, and draft better so that they have more depth to weather injury crises like the one they're currently going through. Those are organizational issues that can't be fixed by changing the offensive scheme, so while there's not much Rivera can do to fix them, the changes he's making are scapegoating the wrong guy and actively making his team worse.

Serge Ibaka Is the Most Important Player in the NBA

By: timbersfan, 12:13 AM GMT on October 31, 2012

The best big-man defenders have a sense of timing and space that borders on basketball genius — an understanding of when to give help, how far to slide over, when they've helped enough, and how the other nine players are about to move around the floor. Serge Ibaka hasn't developed that kind of sense, and whether he does so might be the single biggest variable that will determine the balance of power in the NBA over the next three to five years.

It was true before the James Harden trade, and it's probably even more true now: Ibaka is the most important player in the league. The Thunder have made a long-term bet that two wings and one big man is a better big-money core than three wings and a patchwork of cost-effective bigs. The Harden–Russell Westbrook–Kevin Durant trio would have always presented some redundancies, but they are all more or less sure All-Star talents. Ibaka, despite the astounding shot blocks and bogus runner-up finish in last season's Defensive Player of the Year voting, isn't at that level. He has to at least approach it for the Thunder to remain title contenders this season and going forward.

Let's be clear: Ibaka is not a poor defender or even an average one. He's better than that, and last season he became more effective and disciplined in the post, and in containing pick-and-rolls on the perimeter. But he is prone to helping too much, and, more damaging, helping for a couple of beats too long. That can make him late recovering to shooters on the perimeter, and it adds a layer of confusion to a Thunder defense filled with young players already prone to breaking from core "on a string" defensive unison. If one player is late, a teammate might take up his assignment, opening a hole elsewhere and creating chaos, with multiple defenders rushing in a panic at the same shooter.

All of this came to a head against Miami in the 2012 Finals, when the Thunder defense failed both in lineups big (with Ibaka and either Kendrick Perkins or Nick Collison) and small (with just one of the three). The Thunder figure to play small more often with uncertain depth beyond that trio, and Collison loses a bit of his utility upon the departure of Harden, with whom he formed one of the game's most lethal pick-and-roll combinations.

Ibaka has to make a leap on both ends, but especially on defense, where Miami possessions too often looked like this midway through:

Or this:

Both these stills capture the Thunder defense in crisis, only they don't realize it quite yet. In each, the Thunder are overloading down low to stop a Dwyane Wade drive; you can see Ibaka's blue no. 9 jersey in the first image, and he's standing just above the block/charge circle in the second. The basic idea is right; aggressive help schemes are part of every NBA defense now, and teams have to protect the rim above all else. But the use of space is problematic. Ibaka is too close to his nearest teammate, and the Thunder as a result are not in position to deny passing lanes across the court to Ibaka's man (Shane Battier). If one thing separated Miami from Oklahoma City last season, it was the way Miami's players moved together on the court to make just about every option difficult. The Thunder weren't ready to do that, and the issues obviously go beyond Ibaka. Other Thunder players were often unsure of how and when to rotate around the court after an initial breakdown, leaving holes for smart teams.

Experience will help, but Ibaka is the one player with game- and franchise-changing potential in this regard. The Thunder ranked 11th in points allowed per possession last season, and they held the high-powered Spurs to league-average production over the final four games of the conference finals. The potential is there; Ibaka is the player most likely to unlock it.

Watch the best big-man defenders — Tyson Chandler, Andrew Bogut, Kevin Garnett, Dwight Howard — and you'll notice an economy of movement that is really something, considering the speed of an NBA game. They recognize immediately, almost before it happens, the moment at which their help has contained an initial opponent action, and it is thus time to return to their original assignment. They are already beginning their retreat, shifting their momentum, at the split second the ball handler on a pick-and-roll picks up his dribble.

Ibaka hasn't mastered this economy of movement yet. He lingers, as here at the left edge of the lane near the dotted line, when the Gary Neal/Tiago Splitter pick-and-roll is clearly done as a threat. Ibaka is only just gathering his weight for a change of direction — even as Neal's pass to Ibaka's guy, Stephen Jackson, is out of Neal's hands:

The Spurs called plays designed to take advantage of Ibaka's tendency to stay too long. For instance, they'd have Boris Diaw and then Tim Duncan set consecutive picks for Tony Parker, knowing Ibaka would hang around the scrum longer than required as Diaw flared open to the opposite corner (Ibaka is at the elbow in the photo below, with Diaw open in the right corner):

Or take this photo, in which Durant and Collison have combined to thwart a screen for Derrick Favors on the left block but Ibaka is still in the paint, far from an elite mid-range shooter (in this case Paul Millsap):

The issues extend to the perimeter, where Ibaka can be unsure of himself in covering the weak side. In the below still, for instance, the Thunder are overloading the left side of the floor in response to a Steve Nash–Marcin Gortat pick-and-roll that has ended up with Nash passing to Shannon Brown in the left corner. Ibaka is late to shift into the space halfway between Channing Frye and Jared Dudley as Durant abandons Dudley to help in the paint, perhaps because Ibaka understands Frye (his man) is an elite shooter. But the gap leaves the skip pass from Brown to Dudley, who would hit a 3 on his possession as both Ibaka and Durant ran out at him — leaving Frye unguarded for a potential second pass.

Ibaka's astounding athleticism allows him to make up for a lot of these half-step errors. It's actually scary how much ground he can cover in a blink. These same help-and-recover skills will aid Ibaka in becoming an even more fearsome rim protector. Combine that athleticism with a deeper understanding of NBA defensive nuances, and Oklahoma City might be able to build a top-five overall defense. And again: It's not all on Ibaka. Everyone has to get better, both individually and as a team. But he's the one with the highest impact ceiling, both because of his own athleticism and because he's a big guy. His development is especially important if Oklahoma is going to play small, with Kevin Durant at power forward, more often.

The need for progress also exists on offense, though less urgently, since this is Oklahoma City's strong end. Still: The Thunder reached their greatest scoring heights with Harden, Durant, and Westbrook on the floor, and now Harden is gone. They'll have to get that extra punch someplace else, and squeezing a more diverse pick-and-roll game from Ibaka could be one such place. About 18 percent of Oklahoma City's possessions last season ended with a pick-and-roll ball handler finishing the play via a shot, drawn foul, or turnover, per the stat-tracking service Synergy Sports. That's a big number relative to the league average. But only 4.5 percent of their possessions — a tiny number — ended with the roll man in a pick-and-roll finishing the play. Combined, that was the biggest ball-handler/roll-man split in the league.

Ibaka made himself more available as a pick-and-roll target last season, but he's still in the early stages of developing into a consistent weapon in this way. He prefers to pop out for jumpers up top or along the baseline, and while he's a very good mid-range shooter, these are suboptimal looks that don't place a ton of stress on defenses. And Ibaka can be weirdly hesitant to take them, letting openings slip away.

The end goal should be to mix in more hard dives to the rim, Tyson Chandler–style. Big guys who make themselves a pick-and-roll threat that way force defenses to collapse hard, opening up passing lanes that wouldn't exist otherwise. (They also catch their share of lob dunks, of which Ibaka should have more.)

This should also come with experience. Timing a cut to the rim so as to create a workable passing lane is an art, especially when the guy with the ball (i.e., Westbrook or Durant) is a young score-first player still learning the nuances of passing on the move at this level. Westbrook and Durant have made great strides as passers, with room for much more. And in a bit of good news, Ibaka never really developed a great pick-and-roll chemistry with Harden, in part because Collison was the perfect partner for Harden.

Ibaka and Durant have a decent chemistry on very high pick-and-rolls, and Westbrook likes to run them with Ibaka at the foul line area — closer to the rim, so that Ibaka's jumpers and cuts have to cover less distance.

One thing that is indisputably on Ibaka alone: He has to become more productive when someone comes open in this situation:

Ibaka had 28 assists last season. That is not a typo. He assisted on just 2.5 percent of Thunder field goals while on the floor, the fourth-lowest mark in the league among guys who played at least 1,000 minutes. He almost makes Tyler Hansbrough look like a good passer. Yes, Ibaka's job on this team is to finish, but even finishers luck into more assists than this, especially when featured so often on pick-and-rolls. Ibaka is chronically missing wide-open shooters in the corners and guys under the rim in order to take less efficient 2-point jumpers:

This wouldn't be as much of an issue if Ibaka were more comfortable catching in this area, taking a hard dribble, and exploding to the rim. He'd get more free throws doing that, and he showed flashes of this kind of game in the playoffs, including a nifty pump-fake-and-drive move that fooled both San Antonio and Miami a few times. But this stuff is in the early stages. Ibaka barely gets to the line at all; among 75 players who finished at least 50 possessions as the roll man in a pick-and-roll, only eight drew shooting fouls less often than Ibaka, according to Synergy.

This is the hard work of the NBA — rounding off less noticeable skills through repetition, experience, film study, and coaching. Dunking is fun; this is boring. Ibaka is already a very good player, and the Thunder are already a very good team. They'll have to develop into something more to challenge Miami, and Ibaka represents the best path there.

Is This Real? Your 7-0 Atlanta Falcons

By: timbersfan, 12:12 AM GMT on October 31, 2012

While it might seem like football just started yesterday, incredibly, we're coming up on the halfway point of this NFL season this weekend. Week 9 is a good time to take a step back from the game-to-game grind and examine each team with a longer view — so that's exactly what I'm going to do. Over the rest of the week at Grantland, I'll be taking a look back at how some notable teams and players have performed over the first half while looking forward to how things might change during the final half of the season.

A natural place to start is with the league's only undefeated team. The Atlanta Falcons have been popularly elected as the league's best team, and while I don't necessarily agree, it's not difficult to make a case that the Falcons belong in that discussion. What I'm interested in finding out, though, is why this year's Falcons are a step above the other Matt Ryan–era teams through the first seven games. If anything, the previous Ryan-led Falcons squads have been teams that got hot as the season went along: During their three double-digit win seasons, the Falcons were a combined 13-8 (61.9 percent) across their first seven games and 21-6 (77.8 percent) afterward. You can make anecdotal cases for what changed — the turnover at offensive coordinator, Ryan stepping up his game, Julio Jones taking a step forward in his sophomore campaign — but I'm looking for tangible differences in their play. What is it about the 7-0 Falcons that is different from the guys who showed up over the previous four years? And will it stick into the second half? And beyond?

As it turns out, it's actually an improvement on the defensive side of the ball that's helped drive this squad toward the league's elite. A year ago, Atlanta ranked seventh in points scored, and this year, they're fifth in points per game. Better, but not by much. On the other hand, last year's Falcons team was a disappointing 18th in points allowed; this year's unit lost star cornerback Brent Grimes as the season began, but they're still an impressive seventh in points allowed per game.

Why have they gotten better? Start with field position. Through their first six games, Atlanta's defense began games with the most generous average opening field position in all of football, with opposing offenses requiring nearly 77 yards to score a touchdown. Compare that to their opponents last Sunday. Before the loss to the Falcons, Philadelphia had the league's second-worst average starting field position on defense, with the opposition needing less than 69 yards per drive to score. That's close to one full first down per drive.

That additional breathing room would cover for the Falcons if they struggled to avoid allowing first downs, but Atlanta's developed a propensity for getting off the field quickly and reliably. For the first four years that Michael Smith was Atlanta's head coach, the Falcons were downright ugly on third down. In situations where they were either leading or trailing by 14 points or less (a split I'm choosing because it avoids blowout situations, and one I'm using in the per-play analyses below unless mentioned otherwise), the Falcons allowed the opposition to cruise down the field, giving up first downs on 42.8 percent of third-down opportunities, good for the fourth-worst rate in football. This year, through their full seven-game slate, the Falcons have apparently decided that their largesse is simply not worth it. Atlanta has only allowed opposing offenses to pick up first downs on 35.0 percent of their third-down attempts, which is the sixth-best rate in the league. (Secretly the best: Miami, which has allowed conversions a mere 26.7 percent of the time.) That's not because of the distance, either; during both 2008-11 and the 2012 season, Atlanta's distance to go on defensive third downs has been just about league-average. Asante Samuel & Co. simply have more space to get off the field, and do so far more frequently than they used to. That's a recipe for dramatic defensive improvement.

On the offensive side of the ball, Atlanta's improvements are more stylistic than statistically meaningful. In two-score games, their average yards per play on first down are up from 5.5 in 2008-11 (which was 22nd in the league) to 5.9 (11th) this season. They average 6.4 yards to go and pick up 49.4 percent of their third downs, the third-highest rate in the league, but that's nothing new; from 2008-11, they averaged 6.7 yards to go on third down and picked up 45.3 percent of them, which was the fifth-highest rate in football. So they're better on first and third downs this year, but not to the point where it's redefining Atlanta's offense. Instead, it's clear that the team has put its faith in Ryan over Michael Turner and the power running game. From 2008-11, Ryan threw the ball on just 41 percent of his team's first-and-10 two-score situations. In 2012, that figure is all the way up to 56 percent.

For whatever impact those changes have had, there's a larger context here: Namely, that the Falcons have picked up an easy schedule for the first time since Ryan arrived in town. Pro-Football-Reference.com notes that Atlanta has played the easiest schedule of any team in the NFC, partially thanks to their four-game excursion against the AFC West. Even more exciting for Falcons fans is that the schedule really doesn't get much tougher from this point forward. Over the next nine games, Atlanta only plays a team that currently possesses a winning record once, and that belongs to the Giants in Week 15. If you change the criterion to positive point differential, the only other team that pops into the equation are the 3-4 Buccaneers.

And, naturally, I've got some lucky numbers to bring up. Atlanta's done a great job of avoiding fumbles on offense so far, with just four to their name through seven games. They've recovered three of them — and with the defense nabbing seven of 11 fumbles that have hit the ground in their games, Atlanta's 10-for-15 on fumble recoveries. While it's obvious that they haven't lost a game decided by one score or less so far, winning four of seven by seven points or fewer is pretty rare. It's only happened to two 7-0 teams since 1990, and those teams — the 1990 49ers and 2003 Chiefs — went 13-5 the rest of the way, winning seven of their nine one-touchdown-or-less tilts in the process. In fact, when you look at the 19 teams that have started 7-0 over that time frame, they proceeded to go 115-47 over the remaining nine games of their respective years, winning nearly 75 percent of their close games. That's still not quite as good as winning 100 percent of your one-touchdown games, but it's certainly good enough to get by. In reality, though, a bad break in the narrow victories over Carolina or Denver would have been enough to turn a 7-0 team into a 5-2 one.

After looking over the numbers, I think 5-2 or 6-1 is a more accurate measure of how Atlanta's really played over the first seven weeks of the season. For all the great work they did in dominating Andy Reid, Michael Vick, and the Eagles on Sunday, they were coming off of three squeakers that saw them win by a combined 12 points. I think the Falcons can sustain a lot of their new performance going forward, especially if they stay healthy and continue to operate against an easy schedule. But I don't think they're the best team in the NFC, and even with the easy schedule, I don't think they'll be undefeated all that much longer.

Thunder Bolt

By: timbersfan, 12:09 AM GMT on October 31, 2012

This probably wasn't the deal Sam Presti hoped for when he thought about the possibility of losing James Harden. A true title contender dealing a 23-year-old star like Harden, one of the very best young players in the game, out of financial concerns — to ensure profit, basically — is a losing proposition in the short-term. But it's an artful middle-ground move for the Thunder general manager, the sort I (kind of) predicted in August, that might work to create long-term financial flexibility without fatally compromising Oklahoma City's 2012-13 championship hopes.

If you have to deal Harden in exchange for financial breathing room, the dream scenario is to land a sure-thing player in the beginning stages of his rookie deal. A big man trumps a guard. Presti likely started with Anthony Davis before mulling over names like Klay Thompson, Utah's young bigs (Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter), Bradley Beal, Jonas Valanciunas (with Jose Calderon's expiring deal), and maybe one or two others before landing on Houston.1 Thompson would have been an especially nice fit. It's not hard to argue the Thunder could survive the loss of Harden if in return they received an elite shooter capable of some ballhandling duties and at least average defense on the wing. Subtract Harden, and the Thunder don't have much outside shooting on the floor at once; spacing can become an issue for them.2

Harden is a very good shooter, but his best skill is ballhandling and playmaking on the pick-and-roll, and he was never going to be able to use that skill to the optimal degree on the same team as Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. There's a reason Harden came off the bench, propping up strong second units while scoring more and shooting more accurately than he did while playing alongside either Durant or Westbrook, per NBA.com's stats database.

The Thunder's offense reached historic levels of productivity when the three stars played together, and Scott Brooks was getting better at turning all three into active threats within the same sets. But there would always be some redundancy, and the Thunder's defense slipped significantly when all three played.3 An NBA offense can only get so efficient; the Thunder may have been able to maintain their stature by dealing Harden for shooting and a bit more defense.

They haven't done that here, and they also haven't received a can't-miss player on a rookie contract. Jeremy Lamb isn't that kind of player, and the Thunder cannot reasonably expect to get one with their new Raptors pick (likely to be in the no. 10-13 range in the next draft) or a Dallas pick they may not receive until 2018. Kevin Martin is — to be generous — a minus defender.

Martin does provide very good outside shooting and a mobile catch-and-shoot dimension that was not part of Harden's game; one can see Brooks running sets in which Martin and Durant curl off screens on opposite sides. Martin is also a usable secondary ball handler, but he's not in Harden's stratosphere in this regard and almost certainly incapable of wringing high-level productivity out of second units. Eric Maynor will help, but Brooks will rely more on his two incumbent stars, perhaps staggering their minutes more strategically. They should still be able to play small effectively and more often this season, with two of the Maynor/Martin/Perry Jones III trio joining Durant, Ibaka, and Westbrook in lineups with just one big man. And if Durant and Westbrook really are a top-three and top-10 player, respectively, the Thunder should be able to at least stay on the fringes of contention.

But the fall from "true contender" to "fringe contender" is a steep one — one of the largest a team can take. The Harden deal unquestionably hurts the Thunder's odds of dethroning Miami. That is a giant, painful price to pay, and the size of it shows how concerned Oklahoma City's management was about the team's finances going forward.

Keeping Harden on a deal just a bit below the max — the Thunder's ceiling — and sticking with Kendrick Perkins would have meant total payroll and tax bills between $100 million and $110 million in both 2013-14 and the following season under the stepped-up tax rates. That is a steep price to pay for a small-market club that makes only $15 million from its local television deal and may receive little help, if any at all, from the league's new revenue-sharing system.4 Small-market teams have paid hefty tax bills before during championship windows, but the Thunder's tax bill going forward would likely have been the largest in history for a team outside the New York/Prokhorov/Lakers/Mavericks/Blazers heli-skiing crew.

But those tax bills wouldn't have kicked in this season, leaving fans screaming for these alternatives:

• Just sign Harden and amnesty Perkins after this season! That was a viable alternative, but the Thunder payroll in 2013-14 and the next season would still have come in about $5 million over the tax line (at least), and they would have had to pay Perkins's full salary. The total bill would have been in the $90-95 million range, still a huge cost. And just as important: The Thunder, even in this scenario, would have had zero flexibility in signing players. The new collective bargaining agreement bans teams who spend more than $4 million above the tax line from using the full mid-level exception, engaging in sign-and-trade deals, and other roster-building mechanisms. The Thunder would have been subject to those limitations in perpetuity had they kept all four of their young stars. The full mid-level is back in play for them now, with payrolls set around $68 million in both 2013-14 and 2014-15, even factoring in all their coming first-round picks. It's fair to ask, though, how much supporting talent a team really needs with these four guys logging huge minutes together.

• Take a shot this season with the current core and deal Harden later. Harden would have been a restricted free agent next summer, leaving Oklahoma City in total control of the situation. They could have simply matched the inevitable four-year max offer sheet from Houston, Dallas, or Phoenix, and either signed-and-traded Harden right then or dealt him later. Heck, they could have left him unsigned now and made this same deal at the trade deadline.

But there are problems with these scenarios. Suitors wanted Harden before the Halloween contract extension deadline so they could lock him up immediately rather than wasting valuable days in July waiting for restricted free agency to play out. Keeping Harden into next season would mean hefty tax payments for that season, since even dealing Harden for an expiring contract would leave that expiring deal on Oklahoma City's 2013-14 cap sheet. That would amount to putting off the same cost-cutting choice by a year, while in the meantime suffering potential losses and continued turmoil about the team's future. Harden's value probably wouldn't have fallen much over time, but Presti looked at all the variables and decided to act now.

Don't cry for the Thunder or rail against the unintended consequences of the new collective bargaining deal and its harsh tax rates. There are very few examples in the league's modern history of teams in any market carrying four players at max or near-max deals. That was true under the old luxury tax, and it will be true going forward. The new tax makes it less palatable for Oklahoma City, and the new rule limiting teams to one five-year extension — already given to Westbrook — prevented Oklahoma City from offering the carrot of a five-year deal with lower annual salaries.

But again: Teams with four players at this relative salary level have been extraordinarily rare exceptions in any market size. Two or three huge-market teams would have bitten the bullet on Harden in the same situation as Oklahoma City for a couple of seasons; the Lakers are in year one of an ultra-expensive two-year spree. Mikhail Prokhorov doesn't care at all about losing money on the Nets. But even the Lakers have cleared the salary decks beyond 2013-14, and several owners, including Mark Cuban in Dallas, have scaled back spending to avoid the roster-building restrictions mentioned above. The NBA just can't legislate away owners who don't care about losing money (Prokhorov) or basic market realities that allow the Lakers to earn $150 million annually in local TV money — 10 times more than Oklahoma City makes in local TV cash, and enough to fund two team payrolls over the luxury tax line.

The new revenue-sharing system and tax-based restrictions were attempts to legislate in this direction, but they can't eliminate market-based gaps. And the Thunder were going to have issues keeping Harden at the max even under the old system.

But spare me the dreck about how James Harden should have sacrificed for the greater good. He's under no obligation to do so. The Thunder's owners haven't sacrificed profits here; why should Harden? The Thunder brain trust believes in the importance of sacrifice for the greater good, harking back to Tim Duncan taking less than the max in 2007 to help San Antonio afford its complementary stars. They wanted Harden to make that sort of sacrifice. He didn't, and the Thunder voluntarily chose to cut their championship odds in order to save the equivalent of about $1.5 million in salary and a few million more in tax payments every season.

Both sides forced each other into a choice, and the Thunder have chosen Westbrook and Ibaka over Harden. Those are both fascinating choices, and we'll delve further into them later in the week. There is a wide range of opinion around the league about whether the Thunder have chosen correctly on either count. Any of the three paths is defensible, but the Thunder have taken a risk in dealing a proven All-Star-level player and betting on Ibaka developing into that kind of player. But it's an understandable one, given the skill overlap between Durant, Westbrook, and Harden, and the fact that none of those three is a proven plus perimeter defender at this point.

This isn't the best choice for the Thunder's championship aspirations. That would have involved giving the Harden-Durant-Westbrook core one more season to chase the ring, or even accepting one hefty tax bill in 2013-14. The Thunder have been profitable for the last couple of years; why not exchange one year of losses for two years of true title contention?

As for the Rockets, they've paid a steep price, as you can trace all the assets they've sent in this deal back to Kyle Lowry (the price for the Raptors pick) and Samuel Dalembert (the price for the pick that became Lamb). Harden isn't a top-three overall player like Howard, Houston's first choice, but he has the potential to be a top-15 or even top-10 player when unleashed as the focal point of his team. He flopped in the Finals, and it is astounding how many fans and writers are judging Harden's contributions based solely on his play in that series — and against one of the league's most athletic defenses.

Harden is an ultra-efficient scorer who shot 70 percent at the rim and nearly 40 percent on 3s. He is almost unguardable on the pick-and-roll and draws free throws at the rate of a star. He's an elite passer who can also work off-the-ball as a spot-up guy. He has to prove his worth as a max player, and uncertainty about his ability to do so is one likely reason the Thunder dealt him away. Harden's per-minute numbers and overall efficiency suggest he should be able to earn his contract, but he has piled up a lot of those numbers against opposing bench units. When alongside Durant and Westbrook, Harden often had the luxury of working head-to-head against the second- or third-best perimeter defender on the other team. And he's an uneven defender himself, prone to ball-watching, vulnerable to back cuts, and not quite big enough to defend the league's best post-up wing players consistently.

But he only just turned 23, and all the data we have suggests he's a reliable first option. And as mentioned above, his shooting percentages from all over the floor generally improved when Durant and Westbrook hit the bench. There will be growing pains with the Jeremy Lin partnership, since Lin is a subpar shooter for his position. But Lin will improve his shot as he gets more open looks, and he'll learn to cut off the ball from the 3-point arc when Harden drives and sucks Lin's defender toward the foul line.

Best of all: Houston should have max-level cap space in each of the next two summers if they want it, even assuming they keep their draft pick in both 2013 and 2014. (The Hawks own that pick, but they only get it if Houston makes the playoffs.) Houston will have to do some tinkering to carve out room for a veteran's max deal, but that tinkering could be as simple as declining an option on Marcus Morris and losing another bit of flotsam along the way. If Omer Asik emerges as a heavy-minutes defensive game-changer, the Rockets will have a very solid core going forward as the Lakers age and other teams break apart. Josh Smith will headline this summer's class, and if the Rockets carry over their cap flexibility into the summer of 2014, they could make a run at any number of stars who will either be unrestricted free agents (Pau Gasol, Dirk Nowitzki) or carry option clauses that would allow them to hit the market (Miami and New York's stars).

The bigger story here is that with Harden presumably locked up, the 2013 star free agent market is getting pretty dry — assuming Philly and the two Los Angeles teams lock up Andrew Bynum, Chris Paul, and Dwight Howard. Teams are no longer hoarding cap space for a particular summer. Space is becoming a permanent asset, one teams can more easily use in lopsided trades and as a means of generally avoiding the roster-building restrictions that come with overspending.

But that's a story for another day. Today, the Thunder's path to a title over the next few years is significantly harder than it was on Saturday afternoon. Let's see how good these guys really are.

The Harden Disaster

By: timbersfan, 12:07 AM GMT on October 31, 2012

See that photo above? I snapped it during the 2012 Finals, right as Game 5 was winding down in Miami. Here's how I described the moment in my column the following morning.

"Brooks pulled Harden a few seconds later. He wandered over to the corner to stand with Westbrook, with Durant eventually joining them. They stood there with their arms wrapped around each other, watching their season tick away, soaking in every image for those days in July and August when you're tired of shooting jumpers in an empty gym and need a trigger to keep pushing yourself. It was my favorite moment of the series … When I think of Game 5, I will remember LeBron's brilliance first, then Mike Miller having that crazy sports-movie montage of 3s ... And then I'll think of the Oklahoma City kids huddled in the corner at the end, waiting their turn, knowing that's how the NBA works. We'll see if LeBron ever lets them on the ride."

Never — not in my wildest dreams — did I imagine Oklahoma City breaking them up. It started to seem possible about a month ago (improbable, but definitely not unrealistic), and when their partnership finally unraveled last weekend, for whatever reason, I ended up sifting through 1,200 pictures on my iPhone before finally finding that photo. I couldn't stop thinking about it. You always hear that sports is a business, something that certainly seemed true during last year's indefensible lockout. But I loved the thought of those three Oklahoma City kids — how they carried themselves as brothers, how they complemented each other on the court, how they kept nailing those same road-to-the-title checkpoints that Jordan's Bulls and Isiah's Pistons crossed off once upon a time. The 2012 Finals swung on a surprisingly small number of plays during the first four games — maybe seven or eight total. Oklahoma City didn't make enough of them. Their three best guys were going to learn from what happened. They were.

And when everyone started playing the blame game after the trade — Harden shouldn't have been so greedy, Oklahoma City should have played it out for one more year, the trade never would have happened if Harden played better in the Finals, Sam Presti didn't get enough back, etc., etc., etc. — I kept thinking about those three guys with their arms around each other. Do you really want to break THAT up? Weren't these guys headed somewhere together? Wasn't that series, and that photo, part of the journey? Wasn't this like canceling a great TV series after one and a half seasons, like if Homeland just stopped right now and we never found out what happened to Brody and Carrie?

Forget about worrying whether Harden is a max player (and by the way, he is — 15 teams would have given it to him), or why Harden didn't play better in the 2012 Finals (um, James Worthy sucked in the 1984 Finals and turned out fine), or if it meant something that Harden didn't just blindly take less than what he's worth (when he had already sacrificed minutes, numbers, and shots to succeed on that team). Oklahoma City significantly hindered their chances of winning a title — not just this year, but every year. And they did it because, after raking in ridiculous amounts of money these past four years (including $30-35 million PROFIT during last year's shortened season), they valued their own bottom line ahead of their title window. A window that included the second-best player in the league, a top-10 player and a top-20 player … all under the age of 25.

That's why every Lakers fan spent the weekend rejoicing and making 2013 Finals plans. This was the one team that scared the living shit out of them — these past two seasons, Oklahoma City was too young, too fast, too relentless, too everything. Even after the Lakers added Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, it's worth noting that (a) Nash can't defend Westbrook unless he's allowed to use a two-by-four, and (b) Kendrick Perkins is overpaid mainly because he's been Howard's Kryptonite these past few seasons, someone with the bizarre ability to frustrate and even neutralize Howard beyond any realm of common sense. After the Thunder traded Harden, every Lakers fan I know e-mailed me. They were overjoyed.

Thank God they traded Harden. He scared the hell out of me. We couldn't stop him from getting to the rim. We can beat them now.

Anytime a trade inspires celebrations from your biggest rival, that's never a good thing … right? That's why I thought Oklahoma City should have rolled the Harden dilemma over to the following summer, waited for someone else's four-year, $60 million restricted offer, matched it, then either traded Serge Ibaka (getting paid like an All-Star when he's not there yet) or amnestied the overpriced Perkins (who simply can't stay healthy). I absolutely loved their top three, especially in this day and age, with low-post scorers going the way of DVDs and bookstores. Durant has already established himself as one of the league's greatest scorers — not just now, but ever — someone who reaches 30 points night after night more creatively than anyone since George Gervin. And Westbrook wreaks havoc athletically, making up for his infamous streakiness with some of the most breathtaking two-way play we've ever seen.

Paired together, you definitely have a contender … but that doesn't mean you're winning a title. Just ask Stockton and Malone, Payton and Kemp, Barkley and K.J., or even West and Baylor way back when. That's why Harden was so important. Within three seasons, the Beard had evolved into a shockingly efficient scorer and a security blanket of sorts — every time Westbrook went into one of his little funks, there was Harden calmly grabbing the steering wheel, running their offense and even occasionally taking over when it mattered. He eviscerated Dallas and the Lakers in consecutive playoff series by repeatedly getting to the rim; all of our advanced data says Harden ranks among the very best at scoring off screens. So Oklahoma City had three elite scorers, with no drop-off throughout the four quarters because of Harden's willingness to come off the bench. That was their single biggest asset.

Quick tangent: Before expansion diluted the league in the 1990s, many of the NBA's greatest teams were built around two signature stars, then a third (and more underrated) high-caliber player who sacrificed numbers while maintaining a memorable level of clutchness. Everyone points to Manu Ginobili as a recent example, but every classic 1980s juggernaut featured that guy, whether it was James Worthy, Jamaal Wilkes, Dennis Johnson, Joe Dumars or Andrew Toney. Going back to Bill Russell's era, the all-time best example was Sam Jones (as I wrote about three weeks ago). Had Harden moved into the aforementioned group while being paid accordingly, he would have embraced it — he's one of the rare modern athletes who doesn't care about being The Man, even writing Oklahoma City GM Sam Presti before the 2009 draft and explaining how well he'd blend with Westbrook and Durant.

But sacrificing minutes, shots and numbers for the betterment of the team AND taking a discount? That's a little ludicrous. This wasn't about $7 million — the difference between Oklahoma City's final offer and the $60 million max offer that Harden's agent requested — as much as Presti respecting Harden's unique plight. The Thunder couldn't offer a five-year extension because Durant and Westbrook had already grabbed their two special five-year slots (as mandated by the new CBA). Meanwhile, half the league's teams would have happily given him a five-year max extension ($78 million), so really, Harden was already taking a discount by not getting a five-year deal.

Also, Harden's offer never included a hard-core assurance that Oklahoma City wouldn't use that "discount" against him by eventually trading that enhanced asset (a franchise player now making less than franchise money)1 for a collection of goodies. Remember when Boston talked Rajon Rondo into accepting a five-year, $55 million "discount" — $16 million less than he would have gotten on the open market the following summer — then dangled him for Chris Paul two years later? So much for "taking one for the team," right? What about Steve Nash signing a two-year, $22 million "discount" extension because Phoenix promised to use that extra cap space to boost a 2010 Western Conference finalist? Remember what happened? They allowed Amar'e Stoudemire to leave, brought in a bunch of Hakim Warricks and Josh Childresses and immediately became a lottery team. But thanks for taking the discount, Steve.

So here's Oklahoma City offering Harden $53 million for four years and refusing to include a trade kicker — in other words, Sorry, we have to keep our options open, just in case. Harden's agent justifiably turned them down. The team played hardball. Harden's agent stood his ground. They threatened to trade him to Houston — which was, in retrospect, their biggest mistake because that meant Harden had a five-year, $78 million offer with no state income tax suddenly waiting for him — and at that point, this was done.2

And here's where the narrative became a little funky. See, we're supposed to feel sorry for Oklahoma City, the tiny small-market team that couldn't afford to keep its three best players. We're supposed to ignore their staggering profits since they hijacked the Sonics from Seattle in 2008 (by my calculations, somewhere north of $75 million, at least). You know what the biggest advantage is for any professional baseball, basketball or hockey team? Selling out your building way ahead of time. When you lock up your season ticket base, luxury suites and sponsorships during the spring before your next regular season, that's 90 percent of the battle — now you have guaranteed income, you don't have to waste resources on a swollen sales staff or various marketing campaigns, and you can bank the interest from that money instead of crossing your fingers and hoping that revenue shows up later. Yeah, Oklahoma City is never getting the television money of the Lakers or Knicks, but so what? You really think their situation is THAT far off from teams like the Celtics or Sixers?3

For Oklahoma City, the Harden trade wasn't about losing money … it was about continuing to make money. Huge, huge difference. The Thunder realized that, as long as two top-12 players (Durant and Westbrook) were under their control, they would keep contending, keep selling out and maintain a certain level of relevancy. And by rebooting with the assets from that Harden trade (Kevin Martin's offense as a one-year stopgap, Jeremy Lamb as a long-term replacement, Toronto's guaranteed lottery pick and the other picks as potential trade chips), they could brainwash their fans on the whole "this is a marathon, not a sprint" spiel.

Here's the problem with that mind-set: When you're this close to winning the title, why screw with it? Why own the franchise at that point? Look at what happened to Phoenix from 2005 through 2010, as the team wasted genuine assets (selling a lottery pick, selling the Rajon Rondo pick, trading two first-rounders to dump Kurt Thomas) and lowballed Joe Johnson out of town, squandering Nash's glorious prime in the process. Guess what? Everyone in Phoenix hates Robert Sarver for it. What Oklahoma City did wasn't as egregious, but in its own little way, it was just as dishonest — a team crying poverty even as it's selling out every night and even though it's been printing money these past few years.

And now, they've tossed away their 2013 title chances unless Durant jumps an entire level like LeBron did last spring (unlikely, since LeBron reached a level that we haven't seen in 20 years) or Ibaka miraculously matures into a game-changing two-way force (a puncher's chance of a possibility that Zach Lowe broke down on Grantland today). After that, who knows what could happen? Title windows have a tendency of slamming shut when you least expect it. Remember when we thought the '86 Celtics were rolling off four or five titles in a row once they added the no. 2 overall pick? Remember when Payton and Kemp played in the '96 Finals and we expected to see them every June? Remember when Kobe and Shaq were destined for an entire decade of titles? Remember when the '77 Blazers were the NBA's next dynasty? Remember when Sampson and Olajuwon seized control of the Western Conference from Magic's Lakers, and it seemed totally far-fetched that they were ever giving it back? You never know.

In the Thunder's case, we only knew that they had three of the 20 best guys in the league, all under 25, all of whom loved playing together. There are no sure things in the NBA, but that previous sentence was about as sure as it gets. Less than 100 hours ago, I thought the Thunder were headed for another Finals and another chance at toppling LeBron and Wade. That's not happening with Jeremy Lamb and Kevin Martin. Instead, they made a different kind of history: becoming the first NBA contender that ever jeopardized multiple titles for financial reasons and financial reasons only. It's never happened before.

They also walked away from the photo that adorns this column, as well as everything I ever thought sports was about. Other than that, the Harden trade wasn't that big of a deal. You want predictions for the 2012-13 season from me? I have two and two only.

1. Miami is going to beat the Lakers in the Finals.

2. Oklahoma City will rue the day it traded James Harden.

Merseyside derby: It's the hope that kills you

By: timbersfan, 12:22 AM GMT on October 27, 2012

To the outside world, the Merseyside derby may just be a regional scuffle between the Blues and the Reds, but growing up in Liverpool in the 70s and 80s, it always felt like something more. The game was nothing less than a savage battle against which I would fine-tune my sense of good and bad, truth and injustice, reward and punishment.

In contrast to the prevailing atmosphere of carnival that grips the city in the week up to kick-off, the actual experience of watching the games can be a tortuous one. The football is inevitably helter-skelter as the adrenalin-fuelled atmosphere infects the players, local-born and foreign alike. Tackles crackle. Headless decisions are made. Red cards are brandished (20 in the past 40 games, more than any other matchup in the Premier League era.)

At the core of the agony is that the two teams' histories and fan bases are so intertwined. Liverpool emerged as a splinter of Everton 14 years after its founding back in 1878. Their home grounds, Goodison Park and Anfield, sit at opposite ends of a park, less than a mile apart. Extended families contain both blue and red factions. Witnessing the game is like watching a boxer trot into the ring solo and proceed to punch himself in the head.

In the spirit of full disclosure -- in my lifetime, Everton have savored just 15 wins to Liverpool's 40, but many Reds fans also loathe the game. Simon Critchley, a philosophy professor at The New School, confided, "I hate watching the Derby. There is too much emotion at stake, and although I would never miss it, all I want to happen is for it to end."

The first derby I remember was Everton's 1-0 win in 1978. Liverpool swaggered into the game as league leaders who had not lost a Derby since 1971. A sumptuous 58th-minute volley by Andy King changed that. Bereft in defeat, Liverpool defender Phil Thompson could only utter he was as "sick as a parrot." With his thick Scouse accent, the first word dragged on as if it contained multi-syllables, supplying Everton fans with the perfect sound bite to torture their rivals in offices and schoolyards until the next game.

The roles were often reversed in excruciating fashion. In 1982, Kenny Dalglish propelled his pass-and-move Liverpool side to a 5-0 rout at Goodison Park. Liverpool attacked with an unrelenting fury that could not be repelled. To make matters worse, mustachioed marksman Ian Rush, who knocked home four goals, had been a boyhood Evertonian. Et tu, Rushie?

Reuters/Bob Collier
Back in Ian Rush's day, Liverpool and Everton enjoyed the occasional get-together in the league.
Mercifully, I had been unable to secure tickets for the game and was forced to listen to the action unfold on the radio in the privacy of my bedroom. Back then, I believed quite literally in the footballing cliché "It only takes a second to score a goal." Until there were five seconds left in the game, I clung to a naïve belief that Everton would somehow turn the game around. By the final whistle, I was lying on the floor in prone position, groaning softly, as if I had been kicked in the kidneys. My heroes had been humbled, a harsh and early life-lesson about idols and clay feet.

In the 1980s, Liverpool was a bleak, economically scarred backdrop with one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. Social unrest simmered. Margaret Thatcher's cabinet debated the possibility of allowing the city to sink into a "managed decline." Football was a respite. When both teams battled their way into the 1984 league cup final, one out of every four Liverpudlian males invaded London to savor the first-ever Wembley derby, an event which was less a game of football and more a delirious celebration of the city itself.

The final, which ended goalless, was best remembered for both sets of fans uniting to bellow the name of their beloved county in unison. Cries of "Merseyside, Merseyside, Merseyside" rang out across North London. Despite these emotional scenes, I seethed in silence on the long journey home with my father. The referee had inexplicably allowed Liverpool defender Alan Hansen to use his hand and save a goal-bound Everton shot. The rematch, which Liverpool won 1-0, told us what we already sensed -- Everton were doomed.

We were right as it turned out, but in a way we could never have foreseen. In the mid-80s, Everton finally managed to assemble a squad to rival the gold standard set by their neighbors. Their 1985 team plundered both the league title and the (now-defunct) European Cup Winners Cup and was poised to become one of the best sides on the continent. Yet the '80s were the peak of the English game's hooligan years, culminating in the tragedy of the Heysel disaster, a fatal confrontation between Liverpool and Juventus fans ahead of the 1985 European Cup final, which led to the death of 36 Italians. A blanket five-year ban resulted, expelling all English clubs from European competition. Everton never recovered.

The Blues failed to adjust to the new financial realities of the game and the derby entered a dark age in which it felt as if Evertonians had no choice but to line up for the inevitable humiliation of a bare-bottom spanking. The nadir came during a 3-2 loss in 1999. Robbie Fowler controversially dropped to the Anfield turf after scoring a penalty and celebrated by "snorting" the white line along Everton's penalty box, mocking Evertonians who had long sung of his rumored drug habit. As Fowler ridiculed the fans, they howled in derision, the cries a thin attempt to mask their powerlessness.

David Cannon/Getty Images
Peter Beardsley of Liverpool evades the challenge from Dave Watson of Everton.
Moments of happiness proved to be fleeting. Most carried the stench of gallows humor. Set-piece specialist Kevin Sheedy blasted a free kick into the top-left corner of the net, and then celebrated by manically giving Liverpool fans the finger (in a game they lost 3-1!) A young Steve McManaman was attacked by his own teammate, the manic Bruce Grobbelaar, in 1993. Tiny striker Francis Jeffers traded punches, toe-to-toe, with bewildered goalkeeper Sander Westerveld. Both men were sent off, but the jug-eared Jeffers later crowed, "I won on points. I landed a few more shots than big Sander."

In 2007, Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez smugly labeled Everton "a small club." At the time he was right. My cousin was "webmaster" of the local Liverpool paper and he spent his day tracking Liverpool news stories as they were read across Asia, Africa, Australia and Scandinavia. I asked him where Everton's global digital footprint spread to. "Liverpool and North Wales."

But by the time Benitez repeated the claim in 2009, his words were ones of frustration and an awareness that the tides were turning.

Since Liverpool's ill-fated takeover by Americans Tom Hicks and George Gillett, the club who had been "knocked off their perch" by Manchester United sunk into the mire of Premier League mediocrity. Their blunt start to this season has Critchley nostalgic for the past. "I long for the 80s and 90s," he said. "I now see them as days of tremendous arrogance because when I look at Everton now I realize they are the kind of team that Liverpool should aspire to be: solid, modest, unassuming and under David Moyes, fiercely competitive. This is why they are in fourth spot and we languish in lower mid-table. The first step to changing that would be to learn a little humility."

Everton finished above Liverpool last season for the first time since 2004-05, yet the derbies always exist within their own ecosystem. However badly Kenny Dalglish floundered as a manager, he never lost his ability to motivate Liverpool for the game. They won both fixtures last season, adding a crushing 2-1 come-from behind-victory in the FA Cup semifinal for good measure. This will be Brendan Rodgers' first opportunity to prove he can do the same.

Though Everton currently sit eight places and six points above them, Rodgers' side is given a slight edge by the bookies. Everton may be without Marouane Fellaini, the world's largest security blanket. Steven Pienaar will certainly be absent after his unfortunate dismissal against QPR. Without him on the left, Leighton Baines may be like the sound of one hand clapping.

Critchley's philosophical specialty is the twin subjects of death and disappointment. I asked him if this expertise provides him with any unique insight on the derby and he quipped, "The worst part about football in general and the derby in particular is not the disappointment, it's the endlessly renewed hope," he said. "It's the hope that kills you."

Johnson continues comeback with gem in U.S.' win over Guatemala Read more: http://s

By: timbersfan, 12:22 AM GMT on October 27, 2012

KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- The redemption narrative is so common in sports that it's something we take for granted, a cliché. But every once in a while you'll see a comeback story that transcends most of the others. We're starting to get to that point with Eddie Johnson, the U.S. forward (or is it winger now?) who was the most dangerous player on the field in the U.S.' 3-1 win against Guatemala on Tuesday that sent Jurgen Klinsmann's team into the final round of CONCACAF qualifying for World Cup 2014.
• WAHL: Three thoughts from U.S.' win over Guatemala
Four days after Johnson ended his two-year international hiatus with two goals in the win at Antigua and Barbuda, he followed it up with another gem here, exuding confidence and taking on defenders in an unfamiliar position out wide. Johnson was a 90-minute threat, drawing Guatemalans wherever he went, but his impact was most evident on the decisive goal, in which he bolted past the Guatemalan defense down the right wing (off an incisive release pass from Steve Cherundolo) and whipped a laser cross to Clint Dempsey for a 2-1 lead.
• CREDITOR: Bradley, Dempsey headline player ratings
Consider, for a second, that the 28-year-old Johnson was out of soccer altogether for seven months in the past year as he tried to resurrect a career that had fizzled out in Europe. His last national team appearance had come in May 2010, but now even his club future was in serious doubt.
"Not having a club for about seven or eight months, you do start to wonder: Is my time up?" Johnson said after the Guatemala win. "Do I have the drive to get back where I want to be, scoring goals at a high level and getting back with the national team? Those were all my goals. But I knew at my age it had to be the right opportunity."
Johnson has revived his career with the Seattle Sounders, scoring 14 goals as a striker this season, and his overflowing confidence has carried over to the national team. After not being called up during Klinsmann's 14-month tenure, Johnson could not have asked for a better two-game return, playing all 180 minutes and delivering two goals and an assist in important matches.
That Johnson has done so in a new spot on the wing has made it even more impressive. "People were probably saying, 'Why is he playing on the left?'" Johnson said on Tuesday, and he was right. During a practice before the game in Antigua, he noticed he was having to defend a lot and started doubting whether he was cut out for the role. But Johnson had played out wide right during his time with Preston North End last year, so it wasn't entirely unfamiliar. "If coach is putting you out there, obviously he has a lot of confidence in you," Johnson said. "Pace is one of my strengths with my movement off the ball ... I could only be confident going out there."
Johnson is one of several players who have become surprise impact performers with the national team this year. Who would have predicted in April that Johnson, Graham Zusi and Hérculez Gómez would become key starters for the U.S. during 2012?
"Eddie was definitely a big plus," said Klinsmann. "For us coaches it was wonderful to see his qualities in our group. I spoke a lot with [Sounders coach] Sigi [Schmid] the last couple months about his path. He went through ups and downs through his career, but he understands the moment. I told him when he came in, 'Eddie if you give us everything you have and adjust to what we're doing here, don't worry, you'll be fine. He felt comfortable and confident, and he had a wonderful performance tonight."
No player on the U.S. team is closer to Johnson than Dempsey. They were teammates together at Fulham, but their families also spent time together during meals and playdates in London. (They even shared the same haircut guy, whom Johnson would fly out to Greece to give him just the right look when he was on loan there.) There's a connection between Johnson and Dempsey that carries over to the field -- the goal they combined on in Tuesday's game was one of the better-looking goals the U.S. has scored in a long time.
"It's difficult when you go to Europe," Dempsey says of Johnson's time there. "Being able to come back to MLS and gain his confidence, he's at the level he was at before. He's full of confidence. You see him taking people on and creating chances ... He's being asked to play a position that isn't his favorite position, but he's sacrificed for the team and he's still able to be effective. I'm proud of him, man."
For a team that had serious questions about wide players in recent months, Johnson's successful audition should give the U.S. some useful options out wide when the full complement of wide players is back with him, Landon Donovan, Brek Shea and Zusi. Then again, Johnson could also move up top, as he did in the latter stages of the game against Guatemala. So far this year he appears to have handled his success extremely well, something he attributed in part to his coaches and in part to his mental conditioning coach, Trevor Moawad, who has asked him to write down positive affirmations of what he envisions himself doing before every game.
"I couldn't be any happier with the way I'm playing and the support system I have around me," Johnson said. "I know things didn't go the way I wanted it to go in Europe, but I learned a lot as a soccer player. I got a second chance, and I'm not going to take it for granted."

Read more: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2012/writers/gran t_wahl/10/17/united-states-guatemala-eddie-johnson /index.html#ixzz2ASEFQ3pa

Spurs' Friedel details competition with Lloris, record streak ending Read more: htt

By: timbersfan, 12:21 AM GMT on October 27, 2012

There aren't many 41-year-olds playing at the highest levels of world soccer, and yet Tottenham Hotspur's U.S. goalkeeper, Brad Friedel, continues defying time and expectations as he engages in what he calls "a friendly competition" with 25-year-old French national team captain Hugo Lloris for the top spot between the posts at Spurs.
The Friedel-or-Lloris question has been an intriguing subplot for fifth-place Spurs since the club bought Lloris from Lyon on the final day of the August transfer window. Manager André Villas-Boas surprised some observers initially (including France coach Didier Deschamps) by sticking with Friedel as his No. 1 in the league while using Lloris in the Europa League. But AVB has alternated the keepers in Tottenham's last three Premier League games, starting Friedel in a historic 3-2 win at Manchester United on Sept. 29 and Lloris in a 2-0 win against Aston Villa on Oct. 7 before switching back to Friedel in a 4-2 loss to league-leading Chelsea on Saturday.
But there has been more planning to all this than you might have expected. Friedel told me Villas-Boas had informed him the day before benching him against Aston Villa that he intended to start him against Chelsea two weeks later. "It was always in his plans to play me against Chelsea, so I knew from that point," Friedel said Saturday. "I think the media over here wanted to make it that it was this big fight between Hugo and myself and the manager, and there was never a big fight. The fact is, Tottenham have been looking for the last year and a half for a long-term No. 1 goalkeeper. I don't think they envisioned what my fitness levels would be at this age, and I sort of surprised myself."
"So we have a competition now. It's healthy, but there's a competition. It's friendly," Friedel continued. "It's going to be a situation where André will choose a team that he feels will win the game on the day, and that's how it'll be from now until the end of the season. I don't think anyone will be 'guaranteed' starts, if you like."
AVB told reporters on Friday that he still considered Friedel his No. 1 goalkeeper.
The decision to go with Lloris against Villa ended Friedel's all-time Premier League record of 310 straight starts, which dated to August 2004. By making that call, Villas-Boas was able to 1) not make it seem like he was punishing Friedel for a mistake, considering he had just won at Manchester United, and 2) give Lloris some time on the field before he played twice for France during the international window.
As for the end of his playing streak, Friedel said he's keeping things in perspective. "When I ended last season and played all the games, I went into the summer sort of half-expecting this year would be when the run would end at some stage," he said. "You never know when it will end. But 310 consecutive games, can I complain? No. I never put myself out on the field in a game just to make that number, and I don't think any manager put me out there because of the number. It's an achievement that I'm proud of, not just because of the number but ultimately because I've kept my form up for this long."
It's expected that Lloris will start in Spurs' Europa League game at Maribor on Thursday, with Friedel back in at Southampton in the league on Sunday.
That said, Friedel was disappointed with the 4-2 home loss to Chelsea on Saturday, in which Spurs couldn't hold on to a 2-1 lead. "We didn't play well in the first half," he said. "Chelsea is obviously playing well right now, but normally when we play teams at White Hart Lane we press them, no matter who it is. We didn't do that in the first half. We had a word at halftime and came out firing in the second half. That was more the real Tottenham."
"Then once we got 2-1 up we sat back again for some reason," he went on. "The problem with Chelsea is if you sit back, their top four players -- [Juan] Mata, [Fernando] Torres, Oscar and [Eden] Hazard -- are very good players who know how to open up defenses. We laid off them again, and that's when they punish you."
These days Tottenham is the closest thing in the Premier League to Team America, with two regular starters in Friedel and midfielder Clint Dempsey, who joined the club during the transfer window. Dempsey entered Villas-Boas' first-choice XI immediately and has started seven straight games in all competitions, scoring the eventual game-winning goal at Manchester United.
"Dempsey's doing really well," Friedel said. "Tottenham's a big club, and the fans expect to play in a certain way, a very attack-minded way. Clint with his ability to score goals will fit into it really well. It takes everybody time to get used to it, but he's done a really good job since he's come. He's played three different positions as well, which was another good reason to sign him because of his versatility."
Yet it's Friedel who's taking versatility to a new level in many ways. His contract ends at the conclusion of this season, and he says he has three options at that point: Sign another contract and continue playing, or retire and start a television analyst career (he has worked for Fox Soccer at the last two Champions League finals), or retire and start coaching. Very few Americans have earned UEFA coaching licenses, and Friedel is currently working on his UEFA B license, spending three hours every Monday and Wednesday in the classroom and on the field coaching. He plans to get the UEFA A coaching license after he completes the B certificate.
"I'm definitely looking at all the possibilities for next season," said Friedel, who lives with his wife and their three kids in a quaint village north of London. Considering he'll be 42 in May, it's a pretty good spot to be in.
• MLS has a decent chance of having four teams advance to the quarterfinals of CONCACAF Champions League when the group stage finales take place from Tuesday to Thursday. Los Angeles and Seattle are already through, while Houston will advance if it avoids a loss to Olimpia on Tuesday. Toronto has the longest odds, needing a big win at Mexican champion Santos Laguna to make the quarters. And Salt Lake will need to win at home against Costa Rica's Herediano by either a 1-0 scoreline or by at least two goals. (The first tiebreaker is head-to-head performance involving the tied teams.)
Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis told me he considers Tuesday's game the biggest one of the season so far for his team. "We think being involved in CONCACAF Champions League is that critical to who we are, what we're about and what we want to be," Kries said. "Obviously there are some financial things at stake as far as salary cap and allocation money that we receive if we can advance in the tournament. That means a lot to us, on top of the fact that we're chasing history. We still want to be the first American team to win this thing [and advance to the FIFA Club World Cup]."
Kreis said the playing status of defender Jámison Olave, who has been dealing with hamstring issues, would be a game-time decision. "I feel pretty positive and confident about where our team is right now," Kreis said. "We're trending in the right direction. For me, we've had five or six good performances in a row. Not all the results have been exactly what we wanted, but I feel like the guys are rounding into good form right now."
As for the MLS playoffs, Salt Lake will meet Seattle in the West semifinals, a rematch of a spirited series won by RSL last year.
• Houston had a good weekend, clinching a berth in the MLS playoffs, and coach Dominic Kinnear said he feels good about his team's chances of advancing in the CCL as well. But he also told me that his team's switch from a 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3 formation won't necessarily be something he sticks with.
"It's gone back and forth a little bit," he said. "It's fashionable to talk about formations, but I don't think it's here to stay. ... The first time we did it, we came off a pretty bad loss to Montreal and felt it would be a good idea to put more people in the middle of the park to be tougher to break down. ... I don't think you want to try and complicate things too much. You want to keep it as simple as possible for the team, and I think the 4-4-2 does that."
• With all the berths in the MLS playoffs now decided, the story of the regular season's last week will be Chris Wondolowski's pursuit of Roy Lassiter's all-time MLS season scoring record of 27 goals. Wondo's goal on Sunday put him within one at 26, and he'll get a chance to go for the record at Portland this weekend.

Read more: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2012/writers/gran t_wahl/10/22/brad-friedel/index.html#ixzz2ASE4QZRB

Special 2016 Copa América hosted by U.S. would be a spectacle Read more: http://spo

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

If everything works out, it'll be the biggest men's soccer tournament on U.S. soil since the 1994 World Cup. That's why fans in the U.S. were so excited on Wednesday when CONMEBOL, the South American confederation, announced that a special 2016 Copa América would take place in the U.S. and include all 10 South American members and six from CONCACAF, including the U.S. and Mexico. (The other four CONCACAF teams would be determined by performance in the 2015 Gold Cup.)
If everything works out, the tournament to commemorate CONMEBOL's 100th anniversary would be fantastic, selling out 80,000-seat stadiums, drawing nine-figure global TV audiences and bringing together a constellation of stars that would potentially include Argentina's Lionel Messi, Brazil's Neymar, Colombia's Radamel Falcao, Mexico's Javier Hernández, Uruguay's Edinson Cavani, Chile's Alexis Sánchez and a host U.S. team that could make a deep run itself. It would also make for a glorious summer of soccer, with Euro 2016 taking place in June and the special Copa América in July being every bit a worthy equal (and even bigger on these shores).
The idea of staging a combined North and South American Copa América isn't exactly a new one (I wrote about it in 2010 -- in large part because it makes so much sense). CONMEBOL needed the six extra teams for the 16 that would make for an ideal tournament format, to say nothing of the extra TV money that would come with the involvement of the full U.S. and Mexican national teams. And CONCACAF needed the prestige and quality competition that would come with taking part in the Copa América.
If hosting the tournament in the U.S. could help grow soccer in this emerging and potentially lucrative market, then so much the better for everyone. From a U.S. perspective, not being guaranteed the chance to participate in a truly big tournament between World Cups (as UEFA has with the Euro) has always been a problem. The Gold Cup doesn't have much global gravitas, and entry in the Confederations Cup only happens by winning the previous Gold Cup.
But then there's that qualifier on a 2016 Copa América: If everything works out.
The fact of the matter is that CONMEBOL jumped the gun on the announcement Wednesday. Discussions have taken place between CONMEBOL, CONCACAF and U.S. Soccer, but while U.S. Soccer is interested in hosting the tournament, there remain some issues that haven't been settled:
• Will FIFA approve the event, put it on the official global calendar and require that clubs release their players for all the national teams involved? No such public announcements have come from FIFA yet. FIFA has not instituted a club-release requirement for "guest teams" like Mexico, the U.S. and Japan in previous Copa América tournaments, nor has FIFA sanctioned a big senior tournament outside the World Cup/Confederations Cup involving the full participation of more than one confederation before. FIFA has generally frowned upon anything that could be seen as a rival to the World Cup, hence the age limit on the men's Olympic tournament.
• Will countries send their best squads to a 2016 Copa América? There's little point in staging this tournament if all nations don't bring their top teams. At the very least, FIFA would have to require clubs to release their players for all the national teams involved, but there are other factors, too. The traditional Copa América (involving CONMEBOL, Mexico and Japan) will take place in 2015 in Chile, as will the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup in this region.
It's possible that one or two countries would thus be involved in June/July tournaments in 2013 (Confederations Cup/Gold Cup), 2014 (World Cup), 2015 (Copa América/Gold Cup), 2016 (special Copa América), 2017 (Confederations Cup/Gold Cup), 2018 (World Cup) and 2019 (Copa América/Gold Cup). That's a lot of tournaments for players who have little time off as it is. CONMEBOL switched from a biennial to a quadrennial Copa América in 2007 because countries like Brazil and Argentina had stopped regularly sending their top teams when the tournament took place every two years. Keep in mind, too, that Brazil is hosting the Olympic soccer tournament starting around Aug. 2, 2016. Even though only three players over the age of 23 per team are allowed, you can be certain that Brazil (which has never won gold in Olympic soccer) will prioritize winning an Olympic gold medal over winning a one-off combined Copa América. The same might be said for Argentina, Uruguay and others if they qualify for the Olympics.
• While U.S. Soccer has expressed interest in staging the 2016 tournament, it hasn't signed off on it yet -- a somewhat important fact if you're being publicized as the host. CONMEBOL's announcement on Wednesday was a little like me inviting everyone to a dinner party at my friend's place without the friend being totally on board yet.
• How will the economic deals work? Nothing has been signed yet between CONMEBOL and CONCACAF on how revenues from the tournament would be split. Also, while TV interest figures to be big, how would it work out? In the U.S., at least, ESPN has already bought the rights for Euro 2016, which would suggest that another company (FOX? NBC? BeIN Sport?) might be expected to step up for a 2016 Copa América.
All that said, I expect the 2016 Copa América in the U.S. will get done eventually. There's too much upside for soccer in this part of the world for it not to happen.
Wondo goes for the record
With all 10 MLS playoff teams now decided, the big story in this week's regular-season finales (aside from playoff seeding) is Chris Wondolowski's pursuit of the league's all-time single-season scoring record. The San Jose forward has 26 goals, one shy of Roy Lassiter's record of 27 set in 1996, and Wondolowski will be going for it against a Portland defense that has allowed the third-most goals in the league when they meet Saturday (6:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).
"To be honest, it would mean a lot just to be a part of that history, it really would," Wondolowski told me this week. "I was fortunate to meet Roy Lassiter last week, and he was such a nice, humble person, a true legend himself. Just to be mentioned with him right now, I take a lot of pride in it."
Most Goals Over Three Straight MLS Seasons
Chris Wondolowski 60
Raul Daz Arce 56
Roy Lassiter 55
Carlos Ruiz 50
Taylor Twellman 47
Juan Pablo ngel 45
Stern John 44*
Dwayne De Rosario 42
Jaime Moreno 42
Ante Razov 42
Giovanni Savarese 41
Diego Serna 41
Landon Donovan 40
Ronald Cerritos 40
Preki 40
lvaro Saboro 40
* Stern John scored 44 goals in his two seasons with Columbus.
Already Wondolowski has set a record, scoring 60 goals over the last three MLS seasons, the most in league history over a three-year period (see table). But after scoring 18 in 2010 and 16 last year, he took it to a new level in 2012 as San Jose has won the Supporters' Shield with the best regular-season record in the league.
"The team around me is so strong, and we create so many opportunities where it makes my job a lot easier," said Wondolowski, explaining the difference this year. "I just have to find a little bit of space and they've been putting it on platters for me. We have a great midfield and attacking outside backs who get crosses in, and when you have Alan Gordon and Steven Lenhart it makes it a lot easier."
One of the keys to Wondolowski's success has been his remarkable movement off the ball. He's constantly in motion and has an uncanny ability to find space even when he's the target of opponents' defensive game plans. "I just try to read the game and anticipate where the ball is going to go and also just where the space is opened up," he says. "Sometimes you go to a certain space and the ball will get to you, and it's nice when it does."
One question is whether Wondolowski will parlay his three straight sterling seasons into a bigger MLS contract. He has renegotiated his deal each of the past two offseasons and is making $300,000 this year, far below what he deserves. But MLS is set up to keep salaries as low as possible, with the league's teams not competing with each other in the free agent market. As a result, to really put pressure on the league, you have to get a big offer from a foreign club. Wondolowski, for his part, doesn't have an agent for his MLS deals, a situation that seems unheard of for a guy who will be the sure league MVP this season. (He says he does have an agreement with a representative who would handle any deals with foreign clubs.)
Wondolowski would like to renegotiate his deal in the offseason and become a Designated Player, but he says he has yet to come up with any figures on his own for what he would be seeking.
"We'll definitely discuss it in the offseason, but I want to wait until the season is over," he told me. "A lot has to do with where we end up. If we get knocked out in the first round or win the championship, there would be a difference there. I also want to do a lot of research and see where other DPs are and things like that, just make sure I have all my facts together when we talk. [San Jose GM] John Doyle and our owners and Frank [Yallop, the coach] are great guys, and we're all pretty open with each other. We'll discuss it and see what everyone's thinking in the middle of December."
How much of a raise Wondolowski might get remains to be seen. D.C. United's Dwayne De Rosario is earning $663,000 this season after his MVP campaign last year, while L.A.'s Landon Donovan is getting $2.4 million. Wondolowski should have a case to make more than De Rosario, considering he's younger (29 to De Rosario's 34), but San Jose doesn't have a history of spending big. This year's Earthquakes own the league's top record despite having MLS' second-lowest payroll and not a single DP.
That should change next year.

Read more: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2012/writers/gran t_wahl/10/25/copa-america-chris-wondolowski/index. html#ixzz2ASDtvNnE

The Celtics Get Jet-Fueled

By: timbersfan, 12:18 AM GMT on October 27, 2012

The Boston Celtics practice facility is tucked in the back of a high-end private gym in Waltham, Massachusetts. You walk in — past front desk personnel wearing broad grins and trim polos, girls in yoga pants, guys in bandannas, grandmas on treadmills — until you reach a windowless room. It's large, drably carpeted, and sparsely outfitted: There's a pull-down screen and a projector; hard, uninviting chairs; and a lone carton of individually wrapped Twizzlers. And what reminds you that you are not, in fact, currently attending an SEO optimization seminar in Conference Room B of the Downtown Cincinnati Ramada Inn are the glass display panels full of Celtics history.

The memorabilia moves chronologically, from right to left. There are black-and-white roster portraits of the early Celtics champions, action shots of Hondo and Dave Cowens, scraps from Johnny Most's retirement ceremony. There's the starting five — Bird, D.J., Ainge, McHale, and Parish — in an astoundingly '80s poster titled "A Portrait of Excellence" and a life-size illustration of Larry Bird bending at the free throw line.1

In the next section, the display skips to 2008. The centerpiece is a giant photo taken after the Celtics beat the Lakers to claim the franchise's 17th title, the whole team trying to pose in orderly rows but sloppy and cracking up and falling all over one another instead. That's bordered by a photo of Doc Rivers getting splashed with a torrent of orange Gatorade, and another of Rajon Rondo, on a Duck Tour boat, alone. And everywhere, there's Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett, the former Big Three: on the cover of ESPN The Magazine, kibitzing with Bill Russell, grinning and squinting through champagne (or Bud Light?) in the locker room.

In July, Allen signed with the Miami Heat, the team that ended the Celtics' past two seasons, and the team they're targeting this season.2 He did so for less money than Boston offered him, and he did so while wagging an accusatory finger at the Celtics organization and its surly genius point guard. When he comes back to Boston, Allen has told fans, "Don't boo me, boo the [Celtics]." During the offseason, Rondo would refer to Allen only as "that guy."3 KG says he's lost his former teammate's phone number. But it's not like they can actually forget him. For one, he's right there, every day, in the memorabilia room.

With Allen gone, the Big Three era has officially reached its quiet and contentious end. So why does the mood feel so peppy in Boston? In large part, it's because of the guy who signed with the Celtics a week before Ray split. His name is Jason Terry, he's got a lovely jump shot of his own, and he seems pretty goddamn sure that the C's are winning it all this year.

The first tattoo Jason Terry shows me isn't the fresh Leprechaun on his right biceps, but the old Underdog on his left shoulder. We're sitting on a cushioned bench in a corner of the practice court, a few minutes after scrimmage has wrapped. I ask Terry about his new team. There are, it seems, a good amount of long-shot prospects: Jeff Green, who was sidelined last year with a scary heart condition; first-round draft pick Jared Sullinger, whose medically flagged back prevents him from fully extending his legs in a seated position; and Terry himself, who has to be the difference for a team most basketball experts consider little more than a hurdle in the Heat's path to a third consecutive NBA Finals appearance.

"A lot has to break in your favor," I suggest. "Kind of an underdog situation in general, huh?" Terry smiles, then pulls up his sleeve. "I've always been the smallest guy on the court," he says, rubbing Underdog. "That's what it's been for me my entire career."

Terry had other suitors in free agency, like the Memphis Grizzlies, but Boston made the best offer (three years at $15 million) and Boston had the banners. Doc's pitch to Terry was all about the banners. Pierce's was too: "He was like, Man, you should have been on our team three years ago! We would have had three championships by now." Garnett's, expectedly, was way weirder. "I heard from KG first," Terry says. "His phone call was simple. It was, 'You love green, you're from the Emerald City [Terry grew up in Seattle], and green is your favorite color. So why not be a Celtic?'"

After the Mavs lost to the Heat in the 2006 Finals, Terry says, beating Miami in 2011 wasn't pure joy: "It was more a huge sigh of relief. It was like a weight had been lifted." And he still hasn't gotten over what happened last season, when Dallas management didn't bring back the same team to compete. It left him craving championship-level basketball. "Now that I'm back in the position to do it again," Terry says, "I'm just as hungry as these guys — being one game away from the Finals."

That 'one game' was Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, when the Heat ran away from the Celtics in the fourth quarter. Terry says he has watched that game "10 times since I've been in Boston"; Rivers has run the footage on a loop in the locker room. Terry was watching live, too, and, he swears, "For some reason I just kind of imagined — what if I was out there? What if I was there playing with the Celtics against Miami?"

Now it's time to flash the biceps. In 2010, before the season, by way of putting lifelong body art where his mouth was, Terry got a tattoo of the NBA championship trophy. To most, it was a joke — and then the Mavs won it all. This year he outdid himself.

"I came in early," he says, by way of explanation. "I've been here since September 4. I'd come in at night and get tons of shots up. And just coming in here and looking at all the banners — it makes your blood boil. I was just like, 'Man, with this team — I know we gonna win it. I just know." So, while celebrating his 10-year wedding anniversary with his wife in Hawaii, Terry made a pit stop at a tattoo parlor. "I was like, 'Yeah, let me go ahead and get this Celtics guy tattooed on.'" He pulls back the other sleeve now, flexing Lucky the Leprechaun, who had been planted beneath his former predictive ink. "And as you can see, he's spinning the Larry O'Brien trophy."

He continues: "I'm not a psychic. I'm not a prophet. But I'm a big faith-fearing guy, and in my faith, sometimes, you have to speak what you believe, and it will come true. So, yeah, I have no hesitation in telling you that our mission is to kill whoever we step on the court against."

What do the other guys think of the tat? "They like it," he says. "They say if we win, they 'gon do it too."

Everybody likes to feel wanted.

I've been a Celtics fan since I was 10, when my family moved to Massachusetts. I only had a vague idea what basketball even was before that. We lived in Israel, and then the Netherlands, where in gym class we played cricket. And so everything about the Celtics' long, proud history felt more or less fictional. When I got to Boston the big names were Dee Brown, Rick Fox, Dino Radja, and the fading spectres of Xavier McDaniel and Dominique Wilkins.

And I loved them! I loved them so much. One of my clearest memories from our first year in the country was watching a Celtics-Heat game from the balcony at the old Boston Garden. Seconds left, the Celts down one, and they feed Dino underneath — he crams it for the win. I had my eyes squeezed shut during that entire possession, too scared to watch. I opened them with the roar of the crowd. The next year they tore the Garden down.

We don't need to run through the mostly sad history of the team between then and The Big Three. This is just to say that, since I fell for the Celtics after all the good stuff had happened, I never associated the team with winning. And so when they became an elite team — rationally or not — it always felt tenuous.

I think it's fair to say that Jason Terry is the biggest name the Celtics have acquired via free agency since I've been a fan. And to know Jet wanted to come here, just as Ray Allen was making it a point to leave? Well — not to get too touchy-feely here, Jason — but it meant a lot, bro.

Meanwhile, the Ray situation gets uglier. It started with anonymously sourced jabs; now he's just unloading. In a Miami radio interview, Allen said, "When this contract situation came down, everybody in my circle — mom, family, brother, sister, friends from college, people who watched me since I was in high school and since I was in college — nobody wanted me to re-sign in that situation because they thought, There [is] so much left in you and this team isn't taking care of you or treating you right." And while reports originally had Ray chafing at Rondo, Allen took pains to make it sound like it was the other way around: "I had no issues with him. I won with him … [if Rondo] had issue with me, that's on him."

The original reading of Allen's departure was "gut punch." Quickly, though, it's become something else.

It's hard to believe that the contract Boston offered Allen — two years, $12 million, compared to the three years, $9 million he got from Miami — was, as Allen appears to believe, a hollow offer. But it may work out for Boston in the end. The rift between Allen and Rondo was unfixable, and if you're Danny Ainge, surely you're riding with the Young Surly Genius over the 37-year-old with bad ankles. Basketballwise, both Doc and the impartial experts concur: Between Terry, fellow free-agent signees Courtney Lee and Leandro Barbosa, and Avery Bradley — whose late-season emergence marginalized Allen in the first place — the Celtics' backcourt rotation has clearly improved from last year.

But, for now, forget about "actual facts" and "concrete conclusions" about how this team has improved. Let's get to the warm emotional goo of team chemistry.

This preseason the Celtics played in Istanbul and Milan, a move that consciously recalled the team's trip to Rome before their championship season. According to Terry, the team would hang "every night. And every night it was everybody — no man left behind." After dinner, they'd hang out, talking in the lobby for hours and hours. "I mean, I'm talking about these talks went till two, three in the morning," he said. "Playing cards, telling old war stories." Terry says KG had the best tales, "from battles against old veterans like Charles Oakley to gang shootouts when he was younger."

Earlier in the offseason, Rondo organized unofficial workouts for the core group in L.A. Terry explains: "I boarded the flight that he paid for. Stayed for a week. It was almost like practice, 'cause he ran it. We ran through the plays in the morning, and then we scrimmaged. At night we'd go to dinner and then we'd get right back in the morning and do the same thing. The last day was special. He tricked us. He said, 'Look we gon' go outside for a minute.' We go outside and we break out into a flag football game."

The Celtics beat reporters tell me it's like night and day with last year: Rondo's one-syllable answers have been stretching to heretofore unimaginable lengths. And now here comes happy-go-lucky Jason Terry, getting inked, promising titles, and continuing to exhume all manner of bad vibes by saying stuff like, "We're gonna go right at it, head-on. Obviously [Allen] didn't want to be a part of what we're building here. So he's the enemy," and, "I'm gonna do what I do — be the Jet. Fly at the highest level possible. Cruising altitude."

Then again, when I ask Rondo what the difference between playing with Ray and playing with Jet is — on the court, off the court — I get a sharp, curt answer: "I don't compare 'em."

The day after practice the team is in Hartford, Connecticut, for a preseason game against the Knicks.4 Paul Pierce is on the court with a rubber cord around his ankles, doing a stretch that makes it look like he's pooping while walking sideways. In the locker room Brandon Bass has spotted a couple of beat reporters wearing identical dress shirts, and he's giving them guff for it. Then he identifies their checkered print as gingham, and says, "I bet you five bucks Rondo doesn't know it." Strength-and-conditioning coach Bryan Doo is running around with thin wheat-bread sandwiches on plastic plates, shouting, "Anybody want a sandwich?"

With the game about to kick off, the arena is surprisingly loud. One Knicks fan in particular sticks out. He's decked in vintage gear, he's screaming his lungs off, and he's insistently waving an airbrushed T-shirt bearing the image of Skip Bayless.

The action starts, and I know it's preseason, but with the young and new talent performing, it's hard not to see Tantalizing Glimpses of the Future! Jeff Green drops a nifty transition handoff to Sullinger, who scores breezily. Rondo streaks a pass up the court to Terry, who snaps it over to KG for the slam. Rondo tosses a mid-air behind-the-back pass to Green, who finishes with a ferocity that causes J.R. Smith and Raymond Felton to stifle reactions on the sideline.

The game ends up tight, and the starters get intense cheering on the backups. His knees already wrapped in ice, Terry hobbles out near the 3-point line during timeouts to flap his arms to the crowd.5 After the Knicks pull out the overtime win, Terry tosses a white Reebok to a woman in the front rows, and she squeals with delight. In the locker room, Terry takes the occasion to do some raving about his new point guard: "Sometimes you watch him in the middle of the game, and you can see him make a pass, and you almost lose focus — you're just like, 'Wow.'"

I ask Terry if he feels any increased pressure about the beginning of this new, post–Big Three Era. It's the only time I see his aura of positivity blink even a bit. "Our sole mission is to win the championship this year," he says. "We are not looking for the future. And that's all we can do. I tip my hat off to them. They had a good run. They'll go down as a threesome that was" — he pauses — "pretty good. But it's a new day. And we'll see what happens."

You could argue that, objectively, the Big Three era of Garnett, Pierce, and Allen was marked by underachievement — one title, another Finals appearance, an ignominious end. Subjectively, I'd say it was a total goddamn blast.

New York Magazine has a long-running feature called the "undulating curve of shifting expectations," a tongue-in-cheek way of charting pop-culture events against whiplashing expectations over time. The last five years in Boston were like the NBA version of that undulating curve.

In 2009, a year after winning the title, Garnett goes down for the playoffs, and instead of being a repeat contender, the team becomes a scrappy unit going after the big fish. (The epic first-round series against the Bulls, in which Ray Allen performed so admirably, never happens if KG is around.) The next year, Garnett returns, but a late-season swoon suggests the Celtics' championship window won't reopen. Then the Celtics tear through the playoffs, vanquish LeBron's formidable Cleveland team, and, fwoomp, once again they're contenders. But a heartbreaking Game 7 loss to the Lakers chops them back down. And just last year, as Jason Terry so vividly recalls, if the last six minutes of Boston's season had played out differently, who knows how we'd be framing their 2012-13 chances.

I watched the Celtics win in 2008 in an East Village bar stuffed with Boston partisans. In the waning seconds, with the C's up huge, a friend of mine told me: "Enjoy this one; there's nothing like the first one." I nodded, smug and content that this was the beginning of a dynasty. Maybe if the Celts had rattled off multiple championships I would have felt progressively less elated. Instead, they scrambled and fell and got back up, again and again, and every year they found new ways to give me heart palpitations. Now, here comes another season in which I have no idea what's going to happen.

A couple days after Hartford, the Celtics are at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn for morning shootaround. The place is still so new that there are construction workers milling around, and drilling noises, and groups of guys in sharp suits pointing up emphatically while saying things like, "We need installations up there!" The Celtics roll in casually and scope out the fresh court. Rondo says the low lights in the arena make him feel like he's onstage. Then he and Jet get to firing up jumpers while squabbling over a card game: "I won the first game." "No, I won. I had a seven of diamonds."

Before the media got booted from the closed practice, I watch with a security guard in a back tunnel. Turns out he's a Celtics fan. "I'm Jamaican, we have different nicknames for everyone," he says. "Garnett, I call him dogface. He be doing that dogface." Then he growls, demonstrating what many of us might know as Garnett's serial killer face. "When he's out there, he's like, 'Eat that shit!" Then he does an exaggerated miming of a huge swat. We start talking about the playoffs two seasons ago, when Miami bounced Boston in five games. "It literally brought tears to my eyes," he says.

After shootaround I catch Terry in front of the team bus, and we chat for a minute about what's been going on outside of basketball. He's been hitting up Sox and Pats games, getting all kinds of love from the Boston diehards: "Fans are running up to me like, 'Ayo, the Jet! We've been waiting for you to land,'" he says. "Been to the school three or four times for parent night. Seen Big Papi at parent night — that was kind of cool. Been to the pumpkin patch. I'm all over, man; I'm just having a great time with it. And it looks like it might, if things work out, be my third home. If my prediction is true." And here he again rolls up his sleeve, flashes his biceps, and pats his lucky Leprechaun.

Legends of the Fall

By: timbersfan, 12:17 AM GMT on October 27, 2012

Outside my window, half the leaves are red; there's a jack-o'-lantern — it was a pumpkin yesterday — on the porch of my across-the-street neighbors, leering out at their evangelical yard signs. One of their rosebushes is still blooming, big wet smacks of pink, but the sky is as gray as a stone. We live on the main street of our little Pennsylvania town, which is also the most reliably sidewalked path to Walmart. So there's a slow but steady trickle of moderately beat-down-looking foot traffic, and I guess that's where it's aiming, though who knows. It's a long way off, but say you didn't have a car. There's a pair of super-obese old ladies whom I sometimes spot whizzing past on these amazing wide-body people-movers, always in single file, zipping around the traffic, spilling out of their seats but nimble as cats, a weird electric peloton of two.

I've got a sports-debate TV show on in my office. You know the kind. A couple of shouting men, shouting mannishly. Suits too big for their arguments. I'm not really paying attention, but I keep looking up and noticing the set, one of those premium-alloy SPORTSLIFE interiors that looks like it was forged by robots out of a room-size Intel processor. I've seen a couple of these studio environments in person over the last year, and what sticks out, IRL, is how flimsy and ad hoc they are — these things are designed to be constructed and deconstructed with as little effort as possible. On TV, though, they're kind of astounding, data-saturated command centers that make you feel intuitively that this is the place where sports is really happening.

The guys are talking, in their Col. Nathan Jessup–doing-stand-up kind of way, about Lance Armstrong. I don't entirely know what to make of this. The lines of attack against Lance Armstrong are, at this point, obvious and undeniable — the doping, the massive Nixonian cover-up, the sensational revelation of the doping/cover-up by Armstrong's fellow riders and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. And the ways of defending him, half of which boil down to "everyone was doing it," are persuasive only if you need them to be. Lance Armstrong is a liar, and a great athlete, and a cheat, and an inspiration to a lot of suffering people (but then so is a televangelist), and a bully, and a survivor, and a fraud. I used to think that you couldn't ever say whether the world was good or bad because the world contains everything we know about either of those qualities, and so no one can gain an outside perspective from which to weigh the judgment. Lance Armstrong isn't the world, but his story has become such a total index of modern sports culture that the norms of SPORTSLIFE can't really hope to get outside it. In any given Lance Armstrong discussion, doesn't it always feel like something is missing — like you're only seeing six sides of a seven-sided polygon, and you can't tell where the seventh side is?

I mean, OK, let's think through this. Lance Armstrong became one of the two or three most transcendent American sports stars of his generation despite the fact that hardly anyone in America cares at all about his particular sport. The ratio of passionate Lance Armstrong fans to people who have ever actually watched Lance Armstrong race except for maybe a few minutes during this one Tour de France is just crazily out of whack. Somewhere, I realize — Luxembourg? — there is a large core of passionate cycling fans who are skipping their Luxembourger lunch breaks to take in the early mountain stages in the Giro d'Italia, but in America it's almost definitely the case that more people have seen Lance Armstrong commercials than have seen Lance Armstrong compete. Which is all just to state the ultra-obvious, that it was his story that made him a superstar: his comeback from near-fatal cancer, the hope he offered other cancer patients, his charitable work through the Livestrong Foundation, the yellow bracelets, the sense of larger purpose. Cycling wasn't the cause here so much as the arbitrary venue in which the cause could prove itself noteworthy.

Which means, from one point of view, that Armstrong's career was always about the triumph of sports narrative over actual sports — or at least that was a feature of it, that so many people could become so invested in a guy whose competitive endeavor they'd never given two thoughts to before. Obviously, you don't get that kind of exposure without a pretty big hand from the media, and Armstrong's story — which was genuinely moving — was beautifully suited to the redemption/uplift arm of the SPORTSLIFE machine. In some ways, it was actually better that cycling was such an afterthought. Since hardly anyone actually watched much of Armstrong racing, he didn't even have to be packaged in terms of live entertainment.1 He could be broadcast as pure information, or whatever the emotional equivalent of information is. He was a hero of feeling, not a hero of sports.

The problem with this arrangement was that, despite every illusion to the contrary, sports doesn't actually exist within the laser-hewn SPORTSLIFE set; not mostly, maybe not at all. There is a whole world outside the window — worried people in cars, hulking dudes in trench-coat-length Flyers jerseys, patients in hospital rooms, college kids streaming The Walking Dead — and sports is complicatedly woven into it and part of it. With most feel-this-now narratives, there are at least regular games to serve as a kind of reality reset. Once a narrative like Lance Armstrong's is set loose in the world, though, it can just keep ramifying, because it's both verifiably true and not strongly connected to any real, shared experience. That's what's so tragic about what turned out to be Armstrong's charlatanism. He had to cheat to win. But he had to win primarily to validate the narrative, not because the consumers of the narrative liked watching him do it. One of the reasons he could be so inspiring, in other words, was that for all practical purposes he barely existed at all.

There's an old cemetery behind our house. Slanted-wafer Revolutionary War graves strewn around in snaggletoothed lines, that sort of thing. Winged skulls disappearing back into the stone. In the fall it fills up with birds and at random intervals you'll see treetops explode with crows. The central grave, or at least the biggest, belongs to Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley, better known as Molly Pitcher, the war hero who manned her wounded husband's cannon against the British at the Battle of Monmouth in 1778. Most of the graves are small and semi-overgrown; Molly Pitcher's is meticulously tended. It features a large statue, multiple plaques, elaborate flowers, American flags, and a cannon, all added long after the fact. A story becomes important and then because it became important it becomes more important and eventually it generates heroes and statues and flags. Historians disagree about whether Molly Pitcher was a real person.

After the USADA report and the sponsorship gang-dropping and the resignation from Livestrong, the media has finally shifted Armstrong over to its shame/disgrace wing, and with a few exceptions, the emotional phaser is now set to "condemn." Within cycling, he's being mocked as "Cancer Jesus" for hiding behind the survivor narrative. (This is nothing new.) There has also been, I think it's fair to say, a convulsive backlash among regular fans, many of whom are still furiously defending "Lance" while equally furious others vent their betrayal. I would like to join in the condemnation, personally. Armstrong strikes me as a bitter, entitled, petit-thuggish narcissist, and I can't stop thinking about the people he trampled on, like Emma O'Reilly, his team's soigneur, whose life he tried to ruin financially and legally because she told the truth about his doping regimen. But I also can't stop noticing that many of the people still defending him — not denying that he cheated, just knowingly rooting for him anyway — are cancer survivors or the family members of cancer patients. Robert Lipsyte wrote about this for The New Republic, how the thought of Armstrong helped get him through chemotherapy. And once you start thinking along those lines, that he meant that much to people, that it's not a trivial thing to be a hero of feeling, this becomes one of those problems you can't think your way outside.

I want to write: "I would rather be devastated by the truth than comforted by a lie" and be able to believe it. But that's easy to say when you're outside the drift of the regular world, writing away on your sports column. And I wonder what the ladies on the people-movers would think.

Lance Armstrong is a liar, and a fraud, and an inspiration to millions of people, and one of the trees outside my window has leaves that are almost purple, and it's almost the end of October, and sports keeps rolling on. The TV guys are yelling about something else. Soon it will be Christmas. I have no idea how Lance Armstrong will be remembered. It wouldn't surprise me at all if 30 years from now his reputation had been more or less refurbished, if people said, Well, everyone was doping then, and it was complicated, and he did great things. I mean, this is the West, sir; print the legend. Maybe doping will be standard practice in 2042. Or maybe not; but it's always hard to remember that there were victims in cases like this, and what you do remember — hypocrisy and rule-breaking — doesn't always look so bad a few years down the line. How you feel about that probably depends on what you think heroism means in America, and whether you picture Halloween or Jesus when you hear that the dead are rising from their graves.

LeBron's Quest for Immortality

By: timbersfan, 11:58 PM GMT on October 26, 2012

At the relatively tender age of 28, he stands alone on the mountaintop, unquestionably the most famous athlete on the planet and one of its most famous citizens of any kind. We've heard it so often that it's now a cliche, though nonetheless accurate: He transcends sports."
— Sports Illustrated

You thought that was about LeBron, didn't you? Nope. Jack McCallum wrote that about Michael Jordan nearly 21 years ago, in December of 1991, as the lead paragraph of the magazine's "Sportsman of the Year" feature. When Danny Biasone's 24-second shot clock saved the NBA in 1954, the same year of Sports Illustrated's launch, it inadvertently positioned the magazine as the mainstream media's stamp of approval anytime an NBA star either revolutionized the sport or transcended it. In 1956, they dubbed Bob Cousy a "creative genius" and "nothing less than the greatest all-round player in the 64-year history of basketball." In 1963, they celebrated Bill Russell's brilliance and called him "the most remarkable basketball player of our time." And it just kept going from there. Five years before Jordan's 1991 coronation, Larry Bird adorned the magazine's cover with the headline "The Living Legend," which featured a barrage of gushing quotes and wondered if Bird's supremacy had surpassed even Russell and Kareem. As usual, Bird was the one who ended up putting everything in perspective.

"All I know is that people tend to forget how great the older great players were," (said) Bird. "It'll happen that way with me, too."

Now we're doing this dance with the latest object of everyone's affection, LeBron James, the best basketball player in 20 years. We spent nearly nine years picking him apart before he flipped the narrative, borrowing the finest qualities of Bird, Magic and Jordan and blending them together into a superstar smoothie during last year's playoffs. When his team needed him to score, he unleashed the most complicated inside/outside game since Jordan's second prime. When they needed him to create shots for teammates, he found them wide-open over and over again. When they needed rebounds, he pounded the boards like Barkley or Moses in their primes. When they needed to slow down an opposing scorer, he guarded that player and the player stopped scoring (no matter what position he played).

LeBron James churned out 44 minutes a night, every other night, for eight straight weeks without ever wearing down. He played two of the greatest two-way playoff basketball games in the history of the league: Game 4 at Indiana (40 points, 18 rebounds, nine assists) and Game 6 at Boston (45 points, 15 rebounds, only seven missed shots), then threw on a Larry Bird 2.0 costume in the Finals, destroyed Oklahoma City in the low post, liquidated the media's absurd "LeBron or Durant?" argument and averaged a triple-double in the deciding two games. I called it a "virtuoso basketball performance" at the time, but really, it was more of a watershed athletic achievement — no different than Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile or Carl Lewis trying to jump 30 feet. You shouldn't be able to play basketball like that.

For the first time in a long time, someone made the sport of basketball feel like a Little League game with one of Those Kids — you know, those oversize five-tool freaks who seem like they're 20 when they're really just 12. I will never forget sitting next to my father during Game 6 of the Celtics series, both of us getting shamed into silence because LeBron couldn't miss, waiting for him to sweat, waiting for him to tire, waiting for any sign that he was human. It just wasn't happening. The last time I felt that helpless during a sporting event, Jordan and Pippen were ripping through a pathetic Celtics team in the mid-'90s — they were playing at such a high level, we couldn't help showing our appreciation by cheering them when they finally came out. What else could you do? When were we going to see something like that again? Two guys covering the whole court? Two guys playing that beautifully together? What if we never saw that again? Didn't we have to acknowledge it? Didn't we have to let them know that we knew?

LeBron peaked in a similar way during those last two and a half playoff rounds, and really, you couldn't blame him if he coasted from here — his hunger satiated, his point proven, the monkey pulled off his back and subsequently stomped to death. Everyone handles this moment differently. Jordan (1991), Magic (1987), Walton (1977), Hakeem (1994) and Bird (1986) returned more inspired than ever, but it was the worst thing that ever happened to Shaq — after his 2000 title, he realized his immense physical advantages allowed him to enjoy his summers, use regular seasons to work himself into shape, then take over when it truly mattered. And he was right — the Lakers won two more titles that way, even if they left another three on the table.

Wilt suffered as well: After briefly embracing controversial things like "teamwork" and "unselfishness" and defeating Russell's Celtics and winning his first championship in 1967, he couldn't maintain the momentum. He measured his own worth by numbers, not team success. The following year, Wilt went overboard with the "unselfish" gimmick, desperately tried to lead the league in assists (he did), then mysteriously stopped shooting in the second half of an eventual Game 7 loss to Boston. They traded him to Los Angeles a few months later. So much for Wilt "getting it."

So there's definitely a fork in the road with the "Year after The Year." The good news? There's an overwhelming amount of evidence that LeBron is heading toward that Jordan/Bird/Magic direction. When we were taping a television segment for ESPN last week, Magic Johnson mentioned how LeBron's "off the court" was catching up to LeBron's "on the court." In other words, he gets it now — that there's a cause and effect between how you spend your offseason and what actually happens during that season. We finished the segment and spent the next few minutes bullshitting about LeBron. Magic mentioned that LeBron could taste it now; he could tell by their phone calls over the summer. He believed Pat Riley's impact was so much more underrated than anyone realizes, that Riley has a way of just staying in your ear, appealing to you as a friend and a competitor, never letting up, never letting you stop thinking about what's next. Riley wouldn't push it that hard unless he thought LeBron wanted it. And Magic thought LeBron wanted it.

"It's like eating steak if you've never had steak," Magic said. "Once you taste it, you want more of it."

After LeBron spent his first eight seasons regarding the low post with genuine disdain, it took a humiliating 2011 Finals series for someone blessed with Karl Malone's body and Jordan's footwork to change his thinking. Once upon a time, Bird started the trend of using every summer to add one new weapon to his game, something Magic quickly copied, and then Jordan, Hakeem and Kobe used to their advantage the following two decades. Why wasn't LeBron following suit? For years and years, that was the easiest way to criticize him. As long as someone with LeBron's basketball intelligence refused to use what should have been his biggest advantage (an inside/outside game), then we couldn't believe in him. We wondered if he was destined to become the next Shaq or Wilt, someone with all the talent in the world who just couldn't harness those prodigious physical gifts … and even worse, didn't totally care.

Week 8 Picks

My Week 8 NFL Picks explained in five words or less.

(Home team in caps).

Pats (-7) over RAMS
Too much offense.

BEARS (-7.5) over Panthers
Too much defense.

Seahawks (+2.5) over LIONS
Too much special teams.

BROWNS (+3) over Chargers
Too much Norv + Rivers.

PACKERS (-14.5) over Jaguars
Too many Eff You TDs.

Colts (+3.5) over TITANS
Too many points.

Dolphins (+2.5) over JETS
Too much revenge.

EAGLES (-3) over Falcons
Too much motivation.

Redskins (+4.5) over STEELERS
Too much RG3.

Raiders (+1.5) over CHIEFS
Too much booing.

Giants (-2.5) over COWBOYS
Too much talent.

Saints (+6) over BRONCOS
Too much garbage-time potential.

49ers (-7) over CARDINALS
Too much everything.

This Week: 1-0
Last Week: 6-6-1
Season: 55-47-3
Everything changed in the summer of 2011, and thanks to our friends at CourtVision, you can actually see how his offensive game matured. LeBron spent this summer working on his own version of Magic's junior sky hook (even asking the master for a few tips). Meanwhile, the Heat's offensive philosophy has evolved with him — they're gravitating toward a strategy that Holland's soccer team famously tried during the 1970s, something of an offensive Nirvana, where positions don't matter and players aren't pigeonholed with a formulaic set of expectations. For all we know, Miami might eliminate the sport's two most famous positions completely — point guard and center — so they can surround LeBron with Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and two shooters (Ray Allen, Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers, etc.) 90 percent of the time.

You know what was really frightening? When Erik Spoelstra said the words, "Thinking conventionally that first season with LeBron — that was my biggest regret as a coach. I put LeBron in a box. And that's the worst thing I could have done." As a Celtics fan, I read those words and thought to myself, Good God, we're all screwed."

Of course, none of this would matter if LeBron didn't want it — and in this case, the word "it" covers "multiple titles," "dominance" and "true greatness" — but by all accounts, he does. During the Summer Olympics in London, observers were pleasantly surprised by a subtle shift in LeBron's personality: less clowning, more leading, more measuring himself against the other guys. Four years ago, he may have spent an hour shooting half-court shots. In 2012, he kept throwing himself into shooting contests with Durant and Kobe, determined to prove he could hold his own. Anytime one of the USA practices became heated and turned into something of a dick-measuring contest, something that tends to happen when you gather the best players in the world on the same floor, LeBron left little doubt who mattered most. By all accounts, he was clearly the best player on the team. And it wasn't close.

In 2008, when things were falling apart during that gold-medal game against Spain, everyone deferred to Kobe. In 2012, during a similar moment in the gold-medal game, there was an unforgettable stretch when Coach K frantically signaled for LeBron, then LeBron sat at the scorer's table for what felt like three hours, waiting for a dead-ball whistle so he could reenter a game that was suddenly slipping away. Finally, a crumbling Carmelo Anthony whipped a pass into the stands — inadvertently, his best play of the Olympics since it allowed LeBron to come back in — and within a few minutes, everything was fine. (LeBron made a dagger 3 and a backbreaking drive.) I can still remember sitting in the stands, freaking out, glancing over at LeBron at the scorer's table, wondering if he was ever getting back in, feeling like we were screwed if it didn't happen soon. You couldn't crystallize what happened last summer better than that.

You know who summed up LeBron's ascension better than anyone? My old friend Isiah Thomas! The same guy who saved my NBA book with "The Secret" of basketball dropped a little more wisdom to Sports Illustrated this week, explaining LeBron's current mind-set by saying, "Think about what I'm saying here. On the planet Earth, there is nobody better than you, and that gives you the confidence to walk around and say, I'm bigger than you, I'm better than you, and the only thing you can hope for is that I'm having a bad night."

That's exactly what it means to be LeBron James right now. The only thing that can stop him? If Dwyane Wade resists being relegated to "LeBron's sidekick" status again. During the last three weeks of the 2012 playoffs, their uneasy alpha-dog battle was resolved as organically as possible — Wade's aching knee forced LeBron to assume a bigger offensive burden, and just like that, Miami's team fell into place. To borrow a word from the great Bob Ryan, the Heat's calibration finally made sense. Everything ran through LeBron, with Wade reinventing himself as a new-wave Pippen almost on the fly. He spent the summer fixing his knee and getting himself into phenomenal shape, blowing everyone away during the preseason and leaving the door ajar — just a little — that he might not be ready to throw on that Robin costume again.

Then again, who has it better than Dwyane Wade right now? What if this was the plan all along? What if Wade and Riley were scheming years ago, We'll never be able to beat LeBron if he finds the right team, we need him on our side — we'll push him to another level, ride him to a few titles and never let him know that we were pulling the strings all along? Now that LeBron has established himself as the league's most dominant player, there's an overwhelming chance that Wade is delighted by this — it just means less work for him, right? And if that's the case, I am fully preparing for the monster LeBron season to end all monster LeBron seasons: 65 wins, 27 points a game, 10 rebounds a game, maybe even (gulp) 10 assists a game. Oh, while changing the way we watch and think about basketball, much like Cousy in 1956, or Russell in 1963, or Bird and Magic in the '80s, or Jordan a decade later.

And yeah, with the greatest basketball season in 20 years looming, I understand it's easy to get distracted by admittedly juicy story lines like the Lakers trotting out four future Hall of Famers, or two suddenly juicy Nets-Knicks and Clippers-Lakers rivalries, or Derrick Rose's potential comeback, or possible leap seasons for Rajon Rondo (a runner-up MVP candidate) and Kyrie Irving (as a top-15 guy), or Oklahoma City's "kids" using last year's bitter Finals defeat as motivation for a possible Eff You season. Just know that it's all window dressing — fun subplots to pass the time, keep us engaged, keep us arguing, keep us watching. From a big-picture standpoint? History says LeBron James is getting ready to destroy everybody. No other angle really matters.

If it happens — and I think it will — that means two straight titles and four MVP trophies in five years (something only Russell's ever done). For the first time, we could start thinking about him in Jordanian terms. What would it take for LeBron to pass Michael? Does he need six titles to get there? What if he ended up with five titles and six MVPs while also creating the 35-10-10 club (35,000 points, 10,000 assists, 10,000 rebounds)? Would that be enough? And if he continues to break ground as a power point guard — Bird 2.0 crossed with Magic, basically — shouldn't it matter that he created a new position? Also, how have we not hit LeBron's ceiling yet after nine years? Can we really go higher than what we witnessed last June? How high can this go? How long can this last?

For the first time, I feel myself starting to waver a little. Maybe Michael Jordan won't remain the greatest basketball player ever. Maybe we were wrong.

Of all the themes that have me excited for this upcoming NBA season, I keep circling back to that one. We love sports for dozens and dozens of reasons, but ultimately, the seasons and teams and championships blend into one blurry mess. You're going to be 80 years old someday and unable to remember 99.7 percent of it. Only a handful of athletes will stand out, and when someone asks if you watched them, your face will start glowing, and you'll start gushing about them, and for a few seconds, you will come to life again. Usually it's someone with unforgettable athletic ability (say, Usain Bolt or Bo Jackson), a supernatural mastery of his craft (Bird, Gretzky and Magic) and/or an indomitable will to conquer everyone else (Jordan, Ali and Russell). But when someone resonates in all three ways at the same time? Those are the ones we defend forever. We sing their praises, recall them on our deathbeds, tell everyone who wants to hear that we were there.

Those are the stakes for LeBron James this season. He already won a championship. Now he's battling for something else.

NFL Run & Shootaround: Quarterbacks 'R' Us

By: timbersfan, 12:25 AM GMT on October 26, 2012

On any given Sunday (or Monday, or Thursday), your NFL Run & Shootaround crew will be gathered around multiple televisions, making inappropriate jokes and generally regressing to the mean. Catch up on all the NFL action right here.

Questions But No Answers in Foxborough

This is getting tiresome. Almost every week, I get in this space and spew whiny reverse homerisms about The Death March of Mark Sanchez. It may look easy from afar, and it is — Mark Sanchez is the vampire tween fiction of quarterbacks: There is so much of it and it is all hot garbage.

But then a game like yesterday’s happens. A game that, barring the 47 Jaguars and Raiders fans left in America, was essentially a Monday Night Football game happening in the middle of a Sunday afternoon. A game for everyone to see. All Eyez on Mark. Here are some of the fun things Sanchez did in Foxborough against the Patriots: failed to identify wide-open receivers. Underthrew an open receiver late, leading to an interception. Botched a handoff, then, during the ensuing fumble, aggressively kicked the ball out of the end zone for a safety. Took repeated needless sacks in close and late situations. Misunderstood the game clock and unnecessarily burned timeouts. Depended on checkdowns over the middle and forced near-decapitation and certain head injuries for his running back.

Here’s the thing: This was Sanchez’s best performance in weeks. He completed 68 percent of his passes and threw for 328 yards. "It felt good to sling it around like that," he said after the game, because he lacks self-awareness. He did help push a longtime menace to the brink of defeat, even grabbing a late lead (on a fortunate fumble recovery) with less than two minutes to play. He made some strong throws. He turned Jeremy Kerley into a force. He resurrected Dustin Keller. He almost made Stephen Hill A Boy With Real Hands. Except that Sanchez wilted in the big spots, as he does. Sanchez isn’t only not the answer; he isn’t even the question anymore. From all across the greater New York area, thousands howl: Tebow? McElroy? Pennington?

Rex Ryan refused to take the bait on Sanchez-bashing at his postgame press conference, despite the assembled New York Jets beat corp hoisting opportunities like so many bags of Cheetos at the Jets head coach. “Rex, what did you think of Mark’s performance today … ” “Rex, about that interception … ” “Rex, tell me about that slant on third-and-1 … ” No bites. I wish Rex had spent less time filming a dipshit role in Adam Sandler’s That’s My Boy this winter and more time planning for Gronkowski and Hernandez. I wish Bart Scott wasn’t 57 years old. I wish Darrelle Revis was alive. But the Jets held the dynamic Patriots offense to two offensive touchdowns all day. It was close, but it wasn’t.

And the problem with a game like this — hard-fought, but deceptive — is it provides blinders for management insistent that their team can hang even with a diminished contender like the Patriots (and make no mistake, this is not an intimidating New England team, save those golems lined up at tight end). This convinces Rex they were thisclose. It convinces Sanchez he almost did it. It convinces Mike Tannenbaum he’s a good personnel man. It convinces Woody Johnson he’s got the right guys in the right spot. This has been a team in need of a makeover for 59 weeks. What’s 59 more?
— Sean Fennessey

Matt Schaub's Great Decision of the Week

(All GIFs by HeyBelinda. All decisions not to get turned into polenta by Terrell Suggs by Matt Schaub.)

Cousin Sal's "Sunday Wager I'm Most Upset I Didn't Make"

Are you familiar with the show House, in which Dr. House outdoes himself every week by calling a brilliant audible that ends up saving one, if not several lives? You know, the one where his cohorts foolishly argue with him for a good portion of the hour even though he's been 100 percent right in every previous episode? That's Cowboys coach Jason Garrett, except each week the brilliant audible is a ridiculously asinine call unfitting of a Princeton grad, let alone a dumpster diver.

But like Dr. House, the audible is consistent with Garrett. That's why I, an adoring Cowboys fan, was foolish not to bet on his streak of ineptness to continue. In case you missed this week's imbecilic installment: With about three and a half minutes to go in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys were down a point with third-and-9 at the Panthers 15-yard line. Anyone who's caught a Dallas fourth-quarter collapse knows they should be thinking six points, not three. And what's the best way to get the six points? You guessed it … a straight hand-off to our third-string running back Phillip Tanner. Somehow the Panthers defense stopped laughing at the play call long enough to wrap and tackle Tanner after a short gain, setting up a Dan Bailey field goal. This ended up being a non-issue, as the Cowboys benefited from a couple of questionable calls by the new replacement refs and the time ran out on Cam Newton.

The point is, this week, as is often the case, the Cowboys won in spite of Jason Garrett — not because of him. The other point is he should be fired retroactively in November 2011. Thank you, Panthers, for out-Cowboying the Cowboys.
— Sal Iacono

Things That Seem Faster Than Vincent Jackson After He Failed to Score on a 95-Yard Reception

(See this video in case you need a refresher course.)

• RG3 in a wheelchair with one square wheel.

• An offensive lineman running a fumble recovery drill while wearing a backpack full of anvils.

• LeGarrette Blount, Warrick Dunn, and Mike Alstott in a three-legged race, in ski boots.

• Usain Bolt in a Jell-O wave pool.

• The muzzle velocity from Jerome Bettis sipping a chocolate In-N-Out milkshake through a crazy straw.

• A Jorge Posada inside-the-park home run.

• Those fake dinosaurs trying to escape the La Brea tar pits.

• Oprah.

• Vincent Jackson trying for a 96-yard TD.
— Mark Lisanti

Not-So-Sweet Fantasy

I watched Sunday’s games out the side of my head because I was in Hour 53 of an NBA Salary Cap fantasy league draft. The rules for such nonsense are detailed here, but for those who are click-averse, you basically have to draft 11 NBA players and keep their combined salaries under the league’s cap. The challenge comes from the fact that you have to play ten of these 11 players at once, meaning you can’t just pick up someone like Magnum Rolle or Devin Ebanks and stash him deep on your bench. It occurred to me while agonizing over whether to blow my sixth-round pick on Greivis Vasquez or B.J. Mullens that I’ve long since grown bored of fantasy football. I don’t mean this in a “Hey, I’m a grown-up now and all you kids with your stupid fantasy sports need to grow up and appreciate real man competition” sort of way. I play pretty much every fantasy sport out there, including reality TV. But football, weirdly, has grown stale.

Fantasy football has become the country’s fourth national sport because it’s easy to track, easy to auto-draft, and requires only a couple days of investment per week. The results are even easier to process and digest — if you ended up with C.J. Spiller and Reggie Bush this year, you’re probably 3-3 in your league. If you built your team around Michael Vick last year, you probably became a lot more sympathetic toward the plight of tortured dogs. This is all fine for 80 percent of the population. But it’s strange to me, especially given how much of the population likes to think of themselves as NFL experts, that there aren’t more complicated versions of the game in anything resembling heavy rotation.

Why aren’t there more leagues with five or six or even eight defensive player slots? Wouldn’t it be a more fun experience for everyone if J.J. Watt could be on your fantasy team? Wouldn’t it be easy to come up with a simple scoring system for tackles, interceptions, forced fumbles, sacks, and tipped balls? I’m aware that such leagues exist, but have never come across a running league that tries to incorporate defensive players on a year-to-year basis.

The answer seems to lie in the expansiveness of fantasy football as compared to baseball or basketball. Anyone can play in a standard baseball league, but there’s pretty much an infinite amount of actionable research that can be done. The same can’t really be said for football. To expand the parameters of fantasy football without hiring moles in locker rooms, you kind of have to expand the number of players involved. The research burden has to be spread out among more players on both sides of the ball.

Anyway, I’d like to commit myself to creating a decent fantasy football system that includes several defensive players. If you’re in one right now, please contact me via Twitter at @jaycaspiankang with details.
— Jay Caspian Kang

Hi, Tampa Bay. Jerome Robbins Is Your Defensive Coordinator

The plays that Tampa Bay Buccaneers "defenders" Mark Barron and Eric Wright attempted to make on Saints receiver Joe Morgan were simultaneously piss-poor and the closest thing I've witnessed to NFL ballet in a long time.

First, there's the first missed tackle, from no. 24 Barron, who hilariously (and gracefully) dives over Morgan, flawlessly rolling over on his side twice and instantly landing on his feet, facing the comedy of errors that is his teammate. What's his teammate doing at that very moment? Oh nothing, just getting launched into the air by Morgan, almost as if it were a choreographed sequence. It's like a "the rumble" fight scene from a seventh-grade production of West Side Story.

Watch this GIF over and over again while your favorite ballet is playing in the background. It's just splendid. If I may offer a recommendation: Spandau.

— Rembert Browne

The Brees Freeze

Rem just thoroughly broke down how Eric Wright and Mark Barron skate to one song. And one song only. I don't want to pile on here, but I would feel awful if we let a play like this go by and we didn't point out that the "Drew Brees Pump Fake to Put a DB on Freeze" is one of my favorite things in football. Eric Wright bites so hard on this one that he needs a Tums afterward. I'm surprised the camera didn't jolt downfield when Brees cocked back the hammer on this one.
— Chris Ryan

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

As a Bears fan, for the past three years, the most common feelings I’ve had while watching Aaron Rodgers are awe and terror. On Rodgers’s second touchdown throw to Randall Cobb yesterday, it was mostly the latter. Up only a score late in the fourth quarter, the Packers faced a third-and-9 from St. Louis’s 38-yard line. As he will, left tackle Marshall Newhouse was beaten inside by Robert Quinn, and Rodgers scrambled left to the numbers before turning his shoulders back perpendicular to the line of scrimmage. What followed were two short hops backward on both feet, which never were quite set, and a 42-yard strike to Cobb that couldn’t have been thrown any better.

When I say that, I mean it. No quarterback in football, at any point in his career, could’ve thrown it better. For all of Tom Brady's and Peyton Manning’s greatness, Rodgers’s ability to extend the play, turn his body, and fire perfectly lofted missiles on the move is all his own.

Green Bay’s run to 15-1 last year caused some people to forget the details of the Packers' title run. Fourteen games into 2010, the Packers were an 8-6 team on the brink. In Week 17 of that year, with Green Bay sitting at 9-6, the Bears had a chance to go to Lambeau and keep Rodgers out of the playoffs. The Bears lost, and we all know what happened next. All that is why I didn’t need last week or yesterday’s touchdown throw to remember how I feel about that team or its quarterback, and that is absolutely terrified.
— Robert Mays

A Giant Headache

In July, Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora went on the mid-morning show on WFAN and was asked about RG3. "Who's this RG3 guy you guys keep talking about?" he said. "You talking about Bob Griffin? You guys are giving him a cool nickname already and everything. When he does anything in the NFL we're gonna call him RG3. Right now he's Bob Griffin."

Osi may have had a point about premature nicknames — let's all pour one out for the poor Sanchize — but in less than three months' time he's already found himself on the wrong side of Griffonian history. He acknowledged as much in advance of this weekend's NFC East matchup: "His name is Sir," Umenyiora said. "His name is Sir Robert Griffin. That is what I refer to him now."

Griffin looked every bit a young prince yesterday, captivating not just Redskins fans but also undoubtedly the Giants fans packing MetLife Stadium. At one point Troy Aikman compared containing him to defending a two-on-one in basketball. He's so potentially volatile a compound that when he has the ball you can sometimes actually watch the wheels turning inside the heads of overwhelmed defensive players, who look like scientists trying not to blow something up in a lab. As a Giants fan, it was terrifying. As a football fan, it was awesome.

After the game, Giants players swooned so hard about Griffin that you were just glad no one injured their weak knees in the process. "That guy is flat-out unbelievable, man," said Osi. "That's the best QB we've played this year for sure." Justin Tuck agreed: "If they asked me to pick between Vick, Cam Newton and RG3, I'm probably taking that guy," he said. Only Jason Pierre-Paul was impervious, pointing out double-backhandedly that others in the league were slippery too. "Even Tom Brady's elusive," he said. "He's slow, but elusive."

Of course, it was easy for these guys to offer such gracious assessments of their opponent, considering he did everything except win the game. It was instead Eli Manning who made up for an otherwise thoroughly mediocre performance by connecting with Victor Cruz for a 77-yard TD that put the Giants up 27-23. It capped off a back-and-forth game with multiple lead changes that provided quite a glimpse into the future of these two NFC East rivals.

It also may have begun the transition of Manning from dopey man-child into old fuddy-duddy: Asked about Pierre-Paul's "Gangnam Style" celebration after sacking RG3 for a fumble, he spoke for my father when he admitted, "I didn't know what it was. I thought it was just a sack dance."

As Griffin matures, the opportunities for such celebrations are likely to come fewer and farther between. "I'm really mad at the football gods for putting him in the NFC East," admitted Tuck. "He's going to be a headache." That disturbance in the Force you just felt was all the Eagles, Cowboys, and Giants fans nodding gravely.
— Katie Baker

The Ravens' Elite Defense Is a Thing of the Past

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

If season-ending injuries in the same game for Ray Lewis and Lardarius Webb weren't a Ravens fan's worst nightmare, seeing what the defense looked like without them on Sunday probably qualifies. Baltimore was blown off the field by the only other team (at the time) in the AFC with a winning record, the Houston Texans, in a 43-13 shellacking. The Texans did pick up nine points from a safety and a pick-six on a tipped Joe Flacco pass, but the Baltimore defense did still allow 34 points across 11 possessions, a 3.1-point average that was more than twice its 2011 points-per-possession average. Not good.

Most teams won't have an offense quite as good as Houston's, but I wanted to get a closer look at Baltimore's defense post–Lewis and Webb to see how the Texans beat them. What will teams notice and reference for the future? Did the Texans really go after the Ravens' replacements? And, most importantly, is this the "real" Ravens defense we're going to be watching for the rest of the season?

Baltimore's new starters each have some experience playing in the Ravens scheme, albeit not frequently as starters. 2011 first-rounder Jimmy Smith took over at cornerback for Webb, and he'd already seen plenty of snaps as the team's nickel cornerback; at linebacker, longtime backup Dannell Ellerbe filled in for the irreplaceable Lewis. Ellerbe has started seven games over the previous three seasons, including three in support of an absent Lewis last season.

There's a third injured player worth noting: Haloti Ngata. Baltimore's star lineman has an MCL injury that he's trying to play through, but it's one that's sapping his ability and availability. After playing 88 percent of Baltimore's defensive snaps through the first five weeks of the year, Ngata's been in the mid-60s each of the past two weeks, missing time during each of those contests with the knee complaint.

Ngata showed up on the first Texans touchdown, but it's hard to avoid imagining that a healthy Ngata might have been able to prevent the touchdown. When you watch the play, you can see Ngata get penetration up the middle and beat left tackle Duane Brown to the inside, but quarterback Matt Schaub is able to easily sidestep him and make his throw. Ngata simply isn't able to move horizontally with Schaub to extend the scramble and prevent him from looking back upfield.

When Schaub looks back up, he sees a pretty sight: Kevin Walter running a deep post two steps ahead of Cary Williams. The Texans run a flat/post combination with their two receivers to the left, and the Ravens simply don't handle it very well. Bernard Pollard floats to the line of scrimmage to suggest man coverage, but the Ravens actually play zone after the snap, with Pollard around the line of scrimmage and Williams drifting back into a deeper zone. Walter sells like he's running an out before cutting his post route back upfield, and even though the pressure delays the throw, Williams has no chance of catching up to Walter. It's an easy score, truthfully.

Pollard and Williams combined to have a pretty awful game. Williams was already the team's weakest starter on defense — and somebody who likely would have been replaced by Smith as the season went along if Webb stayed healthy — but the team is now stuck relying on him as their top cornerback. Pollard, who embodies all of the Ravens' attitude without much of the sublime skill, took two incredibly stupid 15-yard penalties to extend and stretch drives. An unnecessary roughness penalty in the end zone on third-and-10 from the 22-yard line is bad enough, but Pollard also grabbed Owen Daniels's face mask for a 15-yard penalty on a play that was on the sidelines and basically finished. Introducing new players to the defense is bad enough; the guys the Ravens were already starting need to step up and play more reliable football.

The Texans threw to Williams's side of the field to pick up steady yardage, but when they needed a big play, they went after Smith. Walter was able to beat Smith twice with double moves, but both of Schaub's throws were poor. The first one fell incomplete, and Walter had to slow down and fall to the ground to catch the second one. With better throws, Schaub would have had a three-touchdown day.

That completion to Walter works for a variety of reasons. For one, Walter doesn't run a half-route on his fake. Ex-Bears safety Matt Bowen does great work breaking down film for the National Football Post, and one of his pet peeves is when defensive backs jump an out route that breaks eight yards past the line of scrimmage. Bowen commonly notes that every route in football will break between 12 and 15 yards, so there's no need to honor the early cut, which is clearly setting up a double move. Here, Walter runs an out that's 12 yards on the dot before accelerating and heading upfield. To let that route develop, you need to hold up in pass protection, and the six-man protection left Schaub and Walter a little over 2.5 seconds to let the route develop. Schaub has a clean pocket and throwing lane, which makes this pitch-and-catch.

Another reason it works is because Pollard, again the safety on that side, has to jump a dig route over the middle from the slot. The Texans seemed to beat the Ravens with an endless number of dig and drag routes over the middle of the field, specifically designed to take advantage of Baltimore's inexperienced linebackers in coverage. The drag route from Daniels and Andre Johnson isn't anything new for the Houston offense, but it was particularly effective by forcing players like Ellerbe and Paul Kruger to understand where they were in space while dealing with elite receivers. At its base, it created simple, easy throws for Schaub, and when Kruger dove for a ball that he had no prayer of deflecting, it turned an easy throw into a 12-yard completion.

Ellerbe had the best game of the new guys. The Texans certainly wanted to go after him, as they targeted him in coverage with throws to Arian Foster on each of the first two third downs they faced. That doesn't mean that they threw a screen to Foster and Ellerbe had to make a tackle; they actually split Foster out at the line of scrimmage on the first third down and had him run a slant versus Ellerbe. On that play, Ellerbe was able to jar the ball loose after Foster's catch; on the subsequent third down, Foster ran an option route and Ellerbe was able to get away with a slight tug on the star back's jersey, forcing an incompletion. Houston mostly stayed away from that the rest of the way, and Ellerbe had a fine third-down tackle on a subsequent passing play that helped prevent a first down. On a day where the Ravens didn't get to see many rays of hope, Ellerbe's ability to hold up in coverage might have been one.

The offense can help the defense by sustaining their drives and creating better field position for the defense to work with. Under John Harbaugh, the Ravens' defense has enjoyed very good average starting field position, but their average starting line of scrimmage (LOS) fell from third best in the league in 2010 to 20th last year and 22nd this year. Just to put how much that matters in context, let's list the Texans' drives from Sunday in order of the distance from the end zone on its opening play, and note what happened to end those drives:

Joe Flacco's two interceptions both came on tipped passes and were unlucky, but he also threw a couple more into the hands of Houston defenders at the line of scrimmage and got lucky that they weren't able to hold onto them. One included a pass to J.J. Watt on the Baltimore 3-yard line. In all, the Texans were able to defense 11 of Flacco's 43 passes on the day.

Based on what I saw from Sunday, I think there are plenty of reasons to be concerned as to whether Baltimore's defense will stay at their previous level. Although I've focused on the passing game, the Ravens weren't able to hold up against Houston's rushing attack, allowing in excess of five yards per carry to the combination of Foster, Ben Tate, and Justin Forsett. The passing game is more troubling because the Ravens might only be starting one above-average player in the secondary, and while Ed Reed is truly great, even he's playing with a torn labrum. It's no surprise that the Ravens rushed back Terrell Suggs from his Achilles tear; they desperately need a pass rush to cover for those guys, and while Suggs did pick up a sack and a knockdown in his first game back, he tired and lost effectiveness as the game went along. Baltimore will do better than this against an inferior offense, but considering the sorts of offenses likely to show up in the AFC playoffs, it's unlikely that they'll be able to hold up.

Big Shoulders: Derrick Rose, Benji Wilson, and the Love of a City

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

The first time I saw Derrick Rose try to tear down the United Center was in February 2006. I was a senior at a high school in suburban Chicago, and Simeon was playing Washington for the city’s public league championship. By then, anyone who cared about basketball in Chicago had heard about Rose. When a friend saw the game was to be broadcast on local station WCIU, a few of us ordered pizza and settled in front of the TV.

Growing up where we did when we did, we’d already become familiar with high school basketball greatness. Before he was making faces at Duke, Jon Scheyer spent four years becoming a living legend in Illinois. Everyone who followed basketball in the area had a Scheyer story, and mine was from his 2004-05 junior season. Scheyer and eventual state champs Glenbrook North traveled to Loyola University in Chicago to face Waukegan for a trip to the state quarterfinals. The same group that would watch Rose on TV made the drive to the packed gym, and while in line for soda, we heard an opposing fan say in a mocking tone that he was sure Scheyer would score 50. Technically, the crack was justified. Scheyer only had 48.

Early in his senior year, the local paper printed GBN’s schedule next to a story that implored people to go see Scheyer play while they had a chance. Everyone assumed that Scheyer, who averaged more than 32 points a game as a senior, would head downstate to make it two in a row. And he might have, if not for Derrick Rose.

Simeon’s 61-44 win over Glenbrook North in the quarterfinals came as no surprise to any of us who saw that game against Washington almost a month earlier. Aside from LeBron James, I’d never seen a high school player do what Rose did that night. He made his first 10 shots, on his way to 25 points, in a game that also included eight assists, and three chase-down blocks off the backboard. In the third quarter, Rose followed a breakaway windmill dunk with a steal near the top of the key. Rather than taking it full-speed to the rim, Rose slowed up just enough for one of his pursuers to catch up. Rose took off, cocked the ball back in his right hand, and gave that kid from Washington a story he can tell for the rest of his life. The dunk sent the Simeon bench and the United Center crowd into a frenzy. It’s also the play that accompanied Rose’s mention in last night’s 30 for 30, Benji.

Benji is the story of Ben Wilson, a high school phenom from Chicago who was gunned down in 1984, on the eve of his senior season at Simeon. The links between Rose and Wilson are everywhere, and it was impossible not to consider Rose’s life as I learned about Wilson’s death last night. Some of the connections are obvious. Both went to Simeon. Both wore no. 25 — Rose, in tribute to Wilson. Both won state championships — 2006 being the school’s first since Wilson’s team won in 1984. But the moment I couldn’t shake was from less than a month ago.

After watching the Packers beat the Bears on a Thursday night, I got back to my apartment and flipped to SportsCenter just in time to see a clip of Rose at a publicity event for his new shoe. Rose sat hunched over on a platform at the front of the room. He brought a hand to his face and wiped his eyes. A question followed about the inspiration Rose has drawn from his fans as he’s worked his way back to health, but his response made it clear that the emotions came from a different place. He lifted his head, wiped his eyes once more, and spoke through the collected clicks of the cameras. “It’s truly a blessing,” Rose said. “With all this stuff that’s going on in this city, a kid from Englewood’s got something positive going on.”

Englewood is the South Side neighborhood where Rose grew up, just a few miles from Wilson’s boyhood home in Chatham. And as it did during Wilson’s childhood, gang violence is once again haunting the South Side of Chicago. The Gangster Disciples, the gang mentioned throughout Benji, have been responsible for more than a quarter of the nearly 400 homicides in the city this year. As crime rates fall nationally, splintering factions and newly formed gangs have been credited with a spike in the city’s murder rate. Chicago is hurting, and that, not a torn knee ligament, is what had Rose in tears on a supposed day for celebration. “We ain’t supposed to be here," he said. "At all.”

Growing up 40 miles outside the city, I could never claim Chicago as home, but I’ve always felt connected to that place. My grandfather was the son of an Italian immigrant and grew up in the Austin neighborhood on the city’s North Side. My mother, on the right words, sounds like Elwood Blues. Every trip to Soldier Field and summer spent working downtown deepened my love for the city, and as violence and a teacher’s strike dominated the last few months, I can't say I was unaffected.

The love people have for Chicago has played its part in the feelings they have built for Rose. Other teams have superstars to represent them, but none are represented by one of their own. Rose loves this city, and for that, as much as for his play, we love him. As I watched video of thousands attending Ben Wilson’s funeral, it was hard not to think about the sentiment that when Rose was hurt, the city stood still. The tragedy of the events doesn’t approach comparison, but each man’s place within the city’s collective conscious does. Rose is the biggest star in a football city, in part because he, like Wilson, is the native son. Rose may say that he isn’t supposed to be here, but he is, and he’s carried Ben Wilson’s legacy like no one else could.

The Designated Player: Alan Gordon Really Ties the Room Together

By: timbersfan, 12:01 AM GMT on October 26, 2012

Sometimes there's a man — I won't say a hero, 'cause what's a hero? — but sometimes there's a man. And I'm talkin' about the Dude here. Sometimes there's a man who, well, he's the man for his time and place, he fits right in there — and that's the Dude, in Los Angeles San Jose.

Last week, I complained in this column, correctly, and without rambling, about just why I hated international weeks. Looking back though, I have to acknowledge that even in the midst of that dire week (which was further compounded by being a derby week for my team in England — meaning I was miserable in two time zones — yay for global soccer) there was a moment of genuine, heartwarming pleasure that occurred when viewing a game. It happened in the 73rd minute of the USA’s otherwise terrible game against Antigua and Barbuda, when 30-year old San Jose Earthquakes striker Alan Gordon was subbed into the match and loped straight up the field.

It was the loping that did it. Not his injury-time assist for Eddie Johnson’s winner, but the way he ran onto the field. Gordon is 6-foot-3 and his reputation as a target man may owe something to a celebrated lack of mobility that has earned him the ironic nickname “Flash.” You could have forgiven such a player if, feeling self-conscious on the biggest stage of his career, albeit an unglamorous, waterlogged version of a big stage, he had sprinted onto the field in one of those conspicuous displays of enthusiasm you sometimes see players perform for the benefit of the desperate coaches who’ve sent them on to change things (as if coaches were easily fooled boxing judges awarding rounds on showy flurries in the last 10 seconds). Gordon, though, looked totally secure in who and what he was (“Flash” doesn’t really “do” sprinting), as he listened to his coach, Jurgen Klinsmann, took the the simple instruction to go up front and make a goal happen, and set off in the direction of that goal — loping. He’d get there when he got there — and for what it’s worth, he got there. But watching this player, who’s been written off and discounted numerous times, only to doggedly come back for more, make his way onto the field with unaffected but unmistakeable purpose, I found it strangely moving.

Doubtless Gordon himself would be unimpressed by such a response. In 2007, during his time at the L.A. Galaxy, the player, then earning close to league minimum and coaching a girl’s soccer team to make ends meet, moved out of the dorm-like accommodation he shared with two other similarly cash-strapped Galaxy players and into teammate Chris Albright’s recently vacated apartment. He still needed a roommate to share the bills though, and as it happened he never quite clicked with Craigslist’s best option — a reclusive pharmacologist. In the words of a bemused Gordon: "His girlfriend broke up with him, and he told me he needed to go to the museum. He needed some art stimulation or something. What am I going to say to that?" (Mental note to self: When you meet Alan Gordon, don’t tell him you found him “strangely moving.”)

We know a fair amount about the Alan Gordon of that period, as he turned up repeatedly in Grant Wahl’s infamous 2009 book The Beckham Experiment — often as a cipher for everything the superstar English midfielder was not, and sometimes cast as the holy fool who dared speak the truth around the mythmaking industry that surrounded number 23.

In the book, there is a telling exchange when the two first met — as Beckham was being introduced to and shaking hands with his new teammates:

"'Hey, I'm Alan,' Gordon said. But when Beckham tried to move on to the next player, Gordon kept holding his hand. 'And you are?'"

As Wahl suggests, it was a typical Alan Gordon move, meant as an icebreaker but also pointedly non-starstruck, despite the fact that at the time Gordon was earning $30,870 per year — some $6,420,230 less than the man whose hand he was shaking. Throughout the book, Gordon is continually juxtaposed with the presence, and implicitly, the wealth of Beckham — sometimes giving the impression of a dime being placed in the foreground of a photograph to give a sense of scale. When Beckham trots on for his debut cameo in a hyped TV special versus Chelsea, it is Gordon he replaces ("If I'd known how big a moment it was ... I'd have fixed my hair"); when the L.A. team take their first chartered flight of the new era, it is Gordon who looks around at the plush interior of the plane and remarks, without irony, that "This is nicer than my apartment."

In that first season playing with Beckham, when Gordon was enduring fan taunts that he should be replaced with Abby Wambach, Wahl described him thus:

"An admittedly slow 6'3", 192-pound target man with an up-and-down scoring touch and a penchant for injuries, the twenty-five-year-old Gordon was the typical mid-level MLS player, circa 2007."

But even at that point, the author clearly also felt a deep affection for a player and man who’d proved himself as a survivor, in circumstances utterly alien to the nominal subject of his book. And though Gordon was nicknamed "Snowshoes" by the L.A. Galaxy fans, from that first Beckham moment through to the striker now making an unlikely breakthrough onto the U.S. national team, his studiedly unpretentious persistence at his chosen career and insistence on playing to his strengths has been a parallel tale of everyman survival, and even thriving, that's perhaps the archetypal MLS success story. When I spoke to Wahl this week to get his updated impression on Gordon, he could not have been more effusive:

"I've got to be honest with you — Alan Gordon is my favorite player in the history of MLS. I know as a journalist you're not supposed to play favorites, but if I'm allowed an exception that's the one. He's just so symbolic of the type of player they built MLS on. He may not have a lot of attention focused on him, and four or five years ago I would never have envisaged him in this position, but through doing the hard work to keep himself free from injury and sheer persistence, he's become somebody who can be a pretty reliable finisher in the box. When I spoke to him last, last month, he was averaging a goal every 90 minutes on the field — I don't know if he's still doing that, but it's pretty impressive that he's making his breakthrough into the national team at the age of 30 and in the role that he has."

Gordon’s remarkable goal average this year (a league-leading 0.9 goals per 90 minutes played) has indeed dipped, but only marginally, in the last month, from what has been an extraordinary standard of consistency, in an equally extraordinary season for the Supporters' Shield holders and MLS Cup top seeds, the San Jose Earthquakes. Playing alongside the refined goal scorer’s instincts of Chris Wondolowski and the rather less refined, but brutally effective, physical talents of Steven Lenhart, Gordon’s style has hovered between the two — to extend the Big Lebowski analogy, he ties the room together. In doing so, he has been part of a hugely effective goal-scoring trio, led by the exploits of Wondolowski, but ably propped up by the no-nonsense partnership with Lenhart that Gordon himself christened the “Bash Brothers” (nicknames feature heavily in Gordon’s story — as you may have gathered he’s not big on excessive formality). Between them the three strikers have scored 49 of San Jose’s 71 goals, of which Gordon has a more than respectable 13.

It’s been a remarkable season, all the more so because nobody expected anything like it. San Jose had come off a difficult and disappointing 2011 — finishing seventh in the Western Conference (as they had done in all but one of the seasons since returning to MLS in 2008) and missing the playoffs. Chris Wondolowski's goals had dried up during a long, winless summer and the team’s other star, Bobby Convey, had been a vocally unsettled presence (he left for Sporting K.C. in the offseason). Lenhart had endured a rough personal year, and the Spurs loanee Simon Dawkins was yet to demonstrate the value for money that has made him look like this season's Mauro Rosales.

And then there was Gordon. The striker had had a miserable 2011. He’d been traded by the Galaxy to rivals Chivas halfway through the previous season, only to be selected in the expansion draft by Vancouver in the offseason, then immediately traded back to Chivas. Chivas promptly traded him to Toronto in March 2011, where he was there long enough to score a satisfying brace against the Galaxy on his first trip back, before the Canadian side traded for Danny Koevermans and he once again became a makeweight in a deal — departing to San Jose in July as part of a three-player package taking Ryan Johnson the other way. Such are the routine indignities of being a non-superstar MLS player. The silver lining in the latest trade was that a coach who knew him had made the move for him. Frank Yallop had been Gordon’s coach back in Los Angeles, before the arrival of Beckham and the attendant backroom politics turned both their worlds upside down. And as Yallop told me this week, it wasn’t the first time he’d moved for the player:

“I actually spoke to him before the expansion draft in 2008 — I wanted to bring him in then. I like Alan. We had a conversation, but it was a bit early in his private life for him to move up, so I granted his wishes and didn't pick him. Then four or five years later the timing couldn't have been better and I knew what I was getting.”

So what was he getting? Well, in Yallop’s words: “His all-action play; his enthusiasm; his willingness to work hard for his team; his bravery.” And his injuries. Barely had Gordon started with his new team than he was diagnosed with a torn rectus abdominis, along with tears in his left and right hip adductors — injuries that required immediate, potentially career-ending surgery. And livelihood-ending — Gordon may be on $120,000 per year now, but he’s a 30-year-old man who made a relative pittance for much of his 20s. Earlier this week I listened to an interview with New York goalkeeper Luis Robles in which he talked of his relief at being picked up this summer, having just returned from Germany with a wife who was seven months' pregnant and without health insurance. Gordon could sympathize. Never mind the physical wear and tear of the game — the emotional wear and tear of careers played without the luxury of meaningful contingency funds is real and scary for many MLS players and their families. The MLS Everyman faced an uncertain future last winter.

But Gordon might say he faced an uncertain future every winter. And against the odds, and perhaps feeling he had no other choice, the striker persisted and fought his way back to not only play again, but have a career year. He was at the heart of a San Jose offense that started strongly and then just kept the momentum going, picking up the “Goonies never say die” tagline along the way, as they accrued multiple late wins and overtime goals in their spirited march to the top of the standings.

In Yallop, Gordon has a coach who appreciates his very particular qualities:

“It's never tricky or complicated the way he plays — he's direct and does what's asked of him. But also, he doesn't get a lot of credit for his feet and he's got a clean good touch with both feet. His record of converting chances is amongst the best in the league. Now he's over his injuries — OK he still has one or two knocks here and there — but he's doing great. In the locker room, he's one of those guys who's not afraid to speak up and ask questions and who'll sort the team out. He's a vocal leader, but the key to that is that if he's asking a teammate to work hard, he'll work harder himself. Nothing worse than a player who's all talk but doesn't do it on the field, but he's not like that.”

He’s not. And now his team are the team to beat in MLS Cup. A possible reunion with Beckham awaits in the Western Conference semifinal, assuming the deposed Shield holders, the Galaxy, can get past Vancouver in the wild-card game to face the no. 1 seed. Should they meet again, David Beckham will know who he’s shaking hands with.

The Dude abides.

How Overrated Is Gareth Bale?

By: timbersfan, 11:56 PM GMT on October 25, 2012

The international break can be a difficult time for star players from smaller nations. Footballers who are accustomed to domestic glory suddenly find themselves thrust into squads with far smaller ambitions. The contrast can be jarring, as can the transition from being one star among many to the solitary hero tasked by an expectant nation with leading your talentless team to improbable victories. This is something to which Tottenham’s Gareth Bale is having to grow accustomed whenever he plays for Wales, as seen in the buildup to last week’s World Cup qualifier with Croatia, in which the pre-match spotlight fell squarely on his shoulders. This was largely because Wales has no realistic chance of qualifying for the World Cup, and their main ambition for the qualifying campaign is to finish higher than Scotland, whom Bale had single-handedly defeated the week before, so by the time the Welsh squad landed in Zagreb, the pundits quickly dispensed with the small talk and moved on to the pressing business of trying to predict Gareth Bale’s future.

First into the fray was ex-Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp, a man with a reputation as a master of the transfer market, which is surprising given that he is also the man who signed David Bentley for £15 million, then sold Kevin Prince Boateng for £4 million. You won’t hear Redknapp talking about those two very often, but he's determined to take credit for nurturing Bale during his spell as Spurs manager, hence his outlandish proclamation before the Croatia game that Bale was in the same class as Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. But it wasn’t just Redknapp who was massively overhyping the Welshman; there were also no shortage of Croatians looking to talk Bale up before the match, no doubt with ulterior motives of their own. Davor Suker declared that a mooted transfer to Real Madrid would be the best move of Bale’s career (a thought that had probably occurred to Bale already), and Luka Modric, who played alongside Bale at Spurs before securing his own £33 million move to Madrid this summer, publicly implored Bale to join him at the Bernabeu, and gave Bale a Madrid jersey to take back to London. After the match, with Bale posing the only threat to the Croatian goal in an inevitable 2-0 defeat, Croatia manager Igor Stimac poured further fuel on the fire by claiming that Bale wasn’t just better than Ryan Giggs, but also one of the top five players in the world.

Really? Gareth Bale’s agent will no doubt be delighted by all this noise, but is there any substance to these claims? Bale’s emergence as one of the most talked-about players in world football hasn’t always corresponded with fantastic performances at club level, and he has many obvious weaknesses as a player — principally the fact that he’s almost completely one-footed. On the rare occasions when Tottenham has asked Bale to play out of position, he’s struggled, and that’s going to be a major issue if he’s to rejoin Modric at Real Madrid, where the left wing position is currently occupied by a certain Cristiano Ronaldo dos Santos Aveiro. It’s highly unlikely that Jose Mourinho will want to move Ronaldo to the right-hand side to accommodate Bale, especially as Jose is famously averse to traditional, touchline-hugging wingers; Mourinho likes his wide midfield players to drift inside to create space for attacking full backs, and if those wide midfield players can also manage to score 30 goals a season, so much the better. Bale is unlikely to do either of those things, and it’s hard to see him making a move to Real Madrid while Mourinho and Ronaldo are still at the club.

What of other clubs, though? If Igor Stimac is right and Bale really is one of the top five players in the world, then the competition to sign the Welshman in January will be intense. However, a look at Bale’s statistics suggests otherwise.

First of all, let us clear up the obvious error: Comparisons with Ronaldo and Messi are miles wide of the mark. Here are some statistics from the three players’ 2011-12 league campaigns.
Player Dribble success Cross success Minutes/goal Shots/goal Shots/game Minutes/assist Minutes/chance created
Bale 43% 23.5% 383.44 15.11 3.78 345.1 42.09
Ronaldo 36% 25.6% 75.8 5.7 6.89 290.58 58.12
Messi 52% 18.7% 68.18 4.04 5.46 213.06 37.05
2011-12 League statistics: Source: ESPN Trumedia Stats

Bale can’t dribble as well as Messi, he can’t cross as well as Ronaldo, and he doesn’t create or score anywhere near as many goals as his illustrious counterparts. Of course, we’re looking at three very different players here, and beyond proving that Harry Redknapp is fond of talking nonsense about footballers he’s managed, this achieves little. It’s perhaps more useful to compare Bale to his peers, so how does he stack up against world-class dedicated wingers?

Name Dribble success Cross success Minutes/goal Shots/goal Shots/game Minutes/assist Minutes/chance created
Bale 43% 23.5% 383.44 15.11 3.78 345.1 42.09
Robben 41% 21.8% 146.08 5.83 2.92 350.6 33.08
Ribery 45% 25.9% 203.42 5.83 2.19 203.42 36.98
Nene 43% 25.4% 150.2 4.81 2.89 286.8 24.27
Nani 64% 21.6% 281 8.13 2.24 224.8 32.58
2011/12 League statistics: Source: ESPN Trumedia Stats

Once again, Bale’s shocking profligacy in front of goal proves to be the main difference. While his dribbling and crossing are on a par with the world’s best wingers, all too often he chooses to pull the trigger himself rather than cross the ball, leading to a shots/game ratio that outstrips even the notoriously greedy Arjen Robben. Both Robben and Bale lag behind their peers in terms of assists, but the key difference is that Robben makes up for this deficiency by scoring regularly, whereas Bale poses more of a threat to the Tottenham fans behind the goals than he does to opposition goalkeepers.

The problem with dismissing Bale as a shot-spamming possession-phobe is that when he’s on form, he can destroy the best in the world. Just ask Maicon, who prior to facing Tottenham in a Champions League doubleheader in 2010 was the reigning European Defender of the Year, widely regarded as the world’s best right back, and mooted for a £28 million transfer to (who else) Real Madrid; Bale turned him into roadkill, scoring three goals and setting up two more over the space of two games, in a pair of performances so special they were turned into this stunningly animated tribute video ...

By the end of the second match, Maicon was so dizzy he’d have struggled to get a taxi to the airport, never mind a transfer to Madrid. If you’d prefer a more recent example of Bale’s potential to destroy world-class opposition, there’s his inspirational performance at Old Trafford for the recent 3-2 victory over Manchester United, where he ran Alex Ferguson’s makeshift defense ragged and led Tottenham to their first league win in Manchester since 1989. There’s no doubt that when the mood takes him, Bale can single-handedly win a game for you, but the problem for Bale’s prospective employers is that as eye-catching as these performances are, they’re all too infrequent. Until Bale acquires the discipline needed to pick his shots more carefully and pick out his teammates more often, he’ll never be in the same class as Robben or Nani, never mind Ronaldo or Messi.

The Sports Guy's Thursday NFL Pick

By: timbersfan, 11:52 PM GMT on October 25, 2012

Bucs (+5) over VIKINGS

Seven reasons why I worried about laying five points with Minnesota at home against the Bucs tonight …

1. Christian Ponder's last four games since a seemed-to-be-a-breakout effort against the 49ers: five touchdowns, seven turnovers, under 7.5 yards per pass attempt, 19,521 times a Vikings fan muttered the words "Wait a second, are we really OK long-term with Christian Ponder?"

2. Adrian Peterson ripped his ACL and MCL less than 10 months ago, then miraculously returned for Week 1 of the 2012 season because there's a decent chance he's an extraterrestrial. He's rushed for 652 yards already and looked incredible against Arizona last Sunday (23 carries, 153 yards). Which, by the way, was less than 100 hours ago. Are you really pushing your franchise running back's surgically repaired knee for 20-plus carries twice in a five-day span? Yeah, if it's a must-win game … but how is this a must-win game?

3. Tampa's four losses were by seven to the Giants, six to Dallas, two to Washington, and seven to the Saints. In every game, they had the ball late with a chance to win or force overtime and something went wrong. If you want to blame Greg Schiano for upsetting the Football Karma Gods during the end of that Giants game in Week 2, I won't stop you — it's been the kind of season in which they've completed game-tying TD passes on the final play of regulation, followed by everyone briefly celebrating before realizing the receiver was ineligible because someone shoved him out of bounds (yes, that happened on Sunday). They've even caused my adopted son Bill Barnwell to break out the Pythagorean formula to measure how bad Tampa's luck has been so far. That's never a good thing.

4. Minnesota loves rushing the passer (22 sacks), but Tampa has been shockingly competent at protecting Josh Freeman (10 sacks). Minnesota loves rushing the ball (4.5 yards per carry), but Tampa has been shockingly competent at stopping the run (3.1 yards per carry). Maybe this isn't the greatest matchup for Minnesota other than their special teams advantage — something that can come and go depending on the game?

5. Some actual Christian Ponder headlines from the past few days: Christian Ponder looking for bounce back after lousy fantasy effort … What Must Christian Ponder Do to Become an Elite NFL QB? … Raised Expectations May Be Christian Ponder's Worst Enemy. Or His Best Friend. … Ponder's recent performance no cause for panic … Christian Ponder not holding back Vikings … Christian Ponder tries to move past career-worst game … Everyone is pondering Christian Ponder's progress … Christian Ponder confirms he's dating ESPN's Samantha Steele. I didn't even make any of those up.

6. There's a decent chance that Joe Webb will trend on Twitter tonight without playing a down or texting a dong pic to someone. Just throwing that out there.

7. Remember this: Tampa's season is done if the Bucs blow this game. They're not bouncing back from 2-5 with two Atlanta games and road games in Denver and New Orleans left. That makes it a classic Kitchen Sink game for Tampa — in other words, if you have any tricks you need to break out, you're doing it tonight.

Contrast that with Minnesota's Milton Berle potential here — in other words, they need to get out of tonight's game protecting Peterson's health and Ponder's psyche (and having pulled out just enough to win). They have a tough road game in Seattle in 10 days, then Detroit at home, then a bye week. After that, it gets grisly: at Chicago, at Green Bay, home for Chicago, at St. Louis, at Houston, home for Green Bay. So tonight, maybe they take it easy with Peterson (15 carries?), have Ponder throw only safe stuff, avoid any and all turnovers, then rely on their defense and special teams (second-best in the NFL) to grind out one of those ugly, low-scoring, unwatchable games that you'll hate yourself for watching about 35 times over the course of three hours. In other words, it will be just like every other Thursday-night game. Sorry, Tampa Bay, you've been sprayed.

The Pick: Minnesota 16, Tampa Bay 14 (Vikings Bucs cover)

Wednesday/Thursday Nights: 2-4-1
Last Week: 6-6-1
Season: 54-47-3

A Hierarchy of Hypocrites

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

This wasn't the best morning for Roger Goodell. Hours after former Viking Jimmy Kennedy practically ran out of ways to call the NFL's commissioner a "liar," Goodell announced that he would be recusing himself from hearing the Saints' latest bounty appeal. Taking over? Wait a second … good God, that's Paul Tagliabue's music! Can you remember another commissioner having his objectivity questioned so vociferously that he had to enlist his former boss to clean up his mess? Me neither.

And you wonder why Goodell might be wearing the "Most Dangerously Incompetent Commissioner in Sports" championship belt for the foreseeable future, even as his rival commissioners keep halfheartedly trying to steal it. David Stern waited until the last minute to unveil his ambitious anti-flopping agenda — his annual early-October headline grab, as mandated by the NBA's collective bargaining agreement. Unsatisfied with the public reaction, the Notorious D.J.S. upped the stakes with a hurried crackdown on pregame handshakes and chest-bumps. Wait, what?1 Meanwhile, Bud Selig keeps refusing to expand instant replay's parameters, if only because it's crucial that we keep pretending that every playoff baseball game is being played in 1923. And then there's Gary Bruce Bettman, the serial killer of the National Hockey League, someone who keeps murdering games and seasons without being caught. He's only missing a catchy/creepy nickname like the Zamboni Killer or the Canadian Bogeyman.

So for Goodell to stand out so blatantly, that means things had to escalate quickly, and maybe even that Brick killed a guy. In this case, "Brick" was Browns linebacker Scott Fujita, who didn't kill Goodell with a trident but definitely ethered him. Fujita didn't pour his feelings into a hostile dis song, write a takedown blog post or leak anonymous quotes to a writer with a forum. He handled his business the old-fashioned way: with a thoughtful missive. Tired of being dragged through the mud of New Orleans's bounty scandal, Fujita crafted 100 carefully chosen words to say everything about Goodell that needed to be said.

"The commissioner says he is disappointed in me," Fujita hissed. "The truth is, I'm disappointed in him. His positions on player health and safety since a 2009 congressional hearing on concussions have been inconsistent at best. He failed to acknowledge a link between concussions and post-career brain disease, pushed for an 18-game regular season, committed to a full season of Thursday night games, has continually challenged players' rights to file workers compensation claims for on-the-job injuries, and he employed incompetent replacement officials for the start of the 2012 season. His actions or lack thereof are by the league's own definition, 'conduct detrimental.'"

Translation: This dude is a H-Y-P-O-C-R-I-T-E.

If you noticed, Goodell never responded — not even after Fujita called him "condescending" and "extremely desperate," then complained about Goodell's "absolute abuse of the power that's been afforded to the Commissioner." By continuing to trade shots with Fujita, Goodell would have inadvertently broken the golden rule of hip-hop: Thou shalt never beef down. And after word trickled out last weekend that Fujita had suffered a potentially career-ending neck injury, there was little chance Goodell would fire back. Even Stern during his swaggerlicious apex wouldn't have feuded with a badly injured player.2

Then again, can you really fight back after you've just been checkmated? Everything Scott Fujita said was true. Fujita even left a little on the table: He could have hammered Goodell for increasing the number of Thursday-night games to 13, then spinning it by saying this now allowed every team a chance to play in prime time. Has there ever been a lamer excuse for a shameless money grab? When your franchise sucks, there's nothing worse than playing in prime time. In the days of B.B.B. (Before Belichick and Brady), I came to dread every Patriots night game — it was like shining a giant spotlight on a chin full of pimples. If you can't sell out that home game, it's even more embarrassing. And I'm pretty sure fans would rather watch good games than bad ones — I'm almost positive. So that "every team gets a chance!" crap just isn't genuine.

The league's Thursday-night commitment keeps getting lost in the shuffle when Goodell gets hammered for all the other things Fujita brought up. How can you make football safer while ADDING Thursday-night games? Did Goodell even blink two Thursdays ago when a battered Steelers team started falling apart one player at a time, then was nearly forced to play a backup tight end on its offensive line? What about when the Ravens played four games in 17 days, then immediately suffered a slew of devastating injuries to the surprise of absolutely nobody on the planet? What about Frank Gore slumped on San Francisco's bench at the end of last night's brutally physical Seahawks-Niners game, nursing bruised ribs and a battered body, having endured two slugfests in five days (the other against the Giants)? He downplayed it afterward and claimed his coach was just being careful, adding, "We've got a long season." You're being careful during a crucial division game with your star running back who just garnered 182 rushing/receiving yards in three-plus quarters? That's a good direction for the league?

Even if you're giving Goodell the benefit of the doubt — and holy &$@#*%! is it hard, but let's say it's possible — he can't be defended on these reckless Thursday games. Last night, the Seahawks hung around for the first half, squandered multiple chances to pull away (dropping five balls in all, including two potential monster pass plays), then wilted down the stretch like the rabbit in a 5k race. They were running on fumes. News flash: That's how players get hurt. If you're pretending to care about player safety, and that it's not just a pathetic attempt to cover your asses for the wave of looming concussion lawsuits, then wouldn't it make sense to carve out more recovery time for players?

Here's the real reason for those 13 Thursday-night games every year, in case you were wondering …

Whoops, sorry. Here's the right link.

The headline reads "NFL Could Get $1 Billion a Year for Thursday Package." And actually, the price will climb higher than that because the NBC Sports Network needs those Thursday-night games more than the Walking Dead guys need clean shirts.3 Have you ever looked at the NBC Sports Network (a.k.a. W.E.T. for "White Entertainment Television") on a night when there's no hockey … which, you know, is every night right now?

Last night, they showed four hours of 2012 Olympic men's basketball in prime time — from 7 p.m. until 11 p.m. — which delighted the 12 people who wanted to re-watch the USA-Argentina and USA-Spain games. Tonight's schedule looks like this …

7:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.: The Dew Tour
Described on my cable guide as "Action from the season-ending Dew Tour championships in Las Vegas." Look, your guess is as good as mine. I'm guessing … extreme sports? Skateboarding? Or maybe … poker? I don't even want to Google it. I'd rather NOT know.

10 p.m. to 1 a.m.: CFL
Edmonton takes on British Columbia. Apparently this is live! Can I wager on this? Take back everything I said about the NBC Sports Network!4

Here's the point: You don't have a reason to watch NBCSN right now unless you love the NHL (R.I.P.), CFL, college football, college basketball, old Olympics games and events, hunting, darts, the Dew Network or something called Elk Fever (which actually ran in prime time on Tuesday night). They need to make a splash. Like, soon. They'll be bidding for those games like a drunk guy on eBay. Throw in Rupert Murdoch's new sports network (tentatively called "TAP TV"), Turner Sports (just paid $180 million for Bleacher Report, so anything's possible), CBS (I still can't find their cable sports channel on my DirecTV, but apparently it's on there) and ESPN (the Worldwide Leader of Bidding Everyone Else Up!), and you can count on someone egregiously overpaying.

You know those two guys in your fantasy auction who didn't realize all the elite running backs were gone until just DeMarco Murray was left, and suddenly they're locked in a holy war for him and ready to pay 40 bucks? That's how the Thursday-night auction will play out. Of course, if Goodell genuinely cared about the welfare of his players (he doesn't) AND wanted to make money (he does), then he'd push for an 18-week schedule that included the following four wrinkles:

1. Fourteen Thursday-night games total (including Thanksgiving). When you include the two Thanksgiving day games as well, that means every team would play once on Thursday and that's it.

2. Nobody would be allowed to play a Thursday game within 10 days of another game either way. So if the Niners and Seahawks played last night, they couldn't play on the Sunday before that game. And that would count as one of their byes. Instead of playing two games in 100 hours, you'd play one Thursday game within a 19-day cocoon of practice and rest.

3. Every team gets two bye weeks instead of one, giving us an extra week of football, fantasy football, Sunday Night Football, Monday Night Football and, of course, gambling. Know how every team looks fresher and crisper after a bye, even when they're being coached by Andy Reid or Norv Turner? That would happen twice, not once. And Thursday night's games wouldn't resemble the last 15 minutes of Rollerball anymore. The overall quality of play would improve, even if our marriages and relationships would be threatened in the process.

4. You might remember that 10 months ago one of my mailbag readers was pushing for an 18-week season in which every team was off for both bye weeks, calling it "Save the Marriage Weekends." I thought that was too radical but suggested the following compromise: Maybe they create two Über-Bye Weeks each season, with which something like 12 teams have byes and no game starting until 4 p.m. ET. If this were an election and the Uber-Bye Weeks were called something like "Prop 96," my family would be standing on a street corner waving picket signs for it and handing out buttons and fliers.

You mean there's a chance Dad wouldn't disappear for eight straight hours before emerging in a distracted haze and only partially paying attention to us throughout the Sunday-night game? And this would happen twice a year during the fall??? This is awesome!

So let's make that part of the plan. Goodell could sell it to his owners as, "Good news, I figured out a way to add another week of telecasts, including three more night games! We're gonna rake in more money AND keep the players safer! What do you think? What? [PAUSE.] This idea has been floating around for years? And I rejected it? Crap. Better late than never."

It would double as Roger Goodell's first victory in awhile, so naturally, there's little chance of it happening. Goodell seems determined to contradict himself as much as humanly possible, never worrying about the repercussions because being a commissioner is almost like being a tenured professor at this point. If we had commissioner elections and could potentially replace these guys every five or six years — with the fans, players and owners all getting one-third of the vote — maybe they'd care more about fans and players. And maybe they wouldn't get to stay as long as they wanted, with no checks and balances other than the written and spoken word.

For instance, Selig turned 78 years old in July — he's older than everyone in my father's family and everyone in my mother's family except my Uncle Devi and my Aunt Jen. Recently, Selig insisted that he'd retire when his contract ends in 2014, a bitter disappointment to everyone who wanted to follow a professional sports league run by someone IN HIS EIGHTIES. Are you kidding me??? I just turned 43 and had to switch all the font sizes on my Microsoft Word documents to 14-point.

Meanwhile, Gary Bettman will celebrate his 20th anniversary next February as (a) the NHL's commissioner, and (b) David Stern's mole with direct orders to turn hockey into a second-class sport. For all we know, he might be Brody and Stern might be Abu Nazir. Don't believe me? FOUR WORK STOPPAGES IN 20 YEARS!!!!! At this point, Bettman would lose any election to any human being with even rudimentary hockey connections unless it was the actor who played Wolf "The Dentist" Stansson in D2: The Mighty Ducks. And Stern enjoyed an unexpected revival in 2012, getting the league in perfect shape for his successor, Adam Silver … only Stern isn't retiring because he wants to break Pete Rozelle's "longest commissioner tenure" record of 30 years. That can't happen until 2014.

So if you're scoring at home, the same four commissioners will still be kicking two years from now. In a perfect world, they'd have to defend their records, debate worthy opponents, maybe even have one of those "Please proceed, Governor" moments to remind us why they were elected in the first place. But the world ain't perfect. And right now, we're stuck with a football commissioner who seems to be talking out of both sides of his mouth and every other orifice, too.

And look, I know the concept of electing sports commissioners is fundamentally impossible. It's a pipe dream through and through. But if Roger Goodell's job were threatened by an election, maybe he'd start thinking about semi-radical ideas like "an 18-week season with two byes." Maybe he wouldn't contradict himself so much. Maybe some of his players wouldn't hate him. Maybe he wouldn't have to bear-hug first-rounders on draft night to make it seem like he cared. Unfortunately, when you're working for the greediest group of owners in sports history and dealing with them day after day after day, it gets a little tougher. You end up thinking like them, and acting like them, and eventually, you become what you always despised.

Goodell's players don't want to be protected by him, nor do they want to be insulted by him any longer. They know about the concussion research that dates back to 2006, that Chris Nowinski and the Sports Legacy Institute were treated like nuisances, that nothing would have changed had the media not gotten involved. They know these 13 Thursday-night games were straight-out money grabs that threatened their collective well-being, no different from the Saints allegedly offering bounties for vicious plays. To paraphrase an American hero named Scott Fujita, we're disappointed in you, Roger. You're a hypocrite. And there's just no way around it.

On to the Week 7 picks. So you know, I threw some extra spreads in here because we have six teams on a bye.

(Home teams in caps)

Seahawks (+7) over 49ERS

Seattle has now been involved in two of the greatest gambling moments of the past 20 years: Golden Tate's game-winning "Fail Mary," and Jim Harbaugh inexplicably giving back a game-ending safety so he could run a kneel-down play and win by seven points instead of nine. Your spread by the time last night's game closed? Either seven and a half or eight points! Seahawks cover! That's right, we finally had a memorable Thursday-night football moment that didn't involve someone being buckled to a stretcher as 20 teammates prayed from 10 feet away. You never see last-minute two-point safeties swinging a spread or a cover leap-frogging back and forth like that, right? We'll always remember this one as the night the Seahawks covered because Jim Harbaugh declined a safety.

The bigger issue: Since I accidentally posted the wrong spread in yesterday's Skunk of the Week (the Seahawks were getting 7.5 and as high as 8 points, not 7), should I retroactively go back in time and correct yesterday's mistake under Rule no. 214 of the Gambling Manifesto: "If you post the wrong line in a football column for a game that becomes historically memorable for gambling purposes and leads to an ESPN.com headline like 'HARBAUGH'S CALL SHAKES BETTING WORLD,' you should obey the correct line and adjust your record accordingly." I swear, it's in the charter and everything. I think it's the right thing to do.

Seahawks (+7.5) over 49ERS

Simmons covers! I can neither confirm nor deny that Rule no. 215 of the Manifesto is "Ignore Rule no. 214 if it costs you a cover."

(I'm just kidding, by the way — I'm taking the push. My fault for not checking the right line.)

Browns (+2) over COLTS

Here's the kind of fantasy season I'm having with my crummy West Coast team: After carrying Felix Jones for five weeks as my DeMarco Murray handcuff, I then waived him to pick up Vick Ballard after Donald Brown (also on my team) went down. You can guess the rest: Murray injured his foot, Jones went for $51 in our free agent auction (not to me), and someone tried to trade me Drew Brees, Stevan Ridley and Andrew Hawkins for Calvin Johnson, Matt Schaub and Ballard by telling me, "You can't possibly start Vick Ballard this week!" Imagine how the Colts feel.5 And we haven't even talked about their banged-up defense yet, or how good the Browns looked last week. Am I really taking Brandon Weeden on the road right now? Did you spike my drink?

In other news: Cousin Sal and I actually had a brief "Should we bet the Browns at 50-to-1 to win the AFC North" conversation this week — not because of the Browns as much as everyone else in that division. The Ravens are falling apart. The Steelers look like a .500 team. The Bengals are the Bengals. Could 9-7 win the AFC North? Could the Browns go 7-3 the rest of the way with an easy schedule? See, you're screaming, "NO!!!!!!!!!! THERE'S NO WAY!!!!!!" But even us having that 90-second conversation about it had to be the Browns' biggest win in five years, right?

Robert Griffin III (-3.5) over Andrew Luck

Isn't it funny how this line has swung five times already? Fred Davis nicknaming Griffin "Black Jesus" may have swung the line Griffin's way for the rest of the year. Who's betting against Black Jesus?

The Profoundly Depressing Chiefs Bye Week (+6) over the Profoundly Depressing Chargers' Bye Week

And here's why …

Matt Cassel (-1) over Brady Quinn

That's an actual choice for Chiefs fans next week.

RAMS (+6) over Packers

A few readers e-mailed me asking if President Obama's Eff You Performance in Tuesday's debate was better than Aaron Rodgers's Eff You Performance on Sunday night in Houston. Aaron Rodgers threw six touchdowns! Obama's performance was more in the "285 yards, 2 TDs, 0 picks, 57 yards rushing" range. No contest. What else do they have in common? Nobody will remember either Eff You Performance if they choke in their next game/debate. This line feels 2½ points too high. The Rams are sneaky-decent and might even be sneaky-good. And with that said … any Rams fan who claims they'd rather have Sam Bradford and three first-round picks than Griffin is lying to himself.6

BILLS (-3) over Titans

Did you know underdogs are 57-32-2 this season, the second-best number through six weeks in 35 years? Did you know 40 of those dogs won their games outright? Vegas finally adjusted by swinging all the mediocre-and-worse favorites to three points or lower — they're begging us to take Buffalo here. Fine.

Speaking of Buffalo (and depressed sports cities), I enjoyed this e-mail from Deuce in Oakland: "Hasn't 2012 been a particular[ly] devastating year for sports losses/collapses? Who better than you to make an official ruling on the appropriate Level of Losing? Let's start with 1) Superbowl XLVI, 2) Games 6 and 7, NBA Eastern Conference Finals, 3) Adam Scott at the British Open, 4) Ryder Cup, 5) The 2012 Texas Rangers, 6) Braves-Cardinals wild-card Game, 7) Orioles-Yankees Game 3, 8) Nats-Cards Game 5.

"My votes: 1) Rabbit's Foot, 2) Alpha Dog followed Dead Man Walking, 3) Broken Axle, 4) This Can't Be Happening, 5) The Goose/Maverick Tailspin (underrated one at that, up 5 with 9 to play!), 6) Monkey Wrench, 7) Guillotine, 8) Stomach Punch."

Nice work, Deuce — I agreed with all of your rankings and admire you for avoiding the obligatory Mayans/2012 reference. You even left two on the table: Green Bay's "Fail Mary" loss in Seattle and Pacquiao's loss to Bradley, both of which need to be covered on the list with the name "The Montreal Screwjob" to cover any incredible officiating-related losses. By the way, we still have 11 weeks left in 2012 — that includes one high-profile event (the World Series), a slew of potentially big college football games, and Week 17 of the NFL season (happening mostly on December 30 this year). I'm actually kind of frightened. Is everything in 2012 heading toward the devastating sports defeat to end all devastating sports defeats?

"The ridiculousness of the Bills potentially being over .500" (-5.5) over "The ridiculousness of the Jets potentially being over .500"

I know the Bills gave up 90 points in six quarters just a couple of weeks ago, but you've seen the Jets, right? It's the first team to permanently adopt the Kitchen Sink offense — the Wildcat crossed with fake punts crossed with repeated up-for-grab throws down either sideline crossed with run plays up the middle to kill time. No team has ever said more blatantly, "We suck, we know this is the only way we can win, we're just gonna own it."

Dolphins' Bye Week (-4) over Eagles' Bye Week

Put it this way: Miami didn't have to throw anyone off the stench of its season by firing a defensive coordinator who never should have been hired in the first place.

Phil Rivers Being Done (-3.5) over Michael Vick Being Done

If Vick were an NBA player, he'd be 15 months away from signing with a Chinese team. He's done. And as Mike Lombardi pointed out on my podcast this week, Andy Reid won't do the right thing by promoting Nick Foles and looking toward the future, because that future probably doesn't include Andy, so he's going with the guy who can help him win right now. It's always fun when a coach or GM's short-term interests go directly against the long-term interests of the franchise, right?

As for Rivers, he seems like he needs a change of scenery more than anything — new uniforms, new receivers, a new coach, something. He hasn't looked right for two seasons. And he's suddenly 30 years old. If this were the NBA, we'd be making up fake trades for him, like "Phil Rivers and a third-round pick for Tony Romo!" and "Phil Rivers to Arizona for Kevin Kolb, two no. 1's and a personal check of $5 million from Larry Fitzgerald!" But we never have trades in the NFL … right?7

Broncos' Bye Week (+4.5) over Falcons' Bye Week

Nooooooooooooooodle! By the way, I can't wait to bet on the Giants in Atlanta in Round 2 or Round 3. I wish I could put it in right now. I can't be alone, either. Can you imagine if the Falcons finished 15-1 and ended up getting points at home in the NFC title game? Could happen.

VIKINGS (-5.5) over Cardinals

I still believe in the Vikings — you could see that Week 6 stumble in Chocolate City coming from a mile away. Now here's a case where the Year of the Underdog helps a "favorite" pick: The Cardinals can't block and can't play from behind, and now they're in a dome against Jared Allen and a team that loves playing with a lead. The line should be higher.

Dwayne Bowe's 2012 Chiefs situation (+5.5) over Larry Fitzgerald's 2012 Cardinals situation

Giving Bowe the edge here because at least Fitz was already paid — poor Bowe is gunning for stats in a contract year with Bratt Quinsel throwing grounders at him, sailing passes over his head and leading him right into safeties and middle linebackers. Is anyone else rooting for Bowe to snap on his QBs like Camila did on Big Easy on The Challenge this week? Wait, you didn't get that joke? Why aren't you reading Jacoby's reality-TV column every Friday? Bleep you, you piece of bleep. You ruin our team. You are a disgrace to the human kind. You are a loser. You are a selfish little loser. You are a selfish mother bleeper, you are a piece of bleep, yeah, bleep you, dude. Go to bleeping hell!

BUCS (+2) Saints
Cowboys (-2.5) PANTHERS

Please, by all means, talk yourself into the Saints rallying to save their season, Vegas. And keep giving the Panthers too much credit while you're at it. We really appreciate it.

Andy Reid's Clock Management (-7) over Jason Garrett's Clock Management

You can't put them in the same sentence yet — it's like comparing Homeland to The Wire or Breaking Bad after 16 episodes. It's just too soon. At the same time, much like with Homeland, you have to applaud Garrett for creating such a strong and creative body of work coming out of the gate. He's clearly on his way to great things. By the way, check out Mark Lisanti's piece about Claire Danes, the greatest crier who ever lived. I continue to think she has to be at least 89 percent as crazy in real life. Nobody could be this good at acting crazy.

Redskins (+6) over GIANTS

For all the reasons you'd think: the Giants coming off a momentous win, the Redskins' love for playing the Giants, RG3's garbage-time TD potential, the whole Black Jesus thing …

Steelers (-1) over BENGALS

Both of these teams are mediocre as hell, which means you're making me pick between the QBs … and I'm going with Ben Roethlisberger over Andy Dalton 100 times out of 100. Oh, and this e-mail from Kevin in Cincy didn't help:

"You keep referring to how God hates Cleveland. But if you look into it, they are only the 2nd most hated Ohio city by our Lord and Savior in the 21st Century. Here is a video compilation of Cincinnati sports moments since the year 2000. AND THESE WERE THE GOOD YEARS."

Ravens (+6.5) over TEXANS

Are we sure the Texans are good? Sure seemed like Rodgers, Peyton Manning, and even Mark Sanchez could throw pretty easily on them. And ever since defenses realized that Andre Johnson (averaging four catches and 60 yards a week, basically) isn't nearly as much of a threat anymore, they've been stacking the line against a Texans rushing attack that isn't quite as potent as you think it is (just 3.8 rushes per carry). Oh, and the Ravens are 6-0 lifetime against the Texans. And everyone is counting them out and leaving them for dead since those season-ending injuries for Lardarius Webb and Ray Lewis. Here's your "NOBODY BELIEVES IN US!" pick for Week 7: Baltimore 34, Houston 24.

Jaguars (+4) over RAIDERS

A bad team coming off a bye getting points against a bad team coming off a spirited effort during a season in which, over and over again, mediocre-or-worse teams haven't been able to cover spreads over three? Sign me up! I don't care if I'm taking Blaine Gabbert on the road … sign me up!

Meanwhile, in last week's column, a reader wondered what this year's "Suck for Luck" quest should be called, offering us "Torpedo for Geno" (for Geno Smith, the likely no. 1 pick). My readers sprang into action and sent in a slew of suggestions, including Whiff-for-Smith, 0-and-Sixteen-O for Geno, Submarino for Geno, The Human Geno Project, Gen0 and 16, Droppin' a Steamo for Geno, Geno-schneid, Petrino for Geno and The Geno Tank-a-reno. The three best ideas in reverse order …

3. "Pacino for Geno"
Explained by Steve from Hoboken as "A tribute to someone who was once great like the Cleveland Browns, but now completely mails it in." Solid.

2. "Shitty for Smitty"
My favorite idea (suggested by multiple readers), only I can't really see Peter King and Chris Berman using this one. What a shame.

1. "Geno-Schneid"
The most common suggestion was actually "Geno-Cide," which we're avoiding for obvious reasons because it crosses every line and about 10 other lines beyond all the other lines. But "Geno-Schneid" (first suggested by Haverhill reader Ernie Bassi) — now that's comedy! And it actually works! Should Jacksonville and Kansas City start printing "Geno-Schneid" T-shirts right now, or should they wait a few weeks?

Jets (+10.5) over PATRIOTS

I'm already rehearsing the tantrums that I'll be having on Sunday as the Pats take an early 10-point lead, then keep shooting themselves in the foot in the red zone, keep giving up special teams plays, miss at least one easy field goal, and repeatedly allow Sanchez's Kitchen Sink offense to work as he halfheartedly chucks passes 25 yards downfield as our defensive backs spin in a circle and either knock receivers down too early or miss them completely as they're catching the football … and somehow, it ends up being a three-point game in the final five minutes even though the Patriots have 30 first downs and the Jets have eight. And I didn't even mention our Hall of Fame QB, who now takes two intentional groundings a game, throws it into traffic in the red zone and randomly ducks during pass plays even when nobody is behind him.

The more I'm thinking about it, I might skip this game altogether and take my kids to a pumpkin patch or something. Who needs to be angry on a Sunday in mid-October, the greatest month of the year? And if you think I'm overreacting, check out these e-mails …

The Patriots with a one score lead give me the same feeling as A-Rod batting in the 9th inning.
—Cory, Miami

After this latest Patriots loss, I was reminded of one of my favorite Mad Men quotes, when Draper says, "People tell us who they are but we ignore it because we want them to [be] who we want them to be." I can't think of a better way to sum up my feelings towards the Patriots these past few years
—Nick, Acton, MA

I'm just so frustrated after yet another 4th quarter collapse and its been annoying me all night. Here's the link to NFL.com's latest Pass Defense Stats. Check out the number of 20+ passing plays given up … 33 for the Pats! The next closest team is Washington at 26. Year after year now, we have had to watch this Pats secondary finish at or near the bottom of the league. Numerous high draft picks have been spent (McCourty, Dowling, Chung, Butler, Wheatley, etc) and several of these players, after showing initial promise, have either regressed or become completely worthless under this coaching staff.
—Michael Karp, West Hollywood

Here's all you need to know about the state of the Patriots, and the defense in particular: On that last Seattle drive, I would have absolutely bet anything I owned that the Seahawks were going to score and beat us by one point. I'm going to to punch a wall now.
—Kyle, Cambridge, MA

Pretty sure somewhere Tom Brady just ducked for no reason. What's the over/under on the number of games before he gets shipped to KC or San Diego?
—Dr. Jeff, Narragansett

Did Andy Reid become New England's coach this season or something? Game management was terrible, Brady was terrible, and I seriously think you could score 30 points on the Patriots by running the Hail Mary play over and over. I actually called my Dad at halftime and said that the lost three points was going to cost them because the defense would give it up in the 4th quarter. We know how this ends right? We're either looking at a season ending like the 2006 season ended or the 2009 season ended. Why should I invest three more months of my life for that?
—Cabot, Miami, FL

In February of 2005 Tom Brady was 27 years old, had three Super Bowls, and was coming into [h]is prime. Now he's 35, still has three Super Bowls and is exiting his prime. How is this possible? Trading 80% of your first round picks is a start. Wasted prime.
—Muzz, Woburn MA

And that's just a small sampling. And we haven't even mentioned Tebow yet. I'm dreading this game — there's nothing worse than those "If we win, we're supposed to win because the other team sucks, and if we lose, it's a catastrophe" games. That pumpkin patch is starting to look pretty damned good.

BEARS (-6.5) over Lions

Here's an interesting stat: Guess how long the Lions have held the lead in all five of their games combined after the first quarter? Well, they haven't led in the second or third quarters of any game this season. They've only led in two fourth quarters — in Week 1 (when they scored a go-ahead touchdown to beat St. Louis with 10 seconds left) and Week 3 (when they led the Titans in the fourth quarter for exactly 12 seconds before giving up a kickoff return touchdown). And in Week 5, they kicked a game-winning field goal to beat Philly in overtime, so technically, that was zero seconds.

So here's your answer: Twenty-two seconds. TWENTY-TWO SECONDS!!!! I'm pretty sure that the whole come-from-behind routine ain't working in Chicago against this powerful Bears defense. Wait, one last line.

ESPN's NBA Countdown (+13.5) over TNT's Inside the NBA

Take the points. At worst, we can hang around and hit a garbage-time 3 to cover the spread … right?

This Week: 0-0-1
Last Week: 9-5
Season: 48-41-3

The Sports Guy's Thursday NFL Pick

By: timbersfan, 12:25 AM GMT on October 19, 2012

Seahawks (+7) over 49ERS

I've been mangling the meaning of "irony" since the eighth grade, so tell me if this scenario qualifies …

A writer recklessly picks the 2012 Seahawks to win the NFC because he likes their charismatic QB, then pushes it over the top by commissioning an illustration of the QB hovering over a group of deliriously happy fans as if he's a religious figure. What happens? The Seahawks lose to a seemingly-at-the-time-terrible Cardinals team in Week 1 … and the rookie QB couldn't look more like a rookie. The writer's readers gleefully mock the writer while also wondering if he has finally lost his marbles. The writer grimly carries on and keeps picking the Seahawks.

They crush Dallas at home in Week 2, squeeze past Green Bay in Week 3 (with a controversial Hail Mary that ended the referee lockout), then stumble to a disjointed defeat in St. Louis in Week 4. During a similarly ugly Week 5 effort in Carolina, the writer tweets after an awful TAINT that "the Russell Wilson bandwagon's gas tank is flashing 'E' right now." Seattle fends off the crappy Panthers, but things look bleak for the rookie QB: He has played five full games without topping 900 total passing yards, and in his last two starts, he's thrown one touchdown and five picks. The writer worries that he hasn't been this blatantly wrong about someone's breakout year since Amber Heard.

Seattle's Week 6 home game looms as a do-or-die start for the rookie QB; you can practically see Matt Flynn's breath on his neck. And for the sixth straight week, the writer picks Seattle … only this time, he's picking against his favorite team. And, of course, the rookie QB finally breaks out: He throws for 293 yards and three scores, repeatedly keeps drives alive with his legs, brings Seattle back from 13 down in the final quarter, and becomes the first rookie QB since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to throw game-winning touchdowns in the final two minutes of two different games. He also ruins the writer's Sunday, provokes 345 F-bombs, exposes the gaping holes in the writer's favorite team that had been sitting there all along, and forces the writer to steer clear of Twitter because he's afraid of coming off like a lunatic. Four days later, the rookie QB travels to San Francisco for a Thursday-night war against his team's biggest divisional rival. That seven-point spread seems a little high for a home team that has a slumping kicker and won't be able to throw the ball against Seattle's hard-hitting secondary, especially if the game turns into a defensive slugfest. And that's why the writer will be grabbing the seven points.

Which leads me to my question …

If the rookie QB stinks tonight and burns me twice in 100 hours, that would be ironic, right? Either way, Seattle — you've been sprayed.

The pick: Seahawks 20, 49ers 17

Wednesday/Thursday Nights: 2-4
Last Week: 7-8
Season: 31-31-2

Ranking the NFL Chaos

By: timbersfan, 12:24 AM GMT on October 17, 2012

Week 6 washed away a lot of what we thought we knew about the best teams in the NFL. That'll happen when underdogs win nine out of the week's 13 matchups outright and cover two more. Before Sunday, it felt like we had three clear candidates for the title of the league's best team: Houston, San Francisco, and Atlanta. Then two of those teams got blown out and the third delivered a tepid performance in a narrow win for the third consecutive week.

Now, there's a jumble of teams around the top, and varying cases to be made for the league's best team. Some might say that it doesn't matter; nobody was suggesting that the 4-2 Giants ranked among the league's best teams after Week 6 last year, and being anointed as the best team in football would ruin the surefire motivational tactic of "nobody believes in us," which seems to be the entire reason the NFL exists at the moment. If there's no top-ranked team, how can the players and coaches of the other 31 teams rest their heads at night knowing that there's some fan or media member out there who believes in another team more? We are in desperate need of some semblance of order!

I'm not prepared to borrow another Simmons construct and go through the league with a full, official Power Poll — the paperwork and bureaucracy in getting a Power Poll notarized as official is absurd — but I am prepared to go through the eight best teams in football and anoint one as my own personal choice for the NFL's top team. The reverse-jinx potential is enormous, but it's a task that simply has to be completed. To be the man, we … have to identify which man it's necessary to beat first and then beat him. So let's get to that.

Just on the outside of the top eight are the Dolphins (missing due to offensive inconsistency/performance issues), Chargers (who have played a slate of cream puffs), Vikings (after a very disappointing loss to the Redskins), and Seahawks (who look like the NFC West's best team at home and its worst team on the road). Teams whom those four beat are in the top eight, and some are ranked ahead of teams who beat them, because figuring this stuff out isn't based solely on what happened when one team played another.

Let's start with the league's Jekyll and Hyde team, the one that fluctuates between dominant and ordinary from quarter to quarter:

8. Green Bay Packers (3-3)

Is it harder to get a grip on any team at the moment? What are the Packers? Are they the team that just pulled off the most impressive win of the season on Sunday night, blowing out the undefeated Texans at home by three scores? The team that held Arian Foster to 29 yards on 17 carries without B.J. Raji while losing two starting linebackers during the game? Or are they the team that capitulated against the Colts, helplessly watching as Andrew Luck threw pass after pass to Reggie Wayne? How can that same offensive line allow Rodgers to be sacked eight times in 47 drop backs against the Seahawks and just twice in 39 trips against the Texans? Will they start consistently creating takeaways on defense again, something that's eluded them in three out of their first six games?

I think Green Bay is better than they've seemed so far because they've played a pretty tough schedule; their six opponents are a combined 17-10 in games that haven't involved the Packers. Over the next three weeks, they travel to St. Louis before facing the Jaguars and Cardinals at home; three comfortable wins in those three games will make their record look a lot better. And if they can't run the table before their Week 10 bye, it should tell us more about their credentials as a contender.

7. Baltimore Ravens (5-1)
6. New England Patriots (3-3)

How are the Ravens behind the Patriots, a team that they beat by a point in Week 3? Well, start with that fact: They won by one point on a last-second field goal at home. Since Vegas values home-field advantage as being worth about three points, looking at that one result suggests that the Patriots would be about two points better than the Ravens on a neutral field. Truthfully, I wouldn't read too much into that one game, but I think there's evidence that there's very little separating these two.

Look at Baltimore's five wins. There's the blowout victory over the Bengals in Week 1, a truly impressive performance, followed by the narrow win over the Patriots in Week 3. After that, Baltimore's beaten the Browns by a touchdown, the Chiefs in a 9-6 affront to modern football, and the Cowboys by two points in a game they nearly threw away. (More on that later.) After his hot start against the Bengals, Joe Flacco has completed exactly 60 percent of his passes and thrown six touchdowns against four picks.

The Patriots, meanwhile, have a 3-3 record that includes more impressive victories. Beating the Titans by 21 isn't much, but they also dropped 52 points on the Bills and went up 31-7 on the Broncos before some garbage time scoring. Their three losses are by a combined four points. New England's opposition has gone 17-12 in games that don't involve the Patriots. Baltimore's opposition has gone 12-17 in games that don't involve the Ravens.

The biggest reason why the Ravens rank behind the Patriots, though, is injury. Since these are supposed to be forward-looking rankings, it's impossible to talk about the Ravens without discussing how their defense appears ready to fall apart. The defense was already missing star pass rusher Terrell Suggs, out with an Achilles injury that he's going to struggle to come back from this year. On Sunday, while Haloti Ngata suffered a mild MCL sprain, the bigger news came in with serious injuries to two other defensive stars. Lardarius Webb, the team's best cover corner, suffered his second torn ACL in four years. He's done for the season, and he might be joined by Ray Lewis, who might have torn his triceps during the win over the Cowboys. It's one thing to live without your star pass rusher, but the Ravens are a defense built around their five defensive stars, and even if Ngata's knee is fine, it looks like they're about to be down three of those five guys for the remainder of the season.

5. New York Giants (4-2)
4. San Francisco 49ers (4-2)

Yep. The Giants just smoked the 49ers at Candlestick in what was, until the Packers-Texans game, the most impressive 60 minutes by an NFL team this season. They took a 49ers team that had won their previous two games by a total of 76 points to the woodshed, winning 26-3 in a performance that was every bit as dominant as the score line indicated. The Giants even picked up the moral victory of getting Ahmad Bradshaw over 100 yards and into the end zone on a running play, becoming the first team to do either of those things against the 49ers at home during the Jim Harbaugh era.

So how can the Niners be ahead of the Giants? Because they've been much better over the other five weeks of the season. In addition to stomping the Bills and Jets, remember that the Packers needed a miracle flag pickup from the replacement refs to get within one score of the Niners in Week 1, and that the Lions offered little resistance a week later. When the Niners start beating a team, that team stays beat. Meanwhile, the Giants have losses under their belts to the mediocre Cowboys and Eagles, and while they made the Panthers look bad on Thursday night, they needed comebacks to fight off the Browns and Buccaneers at home. As great as the Giants looked on Sunday, it's not exactly sacrilege to suggest that they are an inconsistent team. And if they played the 49ers in San Francisco this upcoming week, the Giants might not be the seven-point underdogs in Vegas that they were this past Sunday, but they definitely wouldn't be favored, either. That's why the Niners are closer to the top.

3. Atlanta Falcons (6-0)

Just because a team has the best record — especially in a sample as tiny as six games — doesn't mean that they're the best team in football. It's actually pretty easy to poke holes in the Falcons' résumé. Their six games have included matchups against the Redskins, the Panthers, and the entire AFC West; when they're not playing the Falcons, those six teams have gone a combined 11-15, and that's not going to suddenly start looking much better as the season goes along. Atlanta has won those six games by a combined 58 points; only seven 6-0 teams in NFL history have had a worse point differential during their 6-0 start than Atlanta has. They're already 4-0 in games decided by a touchdown or less, and that includes the stunning benevolence of Ron Rivera that led to their razor-thin win over the 1-4 Panthers in Atlanta. If Cam Newton doesn't fumble and Carson Palmer doesn't throw that pick-six during Oakland's crucial drive in the fourth quarter on Sunday, the Falcons are 4-2 while having played at a virtually identical level of football. You don't just get to write those plays off the board and pretend they didn't happen, but it's also naive to suggest that every win is of equal value in projecting the future once they hit the board.

The gentle section of the Atlanta schedule ends with their bye this upcoming week. After the week off, the Falcons get games against the three best teams in the NFC East, five of their six NFC South matchups, and tilts versus the Lions and Cardinals. If they don't raise their game — especially both running the ball and stopping the run — they won't be undefeated for much longer.

2. Houston Texans (5-1)

As disappointing as their loss to the Packers was on Sunday night, the Texans remain the class of the AFC and a strong contender for the title of best team in football. While Atlanta's first five wins look worse and worse with each passing week, Houston's wins are beginning to look stronger. A 30-10 win over the Dolphins in Week 1 is actually pretty impressive when you consider that Miami is 3-2 with a point differential of plus-23 since then. Houston was blowing out the Broncos before giving up a pair of late garbage-time scores (and dropping four interceptions in the process), and even their 23-17 win over the Jets in the Meadowlands seems better after the Jets blew out Indy this past week. And if you're going to lose at home, it might as well be to a team like the Packers.

On the other hand, like every other team in the league, the Texans have question marks. Perhaps owing to changes on the offensive line and overusage of Arian Foster early in the season, the running game's lost much of its efficiency; Houston averaged 4.8 yards per carry in 2010 and 4.5 yards a pop last year, but they're down all the way to 3.8 yards per attempt this season. The team is basically holding open auditions at wide receiver across from Andre Johnson, which has led to double- and triple-coverage on their star wideout. And while J.J. Watt's been the unquestioned Defensive Player of the Year through six games, star cornerback Johnathan Joseph has been badly burned on multiple occasions during each of the last two games.

Houston is also in the middle of its toughest stretch this season, a four-game, five-week run that includes games against the Packers, Ravens, Bills, and the no. 1 team on my list …

1. Chicago Bears (4-1)

Yes, that's right, the Bears. The same Bears who capitulated in Green Bay in Week 2 and briefly became a national punch line because Jay Cutler threw four interceptions. That's a rough loss, but it also came in a game where Matt Forte left with an injury during the opening drive of the second half. That forced the Bears to change their offense on the fly and integrate Michael Bush into the starting lineup without many practice reps. As you might expect, the Bears are significantly better with Forte around; he's averaged a full 4.7 yards per carry this year, well ahead of backups Bush (3.6 yards per pop) and Kahlil Bell (2.7). When Forte is around, there's nothing the Bears don't do well. They're proficient running the ball, adequate throwing it, and well above-average in all facets of defense and special teams. The emergence of Henry Melton and Shea McClellin as secondary pass rushers has freed up space for Julius Peppers, while Tim Jennings has had a career year in five games at cornerback: He's set or tied career highs in interceptions (four) and passes defended (10) with 11 games left to go.

And while everybody else has a close call or two on their résumé, the Bears have been dominant in their four wins this season. In their three wins against average-or-better competition — the Colts, Cowboys, and Rams — Chicago won by a minimum of 16 points. Their one game against a cream puff, the Jaguars, resulted in a 41-3 shellacking. Every other team on this list, besides perhaps the Texans, had at least one game in which a change on one play would turn their win into a loss. That hasn't been true for the Bears. They've had some luck in producing five defensive touchdowns in five games this year, but the defense would still be good and the margins of victory would still be impressive without the bonus touchdowns from the defense.

If you want to hop on the Bears bandwagon (a place where I admittedly have to hide, myself), now's the time. Over the next three weeks, Chicago is home for games against the Lions and Panthers before traveling to Tennessee. At that point, the Bears might very well be 7-1, but their schedule will become something resembling punishment: Their next six games include matchups against the Seahawks (thankfully, in Chicago), Texans, Packers, 49ers, and a home-and-home with the Vikings. They might not have the best record in football by the time they're through with that month and a half of hell, but if they can go 3-3 or 4-2 across that stretch, I wouldn't budge them from this spot.

Of course, it also probably says something about how flawed even the league's best teams are that the team I chose for the top spot on this list is the one that was out of sight and on a bye this week. The Bears could very well lose to the Lions next Monday night and create an AFC East–esque logjam in the NFC North, and we'll all have to revisit this whole conceit again. Until that upset happens, the best team in football resides in the Windy City.

Thank You for Not Coaching

Jason Garrett did it again! During last year's loss to the Cardinals, Garrett bungled his timeout usage on the final drive of the game before icing his own kicker, Dan Bailey. Most memories of the botched coaching job seem to revolve around the self-icing, but as I noted in my column on the fiasco last year, icing the kicker has no real impact, anyway. The far bigger mistake Garrett made was not using his timeout to run another offensive play and create an easier kick for Bailey, who missed what would have been a game-winning 49-yard field goal at the end of regulation.

Now, 10 months later, Garrett has made the same mistake. After the Cowboys miraculously recovered an expected on-side kick and advanced the ball to the Baltimore 34-yard line through a pass interference penalty, they were in a stunningly advantageous position. With 26 seconds left, one timeout, and a two-point deficit, the Cowboys had the ability to throw the ball short to the sidelines or deep to the middle of the field to try to create an easier kick for Bailey. A 51-yard field goal under normal conditions isn't a very friendly option; kickers only convert from 51 about 54 percent of the time. Even picking up as few as eight yards would be enough to improve Bailey's chances to about 72-73 percent. While the Cowboys might have risked a turnover by trying to advance the ball, it would have dramatically improved their chances of winning the game.

Instead, the Cowboys went into their 25-second offense, sponsored by every sports-talk radio station in the Dallas area. They threw underneath to Dez Bryant for one yard, who didn't get out of bounds … and let the clock run. They could have called a timeout at 20 seconds and, on second down, tried to get one more pass to the sidelines to make Bailey's kick easier. Alternatively, they could have spiked the ball and had 12-13 seconds on the clock with the timeout in hand, enabling them to run a play over the middle before using their timeout and kicking on fourth down. Both of those options are clearly preferable to running down the clock and kicking from 50 with six seconds left, but that is exactly what the Cowboys did.

Garrett also preceded that late-game fiasco with a new contender for one of the league's worst challenges this season, when in the first quarter he challenged that a Felix Jones run, which was ruled out on the 1-foot line, was actually a touchdown.

Even if you're 99.9 percent sure that the play is going to be reviewed and come back as a touchdown, this is a really bad usage of a challenge in the first quarter. Even if you're right, you've still cost yourself one of your two challenges, limited your ability to guess in a key moment on your second challenge (out of fear that you won't have a third later in the game), and barely improved your status in the process. Given first-and-goal from the 1-foot line, teams are going to score a touchdown close to 80 percent of the time. Brian Burke's win probability calculator estimates that the Cowboys had a 60 percent chance of winning with the ball on the 1-yard line without challenging; with a successful challenge, a touchdown, and an average kickoff,1 the Cowboys' chances of winning improved all the way to … 62 percent. It's giving away a potentially enormous asset for virtually no gain.

Garrett was not the only one who settled at the wrong time and place. Two2 other coaches entered the preposterous field goal derby on Sunday and got drastically different results, although each ended up losing by the time their respective games finished up.

It's understandable that the Rams would be comfortable sending rookie kicker Greg Zuerlein out for a few long field goals; after all, he's represented most of St. Louis's offense this year. And while Zuerlein had missed two field goals before the Rams launched their final drive of the day, a three-point deficit basically ensured that Zuerlein would eventually come out for a game-tying field goal attempt.

Zuerlein did make his way onto the field, but it was under bizarre circumstances. As it often does, the Rams' drive stalled when Sam Bradford took a sack on third down. This sack, though, placed the Rams in no-man's land: They had a fourth-and-7 from the Miami 48-yard line, and had just 30 seconds left on the clock with a lone timeout to stop it.

Now, the obvious play here is to call your timeout immediately and debate your options. None of them are particularly appealing, but the choice between a 66-yard field goal — three yards beyond anything ever successfully hit in NFL history — and converting for seven yards on fourth down seems pretty clear to me. You go for it, try to get the first down, spike the ball, and maybe get one more play off before sending Zuerlein in for a vaguely plausible 59-yarder. Even if you somehow decide that kicking from 66 is the right move, calling the timeout immediately at least gives you time to think about it. If the Rams line up with 30 seconds left, they also leave the possibility of a fake in their bag and get a slower rush on Zuerlein, too.

Instead, Jeff Fisher let the clock bleed down to four seconds before kicking the field goal. Think about the hubris involved with that decision and the only upside it allows for. "We're going to put this field goal through the uprights, and we're so confident about it that we need to bleed clock to make sure that you don't advance the ball for a game-winning field goal in the 20 seconds we'd leave out there." If Zuerlein hit a 66-yarder, the game should have ended by immediate acclamation, And1 mixtape style. By letting the clock run, Fisher hurt his own team's chances, not the opposition's.

Ken Whisenhunt's decision to let Jay Feely kick a 61-yard field goal was even more bizarre. His Cardinals were down three points with 1:14 left and a fourth-and-10 on the Buffalo 43-yard line. They were in similarly rough shape to the Rams, but unlike St. Louis, Whisenhunt's team had all three timeouts and a kicker with a shorter range. While I normally encourage teams to be aggressive, Whisenhunt could have very easily justified punting, attempting to stop the Bills with his defense and timeouts, and then fielding a punt with Patrick Peterson before trying to set up a shorter field goal. The Cardinals instead lined up for a 61-yard field goal and the Bills, for some bizarre reason, called timeout. The Cardinals lined up for one of the dumber decisions of the year and the Bills wanted to give them time to think about it. Sure enough, the Cards came back out and kicked anyway, and Feely booted his 61-yarder through the uprights for a game-tying field goal.

In fact, the Cardinals ended up simulating exactly what would have happened with a punt on the ensuing drive. The Bills were sacked on first down and then ran two plays for a minimal gain, and when their punt away from Peterson was gruesomely bad, the Cardinals took over on their own 47-yard line with 50 seconds left to play. That would have been a much better situation than attempting to kick a 61-yarder.

Chan Gailey and the Bills might have had the worst decision-making day of all. Gailey's first rough decision was a play call that saw him — protecting a three-point lead with an effective running game deep in the fourth quarter — bring in Brad Smith to launch a bomb into the end zone out of the Wildcat. While announcers constantly talk about how Smith can throw whenever he comes into the game, he simply hasn't been an effective deep thrower at the pro level. Jets fans will remember him completing a bomb to Jerricho Cotchery for 45 yards in the 2009 AFC Championship Game, but even that was an underthrown pass to a wide-open receiver that would have been a touchdown if it were on time. Smith's ill-advised pass went straight into the hands of a waiting Peterson and gave the Cardinals a free shot at a drive for the win.

After Gailey's unconscionable timeout before the 61-yarder, he stayed out of the way until overtime. There, he made another baffling series of decisions. The Bills won the coin toss and threw the ball four times to start their drive, producing two incomplete passes, a seven-yard completion, and a 21-yard DPI. Then, on second down, they remembered that they were allowed to run the ball and handed it off to C.J. Spiller for 17 yards, producing a first-and-10 on the Arizona 35-yard line. With the Cardinals blitzing up the A-gaps on most every play, the running game averaging five yards per carry, and the proposition of adding even a few yards of field position representing enormous value, what did the Bills do? Why, they went with an empty backfield and threw three more incomplete passes, with one of the passes dropped by rookie T.J. Graham. That stuck them with fourth-and-10 from the 35-yard line on the opening drive of overtime, when you can't even end the game in OT with a field goal anymore, and they chose to … punt. Punting from inside your opposition's 40-yard line in a dome should be cause for immediate firing, regardless of the circumstances. Gailey's decision was bailed out when John Skelton forced a throw and created an interception for Jairus Byrd, but remember: A ball on the 35-yard line represents a 52-yard field goal. If you don't have enough confidence in your kicker to hit from 52 yards out in a dome, you need a new kicker. Judging from his decisions, the Bills might also want to add a new coach to the shopping list.

Route One in the Rain: USMNT Gets Needed Three Points in Antigua

By: timbersfan, 12:22 AM GMT on October 17, 2012

Eddie Johnson's first goal for the United States Men's National Team came in the forward's first start on October 10, 2004. Johnson, then 20 years old, netted three more three days later against Panama and finished 2006 World Cup qualifying with seven goals in six games. The Florida-born Johnson was strong, fast, and talented, exactly what the future of U.S. soccer was supposed to look like.

Then, perhaps inevitably, he began to struggle. A combination of injuries, believing the hype, and bad luck plagued Johnson, who played for five clubs between 2006 and 2011. There were occasional highs — a goal for the U.S. against Barbados in 2008, a strong if brief run with Cardiff City in 2009 — but mostly lows. He continued to make money to play soccer, which is not a bad life, but that incredible promise was slipping away. When a deal to play for Puebla in the Mexican League fell apart last winter because Johnson was out of shape, the subsequent conversation didn't revolve around when we would see the forward in the Stars and Stripes again, it focused on whether he would continue to play professionally at all.

Which bring us to a drenched cricket field in North Sound, Antigua, where Johnson found himself in the starting lineup — at left-midfield, no less — for a crucial World Cup qualifier on Friday night. Jurgen Klinsmann's team needed four points from two games to reach the final round of CONCACAF 2014 World Cup qualifying. Johnson, despite a recent rejuvenation with the Seattle Sounders, was a surprising choice to make the roster, much less start against Antigua and Barbuda. But Klinsmann, who controversially left Dutch league leading scorer Jozy Altidore and MLS leading scorer Chris Wondolowski off the roster for the U.S.'s two matches, put his faith in Johnson. In the 20th minute of the match, the now-28-year-old talent repaid that belief. He rose over an A&B defender to head home Graham Zusi's left-footed cross. Johnson was back and Klinsmann — subject to increasing second-guessing — was a genius.

The U.S. conceded five minutes later when Peter Byers beat defender Geoff Cameron, then crossed to Dexter Blackstock, who tapped the ball into the net. It was the first goal A&B scored at Sir Vivian Richards Stadium during the semifinal round, and yet another example of the tendency Klinsmann’s team has to let off after scoring.

The home side, inspired by the goal and a 10,000-person crowd, one-ninth of the tiny nation, was in the match. Perhaps this shouldn't have been surprising since A&B proved frisky in the last fixture between the two teams, but it certainly wasn't the script the American coach wrote. The U.S. continued to dominate time on the ball — they would end the match with 76 percent of the possession and complete almost five times as many passes — but managed to create only a single shot on goal in the run of play. For much of the match, the CONCACAF minnows looked like they had a better chance of scoring.

Part of the issue was the quality of the field, which was more slop fest and less playing surface. It was a mud pit, especially after the sky opened up in the second half. And, at 70 yards by 110 yards, the field was as small as FIFA will allow for a regulation game. (In general, a smaller field benefits the underdog because it squeezes players together.) But it's not like CONCACAF teams haven't done this before. Every time the U.S. plays away from home, the field is of variable quality. Plus, you know what happens during October evenings in the tropics? It pours. And yet the U.S. team continues to be surprised by these adverse conditions. (Clint Dempsey, who was borderline invisible on Friday night, tweeted an image of the field in disgust.) The sooner the Americans realize that despite superior talent they will struggle to pass around teams if every third pass hits a clump of dirt and bounces in a strange direction, the better. Not even Spain could look good on that cricket oval.

To his credit, Klinsmann's roster choices reflected a reality of qualifying in CONCACAF that he is slowly coming to understand: It doesn’t have to be pretty; it does have to be successful. Johnson and super-surprise call Alan Gordon found their way into the American camp because of their ability to be target men: to receive a long ball, hold it up, and lay it off to a teammate. In press conferences leading up to Friday's match, the coach talked of taking "Route One" to attack, basically using the U.S.'s size and athleticism to play more directly. You go through rather than around. It produces ugly soccer — light-years away from the tactical revolution Klinsmann promised, and has so far failed, to bring to the Red, White, and Blue — but it can be effective and, when playing away games within CONCACAF, necessary. Bob Bradley figured this out, shocking everyone by starting big, old, and slow Conor Casey against Honduras in San Pedro Sula in a crucial qualifier in 2009. The forward responded with two goals, helping the Americans clinch their spot in the 2010 World Cup.

Klinsmann also needed a result. He relied on future star turned afterthought Johnson, who responded not once but twice. In the dying stage of a 1-1 game, second-half substitute Sacha Kljestan passed to second-half substitute Gordon, who hit a onetime cross. Johnson rose again, got his head to the ball, and nodded it past A&B goalkeeper Molvin James. The strike, Johnson's 10th in World Cup qualifying, ties him with Brian McBride for second place all-time, two goals behind Landon Donovan. Suddenly, a Stars and Stripes performance that fluctuated between tired, angry, and lackadaisical was forgiven (if not forgotten). They came for three points. They got three points.

The United States national team travels to Kansas City needing only a draw against Guatemala on Tuesday. It could be an unattractive affair, as the Chapines will also advance with a point, but the field will be pristine, the crowd supportive, and the weather perfect. The time for excuses is over. But so is the time for the beautiful game. There is reaching the next round, and there is everything else that comes afterward. Klinsmann, it seems, learned this lesson just in time.

The Legend of Stoichkov Lives On in Chicago

By: timbersfan, 12:20 AM GMT on October 17, 2012

The Chicago History Museum's grand banquet hall is overflowing with nearly 500 Chicago Fire Soccer Club fans, bubbling with excitement at the club's supporter-organized 15th-anniversary celebration. The room's layout (long, narrow) is not ideal for speeches, but speeches certainly have to be made because of the occasion, a special one for the club and the city: October 8 marks the date of both the start of the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, out of whose ashes the modern city was built, and the date in 1997 when Fire general manager Peter Wilt unveiled the club's name and identity on Navy Pier. Friends are catching up, glasses are clinking, the festivities are bubbling over.

Hristo Stoichkov strides up to the podium, and the room falls silent. He speaks slowly, deliberately, without expression but with intensity. He talks one sentence at a time in Spanish (he played in Spain for seven years), pausing to allow former Fire head coach Denis Hamlett to translate bit by bit, meaningful words drawn from his stony, stern countenance. "This is one of the best clubs I played for," the former Barcelona, Fire, CSKA Sofia, and World Cup star concludes, weighing his words appropriately for the audience.

Two days previously, I sat down for lunch with Stoichkov, 46, in a Bulgarian restaurant on Chicago's west side to watch the Fire defeat Red Bull New York 2-0. The Bulgarian legend had just flown in from Sofia and demanded to head out immediately from the airport to watch the Fire game he was informed was underway. His eyes almost never strayed from the screen, and he proffered no commentary, breaking into a smile only when my friend "Mad" Jeff Marinacci shouted "GET IN, BIG BOY!" and pumped his fists after Sherjill MacDonald stroked home the Fire's first goal. Hristo enjoyed the passion.

A steady stream of kids came up to Hristo after the game, middle-aged parents pushing them to get a photo and an autograph with perhaps the most famous Bulgarian of all time. Hristo is not unapproachable — the kids received a playful rub on the head — but as Fire winger Patrick Nyarko admitted following the celebration at the Museum two days later, "When I saw Stoichkov I was scared to go and say hello."

It's easy to understand that nervous apprehension when you see Hristo in the flesh. His eyes do not dart from person to person; his gaze instead sizes you up, and those prickles on your skin are his eyes piercing you.

Many people try to carry themselves like they are a big deal, ensuring everyone in the room knows just how important they are. Hristo Stoichkov is one of those rare people in the world who carries himself like this and it feels totally right.

He is, after all, Hristo Stoichkov: lethal left-footed assassin, plunderer of 83 goals in 177 appearances for Barcelona, 37 in 83 games for Bulgaria, joint top goal scorer at the 1994 World Cup, European Footballer of the Year in 1994, a member of eight league championship teams for Barcelona and CSKA Sofia, driving force of the Bulgarian team that reached the semifinals of the '94 World Cup, and, again, a man who simply murdered his opponents with that left foot, lashing in goals from improbable angles and distances over and over and over again.

These achievements and his rock-solid self-belief inform his being. If a movie were to be made about Hristo's life, a 1980s-era Robert De Niro would have to play him. He can get away with his bad behavior and retain respect because he is who he is. Impeccably dressed with slicked-back silver hair these days, Stoichkov has put on some weight since his playing days, but it's weight that only adds to the solidity of his presence.

It was with some surprise, then, when after a couple of hours at the Bulgarian restaurant Hristo is, all of a sudden, the one doing the honoring. In has walked a nondescript middle-aged Bulgarian man, and Hristo — who has barely made eye contact for more than a second with anyone all day — is enamored, sitting and chatting and smiling with the guy.

Explanation follows from the group of Bulgarian soccer fans present, the Chicago Reds, a CSKA Sofia fan club: This is Tzvetan Borislavov Yonchev, whom you probably haven't heard of but whom they revere as one of their club's and their country's greatest players. My iPhone's YouTube app is soon playing Yonchev's greatest moments — his goal at Anfield against Liverpool, his sublime strike against Bayern Munich, his role in CSKA's defeat of defending European champions Nottingham Forest in the first round of the 1980-81 European Cup (CSKA would go on to reach the semifinals).

Yonchev is one of Hristo Stoichkov's idols; he now runs a couple of pizza restaurants in the Chicago suburbs, but here he is being paid tribute to by his country's greatest player.

The next day, October 7, Hristo is playing soccer again in Chicago. Much has changed since his tenure with the Fire from 2000 to 2002: Instead of playing at Soldier Field in Chicago or Cardinal Stadium in Naperville — as the homeless Fire did during Hristo's era — they now play at Toyota Park in south suburban Bridgeview, a soccer-specific stadium with a turf practice field Hristo that is playing on today. "No more Lake Forest, huh?" Hristo grunts, referring to the Fire's former practice home out at Lake Forest College.

He's on the field again with many of his teammates from that era: Peter Nowak, the Fire's inspirational first captain; Lubos Kubik, silky-skilled sweeper; Diego Gutierrez, hustling creator; Ante Razov, an athletic scorer. They're taking part in a reunion game prompted by current Fire head coach Frank Klopas, who played for the Fire himself with the same group of guys just before Hristo's arrival.

Hristo is charging across the field again, a decade older but with the same bull-headed determination that he will find the back of the net. And he soon does, opening the scoring as he fakes out two defenders by feinting to shoot, instead driving into the box and drilling home a left-footed shot into the bottom corner. He scores again a few minutes later, and his touch is still an immediate standout even alongside Nowak.

Nowak and Stoichkov appear to be trying to outdo each other, just as they had done on the field for the Fire: Nowak, the Fire's inspiration for its double-winning team (1998 MLS Cup and Open Cup victors), and Stoichkov, one of the all-time greats, taking turns dominating the show. Today, there is a clear mutual respect as Nowak chases down a flick from Stoichkov that runs out of bounds, and Stoichkov looks to find Nowak with the ball whenever he can.

The friendly reunion game ends in penalty kicks; the Fire legends win after Nowak strokes his kick home, and Stoichkov — who had slotted away his — gives the former Polish national team star a giant bear hug.

One Bulgarian fan and his teenage son stop Hristo to sign some autographs, which he dutifully does. "My life is complete now," the fan says. "My son has seen Hristo play."

There was a trophy that seemed to be missing from the celebration the next evening. Neatly lined up on a table were the 1998 MLS Cup, the 1998 U.S. Open Cup, the 2000 U.S. Open Cup, the 2003 U.S. Open Cup, and the 2006 U.S. Open Cup, all won by the Fire after they joined MLS in the 1998 season.

Not on the table — the 2000 MLS Cup.

It wasn't there because Chicago didn't win it. Defeated 1-0 by Kansas City at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., in the MLS Cup final that season, the defeat still visibly rankles with Hristo. "Tony Meola" are the words he mutters darkly when asked about it, and he's right: The American goalkeeper's once-in-a-lifetime performance for Kansas City, with a little help from the woodwork and some poor finishing, kept MLS's highest-scoring team that season from registering a goal.

That defeat was all the more painful for Stoichkov as it came in the presence of his idol and former coach at Barcelona, Johan Cruyff. Peter Wilt, the Fire's general manager at the time, recalls that Hristo proudly escorted Cruyff into the locker room before kickoff to introduce him to head coach Bob Bradley. The Fire players, according to Stoichkov, were "in awe at the greatness of Cruyff."

When he ran suitably inspired onto the field at RFK as part of an attack that the rest of the league had hardly been able to keep at bay all season, he was leaping with energy. Stoichkov certainly did not expect to lose, just as the Cruyff “Dream Team” that Hristo had starred for in the 1990s had never expected to lose. “Unbelievable,” Hristo says again today, and suddenly it becomes bizarrely clear that Meola features in the nightmares of one of the greatest strikers of all time.

There was some bitter-sweet redemption for the Fire and Hristo six days after that defeat: At home at Soldier Field, in what should have been a double-winning clincher but wasn't, the Fire claimed a U.S. Open Cup win over the doomed Miami Fusion. Stoichkov scored the opening goal in a 2-1 win, but for all of Hristo's fist pumps after his goal, the season was defined by the double trophy that got away.

Despite the disappointment, Chicago's 2000 team was among the best in league history, and the Nowak-Stoichkov one-two punch was unstoppable until it ran into Meola's career day. Nowak, Stoichkov, and Chris Armas were all named to MLS's Best XI that season.

This proved to be a high point in Stoichkov's MLS career that he would not reach again. His 10 goals in 21 appearances in the 2000 season equaled the number he would score over his final two years in Chicago, failing to reach another title match in those seasons. After the 2002 season, 36-year-old Stoichkov was traded to DC United in January 2003. His tenure with the United was marred by an incident during a scrimmage when he broke the leg of college player Freddy Angel Llerena-Aspiazu with a wild and dangerous tackle that ended up in a lawsuit settled out of court three years later.

And in Chicago, Stoichkov was soon pelted with loaves of bread. When he returned to the city for the first time in the 2003 season with D.C. United for an MLS game, he was not welcomed with “loaves of bread” — a traditional Slavic greeting. While most Fire fans may have been unaware of this tradition, Stoichkov — in his typically combustible style — made a point of mentioning this to the press following the game. So when D.C. returned to play against his old club a second time, one of the Fire’s supporter groups — allegedly the Mike Ditka Street Crew — brought a duffel bag full of bread into the stadium, and pelted an enraged Stoichkov with the loaves as he left the field, requiring police intervention to prevent a riot from erupting.

Stoichkov then had knee surgery — there's no evidence it was a bread-related injury — and retired after D.C. was knocked out of the 2003 playoffs by the Fire in the first round.

That ignominious end to his career has been largely forgotten, outside of the few who keep the legend of the Great Breading of Aught Three alive.

At the Chicago History Museum, it's Stoichkov's electric 2000 season and all his other accomplishments worldwide that are recalled, and the television cameras flock to him. One Bulgarian journalist gets too close for Hristo's liking, and suddenly there is a melee, the media member soon leaving the building — and later on, filing a charge against Stoichkov with the local police.

Hristo soon had his own say about it in the press. "It was fantastic, one of the top events I have ever attended," Stoichkov told the Bulgarian media the next day. "People in the U.S. want to advance soccer; soccer fields are filling up. We were some of the pioneers and were proud to be honored in such a way. And amidst all this glamour and smiles, someone popped-out barging for an interview. I told him rules exist all over the world and must be obeyed."

"He is dreaming that I hit him," Stoichkov continued. "Some people are so pathetic; they want to use my name to rise to fame. But I will survive it yet one more time. I don't need any glory; I have plenty. And I earned it with such hard work, sweat, and pain that very few can even imagine."

There has been, and always will be, only one Hristo Stoichkov.

The Head and the Heart

By: timbersfan, 12:19 AM GMT on October 17, 2012

There were about three minutes left, and his Washington Redskins were clinging to a 31-26 lead, just trying to get a first down so they could run out the clock on the Minnesota Vikings, so wide receiver Josh Morgan ran his curl route, turned back toward the line of scrimmage, and, suddenly, he saw his quarterback coming hell-bent in his direction.

"At that point," Morgan said later, "that play became a running play."

All afternoon, for a number of different reasons, not all of them related strictly to sensible quarterback play, Robert Griffin III had been the very model of a modern game manager. He took only what the defense would give him. He slid to avoid unnecessary contact, and he went out of bounds when he had to. But here he was, behind Morgan's block, tearing 76 yards up the left sideline and listening to his teammates tell him to go out of bounds until they saw that he was leaving the Minnesota secondary far behind. "That's when 'Go out of bounds' became 'Go, go, go,'" he said after the game. "I got to the sideline and I thought about going out of bounds because everybody's been telling me that lately. You just — you know in certain situations, and I felt like I had the guy outflanked, so I just took off running.

"I could see guys saying, 'Slide, slide,' but I thought I could keep on running a little more. It was interesting to see the change in them while I was running down the sidelines."

For a week, Griffin had been ensorcelled by the National Football League's latest conjuring spell — head injuries. He suffered a minor concussion last Sunday and, therefore, had become An Issue and, therefore, An Argument, as the NFL tries to make 70 years of neglect and medical malpractice disappear with a wave of the magic PR wand. On Sunday, cleared to play, he made a glorious case for himself — passing for 182 yards and running for 138 more. He was careful with the ball, and he was careful with himself, too, and, in the game he played, you could see clearly what the NFL could look like if it raises a generation of players who are fully aware of the risks they're taking and the dangers so inherent to the game that no new policy ever can be devised to eliminate them. First, in Sunday's game itself, Griffin brought the Redskins back from a thin 9-0 deficit by judiciously mixing short passes and option runs, and even taking off himself from time to time, as everyone in FedEx Field held their breath, because that's what you do now as a football fan.

The way that Griffin came to control the game — careful, but not cautious — was clear from the second quarter, when on one drive he and the Washington offense went 91 yards in 11 plays, eating up 6:36 on the clock in doing so, to go up 10-9 and take the lead for good. Griffin chopped up the middle of the Minnesota defense, mixing inside runs by Alfred Morris with his passes, until he found Santana Moss loose on a seam pattern down the middle for 30 yards to the Vikings' 20-yard line. Five plays (and a relatively dubious roughing-the-passer call on Minnesota linebacker Erin Henderson, about which more anon) later, Morris went in standing up over the left side for the touchdown. On the drive, you could see Griffin taking care of the ball and taking care of himself at the same time, without ever losing the kind of edge he needed to play well.

"Like I told people, you stay aggressive but you just try to be smart," he said. "I felt like I got out of bounds a couple times when I should have. I threw the ball away one time and got a penalty because the guy came and hit me. You try to play smart but stay aggressive. One time, I ran up the middle and I slid for seven yards. You got to live with that and not worry about the eight or nine yards you could have got taking the hit. I told the team I wasn't going to leave them hanging, and I tried to make sure I did that today."

This is a remarkably sophisticated answer for a rookie. In fact, it's a remarkably sophisticated answer for anyone. For years, the prevailing ethic among NFL players was that a player's primary obligation was to stay on the field no matter how seriously they were injured. This created a code of self-destructive omertà, the results of which you can see limping around the various Super Bowl buffets, blankly looking for the wives they left behind a minute and a half ago. What Griffin is arguing here is that he owed it to his teammates to be honest with himself and with his doctors about whether he was ready to play. That honesty about his condition was his primary obligation as a teammate.

"I felt good," he continued. "I didn't get hit too much, but it's football, so your body's going to break down during the course of a game, and that's why you try to build it up during the week. The [medical] tests, they did a good job of making sure that I was OK, constantly being on me to be honest with them, so I wouldn't go out there and put myself in harm's way.

"I told them I would be honest with them. It was important for me to come out and play smart, so I'd always be there with them."

Griffin is the first starting NFL quarterback born in the 1990s, and he is a real rookie sensation in this new era of the NFL, when player safety means something more than rousting your quarterback out of a Motor City brothel the night before a game. Robert Griffin III sees his health as something he owes not only to himself, but to his teammates. It is not an overstatement to call this a sea change.

At the beginning of the week, it appeared that Griffin was going to be the latest guest star in the NFL's latest season-long production: Pretend We Care About the Grunts. Last week, on his way to the ground, he got torpedoed in the noggin by Sean Weatherspoon of the Atlanta Falcons. Griffin got up looking very much like a man wandering in a universe of Tilt-a-Whirls. The Gillette Stadium press box, where I happened to be covering another game at the time, came instantly and Twitteringly alive, purporting that Griffin was unable to identify his exact location. That he had a concussion surprised nobody who saw the hit. What would happen afterward was a clear indication of the strange new world into which the NFL has entered now that muted public outrage and hydra-headed class-action lawsuits have forced the league to exercise whatever vestigial conscience it has.

As soon as it was announced midweek that Griffin would play Sunday, an argument erupted over the wisdom of letting him take the field. Ultimately, again, the question comes down to the fundamental ownership of a player's health and public career. Does it belong only to him? Does it belong, in whole or in part, to the team that pays his salary, of which he is merely an important cog? Does it belong, in whole or in part, to the overall corporate enterprise of which the team is a part? Does it belong, in whole or even in the smallest part, to the people in the stands, or on the radio, or watching the television, or wandering to the betting window? In all three of the latter cases, the individual himself is commodified for someone's benefit, but not his own.

From the moment he broke out last season at Baylor, Griffin has been a beloved public property. The child of military parents, born on Okinawa, Japan, he graduated early from both high school and college. His drive to last year's Heisman Trophy began to pick up steam about halfway through the season, when he threw five touchdown passes, each to a different receiver, in a game against Rice. Then, last November, he led the Bears to a 45-38 win over Oklahoma, and his national presence proceeded to go on afterburners. It continued all the way through the draft and into this season, when Griffin became the NFC Offensive Player of the Week after lighting up the New Orleans Saints in his first regular-season professional game.

He was public property, for sure, but how much of him is public property is going to be a delicate and ongoing calibration for as long as he plays this game. There is no question that a lot of the concern for his health over the past week was genuine, but a lot of it also involved people covering their own guilty consciences, and some more of it had to do with the fact that he had made himself the kind of athlete with whom fans develop an immediate vicarious relationship. (Matt Cassel, for example, does not have this relationship with the fans in Kansas City, as the sad events of October 7 proved rather conclusively.) As late as the Fox pregame show, Howie Long, whom nobody would ever accuse of being mushy on the subject of whether someone should play, argued strenuously that Griffin should have been kept out of Sunday's game. As the vestigial conscience of the NFL and its kept media and fans continues to evolve on these issues, we should all watch out for the moment during which relative concern for a player's health doesn't depend on whether the player is bankable, or even likable, or, worst of all in this context, successful. I don't expect miracles straight off, however.

C'mon, guys," he said. "The guy did hit me pretty hard."

Griffin was chuckling over the roughing-the-passer call in the middle of that critical second-quarter drive, the one that gave Washington a first down at the Minnesota 7-yard line instead of just an incomplete pass that Griffin had thrown away because he was being careful with the ball and with his head. Henderson rolled him anyway, but there was more than a little suspicion that Griffin might have contributed a little propulsion of his own. "I mean, it wasn't a basketball flop or anything," he said. "I did sell it pretty well. It was just a great job of the ref and me being on the same page."

In this season of shadows, Robert Griffin III has been both emerging star and cautionary tale. He is the embodiment of where the league is going, on and off the field. He is also a measure of where it's been. He is a property that the league needs to protect, and he is an example of how the game's fundamental essence may be changing, one player at a time. Being healthy is becoming the essence of being a teammate. Being honest with the doctors is becoming the essence of being a good teammate. "If I had been all right all week, and then shown up here today with symptoms," Griffin said, "I wouldn't have gone."

Ultimately, because it is primarily up to the players to make this change, to rebel in this most basic way against the old ethic of suffering, it is this next generation of players who will decide whether the NFL will continue to prosper or to slip back into something atavistic and increasingly strange. Robert Griffin III is a great football player because he is careful, with the ball and with his head. He is the future, or there is none at all.

Me and Smush (and Kobe)

By: timbersfan, 12:18 AM GMT on October 17, 2012

As of Tuesday morning, there were 1,155 messages in my Gmail inbox with the subject "Google Alert — Smush Parker." They date back to August 30, 2005, when the headlines read "'Smush' gets 2-year deal with Lakers." I've been receiving those e-mails for more than seven years, and for much of that time I wondered if I were the only person on the planet who asked Google to keep tabs on Smush. Well, now I'm willing to bet that there's at least one other person as crazy as me.

His name is Kobe Bryant. Last week, Kobe launched into an unprovoked rant about his terrible mid-2000s teammates, especially Smush, at a Lakers preseason game. Smush responded on a little-known podcast the next day, then Kobe took credit for giving Smush "his little 30 minutes of fame" and wrote a dickish Facebook status update obliquely addressed to Smush. It was one of the strangest and most unexpected ex-teammate kerfuffles in recent NBA memory, and it made me wonder just how vindictive Kobe is. I imagined him hanging a poster of a bloated Smush playing overseas in a secret chamber buried several stories beneath his Southern California mansion. It's the same room where Bryant stores the exploding bow tie he plans to send to Bruce Bowen on his 50th birthday, the jar of poisonous ricin pills with "SHAQUILLE" written on the side, and the life-size papier-mâché statue of Michael Jordan that Bryant plans to behead after winning his seventh NBA championship, at which point he'll proclaim, "There can be only one."

My reasons for following Smush's career are simple: We grew up together and we were teammates in some of the same youth leagues. Although his NBA career never amounted to much, I've always treated the fact that I once set high screens for Smush Parker as if it were one of my greatest achievements, even if the only things I did to earn that "achievement" were to be born and raised around the same time and place as Smush, and to join the same recreation-center travel team as him.

The reasons behind Kobe's Smush fixation are harder to pin down. The two haven't been teammates since 2007. Smush has been out of the league for more than four years, and he pretty much only enters the NBA conversation nowadays as a punchline, his unusual name a convenient bit of shorthand that summons memories of an unfortunate period in Lakers history. Kobe did lose two years in the prime of his career while Smush was the Lakers point guard — instead of competing for championships, a mediocre supporting cast left Bryant competing for scoring records. A few years ago, Smush told an interviewer that playing with Kobe had been an "overrated experience" and made it clear that he disliked him personally. Apparently, those transgressions were enough to land Smush on Kobe's permanent blacklist, as the Lakers guard proved last week when he told reporters that Smush "shouldn't have been in the NBA, but we were too cheap to pay for a point guard." Bryant also went after former teammates Kwame Brown, Tierre Brown, and Chris Mihm, but it was clear that Smush was the primary target.

In less than a week, just about every opinion imaginable has been rendered on Bryant's comments and Smush's response: Kobe is one of the greatest players ever and he can clown whomever he chooses; Kobe is pathologically driven to win, and we accept that, but even for a competitor as intense as Kobe, this grudge seemed creepy; Smush isn't backing down and he's keeping it real; Smush is just bitter. Lost in the shuffle is the fact that with his comments, Kobe effectively erased Smush Parker the NBA player from basketball fans' collective memory. Smush won't go down in history as an NYC playground legend who scrapped his way into the NBA despite long odds. He'll just go down as the guy about whom Kobe talked shit.

Along with my father, Smush Parker is probably more responsible than anyone for making me love basketball. My father is the one who badgered me to practice shooting and play pickup hoops every day after school. He instilled the routine, but it was Smush who brought joy to the game.

Even though he was only 11 or 12 years old at the time, Smush was already a legend in Lower Manhattan in the early '90s. Yes, he was born in Brooklyn and he usually claims that borough when asked where he's from, but for the five or so years we played together, Smush lived in Tribeca, in Independence Plaza, an apartment complex on North Moore Street that for years was the last patch of affordable housing in a ritzy neighborhood best known for residents like Robert De Niro, Jay-Z, and The Real Housewives of New York. When I was 11 years old and I got picked to join the Carmine Street Recreation Center (now the Tony Dapolito Recreation Center) travel team, a friend's mother told me, "Wow, you're going to play with Squoosh."

At the time, I had never heard of Squoosh or Smush or William Henry Parker. He was a year older than me and had been playing in an older division. "He's like a genius," she told me. "He always shoots, and he never misses." Back then, that wasn't far from the truth. Smush, lanky and rail-thin, would traipse over the half-court line and loft high-arcing 3-pointers from wherever he pleased. It was only a surprise when he missed. Playing with him was a blast, even if it meant sticking to a role of setting screens, grabbing rebounds, and being ready to catch and finish when Smush or one of our other guards decided to drive and dish. We traveled to Harlem and beat other recreation centers' teams by 55 and 71 points. We rode to the Bronx and hung tight with the Gauchos, then the city's premiere AAU outfit, alongside Riverside Church. We competed in summer tournaments against teams led by NYC phenoms and future Big East stars like Omar Cook and Andre Barrett. On the court with Smush and my other Carmine teammates, I felt like I was really good at something I dreamed of being great at. As it turned out, I was just pretty good, but I've never forgotten how it felt to compete against NYC's best, to be so close to real talent that I believed I actually possessed some of it. Over time, as I left New York to attend college and then to live in the Philippines, I always brought only two photographs with me: one family portrait and one of me, Smush, and our other teammates standing behind a 6-foot sub and hoisting trophies (Smush holds one in each hand) after we won the 1994 Manhattan Parks Department 12-and-under winter league.1

Smush's downtown legend grew. In 1997, Rick Telander, author of the seminal NYC playground hoops book Heaven Is a Playground, returned to New York to report on the city's summer basketball scene for Sports Illustrated, and Smush wound up in the article:

Yesterday on West 4th I ran into my old friend Rodney Parker, the freelance ticket agent and street scout from Brooklyn who had been my guide and companion in my first foray into the playgrounds long ago. He was still doing the same stuff, he told me. And the street talent? The barrel had more fish than ever, he said … The bubbling humanitarian who used to play street ball with a Brooklyn kid named Lenny Wilkens gave me his salesman's eye. "I got a kid who's 15, he's gonna be the next Jordan," he said. "His name is Smoosh. There's gonna be a sneaker named after him. Six-one, with arms that make him six-four. Best skills I've ever seen. Ever."
Around the same time — we were still in high school — Smush modeled for a Nautica ad campaign. An image of him holding a basketball and glaring into the camera appeared painted on the side of a five-story building along Houston Street in Soho, as well as in the pages of SLAM magazine. I still have several copies of those issues of Sports Illustrated and SLAM Saran Wrapped and stacked underneath the bed in my childhood home.

For a guy who had half of lower Manhattan convinced he was destined to play in the NBA since he was about 10 years old, Smush's path to the league ended up being so riddled with pitfalls and bad decisions that it's a wonder — and a testament to his raw talent — that he ever actually made it. Despite the fact that Smush had been playing for several different traveling teams and that he was known for holding his own in 18-and-under and men's leagues throughout the city, he barely had a high school career. His freshman season he played for Washington Irving High School, which competed in the Manhattan public schools' second-tier B division — and he was somehow stuck on the junior varsity. As a sophomore, he transferred to Newtown, an A-level school in Queens that had a stronger basketball program, but for the next two years he couldn't get his grades high enough to qualify for high school sports.

Before Smush's senior year at Newtown, if you asked anyone who had played against him in summer tournaments and street games, you'd probably hear that Smush was up there with New York City's "Holy Trinity" of point guards — Omar Cook, Andre Barrett, and Taliek Brown. (If eventual NBA success is the ultimate measure of these players' abilities, then Smush turned out to be better than all three of them.) But because Smush had yet to play a meaningful high school game, the Daily News and the Post barely knew his name. In the 1998-99 season, Smush's final year at Newtown, he kept his grades high enough to remain eligible and earned second-team All-City honors while leading the team (along with freshman Charlie Villanueva) to the public league semifinals. Schools like the University of Illinois and South Carolina were reportedly interested in recruiting him, but Smush's academic career pretty much ended the day after the season did. He couldn't qualify for an NCAA Division I scholarship. With no clear next step in his career, the NBA started to look less like destiny and more like a pipe dream.

The next season, Smush ended up playing junior college ball at the College of Southern Idaho, but not for long. I remember hearing rumors that he left the team after feuding with fellow guard Kenny Brunner, who, during his brief enrollment at Fresno State, infamously assaulted a fellow student with a samurai sword in 1998. Smush resurfaced at Fordham University, where he averaged more than 16 points per game and earned a spot on the All-Atlantic 10 second team in 2002, his lone year of D-I competition. Set aside the scoring, however, and numbers like Fordham's 8-20 record and his almost even 1:1 assist-to-turnover ratio suggested that he wasn't ready for the NBA. Smush also had strained relationships with his teammates, particularly guard Adrian "Whole Lotta Game" Walton, whose claim to fame was having once matched Vince Carter shot-for-shot in a Rucker League scoring duel. And so even though Fordham coach Bob Hill advised against it, Smush declared himself eligible for the NBA draft.

Before the 2002 draft, the New York media reported that Smush might be a late first-round pick. Instead, he wasn't selected at all, and Smush accused Hill, a longtime NBA assistant and former head coach of the San Antonio Spurs, of bad-mouthing him to the league's GMs. So far, Smush's career had gone wrong in high school, at junior college, and at Fordham. There was no way to look at his résumé and conclude, "Here's a guy who's done everything the right way."2

Given everything Smush did to torpedo his shot at making the NBA, it could be considered a minor miracle that the Cleveland Cavaliers signed him as an undrafted free agent for the 2002-03 season. This was the beginning of a professional career in which Smush bounced between various teams and countries and found himself a bystander to some of the most memorable events in the past 10 years of NBA history. It started with that futile 17-65 Cavs team, led by Ricky Davis and Darius Miles, the season before they drafted LeBron James. Then Smush was out of the league for a year, but he returned to play the first half of the 2004-05 season with the Detroit Pistons. He was on the floor in Auburn Hills when a scuffle between Ben Wallace and Ron Artest erupted into the Malice at the Palace. Later that season, after Detroit waived him, Smush took a 10-day contract to back up Steve Nash in his first MVP campaign with the Phoenix Suns. The next two seasons he was in Los Angeles, where he logged 34 minutes in Kobe Bryant's 81-point game against the Toronto Raptors (he was the Lakers' second-leading scorer, with 13). Even after he washed out of the league, Smush was playing in China in 2010 when Stephon Marbury made his headline-grabbing debut for the Shanxi Brave Dragons.

I remember the giddy feeling of disbelief when I looked at the box score of Smush's first 20-point game, a 140-133 Cleveland overtime loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on December 9, 2002. I remember jumping out of my seat when he dunked over Andre Miller on national television on the opening night of the 2005-06 season. It was Smush's first game in Lakers purple and gold, and when he scored 20 or more points in three of his first four games that year, I remember thinking he might actually become the player I dreamed he'd be back when we were playing together. And then, slowly, things unraveled. Midway through Smush's second season with the Lakers, Phil Jackson replaced Smush in the starting lineup with Jordan Farmar. I remember the disdain on Smush's face when Jackson would yank him after a turnover or bad shot: eyes narrowed, lips pursed, like he wanted to spit on the floor. It was the same look he'd summon whenever our youth league coaches would sub him out of games. Except that our youth league coach was the stepfather of one of our teammates whose lone qualification was his willingness to ride around with us. When he wasn't available, a maintenance man at the recreation center named Papo took over. Smush was treating Phil Jackson like he was Papo.

The Lakers didn't offer Smush a contract extension when his deal expired in 2007. Instead, he signed for two years with the Heat and took his talents to South Beach. After just nine games in a Miami uniform, Smush quarreled with a female parking lot attendant. The Heat put him on a shelf until they could buy out his contract. Smush hasn't played a meaningful NBA minute since.

The happy version of Smush's story goes like this: He's an undrafted player from New York who gets cut by several teams and left behind again and again by the numbers game of NBA guaranteed contracts. But he keeps playing, endures stints in Greece and the NBA D-League, until finally, he enjoys a surprisingly good first season in Los Angeles, capped off by his steal on Steve Nash in the closing seconds of regulation in Game 4 of the Lakers-Suns first-round series in 2006.

That steal, and Smush's ensuing tip to Kobe at midcourt, which kept the play alive, led to Kobe's game-tying layup and game-winning jumper in overtime. After the steal, Kobe embraced Smush in what appears to have been one of their few moments of genuine camaraderie. Or was it? Watch the video of Kobe's game-winner and you'll notice that Smush might be the only Laker who doesn't run to join the massive group hug around Kobe after his buzzer-beater passes through the net. Instead, Smush simply rises from his seat on the bench and hoists his yellow Lakers towel like a flag. Perhaps their relationship had already soured by then, or perhaps Smush was sulking because he wasn't on the court for the final play.

And because last week Kobe decided to call out Smush for no apparent reason,3 many basketball fans will forget this 2006 series and Smush's role in it — and indeed, his entire underdog career. Instead, they will recall that Kobe called him "the worst," and that Smush fired back to say a mixture of what most basketball fans already know or probably assume — that Kobe is a creepy weirdo with few friends. Then Kobe posted a passive-aggressive Facebook message ("Are YOU willing to do what it takes to push the right buttons to elevate those around you? If the answer is YES, are you willing to push the right buttons even if it means being perceived as the villain?"), and then the NBA season started and everyone moved on. That is Smush's legacy, until the next time Kobe decides to drag his name through the dirt.

For me, the most striking part of Smush's 40-minute interview on the Hard 2 Guard podcast was the very beginning, when he says, "It makes me blush — for my name to still come out of that man's mouth?" Incredulous, frustrated, Smush has a weary air that says "Can't Kobe just let me move on with my career?" Of course, the answer is no, and Smush seems to know by now that whatever he says to defend himself, the deck of public opinion is stacked in Kobe's favor. Kobe is the NBA legend. He's the player who'll likely be competing for an NBA championship this season. He's the guy to whom reporters can't afford to lose access. Kobe's mouthpiece is ESPN, Lakers.com, and the Los Angeles Times. Smush's mouthpiece is Hard 2 Guard. It doesn't matter if Smush is right, because Kobe is bigger than him, and Kobe is better than him, and the NBA needs Kobe.

But Smush is right. Kobe's record as a teammate is not a pretty one, and it grows out of a mind-set that Smush described on the podcast: "Basketball is a team sport … It's not tennis or golf, it is a team sport. When you are the star of the team, you have to make your teammates feel comfortable. You have to make them feel welcome. And he did not do that at all."

Not only did he make them feel unwelcome, but over the years Kobe has joyfully attacked lesser teammates and treated fellow Lakers stars like rivals instead of allies. There's the Smush smear campaign, the recent clowning of Jodie Meeks, and the way Kobe mocked DJ Mbenga's English4 on Jimmy Kimmel Live after the 2010 championship. Kobe also drove Shaq out of town and, in the midst of Kobe's 2003 rape trial, outed Shaq's marital infidelities. Kobe has publicly questioned nearly every basketball decision-gone-wrong that Pau Gasol has made in a Lakers jersey, including making last year's "Pau's got to be more assertive" speech after the Lakers fell into a 3-1 series hole against the Thunder.

Smush was able to respond comfortably and — as it seems to me — honestly to Kobe's insults because he no longer has anything to lose by helping Kobe preserve his image. The NBA is done with Smush and he knows it, so he might as well speak his mind. Smush's stories about Kobe separating himself from the other Lakers at team dinners, the anecdotes about being instructed that he was not allowed to speak to Kobe because he hadn't accomplished enough, foreshadow the arrival of what could be a dark chapter in Kobe Bryant's legacy — the stories of all the lesser teammates he gleefully hounded and bullied during his record-breaking career.

Eventually, Kobe and his teammates will retire from basketball. Eventually, the people he stepped on will have nothing to lose by sharing a few stories about his behavior. And eventually, some of them will decide to tell those stories. Will those stories change the way we look at one of the greatest basketball players of all time? It depends how bad, how ugly, how craven they are. But if that happens, then maybe Smush Parker won't just go down in history as the also-ran on whom Kobe shat whenever he had the chance. Maybe Smush will go down as one of Kobe's first ex-teammates to speak out.

The Designated Player: Behind the Lines With Nelson Rodriguez

By: timbersfan, 12:26 AM GMT on October 14, 2012

“Great question.”

I hear this phrase a few times in my interview with Nelson Rodriguez, the MLS executive vice president of competition, technical, and game operations (“anything that happens inside the white lines”) in his office at MLS headquarters in New York. Either I’m on Pulitzer form (doubtful) or it’s a fairly standard disarming tactic from someone who’s had any degree of media training, as Rodriguez surely has. Notably though, he gives the impression that a “great question” is one served up in such a way that he can volley it into the net with definitive authority. Not that Rodriguez is in any way bombastic — he is engaging and garrulous company — nor does he try to hide from any inquiry or only want to deal with soft questions, particularly around the contentious issue of the workings of the MLS disciplinary committee. His energy, though, is of the sort that suggests that rather than sitting behind his desk facing me, he’d be happier bouncing on his toes on the other side of the room, going “Great question! ... Give me another,” like the interview equivalent of that scene where Stallone is saving penalties in a WWII prisoner-of-war camp in Escape to Victory (which if by chance you haven’t seen, give your jaw a dropping treat sometime).

Rodriguez is self-described as “an incredibly passionate Latino — I like to argue with my hands and with my voice,” and he gets plenty of opportunity to argue his corner as the public face of the MLS disciplinary committee, the body he chairs, but does not vote on. We’ll get to that committee, as well as goal-line technology, and the typical MLS soccer player by 2022, shortly, but first of all, and bizarrely, we’re talking about Swindon Town. Rodriguez has invoked the provincial English club in the context of MLS being the first national league to have been founded in the digital age, with all of the consumer choices, accelerated news cycles, and implicit cultural pressures that come with it:

“So ... Swindon is a club in England — I don’t know it, I haven’t visited it. But they have an inherent fan base. I would be curious if Swindon hadn’t previously existed and tried to start today if it would attain its same relevance that it currently holds. In North America we have the competition of all the other North American sports and sports cultures, which is daunting enough. From the King, which is the NFL, to NBA, MLB, college sports, and all the little niche sports. We’re competing against all of that at some level, even if it’s just for a share of time on the television, or print. Then we’re also competing against our own sport, on a global level. And that’s an incredible challenge.”

The methods MLS has used to meet that challenge have been varied. At times the executive has given the impression of being too scattershot, even impulsive, in its approach — setting structures and solutions in place on and off the field that, in their haste to be implemented, create their own structural and cultural problems down the line.

There is an organizational goal within MLS management of being one of the top leagues in the world by 2022, but perhaps understandably for a league birthed in the accelerated spin cycles of the digital age, there’s a spirit of tremendous restlessness that seems to affect, if not infect, MLS, that at times makes it an easy target, albeit a shifting one, for critics.

Rodriguez is unapologetic about this — if anything he’s bullish on the spirit of change. “Our president, Mark Abbott, uses a word that I think really describes us well: ‘nimble.’ And sometimes being nimble irritates traditionalists. Why should we continue on a path that we don’t think will lead us to our 2022 vision? We’re not afraid to admit that, we’re not afraid to try something different. That innovation, though — there’s a limit to it because it can’t be gimmicky. We have to find that narrow column that allows us to try to make improvements."

Among the more notoriously “nimble” moves the league made this year was the midseason introduction of goals scored as the tiebreak format for playoff qualification — a decision that might have been met with raised eyebrows in February, but when announced to the public in midseason, around the time of the All-Star break, inevitably drew accusations that it favored certain clubs more than others. Rodriguez points out that the decision was taken with the full knowledge of technical staff from each club, before the season started, as a means of dealing with the consequences of the 19-team, unbalanced schedule. He also points out that the decision will be under review in the offseason, with there being a lot of support for number of wins as a tiebreaker. Perhaps just as intriguingly, Rodriguez mentions that “disciplinary record” has pushed up to be the third level of tiebreak criteria this year — in part he says to “send a message” to those who regard MLS as “just being a physical league” where “bad tackles are allowed.”

It’s a subject dear to Rodriguez’s heart, given his role on the MLS disciplinary committee, which has become somewhat of a lightning rod, both for the obvious reasons of people responding to its verdicts along partisan lines, but also, and I’m speculating a little here, for perhaps operating in a manner that runs counter to the more "open source" tone of some of the rest of the league’s public operations.

Perhaps more than any other league in the world, once you make a decision to follow MLS, the level of access, whether for media or fans, is remarkable when judged by global standards. Locker rooms are open, major incidents from every match are posted online while still in process, and opinions on controversies are formed and circulated online in a matter of minutes. It creates a certain culture of expectation, and perhaps entitlement. In that context it’s understandable how it feels wrong to some fans to then have an anonymous committee making decisions without further dialogue.

It’s understandable, but it’s also unfair. The disciplinary committee, which consists of an ex-MLS coach, and ex-MLS referee, and three ex-MLS players (one of whom is nominated by the MLS Players Union as part of the last collective bargaining agreement) have to walk the line between being responsive to events without being swayed by the media or public “temperature” around them. They generally act swiftly, within days, if not hours of offenses, and without hearings with the accused present. For better or worse, it means that there’s a quick decision (no John Terry sagas here), but that decision often arrives when passions are still inflamed by the original incident.

When I mention that there’s sometimes a perception that the committee responds in a knee-jerk manner according to the strength of public opinion — at least partially because a league operation that prides itself on nimbleness, openness, and responsiveness could reasonably be expected to be at last partially influenced by that public opinion in some if not all of its decision-making — Rodriguez seems genuinely taken aback.

“I’m not sure I’ve heard that theory before really. First of all, every game is reviewed by at least two, let’s call them MLS observers. That’s either people in the competition player department, disciplinary committee, or individuals that we’ve identified that we ask to watch games on our behalf and to submit incidents for review. Or we go back and say, what did you think of the game, what did you think of the referee’s performance, how do you think the game was played? I watch, I would guess, 90 percent of the games this year. The committee’s first call is Sunday night. So if there is a reaction, I guess it’s coming in Sunday’s paper, or through the Internet and all the rest. But no one on any call that I can ever remember has said, "'Hey, bro, did you see what so and so wrote?'

"We need to do a better job of being more transparent with the decisions. I really like what the NHL did this year with the player safety channel and Brendan Shanahan, who explains disciplinary decisions and uses video. We are still tinkering with possibly introducing that this year. Frankly, we’ve debated who should be the face and the voice of that. But I will fight for the committee members' honor and I will defend them to the nth degree because at no time has any one of them suggested to me that they are making a decision with any other pretense other than what they think is right at that moment and in the best interest at that moment. And 'best interest' is defined by their mission statement, 'To preserve the integrity of the sport and Major League Soccer and to assist in ensuring player safety.' And that’s the lens by which they make every decision.”

We talk more about the particular offenses the committee is harsh on, such as diving/flopping. This is an area where Rodriguez feels that the “dialect” of the game as it manifests in North America, needs to be honored:

“North American sports fans, they admire the guy that gets hit, goes down, and gets up. And they really don’t like the guy who gets whispered on, falls and rolls around. We shouldn’t apologize for that. And if we need to consider policy that will help ensure that we’re within those North American norms, we should consider that. Even if that’s outside of the scope of where the global game is presently. Technology is another example. You know technology is readily accepted in North American sports, has been for a while. Soccer is behind. If the service had been available and been affordable, and approved by FIFA ... Frankly we’ve been pressing FIFA on goal-line technology for years, saying, ‘We’ll be your test guinea pig league.'"

I ask where we’re up to with the goal-line technology — which is indeed due to be introduced into MLS on a test basis. Rodriguez points out that FIFA has so far only provisionally approved two systems, a 16-camera system and the so-called “chip and ball” system that is actually based on a copper field built within the goal that triggers a signal to the referee when the ball crosses the line. To the best of the league’s knowledge, neither of these is anywhere near mass production, let alone set for the logistical difficulties of installation and maintenance across a region as vast as the United States and Canada. When it’s ready, the league will adopt the technology.

Adopt. Adapt. It could be a motto for the ambitions of the league ...

“I want us at the league office to be very careful. I believe that the clubs should be permitted their competitive advantage, their entrepreneurial spirit. Anything that they can figure out to give them an edge we should honor. I think what’s happened around the world is there’s this big chasm between the top teams and the bottom teams [because of financial wealth]. There’s very little chance other than a Cinderella season to bridge it. I think the great strength of our league is our structure, our business approach. In our first 16 years we’ve had nine different champions. That’s phenomenal. So while we want teams to innovate, we can’t allow teams to lag behind. The reality is some will. It’s like a classroom; you know those super-high achievers who will study every night all the time, and those others who won’t even study five minutes before.”

I ask him to name names. Rodriguez smiles, but doesn’t speak. So pushing on that note of competition, we move on to talking about the technical progress of the league’s players in his time at MLS, and what the typical player has been historically and will be in the future, assuming the league meets its 2022 target.

“At the onset, when the league started, its foreign player pool was exceptionally high, and in large part because the big, big money hadn’t yet hit Europe. So we could realistically compete for players. We had this great base of these foreign players who really delivered on the field. So that’s your first five or six years. As those players started to get to the end of their careers — so now you are looking at around 2000 and 2001 — we strategically moved in the direction of the American player. And so now we were trying to retain Clint Mathis, Josh Wolf, Brian McBride, Chris Armas — guys who we thought would be a big part of the national team, and then if the national team was successful we’d capitalize on that success by having those key guys here. Whether we are geniuses or we just stepped in it, in the 2002 World Cup all of the goals that the U.S. national team scored, save one, were scored by guys in our league.

“The third phase clearly has to point to David Beckham and the designated player. We went back and said, ‘We need sizzle. We are competing against that, we are competing against that and we need to change the dynamic.' It’s becoming harder to retain the American player. The success of the national team, while it gave us a boost, also opened the eyes to a lot of scouts around the world saying, ‘I can get that lad for a lot cheaper than I can get him and he’s just as good.’ So greater competition for our players, so we go back to this designated player concept trying to bring in high-end players.

“In March of 2011, we started to gather a working group together. And I said, ‘OK, 2022 we need to be one of the world’s greatest soccer leagues. What are the characteristics of being the world’s greatest soccer leagues?’ One of the things that we landed on was players have a worldwide technical standard. We also had another one, which was an abundance of good [number] nines and 10s. Then we started to work backward from there. What are the things that we need to do and institute, so that if it all comes together according to the master plan we’ll get there in 2022?

“At the same time as the designated player phase, though, we finally started the foundational work that is so crucial — which is all of the academy staff, all of the youth development. Trying to create those integrated vertical pyramids at every local level. Everyone can talk to me about ‘tactically we are not this, we are not that’ — when you can make the ball do whatever you want it to do, whenever you want it to do, tactics either become really easy or really irrelevant. I think we need still a lot of work on attacking players in this country. Clint Dempsey aside, with his phenomenal success in the Premier League, it’s still an area where you look at the recent qualifiers and no Dempsey, Bradley, Donovan and ... two goals in two games. Not easy. I think that that is a big area. In the other great countries, that player pool is far deeper with far more options. And we are not there yet. And we do think that Major League Soccer will be a big contributor and should be today.”

Rodriguez is more than happy to keep talking as I turn off my recorder. We talk about my team in England, how I came to follow MLS, and my own, ahem, playing career. He jumps on the fact that I’m left-footed — “I love lefties. I collected them [when coaching] at college. You never see a lefty with bad balance.” He stops short of drafting me onto his team for the next Media Cup tournament (where if he persists with this line of reasoning, he will see a lefty with bad balance/posture/luck ...), but there’s no doubting that glimpse of animation within him at the thought of the game itself. Nelson Rodriguez is a soccer man whose job is to ask questions of the game. Some of them might turn out to be great ones.

Is MLS Making the Rest of CONCACAF Better at the Expense of the U.S. National Team?

By: timbersfan, 12:25 AM GMT on October 14, 2012

When the United States men's national team fell 2-1 last month in Jamaica, it was the squad's first loss in 19 games against the Caribbean country. But American supporters no doubt noticed something familiar about the match: the faces of the Reggae Boyz. Four of Jamaica’s starters and two of the substitutes play in Major League Soccer. In total, coach Theo Whitmore had nine MLS players on his roster for the vital World Cup qualifier.

Whitmore was not the only one in the region to turn to the American top tier for talent. During the September international break, non-U.S. CONCACAF countries called up 32 MLS players. For the October World Cup qualifiers that start on Friday, 28 such men — including seven from Canada, six from Honduras, and five from Jamaica — received calls.

It's all part of the plan. "If we have more players who are playing for national teams in CONCACAF, that's a good indication that we are succeeding," Todd Durbin, MLS's vice-president of player relations, says. "We want the best players in CONCACAF to believe that MLS is the best place for them to play, the best place for them to compete, and the best place for them to continue their careers."

As salaries grow, the quality of play improves, and the infrastructure develops, MLS attracts more talent from Central America and the Caribbean. Roger Espinoza, a 25-year-old who starred for Honduras during the London Olympics, moved to the United States when he was 12, and finds that some of his younger countrymen want to play here. In the past, a young Honduran would dream of playing in Mexico or a league in South America. Not anymore.

"All the players that are in MLS would have been in the Mexican League before, but they know that the U.S. is a great country to live in. The league is getting better so they want to come," the Sporting Kansas City star says. "Hondurans know the infrastructure of MLS. Things are good in the U.S., especially here with the new stadium. A lot of the guys from the Honduran U-23 team wanted to play in the U.S. after they saw the stadium during Olympic qualifying. They saw that the U.S. is putting the money and the work in to improve how the game is played here."

FC Dallas forward Blas Perez plays for Panama’s national team and encourages players on the Panamanian national team to consider MLS. "I try to tell the young players about what a great opportunity is."

The majority of players growing up in Central American nations or the Caribbean islands now see MLS as an aspirational league. For many, reaching a team in Europe is a bridge too far — either due to talent or distance — but the United States is closer, mentally and physically. International club tournaments like the CONCACAF Champions League give them a chance to gain familiarity with MLS teams, players, styles, and facilities, while offering MLS coaches an opportunity to scout talent and make inroads.

The result is more, and better, talent coming to MLS from CONCACAF countries. Last month, Soccer America reported that 68 of the 132 starters on the 12 MLS playoff contenders were internationals. Some of these players hail from non-CONCACAF countries — Colombians make up 4.7 percent of MLS, for example — but plenty are from the region. Which raises two questions: 1) Is MLS making CONCACAF's national teams better? And 2) How does the affect the U.S. national team?

The answer to the first one is obvious: Yes. "All of our opponents are better than they were a few years ago. Central America’s teams are very technical and difficult to play against; there is great athleticism, speed and ambition in the Caribbean," American coach Jurgen Klinsmann said in a recent interview on FIFA.com. That improvement cannot be entirely attributed to MLS, but the league helps.

The second question is trickier. The percentage of MLS minutes played by Americans drops nearly every year — down to a little over 50 percent of the available time in 2012 — but the number of Americans making 10 appearances in an MLS season could hit an all-time high. Kyle Beckerman was the only MLS-based starter who took the field in Kingston, but nine of the 11 players spent at least some time developing domestically before moving abroad. Seventeen of the 23 men on the 2010 World Cup roster called MLS home for a period of time.

I suspect this scenario will continue for a least the next decade. While, to its credit, MLS is now seen as an end point for many of the best players from other CONCACAF nations, Americans continue to aspire to European leagues. The Stars and Stripes' best players will move abroad when they get an opportunity. MLS will help increase the depth of the U.S. player pool — giving an increasing number of young Americans a chance to develop — but perhaps not the top-line talent. A recent survey reported that 56 of the 100 American players call MLS home, but only three of them were in the top 20.

The rest of CONCACAF, meanwhile, will benefit from players getting opportunities in a strong league with experienced coaches. "I am older, but I still learn new things every day," the 31-year-old Perez says. This isn't necessarily bad for the USMNT. With the exception of Mexico, the Americans still boast more than enough talent to beat the regional opposition. An improved Panama team (or one from Costa Rica, El Salvador, etc.) gives the Americans more experience in difficult matches without actually doing much to hurt their chances to qualify for the World Cup. A rising tide raises all boats. Until, of course, that boat travels to Jamaica and gets poked full of holes.

Reading Between the Lines

By: timbersfan, 11:59 PM GMT on October 13, 2012

On the morning of January 10, 2009, you might very well have woken up believing that the Tennessee Titans were the best team in the NFL. After starting 10-0, the Titans lost a pair of meaningless games and finished 13-3, giving them the best record in football. They led the league in point differential and were second in weighted DVOA when they chose to shut things down and prepare for the playoffs. While they had quarterback barely covered with Kerry Collins, their one-two punch of Chris Johnson and LenDale White had blossomed as the season went along, and with buzz-worthy head-coaching candidate Jim Schwartz coordinating a defense led by the seemingly unstoppable Albert Haynesworth, it would be fair to think that the Titans had every reason to look forward to the next few seasons.

They lost to the Ravens in the playoffs that day, 13-10, in a game in which Johnson got hurt and missed the second half. Since then, the Titans are 25-29, with one winning season built upon a remarkably easy schedule and a gift from the Texans in Week 17. Just five of the 22 starters who suited up for the Titans against the Ravens that day made it to the starting lineup in Tennessee's narrow win over Pittsburgh on Thursday night, and it's hard to argue that any one of the five look better for the trip.

What's happened to the Titans? While they had to endure the final throes of the Vince Young saga and extricate themselves from their long-standing relationship with Jeff Fisher, the real difference between that dominant Tennessee team and the one that's struggled over the past few seasons is more subtle. Spot-for-spot, that Tennessee team had the best set of lines in football. This Tennessee team doesn't have the worst set of lines in the league, but they're not far off, either.

By lines, I mean their five starters on the offensive line and their four starters up front on defense, and the glory days of that nine-man unit start with the aforementioned Haynesworth. For whatever trash you want to talk about Haynesworth and his assorted physical and personal maladies, if you go back and let it color your perception of the player's performance before he left Tennessee, you're mistaken. During the 2007 and 2008 seasons, Haynesworth was the best defensive player in football. Bar none. In 2007, Haynesworth was the leader on one of the best half-season defenses in the over-20-year history of DVOA before suffering an injury, one that coincided neatly with a dramatic decline in Tennessee's defensive performance. In 2008, he was the only All-Pro or Pro Bowler on one of the league's best front sevens, leading the team in sacks despite playing defensive tackle and missing two games due to injury. And Haynesworth had help; he was accompanied on the line by the likes of Kyle Vanden Bosch and Jevon Kearse, with promising situational players like Jacob Ford, Jason Jones, and William Hayes behind them. Tennessee had the best defensive lineman in football and, in all likelihood, the deepest group behind him.

The offensive line was no slouch, either. It featured an All-Pro left tackle (Michael Roos) and center (Kevin Mawae), the latter of whom missed the Ravens game with an injury. The team's three other starters were all either 26 or 27, with right tackle David Stewart notable as a possible future Pro Bowler. They had been a dominant run-blocking unit that had also kept the limited Collins from taking too many sacks; after taking a sack on 5.7 percent of his dropbacks before the 2008 campaign, Collins was sacked on an astoundingly low 1.9 percent of his pass plays in 2008. With eight sacks across 15 starts, Collins basically took one sack every other game.

If anything, the offensive line got even better in 2009. Collins's sack rate went up, but only to 2.7 percent; Vince Young took two-thirds of the snaps, and despite his propensity for scrambling his way into trouble, Young was only sacked on 3.4 percent of his pass attempts, which was almost half his career rate. Of course, that was also the year in which Johnson broke out as a superstar and ran for 2,006 yards and 14 touchdowns. Many of those runs came on huge plays, but Johnson was able to get the lanes for those huge plays at the line of scrimmage by virtue of his offensive line. Over that two-year stretch, you could also make a case that they were the best offensive line in football.

Since then, though, the line that grew together grew old, mostly together, until it fell apart. Mawae wasn't the same guy in 2009; he made the Pro Bowl on scholarship and wasn't offered a starting job in free agency, leading to rumors of collusion regarding his role as an NFLPA leader before his eventual retirement. The Titans expected to replace him with utility lineman Leroy Harris without missing a beat, but Harris failed to play at a starting-caliber level and has bounced around the interior of the Tennessee line, playing poorly wherever he lands. The team was forced to move Amano to center, where he was competent, but he's missed this entire season with a torn triceps. They now have the ancient Steve Hutchinson manning left guard. Right guard Jake Scott is out of football, and the tackles — Roos and Stewart — might have peaked in 2009, even if they remain competent.

The scarier thing is that the Titans just haven't invested anything in improving their offensive line over that time frame beyond the three-year, $16 million deal they gave to a 34-year-old Hutchinson this winter. Since 2008, they've invested just three draft picks in four years on offensive linemen, the highest of which was a fourth-rounder on the unforgettable Troy Kropog. Even if the Titans believed that they wanted to stick with their core on the offensive line and invest elsewhere, it seems incredible that they haven't even spent as much as a third-round pick on an offensive lineman over the past four years.

The defensive line has fallen apart more quickly and noticeably. Hindsight might have proven the team right to let Haynesworth go, but they've never been able to replace the majority of his production since he departed for Washington. Vanden Bosch left shortly thereafter for Detroit, Kearse retired, and fourth starter Tony Brown is out of football. And all that depth the Titans had during the Schwartz era became mostly useless once the team got rid of the wide-nine scheme favored by legendary defensive line coach Jim Washburn, who is now in Philadelphia. Ford is out of football, Hayes is on the bench in St. Louis, and Jones washed out as a starter in Tennessee before moving to the Seahawks as a backup. Jason Babin emerged as a possible pass-rusher for the team after a 12-sack campaign in 2010, but he followed Washburn to Philadelphia last year and promptly posted 18 sacks, which was only four fewer than the entire Tennessee defensive line combined.

Instead, the Titans have attempted to rebuild the line and failed. At the centerpiece of that movement is end Derrick Morgan, who represents the sole first-round pick over the last five years that the Titans have used on a player who doesn't line up at a fantasy football position.1 Although he missed most of his first year with a torn ACL, Morgan just hasn't produced to the level resembling a first-round pass rusher when he's been on the field, as he's accrued just five sacks in 24 games played over his first three seasons as a pro. The Titans took Morgan just one selection after the Giants grabbed Jason Pierre-Paul from South Florida. You can't guarantee that JPP would have developed the same way had he been nurtured somewhere outside of the Meadowlands, but … that hurts.

The rest of Tennessee's line consists of mediocre parts. The Titans' other swoop into free agency this offseason saw them grab pass rusher Kamerion Wimbley from the Raiders, who was anonymous yesterday and has just one sack in five games. Last year's leading pass rusher was interior situational lineman Karl Klug, who doesn't have a sack this year, and before the Steelers game, Tennessee ranked dead last in pass defense DVOA. Their combination of Jurrell Casey and Sen'Derrick Marks on the interior has helped produce a merely below-average run defense, but the pass rush has fallen apart and taken the pass defense down with it.

Don't be fooled by the way they looked against a group of backups and hobbled linemen at home against the Steelers last night; this defensive line is still very, very bad. And while Johnson was able to make some hay for the second time this season, the shocking number of 13-carry, 16-yard games he's had over the past two seasons isn't entirely a product of his new contract and some supposed lack of desire; it's simply really hard to gain a lot of yardage when you're desperately searching for space in your own backfield. Tennessee's offensive line ranked dead last in Adjusted Line Yards last season and was all the way up to 31st before the Steelers game this year; they've turned into one of the league's most dismal units, especially on the interior.

This is what happens to great teams, though. The thing they perceive to be a strength eventually becomes a weakness, even if they keep the same personnel around for years and pay them like they're superstars. Think about the way the Dallas offensive line crumbled a couple of years ago. Heck, if you want to base it on last night, look at what's happening to the Steelers secondary right now. For the Titans to return to their prior glory, they need to get away from spending first-round picks on wide receivers and giving overstuffed contracts to running backs, and get back to investing in their lines.

Something to Believe In

By: timbersfan, 11:58 PM GMT on October 13, 2012

Things I trust through five-plus weeks of the NFL season: New England's offense; Chicago's defense; San Francisco's everything; Houston's running game; Atlanta's no. 1-seed potential; Minnesota as a legitimate playoff team; Denver as king of the good "Bad Teams"; Miami as prince of the good "Bad Teams"; the Giants in any back-to-the-wall game or "Nobody Believes in Us" Game; Percy Harvin as this year's non-QB MVP candidate; Reggie Wayne officially replacing Marvin Harrison as "The Receiver Everyone Was Bored of Taking and Who Fell Way Too Far in Your Fantasy Draft"; Branvan Boldley and Aarob Gronkandez; Seattle's defense and special teams; Andrew Luck being ready sooner than we thought; Christian Ponder being better than we thought; God hating Cleveland; everyone hating Roger Goodell.

Things I've given up on through five-plus weeks of the NFL season: Pittsburgh, Philly and Green Bay being contenders (they aren't); New Orleans or San Diego doing anything in 2012 (they won't); Detroit's special teams; Denver's running backs; Arizona's offensive line; St. Louis's receivers; Buffalo's everything; Mike McCarthy and Mike Tomlin in tight games; Houston's philosophy of running Arian Foster into the ground; Ron Rivera, Norv Turner, Chan Gailey and Pat Shurmur in any game; Arizona's sleeper chances; the Buffalo/Oakland/Detroit/New Orleans/Tennessee defenses; any QB named "Matt," "Mark" or "Mike" who doesn't have the last name "Ryan" or "Schaub"; 28-year-old rookie QBs; interim interim coaches.

Things I'm wavering back and forth on: Could Philly and Seattle contend if they promoted their backup QBs? Should we really pour dirt on Dallas yet? Who are the fifth and sixth best AFC teams right now? Is Fourth and God: God Willing actually going to happen, and if it did, how effing weird would that be? Why can't I totally commit mentally to this Alex Smith thing? Is Cam Newton the Tyreke Evans of football? Why do I keep circling back to the Dolphins when I'm thinking about the AFC playoff picture? Shouldn't Al Jefferson be allowed to buy a $23,000 bed without taking shit for it? And how cool would it be to have a $23,000 bed? We shouldn't be making fun of Al Jefferson — we should be applauding him, right? Doesn't it make more sense to spend $23,000 on a bed than $400,000 on a car? Do your thing, Big Al.

Let's hit the Week 6 picks mailbag, sponsored as always by Dr. Moreau …

(Home teams in caps)

TITANS (+7) over Steelers

I won another Skunk of the Week! Two in a row! And to think, just two weeks ago, I was feeling like the guy in this clip.

Q: You can't say the Turkish movie death scene is the best ever, not when Charles Bronson's The Evil That Men Do bar scene is out there. Watch Bronson defend a much larger man with gigantism over a dame's safety — he knocks the guy to the ground, puts his boot on his throat, and two-hands his old peckeroo to death. Now, my question is, why isn't there more dong-grab death in Hollywood anymore? You tell me why women wouldn't swoon over a man who chokes a man to death by grabbing his junk?
—Mark R Sheehan, Quincy

SG: It's a great point. Just remember, these things come in waves in Hollywood. You know how we're on a run of "found video footage" horror movies right now? We could easily go on a run of dong-grab death movies any year now. Keep your hopes up.

Colts (+3.5) over JETS

Q: I loved a tease with the Packers all week, and got completely talked out of it after hearing Chuck Pagano's leukemia story. Did the Colts have any business at all beating them? Absolutely not. But every time something like this happens, the underdog ends up winning. Remember the Jets winning their season opener on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. (You might as well have changed the Cowboys' name to the Al Qaeda Cowboys for this game, because if the Jets had lost, the terrorists would have won.) Remember the Saints' first game back in the Superdome after Katrina? (23-3 Saints win over Falcons.) Never underestimate the "The Tragedy Factor," it's the biggest lock in sports betting.
—Doug Raney, Atlanta

SG: What happened with the Colts last Sunday was genuinely inspiring — I found myself rooting for Indy instead of the Packers (whom I had picked). But since the purpose of this column is to successfully pick NFL games against the spread while relying on research, gut feelings, history, intuition and even a series of convoluted theories and corollaries that may or may not work … well, had I remembered Pagano's situation when making picks last week, I probably would have picked Indy. Football is a game of emotion, right? That has been proven over and over again — in a league of relatively even teams (save for a top three and a bottom three), every little edge counts. There appears to be real legs to this "Chuckstrong" story line, which is great on a macro level (it's inspiring) and fascinating from a football level. Could their coach's health issues band the Colts together and push them toward 10 wins and a playoff spot? Could that actually happen? I mean …

Q: Have you seen Indy's next 5 games? Jets, Cleveland, Tennessee, Miami, Jacksonville. They could be 7-2 heading into New England in Week 11. Have you seen New England's schedule? Dont answer that. Seahawks, Jets, Rams, Bills. They could be 7-2 also. Week 11 also happens to be the first week of flex scheduling. But there's a problem. Baltimore plays Pittsburgh on Sunday Night. What in the hell will the NFL do? Fireworks or Bodybags? I vote Fireworks!
—Shawn, Indianapolis

SG: Come on, Shawn, don't get carried away with the idea of NBC ever flexing out a Steelers-Ravens bloodbath … but if the Colts sneak by this ugly Jets team this weekend, they could absolutely rip off six straight, right? Hasn't Andrew Luck shown enough potential that it's not unrealistic? And in the top-heavy AFC, is it really far-fetched for the Colts to finish 10-6? I'm riding the Colts until they lose. Oh, and buy a Chuckstrong T-shirt already.

Q: Following the 666th installment of Monday Night Football, Mark Sanchez has 6 TD's, 6 interceptions, 6.6 YPA, and most remarkably a passer rating of 66.6. Will this game inevitably mark the height of his Satanic villainy when he is Tebow's foil in Fourth and God II: God Willing?
—Blake N., Sioux Falls

SG: Roughly 431,345 people e-mailed me those satanic Sanchez numbers this week, implying that Sanchez is the grown-up Damien from The Omen or something. For the record, I'm totally against the idea of crossing Fourth and God 2 with The Omen or The Devil's Advocate and making it a combination sports movie/horror movie. They didn't need to do that with Rocky II, D2: The Mighty Ducks, The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, Major League II … actually, it might not have been a bad idea for Major League II. But you definitely don't need it here. Sanchez can be a villain without also being the lord of the underworld. I nominate that Sanchez drops the satanic wrinkle and just goes back to making snide Tebow comments and sleeping with celebrity cougars.

(Follow-up note: Grantland editor Dan Fierman read this and vehemently disagreed that we don't need evil Sanchez for the sequel, arguing, "He's the perfect foil! Tebow goes to New York, basically Sodom and Gomorrah combined, then conquers the town only to find that Satan is actually lurking in his own locker room. It's Rosemary's Baby meets Rudy!" Crap, he might be right. I need to think about this some more.)

Q: I work in the finance dept of a very conservative Fortune 100 Company. It's 8:40 on Tuesday morning and I hear a very distinct TEEEBOOOWWW!!!! Shout from across the floor that is then echoed by 3 or 4 response TEEEBOOOWWWs from different directions. There is no chance any other athlete elicits this reaction following a 5 carry, 19-yard performance. Isn't that all the Jets need to know to put the wheels in motion for Fourth and God II?
—Pat, Hartford

SG: The Jets don't seem to understand what they have with Tebow, even if that totally follows the rules of the first 35 minutes of a sports movie sequel. But here's what they have: On Monday night, they were down six with four seconds left and needed 91 yards for a touchdown. Incredibly, they left Tebow on the bench for the 20-laterals/Hail Mary play that never works. Who would be better during a frantic sequence of backward passes than Tebow? And wouldn't every Texans fan have secretly gulped, "Uh-oh, Tebow's out there" and been nervous during those final four seconds even though the Jets were 91 yards away? Anyway, it feels like we're headed for one more crummy Sanchez game (a semi-shocking loss at home to Indy), followed by Rex Ryan showing up at Tebow's apartment at one in the morning, saying "Let's do this" when Tebow opens the door … and then, the inspirational music kicks in.

Jaguars' Bye Week (PK) over Panthers' Bye Week

Q: Ron Rivera reminds me of when you play that late night Madden game against your buddy who is on the verge of passing out. His guys are moving, but not really. His play calling is obvious and conservative because he is just "Asking Madden." Instead of saying "Eff it, I'm hammered, it's late, let's go for the W any way possible," he plays "not to lose." Except in reality, Rivera is a bad coach and with a secondary that might not start for my intramural flag team, so he's really just playing "to lose." Every year I convince myself in the offseason things like "Matt Moore has the intangibles, this is our year" or "Charles Godfrey is about to step on the scene in a major way" …and then usually 2-3 weeks into the regular season I question not only my Panthers fanhood, but my priorities in life. Help me Bill, help me.
—Chip, Hoboken, NJ

Q: We picked Blaine Gabbert one spot ahead of J.J. Watt. I don't even have the energy to phrase this in the form of a question for your next mailbag.
—Mark, Jacksonville, FL

SG: As you can see, we had a heated battle between Carolina's bye week and Jacksonville's bye week from the standpoint of "which fan base is more excited that it's a bye week." I went with the Jags, if only because the two-day span of Gabbert throwing touchdowns to Chicago's defense immediately followed by Watt wreaking havoc on Monday night was one for the ages.

Q: Hang on there, Mister Fancy Pants Sports Czar! You haven't been doing your job. A pass-swatting, QB-sacking defensive lineman named J.J. Watt? And he's white?!?! think it's time to invoke skip the standard "play 10 years, then retire, and then wait five more years" routine and induct this in the Reggie Cleveland Hall of Fame NOW.
—Mike, NYC

SG: Settle down — if we didn't change the Reggie Cleveland Hall of Fame induction rules for Khalil Greene, we're not changing them for J.J. Watt.

Cowboys (+3.5) over RAVENS

Q: How far away are we from an ESPN documentary about the Ryan brothers where Rob is interviewed from prison and Rex steps out of his trailer wielding a shotgun telling Jeremy Schapp to get the f**k off his property?
—Dustin, Charlotte

SG: Probably about five and a half years. I'm saying 2018 to be safe. For some insane reason, I love the Cowboys coming off a bye this week — as long as their offensive line isn't getting trampled by an elite defense (like the Seahawks or Bears, both of whom undressed them), they're fine.

BROWNS (+2) over Bengals

Q: I'm sitting in my dark basement after the Browns blew a 14 point lead (21 if you took the points) to the Giants and realized three things.
1. The Browns will have the 1st pick in the 2013 draft.
2. The Browns will draft QB Geno Smith.
3. The Browns essentially traded Julio Jones for Brandon Weeden … our 29 year old backup QB.
… huffing leaded paint never sounded so good.
—Jeremy, Cleveland

SG: I thought Jeremy was kidding, but looked it up just to be sure. He's right! Cleveland dropped from no. 6 (Jones) to no. 27 (defensive tackle Phillip Taylor) in the 2011 draft, picking up no. 59 (WR Greg Little) and no. 124 (fullback Owen Marecic), as well as a 2012 first-rounder (Weeden) and a 2012 fourth-rounder (traded when Minnesota fleeced them into giving up three picks to jump a spot to take Trent Richardson, whom the Vikings weren't taking, anyway). Just for fun, can we pay-per-view a phone call of Cleveland's Mike Holmgren calling Atlanta and seriously offering Taylor, Little, Marecic and Weeden for Julio Jones, with all proceeds going to Chuckstrong?

Q: Last year around this time, we started the Suck for Luck sweepstakes. Isn't it time we start this year's sweepstakes? The best idea my facebook friends have come up with is "Torpedo for Geno." I cede to you, Sports Czar, on blessing the name.
—Alexander Y., Brooklyn

SG: Thanks for not going blue and pushing "Suck a Peno for Geno." As much as I like "Torpedo for Geno," let's give this a week and see if my readers can come up with something better. I have Simmons's readers as eight-point favorites over Alexander from Brooklyn's Facebook friends.

Q: You know why else God hates Cleveland? Picking the best Browns head coach of the "new franchise" era leads to a Romeo Crennel vs. Butch Davis debate.
—Braxton, Columbus

SG: I couldn't resist researching this. Romeo (Mc)Crennel went 24-40 in Cleveland, but did give you that epic 10-6 season in 2007 when Derek Anderson was fleetingly confident (3,787 yards, 29 TDs!), Jamal Lewis ran for 1,304 yards and you lost a tiebreaker for the sixth playoff spot to Tennessee because, you know, God hates Cleveland. Davis finished 24-34, peaking in 2002 when the 9-7 Browns somehow snuck into the playoffs with Kelly Holcomb before getting beat by Pittsburgh. Since that's your only Browns playoff game since 1994, doesn't that make Davis the best head coach in Cleveland 2.0's history?

Since we're here, the complete list of Browns coaches since they fired Bill Belichick (who turned out to be the best football coach of the past 25 years) and moved to Baltimore (where they won a Super Bowl five years later and have remained a perennial contender ever since):

Butch Davis: 24-34
Romeo Crennel: 24-40
Eric Mangini: 10-22
Chris Palmer: 5-27
Pat Shurmur: 4-17
Terry Robiskie 1-5

(I don't even need to say it. But here's some good news … I think the Browns finally win a game this weekend thanks to the fairly obscure "Look, the 2012 Bengals shouldn't be favored on the road over ANYBODY" gambling rule.)

DOLPHINS (-4) over Rams

Q: It really bothers me that Taken 2 wasn't titled Taken Again because then we could look forward to Taken For a Third Time!
—Dan-O, Dallas

SG: I would have added a question mark and called it Taken Again? By the way, I'd like to congratulate the Taken franchise for earning coveted Simmons/Carolla status — there was just no question that we were (a) seeing it within 120 hours at the ArcLight, and (b) eventually doing a podcast about it (coming next week). Stick any number or Roman numeral behind the words Fast and Furious or Taken and we're there within 120 hours. Oh, and since we're on the subject of movies — skip Taken 2 and just wait for its HBO premiere in 10 months, but don't skip Argo (an old-school political thriller that's simply superb). And don't skip the chance to wager on the sneaky-good Dolphins on Sunday against a dome team playing outside that can't throw the ball.1

FALCONS (-9) over Raiders

Q: Last week saw a major turning point in Atlanta sports history. After seeing one of the worst calls in baseball history, during a sudden death playoff game, Atlanta fans reacted the way Philadelphia/Boston/New York fans would have reacted: by chucking shit onto the field. It was the wrong thing to do, of course, for safety and other reasons. But at the same time, I felt proud of my city. Atlanta fans are notoriously soft, not nearly as passionate as other fan bases. But raining trash on the field showed that we cared, we really cared.
—Dan, Atlanta

SG: I'm a Red Sox fan who defended when we threw stuff on the field after the umps screwed us in Game 5 of the 1999 ALCS at Fenway, so don't expect me to judge you or throw any stones from this glass house. But I'd say Atlanta's turning point started earlier with the Joe Johnson trade. Remember, nobody captured the malaise, aimlessness and relevant futility of Atlanta sports quite like Joe — he was just good enough to keep your team interesting, while also making you relatively uninterested and angry that you had been sucked in by them in the first place. Once you dumped him and his undumpable contract, you had one of those "Will Ferrell running down the street naked in Old School" moments and it never really stopped. Can Matty Ice lead the Falcons to 15-1? Why the hell not? Could the Hawks be this year's sleeper in the East? Sure, what the hell? Should we just sit there and accept one of the worst calls in recent baseball history because we're Atlanta fans and everyone thinks we're weak? NO!!!!!!!!! I like living in a world with edgier Atlanta fans — I'm excited for Rembert Browne (Grantland's resident Atlanta fan) to start missing deadlines and snapping at editors to screw off.

(Speaking of Rembert — here's our latest "Rembert Explains" video, in which we break down the immortal "Apache" video. If you've never seen it … I mean … just click play … trust me … )

Q: Can you please stop coddling the Raiders? I love your continued insistence that the Raiders 35-13 loss in Week 2 to Miami was because 'they were wearing their black jerseys in the Miami sun'. Really? You are better than that. What's the blowout excuse this week? The air conditioning was too low in the Georgia Dome? You can't put any lipstick on this pig. White jerseys, black jerseys … The Raiders have lost 35-13 and 37-6 on the road this year. When the Falcons take the Silver and Black behind the woodshed this weekend, let's all agree it's because Carson Palmer just isn't that good, okay? Let's keep the "color of the jerseys" routine to the lucky lady who won my office pool last week.
—Danny, Atlanta

SG: I stopped coddling the Raiders two weekends ago when they submitted that three-hour shartfest in Denver. I'm a little dumbfounded by this line, to be honest. According to Football Outsiders, Atlanta has a 29.1 DVOA (fourth in the NFL) and Oakland has a -31.3 DVOA (29th in the NFL). That's a 60-point difference! And if Atlanta is really headed for a no. 1-seed and 13 or 14 wins (and it sure seems like it), don't they need a couple of blowout home wins as part of that package? They haven't blown out anyone at home yet. And aren't we overdue for a monster Julio Jones fantasy week? Aren't we overdue for the defining Carson Palmer BQBL game? I'm going all out with this pick: Atlanta 55, Oakland 17.

Q: As I was watching the A's/Tigers playoff game, I realized baseball is the only sport where the coaches/managers wear their team uniforms. How much funnier would all the other sports be if the coaches had to wear the uniforms? If you could choose 2 coaches each from the NFL and NBA that had to wear their team uniforms, who would you pick? My NFL picks would be Andy Reid and Tom Coughlin and NBA would be Erik Spoelstra and Greg Popovich. I would pay an extra five bucks for tickets if they would get coaches to do this.
—Chad Tanner, Gilbert, AZ

SG: An extra five bucks? What about an extra $50??? After spending way too much time thinking about this, I'm picking Popovich (a no-brainer, just because he'd be so angry about it), Mike Woodson (the thought of him cramming into a Knicks uniform cracks me up), Mike Shanahan (for the same reasons as Popovich) and Andy Reid (who should probably start doing this, anyway). Hey, speaking of Andy …

Lions (+3.5) over EAGLES

Q: I think I understand the Eagles' game plan now. Watch in horror as Michael Vick plays like absolute garbage for the first three quarters of the game, turning the ball over as many times as possible. Get the defense to play well enough to somehow keep them in the game. Piece together one of the worst looking, sloppiest drives in the fourth to somehow score and take the lead. Make sure you leave the other team with PLENTY of time left on the clock after this drive so that you can switch to a prevent defense and let them march right down the field to within field goal range. Finally, just pray and hope they miss the field goal as time expires. And this all goes without saying, make sure you use all of your second half timeouts on as many stupid challenges and bad situations as possible along the way so you have no shot of stopping the clock at the end of the game. Do you think more teams will try to start imitating this new strategy?
—Danny Foster, Mission, KS

SG: That wasn't even one of this week's top-10 most venomous Andy Reid e-mails. Hey, here's a thought: Maybe the Lions aren't as disappointing as we thought? Week 1's ugly home win against the Rams team doesn't look as bad as it did at the time. Week 2's spirited loss in San Francisco looks better now. Week 3's ridiculous Tennessee game when the Titans scored all those crazy touchdowns remains ridiculous. Week 4's loss to the Vikes doesn't look as bad because the Vikes are good. Now they're coming off a bye week and trying to save their season against this semi-fraudulent Eagles team that zero percent of the Philly fan base trusts right now … I mean, if the Lions have even a shred of dignity, they'll either win or lose by a field goal, right? I'm grabbing the 3½ points. Oh, and I'm grabbing the under in "Total number of Michael Vick starts remaining this season" as long as it's under five.

Chiefs (+4.5) over BUCS

Q: Is Kansas City the new Philadelphia? Their fans booed Robby Cano mercilessly during the home run contest. Enough to totally get in his dome and hit exactly 0 home runs. (And I loved every second of it) Then they cheer when Cassell gets hurt? That's pretty low.
—CP, Des Moines

SG: Come on, do you really think we'd ever have a show called It's Always Sunny in Kansas City? I think Kansas City is more like the kid who was bullied for a few years before finally snapping, not much different from Warriors fans snapping during Joe Lacob's speech on Chris Mullin night. They were so frustrated by the Scott Pioli era and the last few years in general that a few of them handled it wrong. (Jason Whitlock's take nailed it.) Besides, there can never be a "new" Philly — what would we do with the old one?

Q: Please dont buy into the idea that Chiefs fans were cheering with the hope that Matt Cassel would be injured to the point that he would have to be taken out of the game, let a lone the accusations of the barbaric idea that we were cheering for him to be severely injured. We arent that bad. Yes, there was a small contingent of a combination of drunk, dumb, and immature fans that cheered him being hurt. And shame on them. But there were also fans cheering the fact that he got up and was able to walk off. We are not dumb. We have the worst professional sports teams out there, rip us on that fact. But please dont question our character, it is all we have left. (And because I know this email is too long, and you wont run it, Im going to email this to you everyday, if not twice everyday, with hopes that you put it in your column. And yes, I;m putting a Shawshank reference in here to better my chances).
—Ryan, Kansas City

SG: I wish I could tell you the Chiefs fans fought the good fight, but football is no fairy tale world. Football consists of routine, and then more routine. Every so often, the Chiefs fans would show up with fresh bruises. And that's how it went for them — that was their routine. I do believe those first two years were the worst for them. I also believe that if things had gone on that way, this league would have gotten the best of them …

Q: I loved Eric Winston's quote on Cassel: "Hey, if he's not the best quarterback, he's not the best quarterback, and that's OK, but he's a person." Ladies and Gentleman, your 2012 Kans — eh, you know the rest.
—Patrick, LA

SG: Do you realize the Chiefs have played 20 quarters this season (including OT in New Orleans) without ever having the lead? How is that possible? Even Cleveland's had a 14-point lead this season! Don't they have any pride at all? And should the Bucs really be favored by more than four points over anyone right now? I'm going with a Chiefs upset: Chiefs 16, Bucs 10.

Bears' Bye Week (-7.5) over Saints' Bye Week

Q: You know how athletes stop doing the little things that made them famous once they get famous? Like how Eric Davis stopped stealing bases once he became a superstar, and Mike Haynes stopped returning punts? Have we reached that point with Brody's wife on Homeland? Last season she wore clothes less often than Jenna Jameson, and I loved every second of it. This year, two episodes and nada. Please tell me she hasn't reached superstar stage.
—G Money, Scituate, MA

SG: No way — she's not nearly famous enough yet. You'll get your totally creepy, semi-emotionally scarring sex scene with Brody and Mrs. Brody soon, just be patient. Fantastic first two weeks of Homeland, by the way. How great is Sunday going to be? Eleven hours of football games, two baseball playoff games, Homeland … I might just lock my kids in the shed.

SEAHAWKS (+4) over Patriots

Q: The Patriots have redefined the hurry up offense and commentators are discussing what exactly to call it. How about the Uber-up Offense? "Hold on to your seats, fans, Brady likes this defensive match-up and is switching on the Uber-up"
—Nate, Salem, CT

SG: But here's the thing — it's not a "hurry-up" offense because Brady takes his time and methodically shreds the defense with his play calling on the line of scrimmage. They're just trying to keep the same 11 defensive players out there for as long as possible, so really, it's a no-huddle without that hurry-up mentality. But calling it a "no-huddle" doesn't do it justice, either. Shouldn't we call it the "never-huddle"?

Regardless, I'm worried about this game: Seattle's defense and special teams are significantly better than New England's defense and special teams. We already know they love playing home. The Pats just slapped together three of the greatest offensive halves in the history of football: 80 points, 10 touchdowns and fifty-one first downs … there's just no way that can keep going; they're due to regress a little, right? There's some serious "Pete Carroll Revenge Game" potential here, as dopey as that sounds. And after torturing me for five weeks, wouldn't it be fitting if my pick for the NFC's Super Bowl QB (Russell Wilson) ended up torturing my favorite team? This game frightens the living hell out of me. I hate this game.

Q: Do you realize Liverpool is off to its worst start EVER through the first 7 matches and has a new manager (Brendan Rodgers) who's already on the hot seat and could soon be joining Bobby V in the unemployment line. That means in the last 18 months, the Fenway group oversaw:

• The biggest late season collapse of all-time (Red Sox 2011)
• Worst ever season (Liverpool 2011-2012)
• Fired most successful manager in team history (Terry Francona 2011)
• Fired club legend turned coach (Kenny Dalglish, 2012)
• Worst Sox season since 1965 (2012)
• Worst ever start to Liverpool season (2012-2013)
Those results must rank among the absolute worst "seasons" for an ownership group — especially considering the expectations and history of both clubs. I don't even have a comment/joke/analogy like most of your emails. That is just a fantastic run of incompetence that needs to be acknowledged.
—Paul, Boston

SG: Six silver linings …

1. Every A-Rod playoff at-bat has been the most fun moment of the 2012 Red Sox season. It's seriously the first time I've enjoyed baseball in five months.
2. At least we don't have Carl Crawford's contract on the books.
3. At least we don't have A-Rod for the next five years.
4. After how Josh Hamilton finished the season, at least we know we won't be overpaying when we inevitably panic-sign him.
5. Bobby V's breach-of-confidentiality tell-all book is going to be an incredible read 18 months from now.
6. (Still under construction.)

Bills (+4.5) over CARDS

Q: Just broke out Madden 12 for the first time in 4 months. Fired up a Cardinals franchise. Larry Fitzgerald breaks his collar bone. Who tackled him? BERNARD KARMELL POLLARD
—Jon H, Mountain View, CA

SG: This isn't the first "Bernard Karmell Pollard injured one of my Madden guys" e-mail I've gotten. Did the Madden people put something into the game that made Pollard much more likely to injure opponents during franchise seasons? And if so, is there any doubt that the boss who made that request to the game designers was either a Giants fan or a Jets fan? By the way, this line is too high — a team with a devastated offensive line, Kevin Kolb and no running backs shouldn't be favored by more than four over anyone right now.

Q: I was watching an episode of TMZ the other day (I'm not proud) and it struck me that the Grantland office probably looks, sounds and operates a lot like the TMZ office: older, unhip, slightly out-of-touch guy who is the center of attention and who has surrounded himself with a bunch of wise-cracking 20 year olds even though they often belittle and befuddle him. I bet you've even got yourself one of those sweet tumbler/straw combos, too. Please confirm.
—Joe, San Francisco

SG: (Searching for a comeback.)

REDSKINS (+3.5) over Vikings

Q: Gary Bettman's middle name is Bruce. Yes, Gary Bruce Bettman has been murdering NHL games since 1994.
—Fabian, Lafayette, CO

SG: I love the idea of calling Bettman by his full name for the full-fledged serial-killer parallels, and it's a shame we didn't think of this sooner. Speaking of murders, we've known this game was coming for two weeks: That's right, it's the old "Too Many People Believe in the Vikings Right Now and History Shows That's Never a Good Thing" road game! Either they'll lose or they'll grind out a hairy three-point victory, but either way, they're DEFINITELY giving up a special teams touchdown (lock it down), and they're definitely taking two weeks off every Vikings fan's life by the time it's over.

Giants (+6.5) over 49ERS

Q: Apparently Tom Coughlin is playing the "nobody believes in us" card for this Sunday's game against San Francisco? Wha-huh?! As a diehard 49ers fan, I'm terrified. If our lord and savior Jim Harbaugh isn't even playing that card anymore after playing it during our entire 13-3 season, what right do Coughlin and his red face have? And yet now I must watch in horror as Victor Cruz goes for 6 touchdowns and somehow breaks all of Vernon Davis's legs in the process. Man, I love football. Also, I'm unemployed.
—Dan Gilbert (no, not that one), Savannah, GA

SG: I had the Niners penciled in until Dan sent this e-mail and I found this article. Do you realize we had the first "Nobody believes in us" cockblock this week? Check out these excerpts.

"Nobody gives us a chance to win," Coughlin said when asked about how many consider the 49ers a favorite to win the NFC. "We'll see."
(Translation: "Please don't ask me any follow-up questions. Just let me have this, it's kinda my thing.")

When asked to elaborate, Coughlin said, "I just sense it."
(Translation: "I told you, no follow-up questions! Can't I just sense it? Fine, here's your answer: I haven't played the Nobody Believes in Us card all season, we're overdue — it always works. I can't help myself. You'd do it too.")

"Why do I think they feel that way? Probably because [people] think that the other team is playing very well," he said.
(Translation: "Also, I looked at the line. We're getting 6½ points? That's f-ing crazy! We won the Super Bowl last year! We beat this same team in San Francisco 10 months ago!")

San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh replied, "Yeah, I think that is probably an exaggeration."
(Translation: "Go to hell, Coughlin! That's my move! How dare you say nobody believes in you! Watch this, I'm gonna tell my team that nobody believes in us because nobody believes in you, which means everybody believes in you because every time nobody believes in you, you guys win, so really, people are believing in you because you initially believed nobody believed in you! HA! I FOILED YOU! DON'T BRING THIS SHIT INTO MY HOUSE!")

Coughlin admits to playing the underdog card and using it as a motivational ploy for Week 6.
(Now I'm confused. How can the "Nobody Believes in Us" ploy work if you're admitting you're doing it as you're doing it?)

"It's basically how it goes for us every year," wide receiver Victor Cruz said. "Nobody picks us to win. We've always got our backs against the wall, which is I guess in a sense how we like to play. It really brings out the best in us, so we're fine with that."
(So wait … do you really believe that nobody believes in you, or are you just going through the motions of believing that because that's the move that always worked for you guys? Whatever the case, I'm still grabbing the points if only because the line was three points too high — so if any of the Giants are reading, please know that I don't believe in you. I just believe the line was too high. You guys suck. The Niners are going to dominate you and somehow win by four because Eli will get a couple of late garbage-time TDs. Hear me, Giants? The Niners are going to own your asses! NOBODY BELIEVES IN YOU!!!!!!!!!!!!)

Q: My boyfriend and I are pretty thrilled by your "noodle arm" Peyton observations. We've been calling Eli "Spaghetti Legs" around our house for a couple years. My Giants-fan boyfriend came up with the nickname after observing that Eli always looked really unstable in the pocket, like — as the name suggests — his legs were made of long noodles. Sometimes when he takes off on a scramble, he inexplicably and spontaneously collapses like he's lost the bones in his legs. We're likely to get a lot of joke mileage out of the Pasta Brothers this season, so thanks.
—Liza, Chicago

SG: On the Spiteful Scale, where does me deliberately seeking unflattering e-mails about the Manning brothers for every Friday NFL mailbag rank? It's at least a 6 out of 10, right?

TEXANS (-3.5) over Packers

Q: Have defenses figured Rodgers out and how to stop him? Was his year-and-a-half ridiculous run a fluke? He seems off in almost every aspect: his throws aren't pinpoint, his decision-making is questionable, he's back to holding the ball too long and he locks onto receivers too early in the play. Did Tom Brady ever go through a phase like what Rodgers is going through?
—Jarrett, Milwaukee

SG: It's not a fluke — he misses Greg Jennings, he doesn't have any semblance of a running game, he's not getting anything from Jermichael Finley (the Tyrus Thomas of tight ends), his offensive line is mediocre at best, his team is pretty banged-up, and as Steven Hyden theorized in the Triangle this week, there's a chance that Green Bay's 2012 NFL season was built on an Indian burial ground.

As for Brady, he struggled during the middle of the 2006 season for similar reasons — no running game, nothing from his tight ends, shaky offensive line, even worse receivers than what Rodgers had (that was the year they traded Deion Branch and left Reche Caldwell as Brady's no. 1 target), which led to a disastrous two-game skid in November when Brady threw four picks against Indy (no TDs, either), then put up just 14 points against Pennington and the Jets (rock-bottom), followed by everyone in New England freaking out. His next game? Four TDs, zero picks in a 35-0 shellacking of Green Bay. Rodgers will be fine. Just not this week. I say Houston trounces Green Bay (Rodgers's rock-bottom moment), then the Packers right the ship with three straight wins over St. Louis, Jacksonville and Arizona heading into the bye. Still don't think Green Bay is a playoff team, though — don't like their mojo this year.

Q: First the replacement ref curb stomping on Monday night, now this ChuckStrong. It's official — the Packers have become the "other team" in every sports movie ever. I figured we were destined for bad karma after Rodgers sold out his title belt move.
—RC Weich, Mequon, WI

SG: Repeat: not crazy about Green Bay's mojo this year.

Q: Is there such a thing as a good bad coach? If there is I feel that Mike McCarthy needs to be in the conversation for the top five. Last week it appeared that he had been taught how to use his challenge flags by none other than Andy Reid. He has been out coached five weeks in a row, by Pete Carrol, an interim-interim-head coach, and an interim head coach in the last three weeks. I know he won a Super Bowl two years ago, but halfway through the season he was on the hot seat. With the talent that team has, there is no excuse he's not on the hot seat again. My only hope is Rodgers doesn't go down this year, and McCarthy gets a free pass due to that injury.
—Ryan Westaby, Thorp, WI

SG: You missed the obvious parallel there … really, there's a chance Mike McCarthy might be Andy Reid 2.0. Just think, he's at the peak of his powers right now. Wait until he gets older, heavier and more worn down, and wait until he adds a mustache. Is it weird that I'm excited for this?

Broncos (+1.5) over CHARGERS

Q: Norv Turner's resume:

• Coached more games than any other coach with an overall losing record.
• Started 2-0 only once (this season) in 15 seasons as a head coach
• 49-68-1 in 1 possession games; 2nd worst all-time
• Only coach to ever lose to an interim's interim coach
—Eric, Spokane

SG: (Nodding.)

Q: Last week you cited some statistics, then used logic and reason to talk yourself into taking the Chargers over the Saints. How could you? Don't you know by now that Norv Turner is completely immune to logic and reason??? The only thing more likely than an end-game coaching fiasco involving Norv was a Phillip Rivers meltdown, followed by him giving his teammates annoyed looks on national television. If you offer any analysis this week beyond "Norv Turner vs. Peyton Manning on Monday Night Football", I'm going to have to assume that this column is being written by an interim-interim Sports Guy and that the real Sports Guy is serving a 16-game suspension.
—Matt, Astoria

SG: I can't pick the Broncos violently enough. You're preaching to the choir. And for the record, Denver follows this game with a bye week, then hosts New Orleans, goes to Cincy and Carolina, hosts San Diego, goes to Kansas City, hosts Tampa and plays Oakland on Thursday night. Could we really see Mr. Noodle taking a 9-3 record into that Oakland game? Absolutely! Pass me the grated cheese and the red pepper: We're riding Peyton's linguini arm these next few weeks. Starting with Monday night. Thank you, gambling gods, for making Peyton Manning an underdog to Norv Turner on a Monday night in my lifetime. You're too kind.

Q: I just watched The Terminator for the very first time and I figured out that Sara Connor having relations (sex) with Kyle Reese is the first documented human case of Cougarism. With our understanding of time travel in the Terminator series, Kyle Reese is 28 years old in 2029, and Sara Connor, who is 28 years old in 1984, would actually be 73 years old in the year 2029. This means a 73 year old Sara was banging a 28 year old Kyle, who was bff's with her son. Banging your adult son's friends is one of the primary indicators of Cougarism. At the time Sara was 28 in 1984, Kyle Reese obviously was not born yet, making their sexual intercourse the ultimate case of zygote robbing. Kyle was likely conceived in 2000, and if his parents were in their mid 20s (say 25), this means in 1984, when Sara Connor was having relations with Reese, his parents were 9 years old, and likely had not reached puberty, double zygote robbing if you ask me. Finally, Sara Connor was dead in the year 2029, having died in 1997 according to the tombstone in Terminator 3, four years before Reese was even born. As a 28 year old, Reese had sex with a woman who had been dead for 32 years, a blatant case of necrophilia if I ever saw one. So there you have it, the theme of the Terminator franchise is Cougarism, Zygote robbing, and Necrophilia.
—Silver, NYC

SG: Yup, these are my readers.

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Inside Barcelona: Club's success rooted in rich youth academy

By: timbersfan, 12:25 AM GMT on October 12, 2012

BARCELONA, Spain -- There are no secrets.
The man in charge of the most successful youth academy in world sports insists he has no magic elixir that turns teenagers into world-beaters, no elusive potion that transforms rather ordinary-looking kids into the next Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andrés Iniesta.
Guillermo Amor is the sporting director at La Masia, FC Barcelona's remarkable youth academy, which has provided so many top-level players for Barça's senior team that at times all 11 starters have been homegrown. A former midfielder for Barça and Spain and himself a product of La Masia, Amor, 44, took over the job two years ago after Sandro Rosell won the club's presidency. Amor knows as well as anyone what fires La Masia's success.
"I don't think it's about secrets," he said one afternoon at the club's headquarters in Sant Joan Despí. "It's about having confidence in what you do, in the work that's been undertaken for many years and on a clear bet on young people, on the youth system, because the proven results are there. Many of the players on the first team are from here, from our house. We see that we have people in the system with a lot of quality and potential to one day make it to the first team."
A few other impressive youth academies exist at European clubs. Bayern Munich's has produced Bastian Schweinsteiger, Philipp Lahm, Thomas Müller, Holger Badstuber and Diego Contento, for example. But nobody else comes close to Barça's youth operation. In 2010, all three finalists for the FIFA Ballon d'Or (given to the world's top player) came from La Masia: Messi, Iniesta and Xavi. If I'd had a vote I would have leaned (barely) toward Xavi, but Messi was a deserving winner, his second of three straight trophies (and counting).
"For us it was a very special moment," Amor said. "The fact that a person comes out of our system, reaches the first team, achieves so much and wins the Ballon d'Or -- you can't top that. But having three of them? Better yet. And any one of them deserved it. Messi is a phenom. He's No. 1 and deserves it, but Xavi as well as Iniesta could have perfectly walked away with it. It helps us because people, especially the youth in our system, can see what the first team is made of, what they have achieved through hard work."
The original La Masia (The Farmhouse), the one where Messi, Xavi and Iniesta developed, was a 300-year-old building next to the Camp Nou stadium in central Barcelona. The new La Masia is a large glass-and-steel box-like building at the team's training HQ, which houses boarders from outside Catalonia and outside Spain itself. They attend school during the day and train most nights from 7 to 8:30 p.m., with a game on weekends. "You can spend all day doing something and have nothing to show for it, and other people accomplish much more in an hour's time," as Amor said.
One thing that stands out to anyone who visits La Masia is how many different people are part of the operation, from coaches and directors to teachers and advisers and other support staff.
"It's not defined by a single variable," said Carles Folguera, the academic director of La Masia. "There are many influencing factors that explain our success that is being recognized worldwide. It's a long process. It's not good to be in a hurry, so there's patience here. In that process you have good coaches, and you look not only for talent for the game, but you also look at personality -- how the kid tries to overcome obstacles and difficult moments, an injury or a coach who doesn't believe in him. So it's also about character, values."
In my SI magazine story on Barça this week, I go into more detail about what takes place at La Masia, how the club's philosophy is inculcated in its youth teams from the ages of 7 and 8, and how Barça's senior team coaches have consistently placed their faith in the development program.
"We play football in a unique manner with players who are made with our unique idea of football," says the club's senior football director, Andoni Zubizarreta, also a legendary goalkeeper for Barça and Spain. "We feed ourselves through that same process and it allows us to compete at the highest levels. But you can only achieve that through conviction, sometimes not even a conscious conviction. It's not written down, it's lived. It's something you have in you. The youth in our system play that way not because somebody tells them to, but because they've internalized it.
"Barça is an evolution of football, a new operating system," he continues. La Masia "allows [senior team coach Tito Vilanova] to look at players in our system, the ones who are in Barça B, and to know that in the end the great answer to the question is: Do you dare line up the B player when the time comes?"
Time and again, the answer has been yes. Though that's not to say that everyone makes it. The vast majority don't, of course, and that, too, is part of life. Every year at the end of June, the academy's directors decide who will stay and who will go.
"We analyze the squads, we look forward to the next year, what must be improved, and we start making moves according to positions," Amor said. "And once we lock down the teams, it's normal that there will be people that cannot continue in the club and will have to leave. If they are living in the Masia residence, then they'll have to pack up and go back home with their families. And if they're from around here, they'll have to find another team. We help them do that if he has a problem finding a club.
"As you move up through each category, it gets harder because each level is more competitive. Once you get to Juveniles, it's really difficult to stay in the club, and they know that. They know that making the first team is difficult -- only a small percentage make it -- and they know they have to fight and work hard to get the chance so they'll have no regrets."
For those who do make it to the senior team, though, there is a sense of belonging to Barça that you'll never get if you move from club to club during your career, no matter how successful you might be. And there's real value in that, too.
"A kid who is formed from 12 or 13 until the age of 18, he feels the club," Folguera said. "Nobody has to tell him when he arrives at the first team what the club means. There's a feeling of identity here. The majority of players in the first team know what Barça is."
That's one of the things they mean when they say Barça is more than a club.

Read more: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2012/writers/gran t_wahl/10/04/barcelona-youth-academy-la-masia/inde x.html#ixzz292X8OSbk

Inside Barcelona: Fierce rivalry with Real Madrid unlike any in U.S.

By: timbersfan, 12:24 AM GMT on October 12, 2012

BARCELONA, Spain -- It's usually fascinating when parallel sports cultures collide, so when I sat down with several FC Barcelona stars I asked them a question: What's the best way to explain the Barcelona-Real Madrid rivalry to someone in the U.S. who isn't intimately familiar with it?
They smiled. When you're in the middle of what may be the fiercest rivalry in world sports, you rarely have to pull back and explain something as deeply important and ever-present as drinking water or breathing air. But with the latest edition of El Clásico taking place Sunday (1:50 p.m. ET, beIN Sport), Barça's Cesc Fàbregas and Gerard Piqué were game enough to play along.
"It's completely different to everything around the world," Fàbregas said. "Maybe in America with the soccer teams New York and Los Angeles is the biggest game of the season, I don't know. But I played in England [with Arsenal] and I saw games in Germany, derbies, and you can't compare them to Real Madrid and Barcelona. Maybe the one in Argentina between Boca and River. I want to go to that one. But that's the only one you can compare it to. Barcelona-Real Madrid is very, very big, and whoever loses will spend the next week quite down."
As Piqué noted, however, another element takes Barça-Real Madrid to a new level.
"The rivalry is really strong, and not only because of football matters like Madrid and Barcelona," he said. "It's more political as well. Here in Barcelona we're in Catalonia, and for a lot of people Catalonia is like a country. The rivalry is also Catalonia-Spain, not only Barcelona and Madrid. That's why every game there's a lot of tension, a lot of fights. If you see it as a fan from the outside, I think people love it, because it's 'Wow, yes! Come on! Yeah!'" -- here Piqué claps loudly and pumps his fist, as though he's at a pro wrestling event -- "but finally it's too much. I think we have to [calm down] a little bit. Because if not, one day something really wrong will happen, like a big injury or something, and we don't want that."
I would argue that Barcelona-Real Madrid is the world's greatest sports rivalry. Unlike the U.S., where multiple sports are popular, Spain truly cares only about one sport. Barça and Real Madrid are probably the two best teams in the world, featuring a constellation of global stars, and it would be a fantastic rivalry based on the history just on the field over the last century.
But there is much more history off the field. I explain the political aspect and the connections to the Spanish Civil War in more detail in my story in this week's Sports Illustrated magazine, but it's fair to say here that for many of the seven million Catalans, Barça is a leading symbol of Catalonian identity and the desire for independence from Spain. Meanwhile, for millions in the rest of the country, Real Madrid is a leading symbol of Castilian Spain, a team that was the favorite of the former Spanish dictator, General Francisco Franco, and a triumphant face of the country to Europe going back to Real Madrid's five straight European Cups in 1956-60.
It's a lot more complicated than that, of course: There have been many inside Real Madrid who hated Franco, and there have also been right-leaning leaders of Barça. But the broad strokes are clear: Real Madrid tends to be the choice of conservatives and Castilians, Barça the bastion of progressives and Catalonians.
In fact, Sunday's game may be the most politically charged Clásico in years. During a Champions League game at Camp Nou last month, large sections of the stadium sang decades-old chants for Catalonian independence, the result of Catalan political leader Artur Mas' calls for fiscal sovereignty from the rest of Spain and a subsequent march of 1.5 million Catalonians in the streets of Barcelona on Sept. 11. It wouldn't surprise anyone to hear more of those chants Sunday.
What's more, Fàbregas (who rejoined Barça last season from Arsenal) argues that the pressure from his own fans at Barça is even greater than it is from home supporters in other countries, including England. "In Spain whatever you do, after one or two months it's forgotten," Fàbregas said. "Forgotten. You can't say to the fans, 'Oh, we won this one month ago.' People forget. They just want new results and new results. That's what makes the Spanish fans so competitive, you know?"
"I think this helps in a way," Fàbregas continued, "because that makes you always be aware of the situation. You can never go to sleep. Like at Arsenal, when I was there the fans would adore you, whatever you do. They would always support you until the end, always sing your name. It's completely different here. You lose two games and you panic because you know the fans will not like it and will make you pay for it in a way. I'm surprised, and I like it. It's new for me to play professionally in Spain."
As bitter as the rivalry has been in the past, it got even nastier in the spring of 2011, when Barça and Real Madrid met in the league, Champions League and Copa del Rey in a short time frame. Why, even most Madrid fans will tell you the arrival of José Mourinho to coach the Merengues added even more of an edge to the proceedings -- both on the field, where Madrid played a physical style to try and disrupt Barça's passing game, and in the media, where Mourinho seemed to enjoy playing mind games with Barça and former manager Pep Guardiola. Guardiola's assistant, Tito Vilanova, is now in charge of Barça, but you could argue that he's still best known worldwide as the target of an eye-gouge by Mourinho after a Spanish Super Cup game last year.
"It went mad," said Aitor Lagunas, a leading journalist who edits the thoughtful Spanish-language monthly Panenka. "Mourinho brought a new personality. Before, it was hard, but not like that. This topic also had some impact on the national team in Spain. [Coach Vicente] Del Bosque said he was worried because his players were involved in a war that could be harmful for his team."
Fortunately for the national team, the players were able to ease the tension and win Euro 2012, becoming the first team ever to hold the World Cup and two Euro crowns at the same time. But tensions remain, and the Spanish media tends to take sides, with some major newspapers favoring Real Madrid and others Barcelona. "We don't have tabloids or sensationalist media," said Lagunas, "so perhaps in Spain our tabloids are the sports media."
For his part, Barça's Xavi thinks his club's remarkable achievements in recent years have been obscured in Spain by the fixation on the rivalry with Real Madrid. "It's being valued more overseas than here in Spain," he said. "Because of the Barça-Madrid war, we're not really valuing what Barcelona is doing, because Real Madrid wants to win as well, and there's a quasi-war, political as well. Some criticize here, others criticize there, and we're not taking worth of what Barcelona and Messi are doing, which is spectacular."
So many opinions. So much passion. So much bitterness. Put them all together, and Barcelona and Real Madrid are must-see TV whenever they meet.

Read more: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2012/writers/gran t_wahl/10/05/barcelona-real-madrid-rivalry/index.h tml#ixzz292WkvOWr

Altidore's absence from World Cup qualifiers roster simply shocking

By: timbersfan, 12:23 AM GMT on October 12, 2012

Coach Jurgen Klinsmann left forward Jozy Altidore off his squad for the U.S.'s two important upcoming World Cup qualifiers, a decision that may well be the most surprising of Klinsmann's 14-month tenure.
It's true that Altidore has not had a standout year for the U.S., providing no goals and one assist in two starts and four substitute appearances. With Hérculez Gómez and Clint Dempsey expected to start up top in Friday's qualifier at Antigua and Barbuda, it would not have been surprising to see Altidore come off the bench as a second-half sub. But for Altidore to be omitted entirely from the 24-man squad is a shock. (Pure forwards Gómez, Eddie Johnson and Alan Gordon are on the roster instead.)
After all, Altidore, 22, is tied for the Dutch league lead in goals with eight for AZ Alkmaar, including a terrific slaloming strike Sept. 30. The World Cup 2010 veteran has also played in a team-leading 17 straight World Cup qualifiers for the U.S. and brings big-game experience to the table. Under Klinsmann, the U.S. has scored more than one goal just three times in the coach's 18 games, which makes you wonder why he would leave the U.S.' most prolific European-based goal-scorer at the moment off the squad.
These are big games. The U.S., Guatemala and Jamaica all have seven points in Group A of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying heading into the final two games of the semifinal round. Only the top two teams will advance to next year's final 10-game round. A win at last-place Antigua and Barbuda on Friday would mean the U.S. would only need a tie at home against Guatemala on Oct. 16 to advance from the group.
Altidore's omission is purely a coach's decision: He is not injured, and Klinsmann's decision has nothing to do with the two yellow cards Altidore picked up for AZ on Sunday. Nor was the move a result of any continued friction between U.S. Soccer and AZ, which would have had to release Altidore for national-team duty per FIFA rules since this is a FIFA international date.
"I communicated with Jozy that I was not happy about his latest performances with us, maybe over the last 14 months," Klinsmann said Monday. "Jozy can do much, much better. The reason why he's not coming in is mainly about his performances at Jamaica and at home [last month], also in training. Also certain things that went on through the May-June camp. So we decided to bring in Eddie Johnson and Alan Gordon and give them a chance to show they've improved. They're both doing really well in MLS now."
What's more, Klinsmann reiterated last Thursday that club performance would matter in his roster selection. "It is really crucial when it gets down to World Cup Qualifiers when you put your roster together that you look at their individual schedule: who is in full swing, who is struggling getting games in, who is spending too much time on the bench," he told the U.S. Soccer website. "Going into these two decisive games we need to make sure they are all at 100 percent."
Yet club form doesn't really appear to matter much when it comes to Klinsmann's picks at forward. You may think Gómez deserves to start his eighth straight U.S. game up top on Friday -- and I do, based on his play with the national team -- but his club form has been spotty of late with just one start in Santos Laguna's last seven league games (on Saturday, when Gómez picked up a goal).
When I asked Klinsmann about his club form comment and how it relates to Altidore and Gómez, he said: "I think [club form] is absolutely important. Now it looks a little bit different in Jozy's case because he's doing well with Alkmaar, and he's scoring goals. But he hasn't done well with us in the last couple of camps. That's why I have more trust for these upcoming two games in Eddie Johnson and Alan Gordon."
Altidore could not be reached for comment in the wake of Klinsmann's decision, but I did speak with Altidore a few days ago, and what he said revealed a player who is hoping to translate his club success to the national team.
"First off, I just hope people will actually realize that I don't try to go to the national team and not play well," Altidore told me last Tuesday by phone from the Netherlands. "I've represented the country in so many games on the biggest stages. Of course, my intention is to do all I can to help the team win. It's a challenge. It's a different role and not an every-day environment, so the challenge is adjusting to that and still finding a way to be effective. Good players do that, and I want to become that.
"I think that is the next step in anyone's career," Altidore continued. "When you experience a little bit of success at club level, the whole challenge is to transfer that to the national team and become a complete player. Guys like Clint [Dempsey] have done it. I want to try and do that, but it takes time. It takes a real maturity and understanding of that with the national team. With the national team it's just a different animal, and I've got to adjust to that."
It certainly didn't help Altidore with the national team when AZ refused to release him before the start of the FIFA international window in May and early June, even though AZ's season was finished. As a result, Altidore missed the start of the U.S. camp in Florida and lost his starting spot to Gómez, who has run with it.
"I'm not going to sugarcoat anything, I think that hurt me," Altidore said. "It made me go backward in terms of the national team. I sat a couple games and didn't even dress for the Brazil game. I was thrown behind the eight-ball, and ever since I've been playing catch-up. It is what it is. All I can do is move forward and try to show the manager I deserve to be in the team."
When I came right out and asked Altidore -- are you and Klinsmann on the same page? -- he answered straight up. "I'm the student here," Altidore said. "I'm the player and I'm learning always. It doesn't matter if I don't understand. I have to get on the same page as the boss and all the senior players, not the other way around. I'm not a guy who can walk into the team and say, 'Guys, adjust to me.' That's not my mindset. I'm trying to get on the same page as them, and until I do that I'm sure I won't be playing. I want to try and do that as quickly as possible. I want to score great goals for the national team and be dominant for them. But unfortunately it's not so easy sometimes when the styles of play are much different."
Altidore said he has no issue with Gómez earning the last seven straight starts. "He's got to be one of the most underrated guys," Altidore said. "I watch him closely in training. I think it's well-deserved for him."
But he also explained that there are significant differences in the playing styles favored by AZ under Gertjan Verbeek and the U.S. under Klinsmann. The U.S. doesn't play with wingers and a true No. 10, he said, and his role has changed mightily with AZ from what he was doing earlier in his career.
"At the beginning I was a guy who loved to get the ball and run at people, but there was no real tactical area in my game," he said. "It was just get on the field and make things happen. Now it's a bit different. There's a way [Verbeek] wants me to play, and from there you try to bring your qualities. I'm playing more with my back to goal now, hold the ball up and get other people into the game. I'm just maturing as a player in that regard."
The result has been impressive for Altidore so far this season with AZ. "I feel like I'm coming into my own," he said. There's no reason that can't continue, of course. Altidore has nine goals in all competitions so far, one of the highest goal-scoring totals in any European country. But success with Klinsmann's national team may be farther away. After Klinsmann's omission Monday, in fact, it's a more distant prospect than anyone would have expected.

Read more: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2012/writers/gran t_wahl/10/08/jozy-altidore-usa-world-cup/index.htm l#ixzz292WZhQkw

Pressure on Klinsmann, depleted U.S. team to take care of business

By: timbersfan, 12:22 AM GMT on October 12, 2012

NEW YORK -- U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati has a smaller 10th-floor office than you might expect -- he's a popular economics lecturer at Columbia University -- but there are plenty of intriguing soccer mementos inside on the walls, including a picture of him with Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela; a framed photograph of his young son, Emilio, hand-in-hand with Ronaldinho in a pre-game walk out the tunnel; and a series of 1990s-era MLS official game balls. (Gulati has worn many hats, including deputy commissioner of MLS in its early days.)
Gulati, 53, can impact a lot of things from his small office. He has interviewed six candidates recently for the U.S. women's coaching job, he's spearheading U.S. Soccer's involvement in organizing a new women's league and he's part of three different FIFA committees. But when it comes to the U.S. men's team, which has two important World Cup qualifiers Friday (at Antigua and Barbuda) and Tuesday (against Guatemala in Kansas City), Gulati is as powerless as any nail-biting U.S. fan these days.
The U.S. (2-1-1) needs a win and a tie in these two games to make sure it avoids elimination from World Cup 2014. Truth be told, the Americans should win both games and advance to next year's six-team final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying (aka The Hexagonal). But an unexpected 2-1 loss at Jamaica last month has made this road harder than most observers would have imagined.
How big are these two games?
"They're obviously very important," Gulati said. "All qualifiers are important until you've gotten through, and even then they may be important for someone else. So in a short series like this where we've got six games you can essentially afford to have one result go against you. The difference between a draw and a loss is huge, especially away, because it's less about the point you're getting versus none than the three points versus one that someone else gets -- in this case the Jamaica [away] game.
"In the end, if we finish 4-1-1 we'll win the group in my view, and that will be the same record we've had before. It's just the sequence of games that will be different."
By hiring coach Jurgen Klinsmann in July 2011, Gulati finally landed his white whale after pursuing the German World Cup winner off and on back to 2006. From the start, there has been a sense that Klinsmann's possible outcomes range from runaway success to spectacular failure. He was brought in as a change agent, after all, and he's being paid a base salary of $2.5 million a year to take the U.S. to the next level at the World Cup.
How happy is Klinsmann's boss with the coach's performance right now?
"I think Jurgen has made a lot of changes [to the program] in the way he goes about things," Gulati said. "Some of those things have been successful, and some of those are still a work in progress. But he knows better than anyone that the measurement of his performance as a coach comes down to results, and right now we have two important games coming up. So the answer is yes, I'm happy with Jurgen, but we need to win these games. He knows that. I think we will win these games and get to the Hex and qualify [for the World Cup]."
While Michael Bradley's return is important after he missed last month's qualifiers, the U.S. won't have all of its top players available at Antigua on Friday (7 p.m. ET, beIN Sport English). Injuries to Landon Donovan, Brek Shea and Edgar Castillo and the flu symptoms of Fabian Johnson have removed all those players from consideration, which means a potential U.S. lineup could look something like this:
Tim Howard; Steve Cherundolo, Geoff Cameron, Clarence Goodson, Carlos Bocanegra; Danny Williams; Graham Zusi, Michael Bradley, Sacha Kljestan; Clint Dempsey, Hérculez Gómez.
Left back is the biggest question mark with both Johnson and Castillo out. Klinsmann famously said "anyone can play left back" before the Antigua home game in June, so we could see Bocanegra or Michael Parkhurst there on Friday, or perhaps someone who's a complete wild card. (Remember, José Torres played left back in that June game.) It's also possible that we could see Jermaine Jones in the midfield instead of Kljestan, though Kljestan would provide more of the attacking width Klinsmann said he's looking for in this game.
Judging by the coach's comments, in fact, the U.S. is expecting to face a packed-in defense and could deal with it (either earlier or later in the game) by highlighting the aerial strength in the box of surprise forward call-ups Eddie Johnson and Alan Gordon. You need width and crosses to do that, of course, and those are things that the U.S. has rarely had in recent games, the width (when it does come) being generated by the fullbacks and not by the midfield.
Antigua and Barbuda won't be a complete pushover, however. The Benna Boys are expecting a sold-out home crowd of 10,000 at Sir Vivian Richards Stadium, a cricket ground, where they held Jamaica to a 0-0 tie and only lost to Guatemala 1-0. For that matter, Antigua's Peter Byers has scored in both away group games at the U.S. and Guatemala, matching 3-1 losses. Byers is one of several players who ply their club trade at Antigua Barracuda, a USL Pro team that has massively helped the development of the national team.
If Klinsmann's team wants to ease the nerves of U.S. fans, the Americans will grab a couple early goals and make sure three points are never in doubt. But World Cup qualifying is rarely easy. How the U.S. handles these two games will start to tell us how this team deals with the burden of expectation in the Klinsmann Era.

Read more: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2012/writers/gran t_wahl/10/11/usa-antigua-barbuda-sunil-gulati/inde x.html#ixzz292WMBgg6

International level? Far from it

By: timbersfan, 12:20 AM GMT on October 12, 2012

There can't be many two-word notions that are fifty percent nonsense -- "civil war," perhaps? -- but "international level" is one of them. If there's one thing that international football most profoundly and distinctly is not, it's level.

Take Wayne Rooney. (No, please, go on ...) If he plays for England against San Marino, he will win his 77th cap, overtaking Tom Finney to join Terry Butcher in joint 19th on the all-time list. Of the 76 caps he has now, 14 of them came in tournament finals, 35 in qualifying and 27 in friendlies. Ignoring the latter category for the moment, England, by virtue of being quite good at football (no, they really are) tend to end up in the top or second group of seeds when being drawn into groups, whether for qualification or for a tournament. The obvious consequence of this? Rooney has spent much of his international career playing teams that, in terms of quality, are inferior.

Given that FIFA's rankings are published every month, it's become something of a ritual for the entire Internet to pick up on one apparently curious juxtaposition and shout about it a lot. "Cape Verde Islands? Better than Wales? LOL OUT LOUD!" While a lot of this criticism seems to sprout from a general ignorance of the mechanisms involved, there's no doubt that they're imperfect at best and that one should be chary of using them to assess the precise strength of one team against another. Here, though, we're talking in wide and general terms, so it's probably OK.

Over his career, England's Rooney has played 28 games against teams that were, at the time of the game, in the top 20 of FIFA's rankings, 21 against teams ranked 21-50 and 27 against teams ranked 51 and below. To break it down crudely, that's just over a third of his caps against teams around the same level as England, just under a third against teams probably inferior and just over a third against teams significantly inferior.

All in all, the word "level" isn't the one that springs to mind, though if you take the average ranking of all the sides he's played, you get 48, which means that right now, for Wayne Rooney, international level means "Slovakia."

(Odd statistical quirk: Rooney has never played against the No. 1-ranked team in the world.)

There's a fallacy here, which is that if you had more than 200 teams of nearly the same standard but ranked them according to results, you'd still end up with one team at number 1 and another at 207. After all, the numbers are relative and don't indicate quality in themselves. However, given England's consistency in both the rankings (since Rooney’s debut: no higher than 3, no lower than 15) and in performance it's probably reasonably indicative. In any case, it will certainly serve to reflect the spread of power in a general sense. If you could somehow quantify the difference in quality between England and Andorra, it might not quite match the gulf in the rankings but it would certainly be significant.

In any case, this isn't meant to be a detailed statistical analysis; the numbers themselves aren't that important. What matters is this notion of an international level, an intuitively ridiculous notion that doesn't stand up to the slightest critical scrutiny. If you watch the game then you'll be told this more times than you care to hear, but nevertheless: England's opponents on Friday night have one professional player and a population (32,404) that could barely fill Ewood Park. They're a country (sort of) and as a member of UEFA have as much right to a place in qualifying as anybody else, but they’re not very good and they’re not alone. (Those of us who watch England largely for the chuckles will forever be grateful for those 8.3 seconds back in 1993 in which Davide Gualtieri put the Sammarinese up 1-0.)

Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
At the "international level," few teams benefit from prolonged time to jell -- in 2002, South Korea canceled its domestic league so Guus Hiddink could prep for the World Cup.

This is not to say that international football in general isn't a unique proposition with its own distinct challenges. When commentators and pundits refer to the international level, they do so not in reference to the strength (or, as is usually the case for England, weakness) of the opposition, but in acknowledgement of what we might more accurately call "international circumstances."

You see, international football differs from club football in several respects -- some superficial (we're yet not at the stage where Premier League players are expected to sing "God Save Dave Richards") and others less so (the inability to purchase players) -- but perhaps the most significant of these is the simple fact that an international team isn't actually a team that often or for that long. Therefore, the question of whether a player can play at international level is a valid one; it’s just terribly phrased.

Furthermore, international football isn't about facing more powerful opposition the way that intercontinental club football is; rather, it's about facing opponents outside the familiar habits and without the ingrained knowledge of the club game. Some countries can ameliorate this if they're fortunate enough to have a clutch of players at the same club or clubs (see Spain and Germany) or if they've implemented coherent, national development programmes (see, er, Spain and Germany, again). But the traditional ways of constructing a decent and coherent team -- that's practice, practice and practice -- are almost impossible to replicate, without taking the kind of exceptional step that South Korea did before the 2002 World Cup when the domestic season was canceled to allow Guus Hiddink time to prepare his team.

In some ways it's unfair to judge players on their international performances since they're playing without much of the unseen stuff they usually do. A player is a part of a system, after all, and in international circumstances it's an unfamiliar system made up of unfamiliar parts. Alternatively, you could maybe argue that it's a better test of innate footballing skill; certainly, international football is in some ways more interesting for being less hothoused. But ultimately it's a Darwinian problem: The player who thrives on the international level isn't necessarily the most talented, but the most adaptable to change.*

Mario Balotelli - Stick or twist for City?

By: timbersfan, 11:40 PM GMT on October 11, 2012

It is a fair bet that Pablo Zabaleta doesn't do multi-coloured chicken hats, nocturnal female penitentiary visits nor does he produce lively domestic firework displays from his upstairs bathroom window. By avoiding some of these elements and improving markedly year on year since his 2008 arrival at the Etihad, Zabaleta has become a firm crowd favourite. The owner of the outrageous hat is also a terrace icon at City, but the winds of change suggest something different might be floating in the air over Manchester 11 for Mario Barwuah Balotelli.

- Dzeko to stay and fight for his place

When the home crowd devotes its time to producing a song about you, you know you have arrived in the hearts of the City faithful. Both Zabaleta and Balotelli have been honoured in this way but the respective lyrics of these ditties make for an interesting comparison. The utilitarian de de der Pablo Zabaleta does what it says on the tin, simple, effective, repetitive, but the ode to Balotelli - like the man himself - covers much more than simply football:

OOOOOOO Balotelli,
He's a striker,
He's good at darts,
An allergy to grass but when he plays he's +!#+* class,
He drives around Moss Side with a wallet full of cash (repeat until you are hoarse)

The Boy Balotelli, the obvious polar opposite in the City squad to the quiet unassuming Zabaleta, is at 22-years-old a breaking news story on legs, the logical development of where modern football has landed us, indeed where the modern world has landed us, a bit of a lad that folk lambast and ridicule in equal amounts. The lad who when stopped by the police and found to be carrying £15,000 in cash in his back pocket explained it thus: "I'm rich." The man who throws darts out of upstairs windows at youth team players when he is bored. The man who gives lump sums to tramps when he feels like it. Apocryphal, spurious tales some of these may be, but the point is clear: here lives a strange and exotic beast for the grey wet streets of Manchester.

We are often told that Balotelli needs an arm around his shoulder, a word of calm advice, a quiet corner away from the glare of publicity, but he seems to need this every day of his life - as some people do - and he does not get it every day. Football folk, hardened and selfish, do not have the time and patience for this touchy-feely claptrap every day of the week. They have training to take, interviews to give and Playstations to twiddle with. Balotelli, meanwhile, wanders off into the next nightclub, lap-dancing bar or press conference and the cameras begin to blink again.

Think about being 22 for a minute. Then add millionaire status. A frivolous cocktail, if ever there was one. Now take away parental advice, familial stability and sense of home. Throw in racism from some of those that pay to watch you exercise your craft, the influence of agents and hangers-on, plus all-pervading media intrusion. Money, fame and a public private life may seem like a heady mix at first, but soon - as many stars of this great sport of ours have discovered - it turns around and bites you square on the backside. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide and every time you walk out of the door, you are accompanied by the ever-present popping of flashbulbs.

Mario Balotelli sells newspapers, fills webspace and turns heads. It is fashionable to both "love his idiosyncratic ways" and "lambast his idiotic selfishness". A massive bubbling vortex of dirty water swirls around his every move. He is the catalyst of a thousand heated debates on the airwaves and in pubs. He is a loon, a loner and a loose cannon. He cannot be allowed to go on like this. He cannot get away with that. He should be locked up for the other.

We are all aware of the ability to produce sublime moments on the football pitch and, in the flash of an eye, sublimely ridiculous ones off it. There is no need to list all his stand-out moments in a sky blue shirt here, but there have been many and he can count amongst them a Man of the Match display at Wembley in City's first FA Cup final win in 35 years and a brace at Old Trafford in that most stunning of Manchester derbies. He is clearly a man for the big occasion, as his crucial penalty in the last minute 3-2 defeat of Spurs last season reflects, but the same game saw an ugly incident with Scott Parker and four other red cards have floated unnecessarily in front of the Italian's face in his time at City. As Italian football expert James Horncastle suggests, "It seems clubs can't live with him or without him."

He has seemingly also perfected an odd way of making good whatever his destructive character has diminished in the first place. When a squabble broke out over who should take a free-kick against Sunderland in the title run-in last season (which mirrored perfectly a similar incident in an Inter game when he obstructed designated penalty taker Samuel Eto'o from taking his run up against Palermo, because it had been he, Balotelli, who had been fouled for the award in the first place) Balotelli was made to look like a small boy in danger of losing his sense of reasoning. Growing bored with a succession of Kolarov freekicks that had hit the North Stand roof, Balotelli seemed to suddenly be gripped by the notion that it was his turn for a slice of the action. With time slipping away and City needing to score rapidly and more than once to gain an unlikely but vital point, the only thing on Balotelli's mind as the mists swept down over his eyes, was that he had been wronged and he should make a stand. In any circumstances comical, in these absurdly so.

Many feel the Premier League is no place for this kind of post pubescent delinquent tantrum. As Martin Samuel stated this week in The Mail: "Balotelli wants to operate beyond the strictures of the team ethic...the cost of this is beginning to outweigh the benefit." Sandro Mazzola, that great old man of Italian football talks of "making a leap of quality" in a footballer's maturity, but this in reference to Mirko Vucinic of Juventus, who has reached the ripe old age of 28. A slight wait, it seems, may be on the cards for those of us watching Balotelli's stuttering progress.

Paul Sarahs, a London-based Blues fan who is a football commentator, carried out an informal internet trawl of fans' opinions through Twitter and was surprised by the response: "The majority, it seems, are out of patience and ready to see him move on if we get a bid of €25m+." he states. "I agree. Time to cut our losses."

But in a flash of brilliance, with a swipe of that nonchalant right foot, Balotelli produces something akin to the football crown jewels, an ornate decoration that turns the head, turns the tide and turns the game. His is the kind of magic that can be used to end all arguments. The last minute penalty. The goal knocked in with the shoulder, the 95th minute set-up in the final game of the season to win the title for the first time in 44 years? No problem, sir. Sign on the dotted line, just....here!

But his is the wonky temperament that you cannot leave alone for a second. The pan of milk going over the sides and down onto the stove. The sloping shoulders, the dough eyes of the scolded puppy, the toothy grin of the kid in the sweetshop. And herein lies the conundrum. What to do with the boy who refuses to toe the line, who refuses to grow up, who refuses to play the team role?

In Mancini, Balotelli has one of the few trainers at the top level, who can really see into the great dark void inside. It is public knowledge that Mancini thought highly of himself as a player, sometimes more highly than his coaches and had already worked a serious superiority complex by the time he switched from Bologna to Sampdoria, where he would enjoy 424 sumptuously decorative games for the Blucerchiati. Let us not forget that the extremely volatile youth that was Mancini picked fist fights with Trevor Francis and Liam Brady, two of the English league's more docile exports to Serie A.

Juan Sebastian Veron tells the tale of getting back to the dressing room to find Mancini stripped to the waist ready for a fist fight with him too, after some moment of perceived betrayal had taken a grip on the young Italian. It takes a special kind of kindred spirit to recognise the potential for this kind of volatility in a fellow professional and, in Mancini's indulgence of Balotelli, he is no doubt attempting to harness it for the good of Manchester City. For, make no mistake, harnessing talent like this with group benefit in mind - and nothing else will serve in modern football - is as easy as nailing custard to the wall.

Mario Balotelli is clearly not the first young player from Italy with a penchant for fireworks. Neither is he in the worst place on the planet, if he wishes to be at least partially understood and accepted for what he is: a fine footballer with the potential to go much higher. But time may be beginning to run out for Balotelli and, at some point in the not too distant future, even his greatest supporter may feel it is time to ask for new cards.

Gareth Bale is a diver and Spurs fans are ashamed of him

By: timbersfan, 11:39 PM GMT on October 11, 2012

The most frequent question I've been asked this week by gleeful looking non-Spurs fans is just how embarrassed I was by Gareth Bale's dive against Aston Villa.

Cheek-scorchingly ashamed is how I would describe it. Not that I or any other Spurs fan has any control over what the players do on the pitch, but over the years their antics and my ego have become inexplicably entwined.

I guess the reason that Bale's dive pained me so is that I identify Tottenham as the good guys. This is a flawed logic when so many people hate us with every fibre of their soul, but then even the Nazis believed that God was on their side.

Yet when it comes to the subject of diving, I've always thought that we've had some cause to consider ourselves whiter than Lilywhite. Chelsea had Didier Drogba falling over whenever anyone breathed on him and Arsenal had Robert Pires collapsing in the penalty area with a roguish Gallic flair, but Tottenham never had a diving expert who could guarantee a 10.0 from the judges.

I remember when Didier Zokora marked an early appearance for Spurs with a blatant dive to win a penalty. From the reaction of the crowd around me you would have thought that he'd slaughtered a puppy on the pitch. There was just no appetite for his cheating, even though it did profit the team.

Zokora never overcame the incident and was thereafter about as popular in my section of the Park Lane as Ian Wright wearing a Chelsea shirt singing 'I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles'. I was always proud of that reaction. Yes, we want to win, but not at all costs.

Now Bale, of course, is a different case. Zokora was always destined to be unpopular for the fact that he couldn't score, tackle or pass. In contrast, Bale is a hero at the Lane. Disliking him is not an option.

Nevertheless, diving has become a bigger and bigger part of his game. Bale has denied it in the past, claiming that he often goes to ground because, were he not to, he'd find himself amputated from the knees down.

There's a certain truth to this. Players who can run at defenders as fast as Bale very often find their careers curtailed by injuries caused by desperate 'tackles'.

However, there are circumstances when there can be no possible excuse that rings true. Bale's dive as Brad Guzan approached him was one such instance. He was looking for a foul and, unlike Luis Suarez, he didn't even have the good grace to make his attempt at deception so bad that it was laughable.

Had the referee bought it, then Guzan could have found himself sent off and Villa would have been down to ten men (technically nine given Darren Bent's performance). Our win would have been brought into question and Bale would be facing even more headlines than he already has.

Ever heard of 'The Boy Who Cried Wolf', Gareth? Maybe you're more familiar with its modern update, 'The Ashley Young Story', in which naughty Ashley tricked everyone so many times that they stopped believing him when he really was fouled in the box.

That's what Bale has to look forward to if he doesn't mend his ways and it will be to his and Tottenham's detriment. Considering that Bale will be facing his old nemesis Charlie Adam in the Wales v Scotland fixture on Friday, this might also not be the best time for referees to think that he's a diver who goes to ground too easily.

The Harden Dilemma

By: timbersfan, 11:36 PM GMT on October 11, 2012

If you Google the words "Oklahoma City" and "dynasty," 2,270,000 results come up. Change it to "Durant," "Westbrook" and "dynasty" and that number swells to 2,830,000. Tweaking it to "Thunder" and "dynasty" earns you nearly 7 million results, including headlines like "Why the Emerging Thunder Dynasty Is Precarious" and "Will OKC Thunder Be the NBA's Next Great Dynasty?" There's an 87 percent chance that the person in charge of rigging Bleacher Report's headlines for traffic told his bosses, "Dude, tell our 18-year-old unpaid basketball writers to throw 'Thunder' and 'dynasty' into their headlines — just trust me."1

In general, the word "dynasty" gets thrown around too liberally — they don't happen anymore, regardless of the sport. The last "dynasty" was probably the 1996-2001 Yankees, who appeared in five of six World Series and came within one inning of winning all five. In the NBA's seven-decade history, we only witnessed four true dynasties: Russell's Celtics (13 years, 11 titles), Jordan's Bulls (eight years, six titles), Magic's Lakers (12 years, nine Finals appearances, five titles)2 and Mikan's Lakers (six years, five titles), who have to be included even though they thrived before things like "the shot clock," "dunking" and "multiple black guys on each team." Bird's Celtics (seven years, five Finals appearances, three titles) could have snatched the "80s dynasty title" from Magic's Lakers if Lenny Bias didn't decide to get high. Duncan's Spurs (nine years, four titles) never made you feel like "My God, how are we gonna stop those guys?" Shaqobe's Lakers (five years, four Finals appearances, three titles) became something of a lost dynasty, the guys who blew a chance to own the 2000s because they couldn't get along. Nobody else is worth mentioning.

It's hard to imagine another NBA dynasty happening — the league is too talented, too deep and too smart. (You're right, I got carried away. Let's tweak that last part to "so much smarter than it was.") Instead, we'll see more of a word that doesn't exist and absolutely should. I'm thinking it's a hybrid word for "contender" and "dynasty," something that captures contenders who remained relevant for a significant stretch and won at least one championship.

The word? Dynastender.

(I know, I know … it sounds like a new Jurassic Park ride at Universal Studios. Just bear with me.)

Bird's Celtics, Duncan's Spurs and Shaqobe's Lakers were high-end dynastenders. The Bad Boys Pistons were the ultimate dynastender — they thrived for five years, won back to back titles, forged a unique identity and were brilliantly put together, but you'd never call them a dynasty. You could say the same about Frazier's Knicks, Cowens's Celtics, Hakeem's Rockets and the Kobe/Gasol Lakers. Meanwhile, West's Lakers, Doc's Sixers, Pettit's Hawks and Dirk's Mavericks were low-end dynastenders, contending for prolonged stretches but winning just one championship apiece. And yes, Garnett's Celtics will land in the previous sentence unless they pull off another title.

Which current NBA franchise seems like the safest bet to become a dynastender and possibly even a dynasty? Here's a hint: It's not Oklahoma City. Miami already has two Finals appearances and one title, as well as the best basketball player in 20 years. They could easily rip off four or five straight titles … you know, assuming LeBron keeps himself motivated and actually stays in Miami. (I have my doubts.) There's a remote and semi-alarming possibility that LeBron could cruise to two more Miami titles, switch teams in 2014 (when his contract ends), rip off two or three more titles in New York/Cleveland/Los Angeles/London/wherever and become the NBA's first player-centric dynasty.

(So if you're scoring at home, we'd have Russell's Celtics, Jordan's Bulls, Magic's Lakers and LeBron's LeBrons. Doesn't that sound horrifying? Let's hope he doesn't read this column and decide it's a good idea.)

Meanwhile, Kevin Durant's Thunder team seems destined to become more of a high-end dynastender — a team that contends for a solid decade while winning somewhere between two and four titles. But that can't happen without James Harden, which is why the negotiations for Harden's contract extension quietly became the NBA's most compelling story about three weeks ago. If Thunder GM Sam Presti doesn't lock Harden up by Halloween, Harden will play out the 2012-13 season and become eligible for a restricted free-agent offer. The odds of a well-below-the-cap team like Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, Detroit, Cleveland or Utah offering Harden "the max" (the highest they can go: four years, $64 million) are basically off the board in Vegas. He's getting that money from someone.

Presti knows that. So does Harden. And that's made their October dance particularly fascinating. Presti's public rhetoric has been particularly pointed: We love James, we'd love to bring him back, but we're a small-market team and it would be really hard for us to pay the luxury tax. Hmmmmmm. They're already paying Durant and Westbrook "max" money, and they're already shelling out $12 million a year for Serge Ibaka. Paying Harden means paying the tax. Period. Especially when those Durant/Westbrook deals start bumping up — for the 2014-15 season, one year after the tax penalties become more prohibitive, they're going to be making $35.7 million combined.3 Throw in Ibaka's salary ($12.25 million) and Harden's hypothetical max deal ($14.3 million) and suddenly we just crept over $62 million for four guys.

Given Oklahoma City's economics, they'd be losing eight figures a year (allegedly) to keep their best four players. And really, even if Harden takes a little less — say, $57 million instead of $64 million — that doesn't really help the Thunder. Or so they say. Thanks to the latest labor agreement, they're arguing publicly that no small-market team can pay three max contract guys (in this case: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Harden) AND avoid the prohibitive luxury-tax penalties AND field a good enough supporting cast. Although this seems like a good time to mention that Oklahoma City …

1. Sold out the past four seasons.
2. Fielded a popular/marketable/likable contender for the past three years.
3. Hosted 19 playoff games over the past two seasons (free money).
4. Didn't pay the luxury tax in any of the last four years.
5. Will remain under the tax if they don't extend Harden until next summer.
6. Wouldn't be the first "small market" team to pay the luxury tax. Check out this splendid piece of "Who paid the luxury tax since 2002?" research from Sham Sports — you'll notice Sacramento (2003-04: $30 million), San Antonio (2009: $8.8 million), Minnesota (2004: $17.6 million) and Cleveland (2008-10: $43.1 million) on there.

So for the Thunder to say, Yeah, we can't pay the tax, we're a small-market team, that would be financial suicide — it's not totally genuine. Businesses have ebbs and flows. You can't complain about losing a reasonable amount of money for the next few years (if that's even true — more on that in a second) after raking in profits for five straight years. Nobody feels bad for you, Billionaire Dudes Who Hit The Jackpot With Durant, Hijacked The Sonics From Seattle And Have Been Raking In Money In OKC Ever Since. Seriously. Can it already.

OK, so imagine you're James Harden. Your team already took care of Durant and Westbrook, gave $48 million to someone who couldn't start for Spain's Olympic team (sorry, I had to), and guaranteed Kendrick Perkins $25.4 million over the next three years (yes, the decimal was in the right place). Now they're telling you, "You can stay, Glue Guy For Our Perennial Contender, but only if you take less."

Why should Harden agree to that? He's already sacrificing his numbers and fulfilling a relatively thankless role: the third banana, the supporting character with a rare and significant ability to step up on command and handle things offensively anytime Westbrook goes into one of his little funks. Statistically, he's one of the most efficient players in basketball. And like Dennis Johnson, Manu Ginobili, Joe Dumars and (going way back) Sam Jones before him, Harden has shown the enviable ability to lay low for 42 minutes, then rise to the occasion when it matters. When that didn't happen in the 2012 Finals, people noticed immediately. I can't remember the sixth-best player in a Finals drawing more attention than Harden did, actually. It was everything he never wanted.

Last May, Grantland's Jordan Conn wrote a terrific Harden profile that included the following revelation: Before the 2009 draft, Harden (considered to be a top-five pick) e-mailed Presti pushing for Oklahoma City to select him third overall. See, Harden disliked being "The Man" at Arizona State. He hated the pressure of delivering game after game after game. He didn't need 20 shots a game. He'd rather become the third-best player on a great team than the best player on a forgettable one. If anything, playing with Durant and Westbrook was perfect for him. James Harden wanted to make sure Sam Presti knew that. So he e-mailed him to make sure.

For Presti, it was something of a godsend — coming from San Antonio, Presti learned to value chemistry more than most. Putting together a quality basketball team wasn't just about throwing talented players together, but also about how they meshed as a whole … you know, because "the secret" of basketball is that it's not really about basketball. Presti was already leaning toward picking Harden for the same reasons that made Harden send that e-mail. The rest was history. It's hard to imagine a better running mate for Durant and Westbrook. If Oklahoma City keeps Harden, at the very least, they're locking up a decade-long dynastender run … and maybe even a little more than that.

(And if they trade him? Wow.)

How will Harden's saga play out? I see three potential outcomes, and only three …

• Harden's agent accepts less money to stay in Oklahoma City — a fundamentally ignorant decision that would mean they were brainwashed by Oklahoma City's small-market B.S.. If that happens, lock down the Zombies for two to four titles in the 2010s assuming nothing funky happens (injuries, drugs, a fatal injury during a brawl at the BET Awards, whatever).

• Harden's agent says, "Let's play this baby out." That's actually the best outcome for both parties. Harden guarantees himself a four-year, $64 million offer from someone this summer; Oklahoma City locks Harden into a cheap 2012-13 price ($5.82 million) while also leaving itself the flexibility to (a) trade Harden during the season (doubtful; they'd never mess that dramatically with a potential title team), (b) match Harden's "max" offer next summer and amnesthize Kendrick Perkins (most likely), or (c) match that offer, then trade Harden or Westbrook after the 2013-14 season because the tax penalties will keep getting worse (possible).

• Oklahoma City panics and trades Harden before Halloween, or some time before February's deadline, for 100 cents on the dollar. Totally improbable … and yet, we can't totally rule it out.

I see them picking the "Let's play this baby out" option because it's a safer move; because it's beneficial to them ecomonically (at least this season); because it allows them to keep every conceivable option open; and because you never jeopardize a potential title when you're this close. Remember how close OKC came to winning that Finals? The first four games probably came down to five or six plays total. But just for fun, what if someone bowled them over with a Godfather offer right now? And what would that offer look like?

I couldn't help throwing on my Picasso beret, dusting off the Trade Machine and making a 90-minute dive. After ruling out the usual suspects for being too expensive (Andre Iguodala, Rudy Gay), too risky (Tyreke Evans), too smart to overpay for Harden (Gordon Hayward/Derrick Favors), or too young to make enough of an impact in the 2013 playoffs (Bradley Beal, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist), I landed on three possible Godfather Offer teams.

Golden State: Everyone loves Klay Thompson (including me), an old-school two-guard who defends well, shoots 3s and gets to the rim. If you're Golden State, would you rather pay Thompson a rookie-scale salary these next three seasons … or Harden four times as much? In a vacuum, you'd pick Thompson because Harden doesn't bring you any closer to a title these next three years. But let's say you were trying to make a splash and thought Harden's game, recognizable beard and Team USA pedigree would appeal to your beyond-tortured fan base? You might think about it … right?

Phoenix: As Zach Lowe pointed out in his Grantland debut yesterday, what the hell are they? How would you describe the Suns in one sentence other than saying "post-Nash identity crisis"? That makes them our most likely candidate to overpay in a Harden deal: They could dangle Jared Dudley (one of the league's best role players, and someone who could fill Harden's 3-point-shooting and chemistry voids while providing better defense, even if he isn't remotely the same ballhandler and creator), their no. 1 pick (hell, make it unprotected) and maybe their two Lakers picks from the Nash deal. Hold this thought.

Minnesota: What if they said, "Screw it, we want to build around Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio and Harden and we don't care how we get there," then offered Derrick Williams (the 2011 draft's no. 2 pick),4 Luke Ridnour and Nik Pekovic, as well as a top-five protected pick in 2014, for Harden, Perkins and Eric Maynor? Actually …

Minnesota/Phoenix: Same deal as above, only the Thunder would send Williams (the former Arizona star) to Phoenix for Dudley and a top-three protected no. 1 pick in 2013. Whoa! The Thunder just flipped a potential two-year, $46 million commitment in 2013-14 and 2014-15 (Harden and Perkins) into one of the league's best role players/contract bargains (Dudley), the league's best backup point guard (Ridnour), an emerging banger (Pekovic, a one-year rental) and two future lottery picks for teams that aren't exactly playoff contenders. Even better, they saved nearly $3 million this season and something like $17-20 million for the two years after that (depending on where those draft picks land), not to mention the extra luxury tax money they'd suddenly be pulling in.

Just for the hell of it, let's say Oklahoma City made one of the last two fake trades. As long as you're buying the narrative that Oklahoma City can't afford Harden, you could talk yourself into the drop-off from Harden to Dudley/Williams (tangible, but certainly not catastrophic) not outweighing every other benefit from that trade (especially when you include the picks and the luxury tax savings). So really, it's up to the Thunder here — do they want to win championships even if it means tilting into the red, or simply contend for championships while also remaining in the black?

As amazing as this sounds, we've asked that question in baseball, football and hockey over the years — many times, actually — but never with basketball. The Sixers dumped Wilt's salary on the '69 Lakers, but mostly because they were tired of dealing with him. The '75 Bucks traded Kareem to the Lakers, but only because he didn't want to stay in Milwaukee. The '76 Nets were forced to sell Julius Erving because they would have gone under otherwise. The '82 Rockets traded Moses to Philly, but only because he wanted to leave (their team wasn't good enough). Seattle broke up GP and Kemp because Kemp wanted a bigger contract, which they worried about paying because he was acting so erratically. (And as it turned out, they were right — he ended up having substance-abuse issues.) Minnesota broke up Marbury and KG because Marbury wanted his own team, not because they couldn't afford him.

The closest we ever came to a money-over-championships trade? Two different times during the Jordan era, Chicago nearly traded an unhappy-about-being-underpaid Scottie Pippen … and both times, they ended up keeping him and making a little history, too. There are a variety of ways in which Oklahoma City could make history over these next 10 years, but trading Harden would be the worst. There's simply no precedent for it.

By any calculation, Sam Jones was one of the best 40 basketball players of all time, someone who came through in big moments more than just about anyone. He also drove Bill Russell crazy for years and years — Russell never understood why Sam passed up the chance to be as consistently good as Jerry West or Oscar Robertson. Other than Jordan, Russell was the most homicidal competitor the NBA has ever seen, someone who puked before every big game and judged himself by winning and winning only. Knowing his buddy possessed the talent to dominate all the time — only doing it occasionally — was something that gnawed away at Russell for years. Finally, he asked Sam about it. According to Russell's book Second Wind, here's how Sam responded:

I don't want to do that. I don't want the responsibility of having to play like that every night.
Russell accepted that answer and they never discussed it again. As he writes later in his book, "I never could guess what Sam was going to do or say, with one major exception: I knew exactly how he would react in our huddle during the final second of a crucial game. I'm talking about a situation where we'd be one point behind, with five seconds to go in a game that meant not just first place or pride but a whole season, when everything was on the line … Red would be looking around at faces, trying to decide which play to call. It's a moment when even the better players in the NBA will start coughing, tying their shoelaces and looking the other way. At such moments I knew what Sam would do as well as I know my own name. 'Give me the ball,' he'd say. 'I'll make it.' And all of us would look at him, and we'd know by looking that he meant what he said. Not only that, but you knew that he'd make it."

That's why Sam Jones was one of the 40 greatest players ever, and that's why Russell's Celtics won 11 titles instead of, say, six. But did you know Sam Jones backed up Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman for the first four years of his career? What if the NBA had a salary cap and luxury tax back then? What if Sam was eligible for the "max" offer, and what if the Celtics had already taken care of Russell, Cousy and Heinsohn? Had the Celtics somehow talked Sam into staying for lesser money and rolled off the next few titles, the narrative would have been, "Red Auerbach does it again!" And had the Celtics flipped Jones for two or three lesser assets, it's hard to imagine them winning as many titles.

And look, Harden will never be as good as Sam Jones — if he's lucky, he will become a more durable version of Manu — and Oklahoma City is the best team for him if you remove money from the equation. But you can't remove money from the equation. Which leaves the Thunder using the loyalty card and that's it — something teams love playing as long as it's suiting them. (Who can forget the Celtics almost trading Ray Allen to Memphis and Chicago last March, then coming down with amnesia and being blindsided when he jumped to Miami four months later?) If Harden leaves eight figures on the table to re-sign with the Thunder, he's a loyal sap. If he does it without securing a no-trade clause — especially on the heels of the Celtics rope-a-doping Rajon Rondo into a discount $55 million extension (well below his market value), then trying to trade him for Chris Paul one year later — his agent should be disbarred.

But even then … why take anything less? Why should James Harden care if Oklahoma City loses money?

Here's a better question: Why should Harden even believe them?

Didn't we just come off an acrimonious lockout in which the league cried poverty for months and months, and then, as soon as the lockout ended, they had a slew of billionaires lined up to purchase their teams? We're in the middle of an NBA renaissance that mirrors what happened from 1984 to 1993: marketable (and likable) stars, genuine rivalries, contenders in big markets, a transcendent superstar leading the way … really, we're about to run back the most successful 10-year stretch in the history of the league.

So listening to Oklahoma City's brain trust whine about "the bottom line" like they're some mom-and-pop hardware store in East Shartsquatch … I mean, it just doesn't add up, especially when you factor in their profits from this season and the previous four.5 Clay Bennett's group paid $350 million for the Sonics. If you don't think they could sell a franchise that features Harden, Westbrook and Kevin Effing Durant for $500 million in about 2.3 seconds, you're eating bath salts again. Billionaires overpay for sports franchises all the time. It's the ultimate ego purchase. It's like buying a 700-foot yacht. You get to walk around with your chest puffed out, give Humblebrag interviews, sit courtside and swing your genitals like a lasso, basically.

You know why we'll never find out if some billionaire would severely overpay for a lovable contender starring Kevin Durant that's going to win 60 games and make the Conference Finals AT WORST every year for the next decade? Because there's a better chance of Clay Bennett buying a summer house in Seattle then selling the Thunder right now. Maybe you didn't notice, but the Thunder became Young America's Team last season. Attend one of their road games this season and glance around at the crowd. You know what you'll see? Dozens and dozens of kids wearing Thunder jerseys. You know why?

Little kids are front-runners!

It's the same reason so many people in my age group became Cowboys, Steelers and Yankee fans. It's the same reason I took my son to his first Clippers game last spring, and by halftime, he was demanding a GRIFFIN jersey. If you were a little front-runner and your hometown team sucked, who'd grab your fancy? Probably Durant and Westbrook and that dude with the crazy beard, right? In 2012, you can follow any NBA team you want, whenever you want, however you want. You can watch them on your laptop, your iPad, your iPhone or your giant TV. Really, it doesn't matter where the Thunder play — they could play every home game in Pyongyang and have the same relevance. Throw in revenue sharing, the league's savvy digital presence, the real potential of staggering fees for the league's next television deal (up in 2016), and the Thunder's success with season ticket sales (they're fifth in the league this season) and I'm pretty sure the Thunder's owners won't be panhandling on the streets of Oklahoma City after paying James Harden.

And since we're here, shouldn't we mention how well the NBA is doing right now? How does that NOT play into this Harden dilemma? Unlike the NFL, the NBA doesn't have concussions hanging over it like a black cloud. Unlike baseball, the NBA actually appeals to people under 25. Unlike hockey, the NBA is a white-collar sport that can charge white-collar prices. Of the four major sports, it's the only one that will unquestionably be sitting in a better place five years from now.

Here's a fun fact: The 2010 Finals featured the no. 2 TV market (Los Angeles) and the no. 7 TV market (Boston), as well as five perennial All-Stars (including one of the most famous basketball players of all time) and the league's most famous rivalry. It also lasted for seven games, with the final game coming down to the final 20 seconds. Those seven games drew a 10.6 Nielsen rating. Last year's Finals also featured five All-Stars (including one of the most famous basketball players of all time), only it featured the no. 16 market (Miami) and the no. 45 market (Oklahoma City) and only lasted five games. You know what rating the series earned? 10.1. And actually, the first five 2012 Finals games earned a higher rating than the first five 2010 Finals games.

So even if Oklahoma City loves to break out the small-market violin when it suits them, the facts say differently — if anything, they're one of the three or four most "global" NBA teams right now. Forbes evaluated the Thunder to be worth just $348 million, a remarkably dumb number. If any billionaire called up Clay Bennett and offered him $348 million for the Thunder, Bennett would laugh and hang up. You aren't even getting his attention unless it's a number that starts with "5." And even then, he's probably hanging up.

Really, it's no different than the Thunder's dilemma with Harden: On paper, he isn't actually a "max" player, just like Oklahoma City isn't actually worth $500 million. But saying what something should be worth ignores the concept of value itself: Value is determined by the market for that value, not what we believe that value should be. At my fantasy football auction, someone paid 69 bucks for LeSean McCoy — you might think that's too high, but someone disagreed with you. On eBay, the same two people are bidding up every game-worn ABA jersey that comes up — recently, Don Chaney's Spirits jersey fetched an astonishing $18,000. Too high? Maybe, maybe not. At least two people were ready to pay that price.

If Oklahoma City's owners don't want to pay full price for Harden, then they're really saying, We moved an NBA team from a booming city in the Pacific Northwest to a much smaller city that generates much less revenue and compromises our ability to win championships, but the fans here are so grateful that they won't hold it against us that we just tossed away a puncher's chance at a dynasty. If that's true, they're taking advantage of the goodwill of Oklahoma City's fans — really, they should be flipping their asset, cashing out and selling to an egomaniac billionaire who won't worry about losing a few bucks, just about owning one of the NBA's hottest franchises and getting shown on nationally televised games 20 to 25 times per year.

Is there some wealthy maniac out there who would pay 30 percent over that Forbes sticker price without blinking? The short answer: YES! That's why the NBA owners were so disingenuous during the lockout — they were crying poverty, and meanwhile, they had a waiting list for new owners! And we fell for it! Never again. That's why I think Oklahoma City's owners are full of an entire sewage system of shit. Let's just say it wouldn't be the first time. So don't settle for less than what you're worth, James Harden. They're playing possum. They will cave. You will get paid. Let the dynastendery begin.

The Sports Guy's Thursday NFL Pick

By: timbersfan, 11:35 PM GMT on October 11, 2012

The Tennessee Titans have been outscored 88-181 through five weeks, which means they're giving up an astonishing 36.2 points per game. They're on pace to break Baltimore's 1981 record of points allowed for a single season (551). Their opponents are averaging nearly 425 yards of offense per game, and opposing quarterbacks have a gaudy 112.4 QB rating against them. They've recorded 81 first downs and given up 129. All four Titans losses were by 20 points or more. In their only win (a 44-41 overtime thriller over the Lions), they scored a record four touchdowns of 60 yards or more, including a backward pass on a punt, a kick return, an interception in which the defender pulled the ball away from the receiver, and a TD catch in which the receiver reached three feet down over a d-back in mid-air and somehow caught the ball, kept his balance and kept running. They don't have a QB on pace for 2,500 yards passing, nor do they have a running back on pace for 700 yards rushing or a receiver on pace for 900 yards receiving. Their best player (Chris Johnson) is rushing for 2.9 yards per carry, slaughtered hundreds of thousands of fantasy teams across America yet again, and might be waiting tables at Vince Young's Steakhouse within the next two months. Their only explosive offensive player (Kenny Britt) still isn't healthy enough to play. Their coach (Mike Munchak) has been under fire for refusing to bench Johnson or shake up his coaching staff. Their offensive coordinator is the always-embattled Chris Palmer, who couldn't handle calling the plays for a vigorous game of Madden at this point. Even advanced metrics hates the Titans: Football Outsiders ranks them 32nd in DVOA with a rating of negative 40.7, among the lowest numbers ever measured if that holds up. With the Steelers coming to Tennessee tonight, it's hard to think of a single reason to grab the Titans and seven points.

Well, here's another reason — I don't believe in the Steelers at all right now. They're slightly above-average at best, and the numbers through five weeks back it up. Tonight's line is three points too high simply because Vegas knows that nobody wants to take Tennessee. Can you really get blown out three weeks in a row? Might Tennessee's defense have looked so porous because they played the no. 1, 4 and 6 offenses so far AND caught San Diego and Minnesota on the wrong days? Aren't they due for another half-decent game? Why am I feeling like tonight will end up being Matt Hasselbeck's last hurrah before he retires, then murders Trent Dilfer and takes over the Token Bald Ex-QB spot on Monday Night Countdown? Why am I even feeling … [gasp] … a long Chris Johnson touchdown run? Why do I like this crappy pick so much? Should I stop drinking during the day? I can't fight it anymore … Tennessee, you've been sprayed.

The Pick: Pittsburgh 24, Tennessee 23 (Titans cover)

Wednesday/Thursday Nights: 1-4
Last Week: 8-6
Season: 39-37-2

Sunset for the Golden Generation

By: timbersfan, 11:35 PM GMT on October 11, 2012

In case you couldn't tell from the title, In the Matter of Football Association Disciplinary Proceedings Between: The Football Association (Applicant) -and- John George Terry (Respondent): Ruling of the Full Regulatory Commission Following the Substantive Disciplinary Hearing Held Between 24th and 27th September 20121 is an amazing document. If you're a soccer fan, you already know what this is about, but if not, here's the history: On October 23, 2011, during the course of a Premier League match between QPR and Chelsea, superstar Chelsea defender and then-England captain John Terry, who is white, directed a racial insult toward QPR defender Anton Ferdinand, who is biracial. The incident was captured on camera with at least a hey–let's–hire–lip readers level of clarity. It immediately prompted one of English soccer's periodic micro-apocalypses. Terry was stripped of his national-team captaincy by the FA. Fabio Capello, England's high-profile manager, resigned in protest. Crown prosecutors brought racial harassment charges against Terry.2 Terry pleaded not guilty, not because he denied he'd said the words but because he claimed he'd phrased them as a question, like, Whoa, hang on, did you think I just called you _____? Because I totally didn't! The magistrate found him not guilty on the grounds that not even the most expert lip readers can see question marks. The FA then launched its own independent inquiry, charging Terry with "abusive and/or insulting words and/or behaviour" including "a reference to the ethnic origin and/or colour and/or race of Ferdinand." The FA commission found Terry's all-a-big-misunderstanding defense implausible and/or contrived and/or ludicrous, fined him £220,000, and suspended him for four matches. Terry retired from international soccer in a kind of huffy disgrace.

The English football media, as you might expect, found the whole thing mildly intriguing.

Then, last Friday, the FA released its account of the case, the Ruling of the Full Regulatory Commission Following the Substantive Disciplinary etc. etc., and it makes for bizarre and fascinating reading. There's a chapter near the end of Ulysses in which Joyce frames a bit of happenstance everyday life as a question-and-answer catechism; it's a strange effect, because the super-rational form (Q&A full of scientific terminology) is comically at odds with the spontaneous drift of the content (two guys take a walk, pee on a tree, etc.). In the same way, there's something a little mind-altering about seeing the hot chaos of a soccer match translated into the composed paragraphs of a committee brief. We start out with an unfortunate encounter:

1.3 Shortly after Mr. Terry had got to his feet, he barged into Mr. Ferdinand with his shoulder. The latter reciprocated with a shoulder barge of his own and said "what are you doing?" Mr. Terry momentarily appears to kick out at Mr. Ferdinand on the film footage. Shortly afterwards, as Chelsea were attacking, the Referee stopped play after one of his Assistants had brought to his attention the altercation between Mr. Terry and Mr. Ferdinand. A free-kick was awarded to QPR. As they were still within close proximity of one another, Mr. Terry called Mr. Ferdinand "a cunt" and made a gesture with his hand across his nose, implying that Mr. Ferdinand's breath smelt. The Referee intervened, as did at least one Chelsea player.
Which quickly escalates:

1.4 Mr. Terry then proceeded to run back towards the Chelsea half in order to take up a defensive position and await the free kick. For a time, he had his back to Mr. Ferdinand. Mr. Ferdinand started to move up the pitch in the direction of the half-way line and shouted out at Mr Terry, "how can you call me a cunt, you shagged your team mate's missus, you're the cunt." Mr. Ferdinand also made a slow fist pump gesture with his right hand, suggesting sex (a reference accompanying what he said). Once he was back in the Chelsea half of the pitch, Mr. Terry turned round to face the play and saw the fist gesture that Mr. Ferdinand was making, and which was clearly directed at him.
Leading to the moment of crisis:

1.5 At this juncture, there is no dispute on his part that Mr. Terry used the following words (although Mr. Ferdinand claims not to have heard them at the time):
"fuck off, fuck off, … fucking black cunt, fucking knob-head."
There is also no doubt that Mr. Terry said something after "fuck off, fuck off", but before "fucking black cunt, fucking knob-head." The available film footage of the incident, which was taken from different camera locations, shows another Chelsea player — John Obi Mikel from one angle, and Ashley Cole from another — briefly obscuring Mr. Terry's face as he uttered the missing word or words. There is a dispute as to what they were. The significance of this will be discussed in due course.
So, yeah! Fun game, soccer. Lots of good exercise, only occasional yearlong multi-phase racial-abuse scandals culminating in bureaucratic reports that read like excerpts from experimental novels.

To get the obvious thing out of the way: I have no idea what John Terry said to Anton Ferdinand between his second "fuck off" and his first "fucking black cunt." I do not, personally, believe Terry's defense. I am glad he was fined and punished. I also have some not-fully-reconciled doubts about whether it's wise to send the law after a person for words spoken during a heated moment on an athletic field.3 But everything about this case was so overblown and horrible that it kind of defeats any way you might feel about it. I mean, you could argue that the trial itself was simultaneously completely necessary and a total miscarriage of justice: If you're a country, you pretty much absolutely cannot have the captain of your national soccer team yelling "fucking black cunt" at an opponent on television; on the other hand, people say terrible, dumb things when they're angry, and no one seems to think Terry is actually racist.4 On the other other hand, maybe a four-game ban actually feels a little light? Liverpool's Luis Suarez was banned eight games — but not subjected to a criminal trial — for racially abusing Patrice Evra last year. So who knows. If the professional yelling of sports opinions is something that appeals to you, this case is made-to-order; if not, the whole thing probably feels like the crass nightmare celebrity culture had when it toured Parliament and took the wrong blood-pressure medication. "Oooh, not good," a friend e-mailed me when I told her I was writing about Terry, and yes, that is pretty much the final word.

What I keep thinking, whenever fresh Terry news slithers past, is that when the history of this era of soccer is written, the matter of the Football Association (Applicant) -and- John George Terry (Respondent) ought to mark the official end of England's Golden Generation. Because there was a moment — this really happened! — when the "England's Brave John Terry" nickname wasn't at all ironic; when he, David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Michael Owen, et al. looked like plausible sports heroes who were going to accomplish great things. Think back to, say, 2004, through around the day in 2006 when Wayne Rooney's fourth metatarsal fractured. We believed, kind of, that Gerrard was a local boy made good who went drinking with Liverpool fans after matches. We thought Jamie Carragher really was a selfless fighter, that Beckham was a leader, that Owen could still recapture his form. Joe Cole was going to bring Continental flair to Chelsea, remember? They weren't favorites to win the World Cup, but they were at least going to be comfortably elite for a long time; and more important, they bled English oak, never gave up, and commanded legitimate admiration. They were exciting. The media construct seemed real, or at least real-ish.

Of course, many of the Golden Generation players had amazing success with their club teams. Lampard and Terry won multiple Premier League titles, a handful of FA Cups, and a Champions League trophy; Beckham won eight league titles in three different countries; Gerrard won one of the most dramatic European Cup finals of all time. At the international level, though, they were constantly hyped above the level of their talent while constantly performing beneath it. Their England team was better known for failing to qualify for Euro 2008, for WAG culture, for "can Lampard play with Gerrard"–type meme-kerfuffles, and for scandal than for anything they won. Terry, even before the racial-abuse charges, had been caught in an affair with the mother of one of his teammates' children; Gerrard ("went drinking with Liverpool fans") was arrested after a bar fight; Ashley Cole cheated on his pop-star wife, theatrically betrayed Arsenal to move to Chelsea, and became maybe the most hated footballer on earth simply for having his personality. And so on.

The Golden Generation was maybe the purest experiment ever conducted in how thoroughly the mechanics of celebrity can fuck up the public lives of the people around whom they operate.5 Can you imagine how indulged John Terry must have been, by everyone he met, in the mid-2000s? How does your ego not run away with you, if you're never told no? If you're measuring your weekly paycheck in Bentleys while being called a hero everywhere you go? And so eventually you take things too far, or don't live up to people's (escalatingly unreasonable) expectations — you don't qualify for Euro 2008, and a story starts to circulate that you're sleeping with your wife's 16-year-old sister6 — and the switch flips from worship to loathing, and suddenly you're "embattled," the media is airing your dirty laundry, and you find yourself one step outside Sextapeville. Or worse. By about 2008, most of what seemed good about the Golden Generation had been overwritten by an aura of besieged trashiness. Terry's transformation from valiant captain to aggrieved racist was — even if neither image really matched who he was — the fitting culmination of the decline of the whole group.

There's something inexpressibly diminished about most of them now, both as players (they're getting old) and as popular icons. David Beckham7 seems like a piece of enterprise software that's still running even though no one remembers how to log in. From Rio Ferdinand's online presence, you'd get the impression that he's become a weird recluse, padding around his mansion, putting his kids to bed, and fighting with Piers Morgan on Twitter.8 Half these guys are at odds with the other half: Ashley Cole defended Terry during the racial-abuse scandal with some suspiciously amorphous testimony, which alienated Ferdinand, which outraged … blah etc. Half of them are spending more and more time watching matches from the sidelines, no longer integral to their teams.

Over the next few days, Terry has to decide whether to appeal the FA's ruling or pay the fine and accept his punishment. It is "understood," by the people who understand these things in newspaper articles, that he feels wronged and wants to appeal, but that his "advisers" are pressuring him to apologize and try to move on. (Those autobiographies aren't going to ghostwrite themselves, or something.) England plays San Marino in a World Cup qualifier on Friday, and Cole — who recently apologized for tweeting that the FA is "a bunch of twats" — will (it is understood) probably not be picked. For most of the Golden Generation, the last 15 years will probably seem like the high point of their lives. The sunset looks like a giant red card. The world keeps turning.

L.A. Lakers: 2012-13 Forecast

By: timbersfan, 11:32 PM GMT on October 11, 2012

It's good to be the Lakers, as we learned once again when two more big-time players went out of their way to end up in forum blue and gold. Between financial advantages and the lure of L.A., the Lakers have options that most other teams simply don't, and to their credit, they continue to take maximum advantage of them.

At least, for now. Because the two avenues the Lakers used to lure in Steve Nash and Dwight Howard this summer may not necessarily be available to them going forward. Nash arrived in a sign-and-trade, which after this season will be verboten for luxury-tax-paying teams like the Lakers.

As for Howard, adding his salary to the others on board, as well as the other assorted flotsam L.A. took on in the trade, pushed the Lakers' payroll to $100 million. This season they can handle the tax hit, but going forward the more punitive tax is likely to result in a massive bill from the league. Even if the Lakers could stomach paying it from a strict profit-loss perspective, it's an open question whether they'd be willing to do it rather than stuff $50 million or so in their own pockets. Remember, the Lakers have cut salary wherever possible in recent seasons, and only reopened the financial floodgates when the opportunities to get Nash and Howard arose.


Check out Hollinger's player scouting reports and '12-13 stat projections for the Lakers' roster. Player Profiles

What makes this so interesting is that the Lakers can go in a number of directions very quickly. They have a $100 million payroll this season, yes, but they also have a $9 million payroll in 2013-14, when Nash is the only player on their books. Presumably Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard, Kobe Bryant and others will re-sign between now and then, but for a team with an aging roster the Lakers have to like how flexible they remain. And remember, unlike virtually every other team, this one can virtually guarantee that its cap space can be spent on a superstar, given that stars flock to L.A. even when the team has no space at all.

To the Lakers' credit, they've taken advantage of their good fortune and made the most of it, staying involved in the Nash and Howard pursuits even when their odds looked poor and mostly avoiding the kind of catastrophic splurges that have afflicted other big-spending teams (cough, Knicks, cough).

What they haven't done well, alas, is draft. That's partly because they're always picking 28th and have had no pick at all in several seasons, but the end result is that they have the most top-heavy roster in basketball. The Lakers have four huge stars, but at spots five through 12 this team is difficult to discern from the Bobcats. In a related story, L.A. has no good young players and hasn't for some time. At some point, this could turn out to be a genuine problem.

But more on that later. The Lakers looked worn out the past two postseasons, and now are reborn, with Howard on hand to carry them into the post-Kobe era. Talent will always flock here, it seems; it's just an annual question of whether they can surround it with enough complementary players to mold a champion.

2011-12 Recap

AP Photo/Christopher Trim/CSM
Kobe Bryant helped shoot the Lakers into the second round, where they were sent packing by OKC.
Last season's version of the Lakers wore its oldness on its sleeve at the defensive end, where Mike Brown instilled principles that made it fundamentally sound but not terribly threatening. How could it be, with such little athleticism on the perimeter?

Most notably, the Lakers were last in the NBA in forced turnovers (see chart), and it wasn't even a close last. Only 12 percent of opponent possessions ended with a turnover, and as a result the Lakers permitted more shots per possessions than any team in basketball -- even though they were a good rebounding team.

W-L: 41-25 (Pythagorean W-L: 37-29)
Offensive Efficiency: 103.3 (10th)
Defensive Efficiency: 101.7 (13th)
Pace Factor: 92.9 (20th)
Highest PER: Kobe Bryant (21.95)

This is probably the biggest worry for the Lakers going forward; they added another guard who rarely forces miscues in Nash, and while Howard can protect the middle he's not going to do much to force turnovers on the perimeter. Similarly, the Lakers were already a strong rebounding team, so Howard won't remove more than a few second shots compared to Andrew Bynum.

In other words, the Lakers are likely to again look at a major shot deficit thanks to their inability to force turnovers. Where they have to make it up is by forcing those shots to miss, and on that item the Lakers graded out much better. In particular, they didn't foul. The Lakers had the league's lowest opponent free throw rate a season ago (see chart), and as a result only three teams permitted a lower true shooting percentage (TS%).

So the Lakers gave up a lot of shots, but most of them didn't go in. With Howard around, the latter trend should only be accentuated. Nonetheless, L.A.'s massive shot deficit a year ago left it just 13th in defensive efficiency; the hope is that Howard can lift the Lakers into the top 10, but he doesn't have a ton of help.

Lowest opponent free throw rate, 2011-12
L.A. Lakers .213
San Antonio .222
Chicago .236
Denver .243
Orlando .246
League average .276
Lowest opponent turnover rate, 2011-12
Team Percent of possessions with TO
L.A. Lakers 12.0
San Antonio 13.7
Chicago 14.2
Denver 14.3
Orlando 14.3
League average .16.0
Instead, the Lakers' more likely path to world domination would be as an offensive juggernaut. The Lakers had a top-10 offense a year ago despite getting virtually nothing from two starters and the entire bench, working mostly in two-point increments behind Bryant's midrange post-ups and the work of Gasol and Bynum inside.

The Lakers also had a surprisingly high turnover rate for a good offensive team that didn't run much, largely because their secondary players were shockingly bad at taking care of the ball given their limited offensive roles. Guys who were just asked to spot up and make shots like Steve Blake, Matt Barnes, Jordan Hill and Josh McRoberts somehow still had turnover rates far beyond the league average at their positions; as a result, L.A.'s team turnover rate ranked just 21st.

The Lakers also didn't take much advantage of the 3-point line; well, except Bryant, who shouldn't have been. L.A. was 26th in accuracy and 22nd in total 3-pointers, which is pretty pathetic given its post threats and the fact it had an elite wing scorer to command double-teams. Metta World Peace, Blake, Barnes and Fisher combined to make fewer than a third of their 3s, despite the fact they were basically wide open the entire season.

Obviously, Nash changes the equations on both the 3s and the turnovers considerably, with the threat of his deadly shot being a particularly notable change from the fingers-crossed approach with last season's point guards.

Offseason moves

AP Photo/Gary Kazanjian
The Lakers swapped one All-Star center for another, bringing Dwight Howard in to man the middle.
As noted above, L.A. decided to finally take advantage of the money-printing concept known as the Lakers and spend its way back into contention.

Traded Josh McRoberts, Andrew Bynum, Christian Eyenga, a 2015 second-rounder and a protected 2017 first-rounder to Orlando for Dwight Howard, Earl Clark and Chris Duhon: Once this deal landed at its door it was a no-brainer for L.A. to follow through with it. The only question for the Lakers was whether the deal would cost them Gasol in addition to Bynum, and unbelievably it didn't. Better yet, the Lakers got protection on the draft picks, even the 2015 second-rounder (!), and gave up nothing of great importance aside from Bynum. As for Clark and Duhon, they're filler that came as a salary dump from Orlando, but Blake was bad enough a year ago that Duhon may win the backup point guard job from him.

Let Ramon Sessions go, traded first-round picks in 2013 and 2015 and second-round picks in 2013 and 2014 to Phoenix for Steve Nash (three years, $27 million) in a sign-and-trade: Again, a no-brainer deal for the Lakers once the opportunity arose. The first-round picks will almost certainly be in the late 20s, and the upgrade to a position of such weakness in recent seasons could not be more massive. There are concerns about Nash's age and durability, yes, but the Lakers were able to get him at a discounted price in addition to the discounted cost in trade assets. Given their win-now posture with Kobe at the end of his prime, this was another major coup.

Let Troy Murphy go, signed Antawn Jamison for one year, minimum: The Lakers went for the only player in captivity who defends worse than Murphy, but did so to get the benefit of Jamison's legitimate offensive spark. A flowing-type player who struggles a bit in iso systems (see his Cleveland tenure with LeBron and Shaq), Jamison may benefit from the Lakers' Princeton offense (one he used in Washington) if he becomes the go-to guy for the second unit. But if things devolve into isos for Kobe and the post players, he may struggle. You can't argue with the price, that's for sure.

Let Matt Barnes go, signed Jodie Meeks for two years, $3 million: Barnes was L.A.'s best sub a year ago and his loss will be felt, but Meeks is an important pickup because he addressed the lack of shooting that stymied the Lakers a year ago. Meeks also came at a very friendly price given his track record of success with the long ball; while he's limited in other areas, he should be a nice fit on this roster.

Drafted Darius Johnson-Odom and Robert Sacre: The Lakers had two late second-round picks and there's a good chance both will make the team. Keep an eye on Sacre, especially, a 7-footer who could give them some frontcourt minutes. Johnson-Odom is more the classic low-skill, end-of-the-bench energy guy, and may spend much of his time with their D-League club.

2012-13 Outlook

Cary Edmondson/US Presswire
It will be Steve Nash's job to make sure all of the Lakers' talented pieces get their touches in 2012-13.
Like everyone else, I expect the Lakers to make the conference finals and contend for a championship. Unlike everyone else, I don't expect them to be particularly imposing in the regular season, for a number of reasons.

For starters, their situation is a bit like Miami's was two years ago -- they're going to need a bit of time to figure everything out. Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash in particular need to strike a balance between the hero-ball stuff that the Lakers have run the past few years and the pick-and-roll-centered attack that Nash operated. File away this stat from NBA.com's whiz-bang tool: The Suns' offensive efficiency with Nash on the court last season was 106.5, even with fairly pedestrian surrounding talent; the Lakers' with Bryant on the floor was 103.9. In other words, Nash has a much stronger case to be the offensive focal point than Bryant. I'm not sure that's how it will work out in reality.

Other small issues peck at L.A.'s projected win total. Howard had back surgery last spring and is still recovering; at best he'll be rusty, and he may even miss some time to start the year. Nash and Bryant are no spring chickens either, so the prudent course is going to be to keep their minutes in the low 30s and leave them fresh for the postseason.

All that means the Lakers' supporting cast has to play a lot of minutes, and that cast still isn't very good. Meeks answers the need for shooting and Jamison will provide some points (for both teams), but their best bench player from a year ago (Barnes) left, and they still have replacement-level or worse situations at backup point guard (Blake/Duhon) and backup small forward (likely Devin Ebanks). Their best sub at this point is probably Jordan Hill, but even he pales in comparison to the third big man on most rosters.

All those minutes count, and between that and what may be some early-season bumps while they figure things out, I don't expect the Lakers to challenge for the West's top seed.

What I do expect is for them to be fairly terrifying by playoff time. It's likely they'll add another player at the trade deadline, and that some random veteran will wash up on their shores via waivers. Come postseason, they'll be able to ramp up the minutes for their four stars and rely considerably less on the riffraff, and as with the Thunder that will make them far more potent in the playoffs than in the regular season.

That's cause for legitimate excitement in L.A., and I get it. But as far as the regular season goes, I'd temper my expectations a bit.

Another intriguing EPL title race is taking shape

By: timbersfan, 12:13 AM GMT on October 11, 2012

Chelsea go into the international break with a useful four-point lead over the two Manchester clubs, yet many are still unconvinced they can finish on top. Only seven games have been played; 31 to go. So to borrow a line from Winston Churchill, "This is not the end or even the beginning of the end, but it might be the end of the beginning."

Chelsea has been immersed in the bad publicity surrounding John Terry and Ashley Cole, and many clubs might have been thrown off course by that. But Roberto Di Matteo, having delivered the FA Cup and Champions League last season, has an understated style that stops a drama becoming a crisis. Cynics say Chelsea has too many creative clones in Eden Hazard, Oscar and Juan Mata, but Di Matteo has played them all together and keeps winning.

I am with my co-commentator Steve McManaman on this. He says "You can never have too much quality on the field." So long as the ball players have the likes of John Obi Mikel and even a reinvented Frank Lampard or Ramires filling the gaps behind them, the blend looks right, particularly with a defence that has conceded a league-lowest four goals so far.

Where Chelsea may have a problem is in attack. If Fernando Torres were injured, it would expose a lack of cover. In that scenario, it would be fascinating to see if Di Matteo might experiment with a Spanish-style "false No 9."

Chelsea's next game is live on ESPN2 on Oct. 20 against old boss Andre Villas-Boas at Spurs, with American star Clint Dempsey likely to be in the lineup. But will former U.S. keeper Brad Friedel be in the team after AVB ended his eight-year run of consecutive EPL appearances against Aston Villa? It might be the first instance of a keeper being dropped after a win at Old Trafford, and certainly Freidel's form has been magnificent.

But at 41 and up against the outstanding French No. 1, Hugo Lloris, it may be that the American will be spending more time on the bench. We will get a big clue when Spurs name the team to play Chelsea.

Elsewhere, both Manchester clubs slipped into their best form yet last weekend. That might be a sign that both are gearing themselves to go on a big run.

Champions City look much more assured with Gareth Barry welding things together in the engine room, and surely the ill-conceived flirting with a three-man defence will be abandoned. United passed the ball wonderfully for long periods at Newcastle, and with Wayne Rooney looking sharper, the 3-0 win had the feel of a turning point.

The surprises have been Everton and especially West Brom. David Moyes' side is a far greater goal threat now that Nikica Jelavic and the darting Kevin Mirallas are on board, but do they have the squad depth to sustain a top-four challenge?

Arsenal are going well too, with the ever-smiling Santi Cazorla illuminating the league and Per Mertesacker emerging as a key defensive rock (he was badly missed against Chelsea in the home defeat).

So another intriguing title race is taking shape.

It won't include Liverpool. Brendan Rodgers' team are already 13 points adrift and yet to win a league match at Anfield. There are signs of promise for the future, but the folly of not signing Dempsey and letting Andy Carroll go without replacing him is coming back to bite them. Sadly, the Boston Red Sox owners who are behind Liverpool have sometimes looked a little naive, but they made the right decision to appoint Rodgers.

This is a team in transition and in need of another striker, a major leader at the back in the mould of Sami Hyypia, and perhaps even a new keeper to replace a stale and increasingly error-prone Pepe Reina.

Bryn Lennon/Getty Images
Mark Hughes has bought plenty of new players, but QPR has only two points so far this season.
At the bottom, I fear Mark Hughes has not bought too wisely, and I was shocked by how bad they were when we covered QPR against West Ham. Two points so far tells its own story. Reading look a little short on quality at this level, while Norwich leak far too many goals to be optimistic of staying up.

At least Southampton carry some attacking threat, which may preserve them in the top flight, though it will be mighty close.

Role of the new No. 10 in the Premier League

By: timbersfan, 12:12 AM GMT on October 11, 2012

In Italy, they refer to him as the trequartista. In Argentina, he's the enganche. In England … we don't really have a name for him.

English football terminology has never quite come up with a definitive word for the player who occupies space between the opposition lines of defence and midfield – not quite a forward, not quite a midfielder. He's "the man in the hole," perhaps, but it's not an appropriately glamorous term for the side's star creator. Sometimes he's even referred to as playing "the Teddy Sheringham role" -- so unaccustomed we were to players who looked for space rather than basing their game around an individual battle with an opponent.

England isn't a specialist at producing top-quality players in this mould. Wayne Rooney might be the closest we've had in recent years, but even his best position is up for question. He was often fielded on the flank during Manchester United's successful European Cup run in 2008, then his best individual season was probably in 2009-10 as an out-and-out striker. Joe Cole became a winger, while attacking midfielders like Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and even Jack Wilshere were just that – attacking midfielders, number eights rather than number tens.

In formation terms, too, English football hasn't suited this kind of player. England was largely a 4-4-2 nation until recently, and this gave way to 4-3-3, inspired by Jose Mourinho's success with Chelsea. Neither formation suited a number ten. There's never been a 4-3-1-2 craze in English football, unlike in Italy or South America, never a romantic fixation with the archetypal playmaker.

All of which makes this summer's new arrivals particularly intriguing. Four top clubs – Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea and Tottenham – all splashed out on new number tens – even if none actually wear that shirt number. Santi Cazorla, Shinji Kagawa, Oscar and Gylfi Sigurdsson all represent a significant change in footballing philosophy. Arsenal didn't have a central creator like Cazorla last season, Manchester United have arguably never had a player in the Kagawa mould. Oscar wouldn't have suited Andre Villas-Boas' 4-3-3, while Gylfi Sigurdsson isn't quite the same as Rafael van der Vaart. Some have adapted quicker than others.

Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
Another new No. 10 to the EPL, Gylfi Sigurdsson is a more direct, forceful player who tends to focus on goalscoring or than his creative threat.
It's worth considering quite why there's been a sudden influx of these central creators. Certainly, there appears to be a shift towards a 4-2-3-1 formation this season – which wasn't exactly unknown in the Premier League in recent seasons, but was less prevalent than in Spain or Germany.

While it's dangerous to talk about systems as a whole, the 4-2-3-1 is a good bet for modern football. It offers width yet provides three central midfielders; it means a side isn't vulnerable to space between the lines yet can feature solid partnerships across the side, which is one of the few strengths of the 4-4-2. It allows one holding midfielder to track an opponent while the other covers space in front of the back four. And, perhaps most positively, it allows a defined number ten to play in an unrestricted central position.

Each new signing has their nuances and has settled in different ways. Of the aforementioned players, it is Oscar who is the most unique. He's not a stereotypical Brazilian number ten – he's quicker and more efficient with his movements; he's a busy player who scurries across the pitch frantically.

Sigurdsson's a slightly different case in that he's experienced English football before. He's a more direct, forceful player than the others – maybe more focused upon his goal-scoring threat than his creative threat. He's played a couple of good passes in a Tottenham shirt – most notably an excellent through-ball for Aaron Lennon that led to Jermain Defoe's opener against Reading – but overall his creative ability has been minimal, and he's been dropped for Tottenham's past couple of league games, with Clint Dempsey starting against Manchester United and Aston Villa, picking up a goal and an assist.

It's Cazorla and Kagawa who offer the most intriguing creative threats, but so far the former has outperformed the latter considerably. They are inherently different players, but Cazorla appears to suit Arsenal much more than Kagawa suits United at this early stage. The Spaniard may offer Arsenal something different in terms of position, but he's a typical Arsenal player. He's about short, neat passing, and his influence upon the side so far is undoubted. Scheming between the lines, his performance against West Ham on Saturday was remarkable -- yet what we've come to expect. We're becoming used to Spanish playmakers settling in well in English football. It's been David Silva and Juan Mata in the previous two seasons, but the difference about Cazorla is that he's thriving at the heart of the Arsenal team rather than drifting in from the flank.

It was in stark contrast to Kagawa's performance for Manchester United the next day – as Sir Alex Ferguson continued with a diamond formation, the Japanese playmaker was shunted out to the right of a narrow midfield. United won the game at a canter, but it was Rooney roaming between the lines in the position Kagawa expected to make his own. The former Dortmund player was somewhat peripheral in the match, and then when United came under heavy pressure late on and Ferguson needed defensive cover from wide on the right, Kagawa was the obvious choice to make way for Antonio Valencia.

Kagawa's problem is that United aren't playing the ball to him in the right fashion; Cazorla is a player who wants the ball played into feet, while Kagawa wants the ball on the run. Dortmund were a transition-based side that played the ball forward quickly, and United are yet to get into that mindset. They traditionally retain possession, put pressure upon the opposition and combine diagonal balls to the flanks with crosses into the box. So we shouldn't be surprised that Kagawa is yet to sparkle.

The experiences of Cazorla and Kagawa so far demonstrate both the benefit and the difficulty of integrating a new number ten into the side. When it works, they're the key player, dictate the tempo of the game and provide goal-scoring chances for teammates. When it doesn't, it's hard for a manager to persist with a misfiring player at the heart of his side, as everything falls down around him.

In the long run, however, when given the chance to integrate fully into the side, this new breed of creators will become among the most important players in the league – the Premier League is a better place because of their arrival.

Grant Holt is right to question the English class divide

By: timbersfan, 12:11 AM GMT on October 11, 2012

Whether you believe Britain is truly a classless society in 2012 will depend largely on your political affiliation. But there is still compelling evidence on the international football stage at the very least recognition remains wedded to hierarchical conventions.

Put less prosaically; the silver spoon complex. The rule of thumb that tends to see an England manager gravitate towards the 'elite' Premier League clubs when selecting the finest Englishmen to represent the Three Lions.

- Holt: I'll never get an England call

Norwich City's skipper Grant Holt re-ignited an enduring debate last week when questioned directly on his omission from the England set-up. Holt, lest anyone need a crash course in recent football history, plundered 15 Premier League goals for the Canaries last season in a stellar personal and collective campaign that saw City finish 12th in their debut year back in the top flight. Holt was second only to Manchester United and England icon Wayne Rooney in the list of English-bred Premier League goalscorers. There is little more the Cumbrian could have done to earn a shot of at least making a persuasive case for inclusion on the plane to the Ukraine.

The post-Fabio Capello fallout followed by the appointment of Roy Hodgson after Stuart Pearce had temporarily held the ring did little to foster a heightened degree of experimentation pre-tournament, but Holt was unquestionably an English striker at the top of the tree. On form alone, he deserved a chance. It never came. Holt was overlooked for the friendlies during the lead up to the European Championships and the tournament itself.

A snub that led the City captain last week to slam the 'ridiculousness' of such a decision and to declare once and for all that particular ship had sailed. Holt is a bustling, old school exponent. Whether his brand of domestic cut and thrust could work on the international stage is a moot point, but undoubtedly he had proved over a sustained nine month campaign against world class defenders he could be a highly effective tool to unleash on unsuspecting continental opposition. The most salient point here is not could he make the step up, but did he deserve a chance to try?

Holt also highlighted how the likes of Swansea's Danny Graham were overlooked; a younger prototype to Holt. And there is a fresh contender in Southampton's Rickie Lambert - another powerful centre forward who formed a muscular double act at Rochdale once upon a time with Holt. Lambert has trodden the same path from the lower leagues and is now doing the business in a difficult opening month of the Premier League season for the Saints. Four league goals already to his name, but to directly quote Holt referring to his great pal: "Unless Rickie Lambert scores 25 goals or bags 10 in the next few months, I don't think he'll get close."

The implication is no matter how well these players perform, they will struggle to get a look in for England. And the common denominator? The jersey they pull on every week. Norwich, Swansea or Southampton does not have the same alluring ring as Manchester United, Chelsea or Arsenal.

Would an Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain or Tom Cleverley have been fast-tracked into the senior set-up if they didn't play for one of the traditional blue-chip clubs? Look right down Hodgson's latest list of outfield players and Stoke's Ryan Shawcross is the exception to the general rule. It is only in the keeping stocks where there is any plurality seemingly at play - ironically two back-up men to Manchester City's excellent Joe Hart with Norwich connections in John Ruddy and the man he replaced at Carrow Road, Celtic's Fraser Forster, which in essence says more perhaps about the depleted options at Hodgson's disposal.

Holt's assertion is easily challenged. The England squad is drawn primarily from the big clubs because those players operate at the top level both home and abroad. They gain exposure to tournaments like the Champions League. They handle the huge pressure and expectation that comes on a weekly basis when you play for one of this country's major brands. But equally, Holt's personal story is the latest example of another truism. Just how difficult it is to bridge that class divide.

Mikel Arteta: The artful grafter

By: timbersfan, 12:10 AM GMT on October 11, 2012

As another tedious international break begins, a significant number of the Arsenal squad are jetting off around the world for friendlies and qualifiers. Most are important first-teamers, and injury to them could be damaging to Arsenal's season. However, there is one key man who will be able to take a well-deserved break after an impressive and vital start to the season.

Mikel Arteta has become the holding midfielder that Arsenal fans have craved for since the summer of 2008 when Mathieu Flamini and Gilberto Silva left the club. Denilson and Alex Song have had stints in the role with varying success, but Arteta has comfortably eclipsed both of them.

Many were worried that the sale of Alex Song in the summer would damage the team more than the loss of Robin van Persie but, although Song was a good player, he wasn't overly disciplined as the holding midfielder, often leaving the Arsenal back four exposed. He did provide some spectacular assists, but his overall game wasn't as strong as Arteta's has been this season. A glance at some statistics backs this up.

The primary role of the holding midfielder is to break up opposition attacks to protect the defence and, last season in the Premier League, Alex Song averaged 1.6 interceptions and 2.9 tackles a match whereas Arteta has averaged 2.4 interceptions and 4.6 tackles a match this season. Considering that Song made less tackles, he still conceded the same number of fouls per game as Arteta. Too many of Song's challenges were bad enough to get booked, with the Cameroonian getting roughly one yellow card in every three games last season, but Arteta only has one in seven this season.

Arteta's impressive defensive statistics stem from actually being in position to make the tackles and interceptions. All Arsenal fans like the fact Arsene Wenger gives youngsters a chance, but Song was still learning his trade and couldn't read the game as well. The more experienced Mikel Arteta is a master at it. He was signed as an attacking midfielder who was known for his flair, but it seems Wenger signed a determined ball-winner who doesn't shy away from the less glamorous defensive side of the game.

After winning the ball, the other main function of a top quality holding midfielder is to distribute the ball well and keep the team ticking over without conceding possession. It's here that Mikel Arteta's statistics look really impressive.

This season, the Spaniard has averaged 94 passes a match (the best in the league), completing 93.8% of those (second best in the league). In 2011-12, Alex Song averaged 66.1 passes in a game with 84.3% finding a team mate.

It's important to note that Arteta played alongside Song for a lot of last season. This often meant Song wasn't expected to be the lynchpin that Arteta has become, but he was still the primary holding midfielder and neglected some of the associated roles. In comparison to the rest of the league from last season, Song's facts and figures are impressive, showing Arteta isn't just an improvement on Song but the best in the league at what he does.

We all know that there is more to football than the raw statistics. For a relatively short destructive midfielder (especially when lined up next to Per Mertesacker), Arteta has a commanding presence in the Arsenal squad to go with his impressive numbers. He was deservedly named vice-captain in the summer, and justifies this with the amount of midfield responsibility he takes on when playing.

The international break throws up another intriguing side to Arteta. The Spaniard must be the best player in the Premier League never to have represented his country at a senior level. This is something that bemuses fellow players and fans alike. It's unfortunate for Arteta that he's been at his peak at the same time as the likes of Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, Cazorla and others, but given how vital he is for Arsenal, it's hard to complain at not having our midfield pivot also being at risk of injury in the coming weeks.

Arteta isn't a traditional defensive midfielder. He looks like he should be on a painting, he has hair that is seemingly impossible to ruffle or displace, he used to only be known as an attacker and he doesn't look built to be a midfielder destroyer. However, Arteta is the perfect experienced midfield lynchpin who can pick a pass, keep possession and disrupt the opposition. When Arsene Wenger sold Alex Song, I was concerned that Arsenal wouldn't sign a proper holding midfielder; Wenger knew that he already had the perfect man in the squad. Arteta does the hard midfield graft to win the ball, but also typifies the Wenger philosophy of beautiful football when in possession.

Not so fresh Prince of Milan

By: timbersfan, 12:10 AM GMT on October 11, 2012

"I am proud to wear this shirt and be a part of the club. I want to one day become one of the best players in the world" - Kevin-Prince Boateng.

During a recent Q&A session on the club's official Twitter account, Boateng outlined his pride at wearing the Milan shirt while also sharing his ambition and hopes for the future. Having enjoyed a great start as a Rossonero, the Ghanaian has been far from impressive so far this season, with Gazzetta dello Sport producing this caricature in Tuesday's edition. What has happened to KP?

- De Jong calm over Milan 'crisis'

The former Portsmouth star represented everything good about the new era Milan. His tireless performances were matched with great pace, flair and a developed eye for goal. Having enjoyed a great partnership with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the Swede's departure seems to have had a negative effect on his former team-mate. Gone are the goals, some of which were spectacular to say the least. From his second-half hat-trick against Lecce to his sensational strikes against Arsenal and Barcelona in the Champions League, Boateng's goal-scoring touch has deserted him.

Is the added pressure weighing him down? Is he truly at the peak of his fitness levels? While he continues to work hard for the team, his quality and composure on the ball have disappeared. Or perhaps the reason is more promiscuous. His relationship with Melissa Satta made plenty of headlines last season, after the model revealed: "The reason why he is always injured is because we have sex seven to 10 times a week". Tongue in cheek or genuine, perhaps Boa still needs to re-focus on the pitch.

"Boateng has been playing with a broken hand; the fracture makes it difficult for him to perform certain movements. He can do better in front of goal but I liked his performance this evening [against Inter]" - Massimiliano Allegri

Allegri suggests that Boateng's injury has restricted him, hindering him from producing his usual full-blooded performance. If that is the case then perhaps this blog will be rendered archaic in the forthcoming weeks as the hand heals and Boa's form improves.

However, if Allegri and Milan are to climb the table, Boateng's return to form is just as imperative as Pato's return to fitness. The experiment in the opening game of the season in playing the star in a 'false 9' position failed, the Milan number 10 needs to restore faith he has the ability to justify his legendary shirt number.

A difficult start to the season for the club will not have helped his cause, the same can be said for Antonio Nocerino, who for one reason or another finds himself marginalised on the bench after a poor start to the campaign. The Rossoneri need the players that were so important last season to return to those levels, maybe then we can start to move forward again.

How important is Boateng to Milan and have you been disappointed with his start to the season? Can a firing Boa lead a charge up the table?

Chelsea prosper from international snubbing

By: timbersfan, 12:09 AM GMT on October 11, 2012

Twenty years ago having a Chelsea player called up to represent their country would have been a cause for celebration. That is not to say it was unheard of - the Blues were amply represented in the England squad that travelled to Italy for the 1990 World Cup by Dave Beasant and Tony Dorigo - but an international break certainly did not see the mass exodus from the club that occurs nowadays due to the mass influx of foreign players in the intervening years.

With the next stage of qualifiers for Brazil 2014 taking place over the coming week, Chelsea's training ground at Cobham has been left with a skeleton playing staff in the first team squad with only the injured, aged or internationally retired remaining in Surrey. The opportunity to see your club's players competing on the continental and world stage is certainly still an honour - and is generally a positive thing as it means you're team is obviously well-stocked with talent - but the age old question of club versus country once again rears its head.

- Ashley Cole free to face San Marino

The advent of the Champions League, and latterly the Europa League, has meant that the fixture list is ever more congested. Factor in the Capital One Cup and the FA Cup and top players are rarely given a breather. While it would be ridiculous to feel sorry for those lucky enough to play football for a living, the concern about the quality of football they can produce when such demands are placed on them from all angles is definitely real.

Take our very own Juan Mata as a case in point. The little maestro arrived at a new club in August 2011 and played virtually every match in a physically demanding league. Despite a wonderful campaign and a hugely deserved Chelsea Player of the Year Award, his form noticeably dipped in the closing stages of the season. He then jetted off to Poland and Ukraine for Euro 2012 and while he might have only played a few minutes it was necessary for him to train hard if suddenly called upon. Immediately after that he was part of Spain's squad for the Olympic Games so it was no surprise to see him look a shadow of his former self in the opening few weeks of the new season.

But what a difference a break makes. Mata was rested for Spain's friendly with Saudi Arabia and their qualifier in Georgia at the beginning of September and was allowed further time off by Roberto Di Matteo to recharge his batteries. The result? Four goals and five assists in his five starts for Chelsea since his return. Unfortunately for him, he has been omitted from the latest Spain squad by Vicente Del Bosque but if it reaps the same rewards as his last absence then I don't think too many people at Chelsea are going to share his disappointment.

John Terry's retirement from international football should see him experience similar benefits. The former England captain has been driven out by what he perceives to be a vendetta against him. Leaving such matters aside for a welcome change, the enforced rest that he will have to endure this week will be gratefully received by his battle-weary body. His troublesome back has flared up on numerous occasions during the last couple of seasons causing him to miss games. Terry's style of play demands that he puts his well-being on the line every time he takes to the field but the passage of time will always take its toll. Like Mata, not being involved in the international arena can only be a good thing for Chelsea and hopefully it will enable him to elongate his time as a player.

However, it isn't always positive to see your players left out of international squads, especially when they are not an automatic first choice at club level. Victor Moses has made a bright start to his Chelsea career but has only made two starts. A run out for Nigeria will give him some much needed playing time and help him retain match fitness for when he is called upon by Di Matteo.

As I said earlier, it is always an honour to see your players in international colours especially when they stride out as captain of your country as we have seen with Terry and Frank Lampard in recent years. But if you ask me which team I would prefer them to be fit and firing for there is only ever going to be one answer and it isn't England.

PSG's Mr Shatterproof: Clement Chantome

By: timbersfan, 12:09 AM GMT on October 11, 2012

Shortly after leaving the pitch at the Stade Velodrome following Sunday's 2-2 draw between Marseille and Paris Saint-Germain, PSG's Clement Chantome was informed that he had been called up to the France squad for the friendly against Japan and the World Cup qualifier in Spain.

He was called up to replace Anzhi Makhachkala's on-loan Real Madrid midfielder Lassana Diarra, who pulled out with a back injury, and the twice France under-21 international joins four of his teammates in the squad. Mamadou Sakho, Christophe Jallet, Blaise Matuidi and Jeremy Menez were all called up for the games. Chantome's addition makes PSG the biggest contributors to a 23-man squad that boasts 14 players from Ligue 1.

- Verratti wants De Rossi to join PSG

The call-up completes a remarkable turnaround for the 25-year old fans' favourite, who just eight months ago looked like he was on the verge of leaving the club that nurtured him. A raft of new arrivals in midfield and a host of injuries had threatened to derail the development of an exciting talent but the youth academy product has been as good as his word and proven himself to be "shatterproof".

Whilst largely unheralded outside of France, Chantome has developed a reputation within Ligue 1 as a player of considerable elegance and class. Technically gifted yet not physically strong, his strengths are his reading of the game, his metronomic distribution, ball retention, fighting spirit and ability to win possession for his team. It is these qualities that had Arsene Wenger on the verge of signing him for Arsenal in 2009 and more recently Fulham have shown an interest, but Chantome has rebuffed those opportunities to persevere with les Parisiens.

In February Chantome was interviewed following the arrivals of Thiago Motta, Momo Sissoko and Blaise Matuidi within the space of six months, and the softly spoken Sens native was faced with the prospect of leaving his beloved PSG for fear of a future on the sidelines. He told the interviewer: "I've been through a lot in my time at the club. I've had many tough moments here, with periods when I wasn't playing or when I wasn't part of the plans. Now I'm shatterproof."

"It's true that things are very different now but PSG are an ambitious club that wants to win titles. I'm not going to get nostalgic."

Basically he was saying that he would grit his teeth and do whatever he could to make himself a part of the club going forward and to his credit, he has done just that. Whilst fortunate given Momo Sissoko's lengthy absences and Thiago Motta's injury struggles, Chantome has seized his chance in the first team with both hands. His form since the start of the season has been impressive and he is displaying a consistency that he had previously failed to show Carlo Ancelotti.

The Italian tactician has rewarded that with loyalty and in fact, Ancelotti's favoured 4-3-2-1 formation suits Chantome. Now, having found his deep-lying playmaker in Marco Verratti who sprays the ball around from in front of the defence like a quarter-back, this allows Chantome to concentrate on sweeping up loose balls in the middle of the park. He has formed a solid unit with Verratti and Blaise Matuidi and is happy to let them take care of the physical tasks whilst he links-up with Jeremy Menez and Javier Pastore, who occupy the more advanced to augment their attacks.

Having made five starts in the club's first eight games, Chantome is more of a first teamer than last year and his involvement in the opening two Champions League matches suggests that he is in the team on merit and not merely just to satisfy the club's obligation to field a number of domestic talents. His performance against Dynamo Kiev in particular was sensational, capping an all-action display with an assist, providing a strong advert for PSG's youth academy.

At a time when it would be easy to overlook home-grown talent like Chantome and defender Mamadou Sakho, Ancelotti is finding time and space for them. A popular character off the pitch, Chantome is a true fans' favourite as he embodies the spirit of the club and symbolises its future because of his successful promotion from the academy to the first team alongside Sakho. Soon after graduating, he made his breakthrough to the first team in 2006 under Guy Lacombe and has been a regular in the midfield ever since.

Ironic then that the man who has given him a chance at international level is the player that he most resembles. If his style of play is comparable to anybody's it would be Marseille legend Didier Deschamps (whisper that one quietly!), a player famed for his tenacious attitude and ability to win the ball and then retain its possession. Perhaps Deschamps sees a bit of himself in Chantome.

If he can go on to replicate half the success that their bitter rivals' darling Deschamps achieved then PSG fans will be delighted with their boy's progress. With his talents being recognised during a period of transition for France, Chantome has a great opportunity to stake a claim for a regular place in les Bleus' setup. Now the key is to maintain his consistency for club and country and surely future call-ups will follow.

Is This Real? The Packers' Faltering Offense

By: timbersfan, 11:45 PM GMT on October 10, 2012

What's happened to the Green Bay Packers? After running off a 19-game winning streak that stretched over two seasons, a magical playoff run, and a Super Bowl win, Green Bay's gone 4-5 in their last nine games. (Talk about selective endpoints.) Aaron Rodgers, Charles Woodson, and Mike McCarthy looked like they were infallible a year ago; now, after a 2-3 start to the 2012 season, they've come in for criticism.

And notably, it really isn't the Packers' defense that's experienced a significant decline. That drop came last year, when a unit that ranked second in both points allowed and DVOA during that 2010 championship season fell off to 19th in points allowed and 25th in DVOA. Although they took some flak after Andrew Luck's final drive against the Packers on Sunday, Woodson & Co. are up to 14th in points allowed and 12th in DVOA this season. The notably scary problem there is that their takeaway rate has collapsed; after ending a league-best 18.6 percent of opposition drives with turnovers during the prior two seasons, the 2012 Packers have forced just five takeaways on 56 drives, a rate of 8.9 percent. They could start by recovering a fumble or two, but since they've only forced two in five games, it's not all that remarkable that they've failed to recover any of them.

Instead, it's the Packers' offense that's fallen off. Through five games, that unstoppable passing juggernaut is just 18th in points allowed and 16th in points per drive. After serving as the league's model offense last season, can the Green Bay offense really be … average? Is this the real future of the Green Bay offense?

Well, let's start by noticing what's changed. If you look at Aaron Rodgers's rate statistics from 2011 and 2012, Rodgers looks like a different player in every aspect of the game short of completion percentage. Although he's just as accurate as he was last season, Rodgers's interception rate has doubled, going from 1.2 percent to 2.1 percent. That's no surprise, since interception rates in the 1 percent range never stick around for multiple seasons; in fact, Rodgers had a 1.3 percent interception rate in 2009, and it promptly bounced back up to 2.3 percent the following year. The good news is that 2.1 percent is both pretty good and totally sustainable, so even though it looks bad when you read that Rodgers had six picks all of last season and four in five games this year, it's not quite as ugly as it might seem.

What's more distressing is the drop in Rodgers's yardage production. Last year, Rodgers led the league by averaging 9.2 yards per attempt, a figure that gave him the best career YPA for any player since the merger at 8.2 yards. During his pre-2012 career, Rodgers got more each time he dropped back than any player of his generation. This season, Rodgers is averaging fewer yards per attempt — 6.9 — than Sam Bradford or Ryan Fitzpatrick. Rodgers is looking up at the league average of 7.1 yards per attempt. That's the biggest problem with the Green Bay offense. But why is it happening?

Is it an issue with yards after catch? My memories of the 2011 Packers offense revolve around Jordy Nelson running seemingly endlessly through fields empty of defenders, so I thought a drop in yards after catch might be driving at least some of the decline in the Green Bay offense. That wasn't the case. In 2010 and 2011, the Packers were 11th and 13th, respectively, in the percentage of their passing yardage that came after the catch. This year, they are ninth. Instead, the difference is that Rodgers is throwing shorter passes than he did during the two previous years. After the Green Bay offense (with 2.5 games of Matt Flynn) averaged a hair over 7.0 yards in the air per completion over the past two years, Rodgers is averaging a full yard less in the air through his completions this season. One yard doesn't sound like a big deal, but if you take a yard off of every single Rodgers completion for an entire season, it's right around 10 percent of his total production in an average season coming off the books.

The Packers are seeing the remnants of that decline as their down and distance scenarios change, too. (All stats below only include situations in which the Packers and their opposition were within a two-score margin, to avoid using stats accrued in blowouts.) In 2010-11, Rodgers averaged a whopping 10.0 yards per attempt on first down; this year, that's down to 8.6 yards per attempt. Consequently, even though Green Bay averaged a half-yard more per running play on first down, they're facing more difficult third downs and converting them less frequently. The 2010-11 Packers needed an average of 6.5 yards to pick up a first down and averaged a full seven yards per play, converting for the new series 45.3 percent of the time. That was the sixth-best rate in the league. This year, they need 7.8 yards to pick up their average third down and are only getting 5.8; their 41.4 percent conversion rate is 12th in the NFL.

Oh, and one more stat that reveals the true cause of these problems: Green Bay's quarterbacks were sacked 6.6 percent of the time on third down during 2010 and 2011. This year, that's doubled to 13.8 percent, the highest rate in the league. You can blame Rodgers or his receivers for that, but in reality, it's the weak link of the Packers — the offensive line — that's produced those problems.

It makes sense. Rodgers's sack rate on other downs has spiked, too; after being sacked on a relatively average 6.8 percent of his dropbacks during his previous four years as a starter, he's all the way up to 10 percent this season. When one out of every 10 plays results in a sack, that's going to create a lot of long third downs, and when they happen on third down, that's going to produce a lot of punts. If Rodgers doesn't have a lot of time to throw, he's going to have to check down and hit his hot receiver for a small gain before someone can get open downfield; that's how his completion percentage has stayed the same even as his yards per attempt have dropped like a stone. And then, once that's become a consistent trend, it's no surprise to see McCarthy call safer plays that are designed to keep Rodgers upright.

There are plenty of reasons to think the line would be worse when you look at the personnel changes, too. Of the five linemen who started the Super Bowl win over the Steelers just 20 months ago, only two — right guard Josh Sitton and right tackle Bryan Bulaga — remain on the Packers roster. Bulaga had a notably bad game against the Seahawks by his own admission, but that's a very good right side for any offensive line, with two players who are Pro Bowl–caliber performers when healthy.

The rest of the line? Not so much. With 2011 first-round pick Derek Sherrod still on the shelf after breaking his leg last December, the Packers are stuck starting 2010 fifth-rounder Marshall Newhouse at left tackle. Newhouse was able to get by last season, but he's had a rough season this year (against an admittedly good group of pass rushers). Left guard T.J. Lang remains effective, but new center Jeff Saturday was available in free agency and offered a front-office job by the Colts for a reason; he's not the same player at 37, and the advantages he gained through his familiarity working with Peyton Manning aren't the same with a new scheme and a new quarterback. Saturday's a stopgap, and when you try to get by with stopgaps on your offensive line, you tend to struggle.

Packers fans have lived in hope by virtue of their tough schedule. Green Bay's offense started the season against two elite defenses in San Francisco and Chicago, and they scored 22 and 23 points, respectively, against a pair of teams that have allowed an average of just 11.8 points in their eight other contests. Since then, though, the Packers scored 12 against the Seahawks (who are at an average of 14.5 points per game otherwise), 28 against the Saints (31.5), and 27 against the Colts (20.8). And while the Seahawks famously embarrassed the Green Bay offensive line during the first half of their Monday Night Football tilt, the offensive line hasn't otherwise done a great job in the other four games, where they've allowed the opposition to sack Rodgers 7.9 percent of the time. That's not quite as bad as the 10 percent figure, but it's still well above his career average of 6.8 percent.

The good news is that the schedule does get a bit easier. After the Packers get through with the Texans this week, Green Bay has a four-game stretch that includes games against the Rams, Jaguars, Cardinals, and Lions, who should offer various degrees of hospitality. Five of their NFC North games are still to come after their Week 10 bye, though, and that includes the stout defenses of the Bears and Vikings. For all the talent that remains on that Green Bay offense, it's going to take an improved effort from a suddenly porous offensive line to produce a passing attack that resembles last year's squad. If the offensive line can't keep Rodgers on his feet to make plays, the Packers won't return to their lofty heights from 2010-11, both in terms of offensive performance and postseason success.

Are the Detroit Lions Who We Thought They Were?

By: timbersfan, 11:44 PM GMT on October 10, 2012

Earlier this week, Pro Football Weekly ran a fairly rabble-rousing story in which a “rival GM” made his thoughts known about the surprising start for the 1-3 Lions. And those thoughts are that it’s not all that surprising. (My money in the “rival GM” pool is on the Packers' Ted Thompson. He’s always had a tendency to run his mouth.) The crux of the comments was that despite their trip to the playoffs last year, Detroit wasn’t the rising contender that so many had made them out to be. The question is whether the three main criticisms hold any weight.

1. Detroit is one-dimensional on offense.

They are a one-dimensional offensive team that if the quarterback (Matthew Stafford) is not on, people are figuring it out. If you take (WR Calvin) Johnson out of the game (one TD through four games, compared to eight TDs at the same stage last season), who else do they have that can beat you?

Considering the entirety of the Matthew Stafford era in Detroit, this is a hard point to refute. Since 2004, the Lions have spent four picks in rounds 1-3 on running backs, and as of now, none of them have yielded any returns. The Kevins, Jones and Smith, were plagued by injuries from the start, and it seems like Jahvid Best’s concussion issues may have him on the same path. Even when healthy, though, Best was never an every-down solution. That would be 2011 second-round pick Mikel Leshoure, who’s started just two games in two seasons after tearing his Achilles tendon as a rookie and missing the first two weeks of 2012 due to a drug-related suspension. Leshoure was considered a first-round talent coming out of Illinois, and the next 12 games will go a long way in figuring out whether he can solve Detroit’s running woes.

The problem is that even if Leshoure proves to be an NFL-caliber back, he’ll be working behind an offensive line that’s alternatively aging and underwhelming. The guards, Rob Sims and Stephen Peterman, have been solid but unspectacular. The mainstays, center Dominic Raiola and left tackle Jeff Backus, are 33 and 35, respectively. Detroit drafted Iowa tackle Riley Reiff in the first round this year, presumably as a replacement for Backus, but early on the thought was that Reiff may supplant right tackle and 2008 first-round pick Gosder Cherilus, who always seems one mistake away from finding the bench. Leshoure may be every bit the downhill runner he was with the Illini, but without a plan to improve/replace who’s in front of him, it might not matter.

2. The Lions defensive line is overhyped.

Suh belongs on the All-Hype team. (DE Cliff) Avril is not that good — put on any game and you can watch him get blocked time and time again. Corey Willliams is solid, but nothing that wows you or makes you wonder how you are going to block him. The other guy (DE Kyle Vanden Bosch) is a try-hard guy getting up in years that does not really threaten you. For as much as people talk about that D-line and all its depth, where are all the players?
Since Jim Schwartz came to Detroit, the Lions seemed to be on the New York Giants plan of taking a strength and making it stronger. Kyle Vanden Bosch joined Schwartz in the move from Tennessee, and the Lions selected Ndamukong Suh second overall in 2010 with the hope that defensive-line play could become a team signature. The moves, along with selecting Auburn star Nick Fairley in the first round in 2011, earned Detroit a reputation for dominant play up front, and the contention is whether that’s deserved.

Last season, Suh’s personal-fouling antics almost guaranteed that the attention paid to him would outweigh his productivity, but even in a down sophomore campaign, he was still a player offenses had to account for. The criticism that may be fair is of Detroit’s lauded duo at defensive end. Cliff Avril collected 11 sacks in 2011 and was looking for a big contract this offseason as a result, but his demands didn’t seem to fit the production. Last season was the first year in which Avril tallied more than double-digit sacks, and according to Football Outsiders, the 26-year-old finished out of the top 20 in quarterback hits and knockdowns and was just 14th in total hurries. Vanden Bosch, a stalwart of Schwartz-led defenses since he was in Tennessee, is 33 and no longer the impact player he once was. Amid his legal issues, Fairley has been unable to usurp veteran Corey Williams alongside Suh at defensive tackle.

3. Jim Schwartz and GM Martin Mayhew are both overrated.

They’re both overrated,” the GM said. “What has he (Mayhew) really accomplished
It wasn’t going to take much for Mayhew to be celebrated as a hero in Detroit. The Matt Millen era was an unmitigated disaster for the Lions. As of 2010, none of Millen’s first-round picks remained on the roster, and the list of busts — Joey Harrington, Charles Rogers, Roy Williams, Kevin Jones, Mike Williams, and Ernie Sims — is hard to believe. With Detroit’s 0-16 finish and Millen’s subsequent dismissal in 2008, Mayhew was awarded the no. 1 overall pick in his first draft. The haul in 2009 is hard to take issue with at this point. Mayhew’s first four picks — Stafford, Brandon Pettigrew, Louis Delmas, and DeAndre Levy — are all starters, and Stafford and Delmas were centerpieces of Detroit’s short-lived resurgence.

After taking Suh and Best in 2010, it’s the 2011 draft where Mayhew looks to have faltered. Fairley, Leshoure, and their affections for marijuana have been at the front of Detroit’s charge to be this decade’s version of the 2006 Bengals. Fairley’s compounded his off-field issues with a lack of production, and Leshoure has compounded his with injury. Still, in just his fourth year, we need a bit more time to judge any of Mayhew’s drafts, let alone this year or the year before.

The doubts that seem legitimate are about Schwartz’s status as a top-tier head coach. Detroit’s quest to be a team defined by toughness has caused a stumble into a lack of discipline. Only the Raiders gave up more yards in penalties in 2011 than Detroit, and the lack of attention to detail looks to have spilled over into this season, where the Lions have given up four special-teams touchdowns in just four games.

Schwartz’s reputation when he got to Detroit was as an excellent defensive coach who assembled quality units in Tennessee more on the basis of structure than superior personnel or scheme. The lack of upper-echelon talent is still a problem at places among Detroit’s defense. The linebacking corps is a solid group, but the problems in the back half have been steady for the past several years and were only magnified with Delmas missing time at the beginning of this season. Part of that improvement will be in Mayhew assembling young pieces in the secondary, but the other will be in that defensive line living up to whatever Schwartz had hoped it would when he arrived.

Del Bosque's baffling decision to leave out Juan Mata

By: timbersfan, 8:18 PM GMT on October 10, 2012

Because of the extraordinary footballing resources Spain possess and, equally, because of the way La Roja have been able to steamroll the world's opposition over the past four years, there hasn't been a deeply risky and controversial decision to be made since Luis Aragones dropped his captain, Raul Gonzalez, and then kept the door closed irrespective of how much his form and goal scoring record improved.

Dropping Fernando Torres for a friendly last autumn? Sticking with the double-pivot system of Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets in the face of criticism after losing to Switzerland in the World Cup? Not taking Roberto Soldado to Euro 2012? Pairing Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique in central defence at the same tournament? No, these decisions were not even within telescopic sight-range of the divisive stance on Raul, whose absence/presence polarised Spanish opinion for years.

For a while the "Raul decision" looked to have become personal, the team's erratic form was blamed on his absence, and no matter how well he played neither Aragones nor, later, Vicente Del Bosque showed any inclination to restore the man who was then their all-time top scorer.

It proved to be an inspirational call, but it was a hot, hot potato for a long time.

But now we have a proper contender. The scenario is this.

Just after winning their third straight major international tournament, Spain's captain, Iker Casillas, complained that the tournament holders should be pre-qualified, along with the hosts, for the World Cup. He pointed out how strange it would be if a country were ever denied the opportunity even to defend their title.

Personally, I had sympathy for his secondary point, but none for the first one.

Having to qualify is healthy. It should be within the grasp of a world title holder. Plus, some of the smaller to middle-rank nations have every right to wish for and receive the champions in their qualifying group, thus spreading enthusiasm, aspiration and revenue generation round their country if and when the World Cup holders come to town.

Yet it would be odd if, by some quirk, the following tournament did take place without the holders.

Be that as it may, there has been sufficient noise and hoo-ha over the progression of Real Madrid under Mourinho this season, and the recent Clasico, that the business in hand for Spain this next week has drifted off the agenda.

Franck Fife/Getty Images
If there's one player who can bring out the best in Fernando Torres, it's Mata.
Which has left the extraordinary decision by Vicente "Safe Hands" Del Bosque to drop the in-form Juan Mata looking both interesting and disturbing -- for those of us who work in this country, anyway.

Spain's matches are Belarus away on Friday (and while Aleksandr Hleb's side has already lost to France, please do not forget that during qualification for Euro 2012, Belarus took four points out of six from Les Bleus), followed by France at home on Tuesday.

Given that Spain desperately want to avoid the lottery of a playoff, finishing top of Group I (which is completed by Georgia and Finland) is the only direct route to the enticing Brazilian World Cup in 20 months’ time.

Spain has qualified for the last two major tournaments with a 100% record each time, but there were some bumpy moments along the way. Right now, I'd argue that there are just enough problems for there to be a hint of vulnerability.

So let's just look at how the World Champions shape up, shall we?

Iker Casillas remains in very good form but, behind him, Victor Valdes isn’t exactly having an impressive start to the season, and Pepe Reina simply looks like he's not enjoying his football right now. Goals are flowing past him, as he’s committed his share of errors.

At the back there is no Gerard Pique and no Carles Puyol, while Javi Martinez had a very difficult summer (an awful Olympics followed by a nasty and protracted transfer departure to Bayern Munich), and what little football he's played this season has come in midfield.

In midfield, Santi Cazorla is the shining light … but will he start? Andres Iniesta, for his part, is just back from injury, and while I'm personally delighted to see Benat Etxebarria being rewarded for months of impressive play at Betis, it remains only the third national squad in which he has featured.

Up front, the problems are well-chronicled. David Villa needs more game time, Roberto Soldado (who got the nail-bitingly late winner in Georgia last month) isn't in prolific form, and while Torres appears to be gathering both form and fitness, his prowess has usually looked most effective when in tandem with a certain Juan Mata.

What the late victory in Georgia emphasised is that no matter how much Spain control a match, if there is a tough away tie and the opposition are happy to put 10 men behind the ball and hope for a breakaway goal, it can be a troublesome night. This is especially true if La Roja are not at their absolute sharpest.

Belarus will be chilly, hostile and not for the faint-hearted. Martinez has already admitted "Franck Ribery [his teammate at Bayern] has already warned us how tough a side the Belarussians can be. It's a match to take seriously."

The following Tuesday at the Vicente Calderon could, actually, be very close to a make-or-break game. Didier Deschamps' side aren't an out-and-out match for Spain, but this is a group in which no slip-ups will be permitted and where, should France get any kind of result, Del Bosque's men would be left with the challenge of winning every remaining match, including the return one in Paris.

A situation to be avoided if possible. Thus it's hard to see why Mata is still not required. He has four goals for Chelsea, has shown buzz-bomb energy and has also provided a handful of goal assists.

No question that the former Oviedo, Real Madrid and Valencia man has been one of the standout players in England this season, even after he had a difficult Olympics.

Antonio Villalba/Real Madrid/Getty Images
Iker Casillas thinks the World Cup champions should not have to go through qualification to defend their title.
Mata’s role at the European championships was brief, but I watched him work assiduously in training, and when he came on in the final he scored. Having him for the next two games looked a no-brainer, and it was a shock when Del Bosque simply said "We couldn't find a place in the squad for him."

Mata, typically, expressed careful disappointment without losing his temper in public. "I was pretty confident I'd be listed in the squad, and I was full of enthusiasm at that prospect," the Chelsea man pointed out. "I've not spoken to Del Bosque but I'll just continue to work hard. What's clear is that I'm in the best form I've shown since arriving at Chelsea -- working hard, enjoying my game, sitting top of the league and the Champions League group, too."

Unless Mata committed some sort of sin during the Olympics which the outgoing coach Luis Milla has reported back to Del Bosque -- something of which I'm currently ignorant and would strongly doubt -- then it's bizarre that his form hasn't earned him a starting place in the team, never mind a slot in the squad.

He is quick, inventive, scores goals, makes goals, innately understands how Torres is best served up with chances and won the Champions League final last season. Just the guy to have to turn a tough game in your favour; just the right moment of personal form via which to produce a famous cameo role.

The next two games were previewed by Spain captain Casillas when he admitted: "We showed how difficult it is to go on and on winning matches when we got a small fright in Georgia and only pinched the winner late on. Every single national team which plays us treats it like a life-or-death match. They each think that this is the way to get a famous victory over us. We've had four great years together and like anything in life there's got to be a ‘sell-by’ date on the most veteran players. Personally, I want to keep going for as long as possible because as long as you have pride, hunger and confidence you can continue. But after the World Cup in Brazil, I think there will be some squad changes."

However, as he himself pointed out in the summer, getting there is the first issue. Spain remain eminently good, but a little groggy right now. This is the time of year when their bad post-tournament defeats against Argentina and Portugal damaged their prestige in recent seasons.

If, by some quirk, Belarus and France prove indigestible rivals over the coming week, then the absence of tricky, loyal, quick, clever, in-form Mata will become a matter of state.

The Designated Player: The Indomitable Snowman, Part 2

By: timbersfan, 12:22 AM GMT on October 10, 2012

For Part 1 of Graham Parker's interview with Kei Kamara, click here.

“Vinnie Jones … ”

Kei Kamara is shaking his head and laughing.

“Oh man, Vinnie Jones.”

He’s saying it like I might say, “Hammer Pants.”

“I love seeing him in movies and going to my friends, ‘You know that’s a soccer player, right?’ I mean we have Aurelien Collin, and some of the stuff he does I’m like [peeks through his fingers] ‘Don’t do that!’”

Another incredulous “Vinnie Jones … ”

We’re talking about this year’s U.S. Open Cup final, and in particular the moment early on when Osvaldo Alonso, seen pregame as key to the hopes of the three-time defending champion Seattle Sounders, dove into a full-blooded tackle on Kamara. I ask Kamara about that “reducer” and when he looks confused by the term, I happen to mention the moment that’s often seen as synonymous with the term: the crunching third-minute tackle by Jones to take out Steve McMahon, which legend has it changed the course of the 1988 FA Cup final:

When Kamara has finished shaking his head and laughing at the thought of such dinosaurs walking the earth in unfeasibly tight shorts, we return to that moment in Livestrong Park. From the start of the match, it looked like the Sounders' game plan hinged on stopping Kamara. Alonso in particular was a fired-up presence early on, as Seattle tried to wrestle the initiative from a Sporting team playing in front of their own fans. I ask Kamara how it felt to be targeted that way.

“I love it. Seriously, I love it. I think I play at my best when I feel targeted. When I feel like a team’s game plan is to get rid of me, that shows me that I’m doing something good. The first five minutes, Alonso hit me so hard and I just hit the ground. But that just woke me up. I said to myself, ‘You know what? Wake up, this is going to be a tough game.’ It’s Alonso, one of the best midfielders in the league, and he doesn’t come out of any tackles. But I like the fact that it wakes me up. Period. My coach tells me, 'If they’re going to go for you, you’re going to go wide, you’re going to run down, mix it up, you’re going to go deep. You’re going to come into the middle, get a touch, go back wide again.' I switch with CJ (Sapong), I switch with (Graham) Zusi on the other side. I have to find another way.”

The Sounders are coached by Sigi Schmid — Kamara’s first MLS coach at Columbus, and a man perhaps familiar with a rawer and more easily provoked Kamara than the one who got up and got on with the game without notable retaliation. Instead it was a keyed-up Alonso whose complaints in the wake of the tackle saw him carded and forced to play the remainder of the game as a much more muted version of the box-to-box warrior he typically is. To compound a miserable night, Alonso missed a penalty in the eventual shootout.

When I mention that early clash between Kamara and Alonso to Kamara’s coach Peter Vermes, he agrees about its significance.

“There’s no doubt they came in there to try and get the first blow in and intimidate us. They had more experience, they’d been in that final three years in a row and won. What I loved about that situation was we really kept our composure. Individually for Kei, I think moments like that actually motivate him a little bit more. Sometimes there’s something in the game that can really wake him up quickly and a minute later you see him being like a completely different guy. Sometimes it’s me yelling at him, but that’s the way it goes.”

In the 82nd minute Kamara scored a penalty to put Sporting in the lead, only for Seattle to equalize just two minutes later. Before the match, Kamara had been conspicuously buoyant, interacting cheerfully with the fans, even applauding the double rainbow that had appeared in the wake of a thunderstorm that delayed kick off. But the ebullience had masked a real uncertainty within a player who had not yet won a trophy in his MLS career.

“I thought I was cursed before the U.S. Open Cup win. Every team I’d been in had either won something before I’d got there, or something after I left … we came to penalty kicks and, standing there, when we missed a PK, I was just like, ‘Am I ever going to win anything?'"

Kamara could have been forgiven for thinking he was cursed, when Michael Gspurning saved Paulo Nagamura’s penalty in the shootout. But then referee Ricardo Salazar, having spotted the keeper off his line, ordered the kick to be retaken. Sporting had a lifeline, but having scored his own penalty, Kamara could only watch:

“When I took my first PK in the regular time, I didn’t realize it, but they said the keeper moved way off his line. So before we had to take the PKs, my goalkeeper, Jimmy Nielsen, gave me a head's-up: ‘Hey make sure you let the referee know that that keeper moves too much off his line.’ He touched mine before it went in — I guess he moved again, but I didn’t know. So when Nagamura went and took his, the ref had been watching it over and over, so … it was a really big step. He blocked it and it [the decision to retake] was given … but at the same time, it’s PKs so when someone has to take it over again, you’re never sure.”

Kamara tails off and shakes his head.

“ … I don’t know what was in my heart at that moment. I was just relieved. And after winning that, I had tears of joy and I finally realized this is the year we definitely make a change.”

Vermes, too, was struck by the change in Kamara from the Cup win. “When you get a taste of that, you crave it so much more as a competitor. You have a road map to get it again. He did that within the context of the team, not in the context of himself. That’s not what people see. I think that’s maybe a misconception around him because of the celebrations and all these other things, but that’s just the creativity within him, that’s his personality. They see him score and think he’s all about himself, but that’s not his world. He wants to win. He wants the team to win.”

On the day that we’re speaking, Sporting are about to play and win a vital road game in New York. Preparations have been less than ideal. A nine-hour travel delay had gotten the team into New Jersey in the early hours of the morning of the game. Despite this, little has changed from the usual buildup to the match. Our interview is put back half an hour, but other than that, the organization, and Kamara in particular, seem remarkably relaxed.

As he points out, the challenges of traveling to play for a severely underfunded Sierra Leone team put such inconveniences into perspective. “It’s taught me so much. Like our travel day, yesterday; I’ve gone through that thinking, It’s just another day, instead of being stressed about it. When I’m in Sierra Leone, those are the things I go through a lot. It takes a long time, the fields aren’t the best. So when I do come here, I appreciate what’s been given to me so much more.”

I remind him that in October the U.S. Men’s team will be playing their crucial final World Cup qualifier in his backyard in Kansas City. (“Right. Great,” he deadpans.) As a U.S. citizen now, but having elected to play for Sierra Leone, does he feel any regrets about missing out on the chance to contend for a place on the U.S. side?

“You can say that … you can say that. Yeah, I could have played for the U.S. I remember Bob Bradley was inquiring about me for the Olympic team, in 2008, I think. But right from the time I came to the U.S., I always had in my mind that I wanted to play for Sierra Leone, because the buzz around football in Africa is just different from soccer in America, and I just wanted to be part of that. But people would talk to me and say,’Would you play for the U.S.?’ I’d say, ‘Yeah.’But this was before I got my citizenship. After I got my citizenship I was going back home, back and forth. My family appreciated what I was doing so much, but they’d never seen me play. And for them to see me play I had to come back for my national team and wear my country’s colors. I won’t say I regret it. Maybe later on in life, but not right now.”

Despite the passion that shows through for his homeland, you could forgive Kamara for feeling some ambivalence about playing for the Leone Stars when you consider his difficult relationship with the country’s federation, which for more or less opaque reasons has banned him on more than one occasion, only to reinstate him (and other high-profile players critical of the regime) under pressure from his peers.

“I’ve been banned. It’s just a common thing to do, I guess. It’s just like, ‘Oh yeah? We’re suspending you.’ I have really strong teammates who will go to the national team and say, ‘We’re making a stand and we’re not going to play if these guys are suspended, because we know they didn’t do anything.’ To me, with the national team, I’m just trying to implement some of the things we learned from here [in the United States]. Things like the players union that we have. Players there have rights that they don’t know about. Obviously we’re playing in Africa, so there’s a lot of control in Africa. They just want to control every single thing you do. How you sleep, how you wake up; every single thing. So there’s a lot of focus on a lot of things, but there’s not enough focus for us to prepare for the game.”

In the Copper Pot Pictures documentary KEI, there’s a scene in which the country’s president is addressing a tired-looking group of players prior to a crucial African Cup of Nations qualifier with Egypt. It’s one of those speeches that seems long on expectation, short on details, and primed to extract maximum political capital with minimum investment. The players look like they could do without the distraction. The fact that they perform well in the subsequent game seems to be despite rather than because of the political grandstanding going on around them.

“Three years ago Sierra Leone were 160-something in the FIFA rankings, to 59 now. If whoever’s in control of the federation, or the team, could appreciate that we’re doing the right thing … The little time I can get to play, I just want people to say when I’m done, ‘Yeah, he helped do this. He helped set up this for the other guys that are coming back to play.’”

Kamara’s commitment to the region extends to his involvement with Schools for Salone. He is currently trying to raise money to build a school and orphanage in Freetown, and he has campaigned extensively in Kansas City and elsewhere to realize the project. Aside from the long-term goal, Kamara has reaped his own benefits from the project: It has tightened his relationship with the fans in Kansas City, and it has added a further element to the mentoring that’s been so crucial in his life.

“When I go back home to Africa, I have these kids who I talk to, and even though it’s really hard in Africa, people have dreams of being a doctor or a lawyer. I’m like a dad, sometimes you’ve got to lie to your kids sometimes, just keep them going. I’m keeping the little ones that I know back there going, pushing them, paying their school fees, and hopefully a little bit later on things can change and maybe they can have more opportunities out there and they can reach their dreams.”

This is not to make out that Kamara is unique in doing work like this. MLS produces a lot of young, college-educated players who participate freely in the charitable activities of the league — but Kamara seems to need to do this. He’s one of those people who seems to thrive on connecting with others, wanting to be at the heart of everything and wanting to have his presence matter. It seems less about ego or vanity and more about how he becomes animated through such contact and feels more secure because of it. There’s a recurring theme in our conversation about how short life is, let alone a sporting career, and while soccer has given him a path, a sense of belonging, he seems very aware of how provisional that belonging is, and for the need to make meaningful connections, if not put down meaningful roots, while he can. Again, that doesn’t make him unique — every athlete is faced with the reality of life after sport. But not every athlete looks to address that by counting his blessings and tending to the wounded.

Thinking these grandiose thoughts, I ask Kamara if there’s anything else he wants the fans of Sporting Kansas City to help him achieve. He enthusiastically sidesteps his halo:

“I want to go on Wipeout! I want to go on Fear Factor! I want to play on a celebrity basketball game because I’m a big basketball fan. I want to set the annual snowball fight up with the Sporting fans. We weren’t able to do it this year, because it didn’t snow as much. So I’m sure the fans are going to be tweeting me and we’ll be getting that going, but If I could just win an MLS Cup in front of Kansas City fans … ”

You’d fill the cup up with snow?

“ … it would be the biggest snowball fight ever in the history of snowball fights.”

Paris Is Rising: Among Les Thugs

By: timbersfan, 12:21 AM GMT on October 10, 2012

Yesterday when I, along with about 100 other Paris Saint-Germain fans, landed in Marseille, the welcome wagon arrived in the form of police officers dressed in riot gear ready to escort us to PSG’s clash with Marseille at the Stade Velodrome. Tensions between the teams run high, and when I asked the man next to me why he hates Marseille so much he said, “I don’t know. I have it in my blood.”

There were close to 100 members of the Gendarmerie with assault rifles bracketing us on both sides as we walked to the bus. There were three paddy wagons, at least eight officers on motorcycles, and a helicopter hovering above. Streets were blocked off throughout the city to make for a swift transport to the stadium. When we arrived, our mugshots were taken as we held our identification cards. It was about the time that the unmuzzled German shepherd jumped on me while sniffing for drugs that I felt less like a sports fan and more like someone who was being processed for committing a crime. It was these same security measures that led to Marseille fans boycotting the match in 2010. Without Marseille fans to fight, PSG fans clashed among themselves that night, leading to the death of Yann Lorence.

Inside the stadium, the hate between the two sets of fans was immediately apparent. Once we were seated in the visitors’ section, a crowd of Marseille fans rushed to the front row of seats. They chanted the usual obscenities you hear at sporting events and followed it up by trying to toss water bottles and coins at us; they might have been successful had it not been for the net that separated our section from theirs. During the introductions, the Marseille supporters group in the south stand unveiled two orange-and-black banners of Che Guevara that had to be at least 50 yards long.

Once the whistle signaling kickoff blew, all attention turned to the field for the match against the two teams at the top of the table. PSG looked sluggish at the outset and Marseille quickly tried to capitalize, with Andre-Pierre Gignac failing to find the target with an early effort.

Before the match, the PSG fans chanted “un big mac pour Gignac” but the burly forward instead chose to feast on the opposition defense. His first goal came when PSG cheaply gave away the ball near midfield and Jordan Ayew fed Gignac, who wrong-footed Christophe Jallet before beating Salvatore Sirigu at his far post. PSG answered almost immediately through Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whose tae kwon do–like flick found the roof of the net to bring PSG level. Ibrahimovic scored his second on a swerving free kick from about 35 yards to give PSG the lead. But then sloppy defending gifted Gignac a free header from a corner, leveling the match at 2-2. The second half lacked the bite of the first 45 minutes, as Carlo Ancelotti used two of his three substitutions to bring on defenders to secure a draw.

This match, coupled with the loss against Porto in the Champions League, gave an accurate picture of where PSG is as a team. They look good enough to win Ligue 1, but something else is needed if they want to progress in the Champions League. They were overrun in midfield against two teams that attacked them directly, and the defense is still below par, especially given the money spent on Thiago Silva. Worryingly, the team is overly dependent on Ibrahimovic. In almost every match this season, Ibrahimovic has cast an exasperating look to a teammate who didn’t play the ball where he wanted it or didn’t play the pass soon enough. These things happen all the time with any other team, but the frequency that they occur with PSG has to do with the gulf in class that exists between Ibrahimovic and his teammates. At some point this season, someone else needs to step up besides the Swede.

Too often players go missing, and Sunday night was no different. Javier Pastore once again lived up to his reputation as a player who is, at times, a bystander in the biggest matches. Against Marseille, Pastore appeared genuinely uninterested and played so poorly that he was substituted at halftime. At some point the club may choose to cut its losses, but for now it’s hard for Ancelotti to keep Pastore on the bench because his other options in attack are equally unreliable. Marco Verratti also had a week to forget, but at 19 years old, the growing pains are expected. His talent is obvious but so too is his recklessness, which led to his yellow card for a dangerous slide tackle.

These flaws make PSG an interesting team to follow. There’s a fool’s gold feeling that’s starting to settle in. When they play weaker sides like Bastia and Sochaux, they look like world beaters, but in a week that was billed as la semaine de la vérité, PSG finished with more questions than answers.

After the match, we were made to wait at least an hour for everyone to clear the stadium. Most of us had been together for more than 12 hours and were ready to head home. There was, thankfully, no violence between any of the fans, and the closest thing to a scuffle that happened was the mosh pit that ensued when Christophe Jallet threw his jersey into the visiting fans' section. Still, the Gendarmerie continued the dog and pony show, escorting us to the airport in the same manner they brought us to the stadium and waiting in the terminal with us — riot gear, rifles, and all (even though we were the only ones there) — until our flight departed to Paris.

Stranger in a Strange Land

By: timbersfan, 12:20 AM GMT on October 10, 2012

They don't even really see the moment coming until it is upon them. Suddenly, after age or an injury or a simple change in latitude disrupts a career, the elite athlete discovers one day that everything he once depended upon is gone. Pop a knee, and that acceleration that got you from Godforsaken Regional High School to East Copperhead Junior College to Megalith LLC University to the NFL isn't there anymore. Change where you play, and maybe that bailout tight end, or the guard who always had your blind side, isn't around, and somebody beats the teammate, the guy whose name you might not know yet, to the outside and then sits on your head. The game goes beyond your control in dozens of small and unfathomable ways. Suddenly, you are dependent upon the competence of strangers.

There was a moment like that early Sunday evening in Foxborough. Peyton Manning — the quarterback of the Denver Broncos and the erstwhile star quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts — was on the ground, put there by New England's Rob Ninkovich and kept there by Chandler Jones. The ball was on the ground, too, but the ball was on the ground in a different place, and that became an immediate problem for Manning, who was on the ground, having been put there by Ninkovich. Vince Wilfork was now on top of the ball as securely as Jones was on top of Manning. The ballgame also had spun out of reach. A couple of plays later, Stevan Ridley, the New England running back, bounced into the end zone over the left side, and after the extra point the Patriots took a 31-7 lead. That the Broncos were able to make a game of it, losing 31-21, after squandering a golden chance to make things even closer than that, was a testimony to Manning's innate ability to move a football team down the field, even if at times he did look like a man trying to navigate his way across a landscape on which all the road signs suddenly were written in Swedish.

"It's not easy," he said later. "It is a transition, and it is something you have to go through. I mean, I've been here a number of times under different circumstances. I can probably give you a better read on that later on in the season."

In fact, Manning was as good as he had to be Sunday, completing 31 of 44 passes for 345 yards and three touchdowns. At times, he looked as sharp as he ever did in Indianapolis. But the tone for the day was set on the very first possession of the game. He hit three passes in a row, and even ran for 10 yards and a first down on a third-and-5 play from his own 42-yard line. Three plays after that, he found wideout Demaryius Thomas five yards behind Sterling Moore and hit him with a gorgeous 43-yard pass down the seam in the middle of the field, only to have Moore punch the ball free from behind and fall on it. "You get a chance on the road to put up points, get the crowd settled down, and you have to do that," Manning said. The competence of strangers.

It wasn't always like this. Everything about the game took place within this strange new normal. It used to be that Indianapolis–New England was the finest rivalry in the league, and that even predated the arrival of the two quarterbacks, since it was Bill Parcells who had the New England secondary start roughing up the Indianapolis receivers, causing Bill Polian to turn the Dudgeonmeter up to 11. Once Manning and Brady arrived, one of the league's great rivalries found itself infused with the battle of the network stars. Not only did their careers roughly parallel each other, but they both had distinct roles to play. Manning was the golden child, the second-generation star marked almost from birth to be one, while Brady was the sixth-round draft pick out of Michigan who got a start only because Mo Lewis nearly killed Drew Bledsoe on the field. For a while, Brady's three Super Bowls trumped Manning's gaudy statistics, until Manning won a Super Bowl of his own, beating Brady and the Patriots along the way to it.

(Of course, the wonderfully ironic historical anomaly is that, as far as the Super Bowl is concerned, Brady's greatest nemesis has been the younger Manning, Eli, and the New York Giants.)

Along the way, though, they both became as battered as quarterbacks will be. Brady lost an entire season to a knee injury that required surgery, and Manning lost an entire season to a dangerous neck injury that required surgery, which probably made it easier for Indianapolis to let him go. When he got to Denver, he was still dogged by questions of whether or not it was healthy for him to play football at all. After all, the oldest Manning son, Cooper, had his own football career cut short because of a congenital deformation of his upper spinal column. Peyton Manning arrived at Broncos training camp with a good portion of people believing that he was over the hill, and another portion of people believing that he simply was crazy to play.

"I've spoken to Peyton a couple of times since the surgery," Brady said last week. "I'm sure that his love for competition exceeds whatever pain he might feel, but I haven't really talked to him about that. I know what he's feeling, though. I lost a whole year and it's difficult to come back. You get so rusty."

But the sizzle has gone from the rivalry, at least in part because the immediacy of it has gone. Indianapolis and New England used to play not only every season, but also every postseason. Now, while Denver and New England have a rivalry that goes back to Abner Haynes sprinting out of the corral through the long shadows of Mile High Stadium, you can't simply transplant Brady and Manning into that context. The feel is all wrong. Something's come loose in the cosmos. And then you have a game like the one Sunday, which New England won at least partly because Brady has so many things around him upon which he can rely, while Manning is still feeling his way through his new job and his new teammates, and something seems a little unfair. You could see it on the several occasions in which Denver had a real chance to get back in the game, until there came a moment in which it simply didn't matter anymore.

After the fumble that Ridley had turned into that big New England lead, it was the Patriots who began to spit the bit. Manning brought the Broncos right back down the field over 10 plays, including a 38-yard pass to Thomas down the left sideline, and cut the gap right back to 31-14. The Denver defense got stout at the beginning of the fourth quarter, shutting down New England and, with 8:17 left, stuffing an inexplicable fourth-down try by the Patriots at the Denver 37. This turned the ball back over to Manning, who got them back to 31-21 six plays later, hitting Brandon Stokley from five yards out. And then, with 5:19 to play, Ridley fumbled the ball back to Denver and Manning got a chance to put a real edge on things.

He found Jacob Tamme for 17 yards and then, two incompletions later, Thomas again for nine yards on a third-and-10. Facing a fourth-and-1 from the New England 42-yard line, Manning reached back to 2004, throwing a risky deep ball down the right sideline for which Thomas had to come back about two yards, having turned Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty completely around. It was the kind of play he once made to Marvin Harrison, or to Pierre Garcon, or to any member of that receiving corps that Indianapolis had so carefully built around him. Given a chance to cut the New England lead to a shaky three points, and with the New England secondary completely bumfuzzled, Manning missed on a pass and then sent Willis McGahee up the middle. Ninkovich blew up the play and popped the ball loose. Jermaine Cunningham fell on it, and Manning stood alone on the field for just the briefest moment, popping his chin strap loose in the unmistakable gesture of every quarterback who ever has had to depend on the competence of strangers. Which is, of course, eventually, all of them.

"I told Demaryius that I would stand with him, and I told Willis after he fumbled that I would stand with him, too," Manning said after the game. "What happened today doesn't mean that Demaryius isn't going to get the ball, or that I'm going to stop calling Willis's number. Nobody wants to be the guy who has a play go against them like that. As a teammate, and as a quarterback, I'm with them.

"I think we're building something here, and it doesn't happen right away. There are things and goals we're trying to get to, and the only way to get to them is to play games, to see together the different situations and scenarios that occur during games, and to see them together." With that, Peyton Manning, the 36-year-old quarterback of the rebuilding Denver Broncos, headed for the bus that would take him to the airport that would take him back to the still-new place where he likely will finish out his career. Some days, it seems like everything — the ball, the game, the years — is getting away all at once.

The NBA's New Power

By: timbersfan, 12:19 AM GMT on October 10, 2012

When the Thunder rampaged over San Antonio in the Western Conference Finals, it felt a bit like the league had found its championship matchup for the next three or four seasons. The Spurs and Celtics were aging, the Lakers had peaked again as a second-tier team, Derrick Rose was set to miss most of 2012-13, and a bunch of would-be contenders — Memphis, Dallas, Denver, New York, the Clippers — were a notch or two below with no clear path for improvement. Flash forward a few months, and the league looks very different. Three stars, including perhaps the league's second-best player in Dwight Howard, changed teams in one trade, with the Lakers also nabbing an All-Star point guard. The Celtics reloaded despite little cap flexibility, while Brooklyn joined the Knicks as starry teams with big ambitions. It was a noisy summer. Let's take a step back and look at how things changed, in the short- and long-term, amid the NBA's championship hierarchy.

The Real Title Contenders

Miami Heat

Perhaps the strongest repeat favorite since the heyday of Shaq-Kobe. It took a potentially franchise-destroying injury to Chris Bosh at nearly the worst possible time, but the Heat discovered in May and June that their version of small ball, with LeBron James at power forward, should serve as the foundation of the team's identity rather than as a change-of-pace tactic at the start of the second and fourth quarters. The alignment change, coupled with James's new comfort as a post-up threat, took Miami's offense up another level without compromising the defense in a significant way. Miami let this development guide its offseason, signing two perimeter threats (Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis) and precisely zero traditional big men guaranteed to be part of the team's rotation in high-leverage moments.

There are challenges to come. Erik Spoelstra will play trial-and-error with lineups, and Miami cannot risk overtaxing James in the regular season. That might mean less small ball than the Heat end up using in the playoffs, and some banging against power forwards for Shane Battier and Lewis. Dwyane Wade's knee will probably act up again, and the Heat may not have the luxury of going through the last two rounds of the playoffs without facing a team equipped to punish them on the block. But they enter the season as the clear favorite.

Oklahoma City Thunder

The big steps are done, but sometimes the smaller steps are the hardest — the subtleties of defensive positioning, lineup choices, and balance on both ends of the floor. The Thunder made progress on all fronts during the playoffs, when their offense nearly set records, the team remembered James Harden was actually on the floor in crunch time, Scott Brooks leaned more (but not enough) on his most productive small lineups, and the team's aggressive defense at least limited the unstoppable Spurs. Getting Eric Maynor back should help more than Maynor's individual numbers might suggest, since he allows Brooks to play small lineups featuring four threatening perimeter players instead of just two or three. The other young guys are only going to get better, and Serge Ibaka has shown glimpses of morphing into a more multidimensional pick-and-roll player.

But Miami overwhelmed this defense in the Finals. It has to be better, and if that improvement comes from playing Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha more, the Thunder won't dethrone the champs.

Los Angeles Lakers

A team whose offense failed them early last season and whose defense failed them late has added the game's very best defender and perhaps the NBA's single greatest offensive force of the last decade-plus. There are questions, of course. There is no off-the-dribble dynamism among the backups for Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant, and Nash is just about a 30-minute-per-game player at this point. The Lakers are counting heavily on Jordan Hill and Antawn Jamison, and perhaps Earl Clark at some point, to hold the fort when the stars sit, and it's unclear if they can do so on either end. Bryant and Nash, both iron men, are well into the stage of their careers in which age- and injury-related declines are scary possibilities. Pau Gasol isn't far behind. Fit and chemistry might be uneven as the stars learn the team's new hybrid Princeton offense. Bryant, a gifted cutter and passer, must dial back his shot selection and tendency to stop the ball. How they respond to Oklahoma City's dynamic small lineups in a potential conference finals matchup is unclear.

But holy hell: These four stars should be able to be on the court together for 35 minutes per night in high-stakes playoffs games, with all but Nash capable of logging many more than that. And Mike Brown's staff should be able to stagger minutes so that no single star is left to carry too heavy a burden on bench units. They don't get the favorite's perch right away, not even in their own conference, but a team that had declined to second-tier status should happily accept something like co-favorite in the West.

San Antonio Spurs

It's fine if you want to slide them into the next tier. Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili are old, and neither is quite capable of serving as a full-time go-to scoring centerpiece against dialed-in defenses. The Western Conference Finals had the feel of one team figuring out how to beat the other, in part because the brilliant Ginobili, the Spurs' best all-around player, couldn't score big on a night-to-night basis.

But Duncan and Ginobili stay productive every year, and the Spurs could find enough incremental internal improvements to offset any Ginobili/Duncan drop-off. Kawhi Leonard and Tiago Splitter should get even better, with Leonard perhaps developing into a top-shelf defender and a wing more capable of working off the dribble when the ball swings his way. Boris Diaw has a full season to help Gregg Popovich find the right balance in his big-man rotation, and Stephen Jackson is around to shoot and present small-ball options should that ideal big-man rotation never emerge. Nando de Colo and Patty Mills provide healthy competition for Gary Neal and could help Popovich limit Ginobili's minutes.

And again: This team outscored opponents by an unthinkable 15 points per 100 possessions over 30-plus games last season, per NBA.com's stats database. That kind of dominance earns some preseason respect, even if the Thunder left the Spurs' defense and rotation in tatters.

A Puncher's Chance

Boston Celtics

Boston knows it went about as far as it could with the league's best defense and an offense that ranked 24th in points per possession. Score at that rate, and it's very hard to beat just one top team four times in seven tries — even when that top team is missing Bosh and has yet to figure out the best way to optimize its talents. Boston overcame its own injury issues, but those setbacks didn't have the same impact of Derrick Rose's ACL tear and Bosh missing the first four games of the conference finals.

Jason Terry is a borderline elite offensive player, the rare guard who combines star-level long-range shooting and off-the-bounce creativity. Avery Bradley will be back soon, and Boston's starting lineup with Bradley in Ray Allen's place scored at a league-best level. Courtney Lee is a solid two-way player who is money from the corners, and Jeff Green, bloated contract and all, might help in the right matchups.

This is a team built to face Miami — to play varied small lineups, have Green share LeBron-guarding duty with Paul Pierce, and hope its offense can score enough to give it a chance to win late. But it's an old team, one vulnerable to injuries, and one that must prove there is anything better than a league-average offense here. If that's all there is, they'll still need some luck to upset Miami.

Dreaming of a Puncher's Chance

Memphis Grizzlies

It shouldn't feel over, but it almost does, especially with the Lakers passing Memphis in the race for the league's scariest two-man frontcourt behemoth. The Zach Randolph/Marc Gasol tandem is still here, and if Randolph's knee is healthy, we may finally get to see what Memphis can do with its four-man core all near 100 percent. The team outscored opponents by six points per 100 possessions last season — double its overall mark — when Randolph and Rudy Gay played together, a sign that the two can mesh just fine. They'll play top-10 defense and force a ton of turnovers, and if Darrell Arthur recovers from his latest leg injury, he and Marreese Speights form a very nice backup big-man duo.

But this shooting-challenged team, starved for spacing, will miss O.J. Mayo's off-ball movement and semi-threatening 3-point shot. It's unclear if any of the backup guard brigade, both new and old, is ready to play heavy productive minutes. If Randolph can only return to something like 90 percent of his magical 2011 playoff form, Memphis needs Gay to step up as a passer and defender. The Grizz's first-round loss to the Clippers last season was discouraging on both fronts.

Los Angeles Clippers

Chris Paul and Blake Griffin make a top-five offense almost on their own, and the Clippers addressed two major needs at once (defense and backup small forward) with the acquisition of Grant Hill. The two-guard situation remains dicey, and it's fair to wonder if the Clips missed a chance to slot Lee there in order to placate Paul with the Jamal Crawford/Chauncey Billups pairing. Both can be productive players, especially Billups, but they'll have trouble defending the best wings among the West's elite (Bryant, Ginobili, Harden) and will cut into Eric Bledsoe's time.

But that's not necessarily a fatal weakness. An uncertain big-man rotation beyond Griffin would be. The Griffin/DeAndre Jordan combination was mostly a confused mess on defense last season, and the Clippers compensated by playing the all-defense, no-offense Reggie Evans/Kenyon Martin duo more than is healthy for any team's scoring rate. Lamar Odom holds promise as a two-way backup other teams might actually have to guard, but it's unclear where he is mentally and physically, and whether he and Griffin can form a credible defensive front line if Jordan falters again.

Exciting Upside, Too Many Questions

New York Knicks

It isn't just that Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire didn't work well together. It's also that the Knicks scored only 98.5 points per 100 possessions — roughly equivalent to 25th in the NBA — when those two shared the floor with Tyson Chandler, and that the number actually got worse when that trio played with Jeremy Lin, per NBA.com.

The Knicks have to repair this frontcourt fit issue before even considering loftier expectations, and they'd have had a much better chance had they nabbed Jason Kidd as an organizer even just two seasons ago. But Kidd's game is in sharp decline, and the Knicks' other key signings are either ancient or league-average types who don't really move the needle. The good news: This team defended at a top-10 level all season, including under Mike D'Antoni, and sported a point differential roughly equivalent to that of a 50-win club. Depth on the wing should give Mike Woodson a chance to play Anthony more at power forward, where he can torch slower defenders and fares better on defense. This should be a solid playoff team, but it's hard to see more.

Brooklyn Nets

There are folks around the league actually projecting this team to miss the playoffs. It's a minority view, and one with which I disagree, but it's out there. We have no idea if this capped-out-in-perpetuity bunch can stop anyone, or if it will get reliable bench play from someone outside C.J. Watson and MarShon Brooks. Mirza Teletovic holds promise, and the Nets have other guys who can sop up minutes, but they're not guys you really want sopping up minutes.

This team will score, and the size of Joe Johnson and Gerald Wallace gives Avery Johnson the ability to play some smallish lineups. But a Brook Lopez–Kris Humphries frontcourt is a minus defensively, and minus defensive frontcourts generally don't get you deep into the playoffs.

Denver Nuggets

The League Pass crowd's wet dream, and with good reason. Denver plays an exciting run-like-all-hell style, with significant substance below; the Nuggets took the fewest long 2s in the league last season despite their breakneck pace, and their point guards — especially Andre Miller — rank right at the top of the league in terms of producing assists that lead to 3s and dunks. Danilo Gallinari is due to combine good 3-point shooting and playmaking in the same season, and the Nuggets are a huge pain when he plays power forward.

But placing this team anywhere near the championship conversation feels premature. Kenneth Faried is the only reliable traditional power forward on the entire roster, and he struggled to guard in space last season — to say nothing of his nonexistent jumper. The center position is a mystery; JaVale McGee looked wonderful in exactly two playoff games against the Lakers and was a more stable player in Denver overall, but he has a much longer history of hurting his team whenever he steps on the floor. A lack of 3-point shooting will be a problem unless Gallo finds his stroke.

Let's see how some of this stuff shakes out, and how much Andre Iguodala can help a porous, switch-happy defense, before anointing this team a real threat.

Philadelphia 76ers

Andrew Bynum + shooters + two creative guards should be a reliable recipe for a top-10 NBA offense, a nice tonic for a team that couldn't score after a hot start last season. But the pouty Bynum, an uneven defender, has never been the centerpiece of a team, and the Jrue Holiday/Evan Turner combination has always worked with another perimeter security blanket — Iguodala or Lou Williams, both elsewhere — around to create shots. Holiday and Turner both have nice potential, but neither has shown anything like lead-dog playmaking ability — something the Sixers will still need, even with Bynum dominating down low.

Spacing might be an issue for the starting lineup, and the front line is overstocked with center types now that Elton Brand's departure leaves Thaddeus Young and the center-ish Lavoy Allen as the only true non-rookie power forwards on the roster. Young is making noise about possibly playing some small forward, but the Sixers have long thrived with him as an energetic small-ball four. Doug Collins and his staff will find some of the right answers, but it's hard to see a contender here. The real mystery comes in the next couple of offseasons, when cap holds for Holiday and then Turner could take up most of Philly's projected cap space — assuming they bring back Bynum at the max.

Solid Playoff Teams, But What's the Plan?

Indiana Pacers

This isn't an insult. The Pacers are a very good team, clearly better than some of the teams listed in the above "sexy but uncertain" tier types. They finished in the top 10 in both points scored and allowed per possession last season, a rare feat, and they return a starting lineup that absolutely blitzed the league. Their bench will probably be better than the group that consistently torpedoed the Pacers last season.

And yet: What's the ceiling, both this season and going forward? Roy Hibbert can only play 30 minutes per game, they're on schedule to regret the George Hill contract by the new year, Tyler Hansbrough shot 41 percent last season, Danny Granger may have peaked, their injury good luck may not repeat this season, and David West's deal expires after this season. Bring West back on the wrong end of the age curve, and the Pacers might trap themselves with a team that just isn't dynamic enough, on either end, to topple the Miami juggernaut. Let West walk, and where is Indiana finding that second big man? They'd have cap space in that scenario, but cap space guarantees nothing.

The hope for more clearly lies in Paul George and the possibility that this team's defense moves a few ticks closer to Boston/Chicago territory. Let's see if the timing works on either front.

Chicago Bulls

In the last 10 seasons, only one team has finished in the top five in points allowed per possession and missed the playoffs: the 2010-11 Milwaukee Bucks, who put up one of the half-dozen worst scoring seasons in NBA history. Heck, 91 of the 100 teams who finished in the top 10 in points allowed per possession in that stretch made the playoffs, and of the nine who missed, eight ranked 27th or worse in scoring.

In other words: It's very hard to play defense the way Chicago has under Tom Thibodeau and miss the postseason. The Bulls lost two key defenders in Omer Asik and Ronnie Brewer, but both were backups, and this defense should remain stout as long as Thibodeau, Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, and Taj Gibson are around. Gibson and Carlos Boozer functioned well in limited minutes together last season, and the Bulls could lean on that pairing or go small more often to minimize the pain of Asik's departure. If Derrick Rose is playing at 80 percent of his peak level in April, this team will be a tough out. The bigger questions are still to come, since giving Gibson a fair-value extension before October 31 would obliterate Chicago's cap space until the summer of 2015, which raises the question: What if this core just isn't quite good enough to win it all, and 2011 was as good as it's going to get?

Dallas Mavericks

An influx of off-the-dribble creativity and functional size should help Dallas bounce back from a miserable offensive season in which the Mavs ranked at or near the bottom of the league in shots at the rim and free throws. Rick Carlisle and his staff, especially defensive coordinator Monte Mathis, have proven they can break out all sorts of hybrid man-zone principles to build an above-average defense out of disparate parts. Still: Teams will test the Dirk Nowitzki/Chris Kaman front line when Elton Brand, the best defender of the three top bigs, is on the bench.

But Dallas hasn't added an obviously above-average offensive player among its pile of signings and trade acquisitions, and it's just hard to see this team toppling one of the powerhouses above it in the pecking order. There just still isn't quite enough perimeter dynamism. They will have cap room to sign one max player this summer, and the slate is basically clean after that. Is a true rebuild coming?

Dreaming of No. 8 in the East — and a Much-Needed Leap

Milwaukee Bucks

After back-to-back no. 9 finishes, and with both starting guards potentially headed to free agency, it's playoffs-or-bust for the Deer. The team's defense fell to bottom-five levels when Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings shared the floor last season, and Ellis's poor technique and habits are far more problematic than his size.

Still: Ellis is an underrated passer who gets his teammates good looks near the basket, and Milwaukee's offense jumped into top-five territory after the Ellis–Andrew Bogut swap. There are long-armed stoppers young and old waiting to clean things up on defense, but with Ersan Ilyasova entrenched as a floor-stretching power forward, the minutes competition among the bigs will be tough. That may push Tobias Harris and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, potential small-ball fours, to near full-time wing roles, which in turn could crunch the team's spacing. This roster feels ripe for a trade, and brings a ton of questions. The biggest one is Jennings, who must get into the lane more often and broaden his interior passing repertoire in order to justify a big-money contract.

Toronto Raptors

Milwaukee's toughest competition for no. 8, with Dwane Casey building a decent defense, Andrea Bargnani healthy, and Kyle Lowry on hand to add the kind of high-speed dribble penetration Jose Calderon can't provide. Toronto's offense died when Bargnani was out last season, but its defense dropped off when he played. Good news: The advanced stats at NBA.com show that defensive drop-off wasn't happening early on, before Bargnani's calf injury, and Jonas Valanciunas gives Casey a new frontcourt puzzle piece. If the Raps get more consistency from somewhere — a big man, DeMar DeRozan, etc. — they'll be trouble.

Detroit Pistons

Don't laugh, or at least laugh quietly. Detroit played .500 ball after a 4-20 start last season, and improved on both sides of the floor as the year went on. Brandon Knight will be better, and the fact that he shot 38 percent from deep as a rookie is very promising. Greg Monroe is already a star on offense, and Rodney Stuckey can work just fine as second or third option on a .500-plus team. Lawrence Frank can coach, and someone among their weird forward types should exceed expectations.

It probably still won't be enough. There is no veteran backup for Stuckey, and defense is going to be an issue until someone emerges as a viable partner for Monroe. Also: Most of those weird forward types — Corey Maggette, Tayshaun Prince, Charlie Villanueva, Austin Daye, and the solid Jonas Jerebko — haven't been very good of late.

Washington Wizards

Starting without John Wall and possibly Nene is enough to sink Washington's already tenuous playoff hopes. It's hard to see how Washington can create effective looks without those two, especially Wall, for whom this is an enormously important developmental year. Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza should turn this bunch into a league-average defensive team, but they'll struggle to score and inevitably fall off when all the young guys come in. But if some of those young guys, especially Bradley Beal, Jan Vesely, and Kevin Seraphin, show some promise, this season will be a success.

The Sneaky Good Team, in Their Way

Atlanta Hawks

They're a bit shallow and small on the wing, and those size issues mean they probably won't be one of the league's half-dozen or so stingiest defenses again this season. But people are sleeping on Atlanta if they think the Joe Johnson trade opened up an easy playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Few teams start a frontline combo as dynamic, on both ends, as the Josh Smith/Al Horford duo. If that's the foundation of your roster, even if it's just a one-year stopgap roster, you're off to a good start.

The combination of more Jeff Teague, Lou Williams, and a dramatic increase in accurate outside shooting should make up for the loss of Johnson's scoring  and give Larry Drew the chance to build a faster, more varied offense. The small forward position is an issue, but Drew should be able to cobble together a night-to-night wing rotation out of Williams, Devin Harris (when paired with Teague), Anthony Morrow, Kyle Korver, John Jenkins, and even DeShawn Stevenson. Don't be shocked if Atlanta is playing in — and losing — the no. 4/no. 5 series in the first round.

In the League's Most Exciting Race … for No. 8 in the West

Golden State Warriors

With Ricky Rubio recovering from ACL surgery, the Warriors walk in as the high-intrigue candidate for no. 8 in the ultracompetitive Western Conference. The theory here is spot-on — a boatload of shooting around a solid big man (Bogut) whose decline on offense since his gruesome arm injury won't matter as much with David Lee next to him. Bogut will take up space on offense, both in the post and on the pick-and-roll, while hopefully anchoring a defense that has been an annual embarrassment. Bogut is one of the league's half-dozen best defenders when healthy, a transformational player who can lift a defense to league-average levels on his own.

Carl Landry, Brandon Rush, and Jarrett Jack — a nice little last-minute snatch — provide very solid depth. If Bogut and Stephen Curry are healthy, this team should mesh well.

Minnesota Timberwolves

A clear playoff team if Rubio were healthy from the get-go. Minnesota was in the playoff race a year ago before successive injuries to Rubio, Nikola Pekovic, and Kevin Love (among others) took the team out of it. The Wolves managed that level of play despite the worst wing rotation in the league and heavy early-season minutes for both Michael Beasley and Darko Milicic.

The wing isn't barren anymore, and Rick Adelman should be able to find both Andrei Kirilenko and Derrick Williams at least a few minutes a night at power forward by sliding Love to center. But without Rubio's passing and defense, they'll have to scrap for the bottom playoff seed — unless Brandon Roy provides something big.

Utah Jazz

Maybe the incumbent no. 8 seed deserves to be the favorite here. Heck, they could even leapfrog the Mavericks if things go well; there was very little difference in the big picture between Utah and Dallas last season, and the Jazz youngsters, especially Derrick Favors and Gordon Hayward, should make significant progress. Favors is especially tantalizing — a potential game-changing rim protector who could mitigate Al Jefferson's slow-footed pick-and-roll defense if Tyrone Corbin pairs them more often. Utah allowed just 97.5 points per 100 possessions in the 455 regular-season minutes Jefferson and Favors played together, about one-quarter of which came as part of surprisingly effective ultra-big lineups that also included Paul Millsap masquerading as a small forward.

How Corbin juggles those three bigs, plus Enes Kanter, will be fascinating; the Jazz need Millsap's spacing and off-the-dribble game, especially if Favors's offense remains raw, but they also need to upgrade their interior defense if they ever want to make serious noise. They should be able to maintain a top-10 offense with more shooting and a deeper wing rotation via the acquisitions of the Williamses, Mo and Marvin.

In the Lottery, With Comfort

Cleveland Cavaliers

Discussions about Cleveland pushing for the no. 7 or no. 8 seed are premature. Kyrie Irving will emerge by the end of this season as one of the league's 15 best players, Anderson Varejao will help improve a bottom-five defense (if they don't trade him), and the young guys will develop. But this team is still really green, and its most important veteran import (C.J. Miles) hasn't even cracked 40 percent from the floor combined over the last two seasons.

There is promise, including a bonanza of future first-round picks courtesy of Miami, the Lakers, and Sacramento. The larger internal debate is how Cleveland uses Varejao, those picks, and $10 million in leftover cap space on the trade market this season. The Dwight Howard deal took away one target the Cavs discussed — Andrew Bynum — so perhaps they'll sit tight.

New Orleans Hornets

There's a lot to like here, even if it won't translate into a playoff team this season. New Orleans has three very good young players in Anthony Davis, Ryan Anderson (on a fair deal), and Eric Gordon, the best young coach in the league in Monty Williams, some other interesting young pieces, and a very clean future cap sheet. Get on the bandwagon.

Orlando Magic

It's fair to ask whether Orlando took the best possible package for Howard, since they swallowed nearly the equivalent of Brook Lopez's long-term salary in the Arron Afflalo–Al Harrington combination. (Yes, Orlando fans, that takes into account the partially guaranteed nature of Harrington's deal.) But the process of asset accumulation and rebuilding has started. There are some solid veteran pieces here, especially J.J. Redick on an expiring deal, and the Magic will listen if teams call. Look for Rob Hennigan to get this team on the cutting edge of player evaluation and scouting very fast, and for the Magic to struggle on both ends of the floor this season without any sort of tentpole player. They'll work hard, but it won't be enough to keep them out of the lottery.

Charlotte Bobcats

They're going to be bad, but you can't accuse them of tanking now. They were ready to make offers for Brook Lopez, Kris Humphries, and other free agents; they signed Brendan Haywood off the amnesty scrap heap to provide some interior defense; and Ramon Sessions is on the books for two years as a youngish mentor for Kemba Walker. Mike Dunlap, their new coach, is talking up the importance of shooting 3s instead of long 2s, and he has a long record as a defensive innovator. Bismack Biyombo is going to be a League Pass must-watch. Another year, another high pick, oodles of cap room as far anyone can project — plus an extra first-rounder from Detroit to make up for the one Michael Jordan coughed up for Tyrus Thomas.

In the Lottery, Defined by Uncertainty

Houston Rockets

The stars of the offseason are in for a rough season on the floor, even if they'll start the year as League Pass darlings. Young teams, in terms of NBA experience, are usually both exciting and bad. The Rockets are going to be very young, especially if they deal Kevin Martin at some point — a task that isn't easy given his salary and the tricky fit on rosters featuring assets Houston might want.

We know the Rockets want a star, and they hold a lot of the right assets — one net extra first-round pick, cap flexibility (though not as much present-day space as anticipated after signing both Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin), and young talent. It's time to start asking: What happens if they never get that star?

Phoenix Suns

There's nothing fatally bad going on here, but aside from snagging an extra first-rounder from the Wolves in the Wesley Johnson–Robin Lopez–Hakim Warrick–Brad Miller trade, it's hard to see a lot of long-term vision. Again: Nothing's fatal. The Suns can work their way to max-level cap space as early as this summer. Goran Dragic is a solid starting point guard. Luis Scola is a post-up savant and toughness role model at a bargain rate. And dealing Lopez, a nice backup center, makes some sense if it's true — as rumored — that he would only sign the one-year qualifying offer with Phoenix, which would have rendered him essentially untradable.

But $6 million is a bit much for Michael Beasley, even if this team urgently needs an injection of creativity on the wing. Beyond that, they look like a sieve on defense, and it's hard to win that way unless you have a top-25 overall player. Phoenix will have the cap space to make a run at one, but is the surrounding talent right, as Lon Babby, the president of basketball operations, seems to think?

Portland Trail Blazers

You can see the vision here: LaMarcus Aldridge as the top-20 overall centerpiece, with Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews working the wing and Damian Lillard orchestrating. In the big picture, it's unclear if the talent mix and the developmental timing will work well enough to keep Aldridge happy over the last three years of his deal. Batum or Lillard will have to make a leap, and fast, for that to happen, since Matthews — a solid player — appears to have hit something of a developmental ceiling.

Every player beyond those four is either totally unproven as an NBA commodity, or proven as a bad one. Portland will have to turn down options on just about all of their young guys to have meaningful cap room in either of the next two summers, so it's unclear how they'll find impactful help.

Sacramento Kings

The names are big, but the results never seem to be, which means the Kings have some very fundamental questions to answer about the talent on hand. Talk to folks around the league, and Tyreke Evans is either on track for a $10 million contract or an O.J. Mayo–style $4 million deal. What kind of talent is Evans? And in what context does he need to be in order to thrive? You could ask the same of just about everyone here, and if DeMarcus Cousins weren't 6-foot-11, you could ask it of him, too. Cousins made huge strides last season, but he still shot just 45 percent and played a plodding, reaching, lazy sort of defense away from the rim. The Kings have some interesting pieces and a real worker for a coach in Keith Smart, but where is this all going?

Help Really Wanted

By: timbersfan, 12:01 AM GMT on October 06, 2012

Last night, the NFL's production values took an embarrassing step downward when the NFL Network's broadcast of the Cardinals-Rams tilt accidentally aired replays of Kevin Kolb being sacked and Sam Bradford tossing incomplete passes on … wait, those weren't replays? Oops. If you managed to make it through the tedium of that NFC West showdown last night, you bore witness to a number of receivers you've likely never heard of coming within yards of possibly catching passes from Bradford. While part of the blame for that belongs to Bradford and his line, it's certainly true that the Rams have struggled to find a reliable wide receiver or two to replace their legendary combination of Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt. Even Danny Amendola — the team's best wideout before breaking his collarbone on Thursday — is a slot receiver who would be more like a replacement for Ricky Proehl.

Of course, while thinking about St. Louis's difficulties replacing their star wide receivers, another half-dozen teams with trouble positions popped to mind. Players in these spots aren't always replacing Hall of Famers, but certain teams just seem to have loads of trouble finding a long-term solution to a particular position on the field. In some cases, the team doesn't value the position as one worth investing in; that's why the Colts ran a stream of undersize mid-round outside linebackers out on defense during the Bill Polian era, using their savings to lock up players elsewhere. In other cases, teams throw draft picks and cap space at a position for years, only to find that they've just invested in another bust.

After reviewing the league's long-term vacancies and money pits, I found an even 15 positions on 15 teams, which have consistently been the toughest to fill in all of football. In many cases, they are linked to the departure of a star player; in the case of the first entry, it is about to come off the list.

15. Middle Linebacker, Philadelphia Eagles
The gaping hole in the middle of the Philadelphia defense really showed up for the first time when Jeremiah Trotter left for Washington in free agency in 2002. Levon Kirkland and Mark Simoneau did yearlong stints in the middle, and when Trotter came back to Philly in 2004, he returned to the Pro Bowl for two of the next three seasons. When the Eagles cut him before the 2007 season, though, linebacker became Philly's bugaboo. They're not good on the outside, either, but Eagles fans cried out for years for a run-stopping linebacker, especially after linebacker-in-disguise Brian Dawkins followed Trotter out of town. The likes of Omar Gaither, Stewart Bradley, Jamar Chaney, and even a third stint from Trotter produced nothing but waiver fodder, leading the Eagles to deal a draft pick to the Texans to acquire former Pro Bowler DeMeco Ryans this offseason. Ryans has been effective during his first four games as a starter in Philly, so this hole is about to fall off the list.

14. Outside Linebacker, New York Giants
Oh, for the halcyon days of Jessie Armstead, let alone Lawrence Taylor! During Tom Coughlin's nine-year run as Big Blue's head coach, they haven't started the same two outside linebackers for the majority of games in consecutive seasons. Eleven different players have been considered the "regulars" during that time frame, a list that doesn't even include expected starters like LaVar Arrington and Keith Rivers. The only guy who's even made it to a third year as a regular starter on the outside under Coughlin is Michael Boley. Of course, with a defensive line as good as New York's, linebackers are mostly window dressing.

13. Running Back, Green Bay Packers
This spot has only been vacant for a little over two years now, becoming available when Ryan Grant suffered a season-ending injury during Week 1 of the 2010 campaign. What makes it so frustrating, though, is the amount of fantasy chatter that surrounds it. Has there ever been such a juicy fantasy football position that's gone almost totally unoccupied for two-plus years? The Packers are currently stuck on Cedric Benson as their only option at halfback, which speaks to some sort of fondness for "bad boys" that wasn't apparent about the Green Bay organization at first glance. Will they target Tim Riggins next?

12. Wide Receiver, Minnesota Vikings
In a way, the Vikings have been saved from their own stupidity by having seemingly disappointing things end up working out well for them. Remember, this is the team that wanted to sign T.J. Houshmandzadeh to a big contract before the 2009 season, only to see Housh sign with the Seahawks and last one season before being released. They decided to replace Houshmandzadeh's spot in the lineup with injury-prone Sidney Rice, who promptly had a monster season before collapsing with injuries in 2010 and leaving the team for an instantly regretted, huge contract from the Seahawks. And when those guys weren't around, Minnesota threw heavily to the likes of Troy Williamson, Travis Taylor, and Nate Burleson. The Vikings have one spot shored up with Percy Harvin, but they could sure use a threat across from him. Jerome Simpson is Minnesota's latest hope.

11. Running Back, New England Patriots
Outside of Corey Dillon's lone year as the featured, workload-intensive back in New England, Bill Belichick has seemed to perpetually favor rotating his backs based on game situation and what they need. Of course, with the passing offense as good as it's been since Dillon left town, backs like Danny Woodhead and Kevin Faulk have seen more of an emphasis on pass blocking in the backfield than anything else.

10. Wide Receiver, Buffalo Bills
The Bills were smart enough to trade Peerless Price to Atlanta at the peak of his value for a first-round pick, but the likes of Roscoe Parrish and Naaman Roosevelt have not been enough to satisfy Buffalo's need for a complementary wideout. Furthermore, each time they have developed a talented young wideout, that guys's taken over for the no. 1 guy within the season. Stevie Johnson usurped Lee Evans, just as Evans did Eric Moulds. This year, nominal starter David Nelson is done for the season with an injury, so the Bills have gone with a heavier dosage of Donald Jones across from Johnson.

9. Inside Linebacker, San Diego Chargers
I'm not convinced that many of these spots are cursed by released stars. Here, stalwart inside linebacker Donnie Edwards was released after the 2006 season, and while Edwards isn't known as a superstar, he's been replaced by a different pair of starting inside linebackers each year. The team's cycled through the usual group of underwhelming young players (Brandon Siler), stretched special-teamers (Matt Wilhelm), and veteran free agents that didn't perform once out of their old system (Takeo Spikes). Donald Butler appears to be a keeper at one spot, but Spikes will be on his way out once the season ends.

8. Safety, Dallas Cowboys
This is cheating, since it could either be a free safety or a strong one, but the Cowboys do a good job of driving the success out of people. Roy Williams and Darren Woodson formed a potentially elite duo during Williams's first two years in the league. Since 2004, though, the Cowboys have spent millions on Williams, Ken Hamlin, and Gerald Sensabaugh, only to get below-average performance over the long term. Williams and Hamlin turned into embarrassing parodies of their former selves as their Dallas careers went on, and Sensabaugh was at fault for one of the long touchdowns in the Week 17 loss to the Giants last year.

7. Wide Receiver, St. Louis Rams
Cursed! After Isaac Bruce bolted town before the 2008 season, the Rams decided to insert Donnie Avery as his long-term replacement. Avery's knee has never been the same since. Avery's replacement as the organizational favorite was Laurent Robinson … who didn't have a breakout year until the Rams cut him. Meanwhile, they've wasted mid-round draft picks on the likes of Austin Pettis and Greg Salas and invested in detritus like Mike Sims-Walker, and their best wideout before Thursday was a scrawny slot receiver they had signed off a practice squad for nothing.

6. Left Tackle, Pittsburgh Steelers
There's really only been one long-term left tackle in Pittsburgh since Marvel Smith left — Max Starks — but it's the amount of work the team's spent replacing Starks that's been so memorable. Despite dalliances with Jonathan Scott and picks spent on the likes of (not that) Mike Adams, they seem to end up committed to Starks on a yearly basis. Starks is barely acceptable at left tackle, just good enough to get by, but just bad enough to make Pittsburgh yearn for his replacement.

5. Nose Tackle, Kansas City Chiefs
When the Chiefs moved to a 3-4 before the 2009 season, they moved former LSU star Glenn Dorsey from defensive tackle to defensive end. They bookended him with fellow LSU product Tyson Jackson, but the Chiefs still had no nose tackle. Today, they still have no nose tackle. After starting with undersize Ron Edwards, KC rotated the virulent Shaun Smith and the veteran Kelly Gregg into and out of the lineup before drafting workout wonder Dontari Poe in the first round this year. They must trust that they can mold Poe into a solid starter, but if you've watched the Chiefs during the first four weeks of the season, you know that has not been the case so far.

4. Left Tackle, Chicago Bears
John Tait moved from the left side to the right side before the 2008 season, giving the Bears a chance to move legendarily bad left tackle John St. Clair into the starting lineup at its most important position. It didn't go well. St. Clair was replaced by the celebrated Orlando Pace, but Pace was a shell of his former self and only lasted a single season. This was when the Bears drafted tackle Chris Williams in the first round and hoped that he'd be able to play left tackle, but he hasn't so far — and would have, by now, if he were able to. Instead, the Bears went with utility lineman Frank Omiyale before finding the mysterious J'Marcus Webb, who functions both as a left tackle and a valid turnstile at most L stops. Jay Cutler shouldn't have bumped Webb, but he also deserves a left tackle.

3. Wide Receiver, Carolina Panthers
After one of the all-time great fluke seasons in league history — 93 catches, 1,405 receiving yards, 16 touchdowns — Muhsin Muhammad left Carolina to sign with the Bears. Carolina's kept it cheap across from Steve Smith since then, and cheap has delivered at its standard rate of return. Plugging in the likes of Keyshawn Johnson or Dwayne Jarrett across from the frantic brilliance of Smith is just a huge disappointment, and it's hard to see Brandon LaFell offering much more anytime soon.

2. Quarterback, Miami Dolphins
Miami would be no. 1 if it weren't for its investment in Ryan Tannehill, a move that represents a serious investment in advancing since the halcyon days of Jay Fiedler. In chronological order, the primary quarterbacks in Miami since Dan Marino retired: Fiedler, A.J. Feeley, Gus Frerotte, Trent Green, John Beck, Cleo Lemon, Joey Harrington, Daunte Culpepper, Chad Pennington, Chad Henne, and Matt Moore. Tannehill's deal under the new rookie contract rules isn't so awful that it beggars belief, but it's a serious commitment at the position for, arguably, the first time since Marino. If he plays the way he did against the Cardinals last week, this long-running hole will be off the list.

1. Quarterback, Cleveland Browns
That leaves Cleveland and their search through the wild for anything resembling a starting passer. Since deciding to replace Tim Couch after 2002, the Browns entered in the quarterback sweepstakes and came out with the following: Kelly Holcomb, Charlie Frye, Trent Dilfer, Derek Anderson, Brady Quinn, Ken Dorsey, Bruce Gradkowski, Jake Delhomme, Seneca Wallace, and Colt McCoy. Browns football! At least Culpepper had a pedigree as a star coming off of knee surgery; the guys the Browns were targeting were never-weres or never-would-bes. Brandon Weeden's a first-round pick, but at 28, it remains to be seen whether the new ownership takes a shine to him or he ends up getting benched very quickly. Until then, the Browns have managed to invest as little as possible in filling football's most important position.

Help Really Wanted

By: timbersfan, 12:01 AM GMT on October 06, 2012

Last night, the NFL's production values took an embarrassing step downward when the NFL Network's broadcast of the Cardinals-Rams tilt accidentally aired replays of Kevin Kolb being sacked and Sam Bradford tossing incomplete passes on … wait, those weren't replays? Oops. If you managed to make it through the tedium of that NFC West showdown last night, you bore witness to a number of receivers you've likely never heard of coming within yards of possibly catching passes from Bradford. While part of the blame for that belongs to Bradford and his line, it's certainly true that the Rams have struggled to find a reliable wide receiver or two to replace their legendary combination of Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt. Even Danny Amendola — the team's best wideout before breaking his collarbone on Thursday — is a slot receiver who would be more like a replacement for Ricky Proehl.

Of course, while thinking about St. Louis's difficulties replacing their star wide receivers, another half-dozen teams with trouble positions popped to mind. Players in these spots aren't always replacing Hall of Famers, but certain teams just seem to have loads of trouble finding a long-term solution to a particular position on the field. In some cases, the team doesn't value the position as one worth investing in; that's why the Colts ran a stream of undersize mid-round outside linebackers out on defense during the Bill Polian era, using their savings to lock up players elsewhere. In other cases, teams throw draft picks and cap space at a position for years, only to find that they've just invested in another bust.

After reviewing the league's long-term vacancies and money pits, I found an even 15 positions on 15 teams, which have consistently been the toughest to fill in all of football. In many cases, they are linked to the departure of a star player; in the case of the first entry, it is about to come off the list.

15. Middle Linebacker, Philadelphia Eagles
The gaping hole in the middle of the Philadelphia defense really showed up for the first time when Jeremiah Trotter left for Washington in free agency in 2002. Levon Kirkland and Mark Simoneau did yearlong stints in the middle, and when Trotter came back to Philly in 2004, he returned to the Pro Bowl for two of the next three seasons. When the Eagles cut him before the 2007 season, though, linebacker became Philly's bugaboo. They're not good on the outside, either, but Eagles fans cried out for years for a run-stopping linebacker, especially after linebacker-in-disguise Brian Dawkins followed Trotter out of town. The likes of Omar Gaither, Stewart Bradley, Jamar Chaney, and even a third stint from Trotter produced nothing but waiver fodder, leading the Eagles to deal a draft pick to the Texans to acquire former Pro Bowler DeMeco Ryans this offseason. Ryans has been effective during his first four games as a starter in Philly, so this hole is about to fall off the list.

14. Outside Linebacker, New York Giants
Oh, for the halcyon days of Jessie Armstead, let alone Lawrence Taylor! During Tom Coughlin's nine-year run as Big Blue's head coach, they haven't started the same two outside linebackers for the majority of games in consecutive seasons. Eleven different players have been considered the "regulars" during that time frame, a list that doesn't even include expected starters like LaVar Arrington and Keith Rivers. The only guy who's even made it to a third year as a regular starter on the outside under Coughlin is Michael Boley. Of course, with a defensive line as good as New York's, linebackers are mostly window dressing.

13. Running Back, Green Bay Packers
This spot has only been vacant for a little over two years now, becoming available when Ryan Grant suffered a season-ending injury during Week 1 of the 2010 campaign. What makes it so frustrating, though, is the amount of fantasy chatter that surrounds it. Has there ever been such a juicy fantasy football position that's gone almost totally unoccupied for two-plus years? The Packers are currently stuck on Cedric Benson as their only option at halfback, which speaks to some sort of fondness for "bad boys" that wasn't apparent about the Green Bay organization at first glance. Will they target Tim Riggins next?

12. Wide Receiver, Minnesota Vikings
In a way, the Vikings have been saved from their own stupidity by having seemingly disappointing things end up working out well for them. Remember, this is the team that wanted to sign T.J. Houshmandzadeh to a big contract before the 2009 season, only to see Housh sign with the Seahawks and last one season before being released. They decided to replace Houshmandzadeh's spot in the lineup with injury-prone Sidney Rice, who promptly had a monster season before collapsing with injuries in 2010 and leaving the team for an instantly regretted, huge contract from the Seahawks. And when those guys weren't around, Minnesota threw heavily to the likes of Troy Williamson, Travis Taylor, and Nate Burleson. The Vikings have one spot shored up with Percy Harvin, but they could sure use a threat across from him. Jerome Simpson is Minnesota's latest hope.

11. Running Back, New England Patriots
Outside of Corey Dillon's lone year as the featured, workload-intensive back in New England, Bill Belichick has seemed to perpetually favor rotating his backs based on game situation and what they need. Of course, with the passing offense as good as it's been since Dillon left town, backs like Danny Woodhead and Kevin Faulk have seen more of an emphasis on pass blocking in the backfield than anything else.

10. Wide Receiver, Buffalo Bills
The Bills were smart enough to trade Peerless Price to Atlanta at the peak of his value for a first-round pick, but the likes of Roscoe Parrish and Naaman Roosevelt have not been enough to satisfy Buffalo's need for a complementary wideout. Furthermore, each time they have developed a talented young wideout, that guys's taken over for the no. 1 guy within the season. Stevie Johnson usurped Lee Evans, just as Evans did Eric Moulds. This year, nominal starter David Nelson is done for the season with an injury, so the Bills have gone with a heavier dosage of Donald Jones across from Johnson.

9. Inside Linebacker, San Diego Chargers
I'm not convinced that many of these spots are cursed by released stars. Here, stalwart inside linebacker Donnie Edwards was released after the 2006 season, and while Edwards isn't known as a superstar, he's been replaced by a different pair of starting inside linebackers each year. The team's cycled through the usual group of underwhelming young players (Brandon Siler), stretched special-teamers (Matt Wilhelm), and veteran free agents that didn't perform once out of their old system (Takeo Spikes). Donald Butler appears to be a keeper at one spot, but Spikes will be on his way out once the season ends.

8. Safety, Dallas Cowboys
This is cheating, since it could either be a free safety or a strong one, but the Cowboys do a good job of driving the success out of people. Roy Williams and Darren Woodson formed a potentially elite duo during Williams's first two years in the league. Since 2004, though, the Cowboys have spent millions on Williams, Ken Hamlin, and Gerald Sensabaugh, only to get below-average performance over the long term. Williams and Hamlin turned into embarrassing parodies of their former selves as their Dallas careers went on, and Sensabaugh was at fault for one of the long touchdowns in the Week 17 loss to the Giants last year.

7. Wide Receiver, St. Louis Rams
Cursed! After Isaac Bruce bolted town before the 2008 season, the Rams decided to insert Donnie Avery as his long-term replacement. Avery's knee has never been the same since. Avery's replacement as the organizational favorite was Laurent Robinson … who didn't have a breakout year until the Rams cut him. Meanwhile, they've wasted mid-round draft picks on the likes of Austin Pettis and Greg Salas and invested in detritus like Mike Sims-Walker, and their best wideout before Thursday was a scrawny slot receiver they had signed off a practice squad for nothing.

6. Left Tackle, Pittsburgh Steelers
There's really only been one long-term left tackle in Pittsburgh since Marvel Smith left — Max Starks — but it's the amount of work the team's spent replacing Starks that's been so memorable. Despite dalliances with Jonathan Scott and picks spent on the likes of (not that) Mike Adams, they seem to end up committed to Starks on a yearly basis. Starks is barely acceptable at left tackle, just good enough to get by, but just bad enough to make Pittsburgh yearn for his replacement.

5. Nose Tackle, Kansas City Chiefs
When the Chiefs moved to a 3-4 before the 2009 season, they moved former LSU star Glenn Dorsey from defensive tackle to defensive end. They bookended him with fellow LSU product Tyson Jackson, but the Chiefs still had no nose tackle. Today, they still have no nose tackle. After starting with undersize Ron Edwards, KC rotated the virulent Shaun Smith and the veteran Kelly Gregg into and out of the lineup before drafting workout wonder Dontari Poe in the first round this year. They must trust that they can mold Poe into a solid starter, but if you've watched the Chiefs during the first four weeks of the season, you know that has not been the case so far.

4. Left Tackle, Chicago Bears
John Tait moved from the left side to the right side before the 2008 season, giving the Bears a chance to move legendarily bad left tackle John St. Clair into the starting lineup at its most important position. It didn't go well. St. Clair was replaced by the celebrated Orlando Pace, but Pace was a shell of his former self and only lasted a single season. This was when the Bears drafted tackle Chris Williams in the first round and hoped that he'd be able to play left tackle, but he hasn't so far — and would have, by now, if he were able to. Instead, the Bears went with utility lineman Frank Omiyale before finding the mysterious J'Marcus Webb, who functions both as a left tackle and a valid turnstile at most L stops. Jay Cutler shouldn't have bumped Webb, but he also deserves a left tackle.

3. Wide Receiver, Carolina Panthers
After one of the all-time great fluke seasons in league history — 93 catches, 1,405 receiving yards, 16 touchdowns — Muhsin Muhammad left Carolina to sign with the Bears. Carolina's kept it cheap across from Steve Smith since then, and cheap has delivered at its standard rate of return. Plugging in the likes of Keyshawn Johnson or Dwayne Jarrett across from the frantic brilliance of Smith is just a huge disappointment, and it's hard to see Brandon LaFell offering much more anytime soon.

2. Quarterback, Miami Dolphins
Miami would be no. 1 if it weren't for its investment in Ryan Tannehill, a move that represents a serious investment in advancing since the halcyon days of Jay Fiedler. In chronological order, the primary quarterbacks in Miami since Dan Marino retired: Fiedler, A.J. Feeley, Gus Frerotte, Trent Green, John Beck, Cleo Lemon, Joey Harrington, Daunte Culpepper, Chad Pennington, Chad Henne, and Matt Moore. Tannehill's deal under the new rookie contract rules isn't so awful that it beggars belief, but it's a serious commitment at the position for, arguably, the first time since Marino. If he plays the way he did against the Cardinals last week, this long-running hole will be off the list.

1. Quarterback, Cleveland Browns
That leaves Cleveland and their search through the wild for anything resembling a starting passer. Since deciding to replace Tim Couch after 2002, the Browns entered in the quarterback sweepstakes and came out with the following: Kelly Holcomb, Charlie Frye, Trent Dilfer, Derek Anderson, Brady Quinn, Ken Dorsey, Bruce Gradkowski, Jake Delhomme, Seneca Wallace, and Colt McCoy. Browns football! At least Culpepper had a pedigree as a star coming off of knee surgery; the guys the Browns were targeting were never-weres or never-would-bes. Brandon Weeden's a first-round pick, but at 28, it remains to be seen whether the new ownership takes a shine to him or he ends up getting benched very quickly. Until then, the Browns have managed to invest as little as possible in filling football's most important position.

The Island of Dr. Simbeau

By: timbersfan, 11:23 PM GMT on October 05, 2012

When you're making the list of "Greatest Bad Cable Movies," The Island of Dr. Moreau isn't a first-ballot Hall of of Famer like, say, Face/Off or St. Elmo's Fire. But it definitely lands on the GBCM ballot every year, and at some point, it's probably sneaking in with help from the Veterans Committee. Moreau ended Val Kilmer's chance to become a superstar, stuck the weirdest of exclamation points on Marlon Brando's career (if you could describe his performance in two words, it would be "obesely insane"), and made the fatal mistake of trying an ambitious idea that required heavy CGI well before we really mastered CGI. Oh, and the script was incomprehensible. I forgot that part.

On the other hand, it's a science fiction thriller about an obesely insane doctor who takes over his own little island, then keeps mating humans with animals until something goes horribly wrong. That's a great idea! How could that not work? Every time Moreau comes on, I say to myself, "Oh no, oh God … OK, I'll only watch a few minutes." And an hour later, I'm still watching and asking myself things like, "Is this the exact scene when Kilmer checked out of this shoot and just started showing up high?" and "Would Brando have ever agreed to this movie if he knew IMDb.com was coming?" Just know that, at some point in our lifetime, someone will remake The Island of Dr. Moreau, find two lead actors who haven't lost their minds, hire some killer CGI guys, ratchet up the blood and nudity, and eventually clean up at the box office. You wait.

What does this have to do with football? A few weeks ago, my Friday football column morphed into a picks/mailbag hybrid, and there's just no fighting it anymore. You could say I bred two different species (the picks format and the mailbag format) as successfully as the Broncos bred Peyton Manning with a box of fusilli. So welcome to the Island of Dr. Simbeau. Hopefully it will have a better 2012 than Revis Island did. As always, these are actual e-mails from actual readers.

Home teams in caps.

RAMS (+1.5) over Cards

Q: Lately there has been a scene from a '70s Turkish movie making the rounds around the internet titled "Worst Death Scene Ever." I think the search for greatest internet video ever has officially ended. Multiple viewings are required by law.
—Steve, Torrance, CA

SG: They could have easily named that "The Official Clip of Bill Simmons's 2012 Football Gambling Season." Although things may have flipped last night — I won a Skunk of the Week pick! Many thanks to Legatron (a.k.a. Greg Zuerlein), Jeff Fisher, Chris Long, Arizona's offensive line, Arizona's offensive line again, and Arizona's offensive line a third time.

Q: Is it me, or does Kevin Kolb look just like the guy who paid Dirk Diggler to masturbate and then beat him up in Boogie Nights?
—@RobOstrom (via Twitter)

SG: I'd say "Thanks for ruining Kevin Kolb for me," but Arizona's offensive line already took care of that. Have we mentioned how bad Arizona's offensive line is? We mentioned that, right?

Q: My boyfriend and I were watching the Rams/Cardinals Thursday Night Game when we had a GENIUS idea for how to save the Pro Bowl. Stay with me here. We watched Greg Zuerlein kick a 53 yard field goal like it was a chippy. That thing almost cleared the net. That's when we came up with the idea to turn the Pro Bowl into NBA All-Star Saturday Night. Wouldn't you want to see Zuerlein, Aikers and Janikowski kicking 70 yard field goals, high jump style? You start with a 50 yarder and incrementally move them back until there's one man left standing. QBs could have some sort of 3-point contest-esque competition involving ridiculously long throws to various inanimate objects like tires or garbage cans. Give them a rack of footballs and watch them go wild. Tell me this would not make the Pro Bowl at least an "I might watch" instead of an "I don't even know when they play the damn game."
—Sarah, Philadelphia

SG: I like where you're headed here, Sarah and Sarah's lucky boyfriend — especially when you throw in the fact that we could gamble on those things. I never bet on the Pro Bowl, but I'd want to wager on things like "The Longest Kick" (how great would that be?), "The Longest Punt" (a natural), "Downing a Punt Closest to the Goal Line" (I like this one because it would require teammates), some sort of elaborate throwing contest (maybe four events that combined distance, accuracy, and as Sarah put it, "various inanimate objects"), a 100-yard dash (like a track meet, only everyone runs from goal line to goal line while holding a football), and my personal favorite, "The Hail Mary." Would you ever turn the channel if someone said, "Turn on ESPN, you're about to see 10 Hail Mary attempts in 10 minutes"? I say no. We could even have Lance Easley officiate it.

The toughest one to figure out: Could we create a contest that basically pits a QB and a receiver against a shutdown corner and a pass rusher? Maybe they have five plays to go 100 yards, and the pass rusher has to wait 2.5 seconds before he can rush the QB or something? Imagine Daryl Washington and Patrick Peterson in the finals taking on Matt Stafford and Calvin Johnson. There's something there, you have to admit. Regardless, any night that makes me say "I kinda want to watch this" AND "I can't resist gambling on this" would be a humongous improvement over the Pro Bowl.

Dolphins (+3.5) over BENGALS

Q: The Bengals are this year's good Bad Team. They were also last year's good Bad Team. In 2009, they won their division as the good Bad Team. That's 3 of the last 4 years (the Chiefs broke up their streak in 2010), making them a dynasty good Bad Team! Only the Atlanta Hawks and Nicolas Cage have been historically and consistently this good/bad.
—Adam, Chicago

SG: Adam, kudos for successfully linking Marvin Lewis, Joe Johnson and Nic Cage in the same analogy. Take a bow. You should be really proud. I just want to make sure that Cincinnati is this year's good Bad Team — there's a chance it could be Miami (frisky these past two weeks), Minnesota (might be overqualified), Tampa Bay (slightly underqualified) or St. Louis (gaining steam). We need a couple more weeks to flesh this out. Prediction: Miami pulls off a pseudo-upset and throws its hat into the good Bad Team ring.

Q: Why is every fantasy article about Brian Hartline's 12-catch, 254-yard game explaining why it wasn't a fluke? It happened against Arizona (and Patrick Peterson). He now leads the league in receiving yards. Even in his one awful game, when he only had one catch, he still led his team is targets. Why was Jordy Nelson the 10th ranked WR on Yahoo, below his teammate Greg Jennings, when Nelson finished second in fantasy points among WRs last year? When will a sports writer just say what we're all thinking, "He played well, but history has taught us that white RBs and WRs do not tend to maintain their dominance, so we don't trust him." You're telling me Brian Hartline isn't picked up in twice as many leagues this week if he was black? And don't use Welker as an example — he has been doing it so long that we have had no choice but to recognize it is likely to continue. Why can't people just say it? There's a White Guy Corollary here.
—Kevin W., Toronto

SG: I threw this question at ESPN's Matthew Berry, who actually listed Hartline as a "deep sleeper" before the 2012 season. Here's what Berry wrote back: "The fact that some people think it's a fluke (and I actually believe in Hartline's talent) has nothing to do with Hartline's skin color but rather his rookie QB, his injury history and his lack of consistent production. When something happens out of the ordinary, like Hartline's huge game, you have to say 'I believe in it and here's why' or 'I don't and here's why.' Fantasy guys don't see color, we see numbers. Welker was ahead of [Brandon] Lloyd in preseason ranks, for example. And play fantasy on ESPN next year, dammit."

Notice how he ducked Jordy Nelson completely! Just kidding. I agree with Berry and think it's more of a Bad QB Bias than anything. There's nothing worse than having a "franchise" receiver and nobody to throw him the ball; after enduring The Debacle That Was Larry Fitzgerald's Fantasy Season last year, I now make a concerted effort to avoid receivers with bad QBs in both of my leagues. I just didn't want to go through it again. You want me to say it? I STILL DON'T BELIEVE IN HARTLINE! But it's because of Tannehill, not Hartline's skin color. Give him Aaron Rodgers or even Peyton Manning and Peyton Manning's noodle arm and I'd be thinking differently.

Packers (-7) over COLTS
Bears (-6) over JAGUARS

Q: You are gonna buy Schilling's bloody sock, aren't you? You want to keep it away from Yankee fans who will have it tested and figure out that it is ketchup. Good luck on selling this one to the Sports Gal. You are screwed! That whole dream season is going to be tainted for you. This is like finding out somebody was juicing after the fact. Red Sox suck ass and will for quite a while … and now this?? Just wait, that sock will land somewhere you don't want it! I CAN'T wait!!
—Ronnie S., Bakersfield

SG: One problem: It's the sock from Game 2 of the World Series. Schilling actually threw out the bloody sock, probably because it was covered in his sticky disgusting blood. While we're here, here's the problem with the ketchup theory: Schilling had Fox's cameras on him the entire time. How could the blood have slowly spread on the sock when he was either pitching or sitting in the dugout in plain sight? You're telling me that Schilling hired some special effects person to explode tiny pellets of blood in his ankle every inning? I actually think Schilling's Bloody Sock Game has become wildly underrated as time goes on. Game 6, Yankee Stadium, Greatest Series Comeback Ever, surgically repaired ankle, blood oozing out of it … how can that NOT be one of the best pitching performances of all time? I hope a Yankees fan wastes his money overpaying for the sock and running some elaborate DNA test on it. Seriously, go for it. You're going to lose. Speaking of the Red Sox …

Q: Came across this. A lunch with Bobby Valentine, 4 Sox tickets, and he even signs a hat! Is he still obligated to attend? Could this best the lunch ever? Awkwardly sitting across from Valentine. Earing in total silence. Only looking up from underneath your signed Bobby V Sox hat to shake our head and occasionally sigh. You gotta bid on this. Come on Bill, it's for charity!
—Ryan M., Charleston, SC

SG: Sadly, tragically, "This item is now closed." I'd say that should be the DVD title of the 2012 Red Sox season, but since we only won 69 games (the lowest total of my lifetime), the DVD should obviously be called "The 69 From Hell."1 Since I can't overpay for this Bobby V lunch, I'm going to spend some of that money teasing the Packers with the Bears — remember, the NFC is a sterling 13-4 through four weeks against the AFC. It's clearly a better conference. And the Bears and Packers are clearly playoff teams (in my opinion, anyway). So why not tease two playoff teams in a superior conference against two also-rans from an inferior conference? What am I missing?

Browns (+8.5) over GIANTS

Q: As if Pat Shurmur wasn't bad enough on his own (slowly becoming Norv Turner East), have you taken notice of who the assistants are for this awful Cleveland team!? It's nearly the Mount Rushmore of horrible assistant coaches! Your boy Brad Childress is the offensive coordinator, Dick Jauron is running the defense, and they even made Ray Rhodes a senior defensive assistant. I mean, WOW! If the world doesn't end in December, We have to get Jim Caldwell to submit his resume and get on this staff for next year.
—Eddie, Long Beach

SG: Why wait until December? And where is Raheem Morris during all of this? He couldn't sign on this weekend to coach their secondary? I'm grabbing the Browns and the points this week only because the Giants have proven — steadfastly, violently and relentlessly over these past few years — that they shouldn't be allowed to give more than a touchdown at home under any circumstances. I'm predicting the week's biggest mail-in performance that doesn't include the words "Obama" and "debate."

Q: I have been reading a lot of the commiseration about the end of a horrid Red Sox season. One thing that keeps coming up is Fenway's phony sellout streak. You know who had the longest sellout streak before this streak? Cleveland. We legitimately sold out the Jake every day for 7 years, 455 games to be exact, and it was massive pride for us. When it ended, it ended. Then the Red Sox had to come in and ruin everything. Feel you no shame?! And yes, this is reason #75,428 why God hates Cleveland.
—Anthony Gatti, Cleveland

SG: Reason #75,429 — everything that happens in the NFL Network's excellent documentary, Cleveland '95, which tells the story of the last Browns season before they moved to Baltimore. I can't believe I forgot about Browns fans bringing in saws so they could take their seats home after the final home game, or the Dawg Pound becoming so unruly that they could only finish that last game on one side of the field. The stuff about Belichick's coaching tree was fascinating. And Mike Lombardi's collection of ghastly 1990s sweaters should really win an Emmy. Definitely watch that one if you missed it. And while you're going on a sports documentary viewing splurge, watch 9.79 (our second 30 for 30) Tuesday night at 8:00 pm on ESPN! Carl Lewis and Ben Johnson highlights! Blood doping! One of the more memorable races in Olympic history! Listen to today's BS Report with Malcolm Gladwell (coming soon) if you want a complete breakdown.

Q: I was ruminating recently on how much God Hates Cleveland, and realized that the Browns, Cavs and Indians have actually been something of a trifecta of heinousness. Note the 8 most recent seasons of the three major "professional" teams:

2010 Indians: 69-93 .426
2010 Browns: 5-11 .313
2010-2011 Cavs: 19-63 .232
2011 Indians: 80-82 .494
2011 Browns: 4-12 .250
2011-2012 Cavs: 21-45 .318
2012 Indians: 68-94, .420
2012 Browns: 0-4 .000 (in progress, but since they're the Browns I'm closing the book on this one)
That's good for an average winning percentage of .305 over the past eight "seasons." Has any city with at least 3 major teams ever endured a run like this before?
—Will, Pittsburgh

SG: I could have either spent three hours painstakingly researching the answer to be sure, or just saying "No." Going with the latter.

Q: I sent my best friend — who is a die-hard Browns fan like me — the article where Cardinals' guard Daryn Collegdge described their team as " … not the prettiest girl at the dance." After reading the article, he immmediately wrote me back and said, "In that case, the Browns are like the chick with the back brace that dances like she's drunk." Is there really a better way to describe how unbelievably bad the Browns are?
—Alex, Chicago

SG: That's what will make this weekend's near-upset so remarkable! Your final score: Giants 24, Browns 23, God Hates Cleveland 5.

Dallas's Bye Week (+4.5) over Detroit's Bye Week

Q: Has no one made the Jerry Jones/Walter White comparison yet? Both guys come into a business, literally clean house, come up with a product that is as pure as it can and the dollars are flowing. Then, when shit starts to hit the fan, both start to go crazy and make irrational, mind-boggling decisions, start cleaning house, until they both sit atop their thrones with no one to interfere with them. Their worlds are completely f'ed, yet they sit around and don't care as the dollars keep piling in. The success that their products once brought have blinded them so much and left everyone around them in a pathetically, helpless position. Oh, and here is the kicker: THEY BOTH HAVE ALLITERATIVE NAMES!!! Does anyone else not see this???
—Varoon, Cupertino

Q: Is Jerry Jones in Dallas approaching Al Davis territory like with Davis's final years in Oakland? Jones has been throwing around draft picks with no regard the last few years, seems to be getting weirder by the week, and his teams are not having success. It won't be long before he starts looking like a decrepit monster.
—Charlie F, Minneapolis

SG: As you can see, we had a two-way tie in the "Least Flattering E-mail About Jerry Jones" contest this week.

Q: Watching the Cowboys-Bears game, I was struck by how much Jason Garrett looks like Sgt. Brody of Homeland. Is it possible that Jason Garrett was sent by Al Qaeda to infiltrate America's Team and destroy it?
—Nick McLain, Indianapolis

SG: I mean … we can't rule it out yet, right? Can we at least make sure that he's not spending an inordinate amount of time in his garage? If Garrett ever wanders into a Q&A session for season-ticket holders and inexplicably shoots a police horse, we're going to have to at least interrogate him. More important, did you ever think we'd top Kevin Kolb and the Boogie Nights masturbation solicitor as the best football/pop culture look-alike in this column?

STEELERS (-3.5) over Eagles

Q: How could the universe possibly deprive us of a classic Andy Reid moment like Sunday night's Giants-Eagles game presented? If that second field goal goes in, where does Andy Reid secure his spot as worst time manager for the rest of eternity?
—Kyle G., Santa Barbara

SG: Don't worry, he's still no. 1 — something like 255,328 people tweeted the same, "Who's controlling the clock in tonight's debate, Andy Reid?" joke during Wednesday's Obama-Romney showdown. Andy Reid owns bad clock management like Mike Napoli owns the Angels. I've been writing this Friday football column since 1997 — he's the only coach who would ever elicit an e-mail like the following one.

Q: Fact: Andy Reid ALWAYS wins after a bye week. Problem: There's only 1 bye week and 1 Andy Reid. Solution: We need 2 Andy Reids! Then we can swap them out every week for guaranteed victories and twice the challenge-flag abuse. We just need to clone Andy Reid, maybe insert a few genes for better timeclock management, start growing him in a test tube, then feed the clone lots of HGH and Big Macs to quickly get him up to adult size. It should be easy to convince the current Andy Reid that the NFL just went to a 8-game schedule with games every other week, and then use the clone. I can't see any flaws in this plan at all. By the way, I may or may not be a biochem major who just learned how to splice DNA, so if you see a story on SportsCenter about a bizarre incident where some random guy stabbed Andy Reid with a syringe and took some blood, it totally wasn't me.
—Carl, Johnstown, PA

SG: And I'm supposed to think the Steelers aren't covering this week? Here's all you need to know about the 2012 Eagles: They're 3-1 with a minus-17 point differential. In other words … sell! Sell! Here comes the Steelers' six-game winning streak that you didn't think they had in them.

Q: Hard to believe that no NFL talking head has pointed out yet that all 3 undefeated quarterbacks were once living in Michael Vick's shadow. Ryan was drafted to replace Vick in Atlanta; Schaub and Kolb signed to be starters after backing Vick up. Either karma's telling Andy Reid to play Nick Foles, or that he's supposed to help him open a steak house to compete with Vince Young.
—Nick J, Stewartville, MN

SG: Too soon.

Ravens (-6.5) over CHIEFS

Q: Near the end of last year you kept kidding that you hoped the Chiefs would finish strong so they'd bring back Romeo Crennel, then you could bet against him in 2012 and clean up. They brought him back in 2012 and got killed in 3 of their 4 games. And yet — you picked them to cover their last 3 games. The lesson, as always …
—Thomas, Kansas City

SG: I know, I know. The NFL Network's next documentary should be called, How The Hell Did Matt Cassel Win 11 Games? That was one of Bill Belichick's greatest coaching feats, right up there with three Super Bowls, 21 straight wins, 16-0 and resuscitating Vinny Testeverde's career and continuing to lead playoff teams while looking like a hobo.

Falcons (-3) over REDSKINS

Q: Right now Matt Ryan is like Stan's dad in South Park when he gets testicular cancer and his balls get so big he has to wheel them around in a wheelbarrow. Is Atlanta's defense good enough to win the big one?
—JT Sanders, Dyersburg, TN

SG: The short answer — no!!!!!!! But since when did having a mediocre defense stop NFL teams from winning the big one? Here's why I love Atlanta this Sunday: Last week's game was basically a loss. Carolina outplayed them and fell asleep in the final two minutes. So if the Falcons really ARE a Super Bowl contender (and I think they are), then that means Mike Smith spent the week playing up the "we got lucky last week, we deserved to lose, I don't want to see us play two bad games in a row, show me something this week, I thought you guys wanted to be great!!!!!!" card (and I think he did). No chance of them looking past the Skins this week. Oh, and Matty Ice's pseudo–Hail Mary from his own 1-yard line required giant, giant, giant balls. I don't know if they were on par with Stan's Dad, but they were at least on Cisco Adler's level.

(The bigger question: Through four weeks, has anyone ever had a larger MVP lead than Matt Ryan? Who's the no. 2 pick right now? In Mike Sando's always enjoyable MVP Watch this week, he listed Brady, Rodgers and Flacco as the next three guys. Brady, Rodgers and Flacco???? Are we really ready to live in a world where a Boston College grad wins the NFL's MVP?)

Q: I saw your tweet the other day about watching the Ryder Cup with your dad and your Uncle Bob. It got me thinking, how the hell does everybody have an Uncle Bob? I have an Uncle Bob, you have an Uncle Bob, I feel like I have heard others talk about their Uncle Bobs, and it just seems like the amount of Uncle Bobs is disproportionate to the amount of Bobs in the country. Does anyone else notice this or am I just crazy? Can't this be incorporated into the 2020 census?
—Hank T., Durham

SG: I sent out an e-mail to 39 friends and co-workers asking if they had an Uncle Bob. Eight had an Uncle Bob. Including me, that's nine of 40 people — close to 25 percent. Is that a high number or a low one? I have no idea. I just enjoy sending out e-mails that only say things like, "Do you have an Uncle Bob?" But as Grantland's Molly Lambert points out, it has to mean something that Wikipedia has a page called "Bob's your uncle," or that it's a phrase commonly used in Britain, right?

Seahawks (+3) over PANTHERS

Q: Can we please re-name the "Art Shell Face" the "Ron Rivera Face?"
—Terrence, Rock Hill, SC

SG: Come on, that's crazy. You can't change the name of the Art Shell Face any more than you can change the name of Niagara Falls or the Grand Canyon.

Q: Also, is Ron's headset even plugged in? On every sideline shot of him I have yet to see him speak a single word.
—Terrence, Rock Hill, SC

SG: It's probably not plugged in. I'm not sure it matters.

Q: There is a reason Rivera was interviewed 8 times before he got the Panther job.
—Terrence, Rock Hill, SC

SG: That's actually true — Ron Rivera was interviewed for eight different head coaching positions before Carolina hired him. Here's what bothered me about how he handled the last two minutes of that Falcons' loss — you know, other than the fact that his secondary somehow allowed a deep pass from Atlanta's own 1-yard line in the final 59 seconds when the Falcons didn't have any timeouts left. The Panthers weren't a playoff team. They had just been embarrassed by the Giants on national TV. If any team ever needed to give itself a collective boost with the words, "Eff you, we're going for the upset and ramming this down your throat" on fourth-and-1 — on the road, against a divisional rival, no less — it was the 2012 Carolina Panthers last Sunday. They should have gone for it.

Q: I shared your same feelings that Seattle was gonna have a great year and took their over for wins. And you know what? I am ready to start Matt Flynn. If you look at tape, Wilson leaves the pocket before it even breaks down. He doesn't have a strong arm, he is not fast and he cant see over his line and the D Line. Bill, stop drinking the cool aide!!!! He is horrible. Since you, like me, are a gambling man, dont even think of taking them on the road. In reality, they should be 1 and 3. Russell Wilson is a 5'10" quarterback mind trapped in an accountants body. Kind of like you Bill, an NBA two guard trapped in a journalist body. I give Carroll 2 more weeks, then he pulls the plug on Wilson for Flynn. Wilson will be selling Life Insurance in 3 years. Book it!
—Dave, somewhere in south Florida

SG: Man, when I compared Russell Wilson to a cult leader in my preseason preview, I didn't realize it would be one of those cults that ended up with everything exploding. This is terrible. Even worse, I found myself nodding throughout Dave's e-mail. I've watched nearly every minute of every Seahawks game. (I wish I were making this up.) Wilson just doesn't look ready yet. I've had to watch this Levi's ad 220 times just to keep myself from bailing on that Seahawks Super Bowl pick.

Q: What is it going to take for the Seahawks to realize that Matt Flynn is the best option at QB right now? Russell Wilson is Tavaris 2.0. Why has yet another Seattle team been doomed with a horrible offense? Is it something that I've done? Am I dating the wrong person or working at the wrong place? Why can't Seattle have one good offensive team?
—Richard, Burien, Washington

SG: Let's give this one more week. Come on, you, me and Russell. We can get through this. If he can't light up that putrid Panthers defense, then I'm lowering the Russell Wilson bandwagon into a fiery pit of hell while sobbing like Ed Furlong at the end of Terminator 2. Maybe Russell can even give me the sad thumbs-up as he's engulfed in flames like Arnold back in the day. It's do-or-die week for you, Russell Wilson. Let's see something.

VIKINGS (-5.5) over Titans

Q: I'm sure I'm not the first to point out the eerie parallels between Tiger Woods on the Ryder Cup this year and Chris Johnson in fantasy football. Just like the millions of fantasy football players who saw Johnson sitting there late in the first round or early in the second and thought "Shit. It's Chris Johnson, I have to take him. If I don't, I know it will come back to haunt me all season", the US saw Tiger Woods was available and thought the same thing. Last weekend at Medina were the first 3 weeks of this NFL season.
—Kevin Geraghty, Bridgewater

SG: You know what I really hated about that Ryder Cup other than, you know, having my country submit one of the biggest chokes in recent sports history? I found myself liking Europe's team 10 times more than the team for which I was supposed to be rooting. If you were just doing a "Guys I Enjoy Watching" draft of 2012 Ryder Cup golfers, America would have had two of the first 10 picks (Mickelson and Tiger) and that's it. That reminds me: We need to add Rory McIlroy to the Roger Federer All-Star team of "Guys Who Aren't From America, But We Treat Them Like They Are" team. It felt absolutely bizarre to root against him last week. Can't he just move here and get a dual citizenship? Do we have to trade Ireland something? What if we gave them Bono and The Edge back? Would that do it?2

As for the Vikings, even if this looks like one of those textbook "Team coming off a smoking stretch who had everyone patting their backs all week and thought they just had to show up to win — à la San Francisco in Week 3 or Atlanta and Arizona last week — I'm going against the grain here. I say the Vikings are legitimately good and overdue for one blowout home victory before their inevitable letdown game (Week 6 in Washington, and yes, I will be staying away).

PATS (-6.5) over Broncos

Q: You trashed Peyton Manning last week and picked the Raiders to win. Insanity, Bill. Manning went 30 of 38 for 338 for three touchdowns and no picks. Say you're sorry. Say it. We deserve that much. We're coming to your house next. Tell me you're not the least bit worried about Manning. I dare you.
—Matt Beaudin, Boulder, CO

SG: Of course! Manning could be wearing Steve Grogan's 30-pound neck brace from the '89 season and moving around like Hugh Hefner and I'd still be worried. He's Peyton Manning. Just seeing the "18," seeing the audible-ing at the line, seeing that giant red splotch on his forehead after every series … that stuff will always make me uneasy no matter how old he is. But right now, every Manning throw wobbles in the air with barely enough juice to get where it needs to go. It's just a fact. My buddy Gus (die-hard Broncos fan) and I have been joking about it for weeks — he keeps texting me, "You don't want the Noodle!" and I keep texting back, "GIVE ME THE NOODLE!" Even the Broncos fans know. Deep down, anyway. But as Greg Schiano would say, that doesn't mean it's not not fun.

Q: Peyton nearly brought his team back from 20 twice after his coaching staff finally lets him off the leash and runs his type of offense. His passes have looked weak at times but somehow they still end up in the right place at the right time. You won't see that though. That's what's so charming about you, Sports Guy! You commit to your biases and hold onto them like Commandments, regardless of facts. You're kind of the ideological sports equivalent of Bill O'Reilly!
—Soren The Solipsist, Augusta

SG: Now that's not fair! Take that back! I said this in Thursday's podcast and I'll say it again: Peyton's passes look absolutely awful, but clearly, there are larger forces at work here. Watching him thread the needle at 40 mph or squeeze sure interceptions through three guys and somehow find the open man … I mean, it reminds me of when I used to play golf with my father, who was the master of the "drive that hit a tree and somehow bounced right into the middle of the fairway" shot. I used to call it "Dad Luck." Manning has enjoyed an awful lot of Dad Luck with some of these throws so far. I can't imagine the Patriots letting him pick them apart with short stuff — they're going to make him throw over the top on them. I don't think he can do it against them or any other good team. We will see. (I've been wrong before. Thousands and thousands of times, actually.)

Q: When I think about Sunday's Broncos-Pats game, I keep thinking back to the scene at the end of Rocky III in the empty gym. Rocky in his mangled voice "Wanna ring the bell?" Apollo in his annoying arrogant voice, "Ding, Ding."
—Brian Clark, Dudley, MA

SG: Couldn't agree more. Here's the part that everyone keeps forgetting about Sunday: Brady shredded Denver's defense 10 months ago. That defense is a little better this season, but not by much. So Denver needs to score 30-plus to win AND get some breaks to win. Seems farfetched. Throw in another breakout performance from star Patriots running back Branvan Boldley and I'm thinking 37-27, Patriots.3

Tampa's Bye Week (-2.5) over Oakland's Bye Week

Q: You're WARM stat is a perfect evaluation for coaches, but you totally botched the coach it should be named after. You picked Raheem Morris. How could it not be "Wins Above Rod Marinelli"? The guy literally led a team to a winless season. That should automatically earn him the title.
—Dan W., Shelby TWP

SG: This delights me to no end. Now we have the flexibility to platoon WARM with "Wins Over Raheem Morris" or "Wins Over Rod Marinelli" depending on what kind of mood you're in. Is it too late for Romeo Crennel to change his name to Romeo McCrennel?

Q: I'm a die-hard Oakland A's fan who happens to be a medical student. I can't watch most of the A's play-in game today because I have to learn to perform a male genital exam. For those keeping score at home, this includes palpation of the testes and shaft, and a rectal examination of the prostate. To recap: I'm missing a shot at the AL West because I'm grabbing a dude's penis and balls and then shoving my finger up his rear end. Can I have some help with a witty pun to try to lighten the situation? (note: Moneyballs has already been taken).
—Sam, Sac-town

SG: The sad part is that I reached the end of that e-mail and said, "Dammit, someone already took Moneyballs!"

49ERS (-9.5) over Bills

Q: Seriously? First I watch the epic debacle that was the Pats annihilation of the Bills, and then I open your mailbag only to find that our team can't even win the Bernie Lomax Award?!?!?
—Todd, Buffalo

Q: How dare you for not naming Ralph Wilson the new sports Weekend at Bernie's owner? That distinction is all the Bills have anymore.
—Ryan, Buffalo

SG: You know, I felt guilty about running these (and trust me, there were more) until I remembered that Ralph Wilson is 93 years old. Ninety-three! If you offered me 93 right now, I'd grab it in a heartbeat. Sign me up. Plus, the Bills fans need a win, right? Look at this next e-mail, for God's sake.

Q: The only thing more dissappointing about 2012 than the Buffalo Bills is scolling through the channels, seeing Face Off on SyFy, getting really excited, clicking on it, realizing its a show about make-up, and then watching it anyway.
—Will, Burlington, VT

SG: I'd probably avoid this week's game — there's a decent chance you might lose by 40 points. Also, you're not the only one who's excitedly clicked on Face/Off on SyFy multiple times before realizing you've been duped. This would be a smart move for the NBC Sports Network, which literally has no programming right now without the Olympics and the NHL — they should give all their motocross and outdoors shows names like Rocky and Road House and Shawshank (and any other movie that TNT and TBS show constantly) just to cheat their ratings. It would be the Bleacher Report of sports network strategies, right?

Chargers (+3.5) over SAINTS

Q: Here's the official Bad Defense List for 2012: Washington, Carolina, New Orleans, Tennessee, Buffalo, Kansas City. None of those six teams should be giving up more than 3 points under any circumstances against a half-decent team or better, right?
—B. Simmons, Los Angeles

SG: I actually wrote that one myself. Here's a good rule of thumb: Any time you can take a team averaging 25 points a game against a team giving up 33 points a game, and you're getting more than a field goal, you grab the points and don't get caught up thinking about things like "Norv Turner on a Sunday night," "Norv Turner staring grimly out toward the field after remembering that he doesn't have any timeouts left," or even "Cris Collinsworth drawling the words, 'I gotta be honest, Al, I don't know what Norv Turner is thinking there' on a Sunday night."

Texans (-9) over JETS

Q: Have we really reached a point where the Texans are becoming the gold standard for how to run an NFL team? The last 2 off seasons they've chosen cap space instead of over paying quality starters (Williams on D-line and Winston on the O-line, both underperforming on their new teams); stuck with Schaub instead of getting dragged into the Peyton Manning sweepstakes; kept Kubiak who seems to have matured as a coach; and signed Wade Phillips and given him the defensive personnel he needed. In 2 years they've gone from an AFC South laughingstock to a juggernaut that won a playoff game with a backup QB and hasn't lost in 2012. Did the Mayans really predict this?
—Jared, Seattle

SG: You make a great point about the Texans — in baseball or basketball, or even hockey back when we used to have hockey, people love focusing on the big-picture successes/failures for how teams were built. We don't do that as much in football because the rosters are so big, because there aren't that many trades, and because the records fluctuate so wildly from year to year. But if the Texans were an NBA team, writers like John Hollinger and Zach Lowe (Grantland's newest hire!) would be raving about Houston right now. It's just a fact. Meanwhile …

Q: I just received this email from one of my friends and fellow Jets fans in response to the fact that they are currently 2-2 and in 1st place in the AFC East:

"We have no NFL level WRs
"And one CB
"And no pass rush
"And no legitimate running game
"And about to have a starting QB that everyone says can't throw the football
"With no offensive line
"Our LBs are old and slow
"Other than that this is the best team Rex has ever coached."
Ladies and Gentlemen … Your 2012 NEW YORK JETS!!!!
—Steve Aponte, New York

SG: Hey, you stepped on my line! How dare you!

Q: Here's my idea for Halloween: "The Mark Sanchez Pumpkin." Just overpay for a rotten pumpkin and cut a #6 on the back. Keep it on your porch until your neighbors complain about the smell and refuse to throw it away, asserting it is your pumpkin.
—Matt Davis, Putnam

SG: You left out the part where you have a fresher pumpkin right behind it that's been blessed with holy water.

Q: Around the 35 minute mark for "Fourth and God II: God Willing," you will hear Mike Tirico say, "And after the third consecutive Arian Foster touchdown, it looks like … wait a minute … here comes Tim Tebow running onto the field! No one saw this coming!" (Cue Hans Zimmer music and thunder from the heavens)
—Colby, Chicago

SG: Yup. But here's the question — will that be enough for the Jets to cover this spread, or will the Tebow magic start next week when they're home for the Colts? I spent between two and 10 hours staring at their schedule and trying to figure this out. Some factors to consider …

1. The AFC really, really sucks this year. You might see a 9-7 wild card. It's in play. 10-6 definitely makes it.

2. As amazing as this sounds, the Jets are only 2-2 right now. Their inevitable Houston shellacking will make them 2-3. So they'd have to go 7-4 down the stretch to sneak into wild-card range.

3. Again, we all agree that last year's Tebow season was a successful Disney sports movie (which I ended up calling Fourth and God) and lent itself to a sequel pretty easily. If you were making Fourth and God II: God Willing (an idea first mentioned in this space three weeks ago), you'd want our hero (Tebow) and his downtrodden team (the Jets) to hit rock bottom before the inspirational "Things are turning around!" scene. Last week's Niners shutout and this week's undoubtedly disastrous Monday-night game certainly qualified for rock bottom. You can almost imagine Chris Evans (playing Tebow) wandering sadly through the streets of Manhattan at 3 a.m. on Monday night in the inevitable "our hero is super sad right now and questioning everything he ever believed in" scene.

4. The Jets host Indy in Week 6, then play in New England, then host Miami. Let's say they're 3-4 heading into the bye. From there: at Seattle (Tebow!), at St. Louis (TEBOW!), home on Thursday for New England (TEBOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!). Suddenly they're 6-4 and we just had the "Tebow turned everything around!" montage. From there: home for Arizona, at Jacksonville, at Tennessee, home for San Diego, at Buffalo. See any tough ones on that schedule? Me neither. Just start emotionally preparing yourself now. I'm telling you.

Q: Had a stroke of genius the other day; using "vacate the wins" to mean "taking a massive dump after grossly overeating." Ex: "Nothing sucks more than having to vacate the wins after a championship dinner" or "My memories of that awesome meal were tainted when I had to vacate the wins."
—Chad Whittaker, Poughkeepsie

SG: Yup, these are my readers.

This Week: 1-0
Last Week: 7-8
Season: 32-31-2

John Terry vs. the Fourth Estate, or Why England Will Never Win Another Major Soccer

By: timbersfan, 12:20 AM GMT on October 05, 2012

Sunday night, John Terry — widely regarded as one of the best center-backs of his generation — retired from playing international football for England at the relatively young age of 31. Terry is facing a disciplinary hearing by the Football Association (the governing body of the sport in England) for using racially abusive language, and the overwhelmingly likely outcome is that he’ll be hit with a lengthy suspension from club football. Unsurprisingly, the hearing and the decision to retire are linked. Terry’s statement on the matter explained that he felt compelled to retire “in advance of the hearing of the FA disciplinary charge because I feel the FA, in pursuing charges against me where I have already been cleared in a court of law, have made my position with the national team untenable.”

Now, before I get any further into this subject, I need to register an interest: I am a lifelong supporter of Chelsea FC, Terry’s club side, and can legitimately be accused of being a little bit biased. However, Terry’s been the most divisive figure in English football for most of the last decade, and pretty much everyone in England — football fan or not — is biased where Terry is concerned; you either support Chelsea, or you hate John Terry. This may seem strange considering Terry has the best record of any captain in the history of the English national team, with 12 wins, two draws, and one defeat in competitive matches (13-2-2 if you count competitive dead rubbers). To fully understand how John Terry came by his tattered reputation in his native country, it is necessary to understand not only the relationship between the England team, the England fans, the tabloid press, and the Football Association, but how the latter three groups conspire to destroy any hope that the English national team has of winning a major football tournament.

Let’s start with recent history and attempt to clear up the racism issue. The allegations stem from an incident in which Terry was caught on camera (but not on microphone) uttering racial epithets in the direction of QPR’s Anton Ferdinand during a game, after which Ferdinand brought criminal proceedings against him. The subsequent court case cleared Terry of racially abusing Ferdinand, largely through lack of evidence (which isn’t surprising given that no one could testify to actually hearing the alleged abuse).

Today’s FA disciplinary committee is concerned with the lesser charge of using racially aggravated language — which is undeniable — but it makes no judgment on whether the intention was abusive or not. Anyone who plans on having a strong opinion on that question should read the judgment of the court from the criminal trial (with the proviso that the racially insensitive language probably makes it unsafe for consumption in the workplace). If you don’t have time to read the document, take a biased Chelsea fan’s word for it; the judge did not believe John Terry to be a racist, found his testimony to be more consistent than Ferdinand’s, and considered the defense’s case to be a plausible explanation of events.

Opposition fans can't be bothered with the judgement, and they have spent much of this season chanting, “John Terry, you know what you are,” at their former international captain. This is the same chant heard regularly wherever Liverpool plays, when it is directed at their Uruguayan striker, Luis Suarez, who was adjudged to have repeatedly racially abused Manchester United’s Patrice Evra last season. It was heard during Liverpool’s home defeat against Arsenal earlier this month, where the away fans voiced their disgust at Suarez’s racist character during the entire match. Could these outspoken critics of racism be the same Arsenal fans who are notorious for singing anti-Semitic songs about Tottenham? I’m afraid they could.

We have now strayed deep into the complicated world of moral relativity that exists within what English football fans call “banter.” Banter used to be a term denoting an exchange of light, playful, teasing remarks, but has now been adopted by bigots to justify racist, sexist, and homophobic humor/abuse. English football is riddled with this sort of thing, but those singing the songs will tell you that they mean no harm; the "banter" is purely a means of antagonizing rival supporters, and this explains how fans (and it certainly isn’t just Arsenal supporters) can chant racist songs at one ground while chiding racism at another.

Fueling this banter are the English tabloids, whose business models rely on providing a constant diet of scandal, and they know that targeting the most hated players will generate the most revenue. Manchester United players have been prime targets for decades, and more recently, Chelsea has joined them on the firing lines. The tabloids reserve their most titillating scandals for the run-up to major tournaments and can be relied upon to show their support for the national team by publishing scandalous exposés of the players and manager in the days before any major competition. There are countless examples of this, although it wasn’t necessary prior to Euro 2012; Terry and Ferdinand had already provided all the scandal they craved. Even for that, though, the tabloids were indirectly responsible. The incident between Ferdinand and Terry began over the former’s taunts about a scandal published by the News of the World (you may remember that ex-newspaper from other examples of laudable investigative journalism) in January 2010, six months before the World Cup.

The imbroglio Ferdinand cited to spark the spat was Terry’s alleged affair with (former Chelsea and England teammate) Wayne Bridge’s girlfriend, Veronica Perroncel. Now, I should point out that both Terry and Perroncel have denied this story — and Perroncel was later paid substantial damages by at least two newspapers for publishing falsehoods about her — but mud sticks, and the scandal caused untold damage to the English national team. Upon publication of the News of the World’s exclusive story, the English football press quickly decided that John Terry should be stripped of the England captaincy to preserve harmony in the dressing room. The Football Association readily obliged them, forcing manager Fabio Capello (much to his annoyance) to revoke Terry of the captain’s arm band. Incredibly, no one bothered to check whether Wayne Bridge would even be a part of England’s 2010 World Cup Squad, and after Terry had been demoted, Bridge announced that he would not be available for the trip to South Africa (even if Capello decided to pick him, which was always unlikely). Under the uncertain stewardship of replacement captain Steven Gerrard, England performed poorly in South Africa and was lambasted by the national press, who laid most of the blame for the team’s disorganized performance and lack of team spirit at Fabio Capello’s door.

This is how the English tabloids — and particularly the Sun and the Sunday Sun (the fundamentally indistinguishable replacement for the News of the World) — operate; they destabilize the England team before major tournaments, wrap themselves in the flag of St. George during the competition itself, and when the team they’ve worked so hard to undermine fails to win, one player (or sometimes the manager, especially if he’s foreign) is made a scapegoat and ritually flogged on the back pages until the next scandal arrives. In recent years, the tabloid’s focus has been on John Terry, but during the past couple decades, outstanding servants of the national side such as Paul Gascoigne, David Seaman, Phil Neville, David Beckham, Ashley Cole, and Wayne Rooney have all been given the treatment. And that is to say nothing of the constant flow of information deemed vital to the public interest regarding events in Sven Goran Eriksson’s bedroom when he was England manager.

None of this is surprising, of course; we live in a celebrity-obsessed age, and that obsession extends to our sports stars, who are paid handsomely to compensate for any inconvenience caused by their tremendous fame. What is surprising is how readily England’s Football Association goes along with the media’s demands for punishments of its top internationals, even when they would never dream of acting so harshly towards less well-known players. Perhaps the best example of this occurred when Anton Ferdinand’s elder brother, Manchester United and England stalwart Rio Ferdinand, forgot to attend a mandatory drug test towards the end of 2003. The tabloids went ballistic and demanded Ferdinand receive an exemplary ban. The FA duly obliged, hitting Ferdinand with an eight-month suspension — the third longest ban in the history of English football — which ruled him out of the 2004 European Championships in Portugal. Needless to say, he was sorely missed, and England was beaten on penalties by the hosts in the first knockout round. Meanwhile, far away from the media spotlight in League Two, Billy Turley continued to play in goal for lowly Rushden and Diamonds, despite having tested positive for nandrolone in 2002. Turley claimed that he had ingested the PED by accident, and the FA, unencumbered by the need to placate the sport’s moral guardians in the press, opted to let him off with a warning. It was only after Turley tested positive for a second time in 2004 (this time for cocaine) that the FA chose to ban him, and even then only for six months.

Admittedly, that was all a long time ago, but, as the latest Terry scandal proves, nothing has changed. Predictably enough, Terry was stripped of his captaincy for a second time following the Anton Ferdinand incident, just a few months after being reinstated at the insistence of Fabio Capello. Capello claims that the right to select his own captain came in his contract, and being forced by the FA to demote Terry a second time proved to be the final straw for the Italian, who walked out on the England team with just four months to go before this summer’s Euro 2012 tournament. This was yet another victory for the moral arbiters of the English press, who had long been gunning for Capello for being a foreigner. They were delighted with his English replacement, Roy Hodgson, who they welcomed by mocking his speech impediment. Once again, the national team was destabilized just months before a major competition, which ended in predictably ignominious fashion. The only unusual part was the press opting to scapegoat the entire team rather than any one individual, with the Olympic Games providing a chance to contrast England’s reviled, overpaid, over-privileged footballing failures with Britain’s all-conquering Olympians.

The FA, meanwhile, claim to have been powerless in the face of public opinion. They’ve expressed bafflement at Terry’s assertion that their actions have made his position in the England squad untenable and maintain that they’ve had no choice but to resume their disciplinary procedures against Terry after he was cleared by a criminal court. Which rather begs the question — why have they done nothing about Paolo Di Canio?

Di Canio is a self-proclaimed fascist, and also the manager of League One’s Swindon Town. Last season, he was accused by his own players of making racist comments about Jonathan Tehoue, a French player who was on loan at the club. The FA announced in May that they would be investigating the allegations against Di Canio, who continues to manage a team of players who have accused him of making racist comments. I contacted the FA’s press office today to ask whether any progress was being made with the investigation, and if there were a date by which it might be completed; a spokesperson informed me that "they are still making inquiries" and the process was "ongoing." The BBC have also been making inquiries, and reported that Swindon Town’s lawyers apologized to Tehoue, but they have subsequently withdrawn their apology.

The English tabloid press isn’t interested in this story — a scandal about lowly Swindon Town isn’t going to sell any papers — so the FA aren’t under any pressure to take action. They appear to have felt much more pressure to take further action over Terry, and, as a result, they’ve lost the services of one of the best central defenders England has ever produced and further weakened the national side. I’m confident that England fans will quickly come to regret the FA’s decisions, and I’m setting the over-under on the first tabloid newspaper calling for Terry to come out of retirement at exactly one year from today. England travels to Ukraine on the 9th of September 2013 for a vital qualifier, and if their presence in Brazil for the 2014 World Cup is still in the balance at that stage, you can be sure that the press will be calling for the return of experienced campaigners to ensure safe progress. Ultimately, though, it won’t matter. As long as the English tabloids continue to destabilize the national team before every tournament, the English fans continue to buy the papers to provide further background material for their charming "banter," and the FA continue to punish their players according to how many tabloid column inches an indiscretion generates, then England will have no chance of winning a major footballing tournament.

San Jose Earthquakes Win the Marcus Tracy Lottery

By: timbersfan, 12:19 AM GMT on October 05, 2012

On Wednesday, MLS announced that the San Jose Earthquakes — who have the best record in the league (57 points) and the league’s leading goal scorer (Chris Wondolowski, 20 goals) — had won the rights to Marcus Tracy in a lottery. Tracy, a forward, won the 2008 Herman Award (soccer’s equivalent of the Heisman) in his senior year at Wake Forest. The season before, he scored the game-tying goal and assisted on the game-winner in Wake Forest’s 2-1 victory over Ohio State in the 2007 national championship game, the first NCAA championship in the school’s history.

But Tracy, 25, has struggled with injuries for the past three years, and since last October, he hadn’t had a professional contract. Until the Earthquakes came calling.

San Jose’s coach, Frank Yallop, who managed the team to MLS Cup championships in 2001 and 2003, said: “For us to get a player of that caliber, it could turn out to be fantastic. I hope it does. When he was in college, I would have thought he would have went pretty high, if not number one overall. We’re real excited to get him.”

How did this former collegiate player of the year, a lethal scorer, land on the league’s best team, two months before the MLS playoffs begin? His story speaks to the odd path to professional success for American players, as well as the unusual rigor of Major League Soccer’s business dealings.

When Tracy finished his senior season at Wake Forest, he was confronted with the usual dilemma facing all top American prospects: Play in MLS or go abroad. As Yallop said, many people thought he would go as the top pick in the MLS SuperDraft. But Tracy had a special opportunity abroad, with Aalborg BK, a club in northern Denmark that plays in the Danish Superliga.

“The opportunity that came up in Aalborg seemed like the right fit. The coach had seen me play," said Tracy. "It’s always good to know that the coach wants you. The fact that I didn’t have to go on trial anywhere in Europe. The mobility that you have in Europe in the Scandinavian countries, if you do well, you can move up. I was up for the challenge.”

Despite the opportunity in Denmark, Tracy still entered the MLS SuperDraft. But no team selected him, suspecting he was going to play in Europe. Then, in the fifth round, the Houston Dynamo selected him with the 56th overall pick. Tracy turned down the Houston contract and went to Aalborg.

His debut with the Danish club came as a substitute in a UEFA Cup quarterfinal match against Manchester City.

“It was crazy. It was surreal. To just come out of college and be on the field with [Brazilian national team player] Robinho. It’s definitely a game I’ll never forget.”

He started the team’s next game, a Danish Superliga match against FC Midtjylland, and scored his first goal. But then the injuries began.

"At first it was a hamstring, then a calf. While the transition going there went smoothly, the remainder of the year was tough."

He struggled with injuries into the summer and the beginning of the 2009-10 season. The main problem became tendinitis in his knees, “jumper’s knees.”

“I wasn’t really able to manage it. I was never consistently playing or training. It was just sort of escalating.”

He still managed to play in eight games, starting four and scoring a goal. His performance earned him a call-up to the U.S. national team camp in January 2010. It was Tracy’s first national camp ever. In fact, Tracy said, “I never played ODP.” For 30 years, ODP — the Olympic Development Program — has been a hallmark of American youth soccer. For a top college player to say he never played ODP is kind of like a 13-year-old kid saying he’s never watched TV.

At the national camp, Tracy’s injury got worse. “I probably only trained three or four days.” He decided to cut the training camp short. "It was pretty frustrating. To have that opportunity ruined by an injury." He went back to Aalborg, cut back on his training for the next few months, all in an effort to avoid surgery. It didn’t help.

"Summer of 2010, my injury’s not much better, and I’ve missed six months of soccer. That was the point when I decided I was going to have surgery." He had operations on both knees and missed the entire 2010-11 season, doing rehab the entire time. His goal was to come back for the 2011-12 season, but he never got the chance. In October 2011, Aalborg said they weren’t going to renew his contract.

“It was frustrating, but it was expected. You can’t really expect a club to re-sign you after you’ve been injured for most of your contract.”

Tracy decided to “come home and rehab and get myself sorted and refreshed.” He targeted a move to MLS, the league he’d passed up when he finished college. But entering Major League Soccer was no simple matter.

MLS maintains various regulations and restrictions to create parity in the league and prevent the freewheeling excess that led to the demise of the star-studded NASL in the 1980s. The primary way the league does this is through a salary cap of $2.8 million for all teams. Another is seven — seven — specific “player acquisition mechanisms,” the ways a team can acquire a player.

Because Houston had offered Tracy a contract in January 2009, they actually held the rights to him for two years. But the two-year statute had passed. So Tracy had to enter the league through a Lottery. According to league roster rules, lotteries are “reserved for Draft eligible players to whom an MLS contract was offered but who failed to sign with the League prior to the Draft.”

Tracy had to sign a contract with the league before the lottery. “I knew that [by] signing that contract and entering into the lottery, I could end up anywhere.”

The league holds lotteries a couple times a year. Eight teams entered the lottery for Tracy. They were ranked and given percentages based on their performance in the last 34 games. New England had the highest probability of getting Tracy (33.2 percent). Seattle had the lowest (2.1 percent). San Jose, the league’s top team, had the second-lowest, at 4.6 percent.

On Thursday, San Jose won the lottery. So Tracy, an offensive threat, will now join a team that leads the entire league in both points and goals scored.

There are, of course, questions about his health. But Yallop is hopeful he’ll be able to manage: “Simon Dawkins [a midfielder on the team] was out 18 months and you see him now and he’s doing OK. Speaking to [Tracy], he feels better than he’s ever felt. ”

The story has another element: At San Jose, Tracy will be reunited with two teammates from the 2007 Wake Forest team that won the national championship: Sam Cronin and Ike Opara, a defender. Both think Tracy can add something to the team:

“He’s gonna [be] a good target forward,” Opara said. “A guy who does a few things that we don’t have on our team.”

“On the field,” Cronin said, “his athleticism is unparalleled, really. His speed and strength, aerial ability. He's quick and powerful.”

Tracy, for all his accolades, remains modest. “My job [in San Jose] is to play well in training. Hopefully make it into the lineup.”

But he still has ambitions beyond success in MLS. When asked if he wants to get another shot at the national team, he said: “Definitely. If I didn’t think that I could get back to the highest level, I wouldn’t have done it.”

Andrew Lewellen, a former college soccer player and youth coach, is now a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He writes about soccer on his blog, AndysPitch.com.

How Manchester United's Ryan Tunnicliffe Made His Father £10,000

By: timbersfan, 12:18 AM GMT on October 05, 2012

Here’s a heartwarming story from northwest England, or at the very least an example of how much easier it is to monetize one’s bloodlines in other countries. When Ryan Tunnicliffe was 9, his father Michael “Mick” Tunnicliffe placed a £100 bet that his son would one day play for Manchester United’s first team. Young Ryan was, at the time, in the process of joining United’s youth setup after starring for local side Roach Dynamos. Hundreds of promising kids Tunnicliffe’s age go on the books of professional clubs throughout Europe each year, progressing through the academy and reserve ranks, remaining in this quasi pre-professional state for about a decade of their lives, dribbling a ball to lunch and dinner, hoping to one day make a living as a professional.

For a club like Manchester United, the Capital One Cup (formerly known as the Carling Cup or the League Cup) isn’t a “pot” worth winning so much as it is an excuse to let the kids run around and test their mettle against older, more cunning pros. Tunnicliffe — a.k.a. “TUNNERZ” — started last night’s third-round match against Newcastle United on the bench. He bears a faint resemblance to Wayne Rooney (stocky frame, plug head, sneakily athletic) and plays with a box-to-box intensity that might ingratiate him to United boss Alex Ferguson, if he ever gets a chance to play regularly. He’s also, apparently, one of the only people/things on earth the sociopathic former United prospect (and dental-health poster boy) Ravel Morrison did not find to be “shit.”

In the 75th minute of Manchester United's third-round match against Newcastle United, Ferguson made both Tunnicliffes’ dreams come true. Ryan came on for Belgian defender Marnick “Nick” Vermijl (BELGIUM IS NEXT … but that’s a story for another time) and his father made £10,000. I don’t know what Ryan did on his first touch, because the feed I was watching kept switching back to his proud, gleeful father in the stands. I like to imagine that his father had been extra tough on Ryan as a result of this visionary wager, and in the swirl of that moment, fatherly pride and a few pints congealed as one, and he shed a tear. Or maybe he had taken Anderson at 16/1 to score first as well.

The Designated Player: The Indomitable Snowman, Part 1

By: timbersfan, 12:18 AM GMT on October 05, 2012

Once seen as one of the league's misfits, the Sierra Leone international Kei Kamara has found an unlikely home in Kansas City, where he has been at the heart of the Sporting Kansas City team transformed by coach Peter Vermes in the past three years. In the first of a two-part interview with Graham Parker, he and his coach explain why he never settled in at his previous clubs, the importance of mentors in his life, and his move to Kansas City. In Part 2, tomorrow, he talks about the fear of being cursed, his thoughts during the U.S. Open final, and the struggles of playing for the Leone Stars. Oh, and Vinnie Jones.

A snow day has been forecast in Maryland and the few kids who’ve arrived at school are now waiting for the buses that will take them home again. As they wait, snow starts to fall and one of their number hangs back and furtively puts his hand out to grab and taste his first snowflake. He doesn’t want the other teenagers to see — they’ve already been teasing him about his accent, and he is having enough trouble adjusting to his new life in America, without inviting further mockery at his reaction to a phenomenon they take for granted. “I wanted to feel it and I wanted to taste it, but I didn’t want anybody to see what I was doing.”

Jump forward a decade to a park in Kansas City, where Kei Kamara is diving headlong into a snowman in front of a Twitter-sourced crowd of Sporting Kansas City fans, whom he has invited to initiate him into the joys of snowball fights. Unlike the first melancholy scene in the snow, which was captured in the recent Copper Pot Pictures documentary KEI, a club video of the later date shows a young man thoroughly at ease with his surroundings and clearly loved by those around him, as he throws snowballs at fans and teammates alike, laughs and jokes, and learns ruefully just what week-old snowmen are made of: “So here’s me at full sprint and this thing’s like a brick wall …”

Jump forward again, to a stadium in New York last week, where Kamara and his strike partner and protégé, C.J. Sapong, are doing a full-blown synchronized Beyoncé routine to celebrate the latter’s goal for Sporting Kansas City, while moments later Kamara will be diving headlong again — this time at full stretch out on the turf after scoring another goal himself, to hand the New York Red Bulls their first home defeat of the season.

Suffice to say, these days Kamara wants you to see what he’s doing.

Earlier on the day of the New York game I had sat down with Kamara at the team hotel and tried to work out some of what had happened in the years between those moments — a period that saw an awkward teenage immigrant from civil-war-torn Sierra Leone transform into what his coach Peter Vermes calls “one of the most dangerous players in the league.” As becomes apparent, the growth curve was neither even, nor without apparent contradictions.

From the perspective of his three years of solid production and double-figure goal tallies as the heart of the SKC team, it seems hard to believe that Kamara once was known as a malcontent, but that was indeed the reputation that dogged him when Vermes moved for him on trade deadline day some three years ago. Kansas City was to become Kamara’s fourth club in four seasons. After college at Cal State Dominguez Hills, a post-draft period under then-coach Sigi Schmid at Columbus was followed by a stint with expansion San Jose, before John Spencer, impressed by what he’d seen on a Generation Adidas tour, convinced Dominic Kinnear to sign the young striker for Houston Dynamo. Then, as Kamara tells it, with his contract winding down at Houston, Kinnear was making encouraging noises about Kamara’s ambition to try out in Europe, but, at the last minute, Peter Vermes made his move to bring the player in — though not without a struggle:

“Peter Vermes called me to say he’d traded for me and I told him, 'I’m not coming to Kansas City … and what you can do is you can call the two teams in L.A., and get me to L.A. I don’t have to play. I can sit there and be with my mom for the last couple of months of my contract and then go to Europe, because I’m going to try out.' And he kept going, because he’s so stubborn, saying, 'Why don’t you come in so we can have this conversation face to face?' So I said, 'Well it’s your money. You’re flying me, so if you want … fine.' He flew me in, I trained the first day, and the guys in the locker room made me feel so welcome, so I said, 'Well I guess I’ll be here for a little bit.' Three years later I’m still in Kansas City."

Despite his size and speed, at the time of his arrival at Sporting, Kamara had never quite found his niche as an MLS forward — the most goals he’d scored for any of his teams in any season up to that point was five. But Vermes had a feeling that the out-and-out striker could be converted to help lead his planned conversion of the team to a fluid 4-3-3, and he didn’t let Kamara’s initial antipathy to the Kansas City move, or the concerns that come with converting a player's role, deter him:

“Sometimes you have to go with your gut and your instincts on what you think you can bring to the table, in terms of getting something out of a player," said Vermes. "He’s very strong-minded. I know that at times as a player I was a little bit strong in my personality as well, but I also didn’t back down from the competition and the adversity aspects, and I think, in sports, to be successful, you have to have strong personalities within your team.”

Of course the kind of mental fortitude that Vermes sought — the kind that, as he puts it, "might bend but doesn't break" — could also be the kind of fortitude that resists change, particularly when it comes to his role on the field, but in this instance, Vermes's instincts about the player who would help him "change the culture of the club" and thrive in his new role on the field, proved correct:

“In the middle of the park, you get put up against the other big guy and you have to play with your back to the goal — but when he’s on the outside, it’s a physical mismatch, but also he gets the chance to just face up on people a lot of the time. And when he does and he can play it or move into space, he’s one of the most dangerous players in the league when he gets out into the open field. But the other part is his maturity. He’s really matured a tremendous amount since he’s come to us and I really give him that credit. To change position like that your attitude has to be right and you have to be open to that. And that could relate back to the fact that he’d been traded that many times, and maybe he realized that, 'There’s something I’m not doing.' When you see the story of his life, you see everything the guy has been through … he had to find a place and people that he could trust and I think that he has that today.”

Kamara’s past is invoked a lot when the player’s name comes up — sometimes with a rather pat positivism that tries to explain him as purely a product of that traumatic civil war in Sierra Leone. It’s not that such a version of events doesn’t include very profound influences on the man, but it tends to underplay his life in America, and the significant role that mentorship has played at key moments in that life, both toward and from him, as he negotiates both his present and his heritage. Kamara might be giggling when he talks of telling C.J. Sapong that he had to share his Rookie of the Year money "because I helped him win it," but there’s serious pride on his part for the role he played in guiding the younger man through experiences he’d gone through himself. When I talk to Sapong later, he speaks gratefully of the "big brother" role Kamara has played for him — encouraging him to trust his instincts, even as the older player helps distill the collective and occasionally contradictory advice coming from other well-meaning senior pros and coaches. When Sapong recently broke a 12-game goal-scoring drought, nobody was more thrilled than Kamara, who'd been easing him through the period with his own accounts of goalless stretches as a young pro: "I told him, 'Don't stress out about the goals, because then it's not going to come. Your job's to get in the right positions. One's going to fall just right.'" Hours after he tells me this, Sapong will score that crucial opening goal against New York, prompting the pair's Beyoncé routine.

I ask Kamara how important mentoring has been for him. He’s emphatic in his response:

"It’s big when you can have a mentor in your life. Everybody needs it. It doesn’t matter how old you are, you really need these influences … For me, growing up in Africa during the civil war, my older brothers were definitely my role models. I followed their footsteps and wanted to be like them, and then when I came to the U.S., people took me under their wings because of soccer. This is nothing against my mom — my mom just worked so hard and was always at work, but I’m out in L.A. playing and my coach from my local club team, Manhattan Beach Hurricanes, just took me as a son. He didn’t have a kid, so he’d pick me up from home to go training, to go to games — so when I’m seeing somebody go out of their way to spend all this time with me, it put it in my head to really try to prove something to this person. Then going to college, my college coach, his wife, his kids, just grabbed me and made me part of their family too. And when I have all these people doing all these things for me, it showed me that I definitely have a place to go and people believe in me.

"When I was playing in Columbus, I had one of the best mentors in the game, Ezra Hendrickson, who’s the assistant coach at Seattle now. I lived with him and I admired him. He’d been in the league around 10 or 11 years at that time when we were roommates and I’d always ask him, 'How’ve you been in this for so long?' He was maybe close to 35 and he was still playing and came to training every day so happy, with a big smile on his face … I started learning his ways — it’s just about being happy — and he really put me in the right place when it comes to soccer. When I’m mad, saying 'I’m not playing' and stuff, he’d say, 'Just be happy, man. Just keep playing your game and going up field. Doesn’t matter what day it is.' To this day I call those guys and talk to them — my college coach, my club coach — one of my brothers passed away so I can’t talk to him, but I have another one that I talk to a lot — but all these people who were mentors to me, the things they gave me brought me to where I am now, and I don’t stop talking to them. It’s a gift and you have to pass it on."

That sense of guidance and belonging seems crucial to Kamara — and without speculating on what happened at other clubs, there’s a telling moment when I speak to Vermes and he talks about the rare occasions he’s had to correct the player:

“Not everything’s been great, right. There have been times when he’s fallen off the path a little bit and when that happens I don’t say, 'I’m going to trade you.' I say, 'I’m not going to play you today and you need to figure out how to get back out there. I’ll help you, but I’m not going to give you the easy way out by sending you somewhere else. You’ve got to do that here, because this is where you are.' I think it’s different than running into problems and saying, 'Right, you’re out of here.' I’m not willing to do that, because of the qualities of the player, sure, but also the qualities of the person.”

I think about a glimpse of that person offered by Twitter the day before — a series of tweeted photos documenting a training-ground prank played on teammate Oriol Rossell (Kamara is infamous for such practical jokes), followed immediately by an appeal for the school Kamara is trying to help build back in Sierra Leone. Kamara seems to segue between these two modes utterly unself-consciously, and perhaps what warms people to him is that in among the impulsiveness that perhaps played a part in his early peripatetic career, there’s an unforced generosity, too: “There’s this jokester part of me, but there’s this part of me that I wish when I was a kid that I had professional athletes that I saw on television, that we run after, [who] would come over and mingle with us. I don’t feel that I have to separate myself from people.”

We pause the interview so he can text Sapong to bring him breakfast (seniority has its perks). As he’s engrossed in his phone I look over at one of the most dangerous players in the league. I think about the player who had painted his mouth guard in such a way that he had Nelson Rodriguez, the chair of the MLS disciplinary committee, diving for his phone in front of a game feed, to demand of Vermes, “Tell me he’s not wearing fangs …” He’s hunched over in his chair, head pushed forward at that familiar angle that makes him look like he’s examining everything for the first time — knowing he’d laugh it off if he he’s caught doing so. And I think about the kid sneaking his first look at the snow.

The Designated Player: Snoop Lion vs. Alan McInally (the Wide World of FIFA '13)

By: timbersfan, 12:17 AM GMT on October 05, 2012

Owing to the short-sightedness of the American publishing industry, I am now free to share the four-word pitch for my children’s book: Snoop Lion does things.

Snoop Lion is brushing his teeth.
Snoop Lion is watching a man pump gas.
Snoop Lion is looking at the app icons vibrate on his iPhone screen because he’s had his finger in the same position for the last three hours.
Snoop Lion is sketching Frank Yallop.
Snoop Lion is eating an apple.

Anything Snoop Lion does is interesting. This is a universal truth.

Let me backtrack a moment. I’m at the launch event for FIFA 13 in New York, at SPiN, the Susan Sarandon–affiliated table tennis venue/nightclub that may or may not be fashionable (like I’d know). Snoop Lion, as one of the stars of the promotional video for FIFA 13, is guest of honor at the launch. He has shown up late and is now “doing things.” One of the things Snoop Lion was already doing was being a big FIFA fan, or at least as demonstrably big a fan of FIFA as he is of, say, Post-it Notes, neoliberal critiques, or Magnolia (Snoop Lion does many things — demonstrable shows of enthusiasm he does not do). But we have reliable evidence that Snoop plays the EA Sports FIFA series a lot, follows the teams in real life, and, as we learned this week, he likes Ronaldo’s hair.

As per the premise of my unaccountably rejected children’s book proposal, I’d like to convey the full awesomeness of Snoop Lion doing things, but as I furtively follow him round the club (“Snoop Lion is looking at the color of a chair”; “Snoop Lion is pretending not to see a model in a Vancouver Whitecaps shirt”), I’m running up against the limits of my vocabulary, the wistful knowledge that once upon a time I used to do things (sort of), and the pressure of trying to sketch impressions of events that my readers rightly feel would be better represented by them standing where I am.

In short, I am Alan McInally.

McInally, for the uninitiated, is the ex-Scottish footballer and current British broadcaster whose disembodied voice now occasionally appears during FIFA 13 gameplay to announce scores and incidents from other notional games, in an eerily calm version of his real-life eternal battle with spontaneous combustion on Sky Sports’ Soccer Saturday.

Standing near the end of a Ping-Pong table watching Snoop Lion play at the other end, glimpsed through a forest of phones held aloft, I am on the one hand determined to capture this moment through words alone, and on the other hand beginning to feel some of the roiling terror McInally must feel on Saturday afternoons when Everton gets a corner, on a screen only he can see, and the cameras cut to him, while millions wait for him to describe what happens next:

“There’s a boy … it’s … oof … his head … has he got a head to it? No … it’s come down … there’s a foot in … it’s cleared. Still 0-0.” All spoken while staring fixedly downward, like the last wallflower at the Young Farmers’ disco.

It’s hard to imagine two more disparate characters than the poet laureate of the LBC (now with added reggae), Snoop Lion, and the bluff figure of McInally, yet they are brought together in the universe of EA Sports, where Snoop is an unlikely face of the latest incarnation of the FIFA series, and McInally has been introduced as a new element of the game — let’s call it jock ex machina — whereby his Soccer Saturday persona is inserted in audio form into the flow of the game to give updates on scores in other games. It’s a nice enough addition — though as I hope to demonstrate, I don’t think it goes far enough.

Since retiring from being the big man up front for Kilmarnock, after troubling defenses on behalf of Celtic, Aston Villa, and Bayern Munich, among others (and famously not particularly troubling the Costa Rica defense for Scotland in Italia '90), McInally ambled onto the scene of the still nascent Sky Sports coverage of British football, nailed his feet to the studio floor, and began excitedly describing things that were allegedly happening elsewhere. Nearly 20 years later, he’s still there on Soccer Saturday, trapped in a suit like it’s a bail condition and occasionally bellowing suppressed offscreen GOOOOOAAAAAOOOOOFFFFFFYA’s, to indicate that he’s ready to bring us news of a drop ball at Reading.

Soccer Saturday is an unlikely British TV institution that was initially born out of creative necessity and ended up making a compelling virtue of the restrictions it worked under. When Rupert Murdoch made his initial play to use sport as his “battering ram” (as he once infamously phrased it) for developing the pay TV model, the agreement he was able to reach with the newly formed Premier League for extensive televised rights to live games still had a residual protectionist clause in the interests of the gate receipts of participating clubs, namely that the Saturday 3 p.m. kickoff time should remain sacrosanct and games at that time not be subject to live coverage. To this day, while those of us who live in the U.S. may have developed a rather recent sense of entitlement about seeing what soccer we want, when we want it (anyone who ever frantically hunted all over a major American city for a two-day-old English newspaper to find a score may have raised an eyebrow at the apparent luxury problem of the recent beIN TV furor), nobody can tune in to British TV and legally watch a live English Premiership game on a Saturday afternoon at 3 p.m.

To get past this impasse, Sky introduced a live show consisting of four ex-players sitting behind a desk watching games, marshalled by the fantastically suave Middlesbrough separatist Geoff Stelling, whose wry asides and breadth of lower league trivia happened to mesh perfectly with the barely harnessed id of his co-panelists. Every Saturday between 3 and 5 p.m., the ultra-controlled Stelling would oversee his stable of muzzled ex-athletes as they yelped and barked their way through the afternoon’s action, which, as the central device of the show, they were watching on screens that we the audience never got to see. The pitch of “Imagine the wooden box scene in Belle de Jour, but replacing Catherine Deneuve with “Champagne” Charlie Nicholas,” could hardly have looked less promising, but it turned out to be a stroke of genius. Nicholas, McInally, et al. worked not because they were perfect invisible conduits of the action, but because watching them struggle to convey it was theater in and of itself as they wrestled with everything around them: the frustration of no longer being out there themselves, an ex-athlete’s body locked in a death-roll with its long-suffering tight British suit, and above all the fact that they would often have to be coaxed through an apoplectic rage at the award of a dubious goal kick, by a host who good-humoredly stopped just short of saying, “Use your words.”

“Going to have to interrupt you there because there’s been a goal at St. Mary’s … Alan Smith?”

As I say, it shouldn’t work, but it does. Something about the format of the show suggests that every time they’re called on they’re summoning and shaping the events themselves, about to be overpowered by the forces they’ve unleashed — forever damned to speak in tongues about a decent chance at Aston Villa. Far from feeling like a pale shadow of actual events elsewhere, it’s an event in itself.

So when I heard that McInally was showing up in something like this role for FIFA 13, I was excited. Soccer Saturday had long functioned as a prototype for the current disorienting experience of following my Twitter feed on a Saturday morning in New York. I’ve become used to the hyper-globalized clamor of Twitter being a ubiquitous part of my soccer-watching experience, particularly during Premiership games (when it seems the crème of the MLS Twitterati are casting their eyes a few time zones East), and so I could see the logic of some symbolic third-party voice being thrown into the FIFA mix to mimic that mediated experience of the modern American soccer fan — always needing to be simultaneously elsewhere. And who better than a Soccer Saturday stalwart to provide that voice?

But the usually ebullient McInally seems uncharacteristically subdued in this particular world of let’s-pretend. I’ll be happily playing the game in a scenario where, for example, the Chivas USA side I’ve adopted are putting eight past San Jose and playing keepy-up in front of Chris Wondolowski when he tries any of that Goonie nonsense. Suddenly McInally’s voice will appear to dejectedly say “Penalty at Collurardoh — and it’s there. 2-0.” And rather than heightening the reality of the experience, it doubles down on the artifice of it all, and just reminds me that I’m a grown man with responsibilities, who’s currently trying to figure out if a formation change might make a difference the next time that 12-year-old in Sydney wants to talk smack. The last thing I need to be reminded of is that there’s a functional, socially adequate world outside my window when I’m thinking of gearing up for a few hours of Ultimate Team before I get to work, at say, 4.37 p.m.

Take away McInally’s actual live stream and it’s like giving Deneuve a non-buzzing box, or the Pulp Fiction cast a briefcase that doesn’t glow. There’s no real animating force to transform him, no real stake for what’s happening, so you just feel sorry for the fact that a runner somewhere had to put a sheet of Dutch pronunciation guides in front of him and say, “You’ve still got to do the Eredivisie, Alan,” or the very real possibility that in the recent past a middle-aged Scotsman spent four hours in a studio trying to pronounce “Gspurning.”

Let’s be clear: I like the game and I want McInally’s presence in it to work. But as it is, I keep wanting to tell his voice, “Not to worry, just take the afternoon off, Alan. I’m 13-0 up here and I’ve set the level to ‘amateur,’ so you telling me Montero’s scored two against the Galaxy is totally academic. My goal difference is +790 and I’ll be doing this all season. Enjoy yourself.” Imagining he’ll then say, “Cheers, big man!” and we’ll have some banter about metaphors we each would have used at the height of our respective games.

So as I stare at Snoop Lion doing things in a Manhattan basement, and begin to feel that twinge of empathy with McInally, two things occur to me:

1. When FIFA 14 appears, we need motion capture for Alan McInally. The news he delivers is arguably less important than the sight of it passing through its big Scottish medium. We need to see the full séance, not just the transcript. To rob us of the sight of him inheriting and processing events from elsewhere is the same as showing a list of trivia answers and calling it Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? — it misses the fact that we want to watch people making life-changing decisions in front of us, for our entertainment. At the very least we want them to be visibly dumbfounded by reasonable offside decisions.

2. To really exploit the potential of this game, Alan should not be describing fake soccer matches to somebody playing a fake soccer match. He should be describing Snoop Lion doing things.

Hear me out.

To take a random example of Snoop Lion doing things, here, as best I can summon it, is how Snoop Lion plays Ping-Pong:

Snoop Lion plays Ping-Pong like he’s in The Matrix. At no point does he appear to face the table. Rather, he stands sideways and sways. At one point at the launch event, I swear his paddle is lying flat on the table while Snoop leans backward and forward with his hands in his pockets to continue the rally. We’re treated to the sight of Snoop Lion playing Connor Lade at Ping-Pong — adding further fuel to my conspiracy theory, aired in this column before, that Lade is not a soccer player but an ongoing evil physics experiment designed to mess with my depth perception. Snoop Lion is 7-foot-4 inches taller than Connor Lade, and he’s at the other end of the table. So to my now horribly foreshortened perspective, Snoop Lion appears to be swaying on the edge of a vertiginous cliff as he plays. Markus Holgersson stands close by, also watching shyly in awe — he, too, is chastened by Snoop Lion’s adventures in physics. Snoop is indifferent to our wonder. Now Snoop Lion is standing with his back to a plate of hors d’oeuvre.

How much happier would Alan McInally be if he had that to describe? And how much happier would you be if instead of reading out imaginary scores, Alan was responding in real time to Snoop Lion doing things? This much happier. I’m showing you how much happier he and you would be, but you can’t see because nobody’s motion-capturing me. See?

You could carry on playing your Jon Busch career mode till the wee small hours, content that you were receiving the only updates that matter in this world (“Snoop Lion is at the deli counter … ”), while simultaneously being sure that you were never going to hear anything that would remind you that at some point you should stop playing. You’d ask yourself, “What would Snoop Lion do?” Snoop Lion wouldn’t stop playing.

I don’t want you to think I’m down on the game. The graphics are excellent; the ratings marginally better this year for the MLS players, who are somewhat long-suffering in this regard; the gameplay, particularly the variables in ability to control the ball according to the skill level of the player receiving it, is exponentially more realistic than previous versions; the online experience is becoming an ever more porous part of the gameplay; the details are better updated with each edition of the game. It’s another step forward for an EA team that each year seems to find a new chunk of game engine round the back of the Xbox.

Looking around the room at the launch, kids and adults alike are happily engaged with what has slyly become a cultural phenomenon here in the U.S. I can see A$AP Rocky playing against the U.S. cover star for the game, Tim Cahill; I can see members of the New York Red Bulls playing as the New York Red Bulls against the New York Red Bulls and thus faced with the alien but somehow deeply familiar proposition of working out how to give up a 1-0 lead against themselves; I can see Victor Cruz’s entourage roving the room and Susan Sarandon adjusting impossibly large sunglasses in the gloom; and of course I can see Snoop … doing things.

For now it’s the ersatz electronic version of soccer represented by FIFA 13 that’s bringing this improbably eclectic group of people together, but if that development continues to play its part in the spread of the world game in America, then hey, bring it on. Just let Alan McInally watch.

Paris Is Rising: The PSG War Machine

By: timbersfan, 12:15 AM GMT on October 05, 2012

Three games into the Ligue 1 season, things looked bleak for Paris Saint-Germain. The team was winless and sitting in 13th place in the table. It all seemed a long way from the preseason hype and the expectation that the team backed by Qatari billions would dominate this season. If anything, they looked likely to confirm their reputation as perennial underachievers who often flatter to deceive. Everything changed 27 seconds into their match against Lille, when Zlatan Ibrahimovic gave the team its first lead of the season. PSG defeated Lille, 2-1, and has yet to trail since. After Saturday night’s 2-0 win against Sochaux, the team has now scored 12 goals and conceded one in its last five matches. They will enter Sunday night’s showdown against Marseille on a five-match winning streak with an opportunity to go top of the table after Marseille was trounced 4-1 by Valenciennes, shrinking its lead over PSG to three points.

As PSG finds its form and its star players are now fully settled into the team, there is a real threat that they will indeed become an elephant towering over 19 mice. The team has the strength in depth to keep players fresh, and Carlo Ancelotti now looks like a man fully in control.

Saturday evening against Sochaux, Ancelotti made wholesale changes to the side that defeated Bastia 4-0 last weekend. After getting so many things wrong at the beginning of the season, Ancelotti now seems to have a deck full of aces and nothing but rabbits in his hat. The latest masterstroke was his decision to give Kevin Gameiro his first start of the season. Gameiro, who had been a peripheral figure all season, scored the two goals that gave PSG another comfortable league win. The goals were all too easy, and Gameiro might have had a hat trick had he converted his acrobatic overhead kick in the second half. PSG dominated the match for large stretches, and for the first time this season I saw large groups of fans leaving Parc des Princes before the final whistle, as Sochaux offered nothing beyond the assurance that the match would be played with 22 players. In a post-match interview, PSG’s defender Alex said it was the easiest match of the season.

Reading the pre-match quotes from PSG’s last two opponents, you get the feeling teams now spend more time admiring them than trying to beat them. Before Saturday’s match, Sochaux goalkeeper Simon Pouplin said his side's aim was to not concede five goals. The week before, Bastia’s manager feared PSG would score between three and 10 goals against them, and Bastia’s midfielder Yannick Cahuzac said PSG was “starting to look like a war machine, an impressive armada."

With opponents now seemingly accepting defeat before a ball is kicked, the biggest threat now appears to be complacency. If they are playing easy matches consistently like they have the last two weeks, will PSG be ready for the challenge in the Champions League, or will the ability to rest players for Ligue 1 fixtures make them fresher for the knockout phases in the spring? At the beginning of the season, when the players weren’t familiar with each other and lacked fitness, opposing clubs stood up to PSG, frustrated them, and held them to two goals in three matches. The mood in Paris was that the team was a tease and that Carlo Ancelotti wasn’t the right man for the job. We were all wrong then, but we may be equally wrong now in believing that after their winning a couple of matches we should hand them the Ligue 1 trophy. There’s still the small matter of a trip to Marseille next weekend, and if at any point Ibrahimovic has to sit out long stretches of the season, the team will find it difficult to replace his goals. What is unquestionably true today, though, is that the gap in class between PSG and its opponents is extremely wide.

Few conclusions can be drawn from watching PSG win by virtual walkovers against Bastia and Sochaux in the last two weeks. The true test begins Wednesday, and by this time next week we will know if we have a real war machine on our hands or if PSG is just another flat track bully. The team travels to Porto for the midweek Champions League fixture before Sunday night’s encounter with Marseille away from home. The two matches will be my first road trips of the season, as I managed to get on both of the team-sponsored flights to Porto and Marseille. Win both matches and PSG will be sitting atop its Champions League group and its domestic league. Ibrahimovic has already started the war of words with Marseille, and things will only get more feisty between the two rivals in the days leading up to the match. In an interview with Telefoot, the PSG forward was asked if he knew Marseille defender Nicolas N'koulou. In typical Ibrahimovic fashion, he responded saying, “N'koulou, who is that? I’ve never heard anyone speak of him. It’s not a lack of respect, but when I don’t know a player I don’t know him.” It should come as a surprise to no one that Ibrahimovic claims not to know N'koulou. When he was introduced to the Paris media, one of the first questions was whether he knew any players in Ligue 1. “No. But for sure they know who I am,” was his answer.

The Porto Affair: Planes, Pains, and Bureaucracy in the Champions League

By: timbersfan, 12:14 AM GMT on October 05, 2012

The story of how I ended up watching Paris Saint-Germain’s 1-0 loss to Porto via streaming video on my laptop really is a debacle for the ages and a cautionary tale for PSG on the limits to which it can overcharge its fans for the services it provides. Early last week the club announced in grand fashion that it would provide round-trip airfare, transportation to and from the stadium, and a ticket for the matches against Porto and Marseille for fans who were willing to cough up ¬340 (roughly $440) for each match. That’s a lot of money for one midweek match and especially expensive for a domestic fixture. When I mentioned it to my French tutor, her response was, "je le trouve scandaleux!" Her opinion on all things PSG is that they are scandalous, the players’ salaries are indecent, and if they make that kind of money they should set up foundations like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett and give back to the youth who come to support them at the stadium. She says all of this seriously without a hit of irony.

With that in mind, I took the metro to Parc des Princes last Friday afternoon and plopped down my ¬340. Strangely, I wasn’t given a ticket for the game or the plane, nor was I given any instructions on what to do next. I was told, simply, someone will call you. The woman who took my money then handed me something that looked like a ticket in careful packaging, but really it was a glorified receipt. As an American living in France, one of the first things you must adjust to is the French bureaucracy. They do things differently here, but usually they get it done, so I wasn’t worried. In America things are done efficiently or someone will lose his job. In France, it seems, things are done inefficiently so more people can keep their jobs.

By Tuesday morning, I still hadn’t heard anything from the club and I was getting worried. The game was little over 24 hours away, but I figured, I paid my money; they will call with the details. A few hours later while reading Le Parisien, a daily newspaper, I saw a small story noting, to my surprise, that PSG had canceled the flight to Porto because only about 50 supporters signed up. The story also mentioned that the team-sponsored flight to Marseille might also be canceled if enough supporters did not subscribe for that flight as well. I wanted to know how the market price differed from what PSG was offering, so I went online to search for flights. As of Tuesday morning, you could still get a round-trip from Paris to Porto for little over ¬100 (a few days earlier they were going for ¬77), and judging by the empty seats in the stadium last night, you could have easily scalped a ticket to the match for maybe half the price of the airfare, putting the estimated cost of getting to the match at ¬150.

Judging from the dodgy feed I was receiving on my laptop, some PSG supporters managed to make it into the stadium, although roughly 50 of the club’s supporters were turned away despite having tickets. It is likely that many of them were warring factions of supporters that the club banned from traveling. According to reports, a brawl between the two groups broke out around 5 a.m. this morning that left six injured and two hospitalized after they were cut with butcher knives and hit with crowbars.

Once I learned the Porto package was canceled, I went to the stadium for a refund. To add to the Murphy’s Law theme of this entire affair, I forgot my wallet and had to return home without a refund. Since the ride from my apartment to Parc des Princes is about an hour, I decided to wait a few days before heading back. Everything changed when I visited Le Parisien’s website Wednesday afternoon and saw that the price for the Marseille package had been slashed from ¬340 to ¬150. Initially, there weren’t enough subscribers, but PSG was loath to cancel the flight because if PSG fans can’t officially travel to Marseille, then Marseille fans would not be able to travel to Parc des Princes for the return fixture later this season. Everyone would lose money if that happened. I took a quick shower and grabbed my copy of La vie devant soi to read on the train. Naturally, by the time I arrived at the stadium the ticket office was flooded with fans who were ready to pay the adjusted price to head to Marseille this weekend. Now there was a new problem. After receiving my refund for Porto, I had to start the entire process over again and sign up for the Marseille package.

The club received more fans than anticipated with the price cut, and will now have to charter a second plane. The only caveat is that they need at least 150 supporters per plane. The first plane is full, and when I left the club’s office Wednesday I was one of fewer than 40 supporters on the second plane. This time they didn’t take my money, but, much like before, I am sitting by my phone as I write waiting for it to ring. Within a few hours I should know if I am going to Marseille or if I will be viewing the match on my 15-inch laptop screen.

The Sports Guy's Thursday NFL Pick

By: timbersfan, 12:14 AM GMT on October 05, 2012

A reader named Mike in St. Louis sent me the following e-mail this week:

"Simmons, football fans in St. Louis have suffered enough, compiling the worst 5 year stretch in NFL history (15-65). Please give us a chance in our lone nationally televised game and don't pick us. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD DON'T PICK US!!!!!!!!"

Mike wasn’t alone. Fans of the Cardinals and Rams spent the past 72 hours jockeying for my anti-approval in tonight’s clash in St. Louis. In less than a month, Thursday's Skunk of the Week quickly evolved into one of football's most frightening forces, taking its rightful place alongside Bernard Karmell Pollard, concussions, replacement referees, Detroit’s kick-return coverage and every time a CBS producer says the words, "Let’s have Shannon Sharpe do this highlight." I’m not just 0-4 picking midweek winners against the spread … I’m a LOUD 0-4.

Tonight’s pick looks fairly easy: A frisky home team going against a banged-up defense that just gave up 400+ yards to Ryan Tannehill (???) and has to travel 1,500 miles on short rest … and I’m getting a point and a half? Sign me up! Four things to remember …

1. At some point, Kevin Kolb needs to unleash one of those four-pick shitshows that reminds everyone, "Oh yeah, he’s Kevin Kolb." What better spot than Thursday night on the NFL Network? We’ve already seen Jay Cutler and Cam Newton melt down on Thursday night — it’s becoming something of a BQBL tradition, right?

2. Last Sunday, I watched my Seahawks pick go down in flames because of a goofy fake field goal TD, because the Russell Wilson Bandwagon might have a severe termite problem and because Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein is filming his own sports movie and nobody realizes it yet. Dubbed "Legatron" by my St. Louis reader Ben Goldberg, Zuerlein went for $6 in my West Coast fantasy league’s free-agent auction this week. Six bucks for a kicker? And I was mad that I didn’t go to $7! Pick against the Rams and you’re picking against Legatron. The Rams go into every game thinking, "We only need to score one touchdown, then we need to get to their 40 five other times and we’ll win." Power of Legatron. He's terrifying. I want him on my side for a week.

3. The Cardinals host Buffalo at home in Week 6, so a road win tonight would essentially lock up a 6-0 start for them. Six wins, zero losses? With Kevin Kolb? That’s happening?

4. As I mentioned earlier, I thought the Rams looked positively frisky in Sunday’s pseudo-upset over Seattle — meanwhile, their local newspaper has deemed them to be "feisty." We have decades of hard-core evidence that proves the "feisty/frisky" combination works best with college girlfriends, rebel armies and home dogs in the NFL. In that order, actually.

There’s no way I’m going against a feisty/frisky home dog on Thursday night. The pick: St. Louis 19, Arizona 17. St. Louis, you’ve been sprayed.

Wednesday/Thursday Nights: 0-4
Last Week: 7-8
Season: 31-31-2

How to Survive the Apocalypse

By: timbersfan, 12:12 AM GMT on October 05, 2012

The ships came out of the sky without warning and devastated most of our cities. Washington, D.C., is a crater; Moscow is lit with green flames. In London, packs of slavering, glistening aliens roam the streets outside the rubble of Parliament, harvesting survivors for the minerals in their bones. The future is canceled. To all appearances, humanity is doomed.

If movies and TV have taught us anything, it's that there are only two kinds of people who definitely survive this scenario, right? The first type is the Command Core — the president or his/her immediate successor, a few top military leaders, and their aides, all tucked away in a high-tech underground bunker full of blinking lights and monitors that track the extent of the destruction. Whatever's left of human weapons systems, of our feeble capacity for resistance, runs through them. The second type is guys, many if not all of them named Rufus, who always knew something like this would happen and made sure they were ready for it: canned food, backyard shelters, plenty of shotgun shells.1 Maybe Rufus seemed a little crazy before the laser-rain started falling, but he's a survivor. He's not trying to defeat the Xaalgons on his own. He's just out to live another day.

In the starship invasion of global capital into 21st-century soccer, David Moyes — whose Everton team is currently second in the Premier League, one point ahead of Manchesters United and City — is Rufus. His teams aren't flashy, and in his decade-plus managing Everton, he's never won a trophy of any kind. The closest he's come is the 2009 FA Cup final, which his squad lost to Chelsea, 2-1. Chelsea celebrated by piling into the team saucer and vaporizing Toledo.

At the same time, though? During that decade-plus, Everton has been the Premier League's consummate survivor. Moyes gets a ton of credit from other managers2 for building a stably good team at a midsize club without the resources to compete with the league's behemoths. But because the numbers aren't immediately flashy, it can be hard to put what he's done in perspective. Consider:

Moyes has been managing the Toffees since March 14, 2002. As of this piece's publication, that's 10 years, six months, and 20 days.
Since 2003, the year Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea, Everton has spent £128,050,500 on players; during the same span, they've sold players for £122,416,000.3 So their total transfer expenditure over the last nine years has been in the neighborhood of £5.6 million.
Under Moyes, Everton has finished, in order, in seventh, 17th, fourth, 11th, sixth, fifth, fifth, eighth, seventh, and seventh place. Their average league position is a little better than eighth place.
See what I mean? Sex does not leap out of these factlets. Especially compared to the endlessly unfolding agony-opera of Everton's crosstown rival, Liverpool, the Toffees' year-in, year-out reliability can seem depressingly anodyne: "Eighth place in the Premier League" may actually be the least thrilling phrase in organized sports.4 With a little context, though, Moyes's record at Everton becomes … seriously impressive, if not actually kind of astonishing. Back to the bullet points:

There are 93 managers5 in the top four tiers of English football. Of those 93, 46 — nearly half — have been with their teams for less than one year. Only six have been with the same team for more than five years. Moyes's 3,857-day tenure with Everton is the third-longest in the entire Football League, behind only Arsene Wenger (16 years this week) and Alex Ferguson (pushing 26 years, just ludicrous).
Even that doesn't tell the whole story, because Wenger and Ferguson are managing gigantic, world-class clubs, where managers tend either to stick for a really long time, as they did, or to disappear almost instantly (not looking at Chelsea, not looking at Chelsea, not looking at Chelsea). For a manager at a club of Everton's size, a 10-year survival rate is mind-blowing.
That £5.6 million Everton has dropped on new players since 2003 puts the team in 14th place among Premier League clubs in transfer spending … and remember, they've averaged better than eighth place in the league standings over the last decade. In a sport where money is just another way to spell success, Moyes has managed to outperform his club's bank account by several places — not just for a year or two, but (again) for a mind-blowingly long time.
Even that doesn't tell the whole story, because transfer spending in the Premier League takes place on a merciless curve, and the Toffees' spot on the rankings falls right before the curve takes off. Everton's net spending on new players since 2003 is about £560k a year. One spot above them, Norwich City spends more than £1 million. Two spots above them, Fulham spends nearly £3 million. You get the idea. At the top of the list, Chelsea has spent more than £52 million per season since Abramovich bought the club.
If Moyes were more personally charismatic, or even just slightly weirder, it's possible to imagine a Moneyball-type cult springing up around him, especially after he took Everton to the Champions League in 2005.6 But there's something dour-Scotsmanish about the way Moyes (who, not coincidentally, is a dour Scotsman) approaches his job. He doesn't have, or at least doesn't publicize, a grand theory about value asymmetry and market-inefficiency analytics. He just quietly buys Joleon Lescott for £5 million and sells him for £22 million three years later. He makes financial husbandry look like a kind of sober Protestant duty — makes it seem about as much fun as it sounds, in other words. He avoids debt, makes intelligent use of defensive tactics, wows no one, and gets results.

Moyes is grumblingly disliked by a minority of Everton supporters who would rather see the club swerve more recklessly, and maybe joyfully, toward glory. The other-side-of-the-fence comparison here is Portsmouth, a fellow mid-shelf English team that won the FA Cup in 2008 behind, as it turned out, a completely insupportable financial model that saw the club implode the following season.7 Money isn't everything in soccer, but it's a guarantee of life; Portsmouth fans can look back on the thrill of winning the cup, but their team now plays in the third division and nearly ceased to exist in the interim.

One of the weirdest things about the current dynamics of money in soccer is the way it forces all but the top clubs into compromises with their own priorities. Everton isn't always fun to watch, and they never win anything, but you know they're always going to be there, grinding out points in the Premier League, contending for a Europa League place. Portsmouth enjoyed its flare of triumph and then, as a fan experience, basically went dark. What counts as winning in this system? If you're a supporter, what would you rather see? The romantic choice is obviously to take the win and the collapse — but again, we're not talking about a title followed by a few down seasons here, we're talking about a title followed by utter cave-in, minor-league status, a total transformation. How do you even parse that?

So you get a lot of odd debates in Everton forums and comments sections. One fan praises Moyes's ability to build inexpensive spare-parts teams; another sneers that, sure, that makes total sense, because "shouting to each other over the empty seats about net spends on defenders is what it's all about." If Moyes is so great, the detractors grouse, why is he stuck at Goodison Park? Why hasn't some bigger club lured him away?8 Other fans say they're grateful to Moyes for giving them a team that can occasionally — as they did against Manchester United in the 2009 FA Cup semifinals — beat a big club when it counts.

There's a huge difference between managing a medium-size club and managing a much bigger or much smaller one. One of the useful things about Moyes's career is that, simply by sustaining itself for so long, it clarifies the degree to which the position of medium-size Premier League clubs is basically untenable. It's possible, for instance, to compare Moyes's transfer record with Wenger's — Arsenal is 20th on the transfer-spending list, having actually made a £23 million profit on player movement since 2003 — and decide that what Moyes has done isn't all that incredible. If Wenger can consistently contend for a championship9 while making a profit on player movement, why should we canonize Moyes for finishing several spots below while taking a loss (even if a very small one)?

But that's the medium-size club effect. Arsenal has massive resources, a huge scouting network, some of the best youth facilities in the world, and the ability to offer new players regular access to Champions League soccer. They're the Command Core in the underground bunker, collating data and planning maximum-impact nuclear strikes. Arsenal can't know that any player they sign is going to be a sure thing, value-wise, but they can count on having first choice of just about anyone they think is undervalued — and their total outlay is almost twice Everton's. The Toffees, by contrast, are playing a very high-risk segment of the transfer market: players they hope will hit it big, but aren't yet wanted by more powerful clubs. Players, it's worth noting, who will be more likely to leave if they find success at Goodison. It's a fine tightrope to walk, and the fact that it looks boring doesn't mean that it's not incredibly hard to do.

And boring or not, Moyes's teams do deliver the occasional thrill. This year's squad, a relatively strong, albeit Tim Cahill–less, unit featuring new signing Steven Pienaar and Belgian midfielder Marouane Fellaini,10 has no chance of winning the Premier League title and only their usual puncher's chance of winning the FA Cup. But they're in second place through six games, which is something. It's not totally inconceivable that they could push for a Champions League place. And on August 20, they opened their season at home by beating Manchester United 1-0. That's Moyes's style: Stay alive, don't risk too much, and every so often, shoot a Xaalgon in the face.

The Envelope Please …

By: timbersfan, 12:11 AM GMT on October 05, 2012

Starting tomorrow, Grantland will feature four straight weeks of playoff baseball coverage. We'll have series previews, game reviews, analysis, and readings from The Tao of Nate McLouth. Just one more item before launching into full-on Rocktober mode: awards!

We've got Most Valuable Player, Cy Young, and Rookie of the Year honors to hand out. We'll leave Manager of the Year alone, since much of a manager's value comes from difficult-to-quantify measures, and I question the validity of writers voting on that award with little more than year-to-year team records to guide their decisions. Remember that, as always, we're using hard data and objective analysis when picking winners, not narratives or entertaining stories. Also, if your guy doesn't win, know that it's because we're spectacularly biased. Against your team, your player, and especially you personally. That means you, Steve.

AL MVP: Mike Trout

One of the byproducts of the heated debate that's unfolded over this year's AL MVP is the validity of Wins Above Replacement. If you want a detailed discussion of what WAR is and what its strengths and flaws are, read this or this. We will not be using WAR to explain why Mike Trout is the American League's most valuable player.

Let's start with Trout's hitting. Miguel Cabrera has been lauded for his terrific offensive season, and rightfully so. Heading into Tuesday's games, Cabrera led the league with a .331 batting average, ranked fourth with a .394 on-base percentage, and led the league by slugging .608. Thing is, Trout's raw hitting numbers aren't far off Cabrera's. His .324 batting average trails only Cabrera. His .397 OBP places him third in the league, just ahead of Cabrera. And his .561 slugging average trails only Cabrera and Josh Hamilton.

Baseball isn't basketball, though; the dimensions of every field differ, and weather conditions can also play a significant role in either helping or suppressing offense. Using ESPN's park factors, whether for 2012 alone or factoring in 2010 and 2011 results to produce a three-year comparison, we can see that Comerica Park gives hitters a moderate boost. Angel Stadium, on the other hand, has ranked as the fourth-worst park for hitters in each of the past three years. If we want to even out those differences in park effects, there are stats that do that. One such stat is called OPS+. OPS, as you probably know, is the sum of on-base percentage and slugging average. It's an imperfect metric in that it assumes equal value for OBP and slugging, when in fact getting on base (and not making outs) has been shown to be a more useful skill for creating runs. Thus using OPS, or OPS+, which takes that stat and adjusts for park and league effects, should favor Cabrera, the better slugger, over Trout, the slightly better on-base guy.

Trout leads the AL with a 169 OPS+. Cabrera ranks second at 167. If you'd prefer to use a stat that places more appropriate value on OBP vs. slugging (but does not adjust for park differences, which should favor Cabrera), we can use Weighted On Base Average (wOBA). Through Monday, Trout led the AL with a .421 wOBA; Cabrera was second at .417. (Trout also leads Cabrera in Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+), a stat that more accurately weights OBP vs. slugging and adjusts for park and league effects. But it also includes stolen bases and caught-stealing totals, and we want to focus on hitting only for now.) In other words, on a per-at-bat basis, you could argue that Trout has been a better hitter this season than Cabrera.

This isn't meant to diminish Cabrera's own excellent season. The Angels waited nearly a month to call up Trout from the minors, allowing Cabrera to play 22 more games than the Angels center fielder. Which means that Cabrera's bat has been worth more to the Tigers, overall, than Trout's has to the Halos. The idea here is merely to remind you that Trout has been a terrific hitter this year in his own right, at the very least in the same ballpark as Cabrera.

And Trout absolutely annihilates Cabrera with his legs and his glove.

Trout leads the league with 49 stolen bases, to Cabrera's four. Stolen bases have fallen out of favor over the past 20 years, understandably so given the simultaneous rise in power numbers. But a player who steals a lot of bases and rarely gets caught can still be a valuable asset to his team. While swiping 49 bags, Trout has been caught only four times, for a success rate of 92 percent. To put that in perspective, the breakeven rate for a player to steal bases without hurting his team by making too many outs is a little over 70 percent. Using FanGraphs' Base Running Runs stat, we see that Trout leads all of baseball by a wide margin, having produced nearly seven runs of value for the Angels just by virtue of his taking extra bases in non-steal situations. If we combine Trout's base-stealing prowess with those extra bases in non-steal spots, he's been worth nearly 10 runs to his team. (By comparison, Cabrera has cost his team at least two runs with his legs, depending on the metric you use.) Put another way, Trout wins one game for the Angels this year on aggregate just with his legs — before we get to his bat or his glove.

That glove has been phenomenal by any measure. If you want to use UZR, Trout's saved more than 13 runs this season, placing him sixth among all AL players, despite Trout spending most of April in the minors. If you prefer Baseball-Reference.com metrics, Trout's 22 Defensive Runs Saved also rank among baseball's super-elite. Read this post from ESPN Stats & Info if you want a more detailed look at how Trout saves so many runs in the outfield. (If you want to turn off your analysis switch for a second, feel free to view any of Trout's four home-run robberies this season, including this all-timer off J.J. Hardy.) You can call Cabrera selfless or noble or anything else for moving to third base when Prince Fielder signed. But the bottom line is that he's cost his team more than nine runs (nearly one full win) by UZR, and four by DRS.

Add it all up and, without the benefit of WAR or any other catchall stat, Trout comes out well ahead.

Before we move on to the other awards, a few "But What About?!" questions:

But what about the first Triple Crown in 45 years?

Great accomplishment. But the award recognizes the most valuable player, not the most valuable hitter, and Trout's vastly superior baserunning and defense trumps Cabrera's moderate offensive advantage. Moreover, the Triple Crown only looks at three measures of offense, one of them highly team-dependent (runs batted in). It tells us nothing about Cabrera's walks, singles, doubles, triples, steals, times grounding into double plays, or any number of other stats. Yelling "Triple Crown!" and dropping a metaphorical mic is not a cogent argument.

But what about Cabrera going off in September, while Trout cooled down?

One win counts for one win in April, May, June, July, August, or September. But if you want to try to ascribe higher leverage to September at-bats the way you would ninth-inning at-bats in tie games, sure, go ahead.

But what about Cabrera leading his team to the playoffs, while Trout led his team to the golf course?

Leaving aside the Angels' superior record in a much tougher division, the teammates your general manager picks for you should have no bearing on a player's value. Trout did more this year to help his team win than did Cabrera (or anyone else, including Robinson Cano, who's had a hell of a year and could be argued to have produced about as much value as Cabrera, maybe even a little more) and Adrian Beltre (another candidate with value comparable to Cabrera's who's not coming up in the main Trout vs. Cabrera debate). He is therefore the league's most valuable player.

NL MVP: Buster Posey

Now here's a much tougher race to call. If we do want to introduce WAR into the equation this time, Ryan Braun is tied with Posey and they hold a slight edge over the pack. Just so we're clear, this isn't a vote against whatever Braun did or didn't do when he failed a drug test (that was later overturned) last year. If a player delivered 0.00001 percent more value to his team than the second-most-valuable player in the league while injecting ground-up unicorn horns into his eyeballs before every game, he'd still be my MVP.

I'm backing Posey because I don't think stats — be they traditional or advanced — fully convey the difficulty of producing a big year while catching nearly every day. Before I get my nerd card ripped up and get exiled from Stathead Island forever, keep in mind we're not talking about imagined pixie dust qualities here. Just that squatting for nine innings, 110 to 140 times a year, takes something out of even the best-conditioned catchers, in a way that running down fly balls in the gap or ranging after grounders in the hole do not. And also that we still haven't quite completely cracked the code of catcher defense. We've got Mike Fast's excellent research on pitch framing to advance the discussion and help us understand why a team could possibly want to employ Jose Molina. But we still don't know, say, how many runs a catcher saves by presenting a better target for the pitcher than his counterparts do. And there are probably 20 other factors we haven't even pondered yet.

This isn't to say I'd vote for a generically good offensive catcher over an offensive superstar. But in Posey's case, we're talking about an everyday catcher hitting .337/.410/.551, making him the fourth-best hitter in the league — right there with beasts like Giancarlo Stanton and Andrew McCutchen — before we even touch his position. Posey hasn't quite been an everyday catcher, going behind the plate 113 of the 147 times he's played this season. But that's still enough for me to apply catcher tiebreaker rules when considering players of similar value like Braun and Posey.

Several other candidates don't miss by much, incidentally. McCutchen probably wins this award if the season ended at the All-Star break. Yadier Molina doesn't quite have Posey's offensive numbers, but he's still had an excellent offensive season, and probably ranks top three in terms of total defensive contributions for any player at any position. Joey Votto might be the most deserving candidate if he hadn't hit the disabled list for as long as he did. Chase Headley has had a ludicrously good offensive season for someone playing in Petco Park, to say nothing of his other skills. David Wright's all-around excellence this year leaves him close. And Braun's hitting .320/.392/.598, with 80 extra-base hits and 30 steals.

Still, give it to Posey, by a nosey. (Please address all hate mail c/o Grantland HQ, Los Angeles.)

AL Cy Young: Justin Verlander

Time for the favorite exercise of pointy-headed types like me:

Pitcher A: 251 IP, 9.0 K/2.0 BB/0.9 HR per 9 innings, 2.40 ERA, 2.99 FIP
Pitcher B: 238⅓ IP, 9.0 K/2.3 BB/0.7 HR per 9 innings, 2.64 ERA, 2.95 FIP

Pretty damn close, right? You give the very slight edge to Pitcher A for making the equivalent of two extra starts. By a per-inning basis, these are ostensibly identical seasons.

So why did Pitcher A, Justin Verlander 2011, win the AL Cy Young by a landslide and bag MVP honors, while Pitcher B, Justin Verlander 2012, has no chance in hell of repeating as league MVP and could have his hands full trying to repeat for Cy Young? Well, competition certainly matters, with Trout having the best season for a center fielder in half a century and Cabrera on his way to a feat that hasn't been accomplished in nearly that long, plus several starting pitchers putting up impressive numbers. But the bigger reason, I would submit, is that Verlander went 24-5 last year and 17-8 this year. Go back and look at Verlander's other numbers again. Pretty clear that circumstances either somewhat or entirely beyond his control — run support, bullpen support, defense, distribution of runs allowed vs. runs scored in particular games, batting average on balls in play — played a crucial role in tamping down his won-lost record this year, and with it the Verlander mystique that formed last season.

He was great then, and he's great now. Verlander leads the AL in innings pitched, ranks second in ERA and FIP (trailing only David Price and Felix Hernandez, respectively, and neither ERA nor FIP adjusts for the fact that Verlander pitches in a considerably tougher park for run prevention than Price or Felix do), and is fourth in strikeout rate. We don't concern ourselves with won-lost record for the reasons mentioned earlier, which leaves 20-game winners Price and Jered Weaver to compete with Verlander in generating as many outs as possible, while also considering each pitcher's home environment. By that standard, it's Verlander over those two, Felix, Chris Sale, and anyone else you want to introduce into the debate.

NL Cy Young: Clayton Kershaw

Before we delve into this agonizingly close race, a tip of the cap to Cliff Lee, who, thanks to a virtually unhittable second half, made himself into someone worthy of Cy Young consideration, despite winning six games all season. Wish Lee had been just a little better in the first half so I could have gone to bat for a pitcher with six (six!!!) wins.

So why Kershaw over the rest of the field?

• He's struck out the highest percentage of hitters faced among qualified NL starters, at 25.3 percent.

• He leads the league in ERA (2.58) and ranks second in FIP (2.92).

• He ranks second in innings pitched at 219⅔.

Even after some demerit points for pitching in Dodger Stadium, Kershaw's accomplishments are still Cy-worthy. With the Dodgers now eliminated, Kershaw will nonetheless start the final game of the season, giving him a chance to pad his résumé (though we're not counting that hypothetical performance here).

Honestly, though? R.A. Dickey is a fine pick for NL Cy Young. So's Gio Gonzalez or Johnny Cueto. These starting pitchers' numbers are bunched so close together that it's tough to come up with a wrong answer.

Actually, that's not entirely true. There is a wrong answer — voting for any relief pitcher. Craig Kimbrel and Aroldis Chapman have put up borderline historic numbers as the closers for their respective teams (as has Fernando Rodney in the AL). But today's closers throw about one-third as many innings as the league's top starters, sometimes even less. Even after accounting for leverage, the innings argument would be enough to swing the Cy Young vote toward starters, barring an absolutely horrific year for the guys who take the ball every fifth day. Here's something that doesn't get talked about nearly enough, though: Pitching in relief is just so damn easy compared to starting. Oh sure, if you want to argue that the mental rigors of pitching in save situations — or even more so tie games in the eighth and ninth innings — creates more stress than your typical Sunday start against the Astros, that's fine. I'm talking about the physical demands of one job vs. another. Starters need to muster nasty enough stuff to dominate hitters, while also saving enough to get through six or seven innings (or in the case of the best starters, eight or nine innings). Meanwhile, most of today's highly specialized relievers, be they closers, setup men, or one-out guys brought in for platoon matchups, can use maximum effort on every pitch, knowing they'll rarely pitch more than one inning.

You know why Kimbrel, Chapman, and Rodney (or just about any other relief pitcher in any other year) shouldn't win the Cy Young award? Because Tommy Hunter couldn't cut it as a starter, got demoted to the bullpen … and suddenly started throwing 100-mph fastballs.

AL Rookie of the Year: Mike Trout

Obviously, though Yoenis Cespedes would be a great candidate in just about any other year, mashing at a .291/.353/.506 clip despite playing his home games in one of baseball's worst hitters' parks. As would a number of excellent young pitchers, including Yu Darvish, Jarrod Parker, and Matt Moore.

NL Rookie of the Year: Wade Miley

Trout did enough to deserve AL MVP even after missing most of April while toiling in the minors. But Bryce Harper's identically long stay on the farm erased just enough playing time to prevent him from matching or surpassing Miley in total value this year, tipping the scales toward the Diamondbacks lefty. Hell, you could throw Miley's name in on a top-10 Cy Young list, too, given he ranked fifth in the league in FIP, making up for his pedestrian strikeout rate with the fifth-lowest walk rate in the league while overcoming one of baseball's toughest parks for pitchers. Harper's late-season explosion did vault him back past Todd Frazier for second place on the hypothetical ballot.

LSU Heads to Florida to Deliver a Gut Check, and the Rise of Oregon State

By: timbersfan, 12:11 AM GMT on October 05, 2012


West Virginia at Texas — At some point, in one of these whoever-has-the-ball-with-more-than-a-minute-on-th e-clock-wins games, an offense that needs to score, late in the fourth quarter, is going to take a knee in their own end. On, like, second down. Someone's going to be behind on the scoreboard and they're going to sacrifice an early snap, before they're even in scoring position, in order to run the clock. You watch. Someone's going to have the ball at their own 35-yard line, down by five points with four minutes to go, and they're going to delay their own march to the other team's end zone.

Georgia at South Carolina — Georgia's defense looks as magnificent on paper and in pregame as any defense in the country. We keep waiting for them to jell, but they haven't. This weekend against South Carolina would be an excellent time. The Gamecocks, as usual, have bunches of talent on defense, including former no. 1 overall recruit Jadeveon Clowney, who will try to make Georgia QB Aaron Murray's life difficult. South Carolina's Connor Shaw, whom Steve Spurrier seems to be fond of in a way he isn't normally fond of quarterbacks, is a capable passer and a dangerous runner.

As always, the story with Georgia's offense is their running game. Now that the season is in swing, it's apparent that the Bulldogs won the tailback recruiting sweepstakes. They have a thunder-and-lightning duo of true freshmen, Todd Gurley (thunder) and Keith Marshall (lightning), who split the carries and who both run like upperclassmen. To tell you the truth, those two are in immediate danger of being crushed by the fame and adulation that accompanies selection as Hunk of the Week. Georgia coach Mark Richt will try to get his youngsters rolling, and the Ball Coach will hitch his wagon to joy-to-watch runner Marcus Lattimore, who will likely be gone after this season. Lattimore's hitch-and-surge, patient-yet-pounding running style is something special. Always falling forward. Always finding an extra yard. The winner of this game has the inside track to the SEC Championship Game. Williams-Brice Stadium will be at a fever pitch, as the Gamecock faithful are no doubt aware of Georgia's forgiving conference schedule going forward. The Bulldogs will get to avoid the top four teams in the West: LSU, Alabama, Texas A&M, and Mississippi State.

LSU at Florida — The last time the Tigers came to Gainesville, the Swamp was stung by another incarnation of the famous Les Miles luck. To be precise, his holder threw a no-look bounce pass to his kicker, who stumbled forward for first-down yardage. Florida has had a couple good little tests, but this is the first true test of their, well, manliness. The top priority for Gators coach Will Muschamp since last season has been making his team tougher, and Saturday he'll find out whether or not he succeeded. This will be a line-of-scrimmage game if there ever was one, on LSU's part because that's what they're good at, and on Florida's part because that's what they want to be good at. LSU has countless interchangeable running backs, and what they have in common is that they're bruising. The Tigers use a fullback often. In the old, pre–Bill Walsh way — like, to pound out a path for the tailback. Florida has one good runner, Mike Gillislee, so they must pray he doesn't get banged up.

Les Miles, as usual, hopes not to have to rely on his quarterback. The new signal caller for the Tigers is a fellow named Zach Mettenberger. He used to be a Georgia Bulldog but got busted in South Georgia for fondling a woman in a bar.1 His task now is to get as good a feel for his receivers as he had on that female patron. But the LSU coaching staff hopes the passing game will be an embellishment, a threat, a bit of riskless fancy made possible by the fact that the opposing defense is being bashed senseless and has crept an eighth or even ninth man into the box. Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel will be under heavy duress, and whether he wilts or blooms will be a major story line in this game, because, unlike Mettenberger, Driskel will need to be a star for his team to win.

And Despair Fell Upon the Assembly

The congregation at First Church of T. Boone Pickens gritted their teeth and spat Saturday evening when they watched Oklahoma State placekicker Quinn Sharp trot onto the field with two and a half long minutes still on the clock. In a game of offensive fireworks, the Cowboys had suddenly gone conservative. With a fresh set of downs on the Texas 13, Gundy & Co. tested the teeth of the Texas run defense on three consecutive plays, yielding two yards a try. Perhaps they knew time was more valuable than points, and they'd decided their only hope was to whittle down the clock with middle-field runs. Well, they were right. Time was more valuable. Texas got the ball back and there was nothing for the packed house in Stillwater to do but watch their fears unfold in front of them. David Ash threw a 29-yard pass and then a 32-yard pass, and you know the rest. This is a league with such dynamite offenses and soft defenses that it's not enough to score at the end of games. You have to score slowly at the end of games.
Oregon State continued its Despair Tour. Two weeks ago, they forced reality upon the most serene neighborhoods of Los Angeles, slapping UCLA around in the Rose Bowl. This past weekend, they moistened the dry desert eyes of Tucson. The Beavers have a balanced attack, a quarterback who keeps setting personal bests (433 yards passing against Arizona), and a capable defense. Pretty soon we'll have to acknowledge them as a legit team.2 Taking into account whom they've already beaten, the next several games on their schedule are winnable. We've got a surprise team to root for. Hooray! Question: I wonder what Tennessee or Arkansas, at season's end, could put together for Mike Riley in the way of a stunning offer? Then again, maybe Riley's too smart to leave a great place where he'll never get fired.
A Despair shout-out to Benny Cunningham of Middle Tennessee State, who ran recklessly all over the Ramblin' Wreck to the tune of 217 yards and five touchdowns.
The Puncher's-Chance Board (where we do our wishing and hoping on this being the year when a team that hasn't won in quite some time walks off with the big tchotchke)

Four squads have fallen off the preseason Puncher's-Chance Board. Clemson has nothing to be ashamed of, but is banished because it's difficult to imagine them clawing their way above FSU in the ACC Atlantic. The Tigers barely qualified for the Board anyway because of their 1981 championship, 30 years being the cutoff. Wisconsin suffered a couple close losses on the road, and they're gone. Virginia Tech looks a fright. Arkansas I almost dare not mention, except to wonder if a program has ever self-imposed the death penalty. Just to, you know, take a break.

The three remaining teams: Oregon's schedule is back-loaded. Their final four opponents are USC, Cal, Stanford, and Oregon State. The Ducks should hang around until late in the season, and at present represent the best shot at the crystal. They seem as good as anybody. Except Alabama.

West Virginia and South Carolina are the other two holdovers. This weekend, things begin to clear up fast for these two squads, who both play teams not in contention for the Board because of too-recent national crowns. West Virginia seems a long shot because the only thing as noteworthy as their potent offense is their impotent defense. They don't need much defense, but against Baylor they appeared to have none. South Carolina seems a long shot because of their schedule (Georgia, LSU, Florida, Tennessee, Clemson), and because the reward for winning the SEC East is attending a seminar in purposeful shoving administered by the Crimson Tide.

So with four spots vacated, here are four new entrants:

Kansas State — Collin Klein? Check. Arthur Brown? Check. Thorough whipping of the Miami Hurricanes? Check. Road win at traditional power Oklahoma? Check. If the Wildcats can rain on the Mountaineers' track meet on October 20, the Little Apple can reasonably begin to whisper about big, big things. That game is in Morgantown, and from a distance of a few weeks seems like one of the more interesting games of the season, possibly from a consequence standpoint but certainly from a clash-of-styles standpoint. But I guess West Virginia's style would clash with anyone's, since they make teams that only throw for 300 yards a game look like backward fuddy-duddies.
Mississippi State — Let's get them on here while we can. The second half of their season includes home games against Tennessee and Texas A&M, along with road trips to Tuscaloosa and Baton Rouge. Not to mention Middle Tennessee State, who beat hell out of Georgia Tech last weekend. Time was, when you paid for a win, you got exactly that.
Louisville — I think this year's Boise State has stepped forward. The schedule is pillowy. Boise State normally plays at least one big-time team on the road, and what Louisville has to offer in that category is Rutgers, with whom they lock horns at season's end. (Louisiana Tech waits in the wings to take over this spot.)
Books for dudes (and non-dudes?) who are smart but don't have the time and/or inclination to sift through the offerings of literary fiction and who could use a solid recommendation or two, and who, if they ignore that recommendation, will feel guilty and think a little less of themselves because they know that quality reading improves the quality of the individual (Short Story Collection Edition)

The Book: Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned

The Author: Wells Tower

The Sport: Hand-fishing/moose-hunting/the Viking Arts

The Dope: You've got that down-on-his-luck, marginally employed, matrimonially challenged modern American male we all love in print, done about as well as he's ever been done. But you've also got a perilously bored, not-quite-pretty teenage girl, who starts the day by noticing that her cat has brought in a baby bird and rested it on her pillow and ends the day realizing her limitations in a pointlessly boundless world. You've got at-odds brothers, one an oft-successful schemer, the other a disgruntled but unmotivated type who disdains those who get along with the world. After a lifetime of fighting, they find themselves together on a mountain in Maine and have to come to terms with exactly where their respective philosophies have gotten them. You've got the fraught dynamic between a man whose father has dementia and the man's would-be actress stepmother, who's much closer in age to the son than to the father. And, of course, you've got your reluctant, jaded Vikings, for whom pillaging journeys are — in one case or another — a trying absence from a lover, a convenient excuse to escape a nagging spouse, a badly timed interruption of farming duties, a welcome bit of camaraderie. The politics and the personal of sacking the peaceful.

Which is all to say that no one is safe, in this collection, from Tower's humanizing, particularizing touch. If you don't normally reach for story collections, this is one to start with. Read a few pages at odd moments — like when you're waiting at your kid's soccer practice or when sitting in traffic or when you're at Bonefish waiting for your Diablo Shrimp Fettuccine to arrive — and you'll be on a story-a-day schedule. If you do normally reach for story collections, then perhaps this volume is already perched on the top shelf of your bookcase. Well, not the very top shelf because that's for the stories of Flannery O'Connor, but the shelf just below that.

The Saints' Woes Go Beyond Payton's Absence

By: timbersfan, 12:10 AM GMT on October 05, 2012

What's happened to the New Orleans Saints? Unquestionably the most disappointing team in football through four games, last year's 13-3 NFC South champions have become just the second 13-3 team in league history to start the year at 0-4, joining the 2009 Titans. Being compared to a Vince Young/Jeff Fisher soap opera isn't very flattering, but after an offseason of bounty discussion and penalties, it's probably fair company.

The prevailing justification for New Orleans's struggles has been the absence of Sean Payton as head coach and offensive play caller, which very well might be true, but there's a lot of relevant questions about this team that go beyond such a simple explanation. How has Payton's absence manifested itself? Is there any evidence that this is a coaching issue and not a player performance issue? And is it something that's going to be fixed when Payton comes back after this season, or with the return of Joe Vitt in a couple of weeks?

While the offense has certainly slipped from its previously lofty heights this year, it's still 10th in points scored and 11th in DVOA; by comparison, the defense has allowed the fourth-most points in football and is the fifth-worst defense by DVOA (they're 29th in DVOA against the pass and 28th against the run). The offense has always been better than the defense in New Orleans, but the defense has rarely been quite this bad. It's a unit that doesn't do anything well.

The scary thing for the Saints is that their defense requires a major overhaul, one that's been overdue for a while. When New Orleans won the Super Bowl in 2009, it came as part of a season in which the Saints invested in veteran defenders in free agency and surrounded them with talented young players like cornerback Tracy Porter. They got career years from safety Darren Sharper (nine interceptions) and cornerback Jabari Greer (who had one of the great uncelebrated seasons of all time as a shutdown corner for 16 games), but the building blocks of that defense are gone. Sharper only started one professional game after the Super Bowl and retired. Porter got hurt, lost effectiveness, and is currently getting torched in Denver. Greer, as it turns out, wasn't actually a shutdown cornerback after all. Six of the 11 starters on that defense are no longer regulars in the New Orleans scheme, including most of the secondary, and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is obviously no longer allowed to coach anywhere in the league, let alone in New Orleans. That defense was a one-off, and over the rest of Payton's tenure with the team, it's struggled to keep points off the board.

There's no obvious statistical smoking gun that the Saints can try to focus on to correct their poor performance. The closest thing would be their performance on third down, where the Saints' defense had an average of 8.3 yards to work with for a conversion, which they allowed 34.6 percent of the time. This year, they're allowing a 38.8 percent conversion rate while having to defend 6.9 yards per conversion attempt. Honestly, that's not enough of a noticeable difference to really suggest that there's something fundamentally wrong or unlucky about their performance.

One way the Saints could help is by planting seeds in the corner of an end zone for a pass rush and hoping that it delivers before the end of the season. Last year, New Orleans's leading sacker was safety Roman Harper, at 7.5 sacks; that fact screams that the Saints got pressure with their scheme as opposed to the play of their linemen up front. Harper and company had the league's fourth-worst sack rate a year ago at 5.0 percent; this year, they're down to 4.4 percent, but that's only good for 24th in the league. They've been committed to personnel that hasn't really gotten the work done; Will Smith has averaged just eight sacks per year as the team's star pass rusher, and 2011 first-rounder Cameron Jordan has just two sacks in 20 professional games. Steve Spagnuolo was brought in to create pressure with his blitz packages, but the new Saints defensive coordinator just hasn't gotten very much out of his charges yet.

Jordan's fellow first-round pick in 2011 is a representation of what's gone wrong with the Saints and their offense. Mark Ingram may have a Heisman trophy in his cabinet, but judging him on how he's run at the professional level, that Heisman might be sticking out of his back like a giant fork. In each of his two professional seasons, Ingram has been significantly outperformed by the team's other halfbacks. Last year, Ingram averaged 3.9 yards per carry while his brethren — the likes of Pierre Thomas, Chris Ivory, and Darren Sproles — averaged a whopping 5.6 rushing average. This year, the gap is even worse; Ingram's averaging 2.8 yards per attempt while everyone else is at 5.9 yards per carry.

The Ingram trade represents the worst of the Saints, who didn't learn their lesson with running backs. After struggling to get anything consistent out of Reggie Bush and letting him go (and promptly seeing him play way better in Miami), they decided on draft day last year that they wanted a running back and dealt the 56th overall pick and a future first-rounder to the Patriots for the 28th pick. (Again, the Patriots are good at this value stuff.) Ingram's shown virtually no signs that he's an impact back at this level, and while you don't want to give up on a player after a year and a half, the Saints are better off without him in the lineup.

That performance on the ground is the biggest problem with the New Orleans offense and the work done by new offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael. Last year, while the Saints were running rampant on the league, they threw the ball 59.1 percent of the time on first downs while games were within two scores. With that run/pass mix, they averaged 6.6 yards per attempt and picked up five or more yards a full 50 percent of the time. This year, despite the fact that they've been behind for most of the year, they've committed to the run on first down. New Orleans has run the ball a full 50.5 percent of the time on first down, and as you might suspect, their yards per attempt (5.46) and five or more yard success rate (37.4 percent) is way down. New Orleans's third-down conversion rate on offense has simultaneously dipped in these games from 57.4 percent all the way down to 43.2 percent, a move likely related to the first-down struggles.

Saints fans should at least be a little hopeful for the rest of the season. For one, the Saints haven't lost a blowout this year, having succumbed in each of their losses by no more than eight points. Some of that represents late scoring by the Saints that made the margin of defeat look better than the actual performance, but the Saints have only been outscored by 20 points. When I went back and looked at teams since 1990 who had been outscored by a total rate of 15-25 points over their first four games, the average team had won 1.3 games. Their Pythagorean expectation is for 1.6 wins. As the season goes along, the Saints will pull a few close wins out. This team isn't going to be the worst squad in football.

However, the Saints do have some reason to be concerned about their future. Their secondary is young, but the lack of a reliable pass rusher and the continued absence of Payton makes it difficult to really focus on much else. Even when Mickey Loomis and Sean Payton make their way back into the organization, they'll need to be aggressive this offseason about solving their real problems on both sides of the ball. While Saints fans might be tempted to anticipate the return of their prodigal sons and pencil the team in for another 13-3 season next year, and Saints detractors might see the 0-4 start as a sign that the Saints are done, the truth is that they're more like an 8-8 team than anything else.

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.

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