Friday, January 28, 2011

LeBron's Game Needs Attitude Adjustment

The NBA is about big stars.  It's a sport where an individual player can make an enormous impact.  One player can make the worst team in the NBA a perennial #1 seed in the Eastern Conference.

Without true allegiance to an NBA team, I find myself able to root for whoever I want.  Having an attachment to a star player drives my interest in particular teams.  I watched every Chicago Bulls game that WGN aired during the Michael Jordan era.  During his first two championship runs I would secretly pretend to root against him in an attempt be different, but I couldn't keep it up.  He was amazing.  He was as fierce of a competitor that has played professional sports.  You could see determination on his face every night.

I was a Bulls fan.  I confess.  Jordan was my favorite, but I learned to love Pippen, Paxson, Grant, Kukoc, even Dennis Rodman (sorry Dad).  After Jordan retired I wasn't sure where to turn as a fan.  I tried the Bulls for awhile, but it didn't work without Jordan.  When he played for the Wizards I took a look, but that was like watching Saved By the Bell College Years.  The good times were over.  There was no one electric enough to command my attention and I became a casual fan.  I despised Kobe when he played with Shaq and while  I respected Tim Duncan and the Spurs, they weren't exciting enough to force me to tune in.

It wasn't until LeBron James came into the league that I regained a team interest.  He sticks out like Jordan.  It doesn't matter what game you put him in, he is always the best athlete on the court.  He brings an energy that no one else in the league can match.  Similar to Jordan, I can't help but root for him.  Since joining D-Wade and Chris Bosh I have become a Heat fan.  No hiding this time, I freely admit it.

As much as I wanted to jump on the OKC Thunder bandwagon, it never worked.  Kevin Durant is special and Russell Westbrook is nasty but it wasn't a match.  Blake Griffin has earned star status this year, and I'm certain he's had the most individual coverage on ESPN, but the Clippers organization is a circus.   As much as I have enjoyed watching Griffin blossom, I would never put myself through the pain of investing in the Clippers as an organization.

So the Heat have captured my attention specifically because of LeBron James.  Even with Wade and Bosh, he is the straw that stirs the drink. It's obvious they will have growing pains throughout the year, but they will make the playoffs.  The question is, how far can they go?  I think for the Heat to reach their championship potential, LeBron will have to make some changes mentally.

The pairing of James and Wade has taken a fair share of criticism.  How can two guys who need the ball as much as they do coexist?  I think they can, but without Wade, LeBron would turn any team he plays on into the Cavs.  He doesn't have the psyche of a leader.  It's not that he doesn't give effort, he just sort of falls into bad habits and becomes a detriment to the offense despite his endless talent.

Jordan's best attribute was his will to win.  He was a leader, and when it was time to become a one man team, he would.  LeBron is heads and shoulders above Jordan in the physical department.   No player has ever enjoyed the total package like LeBron: size, speed, strength, skill.  But, part of that package seems to be immaturity.  He gets by on his talent, and that's why D-Wade needs to be the man in Miami, for now.  He has the championship instinct, LeBron doesn't.

In two games this season I have watched James fail to play smart and cost the Heat a win.  The last time LeBron was in Madison Square Garden he tore it apart.  Last night he failed to show up.  He was the reason the Heat lost.  It was stubbornness and an unwillingness to play in the flow of the offense.  It was all about LeBron.  He played like he was throwing a tantrum.  Jordan and Kobe learned self control and became world champions by playing in the flow of the offense.  LeBron could be the best but he needs to learn that lesson.

Perhaps his natural gifts made him mentally soft.  He became too accustomed to success and personal glory.  He was always the best and didn't get tested enough. He is a freak, and I bet he felt like one growing up.  It shows when he tries to be "one of the guys" even though he shines much brighter than any star in the NBA.  That doesn't mean he's not total diva and used to being praised 24/7.  He hates criticism and his game suffers for it.  He's a great teammate but not a great leader.

Jordan lived with a chip on his shoulder after he was cut from his varsity high school team.  LeBron will have to find that type of motivation to get to a championship level.  Until that time, he'll have to learn to let Wade take over when he's not feeling it.  

The team suffers when LeBron tries to take over a game by going one on one every possession.  His stubbornness makes me believe coach Eric Spoelstra is afraid to get in his face.  James brought the offense to a halt nearly every time he touched the ball last night and failed to adjust the entire game.  The same problem he had in Cleveland come playoff time.  It might take a coach like Phil Jackson to help LeBron turn the corner.  He doesn't seem to have the ability to learn from his mistakes.  With the Heat, he will have to learn to hold himself accountable, not the ball.

Even though his tough games are few and far between, his instinct to play one on one basketball has cost him in the playoffs.  This season's playoff pressure will be dialed way up for LeBron.  Questions about his legacy will continue until he can get over the hump.  Once James gets his first ring he will be unstoppable, but he has to mature before he'll win one. One man's talents alone can take you a long way in the NBA, but not all the way.  Until LeBron understands that, the championships will elude him.  Once he does, there is no limit for his success.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Tame Tiger? (redacted)

The start of the 2011 golf season begins at Torrey Pines for Tiger Woods in the Farmers Insurance Open.  Woods had a busy 2010 of obliterating his public persona in a lascivious sex scandal, losing $750 million in a divorce, and getting dropped by nearly every sponsor he had.  He also proved that he was human and endured his first winless season while the lurid details of his lifestyle were aired for public consumption.

Much has happened since Tiger drove into a tree hopped up on Ambien while his wife tried to finish the job help him out of the car with a nine iron.  He slipped to 3rd in the world rankings, started a Twitter account, and learned how to smile at fans.  At the same time he has been overhauling his game.

If there is a perfect course for Tiger to start a new season, it's Torrey Pines.  It has been Woods' favorite course where he has won 7 of his last 12 starts, including five straight.  With all these changes in his life, what should we expect from Tiger this year?

He spent a lot of time fighting injuries the last few years and is now healthy which should help his performance.  He is in a better place spiritually without the baggage of leading a double (and triple and...) life.  He's spending more time on the range and less time trolling Perkins restaurants for eager waitresses.  All of those things look good, and if you believe that Woods' talent is too tremendous to be held dormant, he seems primed to win this week and regain his dominance.

I think Woods still has to go through some growing pains before domination is in the conversation.  He has cleaned up his life, but acting like less of a diva will be a significant change.  He no longer gets the early tee time and he is expected to control his temper, be friendly with his gallery and accessible to the media.  All unfamiliar territory.  For a golfer as regimented as Woods, it will challenge his psyche.

Although he won't be bogged down with lies, his reparation efforts still take energy.  The guy is cracking jokes and holding Q&A sessions via Twitter, something he would have scoffed at less than a year ago.  There is no way that is in his comfort zone yet.  Give him credit for making the effort, but it definitely doesn't come naturally.

Aside from learning how to be a new person, Tiger is learning a new swing.  He has been working with Canadian swing coach Sean Foley since last year going through the third major swing reconstruction of his career.  Even for someone with Woods' talent that is not an overnight process.  Woods also endured one of his worst years putting in 2010 and has spent much of the off season working on that.  That's a lot to correct in a couple of months.

I think Tiger will continue to struggle this season at least when compared to his past success.  A loss at Torrey Pines would be just as damaging as a win would be motivating.  The curtain has been removed behind the Tiger Woods mystique and players no longer fear Woods.  Ever since he lost his Sunday lead to Y.E. Yang in the 2009 PGA Championship the field has been leveled.  The mental edge Woods once held was as dominant as any in sports.  He will probably never be able to fully recover that advantage.

He is a player fueled by success so a win in his first tournament of the season could inspire him, but I don't see him dominating like he once did. There is a new crop of players who grew up wanting to be the next Tiger that will push the elder statesman the rest of his career. 

Even with his personal life exposed there are still questions around Woods.  A sex scandal was the only thing that could deflect his relationship with Dr. Anthony Galea, a Canadian doctor who has been charged with distributing PEDs to professional athletes.  Unbelievable athletes and PEDs seem to be linked in every sport, why would golf be any different?  If Woods starts to get back his swagger I could see the issue reopened by the media.

We all witnessed the most mentally tough athlete of a generation have his confidence shattered last year.  Something tells me it will take awhile to pick up the pieces.  I have to admit that I am profoundly more interested in golf when Tiger is involved and playing well.  He is a star in every sense of the word in a sport that has very few.  For that reason, I hope he plays well and reestablishes himself.  Sundays are about to be lacking for sports interest.

Monday, January 24, 2011


When Jay Cutler came out of the NFC Championship game for an undisclosed knee injury my first thought was, "what a baby."  The next thing I did was text that sentiment to a friend who mirrored my thoughts.  At the same time we were exchanging text messages, NFL players and pundits were doing the same thing via Twitter.  The initial reaction of Cutler's injury ranged from surprised to outraged.  Consistently lacking from the public opinions was compassion or understanding.

In a game of that magnitude players generally need to be carted off the field or sustain a concussion to be sidelined (an injury I suspect Aaron Rodgers sustained again after a helmet to helmet hit by Julius Peppers).  Instead, we saw Cutler sheepishly walk off the field with his hands in his warmer, never to return, leaving most bewildered.  He didn't seem seriously injured and was later standing on the sidelines, not really cheering, not really upset, just indifferent to his surroundings.

He had that familiar zombie-like expression of someone who was mentally not there.  The team trainers didn't do him any favors by listing his status as "questionable" rather than unable to perform. The way the Bears handled the situation during the game made it look like it was Cutler's decision.  It wasn't until after the game that they insisted the trainers and coaches made the decision, but it is strange that information wasn't passed to a sideline reporter.  There wasn't even a play that Cutler or the Bears could point to that caused the injury.

It was clear Cutler wasn't right, and he did go into the locker room before halftime to get checked out.  He was spotted on the stationary bike trying to warm up his knee, but what was missing from most of the sideline shots was any display of emotion.  Camera work does factor into public speculation because all we really know is what we see the camera shoot.  Among other things, Cutler was criticized for not chatting up his backups, although it was later reported he did but the cameras missed it.  It couldn't have lasted long since the cameras were on Cutler any time the ball wasn't in play.

There's no doubt he was hurt, but was he injured?  We constantly hear what a great arm Cutler has.  If his arm is so great couldn't he have played the rest of the game in shotgun?  Obviously it wouldn't be ideal, but he was able to walk across the field at the end of the game to congratulate Rodgers.

His coaches and teammates have gone out of their way to support him, and that does say something about the guy, but I don't think it will change the opinions of other players around the NFL.  The Bears will tell you that the criticism came from jealous players sitting at home who wanted to be in their position.

Isn't that the point?  They want to play?  Cutler wasn't devastated enough to be truly injured and his contemporaries saw that.  They might have been jealous, but that doesn't mean they wouldn't have been on that field.  At the very least they would have stayed engaged on the sidelines after exhausting every treatment possible to get them through the 2nd half.  It wasn't a regular season game.  When you're that close to the Super Bowl you have to pull out all the stops, and that's why those criticisms were published.

All I could think about was watching Phillip Rivers shed a similarly negative perception by competing in the playoffs with a torn ACL and meniscus.  The toughness he displayed was viewed as heroic by everyone around the league. Players began to look beyond his animated displays and respected him as a leader and someone who would sacrifice his body for his teammates. The ability to play through pain is valued above all in NFL locker rooms.

Rivers' ascension from loathed to loved left Cutler the NFL's most hated quarterback.  Instead of using the injury to prove his critics wrong, Cutler threw another log on the fire.  And it wasn't just the normal fan and media speculation.

Cutler was the victim of a social media beating when a number of high profile current and former players took to Twitter to express their thoughts on his lack of toughness.  Twitter has become one of the most controversial past times of professional athletes who instantly become headlines with a flick of their thumbs.

"If I'm on chicago team jay cutler has to wait till me and the team shower get dressed and leave before he comes in the locker room! #FACT!" Darnell Dockett, Arizona Cardinals DE

"HEY there is no medicine for a guy with no guts and heart" Derrick Brooks, retired LB, ESPN analyst

"Folks i never question a players injury but i do question a players heart. Truth" Deion Sanders, retired CB, NFL analyst

I personally think it's out of line to tweet your opinion of a player's toughness when you're a colleague, but this wasn't just anyone.  It was Jay Cutler.  I can't think of another player that would have gotten that reaction.  I have to believe Cutler brought it on himself.  Twitter is used carelessly and this instance is another example of the danger in tweeting, but it sheds light on how Cutler is viewed by his peers.  He isn't respected by fans, peers, or the media, and there are plenty who aren't afraid to say so.  Publicly.

If Cutler plays another series and has to be helped off the field, there would be no speculation.  The last series that he played he still seemed to be moving well enough to stay in the game regardless of how well he could plant on his hurt knee.  That might have been the biggest game Cutler ever plays, and he'll have to live with the fact he pulled a Colt McCoy.  The problem with Cutler is he never gives an indication that he cares. People like that will always be questioned, right or wrong.

That's why his contemporaries had no problem attacking him.  With a chance to go to the Super Bowl, he simply walked off the field.  In a sport that saw Ronnie Lott amputate his finger to play in the Super Bowl, Cutler should be criticized.  Talent can't overcome an empty chest.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Quick Thought on Overtime

Doesn't it seem like we are shaping up for an overtime game in the Super Bowl?  After changing the sudden death format of overtime in the playoffs, there hasn't been a single game go past regulation.  With just three games left, fate might give us a chance to judge the new rules in the Super Bowl.

I do like the fact a single field goal won't abruptly end the game, but there are scenarios that could cause quite a problem in how you officiate them.  What happens if Team A kicks a field goal, and Team B turns the ball over on their possession but forces a fumble and gets the ball back after Team A possesses it again?  Is the game still over in favor of Team A?  It is a change of possession even though Team B got the ball back.  What if Team B converts the double turnover into a touchdown?  How about starting overtime with an onside kick?  Is there a penalty for an unsuccessful attempt?

I'm sure there are explanations of some of the stranger possible outcomes, but the fans (who the rule was changed for) won't necessarily understand what the outcome is or why.  How much of a blow would it be to see your team lose the Super Bowl in overtime, and not even understand it?  It seems too unbelievable that the league would make this change and not have it come into play.  If fate has a sense of humor, we will see overtime in the Super Bowl.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Next Stop, Super Bowl XLV

Sharpen your spurs, shine your belt buckles and saddle your horses, it's almost Super Bowl time in Dallas!  While it's unknown which of the remaining four teams will represent their conference at Super Bowl XLV, it's a certainty that the only Cowboys there will be spectators.  After spending most of the off season loudly proclaiming their intentions to represent the NFC in front of their home crowd, Dallas failed to make the playoffs and once again became punch lines in the process.  I'm sure Jerry Jones takes solace knowing his stadium will be the most profitable Super Bowl venue in NFL history.  On to the teams that matter.

New York Jets vs. Pittsburgh Steelers

The Jets shocked the NFL last weekend when they beat Tom Brady and the Patriots in Foxborough.  You have to give the Jets credit in executing a perfect game plan.  Offensively, they ran the ball effectively and got Mark Sanchez in rhythm.  Santonio Holmes made another post-season circus catch and the Jets played with confidence throughout the game.

The real story was the Jets defense that confused Brady and forced him to hold the ball and make awkward decisions.  Brady spent as much time on the turf as he did upright.  The Jets backed up their trash talk and once again find themselves visiting an elite AFC team.  To go through Indianapolis, New England, and Pittsburgh would be one of the greatest stretches in playoff history.

The Steelers were able to overcome first half turnovers to beat the Baltimore Ravens in an uncharacteristically sloppy game for both sides.  Lots of points were scored with nearly all of them resulting from turnovers.  After a 14 point first half lead, Joe Flacco and the Ravens one upped Pittsburgh's give aways and turned the ball over three times.  Give the Steelers credit for coming back and being able to turn turnovers into touchdowns, but it felt like Baltimore handed them the game.  It will take a much better performance this week to beat the Jets.

Surprisingly, the Jets have decided to sideline their usual pre-game trash talk opting to complement the Steelers instead.  Watching the Jets be gracious and unusually careful with what they say to the media is like listening to Eminem sing country music.  It just isn't right.  The Steelers have followed suit with gushing complements for the Jets that borders on embarrassing.  It's one thing to respect your opponent, but these two are kissing each others asses, and there's really no other way to say it.

I'm surprised the Jets are willing to change the formula after getting this far by working themselves and their opponents into a frenzy before they play.  How will the Jets respond if there's no hate?  What could they possibly use as motivation?  A trip to the Super Bowl?  That's unlikely to do anything but tighten up their second year quarterback.  They certainly won't be able to run the ball against Pittsburgh like they did in Indianapolis or New England meaning Sanchez will have to outplay Ben Roethlisberger.  Is it possible the Jets are happy with what they have done to get to this point and are softening up?  I think they might be.  If the Steelers didn't look so shaky last week, I would call this game a no-brainer in favor of Pittsburgh.

These Steelers are no stranger to the Super Bowl journey while it is uncharted territory for the Jets.  You have to like what New York has been able to do in the playoffs, but Pittsburgh plays the brand of football that can nullify many of the advantages the Jets have enjoyed.  I just can't see Sanchez making enough plays to win. Roethlisberger (like it or not) has become one of the most clutch, big game quarterbacks in the NFL.  While Brady and Peyton Manning play out the end of their careers, the top dog on the quarterback food chain is Big Ben.  I think the Super Bowl would be more interesting with the Jets in it, I just don't see them pulling it off.  I like the Steelers at home.

Green Bay Packers vs. Chicago Bears

Sensational.  Unbelievable.  Incredible.  All words used to describe Aaron Rodgers against the Falcons.  Rodgers performance was unlike any we've seen this year with the exception of Michael Vick's Monday Night game.  He waited patiently three years to get his chance, and he didn't disappoint once he got it. Even though Rodgers is 2-1 in his playoff career, he is 3 for 3 in excellent playoff performances.  When is the last time you have seen a punter sit the bench an entire game in the NFL?

Defensively, Green Bay frustrated the Falcons who couldn't keep up with the Packers scoreboard onslaught.  Green Bay had the game sealed after they ended the first half with a defensive touchdown.  In all, Atlanta certainly was not an elite defense, but Rodgers was 31-36 passing for 366 yards and 3 touchdowns.  The guy can play.

The Bears had quite a favorable matchup against the lowly Seattle Seahawks at home.  Despite the weak opponent, the Bears played tremendous and Jay Cutler showed some of the brilliance people refer to when explaining why he makes so many careless passes.  Chicago could not control who they played and they dominated on both sides of the ball until the fourth quarter.  They have arguably the best defense of the remaining playoff teams.

Green Bay and Chicago is the oldest NFL rivalry and they will be meeting each other for only the second time in playoff history.  The two fan bases hate each other and the players are well aware of this rivalry.  During the regular season they split a two game series with close outcomes in each.  The Packers beat the Bears in the last week of the season to earn a trip to the playoffs.  Now the two square off for the third time this season in the ultimate tie breaker.

I picked the Packers (like many others) to win the Super Bowl before the season started.  They have lost some great personnel to injuries, but since they've made it this far I can't pick against them.  I do have some concerns.  For starters, everyone you hear is picking Green Bay to win.  Whenever this occurs in the playoffs it seems like the opposite happens.  We only have to look back at New England last week for proof.  Actually, it was that logic that lead me to favor New Orleans last year in the Super Bowl.

Secondly, Rodgers is getting more attention than any other player even though Chicago's defense kept him under control both times they faced him.  Chicago is a prideful defense, and all the Rodgers talk will build an enormous chip on their shoulders.

Finally, playing in Chicago on a bad surface in crappy weather will affect both teams.  I really don't think Rodgers will be able to escape pressure like he did last week in a dome.  Chicago will also send a much better pass rush than Atlanta.  It's the Bears defense that has them in position to go to the Super Bowl, and last I checked they still have Julius Peppers.

That being said, if we are looking at quarterbacks, I trust Rodgers a heck of a lot more than I trust Cutler.  At some point in the next two games, Chicago will be eliminated in large part by turnovers from Cutler.  The question is will it come against Green Bay or will it come in the Super Bowl.  The Packers have done a great job against the two quarterbacks they faced in the playoffs, and held Cutler to three points in week 16.

Cutler probably won't be the focal point of Chicago's offense to start the game.  Matt Forte and the Bears ran the ball more than any other NFL team in the last half of the season and will look to establish a ground attack early.  If Forte is able to loosen up the Packers pass coverage, Cutler will look for his tight end Greg Olsen who was able to hit big plays against the Seahawks.

I have to give the coaching edge to Green Bay since there is the possibility of offensive coordinator Mike Martz calling something asinine like he did last week when he called a half back pass with a 28-3 lead in the fourth quarter.  The pass was intercepted (as it should be when you call something so stupid) and resulted in a Seahawks touchdown.

The Bears do have a special weapon that no other team in the NFL enjoys in Devin Hester.  When you talk about the Bears and their ability to win, you always have to factor points from special teams.  Hester is the best punt returner in NFL history and the more he gets his hands on the ball the better for Chicago.

When it's all said and done, I expect to see Green Bay against Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl.  If the league is truly about quarterbacks, it is the matchup that makes the most sense.  It would solidify Rodgers' place as an elite player and further add to Roethlisberger's impressive resume.  No Manning or Brady, but maybe something just as good.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Going For the Money

In a huge NCAA football shocker, Heisman Trophy winner and national champion Cameron "Cam" Newton decided to forgo his final year of eligibility and enter the NFL draft.  If there was ever a guy I thought could wait to get paid it was Cam.  I really saw Cam as the type that would value development as a quarterback and a person over cash.  He seemed like such a wonderful student.  I think he must have really toiled with his decision to postpone his degree and enter the draft in what is shaping up to be a lockout year for NFL players.

I'm sure he will be able to keep busy, and think of all the good he will be able to do with his signing bonus!  His Dad can finally get that church yacht he had his eye on after those tightwads at Mississippi State wouldn't shell out for Cam's services.  Luckily, the NCAA adopted a whole new set of rules pertaining to Cam so absolutely no one got punished.  It's not as if the money wasn't going to a good cause.  Now Pastor Newton will be able to minister on the high seas while cruising on God Loves A Heisman Winner.  And Cam will be able to get his Cammy Cam Juice business started.  I hear it's already the drink of choice for female sideline reporters.

Even though former Longhorn scumbag Gene Chizik and Auburn loses its best player, at least they will get to enjoy the BCS National Championship for a couple of years before they are forced to vacate their season for providing money to the Newton family.  I'm sure Auburn will agree it was money well spent.  You can't say they didn't get a return on their investment.  I wonder how Cam will be able to give back the Heisman trophy after his dad mounts it as a yacht ornament.  Ahh, these are all questions for the future.  For now, we should celebrate that another model citizen leaving the SEC to make his mark on the world as a young millionaire.

Tim Tebow will have to step aside as God's number one NFL steward now that Cam is in the league.  I mean, Tebow never tried to extort a university for the purpose of spreading God's word.  Did he?  No.  And why not?  Morals?  Let's not let something like that get in the way of forcing your message on the public.  Did Tebow dedicate his Heisman and National Championships to God?  He did?  Well, whatever.  He was too busy going on missionary trips to the Philippines and caring for the needy to hold a public auction in the SEC.

You know that's why Cam left Florida in the first place.  Sure.  He stole a laptop. Or, I'm sorry, purchased a stolen laptop and then hid it from police officers that somehow knew to come looking for him rather than the people that supposedly sold it to him.  And sure.  He cheated a few times and was threatened with expulsion and public exposure.  But the real reason was he needed money.  For God.

I mean his Dad needed money for God.  You know there are so many explanations for Cam's choices that I lose track sometimes.  I apologize.  The point is, some team is getting a high character individual who will become the spiritual leader of their football team.  The world will be a better place now that Cam is getting paid.  Good luck in 2012 when NFL football resumes Cam.  I'll be rooting for you!  Even if you are playing tight end.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Wild Weekend

The Wild Card round of the NFL playoffs lived up to its name once again.  As always there were some surprises and some predictable outcomes, but the tone was set early with the 7-9 Seahawks knocking off the reigning world champion Saints.

New Orleans Saints vs. Seattle Seahawks

Not many people saw this coming, and I won't say that I wasn't shocked, but Seattle is one difficult place to play.  They use the term 12th Man, literally on loan from Texas A&M, and they take it just as seriously.  As easy as it is to give credit to the fans whenever Seattle wins, it wasn't solely because of their participation.  The Seahawks outplayed the Saints and earned their victory.

The Saints decided to mimic the Chargers and lose in the playoffs to a far inferior team.  Of course, if you would have told me that Drew Brees would throw for 400+ yards and put up 36 points I would have guaranteed a Saints victory.  The Saints defense failed to show up and Matt Hasselbeck played one of the best games of his career.

The play everyone will remember is Marshawn Lynch's scintillating touchdown run to ice the game in the fourth quarter where he ran by, through, and around nearly every Saints defender on the field.  A magnificent show of effort for Lynch and a pathetic display of tackling by the Saints.  So a team with a losing record moves on in the playoffs, and actually has a chance to host the NFC Championship game if they beat Chicago next week and Green Bay gets by Atlanta.

As inspiring an effort as the Seahawks gave to validate their place in the playoffs, I still don't think a 7-9 team should get to host a game against a team with an 11-5 record.  I agree that division winners should get a playoff spot regardless of their record, but there is no way they should be hosting anything.  The Bears must be happy Seattle got an opportunity to host the game because there is no way they advance if the game was played in the Superdome.  The only question left in the NFC is who the Bears will be playing after they beat the Seahawks.

New York Jets vs. Indianapolis Colts

Rex Ryan and the New York Jets were able to sneak past Peyton Manning in a game that came down to the last second.  As interesting as that sounds, the game was actually pretty boring.  Neither team was very impressive, and other than the last two minutes there wasn't much excitement.  In a game against Manning, I'm sure that's exactly how Ryan wanted it.

The Colts were down this year, and it was evident all season.  It was an impressive finish for the Colts to even make the playoffs.  Unfortunately for Manning, he is left with that very familiar feeling of going home after their first playoff game.

The Colts are reminiscent of the Atlanta Braves of the 90s when they won their division every year only to sputter in the playoffs with one exception.  Good thing Manning does have that one exception on his resume or he would be a poster child for post season futility.  The Colts have been dismissed from the playoffs in their fist game seven times in Manning's career.

Although he didn't play too bad, the loss further tarnishes his legacy that so many want to argue is the best all time.  He isn't even close in my opinion.  I think Jim Kelly going to four straight Super Bowls without a victory is as close a comparison as you can make to Manning.  Give Manning the edge because he did win one, but it was ugly against a Rex Grossman led team.

One positive note for the Colts is kicker Adam Vinatieri basically re-cementing his legacy as the most clutch post season kicker of all time.  I can't claim to know a great deal about the history of kickers, but I know there is only one true kicker in the Hall of Fame and he will have company as soon as Vinatieri is eligible.  He simply doesn't miss with the game on the line, and he almost sent the Jets home as a result.

As for the Jets, they won and that's about all you can say from the performance.  Darrelle Revis shut down Reggie Wayne and Mark Sanchez made a nice throw to set up the game winning field goal.  They should be happy to advance, but I don't give them much chance to beat the Patriots who torched them 45-3 in the regular season.

The Jets would have lost to the Colts if not for a big kick off return by Antonio Cromartie on their last possession.  It is amazing how many game winning drives start on a big special teams play or a penalty.  Cromartie set it up for Sanchez to only have to make a couple of throws before the Jets would be in field goal range.  I imagine the game plan will include a lot more running for the Jets in an attempt to shorten the game and keep the ball out of Tom Brady's hands.

One thing is certain, there is no lack of motivation for the Patriots after Ryan ran his mouth all season.  He basically said he fears Manning more than Brady which won't sit well in New England.  If the Jets fail to run the ball and the clock effectively, we should expect a similar outcome as the 40 point beat down.

Baltimore Ravens vs. Kansas City Chiefs

No team with as many Longhorns players as the Chiefs have can win in the playoffs even with one of the best home crowds in the NFL.  Jaamal Charles is going mid 90s with his haircut looking like O Dog from Menace II Society.  A couple more inches and he would be the spitting image of Fab from Milli Vanilli.  Being an AFC West fan, the outcome of this game was a no-brainer especially considering the Ravens excellent road playoff record of recent.

The Ravens offense kept it interesting for a short time, but their defense didn't allow the Chiefs any reason for hope.  There has been a lot of praise thrown Joe Flacco's way since he came into the league, but I am still not really impressed.  His pocket presence leaves something to be desired and he puts his offense in bad positions too often.  The Ravens have as much talent on both sides of the ball as any team in the league, but still look like they need a boost in the offense.  With his stable of runners and corps of receivers, the issue has to be Flacco.  I'm not saying Flacco is Trent Dilfer bad, but for as much praise as he gets, I think he's overrated.

Flacco was able to bring Todd Heap back from relative obscurity hitting him time after time when the offense needed a play.  Heap played his best game in three years as the Chiefs refused to give the Ravens a different look on defense.  Flacco will have to outplay Ben Roethlisberger next week in what should be a very entertaining Ravens/Steelers matchup.

The Ravens/Steelers game has become one of the best rivalries in the NFL.  For those that love hard hitting this is the game to watch.  Both teams have great pieces on both sides of the ball and feature some of the best defensive players to ever play the game.  If you look at the stats between the two teams in their last several matchups, there is nearly no difference in their performances.  I think this matchup comes down to where the game is played, so I give the advantage to the Steelers.

Green Bay Packers vs. Philadelphia Eagles

Was Michael Vick slowed down at the end of long year where his body took a pounding like it hadn't in several years?  Possibly.  The Green Bay defense has been as dominating as any down the stretch of the season, and they were able to keep Vick uncomfortable all day.  Desean Jackson was injured early and didn't play a huge factor in the game.

It was close and hard fought but the difference might have been quarterback play. Aaron Rodgers got a little help on the ground and did just enough to notch his first playoff victory.  He didn't necessarily play his best game, but he was up against another tough defense on the road and he made some key plays to keep the Packers in front without turning the ball over.  The game wouldn't have ever been in question if receiver James Jones catches a perfect ball from Rodgers at the end of the half.  Vick was never able to get into rhythm and finished the game with an interception.

Philly now has to decide which way to go at quarterback.  I guess they still don't want Donovan McNabb, but they have to either gamble on Vick with a bigger risk/reward factor, or go with their original plan of Kevin Kolb who has a longer future ahead of him but is still unproven.  It didn't take long for Kolb to state publicly he wants to play on a team that he can start for after the Eagles loss, Sunday.

The Packers will have their hands full with top seeded Atlanta next week.  Playing in Atlanta has always been a huge advantage for the Falcons, but they face one of the toughest wild card teams in recent memory.  Games like these make the NFL exciting, and we should be in for a treat.

Despite having the best record in the NFC, Atlanta had several close calls and their defense didn't show the ability to dominate leaving me doubtful of their Super Bowl chances.  This game is set up for Rodgers to make a name for himself in the playoffs going against a defense that can be scored on.  If Green Bay continues to play excellent defense, I think they will come away with a rare win in Atlanta.

Somehow, my preseason prediction of Ravens vs. Packers is still alive for the Super Bowl, but I only think one of those teams will move on next week.  I like Pittsburgh, New England, Chicago, and Green Bay to move on.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Dumb Luck

Aren't students from Stanford supposed to be smart?  Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck had an unbelievable season that saw his draft stock elevate to the top NFL prospect by an enormous margin.  He finished second in the Heisman voting, won 12 games including a BCS victory, and capped the season with a four touchdown performance in the Orange Bowl that had everyone gushing over his professional potential.  There was no doubt Luck would have been the first pick in the draft had he declared himself eligible, but he shocked the football world by electing to return to Stanford for another season forgoing millions of dollars. 

Luck is every bit of a hot commodity to the NFL as his coach Jim Harbaugh whose name is in the running for every vacant job (and some full in the case of the Miami Dolphins) in the country.  Luck is only a redshirt sophomore so he technically has two years of eligibility left, but as the certain number one pick there would seem to be no reason to return to school.  Every player that plays major college football does so with the hope of playing in the NFL.  You just don't see players turning down that type of opportunity. 

Sam Bradford decided to come back to Norman after his sophomore season when he was the projected number one pick and was injured in his first game of the season.  He would later have surgery and basically missed the entire season.  Bradford was lucky his draft status was not affected and he was still able to sign a huge contract, but wouldn't his story serve as a cautionary tale to Luck?

Luck sites his desire to achieve his architectural design degree as the main factor in his return.  Call me crazy, but I think college will be around next year when he would be able to go back with $40 million in the bank.  He clearly learned nothing from Bradford who could have seriously jeopardized his career with the injury he sustained.  On second thought, maybe he did.  Luck apparently consulted with Bradford who advised him to return to school if that was the direction he was leaning.  I am obviously a huge Bradford fan, but that advise seems irresponsible.  If Luck has the same luck as Bradford, there is no telling how he will respond to surgery and rehab.

Risk of injury aside, there are several other concerns for Luck to consider.  What will the loss of Harbaugh do to the Cardinal?  Stanford had a dream season by their standards which will be very difficult to repeat, especially with a new coaching staff.  Is Luck's decision an effort to persuade the coach to stay in Palo Alto for another year?  If so, that's a very risky gamble unless Luck is privy to  information on Harbaugh's future that no one else is.  It is possible that they worked out a deal that they would both return together.  But now you're talking about two people passing on the biggest opportunities they will ever have.

How about the the fact that Luck's stock will never be higher?  Aside from being the top prospect this season, ESPN analysts are calling him the best prospect in 20 years.  How can you improve that?  Many saw Jake Locker as the potential number one pick last year had he decided to enter the draft.  Now he is projected as a risky bottom first round pick.  Perception is 99 percent of the truth when you enter the draft and there is nothing Luck can do to improve that perception. 

What about money?  By declaring for the NFL this year, Luck would be able to have the benefits of an uncapped salary.  Because the NFL is heading for an inevitable lockout next season, many underclass prospects are wary of making the jump, but that reasoning should work opposite for players that would be top picks.  This will probably be the last season the NFL does not include a rookie salary cap.  For that reason, the number one pick will be paid significantly less next draft as opposed to this year's.  So even if Luck maintains his number one status, he is assuredly going to lose money.  In a sport like football, players need to get whatever money they can knowing the next play could be their last. 

Many have speculated that Luck is such a loyal guy that he wants to come back for his teammates.  That would be some amazing loyalty considering not one of those players would make the same decision for him.  Can you imagine one of his offensive lineman passing on the draft to return to school?  Luck's teammates all wish they could be in his situation.  Every college player in the country wishes they could be in his situation.

It is possible that Luck just loves his life as it currently is and isn't ready to make the leap to professional football.  The game is fun and easy for him right now, and he has achieved legendary status on his campus.  He is a smart guy attending a great university and he might just be content with that.  I suppose that's a possibility.  It is just hard to imagine having your dream come true handed to you on a silver platter and passing on it as if it will always be available.  As a competitor it doesn't make sense.

What makes more sense to me is the possibility that Luck can't stand being drafted by the Panthers, or he knows for a fact Harbaugh is returning to Stanford with him.  It is plausible that Harbaugh will wait another year before jumping ship, especially if he isn't interested in being the coach at Michigan.  If his intentions are to move on to the NFL, finding a better job than the 49ers will be difficult, but he might be willing to do that.  He could be working the system to get more money out of Stanford, but as of right now Harbaugh's future is up in the air.  So is Luck's until a decision is made.  I'll give Luck credit in this respect, he clearly knew what direction he wanted to go based on the amount of time it took him to declare his intentions.  You would at least think it would be a hard decision, but he didn't take much time deliberating.  That at least tells me he is comfortable in what he is doing.  Hopefully that comfort is worth about $30 million because that is what it will cost him in the best case scenario.


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