Conference Championship Weekend

OK, we have arrived at the weekend to decide the conference champions in the NFL.  Just because I enjoy embarrassing myself, here is what I predicted back in early September for the 4 teams left in the playoffs:

  • Jaguars:  6-10  last in the AFC South
  • Patriots:  13-3  first in the AFC East;  #1 seed in the AFC for the playoffs
  • Vikings:  9-7  2nd in the NFC North; not in the playoffs in the NFC
  • Eagles:  9-7  3rd in the NFC East; not in the playoffs in the NFC

So much for prognostication …

At 3:00 PM EST on Sunday, the Patriots host the Jaguars and the Patriots are 7.5-point favorites at home.  The Total Line for the game is 47 points.  The spread opened the week at 9 points and held steady there until news that Tom Brady “jammed his throwing hand” in practice and had to leave practice in mid-week.  That dropped the line quickly to 8 points and now to 7.5 points.  My assumption here is that unless Brady’s injury requires an amputation of his hand up to the middle of his “throwing forearm”, he will be on the field on Sunday.  Regarding trends against the spread and things of that nature, consider:

  • Pats have been favored in every game this year.  They are 12-5 against the spread.
  • The Jags are 10-8 against the spread and they are 4-2 against the spread as an underdog.
  • Tom Brady’s record against the Jags for his career is 7-0 straight up.

If you want to analyze this game from the standpoint of “experience”, please stop right here and declare that the Patriots are a mortal lock.

  • Bill Belichick has coached 37 NFL playoff games and won 27 of them.
  • Doug Marrone has coached 2 playoff games (this year) and won both of them.
  • Tom Brady has 5 Super Bowl rings.
  • Blake Bortles has played in 2 playoff games

There is no comparison between these teams if you base it on “who has been there before.”  So let me try to look a bit deeper into the game.  Notwithstanding the NFL’s 25-year focus on limiting defensive football to increase scoring and fan interest, this “final four” field is defensively dominant.  The Jags, Vikes and Eagles ranked first, second and third respectively in fewest points allowed per opponent’s possession in the regular season.  The Pats’ defense that was slammed from pillar to post back in September ranked a very respectable 6th in the league in that stat.  Defensive football has lots of stats associated with it and many of them are important indicators of defensive prowess; but the single most important thing a defensive unit can do is to minimize the number of points that the opponent scores in a game.  Any and all of the other stats one can create take a back seat here.  And these 4 teams are really good at preventing the “other guys” from scoring lots of points.

The Jags have arrived at this place in the season on the strength of their defense – and the strength of their pass defense in particular.  They rush the passer well and they have two excellent cover corners in Jalen Ramsey and AJ Bouye.  That Jags’ strength matches up well with the Pats’ offensive strength which is the passing game orchestrated by Tom Brady.  The big question/mismatch for the Jags is Rob Gronkowski.  The Jags’ best cover guy is one of the bigger guys they have in the secondary and that is Jalen Ramsey.  If the Jags choose to put Ramsey on Gronk, that could reduce Gronk’s big-play effectiveness, but it would mean playing Ramsey out of position and playing someone else in Ramsey’s normal position.  I will be interested to see how the Jags line up against the Pats in passing situations.

I do not expect Leonard Fournette to dominate the game; I assume that he is the weapon the Pats will take away from the Jags in the game.  However, I would watch out for TJ Yeldon as the other RB for the Jags.  He is a very different runner and pass catcher from Fournette and he may see a lot of action on Sunday.

I think the Patriots are the better team and that their playoff experience will assure total focus on the task at hand on Sunday.  I think the Pats will win the game, but that line looks fat to me.  My preference is to take the Jags plus the 7.5 points and to take the game to stay UNDER 47 points.

The Eagles and the Vikings are similar teams that have arrived here with the same sort of story.  Few prognosticators had either team winning their division this year; both teams have succeeded because of an outstanding defense; both teams are here missing their starting QB. The Vikes are 3.5-point favorites on the road in this game and the Total Line is at 39 points.  Here are some trends to consider in the game:

  • The Vikes are 11-6 against the spread and they are 8-5 when they are the favorite.
  • The Eagles are 11-6 against the spread and they are 4-2 as an underdog.
  • Case Keenum has played in 1 playoff game in his career (last week).
  • Nick Foles has played in 2 playoff games in his career.

I mention those QB stats because I believe this game will be decided by which of these two relatively inexperienced QBs reacts better to the defensive pressure they will be under.  Neither Keenum nor Foles is going to have an easy time of it; one of them will be more poised/less error-prone and that QB will be the one on the winning team.  Having said that, I believe that the head-to-head matchup that will determine the relative fate of these two QBs is this one:

  • Vikes’ DE, Everson Griffen versus Eagles’ LT, Halapoulivaati Vaitai.

Should both QBs be stressed out and the respective offensive coordinators turn to the running game, the Eagles have an advantage.  The Vikes’ tandem of Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon is a good one, but the Eagles can put 4 different running backs in the game and each brings a different dimension to the game.  The advantage there would be for the home team.

I like this as a venue pick.  The Eagles only lost one game at home this year and that was in Week 17 when they had already locked in their top-seed status and rested several starters.  I concur with the oddsmaker that this will be a low-scoring affair and I prefer to take points in those situations.  So, I’ll take the Eagles plus the 3.5 points here.

Finally, here is a comment regarding an NFL QB who is not in the playoffs this year by Dwight Perry of the Seattle Times:

“Packers QB Aaron Rodgers and race-car driver Danica Patrick were reportedly spotted out on a date at a Green Bay restaurant.

“Either that or they were just discussing the finer points of two-minute drives.”

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

 

 

A Wandering Mind …

We have reached that time of the year when news “leaks” out about the Super Bowl ads and what sorts of strategies advertisers will be using this year.  Frankly, all of the pre-game analysis of advertisements gives them an importance far beyond reality and, so I pay little attention to them.  However, this year, there is a wrinkle in the fabric of US culture that ought to make the advertisers and their creative counterparts in the agencies take note.

The adage has been that “Sex sells,” and indeed it has worked that way for at least a century.  However, it has been almost 4 months since the “Harvey Weinstein Story” broke and the #MeToo movement began gathering momentum.  That has been sufficient time for the ad agencies to adjust their pitches for this year because here are a couple of things I think we should not be seeing in Super Bowl ads in February 2018:

  1. If there is an ad with a scantily clad woman in it, the clothing had better be a bathing suit, the setting had better be a beach and the product had better be sunscreen.
  2. There should not be any ads of frat boys or construction workers ogling women – period.

Too bad we cannot return to the days of “Bud Bowl” and “Louie the Lizard” …

The LA Chargers played their games in a tiny venue this year while they await the finish of the extravagant stadium Stan Kroenke is building for the Rams and the Chargers.  It was obvious that the Chargers would play to the smallest home crowds in the league this year, but I wondered just how small the crowds turned out to be.

  • The Chargers drew 202,687 fans for their home games.  Average = 25,335.
  • The Bengals drew 426,207 fans for their home games.  Average = 53,275
  • The Raiders drew 462,201 fans for their home games.  Average = 57,775

OK, the Chargers drew less than half the number of people than did the next two lowest drawing NFL teams.  That average attendance is meager for many of the big-time college programs.  So, I wondered how the Chargers average attendance stacked up with some “mid-major college football programs”.  The answer is that some small-time school outdrew the Chargers:

  • Chargers drew an average of 25,335
  • Appalachian St. drew an average of 25,787
  • UAB drew an average of 26,375.
  • Air Force, Boise St., Colo. St., Fresno St. and San Diego St. outdrew the Chargers.
  • The Birmingham Bowl – two days before Christmas – drew 28,623.

The NFL announced recently that there will be only 3 “London Games” in 2018 – down from 4 of those games in 2017.  League officials quickly and pointedly said that this was not representative of cooling toward the London market; rather, the idea for this year is to have the three games take place on 3 successive weeks (Weeks 6-8) to see how that plays in the sporting world of the UK.  The Seahawks, Eagles and Titans will make their “European debuts” next year leaving only 3 NFL teams that have never been made to cross the pond.

One of the games will take place in the new stadium built in London for the Tottenham Hotspurs of the English Premier League.  This new stadium will have a feature that I have read about but would need to see it to understand it.  Per ESPN.com:

“The new Tottenham stadium will feature the world’s first dividing, retractable soccer pitch — with an artificial surface underneath that will be used for NFL games and concerts — and a dedicated NFL entrance. There will also be NFL-sized dressing rooms and dedicated NFL medical and media facilities, and the stadium has been designed to ensure the sight lines are as good for NFL as for soccer.”

I do not understand how the “dividing, retractable soccer pitch” is going to work or why there is a need for a “dedicated NFL entrance”.  The current plans call for the Raiders and Seahawks to play in the new stadium in Week 6 next year.  It will be worth getting up early to see that game just to get an idea how the new stadium works.

In the coach-shuffling season that happens every January/February, fans are happy to see coaches and assistant coaches leave town based on their team failing to “reach its potential”.  At the same time, the fans are happy to welcome the “new guy in town” who will surely “turn things around”.  Well, consider this comment from Greg Cote in the Miami Herald about a recent move by the Dolphins:

“Problem solved! Fins hire new offensive coordinator: The disappointing 6-10 Dolphins and coach Adam Gase demoted offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen after averaging only 17.6 points per game to rank 28th in the NFL. They replaced him with Dowell Loggains, whom the Bears just dismissed after Chicago averaged 16.5 points, ranking 29th. Well alrighty then!”

Finally, here is a word from Brad Dickson in the Omaha World-Herald:

“LeBron James turned 33 and has been in the league for 14 years. This is typically the point in his career when an NBA player witnesses his first traveling call.”

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

 

 

NFL Coach Strangeness

When NFL coaches are let go on Black Monday or soon thereafter, those coaches with teams in the playoffs are immune.  After all, they still have games to play and their presence in the playoffs normally means that their teams have done mostly good things over the course of the season.  When a team in the playoffs then wins a first-round game and moves on, the typical scenario is that the team moves forward with its head coach and may have to replace an assistant or two in the off-season.

That is not the case in Tennessee.  After the Titans made the playoffs – as a wild-card team – and then won their first-round game on the road over the Chiefs, they lost badly to the Patriots in the AFC Divisional Round.  And then, the Titans fired head coach Mike Mularkey citing a “failure to find common ground” on how to improve the Titans in the future.  I have no idea what that really means, but let me offer a couple of facts that should be germane to the decision the Titans made:

  1. Mularkey took over in the middle of the 2015 season.  In his 9 games in that season the Titans were 2-7; they finished at 3-13 for the 2015 season.  Combined with the 2014 season, the Titans were 5-27.  For comparison purposes, in the 2014/15 seasons, the Browns were 10-22 and the Jags were 8-24.  When Mike Mularkey finished his season as the interim coach of the Titans it was a bad team.
  2. In each of the last two seasons, Mularkey and the Titans posted a 9-7 record.  They missed the playoffs in 2016 but made it this year and won a wild-card game.  Oh, by the way, this is the first time the Titans have been in the playoffs since 2008.
  3. It is not as if winning a playoff game is commonplace for the Titans.  The last playoff victory came in 2003 and Steve McNair was the QB for that team.

I do not mean to anoint Mike Mularkey as some sort of nascent coaching legend; but considering his 2.5 years with the Titans, it would seem as if he had something going in the right direction.  Even the blowout loss to the Patriots is not as bad as it might look.  Oddsmakers had the line on the game set at 13.5 points and that is a huge spread for any playoff game.  The expectation was for the Pats to win handily – – and that is what happened.

The Titans should be attractive to assistant coaches looking to move up the coaching ladder.  They have a young franchise QB that is developing; they have two stud running backs; they have a solid defensive unit that ranks in the middle of the league in yards per game and in points per game.  If I were such a candidate, I would worry only about the rational decision making of the “head shed”.  I would be cognizant of what Mularkey did with a bad team and how he was fired because of a “failure to find common ground” and I would surely want to know what sort of “common ground” I was supposed to find and maintain.

I look at the firing of the head coach in Tennessee after a bad playoff loss and then turn my gaze to Pittsburgh where the Steelers lost a game in a far worse fashion than did the Titans and the coach is seemingly bullet-proof.  Let me state without qualification:

  1. When the Pittsburgh Steelers score 42 points in a home game, they are supposed to win that game.
  2. When the Pittsburgh Steelers allow 45 points to an opponent in Heinz Field, the QB they are facing is not supposed to be of the caliber of Blake Bortles.

Indeed, there were some strange play calls for the Steelers along the way and I personally would not have tried an onside kick with a little over 2 minutes left in the game.  Having said that, there was something missing from the Steelers’ players on the field last weekend and yet there is no real pressure that has been put on Mike Tomlin or his staff.

Jason Whitlock on Speak For Yourself yesterday suggested that Mike Tomlin is a black head coach of a team owned by the Rooney’s who are the champions of the “Rooney Rule” that mandates interviewing minority coaches for openings.  He said that makes it difficult for the team to fire Mike Tomlin for anything as nebulous as what happened last weekend.  After all, the Steelers did post a 13-3 record in the regular season this year.

I am not ready to go as far as Jason Whitlock has gone here.  I am surprised, however, that offensive coordinator, Todd Haley has not received nearly as much criticism as I think he deserves for some of his play calls during the game.  I am not saying he should be fired; but he did pull some strange plays from his play sheet in that game.

Since I am on the topic of NFL coaches today, let me go from the top end of the ladder to the bottom rung.  Hue Jackson is retained as the coach of the Cleveland Browns despite a winless season in 2017 and a combined 2-year record of 1-31.  Let me be clear; the Browns lost all those games because the Browns’ roster was not competitive with the rest of the league; Hue Jackson did not make his squad massively overachieve but even if they had massively overachieved, the cumulative record might have been 6-26.  Notwithstanding the bad hand he was dealt, Hue Jackson – and the Browns’ Front Office – need to step up their game to avoid seeing Jackson descend into what I call “Rick Venturi Territory”.  Consider:

  • Venturi coached the Indy Colts to a 1-10 record.
  • Venturi coached the New Orleans Saints to a 1-7 record.
  • Venturi coached the Northwestern Wildcats to a 1-31-1 record.
  • Cumulative coaching record is 3-48-1.

The only thing saving Hue Jackson from being awarded the “Venturi Medal” today is that he also has one year as the head coach in Oakland where the Raiders went 8-8.  However, another 1-15 record in Cleveland next year would make his Browns’ record look very “Venturi-like” …

Finally, here are two comments from sports writers regarding an overseas election:

“Former soccer superstar George Weah, 51, has been elected president of Liberia.

“Which certainly puts a whole new spin on the expression ‘voting with your feet’.”  [Dwight Perry, Seattle Times]

And …

“George Weah, a former soccer star, has been elected president of Liberia.

“He isn’t planning on issuing pink slips to anyone hired by the previous administration, just red cards.”  [Brad Rock, Deseret News]

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

 

 

The Hot Stove League 2017 …

I want to talk about something other than the NFL this morning – not because there is nothing concerning the NFL to talk about but because I have spent too much time on that area of the sports world recently.  So, let me take a look at MLB’s Hot Stove League action.

Given the fact that pitchers and catchers will start to report to MLB Spring training camps in less than 4 weeks, what I am actually looking at is MLB’s Hot Stove League inactivity.  When I checked yesterday, there were still 155 MLB free agents who have not signed with any team yet.  With 30 MLB teams as the only landing spots for those free agents, that means the average team will need to sign about 5 free agents in the next month.  I doubt seriously that there are that many openings in MLB.  [Aside:  By my count, 58 free agents have already signed new deals meaning that only 27% of the free agents as of November 2017 know where they will be playing next season.]

Let me focus on outfielders as an example – simply because that is what I started counting yesterday.  By my tally, there are between 32 and 35 outfielders out there as free agents.  The reason there is uncertainty is that for some free agents, it is difficult to tell what position they might fill for a team in 2018.  As an example, Mark Trumbo is on the list.

  • Is Mark Trumbo an outfielder?
  • Is Mark Trumbo a DH?
  • Is Mark Trumbo a first baseman?

I counted him as an outfielder because I did.  Recognizing again that there are only 30 MLB teams to provide major league contracts to those 32-35 outfielders, that means every team would need to sign an outfielder in the next month.  The fact is that there are teams out there whose outfield positions are already set, and those teams would have no interest in another outfielder.  As one example, consider the Boston Red Sox:

  • Starters are Andrew Benintendi, Mookie Bets and Jackie Bradley.  That is not going to change unless one of them is the victim of an alien abduction.
  • Bryce Brentz is the probable 4th outfielder based on performance and the fact that his last name begins with the letter “B”.
  • I doubt that Mark Trumbo fits into that roster.  So, I do not see how the matrix of talent still out there is going to match up with team needs/wants.  And that is just one issue…

Another issue is the new way that the luxury tax is computed.  It used to be simple but in the current CBA the two sides must have decided to get fancy when it comes to the CBA.  I am not going to try to summarize all the nuances of the MLB “luxury tax” here but here is a link to Wikipedia on the subject.  This gives you the entire history of the luxury tax if you are interested but if you scroll down to the section labeled “2002 – Present”, you will see what the current tax regimen is.

The bottom line is that there is a significant financial incentive for MLB teams to get under the luxury tax threshold this year in anticipation of the Hot Stove League activities next winter.  Absent some shocking developments, these three players will headline the show of free agents next year:

  • Bryce Harper
  • Clayton Kershaw – assuming he opts out of his deal as he should from a financial standpoint
  • Manny Machado

I listed them alphabetically there because I do not want to make distinctions among those three as to which one is the “best player”; the answer is that all of them are outstanding and all of they are going to get a ton of money next year.  But the teams with hefty payrolls now who have been playing luxury tax need to get under the threshold now or their luxury tax payments – should they go wild and sign one of these mega-deals – would be significant even to teams like the Dodgers or the Yankees.

When I took an economics course in college, we covered the Law of Supply and Demand.  In a situation where supply is well beyond demand, this law says that prices will fall.  That seems to be the case with the 58 free agents who have already signed contracts for next year.  This winter, 3-year deals in the range of $38M – $60M have been struck – – but there are only a handful of them.  Players signing 1-year deals are getting between $2M and $6M generally.  The biggest contract signed so far – in terms of total value to the player – is:

  • Carlos Santana  He signed a 3-year deal with the Phillies worth a total of $60M.  He is 31 years old and plays first base.

Moving on … there are times when I read a report and think to myself that this is a good and noble thing these folks are doing but I have no idea how what they just did will change much of anything.  For example, if I read that the Interfaith Council of Beaglebreath NE issued a proclamation stating that peace is better than war, I would agree with that sentiment and pay no more attention to it.  I would file that proclamation under “F” for “Feckless”.

Recently, there was an AP report saying that the leaders of the players unions from MLB, NFL, NHL and NBA have joined with the heads of almost 100 unions to present a Universal Declaration of Players’ Rights.  Cue SNL’s church Lady here:

“Well, isn’t that SPE-cial?”

Among the universal player rights, evidently, are:

  1. The right to unionize and collectively bargain.  [Wonder who among the 100 unions participating here threw that one on the table for consideration.]
  2. Equal pay for equal work.  [Good luck here.  What is the metric for “equal work” between a hockey defenseman and an NBA point guard?]
  3. The right to express opinions freely.  [Unless of course you play for the Patriots and think Bill Belichick made a bad decision on third-and-short in the 2nd quarter last week.]

All of those are worthy goals.  The first and the third are pretty much in place now and the second one is likely to come about around the same time as the achievement of world peace with the elimination of world hunger.  However, I am certain that everyone felt very good after that presentation.

Finally, here is a comment from Brad Dickson in the Omaha World-Herald:

“After a collision, New York Ranger Jimmy Vesey played most of a game with two teeth embedded in his lower lip. It’s not as gross as it sounds — he’s pretty sure one of the teeth is his.”

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

 

 

RIP Keith Jackson

Keith Jackson died last weekend at the age of 89. If you are a fan of college football and if you are over the age of 25, you must know that he was an icon of the sport as the play-by-play announcer for many of the major college football games of the latter part of the 20th century. He began his career in 1952; he retired – for the second time – after the 2005 season by calling the Texas/USC Rose Bowl game that gave Vince Young and that Texas team the national championship.

Keith Jackson was also the first play-by-play announcer on Monday Night Football before Frank Gifford took that gig.  Jackson also did some basketball broadcasting and the Olympics; but college football was where he was most recognized.  He coined the phrase “The Big House” for Michigan’s stadium and “The Big Uglies” for offensive line units.  However, the best way to remember Keith Jackson is simply to intone:

“Whoa, Nellie!”

Rest in peace, Keith Jackson.

All sports fans love championships and championship games.  However, it is commonplace for the best time of a season to be just prior to the championship event itself.  In March Madness, the Final Four Weekend is great – – but truth be told, I think the weekend where the Sweet 16 cuts down to the final Four is even better.  The games that weekend are good; the teams playing on that weekend are good; there are 12 games not just a handful; that is a great weekend of sports for fans.

The NFL playoffs are similarly constructed.  I do not mean to denigrate any of the playoffs at all; but for me, the best weekend is the Divisional Round.  There are 4 games to be seen and the 4 games almost always involve the best teams from the previous season.  It is not like Super Bowl weekend where there is only 1 game; this weekend gives fans a 4-game smorgasbord.

Last weekend’s NFL Divisional round was a great weekend to watch football.  Take your rooting interests out of the equation and what you saw were 3 interesting/exciting games and 1 game that was not particularly riveting but was instructive.  Let me go through the menu:

  • Eagles 15 Falcons 10:  This game was a win for the Eagles’ defense.  They held a very good Falcons’ offense to 10 points and made the big plays when they needed to be made.  Nick Foles was quietly efficient gaining 8.2 yards per pass attempt and not throwing any INTs.  The Eagles’ offense deserves praise for that efficiency and lack of shooting itself in the foot, but do not get carried away and say that the Eagles’ offense “carried the day”.  I don’t know if the Eagles’ defensive strategy was to nullify Devonta Freeman, but they certainly did just that.  Freeman carried the ball 10 times for 7 yards and his long gain for the day was a 3-yard carry.  The game outcome was in doubt from start to finish.  Falcons’ fans and Falcons’ backers at the betting window may hate the outcome, but the game was a good one.
  • Patriots 35 Titans 14:  After the Titans took a 7-0 lead at the end of the first quarter, the Patriots shifted out of neutral and put their offense into overdrive.  By the middle of the 4th quarter, the score was 35-7 and everything was on cruise control.  The Titans had to have had a defensive game plan, but it cannot have been to “neutralize Danny Amendola”.  Tom Brady and Amendola connected on 11 completions for 112 yards.  When you add in Rob Gronkowski’s 6 catches for 81 yards and a TD, this was a passing clinic put on by the Patriots.  The Pats converted 11 of 17 third-down situations and sacked Titans’ QB, Marcus Mariota, 8 times.  This was not a nail-biter of a game, but it was instructive to watch.
  • Jags 45 Steelers 42:  This was the shocker of the weekend.  The Jags scored all of 10 points last week against the Bills and were all- out to do that.  Here they marched up and down the field and made defensive plays to set up or score 14 points and they kicked the Steelers to the curb.  Leonard Fournette is the real deal folks; you ignore him or minimize your concern about him at your own peril.  People talk about the defensive line for the Jags and its moniker of “Sacksonville”; frankly, I am much more impressed with their two cornerbacks, Jalen Ramsey and AJ Bouye.  There was one aspect of this game that I did not like.  There was far too much posturing and posing by both teams after routine plays; I think the officials could have been much more assertive to put a lid on that nonsense.
  • Vikes 29 Saints 24:  You almost had to see this game to believe it.  The Vikes dominated the first half and the Saints could hardly get out of their own way.  In the second half, Drew Brees played like the Hall of Fame QB he is sure to be, and the Saints led 24-23 with less than a minute to play.  That set up a final play 61-yard TD pass from Case Keenum to Stefan Diggs that you just have to see for yourself on the Internet if you did not see it live on TV.  It is beyond my expository skills to do it justice.

The early lines for next week’s Championship Round games are already up.  The Vikes are road favorites by 3.5 points over the Eagles with a Total Line of only 38 points.  Meanwhile, the Pats are 9-point favorites at home over the Jags with a Total Line of 46 points.  In the NFC, it is interesting to look at the QBs still in action.

  • Case Keenum and Nick Foles are “journeymen” and “backups” and fill-ins” in the parlance of NFL QBs.  Neither is considered anywhere near “elite”.  Nonetheless they are the two left standing in the NFC.
  • Drew Brees is a future Hall of Fame QB.  He and his team are home watching on TV.
  • Matt Ryan and Cam Newton are previous NFL MVP winners.  They and their teams are out.
  • Jared Goff was an overall #1 pick in a recent NFL Draft.  He and his team are looking ahead to next year.

Finally, Keith Jackson’s calls were always associated with college football bowl games that mattered; he did not do any of the games played before Christmas.  In that light, here is a commentary on the myriad college bowl games that exist today from Brad Dickson in the Omaha World-Herald:

“There’s a term for people who watch all 40 or so bowls every year. That term is ‘divorced’.”

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

 

 

NFL Divisional Round Games

It is a “Football Friday” and we are up to the Divisional round of the NFL Playoffs – – so what else would you expect here besides my game comments and some picks?  Well, anything else you might expect will just have to wait…

In the Saturday afternoon game, the Falcons travel to play the Eagles and the Falcons are 3-point favorites on the road over the Eagles.  This is the first time ever where an #1 seed has hosted a Divisional round game against any lower-seeded opponent as an underdog.  The basis for this one-time event can be stated in two words:

  • Nick Foles

The Eagles were tearing it up with Carson Wentz under center; they were the betting favorites to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.  When Wentz was injured, Foles replaced him in Los Angeles and played very well to preserve a victory in that game.  The next week, Nick Foles played very well against the Giants – – but then he was less-than-wonderful against the Raiders and was “deer-in-the-headlights-bad” against the Cowboys in Week 17.  The oddsmakers seem convinced that “mediocre-at-best” Nick Foles will come out of the tunnel in Philly this weekend.

  • Before going overboard in laying the wood to Nick Foles, remember that in his last stint with the Eagles, he played a full season where he threw 27 TD passes and only 2 INTs.  If THAT Nick Foles shows up on Saturday, the Eagles will be more than merely competitive.

If the Eagles are to win this game and advance, they will need to lean heavily on their running game and mix things up with Jay Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount and Corey Clement.  If they do not make the Falcons respect and play the run, I think the Eagles’ fans are in for a long and unpleasant day.  I see this game as a low-scoring affair; in such cases, I tend to want to take the points.  So, I’ll take the Eagles plus 3 points.

In the Saturday night game, the Patriots host the Titans and the Pats are 13.5-point favorites at home.  While the Pats were taking a week off and stories blossomed about a rift at the top of the organization, the Titans ran their way to this game by beating the Chiefs with a furious comeback.  Lots of folks have lauded Marcus Mariota for his game last week – including a pass to himself for a TD after it was batted back to him by a defender.  Frankly, I think the deciding factor in that game was the running by Derrick Henry; he bulldozed his way for 156 yards in that game.  Now, if you look at the season stats as a whole, you will likely think that Henry will do at least that well this week against the Pats whose run defense was 31st in the NFL in yards per attempt by the opponent.  However, those season stats may be misleading because the Pats’ defense was HORRIBLE in September and significantly better since then.

Looking solely at the defense and the scores allowed by the defense only, that unit for the Pats turned the corner in early October.  Since then, the Pats’ defense has only given up more than 20 points twice; in all the other games, they have yielded 17 points or less.  So, maybe Derrick Henry will gain a lot of yards and that will lead to nothing but a bunch of field goals for the Titans.  If that is the case, that will not auger will for the Titans because it is not difficult to see the Pats scoring 27-33 points in this contest.  I hate double-digit spreads in NFL games, so I will take this game to stay UNDER the Total Line of 48 points.

In the early Sunday afternoon game, the Steelers host the Jags and the Steelers are 7-point favorites at home.  On October 8, 2017 (Week 5), the Jags went to Pittsburgh and dominated the Steelers by a score of 30-9.  In that game, Ben Roethlisberger threw 5 INTs for the only time in his career.  That game was an organized ass-kicking perpetrated by the Jags.  So, how can the Steelers possibly be favored?

  • That game was LeVeon Bell’s first game back from his suspension.
  • The Steelers are a prideful team; they think they owe one to the Jags.
  • Ben Roethlisberger is the Steelers QB; Blake Bortles is the Jags’ QB.

Last week in the Jags’ win over the Bills, Blake Bortles was 12 for 23 for 87 yards and that stat line made him a “winning QB” in a playoff game.  Back in October when the Jags beat the Steelers, Bortles’ stat line was 8 for 14 for 95 yards.  The oddsmaker does not think that kind of output from the Jags’ passing game will get it done this week – – and I agree with that.  Here is the only statistical category where the Steelers are significantly weak for a playoff team:

  • In Red Zone defense, the Steelers give up a TD to their opponent 62% of the time.  If my calculations are correct, that is worse than the Red Zone TD percentage allowed by the Browns.  Yowza!

The oddsmaker has this game at Steelers – 7 and a Total Line of 41.  I like the Steelers to win and cover and I like the game to go OVER.

In the final game of the weekend late on Sunday afternoon, the Vikes host the Saints and the Vikes are 5-point favorites.  If you look at the Vikes’ defense and their recent stats, you might wonder how the total Line could possibly be as high as 46 points.  In their last 3 games of the season the Vikes defense allowed a total of 17 points.  It is hard to lose an NFL game when the defense only gives up 5.7 points per game – – notwithstanding the Eagles’ loss to the Cowboys by a score of 6-0.  Look a little deeper at the Vikes’ last three games:

  • Bengals scored 7 points in a dispirited effort.  Andy Dalton was the opposing QB.
  • Packers scored 0 points.  Brett Hundley was the opposing QB.
  • Bears scored 10 points.  Mitchell Trubisky was the opposing QB.

None of those 3 opposing QBs in the previous 3 games has shown any reason to consider them as “Hall of Fame Material”.  Let me be clear here; Drew Brees is indeed going to be in the Hall of Fame and it should well be on the first ballot where he is eligible.  The Vikes have an excellent defense; but in this game, they are going up against a real offense and not a makeshift offense.

No matter who wins this game, I believe that team will represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.  I happen to think that the Saints are the most complete team left in the NFC, so I will take them plus the points here.

In case you are wondering, you can find the Saints at between +190 and +200 on the Money Line at various sportsbooks in Las Vegas.  If I were in Vegas this weekend, I would probably play a 4-team Money Line parlay with the Falcons, Pats, Steelers and Saints.  If my calculations are correct, a $100 wager on that parlay at current Money Line odds would yield $395 in profit.

Finally, for reasons that escape me, the betting lines for the Pro Bowl game are already posted.  There is no way that I will watch the Pro Bowl game so there is certainly no reason to wager on it.  However, the fact that it will happen a week from now and that the betting lines are available leads me to alert you to this comment from Brad Dickson in the Omaha World-Herald:

“Richie Incognito has been named to the Pro Bowl. Finally a reason to watch a Pro Bowl: to see if the offensive guard bites anyone.”

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

 

 

The Future Of The NFL – Conflicting Data

Sometimes you receive conflicting data; and in such circumstances, you need to avoid leaping to a conclusion that you prefer to be the case because some of that data point in that direction.  In the early days of 2018, the “future of football” as the “dominant sports focus” in the US is the subject of much scrutiny.  Lots of different people have totally opposing views on what will happen to football as a sport – and the dominance of the NFL very specifically – in the coming decades.  For those who believe that football has an ominous future, consider:

  1. Nielson reports that NFL TV ratings were down 9.7% over the course of the 2017 regular season.  That translates to an average of 1.6 million fewer people watching a typical NFL game this year as opposed to 2016.
  2. This drop comes on the heels of an 8% drop in ratings/viewership in 2016 that was “explained away” by extraneous factors such as Presidential debates; this year, the “issue du jour” was the National Anthem Protest.
  3. Undeniably, lots of people are “cutting the cord” and that means fewer people can have access to all the games.
  4. Fewer kids are playing youth football (from “ankle-biters” through high school) nationally.  Some estimates say the drop from 2016 to 2017 is approaching 20%.  The interpretation here is that fewer young players will eventually result in fewer adult fans who will passionately follow the games.

If you do not like football for any reason or if you feel some compulsion to be a Cassandra on its future, you can look at any or all of those data and use it to lead yourself to the point where you believe the NFL is about to implode.  And – hold your breath here – you may be correct!   Then again, you may be dead wrong because there are conflicting data and other ways to interpret the data cited above.

Let me start with #4 above.  I have no reason to doubt that fewer kids are playing football now than in recent years and that concern by parents over things like CTE and player safety are significant contributors to the decline.  I resonate with those injury concerns because I held those concerns as a parent myself.

  • When #1 son was about 8 years old, he wanted to be a football player.  I would not allow him to play youth football; I was not so concerned about CTE; I was worried about permanent injuries to his joints which had not completely formed at that age.  I told him he could play once he got to 9th grade and not before.  My adamancy here was a bone of contention between me and my son for years.
  • My son now has a son of his own (age 10) and my grandson has not been part of any football activities.  Moreover, my son now holds the position that HIS son will never play football at any time until my grandson is of an age to make decisions independent of his parents.  Where you stand on any issue depends on where you are sitting at the moment…

The issue of the future of football, however, is not linearly linked to youth participation.  My grandson LOVES to watch televised NFL games and he follows the teams and the players league-wide as only an enthusiastic 10-year old fan will.  Projecting to the future, this non-participant in youth football will be a future consumer of televised NFL games.  I do not want to make future projections based on only one kid who happens to be related to me, so let me consider the linkage of “participation” with “fandom” and “viewership” through a different lens.

For years – even multiple decades – people have been telling me that the significant increases in youth participation in soccer in the US will make professional soccer in the US explode.  Indeed, more kids play soccer now than ever before.  More telling is the fact that the number of girls playing youth soccer has increased almost 30-fold over the past 20 years.  And none of that has translated into a fanbase for soccer – men’s or women’s – that is anything more than a rounding error when estimating the NFL fanbase.  I believe there is only a tenuous linkage between “playing a sport as a kid” and “being a fan of the sport as an adult”.

Now let me point out some data that will be refreshing to those who think football is omnipotent and that it will be the “the king of US sporting world” forever and ever.

  • While ratings on TV shows may be down, actual viewership may be up.  TV ratings are just that; they are measures of how many folks are watching games on the telecasts by the networks.  Some people now watch NFL Red Zone instead of individual games; those numbers are not captured.  [Aside:  I happen to HATE NFL Red Zone; I will watch it if my only option is to watch an infomercial for acne medicine, but that’s it.]  Similarly, the number of people who tune into NFL Network to get updates on all the Sunday games as they are in progress are not counted here.
  • Notwithstanding the ratings decrease, Nielsen ratings showed that 20 of the top 30 TV shows in 2017 were football games.  For all the networks that telecast games (CBS, ESPN, FOX and NBC), NFL football games were the highest rated programs on each network all year long.
  • Sunday Night Football (NBC) was the highest rated prime time TV program in 2017 for the 7th year in a row.  By the way, the second highest rated prime time TV program last year was Thursday Night Football (CBS).
  • According to mediapost.com, advertising revenues paid to the networks for NFL games through Week 15 of the regular season was up 16% to $3.7B.  That figure does not include added revenues to NFL Network and added revenues to the NFL from the “digital/mobile transmission sector”.  As of now, the league and its TV partners are all “getting fat”.

I have been on Planet Earth long enough – and I am sufficiently realistic – to recognize that nothing is permanent and times change.  When I was a kid, the plum assignments for sports writers in newspapers were boxing, horse racing and baseball.  Today, you would be hard-pressed to find a newspaper that has a boxing writer or a horse racing writer of any kind.  In fact, my local paper – The Washington Post – does not even publish the entries or the results of the local tracks except for Preakness Weekend at Pimlico.

When I was a kid, baseball dominated pro football and overshadowed college football in most of the country.  Not intending any disrespect to MLB at all, but that is simply no longer the case.  I make these observations to note that the same thing might happen to football and the NFL 50 years from now.  I have no crystal ball; I am not Cassandra nor am I Pollyanna.

What I think is important for all of us to avoid is coming to a conclusion about the future/fate of the NFL and football as an activity and then finding data to support our previously drawn conclusion while ignoring all other data.  Now that I mention it, maybe that is a good behavior model for everyone to emulate as they evaluate more important things than the future of football in our world – – like maybe social reforms and political candidates and “family values”.

Just saying …

Finally, when you think about “fandom” in its most rabid forms, consider this comment from Greg Cote in the Miami Herald last weekend:

“USA Today speculated the Dolphins as a possible landing spot for Tom Brady should the Patriots dynasty come apart. Hmm. Is wishing and hoping for a QB who’ll be 41 next season not its own form of sadness?”

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

 

 

NFL Coaches And Coaching In The NFL

Today I want to focus on coaching and coaches in the NFL.  We have gone through Black Monday; teams are interviewing new coaching candidates and the Raiders have signed Jon Gruden.  So, let me begin with the general idea of Black Monday and coaching changes.

Firing a coach and/or a coaching staff may be a smart football decision, or it may also be nothing more than a PR-based temporizing move by a team to buy time with the fanbase who – more than likely – thinks that the players on the team are a lot better than they have shown on the field.  Fans tend to over-value the players on their teams and somehow think that the coach(es) have impaired them from showing their greatness.  Most of time, that thinking is delusional.  All too often a new coach comes in with a new “philosophy” and a new staff and the results are not all that much better.  In that circumstance, the team often fires the new coach(es) and moves on to an even newer coach to appease the fans because:

  • It is easier to fire a bunch of coaches and to pay them off than to fire the 30-40 below average players on a losing team and to replace them all at once.

Therein lies the reason why Black Monday is an annual event in the NFL.  Fans pay the freight for the NFL teams, so owners have to keep them from bailing out on the team.  Fans always want to see the last move made by the team as the one that will “turn the corner” but their emotional attachment to the team prevents them from asking themselves critical questions such as:

  • If the owner has failed to hire “the right coach(es)” the last couple of times the team stunk out the joint, why would anyone suspect he will get it right this time around?

I know; even the blind squirrel finds the nut occasionally…

That brings me to the Raiders and Jon Gruden.  Even before he was officially signed, some media pundits wondered aloud how he would transition back to the sidelines after being in the broadcasting booth for a decade or so.  Obviously, we will not know the answer to that question for a couple of years, but I do offer one precedent that should put a smile on the faces of Raiders’ fans:

  • Dick Vermeil

In the early 1980s, Vermeil left the NFL coaching business citing “burnout” and took his talents to the broadcasting booth for about 15 years.  He and Brent Mussberger did a ton of college football games over the years and then Vermeil went back to the NFL as the coach of the Rams where he “oversaw” “The Greatest Show on Turf” and won a Super Bowl.  For Raiders’ fans, that mental image is lots better than “sugar plums dancing in their heads”.

Now, let me offer two cautionary precedents for Raiders’ fans to acknowledge lest they get way out ahead of themselves in their enthusiasm:

  1. Joe Gibbs won 3 Super Bowls in Washington and then resigned to take up NASCAR racing.  His time with the Skins got him elected to the Hall of Fame.  Then after being away a little more than a decade, he came back to the Skins for “Gibbs 2.0” and produced a record of 30-34 over 4 seasons.
  2. Art Shell coached the Raiders from 1989 to 1994; his record then was 54-38; the team made the playoffs 3 times in that period.  Then in 2006, the Raiders brought him back after two down years under Norv Turner and Shell’s record then was 2-14.  That performance was so bad, the Raiders sacked him after that one season to bring in – wait for it – Lane Kiffin.

I was in Ireland when the signing of Gruden was made official.  There is some enthusiasm for American football there but there is no access to ESPN or anything like NFL Network there.  I say that to acknowledge that my information about the details of all this is not what it would have been had I been home at the time.  However, I do want to say something about the announced terms of “10 years and $100M”.

  • If indeed, this is a 10-year deal with the entirety of that $100M guaranteed, then Jon Gruden’s agent deserves god-like status in the Universe of Agents.  Or …
  • Mark Davis is the biggest gambler since Amarillo Slim.

I am skeptical that Gruden will make $10M per year for the next 10 years no matter what.  The NFL – and the agents who negotiate contracts with NFL teams – have perfected the art of what I call “The Ego Stroking Contract”.  Lots of times a huge NFL deal is announced where the player is linked to an astronomical amount of money except:

  • Only about half of that money is guaranteed
  • Most of the “unguaranteed money” is back loaded into the last 2 years of the deal.

Is that the case with Gruden’s contract?  Obviously, I have not seen the contract and never will.  However, it would not surprise me to learn that it had a structure along these lines.

  • Years 1-5 have salaries of $5M, $5M, $6M, $7M, $7M for a total of $30M.  All of that is guaranteed money and there is probably some sort of bonus structure in there for winning the AFC Championship and/or the Super Bowl in any of those years.
  • After Year 5, the Raiders can buy him out of the contract (that is management-speak for fire him) if they pay him $20M cold cash.  That makes the total guaranteed money equal $50M.
  • If he stays with the team after Year 5, the salary structure would be $14M per year for each of the 5 remaining seasons.

Any way you look at it, that is a very long contract for an NFL coach and a very lucrative one indeed.  But I would be surprised if in fact Jon Gruden’s financial advisor(s) can mark down in India Ink an input of $10 per year for the next 10 years as a guaranteed revenue stream.

The final issue for the day is the supposed “rift” that exists among the three most visible figures associated with the New England Patriots – Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and Robert Kraft.  Once again, I cannot pretend to know what is going on inside that organization; what I can say is that some of the things that have transpired with that team over the past year or so does not seem to be aligned with “The Patriot Way”.

Chronologically, the first strange event was the trade of QB Jacoby Brissett to the Colts at the start of the 2017 season for WR Philip Dorsett.  This was strange for a lot of reasons to include:

  1. The Colts were desperate for a QB at the time.  Andrew Luck’s shoulder had not healed, and the Colts knew that; Scott Tolzein was to be the starter and – as everyone saw right away in Week 1 – that was going to be a disaster.  So, the Colts were over a barrel …
  2. The Pats got a WR they really did not need who appeared in 15 games for them this year and caught 12 passes for 194 yards and 0 TDs.

That is a meager return indeed for a player who was virtually certain to be a starting QB for the Colts somewhere in the 2017 season.

Making that trade even more of a head-scratcher is the fact that the “other backup QB” on the roster – Jimmy Garoppolo – was on the final year of his rookie contract and who had shown enough promise in a couple starts in 2016 to be highly coveted around the league.  The Pats’ coaches had to know that AND they had to know the extent of this skills since they saw him in practice every day.  At the time of the Brissett trade, they had to know that there was going to be a problem signing Garoppolo at the end of the 2017 season for two obvious reasons:

  1. He obviously would prefer to be with a team where he can be the starting QB instead of the backup QB and Tom Brady has said he wants to play until he is 45.
  2. Other teams would offer him big-time money and the Pats would be hard-pressed to match those offers because they already have lots of money committed to the QB position in Brady’s deal.

So, back in September, Bill Belichick made a deal to give away what would be his backup QB next year in the case that Garoppolo left for a player he did not need and did not use.  That is not a typical Bill Belichick move…

That put the Pats in the situation where they traded Garoppolo at the trade deadline for a 2nd round pick in 2018.  That was a situation where the Pats needed to make a deal to get something for him in lieu of nothing for him.  My guess is that they made the deal with the Niners because the Pats only need to play the Niners once every 4 years and they knew/know that Garoppolo is going to become a formidable opponent.  And if there is indeed a “rift” within the Pats’ organization, I think the trade of Garoppolo is the culmination.

The far more consistent move for Bill Belichick to have made in the time between the 2016 and 2017 seasons would have been:

  • Go to Robert Kraft and tell him that 2017 has to be Tom Brady’s last year in New England because the team should not lose touch with Jimmy Garoppolo.  Brady is 40 years old; he wants to play to 45 and he may even be able to do that.  Nonetheless, Garoppolo is only 26 years old and is probably going to be an excellent QB for at least the next 10 years.
  • Remember, Belichick is the guy who “ditched” the established Drew Bledsoe in favor of Tom Brady to launch Brady’s career.  He saw the innate talent in Brady and he saw the age differential there.  Now, in 2016/2017, I am supposed to believe he cannot see the same thing?
  • Remember, Belichick is also the guy who gets rid of players nominally in their prime because they do not fit with what his vision is for the team – such as Ty Law and Richard Seymour.  The common narrative is that Belichick gets rid of players a year before their expiration date instead of a year after their expiration date.  However, nothing like that seems to have happened here…

So, how did it happen that Bill Belichick suddenly changed his view on how to build and structure a winning football team?  I certainly do not know how or why, but I will say that one potential way for this to happen is that Belichick has not changed his views, but that Robert Kraft would not go along with any scenario wherein this would be Tom Brady’s last season with the Pats unless it was Brady’s decision to retire that caused the separation.  That might explain the reported “rift”.  Other than that, I got nuthin…

One last comment here…  For a brief moment, there was some thought that Belichick might leave the Pats and wind up coaching the Giants next year.  If that were to occur, there would be 3 NFL teams cheering and 1 NFL team left in a very worried state:

  • The 3 cheering teams would be the 3 “other teams” in the AFC East.  The Bills, Dolphins and Jets would be happy not to have to continue to chase a Bill Belichick directed Pats’ team every year.
  • The worried team would be the Skins.  If Belichick took over the Giants, that would put the Skins in a division with Belichick in NY, Carson Wentz in Philly and the Prescott/Elliott tandem in Dallas.

Finally, since I spent a lot of time talking about coaches today, here is a comment from Brad Dickson in the Omaha World-Herald regarding the hiring of Scott Frost to return to Nebraska as their head football coach:

“How much interest is there in the Husker program now that Scott Frost has been hired? A crowd of 92,000 is expected. That’s just at the next Big Red Breakfast.

“Frost has been named Home Depot coach of the year [at UCF for 2017]. That’s the award where the trophy is placed atop a really high shelf.”

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

 

 

Wild-Card Weekend In Review

Sorry; I misspoke last week.  Actually, I miscalculated when I said that I would be in transit today; tomorrow is the day of transit and the lack of a rant.  So, let me take a moment here to review the NFL Wild Card games from the weekend.

There were some interesting times over the weekend, but none of the games were “epic” or “games for the ages”.  Frankly, that is not all that surprising because there were too many flawed teams on display to allow for that.  The Jags/Bills game would be a perfect example of what I mean here.

  • The game was always in doubt.  On every possession by each team for the full 60 minutes, the team with the ball had the opportunity to tie the score or take the lead.  Normally, that keeps me “on the edge of my chair”; in this game it made me wonder what the team with the ball would do to avoid scoring any points.

The Saints/Panthers game was sort of the reverse of the Jags/Bills.  These teams showed the ability to move the ball and to play enough defense to prevent the game from becoming a travesty.  If you watch both games, you will clearly recognize the difference in quarterback competency demonstrated by the Brees/Newton tandem as compared to the Bortles/Taylor tandem.

The Titans/Chiefs game featured a furious comeback win by the Titans – – or a typical choke-it-away loss by the Chiefs at home in a playoff game depending on your point of view.  The game featured some injuries that took key players out of the contest for significant parts of the game and it featured some strange officiating decisions.

  • The TV execs and the NFL folks who focus on TV ratings are looking at next weekend’s games and are praying for certain outcomes.  It is possible – although not likely according to the oddsmakers – that the AFC Conference Championship game could be a Jags/Titans pairing.  I think we might all agree that the ratings for that struggle would be a tad short of the ratings for Steelers/Pats Redux.
  • At this point in the week, the Jags are anywhere between +280 and +300 on the Money Line to beat the Steelers next weekend and the Titans are anywhere between +650 and +750 to beat the Patriots.

The Falcons/Rams game looked to me to be a game between one team that had seen playoff pressure before and another team that had not.  The Rams did not embarrass themselves with a ton of silly unforced errors – – except for a couple of special teams plays – – but the Falcons were clearly the more poised/under control team on the field.  The game did generate a question in my mind:

  • Why was the field so treacherous?  Los Angeles is not in a climate zone where grass goes dormant – or dies – starting November 1; how could there have been such bad footing all over the field in the LA Coliseum?  I thought the NFL had some “turf gurus” in the fold; if anyone anointed with that label had anything to do with that field over the weekend, he/she needs to turn in his/her trowel.

The two best teams I saw over the weekend were the Saints and the Falcons.  Having seen the Eagles and Vikings several times this year, it would not shock me to see the Saints and the Falcons play for the NFC Championship.

Last week, I wrote about a chat I had with a former colleague about how XFL 2.0 might differentiate itself from the NFL in some meaningful ways.  Early this morning, I opened an e-mail from my colleague; here is the essence of his missive:

“Why do you always look to find the most complicated way to solve a problem.  You are like the engineer who designed a ten-pennies (sic) nail with five moving parts … You gave me a simple way to discourage long field goals and a complex way and you chose to write about the complex way … Just stick to the simple stuff.”

OK, he is right; I did – and still do – have an idea for XFL 2.0 that will discourage long field goal tries and put more “real football plays” into the game action.  Indeed, it does not require any modifications of the scoring system.  Here it is:

  • In the NFL, the goal posts are 18 feet and 6 inches wide and the crossbar is 10 feet high.
  • XFL 2.0 should narrow the goal posts to12 feet wide – a reduction of 35% – and it should raise the crossbar to 20 feet high – an increase of 100%.

So, there is the simple suggestion to minimize the number of long field goal tries in a football game.  Please note that this change would not have any effect at all on PATs because you should recall that I would outlaw them entirely and require teams to go for 2-point conversions after touchdowns.

I have comments to make about the Raiders’ signing of Jon Gruden to be their “Coach for Life” and the reports of a “rift in the Patriots hierarchy” but I do not have the time or space to do it here.  Barring some extraordinary news in the next 48 hours, those will be focal points for a rant on Wednesday or Thursday this week.

Finally, leave it to Dwight Perry of the Seattle Times to uncover an incident in an Italian fourth-division soccer game and make a snarky comment on it:

“Italian fourth-division soccer player, Giovanni Liberti, has been suspended five games for urinating toward the opposing ream’s fans.

“What, no yellow card?”

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

 

 

Playoffs? Did Someone Say Playoffs?

Everything old is new again – or so the adage goes.  The NFL regular season is old and over; the NFL playoffs are new and starting.  With Wild-Card Weekend about to happen, it is time for some analysis and picks.

The Chiefs host the Titans and the Chiefs are 8.5-point favorites at home.  The Chiefs came out of the gate in September looking like Lombardi’s Packers from 50 years ago and then went into a fugue state for about a month only to come back to normal and play well down the stretch.  The Titans ended the season on a low note; they lost to the Niners and the Rams and narrowly beat the Jags last week when the Jags had exactly nothing to play for.  Here is a team stat for the Titans that is surprising for a team participating in the playoffs:

  • The Titans threw more INTs (17) than TD passes (14) for the season.

The Titans succeed when they can run the football and the biggest weakness for the Chiefs is their run defense.  If you just look at the stats, you would likely conclude that the Titans will control the clock with the run and keep it close.  That scenario makes the 8.5-point spread look like a lot for the Chiefs to overcome.  Having said that, I have trouble putting faith in the Titans; I just think the Chiefs are the better team and they have the better coaching.  Without a lot of conviction, I like the Chiefs to win the game and to cover that big spread.

The Rams host the Falcons and the Rams are 5.5-point favorites at home.  The line opened at 5 points and as of this morning you can find it as high as 6.5 points at one of the sportsbooks in Las Vegas and as low as the original 5 points at one of the Internet sportsbooks.  Everyone has focused on the Rams’ offensive awakening this year as is evidenced by this historical fact:

  • The Rams are the first NFL team ever to lead the league in scoring for a season after they were the lowest scoring team in the league in the previous season.
  • In round numbers, the Rams scored an average of 14 points per game in 2016 and an average of 30 points per game in 2017.

I think there is a factor that has been overlooked regarding the Rams.  Defensive coordinator, Wade Phillips, has been successful just about everywhere he has been, and he has some very talented players to implement his schemes; Aaron Donald is a human wrecking ball in the middle of that defense.  The Falcons’ defense has played well in recent weeks, but I would be hard pressed to make the case that the Falcons’ defense will shut down the Rams’ offense here.  I’ll take the Rams to win and cover here.

The Jags host the Bills and the Jags are 9-point favorites at home.  The Total Line for the game is 39 points.  If you want to see a game between newbies to the playoffs, this is for you.  The Bills’ last appearance in the playoffs was in 1999; the Jags have not been there since 2007.  I think the oddsmaker has the Total Line right:

  • I do not trust Blake Bortles and the Jags’ offense to light up the scoreboard.
  • With LeSean McCoy at less than 100% – –  if he can go at all – – the Bills will have to rely on Tyrod Taylor to manufacture points against the Jags’ top-rated defense.
  • Neither choice is particularly appetizing…

McCoy leads the Bills in rushing (1138 yards) AND he is the leading receiver on the team (77 receptions).  If he doesn’t play at all, the Bills may be hard-pressed to score 13 points.  On the other hand, if Bortles goes into “interception mode”, the same can happen to the Jags.  Purely a hunch, but I like the Bills to keep this game close; I’ll take the Bills plus the points here.

The Saints host the Panthers and the Saints are 7-point favorites at home.  The Saints beat the Panthers twice this year; I know it is difficult for one team to beat another team 3 times in a season, but I expect that to happen here.  The Saints – for the first time in several years – are a balanced team.  They can run the ball; they can throw the ball; and, most importantly, they can stop the other team more than occasionally.  I think the Saints will win and cover here and move on to the next round of the playoffs.

Since I will be in transit next Monday, I need to make a pick in the CFP championship game here.  With Alabama as one of the participants yet again, some might be tempted to rename the CFP as the AJIT – the Alabama January Invitational Tournament.  As of this morning, Alabama is a 3.5-point favorite over Georgia.  Making a selection in this game comes down to what you believe you saw in last week’s semi-final games:

  1. Georgia’s run attack dominated Oklahoma amassing 319 yards.  Do you believe they can do that to the Alabama defense?  If so, Georgia will win the game outright and be the national champions.
  2. Alabama’s defense simply throttled Clemson holding the Tigers to a mere 154 yards of total offense for the game.  Do you believe that is the sort of defensive effort Alabama will demonstrate on Monday night?  If so, Alabama will win handily.

I think the outcome of this game will be in doubt late in the 4th quarter; in the end, I like Alabama to win the game, but I like Georgia plus the points.

Finally, with the CFP championship game involving two teams from the SEC, here is a pertinent comment from Brad Dickson of the Omaha World-Herald:

“LaVar Ball plans to start a league for players who want to skip college. This sounds similar to the SEC.”

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