31 August 2007

Byron and Rodney

Two big pieces of news came out of the NFL today. The big story, of course, is the Jaguars announcing that they will part ways with Byron Leftwich. This will have a serious impact on the real NFL, and a smaller one on fantasy football.

In the real league, the Jaguars' offense will be a bit more consistent, both within games and throughout the season. David Garrard, who played reasonably well over the past couple of seasons, will give the Jaguars a more accurate, more consistent quarterback, albeit one without Leftwich's cannon of an arm. He's also less injury-prone than Leftwich, who has not been healthy for a full season since the year before he left Marshall.

In fantasy football, the Jaguars' running backs are slightly downgraded by the move. While Garrard is a more consistent quarterback than Leftwich, he doesn't throw as pretty of a deep ball, so defenses will be a little more free to pull players into the box.

The Jaguars wide receivers and quarterback are still only low-level plays, although Garrard is mildly intriguing because of his running capability.

In other news, Rodney Harrison has admitted to using human growth hormone during the offseason in order to recover from various injuries sustained over the past two years, and has been suspended for the first four games of the season.

This is another blow to the Patriots' status as the "good guys" of the NFL - following on the heels of their extravagant, occasionally questionable spending in the offseason (especially the acquisition of stand-up guy Randy Moss).

On the field, it's a blow to their defense. Brandon Meriwether, the team's first-round draft pick, will probably step into the starting lineup in Harrison's place - which means that the Patriots will be starting a rookie strong-safety against Chad Pennington and the Jets, LDT and the Chargers, and Carson Palmer & Co in Cincinnati. In his zeal to return to the field, Harrison could well have cost the Patriots at least one, and possibly as many as three, wins.

29 August 2007

NCAAF Predictions

It's a bit harder to project the NCAA football season than the NFL season, for several reasons.

First, there are a lot more teams - 119, rather than 32. While most of those teams are no threat whatsoever, there are still a lot more contenders to foul things up. Any one of fifteen teams could win the championship; any one of fifty could eliminate one of those fifteen.

Second, the season is a lot less structured than that of the NFL. It's shorter, for one thing - twelve games, rather than sixteen, which means that one loss has a much greater impact. It also lacks the playoff system of the NFL - so a deserving team can be denied a chance at the championship.

But, despite the large number of teams and the occasionably inequitable postseason structure, it is possible to, before the season begins, identify a number of teams who have serious shots at making it to the national championship game.

1. USC
This is the team that everyone is talking about; Jim Harbaugh infamously dubbed them the "best team ever". While they're not that good, they are really, really talented.

2. LSU
Les Miles, the Tigers' head coach, sniped at USC's schedule, drawing criticism of LSU's own scheduling practices. While the Tigers play cupcakes, they also play in the SEC. No easy ride here.

3. West Virginia
Good offense. We know that. But did you know their defense could be quite good this year? Last year, their inexperienced and ultimately 109th-ranked pass defense was the team's fatal flaw; this year, the secondary is a year older, and adds former Michigan starter (and veteran of three Rose Bowls) Ryan Mundy.

4. Virginia Tech
A sentimental favorite for the entire country after the horrific events of last April, but they can play football, too. Frank Beamer's teams always have stifling defenses, and this one should be no exception.

SLEEPER: South Florida
Don't laugh. The Bulls went 9-4 last year with a true-freshman quarterback. This year, they return 16 starters from a team that defeated West Virginia and won the PapaJohns.com Bowl. If they can get by Auburn on Sept. 8, their toughest remaining games will be at home.

26 August 2007

The Preseason Game

Tonight, I was watching the alleged football game between the Steelers and the Eagles. I came to a significant conclusion.

The preseason isn't real football. In real football, teams play to win. More importantly, teams play against each other; the individual is important only so far as he (or she, I suppose) affects his team.

What I saw tonight, by contrast, was no competition between teams - it was a competition between individuals on the same team, competing for positions on a depth chart. Interesting? I suppose, in its own way. Interesting, I suppose, in the same way that the Democratic National Convention is interesting: lots of infighting between people who are nominally on the same team. Players were playing for the team only so far as the team could help them.

I found that sense of individualism more than slightly repellant. I'll continue to watch preseason football, I suppose; there's value in determining which individuals will help their teams during the season. But, in essence, preseason football is the antithesis of real football; unless something significant changes, it will have value only as a diagnostic tool. And I, for one, will treat it only as such.

23 August 2007

Mailbag 8/23/07

After completing another four-part series, my inbox is chock full of feedback. That's right - I've got as much feedback as a first-timer at a karaoke bar.

Weak punchlines over with, let's get to the emails. The first comes from Shane in Orlando, who (before I published pt. 2) writes to agree with me: "A lot of people wonder why I'm just not into the NFL. I think that post may have perfectly added to my answer of 'Because it's just plain pathetic!!' Heck, soccer's doing a better job, and the World Cup's not for another three years!"

My personal feelings about soccer aside (I wrote a column once that poked fun at soccer... the response was, shall we say, intense), I'd say that "The Cynic's Take" presented only one side of the story; while the points were valid, they were deliberately slanted. I don't disagree with anything I said in the post, but at the same time I believe that what I said in "The Idealist's Take" is also valid.

Speaking of pt. 2, we come to Joe from Macon, who, along with several other emailers, is wondering what exactly I was doing with the introduction. "Not cool, man," said Joe, continuing that it was "some pretty weird crap. Not normal."

Actually, Joe, you'd be surprised how many weird things can be normal - the ancient Greeks, for instance, condoned practices that today are the exclusive territory of NAMBLA. But weirdness aside, I was having some fun with the language - a practice that was basically the original point of the blog. It didn't work out quite as well as I had hoped, but a few emailers (like Lauren from Gainesville), thought it was cool.

Very few readers, though, apparently liked my predictions - I got no fewer than 4 emails regarding the NFC West alone. Apparently, a lot of you (like Rob from DeLand, FL and Jane from Tallahassee) like the 49ers more than I do. Look - I have a lot of respect for Mike Nolan, and he's doing a terrific job rebuilding that franchise. But I think that they're still about a year away from making it to the top of the division.

Finally, a fun little note - I was doing research this weekend and noticed something a little creepy. This is Lew Ford, an outfielder for the Minnesota Twins. Here he is again. And here... is not him. The last picture is Greg Maddux. I thought cloning was illegal in the United States?

21 August 2007

NFL Preview Pt. 4: AFC Predictions

The AFC playoff picture is considerably more settled than the NFC's; there is a clear favorite in each division, and I see no legitimate reason to go against chalk.

The real intrigue should come in the battle for the AFC wild card spots; I see the Jets and the Broncos taking those spots, but neither will make it past the first round of the playoffs.

In the East, the Patriots are serious Super Bowl contenders. Tom Brady finally has weapons, and the addition of Adalius Thomas should improve the already-good defense. The Jets are a good young team, but they're still a year away; Buffalo will be spending this year to season J.P. Losman and Marshawn Lynch. Miami is a mediocre team struggling to repair their self-image in the wake of the Nick Saban fiasco.

In the North, Baltimore, armed with a still-excellent defense despite the defection of Adalius Thomas, should repeat as division champs. Pittsburgh, following the departure of Bill Cowher, will struggle to remain near the top of the second tier, while Cincinnati has to rely on offense - a strategy that annually results in inconsistency. Brady Quinn is in Cleveland, as is Jamal Lewis... but the team still sucks.

In the West, San Diego will attempt to survive the departure of Marty Schottenheimer. Let me rephrase that... San Diego should improve on last year's already-impressive campaign. Denver should have a top-3 rushing attack, but I don't trust Jay Cutler. Kansas City is an old team with a young quarterback, while Oakland is terrible and could very well be looking at another 1st-overall draft choice.

In the South... it's Indianapolis. Are you surprised? I thought not. They will take a hit on defense, but Dungy will hold it together, and that offense will keep humming along. Jacksonville can win 8 or 9 games, while Tennessee's secondary will struggle to deal with Pacman's ghost, and Houston will continue their endless struggle to emerge from the league cellar.

I have San Diego as my AFC champions. They quite simply have the most complete team of any in the NFL. Their offense, featuring LDT and Antonio Gates, is explosive; their defense, featuring Shawne Merriman and Luis Castillo, has the potential to be frighteningly good. The Colts, meanwhile, have a defense with some serious issues, while the Patriots are faced with the challenge of integrating their many offseason additions. The Ravens are, to me, the second-best team in the league, but their WR corps worries me too much for me to pick them. Chargers to the Super Bowl - and Chargers to win the Super Bowl.

19 August 2007

NFL Preview Pt. 3: NFC Prediction

With the overly dour outlook disposed of, despite other, decidedly overwhelming, decisions on drafts, others' destruction, or doom...

And, following a fresh, awesome first attempt, finding a funny, angelic foible and fusing...
ah, heck. Enough with the awkward, forced wordplay, and forward, while keeping in mind I have a blog to write -

here's my NFC At-A-Glance PreviewTM

In the East, I'm picking Philadelphia to win the division. No great surprise here. Dallas has a chance to sneak a wild-card spot; New York took a serious hit when Tiki Barber retired; Washington is kind of mediocre overall and has a young QB to break in.

In the North, Chicago is the prohibitive favorite; no reason to go against chalk. Detroit has the weapons to pull a turnaround, but.. they're the Lions. The Vikings suck. The Packers are a rebuilding team that could go 8-8 or 9-7 due to the presence of Brett Favre.

In the West, which should be the most competitive division in the conference, Seattle has the most experience and a healthy Shaun Alexander. San Francisco, a team on the rise, should win 8-9 games, and the Rams are quality on offense. Arizona has the weapons to pull a turnaround, but... they're the Cardinals.

In the South, the Saints are clearly the best team; they've lost Joe Horn, but should be fine with the addition of Robert Meachem in the draft, and their defense is improved. The Panthers are solid, but nothing special. The Bucs, like the Packers, are a rebuilding team with an old QB - but Jeff Garcia is no Brett Favre. And the Vick-less Falcons... well, they'll struggle to win. Anything.

Predicted NFC champion: the Saints. I don't have faith in Rex Grossman, though he'll be enough to win the division; McNabb will get hurt about Week 16 or so, and the Seahawks are slightly above mediocre. Saints to the Super Bowl.

16 August 2007

NFL Preview Pt. 2: The Idealist's Take

Every year, like the turning of the seasons, renewal brings fresh life to the sports landscape. The assorted detritus of the long, hot summer is swept away by the rejuvenating stream of optimism that is the NFL preseason.
Before the season begins, every team is a championship contender. Surely, the fans say, this is the year the Browns will ascend to their rightful place among the league's elite. Surely, this year, Arizona will achieve self-actualization and win their division.
With time (and sage and rosemary), those dreams will fade. The have-nots will sink, the haves will rise. But there will always be the stories: Tony Dungy and the Colts finally wining a championship; the continued rebirth of the once-moribund San Francisco 49ers; the New Orleans Saints recovering from Katrina, creating an explosive offense, and making it to the verge of the Super Bowl.
There will always be stories. They are wonderful stories, stories that make you laugh a little, that make you smile, that make you cheer for a team, for a player, for a sport.
Not all stories can have happy endings. Players are people; like any group of people, they are flawed - they can disappoint us, can anger us, can disgust us. Not every team can exceed expectations - some will fall short of their goals, will let their fans down.
But the sport is still there. It is still beckoning us, still calling us. Are you listening? It's football time again. And it feels good.

13 August 2007

NFL Preview Pt. 1: The Cynic's Take

Certain things are inevitable. "The Circle of Life" - which is Disney-code for "dying horribly". Taxes, which are bureaucratese for "Governmental incompetence". And the NFL, which is network-television-speak for "hooray, finally, something that people will watch!"

That's right: it's NFL time again. The preseason is already underway, the regular season is just a few short weeks in the future. All across North America, overweight former, wannabe, and never-were jocks are returning to their overstuffed recliners and overindulging in beer, nachos, and overcooked brats.

So, what should the hapless fools - I mean ardent fans - who buy into the corporate lies - I mean team spirit - be on the lookout for, as they peer at their 42-inch flatscreen HD-LCD televisions that cost enough to feed a Third World village for several weeks?

Here's one thing: overweight guys. NFL players are fatter than ever. According to the always-accurate Fox News (and the somewhat less reliable JAMA), more than 1/2 of NFL players have BMI's that qualify them as obese, and more than 1/2 of those are morbidly obese; the idea, apparently, has been to make the players harder to push backwards from the point of attack. The trend towards rocklike immovability has, of course, been echoed in the trends towards rocklike immovability in the league's fans, who are also getting fatter in obvious attempts to imitate their idols.

Here's something else to keep an eye on: idiocy. No, not this - this. NFL players are being arrested for dogfighting, for shootouts in strip clubs - it's almost like they're not very smart or something... hmm... I wonder how that could have happened?

11 August 2007

NBA roundup

Sorry about the David Blaine imitation there for a few days... everybody's got to recharge sometimes.

So - KG is a Celtic. Good for him! He's finally got some other players with him who can share the offensive load - KG has never seemed entirely comfortable as the lead offensive option, especially in crunch time - and who can give him a serious chance to go deep in the playoffs.

Are the Celtics now a good team? Maybe. KG, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen give the team a formidable triumvirate, reminiscent of Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus, or even of Napoleon, de Cambaceres, and Lebrun... although whether Danny Ainge's trading spree will have the long-lasting effects of the French Revolution will take time to reveal.

By the way: if you knew who de Cambaceres and Lebrun were without a quick Google, you're a better history buff than I am.

Also: Shaq and Penny are back together. But now, rather than being two rising superstars, one of them is old, injury-prone, and out of shape... and the other one is Shaq.

The only thing more pitiful than Shaq chanting at Charlie Crist to "make us healthy", so far as my crystal ball can tell, will be Penny Hardaway chanting at Shaq to "make me good again". Shaq has turned himself into an icon; he has his own shoes, his own television show, his own (new and improved) sidekick. He doesn't need Penny anymore.

05 August 2007

Mailbag 8/5/07

So, after another several articles, the blog has been generating a lot of feedback. Time to respond to the pithiest of it? I think so.

The first email is from Jay of Gainesville, FL, who takes offense to my Tony Gwynn article:
"What are you thinking, man? Gwynn is going into the Hall of Fame, and he's never been linked to steroids before. Why do an article on him now? Even as a joke that's pretty awful. Bad topic, bad timing."

My response: well, Jay, the article was more satire than joke, and I thought the timing was pretty good. I view it as both a kind of tribute to Gwynn, who has been one of the "good guys" in the whole baseball-drug-use scandal, and a subtle (okay, so maybe not-so-subtle) dig at those who haven't been as clean as Gwynn.

The second email is from Eric of Albuquerque, NM, who asks a simple question: "What the hell were you thinking, leaving Larry Fitzgerald off of your Top 10 Wide Receivers?"

My response: I think Fitzgerald is overrated. He has incredible physical tools, but doesn't seem to fully take advantage of them. Would I want him on my team? Yeah, probably, not above any of the guys on the list.

The last email I'm going to answer today is from Lee of... well, of wherever it is that he's from - he didn't put a location in his email. He writes: "Gee, your awesome, where do you get your ideas?"

My response: Umm... okay... well, then... I read ESPN.com, SI.com, Yahoo! sports, and a few other sites, and respond to anything that catches my interest.

02 August 2007

Zeise was right

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer Paul Zeise said on Sunday that Michael Vick would have been "better off raping a woman" than what he's been charged with. Since then, he's been released from the television show "Sports Showdown," where he made the comments, and he's drawn heavy flak from several different sources.

KDKA (the television station that hosted the show) called his comments "inappropriate and insensitive". The Post-Gazette said that they were "insensitive and offensive." Under heavy pressure, Zeise himself apologized, saying, "I regret the poor choice of analogies I used to characterize a professional athlete's legal situation."

But Zeise's statements were correct. If Vick had been accused of rape, what would have happened? He would have had to deal with some scrutiny from the press. There would have been some protests, perhaps, if the alleged victim (and we must call her an alleged victim until everything is absolutely proven) happened to be someone of good standing in the community; more likely, she would have been a prostitute or a stripper, and no one would have cared - especially since Vick is black, and therefore cannot be accused of a hate crime.

But Vick hasn't been accused of raping a possibly gold-digging, potentially lying, definitely un-cute stripper; instead, he's been accused of killing dogs - and Americans don't think of "pit bulls" when they think of dogs, they think of Fluffy, the adorable little toy poodle sitting in the corner waiting to be cuddled and held.

Michael Vick killed Fluffy! And Paul Zeise was right.