timbersfan's WunderBlog

barnwell trades

By: timbersfan, 8:57 AM GMT on October 31, 2013

Yesterday's NFL trade deadline came and went with a flurry of activi … oh, just the one deal, then? I guess that works, too. Despite rumors swirling around everybody from Adrian Peterson to Kenny Britt, the only swap consummated Tuesday saw the Eagles deal nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga and a sixth-round pick to the Patriots for a fifth-rounder. It was an admission of failure from Philly; Sopoaga just signed with the Eagles in free agency in March, and for the privilege of moving up about 20 picks in the later rounds of this year's draft, they paid Sopoaga in excess of $3 million. (And if you think that still might be worth it, the signing hurts their chances of ending up with an extra compensatory pick.)

The leaguewide silence is wildly disappointing, if entirely expected. NFL teams are loath to publicly give up on their season, and with a 16-game schedule dictating that teams really just need a hot stretch to become a playoff contender again, it's easy for would-be sellers to buy in and believe that they're capable of turning things around with the players they already have. Teams with winning records are more likely to believe they're the way they are because of the talent already on hand, and won't want to spend key development time during the second half of the season on getting a new player up to speed. You can learn a baseball team's signs or a basketball team's sets in an hour. It can take you weeks to learn a football team's playbook. That's why in-season trades are so rare. And given that three notable players (Bryant McKinnie, Eugene Monroe, and Trent Richardson) were already traded during the regular season, it's no surprise that this trade deadline was a quiet one.

Of course, just because the trade deadline was quiet doesn't mean that teams should have been quiet. There were a number of organizations with gaping holes in need of a quick fix, and several more with players who needed to go out the door. Hopeless teams like Jacksonville and Minnesota could have saved millions of dollars while getting rid of a player who won't help them win this year anyway.

That's where I'm stepping in. I'm going 24 hours back in time, turning on Commissioner Mode, and making a whole bunch of trades that help both teams. (Is that the most Grantland sentence ever?) While Robert Mays put together a bunch of potential trades in September, I'm going to focus on the guys who were actively discussed as likely trade candidates over the past couple of weeks. I'll try to include situations in which a team could come reasonably close to fitting each player into its available salary-cap space, although the murky rules of the league's cap system dictate that there's some flexibility possible with any deal. Put it this way: The Seahawks have just less than $3.6 million in cap space available, per Spotrac. I'm not sending Jared Allen and the $8 million or so left on the final year of his deal there. Let's start with him, though …

Jared Allen, DE, Vikings

Destination: Broncos

Denver is really the only spot on the national landscape that makes sense for Allen. You would only really think about picking up his massive salary if you were a competitive team playing a 4-3 defense in need of a pass-rusher. That leaves, by my count, the Patriots, Chargers, Cowboys, Lions, and Bears. There's not a ton of salary-cap space left floating around to pick up a contract this big, even if it's the final year of Allen's deal. The Bears ($3.8 million), Chargers ($3.3 million), Cowboys ($2.4 million), and Lions ($2.7 million) all don't have enough space to squeeze Allen onto their roster. The Broncos have nearly $10 million in cap space left after the Elvis Dumervil fiasco, and while Shaun Phillips has been effective since coming over from San Diego, adding Allen allows Denver to rush Allen, Phillips, and Von Miller at the passer on most third downs. That's scary. Allen would have had a bigger impact in San Diego on a Chargers team that's totally desperate for a pass rush, but Denver was the only team that fit our qualifications.

Isaac Sopoaga, NT, Eagles

Destination: 49ers

Forget that Patriots deal. Sopoaga needs to return to his roots and get back together with the 49ers. Sopoaga washed out in Philadelphia, but the 49ers lost Sopoaga's replacement, Ian Williams, to a season-ending injury earlier this year. Former backup Ricky Jean-Francois is in Indianapolis, which means the 49ers are down to Glenn Dorsey and fifth-round pick Quinton Dial at nose tackle. Sopoaga could have returned in a situational role without any future money guaranteed.

Kenny Britt, WR, Titans

Destination: Patriots

This seems like a good fit. The Titans may very well cut Britt in the near future, given that he wore out his welcome with the organization and isn't playing regularly. The former Rutgers star is in the final year of his rookie deal and has been one of the worst players in football when he has been on the field (in addition to rumors about his off-field activities), but he's not far removed from looking like one of the most promising weapons in the game before his torn ACL. The Patriots are desperate for anything resembling a big-play weapon at wide receiver and have a history of taking chances on players who were toxic elsewhere. It seems like the opportunity would have been worth a conditional seventh-round pick.

Fred Davis, TE, Washington

Destination: Raiders

Oakland's surprising offense has gotten little out of its tight ends; starter Jeron Mastrud has four catches this season, while backup Mychal Rivera has 12 catches for 138 yards. Davis hasn't looked like his former self since returning from his torn Achilles, but he was also dealing with a high ankle sprain before the emergence of Jordan Reed, which has reduced Davis to a healthy scratch. Even if Davis doesn't have his previous athleticism yet, he would offer the Raiders a viable pair of hands to aid in the continuing development of Terrelle Pryor. Again, this would be a deal for a conditional seventh-round pick, basically the bare minimum to justify getting Davis off the roster.

Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Cardinals

Destination: Eagles

This is a tough one. The Cardinals are floating trade rumors regarding Fitzgerald to soften the blow when they eventually decide to move on from their star wide receiver, either via trade or release. Fitzgerald's numbers have dipped badly over the past couple of seasons, and while that's likely due to poor quarterback play, it's pretty clear Arizona doesn't want to tie up $18 million per year in cap space on a wide receiver in his thirties.

It seems more likely that the Cardinals will deal Fitzgerald after the season, but if they were going to deal him now, the most obvious landing point would be Carolina or Philadelphia. I already have somebody in mind for the Panthers, so I'm sending Fitzgerald back to Pennsylvania, where he played his college ball a few hours away in Pittsburgh. The Eagles actually have just less than $19 million available on their cap this year and should have been able to fit Fitzgerald in, and it would have given them the receiver they sorely need to beat man coverage across from DeSean Jackson (albeit at a heavy price). The personnel fit makes a bit of sense, but it's hard to imagine the two teams agreeing on a price; nobody's going to give up a premium pick for Fitzgerald given his age and salary, and the Cardinals would struggle to deal their long-time face of the franchise without getting a notable pick in return.

Hakeem Nicks, WR, Giants

Destination: Panthers

Meanwhile, I think the Panthers opt for a younger, cheaper option at wideout. The Giants aren't likely to deal Nicks inside the NFC East, but a move to Carolina would make more sense. The Panthers desperately need a wideout who can make plays alongside Steve Smith and Greg Olsen, and while Nicks has had an awful case of the drops this season, he has been getting open for pass-catching opportunities. If the Giants aren't re-signing Nicks after the season — and it certainly doesn't look like they're interested — they should have moved on. Nicks was born in Charlotte, played high school football there, and went to college at North Carolina. He belongs on the Panthers. Nicks is also regarded as a solid human being off the field, which is one of the reasons why I think the Panthers would opt for him as opposed to the final wideout in this discussion …

Josh Gordon, WR, Browns

Destination: Nowhere

I can't do this one. Gordon has been incredible since he returned from his suspension; his numbers, prorated to a full season, would produce 85 catches and 1,552 receiving yards. And that's with Jason Campbell, Brian Hoyer, and Brandon Weeden throwing him the ball. He's 22 years old. The Browns are going to pick a quarterback with one of their first-round picks in next year's draft. Why would they want to get rid of that quarterback's franchise wide receiver? I understood trading Richardson away. I can't imagine how trading Gordon makes much sense.

Tony Gonzalez, TE, Falcons

Destination: Chiefs

I don't care what anybody else wants. Maybe Gonzalez wants to stay in Atlanta. Maybe the Falcons want to keep their tight end under some impossible comeback plan. Maybe the Chiefs don't want to trade away their draft picks. Whatever. I'm the commissioner, right? The Chiefs send a sixth-round pick to the Falcons for Gonzalez, giving their former star one last chance at a title and Alex Smith something resembling a consistent receiving option during Kansas City's run to the playoffs. Air a three-minute "Welcome Back" video before his first home game that gets everybody in tears. This is also, by the way, my plan for what should happen when the Chiefs let Dontari Poe eat local barbecue again for the first time next offseason.

Maurice Jones-Drew, RB, Jaguars

Destination: Cowboys

If the Cowboys want a veteran running back, by all means, let them give Jacksonville another midround pick to upgrade on DeMarco Murray. No refunds on this one. The Adrian Peterson rumors never made any sense given Dallas's bleak cap situation, but MJD would be a viable option for the remainder of 2013.

I'd probably throw in a few more deals for the teams that recently saw regulars suffer season-ending injuries. Maybe Falcons defensive tackle Peria Jerry and Giants utility offensive lineman David Diehl head to New England. There's gotta be a guard — Jacksonville's Uche Nwaneri? — to help out the Cowboys after Brian Waters went down for the season this week. If the Jaguars are dealing MJD and Nwaneri, why not burn the thing down and ship linebacker Paul Posluszny to the Bengals, who just lost Rey Maualuga for a month with a sprained MCL? And with the Lions benching both of their starting cornerbacks at different points during the first half, wouldn't it make sense to pick up Atlanta's Asante Samuel for the stretch run?

OK, so some of these trades make more sense than others. (The Fitzgerald deal seems pretty unlikely.) In every case, though, there's a team with an obvious need at a position and a player who was purportedly on the market when the trading deadline went down on Tuesday. I could do this every day. What else can I do with this Commissioner Mode power? How do I push Eli Manning's interception rating out of the teens? Somebody help me with this thing.


By: timbersfan, 5:22 AM GMT on October 26, 2013

Last weekend was everything good and bad about the Dallas Cowboys. The team on the field was exhibiting an impressive, high-variance performance: Despite holding star linebacker DeMarcus Ware out with an injury for the first time since Dallas drafted him in 2005, the much-maligned Cowboys defense delivered an elite performance by limiting one of the league's best offenses, Philadelphia, to a lone field goal in a 17-3 victory.1

Off the field last weekend, the Cowboys were asserting their own shortcomings through the media. One report noted that the Cowboys were unhappy with injured running back DeMarco Murray, a player who fell to their third-round pick of the 2011 draft specifically because he had so many injury issues at Oklahoma. The report suggested that the Cowboys wanted to replace Murray and upgrade at running back " … possibly in a big way," implying that the Cowboys would be looking to acquire a big-ticket running back who is being paid a premium salary. Hours later, Adam Schefter tweeted that the Cowboys are expected to be $31 million over the salary cap next year, with an NFL executive decrying their financial situation as "a train wreck."

At the heart of all those contradictions and inconsistencies is Jerry Jones, the owner/general manager of the Cowboys, who runs his team like the Dutch boy who constantly plugs dikes with hundred-dollar bills. Since Bill Parcells left in January of 2007, Jones's organization has been consistently successful at only one thing: draining the family coffers. It pays top dollar for premium talent, and sees the guys on the bottom of its roster blow plays that cost it playoff chances. The Cowboys have moments when they look like the best team in football and moments when they look entirely incompetent, occasionally during the same contest. They have terrible drafts and great drafts. They do something good teams do — lock up their own young talent — and somehow make more mistakes doing it than anybody else. If insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results, nobody is crazier than Jerry Jones, personnel man.

Let's start with that running back situation, a scary case of history repeating itself. When the Cowboys decided to move on from Troy Hambrick following the 2003 season, they made moves in two different directions. First, they drafted Julius Jones in the second round of the 2004 draft. Later that summer they added Eddie George2 on a one-year, $2.2 million deal and handed him the starting job. Jones would get hurt in Week 2, but when he came back, the Cowboys were so sick of George's middling play that they inserted Jones directly into the starting lineup; Jones got 30 carries during his first game back and averaged 27 carries per game the rest of the way. It was the first example of the Cowboys getting sick of their established back while hankering for a younger, more explosive player to succeed in his place.

That pattern kept going. Jones ran for 2,077 yards over the next two seasons, but when he failed to look like a franchise back by the end of the 2006 season, the team got sick of him and everybody — fans, media, and organizational types alike3 — wanted to move on to the bruising back it had drafted as his backup, Marion Barber. Jones started all 16 games in 2007, but Barber out-carried him and took over as the starter following the season. Barber got a seven-year, $45 million deal before the 2008 season, but Dallas was dissatisfied with his work by the end of 2009, with Barber failing to live up to the promise he had shown as a part-time back. The fans clamored for speedy first-round pick Felix Jones to play a bigger role, and so Jones did … while failing to live up to expectations. Jones averaged 6.5 yards per carry during his first two seasons as a part-time player, and then 4.2 yards per carry over three seasons as the nominal starter. The crowd got sick of the inconsistent Jones and called for the punishing back who ran for 253 yards in his sixth game as a pro, Murray, who started the following week and every one of the games for which he has been healthy since.

And now, with Murray having failed to deliver on his initial promise, the Cowboys are hankering for another change at running back. The only problem this time around is that there's no obvious replacement on the roster; if fifth-round pick Joseph Randle plays well in Murray's stead as his injury replacement, the Cowboys will turn to him. Otherwise, they'll continue to cycle through flavor of the month after flavor of the month, using up valuable assets in the process. Dallas has already run through one mammoth failure of a contract (Barber), a first-round pick (Felix Jones), a second-round pick (Julius Jones), and a third-round pick (Murray) without finding a single long-term solution at running back. A rational person might notice all those problems and change strategy; the Cowboys see those mistakes and want to, for some reason, devote more money to the running back position. You remember that famous saying: Fifth time's the charm.

The weird, inconsistent part of that argument is that the Cowboys have actually had great success mining the scrap heap and undrafted free-agent pools for players who became key contributors to their core.4 Most famously, Tony Romo was an undrafted free agent who joined the team after going unselected in the 2003 draft, but he's not the only one. Miles Austin was signed as an undrafted free agent following Parcells's final draft with the team in 2006 and later became a Pro Bowl wideout. Marc Colombo was an offensive lineman almost literally on the scrap heap whom the Cowboys signed on a lark during the 2005 season and turned into an above-average tackle. Ken Hamlin was signed on a one-year, $2.5 million deal 17 months after getting into a nightclub altercation that ended his previous season, promptly making the Pro Bowl during his first season with the team. And Jay Ratliff was forced into a job after Parcells favorite Jason Ferguson suffered a season-ending injury, the 224th pick in the 2005 draft eventually becoming a Pro Bowl tackle. All these players delivered far more than the Cowboys ever could have dreamed. And Romo aside, every single one of them received contract extensions the Cowboys would later regret.

That is the biggest problem with the Dallas Cowboys: Nobody misjudges and overpays the talent on hand more than Jerry Jones and his organization. From 2006 (Parcells's final year with the team), the Cowboys have been almost comically shortsighted in signing players who were already on the roster to long-term extensions. You can almost build an entire team out of bad Cowboys extensions. No, really:5

Pos Player Contract Signed Departed
HB Marion Barber 7 years, $45 million 2008 2011
WR Terry Glenn 5 years, $20 million 2006 2008
WR Patrick Crayton 4 years, $14 million 2008 2010
WR Terrell Owens 4 years, $34 million 2008 2009
WR Roy Williams 5 years, $45 million 2008 2011
WR Miles Austin 6 years, $57 million 2011 —
T Doug Free 4 years, $32 million 2011 —
T Marc Colombo 4 years, $22 million 2008 2011
C Andre Gurode 6 years, $30 million 2007 2011
DE Marcus Spears 5 years, $19 million 2011 2013
DT Jay Ratliff 5 years, $40 million 2011 2013
CB Terence Newman 6 years, $50 million 2008 2012
CB Orlando Scandrick 5 years, $27 million 2011 —
S Gerald Sensabaugh 5 years, $23 million 2012 2013
S Roy Williams 5 years, $25 million 2006 2009
S Ken Hamlin 6 years, $39 million 2008 2010
None of those guys is, in a vacuum, a bad football player. When the Cowboys signed them to their massive deals, each had exhibited some promise that he could live up to a contract of that stature. In every single case, they failed to do so. By the time each of these players was released, he was playing at a level that didn't remotely match his compensation. Beyond the players who are still on the roster, every single one of these core players had to be released or traded before his deal was up. The three who are left are unlikely to make it to the end of their deals. In total, I can find four Cowboys players who signed notable extensions during this time frame and delivered enough on their deals to either justify another contract or finish out their extension without being traded or released: Romo, Ware, Jason Witten, and Bradie James.

For the uninitiated, NFL contracts are extremely complicated but work off of two simple components: the base salary and the signing bonus. Base salaries are provided for every year of a contract, but in most cases they're not guaranteed. There are a variety of bonuses in contracts, but the simplest one is a signing bonus, which is paid out as a guaranteed figure when the contract is signed. The NFL allows teams to spread the contract hit from a signing bonus across the length of the deal for purposes of the salary cap, so if a player signs a five-year deal worth $45 million with a $20 million signing bonus, even though the player might take home that $20 million bonus the day he signs, the team doesn't charge that figure to its cap. The cap figure for each season is the base salary in the contract plus that $20 million bonus split five ways (for five seasons), for a $4 million figure. If the team cuts a player after two seasons, it doesn't have to pay his base salaries, but whatever bonus money hasn't already been accounted for on the cap accelerates into that year's cap. If our player being cut before Year 3 has a $5 million base salary, the team can cut him without paying the salary out, but with $4 million of the bonus paid for in each of the first two seasons, there are still three $4 million bonus "payments" left on the contract. Those bonus figures all accelerate into "dead money," the cap figure for a player who isn't on the team. In this case, the player's cap hold would be $9 million to play for the team ($5 million base salary and $4 million bonus) and $12 million to leave ($0 base salary and $12 million in accelerated bonus). It gets more complicated than that, but that's the basics.

In making all these moves, the Cowboys repeatedly tried to push their cap problems into the future. When they released players like Terrell Owens and Hamlin shortly after signing them, massive amounts of dead money hit their cap. This year alone, the Cowboys already have more than $14 million in dead money clogging their cap, with departed players like Ratliff, Gerald Sensabaugh, Terence Newman, and Nate Livings leading the ranks. They already have nearly $12 million in dead money on next year's cap because of how the dead money from the Ratliff deal was distributed; his contract will not be alone.

Dallas thought it had a solution to its dead money problems, but that ended up causing it more grief. The uncapped year at the end of the old CBA in 2010 theoretically gave a team like Dallas a chance to soak up all the dead money it could while creating an opportunity to load up the base salaries for new players in the meantime. That's exactly what the Cowboys did; not only did they have some or all of the onerous deals for the likes of Hamlin and Owens expire during the uncapped year, they structured Austin's extension to give him a $17 million base salary in 2010 that essentially served as a signing bonus; because it was a base salary, though, the Cowboys were able to absorb the entire cap hit in 2010 as opposed to over the full length of the deal. The NFL frowned upon the move, fining the Cowboys millions of dollars in cap space for the 2012 and 2013 seasons.

Instead, the Cowboys have to create cap space by perpetually restructuring contracts and turning large base salaries into signing bonuses that they can then spread over the length of the deal. Take Witten, who has four years left on his deal and a base salary of $5 million next year with $3.4 million in bonuses, for a cap hit of $8.4 million. The Cowboys need Witten, but they also need to field a team and create cap space. What they usually do is renegotiate the contract by turning most of that base salary — let's say $4 million — into a guaranteed signing bonus. Witten gets his money up front, but the Cowboys get to spread that $4 million over the four remaining years of the deal at $1 million per year. Now, the Cowboys' theoretical cap for 2014 has Witten with a base salary of $1 million and assorted bonuses totaling $4.4 million; that's a total of just $5.4 million, meaning the Cowboys now have $3 million more to throw around. It's a painless transaction … until Witten (or one of the guys from that table) is no longer playable. That's when all the bonuses you've been throwing into the back of the deal for years come due, and you're paying millions in dead money.

That brings us to 2014 and the season of reckoning that appears to be coming for the Cowboys. Schefter's report notes that the Cowboys are going to be $31 million over the cap. Want to know how that'll happen? Here are the seven largest contracts on Dallas's roster (per Spotrac.com) and how their cap hold changes from 2013 to 2014:

Player 2013 2014
Tony Romo $11.8 million $21.7 million
DeMarcus Ware $8.1 million $16.0 million
Miles Austin $3.6 million $8.2 million
Jason Witten $4.4 million $8.4 million
Brandon Carr $5.4 million $12.2 million
Sean Lee $2.9 million $7.5 million
Orlando Scandrick $2.8 million $5.6 million
Total $39.0 million $79.6 million
Yikes. Oh, and one more thing: Two pretty important players for the Cowboys are in the final year of their contracts in 2014. Wide receiver Dez Bryant and left tackle Tyron Smith are two players the team will have to re-sign, and even if they sign deals in 2014 that don't begin until 2015, there's not exactly a lot of wiggle room to work with. This is a brutal situation.

It is, however, fixable in the short term. Jason Fitzgerald's Over the Cap site does a good job of getting into the gory details of each move and how it will specifically affect the Cowboys' cap figure, and he has a good plan to use as a starting point. I'm going to sneak in a couple of my own moves, too.

1. Restructure the contracts of Romo, Lee, Brandon Carr, and Witten. The new deals signed by Romo and Lee this past year each have two bonus-free seasons at the end of the contract that are designed to absorb renegotiations, while Fitzgerald suggests that Carr's deal might be renegotiated to add a season that would be voidable by the team. In all, those four moves would save Dallas about $22 million in cap room for the 2014 season. It doesn't help at all in figuring out how the Cowboys will fit the Bryant and Smith deals under their cap in 2015, but the goal here isn't to build a long-term viable strategy, it's to balance the budget today.

2. Release Doug Free. Releasing Free would create a hole in the starting lineup, but it would save the team $3.5 million with no future repercussions.

3. Release Austin after June 1. The Austin deal was supposed to give the Cowboys some cap relief in future seasons, but because they've renegotiated it several times, there's now a significant cap hit no matter what they do with Austin. His cap hit for 2014 is $8.3 million if he remains on the roster, but if the Cowboys release him, they'll owe $7.9 million in dead money. To make things easier, they'll have to designate Austin as a post–June 1 release, which allows them to spread the hit from the release over two seasons. Fitzgerald suggests this will free up $5.5 million.

Those big moves alone save the Cowboys $31 million. They can make moves elsewhere on the roster — rent, don't buy, Mackenzy Bernadeau — and renounce the rights to Anthony Spencer, who took up $10 million on the cap this year as the team's franchise player but isn't included in next year's totals. Jason Hatcher seems like an essential player right now, but Dallas might not be able to afford him when he hits free agency this offseason. It can choose to go year-to-year with Tyron Smith and use a team option to sign him for an additional season in 2015 at a price equivalent to the average salary of the top 10 offensive tackles in football, which is basically a mini–franchise tag, using that to stagger the first years of the new long-term deals for Bryant (2015) and Smith (2016), but this is all short-term window dressing that hides a long-term problem.

The bigger issue, as Fitzgerald notes, is what to do with Ware, who is currently in the fifth season of what amounts to a nine-year deal with the team. For Ware, both professionally and contractually, the future is now. Ware has base salaries of $12 million or more in each of the four years remaining on his deal, with cap holds ranging between $14 million and $17 million; it would be exceedingly difficult to push any more money from his deal into the future. Furthermore, if the Cowboys decided to move on from Ware, they would actually realize the meaningful cap savings that they would need to lock up Smith and/or Bryant to long-term deals. If they don't touch Ware's contract, they would save $7.4 million by releasing him before 2014 or, more likely, $12.1 million by releasing him before 2015. That seems like anathema considering how well Ware has played during his time in Dallas, but the Cowboys just can't afford to keep him and Romo while giving big contracts to Bryant and Smith, while the contracts to Lee and Carr will be too onerous to move. Dallas could try to give Ware a new contract, but it seems unlikely Ware would take a deal that would massively slice his pay, and at 31, it would be near-suicidal to give Ware another top-caliber deal that stretched his pay across six or seven years. Barring a new deal, it seems plausible the Cowboys would expect to move on from Ware after the 2014 season. If you start seeing the negative stories about Ware trickling into the Dallas media over the next few months, you'll know what Dallas is planning to do.

This, for many years now, has been the Jerry Jones plan. After Jimmy Johnson left, Jones's drafts were terrible and his coaches were mostly bad until Parcells came around. Now, since Parcells has left, Jones's drafts have mostly been bad (2010 aside) and he has traded away valuable draft assets for hunches on players who weren't worth it. Jones traded first- and third-round picks for wide receiver Roy Williams at the trade deadline in 2008 when Williams was about to become a free agent at the end of the season. He dealt a second-round pick to St. Louis in 2012 to trade up and grab cornerback Morris Claiborne, a move that has been an unmitigated disaster so far.

So, given that his team is facing a cap Armageddon that Jones keeps putting off year after year, why wouldn't he be interested in an expensive running back? The only guy who makes sense is Maurice Jones-Drew, who would be a free agent after the season that the Cowboys couldn't possibly afford to re-sign. Never mind that Jones-Drew has been essentially useless this season, or that a trade would cost Jones one of the draft picks he desperately needs to restock the depth on his paper-thin roster. It's no surprise that the guy with the billion-dollar stadium and the enormous video screen would be distracted by shiny things.

bills 10-25

By: timbersfan, 5:19 AM GMT on October 26, 2013

Greetings from Boston! I haven't been home since the night LeBron James saved Miami's championship season, eviscerated the 2012 Celtics AND played the greatest game of his life. Last night at Fenway Park, my streak of coming-home gut punches climbed to two when Craig Breslow went full-scale Calvin Schiraldi during a monstrosity of a seventh-inning meltdown. I might never come back. Good things happen to Boston sports teams when I'm 3,000 miles away — that's been the deal for 11 solid years and it's the biggest reason why I refuse to leave Los Angeles. Don't worry, I'm leaving Boston before Game 3 starts.

The good news? I'm in the middle of the worst NFL handicapping slump of my career. Oh, wait, that's horrible news. An Alabama reader named David Krakower summed it up best: "Simmons, I want to congratulate you on your John Anthony–like performance of picking games this weekend. No, not the weekend when he miraculously goes 14-0. Not that weekend. The weekend he goes 2-12, prompting Walter Burke to proclaim that monkeys throwing darts could do better and then having Mr. Novian 'meet him in the park' to urinate all over him. Kudos — you pulled off a 2-13! You must be so proud."

You know it's gone bad when readers are comparing you to characters from wretched Matthew McConaughey movies.1 You also know it's gone bad when readers are thanking you for your dreadful picks — you know, because they went against them for their own financial gain — which is the lowest you can sink in gambling without selling your possessions or your body.

I like to make excuses whenever my picks fall apart. It's never my fault. I'll blame a book tour, or one of my kids being born, or too much traveling … just know it wasn't ME. This time around, my creaky-all-season picks finally fell apart after we decided to produce 30 "Bill and Jalen NBA Previews" in less than a month. People seem to like these videos, which makes us happy, but attempting this series with a skeleton Grantland Channel staff was one of my five dumbest ideas ever, maybe even worse than my ill-fated cartoon. I don't know whose wife hates her husband more right now, Mrs. Simmons or Mrs. Jacoby, but it's probably a toss-up. There's a good chance Jacoby and I will be living in a one-bedroom apartment on Wilshire soon and sharing the same divorce lawyer. The least you can do is watch the damned clips. Here's our latest preview (the Clippers).

So you're thinking you should just start going against me every week. I get it. With the NBA season starting Tuesday, you know I'm still immersed in all things NBA … and you know there's a 95 percent chance I'm getting bronchitis on the flight back to Los Angeles. You should be profiting from my incompetence. That's what you're telling yourself.

But I need you to remember one thing …

We live in a world in which, over the span of five unfathomable weeks, the immortal Ron Rivera flipped the script and became a competent head coach in the National Football League. You might remember a then-winless Panthers team squandering an agonizing Week 2 game in Buffalo and one of my readers writing, "I find it funny that Rivera, the worst game closer in the NFL, shares his name with the best baseball closer ever. In October when both of them are out of work (hopefully), my only wish is to see them paired together. Maybe Mariano and Ron star in a sitcom called the Two Riveras. Story lines include them going to a bar with Ron buying drinks for a girl all night until Mariano sweeps in at closing time to take her home while Ron stands there with a blank look on his face. Every week the same situation happens and nothing changes because that is the life of a Panthers fan."

What happened? Rivera finally embraced advanced metrics and unexpectedly morphed into "Riverboat Ron" (as ESPN delightfully dubbed him). Here's how Riverboat Ron explained his new identity in a watershed ESPN.com piece on October 15. The quotes belong to Rivera; my thoughts are in parentheses.

"Which is the right call? The right call turns out to be one that you win with."

(Hey, high school seniors — feel free to steal that one as your yearbook quote. Make sure to credit him as "Riverboat Ron.")

"If you win it's a great call. It goes all the way back to everybody talking about what Coach Belichick did against Indianapolis. … That's not a gamble. It's what I believe is a calculated attempt. I do mean that in all sincerity."

(Note: Huge progress from someone who spent two-plus seasons treating fourth-and-ones like they were grenades, even though he had the best short-yardage QB in the league. It's always funny when people say things with 100 percent conviction that they didn't believe five weeks ago. Hold on, Riverboat Ron ain't done yet.)

"I do have a checklist that I try to go through and try to look at prior to going out on the field. Are we expected to win? What type of game are we anticipating? Will this be a ground-and-pound-type game?"

(Note: A checklist that includes questions like "Are we expected to win?" CUTTING EDGE! I NEED TO KNOW MORE!)

"So there is a checklist with 32 things that I go through."

(Wait, there are 32 things on Riverboat Ron's checklist???? How did he get to that number? What else is on there? And why do I have a feeling that he has stuff on there like, "Are you acting like a huge wimp on fourth-and-1?" and "Are your players afraid to make eye contact with you because you just blew the game?" and "Are you forgetting to breathe and blink?" I think I'd pay five grand to see the rest of Riverboat Ron's checklist.)

"I go through those before I go out (on the) field in my mind trying to set those things up. Obviously, my attitude has changed on a few of those points."

(Translation: "I'd like to thank Bill Barnwell's weekly 'Thank You for Not Coaching' column for changing the way I approach these games. Mr. Barnwell had a dramatic impact on my life." Does anyone else love the thought of Ron Rivera strolling onto a football field mentally rehashing items from his generic 32-item coaching checklist? I don't think I have ever loved a non-Patriots coach more. I love you, Riverboat Ron.)

"The analytics of football really plays into those things."

(It sure does, Riverboat Ron! Who knew? This brand-new analytics movement really came out of the blue — it took all of us by surprise.)

"There are a lot [of] things I go through now understanding it even more and learning it. As I look at it as a defensive coordinator you look at it one way, and then putting on the hat of a head coach you have to look at it most certainly from a different perspective."

("So what if it took 34 regular-season games to get there, and so what if I almost murdered the collective will of the entire Panthers fan base? I'm here!!!!!!")

"It's something that I've kind of grown into."


Look — if Ron Rivera can avoid the firing line by turning into Riverboat Ron, then I can turn things around in 2013. Go against me at your own risk. I'm climbing back over .500 before the playoffs start, and not by pulling a Chris Berman and making my final Sunday-night pick in Week 17 worth 20 games, either. I'm getting it done the old-fashioned way. It's happening. The comeback begins this week. Without further ado, the Week 8 picks.

(Home teams in caps.)

Panthers (-6.5) over BUCS
Here we go! 1-0! I'm back, baby! This was an easy one — you had 2013's Good Bad Team (a.k.a., the team that beats up on all the other bad teams but can't beat anyone good) playing 2013's Everything Has Gone To Hell Team during a week with headlines like "Greg Schiano loses Tampa Bay Buccaneers with autocratic style" and "Tampa radio station buys 19 'Fire Schiano' billboards." The way Schiano is free-falling, we might have to change my "WARM" ("Wins Above Raheem Morris") stat to "WAGS" ("Wins Above Greg Schiano").

Palm Beach reader Joshua summed it up best: "Which do you think teams should be more worried about catching when playing in Tampa Bay — the flesh-eating, terrible-PR-creating disease wracking the Buccaneers, or MRSA?"

San Diego's Bye Week (-6.5) over Chicago's Bye Week
So long, 2013 Bears. Thanks for coming. We have some parting gifts for you. On the flip side, the Chargers are looking a little no. 6–seedish, aren't they? I enjoyed this email from Hamm Hooper in St. Louis: "Did you hear that Philip Rivers is expecting his seventh child? Do you think it's possible that Rivers is attempting to become the next Archie Manning and send as many quarterbacks to the NFL as he can? Even though four of his six kids are girls so far, I don't think Rivers will stop pumping out babies until he has an adequate number of boys to make a run at the Mannings." Who makes more sense to become Archie Manning 2.0 than Philip Rivers? Wish I had thought of that one. Good work, Hamm Hooper.

CHIEFS (-7.5) over Browns
Jason Campbell — on the road, in Arrowhead — going against a ferocious Kansas City defense that feasts on sloppy QBs who make poor decisions? And I'm getting less than 14 points? Make that 2-and-0! I'm back, baby! Hold on, I have some assorted Chiefs-Browns thoughts that require snazzy bullet points:

• Not only was Kansas City gift-wrapped the easiest schedule of the year, it somehow became EASIER after four weeks thanks to an incredible five-game stretch of Ryan Fitzpatrick, Terrelle Pryor,2 Case Keenum, Campbell and Thad Lewis (next week). Does anyone else think that Andy Reid sold his soul to the devil, Kurt Warner–style, right before they offered him this Chiefs job?

• Jamaal Charles has been a borderline MVP candidate for Kansas City. It's hard to imagine them cracking 13 points a game if you switched him with a half-decent back. You know what else? He's trailing only Peyton Manning in the fantasy football MVP rankings through seven weeks; right now in a non-PPR league with conventional scoring, he's 20 points higher than any other non-quarterback. And he's been REALLY fun to watch. (Cut to every Chiefs fan screaming, "Shut up, Simmons! You're gonna blow out his left hamstring! STOP TALKING!")

• From Santa Ana reader Lee Vasquez: "At the beginning of the 4th quarter of the Chiefs-Texans game, Jim Nantz and Phil Simms confirmed that Andy Reid gave them 'a full scouting report' on all the BBQ joints in Kansas City. I felt very proud of you as a reader on hearing this." I feel proud that you felt proud, Lee.

• So long, Brandon Weeden. We knew you were in trouble when Cleveland.com ran a poll wondering "Which former Cleveland Browns quarterback since 1999 would you take over Brandon Weeden?" One of the choices was "I'd stick with Brandon Weeden," which was probably a better option than "I am going to keep wrapping Saran Wrap around my face until I stop breathing." Here's how the vote broke down …

Tim Couch: 22.8 percent
Colt McCoy: 17.1 percent
Kelly Holcomb: 16.1 percent
Thaddeus Lewis: 12.1 percent
Jeff Garcia: 9.27 percent
Derek Anderson: 8.11 percent
I'll Stick With Brandon Weeden: 5.77 percent
Trent Dilfer: 2.8 percent
Brady Quinn: 2.68 percent
Seneca Wallace: 1.98 percent
Charlie Frye: 1.0 percent

Some follow-up thoughts: First, what an incredible list. I'm just honored to be here. Second, "I'll Stick With Brandon Weeden" is either a phenomenal fantasy team name or a phenomenal name for an indie movie about a crazy Browns fan who ends up going on a killing spree, or both. Third, Charlie Frye's performance in the vote is one of the 19 or 20 funniest things that ever happened. When you can't crack higher than 1 percent on THAT list? My god. Fourth, any vote that covers 15 years of QBs and yields a second-place finish for Colt McCoy but doesn't include the words "worst" or "painful" … I mean, who knew this was possible? What a list. I could stare at that list all day.

• Hard to argue with this prediction from Ohio reader Darrin Lacheta: "Here's how I see Cleveland at KC playing out: Campbell looks mediocre, then suffers a season ending injury in the second quarter, putting Weeden back at the helm. The Browns sign Brady Quinn as their backup. Quinn ultimately gets to start a game after Thanksgiving, but gets injured putting Weeden back at QB. It's a familiar script to us Browns fans. I feel it's written in the stars. Can this season play out any other way?" And then, Darrin went on a 15-person killing spree and inspired the 2015 indie movie that won Sundance, I'll Stick With Brandon Weeden, written and directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

• One more email, courtesy of Cleveland fan Daniel Donatelli: "In your most recent Cousin Sal podcast, you wondered how it came to be that Brandon Weeden was selected in the first round. I was born in Cleveland, and I've lived here throughout this whole nightmarish process, and this is my understanding of how that happened: It was Mike Holmgren. """""""""QB Guru""""""""" (I can't put enough quotation marks around it.) Mike Holmgren brought in Tom Heckert to be the General Manager, but in the months leading up the Richardson/Weeden Draft Debacle, we Clevelanders were told that """"""""""""QB Guru""""""""""" Mike Holmgren was putting all of his efforts into scouting the college ranks for the absolute right guy to lead the Browns. In Holmgren/Heckert's first draft, they picked up Bust McCoy in the third round, and then a few years later, after falling on their chins trying to trade up get RGKnee, they traded up for a below-average running back and then drafted Derek Anderson's father. I despise Mike Holmgren so much that I think there should be a serious reconsideration of his Hall-of-Fame credentials AS A COACH. He robbed the Browns of money, and more importantly he robbed Cleveland Browns fans of time, and then he rode out of town with an organization burning to the ground, and honestly (DELETED BY THE EDITORS SO YOU DIDN'T THINK DANIEL DONATELLI WAS A MANIAC). Now it looks like Mike Lombardi might actually know what he's doing after all, which puts the over/under on 6 months before Jimmy Haslam is forced to sell the team. God hates Cleveland? What God?"

(I take it back: We're making Daniel Donatelli the lead character in I'll Stick With Brandon Weeden, written and directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Anyway, I'm laying the points this week if it's OK with you.)

LIONS (-3) over Cowboys
Both of these teams zig when you think they're gonna zag. That means the Lions win this week. I think. In other news, ESPN.com posted a piece on October 15 centered on the following compliment about Tony Romo: "I think you can be an elusive guy without being overly skilled, overly impressed from a motor skills standpoint — guys who run fast and jump high and have this rare quickness. There have been some great athletes through the years who kind of get away from people. The great Larry Bird seemed to get away from people for a long time, right?"

The headline of the piece? "Tony Romo with Larry Bird-like ability."

Putting the Basketball Jesus in the same headline with Tony Romo? That's sports blasphemy!!! This is the worst thing ESPN has done to me in at least two weeks.

Dolphins (+7) over PATRIOTS
I'm not ready to do this one yet. Let's kill some time with Mike from Wormleysburg weighing in on my decision to write about the NBA for last Friday's column.

"Acceptable Simmons excuses for no NFL column: 1. If 'South Park' can do it, so can I. 2. Red Sox, motherf'ers. Red Sox. 3. Laptop and all computer files were stolen while I slept (although Barnwell already used that).

"Unacceptable excuses, and most likely the ones we'll be hearing: 1. I had to finish my videos talking about NBA teams three people watch. 2. I slept with my contacts in/had allergies/tweaked my back and was in gripping pain all week. 3. I had to spend all day editing a story about Rashida Jones not being a fan of Kim Kardashian."

(Words hurt, Mike from Wormleysburg. Words hurt.)

Bills (+11.5) over SAINTS
You knew Doug Marrone was our best new NFL coach this season. He's been excellent in every respect. (Congratulations, Buffalo fans.) But did you know Marrone was New Orleans's offensive coordinator from 2006 through 2008? I'm banking on some "I know how to fluster Brees" tricks in this one. And by the way, Thad Lewis isn't bad! He really isn't. I miss the days when you could just throw teams in teasers that were going against third-string QBs without even blinking … you can't do that anymore. Well, unless it's Jason Campbell. Then you can do it.

Speaking of Marrone, check out the subtle "Nobody believes in us!" messaging in this interview he did with BuffaloBills.com.

Q: Does the team get anything extra out of being an underdog in games?

A: I think it would be tough because I think we've been the underdog in every game since we've been here. If you play that underdog card, you'd play it every week … We're doing it for a bigger cause. We're doing it for the people in the region and the fans that have gone through a long period of time where we haven't been relevant. We'll just keep working and keep fighting, but I think it is one game at a time, I don't think a game is going to make a statement in that. It's going to be your body of work.
(To repeat: "We've been the underdog in every game since we've been here." Oh, like he's not saying that in the locker room on Sunday? NOBODY BELIEVES IN YOU, BUFFALO!)

Dolphins (+7) over PATRIOTS
Still not ready. In other news, Dave in Portland emails, "I was reading your Week 6 NFL column and realized I couldn't remember what "TAINT" stood for. So, I now have 'Bill Simmons TAINT' in my google search history." Now I need a new goal for 2013.

49ers (-16) over Jaguars
Good news, London — we're bringing another atrocious NFL team overseas for you! Hope you enjoy. The Jags are flirting with history in three ways: They're 40 percent of the way toward tying the all-time Clock Game record of 10; they have a legitimate shot at 0-16; and they have a chance to finish with the bottom two QBs out of 36 QBR qualifiers. Right now, Chad Henne is 34th and Blaine Gabbert is 36th. Will we ever see another NFL team trot out the TWO worst QBs in football in one season? I'm on the edge of my seat.

Indy's Bye Week (-9.5) over Tennessee's Bye Week
Great work by the Colts last week. Right now, my Super Bowl Circle (of teams that could win the Bowl if they get some breaks in January and February) includes the following teams: Denver, Seattle, San Francisco, Indy, New Orleans … and we're done. Usually that list goes eight deep, which means we have spots for three more teams. Stay tuned. Anyway, I enjoyed these two emails.

Demitri in Seattle: "When I watched my beloved Seahawks take on the Titans, throughout the game, I was paranoid that Bernard Karmell Pollard would take out DangeRuss. I think we should call this fear 'Pollardanoia' — the dread that the other team's player who just happens to consistently take out your most important player." Done. I can tell you this much — I suffer from an acute case of Pollardanoia.

Dan B. in Bethesda, Maryland: "Can we please start calling Trent Richardson 'Trent Richardson 3.0' since that is going to be his YPC for his career? Thanks!" You got it, Dan B. Can we officially say that Trent Richardson stinks yet? How many more weeks do we need? Who would get to first base faster — Trent Richardson or one of the Molina brothers?

Dolphins (+7) over PATRIOTS
Just a bizarre line. I don't think one of these teams is better than the other. Anyway, let's start here …

Player A: 1,687 yards, 60.7% comp, 6.44 YPA, 14/4 TD/INT, 90.9 rating, 48.1 QBR, +8.20 DVOA
Player B: 1,723 yards, 58.3% comp, 7.73 YPA, 8/11 TD/INT, 74.3 rating, 35.8 QBR, -18.8 DVOA
Player C: 1,708 yards, 55.4% comp, 5.99 YPA, 8/5 TD/INT, 75.3 rating, 48.5 QBR, -12.2 DVOA
Player D: 1,741 yards, 60.5% comp, 6.55 YPA, 8/13 TD/INT, 69.5 rating, 32.3 QBR, -20.3 DVOA

If you had to guess the identities of Tom Brady, Sam Bradford, Carson Palmer and Geno Smith based on those 2013 numbers, how would you pick?

(Hold on, I'll give you a few seconds.)

(And a few more.)

(And … time!)

Player A: Bradford. Player B: Geno. Player C: Brady. Player D: Palmer.

Hold on, I have to finish vomiting.

Here's the thing about Brady's lackluster season: I've watched all the games. He's been missing throws for two months. You can't just blame the new receivers when Brady keeps sailing balls over the heads of wide-open receivers. (FYI: If he hits Gronk in stride with 30 seconds remaining last week, it's game over.) Pro Football Focus reports that Brady is 9-for-37 (24 percent) on passes traveling 20-plus yards (with just one TD), something that ties into a multi-year problem (read this piece from the summer of 2012). This might be a more benevolent version of the late-career funk that plagued 36-year-old Brett Favre in 2005, when Favre fell apart during a 4-12 Packers season and finished with 20 TDs, 29 picks and a ghastly 70.9 QB rating. And remember, Favre bounced back. I'm leaning toward this being a slump and not a career-altering swoon, but you never know, and if you don't think every Pats fan is secretly freaking the eff out over this, you're crazy. We know the 2013 Pats almost definitely aren't playing in February without Vince, Mayo and (it has to be said) Hernandez, but watching Brady slowly become Just Another QB … none of us is ready for THAT yet. As my buddy Hench texted me last week, "Nobody's 50-Worst-Throws montage is worse than Brady's this year." Well, except for yours, Brandon Weeden.

One last email from Dr. Jeff in Rhode Island: "What's higher, the number of complete games played by Danny Amendola in 2013 multiplied by two, or the number of Wes Welker 2013 TDs? (Feel free to shake your head and mutter expletives like I'm doing right now.)"

(Shaking my head, muttering expletives.)

Jets (+6.5) over BENGALS
From Kevin in Cincy: "Fun fact about the Bengals: they have never lost when they score more than 24 points in the Dalton Era (14-0). Also, in the four games this season that the Bengals scored 24 or less, they still won by over 6.5 twice. Throw in how Andy Dalton won't turn over the ball and Geno Smith will, and I think you know what to do." That Kevin from Cincy is too confident. I'm going the other way. You can't make me trust Andy Dalton yet — no matter how good he looked these past two weeks. I'm still worried that he's the Ginger Matt Schaub.

Speaking of the Jets, I have a request based off this email from Amir from Cambridge: "In the Cialis commercial that was playing during PushGate (last week's Pats-Jets game), the in-love couple literally has this plate of nachos in front of them that is big enough for like 20 people. Is the idea that his raging four hour erection makes him eat like an elephant too? I would never serve that much nachos for two people even if it was Vince Wilfork and the fat guy from Jake and the Fatman." I Googled "Cialis Nachos" to no avail. Could someone get that clip on YouTube please? I don't ask for much.

RAIDERS (+3) over Steelers
I feel like the Steelers blow this specific game every single season. That brings us to our Shakey's Pizza Watch for Week 8: every LeGarrette Blount kick return (Jesus he's awful) … the Denver/Seattle/Miami O-lines … Detroit's secondary … Seattle's O-line … Sam Martin punting with games on the line … Chicago's defense … Indy giving up a first-rounder for Trent Richardson 3.0 … Cincy's defense without Leon Hall … any NFL team that drafts Aaron Dobson over Keenan Allen … Peyton Manning on deep balls … Roy Helu stealing Alfred Morris's TDs … Hakeem Nicks's trade value … Washington's special teams … Dan Dierdorf repeatedly calling Rob Gronkowski "The Gronk" … New England's chances in any game announced by Dan Dierdorf … the Dan Dierdorf era … Dan Dierdorf.

Giants (+5) over EAGLES
I agree with Kyle in Seattle: "Has there ever been a more prolonged, simultaneously putrid and terrifying team than the Coughlin era Giants? I haven't felt comfortable picking any game this team has been involved in for like 6 years. If these Giants brought their current 0-6 record into Foxborough tomorrow, would you feel THAT confident the Pats would beat them? You wouldn't want any part of it, right?"

I'll go further: I could totally see the 2013 Giants making the playoffs, and I could totally see them landing the no. 2 pick in the draft and getting Jadeveon Clowney, followed by Clowney sacking a rejuvenated Brady to clinch the Giants' improbable 20-17 victory in Super Bowl L. I will now eat broken glass.

D.C. Daceys (+13) over BRONCOS
Signs of life from RG3!!!! Signs of death from Peyton Manning's right arm! I can't resist grabbing the points … remind me how stupid this was midway through the second quarter when Denver is winning by 28. By the way, a belated shout-out to Von Miller, who returned in Week 7 from a six-week suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy and somehow added 16 pounds of muscle since the preseason. This story was reported unironically by Fox's Jay Glazer (on TV), Pro Football Talk and DenverBroncos.com.

Houston's Bye Week (+3.5) over Baltimore's Bye Week
Did Case Keenum look a little Romoish last Sunday, or was it just me? I liked him. Meanwhile, did you know Gary Kubiak has nine career losing streaks of three-plus games, as well as five four-game losing streaks? Read more about it in this SI.com story with the headline "With his team in a free-fall, Gary Kubiak appears to be out of answers." Wait, Gary Kubiak once had answers?

Speaking of the Texans, you might remember me writing about Matt Schaub two weeks ago, as well as QBs in general and the mentality that quarterbacks need to be larger-than-life leaders over everything else (and once they lose that quality, it's over). Lou from Los Angeles sent along a great YouTube clip about Dan Fouts, adding, "Check it out, it's right in line with your piece on what a quarterback needs to be." Take two minutes and watch this. Also, I'm changing my title to Grantland's MFIC as soon as I hand in this column.

CARDINALS (-2) over Falcons
Can the Cards break the 0-6 streak of Team That Just Got The Crap Kicked Out Of It By The Seahawks? I say yes. Sneaky-good Matt Ryan season, by the way — he pulled off last week's win against Tampa with Harry Douglas, Tony Gonzalez and a bunch of dudes on your fantasy league's waiver wire. The rest of the Sneaky-Good Watch for Week 8: Doug Baldwin on third downs … everyone who backed Mario Williams over Reggie Bush and Vince Young … San Diego's O-line (????) … the rookie running back class … Andre Ellington (it's coming!) … RG3 kinda sorta looking like RG3 again … Zac Stacy, Jarrett Boykin and Harry Douglas: Three Guys You Never Expected Might Decide Your Fantasy League … Danny Woodhead (miss that dude) … Kiko Alonso's chances to win 2013's Reggie Cleveland All-Stars MVP.

VIKINGS (+9.5) over Packers
Grabbing the points despite the following four emails …

Maximillian in D.C.: "This week is a perfect opportunity to test your 'rock bottom' theory for QB's on Christian Ponder. He is quoted as saying about his upcoming start for concussed Josh Freeman, 'I already got benched, so it can't get any worse.'"

Jim C. in Chicago: "When a quarterback's career is ending must they first play for the Vikings? Favre, McNabb, Ponder, Freeman, Warren Moon, etc.? Are the Vikings the NFL equivalent of Jason Voorhees for quarterbacks?"

Beau in Grand Junction, Colorado: "The description for the next Taylor Lautner led film, Tracers, made me literally laugh out loud at work today. 'Wanted by the mafia, a New York City bike messenger escapes into the world of parkour after meeting a beautiful stranger.' This crazy turn of events for Lautner has Josh Freeman written all over it. A young, budding star has a breakout moment (Freeman, the 2010 season, and Lautner, the Twilight series) and before you know it, both guys are completely irrelevant. Within 2-3 years we see Freeman as the 3rd stringer behind Matt Cassel and Christian Ponder, while Lautner is headlining a movie with Rafi Gavron and Marie Avgeropoulos as the top-billed cast. Which career has more upside right now, Freeman or Lautner?"

Scott in Reno: "Leslie Frazier coaches like he has a concussion."


Packers (-9.5) over VIKINGS
That's better.

Seahawks (-11.5) over RAMS
I have very few rules in life, but this is one of them: When you're so desperate for a QB that you call Brett Favre and try to get him to come back when he hasn't played for three years and he's 44 years old and you're going against the best team in football a few days later, I can't pick you that week.

Hold on, one last email, from Darryl in L.A …

"Don't ask me how I stumbled upon this but I felt this was too good for me not to tell you about despite the fact that it might border on blasphemy for you as a Boston sports fan. I remember reading in TBOB that a running joke with you was that the worst possible clip to play in on NBA Jumbotron to 'pump up' the crowd would be the scene where Jack Nicholson sticks an axe into Scatman Crothers in The Shining. Well today, I noticed an interesting coincidence. Notice this video of that scene on YouTube.

"Now, I was listening to Sweet Caroline today in honor of opening night of the World Series at Fenway. This video in particular.

"Notice anything? The climaxes are PERFECTLY IN SYNC. Play the videos at the same time and you'll notice that the moment that Nicholson nails him with that ax is the exact same moment that Neil Diamond starts to belt out the chorus (at the 1:04 mark in particular). Bizarre coincidence? Or something more? No clue what demons drove me to stumble upon this but I was laughing hysterically for a good ten minutes and thought I should share with you."

(Yup, these are my readers.)

This Week: 1-0
Last Week: 2-13
Season: 46-58-4


By: timbersfan, 4:56 AM GMT on October 25, 2013

The Portland Timbers joined MLS in 2011 and failed to reach the playoffs in their first two seasons, but this year the club are heading towards the postseason and chasing the Western Conference title. The successful season has been under new manager Caleb Porter, who spoke to the Guardian about his hopes, dreams and fears.

Graham Parker: So let's start in general terms — when you came to the job (before the start of the 2013 season, though Porter's appointment was announced much earlier, while he saw out the college season in Akron), what did you see as the biggest cultural change that you wanted to make at the club?

Caleb Porter: Well, there were a lot of things. It was club that had, I think, a pretty healthy infrastructure, which I thought was a real positive. You had an owner who was willing to invest, an owner who had a vision, an owner who wanted to win, an owner who was passionate and was willing to support the team financially — that's a huge thing.

There was a decent staff in place as well and the best supporters in the league in my opinion, but we needed to get a philosophy in place, so I think the biggest thing that I tried to do was create a philosophy in the club, of how we were going to go about our business on the football side: training methodology, sports science, obviously system of play...start to create something of an identity in terms of style in terms of how we wanted to play. With that being adjustable as well — you have to be able to adjust in this league to win games.

And creating a locker room where there's responsibility and accountability. There's a behavior that we expect...so all those little things. It's hard to put it into a nutshell but there's a blueprint. I have a blueprint for what I want to do with the club from a soccer standpoint, what I expect from each role, the way I go about training and my methodology there and a way of going about building teams — I've done that for many years as a head coach. Obviously that was at college and you have to tweak it at this level, but I had been building teams for seven years as a head coach, so I had a way of going about those teams and that's basically what I did here.

GP: With the college experience in mind, you mentioned responsibilities and part of what you're doing in the college system is obviously not just shaping talented individuals but making them aware of their responsibilities to those around them. And thinking about the Timbers in the past, it wasn't as if they hadn't tried to play some of the same formations you've used, but perhaps some of the work those formations ask people to is particularly unforgiving if people aren't living up to their responsibilities within them

CB: Yeah, I mean if it was just as easy as just throwing out your players in a formation and you'd win games, then everybody would win, so you have to have a clear vision of what you want to look like in the game, and then you have to have a process to get it to look the way you want it to look in the game, through training. The process of getting your team to play the way you want them to play in the game, and execute a gameplan and play individually in the roles that you want and collectively play in harmony — it's all trained behavior throughout the week, through what you do in training, the concepts that you're imprinting on them day after day after day. So, again, I have enough analogies that I've followed, a blueprint, and I've just done the same thing here, with some tweaks because these guys are different to some extent.

I think that (the college thing) is played up a little bit more than it should have been probably. It's not that big of an adjustment. I think it's overplayed to be honest with you. Somewhere between 65 and 70% of MLS is college soccer players, and over the years I've had a lot of guys, even though they weren't pros at the time, they were guys who eventually became pros, who were very good players. And they weren't easy to coach, you still had to manage them the right way, you still had to psychologically push the right buttons.

So I think it's overplayed this whole college thing — "If you've coached in college it's such a big difference and adjustment..." — the reality is that if you're a leader you're a leader and you adjust to people. I don't cookie cutter my approach to every team. Every team is different, every player is different, every level is different and if you're a player and a coach you adjust and make tweaks. But you do have to have a philosophy of how you approach things, and how you build a locker room and how you hold players accountable and how you manage them and how you piece the team together in terms of formation. I'm real clear with that and I laid that out , started laying that out, from game one — the vision that I had and what I wanted from each role, and again it goes back to the training and it goes back as the week goes on the final details in terms of how you're going to gameplan and how you're going to scout and all those little details. And that's basically all we've been doing.

GP: I suppose i was bringing it up as much in relationship to the mentoring role that is just a given part of working with young players. I agree that the talk about the levels of play (college/MLS) is not as relevant as people have made it out to be. But I'm interested in how your experience in that environment (the college game) really helped you when coming into this scenario at Portland

CP: I think the thing for me that was really positive, and some people saw as a negative because I'd been a college coach, was that I'd been a coach for 13 years — six years as an assistant coach where I had to learn how to put the pieces together. I had to learn and grind in the office and figure it out and run sessions and make mistakes and go and study. It's not just studying tactics, it's studying leadership. Because being a manager is not just knowing tactics — you have to know tactics, but you have to know how to lead. And the common thread in most successful managers is they know how to manage people. You're coaching football but you're leading people.

And I learned a lot from those years an assistant coach and then I went and became a head coach and I had a chance to execute what I now knew, and while I was a head coach I was continuing to learn as well. I spent time overseas. My blueprint is not a college blueprint, it's a professional blueprint. I spent time studying pro teams and my training is from not coaching education courses, it's from going and spending literally weeks at a time with some of the top clubs in the world. And I stole a lot of little ideas, because coaching is stealing — you steal ideas, you incorporate them into your beliefs and philosophies and you take bits and pieces from all your experiences and all your studying and you continue to throw them into your blueprint and that's basically what I did.

So I think it helped me to transition to this level because I had been coaching. I'd delivered team talks, I'd run training sessions, I'd stood in front of my team pre-game, half-time, post-game. I was doing things that were professional things, they weren't college things. I was running Akron pretty much, from a soccer standpoint, like a pro team, because ultimately I wanted to be a pro coach. It just so happened that the right opportunity didn't become available. The reality is that being a college soccer coach is a really good job. There's a lot of stability and security and from a family standpoint it's hard to beat that. But when Portland came available for me it was an opportunity I couldn't pass up, and I jumped at it. And I was biding my time for the right moment to be ready to go, and I was preparing for several years for this move.

GP: A number of players have had key influences on the campaign. I'm not going to ask you to single out any players but I am going to name a few and ask you to comment on their contribution... So let's start with Donovan Ricketts (Jamaican international goalkeeper)

CP: Yeah, he was actually the first move we made. Obviously I wasn't here, but as soon as I got the job, obviously Gavin (Wilkinson, GM) and I — we work hand in hand on all the player additions and subtractions, because we have a great relationship, and when I got the job we started talking about the team immediately. Even though I wasn't here. Because we wanted to start transforming the club and we didn't want to wait until the season was done. We wanted if we could to start to make moves that would move us a little further along in the off-season. And we had the opportunity to get Donovan Ricketts and he fit the idea of the kind of goalkeeper that I like, and Gavin loved him and asked if i'd be interested in him and I said, "Yeah!" and we jumped on it. And he hasn't disappointed. It took him a little bit of time to get comfortable and acclimatize - as always when you change clubs. But he's been tremendous this year. Good teams always have a good goalkeeper and he's gotten a ton of credit and he should because he's definitely made saves to help us get points in games. I wouldn't trade him for anybody in the league.

GP: Will Johnson (Canadian midfield international)?

CP: Will Johnson's a guy, again, we had pretty much a common theme that we wanted in the players that we were going to keep at the club and going to add to the club, and that theme was "good character, good mentality"...and experience. We needed guys that had been in a winning locker room if possible. Now obviously with the guys that were here, some of those guys hadn't had a ton of success but we knew they were capable of contributing, but we thought it was important to add some pieces that had been at winning clubs and been professionals and been through the MLS season — which is unique. It's not an easy league to manage. You see that with some of the overseas players who come over — they take time to transition and it's because it's a long season; there's different climates; there's a lot of travel; it's a very athletic league, a physical league; there are a lot of little things you have to get comfortable with and get used to.

So we knew that in adding a guy like Will Johnson — he'd been in a winning locker room, he'd played in a similar style, and we knew that he'd step in and help us build our culture. To some extent he'd be an extension of us inside the lines — reinforce the same things we ere reinforcing; be a leader; hold guys accountable; be a professional for the younger players. And basically send the same messages we would sending, but it's more powerful in some ways of you have a player side the locker room and inside the lines in games that's been there, done that, and can drive the team internally. He's our workhorse, he's our ball-winner, he's capable of stepping forward and scoring goals; he's a smart player in terms of how he manages games. He's a competitor, he's a leader, and he brings that so important presence in the middle of the park — and you need that. Every good team has a ball-winner. The guy that makes you go. And he and (Diego) Chara are our engine room.

Seattle Sounders' Clint Dempsey is tackled by Portland Timbers' Diego Chara at JELD-WEN Field. Photograph: Ken Hawkins/ZUMA Press/Corbis

GP: I was going to mention Chara (Colombian midfielder). People have talked about him having a particularly good season. But it seems that as well as he's played, he's having as good a season as the players around him, and that's been the difference with him this year.

CP: Yeah. Everybody has a job to do and I've been real clear in laying out what I want out of each position and what I want out of each player and everybody has to do their job in the position that we play. The key is to make sure that you've got guys who are in a spot where they're comfortable, where really "doing your job" is just being who you are and doing the things you're good at. And i think that's what we've got going right now, is we've got guys that are in sync. Everybody knows their role, and everybody's chipping in, and we're playing like a cohesive, well-oiled machine. And that's the way you want it to be. You've got eleven moving parts and you want those parts to fit together and be in sync and play in harmony. And that's what we've got right now. They're just doing their job.

GP: Looking at a player like Darlington Nagbe (Liberian winger), because of your past relationship when you were his college coach, people were wondering what you were going to get out of him, and as the season has progressed, it seems as if one of the changes is that he's still capable of producing the inventive spark within the team, but he's also a much more integral member of the side.

CP: Yeah, he's...you have to have the right mix of players. Winning teams have to have guys that do the dirty work and bring the grit, but you have to have guys that bring special playmaking ability: game changing, attacking, flair, creativity...whatever you want to call it, he brings that. He's one of the players on our team who makes us go on the attack. He's dynamic, he's very skillful and he's capable of unlocking the game at any moment. And yet he's unselfish and he plays within the team, and he shares the ball and he's a one and two touch player, very good in possession. But in the final third he's proven to be a much more ruthless player than he's been in the past few years. He's had a career year in terms of production.

GP: Can we talk about the emotion of that recent win over the Sounders and what it meant?

CP: Well, we've had a lot of big games this year, and we've really tried to... I'm not a coach that likes to hype up the big game, because I always say that for every peak there's a valley, so if you're hyping up some games, what about the other games? So I try to keep the players focussed on every game being important. No game's bigger than the next — it's three points. And I think to some extent that's why we've been so consistent this year. It's probably why we have the least losses in the league and why we've only lost two games in a row once, because we're very consistent and I think that's what winning clubs do.

But, in saying that, I knew this was a very important game, not only for this season, because obviously winning meant that we'd be top of the table and for the most part put us in the driving seat for the playoffs and obviously top three. But for me it was bigger than that, it was for our supporters, for them to be able to leave that stadium and feeling proud of our club beating our rival. You know we've been called "the little brother" and for good reason, because we had performed like the little brother. But moving forward there's no reason why we should be the little brother. We respect Seattle — great team, great club — but for me, I think it's important that we're not inferior and it was big for our fans to be able to leave that stadium and feel superior for that game.

And obviously we have to keep doing that — it's not a case of we've arrived and we're better than them. It's nothing like that. But there have been a lot of painful results over the years for our supporters and win, lose or draw, they've shown up and been passionate and through thick and thin they've stuck with the club, and I know it brought a lot of joy to them so that was meaningful.

And then even beyond that, for me it's pivotal for us to get these type of results because for me it says everything about how far we've come as a club. We're getting results, not just pinching them, but results because we've earned them and we deserved them. And they're not results where we're leaving the game going, "Wow, that was a miracle". We're leaving these games going, "You know what? We expected that, and we believed we'd win, and we did." And yet we still have to keep doing it because football's cruel, and MLS, with so much parity, as much as you can be on top one week, it's the old "one minute you're drinking the wine, the next you're picking the grapes".

So we've tried to really remain very humble and stay hungry through...we've had a lot of highs this year, and we've had some lows, but we've remained humble through those highs and lows. And I think that's again why we've evolved this club in a short amount of time to where there's a lot of good players. We're a pretty experienced team, believe it or not, and throughout the season we've looked mature and come playoff time I like our chances, because we've shown that we can win at home — we've built a fortress — and we've shown on the road that we're the toughest team in the league to beat. Now, we have a lot of draws, but we haven't played for those draws, we've played for wins and there've been a few draws that have happened because we've given up late goals or given up early goals and chased them and pulled those goals back. But in 16 road games we've gotten a result in 12 and at home we've been virtually unbeatable, so if you look at that rhythm in a home and home series, that puts us in a good position, hopefully, because we can go on the road and get results but also at home we're performing very well. We're looking forward to the post-season and depending on if we take care of business in the next two (Portland drew their next game 0-0 with RSL and still lead the West going into the final day's play), maybe even a Supporters Shield. We're not going down without a fight for that.

GP: And then depending on if things go by the seeding, I think the Red Bulls were your first MLS game. You two could be fighting it out on the last day.

CP: Yeah, that would be a little irony there. That game was a barnburner. That was 3-3 and we were down two goals early, so that was a pretty electric game and here we are, the two teams at the top of the table. Game at a time though...


By: timbersfan, 4:52 AM GMT on October 25, 2013

Well, that was fun. Bayern Munich took a delightful stroll past FC Viktoria Plzen, winning 5-0 in the Allianz Arena on Wednesday evening, well on their way to the Champions League round of 16. While Pavel Vrba's men stood resolute in the initial stretch against a crashing tide of Bavarian offense, the dam would crack on 25 minutes with a Franck Ribery penalty strike.

David Alaba doubled the lead before the half with a low drive in to the corner, before Ribery bagged his brace with a panenka. Bastian Schweinsteiger got the third -- converting substitute Mario Goetze's sneaky run in to the box -- and Goetze would add the final goal in injury time with a thumping strike from close range.

-Guardiola: Bayern can get better

I interviewed former USMNT players Tony Meola and John Harkes post-match from the Allianz for SiriusXM FC's Counter Attack (a snippet of which can be found here), where I likened Plzen to a pub team. A bit harsh, perhaps? Yes, but the gulf in class between the sides was so terribly wide that it looked as if Vrba had gone to my local and selected 10 random guys sitting at the bar. Only goalkeeper Matus Kozacik saved his team from utter humiliation with wonderful reaction saves on Daniel van Buyten, Mario Mandzukic and Arjen Robben.

Speaking of Robben: the penalty-taking kerfuffle continued when the Dutchman was brought down in the box on a desperate lunge by former Hertha centre-back Roman Hubnik. Remembering Saturday's match against Mainz when Robben won a penalty -- and actually wanted to take it -- coach Pep Guardiola insisted Thomas Mueller step up to the spot instead, causing an angry Robben to slam the ball in disgust.

Wednesday, Robben was instructed by Guardiola to take the penalty that he'd earned, with Ribery handing him the ball. Robben demurred, Ribery converted, and kicker would say Robben "refused defiantly, like a little child." The guy just can't win, can he? Guardiola brushed off the incident: "I'm not mad. I like players with guts and courage to pick up the ball on the penalty... We have many who can. I wanted Arjen to shoot, though, but that does not matter." And Ribery spoke: "[Robben] was still mad, but that's not an issue." Robben refused to comment.

Could you imagine if Robben had stepped up to the spot on Wednesday... and missed? Eventually, he will get over being angry. And eventually it will be the right time for him to step up for an Elfmeter once again.

I had initially thought that Guardiola might sit Ribery for Goetze, but the coach proved me wrong, and Ribery rightly carried away man-of-the-match honours. He proved me wrong again by starting Diego Contento as centre-back alongside van Buyten, leaving Jan Kirchhoff on the bench.

Admittedly, the centre-backs, plus goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, did not have much to do as Plzen could barely manage to get in their third of the pitch -- Neuer even coming out of the box to play defence a couple of times. But when called upon, Contento performed very well. And it's lovely to see the confidence the coach has in the German-Italian, something the defender did not have in Jupp Heynckes' tenure.

Some have said the match was boring on television, but in the stadium it was quite a bit of fun. When the Bayern boys figured out they could basically have their way with their opponents, all their tricks came out in full display. Robben and Ribery took on two or three defenders just because they could; crossovers and cheeky back-heels from everyone; passes slotted through defenders' legs.

The score might have been considerably higher had Munich played more directly, instead of toying with Plzen like a cat does with a mouse, but the joie de vivre in Bayern's play had me giggling considerably for much of 90 minutes.

"We did a good job very comfortably," Toni Kroos said. "But we dont measure ourselves against the likes of Plzen. Out there on the field, we really enjoy keeping on going for goal even when were 3-0 up."

Kroos has the right of it, as this match wasn't a good indication of how far this team has come along under Guardiola. The 3-1 win at Manchester City was a much better benchmark -- a footballing clinic -- as City has talent that is close to par with Bayern Munich. I say "close" because everyone is now beginning to believe that Bayern is truly the best, deepest squad on the planet.

And Guardiola says: "We can get better, still."


By: timbersfan, 4:46 AM GMT on October 25, 2013

There are few words that do justice to Zlatan Ibrahimovic's third goal against Anderlecht this week. "Spectacular" has been used so often that its allure has waned. "Emphatic" is certainly accurate, if a little dry. For a goal like this, we may have to form a committee and invent a new word. Tempocontortic, perhaps. A shot so powerful it contorts the space-time continuum. Evapomastic. A shot so fast that the friction of the ball on moisture in the air leaves a trail of steam hanging in the sky. It wasn't just powerful, it was accurate too. It whistled into the top corner like a photon torpedo up a small thermal exhaust port. Zlatan hit it as if he'd just caught it sleeping with his wife. Had the goalkeeper been able to stretch a hand to it, it would have been torn off by the force of the ball. And this was just one of four goals he scored on the night.

So, given that he is scoring goals of this calibre and at this rate, and given that he has won enough major trophies to fill a truck, is it time we reassessed Zlatan's place on the world stage? Even English supporters have long since accepted that he might be pretty good, the turning point of course being a ludicrous long-range overhead kick scored against their team. But is he so good that he can stand on a podium with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo?

Messi is one of the most naturally gifted men ever to have played the game, a man whose control of the football is so extraordinary that you would not be the least bit surprised if he revealed himself to be a wandering alien who had taken human form for a bit of a laugh. It might also explain why he got the measurements of that human form so badly wrong at the first attempt and had to be rescued with growth hormones.

Ronaldo is a physical phenomenon, a rippling chunk of meat so conditioned that you could throw bricks at him and they would bounce off his torso without leaving a mark. Messi's edge may be that he isn't actually human. Ronaldo's edge is that he is everything a human has the potential to be: pumped, primed and perfected after long days on the training field.

Zlatan is both naturally talented and built like a stone watchtower. He does things with a football that no one in their right mind would do, primarily because he may not be in his right mind. He has won more league titles (10, if you include the two Juventus were stripped of) in more nations (four) than Ronaldo (four/two) and Messi (six/one), yet he's never mentioned in the same breath.

Perhaps this is because he makes so little effort to help himself. If Ronaldo's genius can be occasionally undermined by his petulance, what does Zlatan's arrogance do to his cause? This is a man who, when asked what he was buying his partner for her birthday, answered: "Nothing. She already has Zlatan."

This is a man who responded to a question about his sexuality by telling the female reporter: "Come over to my house with your sister, baby. I'll show you who's gay."

He called Pep Guardiola a coward and responded to the Barcelona policy of driving understated cars to training by buying a $400,000 Ferrari Enzo and parking it right next to the players' entrance.

It's fortunate that he turned out to be really good at football, because employment opportunities in PR and international diplomacy were not going to be an option for this man.

But while Zlatan is certainly the brooding anti-hero of European football -- the rock star with a revolutionary streak so potent that it makes James Dean's causeless rebellion look like someone pointedly paying his rent one day late -- it doesn't make him a better player.

Like so many others, he is damned by the brilliance of La Liga's leading lights. Zlatan is an awesome force of nature, but Messi and Ronaldo have been scoring goals for two of Europe's best teams at the rate of more than one a game for years. In his single Spanish season, Zlatan hit slightly more than one every other game. He might be a more exciting man, but Ronaldo and Messi are the more exciting players.

But perhaps we shouldn't feel obliged to rank and pigeonhole our players. Perhaps we should just sit back and enjoy their work. As for Zlatan, he shouldn't worry too much. Ronaldo and Messi will have the more successful careers now, but when it all comes to an end, I know who'll have the longer career on the lucrative punditry circuit ...


By: timbersfan, 4:40 AM GMT on October 25, 2013

Arsenal Under Pressure

Spike Friedman: Borussia Dortmund's aggressive pressing effectively neutralized what had been a prolific Arsenal attack, before a late goal against the run of play gave the Germans a crucial 2-1 win at the Emirates. That Dortmund pressed effectively without dominating possession is unsurprising; in last year's UCL semifinal against Real Madrid, Jurgen Klopp's side targeted Xabi Alonso, unleashing Mario Gotze on the Spanish midfielder in an effort to disrupt Madrid's ability to switch fields. However, the threat he was facing in Arsenal was very different than Madrid's attack, which derives so much of its impetus through the brilliance of Cristiano Ronaldo cutting in from the left.

Arsenal's early-season success has been based on the interplay between its central attackers. With Theo Walcott, Lukas Podolski, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain injured, the play of newcomer Mesut Ozil, along with a brilliant Aaron Ramsey, a healthy (by his standards) Jack Wilshere, and an in-form Olivier Giroud has allowed Arsenal to pass their way through the middle of opposing defenses.

Klopp's strategy (and we'll give him credit for the tactics in this match despite his touchline ban for losing his mind against Napoli) involved deeper lying midfielders Sven Bender and Nuri Sahin aggressively playing the passing lanes between Ramsey and Ozil in the middle of the pitch. He also had Marco Reus and Henrikh Mkhitaryan press Ramsey and Tomas Rosicky when they picked up the ball in deeper areas.

This pressure led to Dortmund's first goal; Reus was able to take the ball off Ramsey, and two passes later Mkhitaryan put the ball in the back of the net. Ramsey's turnover is both something of a heat check, and the result of Dortmund's game plan. Once Ramsey took his second touch, he had no passing lanes available; Mikel Arteta had moved to the other side of Robert Lewandowski, and Wilshere was cut off, leaving Ramsey stranded. Given that an Arsenal midfielder is not going to send the ball long, Ramsey's attempted take-on makes sense, even if it was an unnecessarily risky decision.

Arteta became Arsenal's danger man. In many ways similar to Madrid's Alonso, he played brilliantly as the most influential midfielder for the Gunners in this match, making 12 tackles and completing 80-of-88 passes with more than half moving the ball forward. However, most of these passes were directed into the wider areas of the middle band of the pitch. Without dynamic wide players available, this meant Arsenal's cutting edge was lacking for most of the match. The team managed only a handful of clear-cut chances before the 60th minute (including their goal, which was as much the result of Giroud's work rate as any tactical dynamism). What little success Arsenal had attacking the center of the pitch was quickly neutralized by a sublime performance from Dortmund center backs Mats Hummels and Neven Subotic.

Arsenal looked better when Arsene Wenger shifted Ozil out wide and brought on Santi Cazorla for Wilshere. While neither of these players will ever be confused for a traditional winger, this move got Arsenal's most creative players out of the vice grip of Dortmund's press. Naturally, because of the second law of thermodynamics, they would concede the winner after Cazorla hit the woodwork, Hummels and Subotic made a number of heroic interventions, and makeshift fullback Kevin Grosskreutz, whose delivery was poor for most of the evening, managed to cross one ball with a modicum of accuracy. These things happen.

This was a closely contested match, and with Dortmund grabbing all three points at the Emirates, it makes the return fixture the most crucial match of the group stage. With Napoli equaling Dortmund and Arsenal with six points through three matches, the group predicted by many (though admittedly not me) to be the Group of Death is playing out as such.

He Is Zlatan, You Are Not Zlatan

Friedman: This goal is more impressive than the aggregation of everything you and I have done over the course of our entire lives. This is also Zlatan's second-most impressive of the six goals he has scored in the past four days.

Remember, only one of Zlatan and Ronaldo is going to be playing in the World Cup finals. When it comes time to choose whom to root for, there is no choice.

How Not to Kick a Soccer Ball

Mike L. Goodman: If Zlatan reached the epitome of kicking the snot out of the ball, it's only fair that Arturo Vidal would provide us with the anti-Zlatan on the same day. Extra points for desperately pointing as if he was fouled at the end of it.

On the Counter

Goodman: Whether it’s the caginess of a tournament structure, the relative unfamiliarity of opponents, the talent disparities, or just the sheer amount of skill on display, the rhythms of Champions League soccer are just different than your normal weekend games. At its worst that means cagey games filled with defensive positioning and cynical tackling. At its best it leads to the wide variety of extremely entertaining counterattacking play. That’s what we saw this week, as some of the best in the world punished their opponents for just the slightest of mistakes.

Borussia Dortmund did it the way they’ve been doing it for years: keep it on the ground, ping four or five passes together at speed, and then have no less than five guys sprint forward in the dying moments of a hard-fought game. Back when they were just a young, talented upstart club, this was Dortmund’s primary means of scoring goals. Now that they’ve morphed into a true European superpower, the team often controls the ball more and buries opponents under an avalanche of shots. It was fun to see them go back to basics on the road at Arsenal.

As Dortmund evolved they handed off the mantle of "Best Counterattacking Team in Europe" to Atletico Madrid. The less-heralded Madrid team is one of only two teams from major leagues to average less than 50 percent possession and qualify for the Champions League (the other, Bayer Leverkusen, hung four goals on Shakhtar Donetsk this week, although somehow not a single one was the result of a pure counterattack). It helps when you can kick it to your budding superstar striker Diego Costa, just inside his own half, and then let him run at a couple of defenders, skin them mercilessly, and poke it into the net.

And finally there’s the granddaddy of them all, Jose Mourinho. Whether it’s Porto, Inter Milan, Real Madrid, or now (again) Chelsea, nobody counterattacks like a Mourinho side defending a lead. Handing Mourinho the first goal in a big match is like going down into a basement in a horror movie: You’re just asking to get slaughtered. And Chelsea didn’t disappoint when they traveled to Schalke. Both goals were the same, a quick pass from the edge of Chelsea’s own area out to Eden Hazard on the wing, and then two or three Chelsea players slicing a defense to shreds. It doesn’t have the flowing beauty of Dortmund, or the individual brilliance of Atletico; instead, it relies on killer ruthless efficiency.

When coaches play boring, defensive brands of soccer, that is what they’re guarding against.

Poor, Poor Manuel Neuer

Friedman: On Wednesday, the most bored man in the world was Bayern Munich keeper Manuel Neuer. Also, maybe Dortmund won't be challenging for the Champions League trophy. Maybe no one will.

Remember Didier Drogba and Wesley Sneijder

Goodman: They still actually play sports and kick balls and stuff. They both scored for Galatasaray, who control their own destiny in Group B, sitting above Juventus for the second spot halfway through the group stages. It’s fitting that Sneijder, who has never been as good as he was under Mourinho, scored at the end of a textbook counterattack when Galatasaray were already up a goal.

Drogba scored just because Drogba always scores.


By: timbersfan, 4:35 AM GMT on October 25, 2013

Mike Petke has his feet up on his desk at the New York Red Bulls' training ground in Hanover, New Jersey. He catches me eyeing the actual-size replica of a Gears of War weapon sitting in the corner of his office and then me looking warily back at his shoes in my face, and he laughs.

“This is not me being big time. My feet are killing me."

You could forgive him if he did want to indulge in just a little posturing. Petke has had a great first year as coach of New York. Other coaches, such as Caleb Porter in Portland and Oscar Pareja in Colorado, have turned around drifting teams in remarkable fashion this season, and are deservedly in the running for Coach of the Year. But despite the resources Petke has at his disposal in New York, the cultural turnaround he has engineered at a perennially good-on-paper club (and as a first-year coach, no less) has been no less impressive. The Red Bulls might or might not win the Supporters' Shield, or an MLS Cup, but they’ve begun to shake the reputation as a team that can be bullied out of matches, and much of that appears to be down to the expectations set by their coach.

For his part, Petke considers that cultural transformation as at least as important of a contribution from him as a trophy might be.

"Those words were pretty much spoken by me when I first got the job," Petke says. "Somebody asked me, 'What's going to be a success here? Winning a championship?' It's so cliché to say, ‘What's the goal? To win an MLS Championship.’ Of course it is. Nineteen teams said that this year and I guarantee you that 13 or 14 of them didn't think they had a chance in hell.

"We've never had stability. We've never really had an identity. I could name some of the [New York] teams I played on in the early days, that yeah, we showed some character — but there's never been the real deal. Now, if next year Red Bull goes and chops the team up and disassembles it, then we’d be back to square one. But I think that the consistency is key here. And I think if you get the roots planted firmly, and say 'This is who we are,' I think that's very successful.”

Petke speaks with the vindicated air of a man who has seen regimes come and go at the Red Bulls and the MetroStars before them. I suggested to him that he’s typical of the kind of coach at many clubs around the world, who tends to survive regime changes because he’s seen as a link to the locker room, and perhaps as possessing the institutional memory of a club, but who is rarely given the opportunity to prove himself as a head coach. In fact, coaches like Petke are often disregarded precisely because of the strength of the local connection. There's an assumption that loyalty is incompatible with ambition, or perhaps that parochialism somehow extends to tactics. This is especially true at a club like the New York Red Bulls, where brand recognition starts with the team name and has, in recent history, permeated every area of senior hiring decisions. The decision to give an internal appointment a chance, let alone one who was emblematic of the club’s pre–Red Bulls history, surprised a lot of observers.

Petke agrees: "I think it took incredible … guts, I guess you could say. Looking at the history of this club, you look at the coaches who've been there, it's all been big names; it's all been outsiders with big résumés. I think for them to take a chance on somebody who knows the club inside and out, who is blindly loyal to the club, well … Club comes first in my mind, and in my family's as well. They feel the same way as I do. They've grown up with this. My young kids have grown up with the Red Bulls and my wife has been around since I started with the Red Bulls and the New York franchise. This is it for me. This is what I want. I don't strive to be L.A. Galaxy head coach, I don't strive to be Man United head coach. I strive to be New York Red Bulls head coach.”

This inevitably brings to mind Petke’s predecessor, the much-traveled Hans Backe, whose tenure was marked by a number of symbolic missteps. The contrast between Backe and Petke could not have been more pronounced than on the penultimate day of Backe’s reign. Tied 1-1 from the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinal against rival D.C. United, New York returned to a Hurricane Sandy–battered Red Bull Arena in time for blizzard conditions to hover over the stadium. While Backe was captured by the TV cameras sounding downright equivocal about playing the game, Petke was out on the field with members of the crowd trying to shovel snow to get the game played. I told Petke that the moment fixed the image of the side he inherited as one that, when it came down to it, had no character for a fight.

“That's 100 percent accurate in my mind, and I've said it publicly before," Petke says. "I'm pretty sure that game was lost before the whistle blew, because of what you've just said. I remember driving to the game, and I can't say for a fact who on our side was saying [we wanted to call the game], but I definitely heard the rumblings. I know that D.C. won the mental game before the whistle was blown. They had guys there and a coach that was screaming to play the game."

Petke shrugs as if to say, “What can you do?”

Was there a moment, I wonder out loud, when Petke looked at the emerging team and thought his project of transforming its character was taking root? I mention the surprising sight of seeing central defender Marcus Holgersson, whose diffident manner had initially seemed out of step with the Petke heart-on-sleeve ethic, actually snarl at an opponent. Had Petke been practicing that in a mirror with him? The coach laughs. (And despite the impression of his rather amped-up postgame pressers, Petke actually laughs a lot.)

“Back before the All-Star Game, there were instances when I'd kind of look and be like 'Hmmm, is something changing here?' But I wasn't 100 percent sure. Post All-Star Game, there were moments when I was sure," Petke says. "Having said that, there's not been a moment yet that says that we've arrived and we are a complete project. I'm talking about character, identity, professional mentality. I know that every one of these players are going to go home and look in the mirror and be honest with themselves and be accountable."

Petke takes a turn towards his personal life. "That's how I've lived my life, being accountable, both on the field and off. I make sure my kids are accountable, my wife's accountable. It's important to me. I don't like finger-pointing, because finger-pointing breeds — I think it's like a cancer. It breeds. You have to be accountable, and I've seen a lot of that this year, specifically in the second half of the season. And we've been rewarded many times because of that.”

Every time I glance up from my notes during this short discourse on character, Petke's expression is in one of two modes: Cheshire Cat grin, or a practiced steely glare — of the kind he might have taught Holgersson earlier in the season. He's utterly affable, though somehow resolutely so. On his first day on the job, he promised not to change who he was, but perhaps keeping that promise is a job in itself, given the task and the transformed relationships he has taken on. There's a melancholy about loving the club you work for — built into the relationship is the understanding that one day the club will stop loving you back. Not today, though. Mike Petke supports his local team. And they support him back.

carson Palmer

By: timbersfan, 8:42 AM GMT on October 19, 2013

In the New Bill James Historical Abstract, every decade has a player listed with the title of "Can I Try This Career Over?" In each case, it's a player who had a career that didn't remotely compare to his level of talent for a number of reasons that were entirely out of his control. He ended up in the wrong organization at the wrong time and got stuck behind the wrong player. He suffered injuries at the exact moment when he would have gotten steady playing time. He wasted his career on the bench in the middle of nowhere and eventually revealed how good he was later on in his career.

When I was watching the Cardinals-Seahawks game last night, I kept thinking about that in relation to Carson Palmer. As he scuffled behind an offensive line that seemed to be offering the Seahawks bottle service as they let them through, I really started to wonder: Has anybody been in the wrong place at the wrong time more frequently than Palmer? I don't really blame Palmer for how he has performed, and I don't pity him — inasmuch as I could ever pity a tall, perma-tanned USC quarterback — but I also can't imagine that Palmer ever thought it would have ended up this way when he entered the 2003 draft. There was a superstar here once, and now there's the guy who had his receivers coming over the top to tip away would-be interceptions. Every athlete has to go through that decline, but there's a huge chunk of Palmer's career missing that he'll never get back. If anyone deserves another chance to redo his career, it's Palmer.

Put Palmer's career in perspective and you'll see what I mean. It seems impossible to think this way about him today, but when Palmer finished up his run at USC with a Heisman Trophy victory and entered the 2003 NFL draft, he was considered to possibly be the best quarterback prospect since Peyton Manning. His Sports Illustrated scouting report from the time highlights his mobility and effectiveness rolling out of the pocket, skills that Palmer rarely displays at this advanced stage of his career. The poise and timing attributed to the young Palmer seem assigned to another person entirely.

There were rumors at the time that the Bengals, who had the first overall pick in that year's draft, might trade the pick away to add depth to their roster. The Bears, who had the fourth overall pick, were rumored to be lurking as a likely landing spot for Palmer if the Bengals passed on him to take Charles Rogers or Terence Newman. Could Palmer's career have looked much more different than if he had ended up with the Bears, a team that was about to have a three-year run as one of the best defenses in football? As it was, the Bengals drafted Palmer and the Bears traded down with the Jets, eventually drafting Rex Grossman with one of their two first-round picks.

Palmer, a four-year starter at USC, was kept on the sidelines his entire rookie season and didn't throw a single pass. It's hard to imagine that most of the bad teams in the league would have kept Palmer locked up on the sidelines all year, but the Bengals went 8-8 with Jon Kitna at the helm. That's a full season wasted. Some would later credit his early success to spending that full year on the sidelines catching up, but it's impossible to prove causation there. In today's NFL it seems downright quaint to imagine a top-five pick spending the entire season on the sidelines, even though this happened to Palmer only a decade ago. Imagine Washington keeping Robert Griffin on the sidelines all season last year so they could start Rex Grossman for 16 more games. That doesn't happen in a sports-blog-driven world.

Palmer didn't have to wait much longer to get his opportunity; the Bengals installed him as the starter before the 2004 season and, injury aside, stuck with him throughout his "rookie" campaign. Palmer's numbers weren't incredible — he completed 61 percent of his passes, checked down a lot, and threw one touchdown for every interception — but he would become a star in 2005, his second season as the Cincinnati starter. During that second season, Palmer looked like the best young quarterback in football; he led the league in completion percentage (67.8 percent, the sort of figure that was unheard of at the time) and touchdown passes (32) while posting the league's lowest sack rate (3.6 percent). He threw nearly three touchdowns for every interception, won 11 games with the Bengals for the first (and only) time since 1988, and made a star out of T.J. Houshmandzadeh, a possession receiver and return man at the bottom of the Cincinnati offense. Alongside the already-established Chad Johnson, Houshmandzadeh would have his best success with Palmer in Cincinnati. And like Johnson, Houshmandzadeh would try to go elsewhere after his run in Cincinnati and struggle to make an impact.

That iteration of Palmer — the guy who looked every bit as good as Peyton Manning or Tom Brady in 2005 — was set to compete with Ben Roethlisberger for a decade's worth of AFC North division titles. Instead, their rivalry as equals ended after Palmer's first postseason pass. Hosting the Steelers in Cincinnati in the wild-card round, the Bengals forced the Steelers to punt. On their second play from scrimmage, Palmer dropped back and hit Chris Henry on a go-route for 66 yards. As the crowd celebrated, the camera panned back to reveal that Palmer was in agony behind the play. His knee had been ripped apart by a diving hit from Steelers lineman Kimo von Oelhoffen, a blow that would be made illegal three years later after Tom Brady was taken out by a similarly diving Bernard Pollard. For the next four years, Palmer's playoff record consisted entirely of one pass for 66 yards.1

There is an entire career missing there, eight more seasons of great quarterback play that we never saw. The injury came 11 days after Palmer agreed to terms on a mammoth six-year, $118.75 million contract extension. That deal, a testament to the player everybody expected Palmer to remain, would eventually help push Palmer out of Cincinnati altogether. The Bengals themselves never reached the heights that the 11-5 season seemed to point to with that core of talent, and Palmer eventually became the scapegoat.

When he did return nine months after tearing his ACL and MCL and dislocating his kneecap, Palmer wasn't the same. Even with the quick return, 2006 was still the best season Palmer would ever have after that breakout season the year before. He completed 62.3 percent of his passes, threw for a career-high 7.8 yards per attempt, and had more than two touchdowns for every interception. And while he wasn't quite as good in 2007, when he led the league with 20 interceptions, it wasn't the sort of season that would stand out as notably poor, just a relatively disappointing season in the career of an otherwise-great player.2 Again, though, Palmer was about to take a step down.

After a slow start to the 2008 season, Palmer suffered an elbow injury in Week 3 when he was sacked by Giants cornerback Corey Webster. He didn't report any issues until the following Friday before missing Week 4, and when an MRI revealed no structural damage, he came back for Week 5. It was the last game he played all year; despite Palmer finishing up that game without any complaints while going 23-for-39 with two touchdown passes, another MRI revealed that his elbow ligaments had detached from the bone, producing a torn UCL, which meant that he would likely need Tommy John surgery on his throwing arm. Palmer passed on the surgery and was week-to-week for the rest of the season without ever returning.

Even more than the knee injury, the elbow injury dramatically changed Palmer's level of performance. Here are Palmer's rate statistics before and after that 2008 campaign:

Cmp% Yds/Att INT%
Before UCL Tear 64.1% 7.3 3.1%
After UCL Tear 61.0% 7.0 3.4%
That's a bigger decline than the numbers might suggest. Palmer went from being a comfortably above-average quarterback to a slightly below-average one overnight; given his huge contract, that changed him from a necessary evil to an albatross in Cincinnati. There's no video of the Webster hit online, but I wonder about how things might have been different without the knee injury. When Palmer came back, I saw a number of NFL shows that broke down his new mechanics and how he was unsure of himself in the pocket; Palmer wasn't planting his leg on his throws, which caused him to be inaccurate. That also put more stress on his shoulder and elbow. He eventually started to plant his leg again, but it seems that the mechanical shifts that resulted from Palmer's knee injury helped fray that elbow ligament. And might Palmer have been able to escape the hit and either get out of the pocket or create a throwing lane for himself if his knee had always been 100 percent?

In any case, when Palmer came back, he led the Bengals to another division title. But the numbers indicate that this was the first sign that Palmer's arm strength had been sapped by the elbow injury; while he completed 60.5 percent of his passes, he averaged a mere 6.6 yards per attempt. He was still healthy enough to lead the Bengals to the playoffs, throwing in five game-winning drives and three fourth-quarter comebacks in the process. After they lost to the Jets, though, Palmer's run as a successful quarterback in Cincinnati was over. He was mediocre during the 2010 season, throwing 20 interceptions without any discernible improvements elsewhere, and that was enough to end Palmer's tenure with the team. His itinerant phase was beginning.

Palmer requested a trade to move on from Cincinnati, but he was facing a stubborn, foolish owner in Mike Brown, who dug in and forced Palmer to sit on the sideline. Palmer sat for the first six weeks of the regular season, but just before the trade deadline, an opportunity arose. The Raiders misguidedly believed they were contenders,3 and two years ago today, Raiders head coach Hue Jackson took advantage of a chaotic front office (following the death of Al Davis two weeks earlier) and replaced an injured Jason Campbell by dealing a first- and second-round pick to Cincinnati for its estranged quarterback. Oakland even signed Palmer to a contract extension worth $43 million, another deal that would come back to haunt the team that signed Palmer.

Oakland went 4-6 the rest of the way with the occasional big play from Palmer, but the bigger concern became his contract. When he flipped, his team had flopped. The Raiders fired Jackson after the season and replaced him with the combination of Dennis Allen at head coach and, crucially, Reggie McKenzie at general manager. McKenzie wanted to rebuild the barren team from the ground up, and that included the guy playing quarterback. Again, it was another wasted move for Palmer; right after giving up half a season to try to find the right team elsewhere, he ended up in the wrong spot at the wrong time. What could he have done with a season and a half alongside a better team? It was another false start.

Finally, the USC product refused to renegotiate his contract heading into this 2013 season, leading to another epic game of chicken between Palmer and his employers. It eventually led to the Raiders trading Palmer away (in order to start Matt Flynn, somehow) to the Cardinals for a conditional seventh-round pick. In agreeing to the deal, Palmer gave in, renegotiating his contract into a $16 million, two-year deal that the Cardinals will get out of after this season. Because the Raiders waited until the beginning of April to trade Palmer, Arizona was the last starting job left standing. It left Palmer playing behind one of the worst offensive lines in the league, and that was only the beginning. The Cardinals would draft guard Jonathan Cooper in the first round later that month, but Cooper suffered an injury in August that will keep him out for the whole year. Left tackle Levi Brown, the most notable offensive lineman on the roster, wasn't remotely competent after coming back from a season-ending injury, and made it through only the middle of October before being dealt to the Steelers. If you saw what Seattle did to Palmer on Thursday, you know what's going to be happening to Palmer over the remainder of the season. He's basically going to get hit and hit until he gets hurt, and when he does, the Cardinals will be down to Drew Stanton at QB. Palmer is biding time before his next missed opportunity.

That's four major events that drastically impacted Carson Palmer's career: being drafted by the Bengals as opposed to a more hospitable organization, suffering the serious knee injury during his first playoff pass, having his elbow fall apart, and being traded to the Raiders only for the people who acquired him to get fired within months. In each case, he ended up getting the short side of the professional/medical stick. It seems horribly unfair for a player who was such a bright star in 2005. There's no guarantee that things would be any different for him, but if anyone deserves another shot at the same career given his talent level, it's Carson Palmer. Circumstances that were mostly out of his control prevented him from becoming the player he seemed he could be.

us in brazil

By: timbersfan, 5:03 AM GMT on October 13, 2013

Why, hello there. The United States men's national team qualified for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil thanks to a 2-0 victory over Mexico in Columbus, Ohio. The win means that the American fan base can stop panicking about whether the Stars and Stripes will reach the world's richest soccer tournament (which, let's be honest, was never really in doubt), not worry about Friday's game with Jamaica, and start concerning themselves with the picking of the 23-man roster. Far be it from us to miss out on the prediction game. Without further ado, we present Jurgen Klinsmann's 2014 World Cup roster.


1. Tim Howard
2. Brad Guzan
3. Nick Rimando

These are the easiest choices. Howard and Guzan are shoo-ins, barring catastrophic injury. (And even then, they might still make the squad.) The only spot in question is the third string, and that should go to Real Salt Lake's Nick Rimando both for the sake of tradition and because he's the correct pick. Sean Johnson and Bill Hamid are a decade younger than Rimando and will insert themselves into the 2018 picture, but they are not nearly as consistent or as ingrained within this iteration of the Stars and Stripes. But getting the up-and-comers experience isn't a priority at the World Cup. Historically, the USMNT favors experience over youth in net, taking Marcus Hahnemann as the third-stringer in 2006 and 2010 when he was 33 and 37, respectively. Howard, 27 at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, was the youngest goalkeeper taken by the Americans since Brad Friedel starred as a 27-year-old in 2002. A better debate than the third roster spot is the one about if Guzan can supplant Howard as no. 1.


4. Matt Besler
5. Omar Gonzalez
6. Clarence Goodson
7. Geoff Cameron
8. DaMarcus Beasley
9. Brad Evans
10. Fabian Johnson
11. Michael Parkhurst

If goalkeepers are the easiest group to predict, defenders are the hardest. The lack of clear starters at left and right back adds to the confusion. For now, Klinsmann prefers DaMarcus Beasley on the left. He's probably a lock for his experience and leadership, even if he loses his starting spot to Fabian Johnson, who might be the best left back, right back, and left winger on the team. Regardless of where Johnson plays, the German (born to an American serviceman) will be in Brazil.

World Cup 2010 star Steve Cherundolo is going on 35 and battling back from multiple knee injuries, so Brad Evans, whom Klinsmann loves, is — shockingly — the pick at right back. I'll take Michael Parkhurst's versatility, experience, and defensive ability over Edgar Castillo's nonstop forward momentum as a fullback reserve. Other outside possibilities include Timmy Chandler (not returning to the fold), DeAndre Yedlin (too young), Michael Orozco (not good enough), and Eric Lichaj (no love from the manager). Center back is easier, with Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez as the presumed starters, backed by Clarence Goodson and jack-of-all-trades Geoff Cameron. John Brooks, who has the highest ceiling but is still just 20, will miss out on 2014 but anchor the U.S. into the next decade.


12. Michael Bradley
13. Jermaine Jones
14. Landon Donovan
15. Kyle Beckerman
16. Graham Zusi
17. Mix Diskerud
18. Alejandro Bedoya
19. Joe Corona

Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, and Landon Donovan can start looking for beachfront property in Rio. (There isn't any available, but whatever.) After that, the choices get tougher, due to a wealth of options. Kyle Beckerman, despite his limitations, is a near certainty because the win against Mexico showed how effective he can be in an emergency. Maurice Edu and Danny Williams could make a case for his spot, but it's the RSL captain's to lose. Graham Zusi and Mix Diskerud should get the call, too, for their ability to add dimension to the attack. Alejandro Bedoya continues to shine in France's Ligue 1 and, like Beckerman, responded well to a surprise start in Columbus. His pace on the wing and willingness to track back defensively will get him on the plane. Joe Corona's versatility is the trump card over Jose Torres and Sacha Kljestan (who is perpetually the odd man out for reasons that don't quite make sense) as well as the solid but uninspiring wing play of Brek Shea and Brad Davis.


20. Jozy Altidore
21. Clint Dempsey
22. Eddie Johnson
23. Aron Johannsson

The world, or at the very least the U.S. supporters, will expect Jozy Altidore to shine in Brazil. He will certainly have the chance to do so as he should start at the top of the American formation. Clint Dempsey will be in the starting lineup as well, with Eddie Johnson likely to see time either as a substitute or a spot starter. Aron Johannsson is new to the program and would be the youngest member of the 2014 team, but he fit into the system with ease during recent training sessions. Possible replacements include Herculez Gomez, Chris Wondolowski, and Terrence Boyd, but it's hard to see any of those players taking the spot away from Johnson or Johannsson. Right now, none of that trio is better than the latter duo, and that won't change before next summer.


By: timbersfan, 5:01 AM GMT on October 13, 2013

The temporary home of
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The Six Big Takeaways From the Government Shutdown
By Nate Silver on October 10, 2013
FiveThirtyEight.com will officially relaunch in very early 2014 in cooperation with ESPN. I've been spending most of my time recruiting and interviewing job candidates for the new site. It's a labor-intensive process, and we hope that your patience will be rewarded as we begin to tell you more about our plans.

While most of my focus has been on building the new site, the idea was never for me to stop writing completely during the transition period. Instead, Grantland has set up an interim website for me and other FiveThirtyEight contributors to write articles from time to time.

I would have liked to write something about Bill de Blasio's comeback, or the methodological miscues of the Democratic polling firm Public Policy Polling, for instance. Perhaps I would have done so if there were a few extra hours in the day. (I've used this same excuse for not going to the gym since 2004.)

But the shutdown is another matter. I've been avoiding the topic for another reason: I'm not sure I have all that much to say about it.

During last year's election campaign, some readers who followed our coverage came to the conclusion that the truth behind what the polls said was relatively simple once you stripped away all the bullshit that accompanies campaign coverage. And that's more or less correct when it comes to presidential elections. They're relatively predictable — more so than most people might expect intuitively, and more so than most of the mainstream media lets on. (Let me qualify that some: Presidential elections in the United States are quite predictable in the late stages of the race — they're not especially predictable months or years ahead of time.) We know this because there is a very rich track record of polling in the United States, and we can go back and look at how accurate the polls were in the past. The polls haven't been perfect, but they've generally done a very good job.

However, presidential elections are more the exception than the rule. As I discuss in my book, the more common tendency instead is that people (and especially the "experts" who write about the issues for a living) overestimate the degree of predictability in complex systems. There are some other exceptions besides presidential elections — sports, in many respects; and weather prediction, which has become much better in recent years. But for the most part, the experts you see on television are much too sure of themselves.

That's been my impression of the coverage of the shutdown: The folks you see on TV are much too sure of themselves. They've been making too much of thin slices of polling and thinner historical precedents that might not apply this time around.

There's been plenty of bullshit, in other words. We really don't know all that much about how the shutdown is going to be resolved, or how the long-term political consequences are going to play out.

So what can we say? What follows are a series of points that I consider to be on relatively firm ground. Some are critiques of the conventional wisdom; some are points of context; some concern relatively fine details of the situation; some are obvious things that I don't think have been emphasized quite enough. None of them constitute a prediction of how the shutdown is going to turn out, or exactly what the political fallout will be. But perhaps they can serve as useful guidance as you read coverage of the shutdown elsewhere.

1. The media is probably overstating the magnitude of the shutdown's political impact.

Remember Syria? The fiscal cliff? Benghazi? The IRS scandal? The collapse of immigration reform? All of these were hyped as game-changing political moments by the news media, just as so many stories were during the election last year. In each case, the public's interest quickly waned once the news cycle turned over to another story. Most political stories have a fairly short half-life and won't turn out to be as consequential as they seem at the time.

Or consider the other story from President Obama's tenure in office that has the most parallels to the shutdown: the tense negotiations, in 2011, over the federal debt ceiling. The resolution to that crisis, which left voters across the political spectrum dissatisfied, did have some medium-term political impact: Obama's approval ratings declined to the low 40s from the high 40s, crossing a threshold that historically marks the difference between a reelected president and a one-termer, and congressional approval ratings plunged to record lows.

But Obama's approval ratings reverted to the high 40s by early 2012, enough to facilitate his reelection. Meanwhile, reelection rates for congressional incumbents were close to their long-term averages.

None of this applies if the United States actually does default on its debt this time around, or if the U.S. shutdown persists for as long as Belgium's. But if the current round of negotiations is resolved within the next week or so, they might turn out to have a relatively minor impact by November 2014.

2. The impact of the 1995-96 shutdowns is overrated in Washington's mythology.

But what about the pair of government shutdowns in 1995 and 1996? It's common to find articles asserting, without qualification, that they were a major factor in prompting President Clinton's reelection.

However, the empirical evidence for this claim is thin. Clinton's approval ratings were somewhat higher a few months after the shutdown than a few months beforehand — but this was part of a relatively steady, long-term trend toward improved approval ratings for Clinton, probably because of solid economic growth.

Nor was Clinton's victory over Bob Dole in 1996 anything unexpected. Incumbent presidents generally win reelection even under marginal conditions (as Barack Obama did last year) — and they're overwhelming favorites during peacetime elections when the economy is robust, as it was during 1996. Furthermore, Clinton did not have much in the way of coattails: Democrats gained just two seats in the House that November, and wouldn't win back the chamber for another decade.

3. Democrats face extremely unfavorable conditions in trying to regain the House.

Even if the shutdown were to have a moderate political impact — and one that favored the Democrats in races for Congress — it might not be enough for them to regain control of the U.S. House. Instead, Democrats face two major headwinds as they seek to win back Congress.

First, there are extremely few swing districts — only one-half to one-third as many as when the last government shutdown occurred in 1996. Some of this is because of partisan gerrymandering, but more of it is because of increasingly sharp ideological divides along geographic lines: between urban and rural areas, between the North and the South, and between the coasts and the interior of the United States.

So even if Democrats make significant gains in the number of votes they receive for the House, they would flip relatively few seats because of the way those votes are distributed. Most of the additional votes would come in districts that Democrats were already assured of winning, or where they were too far behind to catch up.

Consider that, between 2010 and 2012, Democrats went from losing the average congressional district by seven percentage points to winning it by one percentage point — an eight-point swing. And yet they added only eight seats in the House, out of 435 congressional districts.

In 2014, likewise, it will require not just a pretty good year for Democrats, but a wave election for them to regain the House. But wave elections in favor of the party that controls the White House are essentially unprecedented in midterm years. Instead, the president's party has almost always lost seats in the House — or at best gained a handful.

One might be able to construct an argument for why the precedent could be violated. The pattern of the president's party losing seats in the midterms has been very strong in the past — but political scientists aren't quite sure why this is the case. One theory is that voters may elect members of Congress from the opposite party as a check on the president's power. But if Congress instead is seen as the more powerful entity, voters might desire to curb its power instead.

Essentially, Democrats will have to persuade swing voters that having Republicans in charge of one chamber in one branch of government is more dangerous than yielding unilateral control of the government to the Democrats — at a time when President Obama is fairly unpopular, and when the signature initiative of the last Democratic Congress has been rolled out badly. Moreover, the voters that Democrats have to persuade about this are somewhat right of center, since the median congressional district is somewhat Republican-leaning and since the voters who reliably turn out at midterm elections are older, whiter, and otherwise more conservative than those who vote in general elections. It's not an impossible task for Democrats, but the terrain is all uphill.

4. The polling data on the shutdown is not yet all that useful, and we lack data on most important measures of voter preferences.

There is an array of polls that ask voters which party they blame for the shutdown. For the most part, they show Republicans taking somewhat more blame than Democrats, although the differences aren't as stark as in 1995 and 1996.

The unanswered question is how this abstract notion of blame, on just one issue, might translate into tangible changes in voter preferences 13 months from now. Republicans are taking more blame for the shutdown — but they were extremely unpopular to begin with. How many people's votes will be changed by the shutdown?

The best measure of this might be the generic congressional ballot, which measures overall preferences for Democrats or Republicans in congressional races around the country. However, very few generic ballot polls have been released since the shutdown began, and the exceptions are from dubious polling firms like Public Policy Polling and Rasmussen Reports.

That isn't to say Republicans are without any reason for concern: The most recent Gallup poll shows a much sharper drop in Republican favorability ratings than in those for Democrats, which could presage a shift in the generic ballot.

But measures that put the parties head-to-head are much more valuable. I'll be more convinced about the electoral downside for Republicans if and when we see such a shift in the generic ballot, or, say, in a number of Senate races around the country. (One irony is that while the House has been the focal point for GOP intransigence on the shutdown, Republican candidates for the Senate may have much more at risk, since the race for that chamber is much closer and contains a much higher proportion of competitive races.)

5. President Obama's change in tactics may be less about a change of heart and more about a change in incentives.

Democrats seem pleased that Obama has held a relatively firm line against negotiating on the shutdown or debt ceiling so far. There is something to be said for his change in tactics. His position is much clearer than the story of shifting imperatives that has characterized the Republican Party's stance. For everyday Americans who are paying only a moderate amount of attention to the shutdown debate, and who apply the heuristic that the party with the more unified message has a stronger position than the one that seems to be at war with itself, that could matter.

But Obama also has one advantage that he lacked during the debt ceiling debates of 2011: He no longer has to face reelection. One risk to Obama during 2011 was that even if a debt ceiling breach endangered many congressional Republicans, it could also have injured his reelection chances because of the long-term damage to the economy. Voters could have chosen both a new Congress and a new president.

This time around, Obama has less to lose. Whether or not he "wins" the battle with Republicans over the shutdown, he is unlikely to persuade Republicans to sign on to any of his other policy priorities, such as immigration reform. Further damage to Obama's approval ratings could still have some knockoff effects on races for Congress. But the relationships aren't nearly as direct as when the president is on the ballot himself.

Furthermore, the historical relationship between the economy and races for Congress is relatively ambiguous. (For example, the GOP's huge gains in the 1994 midterms came despite a growing and healthy economy.) A quick-and-dirty chart comparing GDP growth and the performance of the president's party at the midterm elections reveals almost no correlation, for instance. (While more complicated formulas that account for factors such as which party holds control of Congress and how many seats it began with may perform slightly better, these models can be prone toward backfitting, and they've done a mediocre job of predicting congressional results in real time.) This is not to imply that there's no downside for President Obama and the Democrats: It's hard to imagine Democrats gaining many seats in the House, let alone enough to win back the chamber, if Obama's approval ratings are mired in the 30s at this point next year. But voters will not have the option in 2014 on casting a pox on both the president and the Congress: They'll have to choose whether they hate congressional Democrats or congressional Republicans less.

6. The increasing extent of GOP partisanship is without strong recent precedent, and contributes to the systemic uncertainty about political outcomes.

Congress has gone through periods of relatively high partisanship before — for example, at the turn of the 20th century. But the degree of polarization in the Congress is higher than at any point since the Great Depression by a variety of measures, and is possibly at its highest point ever. (Most of the evidence suggests the trend is asymmetric: Republicans in Congress have become much more conservative, while Democrats have become only somewhat more liberal.)

What this means is that, whether they assume the form of statistical models or more anecdotal takes on the evidence, conceptions based on recent history of how the negotiations might play out may not be all that reliable. That there were 17 government shutdowns between 1976 and 1996, for example, none of which persisted for more than three weeks, may not be all that meaningful since none of those came at a time when Congress was nearly as polarized as it is now. Similarly, the fact that an aggregate limit on federal debt has been in place since 1939 [PDF] may not tell us all that much. This is not to imply that the risk of a debt ceiling breach is all that high, especially given the reports of progress in budget talks as of Thursday morning.

But there's a lot we don't know.

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bs 10-12 p2

By: timbersfan, 4:58 AM GMT on October 13, 2013

(Home teams in caps)

BEARS (-7.5) over Giants
Yep, it's Friday, which means I lost another Skunk of the Week Pick! Quick question: Let's say the Giants thought about offering Eli Manning right now — this very moment — for Cleveland's no. 1 pick and a second-rounder in 2015. Which team says no to that trade? Why wouldn't the Giants blow everything up and usher in a full rebuild? Would the Browns give up that much for a QB who turns 33 in January? Can you imagine living in a world where THE CLEVELAND BROWNS started a good quarterback every week? Wouldn't they win the AFC North with him? Could Eli lead them to a no. 3 seed? Can't everyone just say "yes" because the 2013 season would be more fun? More importantly …

BROWNS (+3) over Lions
If that trade happened tonight, would Eli be allowed to play in Sunday's Browns-Lions game? Why not? How would that work from a fantasy standpoint? Could you keep Eli's fantasy points for both Week 6 games? Would this be the greatest moment in fantasy football history? Would this cause a riot on the Internet? I love everything about Eli-to-the-Browns-right-now.

As for the Lions, Michigan reader Matt Cook wonders, "Can we come up with a title for the opposite of the Ewing Theory? When a team loses their 'best' player and becomes so incompetent that you'd think they never played that sport before — like the Lions last weekend — I think we should call it the 'Calvin Johnson Theory.'" Sorry, Matt, you're too late — that's actually the (Peyton) Manning Theory, created after the 2011 Colts had a free fall from the playoffs to 2-14. Good luck topping a namesake who inadvertently yielded the Luck/ChuckStrong era, ended Tebowmania and spawned Evil Manning.

Bengals (-8) over BILLS
I'm enjoying Cincy's "Please, Don't Let Andy Hurt Us" offense, which was ripped off from old Trent Dilfer tapes during his Super Bowl season in Baltimore. Maybe it won't take them far in the playoffs, but it's definitely taking them past Chad Lewis this week. Er, Thad Lewis.6 Meanwhile, Matt from Cincy writes, "Every week I wait for your picks, and EVERY week you use the Bengals games to randomly talk about something other than the Bengals. Hope you enjoyed last Sunday, dick. Now I hope you waste 1,000 words on Brady's touchdown streak and the fact you didn't score an offensive touchdown for the first time in years. Again, Ha Ha, dick." The Internet is the greatest.

Miami's Bye Week (-6.5) over Atlanta's Bye Week
How tough was this week for Atlanta sports fans? A glassy-eyed Rembert Browne asked me after three drinks this week, "Do you think I should own the Atlanta sports corner for Grantland, or is that corner just too depressing?" The answers: yes and yes. (By the way, EVERYONE is depressed about Julio Jones going down. Who wants to live in a world with a RedZone channel that doesn't have Julio Jones? I certainly don't.) Here's the best Atlanta e-mail I received this week, courtesy of Harrison in Atlanta:

"In my 26 years of living in Atlanta, tonight is without a doubt the worst night ever. Tonight was worse than Game 7 of the 1988 EC Semis vs. Bird, Game 6 & 7 of the 1991 World Series vs. the Twins, the 1996 World Series vs. the Yankees (took first two games at Yankee Stadium and promptly lost the next 4), our only Super Bowl appearance (damn you Eugene), the 2005 18 inning NLDS walk-off loss to the Astros and Chris Burke (Yes, Chris Burke), the 2012 Infield Fly Wild Card Game and even the 2013 NFC Championship. Being an Atlanta sports fan is like being in love with a knockout stripper who keeps breaking your heart by stealing all of your money, only you can't help going back time and time again."

VIKINGS (-2.5) over Panthers

[We posted this column right as the horrible news about Adrian Peterson's son was breaking. Best wishes to Peterson and his family. Everyone at Grantland is praying for them.]

In one corner, you have the Vikings trying to resurrect Josh Freeman's career while somehow not starting him this week AND telling Matt Cassel and Christian Ponder that it's nothing personal and they like them too. I'm sure that's going to work out great. (Just make Freeman the starter already.) In the other corner, you have the Panthers, who blew out the Giants in Week 3, used the bye week to make everyone forget that Cam Newton is hopeless against the blitz, roped gamblers into backing them at Arizona last week (the line swung three points), then fell apart like they always do. The Panthers are 1-3 and bringing back not-so-fond memories of their starts in 2012 (1-6), 2011 (1-5), 2010 (1-12) and 2009 (1-3). I can't pick Ron Rivera again. I just can't.

Hey, you know what might cheer up Panthers fans? Johnny Lawrence's "screen-used" karate outfit from the 1984 All-Valley Championships, on sale for a staggering $100,000. A reader named Jason in Austin wanted to know if the price is overvalued, undervalued or properly valued. Um … what? I'm gonna say overvalued! You could probably buy Billy Zabka for less than $100,000 right now, much less his 29-year-old karate uniform. Maybe they're banking on some wacky billionaire trying to buy up all the classic sports movie props out there: Rocky's trunks from the first Balboa-Creed fight, Hustler's game-worn pool cue from Fast Break, Hanrahan's game-worn Long Island Ducks goalie jersey, Jake Shuttlesworth's game-worn tracking bracelet, and so on. And if that billionaire is out there, I'd like to befriend him.

JETS7 (-2) over Steelers
One of my goals on Sunday: To not watch a single play of this game. Here's a much more intriguing line, courtesy of Mark in Gaithersburg:

Marlo Prequel (-6.5) vs Todd Prequel.


(Hmmmmmmm … I'm taking the points. That line is three points too high.)

Eagles (-2) over BUCS
Packers (-3) over RAVENS
This feels like the week when Chip Kelly and Aaron Rodgers start making their runs at … something. Meanwhile, here's this week's Really Mean E-mail About Roger Goodell, courtesy of Vydas in Commack, New York: "Instead of dressing up the players in pink for breast cancer awareness, shouldn't the NFL be heading a concussion awareness campaign? Or are their former players finally doing a good enough job of that for them?"

Rams (+7.5) over TEXANS
A Houston reader named Spencer derisively nicknamed Schaub and Kubiak "Schaubiak," adding, "Schaubiak has gotten so bad, I now wake up at 6 am to watch the Rockets live from the Philippines in the NBA Global Games." I love it. They're the "Bennifer" of this decade. No way I'm laying seven and a half points with Schaubiak right now, not even against this super-shaky Rams team. You can't make me.

Speaking of shaky, here's our Shakey's Pizza Watch for Week 6: Tavon Austin (yeesh) … Cam Newton during any blitz … Eli Manning's Hall of Fame chances … Mike Vick's everything … Seattle's receivers against good defenses … Jay Cutler's Jay Cutlerness … Miami's offensive line … Homeland's decision to become a CW teen drama (h/t Mark Lisanti) … New England's run-stuffing ability … the Bob Kraft era … the Bucs' janitorial staff … pitching to Evan Longoria with first base open (I've finally recovered) … San Francisco's passing game … any Packers game without Clay Matthews in it … any scumbag who leaks a fake "report" to a sports blog … all "How funny would a Pirates-A's World Series be?" jokes … Chicago's defense … Denver's defense … everyone who thought they were getting a steal when they spent $15 on Rob Gronkowski in a fantasy auction … the no. 2 seed in the AFC (whoever it is) … the Chargers in any game that ends at 3 a.m. on the East Coast … Matt Stafford anytime Calvin Johnson is wearing street clothes … any fantasy owner who listened to my suggestion to pick up Kenny Stills … all fantasy advice from Bill Simmons.

SEAHAWKS (-13.5) over Titans
Ryan Fitzpatrick playing in Seattle against the 12th Man? Come on. Stop it.

CHIEFS (-8) over Raiders
I have a few thoughts here …

• I've had at least 17 different "Wait, is Terrelle Pryor actually good?" moments and just wanted to make sure I'm not alone. I don't love him against KC's defense in Arrowhead this week, but for the long haul, he might be a keeper. I think I'm in on Terrelle.

• Tony Gonzalez to the Chiefs for a third-round pick … um … why can't we just call this trade in to the League of Denial offices right now? What are we waiting for?

• PJ in Lincoln pays tribute to Matt Flynn: "He played one football game of note in the past six years and somehow parlayed that ONE start into being the de facto franchise quarterback for two separate organizations. He also cashed in a healthy eight figure contract along the way. All while not earning the starting job for either team and not so much as logging one single quality start in his career outside of that single game that spawned his journey. I'm struggling to find a question in there, but I know in my heart there's a good one somewhere in the nonsensical gumbo. Please help find it … and then answer it." I can't come up with a question either — just know that the price of "FLYNN KNOWS" T-shirts continues to drop. Would you rather buy Johnny Lawrence's game-worn karate outfit or 6,254 "FLYNN KNOWS" T-shirts? Tough call.

• I absolutely loved last Sunday's ridiculously late Raiders-Chargers game — or as it should have been marketed to husbands whose wives couldn't believe that the Sunday football TV schedule had inexplicably increased by three hours, "The Don't Get Divorced Bowl." I'm fully on board with this e-mail from Max in L.A.: "I'm watching the Raiders/Chargers game right now and this is the greatest start time ever for an NFL game. Wife and kids are asleep and out of my hair. Just a man and his 12th to 14th hour of NFL consciousness. I admit its not great for the guy in Hoboken who's betting the over and holding out hope at 3:30 am. But for a West Coaster this is kinda nice. Late Night Raider Network. Let's make it happen."

One additional tweak: Couldn't the League of Denial just dump the consistently sloppy Thursday Night Football (if only for player safety reasons) and give the NFL Network the Don't Get Divorced Super-Late Sunday Night package, hosted by Oakland and San Diego? Just make all their home games start at 8 p.m. on the West Coast. Done. Let's do this.

BRONCOS (-27) over Jaguars
Denver's defense gave up 48 points last week without a kick return or defensive TD being involved. Let's not forget this when they're up by 40 this week — at some point, the day of reckoning for Denver's defense is coming. Anyway, Cousin Sal and I have been playing "Guess the Lines" for seven seasons now on the B.S. Report. Since the Broncos-Jags line was destined to be the highest NFL spread ever, it became the Super Bowl of "Guess the Lines" for us … and we both nailed it. Twenty-eight on Monday. Since then, it dropped a point — great news for me since I already wrote that I was taking Denver as long as the line fell under 35 (and that was before Luke Joeckel broke his ankle). The good news: Blaine Gabbert's QBR rating has climbed to 1.8 — now he's 1.8 points better than Dead Blaine Gabbert. Poor Jacksonville. Joe in Seattle derisively called them a "tricycle wreck" this week. Perfect.

Last note: Even if Denver might not cover this spread because of the garbage-time TD potential (again, the Broncos gave up 48 last week), I'd bet anything that they will be winning by 28 or more at some point in this game. My buddy Gus came up with a fun idea: "Guess the Exact Point of the Game When Denver First Covers This Spread." He guessed with 3:12 remaining in the second quarter. I'm saying with 12:48 remaining in the third quarter. But that could be a fun office pool if you're still at work and not getting drunk at a happy hour right now.

PATRIOTS (-1.5) over Saints
One of those "Nobody Believes In Us" weeks for the Patriots, especially after Cincy's front seven beat them up and Brady brought back not-so-fond memories of Y2K Drew Bledsoe. I'm not panicking. We've been here before. (Fine, I'm panicking.) By the way, readers have been asking me why I haven't written about the 2013 Red Sox once this season. Um … doesn't that question answer itself? You think I'm breaking the streak now? You crazy?

Here's a phenomenal mailbag question from Henry in Boston: "Tom Brady, David Ortiz and Larry Bird arrive at the same Boston restaurant, and they've all come separately. Who gets seated first? Who gets the best table?"

My answer after somewhere between 25 and 350 minutes of thought: The Legend gets seated first but doesn't get the best table because he doesn't care where he sits. Why does the Legend get seated first? Because he's the Legend. Earlier this week during a press conference for Indiana's preseason game in the Philippines, a reporter addressed the Legend as Mr. Legend. Again, this happened in the Philippines. The Legend gets seated first. Big Papi goes next because he's hungry and because the Red Sox are in the playoffs — they want to feed him and keep him happy. And Brady gets the best table because he's the only one savvy enough to (a) let the other two sit before him so he seems like a good guy, and (b) slip the maître d' a hunny so he gets the best table. Everyone wins. Thank you and please drive through.

Cards (+10.5) over 49ERS
Way too many points for a banged-up Niners defense and a Niners offense that has quietly shifted into ground-and-pound mode. Why didn't Arizona sign Josh Freeman when it's 3-2 and trotting out a sneaky-good defense every week but also trotting out Carson Palmer? It's a great question. It's a really, really great question. Anyway, here's our Sneaky-Good Watch for Week 6: Arizona's D … anyone named "Terrelle" … Alshon Jeffery's stock … Daryl Washington's All-Pro chances … the Andre Ellington era (about to heat up) … Brandon Jacobs (?!?!?!) … Matt Borcas's fantasy columns … every Patriots fan's appreciation for Vince Wilfork … Indy's Super Bowl odds (still 20-1!) … mailbag questions from Henry in Boston.

COWBOYS (-6) over D.C. Daceys
Can a 6-10 Cowboys team win the NFC East by two games? I sure hope so. Meanwhile, here's Tony Romo's season so far: 1,523 yards, 71.8 completion percentage, 13 TDs, 2 picks, 114.3 QB rating, 69.4 QBR, 7-8 unofficial "WOW!" plays, one cruelly unfair game-ending interception that made everyone feel bad for Tony Romo again. It's officially impossible to root against Romo unless you root for the Giants/D.C. Daceys/Eagles — he's like the pre-2004 Red Sox, the Cubs/Browns/Suns/Bills right now, or every Daniel Bryan WWE title match. It's weird to think that a football player's mojo has reached the point that, even as he's having the game of his life and one of the best games in quarterback history, you're sitting there thinking, I wonder what's gonna go wrong? But that's where we are. I can't figure out how much of this is Romo's fault and how much of it comes down to overwhelmingly bad luck. Just know that I always find myself rooting for him now.

CHARGERS (+2.5) over Colts
Yes, I'm riding the "Everyone who plays the super-physical Seahawks is bruised and battered the following week" theory8 and picking against the Colts, a team that I've actually come to respect as a legitimate Super Bowl contender, if only because of Andrew Luck (as covered earlier). But I'm leaving you with this thought: Peyton Manning is a 1-to-10 favorite to win the MVP. In other words, you'd have to wager $1,000 on him just to win $100 back.

Meanwhile, Andrew Luck has 30-to-1 odds to win the MVP right now. It can't be forgotten that Manning (a) is 37 years old, (b) has already had four neck surgeries, (c) doesn't have his All-Pro left tackle anymore and (d) hasn't played a good defense yet. You're telling me there isn't a 1-in-30 chance that either he gets dinged up and misses a few games or the Broncos tail off a little in November and December when their schedule gets tougher? And you're telling me that if Luck carries the Colts to 11-5 or 12-4 and a no. 2 seed, he's not waiting in the wings for an MVP if ANYTHING happens to Manning? As your unofficial gambling adviser, I strongly suggest that you sprinkle a little MVP money on Mr. Luck if you live in a world where gambling is legal. You never know.

This Week: 0-1
Last Week: 9-5
Season: 37-37-4

bs 10-12 p1

By: timbersfan, 4:56 AM GMT on October 13, 2013

We're playing a little game this week. Guess which NFL head coach made the following comments about his starting quarterback last weekend.

"The players are all looking at him. They're looking at him every snap. That's their leader out there, and so if you're wavering at all or you don't have the right look in your eye, these guys can sense that. They can tell. So how you present yourself is huge. He's a tenacious competitor, that kid. I love that. I love that part of him."

High praise, right? So who said it? Here are your eight choices …

A. Chuck Pagano on Andrew Luck
B. Gus Bradley on Blaine Gabbert
C. John Fox on Peyton Manning
D. Andy Reid on Alex Smith
E. Gary Kubiak on Matt Schaub
F. Jason Garrett on Tony Romo
G. Pete Carroll on Russell Wilson
H. Tom Coughlin on Eli Manning

• You ruled out Kubiak immediately — after all, Schaub leapfrogged Jesse Pinkman, Dana Brody, Carrie Mathison, Kenny Powers, Skyler White and The Walking Dead Carl last weekend to become 2013's most traumatized Sunday-night TV character.

• You ruled out Bradley because you've seen Gabbert play professional football this season.

• You ruled out Garrett because that quote was way too lively and insightful for Jason Garrett.

• You ruled out Coughlin because Eli hasn't had the "right look in his eye" this year, unless it's the look of someone who's running for his life every week.

• You ruled out Fox because Peyton is playing the most devastating football we've ever seen a QB play — if you were lavishing him with a 65-word tribute, you'd probably throw in words like "remarkable," "I've never seen anything like it" and "I'm just thankful that nobody has asked him to pee in a cup."

That leaves Carroll, Pagano and Reid. Hmmmmmm. Andrew Luck has been our 2013 NPMVP (Non-Peyton MVP) through five weeks — he has turned a C-plus Colts team into a contender and beaten San Francisco and Seattle already. Pagano wouldn't just say "how you present yourself is huge" about someone like Luck. He's too good of a good talker; he'd throw in something like, "That's why he has a chance to be one of the all-time greats" just to really bang it home. Totally true, by the way. Through 14 months, we've seen nothing from Andrew Luck to make us think "one of the all-time greats" is unrealistic. He'd be the first pick in any You Can Have One Football Player For The Next 12 Years draft. He's playing so well that Colts fans aren't even fazed that Evil Manning is gunning for a 6-6-6 (6,000 yards, 600 points, 60 TDs). Anyway, Pagano is out.

Now we're down to Pete Carroll and Andy Reid. If you don't chew on it long enough, you'd probably guess Carroll if only because those mystery quotes sound exactly like something you'd say about Russell Wilson — you know, Mr. Intangibles, the undersize third-round pick with the giant chip on his shoulder, the guy who inspired me to dump Josh Freeman as my B.S. Report crush (which sent Josh's career into a tailspin), the charismatic leader who nearly dragged the Seahawks to the Super Bowl as a rookie. But Wilson is overqualified for those quotes. Look at those 65 words again.

"The players are all looking at him. They're looking at him every snap. That's their leader out there, and so if you're wavering at all or you don't have the right look in your eye, these guys can sense that. They can tell. So how you present yourself is huge. He's a tenacious competitor, that kid. I love that. I love that part of him."

You say those things because you believe them, but also because you're hoping the quarterback hears them. It's a strategic move. You're not just his coach; you're his Bundini Brown. You're building your guy up, hyping him, trying to get HIM to believe it. Deep down, you know you're doing it because of the precarious nature of the position itself. No football team can succeed with a quarterback who lost his mojo. Russell Wilson? He's not losing his mojo. He's sticking around for the long haul. You don't need to pump up Russell Wilson. At least until I dump him on the B.S. Report for a new favorite QB to gamble on.

So that leaves us with Andy Reid — and yes, that's the right answer. Nobody loves defending flawed QBs and building them back up more than Andy. He's the guy who rehabilitated a once-broken Michael Vick, created actual trade value for Kevin Kolb, and navigated Donovan McNabb's perilously rocky relationship with Philly fans. When he arrived in Kansas City last spring, he traded for Alex Smith knowing that Jim Harbaugh had already salvaged Smith's career once with the rescue dog–savior routine.1 Harbaugh spent the 2011 season repairing Smith's confidence in San Francisco, singing his praises and making sure everyone knew that ALEX SMITH IS MY GUY. Total bullshit. As soon as fate allowed Harbaugh to upgrade at quarterback — in the form of Smith's concussion and Colin Kaepernick miraculously becoming Randall Cunningham 2.0 — he handed ALEX SMITH IS MY GUY a clipboard and a headset.

Will Reid shank Smith like that someday? For 2013, it doesn't matter, not when Andy's undefeated Chiefs were gift-wrapped a schedule that would cripple their hypothetical BCS ranking.2 It's a relatively loaded team with one pulsating question mark: the quarterback, someone who's never going to be Brees or Brady. But if he carries himself like them? That's 75 percent of the battle. As long as Smith's teammates believe in him, the 2013 Kansas City Chiefs have a chance in January and maybe even in February. Andy Reid knows this. So he's pumping him up now.

Here's another thing Andy knows: Quarterback is a truly fucked-up position. You need the reflexes of a Formula One driver and the durability of a professional wrestler. You know you're taking six or seven monster licks per game (from people bigger and angrier than you, no less). You also know that on every pass play there's a chance for a season-ending injury with 300-pound bodies tumbling around your knees and ankles. So you have those ongoing physical threats, as well as the relentless responsibility of the position itself: reading defenses, calling plays, audibling at the line, managing the game, perfecting your timing with receivers, mastering the nuances of hitting people in stride.

And that's just the physical stuff. You also need to be one of the smartest guys on your football team, and definitely one of the coolest. You need to carry yourself like a CEO and motivate your troops like a battle sergeant. You need to convince them to fight for you, to believe in you, to protect you at all costs. You need to keep shaking off bad throws, bad plays and bad luck. You need to live with the fact that, for four or five solid months, you're going to be the no. 1 reason your team wins or loses. And you need to ignore the failures of your peers — those three or four quarterbacks who mysteriously lose it every season — because deep down, you know it could always happen to you.

It's the single hardest position to play in any professional sport. And the most fragile one, too. It doesn't take much for Floundering Philip Rivers (2012) to magically transform back into Totally Competent Philip Rivers (2013) — just give him a new coach, a healthy Antonio Gates, a better offensive line and boom! He suddenly looks like Philip Rivers again. We've seen high-pedigree quarterbacks regain their juvenation before — most famously Brett Favre and Brett Favre's penis. But you can lose your juvenation just as easily, especially if you don't have the athletic pedigree of, say, Wilson or Luck. In no time whatsoever, before you even totally realize what's happening, someone like 2011 Matt Schaub can morph into this …

Make a couple ghastly throws, hear a couple boos, take a few licks, notice a couple teammates glancing at you with real concern, turn to the wrong sports radio show at the wrong moment, hear one mean comment when you're out to dinner with your family, have one lunatic fan show up at your house just to berate you, and suddenly you're deep inside your own head and can't escape. That's what just happened to poor Schaub. One of my readers (Nick in San Jose) thinks Schaub just had a free fall into the "Delhomme Zone" (strong name), which reminded me of a valuable learning experience. Back in 2009, Jake Delhomme's career was imploding in Carolina after a five-pick playoff game in January and a five-turnover game in Week 1 the following September. I dare you to find a more memorably awful two-game performance in NFL quarterback history — this was like Taylor Kitsch following up John Carter with Battleship II: Gigli.

Heading into Week 2 of that 2009 season, I decided to get cute by pushing Delhomme's potential to turn things around. My theory: Since Panthers fans had completely given up on Jake and were doing everything short of strangling themselves with Delhomme jerseys, I thought that collective loss of faith could actually help him.

What happens to a player if he can't hit rock bottom because it already happened? What happens to a player who doesn't have to worry about regaining the trust of his fans because it's already gone? Maybe that player becomes liberated. It's like Seinfeld's famous joke about why old people back out of driveways without ever looking to see if cars are coming. They don't care anymore. They're old. They're backing up, that's that, and we have to get out of their way. Period. I think Jake reached that point. He has nothing to lose because it's already gone. So why wouldn't Jake just go out there, fling the football and have fun?
Man, those words looked great on the screen. What I didn't know: Jake's right arm was shot. He never fully recovered from Tommy John surgery in 2007, and once his mojo got sapped, that was that. Starting with that infamous 2009 playoff defeat to Arizona, Jake played in just 18 more games for three teams before finally retiring, throwing 12 touchdowns and an astonishing 30 picks in those games. In an interesting twist, Kurt Warner won that same infamous 2009 playoff game — another QB who once hit rock bottom, only in Warner's case, he rallied back with the help of God and puppies. Here's what I wrote about Warner heading into the 2003 season, one year after he went 0-6 as a Rams starter with three touchdown passes, 11 interceptions and 21 sacks:

His career hasn't been the same since Super Bowl XXXI. Since then, he's been dealing with a variety of injuries; his wife pulling a Mrs. [Doug] Christie with that appalling radio-show defense of him; Marc Bulger's breath on his neck; a splintered locker room; his coach's lukewarm endorsement over the winter; and at least 500,000 fans making that "Apparently Warner's deal with the devil finally expired" joke. Has there ever been a tougher fantasy season to predict? He's either out of the lineup by Week 5, or he's throwing for 4,500 yards and 35 TDs. There's no in-between.
What happened? In Week 1, Warner fumbled (use your LeBron voice here) not once, not twice, not three times, not four times, not five times, but SIX times against the Giants (losing three of them). He never started another game for St. Louis. From 2003 through 2006, Warner finished 8-17 as a starter for three different teams, threw 24 touchdowns and 19 picks, fumbled 37 times, and endured a startling 82 sacks as everyone wondered No, seriously, this is getting weird … do you think Kurt Warner sold his soul to the devil in 1999? Mid-2000s Kurt Warner had just as massive of a salad fork sticking out of his back as 2009 Delhomme did (or as 2013 Schaub does right now).

Here's how low Warner sunk: Before the 2007 season, Warner signed with Arizona to compete for the starting job with Matt Leinart. That's when he cut a second deal with the devil, made sweet fantasy football love with Larry Fitzgerald, regained his mojo completely and totally, made the Pro Bowl in 2008 and even carried the Cinderella Cardinals within a whisper of winning Super Bowl XLIII. We're talking about three different people here from 2002 through 2008, all of whom looked exactly like Kurt Warner. That's football.

My beloved podcast buddy Mike Lombardi believed that Warner absorbed too many licks in St. Louis and the residual damage changed his "eye level." That was one of my favorite Lombardi terms — ideally, quarterbacks should be looking past the line of scrimmage, trying to find open receivers and trusting that everything happening directly in front of them will work in their favor. They ignore: missed blocks, 300-pounders rolling around near their feet, and the possibility of being pancaked. They refuse to be swayed from keeping their eyes locked downfield and trusting the process as a whole. But when they're banged up, hiding an injury, worrying about their blocking, fearing the next pancake sack and/or battling self-doubt? Their eye level drops down to the line of scrimmage (everything directly in front of them), they start quick-throwing passes, they start making decisions they never normally make, their body language goes to hell … and suddenly you're here.

And by the way, everything I just described can happen to the best quarterbacks alive in a single game — just ask Patriots fans (Super Bowl XLII), Packers fans (Giants-Pack, January 2012) and Colts fans (2004 AFC Championship Game), and definitely ask Vikings fans (2009 NFC Championship Game) while screaming "KILL THE HEAD AND THE BODY WILL DIE!"3 Every quality defense wants to pound a quarterback, change his eye level and transform him into a grimacing, eye-rolling, shoulder-sagging, mojo-lacking mess.

After Eli Manning tossed his second interception in Chicago (a TAINT, no less), it seemed like this might even happen to Eli last night. Were we about to watch a two-time Super Bowl MVP free-fall into the Delhomme Zone? He managed to fight it off … at least for this week. And even if I'd love seeing the guy who murdered my Patriots in two Super Bowls go full Delhomme on us, it still seems a little far-fetched. Maybe he's played poorly at times, and maybe he's thrown more interceptions (15) through six games than anyone since Dan Fouts in 1986,4 but it has never felt like Eli was actually breaking down. Same for Ben Roethlisberger. I've never lost faith in them as quarterbacks. They're just stuck on lousy football teams. They know it and we know it.

Matt Schaub? That's a different story. He passed the point of no return during the tail end of that Seattle game. It wasn't so much the humiliation of that ghastly game-tying TAINT to Richard Sherman as it was Schaub's distraught reaction afterward — even he didn't believe in himself anymore. Imagine playing for the Texans and seeing your leader looking like that. How would you regroup? When it happened again in San Francisco last weekend, I watched Eastbound & Down afterward, saw Kenny Powers's overwhelmed expression during his first Sports Sesh show, and thought to myself, SCHAUB! That's a bad sign for the Matt Schaub era.

And let's face it — he's never been the same kind of gunslinger he was before a foot injury prematurely ended his 2011 season.5 Like Delhomme in 2009, he might not be the same physically. Could that be why Schaub's eye level dropped and his mojo disappeared? Or was it a combination of factors? When Gary Kubiak decided to stick with him for one more weekend, his explanation didn't exactly remind me of an inspirational Andy Reid quote.

"Tough decision. Real tough. I feel like it's the best thing for our football team this weekend and so there was a lot of thought put into it, a lot of evaluations."

Translation: Don't worry, Matt, you're still kinda sorta maybe our guy! This will end badly.

But Alex Smith? He's fine for now. His coach believes in him. He's a tenacious competitor, that kid. I love that. I love that part of him. For now, anyway. Because as soon as Alex Smith doesn't have the right look in his eye, Andy Reid will dump him and find someone else.

On to the Week 6 picks …

The Designated Player: Does Anybody Want to Win the Supporters' Shield?

By: timbersfan, 5:06 AM GMT on October 10, 2013

It was a rather crazy set of results this past weekend in MLS. Only one team out of a possible four that could have clinched a playoff spot did so. It was yet another reminder that the one consistent winner in MLS this season has been forced parity, though it was also a reminder that teams have consistently shot themselves in the foot after getting into positions to pull away from their rivals. It makes one wonder this: Does anybody want to win the Supporters' Shield?

I hope so. As we’ve reported elsewhere, for all that the uneven schedule has robbed the Shield of being a true, even metric for who the best regular-season team is, it’s still a significant marker of how a club has come together over the year. And it does of course come with a CONCACAF Champions League spot.

So who are the remaining contenders? Mathematically, there are a few sides that could still be in contention but aren’t likely to get there given run-ins. But by my reckoning, there are five contenders with more or less realistic aspirations. Here they are, listed in their current order in the standings.

New York Red Bulls

There’s a possibility we’re witnessing the high-water mark of the Red Bulls' season right now. They’ve never been in contention this late and, famously, have never won a trophy, but they lead the Supporters' Shield standings after Round 32 of 34, and they're the only team to secure a playoff spot so far. That happened when Tim Cahill tied the game against New England, 2-2, on Saturday night.

Depending on your cup-half-empty/half-full perspective, the New England game either showcased New York's inability to put teams away (New York sat deeper and deeper in the second half and Thierry Henry continues to look surprisingly gun-shy in the final third) or the newfound resilience that may be the signature of Mike Petke’s first year as coach. The Red Bulls have scored 18 goals in the last 15 minutes of games this year, 11 of which have won or tied games. Cahill, who got the late leveler in Seattle last week and the dramatic goal against New England, has scored five of those goals. They need a big help from others to win the Shield, but they’re showing qualities that may make them dangerous in the playoffs.

Remaining games: at Houston, vs. Chicago

Real Salt Lake

This is a testing time for RSL. Losing the U.S. Open Cup final continued an unwanted streak of missing out on silverware in front of their own fans, and it happening against the league’s worst team was a blow for a team that has broken the 50-point mark for the fifth successive season. That consistency sees them still atop the West, though like the Red Bulls, they’ve played more games than the teams around them.

But Real Salt Lake's consistency comes with a caveat: The GM/coach team of Garth Lagerwey and Jason Kreis has put an emphasis on a rigorous system that maps out everything from player recruitment to squad rotation. This means that even if Real Salt Lake were to lose key first-team players this offseason, they could be replaced with well-drilled, promising youngsters. But that has attracted attention, most notably from the monied expansion team New York City FC, who want Kreis as their coach; the prospective position has intrigued the former Real Salt Like striker enough to take a meeting with senior New York City FC management in Manchester.

With Kreis’s contract up for renewal in Real Salt Lake, a club built on stability, may be in for some upheaval. Can they at least postpone it till the postseason? Saturday offered few clues. Real Salt Lake couldn’t hold out against a Dallas side that at one point looked to be part of the Shield conversation themselves.

Remaining games: at Portland, vs. Chivas

Sporting Kansas City

If Sporting K.C. win out, they win the East for the third year running, despite looking curiously unconvincing of late. Since their victory in Salt Lake on July 20, Kansas City has lost to Montreal, New York, San Jose, Chicago, and Philadelphia.

This is not a side that looks in playoff form at the moment, and, most worryingly, its home form has been underwhelming, typified by its poor performance against Philadelphia last week.

Even that soft home form should be enough to see off D.C. United in the remaining game at Sporting Park, but two of Sporting’s remaining three games are on the road against conference rivals. Sporting K.C.'s formidable defense has gone missing, and with a midfield that’s looking somewhat indistinct since losing Roger Espinoza and Kei Kamara, they are going to drop some more points. Their next game, on the road at Houston, will be crucial; the pair could meet up for a third successive playoff clash (something no Sporting fan may want after the last two).

Remaining games: at Houston, vs. D.C., at Philadelphia

Seattle Sounders

The Sounders should still be favorites for the Shield, but there are suddenly a lot of questions surrounding the club. And I'm not even referring to the lingering effects of Saturday's shocking loss in Colorado. The Rapids may be a much improved side, but even with the Sounders missing Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins, nobody saw Seattle suffering a franchise-record 5-1 loss as they did. Still, it happened, and Sigi Schmid can only hope that it was a lesson learned.

With international games upon us, the Sounders now have to play Cascadia Cup rivals Vancouver and Portland, in quick succession, the latter on the road in one of the most intense atmospheres in Major League Soccer, and all without the help of Brad Evans and Eddie Johnson (both national team call-ups). Cascadia games are outliers, at the best of times, when it comes to league form, and even if Seattle navigates those intense matches, there’s still a trip to a Dallas team where Schellas Hyndman is playing for his job, and a final-day test against the champion Galaxy. This is not the easiest of run-ins.

Until the draw against New York last week, the Sounders were on a winning streak that looked likely to propel them to the Shield in comfort. They should still win it, but if they don’t have their noses in front after the Cascadia games, things get very interesting. Wednesday and Sunday are big, big games for this most ambitious of teams.

Remaining games: vs. Vancouver, at Portland, at Dallas, vs. L.A. Galaxy

Portland Timbers

And then there’s Portland, which has two huge games of its own coming up — one against Seattle, of course, and a final reckoning with the Real Salt Lake side that put them out of the U.S. Open Cup. The Timbers have never made the playoffs. Caleb Porter arrived with the expectation that he was the final piece in the Timbers’ puzzle — the man who could deliver success to a Timbers team that had never matched its form in front of its wild home fan base with grit on the road.

Porter duly turned the team into a playoff-bound side, taking points in 12 of its road games this year. Granted, there may only be two wins among that lot, suggesting that pragmatism has won out over ambition, but the Timbers have remained in the hunt throughout the year in large part because they’ve proven so difficult to beat. If they’ve also failed to see out games they should have won (such as Sunday night in Vancouver), it all goes down as progress, and after something of an indifferent summer by their early-season standards, victories over Colorado and L.A. before the Vancouver game have set up the Timbers for not just a playoff charge, but a possible late Shield run as well. If they’re to do it, they’ll probably have to finish the job on the road, ironically, but if they’ve gotten past Seattle and Real Salt Lake to put themselves in that position, don’t expect an 11th road draw in the final game at Chivas.

Remaining games: vs. Seattle, vs. Real Salt Lake, at Chivas USA

Key remaining games in the Shield race:

October 9
Houston vs. Sporting K.C.
Seattle vs. Vancouver

October 13
Portland vs. Seattle

October 19
Portland vs. RSL

October 23
RSL vs. Chivas USA

October 26
Philadelphia vs. Sporting K.C.
Chivas USA vs. Portland

October 27
New York vs. Chicago
Seattle vs. L.A. Galaxy

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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