timbersfan's WunderBlog

The Sports Guy's Thursday NFL Pick

By: timbersfan, 1:20 AM GMT on November 30, 2012

There are two ways that a blackjack dealer can ruin your night. I don't mind the first way — if he's grimly dealing himself face cards and blackjacks, you know it's time to flee to another table. (And if you don't, it's your own fault.) But when the dealer keeps giving himself 3's and 4's, grinding out five-card 19's and BARELY beating you? That's trouble. You always feel like you're one good hand away from flipping the script on him, only an hour later, he's apologizing profusely as you're debating whether to hit the ATM because — DAMMIT — you know you can beat this guy.

That's the Atlanta Falcons right now. Nobody is afraid of them. Everyone thinks they can beat them. Somehow, they keep grinding out those 19's and 20's and sending people to ATMs. When our friends at Football Outsiders wrote that "Atlanta is the worst 10-1 team DVOA has ever tracked, and it isn't even remotely close," on the Stunned Revelation Scale I was somewhere between "Lindsay Lohan got arrested again?" shocked and "Something crazy happened with Katt Williams again?" shocked. Their only three double-digit victories came against teams with a combined 8-25 record (Kansas City, San Diego and Philly). Their most impressive victories came against Denver (during Peyton Manning's Mr. Noodle stretch, when he nearly made up a three-touchdown deficit anyway) and a hot Bucs team in Tampa last week (by one point). They would have lost to the Redskins had RG3 not gotten hurt (and nearly lost anyway). They needed all four quarters to hold off the Artists Formerly Known As The Cowboys. They clawed out a miracle come-from-behind win in the season's most incompetent coaching performance by anyone not named Pat Shurmur (kudos, Ron Rivera), an and also came back against a pathetic Raiders team that has lost five games by 20-plus points this season. Most memorably, they barely squeezed by a free-falling Cardinals team on a day when Atlanta's MVP candidate threw an astonishing five picks.

According to the Football Outsiders guys, the Falcons have gone 10-1 against the third-easiest schedule in the league. They finished with a negative DVOA (meaning they were statistically below average) in their last four games and six of their last eight. They're "thoroughly mediocre" (FBO's words) in offense (14th), defense (16th) and special teams (17th) despite the fact that, in just 11 weeks, they played five coaches who will definitely get fired after the season (Andy Reid, Norv Turner, Romeo Crennel, Rivera and Jason Garrett); two coaches who might get fired after the season (Ken Whisenhunt and Dennis Allen); six QBs who won't be starting in 2013 for those same teams (Matt Cassel, Michael Vick, Ryan Lindley/John Skelton, Carson Palmer, Kirk Cousins and, maybe, Philip Rivers); and just one definite playoff team (the Broncos).

Anyway, I'm picking the Saints to cover a 3.5-point spread in Atlanta tonight for a variety of reasons — the Saints have their number, the short rest won't bother Brees, the Saints love playing in a dome, the Saints need the game more than Atlanta does, I love getting points in any division rivalry game — but mainly because I'm the same guy who stays at that blackjack table against the dealer who keeps stumbling into those 19's and 20's. It's my Vegas weakness. Are we probably headed for the Falcons screwing me over three or four more times until one of my friends finally pulls me away from the table? Probably. Right now, I'm staying put. Somebody find me a cocktail waitress and a pack of Marlboro Lights — I know I can beat the Falcons. Sorry, New Orleans, you've been sprayed.

The pick: Saints 30, Falcons 24

Last week: 9-6-1
Season: 92-80-4


Playing for Your Country Is an Honor, But Also a Royal Pain

By: timbersfan, 1:19 AM GMT on November 30, 2012

On a Saturday earlier this month, Tim Howard played 90 minutes and made two saves in Everton's 2-1 victory over Sunderland at Goodison Park. Soon after the win, he hopped on a plane bound for Frankfurt to meet up with his American teammates, who were jetting in from all over the world. A couple quick training sessions later and Howard found himself standing in goal on a cold night in Krasnodar, Russia, brilliantly defending the beleaguered United States net as the Stars and Stripes managed a 2-2 draw. Howard made six saves, a few of them of the spectacular variety that U.S. supporters have come to expect. Four days later, following a charter from Russia to Germany and another flight back to England, the goalkeeper stood between the pipes at Reading's Madejski Stadium, attempting to help Everton earn three more points in their English Premier League campaign. His club lost 2-1 as Howard made a solitary save.

The one-week total: one win, one loss, one draw in three different stadiums, training in three countries, four flights, four goals conceded, 10 saves made, and 270 minutes of soccer played. It's all rather exhausting. Not all international breaks are so quick, but they all add miles and minutes to weary legs. And yet, for a world-class soccer player like Howard, these jumps between club and country are standard.

"That's part of the responsibility when it comes to being an international: to be able to adapt quickly and not having to relearn the system again. You come in, you know what's expected of you, you execute," he said while drinking decaf espresso at 11 p.m. in the lobby of a Krasnodar hotel. "Listen, if you come into training camp and it takes everyone five days to get on the same page, obviously something is wrong."

At least Howard plays the same position for club and country. Geoff Cameron, the 27-year-old, Massachusetts-born talent, lines up as a fullback for Stoke City while locking down one of two centerback spots for Jurgen Klinsmann and the U.S. (To make matters more complicated, Cameron is learning both roles on the fly; he played central midfield during his time with Houston Dynamo.)

Playing for your club, which pays the vast majority of your salary, and your country, which is an honor, is physically taxing, but it may be even tougher mentally. It means new styles, new faces, new training techniques, new everything. These changes can be doubly complex for a player like Jermaine Jones, who grew up in Germany without much interaction with Americans and doesn't speak the best English.

"The hardest part was switching gears, the mentality of going from club to country. Trying to reassimilate with your teammates again, to get back into the flow, is the biggest obstacle," former U.S. captain Jimmy Conrad says. "For those guys who do play in Germany or play elsewhere, they have to get used to a whole other language and get back into that mind-set. It's about being flexible, being able to adapt to any environment, and to be able to do different things for both teams." (Klinsmann speaks German, but he conducts training in English.)

Another downside to playing for your country is the increased risk of getting hurt. Club managers worry their players, especially the older ones, will pick up a knock or serious injury while on international duty. While the medical staffs work together to alert each other to a player's ailments, soccer is a physical game. Shit happens. Against Russia, American captain Carlos Bocanegra went off in the 15th minute with what turned out to be a torn hamstring. He will miss six weeks, putting his spot on his club team, Racing Santander, in jeopardy.

That's a tough blow for Bocanegra, who at 33 is in the latter stages of his career. The hamstring tear was probably simply bad luck, but maybe he had a minor injury that he tried to play through because he didn't want to give a younger guy a chance to take his spot with the USMNT. You certainly wouldn't blame him for doing so, would you?

Conrad said he didn't think that was the case with Bocanegra, but he does know it happens. "One of the issues when you're older is that the younger guys are pushing for your spot, and you don't want to give up your opportunity to somebody. I can understand that there's something you want to hold onto as an older guy," says the KickTV host, who played 27 times for the national team between 2005 and 2010 — ending his career when he was, you guessed it, 33.

While veterans sometimes fight too hard to stay on the national team, younger players can spurn international duty as a way to ingratiate themselves with their club coach. They hope the dedication is rewarded with playing time or a spot on the game-day roster. The lax rules regarding what country a player can play for means some players have limited connections with the nation whose uniform they wear. In that situation, it makes sense that they'd be more loyal to their clubs. A player who gets hurt while playing for his country or struggles when he returns because he's rundown from the constant travel puts his spot, and his paycheck, at stake.

At the end of the day, being an international can be a pain. But it's also an accomplishment and, for many, a dream come true. Most importantly, however, it's a choice.

"You don't have a binding contract. If you don't want to do it, you hold your hand up and say, 'It's not for me.' I don't think you'd want to do that, but you could," Howard says. "If you commit to the team and you're lucky enough to be selected, particularly on a regular basis, then there's a responsibility to come into training, be a good teammate, be fit and ready, do your role, then go away and come back and do it again. It's a huge responsibility. I wouldn't say it sucks, but I would say it's hard. But hard is OK. Hard is not a problem, really."


The Key to Rafa Benitez's Reign at Chelsea? Make Roman Abramovich Look Good

By: timbersfan, 1:08 AM GMT on November 30, 2012

Last Wednesday, Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich sacked his manager, Roberto Di Matteo, in what many are now calling the Night of the Long, Increasingly Blunt Knives, Caked in the Congealed Gore of Numerous Highly Successful Chelsea Managers. Di Matteo was the 12th man to manage Chelsea in the last 14 years, and the ninth to have been fired in that period, which is somewhat surprising given that it's been — by some distance — the most successful period in the club’s history. Consequently, supporting Chelsea (which is a congenital condition in my case, thanks to my family’s defective sporting genetics) is a frequently upsetting experience, best described by this scene from Goodfellas.

I get to go through this, on average, about once every 18 months. The good news is that I’m getting used to it, and nowadays rarely feel compelled to destroy a phone booth.

It's worth noting that there's a pattern emerging in Abramovich’s personnel decisions, and it’s becoming increasingly easy to predict what he will do next; there's a method to King Roman’s madness. This is both good and bad news for Di Matteo’s successor, Rafael Benitez, who — if he’s been paying attention — will have a very clear understanding of what he needs to do to survive at Chelsea. That’s the good news. The bad news is that his task is almost impossible, and has very little to do with mundane day-to-day chores, such as playing good football or winning trophies. In fact, it was the appointment of Benitez that finally confirmed my suspicions regarding Abramovich’s motives. Consider the following table:

Fernando Torres

Year Appearances Goals
2000-01 6 1
2001-02 37 7
2002-03 31 14
2003-04 40 21
2004-05 49 20
2005-06 40 13
2006-07 40 15
2007-08 46 33
2008-09 38 17
2009-10 32 22
2010-11 26 9
2010-11 18 1
2011-12 49 11
2012-13 21 7

That's career of Fernando Torres. It’s often said that ’Nando’s career took a dive when he joined Chelsea, but the truth is that the descent began a little earlier than that. In fact, the day El Niño became El Ohño was June 3, 2010, the day Liverpool sacked Rafael Benitez. This becomes clear if you divide Torres’s career into three eras — Before Benitez, when he averaged 2.67 games per goal scored; Under Benitez, when he managed a ratio of 1.625 games per goal; and Post-Benitez, when he hit the net once every 4.03 games. The Curse of Torres has accounted for four managers: not just Ancelotti, Villas-Boas, and Di Matteo, the three Chelsea men who failed to make Torres look worth the $80 million Abramovich paid for him, but also Roy Hodgson, who lasted 202 days in charge of Torres at Liverpool before falling victim to The Curse. Under the circumstances, who else can Abramovich ask to successfully manage the Post-Benitez Torres other than Benitez himself, the only man to ever make him look worth his price tag? Welcome to the new era: Post-Post-Benitez!

The alternative, of course, is for Chelsea to get rid of Torres, which may seem like a sensible option if you assume that Abramovich’s objective is for Chelsea to score goals and win things, but it’s now pretty clear that this is not the case, and as Jose Mourinho can attest, it has not been the case for many years. Mourinho won back-to-back titles at Chelsea, but he did it by making Abramovich’s massive investment look incidental to the club’s success, and as a consequence, he was fired.

Mourinho was making basic errors — errors that won league titles — from day one. Upon first joining Chelsea, he demanded that a huge array of expensively assembled talent be cleared out of the club; marquee Abramovich signings such as Hernan Crespo, Juan Veron, and Adrian Mutu were released or loaned out, while Mourinho used Abramovich’s checkbook to buy unglamorous players for huge sums, including £33 million spent on defenders from Porto. All told, Mourinho spent over £90 million that season, but the squad that he built, the one that resoundingly won the league, cost a mere £6.35 million more than the one Claudio Ranieri had finished a distant second with the season before. The message was clear: money could buy you stars, but only Mourinho could win you the title. Abramovich found himself bankrolling a hugely expensive team, but not getting anything like the credit he craved for his input. He responded by breaking the British transfer record with a £31 million swoop for Andriy Shevchenko, against Mourinho’s wishes, and with predictable consequences. In Mourinho’s third season in charge, Shevchenko managed four goals in 32 league appearances, and although Chelsea only lost three games that season, the lack of firepower at the other end led to 11 draws, and ultimately a second place finish. An unhappy Mourinho became increasingly rebellious, and was sacked at the start of the following season.

Pundits were baffled that Abramovich could sack such a successful manager, and for many years after, the received wisdom was that Mourinho was sacked for two reasons: first, that his team was too defensive for Abramovich (who allegedly craved exciting, attacking football), and second, Mourinho failed to win the Champions League. Today, those ideas seem laughable. If Abramovich craved attacking football, what provoked him to sack Carlo Ancelotti? His 2009-10 Chelsea side scored a record-breaking 103 goals en route to winning the Premier League, and yet this didn’t seem to satisfy Abramovich. The following January, Ancelotti found himself being asked to manage Fernando Torres, and 111 days, 18 Torres appearances, and one Torres goal later, Ancelotti was fired. Similarly, after Abramovich’s supposed desire to see Chelsea win the Champions League was fulfilled, Roberto Di Matteo got just eight more months on the job before being sacked immediately after dropping Fernando Torres for the first time.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Mourinho, Ancelotti, and Di Matteo were all fired for failing to make Abramovich look like a shrewd transfer market operator, which is the challenge now facing Rafael Benitez. But one wonders whether Benitez himself fully understands what's being asked of him. His appointment at Chelsea has been highly controversial with the home support (who hate him for saying mean things about them in the past), and his debut as Chelsea manager was marred by a constant stream of abuse aimed toward him from the stands. Admittedly, this distracted from the appalling football on offer — there were only 15 shots taken in the entire match, the lowest total for any Premiership game this season — but it also seems to have distracted Benitez from his objective. He’s vowed to win over the Chelsea fans with success, but that’s not what will keep him on the job; to remain as Chelsea manager, he needs to win over Roman Abramovich by making Fernando Torres look like a good investment, and that will prove a much tougher challenge.


Cinemetrics: Ugly America

By: timbersfan, 12:52 AM GMT on November 30, 2012

The first thing you hear in Andrew Dominik's Killing Them Softly is then-Senator Barack Obama making a campaign speech — "This moment, this election, is our chance … to make of our own lives what we will" — and the first thing you see is a trash-strewn New Orleans lot, plastic bags blowing in the foul 2008 breeze. This is not a subtle film. Small-time criminals sweat it out against impending economic collapse; the bewildered and grandiloquent speeches of our nation's leaders drone on in the background during card-game heists and diner stakeouts. Dominik, last seen ripping melancholy holes in the American frontier myth with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, has something similar, if more contemporary, in mind with Killing Them Softly. "America's not a country," sneers one character. "It's a business. Now fucking pay me."

Dominik has said he was inspired to write and direct Killing Them Softly, adapted from the George Higgins novel Cogan's Trade, after catching another Higgins adaptation, 1973's The Friends of Eddie Coyle, on television one night. The two films have a lot in common: They're movies about what criminals owe and don't owe their fellow criminals. Eddie Coyle followed a torn-down Robert Mitchum as he tried in vain to dodge an impending prison sentence; Killing Them Softly concerns an ill-conceived heist and its predictably bloody aftermath. Though Dominik's film is ostensibly set in the near past, his characters drive the same land-whale '70s cars — GTOs, Cadillacs, Toronados — and have the same terse, elliptical manner of speaking, the same single-minded obliviousness to any milieu that's not criminal.

Higgins was obsessed with the inexorable logic of the underworld, the way that world policed itself, the way transgressions were inevitably, even mechanically, punished. And so, in Killing Them Softly, as the American financial system explodes in increasingly panicked dispatches squawking out of TVs and radios, a criminal underworld knits itself back together with bullets. At the behest of a man named the Squirrel (Vincent Curatola, a.k.a. Johnny Sack), two sweaty lowlifes, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), rob a robbery-prone card game run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). By the rules of their insular world, all of those men are marked for death — even poor Markie. Two contract killers, first Cogan (Brad Pitt) and then Mickey (James Gandolfini), are engaged — at recession prices, we're told more than once — to come and wash all the disobedient scum off the streets.

It's funny and gloomy and sort of gross. Frankie and Russell banter about prison sex and bestiality. Gandolfini's character gets a couple of oblique soliloquies about marriage and jealousy and the pointlessness of existence — "None of this shit means anything anyway," he says. The violence is of the sustained, hyper-real, last-third-of-Drive variety: shotgun decapitations, slow-motion bullets blowing out the backs of people's heads, elaborately detailed car crashes. Liotta's Trattman is beaten on camera for so long, and so loudly, that the bout culminates in him vomiting blood on his assailants' shoes. The sound effects for this scene are … vivid.

The heavy-handed allegory here will no doubt drive people crazy: a virtuoso crime film spoiled by jarring intrusions from John McCain and Hank Paulson, a long, silent robbery sequence where the only audible noise is George W. Bush melting down on live television. Me, I kind of liked it. Not just for the America-is-a-corrupt-den-of-selfish-wolves message, but also for just how blatant Dominik is in making the point. It's the intellectual equivalent of a thug repeatedly burying his fist in Ray Liotta's face at 120 decibels.

Like I said: not a subtle film.

Probably because this year's Oscar season is now beginning in earnest, I've been thinking a lot about last year's Best Picture nominees, how disconnected that slate of movies felt from anything other than an ambient sense of Hollywood self-regard. 2011 was a year of struggle and unemployment and collapsing home values, the year of Occupy Wall Street and Zuccotti Park and the 99 percent. And it was probably just an accident, the way that fall intersected with The Artist and Hugo and War Horse and Midnight in Paris and even Tree of Life — movies that looked back with frank nostalgia to some sort of prelapsarian Europe or America. (Or worse, a prelapsarian movie industry, as if that were a thing that ever existed.) But it felt wrong. It felt oblivious, at a time when to feel oblivious was to feel irresponsible, too.

This year has been different. Probably also an accident, but possibly not. Killing Them Softly opts for an all-caps approach — one criminal complains about an encroaching lack of accountability and "corporate mentality" into the trade; another launches a profane rant about the moral hypocrisy of Thomas Jefferson — but filmmakers have been toying with something soft and rotten in the American consciousness all year. Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master was about tracing the evolution of a poisonous post-WWII turn away from spiritual faith and community and toward a lonely existence oriented around salesmanship and cynicism. Lincoln was a more optimistic movie that nevertheless took an exacting and sometimes pessimistic view of a political process it depicted as compromised from the very beginning. Argo, until its gleefully single-minded third act, anyway, was expressly ambivalent about the merit of the American project as it played out abroad.

And so on. I'd even include Taken 2 here as a critique of the Ugly American if I thought it was anything but a heedless celebration of Ugly Americans. Zero Dark Thirty (a movie that basically begins in a CIA torture chamber), Promised Land (a Capra-esque lament for bygone American values of stewardship and mini-horse farming), and Quentin Tarantino's slave-vengeance fantasy Django Unchained all have yet to come.

To go to the movies this year has been to get the occasional glimpse of something toxic and sad that the rest of us have yet to fully acknowledge or admit.
I'm not sure if I believe "recession art" even exists — it feels too convenient, the kind of thing that guys like me make up while writing pieces like this one — but I do believe we owe Reagan for hardcore punk and Nixon for Hunter S. Thompson and George W. Bush for LCD Soundsystem, so maybe it does. To go to the movies this year has been to get the occasional glimpse of something toxic and sad that the rest of us have yet to fully acknowledge or admit. It can take a while for Hollywood to catch up to the present day, but it feels like it's finally happening. There's an intimation that whole swaths of our recent unexamined past are about to be skeptically rewritten to fit our present frame. Watching Killing Them Softly, I had the thought that while the film may not be particularly beloved this year — it's too obvious, too on-the-nose, too grindingly familiar — it will probably be adored in another 10 or 20 years, when the grimy details of our current moment are forgotten but the general foul aura of the last four years remains. In this sense, too, it's a lot like The Friends of Eddie Coyle, which couldn't be more 1973 if it had a scene in which Ken Kesey got knifed.

Crime dramas, Dominik writes in a brief, furious director's statement, comprise "the only genre where it's completely acceptable that the characters are motivated only by a desire for money. None of this 'family values,' 'follow your dream,' moral compass bullshit." Never mind that his constant insertion of the obvious political parallel in Killing Them Softly seems entirely designed to show true north on said compass. It's an angry film that's also pointedly irreverent. One shot follows two men as they rough up a guy from one end of a house to the other; the camera stays outside, and for a peaceful moment, all you see is the tranquil exterior of a modest single-family home — until, seconds later, a badly beaten man comes flying out the back of it. It's a decent metaphor, and a better joke.

Which kind of goes for everything here. Most of Dominik's men (and they are all men) don't know just how funny they are: McNairy's earnest foot soldier, with his Casey Affleck–trademarked indignant Somerville honk; his junkie partner, played by Mendelsohn, who supplies for their big heist bright-yellow dishwashing gloves and a sawed-off shotgun so sawed-off that the shells stick out. Describing a particular enthusiastic sexual encounter, Mendelsohn's character laments the aftermath, the woman turning over and saying, "I'm gonna kill myself." Responds McNairy, trying to commiserate, "Aw, they all say that."

Through these shabby environs strolls Pitt's Cogan, a better class of criminal, all dirtbag goatee and slicked-back hair. He'll kill strangers for money but nobody he knows, because that would be "emotional," he says. "Not fun." When Gandolfini's backup hit man arrives at the airport, he touches down to the sound of Nico, like Richie Tenenbaum coming home at last. It's one of a dozen jarring soundtrack choices — Johnny Cash, "It's Only a Paper Moon," "Love Letters" — a winking, winsome song for every heroin injection and shotgun blast. Dominik's nihilism is unabashed and contagious, and so is the joy he takes in it.


Oh, Inverted World

By: timbersfan, 12:43 AM GMT on November 30, 2012

So Rafa Benitez, who managed Liverpool for six years and won a Champions League trophy and fell out with the club's despised billionaire owners and got his solemn hamster's face silkscreened onto a lot of Che-type revolutionary flags and somehow wound up becoming a pudgy and wonkish-looking symbol of survival and defiance against the ravages of unchecked sports capitalism — Rafa Benitez is now managing Chelsea, the club that did more than any other to transform the relationship between soccer and money, the O.G. of modern capitalism in European sports.

As "what could possibly go wrong" scenarios go, this one's a doozy. This is not Lindsay Lohan getting into a car with Charlie Sheen; it's Lindsay Lohan getting into a car with Michel Houellebecq. Roman Abramovich rules Chelsea as an absolute despot because he's one of the 70 richest humans on earth; Rafa Benitez once spawned a catchphrase ("In Rafa We Trust") that implicitly positioned him as a radical alternative to the entire global monetary system. Roman Abramovich fires managers by the crateload — he's burned through eight since 2004 — while Rafa Benitez has messily and publicly feuded with every owner he's ever worked for. You can purchase your popcorn with MasterCard or you can purchase your popcorn with blood.

To be (briefly, if you insist) fair here, at least some of the conflict between Roman's and Rafa's ways of doing business is iconographic rather than ideological. That is, Rafa is not, in any action-supported sense, anti-money. He took a £6 million payout from Tom Hicks and George Gillett after losing his war for the soul of Anfield. His brand affiliation with aesthetically leftist and insurrectionist imagery has to do with a lot of factors he pretty much just stumbled into — the fact that Liverpool fans seized on him as a symbol during their high-stakes hate campaign against a pair of American tycoons, the fact that Liverpool's club identity already skewed leftward thanks to, among other things,1 Bill Shankly's lifelong commitment to socialism. Rafa may be vaguely Mao-shaped, but his own Little Red Book would be about marking schemes, not class struggle.

If anything, Rafa's endless campaigns against management have been about wanting more money, and more control over it. That humiliating, six-months-in sacking he endured at Inter in 2010? That came because he demanded transfer investment, not because he agitated for the club to get back to its communitarian roots (cue sound of man in fur coat chortling around a cigar). As you've perhaps heard, transfer investment hasn't typically been a problem for Chelsea. Maybe we're good here.

Iconography matters, though. Rafa was booed passionately and at length during his first two matches as Chelsea manager.2 (Both 0-0 draws, for whatever that's worth.) Some of the fan hostility was a result of the business-casual trolling he'd directed at Chelsea supporters during his time at Liverpool, and some of it was a result of the fact that Liverpool played Chelsea in about 350 consecutive Champions League semifinals during the 2000s, most of which landed on the high right side of the nastiness/controversy graph. But it's not crazy to suggest that some of the hostility to the appointment stems from the fact that Rafa was so memorably associated not just with Liverpool but with Liverpool's balaclava-protest-march-somewhere-beyond-the-barri cade sub-facet, the whole vibration of which is intrinsically hostile to Chelsea's very existence.

For comparison's sake: Imagine if the rumors had been true and Pep Guardiola had been coaxed to Stamford Bridge. (It could still happen.) Barcelona has also had some recent European tussles with Chelsea, and also stands (at least superficially) for something morally opposed to the billionaire's-whim model of soccer ownership. I don't think Guardiola would have been booed in the same way, simply because he doesn't have a history in the Premier League. But it would have been kind of uncomfortable to see him there, right? You would have felt a little tug of not-rightness? Compared to, say, Harry Redknapp showing up on the sideline in a £50,000 watch, it would have felt like weather fronts colliding, two different visions of what soccer is supposed to be trying to coexist in the same space. That's iconography. And it's the same with Rafa, only — and this is the basic comedy of Rafa in 2012 — he never really meant to stand for anything.

It's also the case, of course, that Rafa is famously meticulous and driven and prone to devising 400-page chart-riddled game plans for early-round FA Cup competition. Which tends to mean that his conflicts with bosses also spill over into team composition and transfer policy, the whole fraught question of control over personnel. It was partly his inability to work with Valencia's director of football that led to his departure from the Mestalla in 2004, and the same theme kept rolling in Liverpool and Milan. And when he doesn't get the control he wants, he generally starts dropping bombs in press conferences. This won't be a problem at Stamford Bridge, however, because Roman Abramovich is pretty Zen about who calls the shots with his team and also seems very laid-back about being criticized by his employees in public. "Hey," he's been known to say, "the manager knows best!" And also down is sideways and Green Lantern is an unstoppable film franchise and Moby Dick would be happy to live in your aquarium; why don't you dive in and ask him?

It is at least somewhat possible that both Rafa and Roman know all this and don't see it as a problem. I mean, Abramovich is a week removed from sacking Roberto Di Matteo, a beloved former Chelsea player who managed the club for eight months and won both the FA Cup and the Champions League. You would have to be a self-deluding megalomaniac to see coaching Chelsea as anything other than a path to a short-term payoff. And Rafa has enacted the same bighorn-sheep-in-spring routine at every club he's managed; you would have to be a self-deluding megalomaniac to hire him thinking he'd fall in line and do whatever you asked. So, yeah. Good thing neither of these guys is a megalomaniac, right? We could be looking at a real powder keg here!

But there's one additional wrinkle in this relationship — one that might give it the slenderest conceivable chance of working. And that is that both these men still live in the shadow of Jose Mourinho. Abramovich has brought several more trophies to Chelsea since kneecapping Mourinho ("by mutual consent") in 2007. But he's never replaced the You-Know-What One in the affections of Chelsea fans, nor have any of his numerous proxies (GrantScolariWilkinsHiddinkAncelottiAVBRDM). When you think of Chelsea in its modern or "successful" incarnation, you still think of Mourinho more than anyone else, even though he hasn't coached there for five years and counting. For an owner who's basically rigged up a giant cartoon conveyor belt from his own private gold mine to the club, that must gall.

As for Rafa, he played Mourinho in seven Premier League matches and lost five of them. He never finished ahead of Mourinho in the league table. He did stop Mourinho's team from reaching the Champions League final twice, but he also spectacularly self-gonged as Jose's follow-up act at Inter: Mourinho won the treble in 2009-10 and left for Real Madrid, at which point Rafa took over the same squad and managed to bungle3 his way out of a job in less than half a season. Now he's taking over another club that's still the spiritual property of his rival — who's a member of his generation (three years younger, in fact), who's won more, who's been far more celebrated and sought-after, and who's become the defining figure in European soccer that Rafa never quite managed to be. And you're telling me he doesn't want to win colossally with this team?

So who knows — if these two can somehow connect over waking up in the middle of the night with the word "special" ponging around the insides of their skulls, if they can find a common plane of reference and agree on advanced concepts like "Hey, what formation should we use?" and "Which players are we going to buy?" they might surprise us. Chelsea's current lineup is probably not good enough to win the league this season, especially with Drogba's attempt to come home from China foundering, but then January's a whole new team, as they say around the Bridge. And so's June. And anything could happen next season, if Rafa's around that long. (Cue .wav of fur-coat man chortling again, obviously.)

I don't know. If I were Alex Ferguson, and safely outside the blast radius, I don't think I'd lose any sleep.


TV Mailbag: The Mount Rushmore of Bad Characters on Good Shows, Stunt-Casting The Wal

By: timbersfan, 12:39 AM GMT on November 30, 2012

Who's your Mount Rushmore of bad characters from good shows? Current and past shows.
— Shane M., Philadelphia

I was so anxious about my very first mailbag question that I spent three days misreading it. I thought Shane was interested in the challenging reverse: good characters stuck on bad shows. So I promptly wasted multiple hours — and numerous Gchat windows — making halfhearted cases for Lucy Punch as BJ on the otherwise sucky Ben and Kate or Zak Orth as a stumbling non-swordsman on the ridiculous Revolution. From the wreckage of the recently canceled, I considered making halfhearted cases for Kyle MacLachlan as Donovan Stark, the merry 1-percenter on Made in Jersey, or Aja Naomi King as the deliciously bitchy Cassandra Kopelson on Emily Owens M.D. — but then I realized no one would know what I was talking about. (Nor would they care.)

For a while I decided to just freestyle it and focus on characters too good for their shows, like Jack Huston's remarkable Richard Harrow on Boardwalk Empire or Wendell Pierce's perpetually put-upon Antoine Baptiste on Treme. Actually, maybe this whole category could be devoted to disappointing HBO programs: Throw in Emily Mortimer's manic Mac and Olivia Munn's steely Sloan from The Newsroom and you've got a face-saving buddy comedy I would definitely watch.

Then I decided to re-read the question. Oh! Bad characters on good shows! This is entirely different — and sneaky difficult. Before considering it, let's limit the conversation to this century, OK? OK. (You're welcome, Kimmy Gibler.)

Because TV shows are never produced in a vacuum, characters that aren't clicking tend to be disappeared faster than the aforementioned Made In Jersey. I actually enjoyed Paul Schneider's noble horndog Mark Brendanawicz on Parks and Recreation, but there's no denying the show is wildly better with Adam Scott wearing the checkered button-downs. There are also more than a few examples of good characters hamstrung by less-than-robust performers: think Betty Draper on Mad Men or Marissa on The O.C. It's also way too easy to single out children, since casting them is a crapshoot to begin with (four Bobby Drapers down, how many to go?) and showrunners tend to steer away from them when they realize they haven't struck pay dirt. (There's an even bigger TV in this room, Chris Brody — it's just slightly off camera.)

That said, there are two kids who deserve a spot on Shame Mountain: Kim Bauer, the cougar hunter of 24, and A.J. Soprano. Elisha Cuthbert has been utterly redeemed on Happy Endings (seriously: she's hilarious) so it's hard to blame her for a character that served no purpose other than to kill time on a show that was all about killing bad guys as quickly as possible. And A.J. could have been one of the most important characters on The Sopranos, considering Tony's issues with his own father. But due to some actorly limitations on the part of Robert Iler, A.J. was reduced to rebellious nightclubbing, SUV-torching, and ill-advised goatee-growing.

For our final nominees, let's go to two of the most beloved shows of TV's Golden Age. The obvious picks from Lost would be Nikki and Paulo, Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof's ill-fated attempt to make redshirts interesting. But the fact that the showrunners realized their mistake when they did — and proceeded to bury the two alive and never mention them again — makes up for the error. And while I had my problems with Jack and concede that Kate could get a little aggravating from time to time, the show would have been considerably worse without them. So let's instead nominate Harold Perrineau's shouty Michael Dawson, a character whose sole purpose was to call out to his missing son. (Question: With his tendency to disappear and resent his parents, was Walt the proto–Carl Grimes?) Michael was so misguided that when he was brought back — after zero-to-no fan demand! — he promptly blew himself up again.

And finally, let's go hunting for big game. The Wire has been hailed by many as the greatest series of all time, which may well be true, provided you submit to the shared amnesia about Season 5. David Simon's ornery animus is a powerful storytelling weapon when pointed outward: at truculent city officials, at outdated drug policies, at the laws of gravity. But when he starts popping off closer to home it gets problematic. No character embodied that shortcoming more than David Costabile's Thomas Klebanow. Based on a punching dummy Simon has his in basement dressed to look like former Baltimore Sun editor Bill Marimow, Klebanow was a mendacious, immoral creep. On a show built on complexity, Klebanow was flat as a board. He gets the final spot on the Mount Rushmore of Shame. For now. (I've got my eye on you, Avery from Nashville!)

Why don't you cover Sons of Anarchy at all? Do you just not watch the show, or not like it? What's the reasoning?
— Tim, Charlotte, NC

Tim gets credit for the no. 1 most-asked question in the mailbag because his was received most recently. (Second most-asked question? "How do we contractually require Morena Baccarin to get naked more often on Homeland?" Yup, these are his readers!) I have no Sons of Anarchy bias. Motorcycles seem like a fun, safe way to get around this great country of ours. I don't cover the show simply because I've never seen it. It debuted before I was doing this sort of thing full time. Catching up on five seasons will take time. Maybe next summer?

(Note: The above answer also works for Dexter.)

OK I know it’s not Emmy season, but I’ve had this question in my head for a while: Emmy voters love to reward a great comedic actor becoming a great dramatic actor (Bryan Cranston). But with Jon Hamm’s seeming inability to win an Emmy even on non-Breaking Bad years, are the Emmy voters penalizing his willingness to get silly on shows like SNL (moving from just being a “I’m here to plug my movie” host, into the “star bullpen” like Goodman, Hanks and a few others), 30 Rock, Childrens Hospital, and other comedies, and generally being more embedded in the LA comedy scene?

I can’t figure out any other reason that Hamm can so consistently get snubbed unless there is something other than his “on screen” work being considered.
— Charlie C.

To my mind, Hamm's biggest problem is that awards viewers look at how handsome and suave he is and assume that Don Draper isn't a performance. This, of course, is catastrophically wrong: Just look at this goofball. Hamm's comedic digressions have been really smart, I think, in terms of reflecting who he really is as well as highlighting who he isn't. Seeing him in blackface yelling "Banjo!" at Tracy Morgan really puts the depth and precision of his work as Don Draper into perspective. (It also frees him up for a more varied career after Sterling Cooper goes dark. Without showing this sort of range, he'd be turning down Clark Kent and other assorted Stern Newscaster roles for decades.)

The problem here is that while Hamm has definitely been deserving of an Emmy for Mad Men, who would you take the trophy away from? Bryan Cranston? Kyle Chandler? Wait, don't answer that: Damian Lewis. The ginger Brit is great as Nicholas Brody, but his performance last year wasn't in the same league as Hamm's. Threatening to blow up the Vice President is one thing. Imploding because you don't understand The Beatles is something else entirely.

Re: The Walking Dead
Why are there are no zombies with tattoos? I mean the show takes place in the South, shouldn't there be an abundance of Confederate Flag tats, or at least a few tribal arm bands?

Wouldn't the sound of the motorcycle be the #1 worst vehicle to travel with?

If you could add in one actor to shake up the show who would it be?
— Conor D.

You guys have a lot of questions about The Walking Dead! So do I, but since mine are mostly profane and rhetorical, let's tackle Conor's.

1. Strong point and one that reflects another that I've seen a bunch recently: For a show set just outside Atlanta, why are both the humans and the undead so lily white? Since the depressing answer to that question is probably the same as it would be in regard to any show, on any network, let's focus on tattoos. My first thought is that many of the biters already destroyed over the past three seasons have probably been inked. The issue is that it's hard to focus on tramp stamps when you're aiming for the head. (Bicycle Girl from the pilot could well have had a classic "Insert Coins in Slot" scripted across her lower back but, well, we'll never know.) My guess is that skin rots pretty quickly in those hot Georgia summers. And in those sorts of conditions, John Mayer–esque sleeves) would be the first things to go

2. I think a Mister Softee ice cream truck would probably be worse. But, yeah, a growling low-rider is super dumb in a world where the slightest noise can bring death. And what about the mileage? It's not like survivors really need to worry about their carbon footprints anymore, but gas is hard to come by! Thank goodness for the sensible, dirt-proof Hyundai)!

3. Oooh, this is a great question. I'd settle for someone "good," but that's casting an awfully wide net. The advantage The Walking Dead has over nearly everything else on the air is that it can go in nearly any direction tonally and it's a great opportunity for actors to make a quick buck, score free latex, and then die before anyone starts accusing them of slumming. So maybe the thing to do is think about what the show needs. I'd divide them into four groups:

GROUP A: Comic/Human Relief

The Walking Dead does not need any help amping up the stakes or the gore. So how about importing someone who at least tries to maintain a sense of humor about the whole thing? I'd love to see one of the lesser Apatowans conscripted: maybe Jay Baruchel or Martin Starr. My podcast pal Chris Ryan makes the excellent suggestion of Steve Zahn. No actor alive is quite as skilled at making the desperately funny seem desperately sad. Bonus: Annoyed Treme fans who have been praying to see him ripped limb from limb would finally get their wish!

GROUP B: Expendable Badasses

Just as Hershel demands a steady diet of cucumber salad and piety, so too does The Walking Dead have an unslakable thirst for fresh meat and even fresher kills. To that end, I'd love to see an underused actress like Dania Ramirez given a shot — and a shotgun. How about importing Downton Abbey's sassy Jessica Brown Findlay and seeing if she's as passionate about survival as she is about women's suffrage? There's a deep bench of armed and dangerous dudes waiting by the phone in Baltimore: maybe Wood "Avon Barksdale" Harris? Or Jamie "My Name Is My Name" Hector? I'd like to see Rockmond Dunbar, last seen puffing a fake cancer stick on the late, lamented Terriers, given another shot. And if you're looking for tough guys who won't say no to a job, I bet Tom Sizemore can be on a plane within the hour. Ditto the newly unemployed) Robert Patrick.

GROUP C: The Reaches

It's an old trope of fantasy and sci-fi franchises that the bigger the ham, the more believable the dialogue will somehow sound. David Morrissey is giving Brits a bad name as the Governor, so why not stick closer to home? Big old bears like Stacy Keach would bring some non-kosher gravitas to a show in desperate need of some. And, hell, while you're on his IMDb page, why not send out fliers to every other supporting player in the Bourne cast: David Strathairn, Joan Allen, Scott Glenn, hell, Edward Norton. They can't say no if they haven't been asked, right?

GROUP D: The Stunts

The Walking Dead's wildly inflated ratings suggest that America loves nothing more than a gruesome, violent death. So why not double down on pleasure and start casting national punching bags as zombie chow? There's no shortage of fame-hungry Kardashians, Housewives, and Boo-Boos to choose from. And who would possibly object to the delicious irony of seeing Guy Fieri devoured, sans donkey sauce?

Why does Brody's wife call him Brody? This type of "call my committed romantic interest by his last name" paradigm is most familiar from high school girls talking about varsity lettermen prom dates.
— Mikey, Los Angeles

This is another popular query. I've been told by a number of people in the know on Twitter that this manner of address isn't uncommon among military families. My sense is that Brody and Jessica were high school sweethearts, so Mikey's "prom dates" theory holds true. Once a nickname starts, it becomes hard to shake. That said, it is awfully weird that Jessica calls her husband by a name that is also her name. Maybe in Season 3, Homeland should go all in and have Dana call her dad Brody, too. (Chris can do what he usually does: Enjoy Washington Wizards basketball with his mouth shut.)

Why no love for the performance of Bobby Cannavale as Gyp Rosetti this season on Boardwalk? Dude is making this show worth watching.
— Andrew W.

Bobby Cannavale is truly fantastic as the big, dumb, sadistic clotheshorse. He's always fantastic, actually — be sure to check him out opposite Lord Tyrion in The Station Agent if you haven't already — and tends to play against stereotype. So I don't fault him going for gusto in his first (and possibly only) mafia indulgence. I've actually come around on Boardwalk this season — the second half-dozen episodes have been more than just good actors in front of beautiful sets; they've been extremely impressive in tone, structure, and even emotion. Richard's tender love story (with the fantastic Wrenn Schmidt) has been excellent, and the doomed Owen-Margaret affair has been refreshingly free of blarney. But I can't quite condone Gyp's reign of terror. As a mob movie antagonist he hits all the right buttons and decapitates all the right mooks. But I find the whole "accidental disrespect leads to savage dismemberment" thing tired and played out. To me, Gyp represents the worst of Boardwalk — the parroting of recycled Scorsese bits and beats — and gets in the way of the actually affecting stuff they've managed to accomplish in the margins.

What is the difference in your viewing process for watching a show you are going to recap versus one you watch for pleasure?
— Jon K.

When I'm recapping, I tend to pause the show every five to 10 seconds to jot down a line or an observation. Obviously, this is hugely annoying to anyone else in the room, so I tend to watch "work" shows on my laptop with a Word document open. (Thus leaving my wife a Homeland orphan. She's happy she doesn't have to pretend to watch The Walking Dead with me, though.) For an hour-long show, I tend to accumulate about 10 pages of notes, most of which I never look at again. But the act of writing it down tends to lodge the stuff more firmly in my brain.

Shows I watch for pleasure tend to be all called Chopped and they are spent in a nearly catatonic, scrapple-fueled haze on my couch.

This question probably isn't mailbag worthy but I want to ask it anyway. On The Walking Dead, everyone is so worried about how they are going to feed the new baby that Daryl is sent out on a food finding mission for the lil guy [sic]. But couldn't Maggie just feed this baby for the next few years or so? Am I missing something here? Did I just solve this problem in 5 seconds???
— Dan F.

Um, I'm going to go ahead and forward this question to the "basic human biology" mailbag. Thanks for writing!

Let's make this a semi-regular thing! Send your questions to grantlandTVmailbag@gmail for possible inclusion in a future mailbag.


The Lions' Financial Cage

By: timbersfan, 1:10 AM GMT on November 29, 2012

Just as the popular conceptions of their home city go, the Detroit Lions are an outdated relic from an era gone by. Both have been squeezed financially by changing economic situations in their respective realms, conditions that have forced each to compete with antiquated setups for too long. The Lions had the misfortune of being catastrophically terrible under incompetent management for many years, and although they were finally placed in a situation where they could recover from that burden, their opportunity came at precisely the wrong time in history. Jim Schwartz's team is perpetually pinned to the backs of their head coach and his three best players, and when they're not all up to the task, heartbreaking losses like Thanksgiving's loss to the Texans seem to ensue far too frequently.

The new era of these Lions came of age at the very tail end of the last collective bargaining agreement, a deal that pushed rookie salaries to the brink of professional sanity. Running counter to the rest of American sports, where rookies are often drastically underpaid and represent the largest value proposition in each respective sport's marketplace, NFL rookies were making exorbitant sums of money before ever playing an NFL down. When the Lions drafted Matthew Stafford with the first overall pick in the 2009 draft and signed him to a six-year deal, the $41.7 million that he was guaranteed from the deal was a record total. Not a rookie record. Not a quarterback record. An NFL record. Stafford has turned out to be competent at worst, but seventh on that list of record contracts at the time was the $31.5 million guaranteed to JaMarcus Russell, who went first overall the previous year while residing in a similar guarantee neighborhood with Tony Romo and Peyton Manning. Economic studies showed that the first overall pick was actually the least valuable selection in the first round.

The good news is that the league's new CBA, implemented for the contracts signed by players taken in the 2011 draft and beyond, actually provides a relatively reasonable framework for valuing rookies. Andrew Luck will make $22.1 million guaranteed for four years, a deal that strikes a balance between the ridiculous guarantees of yesteryear and the league minimum salaries bestowed on baseball draftees during their first three years in the majors.1

The bad news, though, is that the Lions were the last team to be truly hit by the loser's curse of perennially grabbing top-five picks under the old CBA. The rookie contracts of Detroit's big three — Stafford, Calvin Johnson, and Ndamukong Suh — produced about $108 million in combined guarantees on the day they were drafted. If a team like the Colts had three top-five picks in three years today, those picks would only cost about $60 million in guarantees and have far less onerous terms at the end of the (shorter) contracts. When the final year of Johnson's deal tied the Lions up with a $24 million cap hold this offseason and threatened to create a situation in which the Lions wouldn't have been able to franchise2 Johnson the following year, they were stuck with no leverage and forced to give Megatron a deal that guaranteed him $60 million, a 20 percent jump on the guaranteed cash given to previous record receiver Larry Fitzgerald. The extensions that Stafford and Suh are likely to receive in the near future will likely be of similar size, guaranteeing Detroit's stars around $180 million while preventing the Lions from building up the rest of their roster. Because those three players take up such a disproportionate amount of Detroit's cap, it's incumbent upon them to produce at a high level every time out. Johnson showed up on Thursday, but Suh, Stafford, and their head coach weren't quite as impressive.

If you had the sound turned on Thanksgiving morning during that Lions-Texans game, you undoubtedly heard Phil Simms gushing about Stafford's ability to throw from virtually a sidearm slot, an arm angle that Stafford used on most of his passes on Thursday. Combined with a propensity for making throws off of his back foot, Stafford's been able to release passes quickly, compensating for a lack of traditional windup with his raw arm strength.3 Unfortunately, in doing so, Stafford sacrifices accuracy, especially on deep passes. His completion percentage and yards per attempt are both noticeably down this year, and with Megatron around, league-average just isn't enough.

Stafford mixed big plays on Thursday with disappointing misses. His most notable impact, however, was when he failed on a pair of subtle plays that often get lauded as ones that skip the stat sheet. During the fourth quarter, Stafford failed to protect his seven-point lead by making a pair of situational blunders. In each case, his offense was facing a third-down play from the Houston 36-yard line. An incompletion would give the Lions the option to take a 53-yard field goal, one that would be on the very edges of Jason Hanson's functional range as a kicker. A short checkdown, even one that didn't have a prayer of turning into a first down, would have been enough to create a reasonable field goal opportunity for the veteran Lions kicker. Outside of a turnover, the worst thing Stafford could do was take a sack that pushed the Lions out of field goal range and forced them to punt. Amazingly, that's what happened both times, with J.J. Watt producing huge sacks on both occasions. Had Stafford picked up even four yards on either of the two third-down plays, the Lions would have been able to take a 49-yarder that Hanson would have had a prayer of hitting, one that would have pushed them up 10 points and forced the Texans into full-on desperation mode. Instead, the Texans were able to get the ball back on punts in each case and scored on their second drive, tying the game up at 31-all. It was a huge mental mistake, one that significantly harmed Detroit's chances of keeping their lead.

You often hear announcers talk about those plays as something mysterious and unquantifiable, but the truth is that they're just as easy to count as any other. I had anecdotally referred to Sam Bradford as the king of those sacks-out-of-field-goal-range for a while now, even calling them Bradfords, but Stafford taking two of them in the fourth quarter of one key game made me question myself. Was Stafford really the king of those sacks? I went back and used the wonderful Pro-Football-Reference.com play index to figure it out. I took every quarterback's passes from 2000 to 2012 (not including Sunday's games) and analyzed what they did in two-score games4 on third down between the 25-yard line and the 36-yard line of the opposition.

As it turns out, Stafford doesn't have a track record for taking that sort of sack. In fact, his two sacks in the fourth quarter were the first time he'd ever taken such a range-defeating sack as a pro, having managed to avoid them in his previous 31 third-down dropbacks. Bradford was way up there, thanks to five sacks on just 32 dropbacks; his 15.6 percent takedown clip was the second-highest rate for any passer with 30 dropbacks or more on third down in field goal range, trailing only the statue commonly confused for Ben Roethlisberger:

Player Dropbacks Sacks Sack Rate
Ben Roethlisberger 128 22 17.2%
Sam Bradford 32 5 15.6%
Michael Vick 76 11 14.5%
Kordell Stewart 37 5 13.5%
Marc Bulger 84 10 11.9%
Vince Young 42 5 11.9%
Alex Smith 62 7 11.3%
David Carr 63 7 11.1%
Kyle Boller 54 6 11.1%
Kyle Orton 56 6 10.7%
Chad Pennington 75 8 10.7%
The quarterbacks on the other side of the coin were a group of people you would expect to avoid the sack through sheer talent (Drew Brees, Peyton Manning) and a few that you would mostly be confused by (Byron Leftwich, Joey Harrington, Brian Griese). Josh Freeman currently has gone 45 passes in that situation without being sacked once, an impressive feat that's unlikely to continue happening forever. With the evidence for Stafford consisting of one game of misadventures, I'm still calling this one a Bradford.

Suh's calamity was more sinister. Having earned a two-game suspension by stomping on Packers guard Even Dietrich-Smith during last Thanksgiving's festivities, Suh attracted notoriety this year by seemingly reaching out and kicking Houston quarterback Matt Schaub in the groin as Suh tumbled to the ground. While appearing to be an accident upon first view, each shot and angle of the kick made it look worse and worse. At the time of writing, rumors are swirling that Suh will be suspended Monday for the second consecutive year. Lions fans have tried to defend Suh's kick as accidental, but at what point do we all agree that this isn't a coincidence? How many other players have visibly stamped on an opposing player while trying to leave the scene over the past two years? How many have "accidentally," unexpectedly delivered a rolling koppo kick to the groin of an opposing quarterback? How many have done both? It hardly seems fair to chalk up both incidents to mere chance.

The real disappointment came when Schwartz threw the challenge flag on a bizarre touchdown run by Justin Forsett. You've seen the play by now. Forsett's knee clearly goes down, the referee never sees it and allows Forsett to score, and Schwartz instantly throws the challenge flag out, incurring a 15-yard penalty while wiping out the guaranteed review from the booth.

Of course, the rule is dumb. The spirit of the rule was to avoid giving coaches a way to badger referees into talking to them while their assistants got extra time to look at replays upstairs, but the application here was clearly small-minded and insipid. It's also the referees' fault for failing to notice that Forsett was down. That's all fair, but even after all of it, Schwartz fails at his job by throwing the flag and costing his team the review. He has to know the rules and act accordingly. While the rule is disappointing, it's not exactly obscure, either: Falcons head coach Mike Smith received a similar penalty last weekend for throwing the challenge flag on a Cardinals fumble recovery that was then never reviewed. Forsett's touchdown ended up being enough to get the game pushed into overtime, where the Texans and Lions each traded missed field goals before the Texans finally grabbed a game-winner.

Schwartz admitted after the game that he knew the rule and had a mental lapse, which seems to coincide with the lapses exhibited by two of his three star players. Although Johnson remains arguably the best receiver in football, Stafford's taking a step backward and Suh's reliving his discipline nightmare from a year ago. Detroit's season may already be done at 4-7, but Schwartz needs to get more out of his Big Three to get them back into the playoffs in 2013. The Lions simply don't have a way to succeed if he doesn't, and if Schwartz can't, the Lions are likely to try to find somebody else who can get their stars to live up to their price tags.


Momentum's always been a tricky concept for me to understand in football. I don't doubt that some semblance of momentum exists somewhere, but the amount of effort and posthaste thinking that goes into defining momentum swings and momentum-changing plays has seemed, well, sloppy. It's more like an effort to slap a narrative on independent events happening within the context of a game than a way of actually capturing meaningful shifts in the emotional state of one. And Sunday just reinforced those doubts about momentum while pointing out a situation where believing in the power of "momentum" actually caused a team to make a terrified decision.

Take the play of the day yesterday, Ray Rice's incredible 29-yard sprint after the catch on fourth-and-29 to pick up a game-extending first down in San Diego. There are a lot of things about that play I don't understand. Why did Joe Flacco think it was a good idea to check down on fourth-and-29, even if all his receivers were covered, as opposed to playing for a pass-interference penalty downfield? How is it a sign of Norv Turner's stupidity that his defensive players took terrible routes to the ball on a fourth-and-29 checkdown that would have sealed the game for his team?5 And how do you appropriately measure for a first down after replay on a play where you've already moved the chains and can't see where the ball is?

If a play ever had the clear ability to induce momentum without necessarily winning the game it's that one, and it didn't really have any tangible impact on the plays after it. Had the Ravens gone in and scored a game-winning touchdown on that drive or even on the first drive of overtime, we all would have looked back and said that the Chargers were irreparably damaged by the game-shifting Rice catch, that the momentum swing was simply too much to overcome. Instead, it didn't really change things at all. The Ravens stalled shortly thereafter on their drive, taking one halfhearted shot at the end zone before settling for a game-tying field goal. In overtime, they traded unsuccessful 35-yard drives with the Chargers before getting a three-and-out, moving the ball to midfield, and getting a much more impressive throw from Flacco to Torrey Smith in single coverage that set up the game-winning field goal. By the time the Ravens then kicked their game-winning field goal, 14 minutes of game time had elapsed. Can you still really piece together the gathering of momentum from the Rice run to that field goal?

In a vacuum, this is all just innocent narrative-smoothing junk used to turn 160 plays or so into an 800-word story, but it's pretty clear that people actually believe in momentum and use it as a path to some supremely suboptimal decision-making. That's where momentum becomes dangerous. Consider what happened earlier in the day, when the Chiefs chose to kick a field goal on fourth-and-2 from the 4-yard line with a 3-0 lead and 4:35 left to go in the first quarter. The announcers, as every set of announcers seems to do in this situation, noted that the fans were bloodthirsty to go for it while pointing out how the coaches were correct to be conservative. Dan Dierdorf acknowledged that the fans saw a 1-9 team and wanted to go for it, but suggested that Crennel's decision was saying, "Look, we'll play the odds. I'd hate to have a good drive like this end up with nothing."

As a good rule of thumb, when somebody says you need to take the points so you don't come away from your drive without anything to show for it, they're wrong. Nobody's ever won a game and sat in the press conference afterward and said that they won because they were able to come away with small amounts of points on each of their early drives. In this case, Kansas City's good drive was a six-play, 33-yard one that came after a big punt return; coming away with points ensures that you have a 6-0 lead on Peyton freaking Manning and the Denver Broncos with 55 minutes of football left to go. Is it really likely that those three points are going to represent the margin of victory? That the Chiefs are going to hold Manning & Co. to three points the rest of the way? Of course not.

Your goal needs to be to, well, play the odds, just not the ones that Dierdorf's suggesting Crennel is playing. Unless there's a specific point total you know you can get in the fourth quarter with one or two possessions to go, your goal is almost always to score as many points as possible. The Chiefs have Jamaal Charles and were averaging 5.4 yards per carry on the ground up to that point. The odds, according to Brian Burke's calculator, suggest that the Chiefs would be right to go for it with even a 39 percent chance of making the fourth-and-2. Whatever odds Romeo Crennel was playing bore little resemblance to either the theoretical odds or the actual ones.

Dierdorf's partner, play-by-play man Greg Gumbel, illustrated the other side of the argument against the aggressive decision. "You give the Broncos tremendous momentum by stopping it," he noted. Now, I haven't ever run a study on momentum like that and whether teams who pick up a fourth-down stop inside their own 5-yard line score more often on the ensuing drive than you might think, and maybe it's possible that they do. I'm pretty sure that Gumbel hasn't, and I'm even more sure, sadly, that the Chiefs haven't. Think about how flimsy the concept of momentum has to be for this to work. The Broncos are 6-3 with a five-game winning streak. They have arguably the greatest quarterback in the history of football looking like he's 28 again under center. They've almost surely locked up their division with a month and a half to go in the season. The Chiefs are 1-9 and everyone's getting fired after the season. If the topic of momentum had been broached at any point before the game, the idea that the Broncos wouldn't have 100 percent of the momentum would have been ludicrous.

Now the Chiefs are about to gain some sort of momentum on the Broncos by kicking a field goal to go up 6-0? Are the Broncos going to sit there on the sideline, devastated by the whirlwind of impact that is a 22-yard Ryan Succop field goal with 50 minutes of football left to go, wondering how they'll possibly recover? Alternately, by forcing a stop on fourth-and-2, were the Broncos going to bound off the field with endless swagger, knowing that they'd finally gotten the upper hand on their division rivals and gained the momentum? Of course not. There's no such thing as momentum in the first half of a football game, because you're so far removed from placing yourself into a situation where you've got a serious advantage to winning the football game that you can't ever gather any meaningful steam. There's too much football to go. In this case, the Broncos returned the ensuing kickoff after this field goal to midfield, which gave them some momentum, but when Matt Prater missed a 47-yard field goal to end their drive, the Chiefs regained the momentum. Then the Broncos recovered and sacked Brady Quinn on third down to get it back, but then Peyton Manning threw an interception, giving the Chiefs tremendous momentum of their own. Tracking all these momentum shifts is exhausting!

In the end, the Broncos beat the Chiefs because they're the Broncos and the Chiefs are the Chiefs, and the talent gap between those two teams is better represented by the distance between planets than by arbitrary shots of momentum. If you're still confused let's finish by considering the thoughts of Romeo Crennel, who was asked about the competitiveness of the league after his 0-2 start this past September:

"In this league, one play can make a difference in a game. It can turn momentum and then you don't know what happens after the momentum turns. We haven't been able to turn the momentum. If we get to the point where we can make one of those plays and see how it impacts us, then I will be able to answer that question a little better."
If only somebody would go for it against them on fourth-and-2 at the beginning of a football game! Maybe one day, Romeo.

Thank You for Not Coaching

Well, sure, if you really insist that I stick with Crennel's discussion … the Chiefs ended up going for it on fourth-and-1 from the 40-yard line later in the first half (on a play where the Broncos might actually get some tangible evidence of momentum from the great field position if the Chiefs fail, ironically), but just as Brady Quinn sneaked the ball over the line for a first down, Crennel called a timeout and iced his own offense. Even more distressingly, in the fourth quarter of a five-point game with 6:41 left to go and the Chiefs about to punt the ball away on fourth-and-6 from the Denver 46-yard line, Crennel used his second timeout before punting. It's debatable whether a punt was the right move in that situation, considering how close the game was and how well Kansas City's defense was playing, but why on earth are you taking a timeout before you punt? What's more valuable: five yards of field position just before a punt that's going to take off from your 49-yard line, or a timeout in the fourth quarter of a one-score game? I don't expect coaches to memorize expected value charts or consult papers on game theory when making play-calling decisions, but isn't it reasonable to expect a 65-year-old professional football coach to use his timeouts with some remote level of efficiency?

Our old friend Pat Shurmur proved that he wasn't outcome-driven, I guess, by ignoring what happened to his team against the Eagles in Week 1 and making the same mistake for the second time this season. After scoring a touchdown with 5:25 left in the third quarter to go up 19-14, Shurmur kicked the extra point and went up 20-14, probably because NFL coaches are apparently summarily executed if they even look at their two-point conversion chart before the fourth quarter begins. If he had been brave enough to glance in his chart's direction and it wasn't done in crayons by kindergarteners, like I imagine it is, he would have found that it's very valuable to go for two in that situation; the Football Commentary model suggests that the Browns should have gone for two if they thought their odds of success were greater than about 28 percent or so, indicating just how valuable the seven-point lead can be in that situation. The Browns kicked the extra point to go up 16-10 over the Eagles early in the fourth quarter of Week 1 and promptly lost without recourse when the Eagles scored a game-winning touchdown with 1:23 left, but he was able to get away with it here.

Greg Schiano made some curious decisions at the end of Tampa Bay's narrow loss to Atlanta on Sunday. With fourth-and-7 on the Atlanta 38-yard line and 3:37 left to go in a one-point game, he decided to try a 56-yard field goal with franchise kicker Connor Barth instead of punting and using his timeouts to try to stop Atlanta (or going for it and doing the same if he failed). It's one of those plays where I think you can make a case for all three sides, but the field goal might be the worst choice of the three.

More notably, Schiano misused his timeouts by saving them for after the two-minute warning. When the Falcons picked up a third down and were able to run three more plays before punting, the Buccaneers got the ball back with a mere eight seconds left on the clock. The Falcons ran a first-down play with 2:47 left and took seven seconds off the clock, which is where Schiano should have started using his timeouts. A three-down stop in that situation would have gotten the Buccaneers the ball back with about 2:25 left on the clock, plenty of time for Josh Freeman to launch one of his spectacular game-winning drives. Even if the Falcons had converted on third down after using those timeouts and then gone three-and-out (to a missed field goal), as they did in real life, Schiano using his timeouts before the two-minute warning would have gotten the Buccaneers the ball back with about 25 seconds left to go instead of eight.

Finally, let's finish with a bonus college football TYFNC! Let's honor Arkansas coach John L. Smith, who coached the final game of his short tenure as Razorbacks head coach like he was a student teacher being observed by the principal. In a 17-10 game with 12:54 left to go in Arkansas's dismal losing season, Smith's team faced a fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line. Bless his heart, John L. Smith wanted to come away with points, so he kicked a field goal. This one should be obvious to even the most conventional of thinkers, but really, just think about how bad the decision to kick a field goal is there. If you're going to hurt your team's chances of winning that much because you're that afraid of losing, why even watch film during the week? Why practice? It gets to the point where you're erasing chunks of the hard work you put in as a coach by making such dreadful decisions at the goal line.

What did John L. Smith have to say about his decision to kick a field goal from 17 yards out in a 17-10 game? "That's the right call … I mean, you have to score twice to win it, don't you? At least, I think you had to score twice to win it unless my math was wrong. So do you take it there? You have to take the sure points and then come back you have to score again anyway." Did he think that LSU's offense was in stasis and had no possibility of scoring over the ensuing 12 minutes of the game? Was he unaware that all scoring chances aren't created equal, and that an attempt from the 1-yard line is, some would say, among the easiest places to score a touchdown? Or that even a failed attempt might give his team solid field position to defend and make it easier for his team to score? Or that tying a football game in the fourth quarter is a valuable thing to do? If the field goal represented the sure points and the team needed to score twice anyway, why not just kick the field goal on second-and-goal from the 1-yard line?

In the end, LSU kicked a field goal to restore their seven-point lead and their three-field-goal advantage. Smith's Razorbacks didn't advance the ball past the LSU 41-yard line until there were 14 seconds left in the game, at which point they got one chance to throw the ball into the end zone from the 18-yard line in an attempt to tie the game. Almost surely because Smith abandoned his strategy of needing two scores to overcome a seven-point lead, the play didn't work. Math don't lie.


The Loser's Advantage: Saban vs. Muschamp vs. the Playoff

By: timbersfan, 1:07 AM GMT on November 29, 2012

When Nick Saban and Will Muschamp get into a pissing match, there’s only one thing to do: Call Paul Finebaum and wait on hold. But in this case, we’ve got to do more, because Saban vs. Muschamp points out a sneaky flaw in the upcoming college football playoff. Call it the loser’s advantage.

Here’s what happened: Florida, which plays in the SEC East, is 11-1. Georgia, which also plays in the SEC East, is 11-1. In October, Georgia beat Florida, so the Bulldogs won the division and will play Alabama in Saturday’s conference championship game.

Advantage, Dawgs, right? This year, that’s true. Bama-Georgia is a mini-playoff for a shot at Notre Dame. But what if this game were taking place in 2014, when we’ll have a four-team playoff? The Bama-Georgia winner would definitely snag a spot in the playoff. And Florida, at 11-1, would also snag one. But the Bama-Georgia loser would be eliminated. Meaning, by virtue of losing their division and skipping a tough 13th game, the Gators would get a leg up. That’s the loser’s advantage.

“It’s not really a great scenario,” Saban told reporters Sunday on a teleconference. “You play your way into the [SEC] championship game, which means you’re the best team in your division … It doesn’t seem quite right, but it is what it is. I don’t really know what me commenting about it is going to do to change it. But I don’t feel good about it.”

Muschamp fired back: “Well, I can switch and go to Atlanta if he doesn’t want to go to Atlanta and play the Dawgs. Be careful what you ask for, Nick.”

Remember, Saban and Muschamp are duking this out over much lower stakes. What irks Saban is that Florida is virtually guaranteed a BCS berth — a.k.a. the Sugar Bowl — while the Bama-Georgia loser is probably going to get sent down to the Capital One Bowl. Under the BCS system, Bama and Georgia will gladly take the risk for a shot at Notre Dame. In two years, with multiple championship playoff berths in play, the drop-off is much more severe.

The funny thing is, the loser’s advantage is already part of the BCS system. Last year, Michigan and Michigan State both finished 10-2 in the Big Ten Legends Division. State won the head-to-head, but lost the conference championship game to Wisconsin. So it was Michigan, perversely, that got to go to the Sugar Bowl, beat Virginia Tech, and be pronounced “back” in a way that State never was.

Why is this flaw being passed along? College football is trying to stitch together two different systems. The BCS system prized conference champions. The champ from the mighty SEC got to go to a BCS game, as did the champ from the malarial Big East. Conference championship games — which made a small fortune for everyone — settled the matter.

The playoff was constructed so that (allegedly, in theory) we’d throw out that stuff and pick the four best teams in the country, period. But here’s the problem: We’re still going to choose conferences champs through championship games. So basically, there will be two playoffs, which certain teams (Bama, Georgia) will have to survive and certain teams (Florida) will be able to skip. When we say we want to judge teams on their “entire body of work,” what if the body of work is of different lengths even for two teams in the same division?

You might say, OK, you have to win your conference — or at least your division — to make the playoff. But Florida, which did neither, actually has a terrific résumé. They beat LSU, Texas A&M, South Carolina, and Florida State. They played a much tougher schedule than Georgia inside and outside the SEC. (Georgia drew Ole Miss and Auburn as its SEC West opponents.) You could argue that if the SEC Championship Game didn’t exist — if we froze the season now and studied the résumés — then one logical outcome might be to put Notre Dame into a tourney with Bama, Georgia, and Florida.

Plus, if we make a conference/division title mandatory, then we’re starting to construct a new Rube Goldberg contraption like the dread BCS. And I wouldn’t want any of the nation’s leading sportswriters to be charged with intellectual inconsistency.

Here’s the part of the column where I’d like the answer to arrive with a bang, like the Gators’ game-changing, ball-jarring hit on E.J. Manuel did Saturday. Alas, I don’t have it. Feel free to suggest a fix in comments below. Meanwhile, I’ll be waiting on hold with Finebaum, praying for a resolution.


Playing the Andrew Bynum What-If Game

By: timbersfan, 1:06 AM GMT on November 29, 2012

Andrew Bynum's knees have gotten worse, and the Sixers finally disclosed over the holiday weekend that it's unclear exactly when Bynum will play NBA basketball again. Which raises three questions:

Did Philadelphia make a mistake trading for Andrew Bynum?

Bynum will be a free agent after this season, and if he leaves without playing a game for the Sixers, the trade will have been a mistake in the most literal sense. Philadelphia gave up its best all-around player for Bynum in Andre Iguodala, but the loss of a borderline All-Star nearing his 29th birthday might only be the third-most significant asset Philly surrendered in swinging for the fences. They also gave up potential cap flexibility, both last summer and going forward, and the equivalent of three mid-tier first-round picks in Mo Harkless, Nikola Vucevic, and the 2015 pick now earmarked for Orlando. The team also sent a future first-rounder to Miami on a draft-day deal for Arnett Moultrie, which kicks in if the Sixers make the playoffs this season. That's a lot of future assets out the door, and the first-rounders owed to Miami and Orlando make it practically impossible for Philly to use any future first-round picks as sweeteners in a trade.

On the flip side, it's hard to blame Philadelphia for taking a shot on a top-20 overall player (when healthy) and the rarest of NBA commodities — a legit 7-footer who helps on both sides of the floor. The 2011-12 Sixers were a bad offensive team that didn't project as a legit title contender, despite the youth of some of their core pieces. Iguodala's trade value might have increased as the expiration of his contract approached next season, but expiring deals without juicy young assets attached generally don't yield Andrew Bynum.

But there were alternatives, especially after the Sixers used the amnesty provision on Elton Brand in early July. Philly could have opened up about $20 million in cap space dumping Brand, renouncing the rights to Lou Williams (gone to Atlanta) and Spencer Hawes (back on a two-year deal), and holding off on pouring money into marginal players such as Nick Young, Dorell Wright, and Kwame Brown. That cap space might not have led to anything, especially in a free-agent market in which most of the key targets were restricted. But even if they missed on the big prizes — Roy Hibbert, Brook Lopez, Eric Gordon — Philly could have tried to fill their big-man need by tossing a poison pill offer at Omer Asik.1 They could have thrown a massive offer at Nicolas Batum, a sweet-shooting and versatile small forward who moves wonderfully off the ball — a must-have skill on any team with Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner. Or Philly could have simply inked a couple of productive mid-priced players (who was that Williams guy, again?) and kept a healthy chunk of space open for a potential lopsided trade.

The August Bynum trade on its own actually didn't preclude any of these potential 2012 moves; the July acquisitions of Young, Brown, Hawes, and Wright did. But those four will earn about $3 million less this season than the sum of Brand's old salary and Williams's new one, and the Sixers happened to add almost exactly $4 million in the swap of Iguodala and young assets for the Bynum/Jason Richardson combo. The Bynum move clearly announced bolder ambitions than settling for a wing like Batum or maintaining cap flexibility.

And that boldness is not wrong on its face. Philly has no record of drawing max-level free agents on the open market, and as mentioned above, it's not as if they broke up a juggernaut. Other teams were interested in playing Philly's role of taking Bynum as a third-team facilitator in a deal sending Dwight Howard to the Lakers; the Magic didn't want Bynum, making such a third team a requirement for any Lakers trade. Cleveland's front office debated Bynum, and Houston, Howard's most ardent suitor, was interested in Bynum as a second-place prize. Everyone knew Bynum's knees were an issue, and while some teams were frightened about those knees — and Bynum's reputation as a moody guy — there is only so much medical information a team can know before a deal.

It's fascinating to play the "What if?" game here: What if Philly had passed on playing the facilitator role in fear of Bynum's knee issues? Would Howard still be in Orlando? Almost certainly not. Would Brooklyn have gotten back in the game on January 15, when Lopez, scoring like gangbusters now and playing better defense, becomes trade-eligible under his new max deal? Or would the Magic have dealt Howard to Houston in August? And if that had happened, where would James Harden be now?

With Houston out of the Harden sweepstakes, would Toronto (Jonas Valanciunas and picks), Golden State (Klay Thompson and other assets) or Utah (two young players and a couple of picks) gotten deeper into Harden talks? The removal of Houston might have simply bought Oklahoma City more time to feel out its internal finances, monitor Kendrick Perkins as an amnesty candidate, and take Harden's temperature on accepting a five-year deal after the season. It has been reported widely that before October 31 Oklahoma City could offer only a four-year extension to Harden, having used its five-year "designated player" bullet on Russell Westbrook. But had the Thunder controlled Harden's rights this summer in free agency, they would have been the only team allowed to offer him a five-year contract at that time. Would Harden have been willing to accept a discount in exchange for that extra year? It's unclear, and the Thunder's total payroll obligations would have shot up toward $100 million even given that discount and the Perkins amnesty.

It's fun to think about, but think hard before you lambaste Philly for going all-in on Bynum.

Are the Sixers even a playoff team now?

It seems an offensive question. Philly almost made the conference finals last season, and they're 8-6 despite missing Bynum all year and Jason Richardson for four games.

But they have a negative scoring margin (-18) against what has been one of the 10 easiest schedules in the league — and a home-heavy one to boot, with nine of the first 14 in Philly. In the big picture, this looks like the same no-offense, all-defense team that played sub-.500 ball over the last 45 games of the 2011-12 season and had zero interior presence on offense; the Sixers rank just 26th in points per possession, even after two productive scoring games over the weekend against Phoenix and Oklahoma City. They're over .500 mostly because of good crunch-time play (an early reversal from last season) and a stingy defense that slipped from second in points allowed per possession to seventh after leading in those same two games.

If Philly's defense hovers around the top five as the schedule gets tougher, it should be able to make the playoffs — especially if Chicago, Indiana, and Toronto continue to struggle more than expected. It's almost impossible to miss the playoffs with a top-five defense, and still very hard with a top-10 defense.

But should that defense slip into the no. 8–no. 12 range, the Sixers will be vulnerable if the offense doesn't improve. Philly lacks a rim protector and doesn't do anything special in terms of defensive tactics; they overload the strong side of the court like just about everyone, funnel side pick-and-rolls toward the baseline, and protect the paint above all else. But they're good at those things and generally act in unison; Philly once again ranks near the top of the league in limiting shots and makes in the restricted area, protecting against corner 3s, and foul avoidance. Holiday and Thaddeus Young are wreckers on defense, and their skill, plus Philly's solid coaching and on-a-string mentality, has been enough so far to make up for Iguodala's loss.

The team's offense has also shown some underlying signs of progress that could hint at growth to come. Holiday's improved pick-and-roll game, combined with an influx of spot-up shooting, has produced a healthier shot selection. Philly is taking about five more 3s per game over last season, and most of the increase has come via a doubling of short corner 3s; Turner has already made as many corner triples so far this season (six) as he did all of last season, and if he can make that shot semi-consistently, Philly's offense won't suffer as badly when opponents have Turner's man rove into the lane (which is always). Philly has also managed to embrace the 3 without sacrificing shots at the rim, per Synergy Sports and NBA.com. Turner and Holiday rank among the league's most viciously efficient isolation players so far, and Holiday has clearly improved his creativity (including a strong left hand), the types of passes in his bag, and his ability to earn free throws.

Philadelphia isn't Denver or Houston in terms of shot selection; they still rank below average in terms of shots at the rim, they don't get to the line or finish well at the basket, and they take a lot of mid-range shots. But they've redistributed some of those unhealthy mid-rangers, especially from the runner/floater range, into more productive areas.

That's a good start, but it's unclear which of these trends will last. Philly is a decent bet to be a bottom-four playoff team without Bynum. But that leads us to the final question.

What happens next?

This is the $64,000 question. It appeared a fait accompli that Philly would give Bynum a max deal, and that contract, combined with Holiday's extension and Turner's future cap hold, would essentially take Philly out of the free-agent game for the next two or three years — at least. But if Bynum is gone, the Sixers this summer could have enough room for a post-rookie max contract — and perhaps even more space, if Brown declines his $2.9 million player option.

They could have a similar amount of space sans Bynum in the summer of 2014, even factoring in Turner's gargantuan $13.3 million cap hold — almost certainly a much bigger number than Turner's actual future salary.

Turner is showing some early progress, jacking up his assists and free throws while hinting at a usable corner 3. He's only a so-so defender, but he should develop into a solid option on that end against both wing positions. Turner's shooting is an issue, especially since his herky-jerky off-the-bounce game does not work well when it comes to blowing by defenders running to close out on him. But he's not killing Philadelphia's offense this season; the Sixers are scoring a bit better when Turner plays, and the Holiday/Richardson/Thad Young trio — wildly productive so far — hasn't suffered much at all when Turner joins as a fourth cog, per NBA.com's stats database.

There's a useful NBA player here, and if he emerges, a Holiday/Young/Turner core with cap space isn't a bad way to move forward. But there is a gaping hole where Bynum was supposed to be. If he misses the whole year, Philly might be able to bring him back on the cheap, but they'll face potential competition from 13 other teams set to have max-level cap room and (perhaps) an appetite for risk.

10 Things I Like and Don't Like

1. Toronto's Late-Game Awfulness

Toronto is 1-7 in games in which the scoring margin has been at three or fewer points anytime in the last three minutes of regulation or overtime, per NBA.com. They are a league-worst -41 in those games, with the latest indignity coming in Sunday's double-overtime loss to the Spurs, which featured a five-second violation and Dwane Casey's puzzling decision to sit an active Ed Davis in favor of an ice-cold Andrea Bargnani.

Bad luck has played a role here; remember George Hill's buzzer-beating floater, Charlotte's uncalled foul on a potential Bargnani buzzer-beater, and Al Jefferson's game-tying 3-pointer — the second triple of his career? Injuries to Landry Fields and Alan Anderson have also limited Casey's ability to match up with small lineups in specific late-game situations.

But some of his substitution patterns have been puzzling, including over-playing Bargnani and showing little trust in Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross — even when those guys are going well. A lack of faith in rookies is understandable, but some of Toronto's weaker off-ball defenders — Bargnani, Jose Calderon, and DeMar DeRozan — have really hurt the Raps in crunch-time possessions.

2. The Lakers' "Snug" Pick-and-Roll

Teams are getting smarter about designing side pick-and-rolls in ways that make it hard for defenses to force the ball handler toward the baseline — and away from the middle. The Lakers' method: dumping the ball to Kobe Bryant on the right block and having Pau Gasol sneak down from the 3-point line to set a pick for Kobe below the foul line — a pick around which Bryant can dribble up and toward the center of the foul line as Gasol rolls toward the hoop. David Lee and Monta Ellis got quite good at this play last season with Golden State, but they didn't have Dwight Howard waiting on the opposite block as a lob option should Howard's man help on Gasol or Kobe.

3. Damian Lillard's Defense

Most rookies struggle on defense, and Lillard's offensive game is ahead of even the highest expectations, so all is good here in the big picture. But Lillard has really struggled defensively. He's often caught way out of position against on-ball screens, and sometimes gets stuck so far under them as to take himself out of the play. He's had major trouble navigating off-ball screens, and Deron Williams, a master at moving around the court without the ball, got away from Lillard over and over — until Terry Stotts hid Lillard on Keith Bogans. Dion Waiters is having some of the same issues, and Kyrie Irving did last year; Williams could still be seen two weeks ago in Brooklyn shaking Irving via a thicket of off-ball screens. Lillard will get it, but in the meantime, it's almost a relief to be reminded that point guard defense does matter.

4. James Johnson's Look

Sacramento's starting lineup is functioning better without Johnson (and Isaiah Thomas), but Johnson continues to bring a unique style game — mutton chops, headband, and eyewear that looks something like NBA in-game bifocals.

5. The Disappearing Ersan Ilyasova

Egads. Even after last night's heroic second half, Ilyasova is shooting 35 percent overall and 22 percent from deep, and both his free throws attempted and rebounding are way down. He's always been a vulnerable post defender against bulky bigs, and he's losing minutes (and now his starting job) to the crazy-time arms of Ekpe Udoh, John Henson, and LARRY SANDERS! (caps lock and exclamation point mandatory). Those guys are entertaining, but this obviously wasn't the plan, and the Bucks need Ilyasova to right himself — if only to prop up his trade value eventually.

6. Luis Scola, Flasher-Passer

A central tenet of most NBA defenses is that against a pick-and-roll it is the responsibility of the defender guarding the man in the weakside corner — the corner opposite from the direction in which the point guard dribbles over the pick — to dive into the middle and help on the big man rolling to the rim. Smart offenses design plays to take advantage of that strategy.

A good one from Phoenix: They'll have their center, Marcin Gortat or Jermaine O'Neal, set a high screen for Goran Dragic and roll down the right side of the lane as Dragic dribbles toward his left. At the same time, Luis Scola will flash from the baseline to the left elbow — a typical action for bigs with good mid-range jumpers. But Scola isn't looking to shoot; instead, almost immediately upon the catch, he'll sling the ball to Jared Dudley on the right wing, knowing Dudley's defender is the aforementioned weakside corner guy responsible for diving into the lane at Gortat/O'Neal. A smart, quick-hitting play that has gotten Dudley open looks.

7. Miami's All-White Jerseys

Hideous, especially in low-definition, where you can't even make out names or numbers. I'd rank them even below the Heat's all-black numbers in the list of Miami alternate jerseys. These pink-and-orange duds are the best of that lot, combining some ABA throwback details with just enough Miami cheesiness.

8. Ryan Anderson's Version of the Cross-Screen

The typical cross-screen involves a guard/wing setting a pick under the rim for a big man, and it's designed to give that big man some temporary space to set up post position on the opposite block from which he started. Anderson, a long-range gunner, uses the cross-screen in his own style — by simply continuing all the way to the opposite corner for a catch-and-shoot 3. A smart use of a unique player.

9. The Gray Trim in Houston's Jerseys

A really nice touch. I especially like the road warm-ups, which reverse the jerseys by making gray the primary color with red trim. I swear, I don't hate every NBA jersey.

10. "Glasser"

This is the work of George Blaha, Detroit's play-by-play TV guy for nearly 40 years. At first it seemed like an attention grab — a needless attempt to coin some sort of basketball colloquialism when "banker" or "bank shot" would do. But damn if "glasser" hasn't grown on me over the years, to the point where it pops into my head even when someone knocks down a bank shot in a non-Pistons game. Flashing a really nice glasser this year, by the way: Brook Lopez.


Who Is the Offensive Rookie of the Year?

By: timbersfan, 1:05 AM GMT on November 29, 2012

The arrival of Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III into the National Football League could not have gone much more swimmingly. In fact, while expectations were high for the top two picks in the 2012 draft, it's arguable that they've both exceeded whatever lofty expectations they rode in on over the summer. Luck is leading a team that went 2-14 last season on an improbable playoff run in the AFC South, while RG3 has become the league's most exciting player and might even be the best player in the NFC East this year. Fans of the Colts and Redskins — and good football — have to be ecstatic at what their respective organizations are set up to do over the next 15 years.

Which one is the Offensive Rookie of the Year? Since they're about to spend the next 15 years being compared with each other to figure out which player from the Class of 2012 is the more dominant quarterback, there's no reason for that to start any later than now.

I think the best way to figure that out is to make a case for each player from the perspective of his campaign, see whose case makes more sense and is easier to argue, and put that player in the lead with five games to go. Since I've spent the week hearing from just about every Giants fan I know that they're terrified to play RG3 this Monday night, let's start with him.
The Case for RG3

1. The Numbers To an extent that I don't think people realize, Robert Griffin's numbers as a quarterback — of any vintage — are ridiculous. Compared to Luck statistically, Griffin looks like an entirely different player.

Player Cmp % Yds/Att TD-to-INT Ratio
RG3 67.5% 8.2 4:1
Luck 56.8% 7.1 1:1

Those are truly staggering differences. Luck looks like your typical above-average rookie quarterback, a talented player prone to mental mistakes and forcing throws at the wrong times. His rookie year is not much different from that of the franchise quarterback he succeeded in Indianapolis; in 1998, Peyton Manning led the league in interceptions (28) in his up-and-down rookie campaign.

Griffin's performance is basically unprecedented for a rookie quarterback. Pro-football-reference.com uses index statistics that compare a player's performance to the league averages for a quarterback during the season(s) in questions to see how they performed in the context of their day; by those measures, Griffin has the second-best era-adjusted completion percentage for a rookie quarterback with 200 attempts or more, narrowly trailing Ben Roethlisberger. He's fourth in yards per attempt, with only Roethlisberger, Marc Bulger, and Mark Rypien ahead of him (and the latter two were playing after a year or more of sitting on the bench).

The only rookie quarterback since the merger to throw interceptions less frequently or have a better quarterback rating than Griffin, again adjusted for era, is Dan Marino. So, basically, RG3 is right up there with Marino and Roethlisberger as the most statistically impressive rookie quarterback in NFL history — and that doesn't even take into account his impact as a rusher.

Not bad, right?

2. He's Had No Receivers Despite Washington's best efforts to spend money this offseason and procure RG3 some weapons to throw to, their receiving corps has fallen apart this year. After shelling out big bucks for Pierre Garcon and seeing him catch that long touchdown pass from RG3 against the Saints in Week 1, Garcon's been injured virtually all season. Josh Morgan has been more notable for costing Washington their game against the Rams than for anything else, and Fred Davis tore his Achilles and is done for the year.

Washington's leading receivers are 33-year-old backup Santana Moss, 2011 third-rounder Leonard Hankerson, Morgan, and 2011 sixth-rounder Aldrick Robinson. Backup tight end Logan Paulsen has taken over for Davis. If Griffin were really struggling this year, we'd be looking at his receiving corps and saying that he didn't have anything to work with, just like we did with Blaine Gabbert in Jacksonville. Instead, he's been brilliant with these very same players.

3. He's Captured the Cultural Zeitgeist We would be naive to ignore that RG3 has become a phenomenon in a way that few young quarterbacks have, especially during their rookie seasons. Washington has a way of turning their star athletes (or their Nick Youngs) into larger-than-life figures, but Griffin would be a superstar in any market. Without a truly dominant team or a player running away with the MVP this year, Griffin's arguably become the biggest story in football. That shouldn't be enough for him to win the award on its own, but it absolutely means something in terms of his case.
The Case for Andrew Luck

1. He's the Big Winner Luck's statistics don't compare to Griffin's, but he's been part of a revolutionized organization that looks to be headed to the playoffs. After going 2-14 a year ago, the Colts are now 7-4 and almost surely on their way to a stunning wild-card berth. The Colts made other changes in their lineup and brought in a new coaching staff this offseason, but it's clear that the biggest difference between last year's team and this year's model is the gap between Curtis Painter and Andrew Luck. While Griffin's Redskins have as many wins now (five) as they did all of last season, they have just a one-in-five shot of making the playoffs.

2. Luck Has Won With Less While Griffin's receiving corps is a group of nobodies, Luck has virtually nothing to work with short of Reggie Wayne. Outside of Wayne, Luck's targets have been rookie third-rounders T.Y. Hilton and Dwayne Allen, along with Rams castoff Donnie Avery and injured second-rounder Coby Fleener. His running game has been virtually nonexistent; while Griffin has enjoyed the services of breakout star Alfred Morris on the ground, Luck has been saddled with the combination of Vick Ballard and Donald Brown. In fact, while Griffin has done far more cumulative work as a runner, Luck has been incredibly efficient in his scrambles. He has five rushing touchdowns, which is more than the rest of his team combined.

Furthermore, while their schedule masks the pain, Indianapolis's defense is truly bad. They're 22nd in points allowed, and the only teams they've been able to hold under 20 points are the Jaguars, Bills, Titans, and Browns. In terms of advanced metrics, the Indianapolis defense is last in the league in defensive DVOA, and they're not good at anything, since they're 31st against the pass and 32nd against the run. You can argue that there's certainly talent there, since Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney are on the roster, but virtually every impact name on Indianapolis's defense has missed their fair share of time this season, and Luck has been forced to lead the team to victories without them.

3. He's the Leader Had he struggled, it would have been extremely easy to give Luck a writeoff for this 2012 season. Turning around a 2-14 team is hard enough, but once Colts head coach Chuck Pagano was forced to leave the team to undergo leukemia treatment, it would have been totally understandable if a young, talent-poor team treaded water or regressed in his absence. Instead, the team has rallied around their coach, and Luck has become the team's de facto leader in the process.

There's absolutely no reason to criticize Griffin for taking on several endorsement campaigns before and during his rookie season, but I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Luck left endorsement money on the table so he could shave his head in support of his coach. He's not just the face of the franchise; he's its unquestioned leader in a time of serious adversity, too.
And the Winner Is …

I certainly don't think that this is a finished race for Rookie of the Year, and I think there are extenuating circumstances that make the case less cut-and-dried on either side, but if the question is simply "Which of these two players has performed better this year?" I think the evidence pretty clearly points to Robert Griffin III. I'm not a slave to statistics when it comes to measuring an individual player's performance — the individual stats in football just aren't good enough to trust them that implicitly, whether they're old-school stats or advanced ones — but the difference between the two players in that table above is pretty stark. If there were plenty of soft factors pointing toward Luck that Griffin didn't have any reply to, I think it would be fair to call it a toss-up, but Griffin has spent the year throwing to backups and has the lowly Redskins in sight of .500, even if they fall short of the playoffs. I suspect that people who are more wowed with quarterback wins as a stat will see Luck earning a likely playoff appearance and punch him in as Rookie of the Year without giving the idea much further thought, but given each player's contributions to their team, a wild-card berth just isn't enough for me to ignore the chasm in performance between the two players. Barring a notable collapse from Griffin and a five-game stretch of brilliance from Luck, I think RG3 is going to be the deserving Offensive Rookie of the Year.


How Bruce Arena Rebuilt the Galaxy

By: timbersfan, 1:04 AM GMT on November 29, 2012

Sunday night, the L.A. Galaxy gathered in the cold rain on a stage on Century Link Field, amid a chorus of boos from the remaining Seattle Sounders fans, waiting to receive the trophy as the MLS Western Conference champions. They had just beaten the Sounders 4-2 in aggregate goals in a two-game series and earned a spot in the MLS Cup, where they will be playing to defend their 2011 championship. The team’s captain for the night, Robbie Keane, waited atop the podium to receive the trophy from MLS executive vice president of competition Nelson Rodriguez. Beside Keane was the team’s usual captain, Landon Donovan, who missed the game with a hamstring injury. Next to Donovan stood the man who built this Galaxy team, the club’s general manager and head coach, the most successful coach in American soccer: Bruce Arena.

“He’s revised this franchise,” Donovan said of Arena. "In '08 we were pretty miserable. Not only the team but the club in general was in a really bad spot."

It was August 2008, and the L.A. Galaxy were 6-8-5 and hadn’t won a game in two months. Worse off, they were going through that slump even with David Beckham in their lineup. The season before, the Galaxy’s ownership group, AEG, led by CEO Tim Leiweke, had twisted Major League Soccer’s arm into letting them sign the then-32-year-old Beckham from Real Madrid to a five-year contract, paying him $6.5 million per year.

In Beckham’s first season with the team, the Galaxy failed to make the playoffs. Now they're struggling to win a game. The club was in turmoil. There was tension between Donovan and Beckham and the club’s general manager, Alexi Lalas, was butting heads with the team’s new manager, Ruud Gullit.

So Leiweke fired Lalas and forced Gullit to resign. Then he gave Arena the keys to the franchise.

“He’s a builder,” said Dave Sarachan, the current associate head coach of the Galaxy and Arena’s lieutenant for the past 20 years. “He loves to take on a project that needs construction.”

What Arena has built over his 35-year coaching career is a dynasty at every level of American soccer. First it was the University of Virginia, where he led the school to five NCAA championships, including four in a row from 1991 to 1994. Then it was D.C. United, where he became the team’s head coach in MLS's first season, 1996. Under Arena, D.C. reached three MLS Cups in a row, winning the inaugural trophy in 1996, repeating in 1997, and coming finishing as runners-up in 1998, the same season they won the CONCACAF Champions Cup as the best club in the region.

Arena is probably best known for his run as manager of the USMNT. When he took over the team, in October 1998, they had finished dead last in the field of 32 teams at that year's World Cup. Four years later, at the World Cup in Japan and South Korea, he coached a team of veterans and prodigies to the quarterfinals, where they lost, 1-0, to eventual runners-up Germany in a match which nearly every U.S. soccer fan will to this day tell you they should have won. Either way, it was the United States’ best finish in the tournament since 1930.

To this list of accomplishments Arena can now add reviving one of Major League Soccer’s marquee franchises. Along with winning the 2011 MLS Cup, Arena led the L.A. Galaxy to the 2009 MLS Cup final, where they lost on penalty kicks to Real Salt Lake; the 2010 Western Conference finals; and the Supporters’ Shield — the trophy given to the MLS team with the best regular-season record — in 2010 and 2011.

Everyone involved with the Galaxy — coaches and players alike — credit Arena’s success to his uncanny ability to manage players.

“Bruce’s man management is very good. He’s very good with the players. He’s strict when he needs to be, and then he’s good at putting an arm around a player that needs it," said Beckham. According to Arena, motivating players is as important as setting them up, tactically. “Everybody knows how to draw up a play, how to run a practice. That's the easiest thing you could possibly do. The biggest key is get to know [the players], and get them to know you. Try to create an honest working relationship. If you can develop a good working relationship, then you can deal with the highs and lows that come your way.”

One of those lows came this season in May. The Galaxy were 3-9-3, hanging around the bottom of the conference. Then the team had a two-week break.

“During that break,” said Donovan, “I think he went player to player and let people know what the expectations were. Bruce and I had lunch, and I think for the first time I realized the urgency. He made it very clear that the team was gonna go as a few of us went. If we could change it around, the whole team could.”

The team did turn it around. After that break, the Galaxy went 13-3-3, and since July most people familiar with MLS feel they have been the league’s best team. They entered the playoffs as the 4-seed in the Western Conference, came from behind to beat Vancouver in the opening round, and have since dispatched San Jose and Seattle.

Arena has created a team that serves as the model MLS club: a blend of high-profile international players, proven veterans, and talented youngsters. The criticism of the Galaxy is that they have been able to build this talented side because they have more money to spend than other clubs. This is partially true. The MLS salary cap is only $2.81 million for a team’s top 20 players. Beckham’s salary alone is $3.9 million. But MLS has made the roster rules somewhat vague, and there are a number of stipulations that clubs can massage to their advantage. The most important is the Designated Player rule, which the league states “allows clubs to acquire up to three players whose salaries exceed their budget charges, with the club bearing financial responsibility for the amount of compensation above each player’s budget charge” ($350,000). Because of the financial backing of AEG — which also owns the L.A. Kings and an interest in the Lakers — the Galaxy have been able to pay the portion of the salaries of their Designated Players — Beckham, Donovan, and Keane — that exceed the $350,000 amount charged to their roster.

Still, even three elite Designated Players are not enough to win a championship.

“He knows how to build a squad,” said Keane. “He knows what players are suited for this team. He’s obviously got a wealth of experience in the U.S., so he knows every player.”

This 2012 roster is the result of more than three years of roster tinkering. Before the 2009 season, Arena brought in midfielder Mike Magee from the New York Red Bulls and Todd Dunivant, a veteran left back — often a difficult position to fill at any level of soccer — from Toronto. He drafted defenders Omar Gonzalez (who went on to become the 2011 MLS Defender of the Year) and A.J. DeLaGarza out of Maryland. In 2010, he signed 21-year-old Brazilian midfielder Juninho on loan from Brazilian club Sao Paulo. Before this season he brought in Marcelo Sarvas, another Brazilian midfielder, and in September the club signed Swedish international right winter Christian Wilhelmsson.

This Galaxy team also features another element that’s been a hallmark of Arena’s teams: talented young players. Throughout his career, Arena has developed many of the United States’ elite players from a young age. The most famous is Donovan, who was 20 years old when Arena included him in the starting lineup at the 2002 World Cup.

On the Galaxy, two players have made the move from Development Academy team to senior side: Jack McBean and Jose Villarreal. Tommy Meyer, a rookie center back from Indiana University who played only eight regular-season games, has stepped in for an injured DeLaGarza and played every game of the playoffs, stifling San Jose’s Chris Wondolowski and Seattle’s Fredy Montero in the process.

For Los Angeles, their next goal is repeating as MLS Cup champions. On December 1, they’ll host the Houston Dynamo at the Home Depot Center in a rematch of the 2011 Cup. On Monday, the Galaxy announced that the match will be David Beckham’s last with the team. He will not play out the second year of what was supposed to be a two-year contract. In the days before the game, that news will shift the narrative going into the game to Beckham’s legacy in Los Angeles and his motives for signing with the club in the first place. But the news doesn’t change the Galaxy’s record under Arena over the past four seasons. Love him or hate him, Arena’s achievements with Galaxy over the past four seasons prove one undeniable fact: When it comes to building winning soccer programs, no American is better than him.


Fourth-and-Short: Niners Dish Out a Recipe of Whoop-ass

By: timbersfan, 1:12 AM GMT on November 24, 2012

Well, very few people expected to see that. Although there were always rumors circulating that Colin Kaepernick would impress if the 49ers ever gave him the opportunity to take on their starting job, Kaepernick's stunning performance with little advance warning against the Bears last night put Alex Smith — and the rest of the NFL — on notice. While the Jason Campbell–led Chicago offense offered little resistance in terms of making the game a contest, the defense Kaepernick ripped apart had no backups to blame or excuses to make. After holding their first nine opponents to an average of 14.8 points per game, the Bears allowed 20 points to Kaepernick's offense within the first 24 minutes, and finished the game giving up a season-high 30 points, with the Niners tacking on two points with a bizarre fourth-quarter safety. What on earth happened in the Bay Area last night?

We'll all get a better idea when the coaches film for the game comes out later this week, but on first viewing, it appeared to be a combination of a great game plan and excellent execution from a player everybody wrote off as raw. Jim Harbaugh's brilliance in designing offensive attacks for a given opponent isn't breaking news, but despite missing practice time this week to have minor heart surgery, Harbaugh's game plan to attack the previously superb Bears defense was a doozy. With Chicago's cornerbacks playing out of their minds this year, Harbaugh simply did his best to build a scheme that avoided them altogether, leaving likely Pro Bowlers Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman as onlookers.

Instead, Harbaugh went after the weak links of the Chicago defense: the safeties. Every year, it seems like the Chicago safeties, regardless of who they are, seem to combine for one abysmal game that makes you look back and wonder why anyone ever thought the Bears defense was any good. Last year, that game was the 24-13 Monday Night Football loss to the Lions. Monday night's loss might have been even uglier. The 49ers produced several big plays against the Bears by exploiting safeties Chris Conte and Major Wright in coverage, repeatedly using corner routes from elite athletes like Vernon Davis and Kyle Williams to create separation and produce big plays. When it wasn't Conte or Wright, the 49ers were able to take advantage of a relative lack of speed from the Bears linebackers. As good as Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher are at using their instincts to read plays, their advanced age means that they can't keep up in a footrace with Davis. Briggs gave it his all, but that's a duty very few linebackers can pull off.

The 49ers were able to exploit those weaknesses in part because the Bears dared them to. With Kaepernick's relative inexperience under center and his history as a running quarterback (both at Nevada and during his brief NFL career to date), the Bears pushed Wright into the box and forced Kaepernick to make adjustments before the snap against an eight-man front. Would he be brave (or effective) enough to kill the running plays that they would likely hit the line with and throw downfield? Obviously, you know the answer was yes. Kaepernick threw the ball on eight of San Francisco's first 12 plays from scrimmage, and by the time he was done, the 49ers had a 10-0 lead that they would never relinquish.

Chicago also helped Kaepernick out by playing schematically into his hands. As my colleague Chris Brown noted on Twitter during the game, the Bears often line up and use a Cover-1 "Robber" scheme that flows right into the box for run support, leaves their cornerbacks in man coverage on the sidelines, and leaves two players in zones over the middle of the field. Conte is the lone safety covering the deep middle, while Urlacher (perhaps owing to the step he's lost over the years) has gone from being the trail middle linebacker in Chicago's old Tampa-2 approach to hanging over the middle near the sticks as the "Robber."

That was fine for what the 49ers dialed up, because they only had the occasional intention of going over the middle of the field or throwing at those talented cornerbacks in man coverage. In a post on the Cover-1 Robber on his website, Chris notes that one of the biggest weaknesses with the coverage is in dealing with out-breaking routes by inside receivers. The deep corner is such a route, and with Davis and Williams lining up in the slot, it's exactly how the 49ers were able to burn the Bears for big plays during that shocking first half. With his offensive line holding up against a fearsome Chicago pass rush, Kaepernick was able to get his best athletes matched up against the weakest parts of Chicago's defense in man coverage, and he delivered perfect throws to finish the job.

I don't know that the 49ers offense is about to become a dominant downfield passing attack with Kaepernick at the helm. Kaepernick finished 3-for-7 for 111 yards on throws that traveled 15 yards in the air or more; before Sunday, the 49ers had gone 16-for-31 on such throws this year, producing 464 yards. The completion percentage and yards per attempt figures on those throws are roughly similar, although the 49ers threw deep more frequently with Kaepernick (and did so against a tough defense while picking up several of the incompletions in garbage time). The big plays were there, in part, because the Bears built their scheme around daring Kaepernick (or Smith) to make those big throws. Because he succeeded, teams are going to be hesitant to push their safeties up and leave San Francisco's slot receivers in man coverage against lesser players. That should remove some of the big-play potential, but it should create more holes for Kaepernick and the dominant San Francisco running game, which hardly needs the help.

Of course, Kaepernick can't lead an offensive revolution for the 49ers from the bench or as part of a Pistol package for a handful of snaps per game. His brilliant performance on Monday night has led to plenty of chatter that the 49ers should stick with him over Alex Smith for the immediate future, a rumor fire that Harbaugh didn't exactly douse after the game: "I usually tend to go with the guy who has the hot hand … we really have two guys who have a pretty hot hand, but we'll make that decision as we go forward." It's Kaepernick's job until Smith passes his concussion protocols, but from that point forward, there's going to be a huge fight for the starting job in San Francisco. Under a less watchful eye, that sort of back-and-forth debate could end up tearing the team apart, as it did with the turn-of-the-century Bills while Wade Phillips vacillated between Doug Flutie and Rob Johnson. Harbaugh, though, deserves the benefit of the doubt. In the end, it might not matter who plays quarterback for the 49ers as long as Harbaugh's holding a headset.


The Sports Guy's Thanksgiving Football Mailbag

By: timbersfan, 1:11 AM GMT on November 24, 2012

You're probably reading this column while in transit — maybe you're in an airport, a taxicab, or someone else's car. Maybe you're in a movie theater waiting for Lincoln to start. Maybe you're sitting on a recliner in your aunt's house waiting for turkey and pretending that you had to answer a work e-mail when you're really avoiding a conversation with your creepy cousins. Maybe you're just sitting on the toilet trying to take the Browns to the Super Bowl. Wherever you are, you definitely just said to yourself, "Uh-oh, Simmons is really making all of his Week 12 picks on a Wednesday?"

I'm with you. This will go poorly. Not enough time for research and injury news, not enough reflection, no help whatsoever from USA Today Sports Weekly's head-to-head stats (comes out on Wednesdays) or Inside the NFL (premieres Wednesday night). These picks are probably going to look like they were coached by Andy Reid. And since that's the case, why not throw everyone off the stench with a Dr. Moreau Bag and merge the picks with reader e-mails? As always, these are actual e-mails from actual readers.

LIONS (+3.5) over Texans
Q: It's always said that it is difficult for professional athletes to fly first class, sleep in a five star hotel, and play a game the next day. Does this logic apply to any other profession?
—Jarod, Cambridge, MD

SG: Just politicians and high-class call girls. And yet, this is a pretty tough spot for the Texans: They eked out a grueling overtime victory over the lowly Jags on Sunday; now they're playing the 12:30 p.m. Thanksgiving game in Detroit 91 hours later? It's just too bad the NFL doesn't have bye weeks that could be used strategically to protect its players from situations like this.

Q: Is there a worse name then Mike Brown? You could cure cancer, but if your name was Mike Brown everyone would assume you are an epic failure.
—Rich, Philadelphia

SG: In my Memorial Day Mailbag from 2010, I joked that "I'm gonna go hire Mike Brown" should be our new euphemism for taking a dump. So this isn't a new thing. You know what's crazy, though? In the Epic Failure Mike Brown Power Rankings, Lakers Mike Brown getting fired five games into the season still couldn't leapfrog Guy Who Destroyed Football in Cincinnati Mike Brown and Guy Who Ran FEMA during Hurricane Katrina Mike Brown — he would have had to hit-and-run Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard in the Lakers' parking lot to pass them.

Q: Is there a sports star that has had a career like Ben Affleck? He went from Good Will Hunting to Gigli to Argo.
—Clayton, Columbia, MO

SG: And became a first-rate director! Who saw that coming? I think Affleck's sports doppelgänger is Andre Agassi, someone who achieved just as much fame and notoriety at an early age, had his hometown become part of his marketing package (Vegas for Agassi, Boston for Affleck), became tied to a friend/rival who eventually eclipsed him (Sampras for Agassi, Damon for Affleck), handled what should have been his prime just as poorly (while raking in ungodly sums of money), posed for posters like this, took just as much abuse from the snark community, got involved with a famous celebrity who definitely seemed like an odd match (J.Lo for Affleck, Brooke Shields for Agassi), became considered something of a disappointment … and just when we gave up on him, he reinvented himself during the second half of his career, became a fan favorite, achieved real success, remarried a different celebrity and even pumped out one of the best sports autobiographies ever. That's my final answer, Alex.

COWBOYS (-3) over Redskins

Q: I know you love these, so here's a great NFL what if: What if Andrew Luck came out after his junior year? If he comes out in 2011, Carolina takes him first and Denver takes Cam second (missing out on Von Miller, and one year later, Peyton Manning). In the 2012 Draft, Indy is then faced with either picking RG III or keeping Manning (and trading the pick), If they choose RG III, Washington misses out on Black Jesus. That's 4 franchises who had their course of history changed dramatically.
—Dan, Denver

SG: And you left out Von Miller (who jumped a level and became the league's most destructive pass rusher this season) going third in 2011 to … (wait for it) … Buffalo! So that's five franchises affected. In that same draft, Miller bumps Marcel Dareus down a pick, so who knows if Cincy passes up A.J. Green for him at no. 4, or if Arizona passes up Patrick Peterson for him at no. 5. (That's seven franchises affected.) And maybe Cleveland just picks the leftover guy (either Dareus, Green or Peterson) at no. 6 instead of trading down to Atlanta (who picked Julio Jones at no. 6), and maybe San Francisco picks Jones at no. 7 instead of Aldon Smith (now we're up to 10 affected franchises), or maybe San Francisco picks Smith, then Tennessee grabs Jones at no. 8 instead of Jake Locker (now my head is starting to hurt). Let's at least agree that 2011's top 10 unfolds differently, with three major chess pieces for 2012 contenders (Miller, Jones and Smith) possibly landing elsewhere.

Also, Denver never would have traded for Manning this spring if they already had Cam, which means Manning lands in either Arizona or San Francisco. (Hold on, we have to wait for Larry Fitzgerald to stop wailing.) For all we know, Manning could be throwing bombs to Julio Jones on an undefeated Niners team right now. So that's a great "What If" by Dan from Denver — and he didn't even mention Luck's fourth Stanford year inadvertently making the 2012 Cardinals eligible for the Ewing Theory, leading to last weekend's shocking upset over Oregon and our eventual Notre Dame–Alabama national championship game (13 teams affected). Amazing.

By the way, I'm torn on this game. You could talk me into …

Scenario A: RG3 going off and every casual fan asking the die-hards during the third-quarter break between Thanksgiving courses, "So, are the Cowboys always this bad, or is this just a bad game for them?"

Scenario B: Laying three points against a rookie QB playing his second game in five days, if only because it would be classic Cowboys to rope their tortured fans back in before ultimately kicking them in the balls three weeks later. I like this scenario more. Couldn't you see them beating the Skins fairly decisively (say, 27-17, with DeMarcus Ware running amok) and pulling a little closer to the Giants before things — eventually — go horribly wrong? As opposed to the Jets, who are going to complete that cycle with their fans in the next 48 hours.

Patriots (-7) over JETS

Q: What's the matter with Patriots fans? Why in the world would they boo Adam Vinatieri? Pretty sure you'd have at least one fewer ring without him, and last I checked, Kraft and Belichick are turbo cheapskates who haven't won a Super Bowl since they refused to give him a proper pay. Not that there's a direct correlation, but I fail to see how the Pats fans should boo Vinatieri for taking his talents where he was properly appreciated, like Welker will next year.
—Vince, Minneapolis

SG: I absolutely hated it. Unacceptable. Vinatieri should be mentioned in the same breath in New England with people like David Ortiz, Sam Jones and Paul Revere — he made the single greatest field goal in football history (the Snow Game) and three other classics that helped win titles (the two Super Bowl game-winners and the one when he booted the bowling ball in the freezing home game against Tennessee). One of the all-time clutch Boston athletes. And no, we haven't won the Super Bowl since he got pushed out because Belichick didn't want to pay him — a technically smart move that I'm sure my illegitimate son Bill Barnwell will defend to the death because you should never overpay kickers, but shit, if you're ever overpaying a kicker just a little bit, wouldn't it be the best money kicker who ever lived? And he's getting booed? I don't want to talk about it.

Q: Think about it this way, since Gronkowski's injury is 4-6 weeks that basically means he won't be playing until the playoffs. By that time Gronk and Hernandez will both be 100 percent (finally), causing defenses to not know how to game plan for us, and maybe the Pats will finally be the team that gets hot in the playoffs.
—Myles D., Washing Township, NJ

SG: I don't want to talk about this, either.

Q: I was with a group of fathers who all have young daughters the other day and we started debating the list of athletes who we would want our daughters to end up with. This is as far as we got:
1. Tim Tebow
2. (Left blank out of respect for Tebow)
3. A gay Olympic diver

Did we miss anyone?
—Drew, Atlanta, GA

SG: I definitely don't want to talk about this.

Q: For fun, replace every "John Henry" reference you read from now on with "Mrs. Yawkey."
—John, Maine

SG: Or this. By the way, I'm picking the Pats only because I'm trying out a new "Always take elite QBs on super-short weeks" theory.

Vikings (+6) over BEARS
Q: Have you realized the official "Good" bad team of the NFL has slipped under all our radars? It's the Bears! Don't believe me? Go check. Name their best win. At a schizo Dallas team? Monday night home game against Detroit? The Indy win looks better now, but that was still week 1 against a rookie quarterback. Meanwhile, the two definite playoff teams on the schedule were losses (Houston, Green Bay). Watch them lose to San Fran, Green Bay, and to Seattle, and beat Minnesota 2x, Arizona, and Detroit. This is practically pre-ordained.
—Andrew, Milwaukee

SG: Andrew actually sent me this e-mail before the Bears were annihilated in San Francisco and everyone realized, "Oh yeah, I totally forgot the Bears can't block." Clearly, the Bears are the NFC's "Good" bad team, with the Colts and Bengals still duking it out for AFC honors.

That got me thinking: If we held the "Good" Bad Team Super Bowl every February, which "Good" bad city should be the one hosting it? Has to be a cold-weather city, can't be a major city, has to be a sneaky-good city that would also never in a million years be considered a vacation spot … I mean, doesn't the answer HAVE to be Indianapolis? Everyone went to last year's Super Bowl expecting it would suck, and instead, Super Bowl Week overachieved and exceeded everyone's expectations — which, when you think about it, is really the ultimate backhanded compliment. I can't believe I had fun there! That's what you want for the "Good" Bad Team Super Bowl, right?

Congratulations, Indianapolis. I think.

Q: I'm a physical therapist with a board certification as a sports medicine specialist. The big difference with Derrick Rose's ACL recovery versus Adrian Peterson's ACL recovery boils down to one thing: jumping. When you run, you have approximately 4-5 times your body weight worth of ground reaction forces when your leg hits the ground. When you jump it can reach 10-12 times your body weight. Add to that the fact that Adrian Peterson runs on softer turf and grass while Rose is playing on a hard wood court. Football is an obviously grueling sport, but the jumping (and landing) required in basketball is uniquely different and requires the knee and the surrounding musculature to be in a more completely healed and strengthened condition. Returning too quickly can increase the risk of overuse injuries.
—Mike, Maine

SG: Well, the good news for Chicago fans: At least the Bears are this year's "Good" bad team! You have that going for you, right?

Q: Just had the moment when i realized that my girlfriend is the woman I'm going to marry. How did I come to this realization? I am on a business trip outside of my TV market and she texted me updates of the Bulls game through the whole game never wavering or stopping. Is that true love?
—Andrew from Chicago

SG: My hope here is that at least three girlfriends of an "Andrew from Chicago" texted updates during a Bulls game, somehow stumbled across this mailbag and are now expecting a ring on Christmas. Speaking of Chicago, Grantlander Robert Mays is our resident die-hard Bulls/Bears/Cubs fan who still does the thing where he lives and dies with the teams a little too much because he's in his 20s. The Bulls played their only road game against the Clippers on Saturday — I brought my daughter and e-mailed Mays to see if he was going with his season Clipper media pass that the great Rob Raichlen gave him. We had this exchange.

Mays: "I was gonna go tonight, but I got started with this Twilight thing and wanted to knock it out today."

Me: "Your f-ing team is playing. You suck. I am here."

Mays: "I should've noted that I'm pretty sure that's the most shameful sentence I've ever typed. I don't feel great about it."
So if you're scoring at home, here are the "Updated Reasons This Was a Miserable Chicago Sports Year" power rankings …

1. Derrick Rose blows out his ACL up 12 in Game 1 of the first round.
2. No 2012-13 hockey season.
3. The Giants win Super Bowl 46 as Bears fans think, "If Cutler hadn't gotten hurt, that could have been us."
4. Cubs and White Sox both miss the playoffs.
5. Cutler gets hurt again right as the 2012 Bears are looking like contenders.
6. Blackhawks lose in Round 1 to a team that's owned by the NHL.
7. Bulls choose Taj Gibson over Omer Asik, who's about to lead the league in rebounding.
8. Mays sees five Twilight movies in a row, then writes about them over seeing the Bulls for free.

BENGALS (-8) over Raiders

Q: There's no love lost between the Ravens and Steelers, as we kept hearing on Sunday night. But isn't there tons of love lost between the Bengals and Oakland's Carson Palmer? Carson Palmer loved the Bengals and the Bengals loved Carson Palmer — he even made them pseudo relevant bringing them to the unfamiliar territory that is the NFL Playoffs and broke Franchise records for Yards and TDs in a single season. Fast forward: Palmer loses his love for the Franchise and decides he'd rather retire or throw passes to Darius Heyward Bey than A.J. Green. Bengals fans and players lose their love for Palmer for quitting on the team. So there IS love lost in this game. Tons of it. If it's really worth mentioning when there's no love lost shouldn't it be mentioned when there's a lot of love lost?
—Adam Roberts, Chicago

SG: Absolutely! In general, you can't go wrong with any analogy for this game that includes the words "Carson Palmer" and "losing." That reminds me, SportsNation asked this week, "Do you think the Carson Palmer trade was good for Oakland?" Keep in mind, the Raiders gave up a 2012 first-round pick AND a 2013 second-round pick for Palmer and they're 7-13 since the trade. Of those 13 losses, 10 were by double digits and seven were by 20-plus points.

Here were the results of the poll:

69 percent: "No" (Oakland did not make a good trade)
31 percent: "Yes" (Oakland made a good trade)
(I give up.)

Bills (+3) over COLTS

Q: Am I the only one who looks around the plane wondering what "Lost" characters everyone's gonna be?
—@natejohnson32 (via Twitter)

SG: Ever since I saw this tweet, it's ruined flying for me. I can't board an airplane without glancing around and thinking, "That guy might be our Hurley … and that intense guy definitely looks like a potential Locke … " By the way …

1. We're one pseudo-upset away from Buffalo being a player in the wild-card standings. You didn't believe me before last week's Skunk of the Week pick. You still probably don't believe me. But there's an excellent chance that Ryan Fitzpatrick is going to shred Indy's putrid pass defense and pull Buffalo within one game of Indy and Cincy.

2. Starting in Week 3, home teams are 46-81-1 against the spread. Remove Seattle's 5-0 mark and the other 31 teams are 41-81-1. What's the explanation? It's a trend that started for specific reasons (I wrote a big piece about it in 2008), only now, can you even call it a trend? I don't care about home-field advantage anymore unless it's Seattle, New Orleans, Denver and Baltimore, or unless it's a specifically funky situation like a West Coast team playing a 1 p.m. East Coast game, or a dome team playing outdoors in cold weather, or even what happened to Houston this week (a road game 91 hours after an overtime home game). Other than that, what home-field "advantage" scares you? Last week, Brandon Weeden, Mark Sanchez, Chad Henne and the immortal Ryan Lindley all covered on the road. What else do you need to know? It's the kind of year in which Fitzpatrick rolls into a dome and throws for 420 yards and four TDs. You've been warned.

BROWNS (+3) over Steelers
—Danny, San Antonio, TX

SG: CHAZ BATCH! CHAZ BATCH! No!!!! NO!!!!!! NO!!!!!!!

Q: It looked like Shurmur was actually starting to call decent plays yesterday, but then he realized he was being out-Shurmured by Jason Garrett and let's be honest, Pat is a prideful man. So lo and behold, on 4th and goal he decided to have Weeden throw a goal line fade to Jordan Cameron, a classic play that hasn't worked once for the Browns since 1999. Instead of having 4 options all across the field, he elected to run a play with one option and about one square yard of possible touchdown territory. God loves Cleveland.
—Ryan Arnold, Cleveland

SG: God loves Cleveland about as much as my wife loves having three NFL games every Thanksgiving. My nominee for "funniest sports article of the year that wasn't trying to be funny even a little": This Columbus Dispatch piece about Cleveland's increasingly ambitious end-of-the-game struggles includes (a) the revelation that the Browns have lost a league-leading 18 games by seven points or less since 2010 (18!!!!!); (b) Pat Shurmur's solution to this revelation is simply, "We just have to find a way to finish" (oh, is that it?); and (c) Shurmur's steadfast belief that his 2-8 Browns "have a whole locker room full of winners. This whole organization is full of winners. We just have to put it all together and do it."

Sadly, poor Pat is overlooking the bigger issue here …

Q: You often mention it, but as a Clevelander I have a question that I can't figure out: WHY does God hate Cleveland? What did we do to deserve SIX DECADES of nightmarish failure across all major sports? Are we simply unlucky, or is God just a dick?
—Daniel, Cleveland

SG: I guess the silver lining is that we've narrowed it down to those two choices, right?

Q: I finally figured out that I would enjoy watching the Browns ten times more if I never had to see a shot of our head coach. One look at Pat Shurmur is enough to destroy my confidence in all areas of life. In fact, this has been the case for every Browns coach since in the last thirteen years. Do you think I could pay DirecTV extra for the "no-looking-at-the-head-coach-option"? You're all about improving sports, right? If you promise you can bring this about, you have my vote for Sports Czar.
—Luke, Louisville

SG: Done deal, Luke. Adding that to my platform. And actually, you got me thinking — I had some pretty low moments as a Patriots fan during my first 30 years, but I can't remember ever sinking so low that I would have paid money to not see my own inept coach's face during games. I went the other way — I liked seeing my inept coaches! At least we could make fun of them, right? That's what the pre-Belichick Pats fans did. I made fun of Raymond Berry for being a mannequin, Rod Rust for being a walking corpse (actually, it's been 24 years and that still can't be ruled out), Dick MacPherson for carrying himself like a drunk uncle at a wedding, and Pete Carroll for being the real-life Fredo Corleone. You need to flip this Shurmur thing around. Have some fun with it. You have a whole fan base full of winners, Luke. You just have to put it all together and do it.

Broncos (-10.5) over CHIEFS
Q: This is the year of Colorado — we legalized pot, landed a rejuvenated Peyton, and have you constantly picking against the Broncos. Thanks so much and keep up the reverse-reverse jinx.
—Dan H, Fort Collins, CO

SG: I think you win this week by 40 points. Seriously.

Q: Do you realize that the Chiefs haven't had a QB that they've drafted, win a game for them since 1987 (Todd Blackledge)! 1987!!! That's a quarter of a century!
—Brian Godish, Elgin, IL

SG: Ladies and gentlemen, your 2012 Kansas City Chiefs!

Q: Read this immediately. Ladies and gentlemen, your 2012 Kansas City Chiefs!
—Aaron Wheeler, San Antonio

SG: Crap, I jumped the gun. Here's the big question, though: Which remaining game will the Chiefs stupidly win to screw up their stranglehold on the no. 1 overall pick? The three most likely candidates: home for 2-8 Carolina (Week 13), at 2-8 Cleveland (Week 14) and at 3-7 Oakland (Week 15). Who else is fired up for that Chiefs-Browns matchup? It's the Self-Loathing Super Bowl!

Q: Did you know the Manning Face has been replaced by the Cage Face?
—Joshua F, Honolulu, Hawaii

SG: I did not! Question: Why did it take until 2012 for someone to make a page of Nic Cage's face superimposed on various things? This should have been one of the first 10 things that happened on the Internet, right?

Q: Is there any athlete competing right now that has a better shot at being President of the United States of America after they retire than Peyton Manning? Think about it. He can carry the South because of growing up in Louisiana and playing at Tennessee. He can carry the Mid West because of his time in Indianapolis. Eli brings him New York and now he gets the chunks of the West through Denver. His Q rating, at least a few years ago, was the highest of any active athlete. I'm not saying he retires and immediately runs, but maybe after a few terms as a congressman or senator, we really could have a President Manning in the White House.
—Jon Vafiadis, New York

SG: Wasn't this the plot of The Omen III with Sam Neill? I'm not even going to wait for Manning to win the presidency before I move to London — as soon as he becomes a senator, I'm out of here. Put me down for Tottenham Hotspur season tickets in 2020 just to be safe.

BUCS (+1) over Falcons
Q: Five interceptions in one game? That's a "Delhomme." Five interceptions and a lost fumble is a "Full Delhomme." A "Full Delhomme" in the playoffs is a "Royal Delhomme." For example: Atlanta was fortunate to overcome Matt Ryan's Delhomme to defeat the Cardinals.
—Murray, Greenville, SC

SG: Good idea. I'd like the ability to use it as a verb as well, as in, "Atlanta improved to 9-1 despite getting Delhommed by Matt Ryan." Also, let's make sure this doesn't affect my other attempt to make Carson Palmer's name a verb for all game-ending interceptions that happened during a seemingly promising drive — as in, "The Jaguars were driving for the game-tying touchdown with two minutes to go, but Houston clinched the game when Chad Henne carsonpalmered." In other news, I continue to be totally, unequivocally, 100 percent sold on Skinny Josh Freeman and the undeniably explosive Bucs. That reminds me …

Seahawks (-3) over DOLPHINS
Q: Do you realize you dumped your former podcast flame Josh Freeman for Russell Wilson and the Seahawks, then Freeman lost 20 pounds and became an All-Pro quarterback? It's just like real life! Josh Freeman is like a scorned ex-girlfriend! He did everything but hire a personal trainer and start showing up at your favorite bars wearing skin-tight outfits just to mess with you. I wish there was a way they could play in the playoffs. Regardless this is my favorite love triangle since Dawson, Pacey and Joey.
—Bill, Los Angeles

SG: Fine, I wrote that one. Just know that Russell and I are very happy right now. And I wish the best for Skinny Josh.

Q: Last night I was watching Halloween with my roommate. Right after Annie gets killed by Michael, my roommate (who hadn't seen the movie in over 10 years) asked "Her dad's the sheriff right? And he knew that Michael Myers was on the loose? Why didn't he tell her to come home or at least try and warn her?" I had no answer. You can say he wasn't trying to cause a panic, but I'm pretty sure no parent would leave things to chance with their kid like that. Halloween is my favorite scary movie ever and one of my top five favorite movies of all time, and I think it has just been effectively ruined. I need a drink. It's 9:08 AM.
—Pete Bladel, New York

SG: I've seen Halloween more times than any movie other than 48 Hrs., wrote an entire fake SportsCentury episode about Myers in 2002, and even drove my 5-year-old son over to the street where they filmed the last 45 minutes of the movie and took this picture of him last month. You don't believe me? Look.

So you came to the right place, Pete Bladel. For everyone else, if you don't care about a 34-year-old movie that also happens to be the greatest and most influential horror movie ever made, scroll down to the next game. No hard feelings. If you do care, here are the top eight flaws from Halloween in reverse order from eight to one …

Flaw No. 8: At the beginning of the movie, we see Dr. Loomis and a nurse driving to Myers's mental hospital. Myers steals their car and drives another 150 miles to Haddonfield, then spends Halloween driving around and does the following things: goes to his old house; goes to a graveyard to steal his sister's grave; goes downtown, breaks into the hardware store and steals some rope, some knives and a mask; goes down to the high school and starts stalking three female girls; continues to stalk the girls; then follows them in his car to their babysitting gigs across town. At no point does the car run out of gas. Was this a futuristic station wagon Chevy Volt?

Flaw No. 7: Despite a potential serial killer being on the loose and potentially returning to Haddonfield, and despite Dr. Loomis's devout opinion that Myers is "purely and simply evil" and will definitely kill again on the 15th anniversary of his last murder, when the sheriff asks Loomis whether they should get the word out that Myers might be in Haddonfield — via TV and radio — Loomis talks him out of it because "they'll see him on every street corner" before deciding they're better off "just keeping an eye out for him." In this case, "they" includes Loomis, the sheriff and two other cops covering an entire town. Call me crazy, but I think they were better off with Plan B: letting everyone in Haddonfield know about the escaped psychopath.

Flaw No. 6: Myers spent 15 years in a mental hospital before engineering his savvy escape on the night before Halloween (1978), when he had just turned 21 years old. How did he escape? By stealing a car and effortlessly driving away — even though he had never, at any point, driven a car before. This was so preposterous that they even mention it in the movie — Loomis claims that Myers is going back to Haddonfield, one of the doctors says, "For God's sake, Sam, he can't even drive a car," and Loomis snaps, "HE WAS DOING VERY WELL LAST NIGHT!" Also, how did he get to Haddonfield without a navigation system? You'd have to think that, if Myers was really the bogeyman, then he's possessed by Satan (which means Satan was guiding the car). You know what? I just talked myself into it.

Flaw No. 5: Myers finds the Haddonfield graveyard (again, he hasn't been outside since he was 6), finds his sister's grave without a map or any help, removes the heavy tombstone, carries it to his car and gets it into his car. Underrated ridiculous.

Flaw No. 4: Myers spends Halloween brazenly driving around in a green station wagon that's been reported stolen the previous night — he goes to the local high school, downtown, spends some time at his house, you name it. Does anyone notice the creepy green car with the "FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY" tag on it and the masked weirdo behind the wheel? Of course not.

Flaw No. 3: Dr. Loomis spends Halloween night staking out Myers's old house. After multiple hours of just standing there near the house, he turns around and somehow notices the stolen station wagon … which has been sitting there for hours. It's right behind him! Really?

Flaw No. 2: Despite spending the last 15 years in a mental hospital, 21-year-old Michael Myers instinctively knows how to cut the power and phone lines for TWO houses? I wouldn't know how to cut the power and/or cut the phone lines of my house right now, at age 43.

Flaw No. 1: Annie's father (the sheriff) never tells his daughter, "Hey, honey, you're babysitting tonight? Please be careful — there's a 10 percent chance a serial killer might be on the loose who has a history of killing cute girls in your age range." How does she not get a heads-up?????? I was fine with every other flaw in the movie, but Pete Bladel just ruined it for me — as a father with a daughter, I'm appalled. No heads-up for Annie???? Nothing?

JAGS (+3) over Titans
Q: I'm sure you've had PLENTY of emails from NHL fans wanting to "strike" against the NHL during this lockout. But has anyone considered forming the NHLFU (National Hockey League Fan Union)? What if somebody were to create a website for it and fans would sign up, and pledge to "strike" against the NHL for the first game of the season? Sure, fans will show up to the first game, but imagine each teams first home game having 1000 members of the NHLFU outside the arena picketing against Gary Bettman? And why stop there? Heck, just to make sure the FUs stay relevant, they could set up strikes midway through the season on principle alone. Theoretically, you could create FUs for the other sports leagues in anticipation of their next lockout.
—Adam, Sierra Vista, AZ

SG: (Making a squinty/crying Renee Zellweger face.) You had me at NHLFU, Adam. You had me at NHLFU.

Q: Things are not so bad in Canada with the lockout. I mean, the Montreal Gazette just assigned the Canadiens' beat writer to cover a full season played out on EA Sports NHL 13 (link to coverage of the Hab's 2-0 win over the Avalanche is here). Almost as good as the real thing … And we have Gary Bettman to thank for showing us how resilient and resourceful we are as a nation! Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go the shower and cry for the next 3 hours.
—Robert Panetta

SG: That's all you need to know about the NHL lockout: We aren't playing hockey even though Canadians love hockey so much that Montreal's biggest newspaper is covering simulated hockey video games like they're real. Are you kidding me????????

Q: My buddy and I are arguing over what a drink called the "Gary Bettman" should be. Our best so far: get the cheapest beer (Karpackie over here) and cheapest whiskey (Tesco has one called, quite simply, "Irish Whiskey" for 8 euro), drop the shot in the beer, down it, then get punched in the balls by someone shouting, "We made a bad deal!" We're thinking about creating drinks for all the commissioners. Thoughts?
—Greg, Dublin, Ireland

SG: Hmmmm …

The David Stern: Any whiskey that hung around for three years too long, mixed with bitters.

The Bud Selig: Any cocktail that can only be enjoyed if you're 40 years old and over.

The Roger Goodell: A quintuple shot of 151-proof Russian vodka, followed by the customer passing out, hitting his head on the bar and giving himself a concussion, followed by various studies about the dangers of this drink, followed by people continuing to do this drink for another four years before bartenders stop serving it.

Q: My phone autocorrects Bettman to Buttman. This is with factory defaults. Is there anybody who actually likes this guy?
—Julian, Berkeley, CA

SG: Yes — everyone running the NBA. They all like him. Less than 20 years ago, Sports Illustrated was running cover stories like this one. I'd say Bettman has more than a few fans in the NBA offices. And speaking of fans, is it just me or does Chad Henne look shockingly competent this season? He single-handedly tripled the value of Justin Blackmon's rookie cards last week. I think Jacksonville wins this game outright. You heard me.

Ravens (-1) over CHARGERS
Q: I grew up in S.D., live here now and never thought the Chargers would leave. Then LT left, A.J. and Norv stayed, and Rivers turned into Jake Delhomme. Now I don't know. Please say something wise to make me feel better.
—Smitty, San Diego

SG: Getting a lot of these lately — San Diegans haven't been this bummed out since Veronica Corningstone broke into Ron Burgundy's teleprompter. Normally you'd say, "The Ravens are a mediocre road team, they struggle on the West Coast and they've been doing it with mirrors all season, this has all the makings of a classic 'Just when you thought Norv was done, the Chargers come roaring back!'" game … but the Eagles and Chargers can't block and seem like they've checked out for good. The play that ended the Denver game — when Rivers got sacked inside his own 20 with 13 seconds left, got up and inexplicably started walking off the field down by seven points — was the all-time "I give up, I just want this season to end" play. Both the Chargers and Eagles have achieved "I need to see you win one before I pick you again" status. How great would it be if they just flipped coaches for the stretch run? Why not?

Q: You've found your true calling in life. Your old website, your time at ESPN, the BS Report, Grantland … these are all just warm-ups for filling the Ryan Seacrest role on "House Eats."
—Brian Lundberg, Seattle

SG: There's no question, Part 1.

Q: Is there a cooler sports arena nickname than "The Slim Gym" (Jenny Craig Pavillion at the University of San Diego)?
—Thomas B, Del Mar, CA

SG: There's no question, Part 2.

Q: Did CBS just replace Dan Fouts with Greg Stink and not tell anybody?
—Dan, Charlotte, NC

SG: There's no question, Part 3.

SAINTS (+3) over 49ers
Q: As a devoted reader on the weekly picks column, I am praying that you are a few steps ahead of me in discussing the frightening parallels between the 49ers and Any Given Sunday. Colin Kaepernick to Steamin' Willie Beamen, Randy Moss to Bill Bellamy, Vernon Davis to LL Cool J (regardless of the position difference), Smith to Quaid. I have not sold myself yet on the Harbaugh to Pacino issue and cannot seem to find a character that is similar to the real LT's character due to the young defense in SF. I am hoping you may be able to address some of these concerns as I settle in for football this weekend with 2 screaming children under the age of 3.
—Don, Hoboken

SG: Come on, Harbaugh could totally belt out the "Life's a game of inches!" speech. As much as I love Kaepernick's Willie Beamen potential, this one falls apart with the Alex Smith/Dennis Quaid analogy. I've seen Cap Rooney, I've enjoyed Cap Rooney … Alex Smith, you're no Cap Rooney. With that said, the Niners would be insane to flip QBs right now. Too risky. If it doesn't work out, and if Kaepernick ended up being a one-hit wonder against a Bears defense that never expected him to be that aggressive, then they could never go back to Smith. I've written this before, but QBs are like girlfriends — you cannot juggle them when both of them know they're being juggled. In the history of mankind, it's never worked.

Q: My wife read that saliva is somehow hostile towards sperm, so now "baby making sex" comes with zero foreplay. F you, Science.
—John P, Redwood City

SG: (Afraid to say anything.)

Q: How come nobody has discussed the curse associated with hosting the Superbowl? None of the Superbowl hosting teams has made the playoffs over the last 10+ seasons, and none have reached double digit wins. New York is hosting next year, can I bank on Eli Manning getting hurt next year and the Giants mailing in a 6-10 season?
'03 — San Diego 8-8
'04 — Houston 5-11
'05 — Jacksonville 9-7
'06 — Detroit 5-11
'07 — Miami 6-10
'08 — Arizona 8-8
'09 — Tampa Bay 9-7
'10 — Miami 7-9
'11 — Dallas 6-10
'12 — Indy 2-14
'13 — New Orleans TBD (Not looking good though)
—Shane, Denver

SG: I wouldn't call that a curse; more of a confusing trend. But yeah, that's pretty weird. Anyway, I thought about this game, I thought about it, I thought about it, I thought about it … and I'm just tired of going against the Saints. Such a resilient team. There's something bigger going on right now than just a seemingly lousy football team that pulled it together — they're in Eff You mode, they're incredibly proud, they have bonded with their fans and their city to almost unprecedented degrees, they're united against Roger Goodell (who handled the Bounty debacle inappropriately, to say the least), they reestablished their identity ("we can score on anyone"), and they just refuse to roll over and go away. If Tebow's 2011 season lended itself to the fake Disney sports movie Fourth and God, then this 2012 Saints season could definitely be flipped by Disney into the inspirational sports movie Bounty. I'm in.

Q: Watching Alton threaten to quit The Challenge while rock-climbing a four-foot wall was a much bigger disappointment than the doping of Lance Armstrong. Alton was superhuman the last challenge. Now he throws tantrums. It's painful enough to watch legendary athletes continue far past their prime (e.g., Jerry Rice, Roy Jones Jr.), but watching one become old and crotchety and irrational is far worse. And yes, I do realize I just compared Alton to arguably the best wide receiver and middleweight of all time.
—Ben H., Atlanta

SG: And even worse, I was reading along and thinking, Ben's right, he's totally right.

Rams (+3) over CARDS
Q: Rams score a TD on Sunday to make it 27-13 with convert to come. Fisher goes for two. Don't check. He did. For real. He was asked about it. His answer will astonish you and reveal what a nimwit he is.
His 'reasoning' is in the last paragraphs of this article: "We just needed points. The 14s still going to do it, we just needed points. So, get as many points as we can get down there." Huh?
—Randall, Toronto

SG: This is tremendous. I gotta be honest — I was worried about the 2013 season, specifically a comedy-free NFL coaching world that didn't have Andy Reid, Norv Turner, Romeo Crennel, Jason Garrett and Pat Shurmur in it. We need to start grooming new fodder for next year's column. A coach ignoring the conversion chart and saying, "We just needed points" is the kind of stuff I'm looking for. You keep it up, Jeff Fisher.

Q: It's been 16 years since Jerry Maguire came out and Rod Tidwell took that big hit on Monday Night Football. Doesn't Tidwell have dementia by now? Would Cameron Crowe have the balls to write the sequel with Jerry Maguire taking another stand, this time against an evil commissioner?
—Lyle Morgan, Oxford, MS

SG: There's no question that Rod Tidwell is divorced, bankrupt, living with his loser brother and ducking an Outside the Lines camera crew as we speak. He had three concussions in the movie alone. Poor Rod Tidwell. Five other fictional sports movie characters who are probably miserable right now:

Ivan Drago — Had to leave Russia after everyone there started rooting for Rocky during the Balboa-Drago fight, further disgraced after he lost the heavyweight title in 1993 thanks to a massive steroids scandal, probably working as either a bouncer or a greeter in Vegas right now.

Shane Falco — Scab.

Roy Hobbs — Living on that farm with Glenn Close, who definitely resents him for getting involved with Barbara Hershey's "Lady in Black" character, then not calling her for 20 years. This definitely comes up every time she has two glasses of wine and starts getting mean.

Jesus Shuttlesworth — Still playing in the NBA in his late 30s, although he just made a terrible decision to stab his 2008 championship teammates in the back so he could play for their biggest rival. Now living a lie in Miami as LeBron James's decoy.

Shooter McGavin — Went into a spiral post–Happy Gilmore, probably lost a lot of money with Bernie Madoff, definitely texted a dong photo that landed on a sports blog.

Q: As I sat and watched Taken 2, I could not help but notice the motivation dialogue from Liam during the car chase. TURN LEFT!!! YOU NEED TO GO FASTER!! YOU CAN DO IT!! I feel like if navigation companies adopted him as a voice there would be a need for an additional setting — Liam Neeson mode where you get to your destination twice as fast. It doesn't stop with just navigation because I am fairly certain Liam Neeson could motivate me to do anything better.
—Patrick, Minneapolis

SG: I've written before about how much I wanted Sam Jackson to be my car's navigation voice — Liam Neeson is even better. In all seriousness, why wouldn't some of these automobile companies offer this? Would it really be that much harder than having a football announcer record all the soundbites for Madden? I'd absolutely pay more for Liam Neeson Navigation; there's no question that I could drive from Los Angeles to Vegas in three hours with Liam spurring me on.

GIANTS (-3) over Packers
Q: Is it possible that older brother, Peyton, may have passed on the notorious "Noodle Arm" to younger bro, Eli? Peyton lost it in Week 4, with the slow transfer to Eli lasting until he was fully endowed between week 7 and 8. Is this possible? If true, we can be thankful the "Noodle Transfer" is a slow process.
—Hunter S., Commack

SG: So you're saying Archie Manning intervened and said, "Eli, you've already won two Super Bowls, you need to do this for your brother" and had them effectively switch powers? I like this theory more than the one I had been hashing out — that the Manning brothers decided to reenact the movie Face/Off and actually switched faces after Week 2. Speaking of the Mannings, I'd like to congratulate them for pulling off the rarely seen "I'm Doing Better Than You" sibling career prosperity double-switch
— originally, Peyton was doing much better than Eli, then they flipped for a few years, and now Peyton is back on top — something that had only been done previously by the Shues (Elisabeth and Andrew), Klitschkos (Wlad and Vitali) and Batemans (Jason and Justine). And yes, Eli and the Giants have America right where they want them — here comes the "Nobody Believes in Us" run that everyone sniffed out already.

Q: How pumped are you that Grantland now pops up ahead of Grant Hill when typing in G R A N T on google's search bar?
—Jon Vickers, Little Rock

SG: Hey, Grant Hill?

Panthers (+2.5) over EAGLES
Q: With next Monday night's matchup between the Eagles and Panthers being completely pathetic and guaranteed to draw terrible ratings, I thought of the perfect way to generate interest: ESPN should hire Vince McMahon to promote this as a "Loser Leaves Town" match between Andy Reid and Ron Rivera. The losing coach will be fired immediately after the game on national TV. Both of these guys are goners anyway so why not spice up this game with a unique concept?
—Casey, Charlotte

SG: As a longtime proponent of the "Loser Leaves Town" concept with embattled NFL coaches, I have to say, this Panthers-Eagles game might be the best candidate ever for the concept. I'm picking the Panthers only because they're a little better than you think, and the Eagles are a lot worse than you think. Regardless, let's agree to make a concerted effort not to watch a single minute of this game.

Q: Has anyone ever told you that you and Todd McShay look like douchey versions of one another? Like, depending on the picture you use or the viewer's personal preference, he's the douchey version of you and vice versa? I think I nailed it.
—Zach, Atlanta

SG: Uh-oh, we're suddenly in range.

Q: I'm a 38 year old Caucasian heterosexual male with two young children and a happy marriage. Is it ok to be turned on by the Chamique Holdsclaw/Jennifer Lacy story? If yes, please destroy this message. If no, please destroy this message.
—Boney Lee, Laconia, NH

SG: Yup, these are my readers. Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.

Last Week: 10-4
Season: 83-74-3


Chelsea's European dreams hang by a thread

By: timbersfan, 1:13 AM GMT on November 21, 2012

The bitter coincidence couldn't have been overlooked by Chelsea. The beleaguered Blues were in Turin for a critical Champions League clash against Juventus. Win, and Roberto Di Matteo's side would have been in a strong position in Group E. Lose, and Chelsea would be looking at the bleak prospect of heading into the final matchday in December with little hope of reaching the knockout stage and, instead, finishing in third place -- a position that would see them demoted to the Europa League, which will be held in Turin for the 2013-14 season.

Clive Rose/Getty Images
Fernando Torres put in another depressing shift after coming on as a substitute in Turin.
But given the way Chelsea have been playing of late, reaching even the current edition of Europe's much-maligned JV competition is way, way off. In Turin, Di Matteo's side was beaten handily 3-0 by Juventus. The Blues defended well and had their chances in the first half, especially on the counter, yet the Bianconeri showed their class on both sides of the ball on a night when they also were less than clinical in front of goal.

Although Juventus deservedly walked into halftime with the lead, and ended the match with a commanding victory, Chelsea will be left with recriminations.

Before the match, Twitter was alight with speculation about Fernando Torres. Would he start? El Nino was taken off in the 62nd minute in a losing effort against West Brom at the weekend, the latest warning sign that the 50-million-pound man was out of sorts. At one point in that match, Torres raised his hand to signal handball against the opposition, a gesture that demonstrated little passion for the proceedings on the pitch. He struck a figure of a man sleepwalking through a nightmare. So it was of little surprise that Di Matteo left Torres on the bench at the start against Juventus.

However, it was a bit of a shock that the manager decided to do it Spain-style, with no strikers up top. Granted, with the magnificent three in Oscar, Juan Mata and Eden Hazard, Chelsea has the talent to tiki-taka their way around the pitch to create chances. And, indeed, they looked decent on the break in the first half. In the 10th minute, Oscar broke free of Andrea Barzagli and laid the ball off to Hazard on the right, but Gianluigi Buffon was up to the challenge.

There would be other opportunities on the break for Chelsea, including Oscar again in the 36th minute, when he received the ball from Ramires, cut back on his favorite right foot and shot. Di Matteo put a lot on the shoulders of Hazard as well. "[Eden] Hazard had the first good chance for us, I thought he played the [lone forward] position well, held the ball up and put some great balls in," the manager told UEFA. "I wanted to give problems to Juventus in different ways, not to give them a point of reference."

But with Petr Cech left to do a lot of defending – he raised his game heroically until a bizarre gaffe at the end – Juve took the lead when the bane of England, Andrea Pirlo, took a shot that was then redirected by Fabio Quagliarella, leaving a wrong-footed Cech with no chance.

Second-half goals by Arturo Vidal and Sebastian Giovinco – the latter happened when Cech flew off his line, leaving Giovinco with a toe-poke finish – iced the game for the defending Serie A champion. But it's the manner in which Chelsea gradually receded that will be a major talking point here. Some sturdy defending in the first half by the likes of Ashley Cole (whose yeoman effort to clear the ball of the line saved another goal), the ever-dependable Branislav Ivanovic and Gary Cahill gave way to an entire side that mirrored its wayward Spanish striker.

Torres came on in the 71st minute, and it took a few more before he even got his first touch. He didn't score. And no one else around him looked up for the match at the point, either, a sea of blue-shirted slouching shoulders and hung heads. El Nino has been given a chance to resurrect himself, including Chelsea re-building the side this past summer with magically gifted midfielders who were supposed to be able to play the ball into Torres' path. That was the game plan, right?

Last season, the company line was that Torres couldn't partner with Didier Drogba. What's the excuse now? There can be none. This isn't to take pleasure in Torres' misery, a bit of schadenfreude from the sidelines, but surely he'd be better off elsewhere if Chelsea can find a buyer with deep pockets.

There can also be no excuses for Di Matteo, no easy way to explain away his lineup choices in Turin. Chelsea's domestic campaign has sputtered, and their Champions League prospects are grim: They must beat Nordsjaelland at Stamford Bridge and hope Juventus lose to Shakhtar Donetsk, or else it'll be the Europa League in the new year for the defending European Cup champion.

By then, will RdM still have a job? "At a big club like this, if you have a few bad results you're going to be under pressure," Di Matteo said. "It's been the same from day one." Or will Roman Abramovich buy him a new striker? For that matter, will Torres be part of the side? More to the point, does he deserve to be? On this night in Turin, when Chelsea could have used him most, even his manager knew better.


Crowded at the NFL Summit

By: timbersfan, 12:48 PM GMT on November 20, 2012

Isn't this the most wide-open NFL MVP race in recent memory? With seven weeks to go, I think you could poll 100 football fans and get 15 different legitimate answers for league MVP. Last year, Aaron Rodgers was just about the odds-on favorite from start to finish, but this year, there's been three or four different players atop the MVP leaderboard at different points of the season. We may actually get a relatively split ballot for the first time in five years. It's going to be a fun race to track over these next two months.

Of course, I want to get in on the ground floor before those next two months play out; there's a foolish prediction to be made, so it's my duty to stick my neck out and make it. In the past, I've gone through the history of MVP races since 19831 and tried to identify the trends that consistently identify who will win the Associated Press–sponsored trophy. As it turns out, there are three basic criteria that serve to identify a sole winner in virtually every season:

1. Your team has to win the division title. It helps to finish as a no. 1- or no. 2-seed in the conference, of course, but only two players since 1983 — Marshall Faulk in 2000 and Peyton Manning in 2008 — have won the MVP without their team claiming the division title. A lot can change between now and the end of the season, but that rule would seem to eliminate important, deserving players on teams who aren't likely to win their divisions like Andrew Luck and Adrian Peterson. I'm not going to rule out those guys, but it's a knock on their likelihood of winning the prize.

2. It's important to win the fantasy points title. Since 1991, only Peyton Manning (2008 and 2009) has managed to win the MVP title without also simultaneously leading the league in fantasy points scored by a player at his position. A boon, undoubtedly, to the MVP chances of league-leading kicker Lawrence Tynes and his 113 fantasy points from this season. This one would cast aspersions on the campaigns of candidates like Joe Flacco (14th in fantasy points) and Eli Manning (18th).

3. If you're not a quarterback, you have to be transcendent. Being merely the best running back, wide receiver, or pass rusher in the league simply isn't enough to win MVP. Four non-quarterback winners of the MVP set a touchdown record at their given position during their fateful seasons. Barry Sanders and Terrell Davis each hit the gaudy 2,000-yard figure during their MVP years. And if you can't do any of that, you'll need to be Lawrence Taylor, the destructive force who produced 20.5 sacks on the league's best defense while (arguably) changing the game forever. J.J. Watt has been fantastic this year, but will people still be talking about his season 25 years from now in the same way they talk about that version of LT?

The other tricky part is that, because this race is so close, you can't just pick a player as a likely winner based on what he's done so far; you have to project each candidate through the rest of the season and guess how he's going to perform over those final seven weeks.

In the end, I found seven candidates who I think have a reasonable shot of making a run at the MVP award, with Flacco, Eli Manning, and the injured Ben Roethlisberger coming up just short of viability. The candidates are spread across six different teams, and the only teams that rate among the league's best without a listed candidate are Chicago (whose best candidate, Charles Tillman, won't get a vote), San Francisco (Frank Gore, whose brilliance is on a per-carry basis without having the cumulative impact needed to attract attention), and the New York Giants (Eli Manning, who is in the middle of a cold streak and won't have the numbers to hang).

You will probably disagree, but just remember one thing: At least it's not Mark Moseley. From least likely to most …

7. Tom Brady

It's hard for me to rule Tom Brady out of any MVP race, if only because the Patriots are consistently going to be very good and Brady is going to always put up numbers. Quietly, Brady has been creeping up to the top of the quarterback charts again; he's got Rob Gronkowski (five touchdowns in his last three games) cooking again, and he's completing 64.8 percent of his passes while throwing six touchdowns for each of his three interceptions.

Brady also has a schedule that's seemingly built for him to get anointed as the king of the second half: He plays the Colts, Jets, and Dolphins the next three weeks, and then he has two tough back-to-back matchups against the Texans and 49ers. If he puts up huge numbers against the first three teams and then manages to win both the Houston and San Francisco games with a big play or two, the narrative might be enough to swing Brady up into the MVP hunt. It wouldn't be much different from his run to the MVP in 2010, when he followed that terrible game against the Browns with an eight-game winning streak that saw him go 158-for-231 (68.4 percent) with 2,074 passing yards and 22 touchdowns while avoiding even a single interception. If he does that again, Brady is the MVP.

6. Adrian Peterson

Right now, Adrian Peterson's probably second or third in the MVP voting. You know the story: Ten months after ripping his knee to shreds, AD has come back and become the best running back in football. Again. After we cringed and worries about him with every cut and juke during the first few weeks of the season, Peterson is a joy to watch again. He leads the league in rushing yards (1,128) and is averaging a robust 5.8 yards per carry despite playing in an offense with a below-average passing game that doesn't threaten anybody deep.

My biggest concern for Peterson's MVP candidacy is strength of schedule. After making his way through an easy slate at the beginning of the year, Peterson and his Vikings will return after their bye this weekend and face two games each against the Bears and Packers, plus matchups with the Texans and Rams. Even if Peterson manages to get his yards in those games, the Vikings are likely to be losing their fair share of those matchups, and it's going to be hard for the electorate to pick the running back on a third-place team, even if he leads the league in rushing yardage. And while Peterson's remarkable comeback undoubtedly helps his chances some, he's also stuck playing in a year where an even more notable player is impressing after a comeback from a scary injury, which takes away some of his vote. Then again, I know I certainly didn't expect this Adrian Peterson to be back this early, so it might very well be stupid to count him out.

5. Arian Foster

4. J.J. Watt
It seems likely that the Texans will finish with the league's best record. Football Outsiders projects them to finish with a league-high 12.7 wins, a 65.5 percent shot at taking the top seed in the AFC and a 4.3 percent chance of going 15-1. They still have four games left against the AFC South along with matchups versus the Lions, Patriots, and Vikings, so their schedule isn't exactly insurmountable. Of all the players on this list, Foster and Watt2 have the best shot of ending up playing on the league's most decorated team at the time when voters are sending in their ballots.

So why aren't they higher? Well for one, they're each going to cannibalize some of the vote from the other. Foster has been a workhorse for the Texans with Ben Tate injured and Andre Johnson struggling for most of the year, but he hasn't been a dominant back. He's averaging a mere 3.9 yards per carry, down a full yard from his average during his breakout season, and he's on pace to finish with 1,550 rushing yards and 18 rushing touchdowns. Those are impressive numbers, but not so impressive that they attract MVP votes. DeAngelo Williams had 1,515 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns for the Panthers in 2008, and he didn't get a single MVP vote.

Watt's production and ascension have been more notable. He's almost unquestionably going to be regarded as the Defensive Player of the Year, and being the best player on that side of the ball is a good thing to have on your résumé if you're going to win MVP without taking snaps under center. The problem, sadly, is that Watt's production has tapered off a bit from the absurd levels he was at in September and October. He had 9.5 sacks and 10 passes defensed in seven games before Houston's bye; since then, he has a single sack and no passes defensed in two games. He's undoubtedly getting more attention from the hopelessly overmatched blocking schemes that face the Texans, but voters don't give out awards for double-teams drawn. For Watt to get serious MVP consideration, he probably has to get back to that level of pre-bye production and maintain it over the rest of the year.

3. Aaron Rodgers

For fun, let's split out Rodgers's performance in 2012 by the end of that disastrous Seahawks game and compare his performance in those splits to how he performed in 2011.

Time Split Cmp Att Cmp% Yds Yds/Att TD INT
2011 343 502 68.3% 4,643 9.2 45 6
2012, Wks 1-3 78 115 67.8% 745 6.5 3 2
2012, Wks 4-10 141 212 66.5% 1,638 7.7 22 3
He's not quite all the way back to his 2011 level, because the issues with his offensive line and injuries to Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson have mostly taken the big play out of Green Bay's arsenal, but Rodgers has been nearly as deadly this year after the Seahawks game as he was a year ago. Of course, that's also cheating: Those first three games count, they came against a set of excellent pass defenses (Seahawks, Bears, and 49ers), and Rodgers wasn't all that effective in them.

With that being said, Rodgers is going to be facing some porous secondaries over the next six games, as he gets two games against the Lions, a matchup with the Titans, and even one against the Giants. For what it's worth, I think Rodgers is playing at roughly the same level that he was a year ago. Voters for awards in all sports have a built-in bias against picking the same guy in consecutive seasons, though, and the injury issues around him have caused Rodgers's numbers to drop from the lofty heights of 2011. Voters aren't slaves to the numbers (unless they're looking at RBIs), but it's hard to pick a guy to win MVP again when his numbers fall.

2. Matt Ryan

Unlike Matt Schaub, who gets very little attention as a possible MVP candidate in Houston, Ryan is basically seen as the only electable candidate on his team, despite the presence of his three star receivers. He has late game-winning drives against the Panthers, Raiders, and Redskins on his résumé this year, and had the Falcons remained unbeaten for just a couple more weeks, Ryan's MVP candidacy might have gained so much momentum that it would have been impossible to ignore, even with a loss or two during the second half of the season. He's also the best new candidate for the award, which makes him an exciting possibility for a voting pool that consists of journalists who love narratives more than, say, players or coaches.

The case against Ryan rests on the idea that he has never really had the blow-you-away, you-have-to-pick-me game against a contender that can make an MVP case. His 22-for-29, 262-yard game against the Eagles might qualify if the Eagles were better. Ryan has also had at least one obvious stinker of a game, the three-pick performance against the Raiders that he eventually bailed the team out of with a great final drive. And much of Ryan's candidacy was built on the performance of his team; if the Falcons are merely a very good team that finishes 11-5 or 12-4 as opposed to a dominant 13-3 or 14-2 team, Ryan seems like a less special candidate who belongs in the same space with Brady.

Ryan's remaining schedule is relatively generous, though, and it might help boost his numbers up to the point where he actually does finish with the best statistics in the league. He still has two games to go against the dreadful secondary of the Buccaneers, a matchup each with the Saints and Panthers, and games against the Cardinals, Lions, and Giants, who each fluctuate from very good to very middling depending upon the week. He still has four of his seven games left at home, too, which helps during the winter months.

I think, barring a 15-1 record from the Falcons, Ryan will come up just short. There's a candidate who will appeal to a very sentimental side of the voters in January, one that they'll find hard to resist. Of course, he'll also back it up with his numbers, too.

1. Peyton Manning

Doesn't this seem likely by now? Peyton goes from out of the league to league MVP in the course of a year? Who wouldn't want to vote for that if Manning made it relatively easy for them? And isn't his production doing that by now? Since that loss to the Texans in Week 3, Manning's performance over his next six starts has been otherworldly: He's completing 74.5 percent of his passes and averaging nearly 8.8 yards per attempt while throwing 16 touchdowns against just three picks. 74.5 percent! Mark Sanchez might struggle to complete 74.5 percent of his passes warming up on the sidelines, and he beat Peyton in a playoff game two years ago.

Critically, Manning's numbers should also stay strong because he's done with the difficult part of his schedule. Now the fun begins. The Broncos have two games left against the Chiefs, one against the Chargers and Raiders each, and appearances against the Buccaneers and Browns. The Ravens are the only difficult matchup left on his dance card, and they're falling apart on defense with injuries right now. A second-half surge — or the mere ability to maintain his stunning performance from these past six games — should be enough to earn Manning the MVP trophy for a fifth time.


Arizona's Revolving QB Door

By: timbersfan, 12:46 PM GMT on November 20, 2012

The Matt Ryan–for-MVP bandwagon might be charitably described as empty after Atlanta's narrow victory over Arizona on Sunday. The 23-19 win came about despite a shocking five-interception day from Ryan, who had just seven picks in nine games before he fell apart at home. Several of the interceptions were tipped passes that were turned into tip-drill picks by an opportunistic Arizona defense, but Ryan made his fair share of poor decisions on the day. You don't have a five-interception day through luck alone.

Even more amazing than Ryan's dismal day is that the Falcons were still able to pull out a victory. Ryan became the 38th player since the merger to finish a day with zero touchdowns and five picks, and in those 37 previous games, the quarterback having the truly bad game lost 37 times. No quarterback had won a zero-touchdown, five-interception game since Bart Starr did it for the Packers in 1967.

Of course, just as Ryan and the Falcons tried to throw away the game, the Cardinals were shockingly unwilling to take it. If you plug the starting field position and game situation for each Arizona drive into Brian Burke's point probability estimator, the Cardinals "should" have scored an average of 24 points from their drives. In addition to Atlanta's six turnovers, the Cardinals got a 65-yard kick return from William Powell and a 52-yard run to start a drive by LaRod Stephens-Howling. Even if 24 points represents a low estimate for Arizona's scoring, hitting that total would have been enough to give the Cardinals a one-point win.

Instead, the Cardinals bungled their way through opportunities and scored their only touchdown on their opening drive of the day, one that began on the Atlanta 9-yard line after Ryan's first pick. They had four other drives begin between the Falcons' 16-yard line and 35-yard line, a set of possessions that should produce an average of just under 15 points, but they mustered only two field goals. They lost their final possession of the game on downs after starting from the Atlanta 32-yard line, and actually managed to punt on a drive that began just three yards away from that one in the second quarter. That's where the Cardinals lost the game.

Why were the Cardinals unable to produce on those drives? Well, you can probably start with the decision made by Ken Whisenhunt to bench starter John Skelton. Benching the inaccurate Skelton isn't unwise in a vacuum, but consider the circumstances surrounding the benching. Arizona was coming off their bye week, giving them a two-week stretch where they chose to do nothing about Skelton's middling play and continued to give the former Fordham quarterback the first-team reps in practice. Yet after a 2-for-7 start at the beginning of the game against Atlanta, Whisenhunt chose to bench Skelton — who had a 13-0 lead at the time — for rookie sixth-rounder Ryan Lindley, who proceeded to go for 9-for-20 for 64 yards while losing a fumble that was recovered for a (bizarre) touchdown.

Whisenhunt's decision is almost comically short-sighted on both ends. For one, benching Skelton after seven passes without an interception is absurd. If Whisenhunt is going to cycle through his quarterbacks on whims that quickly, he's going to end up with three quarterbacks who have absolutely no confidence, something that has happened to him and his team in virtually every season that didn't involve Kurt Warner holding the job all year. And if Skelton's leash was really only seven bad passes long, Whisenhunt should have realized that before the bye and made the move to Lindley in advance, giving the rookie a week of practice (and two weeks of mental preparation) before unleashing him into a key game on the road against a playoff team.

As it was, he handed the ball over to an overmatched quarterback with no hope of succeeding. The cumulative performance for sixth- and seventh-round picks as true rookies since 2000 is terrifying: 434-for-819 (53.0 percent), 4,082 yards (5.0 yards per attempt), and 21 touchdowns against 40 interceptions. That's not a shot in the arm for your team; that's a snuff film. It's even worse when you figure that some of those guys at least had practice reps to get somewhat familiar with the starters before their entry into the lineup; Lindley came in cold off the bench with no notice. This was the same Ryan Lindley whom Whisenhunt shot down as a viable option as recently as Halloween. Could anybody really have expected him to do much better than Skelton? Was Whisenhunt the only one?

Unfortunately for the Cardinals, the move pulled the breaks on whatever offense they had and might have cost them even their outside shot of making the playoffs. After a 4-0 start that brought Arizona to an 11-2 record in their previous 13 games, the Cardinals have lost six in a row and still have road games against the Seahawks and 49ers to come. That streaking Cardinals team went 10-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less; since the 4-0 start, Arizona's played three games that were decided by seven points or fewer and obviously lost them all. Their hot streak roughly coincided with the time Kevin Kolb spent in the lineup before getting injured, but don't get correlation and causation confused. Had Kolb stayed healthy, Whisenhunt would probably have found a reason to bench him, too. If this once-promising Arizona season continues to fall apart à la last year's Buccaneers or Bills and Whisenhunt ends up paying for it with his job, his inability to handle the quarterback position will have been his downfall.

A Problem Not Even Breakfast Sandwiches Can Solve

That yelping moan you heard from the Northeast just before the Sunday-night game kicked off was New England's collective response to the news that star Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski had reportedly suffered a fractured forearm, an injury that will keep Gronk out for a minimum of four weeks and likely prevent him from doing this for far longer. Patriots fan or not, I think we can all agree that a world without Rob Gronkowski fist-pumping is one that's a little colder and sadder than it otherwise would be.

Now, you don't need me to tell you how the Patriots are going to be affected by this injury. They're going to suffer in the red zone, where Gronkowski remains a freakishly effective target. They're better situated to handle his absence in the passing game than they were in the Super Bowl last year (when Gronk suited up but was a shell of his normal self), thanks to the addition of Brandon Lloyd and the dramatic improvement in their running game. An offense with Lloyd, Wes Welker, the multi-headed rushing attack, and eventually a returning Aaron Hernandez is still going to be very good. The absence of Gronkowski's dominance as a blocker might slow the running game some and create pressure on right tackle Sebastian Vollmer to do better work. But you can figure all that out yourself.

What I did want to bring up was the absurd discussion that's surrounded the nature of the Gronkowski injury. The Patriots have come in for criticism because Gronkowski reportedly fractured his forearm on New England's final extra point of the game on Sunday, one that gave them a 59-24 lead over the Colts with 3:55 to go in the fourth quarter. Because the game was out of hand, critics say, a valuable property like Gronkowski shouldn't have been on the field to block for an extra-point try.

It's a shortsighted opinion driven entirely by hindsight and outcome. How many times do you see a blocker get hurt on an extra-point play? If it ever happens, it's an injury that occurs once or twice a season. Teams almost always leave their regular personnel on the field for extra-point plays for that exact reason; it's a play with virtually no risk and the tiny reward of developing timing as a unit. It's more dangerous for a valuable asset like Gronkowski to line up for a drive on offense, and the Patriots knew that; they had sat Gronkowski for the entirety of the drive leading up to that extra point. Nobody would have batted an eye at the risk of having Gronkowski be out there for the final extra point had he made it through without an injury. In fact, the play itself was so innocuous that Gronkowski made it onto and off the field without the announcers mentioning his presence or the fact that he'd just broken a bone in his arm on the play.

Furthermore, the Patriots were once lauded for their all-for-one attitude as a team that would throw their starters out on special teams to make plays. Tedy Bruschi, for one, was still playing on special teams as a 32-year-old linebacker in 2005. If you thought that the Patriots fostered a team spirit and improved their special teams by using their starters as special teams assets, well, you don't get to have it both ways. The Patriots didn't do anything wrong by sending Gronkowski in to protect on that final extra point. They just got unlucky.

Thank You for Not Coaching

Ron Rivera did it again, guys! Regular TYFNC readers might remember Rivera's ridiculous decision to pass on a game-sealing fourth-and-inches on the road against the Falcons in Week 4, turning over the ball to his dismal pass defense while suggesting that his $75 million backfield couldn't pick up a few inches with the game on the line. Considering the context, it was — and is — the single worst decision a coach has made this year.

On Sunday, Rivera faced a similar situation and did the same thing. It came back to haunt him. This time, his Panthers were up 21-13 and had a fourth-and-1 waiting for them on the Tampa Bay 49-yard line with 1:09 remaining. With zero timeouts for the Buccaneers, a yard from Cam Newton and company would have been enough for the Panthers to seal their second home victory of the year and hammer the playoff hopes of a division rival. Rivera didn't think about that; he instantly threw his punt team onto the field and produced a touchback, picking up just 29 yards of field position while turning the ball back over to the Buccaneers. Tampa Bay promptly drove the length of the field for a touchdown and converted the two-pointer. After a Newton kneel-down to end regulation, the Buccaneers won the coin toss and drove down the field again to score a game-winning touchdown. Rivera turned the game over to his pass defense for a second time, and for a second time, he got burnt.

Now, let's be fair. This decision wasn't quite as egregious as Rivera's choice in Atlanta. In that game, the Falcons needed only a field goal to win; in this one, the Buccaneers needed to drive for a touchdown and hit a two-point conversion merely to tie. In this situation, Brian Burke's fourth-down calculator suggests that the Panthers win 99 percent of the time if they convert fourth down, 91 percent of the time if they don't, and 96 percent of the time if they punt. Mash up those possibilities and Burke's calculator finds that Carolina needs to convert on fourth-and-1 63 percent of the time to make the decision to go for it a palatable one. Carolina is 20-for-26 (76.9 percent) converting third or fourth down with a yard to go since Cam Newton arrived in town.

Even if you think that oversells Carolina's ability to convert, at what point do you just say that you're in the middle of a season going nowhere and risk it in an aggressive attempt to win a game? Is it really that much better to punt and try to avoid losing? That's why I liked Mike Mularkey's decision to try to convert a fourth-and-10 from the Houston 47-yard line with 2:36 left in overtime. Yes, it was obviously a risky call. So what? Jacksonville's offense had enjoyed a banner day, repeatedly moving the football down the field under replacement quarterback Chad Henne, and their exhausted defense had failed to force a punt in the second half, only managing to stop the Texans via forcing turnovers. If they punted, they would likely never see the ball again, and Jacksonville would have to either create their first punt of the day or force another turnover to stop Houston from getting a shot to win the game. A conversion, meanwhile, would put Jacksonville at the edge of Josh Scobee's range and likely prevent the Texans from getting another possession in overtime. And even if you don't believe in any of the numbers, is Jacksonville really going to leave Houston elated about a tie? Their season's over. If anything's going to be satisfying, it's a win over arguably the league's top team in their house in a game in which you were 16-point underdogs. Henne couldn't come up with the conversion, and Jacksonville lost on a long touchdown pass to Andre Johnson, but at least they tried to win the game when it mattered most.

Finally, with the game winding down and his Steelers trailing by three points, Mike Tomlin faced what appeared to be a difficult clock-management decision during the fourth quarter on Sunday night. With one timeout left in the bag,1 Tomlin's team faced a new set of downs from the Ravens with just 2:51 left in the game.

In making his decision, Tomlin needs to assume that he's going to get a pair of stops and try to leave as much time on the clock as possible. While the Steelers ended up committing an offsides penalty that cost them 40 key seconds, you can't assume that your veteran defense is going to take an incredibly ill-timed penalty. You have to plan for the best-case scenario, because there's virtually no way you can win with anything worse.

On first down, the Ravens ran the ball with Ray Rice and gained three yards, taking about two seconds in the process. With 2:49 left, the Steelers had about a two-second window during which they could have called timeout and forced the Ravens to run two plays before the two-minute warning. A timeout at exactly 2:49 forces the Ravens to run the ball on second down, taking about four seconds off the clock, which would then wind the clock down to 2:05 before the Ravens had to act on third down. There, the Ravens would have likely called timeout just before the play clock hit zero and then run a play to try for the first down; with no need to burn clock (since a punt would come across the two-minute warning anyway), the Ravens could choose to throw on third down as opposed to relying upon their moribund running game. If the Steelers came up with a stop, the punt would come right at 2:00 and they'd take over with about 1:56 or so left to go.

What the Steelers chose to do instead wasn't all that much different. They let the clock run after the first-down handoff, let the Ravens run for no gain and take five seconds off the clock, and then called a timeout at 2:04. The Ravens then would have had the opportunity to throw (or run) the ball with 2:04 left before a stop would have forced them to punt at or just after the two-minute warning. The Steelers ended up taking that unfortunate offsides penalty and then forced a sack of Joe Flacco (likely by design, with coach John Harbaugh insisting that Flacco take an easy completion or be sacked to run clock) on the other side of the two-minute warning, costing Pittsburgh 40 seconds in the process. Without the offsides, though, the timeout usage at either 2:49 and 2:04 wouldn't have resulted in a significantly different process. In both cases, Pittsburgh's getting the ball right around 1:55.

What if the Steelers had chosen to use their timeout after the two-minute warning? Well, let's see. The Ravens would have run the ball at 2:09, just as they did in the real game, pushing the clock to the two-minute warning. When they came back to third down, they would have needed to run the ball to ensure that the clock kept moving while forcing the Steelers to take their final timeout with about 1:56 to go. A punt would then give the Steelers the ball with about 1:51 or so left.

Tomlin's timeout situation, then, left him with a tradeoff. By taking the timeout before the two-minute warning, Tomlin traded an extra four to five seconds of game time for the ability to induce a run from the Ravens on third down. Had he taken the timeout after the two-minute warning, he would have done the opposite, forcing a third down run while costing his team five seconds or so. I don't think it's clear that one option is better than the other, and in the long run, Pittsburgh's offsides penalty ended up making the whole thing irrelevant.


Under the Buss

By: timbersfan, 12:45 PM GMT on November 20, 2012

I was sitting in the Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel
I was staring at my empty coffee cup
I was thinking that the Gypsy wasn't lyin'"

— Warren Zevon, "Desperados Under the Eaves"

There is really only one insurmountable problem for any sports fan — one problem that neither the fan nor the team itself can fix — and that is a bad owner. Bad players can be cut or traded. Bad coaches can be fired. Bad managers can be turfed out to their new careers as boring television announcers. Bad stadia can be torn down and new ones built — provided, of course, that the fans in question, in their other capacity as taxpayers, can be counted on to be such suckers that they shouldn't be allowed to tie their shoes. Bad weather can be handled with a roof. But there is no solution to a bad owner.

Consider what you have to do to get rid of a bad owner. The owner has to be so bad that the team he owns is so bad itself for so long that you stop being a fan long before he finds some other rich fool to take the barrel of cholera off his hands. Or the owner has to be such an egregious public embarrassment that even the commissioner notices, and it is "suggested" that the bad owner decide that the team is taking up too much of the owner's valuable time. This is what happened years ago to Marge Schott, who owned the Cincinnati Reds, when she wasn't listening to the Horst Wessel play on her internal shortwave set. This, it hardly needs to be said, happens very rarely, because most commissioners are quite fond of their jobs, and they know for whom they really work. They'd rather move a team than fry an owner. Ask the NBA fans in Seattle whether or not that's true.

(An aside: It bugs the hell out of me that I cannot cheer for the Oklahoma City Thunder, who are about as much fun to watch as anyone in the Association, because of the way commissioner David Stern stuck it to one of the most loyal fan bases in the league simply because that fan base declined to submit to blackmail and there were suckers to be found elsewhere. They ought to deliver Stern's paycheck like a ransom drop for the rest of his life after that one.)

So the fan, poor sap, is out of luck. Waiting around for someone to develop competence in their dotage, or waiting around for someone to goose-step their way off the cliff, is no way to maintain enthusiasm for the home side. All that's left is to howl at the moon, or to take it out on the players on the field. Think of the reaction of the Brits when scurvy colonials bought Manchester United — or, to be fair, the reaction in this country when Nintendo bought the Mariners. Outrage! Anger! LOUD NOISES! And none of it mattered.

And this is not a column about Jeffrey Loria, the chop-shop owner of the baseball team in Florida who just sent half his roster to Canada because his fans, exercising their capacity as taxpayers, declined to buy from him a bag of magic beans on the way to market. Loria's too big a fish and the barrel is far too small. Instead, this is a column about the Buss family of Los Angeles, who control the Lakers, and who, I think, may be in a category all their own, not as bad owners and executives, though they haven't had the best 2012, but as eccentric owners and executives, which can be worse.

To me, anyway, Jerry Buss, paterfamilias, has always existed in a kind of weird West Coast bubble, a blinged-out rubber person whose tenure as an owner of the Lakers has been one long run of success, and one long run of rosters that seem to lead from Los Angeles right to Springfield with very few stops in between. At the same time, of course, Jerry, whose daughter, Jeanie, is both the team's executive vice president for business operations and the girlfriend of Phil Jackson, organized (and, for a while, enthusiastically participated in) a rolling sybaritic carnival that made Tiger Woods look like a dead Methodist. (In 2007, Buss got busted for DUI in a gold Mercedes-Benz in the company of a comely 23-year-old passenger. Buss was 74 at the time.) In the 1980s, when the Showtime Lakers were playing the Celtics seemingly every spring, we lost souls from the older, less swinging part of the country would get to spend five days in and around the Forum, and luxuriate in just the most fantastic rumors you ever heard, many of which later turned out to be true. This must have been the easiest recruiting pitch anyone ever laid on free agents: Come to L.A., play on a great team, every night, in front of adoring — and adorable — fans, and then, as soon as the final buzzer sounds, it's I, Claudius at the owner's manse. Hard to believe Kareem wanted to leave Milwaukee for all of that.

The Lakers have had a golden history ever since they decamped from Minneapolis. They have had remarkably long runs of success with some of the game's biggest stars interrupted only by brief bouts of mediocrity. (By comparison, the Celtics, the only real historical rivals the Lakers have, have had long runs of success interrupted by periods of abject failure. The post-Russell teams were horrible, and the post-Cowens teams were even worse.) The natural climatic and carnal advantages that L.A. had over most of the rest of the stops in the NBA made the Lakers a destination even before free agency came to the Association, and in a way that Boston never could be. And that was the tradition on which Dr. Buss doubled down when he bought the team in 1979, just in time for Magic Johnson to show up and become the prototypical Showtime Laker in every way, including, ultimately, the tragic.

But what Jerry never really seemed like was an owner. He had so many natural advantages that he seemed more like the distant absentee proprietor of a particularly gaudy set of toys. Jerry West seemed more like an owner, and so, later, did Mitch Kupchak. Jerry Buss appeared to be more involved in creating the cultural context within which everyone could enjoy the success of the team he seemed to build and rebuild so easily.

Now, though, there are other destinations in the Association. There are other places to play, and other places to, well, play. Miami comes immediately to mind. Even though Jeanie has had an active role in running the team for several years, Jerry, while remaining the majority owner of the Lakers, has handed off most of the daily management to his second-oldest son, Jim, and things have not gone well at all. Over the past year or so, as the Lakers began to slide into the opening penumbra of the post-Kobe era, the younger Buss began to make bad decisions followed by panicky ones. Mike Brown never was the right fit out there, and half the people in the Association knew it. So the Lakers start slowly this year and out the window goes Brown before Thanksgiving. There is a clumsy public flirtation with Phil Jackson that, remarkably, goes nowhere. Suddenly, and apparently to the surprise of the man himself, Mike D'Antoni gets the call. This is not the smooth, gilt-edged crystal way the Lakers do things. This is the way the Knicks do things. This is the way the (gasp!) Clippers used to do things. By the end of the week, Magic himself was tweeting his dissatisfaction with the way Buss fils was running his old team.

Sorry, Earvin. You're a fan now. You can't do any more about Jim Buss than I once was able to do about the incredible passel of clowns who passed the Patriots one to another for almost 30 years. But, in a sense, I agree with him. I don't want to see the Lakers go run-of-the-mill on me. California was the first paradise on the far horizon. It was the golden prize at the end of the frontier and was, in fact, the place where the frontier went to retire and then to die. Playing the Lakers — or, god knows, playing for the Lakers — used to be a kind of reward you got for all the nights in February when you had to slog from Milwaukee to Cleveland to Chicago to Portland, back in the days when the NBA's travel schedule seemed to be designed by howler monkeys.

The Lakers can never be ordinary. The Lakers need to be bright and loud and glimmering in all manner of excess. They should drip with diamonds and sin. They should be the place in L.A. where Raymond Chandler and Ice Cube find common ground. Weary gumshoes and flashy young musicians and the people who follow both of them. Hot winds and cool jazz. Los Angeles always was a summation of America, and so, always, were the Lakers. For the Lakers to become ordinary is a reversal of the natural order of things, and if the legacy of the Buss family is that the Lakers become merely another stop along the road, then the whole league loses something. And there's nothing that any of us can do about it.


The Two Lives of Zach Randolph

By: timbersfan, 12:44 PM GMT on November 20, 2012

Zach Randolph isn't worried about whether his 14-year-old son, Zachariah, retraces his sizable basketball footsteps. "Basketball isn't everything," Randolph likes to tell him. Yes, he counsels him on the game. But most of their conversations are about life's choices and consequences. Be positive, Randolph tells him. Avoid alcohol and drugs. Make smart decisions.

"That's an important age — 14, 15, 16," Randolph said. "I didn't have that father figure in my life. Maybe if I would have had a daddy saying, 'Zach, don't do this' or 'Get in the house' or 'Where's your report card?,' then … "

Randolph trails off, but his point is clear. Picture him at the same impressionable age as his son — already a strong basketball player, just before he became one of the few freshmen ever summoned to Marion High School's varsity team. In basketball-crazed Indiana, it was a distinction so uncommon that "I can probably count them on one hand," said Jim Brunner, in his 42nd year as the voice of the Marion Giants.

Randolph's mother, Mae Randolph, raised her four children without a male influence. She taught her oldest son to believe in loyalty and love. They didn't have much else. Their family was destitute, on welfare much of his childhood. Randolph wore the same pair of jeans to school day after day, week after week. Kids called him "crusty." Embarrassed and upset, one day he walked into a Walmart, grabbed a new pair of jeans, and tried to walk out the door without paying. He was caught, and spent 30 days in juvenile detention.

This was the start of a familiar pattern. Years passed, infractions piled up, but Randolph's basketball talent blossomed. Randolph introduced himself to his high school coach, Moe Smedley, with the declaration that he would one day play in the NBA. He developed a knack for doing the dirty work, muscling, rebounding, and pounding bigger guys down low. He flashed that smile of his, a big cheek-to-cheek grin. But authorities placed a 15-year-old Randolph under house arrest for battery. He was placed in juvenile detention two years later for receiving stolen guns. In 2002, he was arrested for underage drinking less than a year after being drafted into the NBA by Portland. The problems trailed him there, where Randolph earned fame and infamy as a member of the "Jail Blazers," a much-reviled team that tainted professional basketball in Portland.

Now 31, Randolph has become the face of the Memphis Grizzlies, a franchise that limped badly until its improbable upset of no. 1 seed San Antonio two springs ago. He is unquestionably a beloved figure both in Memphis and in Marion, about 65 miles north of Indianapolis up I-37. He's fit in so naturally in Memphis that many mistakenly believe Randolph actually hails from the city. He tutors younger teammates like Tony Wroten and Josh Selby, something that would have seemed far-fetched — to say the least — after Randolph's struggles transitioning into the league.

"I talk to the kids because I've been down that route," Randolph said. "I can handle adversity because I've been knocked down and got up. I've been on the highest of highs and lowest of lows and I've got a strong will. Some people have never been through nothing, and when a situation happens they crumble. But I've been there. And I'm the same person."

Long before Randolph walked into that department store — before the Civil War, in fact — Marion was a safe haven for blacks in the North. The black population was segregated from the white population, but a quasi-harmony existed and Marion's black residents even developed a small farming community. That symbiosis shattered in the 1920s, when the Ku Klux Klan infiltrated the area. They were responsible for one of the last confirmed lynchings in the United States: In 1930, Thomas Shipp, Abram Smith, and James Cameron were held on charges of robbing Claude Deeter, killing him, and raping Deeter's girlfriend. A mob formed outside the county jail that detained the trio, eventually beating them and dragging them from their cells. They hanged Shipp and Smith, but Cameron was sentenced as an accessory and lived a long life, even founding America's Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee. The lynching is documented in one of the most horrifying images of our country's past.

Author Cynthia Carr exhaustively researched Marion for her book Our Town: A Heartland Lynching, a Haunted Town, and the Hidden History of White America, which explores the enduring scars left on the town's psyche.1 During her research, Carr discovered her grandfather was a Klan member. "Unfortunately, it is what sets Marion apart," Carr said. "It's a distinctive thing and it's a terrible thing." She added: "I met a lot of good people in Marion. Good white people and good black people. But it's that thing that's always there. It's like poison bubbling underneath the grass."

The lynching is the first topic Randolph discusses when asked about Marion — not that it's where he honed his skills, not that it's where he helped Mae build her dream home. "My town," Randolph said. "That goes to tell you a little bit about my town." He thinks about those lynchings from time to time. He remembers standing outside an apartment building as a teenager when a cop cruised past him in a car. The cop reversed course, Randolph says, and without provocation expressed his disdain for Randolph, telling him he'd never amount to anything before driving off.

"It's everywhere you go," Randolph said. "That really hurt me." He never elaborates on what "it" is, but maybe "it" laid the foundation for another of Randolph's lifelong beliefs: Good and bad exist everywhere.

Mitch Sturm approached a group of young teenagers and offered them pointers after a midday pickup game in the mid-'90s. The kids admitted that they needed a coach. Sturm offered his phone number. If they called back, it could be fun. If not, oh well.

They called.

Zach Randolph was among that group of kids. They became known as the Untouchables, a local travel team sponsored by MVP Sporting Goods. They'd pile 10 deep into Sturm's SUV and drive to games together. "I'm really glad we didn't get pulled over back then," Sturm said.

Randolph rarely gets enough credit for his game, his positioning, his craftiness in the post. It's so natural, it almost seems innate. And a lot of it is. But that belies the hours he spent honing that immaculate footwork, learning to glide almost like a ballroom dancer. "I never had a problem once with Zach," Sturm said. "We worked hours and hours on that jab step, pull back and shoot the jumper, that little left-handed hook and all the post moves."

It wasn't all grace and power. His football career ended after two practices, when an offensive lineman pancaked him to the ground. Longtime friend Andrew Morrell remembers his team teasing Randolph because, despite being their tallest player, he could barely touch the rim. One time when an opponent was shooting free throws, Randolph retreated to the basket on the other end, leaped up, briefly grabbed iron and crashed to the floor. Everyone glanced over to see a sheepish Randolph crumpled in a pile. Another time, the Untouchables were cruising to a blowout win and Sturm finally allowed Randolph to play point guard — something Randolph had begged him to do. "You can imagine how slow Zach was bringing the ball up the court," Sturm said. "So when I say we were in the fast break mode, I use that term very loosely." That didn't stop Randolph from zipping Magic Johnson–style no-look passes and flashing his Cheshire cat grin the whole time.

Randolph — who shot up about five inches in the summer between eighth grade and his freshman year of high school — eventually joined Pat Mullin's Indianapolis-based AAU team. "With young kids, sometimes you've got to give them an opportunity," Mullin said. "How are they going to get better if you don't give them an opportunity? And I think some people didn't have that feeling in Marion." (Randolph's appetite grew, too. Sturm sat in amazement as he watched him down popcorn, candy, and hotdogs and then dominate a game. "I didn't realize that you could buy wings by the 50 until I went out to eat with a young Zach," Mullin said.)

Smedley still remembers seeing Randolph for the first time, then asking around and hearing the same things. "He's a project. He doesn't work hard." That didn't stop Smedley from quickly promoting him to varsity, where Randolph met another influential post tutor: Herb McPherson, a member of Murray State's athletic Hall of Fame and a former draft pick of the San Diego Rockets. McPherson taught Randolph the four building blocks of the post — the up-and-under, the crossover, and a pivot that allows players to reverse momentum or continue forward. McPherson also implored Randolph to be careful about his non-basketball choices, that his "friends" were a reflection of himself. "The thing is, a kid like Zach, the answer you sometimes got was, 'Well who do you want me hanging out with?'" McPherson said. "That's who he was raised with. That's who he lived with."

Marion was the runner-up for the state championship in Randolph's sophomore year, then had their attempt to return to the final derailed when the school suspended Randolph after he was caught in possession of stolen guns.

"A guy's trying to get rid of [the guns] and Zach takes three of them home," Brunner said. "Zach isn't going to go out as a junior in high school and start using assault rifles. His idea was he was going to sell these and give some money to his mom. The police show up at his doorstep, and to show you how he didn't think he did anything wrong, the police say, 'Hey, Zach, we understand you are in possession of some stolen merchandise. What do you have to say?' And he goes, 'Well, yeah, it's right over here.' He goes over and shows them the weapons sitting there. He says, 'I'm sorry.' He thought they were going to slap him on the wrist."

Randolph missed the rest of his junior season, watching games in street clothes and kicking himself for what could have been.2 Smedley remembers getting criticized from opposite sides, with some Marion residents thinking Randolph shouldn't have been allowed on the bench and others believing he never should have been dismissed. When Randolph returned for his senior year, Marion won the state title by beating Bloomington High School North, which featured future pros Jared Jeffries and Sean May. Jeffries earned the state's Mr. Basketball, and Randolph finished second, but Randolph surprised everyone by claiming the McDonald's All-American MVP with 23 points and 15 rebounds. After a conversation with his friend Darius Miles, Randolph nearly declared for the NBA draft right then and there.

"I had the papers," Randolph said. "I was about to enter the draft. But I told my mom I would go to college for a year. That was the best thing that I did."

Tom Izzo lured Randolph to Michigan State one year after Jason Richardson's freshman season. Richardson recalls walking on eggshells before Randolph's arrival. That changed once Randolph "came in cracking jokes," said Richardson, now a member of the 76ers. "And Coach Izzo would look at him and just smile." During their ensuing Final Four run, Richardson often drove Randolph to class or practice as they discussed their futures. Both eventually declared for the 2001 draft — Richardson went fifth to Golden State and Randolph fell to Portland at 19 mainly because he'd played so little in college, and some teams were wary of a potential weight problem.3 "When I had him, he was unbelievable," Izzo said. "I never had a problem with him. He went to class, did all of his stuff. That's what I told teams. You've just got to get him around good people."

The Blazers were one year removed from a devastating defeat in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals, when Kobe and Shaq's Lakers erased a 15-point fourth-quarter deficit to advance and eventually win the first of their three titles. Randolph showed up right as the Blazers began to value talent over chemistry in search of the elusive championship pieces: They traded Jermaine O'Neal and Steve Smith, acquired Shawn Kemp, awarded Ruben Patterson a lavish contract, and built their team around Rasheed Wallace and Damon Stoudamire (and their long-term contracts). Before the draft, then–general manager Bob Whitsitt dispatched his assistant, Mark Warkentien, to Marion to gather as much intelligence as possible from Randolph, his family, and his teachers and decide if Randolph's issues were self-contained or if he was simply a product of his environment.

"You try to find the people who will tell you both sides of the equation and have nothing to gain, nothing to lose, and then ultimately, what you try to get answered is, 'Is he a good person or a bad person?'" Whitsitt said. "There's no real computer program for that. There's no one way to get that answer. It's never as crystal clear as you want it to be."

Whitsitt believed they could develop Randolph the same way they had developed O'Neal right out of high school. They knew how to take baby steps developing, well, a baby. That's what the stewardess on the team's charter flight always called him, anyway. Sometimes, he even seemed younger than that — Randolph once asked 14-year veteran Steve Kerr when the team would be off for Christmas break. He also was repeatedly fined for not meeting his rookie weight requirement.

More Grantland on the Grizzlies

The Memphis Grind
A week inside Grizzlies HQ with coach Lionel Hollins. (Jonathan Abrams, October 31, 2012)

The Amazing Grizzlies Scoring Machine
How Memphis — yes, Memphis — turbocharged their offense. (Zach Lowe, November 13, 2012)
"What stood out was despite all that, despite how green he was, he still had some practices where he just dominated," said Kerr, now a TNT analyst. "And I'm talking about Dale Davis, Rasheed Wallace, some really good bigs. He would just score on those guys at will on certain days when things were going well. You could just see the potential even at that raw state that he was in."

Randolph had made it to the NBA, and that meant his friends had made it, too. He relocated a few of them to Portland, where they showed up in the hallways after home games wearing extravagant necklaces featuring the acronym "H.O.O.P." (for "Helping Others Overcome Problems"). Really, they were walking baggage — reminders of Zach's hometown and every potential pitfall still lurking out there. Randolph didn't help matters by embracing their lifestyle. Even at the tail end of his six-year stint in Portland, Randolph's friends were still regarded with suspicion. Oregonian columnist John Canzano4 claimed in 2008, "Just before [Randolph] was traded to the Knicks, someone on the gang enforcement team at Portland Police Department told me to pick up the MTV Cribs episode that featured Zach Randolph because the police had a copy, and noticed some disturbing details about the unsavory people who hung around Randolph."

"Down at his core, Zach was and is a good person," said Jason Quick, a Trail Blazer beat writer for The Oregonian, who covered Randolph's Portland tenure. "He was also enamored with kind of this gangster life. He wanted to be seen that way."

Darnell Valentine spent four-plus years with the Blazers in the 1980s and later became their director of player programs, making him almost overqualified to counsel young Z-Bo. He remembers Randolph frustrated by a city that, culturally, was "a little bit of a challenge for Zach. In Portland, when you're a 6'9" guy walking around, it's hard to hide. During that period when Zach was with Portland, it was kind of like Clint Eastwood: the good, the bad, and the ugly. They live and they die by their basketball. You live in a glass house. As a basketball player in this community, there's nowhere that you can go that's unnoticed. At the time, I don't think Zach understood the level of scrutiny and how passionate people were about how he represented this community."

As the Blazers slowly unraveled and earned the collective ire of the city — eventually firing Mike Dunleavy and replacing him with respected assistant Mo Cheeks — Randolph, as he had his entire life, assumed the tendencies of his environment. Kerr saw a terrible blend for Randolph or any young player — a veteran but immature team. Randolph was learning from the wrong people.

"It was a dangerous mix," Kerr said. "He could have gone the other way. It's not like he was going to the Spurs to play with [Tim] Duncan and [Tony] Parker. He was in the midst of some dysfunction as a rookie."

It didn't help that Randolph kept battling with Patterson, one of the league's more intimidating personalities and someone who had been arrested three times between 2000 and 2002 (including once after police charged him with attempting to rape his children's nanny). Patterson often targeted and taunted Randolph, with their bad blood culminating during a 2003 practice: Randolph noticed teammate Qyntel Woods arguing with Patterson and came to Woods's defense, sucker-punching Patterson. (Remembers Stoudamire, "I didn't see what had happened because I had got the steal, so I was going the other way. Then all I heard was, 'Come on, Zach.' I turned back around and it was chaos.") After Patterson suffered a fractured eye socket, Canzano later recalled that "there was a period of a few days after that incident where Randolph hid out at Dale Davis's house because he feared that Patterson was going to try and shoot him."

Those Trail Blazers teams were ousted for three straight years in the first round of the playoffs, with a month seldom passing without a Blazer being spotted on the police blotter. If it wasn't Randolph's arrest for driving under the influence, it was marijuana found in Stoudamire's home. If it wasn't Patterson charged with domestic assault, it was Woods cited for marijuana and brandishing a basketball card to suffice as his identification. You get the picture.5 "There was one year where the longest stretch where a player wasn't arrested, suspended by the league, by the team, or the police weren't called to their home was 17 days," Quick said.

But even as Portland regressed from a contender to a lottery team, Randolph thrived individually. Blazers assistant Bill Bayno accompanied him to Atlanta for grueling workouts one offseason, when Randolph would sweat through three shirts a session. "He can't run," Bayno said. "He can't beat anybody in a race. He can't jump. He couldn't jump over a phone book. He's got tiny little hands. If you ever shake his hands, he's got tiny hands, but they're some of the best hands in basketball. He just has a natural feel for how to play the game, to score, to create space against his defenders."

Bayno, a recovering alcoholic, talked to Randolph about living in moderation. And the advice seemed to work — in 2004, Randolph was named the league's Most Improved Player, establishing himself as a guaranteed 20-10 guy. He also displayed Z-Boisms, traits that made you scratch your head, smile, and wonder if they masked more serious problems. There was the time Randolph came late to a practice, Quick said, after he had forgotten the security code to his own house. He showed up to games sporting a lavish gold-plated grill and huge necklaces. He mistakenly told reporters, "We shot ourselves in the head" (instead of the foot) in postgame interviews.

"We come from the same experience," said Morrell, Randolph's longtime friend. "Him and I have been talking about this a lot lately, but I think not having a father and then trying to find out who you are as a man was the biggest issue for him and I both. That right there is something that Zach in his early 20s was definitely going through."

Whitsitt resigned after the 2002-03 season, with Steve Patterson replacing him as president and John Nash as general manager. When asked recently if he had any memorable Randolph stories from Portland, Patterson just started laughing, finally deciding, "He probably could have been more serious about his career, but he was a fun guy to be around, [with] a good sense of humor." Patterson and Nash pledged to rebuild the team around character players, then signed Randolph to a six-year, $84 million extension one year later. Nash remembers complimenting Randolph on his somewhat practical vehicle selection — a lime-green Impala. "Oh no, Mr. Nash," Randolph replied. "I've got the Bentley at home." When Randolph and the team were on the road, Nash received calls from Randolph's Portland neighbors complaining of gunfire on Randolph's property.

"They were kids that didn't have a lot of money and all of a sudden, Zach was the leader of the party," Nash said. "They did some dumb things that young kids do, and Zach suffered. His reputation was hurt tremendously. Those are the kinds of things that might have been OK among his circle of friends. They really didn't know better, and in some cases they knew better and didn't care."

Nash went on to say, "I would trust him with my kids and my grandkids."

And that's the conundrum for Z-Bo supporters. You love his unwavering loyalty, you worry about his childlike naïveté, and you shudder to think of what happens when those two traits cross paths. Smedley said, "Sometimes I think Zach still thinks he's a freshman at Marion High School," but added, "And he probably legitimately didn't think some of the things he was doing was wrong."

For instance, in 2004, police accused Randolph of lying about his brother's involvement in an incident in which three men were shot at an Indiana nightclub. When Smedley publicly scolded Randolph for his associations — words Randolph now offers his son — the then-24-year-old briefly ended his relationship with his coach. Two years later, a Portland exotic dancer sued Randolph for sexual assault. (Police never filed criminal charges.) Randolph's lack of self-awareness during this stretch remained staggering. When Portland players were allowed to choose their own pregame warm-up songs, Randolph selected T-Pain's "I'm 'n Luv (Wit a Stripper)."

These days, Randolph praises Portland as a city, respects the team's fans, and even has nice things to say about owner Paul Allen. He also believes the police and certain media members held a grudge against him. "They don't take well to young, black urban kids coming out, having came from nothing," Randolph said. "You come to Portland with braids, come with cornrows, people can't relate to that. They peg you a different way and look at you a different way. If a guy's got braids, he's a thug."

Others look at Portland's role a little more diplomatically. Valentine said "it's a wonderful community, I wouldn't live any other place," but admitted, "I can't say it's for everybody." Stoudamire was born and raised in Portland, then got booed in Oregon throughout his college career for choosing to play at Arizona. He finally landed back in Portland in 1998, saying now, "Unfortunately for people in the spotlight, you play your faults out on the public stage. When you're the only show in town, there are always going to be people that have an opinion. Portland is no different. The people embraced the basketball side the entire time. But they also held you accountable with what you did off the floor with your actions. Zach was guilty like we were all guilty at one point or another in Portland."

After the Blazers landed the top pick in the 2007 draft (Greg Oden), the team dumped Randolph's contract on New York; one year later, the Knicks dumped that same contract on the Clippers. Randolph somehow avoided negative headlines despite playing in two major cities with many more temptations, although both teams missed the playoffs. Before the 2009-10 season, the Clippers flipped Randolph to Memphis to create more playing time for rookie Blake Griffin — and then, and only then, did Randolph start fully rebuilding his career and reshaping his image. Meanwhile, the Jail Blazers are destined to live on as one of the NBA's all-time greatest assemblies of migraine-inducing players. The architect of those Jail Blazers teams believes the moniker was unfair.

"You're so important to them as a fabric in the community," Whitsitt said. "I mean that in a good way. But we had nobody going to jail when I was there. But Trail Blazer, Jail Blazer, that's a good sound."

Chris Wallace knew of Memphis's affection for basketball, but he never appreciated its full extent until he became the Grizzlies' general manager in 2007. They start basketball relationships young in Memphis, hosting one of the country's most successful youth basketball programs, with those children advancing to competitive high school programs like Ridgeway and Memphis Central. The Memphis Tigers hold a key stake in the community, having nearly won the NCAA title in 2008 and with success dating back to Keith Lee's glory years in the 1980s. The ABA's Memphis Sounds even called the city home once upon a time. So Wallace knew the city would back the Grizzlies if they ever became competitive.

"This is an underdog town," Wallace said. "This is a town that doesn't really care about your past, doesn't care about any dustups. They want to know what you're going to do in the future. If you reach out to Memphis and you embrace Memphis, Memphis will embrace you in return."

The same can be said of Wallace's acquisition of Randolph. Wallace, like Whitsitt long before him, judged the risk against the reward. Memphis traded Quentin Richardson (an expiring contract) to land him. Wallace knew Randolph's Portland contract had two years remaining, and figured it would be a two-year gamble and that if things didn't work out, soon they'd part.

Randolph submitted another 20-10 season and quickly endeared himself to the community; Wallace noticed that, whenever they lunched, Randolph spent more time signing autographs and taking pictures than eating, and that he was just as gracious with the 15th person as the first. He was also surprised by Randolph's personality off the court. As Quentin Richardson, his teammate in New York, explains it, "He's always cracking jokes and always trying to get people to laugh and bringing people together like that. Just his lingo, the way he talks. He's very animated with his hand gestures. When he talks, it's almost like he's rapping, dancing, and singing all together at one time."

So when the Grizzlies became a contender the following year — a contract year for Randolph — Wallace wasn't totally surprised that Randolph had matured into a franchise player. But doing it without Rudy Gay, who missed the second half of the season? That was surprising. Randolph meshed wonderfully with Marc Gasol to create a suddenly fearsome low-post tandem, averaging 22.2 points and 10.8 rebounds in the 2011 playoffs, besting Tim Duncan in the opening round and nearly beating Oklahoma City in a thrilling seven-game series. The Grizzlies awarded Randolph a four-year, $71 million contract extension that summer. Like Memphis, he's sometimes overlooked. He has some history behind him. But he's a little more fun than anyone wants to admit.

"This town has a relationship with me," Randolph explained. "It's not the white side, the black side, it's the whole town. They understand the grind. They've been through it. It's a blue-collar town. People work hard. When you talk about Memphis, it's usually First 48 or something bad. But there's good people everywhere. And you don't look bad on nobody because somebody went to the penitentiary or somebody did this. You treat everybody the same because everybody's got skeletons. Some people just hide them more. Some don't get brought to the light, but ain't nobody perfect. Nobody."

Randolph worked throughout the lockout with renowned trainer Frank Matrisciano, hoping to improve his career year in 2011. The other reason? Randolph was offended that many had pegged him as a player who might show up out of shape once the lockout ended. "The thing about Zach is he might not let you know it, but in his own way, he really cares about what you think about him," Stoudamire said. "He acts like he don't, but he cares about that stuff."

Matrisciano's reputation is based on what he calls "the lost seven" — that's how many out of 10 quit his intense sessions. Randolph never quit, getting himself into the best shape of his life, until then-teammate O.J. Mayo collided into his knee on a freak play early in the season. When Randolph returned right before the playoffs, he gamely tried to make an impact on one leg. He now admits that "the knee was hurting, I had no lift. I couldn't get my quick post-ups. I didn't have too much power. When you don't have power in your lower half, you can't move that good and you're not as mobile, and you're thinking about it and you don't play right. But my 75 percent is better than a lot of these guys' 100 percent."

Heading into this season, Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins eyed him closely — after all, Hollins retired at 31, Randolph's current age. Hollins mentioned during the preseason that Randolph's shots were being blocked more often, and that he'd prefer not to rely as heavily on Randolph this year. He wanted Randolph to expand his game and excel as a passer, like Karl Malone and Charles Barkley late in their careers.

"It's just passage of time," Hollins explained. "It's not a bad thing. Zach is still a good player and he'll still have good moments for us. But we need to grow as a team so we can help Zach be successful versus Zach helping us be successful."

Randolph says he shares the same goals.6 A player who defines "checkered past" is now an NBA team's elder statesman. "I don't understand how these young guys can be so lazy," he said. "They come here and they don't have no work ethic. I come from nothing. I work hard. I've got two max contracts. I know guys who got max contracts when they were young and they didn't do shit the entire time. They just chilled."

Randolph also wants to increase his assists, explaining, "Feed other guys better, draw the double-team, kick it out." But he also said he can be the player he was in the 2011 playoffs and even better. "I got hurt and people say, 'He's not the same no more,'" he said. "I've been proving people wrong my whole career. Ain't nothing new."

He is still sometimes just a step away from serious trouble. Two years ago, a longtime friend was arrested with a cooler full of marijuana while driving Randolph's car. Last summer, a drug dealer claimed he was beaten up at Randolph's Oregon home. As always with Randolph's life away from basketball, you never know the full story and you never knew if it was his fault, or his fault for hanging around the wrong people, or nobody's fault. Stoudamire, who works as an assistant for the Memphis Tigers and remains close to Randolph, defends him as vehemently as anyone.

"Kids love him," Stoudamire said. "To me, that means a lot. Kids are almost like animals. Animals will sniff you, and if they don't like you, they'll let you know. A dog will growl at you. A dog will do something to your shoes or whatever it might be … They just won't react to you. But kids react to Zach in positive ways."

Stoudamire advised Randolph to sever ties to Oregon — for now — explaining that, "Sometimes, when things happen, you can't look back." To his credit, Randolph is looking forward and making the most of his fourth chance. Two winters ago, he turned on the electricity for dozens of less-fortunate Memphis residents. He and teammate Tony Allen spent Valentine's Day pampering poverty-stricken mothers with manicures and pedicures. He bought turkey after turkey for families in need on Thanksgiving. He rescues pit bulls for a local shelter. Maybe he didn't see NBA players growing up, but he's seen the look in children's eye when they see him. Zach Randolph knows he is making a difference.7

"If Memphis trades me tomorrow, I'm going to be in Memphis in the summertime working out," Randolph said. "I'm going to be in the community. I'm always going to be connected to the people."

Wayne Seybold grew up in a Marion trailer just like Randolph, but their childhoods were different. Seybold and his sister, Natalie, were gifted ice-skaters who lacked enough funding to compete. The town rallied behind them and raised enough money to advance their careers. The Seybolds claimed silver in two U.S. Figure Skating Championships and competed at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. Wayne Seybold later relocated to Los Angeles, but felt the tug of home from his aging parents and returned to raise his children in Marion. The unemployment rate in the working-class town, population 30,000, hit 10.4 percent in 2002. The following year, Seybold became Marion's mayor. Grant County (which includes Marion) elected the state's first black sheriff, Oatess Archey, in 1998. The descendants of the families involved in the infamous lynching met for reconciliation and a public atonement in 2003. Several members of the town's current City Council are black. "Unfortunately, you can't change the history," Seybold admits.

Maybe that goes for Randolph, too. "I'm just now starting to do more stuff for my town," Randolph said. "I definitely want to see the town change. I want people to treat people equal. Ever since the mayor came, the town has changed and it's going in a better direction. It used to be real bad with the court system. You go to Marion and people doing crimes, they give people like 60 years for breaking into houses, young black kids. But it's getting better."

People in Marion say that Randolph isn't just involved, he's immersed. Whenever he returns, he asks Sturm how his ailing mother is doing. He held a reception for Mae's marriage and ran into Jenny Maidenberg, a social worker at his elementary school. Although Maidenberg and her husband weren't originally invited, Randolph asked them to stay the whole night. They did. He spends hours at the Boys & Girls Club, where he virtually grew up. The club's director, Adam Myers, remembers the chaos that broke out when Randolph showed up one day.

Marion now annually celebrates a Zach Randolph Day.

This doesn't surprise former Blazers assistant Monty Williams, now the head coach of the Hornets, and someone who remembers his Portland stint as a period of growth — for himself and Randolph, too. "I've met two tough guys who I've been in the league with, Charles Oakley and Zach Randolph. Those are guys you probably don't want to push the wrong way, but those are guys that will literally give you the shirt off their back and pay for somebody's funeral that they don't even know," Williams said.

Randolph refers to Williams as his big brother; they talk often about his choices in Portland, and the choices he's making now. "He's a good kid," Williams said. "He's a good father and he's grown up in that. He's got a beautiful family. People are always expecting perfection. But if you're looking for that, keep looking because you're not going to find anybody perfect. But if you're looking for a guy who's just real — not perfect, but real — then Zach's your guy."

And right now, Zach is Memphis's guy again — the Grizzlies announced themselves as contenders again on November 11, blowing out Miami at home for their fifth straight win. Through two weeks, Randolph is leading the NBA in rebounding and — with Gasol — showing that the NBA's subtle shift toward "small ball" might be premature. He's also proving that NBA stars can be late bloomers, and that you can learn from your past without running from it, either.

"People that have been around me have been loyal and I've always tried to be loyal," he said. "I never talk about anybody or go behind somebody's back or be fake with somebody. That's just not me. I'm an honest person. I'm 100 percent. That's the best way to be and that's how I am. I treat everybody the same. I don't look down on nobody. God has blessed me in so many ways and I don't look down on nobody. Anyone can come shake my hand."

That includes Smedley, his former high school coach who criticized Randolph's association with his brother and found himself cut off for years. Randolph has returned his calls only once, and as Smedley remembers it, "It wasn't very long. Again, Zach doesn't owe me anything. I just watch his career and hope for the best and pray for him and all that stuff. Maybe someday when he's finished in the NBA and wants to go see his old coach, maybe he'll come by. That's totally up to him."

Randolph sounds more optimistic, saying they've been "repairing" things and "I love him, I love Coach Smedley," but at the same time, you "don't go to the media and talk about my family." It's just another quirky point about a career laden with them — of all the people who wronged Randolph over the years or embarrassed him publicly, he's still upset about a former father figure who spoke up out of genuine concern for his well-being. How can you fully explain someone like that?

"Zach is like a chameleon," Brunner said. "What I mean by that is, if you and I are sitting in a room and Zach comes in for a half hour and sits down with us, he would fit in perfectly. But then he can walk right out of that door and get in a vehicle with two guys he has no business being around, he can fall right into that trap and fit in. Whoever he's with, he can assume that identity."

That includes being the best player on an NBA contender, a devoted member of two communities, a proud father, a loyal teammate, and an even more loyal friend. Today, he might throw up another 20-15. Tomorrow, he might be working on his relationship with Smedley. This Thursday, he might be handing out turkeys at a homeless shelter or dispensing more advice to his young son. And if he goes out that night, well, you just have to hope he's surrounded by the right people.



By: timbersfan, 6:11 AM GMT on November 17, 2012


ews broke last night that embattled NHL commissioner Gary Bettman suggested a two-week moratorium from lockout negotiations with the NHLPA. The reason? Things had just become too heated. I guess that's what happens when you cancel six weeks of games and Thanksgiving is looming — maybe there's a little more urgency, you say some things you regret, people take those things personally, and suddenly you're threatening each other in monotone Canadian accents. Why don't you go to hell, eh? But canceling another two weeks just so everyone can cool off? Who does this? And you wonder why hockey fans were regarding Bettman's lockout leadership the same way you'd act if you were watching a baby play with a chainsaw.

Oh God … wait, is that on … OH GOD!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

This is a guy who recently earned the following e-mail from a Minneapolis reader named Peter Gilbertson: "How does one impeach a sports commissioner? How can a commissioner on the verge of losing two NHL seasons in one decade, with four work stoppages during his tenure, continue to keep his job? He is a failure. For the fans, the players, and the game this needs to be done — Bettman should be impeached."

First of all, how much fun would it be to impeach Gary Bettman? Can't you see him sweating and stammering through the hearings as various politicians rehashed an endless list of mistakes over the years? "So you allowed John Spano to buy the Islanders without any money because … why?" That would be the best courtroom TV since the O.J. trial. But if we voted for sports commissioners (with fans, players and owners each splitting one-third of the overall vote) or put term limits on their tenures (10 years max), then we wouldn't have to ask questions like "How does one impeach a sports commissioner?"

Gary Bettman should have lost his job years and years ago. He kept it for the same reason David Stern plans to hang around for three decades, Bud Selig will still be running baseball when he's 80, and Roger Goodell will probably get a contract extension even after he handled the Saints debacle so badly that he had to bring back his old boss to fix the situation for him. (Yes, we covered these commissioners in this space last month.) But Bettman's supernatural ability to keep ruining hockey is almost unparalleled — after I joked recently for the umpteenth time about Bettman's former boss, David Stern, planting him in the NHL to ruin hockey, a few readers e-mailed me wondering if that could be legitimately true. What other explanation could there be? How could someone be this bad for this long?

The case against Bettman in one sentence: The NHL sacrificed an entire season so they could reimagine their entire salary structure … and only seven years later, that "reimagining" went so poorly that they might have to sacrifice a second season because they need a mulligan.

That's all you need to know. I didn't even need to bring up the league's botched television deals, overexpansion, poorly picked markets, belated acknowledgement of the concussion epidemic, or more incredibly, how they stupidly forgot to limit the length of contracts. This is a commissioner who fought like hell to create a hard cap, and after it finally got approved, was too dense to remember to include a rule that contracts couldn't last longer than five or six years (like what the NBA does). That led to team after team circumventing that cap by giving out guaranteed deals lasting as long as 15 YEARS. Really, didn't see that loophole getting exploited, Gary? Never came up as you were hashing things out?

Imagine your neighbor knocking down his house, then rebuilding it from scratch as his family lived in a hotel. You had to listen to the construction guys hammering, sawing and banging for a solid year. Finally the house goes up, the family moves back in … and seven years later, suddenly they're knocking the house down again. You ask the neighbor what happened and he says, "Yeah, sorry about that — we screwed up when we rebuilt the house, had too many flaws, we needed to do it over again."

Naturally, you say, "Why didn't you figure out all that stuff before you rebuilt the house the first time?"

He says, "Because I'm an idiot, that's why."

And then, there's an awkward silence before he walks away, as you don't know whether he's kidding or not.

That's Gary Bettman.

We should mention that, in a vacuum, he's correct about this particular lockout: The league's financial model (already a mess because we have too many NHL teams, which is 100 percent Bettman's fault, but whatever) can't be sustained with such meager television revenue. Hockey depends on its attendance and the unwavering devotion of its zealous fan base. From a television standpoint, the league will always be handicapped by its lack of marketable stars (the biggest reason it can't command anything close to the NBA's television deal), a glaring problem that I noticed during my first year owning Kings season tickets, when I realized that it didn't really matter who the Kings played from night to night. Sure, you always enjoy seeing the Malkins and Ovechkins, but it's a much different mind-set from, say, LeBron playing the Clippers. Anyone who went to Wednesday's Heat-Clippers game was thinking I'm going to see LeBron!, because they knew he was playing 90 percent of the game. In hockey, you don't say "I'm going to see Ovechkin!," because he might play one-third of the game if you're lucky (and might not make a single meaningful play).

It's the ultimate team sport, and really, that's the best thing about hockey — there's a guaranteed level of entertainment night after night after night that transcends star power. Everyone skates hard, everyone throws their bodies around, everyone plays well together, everyone gives a crap. It's a blue-collar game that happens to be tailor-made for the ADD generation. That's why kids love going to hockey games so much, and that's why my daughter is so bitter right now (fast-forward to the last minute of this podcast). Throw in what hockey means to Canada (where they love hockey like we love football, basketball and baseball combined), some of the NHL's American hotbeds (Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Philly, Los Angeles, etc.) and the underrated fact that hockey players are the least entitled professional athletes on the planet … and it's almost impossible to screw this up, right?

So how do we end up with a salary system that allows Minnesota to spend $196 million on Ryan Suter and Zach Parise? And that's not to pick on those guys — you could build a decent playoff team around them as long as your goalie didn't stink. Just know that nobody is saying the words, "Suter and Parise are coming to town tonight!" It's just not that kind of league. You go to hockey games to see quality teams, not quality players. There's a fixed level of entertainment. Suter and Parise shouldn't make that much money because hockey players shouldn't make that much money. It has nothing to do with them.

If you think of the cable television model, it makes more sense — channels like AMC, FX and Showtime realized that the quality of their shows matter a thousand times more than the "star power" of the actors on those shows. Yeah, AMC could have spent an extra $15 million per season on Keanu Reeves to play Rick in The Walking Dead, but why would they? People watch that show because they want to see people kill zombies. So they went the other way — cheaper actors, cheaper locations, more money on extras and special effects. Same for Showtime's hit Homeland, which features only one star (Claire Danes, who certainly isn't making Parise/Suter money) surrounded by well-casted actors, including a few good ones whom you'd recognize from other shows (including Mandy Patinkin, a fairly famous name in his own right) and certainly weren't expensive. You might recognize that same blueprint from Breaking Bad, Dexter, Californication, Shameless, Game of Thrones, Sons of Anarchy and about 10 other cable shows. And by the way, did you know ANYONE on Mad Men when that show launched other than Ashton Kutcher's old girlfriend with the weird first name?

On cable television, the showrunner and the writing matter more than anything else. In hockey, the sport and the fans matter more than anything else. It doesn't matter who Minnesota's third-best player is any more or less than it matters who plays Mike on Homeland. Fans are coming, regardless. So why overpay players, jack up ticket prices and price out those fans when you don't have to? Wasn't that what the last lockout was about? Wasn't the league supposed to be regaining control of its broken salary structure? How are we back here seven years later battling the exact same problem?

For that and that alone, Gary Bettman needs to step down. No, we can't impeach him. Yes, we can continue to excoriate him. He's the worst commissioner in sports history, and really, it's going to remain that way unless Roger Goodell extends the NFL's season to 20 games, adds Wednesday- and Friday-night football to the schedule, pays a hitman to murder Jonathan Vilma, and gets outed for having a heated affair with his biographer, Peter King … and even then, I'd probably still give the edge to Bettman.

If you want to talk about moratoriums, Gary, here's a better idea — step down and give us a lifetime moratorium. From you. On to the Week 12 Picks …


BILLS (-1.5) over Dolphins Big comeback for the Skunk of the Week! We're back, baby! Speaking of skunks, I have the following thoughts about the Marlins skunking the entire city of Miami …

1. Thank God it's over … and by "it," I mean, "the charade that the public should be funding sports arenas/stadiums for billionaires." May this never happen again.

2. Everything you ever wanted to know about professional sports in 2012 could be summed up with the sentence, "Jose Reyes needs to pass a physical but is currently still on vacation in Dubai."

3. I agree with Jonah Keri's take that Jeff Loria is an evil genius, as well as Oakland reader Alex S.'s take that Jeff Loria looks like the Colonel from Boogie Nights. Jack says you have a gigantic publicly funded stadium that I can build and then screw you over with. May I see it?

4. The Red Sox definitely would have jumped on the Jose Reyes–Josh Johnson–Mark Buehrle trio if John Henry were still alive.

5. We're living in a world right now in which (a) Donald Sterling and James Dolan own two NBA contenders, and (b) someone just blew by them on the "Worst Sports Owner" power rankings. Hey, you can't say the Mayans didn't try to warn us about 2012.

Packers (-3) over LIONS Remember when it seemed like things were falling apart for Aaron Rodgers? His offensive line couldn't block anyone. His skill position guys kept getting hurt. His agent badly overexposed him by throwing him into too many commercials, which had a habit of running back-to-back during the most dire parts of every Packers game. His team was having such an unlucky season that Grantland's Steven Hyden wondered if they were playing on an ancient Indian burial ground, with larger forces seemingly determining Golden Tate's "Fail Mary" and Indianapolis's first "ChuckStrong" victory. Heading into Week 6's Sunday-night game in Houston, everyone seemed to agree that the Packers weren't the Packers anymore (and by proxy, Rodgers wasn't Rodgers anymore).

And then, something interesting happened — even before Green Bay started running up the score in that Houston game, Cris Collinsworth and Al Michaels talked about meeting with Rodgers that weekend and how angry he was about everything. Really, everyone is pouring dirt on us? You watch what happens Sunday night. They came away thinking, Uh-oh, Houston is in trouble, even saying that on TV before the Packers blew Houston out of their own building. (By the way, would it kill Al Michaels to create a Twitter feed just so he could tweet things like, "Met with Rodgers today, boy is he pissed off. Grab Green Bay and the points, just trust me.") As soon as they told that story, I knew I was screwed with my Texans pick. And really, Rodgers has been crushing teams ever since. At the same time, his NFC nemesis Eli Manning contracted the E Coli Delhomme virus, Matt Ryan's Falcons lost a textbook "We would have believed in you if you won THAT game, but you didn't" game, and suddenly the conference belongs to Aaron Rodgers again. I'm riding the Packers until they lose.

In other news, here are some fun stats about Calvin Johnson's total number of touchdowns this season (two).

• Calvin Johnson has scored one less touchdown than Matthew Stafford.

• Calvin Johnson has scored as many touchdowns as Green Bay's slew of stiffs at running back.

• Calvin Johnson has scored the same number of touchdowns as Randy Moss, Jorvorskie Lane and two of Chicago's defensive players.

• Calvin Johnson has scored one more touchdown than Ravens punter Sam Koch.

• Calvin Johnson has the same number of TDs (two) as my West Coast fantasy team has wins (two).

• Somehow, Calvin Johnson is still the best guy on my West Coast fantasy team.

This is reason no. 610 why I'm retiring from fantasy football after this season.

The Giants' Bye Week (+3.5) over the Seahawks'/Titans'/Vikings' Bye Weeks Reason no. 611 was this e-mail, courtesy of Steve in Bedford, Massachusetts: "Fantasy is kind of like cheating on your wife. You don't get any solid action for a while (seven months of crappy SportsCenter bits with Jon Gruden), then you get an opportunity to get some (three hours with your friends drinking and competing about football knowledge with the promise of real football to come) only to spend the following 17 weeks living with regret and not wanting to check your e-mail."

Cardinals (+10) over FALCONS Bucs (-1.5) over PANTHERS When I wondered last week if the Falcons were the first-ever 8-0 "Nobody Believes In Us" team, multiple readers brought up the 2003 Chiefs — they won their first nine games despite being saddled with Trent Green, no receivers and a sub-par defense, eventually finishing 13-3 and grabbing a no. 2 seed before losing a Round 2 home game to the favored Colts. Nobody believed in those Chiefs until the bitter end. It's not nearly as bleak for the Falcons, although it's worth mentioning that (a) as soon as Harry Douglas didn't get into the end zone with four minutes to play in New Orleans last week, you KNEW the Falcons weren't going to score (Mike Smith + short yardage = "uh-oh"), and (b) if the 5-4 Bucs were playing the 8-1 Falcons on a neutral field right now, I'd put all my money on the Suddenly And Improbably Explosive Bucs.

Speaking of Tampa, the Bucs and Texans are both 7-2 against the spread right now (best in the league), with Seattle right behind them at 7-3. Since 2007, only seven teams have finished eight games above .500 against the spread: The 2011 Saints, 2010 Lions, 2009 Titans, 2008 Ravens, 2007 Giants and 2007 Browns all went 12-4; the 2007 Packers went 11-3-2. If we're operating under the premise that 12-4 is the "ceiling" for covers — which makes sense because gambling lines exist to generate an equal amount of betting on both ends, so if one team keeps covering week after week, eventually, the lines will overreact to that pattern — then history tells us that Tampa and Houston can't finish better than 5-2 against the spread these last seven weeks. Or, history might not be telling us anything. Maybe every NFL gambling season is its own unique thing.

Here's the point: Now that Nate Silver has solved the polling process in politics, I'd like to see him devote his attention to something much more meaningful … football gambling. How hard could this be? Couldn't Nate just study all the patterns from every football season and come up with 20 steadfast rules/tips/guidelines that should never be violated? That reminds me …

Jaguars (+15) over TEXANS I know the Jaguars stink, but Houston plays again on Thursday — this is the all-time Milton Berle "Pulling Out Just Enough To Win" game if there ever was one. Anyway, back to Nate — John from Birmingham asks the startling question, "Has the throne of Dork Elvis officially been usurped by Nate Silver?"

Whoa. You know how strongly I feel about nicknames belonging to one person and one person only — I wasn't even OK with LaDainian Tomlinson using "LT." Daryl Morey will always be the one and only "Dork Elvis." But the 2012 election pushed Nate Silver to a whole other level — he kick-started the same argument we had about advanced baseball stats during the 2000s on a much larger scale, with his detractors looking even dumber than all the sportswriting dinosaurs did last decade. It ended up being a much more decisive win (for lack of a better word), and the irony was that Silver's methods weren't even that convoluted. He simply studied the ebbs and flows of the best polls, figured out patterns, weighed percentages and came up with the safest probabilities.

And yet, a decent chunk of the country reacted like this crazed nerd was working undercover for the liberals and trying to uproot the election. Because of that, Silver going 50-for-50 has to be considered the single biggest victory of the sabermetric era, easily edging out Felix Hernandez's 2010 Cy Young Award win, Brad Pitt getting nominated for an Academy Award as Billy Beane, the Sloan Conference turning into Brainiac Woodstock, John Hollinger beefing with DeMar DeRozan and Morey getting hired as an NBA GM in the first place. Nate Silver doesn't need a nickname the same way Chuck Norris didn't need a nickname. So the "Dork Elvis" moniker remains safe, and really, it's a compliment to both guys.

Eagles (+3.5) over REDSKINS The Nick Foles era was fun for about 12 minutes, until everyone realized, "Oh, wait, they can't block for him, either." But back to those spread records — right now, the Eagles are 1-7-1 against the spread, making them by far the worst (only 3-6 Kansas City and 3-6 Oakland come close). Since 2007, only the 2007 Ravens (3-13) and 2011 Rams (3-12-1) covered in three or fewer football games in one season, and the 2010 Panthers (4-12), 2011 Bucs (4-12) and 2008 Jags (4-12) were the only other teams that finished eight games below .500. So history tells us that the Eagles are definitely covering two more games. Don't tell me this season is hopeless, Philly fans. You're definitely covering two more games!!!!!!!!

In other news, here's an important e-mail from Phil in Irving: "I need your help to bring this problem to more people's attention — 'I will say this … ' is the new 'Having said that … ' Doesn't this phrase drive you crazy? Someone smarter than me could probably figure out how certain phrases seem to become trendy (ex: 'it is what it is' circa 2010), but suddenly I can't enjoy TV or a podcast without talking heads obscuring their own valid points by throwing in an unnecessary, 'I will say this … ' You don't have to tell me you're going to say something — just say it! It's like a flimsy attempt to give extra importance to what you're about to say, while devaluing what you just said. It's like saying 'listen' in the middle of whatever you're saying, because what you're ABOUT to say is more important than what you were just saying."

Provocative. But are we sure "I will say this" is more annoying than any sentence that starts out, "Honestly … "? Honestly, every time someone says something like that, it always makes me think, Why are they admitting that they're being honest right now? Does that mean they weren't being honest before? It's always been the most commonly said word on shows that encourage lying and double-crossing like Survivor, The Challenge or The Real Housewives of Wherever, but now, it's trickled into sports shows, and honestly, it's just kind of weird. Having said that, I will say this — Phil from Irving might be on to something.

Browns (+8) over COWBOYS Sitting there on my East Coast fantasy waiver wire these past two weeks? Tony Romo! Good God how the mighty have fallen. Are we sure the Cowboys should be laying eight points to anyone right now? Why do I pick the Browns every week when their coach is consistently overmatched? And considering that Cowboys fans just spent the last few days excitedly doing the math and realizing that — by next Thursday night — their team could be a half-game behind the Giants, isn't it almost mandatory that the Cowboys lose on Sunday or come damned close? My prediction: Trailing by eight in the final minute of the fourth quarter, the Browns score a semi-miraculous touchdown, then Pat Shurmur blows the game by mistakenly kicking the extra point … only Jason Garrett mistakenly ices the kicker with a timeout right before the extra point, leading to the Browns then running Trent Richardson into an 11-man Cowboys line to lose the game. Hey, speaking of football teams that God hates …

Bengals (-3.5) over CHIEFS Boooooooo!


BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! !!!!!!!!!!!!!

Boooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo ooooooooo

PATRIOTS (-9) over Colts I know it's fun to think about another nationally televised Colts-Patriots game, with Tom Brady playing Tom Brady and Andrew Luck playing the role of Peyton Manning (kind of like the CSI franchise switching lead actors or something). I know those nine points look enticing, especially when you think about Luck potentially picking apart New England's ghastly secondary. But I want you to look at something …

QB1: 2,645 yards, 18 TDs, 3 picks, 64.8 completion %, 15 sacks, 100.1 rating. QB2: 2,072 yards, 15 TDs, 4 picks, 63.0 completion %, 21 sacks, 96.5 rating.

The first QB is Brady. The second QB is everyone who started against the 2012 Colts — a list that features exactly one quality QB (Aaron Rodgers), one above-average QB (Jay Cutler), one just-about-washed-up QB (Matt Hasselbeck), two rookie QBs (Brandon Weeden, Ryan Tannehill), three struggling second-year QBs (Christian Ponder, Blaine Gabbert and Blaine Gabbert again), and one totally embattled QB (Mark Sanchez). Rodgers ranks second in QB rating, Ponder ranks 20th, and the other six range from 24th (Cutler) to 31st (Weeden). And yet, somehow, The Guy Who Goes Against The 2012 Colts would have the ninth-highest QB rating and the eighth-best touchdown/interception ratio.

Here's the point: If Tom Brady doesn't completely, totally and irrevocably carve up that openly lousy Colts pass defense — at home, in a relatively important game that he's going to care about winning — it will be one of the biggest upsets of the 2012 season. Which means Luck (10 TDs, 9 picks) has to score 30+ points to hang around … something the Colts have done only once all year (30 against Green Bay in Week 5). Their only hope is that the Patriots will Milton Berle their way through this game with a Jets game looming four days later, but from what we've seen of Luck — especially late in games — is that really someone you want to let hang around? I think the Pats make a huge statement in this one. Pats 45, Colts 20. And with that said … I don't even remotely believe in this team.

Speaking of Luck, here's a crucial e-mail from Charlotte reader Peter Williams: "Sure, no one talks about it. But they do talk about how 'we're not talking about Andrew Luck's athletic ability enough.' I imagine people will be talking a lot more about 'not talking about Luck's athletic ability enough' as the hype machine builds. If RGIII owned the first half of the season, then 'not talking about Andrew Luck's athletic ability enough' will own the second half."

Having said that, honestly, I will say this — we really aren't talking about Andrew Luck's athletic ability enough.

RAMS (-3.5) over Jets Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow.

Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow.

Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow.

Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow.

Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow.

Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow.

Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow.

Tebow. Tebow. Tebow.

Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow. Tebow.


RAIDERS (+4.5) over Saints An Atlanta reader named Danny Kneecaps breaks it down for us: "The Saints start out 0-4, right the ship and go 4-1 in their last five (including a huge home win over their divisional rival, the previously unbeaten Atlanta Falcons). They are suddenly playoff relevant! Now they travel out West to play a weak Raider team who just gave up a double nickel to the Ravens. Warning! Classic trap game, correct? Instead of avoiding the Saints here, let's get aggressive, Billy! What's the opposite of a trap game? An escape game? Isn't this an escape game for the Raiders, too? I can see it now: in a furious fourth-quarter comeback, Carson Palmer conjures up his best impression of Kenny the Snake Stabler as the Raiders 'escape' with a win!!!"

(I can't believe I'm agreeing with someone named "Danny Kneecaps.")

Chargers (+7.5) over BRONCOS Gambling rules favoring the Broncos: "Don't go against a hot team," "Don't go against Peyton Manning in a big home game," "Don't pick Norv Turner in a big game ever" and a special one just for this game, "Always pick the home team that's +20 in sacks over the road team that keeps landing in articles with headlines like 'O-Line play not helping Chargers' cause' and 'Chargers' line offensive, too'."

Gambling rules favoring the Chargers: "Be careful with high spreads in division games," "Be careful of any team when it's their biggest game of the year," "Be careful with road teams who had previous success in that stadium" (and San Diego has won five of their last six in Denver), "Be careful of any favorite when they're going to be thrown into every two-team teaser on Sunday," "Be careful of Norv Turner anytime his job is definitely on the line because he's like Michael Myers — you have to chop his head off to get rid of him, or else he's coming back."

(Thinking … )

(Still thinking … )

(When in doubt, take the points … right?)

STEELERS (+3.5) over Ravens Nobody believes in us! They think we're done without Ben! The only guys who believe in us right now are the guys in this locker room!

Speaking of gimmicks that I've beaten into the ground in this column, Peter from Iowa City wonders simply, "Has the David Petraeus scandal entered the Tyson Zone yet?"

A quick recap: "Tyson Zone" status officially happens as soon as you find yourself saying the words, "I don't know what's happening next, but I'm prepared for anything." That's what happened (for me, a least) as soon as Chuck Klosterman became a bit player in a CIA sex scandal. I'm almost positive that's never happening again. So the answer is, "Yes." While we're on the subject, I'd like to bestow Tyson Zone status on the following things: the Floyd Mayweather–50 Cent feud, Bettman's commissionership, the Miami Marlins, Chamique Holdsclaw and the Jerramy Stevens–Hope Solo marriage.

Bears (+4.5) over 49ERS Doesn't Chicago's defense and special teams have just as good of a chance to single-handedly win the game against Colin Kaepernick as San Francisco's defense and special teams have to single-handedly win the game against Jason Campbell? What am I missing?

Last note: On November 16, 2002, I moved from Boston to Los Angeles to write for a television show, convinced my then-fiancée to come with me and promised her, "Don't worry, someday we'll go back." Ten years, three dogs, two kids and two houses later, we're still here. My hair is whiter. I'm much more mellow. I changed the way I ate and slept. I stopped partying, smoking cigs and doing anything else to abuse my body. I barely even go to Vegas anymore. And through it all, one thing never changed — my football picks still suck.

This Week: 1-0 Last Week: 5-9 Season: 74-70-3


We Went There: The USMNT End Is the Beginning Is the End

By: timbersfan, 5:57 AM GMT on November 16, 2012

I was shivering in the open, unheated press box in Krasnodar's Kuban Stadium, watching the United States men's national team as they were losing 1-0 to host Russia, when a friend — who has seen a lot of these matches — sent me an e-mail:

"This seems like a traditional game where we get a garbage equalizer?"

Maybe?, I thought, fingers too cold to type back. We were halfway through the second half and scoreless since Fedor Smolov put Russia ahead in the ninth minute. The Americans, initially disjointed in front of 28,000 intensely loud fans, were better after the first 20 minutes or so, but they weren't exactly creating chances. If anything, Tim Howard and poor Russian finishing were the only reasons the scoreline wasn't more lopsided.

I sat watching, waiting, expecting a U.S. loss to close out 2012. Except six minutes after the initial e-mail, another came:


You see, Michael Bradley scored. His equalizer in the 76th minute was not Zlatan — in every player ever's defense, nothing is — but it wasn't exactly garbage, either; it was classic America. Maurice Edu sent a not-quite-but-pretty-much prayer into the box where Juan Agudelo, playing for the national team for the first time since last October, managed to get his head on the effort by jumping, twisting, and contorting in a way that only a hyper-athletic 19-year-old can. The ball fell toward an on-rushing Michael Bradley, who skillfully one-timed it out of the air — of course he did — off the post and into the back of the net. What a goal, indeed. Welcome to the schizophrenia of being an American supporter (or journalist).

Tie game, 14 minutes to go. A draw would have been a solid result, one that would see the U.S. finish with a .750 winning percentage on the calendar year. Road wins over Italy and Mexico and a tie in Russia. Not too bad.

But nothing is ever simple. In the 84th, Italian referee Nicola Rizzoli whistled Clarence Goodson — who replaced injured captain Carlos Bocanegra early on — for a kinda-sorta foul on Artem Dzyuba in the box. The call, perhaps, was justice for a non-call on Tim Howard's definitely-maybe take-down of a Russian attacker earlier in the half. At any rate, Roman Shirokov converted the penalty, putting Russia up 2-1. (Let's pause here to note that Jermaine Jones managed to sky a lovely cross from Jozy Altidore well over the bar moments prior to the Goodson foul.)

But rather than roll over, the Americans kept pushing. Terrence Boyd and Mix Diskerud, 21 and 22, respectively, joined the proceedings for Altidore and Geoff Cameron. Fabio Capello's Russia grew visibly tired. With seconds remaining, Bradley lofted a Route One ball into the box that ended up on Diskerud's foot. The midfielder, earning his third cap and first since February, struck it and scored it.

"I was eager to come in and contribute. The players played for a long time and I came in and did my best," Diskerud said after the match. "I was hoping with all my heart that the ball was going to come back to me. [It was] one of those strikes where the ball goes in and it feels good."

The next stop: 2013, a year in which Klinsmann and his troops continue the work they started when he took over last August. "I think our team grew a lot over the last 12 to 16 months. I think we've developed a lot more personality and confidence to compete with the best teams out there. We still have a long way to go down this path, but I think the younger players are a very important part of this path," said the manager after a match in which he started five players born in 1989 or later.

"I see a team that is really growing together. There is a lot happening now in the United States with football. We have great leaders: Tim Howard, Jermaine Jones, Michael Bradley. They are role models for the younger players."

You can say one thing about this work in progress that's progressing slowly in the right direction: The players, old and young, share a flair for the dramatic. Whether that's a good trait or not is a question for the next 12 months.


man u

By: timbersfan, 5:55 AM GMT on November 16, 2012


'm sick of Manchester United. In many ways, this is a compliment to Manchester United. When your emperor is cruel and merciless and rules from his twisted iron throne for like a million consecutive years, your pathetic longing for revolution is just proof that he's great at oppressing you. If Manchester United weren't permanently welded to the top or near-top of the Premier League table like the star on a Christmas tree no one throws out till May, 1 I wouldn't have had all this leisure time to accrue malevolent emotions toward their consistency and their stock prices and their players and their stupid face. Great job, Manchester United!

In other ways, however, this is not a compliment to Manchester United, because it is never a compliment when someone would rather see a goat, or Tottenham Hotspur, win the title over you. And the way I feel lately, if you rustled up a Siberian ibex that could score away at Stoke, I would wear its scarf every Saturday and cheer it on at the Theatre of Dreams. 2 I would say the same thing about Tottenham Hotspur, but I'm trying to be realistic.

Here are just a few of the things I'm sick of vis-à-vis your former Newton Heath:

Alex Ferguson is a pepper pot with peppery ideas.

"So, Sir Alex, how do you feel the team performed in your latest routine 3-0 win over Swansea?"

"The referee — he were agin' us."

"I'm sorry, but what about the fact that two of your goals came from questionable penalties and that the referee blew for the half after only four seconds of stoppage time as Swansea were threatening to score?"

"Och! Tha' big broosin' lad, Nathan Dyer, he were aye clobberin' oor boys fra' the word goo, weren't 'ee? An' wi' nary a whistle i' th'hoose."

"Nathan Dyer? Sir Alex, really, he's about 5 foot, 4 inches tall."

"He were rampagin' aboot like a great stone giant! He righ' near murdered Vidic!"

"I don't imagine he weighs much more than a hundred and twenty pounds. He's built like a feather, Sir Alex!"

"Aye, a feather wi' blood i'its heart!"

"Really, Sir Alex."

"Feather that'd snap a man's head off nine ways wi'oo' blinkin'. I'll shoo' ye a feather. Pah!"

"Sir Alex, does this improbable tirade have anything to do with sending a message to the referee in advance of your upcoming clash against Chel — "

"D'ye speck me to sit 'oo 'ere and be gabbered aboo' wi' nonsense li' that? When th' feet o' tha' Dyer stroock the sod, I swear t' Christ, I could feel th' reverberations fra' o'er i'th' technical area. 'Twere like a speece shuttle blastin' righ' oo' the coore o' th'Earth!"

"Well, I — "

"Lad, if Nathan Dyer were i' this room righ' nae, he'd stab ye i'the neck wi' a penknife. Ye see this penknife? Ye see this frarkin' penknife? [Takes out penknife.] Picture it i' yer neck."

The ongoing centrality of the "Gary Neville could absolutely suit up for this team" problem.

Look, there's nothing wrong with having a veteran core of battle-tested leaders who've spent their whole careers plugging away for the same club, winning 974 trophies (each, per year) along the way. It's even objectively admirable. I like Paul Scholes! So I'm sure there will come a day — maybe in 2042, a couple of months after Ryan Giggs finally hangs up his cyberboots for the last time in his cryonic-thermal locker —when I will look back on the Giggs/Scholes epoch 3 with nostalgia, even with awe.

That said, though? At the moment, I'm not un-sick of it.

Consistency is the hobgoblin of oh God shut up.

The Premier League has been around since 1992. Of the 20 seasons that have been completed so far, Manchester United has won 35 of them, including 47 since 2002. 4 Reached for comment, the abstract rules of mathematics said, "Yeah, screw those guys."


He is Nani.

White-hot torrents of refinancing-loans-at-competitive-interest-rates action.

Manchester United's owners are a family of loathsome trolls who live in the dripping tunnels beneath Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. Because they borrowed a fantastic amount of money to buy the club, then foisted the debt back onto the club — essentially forcing the club to buy itself for them —Manchester United is now burdened with gargantuan, hugely complex interest payments that all soccer fans are expected to actually know about and spend actual hours of their real, finite lives worrying about and contemplating, even though the connection between the day you first felt joy at the sight of a Zinedine Zidane pass and a graph displaying the Glazer family's projected bond-buyback rate is, at minimum, kind of a puzzler.

I am going to die one day, and so are you, and yet the chances are good that we both currently know that United's latest quarterly earnings conference call confirmed that the club's PLC dividends grew at 8 percent and also held open the possibility that a two- to three-year debt-restructuring period could see the annual interest bill fall to £20 million, my gosh. Yes, it's truly impressive that Alex Ferguson has won all those championships with only, like, two-thirds of the revenue of United's global performance-viscose fourth-kit empire, but HOLY NORMA CHARLTON CAN WE PLEASE JUST GO OUTSIDE?

Message-board morality: my favorite kind to yell about.


It's not as though Manchester United have a monopoly on paranoid fans who spend most of their waking hours sniffing the wind for perceivable slights that they can hunt down and feast upon. Soccer is full of fans like that. Hell, sports is full of fans like that. And I also have plenty of Manchester United–fan friends 5 who are basically just nice, regular dudes and ladies, not deranged rage-cases who somehow believe that their club is persecuted even though it has won four of the last six Premier League titles and two European Cups since 1999. So take this within its real limits.

However, if you have ever run afoul of the sort of online United police who (mistakenly) believe stuff like "abbreviating the club's name to Man Utd is a vicious coded insult," and if you have then had the requisite horrors threatened against your great-aunts, you may be particularly sick of the way the meanest core of Man Utd fans combines aggro-suspicion and deep-seated entitlement. I haven't even finished writing this piece, and I'm already sick of the stuff they're going to say to me on Twitter.


hat I have, in other words, is a serious case of narrative fatigue. The club-soccer season is long, August to May, with heavy international action and tune-up friendlies in between, not to mention the steady drone of summer transfer gossip. Top-level European club soccer is also the place where parity crawls off to die. The Premier League is even fairly egalitarian compared to some of its neighbors. Fully five teams have won the English top flight since 1992, with Manchester United taking a scant 12 of those championships; in Spain, Real Madrid and Barcelona have won (far) more titles than every other club combined.

What this means is that when a story takes hold in the upper echelons of European soccer, it tends to stick around for a punishingly long time. Killing a meme in the Premier League is like … well, I'm picturing one of those '80s-style horror movies in which a weird-looking special-effects creature uncontrollably propagates itself — like gremlins, or the aliens in Aliens, or the CNN politics roundtable. Because the same teams are always at the top, 6 and because the season essentially never stops, the same few themes are always front and center. You can blow up "Carlos Tevez is feuding with club management" in the microwave once. Five seconds later it's back, overrunning your starship or breaking down voter turnout with Wolf Blitzer, and there's not a damn thing you can do. Doesn't matter how savvy you are as a media consumer or action star or mixed metaphor.

And because — give or take the odd Sergio Agüero miracle strike — Manchester United is the hot tin roof of soccer clubs that are marketed in English, the set of themes it represents is the most relentlessly omnipresent in the countries where you and I probably live. Meaning that if you follow soccer at least semi-obsessively, odds are good that you have heard about the wily veteranness of Paul Scholes so intolerably often that you're ready to subject Paul Scholes to one of his own tackles. You get lulled into a false sense of schadenfreude when they lose a few games and look like they're out of the race (this happens every other year with United), only to see them turn it around and realize that you're going to have to keep thinking about this club after all. You end up, or anyway I do, deflecting your over-satiation into a state of vague antipathy toward a team that, in a vacuum, you'd actually find pretty interesting.

(And hopefully it goes without saying that Manchester United is only the example that's most relevant to me right now. Some people do this with Barcelona or Madrid; under the right circumstances, I could probably get media-sick of a talented Siberian ibex. Really? Another story about the mountains? Do we have to hear about his Sherpa girlfriend again?)

Anyway, for the most part, narrative fatigue is simply a collateral reality of all the usual sports-culture-in-2012 suspects. It's the post-workout burn of globalization and access and the 24/7 news cycle and the Internet (forces without which I would probably think "Manchester United" was an especially grim-sounding neo-prog-rock band). I do wonder, though, whether it will be a problem for the Premier League in the U.S. Not to oversimplify things, but Americans are used to following a bunch of sports in a seasonal-rotation cycle that involves a lot of built-in novelty. That is, if you're sick of Kevin Durant, you're, well, an idiot, but you're also a lucky idiot, because you can fall back on football and baseball and grainy old VHS tapes from back when there used to be something called hockey. Over the last, say, five years, as more and more Americans have gotten into European soccer, I'm guessing that one of the lures of the sport was that it offered another horizon of novelty. Whole new leagues to get acquainted with! Deep-end histories of rosters and rivalries and scandals! Harry $%@# Redknapp!

What happens, though, once new American fans come to terms with the fact that the rhythm of world soccer is mostly based on the idea that this is the only sport people care about? That once you learn their way around the back roads, the scenery is not going to change for years and years and years? Do you perceive this as another wrinkle of boredom in a game that already has a high boredom threshold? Or do you not care, because Robin van Persie just beat three defenders and chipped the keeper, and it was crazy beautiful in a way that makes mere novelty seem insignificant?

I'm on the latter side of that argument almost all the time. 7 I love this game, and it would take more than galloping Manchester United exhaustion to change that. Robin van Persie, though — God, am I sick of him.


Picking on Mike Brown

By: timbersfan, 12:48 AM GMT on November 10, 2012

This Week 10 picks column is dedicated to the immortal Mike Brown, the only person who ever figured out a way to stop LeBron James and someone on whom I was counting to screw up the 2012-13 Lakers season. If you noticed, I rarely if ever made Mike Brown jokes in columns or podcasts or even on TV — I was hoping he'd hang around for years and years and years, almost like the coaching version of an STD. Mike Brown was the kind of guy who shrugged off halftime adjustments and thought it would be smart to have Steve Nash run the Princeton offense — which is something you run when you have future lawyers and doctors running your team, not someone who's one of the smartest offensive point guards of all time. The Mike Brown era was like planting my own personal mole into every Lakers season. As an avowed Laker hater, this is a tough day. I'm not gonna lie.

R.I.P., the Mike Brown Lakers era. May we reach those same beautiful heights again someday soon. And on that note, let's bounce back with some Week 10 NFL winners.

(Home teams in caps)

JAGUARS (+3.5) over Colts
I botched Thursday night's pick because I didn't know about (a) the Colts shaving their heads in solidarity with ChuckStrong (how did I miss that one????), and (b) Blaine Gabbert growing a hideous blond mustache. You know what that mustache said to me? It said, I'm on national TV tonight … my team stinks … there's going to be nobody here … we're probably going to lose … people will notice that I'm not nearly as good as Andrew Luck after about five possessions … by the third quarter, if this game gets out of hand, the announcers will be wondering why we didn't trade for Tim Tebow last spring (and frankly, they should have) … so maybe, just maybe, I can divert everyone's attention on Twitter off my impending stink bomb by growing this mustache that makes me look like I should be delivering pizza to Bridgette Monet in a porn from 1981. People love porn 'staches — they're like tossing a ball of yarn to a cat. Why do you think I grew my porn stache during a week of PTI appearances two summers ago?

(One more note: I love that Roger Goodell attended last night's game, the latest in a slew of Thursday-night stinkers that are only happening because Goodell and the owners greedily created this ridiculous Thursday package that flies in the face of every sanctimonious thing they've said and done about improving player safety. The games have been unspeakably dreadful week after week after week. Seeing Goodell in the stands last night was like seeing someone being forced to stand next to his own clogged toilet. I really enjoyed it. They should make him go to every Thursday game.)

BUCS (-3) over Chargers
Remember that scene in Goodfellas when Robert De Niro was waving Dr. Melfi into that scary warehouse to grab some dresses, and something about the whole thing frightened her and she ended up scampering to her car? That's how I feel about this line. On what planet should the Bucs — a legitimate offensive powerhouse (last four weeks: 144 points) and this year's out-of-nowhere "Who knew they'd have so many fantasy studs???" team — only lay three points to this fraud of a Chargers team? Do you realize San Diego hasn't beaten anyone other than Kansas City since Week 2? Or that the Chargers gave up 93 points combined to the only three quality offenses they've faced (Denver, Atlanta and New Orleans)? And Tampa is only giving three? Three? Just three?

Falcons (-2.5) SAINTS
Georgia reader Steve Cooper wonders, "Are the Falcons the first ever 8-0 'Nobody Believes in Us' team?"

Absolutely. The Falcons could finish 16-0, get a bye in Round 1 and still lay less than a field goal to the Giants in Round 2 even if the Giants finished 10-6 and were coming off 10 straight shaky Eli games. Here's why this is happening: These last few seasons have banged home the point — relentlessly, over and over again — that you only need to start playing well after Thanksgiving to win the Super Bowl. We're so tired of getting burned by "contenders" peaking too early (the 16-0 Pats are a sneaky-great example of this) or late bloomers surging after we already poured dirt on them (a.k.a. the 2007/2011 Giants, the 2009 Packers/Cardinals or the 2006 Colts) that everything swung out of whack and that's how we ended up with this gift of a line. For the record, I don't see the Falcons finally stumbling until the Sunday after Thanksgiving (at Tampa).

Giants (-3.5) BENGALS
Meanwhile, here are the Giants running their "Nobody Believes in Us" playbook to perfection. So many people jumped on the G-Men's bandwagon after their four-game winning streak (including their ass-kicking of San Francisco) that, naturally, Tom Coughlin forced Eli Manning to throw last Sunday's home game against the Steelers.

Can you blame him? If the Giants don't start throwing away victories right now, they're going to win the NFC East by five games and coast into the playoffs as a no. 2-seed. Both Coughlin and Eli know they need to play in Round 1 as a no. 3-seed or a no. 4-seed — with people saying stuff like, "They're only hosting a playoff game because their division sucked" and "Eli just isn't the same guy anymore" — which is why Eli submitted the single worst fantasy performance in the history of mankind last week (5.25 points????????????) and the Giants are definitely losing two to three more times (remaining sked: bye week, Green Bay, at Washington, New Orleans, at Atlanta, at Baltimore, Philly) so they can slide comfortably into that no. 4-seed, then host the Packers in Round 1 as everyone discounts their chances, followed by that Round 2 trip to Atlanta that you know they're dying to make. The Giants figured out the ebbs and flows of a five-month season better than any perennial contender in recent memory. It pisses me off.

On that note, we have to rehash Eli's catastrophic 5.25-pointer, which officially ended my West Coast fantasy season and may have convinced me to retire from fantasy football altogether, and only because I'm tired of fantasy football making me feel bad about myself. It's like being in a relationship with someone who's always mean to you. I can't even remember the last time fantasy football and I were happy. Anyway, an Illinois reader named Kevin listened to me bitch about fantasy football on Monday's podcast and sent the following e-mail:

"Nobody wants to hear about your fantasy team, or mine, or anyone else's for that matter. That's why I'm going to start a Fantasy Football Gripe Hotline, like a Suicide Hotline but more like a Suicide Pool Hotline. Imagine being able to call up this week, for a minor $1 fee, and vent. 'Dude, I had Andrew Luck in my starting lineup all week, then the third-rate fantasy info guy that follows me on Twitter said 'Eli never has two bad games in a row' and I plugged Eli in over Luck 10 minutes before kickoff.' My hotline operator could just respond with, 'Man, it's okay. You made the right choice. What were the odds that would happen. Don't beat yourself up.' How many sullen fantasy owners would be all over this?"

(I love this idea. I totally would have called that hotline after Eli's 5.25-pointer and maybe even have spent $20 hashing out my feelings about it. Which brings me back to my point — I really need to dump fantasy football. I don't like the way you make me feel about myself, fantasy football. You're mean to me.)

PATRIOTS (-11) over Bills
My beloved Pats committed a huge boner last season by not sending a fifth-rounder to Denver for Brandon Lloyd, leading to what happened during the second half of the Super Bowl — the Giants single-covering Chad Ochocinco and giving him the entire half of the field, knowing he wouldn't kill them because he was Chad Ochocinco. I managed to block everything out of my mind from that game, including Rob Gronkowski nearly catching the game-ending Hail Mary, but still haven't been able to extinguish the memories of Tom Brady screwing up that fourth-quarter pass to a wide-open Welker or the Giants saying, "Really, you're going to keep throwing Ochocinco out here? You really want to play 10-on-10? That's your goal? You're giving us that gift? Thank you! No, really … thank you!"

Anyway, you may have noticed that the Patriots sent a fourth-rounder to Tampa last week for Aqib Talib, who immediately became (a) the best cornerback on the team, and (b) the overwhelming favorite of any Patriot to land on Mike Florio's blog with a headline including one of the following words: "ARRESTED … FAILED … RESTRAINED … PUNCHED … PLEADED." They need him to stay out of trouble for three months. I liked the trade even if I would be afraid to shake hands with Aqib Talib, much less rely on him to be my shutdown corner during the playoffs. You gotta do what you gotta do.1

Raiders (+7.5) over RAVENS
Baltimore's six victories: Cincy (blowout), New England (super lucky), Cleveland (barely held on), Kansas City (9-6, ugly as hell), Dallas (super lucky), Cleveland (handed to them on a platter by the historically atrocious Pat Shurmur, the only coach who can swing from "embarrassingly conservative" to "unfathomably reckless" during a 15-minute span of the same game). If you're looking for a second-half swoon from a team with a winning record, the Ravens could be a juicy pick: After Oakland, the Ravens play at Pittsburgh, at San Diego, home for Pittsburgh, at Washington, home for Denver and the Giants, and then finish at Cincy.

Keep in mind, the Ravens blew out the Bengals by 31 points in Week 1. So if you're looking at things like the Ravens' DVOA (12th overall), time of possession (26:47 for them, 33:13 for opponents), quarterback play (Flacco's 85.0 QB rating barely edges the 76.8 rating from their opponents even though they've had six games against Dalton, Vick, Romo, Cassel and a Double Weeden), total rushing (they've been outgained by 250 yards), sacks (they're minus-6), first downs (minus-34), penalties (minus-9), total plays (minus-89) and yards per play (5.6 for Baltimore, 5.3 for their opponents), those numbers include that phenomenal Week 1 game. They haven't played a good game since. They really haven't. Football Outsiders guru Aaron Schatz tells us that, since Week 2, Baltimore ranks 17th in DVOA. It's a middle-of-the-pack team. That's why I can't lay more than seven with Baltimore even against Carson Palmer when he's traveling from the West Coast to the East Coast for a 1 p.m. game with no running game and no cornerbacks. I just can't.

The Totally Bitter Guy Who Keeps Losing Money on the Ravens No Matter Which Way I Go

Browns' Bye Week (+3.5) over the Cardinals/Packers/Redskins' Bye Weeks
Only because Cardinals/Packers/Redskins fans don't send me e-mails like this one from Paul in London: "Am I the only person in the world convinced that Vick is just MADE to be the Browns QB, now that his Philly days are obviously numbered? His talent to snatch catastrophe from certain success, underlined by last night's beautiful pick-six that you absolutely KNEW was coming three downs before, must be allowed to fully express itself in its natural habitat. Cleveland has a proud history of goal-line disasters — he'll be a natural. I don't even think Browns fans will boo, they may even feel a little civic pride." Kudos to Paul for somehow steering clear of a tasteless Vick/Dawg Pound joke — I know I couldn't have done it.

PANTHERS (+4.5) over Broncos
John Fox's emotional return to Carolina! (What? It's not emotional at all? Not even a little? My bad.) A couple of things to remember about this one …

• The Panthers haven't played a bad game since their memorable Thursday-night stinker against the Giants that briefly turned everyone against Cam Newton and led to people frantically selling his rookie cards on eBay like the Dukes selling their oranges stock at the end of Trading Places.2 Their last five games: two-point loss in Atlanta; four-point loss to Seattle; five-point loss to Dallas; one-point loss to Chicago; eight-point win at Washington. And in all four losses, they had the ball with the chance to win in the final few minutes. This isn't your typical 2-6 team just like Baltimore isn't your typical 6-2 team and the Knicks aren't going to finish 82-0.

• If the Broncos beat Carolina, that would give them a four-game win streak with the following games looming: home for Fraudulent San Diego … at Nobody Will Be There Because Everyone Will Be So Bitter and Angry Kansas City … home for Dangerously Dangerous Tampa … at Stinky Oakland (Thursday night) … at Doing It With Mirrors Baltimore … home for About to Fire Their Coach Cleveland … home for Soul-Suckingly Crappy Kansas City. They're really going to run the slate and win 11 straight with The Artist Formerly Known As the Noodle? Come on. My upset special: Carolina 33, Denver 30.

(Win or lose, we can't allow Sunday's game to distract from Peyton Manning's brilliant move a few weeks ago of purchasing 21 Papa John's restaurants in Colorado right before the state legalized marijuana. What a comeback for Peyton! Remember when the Broncos were 2-3 and I was still making Mr. Noodle jokes? Now he's an MVP candidate AND a future billionaire.)

DOLPHINS (-6) over Titans
Seems a little high until you remember that the 3-6 Titans have lost games by 21, 28, 24, 23, six and 31 points. Hey, here's an idea I really liked from a reader named Walt in Rochester:

"Recently listened to your Cousin Sal podcast when you claimed that this year would be your last playing fantasy football. Instead of not playing (we all know you will), I have a solution. My friends and I are in a four-man fantasy football league. It's fantastic as we all have super teams and an injury can't devastate your season. The games are competitive every week and there still isn't a clear-cut favorite. To increase player movement, there are only two bench spots, so good players are dropped and added all the time (I have dropped/added Jimmy Graham at least four times). There is no entry fee, but once the season finishes, the winner gets taken to a restaurant of his choice, the loser pays for dinner, and the second and third place finishers split the price of drinks. It's our second year and it's been a great success. Instead of being angry that your bum of a bye-week fill-in running back only scored three points, you can enjoy a fantasy football shootout every week. Give it a shot. It will quickly become your favorite fantasy league."

IN! IN! I'm all the way in!!!!!! Walt's e-mail made me realize something — the biggest reason I hate fantasy football (well, other than the fact that it always makes me feel bad about myself unless it's one of the years when I have a good team) is because you're invariably trapped with mistakes you made on a whim during a four-hour draft. For instance, I can't stand Eli Manning — he's the guy who ruined two Super Bowls for me. I only ended up with him because I was trying to bid up the room and got stuck with him. Now, he's murdering my fantasy season just like he murdered Super Bowls XLII and XLVI for me. In the four-man league, I'd just be able to hit the RESET button instead of being burdened with one draft-day mistake for a solid year. This is a great idea. I love this idea.

VIKINGS (+2) over Lions
My favorite Week 10 game on the board: It's always beautiful when public sentiment swings a little too violently against one team (in this case, the Vikings, coming off convincing losses to a better-than-we-thought Tampa team and an excellent-at-home Seattle team) and a smidge too positively for their opponent (in this case, the Lions, who won three of their last four and played the Bears pretty well in the loss) … and if you're getting value on a home dog, even better. Also, if the Vikes don't get a special teams TD this week, I'm giving you a full refund of this column.

Quick question: On NBA Countdown on Wednesday night (and yes, we're on next Wednesday night as well: 7:30 p.m. EST, ESPN), we were debating the possibility of a Derrick Rose comeback and I mentioned how Adrian Peterson came back in less than nine months, so why couldn't Rose come back by the All-Star break? Wilbon disagreed and said cryptically, "Different movements," insinuating that it's easier for a running back to come back from torn knee ligaments than a point guard because … why? From a confidence standpoint, wouldn't you be more worried about getting tackled than simply driving through the lane? And from a cutting/pounding standpoint, how are the sports really that different? Read this piece about Peterson's comeback being fueled by his desire to become the best running back ever — isn't Rose wired the same way? What am I missing?

If there's an enlightening article that explains the difference between Rose's situation and Peterson's situation, by all means, send it to me. But I have a feeling Rose will return much sooner than anyone believes for the same reason Peterson came back much sooner than anyone thought — they're both overcompetitive freak athletes with younger bodies recovering in an unprecendented era for training/medicine/science. I wish there were a way to wager on Rose's sooner-than-you-think comeback. You wait. I bet he's back before the All-Star break.

SEAHAWKS (-6) over Jets
49ERS (-11) over Rams
The "2012 Teams You Definitely Don't Want to Have a Wager on If They Fall Behind by More Than a Touchdown" list includes the Jets, Rams, Chiefs, Jaguars, Cardinals, Vikings, and the Chiefs a second time just to be safe. Lay the points with the cream of the NFC West and thank me later. Oh, and if you really plan on ignoring Seattle's home record (4-0), Russell Wilson's home stats (9 TDs, 0 INTs) or the fact that the 3-5 Jets have already played five home games and might be headed for 4-12 or 5-11 (barring some Tebow magic), this e-mail from Miller in Connecticut should erase any doubt that you should lay six with the Hawks.

"I recently moved out into my own apartment in Stamford. The cable guy came earlier this week, but it wasn't until tonight I realized I didn't have NFL Network. So I called up Cablevision and felt them out for prices. The guy goes, 'Dude you NEED Red Zone. Are you a Jets fan?' I politely responded, 'No, why?' He goes, 'What are you going to do at 4:00 pm, when the early games are done and you are stuck watching the Jets as the only game on local cable? My 5 year old son pee-wee football team runs a more complex and dynamic offense than those clowns.' Instantly, I signed up for a two-year subscription to the Red Zone channel. He was right." Ladies and gentlemen, the Jets of New York!"

Cowboys (-1.5) over EAGLES
I know this sounds weird, but I really, really, REALLY like the overrated team with the polarizing QB who might lose his job soon and the much-mocked coach who can't manage the clock and will probably get fired soon to dominate the overrated team with the polarizing QB who might lose his job soon and the much-mocked coach who can't manage the clock and will probably get fired soon.

Texans (+1.5) over BEARS
I could see this game going one of two ways …

Scenario A: Chicago wins a close game because of one big special teams play, one timely turnover (either a Schaub pick or a Foster fumble), one of those "35 carries for 125 yards"–type performances from Matt Forte, one huge Brandon Marshall play that either goes for a TD or a pass interference, and of course, at least one enormous turnover caused by Charles "Thank God His Wife Didn't Give Birth and He Played" Tillman, followed by Bears fans deliriously celebrating for about an hour before getting the news that Jay Cutler suffered a stress fracture in his foot on the last kneel-down play and Jason Campbell has to take over for the next few weeks.

Scenario B: Houston avoids giving up a big special teams play AND spitting up a costly turnover, pounds the ball down the throats of Chicago's defense, dominates the time of possession, locks down Brandon Marshall, harrasses Jay Cutler for four straight quarters to the tune of seven or eight sacks, gets Cutler to do a couple of Cutler-y things (pick three results from: a horrific throw into triple-coverage, a third-down interception in Houston's end zone, a deflected pick because he became the latest QB who thought it was a good idea to throw the ball over J.J. Watt's head, embarrasses one of his linemen on national TV, gets in a yelling match with his offensive coordinator), followed by Bears fans freaking out for a solid week because Cutler just crapped the bed and now they have to play in San Francisco on Monday night.

(Thinking … )

I could see either happening. It's practically a coin flip. You know what swayed me toward Houston? Bears fans are a liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiittle too confident right now. Just a tad. Just a smidge. Their boys haven't lost since Week 2. Deep down, they've hit that freaky "Should I just roll the dice and book my New Orleans flight and hotel room right now, then not tell anyone so my friends don't blame me for jinxing the season?" part of any NFL contender's schedule. Houston fans would never do that because they've never been to a Super Bowl and don't know any better. But Chicago fans? It's been a constant mental battle between loving this particular Bears team and trying to not jinx what's happening … and now they just can't fight it anymore. That 31-point shellacking of Tennessee tested their resolve, as does the realization that their boys might finish with the greatest fantasy defense of all time. Over these first two months, the Bears clearly established an identity that their fans embraced: namely, "Old-school monster defense, great special teams, good running game, gunslinger QB … and by the way, if our QB didn't get hurt last year, maybe we would have won it all."

They're about 19 percent too confident. So what if they blew these next two games, got caught by Green Bay in the standings, went back to being the self-loathing, beaten-down Chicago fans we know and love, and THEN belatedly made that Super Bowl run? That makes more sense … right?

STEELERS (-12) over Chiefs
The Chiefs haven't led during one game this season — not once, not even for two seconds.

The Chiefs have a turnover margin of minus-20.

The Chiefs have lost six of their seven games by 10 points or more.

The Chiefs have six touchdown passes and 14 interceptions, but they've given up 17 touchdown passes and picked off only six passes … and now they're going against a QB who's thrown 16 TDs and just four picks.

The Chiefs have a starting QB who's thrown 16 TDs and 20 picks and fumbled 13 times in his last 16 games.

The Chiefs have a -44.7 DVOA, which is a fancy way of saying they're even more historically atrocious than Pat Shurmur.

The Chiefs are so bad they've spawned a Twitter feed called @saveourchiefs that has over 72,000 followers thanks to their mission, "Dedicated to restoring the glory days of Chiefs football and getting rid of [GM Scott] Pioli and Co."

The Chiefs have a 65-year-old coach who's lost 18 of his last 25 games and has a lifetime record of 32-68.

The Chiefs are probably getting the no. 1 overall pick during the one draft when there isn't definitely a franchise QB.

The Chiefs recently caused a K.C. native named Randy to e-mail me, "You always write that God hates Cleveland, can we at least agree that God strongly dislikes Kansas City?"

The Chiefs have fans who are probably furious right now that I left five or six things out.

This Week: 0-1
Last Week: 7-6
Season: 68-62-3


Return of the Jedi

By: timbersfan, 1:17 AM GMT on November 09, 2012

I don't want to dwell on this, mostly because it's evidence of the extent to which I am ruined as a human being, but Star Wars is my earliest memory. The memory is so early, in fact — I was still getting a handle on stuff like "toddling" and "having teeth" when A New Hope dropped in 1977 — that I can't even be totally sure that it's real. I might be unconsciously inventing it, re-shooting the scene in my imagination based on some overheard family story, the way you do.

Either way, the facts appear to point to the tiny me being deposited one afternoon with my grandmother. We talked it over (I was 1) and decided to catch a matinee. Of most of what transpired at the theater, I preserve no recollection. The opening fanfare, the paragraphs-in-space intro, the rebel soldiers taking defensive positions in their dumb helmets, Vader's cape swirling through the smoking doorway, Princess Leia bending over R2-D2 — none of this stuff, which I knew foward and backward a few years later, made any impression on me. Where my memory kicks in, with that watery-vivid hugeness of early childhood, is with the Sand People.

One second there was Luke, non-scary old Luke, scoping out some far-off Banthas with his macrobinoculars, not a care in the world. Then the whole huge screen filled up with this rearing, khaki-shrouded visage of death, blunt metallic tusks jutting crudely out of its head-linens. From its … throat, I guess? … there issued a wrenching bellow, like a plunger-trumpet solo combined with the casual tasing of an elephant. I couldn't pretend to be an expert on body language, but from the way it brandished its mace over its head, I was certain of one thing: This creature was about to kill me. I reacted, I believe, in a manner appropriate to that realization. My grandmother and I, conferring, decided that the rational course of action lay in leaving the theater expeditiously. I was perhaps carried. In my defense, I had been through a lot.

I'm not sure why I'm telling you this story — I guess it's because Disney has bought Lucasfilm, as you and I and all the kids on Kashyyyk have already heard, and every time George Lucas eases himself into a V-neck and signs his name on a contract it's an occasion to reflect on the imaginative thralldom that Star Wars enforces on my generation, or a certain demographic within my generation, whatever my demographic is. And in my case, that thralldom is especially acute, because … well, I don't remember being born, after all. My conscious experience of the universe begins with a hacked-off Tusken Raider. You never get over that, not really. Proust is just a thing I read one summer; Star Wars is there in all my neural pathways, encouraging me to spend money.

Plus — it would be dishonest to leave this out — there's the fact that I now pretty much work for Disney, via writing for this website,1 and while my role in charting the future direction of the Star Wars franchise has been (uh) limited,2 you also have to add in all the other ways in which Disney influences childhoods, colonizes neural pathways, etc. I have this large, strange sense of circles being closed. I mean, I might meet the Sand Person, my existential parent, at a Christmas party. Imagine how a Baby Boomer would have felt if early-'80s Mick Jagger had somehow become the President of Vietnam.

Grantland on Star Wars

Harrison Ford Is Interested in Reviving Han Solo
(Possibly in Order to Kill Him?!)

Lucas Sold Star Wars, Day 2: Nobody Told Luke Skywalker
Stunner! Mark Hamill wasn't in the loop.

The Grantland Staff Considers the Future of a Disneyfied Franchise
Grantland staff have assembled to sift through the still-smoldering wreckage of our mental Death Stars in search of some answers, or, at the very least, a new hope.
Can we talk about Casablanca? We need to talk about Casablanca. OK, good.

Casablanca and Star Wars don't have a lot of obvious stuff in common, but ever since I got the news that Disney is planning to release a new Star Wars movie in 2015 (I was sitting at my computer, drinking tea that I just barely didn't spit out), I've been thinking that Casablanca is the key to the very unlikely possibility that they can do this and make something good. This is especially true given that there's a large subsection of Star Wars fans who are basically pleading with the Force to put one of our modern geek-hero auteurs, Joss Whedon or J.J. Abrams or whomever, in charge of the project. I don't think that's a good idea. I will come back to this in a second.

First, though, what I wrote before isn't really true. Casablanca and the original Star Wars trilogy have a ton of very obvious stuff in common; it's just that since there's no particular reason to compare/contrast them, they seem to occupy non-overlapping movie universes, like Wreck-It Ralph and Last Tango in Paris.3 But think about it. In a very general sense, both stories revolve around a dramatic triumvirate made up of (1) a cynical, self-protectively closed-off hero who learns to open his heart to a larger cause (Rick, Han); (2) an earnest, unworldly hero who operates as a transformational figure within that cause (Luke, Victor Laszlo); (3) a girl who is complicatedly drawn to each of them (Ilsa, Leia). In both stories, the cynical hero has a devoted sidekick who travels with him through thick and thin. In both stories, a powerful figure allied with an evil government redeems himself by betraying that government at the last possible second. In both stories, a colorful bar in an exotic desert location serves as the backdrop for a dramatic escape. Both stories involve an untrustworthy gambler (Lando, Signor Ugarte). Both stories involve an obese crime lord, though in fairness Sydney Greenstreet is a cooler special effect than Jabba the Hutt. Neither main protagonist ends up with the girl. (OK, in Return of the Jedi, the main protagonist winds up being twins with the girl, but whatever.)

These similarities aren't infinitely deep. The real story of Star Wars is the redemption of Darth Vader, while Captain Renault's redemption in Casablanca is just a by-the-way bonus. But the resemblances are intriguing. Why do they exist? I don't think the answer is that George Lucas deliberately copied Casablanca; I think it's that Star Wars and Casablanca are both made out of a million spare parts from other and older stories, and some of the action-romance archetypes that George Lucas drew upon in Star Wars had also been drawn upon 35 years earlier by the committee of accidental geniuses that made Casablanca. I'm not even talking Joseph Campbell–level ur-myths; I mean pulp novels, Hemingway stories, Westerns, antique movie serials, Black Mask, Amazing Stories, One Thousand and One Nights. The two films have a kind of grandparent-grandchild relationship — genes that happen to be expressed in one place expressing themselves again, in a totally different form, decades later.

Here's something famous that Umberto Eco wrote about Casablanca:

Casablanca is not just one film. It is many films, an anthology. Made haphazardly, it probably made itself, if not actually against the will of its authors and actors, then at least beyond their control. … When all the archtypes burst in shamelessly, we reach Homeric depths. Two cliches make us laugh. A hundred cliches move us. For we sense dimly that the cliches are talking among themselves, and celebrating a reunion. Just as the height of pain may encounter sensual pleasure, and the height of perversion border on mystical energy, so too the height of banality allows us to catch a glimpse of the sublime. Something has spoken in place of the director. If nothing else, it is a phenomenon worthy of awe.
The difference between Star Wars and Casablanca here is that Lucas, at least at first, maybe kind of intended the sublime-banality cliches-talking-among-themselves thing that Eco portrays as operating beyond the will of the director. (Anyway, George was pretty frank about cribbing from Kurosawa.) Otherwise, this passage says as much about Star Wars, aesthetically, as about the older film.

But there's more, I think, to the particular kind of wonder that both these stories are capable of calling up. The best way I know how to put it is, The cliches are talking among themselves. But they are not talking to us. At least not about being cliches. That is, they aren't drawing attention to themselves. They aren't doing any of the million wink-y things that, say, the Scream series, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer,4 will do to let us know that they're down with their own influences. There's no moment when a genre convention is fulfilled, or subverted, and the filmmakers insert a little quip or beat or one-liner to let us know they're in on the joke. The second Star Wars trilogy, the prequels, is particularly bad about telegraphing its awareness of our awareness of the first Star Wars trilogy; there's so much stuff (Boba Fett's backstory!) that only remotely matters because of held-over feelings from the first three movies. You're constantly getting these scenes where, I don't know, a Jawa shows up, and the camera lingers for a split-second too long, and the music plays this overly fond shimmery punchline figure like HEY! REMEMBER THESE GUYS??

In the original trilogy, though, and in Casablanca, all the mixed-up old elements are turned inward. Grand Moff Tarkin may be a cheekbone-for-cheekbone copy of Major Strasser, but he doesn't know it. If you'll forgive the expression, Star Wars and Casablanca are postmodern without being self-aware. They're coherent, self-contained worlds that, because they're made out of stories that have been fulfilling wishes forever, happen to conform in a particularly accessible way to both the weirdness and the innocence of our desires. They're fully operational miniatures of the kind of world to which we want to escape when we're at our most simple and open and thoughtless.

To my mind, the challenge for Disney in putting together Episode VII is that this particular kind of wonder is almost totally antithetical to the logic of the modern franchise reboot. Reboots generally assume, and maybe not wrongly, that what fans want in revisiting an entertainment property is a chance to talk about it, to remind ourselves of its place in the culture, rather than a chance to escape into the world it conjures up. For example: I liked the J.J. Abrams Star Trek reboot fine, but can you imagine any non-kid enjoying it who wasn't already familiar with the fun-dynamics of the Kirk/Spock/McCoy relationship, or who couldn't parse the 40-plus years of agglomerated narrative that made it thrilling when Uhura kissed Spock? The movie was as much about flirting with our memories, reminding us of what we already knew, as it was about telling a new story. And this is probably going to get me screamed at, but I think you could make the same argument about the Christopher Nolan Batman films — it's just that the conversation they wanted to have about Batman and American culture was deeper and more metaphorically focused than what reboots usually give us.

What Disney has in store for Star Wars isn't (probably) a strict reboot, in that it will presumably maintain canonical continuity with the first two trilogies and also not exclusively star J.Crew models. But as with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,5 a vague reboot-ish shadow seems doomed to hang over the whole affair, even if it opens with the last chord of the song they replaced "Yub Nub" with.

And that's why I'm leery of the "just give it to Joss" CW here. Your modern geek-mob director is really, really good at making fans happy. But he's so good at making fans happy because he's so fluent with the conventions of a given genre and so penetratingly conscious of its cultural place. In a reboot situation, he knows exactly how the fans feel about every aspect of the franchise and a big part of his job is to treat it with appropriate respect. He is deeply self-conscious, usually as a fundamental matter of style (the Whedon "playing brilliantly with horror/sci-fi/Westerns/spy-thriller forms" approach) and if not, then as a way to freshen up tired material (the Jon Favreau "I'm sending up conventions of the superhero movie because it's more fun that way" approach). Again, this often works really well within the context of what these directors are trying to do. But the necessary condition of Star Wars is that it can't know it's Star Wars. The temptation to tell it will be extreme. But if you do that, then you wreck it in ways that not even George Lucas managed to do.6

And OK, I think I see why I wanted to open this with the story of my oldest memory — because you can still find genuine amazement rattling around in the hybridized mind of pop culture. But the components can't be too much on the surface. They have to be deep and barely conscious, like a memory you aren't even sure is real.


The Greatest Team That Never Was

By: timbersfan, 1:02 AM GMT on November 09, 2012

Ralph Sampson spoke briefly at a press conference one day before being inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. He mentioned hearing people say that he'd disappeared of late. "How could a 7-foot-4 person disappear?" he asked. How indeed?

During Sampson's first season for the University of Virginia 33 years ago, Sports Illustrated trumpeted his arrival with a cover story and screaming headline: LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, INTRODUCING THE ONE AND ONLY RALPH SAMPSON! HE DUNKS! HE BLOCKS SHOTS! HE DRIBBLES BEHIND HIS BACK! HE'S 7-FOOT-4 — AND STILL GROWING! That's five exclamation marks, one less than the number of times Sampson appeared on the magazine's cover over the next four years. The sport had never seen anyone with Sampson's potent blend of height and athleticism. A franchise center who moved like Russell, passed like Wilt, and projected the same aloof immensity as Kareem? Yes. And he was — and still is — 7-foot-4.

After Sampson averaged 14.9 points, 11.2 rebounds, and 4.6 blocks his freshman season, Boston Celtics patriarch Red Auerbach tried to convince him to enter the 1980 NBA draft. The Celtics, a 61-win team in the previous season, featured a transcendent rookie forward named Larry Bird and owned the first overall pick. Sampson remembers it well. "Auerbach came to my house and said, 'You can come and play for the mighty Boston Celtics.' I gave it a thought. Ralph Sampson coming to Boston — there might not have been a Kevin McHale there or Robert Parish." When Sampson stunned basketball by staying in school,1 Auerbach traded that pick and the 13th selection to Golden State for Parish and the third overall pick (which would become McHale), creating the "Big Three" that would eventually win three NBA titles over the next six seasons. Sampson stayed all four years at Virginia, leaving valuable earning years on the table (and never playing in an NCAA championship game), but winning three Naismith Awards and finishing as one of college basketball's greatest centers ever.2

The Rockets happily selected Sampson first in the 1983 draft, then teamed him up with Hakeem (then spelled "Akeem") Olajuwon after winning another no. 1 overall pick the following spring. Their panicked rivals rushed to emulate Houston's "Twin Towers" and Boston's enviable tandem of Parish and McHale, and an arms race for bigs officially began. New York decided Patrick Ewing and Bill Cartwright could coexist. Teams drafted an astonishing eight centers with the first 17 picks in 1985; the following summer, four of the first seven lottery picks were centers. When the precocious Rockets lost to Boston in the 1986 Finals, the sight of McHale, Parish, Bird, and Bill Walton battling Sampson and Olajuwon appeared to be the dawning of a new basketball era. Little did we know those teams had already peaked. The Celtics were never the same after rookie Len Bias overdosed on cocaine two days after the 1986 draft.3 And Houston's promising nucleus crashed because of injuries, drug abuse, suspicion, suspensions, and ultimately, Sampson's stunning trade to Golden State.

By the time Olajuwon won consecutive titles in Houston, Sampson was long gone — he played his last meaningful game long before he turned 30. His premature demise opened the door for the Lakers to win two more titles, sabotaged the first decade of Hakeem's brilliant career, and established Sampson as one of basketball's ultimate "What if?" talents. Imagine today's Oklahoma City Thunder never fulfilling their potential, getting sidetracked by injuries and drugs, wiping their roster clean, then winning championships with an aged Kevin Durant nearly a decade later. That's how it played out for the "Twin Towers."

All those quoted are introduced with the job titles they held or positions they played during the 1985-86 NBA season.


Before the 1982-83 season, Philadelphia signed reigning MVP Moses Malone to a $13.2 million offer sheet, with Houston receiving Caldwell Jones and Cleveland's 1983 no. 1 pick. Philly won the 1983 title and the Rockets stumbled to 14 wins (and the first and third overall picks). The Indiana Pacers finished with a 20-62 record, worst in the East, setting up a coin flip for the no. 1 pick.

Charlie Thomas (owner, Rockets): My daughter at that time was in her late teens. I came home one night and she said, "What are you going to do about the [1983] coin flip?" I said, "I don't know. It's 50-50." She said, "I think it's going to be heads. I had a dream that it's going to be heads." I said, "I don't mind calling heads." And she went with me and they flipped the coin.

Jerry Sichting (guard, Boston Celtics): I was with the Pacers when they lost the flip. The coin landed on its side and rolled all the way to the wall. Everybody was scrambling to see which way it was going to turn over.

Herb Simon (co-owner, Pacers): I remember the coin rolled on the carpet, on the floor, and [Thomas] had his daughter with him. I had nobody. And of course I lost.

Sichting: Houston got the first pick. Sampson would have been my teammate had it turned the other way. I might have been his teammate instead of getting in a fight with him [three years later].

Rodney McCray (forward, Rockets): The Sunday before the draft, they brought Ralph, myself, and [Steve] Stipanovich to New York for radio interviews. Ralph said the Rockets were going to select me along with him [at no. 3]. That was the first time I heard it.

Hakeem Olajuwon (center, Rockets): Clyde [Drexler] was available and the city and everybody wanted him to stay in the city. Bill Fitch, he had a different vision with Rodney.4

Bill Fitch (coach, Rockets): I'll never be sorry for it. McCray did exactly what we wanted him to do and he was very good. The only time I'm sorry for it is that every time we would play Drexler after, say, five years in the league, he'd just stick it in my ear. If there was a record to be set, he would do it.

Robert Reid (guard-forward, Rockets): After the Rockets got Ralph and Rodney, I got a phone call from Bill Fitch and [Rockets general manager] Ray Patterson. I talked to my wife and said, "Let's go back."5

Fran Blinebury (Rockets beat writer, Houston Chronicle): The first year, they got rid of everybody. It was, "Ralph was there and we're just going to dismantle this thing."

Thomas: We were so bad. We went into a complete rebuilding program.

Blinebury: Fitch wanted [Sampson] to be a center. All he kept saying was "Ralph needs to get a move. He needs a baseline move." Ralph was just never going to be that guy. Bill was always trying to make a square peg fit into a round hole. If anything, Ralph was a triangle or a shape that we hadn't had before.

Reid: Ralph, in the back of his mind at practice, he was saying, "I'm going to be the first 7-foot point guard." Bill Fitch was going to go tackle him if he tried to bring it down again.

Fitch: I used to get on him that he was a center and not an outside player.

Blinebury: Ralph was going to be this game-changing player, a 7-foot-4 guy who could put the ball between his legs, run the court on the break, and shoot 25-foot jumpers. Ray Patterson says, "Not only is Ralph going to be the player of the year, he's going to be the player of the century."

Even with Sampson winning Rookie of the Year, the 1983-84 Rockets lost 53 games and were accused of tanking games down the stretch. Improbably, the team won the coin flip for the right to draft Olajuwon, even though they had only the league's fourth-worst record. Already perturbed by Robert Reid's surprise retirement and subsequent return,6 Houston's rivals now stewed over the fact that they'd been rewarded with successive top picks.

Blinebury: There was a meeting that took place over the All-Star break [in 1984] between Thomas, Patterson, and Fitch. They'll deny it up and down, but they said, "We're not the team of the year right now." Meanwhile, Hakeem was tearing it up at the University of Houston.

Carroll Dawson (assistant coach, Rockets): Every time we weren't playing, I'd go watch [Olajuwon] play because Phi Slama Jama was tremendous. Dream didn't shoot the ball that much. We knew he could dunk. We knew he could block shots. We knew he could rebound and we knew he could run like a deer.

Blinebury: If you look at some of the box scores and lineups and conclude they're doing anything but tanking, then you're far different than me.7 There was one game in Houston where Elvin Hayes, who was about a thousand years old, ended up playing in an overtime game about 50 minutes.

Thomas: We got the first pick again. I don't know if anyone had ever won it two years in a row.

Blinebury: Norm Sonju [then the GM of the Mavericks] was outraged that Houston could win back-to-back coin flips. In 1984 at the Board of Governors meeting, Sonju throws out that he wants to get rid of the coin flip and go to the draft lottery.

Norm Sonju (general manager, Dallas Mavericks): The whole thing was basically people feeling that [the Rockets intentionally] lost games. No one can prove that, but they went down to 14 wins [in '83].8

David Stern (commissioner, NBA): The lottery was created to eliminate the perceived incentive to lose games. Obviously the Rockets became the team on which most people focused. Even if teams were not losing on purpose to better their position, the perception did exist.

Blinebury: It gets changed and 10 minutes after, Ray sees me and says, "Norm Sonju thinks he's so damn smart. He's tired of me winning coin flips. I've got Sampson and Olajuwon. How the hell am I going to have the worst record in the West? But he could have the worst record. He could have just cost himself a one-in-two chance of getting the no. 1 pick." And then he paused and said, "We could be the first team out of the playoffs. I could get into the lottery, win it, and get Patrick Ewing. How would you like me to stick that up his ass?"

Mark Heisler (sportswriter, Los Angeles Times): Hakeem was so good. The heat all went to Portland for Sam Bowie [taken one spot ahead of Michael Jordan]. I love Jordan. He was the consensus third pick. We knew he'd be an All-Star player, but we didn't know he would be that.

Fitch: It was Hakeem all the way. If we didn't take him, they would have burned our houses down.9

Heisler: [The Rockets] never took any heat over it. It seemed logical. They drafted Hakeem in '84 … in '86, they're in the Finals.

Olajuwon: I was watching Ralph when I first came to college. I was a big fan. The way he caught lobs and was finishing them, it was unbelievable. And now I'm playing beside him and he didn't even realize how much impact he had on me.

Jack McCallum (NBA writer, Sports Illustrated): The Twin Towers concept was really a big deal. The NBA was resistant to change. You went out there and you had a center and somebody else had to be a forward. That's the first time I remember someone doing something different.

Sampson: Most people say it hindered me from scoring more points or getting more rebounds. But every team had to adjust to two 7-footers playing every night.

Dawson: They fit together well. Actually, Ralph might have been better when he moved out a little bit.

Sampson: My skills were a little bit farther from the basket. Hakeem had the body and ability to be in the low post. I could go into the post. He could go into the post and pass out. It became a great fit very quickly.

Fitch: Ralph could pass the basketball. He was never given enough credit for being the passer that he was.

Sampson: My mind-set and skill set at that point of time was to be the best basketball player I could be. Not just the best center. I wanted to play guard. I wanted to play forward. They gave me the opportunity to do that.


The '84-85 Rockets surprised everyone by winning 48 games. Sampson claimed the 1985 All-Star Game MVP and Olajuwon's offensive game blossomed. Combined, the Twin Towers averaged 42.7 points, 22.3 rebounds, and 4.7 blocks in their first season, and Sampson's wish was granted: He played away from the basket and thrived. Having won a title in Boston just four years earlier, Fitch started wondering if it could happen again, sooner rather than later.

Fitch: My dad was a drill instructor in the Marine Corps. I thought I was part of the Marine Corps until I was 14, shining all those boots and everything. There was a lot of discipline in my coaching that maybe rubbed a lot of guys wrong. But in the long run, it made them all better.

Dawson: He was a drill sergeant type of guy. He was demanding, but fair. He was a coach 24 hours a day. We'd go play a game. We'd go to his room. We'd get the film out. Sometimes, we'd both fall asleep at four in the morning, watching film.

McCallum: The writers were in Houston playing pickup. Fitch was out there watching us, a bunch of asshole reporters. That was sort of his life. He would just sit there and watch a pickup reporter basketball game.

Hank McDowell (forward, Rockets): There was a seat on the plane that no one wanted to sit in — next to Bill. You didn't want to be the last one onto the plane because you knew what seat was there.

Jim Petersen (forward, Rockets): You didn't want to be last. That meant you were going to have to sit through a litany of basketball philosophy.

Blinebury: Guys would run suicides and throw up over the sidelines. Bill would be chuckling. But they don't get to the Finals, they don't beat the Lakers, they don't play the Celtics without Fitch.

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Craig Ehlo (Rockets guard): He was called "Captain Video" for a reason. We practiced for two hours and then watched film for two hours.

Petersen: He was really ahead of his time. No one wanted to sit through those long video sessions. We're talking about the mid-'80s when remote controls and VCRs were still new and you can't really pinpoint play sets. He would need to rewind one play and would have his finger on the rewind button for one play, and it would rewind 10 plays. We'd have to sit through the same 10 plays again and he would sit through them like he hadn't seen them before. We'd go, "Oh no. He has his finger on the rewind button again. Why couldn't he have it on the fast-forward button?" He would literally talk about the same damn plays like they were brand-new sets.

McDowell: This is how hard-core [Fitch] really was. We were scrimmaging and Craig Ehlo sprained his ankle. Ehlo's hurting bad. He's wiggling around in the lane. And Dick [Vandervoort], our trainer, he's down there trying to work with him and then 30 seconds go by, a minute goes, two minutes. Finally, I hear Fitch say, "Dick, get his ass off the floor. I'm trying to run a practice." We all looked at each other like "Damn. The guy can't even walk." Dick, who is this little small, thin guy, he's literally down there trying to drag Ehlo off the floor.

Ehlo: He was combative with his players. It was his way or the highway. When Ralph and him were in a fight in practice one day over a play call, you knew Fitch wasn't going to back down and Ralph wasn't going to back down. Luckily, [assistant coach] Rudy Tomjanovich and Carroll Dawson were there to take control and pull them apart.10

McCallum: Ralph was not enough of the run-through-the-wall type of guy to suit Fitch.

Reid: Ralph would complain and he didn't realize, "This ain't college here no more, homeboy. Ain't nobody here to love you. This is business now."

Blinebury: They are completely burned out from all these grueling practices. [As a rookie] Ralph went to Fitch and tells him that.

Sampson: My only goal was Elvin Hayes needed some minutes to get 50,000 and get a bonus in his contract. You weren't playing to win at that point in time. You're trying to get a draft pick, which we did. So I just voiced my opinion.

Blinebury: Fitch tells him, "You don't know what the hell you are talking about. Get out of here." Ralph comes to us in the media and expresses this to the beat guys. Fitch makes him read the newspaper article in the locker room.

Sampson: I had to read it in front of my teammates, which was fine.

Reid: Ralph is reading it and he's reading it kind of slow. "And … we … need … to … understand … that … I … just … feel … we … have … too … long … of … practices." Rodney hits me and he says, "Yo, this is an English major reading like this?" If I had a soda and was drinking it, it would have come out my nostrils.

Blinebury: It pretty much just embarrassed him.

McCallum: I went out to do a story on them [in 1986]. The first part was on how good Olajuwon was. The second half was how much Fitch was pissed at Ralph. I wrote the story and saw Olajuwon a couple weeks later — he stops me and has the second half of the story with circles around all the stuff Fitch said. And he goes, "I talked to you a long time. You didn't even write anything about me. All you did was write about how much Coach Fitch hates Ralph." He only had like half the story. I said, "Hakeem, the story doesn't begin in the middle of a sentence." Ralph must have given it to him. Ralph was all pissed off at Fitch.11


Despite losing to Utah in the first round of the '85 playoffs, everyone considered the Rockets a legitimate sleeper the following season. Their biggest concern was whether John Lucas — a talented but troubled point guard who had become the team's elder statesman — could remain sober an entire season. The former no. 1 overall pick did two stints in rehab between '84 and '86, although his erratic behavior dated back to his days with Golden State, captured in a memorable Sports Illustrated feature from 1981 called "John Lucas: Picking Up the Pieces." Even if Sampson and Olajuwon were revolutionizing the league, it seemed far-fetched that they could thrive without Lucas leading the way.

Dawson: You could not score in the paint against us. With those two guys, we controlled the paint as well as anyone I had seen in a long time.

Petersen: I tried getting a shot off on Dream one time [in practice] and he smacked it against the backboard. Rodney McCray looked at me and said, "Hey, Pete — you're going to have to take it to another level."

Reid: The late, great Dennis Johnson, one time he brought the ball up to half court and I opened up the gate. He said, "Reid, what are you doing? You ain't going to play no defense?" I said, "Look down there. Do you feel lucky?" He cussed me out.

Lewis Lloyd (guard, Rockets): Playing on defense, I used to let a lot of guys go down there. "Go ahead." I used to tell Hakeem and Ralph that, "If I let them go, block that to me and if y'all keep coming, I'll throw it back to you. If not, I'm slamming it myself."

Rudy Tomjanovich (Rockets assistant coach): Lloyd was a tremendous, special player.12 He had these big, strong thighs and an unorthodox way he played. There was no seam between two guys he couldn't get through with his body.13 [Mitchell] Wiggins was a tough guy. He loved to play defense. He loved to attack those offensive boards.

Allen Leavell (guard, Rockets): They were both amazing. Good rebounders, played good defense. Lew was a flat-out scorer. Mitchell could shoot the ball. He never got credit for it.

Reid: Even from the first day when we started camp [for the '85-86 season], it just felt different. The guys were getting along. After practice, nobody just went their own way. We stayed and practiced longer.

Petersen: John [Lucas] was kicked off the team my rookie year for cocaine abuse [in '84-'85]. We were in Oakland and we had to fly to Seattle. John was supposed to meet us in the bus to go to the airport and never made it. John had a relapse.

McDowell: I can remember sitting on the bus in Oakland looking at the hotel door, saying, "Come on, John. Come on out. Come on out." The bus pulled away and that was the end of John Lucas at that point.

Bob Ryan, (columnist, Boston Globe): John Lucas is a forgotten point guard who in the short term was extremely good. I remember writing about him in terms of the substance abuse and how scary it was and how powerful it must be for a guy that bright with two degrees to succumb to the power of drugs. If it weren't for the drug thing, there's no doubt in my mind that he could have put together a Hall of Fame résumé. We'll never know what he could have accomplished. That's the sad part.

Petersen: Bill brings [Lucas] back in '86. Bill has a big heart and he loved Lucas.

Ehlo: John was playing unbelievable. He was a guy that could go for 20 and 10 each and every night. He was the perfect leader for Olajuwon and Sampson because he distributed the ball pretty evenly between them.

Blinebury: With Lucas, there was no question [of him relapsing]. Lucas was completely out of control.

Reid: Coach Fitch called a meeting. He said, "We can do two things. We can keep John and make sure he stays clean and finishes the season. Or we can let John go and let him go into the clinic, get helped." Me and [Allen] Leavell, by this time, we're the two senior players. We put our hands up and say he's got to get help. These young kids are saying, "Man, you are only saying that because you want his spot." I said, "No, I don't want to see him dead."

Ehlo: We were all selfish at that point. We were going to play for a championship. We were all thinking that John had been the leader of the team and had proven himself every night.

Leavell: We talked and said he might be looking at something more than just a suspension from basketball. It was important to get his self together.

Fitch: John, God bless him, we caught him early enough. I caught enough heat for knocking him out, but I still think John would have been worse off if I hadn't cut him when I did cut him from playing.

John Lucas (guard, Rockets): Bill Fitch saved my life. He was the one coach that told me that enough was enough.

Fitch: I wish he would stop saying that. His enemies keep coming after me.

With 17 games remaining in the regular season, the 40-25 Rockets were trying to stave off Denver and Dallas for the Midwest Division title (and earn a 2-seed in the '86 playoffs). The Twin Towers were coming off their second straight All-Star trip. Lloyd and Wiggins had emerged as an effective platoon at the 2-guard, and McCray had become a legitimate defensive stopper. Just one problem: The Rockets didn't have their point guard anymore. As always, Bill Fitch had a plan.

Dawson: We had lost just about all of our guards. Leavell moves up and he's playing great. It's unbelievable how he steps up. [Then] he breaks his wrist and we're out of point guards.

Leavell: I had a broken bone in my wrist. It wasn't healed. Earlier in San Antonio, someone stole the ball and I was on all fours watching them go down to score and someone landed on me when I was on the ground.

Reid: Bill Fitch called me over and said, "I'm going to start you at point." I said, "You are? OK." He said, "But here it is: If I start you at point, it's going to take you off the list for Sixth Man of the Year." I knew Sixth Man of the Year, if I win, that's going to be a million dollars the next year. I looked at him and I asked him very honestly, "Coach, be honest with me. If you put me at point, do you think we can go to the championship? That's what I need to know." He said, "Yeah, you can take us to the championship." I said, "Let's do it."

Fitch: My best friend Lucas made that decision for me. I always thought I'd like to get a Magic-sized guy playing the point where he could see everything.

James Worthy (forward, Lakers): We saw them emerging toward the midseason of that '86 season. They had a really good team. They were deep, well coached. I think they beat us the last time we played in the regular season. They started to run with us and that was something we had never seen. Lloyd and Wiggins and Reid, they could run. We still thought we had the edge of experience.

Reid: When we got to the second round14 of the playoffs, I saw the [locker room's] board and Ralph wrote "We're going to be number one." I said, "Let me tell you what this means. Right now, it's $75,000. The next round is $100,000. When we win, it's $150,000 and your agent can't touch it. The fans are the ones saying they're number one. This is about getting paid, homeboy."

McDowell: I was surprised to get out of [the second round]. Denver, still to this day, was the loudest arena I've ever been in. It was so loud that all I heard was crackling in my ear. There was no distinction of voice or sound.15

Olajuwon: They had this offense. We called it "Locomotive" because everyone was moving, and in Denver, everyone is struggling to breathe up there.

Blinebury: I'm pretty sure Fitch even brought in oxygen tanks to have on the sidelines.

Olajuwon: Tough series. We flew from Denver to L.A. without going home. The Lakers were waiting for us.

A.C. Green (forward, Lakers): We wanted to let them know this wasn't going to be their year.

Dawson: We go in there for our first game and get our tails kicked. I remember staying up with Coach Fitch back at the hotel, thinking about what we could do. Coach came up with a few things.

Fitch: We made one change with Rodney McCray. We brought him out to a different spot and made a passer out of him. They never adjusted.16

Worthy: They matched up pretty well in every position. I just remember them being really good, really tough to defend. We'd run. They'd run back at us. It was the first time I ever experienced it being tough for the Lakers to get out of the West.




The Showtime Lakers owned the Western Conference in the 1980s. With Magic, Kareem, Worthy, and coach Pat Riley, they won three NBA titles and four straight conference titles. As Worthy enjoyed his best all-around season, some wondered if the '86 Lakers were their best team ever. NBA fans salivated at the prospect of a third straight Finals between the Lakers and Celtics. After the young Rockets lost Game 1 in Los Angeles, everyone wrote them off.

Ehlo: We stole one from them, then we went home and won our two. We went back there with a 3-1 lead.

Reid: We were just dominating them.

Heisler: Hakeem was so incredible athletically, and he was after the ball all the time. They couldn't keep him off the boards. He was a little too athletic and young for Kareem at that point.17

Kurt Rambis (forward, Lakers): Hakeem had a tremendous amount of offensive plays. We didn't feel like we could stop everything. We just wanted to get him to do turnaround shots. That would eliminate a lot of what he wanted to do and prevent him from getting his own offensive rebounds.

Lloyd: All of them talked trash. It was like a war basically. Magic and them were intense. They were ripping and running. They had a great team. They stayed together for eight or nine years. That's why they were so good.

Lloyd: Kareem used to kill Ralph. He used to get 40 on him every time. Me and Hakeem would sit next to each other on the plane. I said, "Y'all can't do nothing with the veteran, big fella. He's just killing y'all. Y'all haven't even arrived yet." So during the series, I guess I got under their skin. They started blocking Kareem's hook. They were smacking his stuff all around. I guess it paid off. They did the job on Kareem in that series.

Jerry West (general manager, Lakers): I thought we lost our mentality about our best way to play — be really aggressive, run the ball up and down the court. Obviously their size had something to do with that. Olajuwon created so many different problems in terms of his skill and his enormous desire to compete and excel. And they had a team that fit nicely around him.

McCray: They were playing well. We were hanging around. Stay close on the road and in the fourth quarter anything can happen.

Lloyd: I remember stepping to Michael Cooper at the beginning of the game. We were going up and down the court and Magic kept pulling on my trunks. He did it like four or five times. I said if he did it again, I was going to stick him real good. Then he went out of the game and Cooper came in the game and Cooper started doing the same thing. When they called a timeout, I stepped to Cooper and said, "This is my house. We're getting ready to run y'all off the court."

Reid: I was sitting at the scorer's table and Jack Nicholson says, "Robert, why don't you go on and let us have this game?" I say, "Jack, give me five minutes speaking in your next movie and you can have this game."

McCray: In the fourth quarter, they sent Kupchak in to get under Olajuwon's skin and kind of ruffle his feathers to see if they could disrupt his rhythm.

Rambis: [Pat] Riley made a point of agitating everybody to the point that we were so on edge — and I say agitating in a good way — he got the team hyped up, ready to play. And Mitch was always a very physical, hard-nosed player.

Reid: I kept trying to tell Dream, "Don't fall for it. Don't fall for it." But when Kupchak kept poking him in the stomach, Dream said, "Do it again, I'm going to knock you out."

Olajuwon: I don't mind people being physical. But this guy, he had no intentions of playing defense. [He was in] just to rough you up. I had 27 or so points already. He came in and was just too rough. I told myself, "I don't mind physical. I don't back down." So, if that was the game plan it worked perfectly. I got kicked out.

Jess Kersey (referee): I tried to get between Hakeem and Kupchak and had Hakeem around the waist. They were throwing punches above my head because I'm only 5-10. I grabbed Hakeem when he was on his heels and the little bit of body weight that I had, it kind of moved him back a little bit and both of us went down to the floor. People were coming around and they were kicking at Hakeem.18

Rambis: It was a validation, like most NBA brawls, that basketball players can't fight.19

Kersey: Somebody punched me in the head and I yelled up, "I don't know which one of you just punched me in the head, but if I find out, you're going to be ejected." With that, Bill Fitch said to me, "Jess, I know who punched you." Of course in the heat of the moment, I look at Bill and say, "Who was it?" He said, "It was Kareem and Magic."

Leavell: That's the way we played ball back then. You did what you had to do. If you had to play physical to get an edge, that was part of it. You didn't have free dunks like you do now like everybody's getting ready for a picture.

Kersey: Anyone throwing punches had to be ejected. That was automatic. I had to eject both of them.

Olajuwon: Back then, I didn't even get suspended, just fined. You won't be able to do that in today's league. That would be the dumbest thing to get suspended in a series like that.

Mitch Kupchak (forward, Lakers): That was my last game in the NBA. That's not the way you want to go out. Not that anyone remembers.20

Olajuwon: I got kicked out with Kupchak. Who had the better deal?

Tomjanovich: It was my job to escort [Hakeem] back to the locker room.

Blinebury: Hakeem is just thinking, I've blown this thing, sitting back there. He was just fearful of the wrath of Fitch coming in if they had lost the game with him sitting in the locker room.

Sampson: Everybody banded together and said, "Everybody has to step up."

Magic Johnson sank a baseline 20-footer to give the Lakers a three-point lead, but Reid's clutch 3-pointer tied it at 112-112 with 15 seconds remaining. The Lakers had a chance to close the game but Byron Scott missed a jumper with one second left — or maybe even less than that.

Leavell: I was just lucky enough to get the ball and call a timeout before time ran out.21

Dawson: You never knew in those days if it was a full second or how much time was on. It could have just been a tenth of a second.

Reid: Coach wanted Rodney to throw the inbounds. Ralph was going to come down, screen Allen, and Allen was going to take the shot.22

McCray: I'm trying to get the referee to hurry up and give me the ball before the Lakers figure out that the defense they were in would basically allow me a direct line into Ralph.

Kersey: He was yelling, "Hurry up, hurry up."

McCray: Worthy was in limbo. He was asking Coach Riley, "Do you want me on the ball? Do you want me to go back into Ralph's lap?" They were in a little bit of a frenzy.

Worthy: It was a state of confusion — for about a second, I was in no-man's land. I was nowhere. I look back at that kind of like I do that '84 pass to [Gerald] Henderson23 — there's a couple of seconds I wish I could take back. Looking back, I wish I could have at least put more pressure on the passer. Maybe he wouldn't have gotten that pass to Ralph so easily.

Blinebury: Kareem is backing off because he's trying not to commit a foul and send somebody to the foul line. Worthy is kind of frozen.

McCray: Once the referee gave me the ball, I just threw a direct pass to [Ralph].

Sampson: I knew I was above the box. I got position and turned. I just wanted to get it directed toward the rim. I couldn't come down with the ball. I had to turn and shoot it.

McDowell: He's literally on his toes by the time the ball gets there and spinning and throwing it over his shoulder. He wasn't even close to squaring up. Maybe his right shoulder was facing the basket.

Rambis: It was just kind of a bullshit type of shot, like, "There's no way this is going to happen" kind of thing prior to it happening.

Sampson: It hit the front, the back, and dropped in.

Worthy: I don't know if anyone else other than Ralph could catch and turn and twist it up and knock it down.

West: He could shoot that 100 times and never make that again. But good fortune is what makes sports. It was the shot that everyone remembers, but it certainly wasn't the shot that decided that playoff.

McCray: During practice, we've seen him shoot crazy shots before. My first initial thing after the game was to say, "Hey, you finally got one of those shots to go in."

Leavell: If he shot that 500,000 more times, he probably wouldn't hit it again.

Sampson: Every kid in the world wants the ball in the last three seconds and practices just throwing the ball at the basket. Rodney will tell you that it wasn't my shot, it was his pass. So I give him all the credit.

Dawson: I was afraid [Mitchell] Wiggins was going to touch the ball on the rim. Wiggins jumped at it but he didn't touch it.

McDowell: When it dropped through, boom. You propel off the bench and that arena was so quiet.

Dawson: That idiot in the white jacket running out there is me. I didn't know what to do. I was running around looking for somebody to grab.

Lloyd: I almost touched the scoreboard, I jumped so high. That was one of the happiest days of my life, dethroning the world champions.

Green: I was as paralyzed as Michael Cooper was.24

McDowell: I can still see Cooper lying on the floor in the lane.

Lloyd: I seen [Cooper] lying on the ground. Him and Magic were talking all that mess about how they were going to take it one game at a time and they were going to come back. They were blown away. They could have never imagined how we dethroned them like that.

Green: Everything within you, in all measurements of your fanhood, persona, basketball psyche, and knowledge from a fan to a player says, "No way."

Tomjanovich: We were watching the play [in the locker room] and once Ralph shot the ball, Hakeem started moving and bouncing around. When it went in, his feet were moving so fast, he had no traction. We were sort of running around, whooping and hollering. But if you've seen a dog on marble or linoleum, it was like that. He was just so glad we didn't lose this game with him in the locker room.

Olajuwon: I remember when everybody was running toward the locker room, I ran out to meet everybody. We're in celebration. Nobody ever mentioned I did anything stupid.

Pat Riley (coach, Lakers): Bill Fitch tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Tough way to lose." I was tremendously disappointed. Sampson's funky shot raised a question for the Lakers and for me. How were we going to deal with losing?25

Thomas: Jerry Buss and I were 30 feet from the shot. Jerry turned around and said, "Congratulations, Charlie," and we shook hands. Jerry and I were good friends the whole time I was in the league. I went up to the Forum Club with five or six people after and bottles of champagne started being poured to us by people in the club. I couldn't believe it. It was classy. They started hollering, "Charlie, beat Boston."

Rambis: They had a team that was set up to win for a long period of time.

West: With the size of those two guys up front, I think everyone looked at them and said, "Oh my gosh." But we felt we were capable of competing with anyone — we certainly proved that the two years following [both Lakers titles] with very little change to our team. When you watched Houston play, you thought the two big guys together was a tremendous combination. But other times, you thought, offensively there were things you can do. Like if they missed, they wouldn't be able to get back defensively. But they were a team that looked like they were on the verge of being able to win for eight to 10 years.

Heisler: Bottom line, the Twin Towers thing scared the shit out of the Lakers and the rest of the NBA.


Coming off a 67-win season and a blistering 11-1 record in the first three rounds — including a 25-0 run in Game 5 of the clinching conference finals game against Atlanta — the Celtics were heavy favorites heading into the Finals. But everyone in Houston had rallied behind the Rockets. Ehlo remembers the team capitalizing on the momentum from the Chicago Bears' "Super Bowl Shuffle" video with something called "The Rockets Strut." Remembers Ehlo, "We actually spent a lot of time filming it. The "Super Bowl Shuffle" was done really well. Ours was kind of pieced-together and turned out to be a disaster. It wasn't a good showing, but it was fun making it. I'm hoping it's been destroyed, but it was funny. They gave us each a line like, 'My name is Lewis Lloyd and I'm filling the void.' It was stupid stuff like that." And no, it hasn't been destroyed.

Meanwhile, the Celtics easily captured the first two Finals games in Boston before Houston squeaked out Game 3 behind Sampson's 24 points and 22 rebounds and Wiggins's late tip on an offensive rebound. That set up a suddenly dramatic Game 4 in Houston.

Sichting: As a Celtic, we were a little bit surprised and a little bit disappointed that we weren't playing the Lakers. It was my first year, but the guys who had lost the year before really wanted to play the Lakers. We beat them both times in the regular season.

Robert Parish (center, Celtics): I was disappointed. I wanted to redeem ourselves [against the Lakers after the '85 Finals], but it didn't work out that way. It was the Rockets' time, obviously.

Olajuwon: I have great respect for that team. If you want to put an ideal basketball team together, that would be the team. A basketball team is supposed to be big. They had a big front line. And they're very smart. They don't waste opportunities. If you take a bad shot, they're going to capitalize.

Lloyd: You talk about our Twin Towers. They had Kevin McHale,26 Robert Parish, Bill Walton. Big, big, huge guys.

Parish: We didn't have a mismatch with those two 7-footers. We only had somewhat of a mismatch with Larry because [McCray] was somewhat shorter.

Petersen: Being a [Bill] Russell fan and a fan of Dave Cowens, I grew up appreciating those teams. I was drafted with Olajuwon; Dream and I were pretty close. I remember both of us walking into the Boston Garden for the first time. You've got to walk into the building from the street and you get off the elevator and it smells like stale beer. When we walked in the first time into the entrance of the bowl with all the banners and — I was a huge hockey fan, too, being from Minnesota — it took my breath away. But I'm standing next to Dream and not saying a word and he looks at me and says, "What a dump."

Fitch: I recognized an awful lot of the plays they ran against us. In fact, I was tempted to go down to their bench every once in a while during a timeout and tell them they were messing up one of them. I figured Bird would probably kick me out.27

Sichting: Fitch was the only other X factor. A lot of guys liked him. They respected him. They kind of quit on him his last year there, I think. They all were respectful of what he did, but since we weren't playing the Lakers, that added more motivation to win.

Parish: I have a great deal of respect for Coach Fitch. When we won the championship in '81, he was the main reason why we won. We were down and he never let us doubt ourselves.

Fitch: I knew Bird as well as I knew any player. But that doesn't mean you're going to stop him.28

Olajuwon: I was a shot blocker jumping three or four times in the air and they are passing the ball three times before they shoot a basket. How many times am I going to do that before it's the fourth quarter and I'm tired? A shot that I would normally block from some players, they dish it off. You're just jumping all over the place.

Parish: The Rockets never gave up. They were in each game. I definitely had more respect for them after the series.

Lucas: It was really tough for me — we just didn't have enough movement and versatility at point guard.

Reid: I was good at point guard, but I wasn't getting those 12 assists that Lucas [could get] easily with us and still get his 12 points. I got us into our offense. I wasn't Magic. I could lead the break, but not at a shifty level.

Blinebury: They missed Lucas. It finally caught up to them. They needed him to settle them down and set the break. They just looked like they had finally gotten a little bit over their heads.

Ryan: Game 4 was the best NBA Finals game in the previous 10 years. It was one of those high-level games and the deciding thing in the game, from the Celtics' point of view, was it was the only time all season that [Boston coach] K.C. Jones let Walton finish the game instead of Robert Parish. He went on a whim and Walton came up with two offensive rebounds and a couple of great finishes to end the game.

Olajuwon: Walton, I remember clearly, he made a basket that I touched. That was the deciding basket. Walton was such a smart player. He kept the ball up. That's what experience is. Normally, I would block that shot from a lot of people. But with him, I touched it and it still went in. That game was most painful to me.29

Dawson: That was in our place. You remember the ones that hurt more.

After their emotional Game 4 victory, everyone expected the Celtics to finish things off in Game 5 and cement their status as one of the NBA's greatest teams ever. The game ended up being remembered for something else: Sampson's bizarre fistfight with Boston's Jerry Sichting in the second quarter.

Parish: I couldn't believe, of all people on the court, an altercation broke out between those two.

Danny Ainge (guard, Celtics): We [would] run a play where we set back picks on the free throw shooters to try and advance the ball down the court. After Ralph shot his free throw, throughout the series, we would have a guard screen him. Finally, I think he just got really frustrated and threw an elbow and the next thing you know, there's a brawl going on.

Sichting: I was kind of shocked the whole thing happened. I was used to taking shots from big guys. When you're small, you're always going to get knocked down, have hard picks set on you, and all those types of things. We came down on a break and [Sampson] actually put his forearm down and hit me in the back of the neck because I went over to try and block him out. I wasn't on the ball. I just tried to go over and got into his legs.

Leavell: I don't believe that. Every time he went through a screen, he gave a little bump. Ralph just got fed up.

McCray: Big men, we don't like short men — whether they're boxing us out or being pesky, because they're so low to the ground. Something had to precede that in order for something like that to happen during the course of the game.

Parish: Jerry is not known to be a dirty player or somebody that's going to provoke the outburst that happened.

Sampson: Whatever tactics were used at that point of time were used. It's the Finals.

Sichting: He hit me. They blew the whistle and called a foul. I turned, I kind of had both hands up, saying, "What are you doing?" because he just whacked me and then he just punched. Then, it just got crazy.

Parish: You have two mild-mannered personalities and it escalates to the level it escalates to … I was shocked.

Reid: He's swinging — at 7-foot-4 — at a 6-foot-1 guard like he's Joe Frazier.

Jerry Sichting vs Ralph Sampson Fight (1986)by kevin-garnett123

Parish: It was not a fight. If you are a parent, that would be like you fighting your child. It was such a mismatch.

Dawson: I remember getting a hold of Ralph's waistline. I was trying to pull him back and he elbowed me right in the temple. I was seeing stars.

Ehlo: I lost a lot of money in that. [Dennis Johnson] caught an elbow in that whole thing. I handed D.J. a towel to wipe his eye where he got cut. When I took the towel out to him I had left the bench area.

McDowell: I ran straight down the baseline and grabbed Olajuwon. For $500, I'll do it. Ralph was gone. I had to make sure Olajuwon doesn't somehow throw a punch.

Dawson: [Losing Ralph] was another rallying point. I think we went on a 20-10 run right after that happened and went on to win that Game 5.30

Ainge: Nobody was saying a word, which was not like the personality of our team. It was quiet on the plane ride back. As soon as we landed in Boston, we had a practice and the practice was incredibly intense and focused and very short. K.C. [Jones] called it off because he knew that we were ready.

Dawson: Ralph was not a real welcome guy in Boston.

Sichting: In those days, some fans would go out and meet the team coming in. They weren't charter flights; everybody flew commercial. [Boston] was a tough place to play.

The Night Ralph Sampson Snapped

For Game 6 of the Finals in Boston, my father and I were sitting right on the tunnel where the players walked on and off the court. People were holding "SAMPSON IS A SISSY" signs and the entire building was chanting "SAMPSON SUCKS!" even before Houston came out for warm-ups. When Ralph came out to earsplitting boos, there was legitimate hatred in the air. Ralph walked right by us and I remember thinking, That guy's done. He looked rattled. You know the rest — Ralph played terribly, Bird played out of his mind and the Celts blew them out. But Celtics fans never stopped holding a grudge after the Sichting fight — they booed Ralph every time he came to Boston. During my junior year in college [1990], I spent Thanksgiving with my dad and we caught a Kings-Celtics game the next night. Ralph came in and everyone booed for old time's sake. He only ended up playing a few minutes. He couldn't move. It was actually sad. You just knew it was over for him. I still can't believe how quickly Ralph's career came and went — one minute he was this 7-foot-4 freak of a forward who played above the rim and handled the ball and did things we'd never seen, and the next minute, boom, he's out of the league.

— Bill Simmons
Reid: It's a different atmosphere when you got Boston fans really pinpointing you. When they're after the team, it's one thing. But when they're attacking one guy and then when we land to go up to the gate, we had to go to the tarmac because of a bomb threat. Then we get to the hotel, another bomb threat, and that starts to get in your mind. What's these fools doing?

Blinebury: [Sampson] just shrank when they went back up there. He just faded away. The Boston fans got on him and he was intimidated.31

McCallum: We show up there and Boston Garden is like 900 degrees and they go out and somebody has hung up a noose with a message to Ralph Sampson.

Sam Vincent (guard, Celtics): That was probably as loud as I've ever heard anything.

Ryan: The crowd was all over Ralph. He was public enemy number one at that point and he could not handle the pressure at all.

Sampson: It didn't affect me at all.

Ryan: It was on the list of top-five Bird games. It was my personal favorite of all. If you go look at that tape, you will see a man play as good of an all-around game that is seemingly possible to play.

Petersen: Larry was fearless out there and so supremely confident. He was cold-blooded. That whole team had a swagger.

McCallum: Hakeem was playing so well that game. Without him, Houston would have lost by 70.

Worthy: It's almost like [Houston's] goal was to beat the Lakers. When they got into the series against Boston, they just seemed to lose their composure a little bit. It's just like in '84, Boston kind of took us off our tracks with their physical play. I don't think they were ready for that. They didn't have anybody on that team that really had that experience, other than the coach himself. Sampson was just totally distracted. They could just never find their game.

The Celtics took the Finals in six games, defeating the Rockets in the Boston Garden behind a Bird triple-double to claim their 16th title.

Lloyd: When it ended, we felt we were going to be here for the next five, six, seven years.

Olajuwon: We had the confidence that we could beat anybody. The foundation was there. We are the future. We believed that.

McCray: I was like, This is how it's going to be for years to come. Us and the Lakers battling to get to the NBA Finals.

Tomjanovich: That team was ready to go on a run and compete for championships.

Ainge: It was just the savvy veterans going up against the two up-and-coming stars. In my unbiased opinion, of course, I think the '86 Celtics team was as good as a team that's ever played. You saw the Rockets upsetting another dynasty in the Lakers right before us and then losing in six games to the '86 Celtics. It was reasonable to believe that that team was the team of the future.

Ehlo: Anywhere we went, people were trying to buy your dinner — and that was even for me being the 12th man on the bench.

Reid: We all had a great summer. We had a great camp, and that first game against L.A., we beat them by 24. We knew it was on.32

Petersen: We were going to be back every year. We had Sampson. We had Olajuwon. We had depth. We had young players. It was all gone in two years.




Sports and drugs intertwined in the mid- to late-1980s with scary and tragic results. Len Bias's fatal overdose grabbed the headlines, but a handful of NBA stars had their careers derailed by substance abuse — and not just known offenders like Lucas, Micheal Ray Richardson, and Roy Tarpley. A 1987 New York Times headline screamed, "IN SPORTS, COCAINE'S HERE TO STAY." According to the Times, "since 1980, more than 100 professional football, basketball and baseball players have publicly admitted using cocaine, with most entering addiction-treatment centers." In that same piece, the president of the NBA Player's Association, Larry Fleisher, admitted, "I don't mean to sound defeatist, but there is going to be drug use. You're not going to eliminate it. All we can do is try to better the situation."

NBA commissioner David Stern began issuing career-crippling penalties for those who did not seek treatment before being found out. Meanwhile, the Rockets stumbled out of the gate, starting out 10-17 and launching a slew of "What's wrong with the Rockets?" articles. They won five of their next six, easily cruising past Dallas at home on January 10, 1987. Lloyd and Wiggins combined for 24 points.

Dawson: We had heard that the league was fixing to come down [with drug suspensions]. We picked out some other teams we thought it was probably going to be. We didn't know it was us.33

McCray: One day, we were like, "Man, where are coach and them at? We're starting shootaround late."

Lloyd: Bill Fitch said somebody wanted to talk to us. They said, "If you don't take this test, you're going to be banned. If you take the test and test positive, you're still going to be banned." We didn't have no choice. Me and Mitch should have protested. But they scared us that we were going to be banned anyways. We took the test and it came up positive. Then we went into rehab.

Reid: They were leaving the club and this guy came up and told them, "Hey, man, I've got something outside. This is the good shit. It's the best. Just take a little bump." And they told me, they took a little bump. The next day, [former NBA security chief] Horace Balmer and them are at practice. They were there at 9 a.m. when we started practice. You cannot leave New York City in the morning to be in Houston that early in the morning. So you would have had to be there the night before. I knew then. I knew then that they got set up.

Lloyd: We were definitely set up. Probably somebody on our team set us up. I don't know. It was unbelievable.

Fitch: I stayed up all night with [Wiggins] before they were coming in. He said, "Don't worry about it, Coach. I'm clean."34

Leavell: It was like there was no question that they were going to fail the drug test. The moment they came in, I could see on their faces they were saying "crap."

Reid: It was as if you broke the law the night before and you felt you got away with it, and here comes the man.

Lloyd: It was a new rule. We didn't even know about that rule. The rule is like this: If you go to them and tell them you're on drugs, they put you in the program. John Lucas, Walter Davis, Micheal Ray Richardson, all of them got more than one chance. We only got one chance.

Reid: How many chances did Lucas get? How many chances did other guys get?

Lloyd: They destroyed our lives. They just took us right out of the game. It was devastating to our lives.

Stern: When we created the anti-drug program, we knew we needed discipline measures that would create a very strong deterrent from participating in those activities. Every one of our key stakeholders — from owners to players to our fans — understood the importance of eliminating drug use from our game. The lifetime ban, with the possibility of reinstatement after two years, was probably considered by many to be very harsh at that time. But looking back nearly 30 years later, I'm certain we made the correct decision.

Lloyd: I shouldn't have been doing drugs. If I was to tell the whole story and write a book, I'd have a lot of people mad at me. But I wouldn't do that. Where I come from, if you tell, they kill you. I wouldn't want to mess nobody's life up. As a matter of fact, they even asked me. A representative in the rehab program asked me if I knew of anybody else. I told him no because I wouldn't want to out nobody else in that position and destroy their life.

Petersen: John Lucas failing two drug tests and being kicked off the team should have been a cautionary tale. It was a kick to the gut with Mitchell and Lewis.

Thomas: I could do nothing but agree with the commissioner on what had to be done. But it took its toll on an awful good team. Both of those guys played hard. They played hard on the court and, I think, after the game.

Leavell: It was the culture of the times itself. It was much freer. If it was something you wanted to partake in, you wouldn't have had a problem getting it. That's for sure.

Reid: The league had to stop us from going to the Oakland Hyatt. You would walk in that hotel and you had the hookers, you had the pimps, you had the drug dealers. We didn't have chartered flights then. We would go out to a club or a restaurant and with the two big fellows, with their celebrity status — and everybody was coming to see us play. We would go into a restaurant, if we went to a club, "Hey, man, that was a great game. I've got a little something-something for ya." That's how it was. It's scary. That part of that life off the court was scary because you basically did not know who this individual was, trying to set you up.

Thomas: Somebody informed on them, maybe more than one person. I don't know. I wouldn't ask [who the informant was] any more than I would have asked Jerry [Buss] for Magic Johnson. David and I are just too close of friends. I was curious. I was very curious. But he couldn't tell me if he wanted to. I would have liked to have known. It wasn't anybody on the club. I know that. I know that they were hanging out in all the bad clubs and everything like that. That was a fact.

Olajuwon: It's something you didn't know that was going on around you. I was more concerned for them at that time before I even looked at what was the consequences for the team.

Ehlo: I didn't hang out with them, but I had seen them in some places and you hear things about what they were doing. I didn't think it was that bad, maybe something like marijuana. I knew Lewis had kind of a background in that area. Because [Mitchell] played so hard and did so much, I didn't know he had that type of problem.35

Heisler: Houston's a big party city. That was Charles Barkley's line about why he later went to Houston. I think he said, "No state income tax and the titty bars don't close."

Ehlo: Houston at that time, the money was rolling. The oil was $300 a barrel. The construction, there was no zoning. People were rolling in the dough and that's kind of where that city was. You could get caught up in it. Myself, just being a young and dumb guy at that age, I remember staying out all the time because the city was rolling in cash and there were just a lot of things to do.36

Thomas: They were just young guys and it was those times, I guess. I think they helped clean the league up. They don't give them credit for that, do they? When you take two key guys off a potential championship team, I guess that got a lot of young people's attention.

McCray: When the call came down that they were gone for two years,37 it was like, "Wow." It was a shock. I really can't describe the word.

Reid: They broke that team up. They did what they wanted to do. You took millions away from those two guys for a onetime mistake. And now look. They have not did that to nobody in soccer, basketball, football, baseball. For life? For the first time?

Lloyd: It's a harsh punishment, real harsh. They were setting an example. But when you look at the all-substance-abuse team, our guys went down the hardest. I look on Facebook and Google and I see the all-substance-abuse team, I didn't know that many guys went down for drugs until I saw that list.

McCray: We were looking at it from a basketball point of view. Not from the point that these guys needed help. We were all young. We were all mad at the time. We had a good thing going, a dynasty in the making, and then the guys go out and do this.

Leavell: It was sad because they were probably the best pair of two guards in the NBA at that time. We knew it was going to hurt us, and it did.

Petersen:'85-'86 was the best time of my life. Then it was one of the tragic parts of my life from that point.

Thomas: You talk about a disaster. Without those two guys, we had to start rebuilding all over again.38

Reid: They broke us up intentionally because they wanted Bird and Magic. They knew L.A. would never get past us.

Just when you thought things couldn't get worse for the Rockets, Sampson started belatedly feeling the effects of a frightening fall that happened in Boston on March 24, 1986. Steve Harris had missed a shot and Sampson leaped for an offensive rebound between Boston's McHale and Scott Wedman. "I know that I was up higher in the air than usual," Sampson told the Houston Chronicle afterward, "and maybe got a little off-balance as I was reaching for the ball." Sampson reported temporary paralysis in his right leg afterward and was feared to have broken his back. (X-rays were negative.) He resumed playing a week later but never totally shook the effects of that fall.

Sampson: I was undercut and landed on my left side. I only remember being in the hospital in Boston, the next thing, and not being able to feel my side for a good bit of time.

Blinebury: He came down with a really, really sickening thud on the back of his head. We thought the guy might have been dead. It was like a watermelon being dropped off of a roof.

Ryan: It was an eerie moment, one of those "dead silence" moments. I don't think he was ever the same in Boston Garden after that.

Reid: We didn't have the trainers like these young men have today. We didn't have the equipment. When he fell on his back and they were putting him on the stretcher, I was watching his hand and it was trembling. Not the rest of his body. Just that arm.

Fitch: Ralph came out of Virginia limping. The first time he had his knee aspirated wasn't when he was in the pros.

Reid: I found out later that his left hip was a quarter-inch higher than the right. I notice now how he's loping when he runs, baloop, baloop, baloop, like there's a flat tire on one end.

Blinebury: He started to play and his hip injury was there, and overcompensating for the hip, that began the deterioration of his knees and all those surgeries.

Dawson: We were in Denver, I remember Fat Lever jumped and stole the ball right in front of our bench. There was a wet spot, I started hollering for the referees to get the moppers out there. But, of all things, we steal it back just past midcourt and Ralph comes back and hits that spot. And I think that's what did his knee in. He tore it up.

Sampson: [I came back] too quick. I had my first knee operation and came back in eight weeks. These days, guys would have stayed out a year. But I wanted to play. I thought we had an opportunity to win and I did what I had to do at that point of time.

Olajuwon: When he was injured, he couldn't jump as high as he used to and was not as mobile as he used to be. That [power forward] position is very difficult for a tall and skinny person against a guy that's shorter and very wide, and power forwards back then were big, heavy guys. When we would switch, I would be guarding some power forwards and I would say, "Wow. They're strong. I don't want that. I don't want to deal with that. Ralph!"

Reid: One game he played after he got hurt and came back, he came down the floor, got a rebound, running down on offense. The other team threw it, Ralph caught it, and he's coming back on defense and he got it and spun around on that one foot like he was one of the Three Stooges, "Woo, woo, woo, woo."

Dawson: Once he got going, he could run. But stopping and turning around and changing directions was hard. It changed his whole game.

After the Rockets' second-round elimination, Patterson told the Houston Chronicle, "We will never trade Ralph Sampson — period, period, period, period, period." But in December of '87, just a few months after Sampson signed a new deal, the Rockets flipped him to Golden State with Steve Harris for Sleepy Floyd and Joe Barry Carroll. Sports Illustrated called the trade "the sort of megaswap that happens every decade or so." Just 18 months after beating the invincible Lakers, the Twin Towers had been broken up.

Sampson: I was disappointed to go anywhere.

Olajuwon: Somebody just came to tell him he'd been traded. It wasn't the best way. He handled it very well.

Sampson: I think anybody's a little bit angry they're traded. They knew, but they didn't tell me.

Fitch: We had seen him every day at practice and he's playing against Hakeem and Jim Petersen, who was more than holding his own at the time. It was just a matter of time before he was going to have to give up on that knee anyhow.

Don Nelson (Warriors coach, 1988-1995): We had information that his knee was not good. You could watch him play and he wasn't dominating, that's for sure. We knew that.

Fitch: I'd make that deal tomorrow again because of what we needed.

Sampson: At least have the respect to tell me. Not getting off the airplane; saying, "Oh, we heard that you were traded." You're the coach. You know what's going on, or you should. At least have that respect. I don't think I was given that.

Blinebury: At the end there was no relationship. They didn't get along almost from the start. Ralph came into the league and he had this reputation for being aloof. I think what it was was painful, unbelievable shyness. And then you come in with Fitch, who's an in-your-face type of guy like most coaches at that time. [Fitch] never said anything to the outside world that he really didn't respect Ralph that much. He just wasn't the macho, low-post, I'm going to beat you up center that he was accustomed to.

Reid: We lose Lewis and Wiggins, we trade Ralph, we get Sleepy and Joe Barry Carroll, and then the next year, we do another trade. We basically traded us for Golden State, and how many times did Golden State go to the playoffs?

Nelson: I actually thought that it was important that we make a move of any kind to get rid of Joe Barry Carroll. He had outlived his usefulness in Golden State. He had become an unpopular player. He had the nickname of "Joe Barely Cares." I knew Ralph was hurt, had been struggling, and probably was never going to return to what he was. I still pulled the trigger because I thought it was important to make that move.

Mitch Richmond (guard, Warriors): We needed a taller guy to play inside and outside and Ralph gave us that.39 We were fighting with the Lakers and we had Manute [Bol] and Ralph. If Ralph was the younger Ralph, there's no doubt that we would have won a championship.

Sampson: Chris Mullin, Mitch Richmond, Larry Smith, Chris Washburn. Some great guys on that team. We bonded and played well together. It makes a difference with a Hall of Fame coach ([like Nelson] that knows the game really well, knew how to play the game, but also understood the players.40

Nelson: He was great. He's an incredible human being. He did everything that he could, gave us what he had, and was wonderful to work with.

Richmond: We knew [Ralph] was struggling with his knees at that time. He still put the time in and put the work in. Everybody has to come to the end of their career. I know that he wanted to give us a little more than he could.

Nelson: The money that he was making, it was just a matter of time before we had to move him. It was a short period of time, but very enjoyable.

Richmond: He taught me a lot of lifetime lessons. He would tell me not to give anyone power of attorney or things of that nature — some of the pitfalls that some of his teammates went through. He used to tell me a lot of things I should watch. He gave me a lot of input as a rookie. I always talked with him when we were on the plane.41

Reid: [In October 1988], Rodney called me because I was in Charlotte by then. He said, "We just took our team picture. I was on one end and Jim [Petersen] is on the other end." I said, "You got your bags packed? Because your ass is about to go somewhere in the morning." That was a joke. If you were asked to stand on the end, you were on your way out. Go home and turn on ABC News because your ass just got traded.42

Petersen: Rodney and I got traded to Sacramento, and I'll never forget that flight. We're on the flight to Sacramento and getting ready to land. We had both fell asleep and we're looking out the window and all we see are cornfields. Rodney looks at me and goes, "Goddamn." That moment meant the dream that we had been living was over.

Eleven months later, Petersen was traded to Golden State for his old teammate Ralph Sampson. Once upon a time, he had been Ralph's backup. Now they were being dealt straight-up for one another, just two big guys with bum knees on their way out of the league.

Jerry Reynolds (coach, Sacramento Kings, '86-'87): It was really tough. Ralph was one of the most professional players I've been around. The guy worked hard and tried to get healthy and get his game back, but quite honestly, he just didn't have any legs at all. It was really sad for such a great player, certainly one of the great college players of all time.

Ainge: Playing with Ralph in Sacramento gave me a real appreciation for Ralph as a person. Here was a guy who was a great, great, college legend, a star NBA rookie, an All-Star player in the NBA, and he was struggling physically with his knees. But that guy worked and he was being paid. He sort of made the money already. But he was determined to continue playing. I was very impressed with how hard he worked and how determined he was to get back on the court.

Reynolds: We worked out a buyout deal — I'm sure it was Ralph feeling he could play better and play more than he was playing for us. Our feeling was, quite honestly, that that wasn't going to happen. I wish I'd been wrong. He went to Washington for a little while, but his career was over.

Dawson: I always felt a lot of admiration for [Sampson] because with a three-time player of the year, the expectations were so high that nobody could have lived up to what people wanted. People forget. I go to bat for him all the time.

Ryan: Ralph didn't want to be 7-foot-4. But he accomplished what he accomplished. I think Ralph was a prisoner of his psyche. A lot of big guys are. He was one of the great examples. He played like a man who wished he was a foot shorter.

Blinebury: In his heart of hearts, Ralph would have loved to be a point guard or at least a shooting guard.

Parish: [Ralph] reminds me of Sam Bowie a little bit. All that's different is, Ralph was able to play a little longer and be more of an impact player than Sam Bowie was.


Sampson played just 154 games over four-plus seasons after leaving Houston, before retiring in 1992. He fell into issues over child support payments, bankruptcy, and mail fraud later in life. Phoenix recently hired Sampson as an assistant player development coordinator. Meanwhile, Lucas turned his life around, became an NBA coach, and now tutors athletes on how to overcome their addictions. Lewis and Wiggins both rejoined the Rockets in 1989-90, but their NBA careers ended shortly and unspectacularly after that. Olajuwon claimed his elusive championships in 1994 and 1995 when Michael Jordan took his baseball sabbatical, doing it without any of his teammates from the '85-'86 season. Those Rockets left nearly as soon as they came. But for that brief stretch, the rest of the league feared, respected, and tried to duplicate them.43

Donnie Walsh (general manager, Indiana Pacers): If one team that's really good has two big guys, then the other teams will try to get two big guys.

Heisler: After 1986, the Lakers went into the next season bound and determined to find another 7-footer. They almost made the [Roy] Tarpley trade. That was going to be for Worthy and [Byron] Scott and that was at Magic's instigation because they were going to get [Mark] Aguirre too. The deal was made by Jerry Buss and then Buss called up Don Carter, the owner of the Mavericks at the time, and asked him to let him out of the deal because he was afraid he was going to lose his general manager. West wasn't happy about it. They didn't do the deal and it wound up saving the Lakers because Tarpley went into rehab soon after. The Lakers really thought they had to get another 7-footer to match the Rockets. They looked everywhere and almost went through on this ruinous deal.

Dawson: We got the shooters around [Olajuwon] in the early '90s with [Vernon] Maxwell, Kenny Smith, Mario Elie, and [Sam] Cassell. We started making 3s and we could kick it into Hakeem. That's how we won our championships.

Olajuwon: When you win, you thank God. You're on the other side so many times, which makes it more valuable. You've been close so many times.

Tomjanovich: We grew up here. Especially Hakeem and myself. We grew up in that organization. You rarely see that in sports, where somebody is right there in that spot where they lived and spent a lot of time.

Thomas: The team that won it was the identical team that I sold [in 1994]. If I had known they were going to win a championship, I might not have even sold it. Six months later, they were world champions.

Sampson: I think a lot of people thought What if? with the Rockets back in that day. Because the Rockets during that era were the only team that dethroned the Lakers in the Western Conference, with Moses Malone in the early '80s and us in the mid '80s. We had some issues with teammates and getting a good point guard, but that could have been a good dynasty.

McCray: I don't think, to this day, you've had two 7-footers with the caliber of Ralph and Dream on the court together.44

Reid: I talked to James Worthy at a golf tournament a couple years back — he was telling me, and Magic was telling me, how they really didn't like to play us because we matched up too well for them.

Worthy: We got our mojo back after losing. That was embarrassing. I think Houston kind of lost their drive after they beat the Lakers. Beating the Lakers in the '80s was a big thing.

McDowell: You sure weren't expected to beat the Lakers four times in a row. The Lakers? Who saw that coming? Who saw that, really? Even to this day.

McCray: To this day, we still believe that if we would have had everybody clicking at the same time of the Finals, we would have won the championship.

Sampson: You marvel at some of the things that could have happened.

Reid: If we had not lost John Lucas, all of us would have had a ring. There is no way anyone was going to stop us.

Lucas: [Fitch] really had a major impact in my life 26 years ago. We had all the pieces to win a championship, but I might be dead now, so it's a curse and a blessing.45

McCray: We were just the young guns, the new kids on the block, that were supposed to be together for years to come. Us being selfish and not taking anything away from those championship teams, whenever I run into a Robert Reid or an Allen Leavell or Ralph, we say that we could have beat those other teams. But when you win championships, that's number one on the list.

McCray: When you talk about the Rockets, you talk about the back-to-back championship teams [in the '90s]. Not the team that could have been.

Lloyd: It was one of the greatest teams in the history of the game that didn't get to make a run for three, or four, five years. If we would have had three or four years to stay together, we would have won a couple of championships. We had beat the Lakers and we had their number.

Blinebury: These guys self-destructed. These guys did it to themselves.

Parish: I always wondered how good they would have been had Sampson not had the knee problems he experienced. What if he had played as long as Hakeem did? What if those two were able to play together for the duration of their careers? Think about how many championships they would have won. It would have been real interesting, I'll tell you that. I think about that sometimes.


The Designated Player: The Designated Playoffs

By: timbersfan, 1:22 AM GMT on November 08, 2012

Owing to a stupid clause inserted into the Designated Player’s MLS contract while I was busy browsing real estate listings — mainly for penthouses without views of the shacks my Grantland teammates are kept in — I apparently have to “participate in the playoffs.” This, in general, is not what I came to America for. Even worse, on further investigation it turns out that “participation” involves more than delivering the odd platitude about the standard of play in MLS, while being photographed somewhere in a darkened VIP room that also includes Tony Parker, Kelly Ripa, Russell Brand, and a minor Jonas — I actually have to play.

Knowing that this may involve contact with the former academy players who keep circulating colds among themselves, I immediately got my new agent on the phone with my list of demands — that is, if MLS wants to see the legendary “DP bounce” in attendance figures this year (I also got him to trademark DP Bounce™).

At first league management were pretty tense about the whole thing — probably remembering the play-for-chocolate-covered-jets clause I’d encouraged the mortal members of my team to ask for during the last CBA negotiations. But when I explained that I just wanted a wholesale format change for the playoffs inserted by Wednesday, they relaxed and were actually pretty cool about it all, making me wish I’d pushed for the “DP goals count double” rule I’d been toying with asking for.

So I’m delighted to present, with my full and meaningful participation, the Designated Playoffs™ ...


The format for the Designated Playoffs™ is the same knockout format as the previously planned playoffs, with the same teams participating, and the same seeding, but with one crucial rule change:

All non-designated players are forbidden from entering the playing field during game time.

This one was a little tricky to slip past the executives, until I explained to them that if they did some careful PowerPointing on future sponsorship presentations, the league’s average standard of play, according to the EA Sports rankings I check for these things, would now jump an average of 780 percent (with a little massaging in the Toronto area). They still looked unconvinced, until I pointed out that this rule brought the chances of this year’s final ending up at Buck Shaw down to somewhere close to zero ...

The league signed off on it.

And here is how the Designated Playoffs went down ...

Eastern Conference Wild-Card Round

Chicago Fire (Sherjill MacDonald, Alvaro Fernandez) vs. Houston Dynamo (Oscar Boníek Garcia, Ricardo Clark)

Controversy right from the off in this one. As the two teams trotted out at the start of the game, MacDonald, getting his offsides in early, accidentally trod on his teammate’s heel. Fernandez went down in slow motion, clutching his heart, ankle, and groin, before lying very still on the turf for the remainder of the game — getting up two minutes before the end to wince, hobble in the manner of a Pirates of the Caribbean extra, and wave an imaginary yellow card, red card, and subpoena at the referee. In the meantime, MacDonald was overrun. He/Chicago was clearly unprepared for the midfield movement of Dominic Kinnear’s 2 formation, brought in this summer to compensate for the departure of Geoff Cameron (and refined upon my DP ONLY™ rule that saw the departure of everyone else). The playoff experience of Ricardo Clark guided his team home — despite a late booking for time-wasting after persistent infractions while retrieving the ball for throw-ins. The winning goal was actually a miss-hit visionary pass from Boníek Garcia to the space Mac Kandji usually sprints into just before the ball runs out of play.

The game was also memorable for Chicago’s Section 8 unveiling a huge tifo featuring Hristo Stoichkov inserted into key scenes of the Haymarket riots and showing various Frank Lloyd Wright buildings, as described by Frank Klopas speaking to a blogger.

Score: Chicago, 0, Houston, 1

Western Conference Wild-Card Game

L.A. Galaxy (David Beckham, Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane) vs. Vancouver Whitecaps (Kenny Miller, Barry Robson)

Vancouver coach Martin Rennie found himself on the steepest part of the learning curve he has been surfing all year, after his controversial decision to bench both his designated players backfired miserably when he realized there was nobody to sub off, having decided to bring them on late in the second half. Rennie could be seen staring fixedly ahead into space at that point, while behind him on the bench Miller and Robson bickered in impenetrable Scottish accents about which city had the better nightlife: Cardiff or Middlesborough.

It was all the more frustrating for the Whitecaps, as for once the Galaxy were there for the taking. Donovan’s recent spiritual ennui had infected the other two designated players, who spent most of the game in the center circle questioning each other’s desire for the game. Eventually Keane, whose constant movement may or may not have been an indirect result of disorientation caused by the flashbulbs at every Beckham set piece, broke the circle of trust by calling it “loada bollix, wha?” and fed the ball into the path of Donovan, who found himself following play instinctively to stab the ball home, then stab the ball, then feel bad about it, then say he was too old for this shit. After a long consultation with his management company about “optimum sight lines” and “favorable roster-clutter visuals,” Beckham added an aesthetically pleasing second. Donovan was seen staring at it vacantly, saying “Great. Beauty.”

Asked for his thoughts after the game, Bruce Arena said “Why don’t you ask me about the ass-backward rule change?” Then he smirked and refused to comment when somebody did. Later Rennie revealed that he had actually started his Designated Players but had not told them, as part of a complex mind game. He then acknowledged he’d “maybe tried to do a teeny bit too much” and that the team would come back “weaker” next year.

Score: L.A. Galaxy 2, Vancouver Whitecaps 0

Eastern Conference Semifinals

D.C. United (Hamdi Salihi) vs. New York Red Bulls (Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill, Rafael Marquez)

More controversy in this one, as the New York players showed up their customary 20 minutes late for the first leg to find themselves 4-0 down — Salihi having converted that many of the 40 chances he’d made for himself. Having shown up and finished yawning, the Red Bulls rallied to tie the game, but as the sides came off the field, Marquez, donned in full ninja gear, clotheslined Salihi and began ostentatiously flicking through a Baltimore Chamber of Commerce pamphlet in front of D.C. coach Ben Olsen. In the bench-clearing melee that followed, Marquez somehow slipped out of the stadium and was next seen in February 2013 signing a new five-year contract, with a clause renaming the side the New York Marquez.

Salihi meanwhile was banned for inciting the incident, and with New York winning 7-6 in the second half of the second leg at Red Bull Arena (after conceding six own goals in a manner that coach Hans Backe called “disappointing, really”), Tim Cahill ran into one too many walls for the team and was himself declared structurally unsound. New York saw out the match with Henry standing in the middle of the field with one foot on the ball, hands on hips, looking at the sky. After the game he sat in the center circle with a towel over his head and making a sound that sounded like “zooooooowfffffffah” before swapping shirts with himself and exchanging a private joke and a nod of respect to the same worthy opponent. DC coach Ben Olsen was later seen on the freeway, sarcastically applauding traffic.

Score: D.C. United 4, New York 4 (first leg); New York 7, D.C. United 6 (second leg) (New York win 11-10)

Eastern Conference Semifinals

Sporting Kansas City ( ... ) vs. Houston Dynamo (Oscar Boníek Garcia, Ricardo Clark)
Without a designated player to field, Peter Vermes opted to line up with “attitude,” “work rate,” and “this thing called love” in the first leg in Houston. Initially it seemed he’d been out-thought by the canny Dominic Kinnear, who had shifted his formation to an experimental and fluid 1-1. With Boníek Garcia and Clark switching positions constantly and dropping deep when necessary (never), the Dynamo had encouraging 100 percent possession stats, though tired somewhat in the Texan heat and forgot to shoot.

In the return leg, Kinnear, perhaps falling for the fashionable infatuation with all things Barcelona, went with a 0-1-0-1-0-0 formation (with both “1”s false), but found himself undone by Vermes in the opposing technical area — which owing to some restructuring by Sporting owner Robb Heineman, who’d claimed he was “just painting a wall,” was now 76 yards deep. Every time Clark or Boníek Garcia came near the Sporting half, they found themselves repelled by Vermes, standing directly in front of them and yelling at his lack of players that they had to “WORK HARDER FOR EACH OTHER.” By the time the game drifted to penalties, both Houston men were weeping openly, and could not participate further. Sporting scored the decisive kick via Vermes sound waves oscillating the ball painstakingly into the net. It took seven hours and 14 minutes to cross the line. Afterward Vermes claimed that “sometimes you have to grind out a result.” Kinnear lamented his side’s “unwillingness to track back” and conceded that his team may have been a little “impatient in their build-up play.”

Score: Houston Dynamo 0, Sporting Kansas City 0 (first leg); Sporting Kansas City 0, Houston Dynamo 0 (second leg) (Sporting Kansas City win 1-0 after 87 penalties)

Western Conference Semifinals

San Jose Earthquakes ( ... ) vs L.A. Galaxy (David Beckham, Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane)

The California Clasico lived up to its billing with two very different games. In the first leg, the Galaxy welcomed the Earthquakes to the eerie atmosphere that is a midweek Home Depot Center. Galaxy management having negotiated a special arrangement that allowed them to break the club’s usual noise-restricting attendance cap for midweek games, the stadium was full to bursting with a sellout crowd. Among them, though, as a condition of the expanded capacity, was a handpicked section of the Orange County chapter of the L.A. Riot Squad, who were charged with keeping everyone quiet. So effective was their system of ticketing and passive-aggressive shaming that the only sound heard all night was Landon Donovan performing selected Joy Division medleys to himself.

Keane, whose permanent expression of bewildered disgust had been revealed to the press in the exhaustive media buildup to the game as a "mistrust of bougainvillea," happened to glance up early in the game and, seeing the flora lining the HDC, was a shadow of his normal self all night. Beckham, though, was magnificent — rolling back the years with a series of long passes, set pieces, and product endorsements that culminated with the Englishman facing the crowd, arms outstretched and head thrown back, after scoring the second of his goals on the night. The crowd nodded back appreciatively at a 2-0 victory.

No Beckham in the second leg, as the midfielder was opening an In-N-Out Burger in Walthamstow. Keane, whom Arena had taken to sardonically referring to as “Petal,” was marked out of the second leg by his own demons and gave the San Jose crowd hope with an early own goal on a pass back through the space Omar Gonzalez occasionally occupies. It was left to Donovan to drive the Galaxy forward, and this was a game where he at last rediscovered the fire within — actually emerging for the second half dressed as Uncle Sam and scoring a leader’s hat trick, before catching sight of himself in an ESPN monitor and suddenly turning pensive again.

With the Galaxy leading 5-1 on aggregate, San Jose had been suspiciously quiet up to this point, mainly owing to having no Designated Players and a combined salary bill marginally short of what’s required to get one to appear at a Sweet 16 party. As the game ticked into the third minute of stoppage time though, the Goonies rallied. Noting that the new DP rule only forbade non-DPs from the field of play, they revealed a complex ballista-like contraption behind their own goal and began hurling Alan Gordon and Steven Lenhart in high arcs over the Galaxy crossbar. Having plundered three quickfire scrappy goals via this method, yet another stirring late Earthquakes rally was halted when Lenhart “tangled” with Keane in the box as he landed from 63 feet, and both players were ejected before the clock finally ran out. With San Jose’s comeback foiled, a relieved Galaxy advanced. Asked if he was looking forward to the Western Conference final, Arena quipped “Bite me,” then followed up with “He’s a good player. He doesn’t get the credit from you [the media] perhaps, but he’s a good player.” When pressed, he refused to clarify who he was talking about.

Score: L.A. Galaxy 2, San Jose 0 (first leg); San Jose 4, L.A. Galaxy 3 (second leg) (L.A. Galaxy win 5-4)

Western Conference Semifinals

Real Salt Lake (Alvaro Saborio, Javier Morales) vs. Seattle Sounders FC (Fredy Montero, Mauro Rosales, Christian Tiffert)

According to anecdotal evidence, 937,632 people were in attendance in Seattle for the first leg of this much-anticipated semifinal, which was preceded by the sight of Fredy Montero warming up right by the Seattle bench, in front of a smouldering Eddie Johnson, while sporting an exaggeratedly sad face. Occasionally he would break off from his jogging and say, “That’s so sad. I thought you would be designated. I’m a designate. That’s so sad. You sure you’re not a designate? That’s so sad. OK, I’m going to go play now. Maybe I’ll score some goals. Pray for me, Eddie Johnson. Pray I score some goals."

The first leg was played in a surreal atmosphere, as the Emerald City Supporters, aware of Chicago’s recent giant tifo antics, spent the first 87 minutes choreographing an animated family tree of Seattle musical history that attempted to demonstrate the influence of Sigi Schmid on Bleach and featuring a live cameo from Arlo White representing Britpop. The display was considered by many experts in the field to have jumped the shark for such forms of support, though everyone agreed that it was nice to see Roger Levesque get his due as a key influence on Screaming Trees.

The game itself was a tight one and settled by a moment of invention from Mauro Rosales, just as the ECS display was fragmenting into a chaotic passage documenting obscure solo offshoots, prior to their planned climactic Pearl Jam–Kasey Keller reunion. Taking advantage of the confusion, Rosales slotted home from a Tiffert through ball, running into the space vacated by the injured Javier Morales. Morales had just been felled inadvertently by a field-invading Eddie Johnson, whose target appeared to be Montero performing a mime of crying on the opposite touchline.

With the score at 1-0, the second leg in Salt Lake was graced by an unexpected campaign appearance by Mitt Romney, though this was cut short when a pregame video of "Believe" was shown to rouse the fans.

Romney left, shuddering “They only come out at night ... ” When the game did kick off, Real briefly turned back the clock to the 2010-11 teams, playing neat, concise soccer, managing the game and generally frustrating the Sounders. They took a 2-0 lead on the night, off two Saborio headers, before disaster struck. Having held the side together for one last tilt at the Champions League with the same group of players, Salt Lake’s Jason Kreis had to watch in despair as, having gone one game too far, his players started to unravel into a mass of rubber bands, tattoo ink, Scotch tape, and surgical trusses. Saborio was briefly lashed together again with a hastily trimmed Kyle Beckerman dreadlock, but in the end the Sounders scored twice more to take the game in the final minute. Afterward Fredy Montero dedicated his winning goal to “Eddie Johnson — he helped me achieve. If he’s not special, it’s OK. He’s special for me.”

Score: Seattle 1, Real Salt Lake 0 (first leg); Real Salt Lake 2, Seattle 2 (second leg) (Seattle win 3-2)

Next week: Conference finals and final in the Designated Playoffs".


Landon Donovan's Legacy Will Be Just Fine

By: timbersfan, 1:21 AM GMT on November 08, 2012

There's a good chance that Wednesday night will be the last soccer game Landon Donovan plays for quite some time. His Los Angeles Galaxy find themselves down 1-0 after the first leg of the Western Conference semifinal against the San Jose Earthquakes. Unless they can go into Buck Shaw Stadium and get a result against the Supporters' Shield winners, the season will end in less than 72 hours. And the Galaxy barely made it this far. For almost 70 minutes last Thursday night, there was a very real possibility the Galaxy would lose to an inferior Vancouver Whitecaps during Major League Soccer's playoff play-in game. The defending MLS Cup champions were dominating the ball but not the scoreline. It looked like one of those matches in which the better side wasn't going to win.

Donovan, 30, recently gave a couple of interviews in which he hinted at needing a long break following the MLS campaign. The brightest star in the American soccer landscape since he won the Golden Ball for being the best player at the 1999 U-17 World Cup, he also raised the possibility of retirement after the 2013 season. He's physically exhausted from playing virtually nonstop for club(s) and country since 1999, and emotionally drained from promoting the game.

“I need time where I can just pause and breathe and rest, let me body heal, let my mind refresh,” Donovan told ESPN’s Julie Foudy in an interview. “I honestly don’t exactly know what the future holds, and I’m okay with that ... I don’t feel any obligation to play, I don’t feel any responsibility to play. I’ve put in a lot to this whole thing. I’m proud of what I’ve done and what I’ve been a part of. But I can’t fake it.”

This has been an especially trying year and a half for Donovan. His body is breaking down in a way it never has during the rest of his remarkably injury-free career — the frustrating, nagging knocks that have caused him to miss 12 of the 20 United States games during Jurgen Klinsmann's tenure. His influence on the Stars and Stripes is diminished, which concerns him.

"Candidly it’s pretty hurtful because I’ve spent more time on a soccer field than anybody in the history of this program," said Donovan, the national team's all-time leader in goals and assists. "I’ve played in games I shouldn’t be playing in for health reasons or otherwise. I feel like I’ve given a lot to this program, and when you get the sense that people think you’re not genuine, then that can hurt you."

Klinsmann, whose sunny Californian attitude hides the discipline he enforces during national team camps, says he'll talk to Donovan after the MLS season and that there's a place for a healthy Donovan in the red, white, and blue. And there is.

But if the attacker retires in 2013, is it fair to blame him for leaving too early, to say that he could have done more? He played a huge role in getting the Americans to the quarterfinal of the 2002 World Cup, a tournament that for many (myself included) was an introduction to international soccer. He scored against Algeria in the 2010 World Cup, a goal that vaulted awareness to another level.

He shouldered plenty of blame for the failure in Germany in 2006, which still weighs upon him. He was the one out at promotional events while his lesser-known teammates were at home with their families. He helped build MLS to the point where it no longer needs him to be an ambassador. Donovan has benefited as well — the $2.4 million salary, the New York Post cover, the fame, the fortune — but that's a lot of pressure for a lot of years for anyone.

Donovan has always been different from many professional athletes in that he's not afraid to speak his mind when he does give interviews — which come less and less frequently — and that he will offer thoughts on topics other than the sport he plays. When the U.S. played in Honduras in 2009, he talked eloquently about the effect the ongoing coup was having on the country and its people. The Americans had just qualified for the World Cup, and there was Donovan in a corridor of the stadium in San Pedro Sula, expounding on the government of a Central American country. Nothing he said was brilliant, but he was articulate and clearly interested. It's a big world out there, bigger than the sport that helped him see so much of it.

If injuries, pressure, the desire to disappear for a while, etc. combine to lead Donovan to retirement, so be it. He deserves that much. He's given most of his body and soul to American soccer over the past decade and a half; let him keep what remains if he wants. It's worth noting that the color man for the Vancouver match was Kyle Martino, a 31-year-old former prodigy who retired as result of injury. ESPN color man Taylor Twellman, 32, called the game against San Jose. The talented striker quit playing soccer after suffering repeated concussions. Donovan was blessed with durability and talent, but he did more than enough with those gifts.

Still, I don't think the end is coming soon. There was a telling scene right after the halftime whistle blew last Thursday. Donovan, who thought (correctly) that he had been taken down in the box minutes before, was questioning referee Silviu Petrescu's no-call. David Beckham and Robbie Keane — 2012 guaranteed compensation $4 million and $3.4 million, respectively — joined their teammate. The trio gestured for a spell before walking off the field together. The two international stars, players who wouldn't be in MLS were it not at least in part for Donovan's consistent and sustained effort to help grow the game, followed their captain into the Galaxy locker room.

After the break, Donovan and his troops came out even more determined to get a goal. Vancouver, led by the heroic efforts of goalkeeper Brad Knighton and the aerial prowess of center back Jay DeMerit, wouldn't yield. Then, in the 69th minute, Mike Magee latched onto a Juninho cross and side-volleyed the ball into the back of the net. Donovan was the first man to reach Magee to celebrate.

Two minutes later, it was Landon's turn to score. After Martin Bonjour dragged him down in the box, Donovan stepped to the spot like he's done so many times before, squatted on the turf, and coolly converted the penalty kick. The Galaxy held on for the 2-1 victory. "Contrary to popular belief, I do still enjoy playing this game," Donovan said after the win. Then, he presumably nodded good-bye to Beckham, Keane, and the rest of the MLS superteam he helped build and disappeared into the Los Angeles night, preparing to come back for at least two more games, probably many more.


Hat Tricks for Sale: Ranking Europe's Top Strikers

By: timbersfan, 1:21 AM GMT on November 08, 2012

January is nearly upon us! Or at least it feels that way if you spend any time reading the words of the soothsayers who try to predict what will happen when European football’s transfer window reopens on January 1, 2013. Speculation is particularly rife in England, and it mainly centers on two clubs: Chelsea and Liverpool. Both teams find themselves low on firepower, and as a result, they’ve been linked with every available forward in European club football. Two players in particular have been singled out as possible signings in the new year: Athletico Madrid’s Radamel Falcao, and Schalke’s Klaas-Jan Huntelaar.

Huntelaar, who is supposedly packing his bags in preparation for a move to Liverpool, has scored 32 goals in 42 league games for Schalke FC since the start of last season. Falcao, who is rumored to soon join Juan Mata and Eden Hazard at Chelsea, scored 34 goals in 43 league games for Athletico Madrid over the same period. And yet these two players, with almost identical league goal-scoring records, are valued rather differently. Chelsea will be required to trigger Falcao’s minimum-fee release clause — which stands at a cool $70 million — to get their man, whereas Liverpool can expect to pay no more than $10 million to sign Huntelaar, who is available at a knock-down price thanks to the imminent expiry of his contract with Schalke.

However, it could equally be argued that Falcao is in fact something of a bargain at $70 million. Athletico Madrid originally had to pay Porto $62 million (including performance bonuses) for his services, and since then the Colombian has run riot through what is arguably the world’s most competitive (and easily most technically proficient) league, and also fired Athletico to success in the Europa League, scoring 15 goals in 17 matches — although he hit 18 goals in 16 games while guiding Porto to victory in the same competition the year before, so maybe he’s on the wane?

No doubt that’s what Athletico will be telling themselves when he inevitably moves, netting them a mere $8 million profit on Europe’s hottest striker. It’s particularly baffling as Spanish clubs tend to use minimum-fee release clauses as a means of deterring interest in their players, and they are typically set at stratospherically high levels; for instance, to trigger Lionel Messi’s release clause, potential suitors will need to find $320 million. For Cristiano Ronaldo, the asking price is widely rumored as $1.28 billion. When viewed in those terms, $70 million for Falcao seems like an absolute bargain.

So does Radamel Falcao represent good value for money, or is he merely the next Fernando Torres? To answer this question, I’ve totaled up the numbers for Europe’s most prolific goal scorers, plus stats for Liverpool's and Chelsea’s existing strikers (Suarez, Torres, and Sturridge), and each has been assigned a likely transfer value, based on age, contract length, and Transfer Markt's valuation. Apologies to Antonio Di Natale and Diego Milito, who have been ignored on account of their being really, really old.

Ranking Europe's Top Strikers

Name Team GM Goal Goal/90 Shot/90 Shot/g Age Contract expires Cost in millions ($)
Lionel Messi Barcelona 80 94 1.16 5.03 4.33 25 2016 168
Robin Van Persie Man Utd 73 56 0.8 4.29 5.36 29 2016 55
Radamel Falcao Athletico Madrid 43 34 0.8 3.72 4.65 26 2016 70
Cristiano Ronaldo Real Madrid 82 97 1.17 7 5.98 27 2015 141
Mario Gomez Bayern Munich 65 54 0.96 3.45 3.59 27 2016 59
Zlatan Ibrahimovic PSG 71 52 0.71 4.09 5.73 31 2015 40
Dimitar Berbatov Fulham 50 30 0.79 3.51 4.47 31 2014 7
Gonzalo Higuain Real Madrid 62 39 0.92 3.19 3.46 24 2016 54
Karim Benzema Real Madrid 76 37 0.71 3.84 5.43 24 2015 56
Edinson Cavani Napoli 79 56 0.72 3.6 4.98 25 2017 50
Sergio Aguero Man City 73 45 0.69 4.16 6.02 24 2016 72
Wayne Rooney Man Utd 69 40 0.61 4.24 6.95 27 2015 90
Edin Dzeko Man City 70 30 0.6 4.13 6.9 26 2015 41
Moussa Sow Fenerbahce 54 31 0.65 3.12 4.77 26 2016 17
Papiss Cisse Newcastle 72 45 0.64 2.91 4.58 27 2017 26
Luis Suárez Liverpool 54 22 0.41 4.57 11.18 25 2018 40
Lisandro López Lyon 64 37 0.63 2.65 4.19 29 2014 10
Rodrigo Palacio Inter Milan 65 31 0.5 2.04 4.06 30 2015 17
Robert Lewandowski Dortmund 76 33 0.55 3.68 6.73 24 2014 18
Álvaro Negredo Seville 78 40 0.59 3.46 5.83 27 2016 26
Pablo Osvaldo Roma 57 30 0.58 3.31 5.73 26 2016 21
Klaas-Jan Huntelaar Schalke 66 40 0.62 3.01 4.85 29 2013 9
Daniel Sturridge Chelsea 60 20 0.49 4.04 8.25 23 2013 7
Demba Ba Newcastle 73 36 0.53 3.59 6.75 27 2014 10
Roberto Soldado Valencia 76 39 0.58 2.73 4.69 27 2017 35
Fernando Llorente Bilbao 76 36 0.55 3.19 5.78 27 2013 14
Kevin Gameiro PSG 78 36 0.53 3.41 6.39 25 2015 20
Olivier Giroud Arsenal 83 34 0.43 3.52 8.18 26 2017 21
Clint Dempsey Tottenham 81 31 0.38 3.53 9.35 29 2015 21
Lukas Podolski Arsenal 71 33 0.48 2.75 5.73 27 2016 28
Nene PSG 77 35 0.47 3.05 6.54 31 2013 5
Marco Reus Dortmund 74 32 0.44 2.82 6.38 23 2017 38
Fernando Torres Chelsea 79 20 0.31 3.07 9.85 28 2016 25
It’s an interesting mix, comprising pure strikers, false nines, wingers, and Fernando Torres, who is the worst player on the list in several different quantifiable ways. However, determining who the best players are is a trickier business. We can sort the data by the number of shots taken per goal scored, in which case the dead-eyed accuracy of Gonzalo Higuain, Mario Gomez, Rodrigo Palacio, and Lisandro Lopez leaps to the fore. However, Palacio and Lopez take fewer shots per game than any of the other 31 players on the list; clearly, dead-eyed accuracy is of debatable value when you get only two shots at goal per match.

If we instead sort the data by the number of shots taken, our old friends Ronaldo (7 shots/90) and Messi (5.03 shots/90) become the MVPs. Ronaldo’s aim, it should be noted, may seem somewhat unreliable (ranking 20th in shots/goal), but he’s shooting from an average distance of 20.7 yards, which is perhaps unsurprising given that he’s technically a winger, not a striker. By comparison, Messi shoots from much closer to goal (16.2 yards on average), but he’s ruthlessly accurate, and ranks fifth on our list in shots/goal. You could argue that Ronaldo shouldn’t be on this list at all, and only figures thanks to his habit of bludgeoning the ball into the top corner from outside the area, but you can’t argue with his success rate — he scores more goals per minute than anyone else in Europe. Messi, meanwhile, has the dribbling ability to bring the ball into the box and shoot from much closer distances, hence his vastly superior accuracy statistics.

Messi’s devastating combination of shot creation and efficiency is the holy grail for strikers, so who else on the list excels in both these areas? The table has been sorted according to who has the best blend of the two attributes, hence the high ranking for players who rate in the top 15 in both categories: Robin Van Persie, Radamel Falcao, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Karim Benzema, and Edinson Cavani. Ibrahimovic is getting old (PSG have now dropped him into midfield to act as a playmaker), and the other four would all cost in excess of $50 million, as would Mario Gomez and Gonzalo Higuain. It’s hard to make a case for any of these strikers over any other; Van Persie and Falcao have the best mix of attributes, while Gomez and Higuain boast the best goals/game ratio. It should also be noted that Cavani and Falcao have achieved their successes at (slightly) smaller clubs, which weighs in their favor. What’s clear is that any of these players would represent an improvement on Chelsea's current forward line, and if Falcao was worth $62 million to Athletico Madrid, he’s certainly worth $70 million to Roman Abramovic. What’s more, Athletico Madrid may be willing to take Torres — who started his career with the club — as a makeweight in the deal, and there aren’t many other clubs lining up to take Torres off Chelsea’s hands.

But what of those clubs who can’t afford to gamble $50 million (or more) on a striker? Is Huntelaar the best value on the list? Evidently, Fulham bagged themselves the deal of the century when they signed Dimitar Berbatov, but it’s unlikely he’ll want to move again this season, so Liverpool might be well advised to keep in contact with Athletic Bilbao, who look likely to lose the services of Fernando Llorente this January. Like Huntelaar, Llorente’s contract is due to expire at the end of the season, and he could also be available for $10 million — or, to put it another way, less than a fifth of an Andy Carroll.


Down Goes Granger

By: timbersfan, 1:19 AM GMT on November 08, 2012

When news broke this morning that Indiana's Danny Granger would miss the next three months — at least — after getting an injection from Dr. James Andrews for his aching left patellar tendon, Grantland's Zach Lowe and Bill Simmons couldn't resist barraging each other with e-mails. Here's what transpired.

Lowe: You were pretty down on Indiana when we talked before the season, even speculating they might be a lottery team if things were to go poorly.

Simmons: Yeah, I mentioned this during our preseason podcast and you nearly went into convulsions.

Lowe: I think I said I'd bet "huge sums of money" on them to make the playoffs, yes. I'd probably edit that down to "small sums of money" given Granger's injury.

Look: Indy had pretty pristine health last season, and basic probability laws said they were due for at least a small turn in luck this season. They've now had a big turn in luck, especially if Granger misses 40-50 games. Their offense has been a disaster through three games; they lead the league in turnover rate, they have almost no pick-and-roll game other than the occasional (and effective) David West slip, Paul George hasn't quite looked up to being a no. 1 guy and the overhauled bench is still a mess.

Simmons: And they don't have Larry Bird's godlike aura hovering around anymore to pick them up spiritually.

Lowe: Meanwhile, the Knicks have looked great. The Nets can score. Philly is a mess, and their best player (Andrew Bynum) is hurt. The Raptors, assuming a quick comeback for Kyle Lowry, are dangerous and fun. The Bucks and Hawks are feisty. The Bulls are still defending like hell. That makes 10 solid Eastern Conference teams.

Simmons: Everyone in Cleveland is wounded that you didn't mention the Cavs after that electric — repeat: ELECTRIC! — Irving/Waiters backcourt performance against the Clippers on Monday night. But keep going.

Lowe: That backcourt is fun, but Waiters will go through ups and downs, and the team just isn't deep enough in quality guys. Is Indiana in trouble? And if they are, what do they do?

Simmons: I thought Indiana was in trouble before the season, when Granger mentioned his knee wasn't getting better and did the whole "it is what it is" routine. Always a bad omen. The Pacers overachieved last year for two reasons — they had an unusually deep team, and they were blessed by a shortened season that favored deep teams. They also caught Miami at the absolute perfect time, in Round 2 right when Bosh went down and it briefly looked like the Heat might be imploding — I mean, remember when they were up 2-1 and we were making jokes about ABC getting stuck with a Pacers-Spurs Finals????

Lowe: I honestly thought they were a better than 50/50 shot to make the Finals at that point. Ian Thomsen at SI had picked them to make the Finals before the season, and I was ready to basically turn my life decisions over to him before Game 4.

Simmons: That seems like it happened about five years ago. But beyond Granger's injury, I didn't like their offseason: downgrading from Collison to D.J. Augustin (haven't we seen enough of a sample size from old D.J. at this point?), rolling the dice with Gerald Green, paying Ian Mahinmi to be their backup center in a conference where Miami has made the center position irrelevant, giving Roy Hibbert a max deal (even if they didn't have a choice, he's still Roy Hibbert) … it just seemed like they were heading in the wrong direction.

Lowe: The Collison/Mahinmi exchange looks even worse now. Our buddy Hollinger hammered them immediately for it, since the Pacers had cap space to sign Mahinmi outright during a brief window before the Hibbert and George Hill contracts kicked in. Something obviously happened there — either Indiana felt like it wasn't going to be able to get the Mahinmi signing done quickly in straight-up free agency, or they knew another signing (Gerald Green) was coming down the pike and Herb Simon essentially forced them to dump an extra salary slot (Dahntay Jones) to make that happen.

Simmons: It was a genuinely perplexing move. Plus, Collison always produced whenever someone gave him big minutes, as any fantasy hoops junkie would tell you. Whenever he was splitting time with someone, he never looked as comfortable. We know Indiana felt George Hill was a better starting option, so maybe they believed Collison would suffer getting just 20-25 minutes a night. Either way, he always seemed like someone who couldn't find the right team. Now? He might have the right team.

Lowe: Yeah, Collison looks like a different guy under Rick Carlisle's mind control. He's being more aggressive, especially in transition, and he's thrown a couple of passes in the half court that made me rewind the DVR and make sure it was him. Really good stuff. The Pacers knew they were losing some speed/creativity when they lost him, but perhaps they thought (a) Augustin could replicate 75 percent of it; (b) Green would help in that regard; (c) it might not matter, given the way they play through their bigs.

Simmons: I'm beginning to think Carlisle should be in the running for the 2016 Olympics coach. He beat LeBron and Wade for the title; he's keeping the Mavs alive right now without Dirk; he's saved the careers of Collison and O.J. Mayo; he's made Jae Crowder a household name; he's turned Eddy Curry into a double-double guy — OK, fine, he couldn't do that last one. But everything else happened.

Lowe: Carlisle is clearly one of the half-dozen best coaches in the league, and he's in the conversation — maybe at the top of it — for the no. 2 spot behind Pop. Anyway, back to that Collison deal: Mahinmi is a useful player who can guard both big-man positions — a must for Indy after the Hansbrough/Lou Amundson front line was such a disaster — but he still has trouble just catching the ball on offense. D. J. Augustin is "meh."

Simmons: And really, what's your ultimate upside when guys like Mahinmi, Augustin, Gerald Green and Tyler Hansbrough are prominently involved in your nine-man rotation? This isn't the same team, and that's before Granger went down. Anyway, you mentioned on Twitter today that Indiana's pick-and-roll game has basically fallen apart without Collison and Granger — can you elaborate?

Lowe: It was never their bread-and-butter because they had such a potent post-up game. A lot of their pick-and-roll game was basically David West just cutting down the middle and catching a pass from Hill; there wasn't much aggressive dribble penetration. But there was some, especially when Collison came into the game. About 10 percent of Indy's possessions ended with a pick-and-roll ball handler finishing the play last season, and another 9 percent were isolations, per Synergy Sports. Those numbers are both way down this season, and the Pacers can't make a shot or hold on to the ball out of those play types — at least so far. They are also ice-cold on spot-up jumpers, many of which come via the pick-and-roll. Basically, the downgrade from Granger/Collison to Green/Augustin has robbed them of a lot of individual creativity. Can they adjust?

Simmons: Quick aside because we're both Celtics fans: During those two seasons when Gerald Green was running around like a chicken with his head cut off in Boston, did you ever imagine that, just five years later, he'd be holding the fate of a possible playoff contender in his hands? I've never seen anyone with less of a clue on a basketball court, and that's coming from someone who watched the immortal Kedrick Brown and Vin Baker during games when he may or may not have been a little sauced. This Gerald Green thing is AMAZING to me.

Lowe: It's a great story, assuming it continues. There are moments when you still see the old Gerald — a bad mid-range jumper, or a confused missed assignment on defense. But he's just a much more polished player, and good on him for putting in the work.

Simmons: Let's flip this glass of water around for Pacers fans from half-empty to half-full for a moment. For them to survive this Granger injury, Green would have to become an "instant offense" guy (conceivable — incredible, but conceivable), West would have to step it up offensively (it's been almost two years since his ACL injury, so this is also conceivable), and Paul George would have to blossom into a big-time player (very, very conceivable — it's already kind of happening).

Lowe: The leap from no. 3/no. 4 option to "big-time player" is just huge for a 22-year-old. I am not convinced George is ready to make it on offense right now. The Pacers very rarely ran him out there as the no. 1 guy on bench units last season, and both his numbers and their general scoring numbers have fallen off a cliff whenever George plays without Granger, according to NBA.com's stats database.

Simmons: So it's like Harden without Durant and Westbrook, only the exact opposite.

Lowe: So far, sure. Without Granger, we're seeing the usage/efficiency tradeoff so far this season and George taking on more of a burden. He's scoring more in raw terms, but he's shooting 40 percent, barely getting to the line and turning the ball over like Kendrick Perkins. But he's rebounding like hell and he'll always be a good defender. If the Pacers are going to stick around the middle of a 10-deep playoff race, it will be because of their defense.

Simmons: They'd also need a little mini–Ewing Theory magic here, which brings us to a fairly interesting topic. Was Danny Granger overrated? We keep remembering the fantasy hoops stud from 2009, but that guy was long gone. Check this out …

2009: 25.8 PPG, 45% FG, 6.9 FTA, 40% 3FG, 21.8 PER, 29.6% Usage Rate.
2011: 20.5 PPG, 42.5% FG, 5.9 FTA, 39% 3FG, 17.8 PER, 26,7% Usage Rate.
2012: 18.7 PPG, 41.6% FG, 4.7 FTA, 38% 3FG, 18.6 PER, 25.9% Usage Rate.

Maybe that wasn't a Gilbert Arenas–like free fall, but it's a pretty subtle shift to "franchise scorer" from "good starter" over the course of just three years. He went from being a genuinely efficient offensive player to someone who wasn't as efficient and wasn't getting to the line nearly as much. And keep in mind — last year was only his seventh NBA season. (Granger and Green were drafted one spot apart, as crazy as that seems now.) Usually guys peak around Year 7, right? I thought Granger was overrated the past two years, so imagine how overrated a Playing Hurt Danny Granger would have been. And also, what if Granger's play slipped because his knee had been bothering him that whole time? Is there a chance we've seen the best of him?

Lowe: The Pacers say Granger has tendinosis, which is essentially a more serious version of the common problem tendinitis — that's what Donald Rose told me. Rose is an orthopedic surgeon, knee specialist and professor at NYU who has treated athletes of all kinds, including NBA players; he worked for the Sixers in the 1980s and has some fantastic Charles Barkley stories.

Anyway, Rose says tendinosis is indicative of a more chronic degenerative issue in the patellar tendon of Granger's left knee. Rose thinks the "injection" the Pacers say James Andrews administered was likely a platelet-rich plasma injection. (He knows Andrews but is unfamiliar with the particulars of Granger's case.) The alternative would have been a more invasive surgery to remove the damaged part of the tendon, but that carries a longer recovery time, Rose says — four to six months. The injection route helps some athletes by easing the healing process, but Rose says there is no guarantee it helps at all.

Simmons: Yikes. So long-term, this probably isn't great regardless of how it turns out. Short-term, I was never crazy about Granger as their lead crunch-time option, anyway — wouldn't you much rather go to David West, or even Hibbert against the right matchups? And don't you want to find out if Paul George has the elusive "It" factor or not? Granger's injury might give the Pacers a chance to reinvent their team for the better, right?

Lowe: Well, I'm sure the Pacers understood that even in his prime, it was never going to be ideal for Granger to be the undisputed top guy. They have compensated by sort of having three co–no. 1s in Hibbert, West and Granger, and Granger's "alpha dog" stats — points, free throws, etc. — have dropped accordingly. But he shot pretty efficiently after a horrific first month last season, and I think he could thrive as a secondary guy who mixes in better spot-up looks with the rest of his game. And he's a very solid defender. I'm not sure he was ever really overrated, at least among folks paying close attention.

Simmons: He's also getting paid big bucks — $13 million this season, $14 million next season — which creates a perception that he's a little better than he actually is, then a subsequent backlash to that perception that actually becomes too big of a backlash. Or as it's known in academic circles, "Joe Johnsonitis." I'd say he was overrated by casual fans and properly rated by anyone who diligently follows this stuff. Although even as a member of the latter group, I still think he was a little overrated. Wait, my head hurts.

Lowe: Well, he's going to be properly rated once the Pacers start giving his minutes to Green, Sam Young and Lance Stephenson. I still think Indy is a solid playoff team, but one that might have to battle to avoid the no. 7 or no. 8 seed and a bad first-round matchup. Let's hear it, Bill: Are they a lottery team now in your view?

Simmons: Working backward, I have Miami, Boston, New York and Atlanta as absolute locks. I think Chicago makes it because of their defense and because Tom Thibodeau is an absolute psychopath of a coach. (And I mean that in the most endearing way possible. That team only knows one speed: balls to the wall. I just can't see Thibs letting them become a lottery team.) The Sixers are the big hit-or-miss team for me — if they can't get 55-60 games from Bynum, they won't get to .500 and we can cross them off. So that means we either have two or three spots available for the Nets (haven't knocked my socks off, but at least we know they'll score 100 every night), Raptors (mildly intriguing, seems like they have one more big Colangelo-needs-to-save-his-job/win-now trade looming with Calderon's expiring contract), Bucks (possible 43-win semi-sleeper if Jennings remains in Eff You for Not Giving Me an Extension mode) and Pacers. Logic says it's between Toronto, Milwaukee and Indiana for that eighth spot. So I have two predictions:

1. The Raptors could steal that spot with an ambitious trade like, say, "Calderon's expiring contract plus lottery pick Terrence Ross to Memphis for Rudy Gay." Remember, Oklahoma City gets their no. 1 pick if it falls between no. 4 and no. 14 this year (via Houston, thanks to the Lowry trade), so if anything, it's in Toronto's best interest to make the playoffs because they also get to keep their 2013 no. 1 pick. I see them overpaying for one more quality player in January/February if they're close to sneaking in.

2. Regardless of what happens, the Heat are going to be delighted with their first-round opponent.

Here's what I really want to know, Zach: What would Nate Silver say about Indiana's playoff chances?

Lowe: He'd probably say something smarter than anything being said here, that's for sure. The geekery around the NBA will now project Indiana as not a sure bet to win the Central but also a probable lower-rung playoff team. And I trust the geekery, just as we all should have trusted Nate Silver.

Of course, that's not interesting. What would be interesting is if they underperformed and started contemplating the selling of assets — West's expiring deal and maybe even Granger's deal. But that's a long way away.

Simmons: It's almost like you're deliberately provoking me to spend the next five hours on the Trade Machine. Last point: Even if Granger had slipped a little, the one thing I always liked about him was his toughness. He carried himself like a badass and wasn't afraid to stare down the likes of Garnett, Pierce, LeBron and Wade, or even goad them into one of those annoying, double-technical "somebody hold me back!" fake fights that drive us crazy. Throw in David West (one of the NBA's elite you-don't-mess-with-him-under-any-circumstances guys) and Tyler Hansbrough (nickname: Psycho T) and the Pacers always made you feel like they were ready to battle whomever. Maybe the Pacers can replace most of Granger's numbers, but losing one of their most fearless players is a much tougher haul. They have a different identity than they did six months ago — and not in a good way.

Lowe: The numbers/production decline is a far more serious issue to me than the toughness decline. They'll be tough as long as West is around, and Granger should be back and ready for the playoffs — assuming they get there. But the Pacers rose from "nice little team" to "really intriguing playoff threat" last season when their offense caught up to their defense. Maintaining that balance without Granger is going to be very hard.

Simmons: We can agree on this much — Larry Bird is driving around in some golf cart right now thinking, I picked the right year to retire.


Fourth-and-Short: The Eagles Can't Help Themselves

By: timbersfan, 1:11 AM GMT on November 07, 2012

It's not my goal to talk about the Eagles so frequently here at Grantland, but when they deliver a performance in prime time that is so distinctly, specifically … Eagles (as they did last night), well, I feel like there's just too much to say about them to move onto other topics in Fourth-and-Short. They are car-crash football television, appointment viewing for fans motivated by Schadenfreude, and the ultimate viewing experience for your irritating uncle who watches the game and acts like he's an expert on passing mechanics and decision-making.

While the game felt like a blowout for most of the contest, it essentially came down to one single play, the Patrick Robinson 99-yard pick-six at the end of the first quarter that served as the opening score. I'm fond of referring to those sort of goal-line-to-goal-line pick-sixes as the single worst play in sports, and it's hard to think of a play that impacts scoring (and momentum) more. The pick-six there represents a swing of about 13 points, since a team with the ball on the goal line will score an average of right under six points (mostly touchdowns, with a few field goals and the occasional turnover mixed in), and the pick-six produces seven points for the opposition. You can't simultaneously take away such a meaningful play for your own team and provide such a valuable scoring play for the opposition at the same time in any other sport; it would be like if you struck out with the bases loaded and somehow produced a grand slam for the opposing team in the process. In a game that was decided by a 14-point swing, Michael Vick's pick-six was responsible for virtually the entire margin of victory.

Watch Out for Me, Andy

Another thing that makes the Single Worst Play in Sports so devastating is its relative scarcity. Turnovers in the red zone that produce touchdowns for the defense simply don't happen very frequently. From 2007 to 2011, just 12 of the 214 turnovers (5.6 percent) that came on plays that began inside the opposition's 10-yard line resulted in return touchdowns for the defense. Through the first nine weeks of the 2012 season, there have been 30 such turnovers, and two have been returned for touchdowns. Guess which offense was on the field for both of them? From 2007 to 2011, only one team (the Giants) had more than one turnover inside the opposition's 10-yard line result in a touchdown return the other way; they had three in five years. In 2012, the Eagles have had two of those plays happen across a stretch of six games. That's truly remarkable.

The Cost of Vicking

To be specific, the pick-six in the first quarter on Monday night cost the Eagles 11.8 points. Brian Burke's calculator estimates that a team in Philadelphia's situation at the time of the interception will score an average of 4.8 points on their drive, given the down and distance and game situation. Vick's interception wiped those points off the board and gave the Saints seven free points on the touchdown return, producing that 11.8-point swing.

That got me to thinking: How many points have the Eagles lost on turnovers involving Vick this year? Every team will lose some percentage of their output to takeaways each season, but what would Philadelphia's offense be like if Vick didn't fumble or throw interceptions?

There's never going to be a concrete answer to questions like these, but plugging the respective game-states for each Vick fumble or interception into Burke's calculator, Philadelphia's foregone about 35.2 points of offense by turning the ball over in the situations they have done so, which would be just under 21 percent of their total offensive output for the season if they never turned the ball over. When you add in the 21 points produced by the three return touchdowns (and extra points) created by the defense on those plays, the turnovers have cost Philly 56.1 points on the season. It's enough to turn the Eagles and their NFC-worst minus-50 point differential into a respectable, above-average team.

And even that represents a friendly estimate, since it doesn't include whatever improved field position the Eagles give to their opposition with their turnovers. The Eagles had left their defense with the league's second-worst average starting field position through Week 8, something that is undoubtedly Juan Castillo's fault.

Quick Fix for Six?

In light of Philadelphia's red zone fiascoes against the Saints, I wanted to take a look back and see if there was any sort of trend or tendency — beyond "they're awful" — that I could use to diagnose Philly's issues. So, with the help of the coaches' tape on NFL Game Rewind, I went back and watched every red zone snap the Eagles have taken on offense this season. What I found was disappointing: There's not one clear problem or easy solution from their red zone performance that I can throw out there as an obvious story line. (Here's where I wish I hadn't burned through my "It's Juan Castillo's fault" joke in the previous section.)

My sneaking suspicion was that the Eagles were leaving Vick in an empty backfield too frequently inside the red zone and it was creating problems, but that wasn't the case. Before Monday night, the Eagles had lined up with Vick as the quarterback in an empty set four times inside the red zone, and those four plays had produced two touchdowns with one interception. Vick's certainly been under heavy pressure in the red zone, and it's affected his decision-making while creating both turnovers and narrow escapes of turnovers, but he's been subject to that pressure in all kinds of formations and with six or even seven players in to block.

Take Arizona's strip sack of Vick and return for a touchdown several weeks ago. Watch LeSean McCoy and what he does in pass protection on the play. It's impossible to truly tell what the pass protection should have been on the play without the playbook next to the video, but on coaches' film, it sure looks like the linemen fan right, which would leave McCoy to shoot out left and pick up a blitzer from the left side of the line (right side of the defense). Instead, at the snap, McCoy shoots out to the right, and Kerry Rhodes gets a free hit on Vick's blind side. The play could alternately have been designed for Vick to read (and elude) any pressure from that side, but with Vick not even facing that direction after the snap, it seems unlikely. The Eagles can leave blockers in to protect Vick, but they have to do their job. Demetress Bell's awful performance in the place of an injured Todd Herremans last night is further proof of that.

While plenty of folks seemed to call for the Eagles to lean more heavily on McCoy as a ballcarrier inside the red zone, the truth is that he really hasn't been very effective there this season. How ineffective? McCoy has 17 rushing yards on 16 red zone carries this year, and you don't need me to do the division there to tell you that's bad. He's scored just twice on those 17 touches, which is awful low for a guy who has three touchdowns on his six receptions. He's also fumbled twice in the red zone this year, losing one of them. While you can shake a tree in Philly and find 10 people who will tell you Reid needs to run the ball more, I think Reid's lack of confidence in his offensive line's ability to create any push at the line of scrimmage in short-yardage is reflected in those numbers. The Eagles could and should have found a carry or two for him in the red zone on Monday, but it's not like they were guaranteed to score touchdowns if they were just smart enough to hand him the ball and get out of the way.

If you're looking for hope, there have been two plays that have worked well in the red zone for the Eagles, and I suspect that you'll see them again soon in the coming weeks. One shows up toward the edges of the red zone, and it involves the Eagles running a two-man route with DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin while leaving everyone else in to block as part of a max protect scheme for Vick. It worked for a touchdown against the Browns in Week 1 and then again against the Giants in Week 4. Philadelphia's actually a reasonably effective team within those first 10 yards of the red zone; it's the final 10 yards where they really struggle. Their best play within a few yards of the goal line has come on the rarely seen middle screen, a play-action pass that sees a receiver (in this case, McCoy or a tight end like Clay Harbor) block for a brief moment before turning to the quarterback and taking a short pass with blocking linemen in front of him. It's a dangerous pass, since it travels through traffic by definition, but it can be effective. It's gone for three completions this year, including a touchdown to McCoy against the Falcons.

So then, unfortunately, we're left with a problem that's more complex than simply running the ball more frequently, changing the quarterback, or chalking it all up to bad luck. It's unlikely that the Eagles will commit the Single Worst Play in Sports again this season, but they're also more prone to it than any other team because they get too sloppy in the red zone and don't do a good job of protecting Vick. And even that's just a guess, really. The only thing that's truly clear about the Eagles' red zone problem is that it's costing them football games. Monday night's loss was perhaps the clearest example of that yet.


A Fantasy Star Is Born

By: timbersfan, 8:39 PM GMT on November 05, 2012

Sunday was Rookie Day in the NFL. Week 9 was one of the rare times in league history when a freshman passer and running back each put up the best performances of the day at their respective positions. That might have been among the expectations for Andrew Luck, who had his best game as a pro in Indianapolis's emotional 23-20 win over Miami on Sunday afternoon, but it wasn't likely to be in the cards for the day's most memorable star. Buccaneers running back Doug Martin followed an impressive performance in the national spotlight last Thursday night by putting up one of the best halves by any running back in league history: 17 carries, 220 rushing yards, and four touchdowns would be a great quarter-season for most backs. Martin did that on six possessions.1 Putting his 251-yard game into context tells us a lot about how great Martin just might be.

If you play fantasy football, there is at least one person in your league who is despondent about Doug Martin's big day, since there is either somebody in your league who had to go up against Martin or somebody who left the Bucs star on the bench. It's safe to say that he single-handedly won a few fantasy matchups; it's also safe to say that it was one of the greatest games in fantasy football history. Since the merger, only three running backs have produced more fantasy points (by the traditional scoring system) in one game than Martin's 51.2-point outburst on Monday:

Player Date Rushing Yards Receiving Yards Touchdowns Total FP
Clinton Portis 12/7/03 218 36 5 55.4
Shaun Alexander 9/29/02 139 92 5 53.1
Corey Dillon 12/4/97 246 30 4 51.6
Doug Martin 11/4/12 251 21 4 51.2
Mike Anderson 12/3/00 251 5 4 49.6
The list of accomplishments goes on from there. Martin became the first player in NFL history with three rushing touchdowns of 45 or more yards in a game, had the third-most rushing yards by a rookie running back in a game in league history, and finished up with the 10th-most rushing yards in an NFL game since 1940. Of the nine guys ahead of him on that single-game rushing yardage list, only two (Jerome Harrison and DeMarco Murray, whose career is still ongoing) failed to make it to multiple Pro Bowls or an All-Pro team. There simply aren't many backs who do what Martin did who don't become stars. Martin might already be one.

Even more stunning is the fact that Martin did this without his best offensive linemen. After Pro Bowl guard Davin Joseph went down before the season with a knee injury that will cost him the entire season, fellow Pro Bowler and prize free agent signing Carl Nicks went on injured reserve this week with a season-ending toe injury. Those guys were supposed to be the road-graders, the brutal engulfers who would create lanes for Martin at the line of scrimmage and reward his North-South running style. Instead, Jeremy Zuttah and Jamon Meredith filled in at guard and put together an impressive facsimile of their better-compensated brethren. According to ESPN Stats & Information, 197 of Martin's 251 rushing yards came before contact, the highest total since James Harrison's 235-yard total against the Chiefs several years ago. Oakland's run defense was obviously in shambles during that dramatic second half, but the guys who were moved around or brought off the bench in Tampa deserve a lot of credit for helping Martin get this done.

The obvious comparison for Martin when he entered the draft was Ray Rice, a player with whom he shares a short, muscular body type, an ability to serve as a strong safety valve in the passing game, and the same head coach (Rice played under Greg Schiano at Rutgers). Schiano drafted Martin in the first round with the hopes of developing a Rice-like talent for his pro team. In an offense that's built around two big-play downfield targets in Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams, Martin plays an important role as an underneath receiver and safe checkdown for Josh Freeman, one that didn't exist with LeGarrette Blount in the lineup last season. And while Rice plays that role in Baltimore's offense for Joe Flacco, he didn't get steady time in the starting lineup or produce the way that Martin's produced until his second season with the Ravens. Martin's doing this halfway through his rookie campaign.

Having just finished up his first half-season as a pro, Martin's numbers through his first eight games are staggering: He's run for 794 yards on 154 carries, an average of 5.2 yards per pop, and he's scored seven times. That's the fifth-most yards for any back during the first half of his rookie season since the merger, and the guys ahead of Martin are pretty good: Adrian Peterson (1,036 rushing yards), Eric Dickerson (995), George Rogers (859), and Billy Sims (859). The only backs with 100 carries or more during that first half who averaged more yards per attempt than Martin were Peterson, Don Woods, Barry Sanders, and John Brockington. Some of these figures are inflated by the enormous game, but the last guy to do anything like this as a rookie is Peterson, and he turned out all right.

Martin's breakout game in the afternoon overshadowed what Luck did during the previous slate, but the first overall pick doesn't have many performances to look up toward, either. Luck finished 30-for-48 for a whopping 433 yards, scoring two touchdowns while avoiding turnovers and taking just one sack. It was impeccable, and it came against Miami, who has one of the league's best defenses.

Luck's passing total is a record for quarterbacks playing out their rookie season during the year they were drafted, and if you include "rookies" like Marc Bulger and Jeff Garcia, it's the fourth-largest yardage total for a rookie quarterback since the merger. It wasn't produced in a blowout or in garbage time, either, since the two teams in Indy were never separated by more than one score. The Colts needed Luck to consistently deliver and matriculate the ball down the field, and he responded by picking up 12 of the 16 third downs he attempted to convert on pass plays during the game. That included six third downs with 10 or more yards to go and even a conversion on third-and-20. Since it's impossible to avoid comparing Luck to Peyton Manning, this was the first game in which Luck really had that "He's just going to convert anything he wants and beat the other team" vibe that Peyton often exhibited in Indianapolis.

Although his situation isn't quite as dire as Martin's, Luck's also playing for a team that doesn't offer him much support. Luck does get to play with Reggie Wayne, but Wayne was a washed-up veteran as recently as a year ago; now, Wayne looks like a new man with his real quarterback. Outside of Wayne, the offense is a mix of cast-offs (Donnie Avery, who just got injured on Sunday, Samson Satele, Winston Justice) and young question marks. If Avery and Donald Brown each miss time, the Colts could start five different rookies on offense in their next game. And judging by the play of Luck, T.Y. Hilton, and Vick Ballard, they might not be worse off for it.

Before this week, both Luck and Martin were looking up in the Offensive Rookie of the Year ranks at Robert Griffin III, whose stunning rookie season had produced more highlights, better statistics, and a roughly similar record. The obvious inclination is to give the quarterback the award, regardless of how good Martin's been, but the Bucs back is second in the league in both rushing yardage and touchdowns. Griffin is eighth in yards per attempt and eighth in completion percentage, while Luck is 19th in the former category and a disappointing 29th in the latter. Luck, though, has the most notable wins on his résumé, and while quarterback wins are an overrated statistic, there's a lot to be said about leading a team as filled with misfits as the Colts are. To me, after eight games, it's just about a dead heat for OROY, with a slight lean to RG3. I'm excited to see who pulls away from the pack in the second half.

Don't Teach Me How to Elway

When Robert Griffin III was concussed on a hit near the sidelines several weeks ago, I wrote that the criticism that surrounded Griffin for not going out of bounds was mostly post hoc arguments surrounding the fact that Griffin got injured, not that he put himself in danger. I noted that Sam Bradford and Andrew Luck had each leaped headfirst to pick up a first down on the same day without being criticized for not sliding, almost exclusively because they weren't injured on the play. And I also pointed out that the narrative surrounding the concussion — that Griffin had somehow learned his lesson and wouldn't put his body at such risk again — was absurd and predicated upon the false notion that he had made it this far without having to make smart decisions about protecting himself as a runner.

I'm not saying all this to toot my own horn. (I think San Francisco stomped on my horn at some point this year.) But I am bringing this all up again because Sunday's Redskins game provided a perfect example of how the arguments surrounding Griffin were inane and solely based upon his injury as opposed to his decision.

On the play in question, Griffin sells out his body on a fourth-and-4 scramble and goes Full Elway, leaping into the air to ensure that he gets the yards he needs for a first down. It's a truly fearless move from the game's most entertaining player, putting himself on the line to try to get his team a new set of downs. It's also a really, really stupid thing to do.

Daryl Johnston describes the play as representing Washington's "whole season" and as the biggest play in the game so far. At the time, the 3-5 Redskins were trailing 21-6 to the Panthers with 3:19 left in the fourth quarter. Griffin's brave run improved Washington's chances of winning from about 3 percent to 5 percent. It was Washington's last prayer at having any hope of working a chance to get one shot to possibly win the game. You don't need a win probability chart to know that a 3-5 team trailing by 15 points at home to a 1-6 team with three minutes left to go isn't winning the game, let alone possessing any prayer of making the playoffs. It was a garbage-time play, not the last stand of some proud football team.

It's hard to take fault with Griffin's competitive spirit and his decision to try to sell out for the first down, but watch the play again. Griffin very well might get the first down by sliding, let alone by staying on his feet. Instead, in the heat of the moment, he launches himself forward, headfirst, and gets spun around in mid-air without having any control over his body. It's a small miracle that one of the Panthers surrounding him didn't make helmet-to-helmet contact with him, even by accident. Isn't this the exact sort of poor decision that Griffin was supposed to have learned from after the concussion several weeks ago? Elway's leap wasn't the smartest decision he's ever made in terms of his long-term health, but he was at the end of his career and it was in the Super Bowl. Griffin's dive was during his rookie season in front of a half-empty stadium. In fact, considering that the concussion in the Falcons game came in a close contest on a play where he merely slipped on the sidelines and exposed himself to a head shot, this was a far worse conscious decision.

I'm extremely happy that Griffin — whom I love to watch and want to see play 20 years in the league — didn't get hurt. But, just for a moment, let's pretend that he ended up colliding with a Panthers helmet on that dive and suffered his second concussion. There would be an enormous outcry from the media and from fans that RG3 simply wasn't a smart player. That he got hurt at the end of a blowout trying to extend a meaningless game. That he was going to end up damaged goods if he didn't wise up and start protecting himself. It's an argument that recognizes the bad outcome (the concussion) to beat Griffin up over the poor process (leaving himself exposed to a hit). On Sunday, Griffin's process was far worse and in a far less meaningful situation, but because his outcome turned out OK, nobody said a bad word about it. In fact, it received high praise from a commentator who had his own career cut short by a neck injury. If that doesn't say everything about how backward the NFL's concussion and player health narratives are, what does?

Let's Fix Fantasy Defenses

I know that fantasy football isn't exactly built around the idea of being equitable, or fair, or even vaguely representing the real game of football that's occurring on the field,2 but I have a simple proposal to make the fantasy football defense slightly more realistic and meaningful while actually making fantasy football more fun in the process.

First, I propose that we collectively decide to stop counting touchdowns scored by the other team's defense as points on the record of our team defense. The poor Titans had a rough day yesterday, and as bad as they were, the Tennessee defense didn't deserve to have 14 points added to their ledger from a Chicago blocked punt and interception returned for a touchdown. It wasn't their fault that Brian Urlacher was able to run the 46-yard dash in 11.4 seconds without being tackled. You're starting the Tennessee defense, not the number next to Tennessee's opposition on the scoreboard. To counteract the point inflation from lower scoring totals, defenses should incur larger fantasy point penalties for giving up points on the field.

That's the thing to take away. I want to add something, though, that has been horribly overlooked in most fantasy football leagues.3 Why do defenses not get credit for a fourth-down stop of the opposing offense? Outside of the turnover, it's the most impressive thing a defense can do, and it's far more meaningful than a mere sack. I think you can safely add the fourth-down stop as a 1.5-point play for fantasy defenses. If you want to adjust it for context, make it a two-point play if it's a fourth-down stop in the red zone or a one-point play if it occurs outside of the red zone.

I have long advocated that there should be a fantasy football board of executives that serve as the unified rulemakers and official liaisons to the pros. When there's a catcher-eligible player who is one start away from qualifying at backstop in most fantasy leagues, why aren't we sending Matthew Berry to that city to hassle the manager into starting that guy one more time at catcher? Shouldn't there be a general fund used to lobby NFL coaches into avoiding running backs by committee? And to whom can I appeal with my fantasy defense changes and actually have something happen? All of our lives would be better with this board.

Thank You for Not Coaching

Sunday delivered swift justice for those coaches who are inclined to use their ultra-valuable, potentially game-changing challenges to pick up the tiniest of gains. In each case, the coach used his challenge to pick up a relatively meaningless bit of yardage in the middle of a game and promptly had whatever gains made on the challenge disappear within a play or two.

Two of these challenges popped up in the Arizona–Green Bay game. First, in the opening quarter, Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt challenged a would-be catch by Jordy Nelson (who was injured on the play) on second-and-goal from the 8 that would have given the Packers third-and-goal on the 3-yard line. That might mean something if you were playing the Jaguars, but these are the Packers, who have the best quarterback in football and the worst running attack in the game to go with it. The five-yard difference between third-and-goal situations here is minuscule. When the play was overturned, the Packers committed a false start and subsequently scored on third-and-goal from the 13-yard line. Because, you know, they're the Packers.

The Packers returned the favor two quarters later. When LaRod Stephens-Howling picked up five yards on a second-and-10 carry, it set the Cardinals up with third-and-5 on the Packers' 31-yard line. Because LSH appeared to fall down at the line of scrimmage, though, Mike McCarthy decided to throw his challenge flag and try to regain those five yards. Unlike Arizona's challenge, which was on a more obvious drop, McCarthy's challenge was speculative and turned out to be a failure; the five yards were upheld. And on the very next play, John Skelton hit Larry Fitzgerald up the middle for a 31-yard catch-and-run into the end zone.

Meanwhile, in the Pittsburgh–New York game, frequent challenger Mike Tomlin saw fit to use his first challenge with six minutes left in the third quarter, when a questionable spot on a Victor Cruz reception gave the Giants first-and-10 on the Pittsburgh 23-yard line. Spot challenges are notoriously iffy propositions, but this one worked out for the Steelers, who picked up a half-yard and turned the reception into third-and-1 from the 24. As Phil Simms mumbled something about Tomlin using his gut to make challenges and how it usually works, the Giants lined up on third down and ran for eight yards, totally nullifying the gains made by the challenge.

Of the three, Tomlin's challenge was the least questionable; it came halfway through the third quarter, it was his first challenge, and it could have dramatically changed the way the drive played out with a (unlikely) stop. On the other hand, of these three coaches, Tomlin was also the one who should know better. When I hear from people that the high-reward challenge strategy I advocate doesn't rear its head in real life, the example I invariably think of relates to Tomlin and his challenge usage in the 2010 playoff game between the Steelers and Ravens.

In that game, Tomlin successfully challenged a down-by-contact ruling on the opening kickoff, producing a 14-yard swing that moved the ball from the Baltimore 49-yard line to the Baltimore 35-yard line. With a full game to go and the ball still on Baltimore's side of the field, Tomlin's challenge couldn't have shifted Pittsburgh's win probability by more than 1 percent. For whatever arguments you make about field position and momentum, 14 yards on the opening kickoff meant absolutely nothing in the context of the game. And when the Steelers had to desperately challenge a Cory Redding fumble recovery at the end of the first quarter and their appeal was denied, they were promptly out of challenges for the final 42 challengeable minutes of the game.

Nowadays, of course, the Steelers wouldn't have had to challenge that Redding fumble recovery for a touchdown because both turnovers and touchdowns are automatically reviewed, and that does decrease the likelihood of needing three challenges in a game. However, teams still find themselves regularly needing to challenge would-be turnovers and touchdowns that aren't ruled as such on the field; before the refs changed the call pre-challenge in Carolina-Washington, the DeAngelo Williams touchdown run on Sunday would be a perfect example of such a call. And there's also the possibility that teams will be more hesitant to throw the flag on a borderline second challenge out of fear of losing that challenge possibility; the Packers had at least one questionable post–third down spot inside Cardinals territory in the second half at which Ken Whisenhunt could have thrown a challenge flag, but it was one that would have cost him his final appeal. Even though those are relatively slim possibilities, they're more meaningful than shifting your win probability by 2 percent or less with three quarters to go. Save yourself for big plays, coaches. You're worth it.

Tomlin took a lot of flak for his4 decision-making inside the red zone in the second half, but I think the worst decisions he made were the ones that nobody will remember by the end of the week. The most notable call was the fake field goal the Steelers ran on fourth-and-1 from the 3-yard line, down three points with just under 11 minutes to go in the fourth quarter. It's a play where the case for kicking is actually pretty compelling; Brian Burke's calculator suggests that the Steelers needed to convert 46 percent of the time to justify going for it, which isn't a guarantee considering how bad the Pittsburgh OL is. The difference between the two options is within the margin of error for me, but the choice to kick a fake field goal was just weird. Did the Steelers see something in New York's kick coverage that would suggest that they weren't going to fall for a fake? Were the Giants likely to sell out to block a chip shot? Absolutely not. The Steelers have Ben Roethlisberger, who is 7-for-8 on fourth-and-1 (and 16-for-18 if we include third-and-1) over the past three years on sneaks. If the Steelers really wanted to go for it, they should have just gone for it with their best option as opposed to whatever that fake field goal play was.

Once the Steelers got the ball back, the previously aggressive Tomlin made a bafflingly conservative call. On third-and-7 from the Giants' 14-yard line, with the same three-point deficit and 5:26 to go, the Steelers called a draw play for Isaac Redman to set up a short, game-tying field goal attempt. The Steelers were ready to settle for three and turn the ball over to Eli Manning (whom the Steelers had admittedly been very impressive in stopping for most of the day) with just under five minutes to go in a tie game. Instead, they got lucky when Giants lineman Jayron Hosley jumped offsides at the snap, giving them a third-and-2 that they converted and eventually turned into a game-winning touchdown. I can understand that decision if you don't trust your quarterback, but Roethlisberger had completed his last six passes and undoubtedly knew the game situation. A touchdown and a four-point lead there is enormous, especially considering how well the Steelers had shut down Manning throughout the game. While you undoubtedly kick the field goal on fourth down if you come up short, passing on a chance to score a touchdown was a disappointing decision and one that the Steelers were lucky to be bailed out of.

Of course, we also have to discuss the decisions made by our TYFNC favorites. In the spirit of noting inane decisions that were quickly given their just deserts, let's start with Ron Rivera. In the third quarter of a 14-6 game, Rivera's Panthers team was actually stuffed for no gain on a third-and-1 handoff to Mike Tolbert on their own 46-yard line, setting up fourth-and-1. Despite the fact that they have Cam Newton, who would finish Sunday 14-for-18 converting on third or fourth down with two yards or less to go, Rivera decided to play it conservative and bring out rookie punter Brad Nortman. Nortman promptly booted the ball all of 14 yards. You can't say that Rivera should have known that Nortman would shank his punt, but even an average punt from Nortman isn't going to be successful enough to justify passing on a chance to get the yard with Newton. At the very least, the Panthers should have thrown Newton out on the field and tried to get the Redskins to jump offsides, a play with all upside and no downside in that area of the field.

And finally, let's finish up with TYFNC Hall of Fame candidate Pat Shurmur, who probably deserves his own section at this point.5 Shurmur's Browns put in a credible performance against the Ravens on Sunday, losing 25-15 when they settled for five field goals from Phil Dawson. For some reason, despite the fact that the organization just spent a top-five draft pick on a running back, Shurmur got incredibly pass-happy on short yardage on Sunday. How happy? The Browns faced third or fourth down with four or less yards to go nine different times on Sunday. Shurmur called a pass play each time.6 They produced four conversions and an interception. There's nothing wrong with throwing the ball in short yardage if you think it's what your team does best, but doesn't it make sense to run the ball with your best player at least once or twice in those situations? Maybe Shurmur thinks Dawson's the organization's best player and that he was putting the ball in that guy's hands. Given how bad the Browns are these days, he might even be right.


NFL Halftime Report: The Numbers Game

By: timbersfan, 12:23 AM GMT on November 03, 2012

With most teams about to get their eighth game in the books this upcoming weekend, we're getting to the point where we can begin to get an idea of how randomness is affecting the NFL. In some cases, it's because teams have done so well in a small sample size that it will be impossible for them to keep that rate up over a bigger one; in others, it's because we're beginning to build a large enough sample that we can get a grasp on what's real and what's not. Eight games might not sound like a lot, but that's right around 100 possessions and 500 plays from scrimmage on either side of the ball for most teams.

Of course, we can use that information about randomness to get some insight into whether certain teams have been "luckier" than others over the first half of the season. Luck is a tricky word in terms of football, and it has to be taken with a grain of salt. Take fumble luck, for example. Fumble luck is the idea that no team in the league recovers a particularly high or low percentage of the fumbles in their games, year after year. There may be years when a team like the 2009 Jets recovers 70 percent of its fumbles, and it might even repeat that number the next season (as the Jets did in 2010), but that recovery rate won't stick around for half a decade or anywhere close. A team like the Bears is likely to recover a lot of fumbles, year after year, because they force a lot of fumbles, and forcing fumbles is a far more consistent skill. (Just ask Charles Tillman.) They won't recover a disproportionately high percentage of those fumbles, though.

It's also important (if admittedly tedious for the regulars) that the idea of some player or team benefitting from randomness in a certain sample doesn't mean that the team is going to suffer from bad luck in that same category in the near future! If the Jets recover 70 percent of the fumbles in their games in a given year, it doesn't mean that they should expect to recover some really low percentage of their fumbles in the following season. That's the gambler's fallacy, the idea that a team is "due" for good luck or bad luck. The truth is that the Jets aren't any more likely to recover 70 percent of their fumbles in a given season than they are 30 percent, or any more likely to recover 60 percent of the fumbles than 40. Over a long enough time frame, we would expect to see the Jets recover just about 50 percent of the fumbles in their games. That's the concept of regression to the mean.

So, with those cautionary points ringing in your ears, let's take a look at how the league has been affected by randomness during the first half of the NFL season. And since it just came up, let's start with that wonderfully meaningful bit of fumble luck.

Fumbles Will Happen

The patron saints for the meaningfulness of the fumble are this year's Washington Redskins. As I wrote about after their loss to the Giants, they've lived and died by fumble recoveries this year, and the same accidental tactical weapon that helped produce victories for them earlier in the season came back to bite them in their narrow defeat by Big Blue. Even after that Giants game, in which they fumbled six times while recovering a universe-abiding three, the Redskins still lead the league in fumble recovery rate. They've picked up 16 of the 22 fumbles that have hit the ground in their games, producing a 72.7 percent recovery rate that leaves them as the only team in the league over 70 percent.

Just behind them are the Rams, who have picked up nine of a league-low 13 fumbles in their games this season. That figure comes about as a result of the defense, which has just two forced fumbles all season despite an above-average sack rate. The league average is 9.8, and nobody else in football has fewer than six. I did mention earlier that forcing fumbles is a skill, but even skills are subject to some randomness; merely by virtue of a helmet being in the right spot or a punt returner dropping a ball, the Rams simply have to have more fumbles in their games over the second half of the season. The team with the most fumble-happy games, San Diego, has recovered 14 of the 28 free balls in their games. That's exactly half.

The unluckiest team in the league is one you'll see come up once or twice in this column as a team of extremes. The Broncos saw their luck seemingly bounce back in the second half of their game versus the Chargers, but they still rate out as the most fumble-unlucky team in the league, having recovered just five of the 22 pigskins up for grabs in their games (22.7 percent).

Behind them are the Chiefs (26.1 percent) and then the Dolphins (27.3 percent), who are an interesting case in terms of this sort of analysis. When I wrote about the Dolphins as a possible sleeper team before the season, I mentioned that the Miami defense had recovered just one of the 12 fumbles that had occurred in their games during the previous season, which was probably the lowest total for a team defense in NFL history. The Dolphins aren't much better this year, but they absolutely have improved: Miami's defense has forced 12 fumbles in seven games this year as opposed to 16 all of last season, and while they've only recovered three, 25 percent is better than 8.3 percent!

Strength of Schedule

If you're a Cowboys fan who feels like your team deserves a break, well, here's some good news. Through the first eight weeks of the season, according to Football Outsiders, no team in the league has played a harder schedule than the Cowboys. When Dallas's opponents have played teams besides the Cowboys, they've gone a collective 21-16, which is roughly the equivalent of Dallas going up against a 10-6 team, on average, each week. That's not fair, and with the 7-0 Falcons up next for the Cowboys, that figure is only going to look worse. The good news, though, is that they play the league's sixth-easiest schedule over the second half of the season! That will be even easier once the Cowboys get past their tough matchup with Atlanta.

Another team with a notable strength-of-schedule split are those pesky Broncos, who had the league's toughest projected schedule heading into the season. After going up against the league's seventh-most-difficult schedule through this past week, no team in the league has an easier slate over the final nine weeks than Peyton Manning's boys. They still have two games left against the Chiefs to go along with matchups versus the Panthers, Browns, and Raiders. That's a lot more fun than playing the Texans and Falcons. The Jets (fourth through today, 29th afterward) are the third team in this group.

The life-isn't-fair award belongs to the Rams, who don't seem to get any letup. After playing the toughest schedule in the league last year, they've faced the second-most-difficult schedule in the league through seven weeks. After this point, they'll face the fifth-most-difficult schedule in the league. The Cardinals are in a similar boat, having played the fifth-most-difficult slate, and are about to play the second-toughest schedule over the rest of the year.

On the flip side, it's good to be a Steelers fan. Pittsburgh's schedule has been the seventh easiest in the league so far this season, and after today, Football Outsiders projects it to be the third easiest over the remaining nine weeks. That's not bad at all. If Pittsburgh's too cold for you, you might also consider cheering for the more temperate slate enjoyed by the Chargers, who have faced the third-friendliest schedule in football so far and will finish with the eighth-easiest grouping.

If you're looking for a sign of impending danger, the NFC North is the place to be. While the Packers and Lions don't have dramatic shifts about to pop up in their schedule, the rest of the division isn't quite as lucky. This one's simple enough: The Vikings have had the league's easiest schedule through eight weeks, but they're projected to have the NFL's most difficult remaining slate over the final nine weeks of the year. The first half's surprise contender still has to play Green Bay and Chicago twice each, and those games go along with contests versus the Seahawks and Texans. The Bears' schedule isn't much more fun, as it goes from 28th in the league to fourth.

Record in Close Games

Those Vikings saw their season collapse by midseason last year, thanks to a 2-6 start that included a 1-5 record in games decided by one touchdown or less. Minnesota finished 2-9 in those seven-point games, a traditionally strong indicator that an improved win-loss record will come in the following season. Sure enough, the Vikings are off to a 5-3 start this year, one that includes a 3-1 record in games decided by one score or less. This is where we cut to Christian Ponder saying "This stuff really works!"

Of course, the difference between average (2-2) and lucky (3-1) is one win, so it's not very fair to say that a team like the Vikings has been lucky to do so well in close games this year. But it might be fair to start thinking that about the Falcons, who have gone 4-0 in one-score games, including a three-week stretch that included wins by a combined 12 points over the Panthers, Redskins, and Raiders.

On the other extreme are those Panthers, who deserve a little bit of luck one of these days. National fans might remember the blowout by the Giants from Thursday night and presume that the Panthers are just worst-team-in-the-league candidates, but the 1-6 Panthers haven't had an embarrassing blowout loss besides that one. Their five other games have all come down to one-score totals, and Carolina has lost each of them.

Defensive Touchdowns

A team that forces a lot of turnovers is more likely to create a scoring opportunity than one that doesn't, but that's not enough to explain how ridiculous the Bears have been this season. Through their first seven games, the Chicago defense has scored six touchdowns. That's 36 points! Lance Briggs has more touchdowns than Calvin Johnson! To put that in perspective, the highest-scoring defense in recent memory was the 2010 Cardinals, and they finished the season with 48 points (eight touchdowns). In 2009 and 2011, those same Cardinals combined for a total of two defensive touchdowns, which should tell you all you need to know about how random this is. The Bears have averaged three defensive scores per year under Lovie Smith, never finishing with more than six, but they're currently on pace to hit 18. Needless to say, this is unprecedented and sure to slow down over the final nine games.

Because the Bears have only had one touchdown scored on them by opposing defenses, they have a plus-30 margin in terms of defensive scoring, which is the best rate in the league. Just behind them are the Texans, who have four touchdowns scored on them without allowing one so far this year, for a margin of plus-24. The only other teams in double digits on the positive side of the ledger are the Redskins (plus-18) and Broncos (plus-12).

The unlucky team on the other side of the coin? Why, that's our old embattled friends the Dallas Cowboys. The revamped defense in Texas has not scored a defensive touchdown yet this year, but Jason Pierre-Paul's pick-six on Sunday marked the fourth touchdown a defense has scored against the Cowboys this season. That leaves the Cowboys alone at the bottom of the table, floundering at minus-24, just ahead of the Bengals and Jaguars at minus-18. The Titans, Eagles, and Lions are at minus-12.

Field Goals Against

Finally, let's finish up with the most nonsensical skill of all. Outside of their ability to block kicks and the weather patterns of the city in which they play, teams have no ability to prevent opposing kickers from hitting or missing field goals. It's totally random. Last year, the Eagles had the "best" field goal defense in the league, allowing only 16 of 24 kicks (66.7 percent) to go through the uprights, while the Jets — in the same area of the country — were subject to 29 of 30 field goals (96.7 percent) turning into successes. So far this year, the Jets have "allowed" only 17 of the 21 field goals against them to go through, an 81.0 percent clip that's below the league average of 87.9 percent. The Eagles? Teams are 19-for-20 against them. That's 95 percent. Honestly, there's no skill with this stuff.

So who's been unlucky this year? Well, there are eight teams that haven't seen a single kick missed against them this year, ranging from the Redskins (with 17 field goals attempted and converted against them) to the Chargers (who have held teams to only four attempts). In between there are the Seahawks, Cowboys, Steelers, Patriots, Broncos, and Texans.

Teams having a more enjoyable experience when opposing kickers line up? They start in the AFC East, where the Dolphins have induced six misses on 20 attempts for a 70 percent conversion rate. Just behind them are the Bills, against whom opposing kickers are 8-for-11, which is 72.7 percent. The only other team with five misses or more against them are the fifth-place Lions, who have successfully faded five of the 21 kicks against them.


NFL Second-Half Predictions

By: timbersfan, 12:22 AM GMT on November 03, 2012

It's time to look forward toward the second half of the NFL season and attempt to figure out what will occur over the final few months of the 2012 campaign. That means bad predictions. It means bringing up naive-yet-logical ideas that will never actually happen. And it means picking the wrong long shot to come through. That is just part and parcel of any mid-season review. This one is no exception.

The truth about the midway point of a season is that we think we know more about the NFL than we actually do. Eight games might be 100 possessions or 500 plays, like I suggested yesterday, but I also pointed out in that article that randomness has played a huge role in helping define what we "know" about these teams through eight games. Would the Broncos be 7-1 if they had recovered the league's highest percentage of available fumbles as opposed to the league's lowest? Would Marty Hurney still have a job if the Panthers had enjoyed much better luck in close games? Remember: At the halfway point last year, the Bills were up two games on the Broncos in the AFC, the Buccaneers were a .500 team, and Victor Cruz was still coming off the bench for the Giants. A lot can change in the course of a half-season.

Our predictions for the second half, though, start with a team currently playing at a high level remaining at that level for the rest of the year:

Five NFL Predictions for the Second Half

1. The Texans finish with the best record in football. If I have to pick a win total, I'll go with 13, but I expect the 6-1 Texans to finish with the league's best record by the time the regular season is over. Houston finishes the first half of the season with the best point differential in the league, even while giving up a game played to teams who haven't yet had a bye. Their schedule over the second half isn't particularly challenging, as they still have four games to come against their own division, plus matchups with the Bills and Lions (albeit with trips to Chicago and New England in store). Houston's good at everything and, outside of one bad performance against the Packers, has consistently looked as good as anyone else in football. One thing they might want to watch out for, though …

2. Arian Foster will go over 370 carries. The "Curse of 370" is a controversial argument in football nerd circles. It theorizes that a running back who gets 370 carries or more in a given season is significantly more likely to break down with an injury or suffer a dramatic decline in performance during the subsequent season than one whose workload is better managed. Others accuse it of being arbitrarily defined and mathematically unsound. Does this sound like an exciting debate to you? It does to me, so I'll tell you what I think: There's nothing meaningful about the 370th carry that turns some muscle into jelly months down the road like the Dim Mak death punch, but there's also no reason to give a running back an excessive number of carries in 2012. That seems reasonable, right?

Arian Foster, though, is on pace to break 370. If he maintains his current workload, he'll hit 384 carries, which will place him just above the threshold and make him a qualifier for the vaunted curse. With backup Ben Tate struggling with a nagging hamstring injury and third-stringer Justin Forsett new to the backfield, the Texans have been comfortable leaning on Foster, week after week, with an unprecedented workload. Perhaps owing to a combination of the workload and the offseason changes made to his offensive line, Foster's been far less efficient this year;1 after averaging 4.7 yards per carry over his first three seasons in the league, he's down to a rushing average of 3.9 yards this year.

Regardless of whether you believe in the Curse of 370, it's clear that the Texans could find some space to give Foster a breather and get much-needed reps for another back. Take one obvious split as an example. When the Texans have been up 14 points or more in the fourth quarter this season, Foster's carried the ball 27 times. That's one-sixth of his workload, coming in situations in which the Texans have basically already sealed the game. He's not doing much with those carries beyond running into the line, either, as he's averaging a mere 3.1 yards per attempt on those carries. If the Texans merely hand those duties off to Forsett or a returning Tate, they'll save valuable wear and tear on a player who just entered the first year of his contract extension with the team. They might even avoid cursing him in the process. Given Tate's injury and Houston's indifference toward the situation, I think Foster hits 370.

3. The Falcons will finish with the top seed in the NFC. Predicting the team with the best record in each conference to stay atop the conference over the second half! How risky! Even though I think the Falcons are a tad overrated, I think their second-half schedule should be friendly enough to keep them atop the NFC for the remainder of the regular season. The Falcons have four games left against the NFC South, which doesn't look quite as tough as it did before the season. The key matchup for the NFC crown will be in Week 15, when the Falcons match up against the Giants, and I favor the Falcons because they'll be playing that game in the Georgia Dome.

4. Matt Ryan will win league MVP. I'm happy to say that I was on this one before the season, but I think Ryan wins this because he's the best candidate in a down year for the MVP award. Who else is a really viable option? The Texans might end up being the league's best team, but neither Foster nor Matt Schaub has been productive enough to get the award, and the voters aren't smart enough to give it to J.J. Watt. Aaron Rodgers is coming on strong, but MVP voters (regardless of the sport) always have a bias toward giving the award to somebody new as opposed to a repeat winner, especially one who would be holding the title for consecutive years. Does Peyton Manning get the sentimental vote if the Broncos win the AFC West at 10-6? Could Eli figure into the discussion if the Giants end up with the best record in the NFC? Will RG3 receive a vote? (Yes.) All things considered, Ryan is the best candidate available as of right now. If the season ended today, I think he'd win. And unless somebody really separates from the pack before the season ends, I still think he ends up as the guy.

5. The league's awful teams play hard because nobody really wants the first overall pick. Although it isn't the salary cap-destroying Winner's Curse that it was before the CBA renegotiations, the first overall pick might be more of a hassle than it's worth this year. With expected no. 1 pick Matt Barkley struggling at USC, teams will have to decide between taking a risk on Geno Smith or selecting one of the many defensive linemen in contention for the top spot. Last year, the draft had two clear stars and then a huge dropoff in value before the third pick. This year, the first overall pick might not be worth much more than the sixth or seventh pick, and those selections come without the franchise- and career-defining stigma that comes with the first overall pick.2

Interestingly enough, several of the teams in contention for the first overall pick really don't need a quarterback. The 1-6 Panthers aren't about to get rid of Cam Newton, and the 2-6 Browns have probably seen enough out of Brandon Weeden this year to give him another shot under new management in 2013. The 1-6 Jaguars could even consider giving Blaine Gabbert one more year to work his problems out, leaving the 1-7 Chiefs as the only team at the bottom of the league really looking for a quarterback. Everyone I just mentioned besides the Chiefs is also in desperate need of a pass rusher, so it might actually benefit those other teams to stay put and go after the best rusher available when they show up on draft day.

Is there really evidence that teams gave up last season? It's awful flimsy, but let's work with this: Teams who were underdogs of 10 points or more in Vegas last year after Week 11 won just one of the 17 games they played, a winning percentage of just .059. Over the previous two years, they were 7-29, winning three times as frequently. On the other hand, they went 1-13 in 2008 in advance of the 2009 NFL Draft, which wasn't notable in the same way that the Luck/RG3 spectacle was.

Coming Up From There

Since the league adopted its current alignment in 2002, 25 teams who were .500 or worse through their first eight games have made the playoffs. Twenty-two of those teams were 4-4, while the final three were 3-5. One of those teams was the 2011 Broncos, who were part of an atypical season last year; by the time the midway point rolled around, we basically had a good idea of who was heading to the playoffs. The other 11 playoff teams were all 5-3 or better at the halfway point last year, so the teams who were good mostly stayed that way. That may not be the case this season.

Obviously, since most teams are about to play their eighth game this upcoming weekend, we're not entirely sure which teams will qualify as possible dark horses, but it's safe to say that the league's also-rans are going to want to hit .500 by Monday night if they want to have a serious hope of making it to the dance. That means that last night's victory by the Chargers basically qualified as the first of several must-win games we'll see this weekend, and the list of teams who will need to join them with victories to bounce up to 4-4 is a mix of similarly flawed franchises: Buffalo, Cincinnati, Oakland, Philadelphia, Dallas, and Tampa Bay. Along with whichever 4-3 teams (Dolphins, Steelers, Colts, Broncos) lose this weekend and the Cardinals and Seahawks, who are already 4-4, we're looking at a group of about 12 teams competing for two or three playoff spots.

One thing that is true: Your alignment helps your chances of making the playoffs a lot. At the moment, there are six five-win teams in the NFC and just three of them in the AFC. A 4-4 team like the Chargers still has a reasonable shot at winning its division, let alone procuring a wild-card spot, which is something that should only take nine wins in the AFC. Depending on this weekend's results, the Chargers could actually be in a wild-card berth by the time Week 9 shakes out. Compare that to the 3-4 Eagles, who would still be 1.5 games back behind the Giants with a win (and Giants loss) this weekend, as well as a game behind the Vikings and Packers for a wild-card berth. Their path to the playoffs is simply tougher.

Which of them will make it? Good question. If we assume that a team has to be 4-4 to have a shot at getting in, there's an eliminator game this week between Tampa Bay and Oakland, each of whom are 3-4. The winner of Miami-Indianapolis will be 5-3 and actually be extremely well positioned for a wild-card spot. Since 2002, teams that started 5-3 have made the playoffs 59 percent of the time. I think that the Bucs and Colts win those games, so that knocks out the Raiders and pushes the Colts away from our .500 baseline. And Dallas and Buffalo, each 3-4, have to win on the road at Atlanta and Houston, respectively — a tall order.

As I mentioned earlier, the winner of Indianapolis-Miami is likely to make the playoffs. They'll take up one wild-card spot in the AFC. That leaves Cincinnati-Denver as a very important game this weekend; if Denver wins on the road, they go up one game in the division (with the tie-breaker over the Chargers) and start positioning themselves as the class of the AFC West, all while basically knocking the now-3-5 Bengals out of the race. If the Buccaneers do beat the Raiders, and the Steelers fail to come up with a victory over the Giants, that would leave Pittsburgh, San Diego, and the loser of the Indy-Miami game competing for the final wild-card spot.

In the NFC, the path to contention for those 4-4 teams is much tougher. It seems likely that the Giants, Falcons, and 49ers will each win their divisions, and while one of the Bears, Packers, and Vikings will win the NFC North, the second-place team in that division is a favorite to take a wild-card berth home. Of the three, Minnesota seems likeliest to drop out of the hunt: They have the league's toughest schedule from here on out, including all four games to go against the Bears and Packers and road tilts at Seattle and Houston.

If you assume that the NFC North takes two spots, you end up with an ugly crew of teams competing for the sixth wild-card berth. Arizona's out for me, thanks to my belief that their 4-0 start was predicated upon some incredible luck in close games, as well as an extremely tough schedule over the second half of the year. The Lions could sneak in, but they're not the same team without Louis Delmas, who's hurt yet again and seemingly not getting any healthier. The Buccaneers would basically be eliminated with a loss in Oakland this weekend, and it seems foolhardy to believe in either the Cowboys or Eagles (although I'd prefer the Cowboys and their friendly upcoming schedule, if given a choice of the two).

That leaves the Seahawks, who feel like the average team that can sneak into the playoffs almost by default. Their schedule going forward is actually pretty friendly, especially considering the fact that they get to play five of their eight remaining games at home, including three games against their NFC West brethren. Their three road games include trips to Buffalo and Miami, which aren't exactly the most fearsome locations in the league. Barring some miraculous run by the Cowboys or Bucs, Seattle feels like it'll be the "surprise" average team to come out of the NFC.

One Crazy Idea

For the first time during the Rex Ryan era, the Jets are essentially out of playoff contention halfway through the season. At 3-5, their best hope for contention revolves around an easy schedule, as Gang Green still has to play the Rams, Cardinals, Jaguars, Titans, and Bills in the second half. Football Outsiders has the Jets' chances of making the dance at 11.5 percent, and even that doesn't do a great job of accounting for the injuries that have taken Santonio Holmes and Darrelle Revis off the roster for the remainder of the season.

With that in mind, though, an idea occurred to me shortly after the Revis injury. Before Revis tore his ACL, he had made noise about wanting a new contract, an option that the Jets refused to consider after acquiescing to his demands in September of 2010 and giving him a four-year deal. Now the Jets look smart for having passed on the renegotiations, but what if they saw the Revis injury as an opportunity as opposed to a setback? What if they gave Revis a contract extension now?

Why on earth would you give a guy with a torn ACL a multi-year contract extension with what will undoubtedly be an enormous guarantee? Well, there are a lot of reasons. For one, you're going to get a significant discount. Any deal the Jets signed with a healthy Revis would have likely made him the highest-paid cornerback in NFL history, a contract that the perpetually capped-out Jets would have found difficult to swallow. By signing Revis this winter, they'll be able to cut millions of dollars off of both his signing bonus and future salaries, saving the team valuable cap space. They will begin to experience the effects of the cap hit from the new contract earlier, which will help them build a more competitive team when Revis is back and closer to 100 percent. They'll be signing Revis at 27 as opposed to 29, which means they're more likely to pay for prime seasons of his career. And if they go through with a deal now, when Revis's leverage is virtually nil, they'll endear themselves to the organization's best player (and his agent) in a way that should end any further discussion of future holdouts.

The downside is obvious: You pay for something resembling Darrelle Revis and you end up giving big bucks to a guy with a bum knee. It's a legitimate risk, but Revis's injury was merely an ACL tear as opposed to the sort of multi-ligament injury suffered by Adrian Peterson this past year. Rehabbing those sorts of injuries is relatively straightforward, and barring some unforeseen complication, Revis should be able to return as virtually the same player he was before the injury.

In addition to the advantages mentioned above, it shouldn't be difficult for the Jets to insert some sort of bonus structure into the deal that would allow them to escape after two years without affecting their cap or paying Revis an inordinate sum. Mark Sanchez's contract extension from before this season has a similar structure, one in which the Jets turned a bonus and possible salaries into guarantees over the next two seasons, but one in which he can be released after the 2013 season without costing the team a penny more. A Revis deal would likely have such an out after the 2014 campaign, by which point the Jets will know whether Revis is back to his old form or not.

For a variety of reasons, a Revis signing is unlikely to happen. The Jets might not be able to afford it under their current salary structure. They might not trust Revis's knee to hold up. Or they might just be scared of how it'll look. Teams simply don't lock up players who have long-term injuries, even if they can extract significant value by doing so.3 It's an easy move for sports talk callers and local media types to take shots at, something the Jets are more sensitive to than virtually any other team in the league. The move would be risky and out-of-the-box, but I truly think Mike Tannenbaum would be correct to re-up Revis before he puts on a Jets jersey again.

And Five More Predictions for the NFL Season (Plus One More)

6. Michael Vick doesn't lose his job. You know how newspapers write the obituaries of famous people before they die and just fill in the specific details on the day of the person's actual death before publication? Every writer on the planet has a column on Michael Vick's benching that they've been sitting on for a month now, just waiting to be filed after rookie third-rounder Nick Foles works his way into the starting lineup. I personally think that those columns will collect nothing but dust this season; as bad as Vick's been, Foles isn't a better option.

Andy Reid knows that, and because he's coaching for his job, it's not in his interest to bench Vick and give an unproven third-rounder a shot with a veteran team. If Reid really had enough confidence in Foles to sit Vick, to be quite honest, it would have happened by now. Instead, as Vick's crazy turnover rate continues to regress toward the mean from its early-season highs, Eagles fans will be able to trace some fragments of progress and tolerate Vick remaining in the lineup for the rest of the season. I don't think Foles will see a full series this year, but if he does last a quarter or even two, expect Eagles fans to turn their affection right back to Vick.

7. Two coaches lose theirs before the season ends, but their names are not Andy Reid or Norv Turner. Instead, I think it'll be two less prominent coaches — Chan Gailey of Buffalo and Pat Shurmur of Cleveland. Both are locally unpopular offensive gurus who haven't led a good offense in years (or ever) and who have struggled to develop their quarterback of choice into very much. Shurmur's the pick of an old ownership and management team, making him basically irrelevant, and Gailey's the one who will be scapegoated for the dismal Mario Williams signing and how it failed to strike up the Buffalo defense. Other coaches will be fired, too, but I don't expect Shurmur or Gailey to make it through the season.

8. Chip Kelly will show up in the league next year. I just don't know where. Cleveland's come up as a possible landing point, but why would somebody want to take over the Browns when they might have their choice of coaching gigs? If Reid and Turner get fired, Kelly could take over with either Michael Vick or Philip Rivers as the quarterback of his spread offense. A sleeper pick: Kelly takes over for a retiring Pete Carroll in Seattle, which would allow him to remain in the Pacific Northwest, albeit at the cost of inciting the Portland-Seattle sports war yet again.

9. The guy with the beard in the blue jacket from the NFL Network commercials unexpectedly stumbles onto the field in a stupor during a key moment in a playoff game. This guy was in a commercial during every single block of ads on NFL Network during the first three weeks of the football season, but once the replacement referees were kicked to the curb, he also disappeared from the public eye without warning or precedent. Did the NFL just abandon the concept? Was he a replacement referee? Did the league forget to take his all-access pass away?

10. Tim Tebow never takes over for Mark Sanchez and is traded to the Jaguars in the offseason. Again, if the Jets were really going to use Tebow in a key role, wouldn't that process have begun by now? How many sub-50 percent completion games in a row would it take to get to the center of a quarterback controversy? Apparently, the Jets need to keep lickin'. And if they're not going to use Tebow as a regular, the Jets will probably find a way to deal him to the Jaguars for a mid-round pick.

11. I'm sticking with my Super Bowl pick. The Packers will defeat the Texans in Super Bowl XLVII.


A Hawks Homecoming

By: timbersfan, 12:22 AM GMT on November 03, 2012

I was 20 minutes late.

One of the byproducts of moving away from the city you were raised in is that with each visit, things become less and less familiar. New buildings are constantly being erected at an alarming rate. Familiar streets are now named after civil rights leaders' cousins' hairdressers. And that autopilot feeling of always ending up at your destination vanishes, with westbound wrong turns down one-way eastbound streets, and the constant embarrassment of relying on the already confusing iPhone Apple Maps feature in your own city.

This was the case as I wove through downtown Atlanta, chugging coffee, searching for the side street media entrance of Philips Arena, home of the Atlanta Hawks, by 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning in October. Upon finally finding my way and convincing an attendant to let me park, lacking a single credential, I walked right into a team shootaround, open only to players, coaches, staffers, and now, me.

Of the 50 people in the gym, I was one of three or four not wearing Hawks gear. My outermost attire: a Braves jacket. An hour earlier, pre-coffee, this decision seemed like a great idea — a Hawks T-shirt might be a bit much, but after a few awkward glances from those in Philips, maybe the city's "other other" team wasn't the smartest way to go. Bad form or not, I wanted my first impression to be that of a hometown kid arriving from New York City in peace. Even if they hated me, that much was clear.

The team, dressed in an assortment of early-morning, non-scrimmage-worthy outfits — from the sweatshirt-under-the-jersey look donned by Ivan Johnson to the popular cut-off-below-the-knee sweatpants look of Anthony Morrow, Lou Williams, DeShawn Stevenson, and Devin Harris — robotically walked through an assortment of set plays, a common practice for a morning shootaround on game day. As the sight reminded me of early-morning high school basketball practice, my eyes couldn't help but wander around the empty arena that I had been in so many times, and eventually toward the lonely rafters.

The Hawks came to Atlanta in 1968, some 45 years ago, and the franchise has managed to raise just three jerseys to the ceiling: Bob Pettit, Lou Hudson, and Dominique Wilkins. That's it. An optimist might attribute that to retirement selectivity within the organization. But a pessimistic, cynical realist like myself looks up and immediately questions the history of one of the most struggle-filled franchises in professional sports.

The "Dominique Era," in Hawks terms, was the brightest spot. Yes, the Hawks were a contender then, posting four consecutive 50-plus-win seasons between '85-'86 and '88-'89. But arguably as important was the reality that the city had a true basketball superstar, one people from other places envied. Wilkins was a true rival of Jordan, competed in five Dunk Contests, and is the recipient of one of the greatest basketball nicknames, the Human Highlight Film.

When you look up at the rafters, they suggest Dominique is the end of the Hawks' happy story. Interestingly enough, however, even with a legendarily bad eight-year stretch last decade, ever since Dominique's exit in 1994, the Hawks have actually been to the playoffs more often (11) than not (8). So why is the franchise so heavily associated with misery? And why haven't people been coming to the games if the team's doing more winning than losing? Why has the franchise dropped from 20th to 24th place league-wide in home attendance (89.4 percent to 81.2 percent) from 2009 to 2012, even though the team has posted similar middle-of-the-road playoff numbers?

That is the greatest mystery when it comes to the Atlanta Hawks. What is it about them that has been so uncaptivating to outsiders and residents alike? It's clear that it's not simply winning or losing, so it must be something else. While it remains to be seen, after spending four days with the new team, one that barely resembles the 40-26, top-20 player-led playoff team from a year earlier, how could this be the Hawks lineup that captivates a city in a way it hasn't since the days of 'Nique? A combination of leadership, talent, fantastic timing, and a suddenly shockingly self-aware franchise helps to tell the story.

In less than a month on the job, Danny Ferry, the Hawks' new general manager, quickly became one of the most popular men in Atlanta. In one day, July 11, 2012, he spearheaded trades sending Marvin Williams and Joe Johnson out of Atlanta. In just six hours, he transformed the Hawks' identity. Ding-dong, the witches are dead. As a suffering Atlanta sports fan first, journalist second, this was all I could think about as I followed the very tall and bald Ferry through the tunnels of Philips Arena.

Trailing close behind, I watched as he signed a kid's cast, took pictures with a family, and chatted up everyone we walked by. All told, it added four minutes to our journey, but eventually we made it to his office, a large, rectangular white room with a table, chairs, and a whiteboard wall filled with information that I wasn't sure if I was supposed to see.

"How can I ever repay you for this, God Danny?" I wanted to ask him. But I resisted the urge to congratulate him on shipping out Johnson and Williams. So I simply asked him why he took the job in the first place.

"I felt like, first of all, I was working for a guy I liked in [Hawks co-owner] Bruce [Levenson]," Ferry said while leaning in. "I've gotten to know him over the past six months pretty well, and I like him. And you want to work with people that you like. The other owners, as well, seemed like a good group of people. I think that they felt like they had first set out in what they wanted to do in terms of being competitive and starting to get some fans to games, but I think they want to raise the bar and standards for how they do things, and that was intriguing to me."

OK, now it was time to talk about Trader Joe and Starvin Marvin. It was clear as I was rambling about the two ex-Hawks that Ferry wasn't as attuned to how divisive they were, which initially surprised me. On one end, there's Johnson, who (fairly or unfairly) reminded every fan of the six-year, $119 million contract he was absorbing with every missed shot, blank stare, dribble-spree, and first-round playoff loss. And then there's Williams, who, through no fault of his own, was picked by the Hawks over Chris Paul, making fans weep over what could have been, while also further fueling the theory that when General William Tecumseh Sherman burned down Atlanta in 1864, he also cursed Atlanta sports teams for the next 600 years.

In so many words, I articulated these thoughts to Ferry. He insisted that it wasn't why they were dealt. "I wasn't aware of how our fans would react," he said. "They were two separate deals that gave us an opportunity to restructure our team and start to look at how we can play and do things differently going forward. When I took the job, I didn't know what those opportunities would be. For us, looking realistically, this has been a good team, a competitive team, but there was an opportunity, and it was necessary to get better. Again, past teams had done well, but it wasn't necessarily a team anyone feared."

Selfishly, I was disappointed that it wasn't a vengeful decision. But then I quickly recognized that I was sitting across from a smart guy who understood the NBA, the Hawks franchise, and basketball in Atlanta, despite having moved into a local home just 10 days prior. As our talk progressed and we discussed more trade-related issues, it was clear he was more eager to talk about the players that he brought in.

Through the Marvin trade, the Hawks got veteran point guard Devin Harris, and by way of Joe, 3-point specialist (and Georgia Tech alumnus) Anthony Morrow, NBA champion (and Abraham Lincoln Adam's apple tattoo club member) DeShawn Stevenson, and a very tall Frenchman called Johan Petro. In addition, there's the significant acquisition of Bulls sharpshooter Kyle Korver and Atlanta high school basketball legend turned ex-Sixers guard Lou Williams, along with the ex-Timberwolf forward Anthony Tolliver, a first-round draft pick in Vanderbilt's John Jenkins, and a second-round draft pick in Virginia's Mike Scott. And then, to round it all out, there's Josh Smith, a healthy Al Horford, a slightly less healthy Jeff Teague, and an exactly-the-same Ivan Johnson. Oh, and Zaza. Mr. Pachulia can't leave. Ever.

That's your 2012-13 Atlanta Hawks.

It may sound insane, but I couldn't be more excited to cheer for a basketball team. Seriously. Read that last paragraph again and internalize those names. On paper, it looks like a fantasy basketball autodraft gone wrong, but there's a sense of mystery surrounding this collection of talent that has yet to be utilized properly. And after watching them practice, play, and interact with one another, it's clear that they could actually be good. There's a sense throughout the organization that, if they play a certain style of basketball, the Atlanta Hawks will be not only a dangerous team, but one people will want to watch.

Josh Smith, forward: "I think there's a lot of balance on this team. Of course, you're going to lose a lot when you lose a guy that brought a lot to this team, but I think you become better on the perimeter as a team. We have a lot more shooters, and we're going to be a faster team. And so that's going to be exciting."

Dominique Wilkins, vice-president of basketball: "I just think it's a new look and new responsibilities that are going to be delegated to certain areas. Again, it's a more well-rounded team, because you have more shooters, you have more guys that can do different things, be it on the defensive end or offensive end."

Larry Drew, head coach: "We brought in players that, I think, really complement what we already have here, and you can kind of see our players really embrace that. So kind of the newness of bringing in other veteran guys, guys that fit what we do, and you see our players a little excited about it. So when we go into games, especially when we're healthy, you can kinda sense our really champing at the bit. They're excited about the mix that we have, the blend that we have. And with that, that kind of newness of bringing in a different group of guys in, it kind of rejuvenates you."

Danny Ferry, general manager: "We want to play fast, smart, and solid. We don't want to just be fast and fun. We want to be fast, fun, and solid. And if we can do these things, the casual fan will enjoy us because we can get up and down the court well, the serious fan will enjoy us because there's going to be smarts and skill on the court, and then ultimately [with] those things we'll be competitive."

One thing the team certainly has going for them: They fully understand their situation. They know they're weird, they know there are some things working against them, but there's not the slightest sense, be it in practices, games, or in locker room chats, that they're somehow going to underachieve. Not even close. As for the ghost of Joe, to whom everyone refers in a Voldermortian "he who shall not be named" sort of way? It's too early to tell if their offensive attack truly benefits from him not being around, but they sure seem pleased with what they've gotten in exchange for his departure.

"I remember reminiscing in the kitchen like
I wonder when the Braves gon' win it
I wonder when the Falcons gon' get here
Pyrex vison, made more than I ever made with DTP this year"
—2 Chainz, "My Moment"
Ignore the fourth line, if you will, and focus on the first three. There's a lot packaged in these lines, real emotions from Tauheed Epps, a true Atlanta native and sports fan. Every year I, too, wonder when the Braves are going to win it, even though in the back of my mind I expect something to go wrong at the last possible moment. And then there's the Falcons, another team that has shown promise of late, but still hasn't won a playoff game with Michael Vick's replacement, Matt Ryan. The Braves coming up short and the Falcons folding under pressure. That's my entire life.

But where are the Hawks? It's not surprising that Mr. Chainz left out the Hawks. They've become the third team in Atlanta (now out of three since the Thrashers left America for Canada), not an enviable position for a team in a city that already has a rap for having dispassionate, fair-weather fans, even in playoff scenarios. Coach Larry Drew seemed to echo those sentiments when asked to discuss the most difficult part of being the Atlanta Hawks coach. After a noticeable "should I say this" pause, he said, "I hate to say it, but, in playing games, to go out in that arena and hear that there are more people cheering for them than for us — you know, I've never been associated with a team that has ever done that, and this is something that exists here." He continued, "It's something that I try to get my players mentally psyched up to deal with. Because winning on the road is tough. It's real tough. And when you're able to win on the road, you expect to be able to come back home and play in front of your home crowd. And there are just games where it doesn't feel like a home crowd."

A wave of shame attacked my body as he finished his statement, because I have definitely been a culprit. Everything Drew said is true. But why? It's not just winning and losing. I believe there are still lingering post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms from the eight-year stretch where there was nothing more embarrassing than being an Atlanta Hawks fan. To quote legendary football coach Howard Schnellenberger on the worst of times for the University of Miami, "Like any city in America, if your teams are embarrassing you, and your teams are not living up to their own expectations, it's going to be hard to rally fans around it." Here's Josh Smith on the bad old days: "I know that you know that in the past we weren't the team to watch, especially during the stretch when it was kind of embarrassing for the city of Atlanta."

From 2000 to 2007, the Hawks finished 14th, 13th, 12th, 11th, 12th, 15th, 14th, and 13th in the Eastern Conference, with the '04-'05 season serving as the absolute low point, finishing 13-69. Yes, the '90s filled our hearts with playoff seasons, great characters, and good players (Mookie Blaylock, Dikembe Mutombo, Steve Smith), but almost a decade of misery afterward all but erased the joy. Then came the Joe Johnson era — the only player big enough to warrant a namesake since Dominique. He Who Shall Not Be Named was here for the final two sad seasons. He also led the team to five straight playoff appearances after that. Joe was good, but Joe wasn't Nique. He was the anti-Nique. Instead of rivalries, spectacles, and nicknames, we got a guy named Joe. There was never a sense that he genuinely wanted to be in Atlanta, something residents almost irrationally demand from their public figures. And that personality, coupled with all that money and the good-but-not-good-enough success, created an atmosphere in which we quietly wanted him to fail, to miss shots, to not earn his money, just to prove that he was the cancer we'd always suspected.

Now we enter a fourth era, the Danny Ferry era, if you will. Now, fans can start over. We have a new crew to invest in. It's a chance to escape the history that haunts not just the players, but also us, the fans. Luckily for us, and the Hawks, there couldn't be a better time in Atlanta.

A tlanta doesn't really have that unruly sports story. We never booed Santa Claus like Philadephia. We haven't flipped cars after a big loss or started fires after a big win. We're civil. We shrug our shoulders and move on.

But then, in October, the Atlanta Braves trashed the field in the playoffs.

Rarely have I been more proud of my city, and this is coming from a rule follower. But I was pleased to see that. I never wanted it to end. It was like the moment when the kid who gets picked on finally stands up to the bully and, somehow, wins the playground brawl. Or like an entire season of Made. It was fans finally getting their aggressive sea legs and showing their team that they've got their back (in the name of the worst call ever), even if it costs them a slice of their own dignity. It was easily one of my proudest moments as an Atlanta fan.

That game took place at the end of the Braves' season, as the Falcons sat at 4-0. Four weeks have gone by since then and now they're 7-0. Undefeated, but getting little respect. I've been in Atlanta for multiple football Sundays this season, and while I've seen fans this excited about the Falcons before, I've never seen them as riled up about not getting respect. Yes, there's still a level of unease with the undefeated record, because the Falcons being the best has never happened before, but the sheer nerve to not call us the best team in football is driving people mad in a way I've never witnessed.

And now we're back to the Hawks. There's no way to pretend that they exist in a silo, completely shut off from the city's highs and lows. Last year's team wouldn't have fit in with the chip-on-both-shoulders atmosphere in Atlanta right now. That team was steeped in the known, playoff-bound but not much more. This year's team, however, is a testament to the unknown, an underdog. Josh Smith, while, again, not naming a certain ex-teammate, said "We can fly under the radar, people can not think that we're capable of doing something special and successful, because we don't have … we don't have, you know, guys that … that, you know … you look at our roster and are like 'Wow' they're standing out."

When the leader, the closest thing to a star on this team, admits that no one is standing out, it's clear that this is an oddly egoless team. Things seem different, and it's manifesting on and off the court.

The Hawks easily defeated the Mavericks 110-94 in the preseason game I watched. The next morning, there was another practice, this time open to the public. Driving there, I was excited to see the players, especially the state Smith was in. After the game, he was clearly organizing a group in the locker room to hit Drake's birthday party at the club Compound. (Assumption: confirmed.) I loved the idea not only of Josh & Co. hanging with Aubrey, but also coordinating rides like a varsity basketball team. This team wants to hang out together off the court.

Arriving on time, this my third trip to Philips, I made my way comfortably into the arena, with a welcoming wave from the parking attendant, and found a seat near the court to observe a mic'd-up Larry Drew instructing his team through drills in front of a crowd of 2,000.

Before I could find my seat, however, I saw Ferry walking my way and I remained standing, as if he's the President or something. It was a warmer day, so a jacket wasn't needed and I decided to wear a short-sleeved shirt. "Really? A Falcons shirt?" Ferry said, staring down at my lucky mesh Falcons shirt. It was Sunday, and that's what I wear on Sundays. "It's Sunday, there's really no other option," I shot back, realizing that I was now 0-for-2 on sportswear in front of the general manager of the Hawks. "It's a bye week," he said, laughing. He mentioned that somebody needed to get me some Hawks gear, and then kept on walking.

The coach Drew–led practice was a serious one, complete with a full-speed scrimmage. Despite dealing with a team full of players still racing to learn a new system, I was amazed by the level of calm that he exhibited. Not a yeller, but not inaudible either — more like the high-expectation-having father who you never want to disappoint.

Watching the players respond to him, however, during the closed shootaround, open practice, or a preseason game, it was clear Drew has had some help in making this team come together. His name is Josh Smith, he's the clear leader of this team, and he is as important to the Atlanta Hawks as he ever has been.

Every new player who I chatted with noted that Josh and Al Horford were instrumental in bonding the team, but Josh is far and away the more vocal of the two veterans. And he seems to know and welcome the fact that while his stat line alone will not be the deciding factor in wins and losses, the burden of making sure this team comes together is solely his.

He's the emotional focal point of the team, keeping people loose but focused, monitoring emotions on and off the court. He hasn't been forced into leadership. He wants it. Before the season started, Josh told me he sought out Kevin Garnett (by way of high school teammate Rajon Rondo) to pick his brain about how to lead. "Listening to a guy that's been in that situation, in that predicament, with Minnesota," Josh said, "I think that it definitely helps me out from the mind-set of how to think the right way. He definitely told me you got to lead by example, you have to be that vocal leader, and each and every night, you have to let these guys know they have to give 150 percent. I definitely took that to heart, and I'm just trying to go out here like that for the rest of this training camp and for the rest of the season."

He seems to have applied Garnett's advice to his own team and borrowed from the Celtics' offseason bonding rituals. "Their team came out, even the guys that were trying to make the team," he said, "and they stayed in the same hotel, they worked out at UCLA for a week, and that was something very beneficial to their cohesiveness."

Based on what his teammates, old and new, have to say about the preseason atmosphere, his approach is working. New center Johan Petro noted, "The veterans make sure we have a good chemistry off the court. Movies, mall, dinner … we're trying to get that bond, trying to get that chemistry," while the second-longest-tenured Hawk, Zaza Pachulia, noted that, "It feels very different compared to previous years. In a good way." Fellow Atlanta native Lou Williams, who has been vocal in his excitement to be back home, said, "This is the most close-knit team I've been on in my eight seasons. Everyone's willing to learn, to get to know each other, which is important."

This is new territory for the Hawks. "I can honestly say that we've never done anything like that as a team," Josh said, almost proudly. "In the past we were never really able to get everybody involved into buying into that. When you do certain things that the average team isn't capable of doing, you get better results, because when you hang out with guys and you get to know guys for who they really are, you're that much more willing to go that much harder for your teammates."

If anyone on this team can justify having an ego, it's Josh. But it seems as if by actively stripping away his ego, it'll have a trickle-down effect on the rest of the team. "Sometimes you come into situations where guys are upset that they got traded, they're unhappy that they're there, and it might cause some tension with them and the team, but we have guys that have come onto this basketball team and everyone is happy-go-lucky."

When asked about his role on the team, Lou Williams relayed similar feelings, a testament to the type of environment they've created in a short time: "It's not a problem to come off bench for this team. I probably wouldn't have been as thrilled to want to come off the bench in another system, but here I'm very comfortable."

This wasn't the Josh Smith I was expecting to meet, observe, and talk to. Based on his freak athleticism, tendency to jack up 3s without hesitation, and occasional tendency to let the game take over his emotions, I unfairly expected a personality mirroring a brash wide receiver or 100-meter sprinter. The team-building, smiley, introspective 26-year-old who uses the WNBA to illustrate different types of team configurations? ("They have one outstanding superstar in Tamika Catchings on the Fever, but to be honest with you, the Lynx shouldn't have lost.") Not so much. Whether his game will transform in the same way remains to be seen, but if this means he maintains his role as self-appointed, team-endorsed leader on the court, in and out of the clubhouse, then I'll accept three roof-scraping jump shots a game.

It was Tropical Tuesday at South Gwinnett High School on October 23.

I knew that, because I was in the South Gwinnett High School gymnasium on October 23, surrounded by high school girls in hula skirts, high school boys in Hawaiian shirts, and teachers wearing leis. It had been eight years since I'd been on this campus, the last time being to watch Louis Williams play a high school basketball game. And now I was here because Lou wanted to give his old high school an opportunity to watch his new team practice.

Let's just say that it was a zoo.

Yes. There's more.

Lou was home, and many people, from the security guard to teachers to the principal to Lou's mother, were grinning from ear to ear and telling stories as he practiced with his hometown team, in a gym where his jersey hung from the rafters.

The gym was packed and loud. There were "oohs" and "ahhs" at the sight of anything fancier than a layup or a bounce pass. And when the scrimmage started, the energy only increased. Towels swinging, nonstop noise, unprompted cheering — yes, half the stand's occupants were no older than 8 and the other half split time between paying attention and Tropical Tuesday flirting. But it genuinely felt as if the players were thriving off playing in this frenzied atmosphere, even if it wasn't a real game.

This is how I want Philips Arena to look and feel this year. They're the underdog story, the Joe-less Hawks, two hometown heroes reunited and proudly playing for their city, the mysterious bunch of guys who seem to really like each other, the Danny Ferry–managed, Larry Drew–coached 2012-13 Atlanta Hawks. Watching this talented group come together in a short period of time, realizing that they must lean on each other for survival, and witnessing a city rally around that — this is the miracle that I believe can happen this year. Even if this team doesn't shock the world, this is one of the few teams that I believe comes into Game 1 talented and makes the most drastic improvements en route to Game 82.

As the scrimmage wound down, it was clear Lou was going to get the final shot. He hit a few deep 3s and threw down a breakaway dunk that got the crowd going. With his team down 45-46 with 30 seconds left, he had a chance to win it. If he did, I was probably going to rush the court and then get escorted from the premises, all while Danny Ferry shook his head at me in disgust.

Here's how it all ended:

A Lou miss, into a Devin Harris–to–Mike Scott alley-oop, sealing the win for the other team. Josh Smith leaped off the bench, rapturously giving chest bumps. I loved everything about this. Every single thing.

As I walked out of South Gwinnett High School, realizing that I'd have to drive about 90 miles per hour to make my flight on the other side of town, I was flagged down by a bus driver. She asked me what was going on in the gym.

"Oh, the Hawks are having a practice in there," I said to here, shuffling for my keys.

"Oh, that's nice, what for?" she responded.

"Louis Williams, he plays for the Hawks now, he went to South Gwinnett," I said to her, realizing that 95 mph would be my minimum speed limit.

"Oh that sweet boy, I used to drive him to school. I've got to watch them this year," she said to me, and then drove off.


The Polarizing Michael Vick

By: timbersfan, 12:21 AM GMT on November 03, 2012

Michael Vick's career is like football Play-Doh — an amorphous hunk that you can shape however you want. You could craft a Vick-centric essay about redemption just as easily as one about squandered potential. You could unleash a "Vick was totally and tragically underrated!" argument with the same gusto as a "Vick was the most overrated football star ever!" rant. You could borrow certain statistics to plead his case as an elite quarterback, and other numbers to bury that same case. You could declare with complete authority that "nobody is ever winning a Super Bowl with Michael Vick," or you could veer the other way and say, "If Michael Vick finds the right team, maybe he could thrive like Steve Young did in San Francisco."

Vick didn't need a dogfighting scandal to retire as the most polarizing NFL quarterback ever — it would have happened anyway. Even the process of drafting Vick was polarizing. When Vick declared for 2001's NFL draft after just two Virginia Tech seasons, Peter King wrote a Sports Illustrated piece headlined "Risky Business," with the subhead "Snakebitten San Diego will likely cast its lot with Michael Vick, who's making a perilous leap from college sophomore to No. 1 pick in the NFL draft." It's an uncanny piece to reread, like someone sneaked into SI's Vault and updated the piece to foreshadow what happened. Certain experts like Phil Simms, Bill Walsh and Steve Young openly worried about Vick's lack of accuracy, lack of patience, lack of maturity, and his ability to hold up physically throughout an NFL season. Meanwhile, former QB James Harris was gushing, "He could well become one of the greatest playmakers in NFL history."

The final consensus? Everyone begrudgingly agreed, Yeah, the Chargers can't risk passing on him, but I'm not sure I'd want him, either.

When Vick couldn't agree to contract terms with the Chargers, they flipped that pick to Atlanta for the no. 5 and no. 67 picks, a 2002 second-rounder and receiver Tim Dwight, then rebuilt by using no. 5 on LaDainian Tomlinson and a second-rounder on Purdue's Drew Brees. At the time, we thought Atlanta fleeced the Chargers. Within a few years, we thought San Diego fleeced the Falcons. Really, that was par for the course this century — thanks to sports blogs, message boards, Internet columns, 24-hour radio stations, talking-head shows, three-hour pregame shows and instant tweets, we've entered something of an Instant Flip-Flop Era. It doesn't matter what you thought, just what you think right now (and how swiftly and aggressively you can express that opinion).

Take me, for example. After Vick managed a spectacular playoff upset win over Green Bay in 2003, I wrote that "he threw for 121 yards in Lambeau and it felt like 350," adding, "Vick officially seized the Barry Sanders Memorial 'Never bet against him under any circumstances ever ever EVER' torch from Brett Favre." After a convincing 2005 playoff victory (his last), I wrote, "The Michael Vick Era always carries the 30-percent chance that something special could happen, like Vick slapping together three straight Pantheon-level performances and carrying the Falcons to a title. Now we're one-third of the way there." By December of 2006, I had given up: "Tell me when we're all agreeing to stop making excuses for Michael Vick. Give me a date."

I probably changed my opinion on Vick 10 times, and only because Vick's ceiling dramatically dwarfed the actual results. He carried himself with Iverson's swagger, threw lefty on the run like Steve Young, scampered around like an All-Pro tailback. We just hadn't seen anyone remotely like him. Two years ago, a reader e-mailed that a friend had texted during a Giants game, "Michael Vick is Michael Vicking. If you turned off the Eagles game, turn it back on now." The reader added, "That's all it took for us to switch the channel in time to see a ridiculous comeback. What other athletes could have their name turn into a verb?" That's all you ever needed to know about Michael Vick.

You used the word "if" with him more than most. If only he could stay healthy. If only he could be more athletic accurate. If only he had better receivers. If only he had better friends around him. If only. Because of his prodigious athletic gifts, we judged Vick by a higher standard — like we did with Barry Sanders before him, or even Josh Hamilton and Russell Westbrook right now. Anyone blessed with the "deluxe car wash package" gets treated that way; if we don't like the way you're taking care of it, you're going to hear from us.

By the start of his fourth season, Vick was bristling about skeptics and vowing to thrive in a new offensive system. One year later, those same skeptics were lambasting his $130 million extension and saying he wasn't a real quarterback. After a profoundly unhappy 2006 season marred by a bizarre airport incident — Vick tossing away a water bottle that had a secret marijuana compartment in it — everyone acknowledged that something had gone drastically wrong. Something had to change. We had no way of knowing one of the worst sports scandals ever was looming.

Looking back, there was no better athlete for the Internet era, someone who generated an instant argument whenever we wanted.1 Michael Vick, pick a side … go! Even the legal fiasco that ended his Falcons career, imprisoned him for 19 months, bankrupted him and turned him into a national pariah couldn't have been more polarizing. People lose their shit when it comes to dogs. When I wrote a 2010 column defending Vick's post-prison comeback with the Eagles — not his crimes, but his constitutional right to contritely rebuild his life while recapturing a special talent — naturally, it ended up being one of the most polarizing pieces I ever wrote. People either loved it or hated it, with no middle ground. You could have said the same about Vick. Either you considered him a game-breaking, franchise-altering talent or (waving hands robotically) someone who cannot help you contend consistently in the National Football League.

Race hovered over Vick's career more than we ever wanted to admit. Fellow Newport News native Allen Iverson pushed similar boundaries in the NBA, where certain fans struggled to identify with an African American iconoclast who covered himself in tattoos (a radical look in the late 1990s), braided his hair (that too) and carried himself so defiantly during games. Iverson never wanted to be anyone's hero, and he certainly never wanted to play "the game" like some of the league's more marketable stars — he only wanted to play 44 minutes a night, on his terms, in his style, looking the way HE wanted to look, acting the way HE wanted to act, and if you didn't like it, then eff you. That's what I loved about him.2

Even if Vick lacked Iverson's force of personality, he tapped into a similar prejudice — for the first time, football's best athlete was playing quarterback and inventing things as he went along, and for the first time since Joe Namath, that same person was tapping into a larger cultural phenomenon (this time, hip-hop culture) as he did it. Was the position changing color? Were more Michael Vicks coming? Was that why people seemed to be holding Vick to a higher standard — especially old-school experts, football lifers and talking heads — and holding on to a certain ideal of how that position should be played? Whatever that ideal was, it wasn't what Michael Vick was doing. He didn't help the cause by coasting on those same natural gifts — by 2006, he had abandoned any pretense of becoming a pocket passer, rushing for over 1,000 yards and turning himself into a glorified running back. It didn't work. The Falcons finished 7-9.

You know what happened next: Vick's life turned into a walking 30 for 30 episode. After hitting rock bottom multiple times, he pieced his life back together, reentered football as something of a pariah, showed real dignity with how he handled his comeback, and eventually redeemed his career with a phenomenal 2010 season (running the West Coast offense flawlessly for Philadelphia, something that seemed inconceivable during his rockier Atlanta days). And just as quickly, things disintegrated again — he crashed to earth last season and struggled mightily these last two months. After another more-than-wobbly performance in Week 8 against Atlanta, everyone expected Andy Reid to bench him for good in the latest episode of "Eagles Scapegoat Roulette." But with Philly playing indoors in New Orleans this weekend, Reid couldn't resist giving Vick one more chance.

Did it make 100 times more sense for Philly to start promising rookie Nick Foles he would play so he could build early confidence against that über-dreadful Saints defense? Of course!!!!! What, you thought Reid would make the right move here? He's been hitting on 16s against 6s for two solid years. (Another reason: You can't think ahead to 2013 with another quarterback if you're not going to be there in 2013. Reid needs to win right now. It's a classic case of a coach putting his own interests ahead of the franchise's best interests.) But what if that porous Saints defense gets Vick going? Would you rule it out? The reason Reid should definitely start Foles is the same reason Vick might save his career. He might throw for three scores and run for two more. He might lose his job once and for all. He might single-handedly win your fantasy week for you. He might murder the 2012 Eagles season. He's keeping us on our toes until the bitter end.

Week 9 Picks

My Week 9 NFL Picks.

(Home team in caps).

Broncos (-4) over BENGALS
The Noodle vs. The Ginger? Come on.

PACKERS (-10.5) over Cardinals
TEXANS (-10) over Bills
More blowout potential than Milton Berle Potential.

BROWNS (+3.5) over Ravens
TITANS (+3.5) over Bears
JAGUARS (+4.5) over Lions
Three tasty home dogs - at least two of them cover.

Dolphins (-2) over COLTS
Ladies and gentlemen, your No. 5 playoff seed in the AFC … the Dolphins of Miami.

Panthers (+3) over REDSKINS
Agree with my illegitimate son Bill Barnwell — the Panthers aren't nearly as bad as you think.

RAIDERS (-1) over Bucs
SEAHAWKS (-4) Vikings
Your best bets for the midseason's "late bloomer" teams. Five home games left for each. I wish I could quit you, Russell Wilson.

Steelers (+3.5) over GIANTS
Pittsburgh's official "We're a Super Bowl contender" statement game.

Cowboys (+4) over FALCONS
SAINTS (-3) over Eagles
Possible last stands for Romo and Vick. I think we go 1 for 2.

This Week: 0-1
Last Week: 7-7
Season: 61-55-3
All right, so let's say everything ends on Sunday in one of those Michaelvickian clunkers: two picks, a backbreaking fumble, a last-second drive that falls short, with Vick scrambling around and evading two sacks before sailing a last-ditch pass over someone's head. What will this mean? What will you say to yourself as Vick limps off the field, still untwisting his skinny body from the two 275-pound guys who fell on him? Was he not nearly good as we thought? Was he better than we thought? Was he both?

Before you answer that question, just for the hell of it, here are 20 things you may or may not know about Michael Vick:

1. He's one year younger than Drew Brees and one year older than Eli Manning.

2. He's the only player in NFL history to average seven yards per carry for his entire career. Only three others topped 6.0: Bobby Douglass (6.5), Randall Cunningham (6.4) and Greg Landry (6.2).

3. He's been sacked on 8.6 percent of his pass plays, ranking 151st out of the 194 quarterbacks that Pro-Football-Reference measured. Some other numbers: Peyton Manning (3.13 percent), Drew Brees (3.67 percent), Eli Manning (4.53 percent), Tom Brady (4.89 percent), Donovan McNabb (7.09 percent), Steve Young (7.94 percent ), Randall Cunningham (10.14 percent).

4. Vick was drafted 31 spots ahead of Brees. When they play on Sunday, it will be Vick's 100th NFL start … and Brees's 161st NFL start.

5. Vick's 2010 passer rating (100.2) was the 60th-highest ever and didn't account for his superior rushing season (100 carries, 676 yards, nine TDs in just 11 starts) or his creation of the 3,000-675-30 Club (3,000+ passing yards, 675+ rushing yards, 30 combined rushing/passing TDs), which Cam Newton joined last year. It's a two-member club.

6. Vick's career passer rating? 80.7 … good for 53rd all time. And yet, 18 current starting QBs have a higher career QB rating than 80.7, including Matt Hasselbeck (82.3), Josh Freeman (81.1) and Matt Cassel (80.9).

7. He's the only quarterback to rush for more than 5,000 career yards (5,466, actually). Only one other quarterback has rushed for more than 4,000 career yards (Young — McNabb came close with 3,459). Vick has run for almost as many yards as Daunte Culpepper (2,652) and Kordell Stewart (2,874) combined.

8. He's fumbled the ball 85 times, which ranks him 24th all time. Of the top-25 fumblers (all quarterbacks except Tony Dorsett and Franco Harris), he's the only one who didn't start at least 100 games.

9. In 2006, Vick became the first quarterback to rush for 1,000 yards (1,039) and tied Beattie Feathers's single-season record for yards per carry (8.4). He also holds the fourth-highest single-season yards-per-carry mark (2004: 7.5), the eighth-highest (2004: 7.5) and the 10th-highest (2010: 6.8).

10. As far as I can tell, he's about to become the first NFL player to sign two different $100 million extensions — one with Atlanta in 2004 ($139 million), one with Philly in 2011 ($100 million) — that both fell through within two years.

11. Vick never threw for 3,000 yards during an Atlanta season. Which seems inconceivable until you remember …

12. Vick's leading Atlanta receivers by season: Brian Finneran (2002: 838 yards, 6 TDs), Peerless Price (2003: 838 yards, 3 TDs), Alge Crumpler (2004: 774 yards, 8 TDs), Crumpler (2005: 877 yards, 5 TDs) and Crumpler (2006: 780 yards, 8 TDs). In 2010, DeSean Jackson (1,056 yards, 6 TDs) and Jeremy Maclin (964 yards, 10 TDs) were the best receiving targets Michael Vick has EVER had.

13. If he throws for 265 yards on Sunday, Vick creates the 20/5 Club for QBs who threw for 20,000 yards and rushed for 5,000 yards. It's never happened before.

14. Those 19,735 career yards rank him 97th overall, less than Jay Cutler, Aaron Brooks, Gus Frerotte, Bobby Hebert and Jake Delhomme, and a few thousand yards less than Bernie Kosar, Brian Sipe, Jeff Garcia and Culpepper.

15. He's thrown for 120 touchdowns, ranking him in a dead heat for 102nd place with Neil O'Donnell, barely edging Brian Griese (119) and somehow trailing Brooks (123) and Chris Miller (123). Of the seven most famous modern "running QBs" (not counting the new guys), Vick's touchdown/interception differential (+40) ranks behind Young (+125), McNabb (+117), Cunningham (+73), Steve McNair (+55) and Culpepper (+43), beating only Kordell Stewart (minus-7).

16. He's rushed for 34 touchdowns, ranking him 150th all time and trailing the leading QB (Young) by nine.

17. Of everyone since 1960, Vick ranks 87th in "Game-Winning Drives" with 14, trailing the likes of Jeff Blake (16), Hebert (16), David Garrard (18), O'Donnell (19), Jon Kitna (22) and Jake Delhomme (25).

18. Out of everyone since 1960, Vick ranks 67th in "Comebacks" with 13, trailing the likes of Trent Dilfer (14), Jay Schroeder (16), and yes, Jake Delhomme (19).

19. Just for fun …

Delhomme: 96 career starts, 56-40 record, 81.3 QB rating, 20,975 passing yards, 126 TDs, 101 INTs, 5-3 playoff record, 1 Super Bowl appearance.

Vick: 99 starts, 56-41-1 record, 80.7 QB rating, 19,375 passing yards, 120 passing TDs, 80 INTs, 2-3 playoff record, 0 Super Bowl appearances.

20. In Vick's two playoff wins, he threw for 199 yards combined. Michael Vick hasn't won a playoff game since January 15, 2005, the same month Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston separated.

So it's all a matter of perception. Comparing him to other no. 1 overall picks, he comes off surprisingly well: If you made a list of the top-five picks from 1986 through 2010, Peyton Manning, Troy Aikman, Eli Manning and Drew Bledsoe would be the first four (in that order), but Vick might actually beat Orlando Pace, Keyshawn Johnson, Vinny Testaverde, Matt Stafford and Jake Long for the fifth spot. Vick also accomplished something relatively dubious that remains somewhat amazing: spending nearly two years in jail, not starting a professional football game for four solid years, then shaking off the rust for his greatest season. When will we see THAT again?

Vick's 2010 evisceration of the Redskins (333 passing yards, 20 of 28 completions, eight carries for 80 yards, four passing TDs and two rushing TDs) goes down as (a) one of the most electric QB games ever, and (b) along with Bo/Seattle, Favre/Raiders, Campbell/Dolphins and a few others, one of the most unforgettable Monday-night performances ever. In a nutshell, that's why we always cared about Michael Vick more than he probably deserved — when Vick had it going, it was like watching someone catch fire in a basketball game, only if the player was killing 11 guys instead of five. I loved the symmetry of Robert Griffin III entering the NFL during the same season as Vick's possible farewell, a mulligan of sorts for everything we ever loved about Vick. For the true football fans, it was never about color, more about someone making us rethink the boundaries of every game we'd ever watched. Third and 10, everyone's covered … and a quarterback could just take off like it was a delayed sweep and scamper 76 yards down the sidelines like it was preordained? This was possible? This could happen?

Both Griffin and Vick made you feel like you were watching a video game, and really, that's a bigger part of Vick's legacy than anything. Even if Tecmo Bo Jackson will always be the most unstoppable video game football character ever, Madden Michael Vick came damn close. Back when I played Madden seasons, I always played the Patriots — always, always, without fail — except for one time in 2004 when I couldn't resist playing one Falcons season. I wanted to be Michael Vick. And it was like opening up a whole new world. You could throw the ball 60 yards, run like the wind, escape four defenders at once, save any play. You were never out of the game. You could score from anywhere on the field. I remember playing six or seven Falcons games and putting up absolutely outrageous Vick stats — he was leading the league in rushing AND passing — before Video Mike went down on one of those padding-your-stats plays when the Madden computer takes it personally and decides to cripple one of your players.

After the game, they told me Video Mike was out for the year. I sulked for about 20 seconds, eventually pressing the RESET button and pretending the game never happened. Vick finished with the fake rushing and fake passing titles. We went 14-2 and won the fake Super Bowl. You're probably wondering why I remember something this mundane, and here's the answer: You always remember being immortal, even when it isn't real.

And no, the real Vick doesn't get a RESET button on Sunday. It's the only thing we know for sure about that Saints-Eagles game. Like everything else that happened during the Michael Vick era, you will be prepared for anything and everything. Maybe it's not the greatest legacy, but it's something.


Star Wars Episode VII: The Grantland Staff Considers the Future of a Disneyfied Franc

By: timbersfan, 12:27 AM GMT on November 01, 2012

Yesterday, in a development only marginally less surprising than if Jabba the Hutt landed on Earth and declared he was the new Republican nominee for next week's presidential election, Disney chairman and CEO Bob Iger announced the company had acquired Lucasfilm for over $4 billion, and with it, the once-sacred Star Wars franchise. And then he announced a seventh Star Wars film is coming in 2015, followed by more every two to three years. And then he announced he is really Luke Skywalker's father. (He said a lot of things; it's already too hard to remember them all.) Nevertheless, the Grantland staff has assembled to sift through the still-smoldering wreckage of our mental Death Stars in search of some answers, or, at the very least, a new hope. Join us as we collectively work through our daddy-who-is-as-much-spare-evil-robot-parts-as-hum an issues. Usual disclosure: Disney owns us too. Hi, George!

George Returns to the Magic Kingdom

Bryan Curtis: I’ve never really thought much about George Lucas or Star Wars … haha, just kidding. It’s my whole life.

Two thoughts:

Lucas is really retired. There was some (well-deserved) snorting when Lucas announced this earlier in the year, since he has been continuously retiring since A New Hope. He wasn’t bluffing. He’s done. Only the magic art films remain.
The big riddle to me is the 180-degree change in Lucas’s m.o. Since THX 1138, Lucas has said — and said and said and said — that the artist should control the rights to his material. This was the impetus behind American Zoetrope; behind his infrequent filmmaking in the ’80s and ’90s (no one could tell him to make another Star Wars); and this is the source, more locally, of L’Affaire Greedo. Lucas was puzzled the fanboys didn’t understand that his ownership of that laser blast represented a victory for the artist. (By then, Lucas in the fanboy mind had become a suit.) But here, Star Wars is going over to the suits. Now, maybe Lucas has retained some kind of control over at least the movies he made. Dunno. That’s the thing I’d most like to ask him. After guarding his art like the Hovito idol, why would he let it go, even for $4 billion?

Last thing: Randal Kleiser — Lucas’s USC classmate, onetime star, and, later, the director of the immensely profitable Grease — told me a funny story. It was Kleiser’s birthday, and a bunch of his USC pals, including Lucas, blindfolded him and stuffed him into a car and took him to Disneyland. Years later, after they were multimillionaires, Kleiser directed the show Honey, I Shrunk the Audience, and Lucas produced Star Tours. Kleiser was struck that the two pals had returned to Anaheim.

Guess what? George is back.

It Depends on What Your Definition of "Pretty Intense and Detailed Treatment" Is

Alex Pappademas: Bob Iger mentioned on a Walt Disney Company conference call today that the Lucasfilm deal included "a pretty intense and detailed treatment [for] the next three movies," beginning with a seventh Star Wars now in "early-stage development." When he was in full wunderkind-baller mode in the early '80s, Lucas used to say he had ideas for a nine-film series, but around '83 he started talking about Jedi as an endpoint and admitting that he'd never really broken the story for a third trilogy, something people like original Star Wars/Empire producer Gary Kurtz have subsequently confirmed. (Lucas in 2008: "There will definitely be no Episodes VII–IX. That's because there isn't any story. I mean, I never thought of anything … The Star Wars story is really the tragedy of Darth Vader. That is the story.")

The questions this raises for me: Who actually wrote the "intense & detailed" treatment? Was it Lucas? If it was Lucas, did he write it recently, or did Disney just pay $4.05 billion for 12 pages ripped from a legal pad in 1976 with, like, "Wookies but w/ detachable heads" and "TRIANGULAR DEATH STAR?" written on it, and does that make this basically the biggest cocktail-napkin script sale in human history? And if it wasn't Lucas, who was it? Tom Stoppard during breaks from punch-up on Revenge of the Sith? David Koepp? Joss Whedon? Damon Lindelof in a fake mustache? A glowing blue-haloed Leigh Brackett apparition? A team of 40 Jawas who were subsequently murdered in the desert to ensure their silence?

(Because, obviously, the most important thing about Star Wars is the writing.)

Trust in George Lucas, But Tie Up Your Tauntaun

Mark Lisanti: This is a gross oversimplification of everything that's happened since the premiere of The Phantom Menace, but no one ever went broke oversimplifying things on the Internet: George Lucas lost his fucking mind in 1999 and ruined all of our lives forever. He had become childhood-despoiling Death, the ravenous destroyer of worlds whose neck-wattle is swollen with the misbegotten souls pilfered from a fan base once so mindlessly devoted to his legacy it took them three prequels to figure out he hadn't thought anything through beyond the Jedi haunting at the end of the Ewok jamboree. And then he locked Indiana Jones in a refrigerator and blew him up with an atom bomb, but that's a betrayal for a different time.

This is perhaps a man we should not trust.

But then he starts saying all the right things, that he wants nothing more than to pass Star Wars on to the next generation, and it's time for new filmmakers to take over. He does everything but promise us all individual bantha rides to the double-lightsaber store. We begin to believe again. And we forget, if just for a minute, that George Lucas retroactively decided the Force is a blood disease, that George Lucas believes in mercenary self-defense, that George Lucas turned something called Hayden Christensen into Darth Vader.

So maybe we'll get the hands-off George Lucas who throws the landspeeder keys to Rian Johnson and Damon Lindelof and checks back in three years from now to see how much of his outline they threw out, clapping them both on the shoulders as he laughs, "Ha, yeah, I thought the thing where Luke and Leia turn out to be the same person in Episode VIII was kind of bullshit. Good call, guys."

Or maybe, just as soon as that Disney check clears, we'll get more of this:

Don't worry, this is all going to turn out great.

The Good Way and the Bay Way

Dan Fierman: Look, we know there are two ways this could go. There's the good way, in which John Lasseter writes the screenplay, Brad Bird directs, and George Lucas is locked securely in a broom closet. (They can tell him they need very detailed specs on the exhaust ports of land speeders. Or they can just pack it full of money. I don't care. The point is: broom closet.)

Then there's the bad way. The bad way is pretty much anyone else in the Disney stable getting involved. (You know you're thinking it, so let's just say it out loud: Michael Bay is definitely on the phone with Bob Iger RIGHT NOW explaining his vision for the updated gold lamé bikini Megan Fox will wear as "Leia's super-hot daughter." Face your fears. There now. Was that so bad?)

But here's the bottom line: This franchise has been debased so badly that the stakes here are pretty low. Lucas' legacy is already forever tarnished. The icon that is Darth Vader has been pretty much destroyed in our memory. Even if we still cling to the idea that Han shot first, there's that alternate timeline lingering out there when he didn't. There's nothing but upside for Disney and whoever takes over as the writer/director. It's a hell of an opportunity for the right person. Let's hope s/he can not only make us care again, but make our kids care too.
We Have Completely Lost Sight of How Excellent Jedis Can Be

Sean Fennessey: Whether hanging-on-by-their-fingernails devotees or every other person in the sensible world, we have allowed a simple truth to go untold in these un-Lucas times: Jedi is the greatest hero-type of all time. He/she is fierce like a warrior, stoic and thoughtful like a monk, dashing like a swashbuckler, mentally unconquerable, and handy with a LASER SWORD. A Jedi is samurai/cowboy/Robin Hood/Gandhi. Except, the Jedi Experience has only been portrayed as a dead religion with few remaining practitioners (Episodes IV-VI) and a threatened, eventually exterminated police force (Episodes I-III). We must amend that. Here is the pitch: Old-Timey, Deadwood-Style, Birth of Justice, Origin TV Show. Get Shawn Ryan to talk it out with Joss Whedon. Let David Milch rewrite the script. David Fincher shoots the pilot. No Mace Windu. No Obi-Wan. No Yoda. Strictly O.J.s (Original Jedis). Cast Scoot McNairy and Neal McDonough as your leads. Put Shannyn Sossamon in it. Maybe Ian McShane and Ray Winstone are free to cameo as cantina-haunting crime lords. Just book this thing. Your title: Dark Saber.

Let's Go All the Way and Remake It

Amos Barshad: Back in February, I tweeted, apropos of nothing, "Gonna remake 'Star Wars' shot for shot with Fassbender/McAvoy as Han/Luke."

First, I need to admit to you that my reaction to the "there's going to be a new Star Wars movie" part of yesterday's news was, unequivocally: "Yes. I'm into it." I belong to a weird Star Wars fan demo: I grew up watching the movies but didn't let Lucas fully sink his hooks into me until 1997, when he rolled the 20th-anniversary re-releases into theaters. Two years later we got The Phantom Menace and the others nerds and I actually cut school to go wait in line on the day of the premiere. We were all out-nerded, however, by [name redacted; I know it's been a while, but I don't know if he wants this stuff out there], who dressed up as Darth Maul for school that day: the full red-and-black face paint, little horns, the black robe, even a piece of plumping pipe fashioned into a surprisingly realistic double-edged lightsaber.

Keep in mind that this was before anyone had seen the movie; he'd based his devotion to the dark lord Maul on the trailer alone. I remember [name redacted] telling us his plan, and I remember pleading with him to not go through with it, fearing the lifetime of mental trauma it would unleash. And I remember the school bus pulling up, and seeing [name redacted], and thinking, "He did it. That crazy bastard actually did it." At this point, looking back, I can't help but be awed at the insane courage [name redacted] had.

What's my point? Right, yes: The Phantom Menace turned out to be garbage, and any notion of the sanctity of the Star Wars franchise for me was forever eradicated. So they want to make more Star Wars movies? Please. Go right ahead. But, since the original trilogy rules mostly despite Mark Hamill's complete and utter lack of presence, I again propose we start with a remake of A New Hope that subs in McAvoy as Luke. I know up above I called it a shot-for-shot remake, but here's what I'm saying now: We have James reshoot all the Luke scenes and, since we need to keep their chemistry and banter crisp, we have Fassbender reshoot all of the Han scenes. Then, using the full might of cutting-edge Lucasfilm editing technology, we seamlessly drop them into the original footage. It's not like we won't still have the original. We'll just have this one as an alternative. And if we feel like dropping in Lizzy Caplan as snarky Princess Leia, yeah, sure, that could work too.

A Dormant Geek Machine Stirs

Emily Yoshida: Look, I'm not mad at #DisneyLucas. Star Wars has felt a stone's throw away from Mickey & Co. ever since I saw the original trilogy and rode Star Tours in the same year (1990, you were good to me). Not even mad at the idea of a third trilogy; that was always the plan until sometime prior to the prequels' release; only in the last decade has that become something I was relieved was off the table rather than outraged. Though I initially reacted with horror, dizziness, and not a little nausea at the idea of dipping back into those thoroughly contaminated waters, I was soon able to put myself back in a childlike state of naivete, in which I would wander unquestioningly into any old urine-filled wading pool.

Nope, here's what I'm mad about: the fact that I will, perhaps against my better judgement, have to care a lot about these sequels. I will add Ain't It Cool News to my bookmarks again. I will watch trailers frame by frame in HD, I will buy the soundtrack a month before Episode VII's release and try to figure out what the track titles mean. I was so ready to live in a world where my deepest, longest-running pop cultural obsession was able to lie dormant and irrelevant, where I could point and laugh at all the nerds getting worked up about the latest Marvel adaptation and go years without visiting the toy aisle in Target. It was fun pretending to be cool for a little while there, but I guess it's time to fire up the geek machine.

Team Jar Jar

Molly Lambert: I vote for more Ewok movies.

Rembert Browne: I just hope they remake the SNL–Nick Winters–Bill Murray–Star Wars song with Nick Jonas and heavy dubstep.

It Can't Get Worse

David Cho: Why are people on the Internet upset about this? Who loses here? Fun fact, Star Wars fans: IT CAN'T GET WORSE. Disney can't retroactively create Jar Jar Binks! If you're worried about Star Wars VII ruining the movie franchise, the reality is, that pure thing that you love from your childhood has already been mangled, ruined, and Lego'd up. (Sidebar: Star Wars Legos, both the toys and the games, are really dope!)

Also, Disney's track record of doing this sort of thing is actually pretty good! Pixar continues to make good movies (you can't count Cars 2 and Brave against them unless you're willing to give them credit for Finding Nemo and Toy Story 3), and the first Disney-owned Marvel movie to come out was The Avengers. Now, while I agree that it does seem a little sacrilegious to say that an Episode VII will exist — even the juxtaposition of the word and number looks weird — it seems worth giving Disney the benefit of the doubt, if only because now we definitely know that George Lucas will be less involved.

Conflicted I Am

Daniel Silver: The best part of all this is that the keys to the creative car have now been (at least partially) taken out of George Lucas's hands. He now has to answer to SOMEBODY. No longer will George get to run around like a drunk Wookiee at the Mos Eisley cantina and wreak havoc and do whatever he wants with the galaxy far, far away. Yes, he created it, but after Jake Lloyd, Star Wars fans' internal Admiral Ackbars sensed the shield down and started to attack.

On one hand, as my buddy David Cho said, "This is a good thing, because how can this actually get any worse?" But let's take a look at the facts: Disney's track record on deals like this is pretty respectable. Both Marvel and Pixar have thrived under Disney's seemingly hands-off, if it ain't broke don't try to fix it/just support it approach. And when combined with the fact that the uber-producer Kathleen Kennedy (who's got way too many top-tier credits to list) is now calling the shots as the head of production at Lucasfilm, Star Wars fans should rest easy, simply based on Disney and Kennedy's stellar track records.

And then there's the other hand. The one holding all of the unknowns. If the plan is to actually produce an Episode VII, will Lucas write and direct it? Like Anakin, C-3PO, R2-D2, Yoda, Boba Fett, and Chewbacca, who will be the connecting characters? This means Han, Luke, and Leia HAVE to be in it, right? And more than anything, does this mean yet another re-release of the the series on Blu-ray, DVD, or digital file? I've already spent the equivalent of actual lightsaber on these films.

But more than anything, the first thought that went through my head after I realized this was not just some kind of post-Sandy hallucination was, How am I going to watch a Star Wars film that does not start with the 20th Century Fox music and animation?

It's the little things.

Counterpoint: Go Crap in a Darth Vader Voice-Changer Helmet

Bill Simmons: Dear nerds,

Let it go. There hasn't been a good Star Wars movie in 30 years.

Bill Simmons


Father Football

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

Evening broke clear and brisk on the plains, and Bill Snyder trudged through the tunnel of the stadium that bears his name, wearing an equanimous expression and a purple pullover from last season's Cotton Bowl game. He kept his postgame speech uncharacteristically short, and when he arrived at his press conference and a reporter in the front row asked if he was so satisfied with his team that he had run out of things to say, Snyder blanched, and then he joked that he was working on his conditioning by moving so fast, and then he made another joke about wishing said reporter had gotten himself stuck in an elevator.

"I'm proud of our guys at this point in time," he said. "What we do today will define us collectively. Not that I negate what they have done."

He had yet to take off the pullover, which he has worn for several weeks and which has developed an online following of which I imagine Snyder is blissfully unaware: A couple of days later, someone would ask him a question about style points, and the coach would freely admit that he had no idea what in the world a style point was. His wire-rimmed glasses were perched on a vaguely avian nose, lending him, from the right angle, the look of a learned eagle. He spoke so softly that his voice barely rose above the echo of his own words from the monitor in the back of the room; he used the word "acclimation," and he alluded to the fact that he'd begun to record his own pregame speeches, which was also a joke (I think). The whole time, he clutched a clear plastic bag in his right hand, as if he'd somehow detoured to a bulk-foods market for caramel creams on his way upstairs.

"You look around the country, and they make more of college football than they do of the presidential election," he said. "The world is caught up in it, and it's so easy to lose sight of things."

Snyder is 73 years old now, and if he appears older than that, it is not just because he speaks like Linus Van Pelt: It is because he has already retired once, and has now rebuilt the Kansas State program twice. From the end of World War II until the mid-1980s, the Wildcats were so bad that no one showed up; the players would go door-to-door selling tickets to a largely empty stadium. Then Snyder came in and the university invested additional money in the program, and these two factors brought about what most agree is the greatest renaissance in the history of college football. Snyder quit after the 2005 season, his successor Ron Prince struggled through three lackluster campaigns, Snyder returned in 2009, and now, after Saturday's 55-24 blowout of Texas Tech, the Wildcats are on the verge of the best season in school history, ranked no. 2 in the BCS standings with an 8-0 record.

I'm sure many of the reporters who cover Kansas State on a regular basis have become so accustomed to Snyder's meanderings that these little philosophical digressions don't even register anymore. They've made a big deal this fall in the Little Apple of Manhattan, Kansas, about Snyder's 16 theses (defined officially as "Goals for Success"), which have become a sort of poetic shorthand to encapsulate the teachings of a coach who thrives on an occasionally inscrutable strain of micromanagement: He once railed against the serving of hard butter, fearing that it would inexorably alter his team's digestion; he once reportedly became perturbed after the team bus got stuck at a railroad crossing, because he presumed that someone should have checked the train schedule. When he was 28 and coaching at a high school in Indio, California, he tried to hire a hypnotist so he could find a way to compress six hours of sleep into one. (The plan failed.)

On the surface, there is nothing particularly unique about Snyder's 16 theses, other than the inexplicable fact that there are 16 of them. I have seen variations of such precepts posted on the walls of many locker rooms in many locations around this country, and, in fact, several of the 16 theses seem to overlap — I'm not quite sure what the difference is between "Expect to Win" and "Don't Accept Losing" — but this is not the point.

The point is that unlike in most locker rooms, his players actually seem to buy into it. The point is that they actually seem to believe in the spirit of this stuff so much that they all kind of talk like their coach. They wear blazers and ties in public; they refer to brotherhood and family; they deliver platitudes that have clearly been drilled into them to the point that they can recite them in their sleep. Some coaches find their edge in an offensive philosophy or a defensive scheme; Snyder's, at this point, seems based largely on accumulated wisdom.

"Even if the other team makes a big play, the possession is not over until they blow the whistle," I heard one of his players say, as if reciting from a prayer book.

"Success is fleeting in this world," another one said. "We're all susceptible to complacency."

It was Collin Klein who uttered that last statement; as I write this, Klein has become the overwhelming favorite to win the Heisman Trophy, despite an awkward throwing motion that already has most NFL scouts projecting him as a tight end. Klein is actually not a bad passer, even if it looks like he is attempting to hurl a javelin through a windshield, but he is an utterly phenomenal runner; against Texas Tech, he squeezed through tiny windows in the defensive line. With Kansas State leading 20-10 in the third quarter, Klein slipped the football into the bread basket of running back John Hubert on a read option, and then yanked it back out at the last possible second, slipping through a hole that didn't even appear to exist and outracing several defenders the 16 yards to the end zone. It was the kind of play they will rerun in New York in December, if K-State can find a way to stay undefeated in the Big 12.

It is impossible not to think of Tim Tebow when you watch Klein, who is so Tebow-esque that he even talks like Tebow. "I'm just trying to honor what the Lord has given me," he said, and when I asked him if he looked up to Tebow, his eyes brightened.

"I admire Tim a lot, and I know what we have most in common is what we love the most, and that's our faith," he said. "It's amazing the journey the Lord has taken us on."

Snyder says he never really has to give Klein much advice, other than telling him to "Be Collin." It's kind of strange to think, in a sport that's grown increasingly complex in the decades since Snyder first took over at Kansas State, that advice like this could still resonate. I mean, I have no doubt that Snyder's football knowledge is as deep and varied as that of any coach in the country, but there is a reason why Snyder's micromanagerial wisdom has proven so successful, and it's because he is dealing with young men ages 22 and under. They are impressionable, and they yearn for father (or grandfather) figures, and maybe it is easier for Snyder to mold them because Manhattan is so far from everything, so inherently Midwestern that it is hard to think of any college campus that more typifies the region. But whatever the reason, it is impossible to deny that it has worked: When Snyder left, K-State fell off. When he came back, they immediately improved again.

"It's his blueprint," said lineman B.J. Finney. "It's what he believes. Stay focused on what's at hand. Just be us."

It is not surprising that all this unprecedented national attention makes Snyder uncomfortable; hence him spending most of that press conference diminishing the cosmic significance of most everything his team has accomplished, and insisting only on the reality of today. For years, he had to peddle a belief in Kansas State when no one else did, pitching the merits of an arid program located in a little town on the plains. And now, as the calendar turns to November, he finds himself faced with the opposite problem: His little empire, careering toward an undefeated season and anchored by a Heisman Trophy favorite, will grow too big to control.

"You could say that about life and all athletics," he said. "You get one thing fixed, and something else pops up."

I believe he was speaking about another topic altogether, but the wisdom applies here. It often does.


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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