Surprises In The English Premier League

The English Premier League has reached the two-thirds mark in its 2016/16 season and there are definite surprises in the Table (the “standings” for us Americans) so late in the season. Consider:

    Perennial powerhouse, Chelsea, sits in 12th place (out of 20 sides). With 12 matches still in front of them, Chelsea is closer to the relegation line than it is to the line that would get it into the European Champions League.

    Watford is one of the new teams in the Premier League this year having been promoted from the British Football Championship last year. Watford is not at the bottom of the table struggling to stay in the Premier League; Watford sits in a comfortable 9th place in the Table – 3 places above Chelsea.

    In first place, sits Leicester City. Last year, the team finished 14th in the Premier League and threatened no one. To date, Leicester City has played 26 EPL games and has won 15, tied 8 and lost only 3 times. The top 4 teams in the EPL play in the European Champions League nest year; as of this morning, Leicester City has a 16-point lead over the fifth place team in the Table – Manchester United. It would take a monumental collapse for Leicester City to miss out on that opportunity.

The main threat to Leicester City at the moment is Totenham sitting in second place just 2 points off the lead. Totenham has scored 47 goals this year in 26 games; only 2 teams in the EPL have scored 48. But that is not the only reason why Totenham is where it is; in those same 26 games, Totenham has only allowed 20 goals. The next best defense against scoring belongs to Arsenal who has allowed 23 goals. Interestingly, if you look at the current Las Vegas odds to win the EPL, Arsenal is the co-favorite with Leicester City at 2/1 with Totenham at 9/2. It should be an interesting race from here on out…

As the NBA gets back to real basketball after the travesty of its All-Star Game (Final score 196 – 173), a bunch of teams will “make their run” with new or relatively new coaches. Let me summarize:

    The Nets fired Lionel Hollins and hired Tony Brown. The Nets are a miserable team and will not threaten anyone no matter who the coach is.

    The Suns fired Jeff Hornacek and hired Earl Watson. The Suns are as miserable as the Nets and will not threaten anyone no matter who the coach is.

    The Cavs fired David Blatt and hired Tyron Lue. The Cavs’ fate rests with LeBron James on the court and not with anyone on the bench.

    The Knicks fired Derek Fisher and put assistant coach Kurt Rambis in charge of the team. The Knicks sit 5 games below the cut-line for the playoffs in the NBA East and would have to climb over 4 teams to make the playoffs. That is not an impossible task but …

Derek Fisher led the Knicks to 23 wins this year; the team won only 17 games all of last year. That means Fisher’s total record with the Knicks was 40-96 which is hardly laudatory but it is not all that surprising either.

The Knicks’ problem was not on the bench; the Knicks’ problem is the roster. Kristaps Porzingas has been a hugely positive addition to the team and looks to be a future star in the NBA; Carmelo Anthony is still a good offensive player; from what I have seen, Langston Galloway can be a solid player if not a star; and Robin Lopez has his moments on defense. But that is about it… As has been a problem for the Knicks over the past several years, they cannot or will not play defense consistently. Neither Derrick Williams nor Jose Calderon could stop Betty White from driving the lane; Porzingas is learning about help-defense but is not a stopper and that leaves Lopez alone to cover any and every opponent who might go to the basket in such a situation. Good luck to Kurt Rambis in curing that malady…

There have been persistent rumors – and denials of said rumors – that the Sacramento Kings will fire George Karl. As of this morning, the Kings’ record is 22-31 and they sit 4.5 games behind eighth-place Utah for the final NBA West playoff spot. The Kings have one bona-fide star talent on the squad, DeMarcus “Boogie” Cousins. They have a couple of solid players in Rajon Rondo and Rudy Gay but that is about it. Like the Knicks, the problem with the Kings is that they cannot or will not play defense and when that happens, even a coach like Red Auerbach is not going to win a lot of games.

To give you an idea of what I mean by “not playing defense”, the Kings played the Nets on Friday 5 Feb and then played the Celtics on Sunday 7 Feb. These games began a 4-game road trip that led to the All-Star break. The Kings gave up 128 points in each of those games losing both games by the identical score of 128-119. The Kings scored 119 points twice and lost both games. Earlier in the season the Kings have scored 117 points and lost, 116 points and lost; 113 points and lost; and 110 points and lost. Oh, by the way, I have not counted overtime games where the Kings scored huge numbers of points and lost; all of the examples I cited above are normal 48-minute games.

The problem(s) in Sacramento are on the court and probably in the owner’s suite too. Vivek Ranadive bought the Kings in May 2013 – about 34 months ago. Here is the Kings’ coaching situation in recent times:

    Keith Smart: 2012-2013
    Mike Malone: 2013-2014
    Tyrone Corbin: 2014-2015
    George Karl: 2015-present

In fact, since Rick Adelman was replaced as coach of the Kings in 2007, the team has had 8 head coaches and the longest tenured one of the lot was Paul Westphal who lasted for 171 games – a tad over 2 years.

Finally, here is an NBA-related comment from Brad Dickson of the Omaha-World-Herald:

“Andre Drummond set a record for missed free throws in an NBA game — 23 — breaking Wilt Chamberlain’s record. ‘How was my night? Oh, I just broke one of Wilt Chamberlain’s records, that’s all.’ ”

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………

The Pro Bowl In Australia?

With the Super Bowl in the rear view mirror and the NFL Draft far off in the distant future, the only thing to talk about related to the NFL is a strange idea that had been floated with regard to the Pro Bowl. In the aftermath of the Pro Bowl, Roger Goodell – getting something right for a change – decried the level of play in that game. Good for the Commish; it seemed as if he might finally have found a way to be in tune with the opinions of “the common fan” here. That appearance was short-lived…

Shortly on the heels of saying that the play in the Pro Bowl was not something of NFL caliber, Roger Goodell suggested that a possible change in the Pro Bowl might be to play the game in Australia. Let me be clear; playing the game in Hawaii is no better nor any worse than playing the game in Australia, Austria, Andalusia, Arabia or Antarctica. The venue has nothing at all to do with the sort of effort that will evidence itself on the field of play. If the idea is to “grow the game globally”, then playing a game in Australia makes some sense. However, if “growing the game globally” is the idea, then playing a meaningless game in which the players hug each other instead of hitting each other is a horrible idea.

One of the way that anyone outside the PR Department of the NFL can tell that player do not give a rat’s ass about the Pro Bowl is to check the stats. Half of the players invited to participate in this year’s game found a reason not to show up. Understand what they turned down:

    They did not get a one-week vacation in Hawaii for them and their family where the only condition was that they had to participate in a 3-hour exhibition of “touch-football for 3 hours.

    Oh, and the players on the losing team would cash a $30K check while the players on the winning team would cash a $60K check.

Given that data – and similar date from years past – would someone ask the Commish to address in something other than platitudes the following:

    If a trip to Hawaii is insufficient as a lure to get the players you invited to the game to show up for the game, what makes you think that more of them will travel to Australia to participate in the same meaningless charade?

In other “International News”, the NFL will schedule the Raiders and the Texans to play a regular season game in Mexico City next year. The NFL has done this before. In the early “aughts” the Cardinals and the Niners played a “real game” in Mexico City and the game drew more than 100,000 fans. The choice for the teams in this game are sufficiently interesting that I suspect it was not a random selection:

    The Texans’ proximity to Mexico – the distance from Houston to Nuevo Laredo is only about 300 miles – has prompted the team to try to cultivate a following am=ng Mexicans.

    The Raiders are de facto homeless. They now have a one-year lease to continue playing in Oakland in the same decrepit stadium that has been the dregs of NFL home venues for whenever it was that the Jets stopped playing in Shea Stadium. The NFL needs for the Raiders to find a home; if they can find one that preserves Mark Davis’ ability to continue to o0wn the majority share of the Raiders, so be it. If not, then sayonara to Mark Davis. This game might be an “audition” for Mexico City to become the home to the “now-Oakland” Raiders.

The NFL’s international expansion focus would seem to have been London and Europe for the past decade or so. Last year there were 3 games in London; next year there will be 3 more and the Jaguars seem to be the de facto team at the front of the line to capture London fans’ hearts and minds. [Aside: Beware London fans: The team stinks and no one in Jax gives a damn if they play some or all of their “home games” in Jax or in any other city on the planet. Just saying…] Now, the NFL might be signaling that a team moving to Mexico City and continuing to play in the Western Division of either conference might be a much less complex logistical challenge for the league.

Oh, and before we swallow the Texans’ claim to Mexican fandom due to their proximity to Mexico, please consider the following:

    Houston is about 300 miles from the Mexican border; San Diego is only about 20 miles from the Mexican border. If proximity is the issue, how come the Chargers never thought to change their name to the San Diego Chalupas.

    Glendale, AZ is about 100 miles from the Mexican/American Port of Entry at Lukeville. AZ. If proximity is the issue, how come the Cardinals have never considered a name change to the Arizona Jumping Beans?

I have suggested on more than one occasion that National Signing Day – when high school football players announce where they will go to play college football – is a horrible concoction based on a football culture in America. Allow me to offer a datum to support that assertion here. Last week, reported that:

“Marvin Terry, a three-star linebacker out of Dallas, Texas, was the first player to commit to Missouri once Barry Odom took over as its coach. When National Signing Day came and went on Wednesday, however, the Tigers never received Terry’s National Letter of Intent. But he had a good excuse … well, maybe not so good …

“He was in jail.”

Terry was arrested on 3 counts of “suspicion of assault” where the counts included bodily injury/family violence, family violence for impeding breathing or circulation and “continuous family violence assault within 12 months. There are economic reasons for the alleged victims here to refuse to pursue criminal charges here; there are also good reasons for the University of Missouri – or any other football program that pretends to hold up the “student-athlete” as the iconography of its program – to tell this kid to get his act together for 3 or 4 years before reapplying for admission.

That is not going to happen. And because that is not going to happen, let this be a point where the NCAA and the member institutions are on notice. If you admit this kid because he is a top-shelf athlete and do not provide him with sufficient one-on-one counseling/mentoring, then the NCAA and the school are indeed culpable if he continues down the path he has allegedly chosen to tread.

Finally, here is an item from Dwight Perry in the Seattle Times relative to another demonstration of anti-social behavior:

“A tomato thrower at a Donald Trump rally in Iowa City, Iowa, has been charged with disorderly conduct.

“He faces a possible few days in jail and a Yankees spring-training invite.”

But don’t get me wrong I love sports………

The Denver Broncos Are Super Bowl Champions

The Super Bowl game demonstrated once again that really good defense is the way to slow down a really good offense. The fact of the game was that the Denver DL dominated the Carolina OL on about 75% of the snaps. That same DL harassed Tom Brady two weeks ago in the AFC Championship Game and some folks chalked that up to the “patchwork nature” of the Pats’ OL. Well, last night’s performance was not against a bruised and tattered OL; the Denver defenders were too fast and too relentless to allow the Panthers to develop any kind of a running game and they made Cam Newton look human for the entire game.

Let me be clear; the Panthers’ defense played extremely well too; the Panthers were done in by two turnovers that produced two TDs for the Broncos. Those two TDs were the margin of victory. Here are a couple of stats that will tell you how dominant the defenses were in the game:

    Panthers were 3-15 on third-down conversions.
    Broncos were even worse with 1-14 on third-down conversions.

    Cam Newton sacked 7 times for 68 yards
    Peyton Manning sacked 5 times for 37 yards

    Panthers held the Broncos to 197 yards total offense for the game.
    Broncos defense took the ball away 4 times in the game.

Congratulations to the Denver Broncos…

I do not want to do much about the Super Bowl ads this year other than to say that I was underwhelmed by most of them.

    Who cares if a car can go 205 mph? All that will do is get you chased down by a significant fraction of the State Police in your area.

    Why spend something near $5M to run an ad telling me how much water it takes if I leave the faucet on when I brush my teeth?

    PayPal seems to have missed a very important point. They did an ad leading to the punch line that “PayPal is the new money.” Really? Try to set up a PayPal account without any of the “old money” being involved and see how well the “new money works…

The multiple spots from the NFL touting the proposition that “Football is Family” brought to mind this observation from Bob Molinaro of the Hampton Roads Virginian-Pilot last week:

“Hidden truths: The NFL’s ‘Football is Family’ campaign really does have a ring of authenticity to it – as long as you understand that on some level, most families are dysfunctional.”

In the world of college basketball, Louisville has declared that it will ban itself from all post-season tournament competition this year. That means it will not be in the ACC tournament, the NCAA tournament or any of the minor post-season college tournaments that do not amount to a smidgen of squirrel snot. This voluntary action seems to point clearly in the direction that someone somewhere has come across some very damaging information in the course of investigating the allegations that some recruits to the basketball program at Louisville were provided with strippers and/or prostitutes. It is just not reasonable to conclude that if the investigation to date had shown absolutely nothing of even minor concern with regard to said matter that the school would make this decision on its own.

It is perfectly all right for you to view this announcement with a bit of cynicism; the odds are good that some of the higher-ups at Louisville now know that the bright light of the investigation is going to reveal some things that the NCAA rules mavens are not going to like even a little bit. The school’s idea here is to try to get ahead of the game here and punish itself in the hopes that this seeming act of contrition and this seeming self-flagellation will ameliorate whatever penalties the NCAA is going to hand over. It would not surprise me in the least to learn that precise train of logic has already been under discussion along Mahogany Row at the University of Louisville. Here is the problem:

    Rarely, if ever, does a school’s self-administered sanctions/punishments satisfy the NCAA folks on high in Indianapolis who see themselves as the only true guardians of the purity of intercollegiate athletics.

Obviously, none of this is going to shower Rick Pitino in glory. Nevertheless, it is important to keep two things in mind here:

    1. To date, no one has provided any credible evidence that Pitino was the one who orchestrated the actions that led to the alleged providing of strippers/prostitutes to incoming recruits and Pitino has – very specifically – denied all involvement in all this.

    2. Since the announcement of the voluntary post-season ban came from the Athletic Director and the University President, that would seem to indicate that whatever “bad news” they have learned is not a smoking gun incontrovertibly placed in the hands of Coach Pitino. Were that the case, I would have expected that the university would also have put him on “administrative leave” until the investigation was completed.

Finally, Greg Cote of the Miami Herald took a more synoptic view of this whole scandalous mess with this comment:

“Coach Rick Pitino claims no knowledge, but a woman wrote a book claiming she and her two daughters were paid to have sex with Louisville basketball players and recruits. Guessing she’s ruined her shot at that Mother of the Year award.”

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………

Admin Note

My writing schedule for next week will be sporadic. Family events will consume much of the time during the week.

My plan is to write on Monday morning and then see what happens after that. Sometimes plans work out; other times … not so much.

I should be back on normal schedule by the week of February 15.

Stay well, everyone.

Mythical Picks – NFL – The Super Bowl

The Mythical Picks from two weeks ago were perfecto. The record for the week of the Conference Championship games was 3-0-0 taking the season record to 133-121-5. The record for Curmudgeon Central Coin Toss games remained at 17-17-1.

The “Best Pick” from two weeks ago was taking the Panthers and laying only 3 points to the Cardinals. The Panthers led 17-0 after one quarter and it was pretty clear at that point that the Cardinals were not going to mount much of any sort of offense on that day.

Notwithstanding the perfect record from two weeks ago, no one should take anything written here and use it as the basis for making any sort of wager on the Super Bowl game this Sunday. Past performance is no assurance of future performance; moreover, I bring no inside information to this endeavor. One would have to be mightily stupid to risk one’s real money on an actual wager on the upcoming game because of something in here. How stupid?

    You probably think that “Brain Freeze” is a flavor of ice cream eaten by zombies.

General Comments:

I succeeded in making no mention of any of the Super Bowl hype for the past two weeks. I am proud to say that I did not contribute to the myriad attempts to compare and contrast the two QBs in the game nor did I allow myself to be dragged into the minutiae of the game wherein folks analyze which offensive line unit suffers from more hangnails. Here is something from Greg Cote in this morning’s Miami Herald; this sums up how I feel about coming to the end of two weeks of saturation coverage of the upcoming Super Bowl game:

“You know why America will be so excited to see Sunday’s game kick off?

“It isn’t because Panthers vs. Broncos will finally be starting.

“It’s because the two weeks of mind-numbing buildup will finally be ending.”

Messr. Cote has been “on a roll” with snarky commentary related to the Super Bowl over the past couple of weeks and I will insert some of his remarks periodically in these final Mythical Picks for the 2015 NFL season. Here is one of them:

“I saw a consumer-oriented story with the headline, ‘Where to watch the Super Bowl.’ The target demographic: Football fans who own no television, have never heard of a sports bar and have no friends.”

The NFL turned “Media Day” into “Opening Night” this year. The nonsense was not only televised; it was televised in prime time on NFL Network. As has become the custom, some of the “reporters” arrived in a variety of costumes to pose whatever stupid questions they had been working on for the last weeks and months. I do not want to give any of the “creative folks” at the NFL any ideas, but about the only twist they have not tried yet for these goat rodeos is to drive one of those circus clown cars into the venue and have 26 costumed “reporters” emerge and disperse into the throng of players and coaches who have taken up their positions.

Every year, “Media Day”/”Opening Night” produces the same stupid questions along with the same predictable minimalist answers. This year, we did ascertain that there were 7,000 people in the Bay Area whose lives are truly devoid of any interesting content. Those 7,000 Masters of Misery spent $30 each to go and sit in the stands and watch those “reporters” ask their questions and get their minimal answers. Those 7,000 souls have forever forfeited any right they may have had to proclaim that something they are doing is “boring”.

Here is one more offering from Greg Cote on the upcoming game:

“Broncos-Panthers ticket prices are falling. The cost on StubHub on Wednesday started as low as $2,950. Or, you can get a much better seat for a fraction of the cost. It’s called ‘your couch.’ ”

As I said above, I refuse to compare and contrast the two QBs in the game; there have been far too many such expositions of that type. However, I would like to suggest that Cam Newton may be a “black swan”. That is not a racial comment; a “black swan” metaphorically speaking is an unexpected event or sighting. Normally, birds with the shape of a swan swimming on a lake/pond are white; we come to expect birds of that shape and size on the water to be white; on rare occasions, swans are black and seeing one of them is shocking and surprising. Hence the term…

Back to Cam Newton here; quarterbacks in football historically are not as tall or as heavy as he is. Players who weigh 260-270 lbs. tend not be as fleet afoot as he is nor as agile. His throwing motion is not of the “classical old school”. If you just focus on him as a quarterback, he looks and plays “differently” from what we have come to expect from a quarterback.

The best analogy I can draw here is to Magic Johnson. When Magic was in college he was very unusual; there were no 6’ 9” point guards roaming the Earth back then; most fans had never even thought of a player that big even trying to play the point guard position. Why would a coach allow him to do that and keep him away from the basket? Magic was a very good college player but he was not much of an outside shooter in his early days in the NBA. But he honed his skills and significantly improved his outside shot and became a truly great player.

Cam Newton has not yet achieved in the NFL what Magic Johnson achieved in the NBA. Given Magic’s prodigious accomplishments, Newton may never attain that level of greatness. However, I think there is parallelism and comparability between the two athletes that is worth paying attention to.

I will succumb to one comment comparing Cam Newton and Peyton Manning; it comes from Mike Bianchi of the Orlando Sentinel:

“How old is Peyton Manning? While Cam likes to Dab after scoring TDs, Peyton is working on his own touchdown dance — the Charleston.”

While on the subject of Super Bowl quarterbacks, do you realize that Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger have been the quarterback for the AFC team in the Super Bowl for 13 of the last 15 Super Bowl games? The two “interloper AFC quarterbacks” since Super Bowl XXXVI in 2002 have been Rich Gannon (Raiders in 2003) and Joe Flacco (Ravens in 2012). Over the same time span, NFC teams have had a variety of QBs on display in Super Bowl games. In fact, only Kurt Warner, Eli Manning and Russell Wilson have made repeat appearances for NFC teams.

Recently, I wrote about NFL franchises that have been out of contention for quite a while now despite the league efforts to induce parity into the system. On the other side of the coin one needs to look at the 16 teams in the AFC. Five of those teams – about one-third of the conference – have represented the AFC in 18 of the last 20 Super Bowl games; 31% of the teams make up 90% of the Super Bowl representatives. Going back to Super Bowl XXX where the Cowboys beat the Steelers (January 1996), the Broncos, Colts, Patriots, Ravens and Steelers have been the AFC representative every year except:

    Super Bowl XXXIV (Jan 2000): The Tennessee Titans lost to the St. Louis Rams.

    Super Bowl XXXVII (Jan 2003): The Oakland Raiders lost to the Tampa Bay Bucs.

One more time from Greg Cote:

“OK we have officially run out of things to talk about and write and need the game to start. Evidence? This headline (I swear) on ‘Super bowl history of missed extra points.’ ”

Lest you think he is making that up, here is the link to that exposition…

Super Bowl parties are as ubiquitous as New Year’s Eve celebrations. The American Snack Food Association – of course there is one – says that Super Bowl Sunday is the “biggest snacking day of the year.” Using data from 2013, here is what they mean by “snacking”:

    1.23 billion wings will be consumed – not counting those eaten at Wing Bowl in Philly the Friday before the Super Bowl Game.

    15 million pizzas will be consumed. Sadly, many of these pizzas will be culinary concoctions that only resemble pizza. For example, Domino’s estimates that they will produce 1.3 million pies this year…

    158 million avocados will be consumed – most in the form of guacamole.

Let me convert those numbers to measures you might relate to more easily:

    1.23 billion chicken wings: Of course they come from a bit more than 600 million chickens. The US Census Bureau says the population of Santa Clara, CA – site of this year’s game – is 120,245 as of 2013. That means that every man, woman and child in Santa Clara could have just over 102 wings apiece if you could get them all to the city at one time.

    15 million pizzas: At 8 slices per pizza, that comes to 120 million slices. That is almost enough to provide one slice of pizza to every man woman and child in Japan.

    158 million avocados: Each avocado produces about 8 ounces of edible stuff so this equates to 79 million pounds of avocados. The ancillary ingredients that turn an avocado into guacamole do not weigh much so in round numbers I can estimate that 80 million pounds of guacamole are available for “snacking”. That would be 1 pound of guacamole for every man woman and child in Germany.

Oh, and please do not ignore the pretzels, chips and beer that will be consumed on Sunday. Those will not be consumed in trivial amounts…

Before we get to the Mythical Pick for the game, let me go to Greg Cote one more time:

“Pats-Seahawks last year was seen by 114.4 million viewers, the most-watched broadcast in the history of U.S. television. They say Sunday’s Super Bowl 50 could break that record despite the halftime performer being Coldplay.”

The Game:

Carolina – 5.5 vs. Denver (44.5): The spread opened at 4 points and went as high as 6 points in many places in the past two weeks. It has settled in here at this level at most of the Internet sportsbooks. Reports say that there is a heavy preponderance of “Panthers money” in Las Vegas and that the sportsbooks there are “exposed”. We will know if those reports are correct soon after the game when the Nevada Gaming Commission releases the statement of earnings or losses reported by the sportsbooks in the State. The Panthers were the highest scoring team during the regular season putting 500 points on the scoreboard (31.2 points per game); in their 2 playoff games, the Panthers have scored 80 points (40 points per game). Flip the coin here and you will see that during the regular season, the Broncos only allowed 18.5 points per game (fourth stingiest in the NFL) and in two playoff games, they have allowed 34 points (17 points per game). Therein is the focus of the game. If the Panthers get off to a big early lead as they have often done this year, I do not think the Broncos’ offense can “catch up”. However, I am not confident that the Panthers can do that to the Broncos’ defense. I like the game to stay UNDER. I think there could be a final score along the lines of 20-17.

Finally, one last good word from Greg Cote of the Miami Herald:

“Finally, at Palm Beach Kennel Club, a greyhound representing Carolina beat a dog representing Denver. Track officials denied speculation the race might have been a publicity stunt.”

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………

At The Intersection Of Sports And Politics…

I want to start today with something that happened at a Donald Trump rally in Iowa about a week ago. Fear not; this is not going to be a political rant regarding any candidate or party. This will actually circle back to sports pretty quickly.

In the audience at the rally were some members of the Iowa football team; and according to reports, Trump called them up to the stage to be with him. The players gave him an Iowa team jersey with the name “Trump” on the back. Now there are reports that the Iowa football program might – let me emphasize MIGHT – be in trouble with the NCAA because there is an NCAA rule that prohibits student-athletes from endorsing political candidates.

I am not surprised that such a rule exists; after all, if the NCAA has to have a rule book that is 500 pages long, they have to come up with lots of arcane things to regulate. [Hmmm… I wonder if there is a set of rules in there somewhere that defines exactly what the team proctologist may and may not do with his/her spare time?] I may not be surprised that there is such a rule but I surely do not understand why the NCAA mavens thought it was important to write it in the first place.

I continue to believe that the NCAA rules on eligibility and proper recruiting practices and allowable benefits for athletes are there for this purpose only:

    To create a level playing field – to minimize any on-field advantage that Team A might gain over Team B.

The NCAA – given the fact of its existence – has to care about intercollegiate athletic contests and if they care about them in such a way that the NCAA can make money for itself and for its member schools and conferences, then they have a vested and legitimate interest in creating and enforcing rules that seek competitive balance. What that has to do with which political candidate some or all of the players on a particular team might support/endorse in any election is not so clear to me.

As a former US Government employee, I am very familiar with the idea that I could not endorse any political candidate or party. The Hatch Act restricts Federal employees from such activities and it is a condition of continued employment that Federal employees comply with the provisions of the Hatch Act – and all other Federal laws as well. Some folks argue that the Hatch Act restricts the freedom of expression of Federal employees and I am sure that sort of thing makes for spirited debates in law school classes. Nonetheless, that restriction – if it really exists – is in force.

Now, I would surely hope that the NCAA would not try to justify its prohibition on endorsing a candidate on any basis that resembles the justification for the Hatch Act. Here is the bugaboo in that argument:

    Federal employees bear their restriction(s) as a condition of employment.

    The NCAA vehemently denies that student-athletes are employees. [Aside: That is one point where I agree completely with the NCAA.]

I hope that someone in the NCAA Enforcement Mechanism – whatever it is called – steps back and recognizes that the Iowa football team gained no on-field advantage from the actions of some team members standing on a stage with Donald Trump at a political rally – unless of course someone can show that the players were paid to make that appearance. So far, I have seen no reporting that makes even a passing mention of such a thing. However, for completeness, I would agree that the players and possibly the entire program might need a sanction if indeed there were shadow payments involved in that event. Absent evidence of that nature, those players were part of a fundamental American process; if they participated because that is what they believe, that is something that relates closely to the educational goals that the NCAA continues to champion for its student-athletes.

Let us hope that sanity prevails here…

A rather standard sports bar argument challenges participants to name a sports record that is “unbreakable”. The fundamental problem with the approach to such arguments is that a human being set the current record that one asserts to be “unbreakable” which denies the possibility that another human being may come along at some time and do just that. Here are some standard examples of nominally unbreakable records:

    Hitting in 56 consecutive games. I probably will not be around to see it, but there is no reason why someone cannot possibly ever hit in 57 consecutive games.

    Being the winning pitcher in 511 games. Considering that modern pitchers who win 300 games are ushered into the Hall of Fame as soon as possible, it will likely be a long time before that record is approached; but impossible…? [By the way, Cy Young also pitched 749 complete games.]

    Scoring 100 points in an NBA game.

    Pitching 7 no-hit games. The pitcher who ranks second in no-hit games had 4 in his career; he was a pretty good pitcher named Sandy Koufax…

    Receiving 688 intentional walks. Barry Bonds did that; second on the list is Albert Pujols who has collected 296 and Henry Aaron is third on the list at 293.

    Winning 122 consecutive races over a 10-year span in track and field. Edwin Moses did that in the 400-meter hurdles.

Those and tons of other are amazing records but someday, each might be broken. However, there is one record I can think of that cannot be broken;

    Super Bowl XXV was the game between the Giants and the Bills; if that is not enough of a clue to bring the game to mind, it was the “Scott Norwood game” or the “wide right game”. The final score was Giants 20 and Bills 19.

    Not only was that the smallest margin of victory in Super Bowl history, it is the smallest POSSIBLE margin of victory in a Super Bowl game. That record may be tied in some future game but it will not – because it cannot – be broken.

If you find yourself in such an argument at a sports bar, try to get some folks to put up a few dollars on the proposition that you can give them a sports record that cannot be broken. Ask the bartender to hold the stakes and be the judge…

Finally, since I started today with something at the intersection of sports and politics, let me close with a comment from Brad Rock in the Deseret News regarding another event at that intersection:

“Near the start of his speech at [University of] Nebraska-Omaha, President Obama called out, ‘Go Mavericks!’

“Which is the political equivalent of a rock star opening a concert by shouting, ‘We love you, Akron!’ ”

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………

National Signing Day…

Today is “National Signing Day”; this is the day when high school football players let the world know where they will go to college to continue playing football. This is a concocted “holiday”; it is a paragon of excess. ESPN has been covering/hyping the bejeepers out of this for the last month or so and it will be a relief to see it in the past. Fans of various college teams lend incredible weight to the decisions of these various high school players somehow having convinced themselves that this young man is going to be a great college football player based on the fact that he was a great high school football player. The logic there has its strengths and its weaknesses.

    Surely the odds are better that a high school player will become a great college player if indeed he stood out at the lower level of high school football.

    Nonetheless, many outstanding high school players do not become anything more than very ordinary college level players. That fact is demonstrated every three or four years when one looks back at the “career arcs” of loads of 4-Star/Blue Chip/Stone Cold Studs who signed on prior to their freshman year.

    In essence, the tension and excitement generated by National Signing Day this year is the triumph of hope over experience.

Brad Dickson of the Omaha World-Herald had these two comments recently about the furor surrounding National Signing Day:

“National signing day is Wednesday. Groundhog Day is Tuesday. A study would reveal that Punxsutawney Phil’s predictions are 10 times more accurate than those of people who rate teenagers two to five stars.”

And …

“Signing day is when middle-aged college football fans warmly embrace the 18-year-olds they’ll be angrily tweeting at following losses in 2018.”

I am certainly not a psychologist but I wonder if the following hypothesis has ever been tested. These players who will be on national TV to reveal their signing decisions for college are players who have excelled at football for all of their lives and with that excellence came status and stature at school and in their community. Everyone recalls the BMOC at his/her high school. Now, some of these new signees will go to college and will not excel; in fact, some of them will fail; they will only make the team in order for the team to have enough bodies to provide practice regimens for the starters on the college squad.

I wonder if the social “demotion” from BMOC-status to Scrub-status hinders in any way the ability of the player to perform in other dimensions of the collegiate experience. If someone could show that to be the case, then those folks who raise up these prospects higher and higher on national pedestals might be considered to be folks who are setting up some of them for a pretty hard fall down the line. Just saying…

Thursday Night Football in the NFL is not something that the players like and for the last couple of years it has not been anything close to “must-see TV”. Particularly late in the season, many of the players’ bodies are not sufficiently recovered from last Sunday’s poundings to perform at top-shelf levels. So, what might you expect the NFL to do about that?

Right! They are going to expand the coverage of Thursday Night Football.

Next year, there will be more games on broadcast TV for everyone to see. In 2015, CBS carried the first 8 Thursday Night Football games; those 8 were simulcast on NFL Network; then NFL Network telecast the final 8 Thursday Night games. However, the contract for the TV rights to Thursday Night Football expired at the end of the 2015 season and here is what is going to happen in 2016 and 2017:

    CBS will televise 5 Thursday Night Football Games in the “first-half of the season”.

    NBC will televise 5 Thursday Night Football Games starting the Thursday before Thanksgiving and carrying through until just before Christmas.

    NFL Network will simulcast those 10 games from the 2 networks.

    NFL Network will also televise a package of 8 games consisting of other Thursday Night games plus “late-season games on Saturday and additional games to be determined.”

If you want to read a lot of management-speak and bloviating related to the announcement of these TV packages, here is a link that will provide the opportunity.

Other reports say that CBS and NBC paid a total of $450M for their 2-year TV rights in this deal. That is an increase for the NFL because CBS had paid only $350M for the 2-year deal that just expired. Why are the networks willing to pony up an additional $100M for Thursday Night games that have not been nail-biters in recent times? The answer is simple; despite the marginal quality of many of the games, people watch. And because people watch, the networks are able to sell ad time at premium rates. As Deep Throat advised Woodward and Bernstein, “Follow the money.”

Finally, last week’s Pro Bowl drew a TV rating of 5.0. That was the highest rated televised sporting event last weekend and that is good news for the NFL. At the same time, that is the lowest rating for the Pro Bowl in years; this year’s rating is categorized as a “massive drop” since it was down a little over 25% from last year’s 6.7 rating and that is potentially good news for football fans who would love to see the game just dry up and blow away.

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………

Jeff Hornacek Gets The Axe

The NBA’s Phoenix Suns fired coach Jeff Hornacek this week. The Suns have not come close to meeting expectations for this year and that is the justification for the firing. However, perhaps those expectations may have been just a tad unrealistic.

Last year, the Suns were not expected to be a playoff team; as I recall, the expected win total for the Suns in the 2014/15 was in the low-to-mid 30s; the team was coming off a 39-win season and had not made any significant upgrades. What happened in 2014/15 was that the Suns won 48 games and Jeff Hornacek finished second in the balloting for NBA Coach of the Year. Then, over the summer, the team signed Tyson Chandler from the Dallas Mavericks and – despite the presence of really good teams atop the Western Conference, the folks in charge of the Suns began to think of the team as – hat tip to Marlon Brando here – “uh contenda”.

To say that has not worked out is to say that the Hindenburg had a minor problem with docking. Chandler is playing only 23.5 minutes per game; his field goal percentage looks good at 49.5% but that is the lowest his shooting percentage has been since his rookie season in 2001/02; he is only getting 8.4 rebounds per game which is significantly below his 11.5 average in 2013/14. The rest of the team has not played all that well either and as of this morning the Suns’ record stands at 14-35; they have the same record as the Timberwolves and have only 5 more wins than the Lakers.

The team should not be this “bad”; the team also should not be aiming 55 wins and a possible #3 seed in the Western Conference Playoffs either. Jeff Hornacek happened to be in the wrong beach chair when this tsunami of losing washed ashore. Isn’t amazing how the guy who was nominally the second best coach in the NBA as of May 2015 became expendable in January 2016…?

Over the weekend, I saw on ESPN – I think – some highlights of a Suns/Knicks game. Basketball highlights tend to be repetitious; lots of dunks or long three-point shots and not much else. However, there was something strange in the highlights here; the Suns were wearing black uniforms. No, it is not strange for NBA teams to wear black; lots of teams use them as “alternate uniforms” creating different lines of merchandise to sell. Nonetheless, this is what went through my head and was jotted down on my notepad by the TV set:

    When the Suns wear black uniforms, shouldn’t the TV graphics refer to them as the Eclipses?

Recent reports seem to confirm prior stories that Calvin Johnson will retire from the NFL; the latest story is that he told Lions’ coaches last year that he intended to do so. When the earlier reports surfaced, I wrote that Lions’ fans must be having flashbacks to Barry Sanders and the flashbacks cannot be “happy times”. Sanders was clearly the best running back in Lions’ history and he retired abruptly at age 31; Johnson is clearly the best WR in Lions’ history and he is retiring at age 30.

The Detroit Lions franchise is hardly a model organization in terms of positive results. In fact, it may be – over the long haul – the bottom rung of the NFL ladder. Consider:

    The Lions won the NFL Championship in 1957. Since then, they have won not much of anything. In 2008, they won nothing; their season record was 0-16.

    Since 1957, the Lions have participated in a total of 12 playoff games; they lost 11 of them.

    Since the NFL went to a 16-game season in 1978, the Lions have had winning records 10 times.

    Since the NFL realigned in 2002 to create the NFC North, the Lions cumulative record is 76-148. That is a winning percentage of .339.

To be sure, there are some other NFL franchises that you can hang a “sad-sack tag” onto.

    Since 2003 – the year after the Raiders lost in the Super Bowl to the Bucs – the Raiders have been downright bad. They have not had a winning season over that stretch and have had 9 head coaches in that 13 -year span. However, over the history of the Raiders’ franchise, it has been far more successful than have been the Lions.

    Since 1999 – the year the Cleveland Browns were reincarnated into the NFL – they have been awful. They did make one playoff appearance in 2002; other than that… Like the Raiders, they have had 9 head coaches over the span in question. They have had 2 winning seasons but the overall record since 1999 is 87-185. That is a winning percentage of .320.

    The Bills have not been to the playoffs in 16 years.

    The Dolphins have been in one playoff game in 14 years.

    The Rams have not had a winning season in the last 12 seasons.

The NFL system is skewed to assist teams that do poorly with the idea of creating “parity” throughout the league. Poor teams get the top draft picks in every round of the draft; the salary cap prevents good teams from generating huge disparities in revenues and then spend their way into contender status – as a few teams did in the early days of NFL free agency. The salary cap also allows so-called “small market teams” such as Green Bay, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, New Orleans and Indy to compete toe-to-toe with the “big market teams” in places like NY, Chicago, Houston, Philly and – once again – Los Angeles.

The Lions have defied all of the “advantages” that present themselves to losing teams for just about all of the last 58 years. Maybe that is part of the reason behind the decision of their best RB ever to call it quits earlier in his career than one might have expected and part of the reason Calvin Johnson is thinking along a similar track.

Finally, I mentioned above that Jeff Hornacek finished second in the voting for NBA Coach of the Year last year. He lost that vote to Greg Popovich of the Spurs. Here is an item from Dwight Perry of the Seattle Times regarding “Pop”:

“There’s a move afoot in San Antonio to name a high school there in honor of Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.

“Students attending there, it goes without saying, will be strongly urged to pass.”

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………

The Irrelevance Of The Pro Bowl

I am certainly not alone in my disdain for the Pro Bowl. Brad Dickson of the Omaha World-Herald made this comment last week:

“There is a new European-made movie that shows paint drying. Good, now I have something to do during Sunday’s Pro Bowl.”

Some data would suggest that the players do not really care about the game either. Each Pro Bowl squad has 44 players meaning the game sends out 88 initial “invitations”. Obviously, some of the players on that “invite list” will be playing in the Super Bowl this week, so their absence is understandable. What is a tad unusual, is that so many other players decline the honor of participating in this game. It took 133 invitations to come up with 88 players willing to take an expense-paid trip to Hawaii and a minimum $30K check for participation. (The winning team got close to $60K.) It is as if one entire squad refused to show up and they had to go and get the next level participants.

Just look at some of the QBs on the teams. Teddy Bridgewater? Derek Carr? Jameis Winston? Tyrod Taylor? None of those even resemble “stiffs”, but are they elite QBs? Maybe next year…

One more observation from Brad Dickson on the Pro Bowl:

“I wouldn’t say people don’t take the Pro Bowl seriously, but a new rule this year allows players to text in the huddle.”

Last week, Michael Sam declared that he was going to give it one more try to make an NFL squad next season. I have two thoughts on that pronouncement:

    1. I hope he gets a fair shot at making a team and that his fate is not determined by an injury.

    2. If he is unsuccessful in this attempt to make an NFL team, then I profoundly hope that the part of his statement that refers to “one more try” is completely accurate.

If you have some spare cash lying around in your checking account, you can participate in an auction to buy a football thrown by John Unitas and caught by Raymond Berry for a touchdown in the first half of the 1958 NFL title game. That is the game that went into overtime and was called “The Greatest Game Ever Played”. The auction begins today and runs through 11 February; bidding starts at $10K. Here is a link to the report of the auction. Here is a link to the website of the auctioneer showing the status of this particular item. When I posted this rant, there had not been any bids on the item yet.

Last week, a reader, rugger9, posed a question in the comment section on one of the rants. He looked ahead to the weekend game between the Golden State Warriors and the Philly 76ers and wondered if the spread for that game might be the biggest spread ever. I do not keep track of such things but I know someone who does and who reads these rants at least once in a while. So, I posed the question to him for a query of his records. Here are the salient points in his response:

    “According to my computer records, which only go back to 2003, on 3/30/2008, Boston was at home vs. pre-LeBron Heat at a closing line of -23, (183) and won 88-62 covering the line and the Under.

    “My manual gambling records (pre-computer) show Phoenix’ closing line at home -24 over Dallas on 3/12/1993 and winning, 116-98. Dallas was 11-71 that year and Phoenix won over 60 and led NBA at 113 ppg that season.

    “Prior to 1977, I don’t have any gambling records, but going back to 1973, the lousy Philly team was getting a bundle of points on the road vs. the Celtics, Bucks, and Lakers, but I don’t think they would have hit the 20’s, and if they ever did, there’s no way it was as high as the 24 quoted above. Philly though they were lousy did average 104 ppg that season and there was no 3-pointer then.”

That message came to me about 12 hours before any spread went up on the boards I follow for the Warriors/Sixers game. Here is another note from that message with regard to what he thought the spread was going to be:

    “Using my power ratings, I would expect GS on the road to be in the -17 to -19 area. At home, they would be in the -21- to -23 area.”

The game opened at Golden State -18; it moved to 18.5 briefly and then settled in at 17.5 points. I checked it about 3 or 4 times on Saturday to see if I ever saw it outside the predicted “17-to-19 range”. I never did.

Oh by the way, the Warriors won the game by 3 points and it took a 3-point shot in the final seconds to provide the margin of victory…

Finally, I cannot resist one more snarky observation by Brad Dickson in the Omaha World-Herald regarding the Pro Bowl game yesterday:

“Pro Bowl Sunday is to Super Bowl Sunday what National Pancake Day is to Christmas.”

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………