The Tampa-Montreal X-Rays?

Late last week, press reports said that the geniuses who run MLB agreed to allow the folks who own and run the Tampa Bay Rays to explore the possibility of having the team split its home games between two cities – Tampa and Montreal – starting sometime in the next 5 years or so.  [Aside:  If there were ever to be a Tampa-Montreal team, then to pay homage to the old Montreal Expos, the new team should definitely be called the Montreal-Tampa X-Rays or even the Montreal-Tampa Ex-Rays.]  Lest anyone be unclear at this point regarding my position on this idea, let me be as candid as I can:

  • In the Pantheon of Stupid Ideas related even tangentially to baseball, this belongs right next to the idea of naming José Canseco the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board.
  • If I were to challenge you to come up with a dumber idea than this one, you might need 72 hours of sleep deprivation to meet that challenge.

This idea is so lame that I have to think that it is out there merely as a stalking horse for some other concept that will – at some future point – emerge as an alternate to this split-city entity and will necessarily seem to be a significantly better idea.  After all, MLB is a gigantic commercial enterprise with annual revenues in the range of $9-10B; the people who run that sort of enterprise cannot be such dolts lest the enterprise be in danger of imminent collapse.

I have no difficulty at all understanding why the Rays’ owners want to have some elasticity in the locale of their franchise; the fact remains that the Rays’ home attendance is embarrassingly small when the team is good and vanishingly small when the team is not so good.  The Rays suffer from a double-whammy here:

  1. Tampa/St. Petersburg is a small market to begin with.
  2. Within that small market, there are not a lot of dedicated fans who show up regularly to see the team play.

The reality is that the Rays home attendance this year is smaller than the average attendance for 28 of the 30 NBA teams last year.  That is what I mean by home attendance being “embarrassingly small”.  Remember, the Rays won 90 games last year and are in second place in the AL East at this very moment.

I understand the ownership’s motivation and I even agree with it.  I have said here before that I think MLB should abandon the Tampa/St. Petersburg market – along with the Miami market but that is another story – and relocate the Rays.  However, the idea of two home cities is not the answer.  [Foreshadowing: I will provide my answer to this situation later in this piece.]

Let me try to unwrap some of the issues/challenges here:

  • Some people say the Rays cannot draw crowds because their stadium is either poorly located or is a dump – – or both.  I have never been inside Tropicana Field so I will not pretend to know the conditions there.  I have driven by the facility on the Interstate and I can say that it has easy access from that Interstate but is – by no means – located in a population center where folks can “walk to the ballpark”.
  • My personal opinion is that the reason there is a franchise in that area at all is that putting a team there precluded a lawsuit against MLB.  At one point in history, the White Sox flirted with the good folks on the Gulf Coast of Florida and then jilted those folks when new stadium money became available in Chicago.  Folks in Tampa threatened a lawsuit; MLB responded with a search for expansion franchise locations and – SURPRISE – Tampa won one of those expansion franchises.  The fact is that the franchise was crippled by its home venue from day one.
  • In addition to being a small market to begin with, Tampa/St. Petersburg is not a part of the country where there is a concentration of wealth or a concentration of commercial interests that can support a baseball team by attaching to it.  Ironically, that is a similar situation to the one that existed in Montreal where the Expos existed off the largess of the Bronfman family until they lost interest leaving the team in a situation where it was abandoned and run by MLB itself.  The big difference between the Montreal small market and the Tampa small market is that the Expos were able to draw crowds until such time as the facility there became “alienating”.

Until recently, the Tampa owners were trying to work with the politicos in Tampa/St Petersburg to get a new stadium built in “downtown Tampa”.  Earlier this year, they announced that they had abandoned that idea.  Might this trial balloon be a way to re-ignite such an effort?  I would not be surprised if that were the case.  I would also not be surprised if the folks who run the cities and counties that comprise the Tampa/St. Petersburg area do not fall all over themselves to find public monies to build a new playpen for the Rays.

And that would seem to go double for the good folks in Montreal.  Those folks in Quebec spent 30 years paying off the bonds they floated to host the 1976 Olympic Games and saw first-hand that the purported long-term benefits of spending tax dollars on sports facilities do not come close to what proponents suggest they will be.  Olympic Stadium turned into the home field for the Montreal Expos and the facility was a mess during the last decade or so that the Expos used it up to the time when they decamped for Washington DC.  That was at the end of 2004; only in some fairy tale world would that stadium have improved in the intervening years with the benign neglect that it has received.  It would likely take a couple hundred million dollars to upgrade that facility and I just cannot see the people in Quebec and/or Montreal jumping at the chance to get themselves back into debt to acquire a part-time baseball team.

There is another issue to consider here and that is the effect such a split-season existence might have on the team itself.  Tampa – because of its small market status – is not one of the spendthrift teams in MLB.  According to spotrac.com, the Rays had the lowest Opening Day payroll in MLB this year at $48M for 25 players.  Obviously, the team has not been “a player” when it comes to courting any of the top-shelf free agents over the past few years.  Nonetheless, a split-season would have to make signing free agents even more difficult for the team:

  • Players with families would need two residences – or have a single residence in one venue with a rental in the other.  Players’ wives do not have a union to represent their interests here, but wives everywhere do have ways to let their husbands know what is a good living situation, and what is not a good living situation.
  • The currently situated Rays do have one nice advantage to hold out in any sort of free agent discussions.  The State of Florida has no state level income tax; that means players can keep more of their contract dollars in their pockets.  Montreal has an income tax.  Therefore, whatever portion of players’ salaries that are earned there will be taxed there; that means players will keep less of their contract dollars in their pockets.

[Aside:  The choice of Montreal as the theoretical co-home for the Rays is ironic.  In the last couple of years of the Expos’ existence, the team there tried something similar playing a couple dozen games in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  That did not work either…]

Earlier on, I promised that I would offer up a solution to this problem.  I believe that the Rays are contractually obligated to Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg until 2027.  As of that date, the Rays can and should move away from that area and just admit that it was a bad place for an MLB team from the get-go.  MLB should make it clear that this team is ready to negotiate its long-term future with other venues in the US that would like MLB to be part of the community.  And here is the first locale that I would contact and the one that I would focus my greatest effort on:

  • The Research Triangle Area in North Carolina

Here are some of the reasons that would be my new home for the Rays:

  • Yes, it is a small market as compared to places like Atlanta and Charlotte in the same general vicinity, but it is an area where people do have disposable income and have an interest in sports and their teams.
  • It is far enough away from both Atlanta to the south and from Washington DC to the north to have a minimal impact on team support for either the Braves or the Nats.
  • Corporate/commercial interests in the Research Triangle Area are in place and may be enticed to align with and support the Rays in that area.
  • Minor league baseball has been a staple in the sports calendar for people in North Carolina for decades.

The Rays are – barring some sort of Divine intervention – going to be in Tampa/St. Petersburg for the next 8.5 seasons.  That should be plenty of time to work out the details of where they will move and how they will finance the construction of a new stadium wherever that is.  The NFL has a “building fund”; if MLB does not have one, they ought to move quickly to establish one and finding a new home for the Rays should be its big priority.

Finally, the governance and the strategic thinking for MLB is obviously a male-dominated situation.  That fact juxtaposed with the existence of this latest “new idea” on how to resolve the Rays’ attendance woes brings to mind a statement made by Julie Foudy, former star on the US Women’s’ National Soccer Team.  This is a paraphrase because I cannot find a link to the exact statement:

“Girls are willing to admit that they can’t do something and then don’t try to do it.  Boys, on the other hand, tend to go for it – even when it is probably a bad idea.”

Vive la difference!

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

 

 

The Jockocracy In 2019

I really try not to do what have come to be known as “listicles” – – “articles” that are put on the Internet as lists of things labeled as “The Ten Best Things of This Kind” or “The Worst Sports Decisions Known to Man”.  The reasons I try to avoid them as much as possible are that everyone and his/her maternal grand-aunt does them and because most of them are nothing more than contrived clickbait.  Having said that, I am now about to do a “listicle” because it came to my mind that I could make some potentially relevant comments relative to the list.  This came to my mind as a result of Jason Witten resigning his positon with ESPN and returning to  the Dallas Cowboys and subsequently reporting to one of the team’s OTAs where he received universally positive reviews for his drills as a tight end.

The fact of the matter is that I was very VERY wrong about Jason Witten as a color analyst on MNF.  Early on, I thought that he had insight to reveal to the audience and that he would ooze his way into a broadcasting style that would allow for him to transmit that insight.  Granted, one year of time in the MNF booth is not a huge sample size; nonetheless, Jason Witten was not significantly better at the end of the 2018 season than he was on Day One.  My conclusion at the end of that 1-year tour of duty is that Jason Witten is not cut out to be a TV color analyst.

Upon reflection, he got the job offer because he was a logical invitee into the fraternity of retired football players who enter the broadcasting booth because of their fame/recognition on the field.  Howard Cosell railed against this fraternity as long as 45 years ago; Cosell called it the “Jockocracy”; we the audience were subjected to the verbal stylings of former jocks without regard to their ability to communicate whatever knowledge they may have had.  And so, I began to think about the current former jocks who inhabit positions behind microphones in various sports.  [Not to worry; I am not about to regale you with how good Dandy Don Meredith or Tom Brookshier used to be or how Dan Dierdorf paired well with Al Michaels.]  This is not an exhaustive list; these are the ones that have come to mind over a period of about 24 hours – – and this is what I think of them.

Let me break the list down by sport – and let me do football first:

  • Troy Aikman – He works with Joe Buck and the two of them are greater than the sum of their parts.  I think Aikman might have a short shelf life if he had to change broadcast partners.  As things stand with FOX, Aikman is more than adequate as a color analyst.
  • Cris Colinsworth – – He and Tony Romo are today’s gold standard for TV color analysts.  And no; he does not hate your favorite team whichever team that may be.  When he criticizes them, they almost always deserve it – – and more.
  • Dan Fouts – He was a HoF level QB and he turned himself into a solid color analyst over time with hard work.
  • Trent Green – I like his work, but last year, he was paired with Bruce Arians and a play-by-play guy that I do not remember.  Problem was that I found Arians to be annoying to the max.  Neither Green – nor any other analyst will have to put up with the burden of having Arians in their booth this year since Arians is back into coaching in the NFL.
  • Tony Romo – He took to the broadcasting booth as fast as a kid learns to play the card game, War.  He and Jim Nantz have only been working together for a couple of years, but their interactions and banter makes it seem as if they have been partners forever.  It was probably Romo’s “instant success” that led to the idea of throwing Jason Witten into the deep end of the pool on MNF so quickly.
  • Mark Schlereth – If FOX gives him exposure, I think he can capture audience attention.  Problem is that he has been relegated to low-exposure games most of the time.

I neither like nor dislike Ronde Barber and Chris Spielmann in the booth.  When they are on, I do not sit up and take notice of their comments nor do I reach for the mute button.

Moving along to baseball:

  • Ron Darling – He must be an acquired taste.  Several friends think he is the “best in the business” and they love his candor.  I think he is OK – – and nothing more.  To each his own…
  • John Kruk – I like him because I never know what he might say/do next – – and that is entertaining even if the game he is doing is 11-1 after 7 innings.
  • Alex Rodriguez – He knows the game and he is articulate.  He is also hugely unlikable AND he will take a small thing and beat it to death over the course of a game.  There is talent there if he can develop it and/or if broadcasting mentors can get him to change.
  • Frank Thomas – When he points out something a player is doing well – or poorly – at the plate, you should pay attention.  The man was a great hitter and he understands what hitting is about.  Usually, whatever observation he might make about a hitter is reinforced by visual evidence later in the game.
  • Bob Uecker – Yes, he does play-by-play more than analysis, but here’s the deal.  If you can listen to an entire Brewers game done by Uecker without enjoying the experience, you are an irretrievable grouch.

And now for the basketball analysts…

  • Charles Barkley – I love Sir Charles; I think he is funny, and I like the way he is perfectly willing to put himself out there on the island of his own opinion.  Since he always picks against the Golden State Warriors, I can understand why fans in the Bay Area may not have the same opinion that I have.  Your mileage may vary …
  • Jay Bilas – A former colleague hates Bilas because he thinks Bilas “talks down to me” and because Bilas “always thinks he’s the smartest guy in the building”.  Since I believe that both of those statements are possibly true, that is why I like Jay Bilas.
  • Reggie Miller – If you can laugh at his malaprops – – like the time he compared LeBron James to a fullback with a full steam of head – – he is interesting to listen to.
  • Jalen Rose – Once I got used to his voice, I grew to like him more and more.  He is insightful and he is very direct in his analytical comments about what is happening on the floor.  He is even better in a studio setting.
  • Bill Walton – He is the worst; I would rather gargle with razor blades than listen to him do an entire basketball game.  He is the reason that God invented the mute button…
  • Chris Webber – I think he is awful; I have several friends who think he is brilliant.  You can take him for whatever you think he is so long as you do not demand that I listen to him for any protracted period of time.

I am sure I have left out some analysts that you enjoy hearing.  There was little to no “research” done to compile these 3 lists; these are people who came to mind as I was setting out to fill out the lists and these are my reactions alone.

Finally, let me close with this observation from the Twitter account of Brad Dickson:

“The U.S. Postal Service is experimenting with self-driving mail trucks. What could go wrong? The challenge is programming the trucks to deliver the mail 3 days later to the wrong address.”

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

 

 

Leinster Vs Toulouse Rugby Cup

Today is a major change of focus for Sports Curmudgeon rants.  Yesterday I attended the Heineken European Rugby Champions Cup semi-final match at the Aviva stadium in Dublin.  My grandson (who served as my tutor and who answered my questions during the match), his parents and my long-suffering wife joined me in the event.  Today is reporting on my first live rugby match.

At the beginning of the weekend, there were two Irish teams on opposite sides of the bracket draw; it was possible for the weekend to end with the reality of an all-Irish final game.  Moreover, the final game could have been Munster versus Leinster.

  • [Aside:  To give you an idea of the rivalry that exists between Leinster and Munster let me tell you a story from about ten years ago when my wife and I were touring around Ireland.  We were in Dublin one weekend and happened into a pub in the afternoon when Leinster was playing Northumberland (an English team) for the European Championship.  Leinster won the game and the locals in the pub were most happy.
  • The next weekend we were somewhere in the southern part of Ireland and once again happened into a pub while Leinster was playing Munster in an Irish League game.  The score was tied at halftime and I mentioned to one of the locals there who was a Munster supporter that he must have been happy the week before when Leinster beat the English side in the championship game.  The man said very simply that he could never pull for those devils in blue (Leinster’s colors are blue and white) and that he had been pulling for Northumberland.
  • Given the history between the English and the Irish, recognize that this gentleman wanted an English team to beat an Irish team based in the rivalry between that particular Irish team and his favorite team.  Fan loyalty runs deep in Ireland…]

Munster ended any hopes for an all-Irish final on Saturday losing to Saracens (a London-based team) in the semi-finals.  So, on Sunday, there were no “distractions” for Leinster fans in terms of looking ahead to another match against Munster; just about all the 43,000 folks who made their way into the Aviva Stadium were focused on Leinster winning that day’s game against Toulouse.  I say “just about all” of the fans because there was a smattering of Toulouse supporters in attendance.

The sides were introduced to grandeur and fanfare in the form of symphonic music; the fans responded with chants of “Leinster, Leinster” [pronounced Len-ster] with the same intonation that US basketball fans use to chant “Air-Ball, Air-Ball” at basketball games.  That chant made many reappearances during the match; it was used as a way to try to exhort the team on the field to “hold the line” or to express pleasure at a long-gaining play.

With apologies to those readers here who know far more about rugby than I – and those who have played the sport while I have not – let me describe the players on the two sides from yesterday.  There seemed to be 3 categories of players:

  1. If Keith Jackson were broadcasting a rugby game, he would probably identify three players on each side as “The Big Uglies”.  These guys look like they are close to 6 feet tall and about 5 feet wide at the shoulders.  Oh, and they do not appear to have anything resembling a neck.
  2. Each side had two players who looked to me as if they were moonlighting here from their “day-jobs” as power forwards in various European Basketball Leagues.  The two players on each side who fit this description demonstrated a disposition on the pitch that would make them very effective as “enforcers” in a basketball setting.
  3. The rest of the players appear from afar like normal human athletes and all seem to possess well-above-average speed.  That footspeed is important on offense and on defense because just about every player of this description seemed adept at open-field tackling.

Toulouse seemed to dominate the action for the first 7 or 8 minutes; they held the ball for almost that entire time – – but the only scoring they accomplished was a penalty kick for a 3-0 lead.  From that point on, it certainly seemed to me that Leinster was in charge of the game.  The difference in the game to these uninitiated eyes came as a result of:

  • Leinster was the better team at open-field tackling.  More Toulouse attempts to gain ground by running to the edge of the pitch resulted in loss of ground than happened to Leinster when they tried the same thing.
  • Toulouse turned the ball over more often than Leinster did.  I don’t know the proper term of art here, but I counted 4 recovered fumbles for Leinster and only 1 for Toulouse.  More importantly, Toulouse had the ball about two yards from the Leinster goal line and tried a wide lateral pass to score the try; that pass was intercepted by a Leinster defender who ran the ball out about 30 meters before being tackled.  That ended Toulouse’s best opportunity for a try in the game.
  • Midway through the first half, Leinster “punted” to acquire field position; the Toulouse player received the punt and attempted to “punt it back” to Leinster for field position.  A Leinster player came off the wing and blocked the punt off the foot of the Toulouse player and Leinster recovered it about 10 miters from the goal line leading to a try.  My grandson in his tutorial role and other fans sitting around us in the stadium confirmed my suspicion that blocked punts of that ilk are not commonplace.

Rugby uses a video referee to confirm calls made on the field.  The time delay for such review is minimal and the fans in the stadium get to see on the stadium video board the same replay shots that the video referee(s) see.  The video referee negated a try scored by Leinster late in the first half; obviously, that was not a popular decision but with the replay on the stadium screen, the fans’ displeasure was very short-lived as it became totally obvious that a Leinster player had blocked an opponent who was attempting to tackle the ball carrier.  That is a no-no in rugby…

There was another interesting thing I noted in the match.  Whenever a team lined up to kick the ball through the uprights – – as a result of a penalty or as a conversion attempt after a try – – the video board would flash a message:

  • “Respect The Kicker”

At that point the stadium would fall silent – you could hear yourself breathe – and it would remain that way until the kick was well on its way toward the goal.  That was a distinct culture-shock for an American used to plenty of noise and raucous behavior as an attempt to distract a placekicker.

Leinster won the game handily by a score of 30-12; they were the better team yesterday.  Leinster will play Saracens in Newcastle Upon Tyne (England) on May 11 for the Champions Cup.  I shall ask my grandson for his thoughts on that game.

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

 

 

Instant Replay And Basketball Officiating

Yes, it is April Fool’s Day.

No, there will be no “Gotcha” moments in today’s rant.  You will have to find that sort of thing elsewhere if you have a craving for such…

The events in the final moments of the Texas Tech win over Gonzaga last weekend have been recounted in dozens of places.  If you did not see the game – or if you have not read an account of the late stages of that game yet – here is one report that is as good as any of the ones I saw.

https://www.cbssports.com/college-basketball/news/ncaa-tournament-2019-gonzaga-texas-tech-benefit-from-wonky-officiating-late-in-elite-eight-showdown/

There are two very distinct categories of controversial calls by the officials that are contained here.  The first category represents what surely appears to be missed calls by the officials:

  • There was a play that looked an awful lot like a kicked ball that was not called.
  • There was a ball saved from out of bounds where the player making the save stepped on the boundary line prior to making the save and that was not called.

In both cases, the replay rules would not permit officials to go back and “get it right” – which seems to fly in the face of the fundamental selling point for instant replay.  But hold that thought; I think there is a bigger point to make regarding instant replay and those two “missed calls” that I will try to make after I talk about the other controversial call.

The second category of controversy comes from a call that one sees about once every other year in all of college basketball.  [Aside:  And I cannot ever recall seeing this generate a whistle in an NBA game.]  Basically, what happened was that the defender on an inbounds pass reached across the plane of the boundary line and touched the ball before it crossed that plane.  In the rule book, that is a technical foul; in the real world, that happens every once in a while, but it is usually called as an out-of-bounds play and the team throwing in the ball is awarded another chance to do so.  [Aside:  This rule has been “on the books” for as long as I can remember from my basketball officiating days that spanned the 60s through the mid-90s.  It has not been called often but it is not a “new rule”.]

Given what happened Saturday night vis á vis what is usually called on these sorts of plays, you may choose to praise the game officials for “getting it right” or you may choose to say that they were showing off their rule-book knowledge and making a call that really only pertains to the rules’ exams that all officials must take and pass every year.  From my perspective, there is a little of both choices at play here; I have to say that were I confronted with the situation and I had a whistle in my hand, I too would have called the technical foul.  And at the same time, I acknowledge that officials far more competent than I ever was would not make that same call.  Your mileage may vary…

Here is what I think is an overarching point that seems not be getting sufficient attention:

  • Instant replay is not an unalloyed benefit for the college basketball.

Moreover, the problems associated with instant replay for basketball transcend the idea of “getting it right”.  Let me state the obvious just to get it out of the way:

  • Every fan of college basketball wants to see the officials get every call right; no one is in favor of incorrect decisions by officials during a game.

There was a time in my life when I was in charge of the officials for a local recreation league; and at that time, we used adult volunteers and high school/college students to officiate our games.  That meant that I had to run “classes”/”clinics” to teach some of them how to officiate because some of them had never done it before.  The following is the statement that I made as the opening remark in the first “class” for new officials every year:

  • If you think you are going to get every call right in every game that you do, you are going to be very disappointed.  There are two kinds of referees; those who have made mistakes and those who are about to make mistakes.  Your biggest challenges are to make as few mistakes as you possibly can and to avoid trying to “make-up” for your mistake once you realize you made one.  “Make-up calls” simply turn one mistake into two mistakes…

Instant replay takes the reality of officials’ mistakes and turns them into something much more than an error.  There are 3 officials on the court; how could it be that none of them saw that “kicked ball”?  There was an official in good position to see that foot on the boundary line, so why did he not blow the whistle and “get it right”?  [Aside:  There was another “foot-on-the-line call” that was “missed” with an official in perfect position to make that call in the final 5 seconds of the Duke/Va Tech game.  Since that “missed call” did not affect the outcome of that game, this error received little to no post-game attention.]  What happened in all these instances is that a highly competent official fell victim to “human error”.

  • If you believe that it is possible to eliminate “human error” from any human endeavor, you are probably someone who would have believed that no one would produce or consume alcohol during Prohibition because it was against the law.

When TV commentators choose to criticize officials for “ticky-tack calls” or for “the right call but not the correct call” on TV shows that can only survive with a progression of “hot takes”, they often resort to the old saw:

  • No one paid their admission – or tuned in – to see the officials put themselves in the spotlight.

That is anything but a constructive comment – unless the commentator can provide some sort of additional evidence that the official did whatever he did with that sort of motive in mind.  Moreover, that “insight” from “hot take analysts” ignores a very important feature of officiating that seems never to be articulated:

  • Maybe no one paid admission to see the officials, but if there were no officials there would be no game to pay admission to see.
  • Think about it; any player or any coach or any trainer or any pep band member can be removed from the arena and the game will go on.  If the officials leave the arena …
  • The officials are not perfect; they will never be perfect; they are not and should not be the focal point of the game; AND they are indispensable.

Instant replay shows the world the fallibility of the best of the basketball officials.  It is not a huge leap of logic for fans to conclude that less competent officials will make even more mistakes than the top-shelf ones do.  And so, when those fans attend a high school game to see their kids and/or their kids’ best friends play, they bring heightened suspicion to the gym regarding the correctness of the officials’ calls that evening.  Now, if you think I am being too defensive here, consider that the ranks of high school officials are the incubators for the officials that will replace the current “top-shelf officials” when Father Time eventually sends today’s officials to the sidelines.

Let me provide two data points:

  1. About 30 years ago, there was a sticky point for high school basketball officials here in Northern Virginia.  Schools and leagues wanted to put 3 officials on the court for all their games; it stretched the numbers of “certified referees” beyond the breaking point for a year and they had to postpone expansion from 2 officials per game to 3 officials per game for a year.  There are lots more officials doing games at the high school – and recreation league – levels than there are doing Power 5 conference games in college; but there is not a huge over-abundance.
  2. Today, the numbers of officials at the high school level are decreasing.  In Florida, the high school athletics oversight folks at the state level reported that the number of officials (in all high school sports) dropped from 8,352 in 2014-15 to 7,792 in 2017-18.  That is about a 7% drop in 3 years and there was an even more ominous note in their report.  Of the young officials who start out on this “career path”, 80% of them give it up in the first two years of experience AND the most often cited reason for giving it up is “adult behavior”.

The “adult behavior” here is the abuse and vitriol directed at the officials in those high school contests.  That sort of “stuff” predates instant replay to be sure; I heard more than plenty of it long before there were daydreams – let alone thoughts – about instant replay being used in the course of a game.  However, it seems as if the level of vitriol has spiked recently; and while I cannot prove it, I believe that some measure of that spike in vitriol is due to the prevalence of replay demonstrating the constant presence of human error and to the TV commentators using the officials as a foil for the “hot takes” that allow them to continue to earn their paychecks.

I started this by saying that instant replay is not an unalloyed success.  It is not; nor is it an unmitigated disaster.  It has provided plenty of value in those circumstances where the “replay rules” allow the officials to review and correct calls that were clearly incorrect.  It is – like every other human endeavor – less than perfect.  Lest anyone misinterpret, I am not suggesting that we ditch instant replay; that would throw the baby out with the bath water.  What I think needs to be done is to:

  • Examine the rules regarding when instant replay can be used to “get it right” for what categories of calls as often as possible.
  • Amend the tone and tenor of the commentary regarding missed calls when they happen.

It would be heaven-sent if officials walked into basketball venues where all the players coaches and fans began the game with a stipulation that the officials are both competent and people of good will.  That is not gonna happen in my lifetime … so maybe the best I can hope for is that players, coaches and fans will stipulate the good will of the officials prior to tip-off?

So, maybe that actually is today’s April Fool’s “Gotcha” moment.

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

 

 

Rest In Peace, Dan Jenkins

Dan Jenkins died late last week of congestive heart failure.  He was the last living member of my personal Mount Rushmore of sportswriters/columnists from my youth.  Those four are now somewhere in the cosmos assessing who among the current crop of writers might someday be considered to have similar stature.  My personal Mount Rushmore – – in alphabetical order because I really do not want to have to rank these four gentlemen:

  • Frank Deford
  • Sandy Grady
  • Dan Jenkins
  • Jim Murray

I never met Dan Jenkins; I wish I had been so privileged.  Dan Jenkins was more than a great sportswriter who was informative and entertaining simultaneously; Dan Jenkins was a great writer – – period – – and exclamation point.  He was part of the “glory days” of Sports Illustrated and his coverage of college football in SI back in the 60s and 70s was must read material whenever it appeared in the magazine.  However, his writings on golf were even better.

Please understand… I do not play golf; I do not follow golf; I do not have much interest in watching golf on television except for the occasional major tournament.  [Aside:  Dan Jenkins is the person who came up with the word “majors” to describe the 4 annual tournaments that are covered by that word.  Technically, Bobby Jones never won a “major” because Dan Jenkins had not yet designated any tournaments as such.]  Notwithstanding my “who gives a rat’s ass” feelings about golf, Dan Jenkins’ writings on golf were mesmerizing and commanded my interest.  He was a scratch golfer who was captain of his college golf team and he played practice rounds with Ben Hogan in Texas back in the 40s and 50s.  When he wrote about golf, his words came from someone who knew the game; but the words were more than that.

When he wrote about golf, his words generated interest – maybe even excitement – about the subject in at least one mind that otherwise did not care about golf.  His golf novels e.g. The Franchise Babe and Dead Solid Perfect were entertaining because of the implausible plot and Jenkins’ signature style which was utterly PC-bashing.  [Aside:  Dan Jenkins was anti-PC long before political correctness advanced to its current hugely annoying state.]  But it went beyond that.  One of his books was a compendium of golf columns he had written for Sports Illustrated and for Golf Digest.  He called this compilation, Dogged Victims of Inexorable Fate.  This non-golfer read it end-to-end over a rainy long weekend and loved every word of it.

That last sentence leads me to suggest to every reader here that having a few paperback copies of Jenkins’ novels on hand for the occurrence of rainy three-day weekends would be a great idea.  Every one of those novels can be consumed in such a timeframe and every one of them will brighten up such a weekend.  His first novel was Semi-Tough; it was an instant success and was eventually made into a movie.  [Aside:  In his memoir, Frank Deford said that Dan Jenkins took a leave of absence to write Semi-Tough and that he wrote the novel in three weeks; the editing took longer than the writing.  That is beyond amazing.]   Many of the characters in Semi-Tough appear in subsequent novels; Jenkins creates a fictional world involving sports in general and these characters float about in that world.  Semi-Tough inspired a sequel titled Life Its Ownself.  Most sequels do not come close to living up to the work that inspired the sequel in the first place; Life Its Ownself toes that mark; it can stand on its own as a great read depending on Semi-Tough mainly for the backgrounds of many of its characters.

My personal favorite novel was You Gotta Play Hurt which is a recounting of a year in the life of an experienced and irreverent sports columnist who travels the world to cover specific events and write about them.  The protagonist is named Jim Tom Pinch; it is not difficult to figure out who the real-world inspiration for Jim Tom Pinch might be.

There is a scene in Semi-Tough that stands out in my mind.  Every year when the Super Bowl rolls around, I think of this scene.  It was written in 1972 when the pageantry of the Super Bowl was in ascension and it intended to satirize what all of that might become.  The setting for the scene is a Super Bowl game in the future between the NY Giants and the “dog-assed NY Jets”.  In the scene, the Giants’ coach, Shoat Cooper, is explaining to the Giants’ players that the timing of the Super Bowl game will be different from regular games because of the pageantry – and because there had been a major earthquake in China which could cause the network to cut in and do some news broadcasting simultaneous with the telecast of the game.

I want to present here that scene in its entirety.  Remember, this hyperbole intended to satirize what the Super Bowl pageantry might become from the point of view of 1972; it was not far off the mark for what would become Super Bowl reality.

  • [WARNING:  There is politically incorrect text to follow and some words/phrases that were much more commonplace and acceptable in 1972 than they are today.  If you are easily offended by such language, stop reading here.  In fact, if you are easily offended by such language, you probably should not be reading many of the rants posted here.]

            “In the serious part of the squad meeting, Shoat Cooper explained to us what the drill would be for Sunday, in terms of what time everything would occur.

“Shoat said we would start getting our ankles taped at eight o’clock tomorrow morning.  Those that needed special braces and pads taped on, he said, ought to get to the taping room thirty minutes earlier.

“He said he hoped everybody on the team could have breakfast together at nine in the Señor Sombrero Café on the second floor.

“He said we would leave for the Los Angeles Coliseum about ten-thirty.  It would be about eleven-fifteen when we got there, he said, and that would give us plenty of time.  ‘To get frisky for them piss ants,’ he said.

“The kickoff wasn’t until one-fifteen, he pointed out.  It had been set back fifteen minutes by CBS, he said in order for the network to finish up a news special it was doing on some kind of earthquake that wiped out several thousand chinks somewhere yesterday…

”… Shoat said that both the offense and the defense would be introduced, on both teams, for television before the game.  He said we should line up under the goal post that would be appointed to us and carry our hats under our arms when we trotted out to our own forty-five yard line and faced the dog-assed Jets for the ‘Star Spangled Banner’.

“That would be the last thing we would do before the kickoff, Shoat said.  Therefore, he said this would come after we had warmed up and then gone back into the dressing room and crapped and peed and drank some more Dexi-coffee.  Them what needed it like the interior linemen.

“’A little spiked coffee never hurt nobody’s incentive,’ Shoat said.  ‘Especially them lard butts who have to play down in that trench where the men are.’

“Shoat said we might have a long time to lay around the dressing room after we warmed up because the National Football League had a fairly lavish pregame show planned.

“Shoat said he understood that the both the pregame show and the halftime show would have a patriotic flavor.

“’That can’t be anything but good for football,’ he said.

“According to Shoat, here’s what was going to happen before the game:

“Several hundred trained birds – all painted red white and blue – would be released from cages somewhere and they would fly over the Coliseum in the formation of an American flag.

“As the red, white and blue birds flew over, Boke Kellum, the Western TV star, would recite the Declaration of Independence.

“Next would be somebody dressed up like Mickey Mouse and somebody else dressed up like Donald Duck joining the actress Camille Virl in singing ‘God Bless America.’

“And right in the middle of the singing, here would come this Air Force cargo plane to let loose 50 sky divers who would come dropping into the coliseum.

“Each skydiver would be dressed up in the regional costume of a state, and he would land in the coliseum in the order in when his state became a United State.

“When all this got cleaned up, Shoat said, United States Senator Pete Rozelle, the ex-commissioner of the NFL who invented the Super Bowl, would be driven around the stadium in the car that won last year’s Indianapolis 500.  At the wheel would be Lt. Commander Flip Slammer, the fifteenth astronaut to walk on the moon.

“Riding along behind the Indy car, Shoat said, would be two men on horses.  One would be Commissioner Bob Cameron on Lurking Funk, the thoroughbred which won last year’s Kentucky Derby.  And on the other horse, Podna (the horse Boke Kellum pretends to ride in his TV series) would be the current president of CBS, a guy named Woody Snider.

“Finally, Shoat said, the teams would be introduced and two thousand crippled and maimed soldiers on crutches and in wheel chairs and on stretchers would render the ‘Star Spangled Banner.’

“Shoat told us the halftime was like to run forty-five minutes.  It would be a long one at any rate, “which might be a good thing if we got some scabs to heal up,” he said.

“The length of the halftime, Shoat said, would depend on whether CBS would decide to interrupt the Super Bowl telecast with a special news report on the earthquake which might still be killing chinks with its fires and floods and tidal waves.

“’I never knowed a dead chink, more or less, to be more important than a football game,’ Shoat said.  ‘But maybe if a whole gunnysack of ‘em got wiped out, it’s news.’

“Shoat said it was too bad we would all have to miss it but the Super Bowl halftime show was going to be even more spectacular than the pregame show.

“He said there would be a water ballet in the world’s largest inflatable swimming pool, a Spanish fiesta, a Hawaiian luau, a parade stressing the history of the armored tank, a sing-off between the glee clubs of all the military academies and an actual World War I dogfight in the sky with the Red Baron’s plane getting blown to pieces.

“The final event of the halftime, he said, would be an induction into the pro football Hall of Fame of about twenty stud hosses out of the past including our own Tucker Frederickson, the vice president of DDD and F.  United States Senator Pete Rozelle would preside, Shoat said, along with Camille Virl, the actress, and Jack Whitaker, the CBS announcer.  When the induction ceremony was over, Shoat said, Rozelle, Whitaker and Camille Virl would lead the inductees in singing a parody on the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic,’ which was written by somebody in the league office.  The title of it, he said, was “The Game Goes Marching On,’ and he understood it might make some people cry.

“Shoat said CBS hoped the whole stadium would join in the singing since all 92,000 people would have been given a printed copy of the lyrics.

“The last thing in the halftime would be some more birds.  While the stadium was singing this song, Shoat said, several thousand more painted-up birds would be released and they would fly in such a way overhead that the likeness of Vince Lombardi, the great old coach, would appear.

“That was all that was discussed at the meeting.”

I have read that passage at least a dozen times in the past and it still brought a smile to my face as I typed the words here.  I really hope you similarly enjoyed it

Finally, let me close with a couple of memorable quips/observations attributed to Dan Jenkins:

“Here’s all I know about Dubai: It’s one of those somewhere-over-there places where they make sand.”

And …

“I quickly discovered that trying to go play golf while living in Manhattan was about as easy as trying to grab a taxi while standing out in front of Saks Fifth Avenue in the freezing rain on the last shopping day before Christmas.”

And …

“The golf ball has no sense at all, which is why it has to be given stern lectures constantly, especially during the act of putting.”

Rest in peace – – and Godspeed – – Dan Jenkins…

 

Robert Kraft And Solicitation Of Prostitution

The news that New England Patriots’ owner, Robert Kraft, will be charged with solicitation of prostitution serves as an opportunity to survey one aspect of current US society.  We have become far too interested in “off center” stories at the expense of rational consideration of real and current issues.  Moreover, the focus on those “off center” stories is all consuming – – until the next “off center” story comes along.  And so, to some extent:

  • Robert Kraft is the best thing that could have happened to Jussie Smollet.
  • Jussie Smollett was the best thing that could have happened to Ralph Northam
  • Ralph Northam was the best thing that could have happened to the President and the Congress during the time of the government shutdown.
  • The shutdown was the best thing that could have happened to Elizabeth Warren and her DNA test.
  • See a pattern here …?

Before I project what might be the ultimate outcome here, let me make one simple observation:

  • Something called the Bloomberg Billionaire Index says that Robert Kraft’s net worth is $4.36B.  Forbes says he is worth $6.6B.  Let’s just agree that Robert Kraft has loads of money, OK?

[Aside:  In that circumstance, I do not understand why he would not “order in” as opposed to paying a visit to a day spa.  But that’s just me…]

Lots of hot takes emanated from this breaking news with two rather extreme suggestions regarding the punishment for Robert Kraft.  Once again, we need to pay attention to the fact that Robert Kraft has been charged in this matter but has not plead guilty nor has he been convicted of anything.  Everyone who has proposed any sort of punishment here has already jumped the gun.

Bart Scott does sports-talk radio in NYC.  I read that he proposed that the NFL strip the Patriots of an entire draft class; they would get no draft picks for one year.  Given the minor nature of the charges here – they are indeed misdemeanor charges not felonies – that seems overly harsh unless of course you are a former NY Jet like Bart Scott.  The reason I think this proposal is over the top is this:

  • Imagine if the celebrity chef who owns and runs a famous restaurant were charged – even convicted if you want – of soliciting prostitution.  Would it make sense to deny the restaurant the ability to purchase any vegetables of any kind for a year?  Who is being punished there?  The workers in the restaurant who did nothing – or the diners who would not be able to eat there?  Makes no sense…

Various other folks have wondered if the NFL could force Robert Kraft to sell the Patriots.  I will not pretend to be an expert regarding the NFL Bylaws, but I assume there is a mechanism in there to rid the league of a “bad apple” owner.  However, I suspect that 31 other owners would not like to see the bar for such a “forced sale” set as low as solicitation of prostitution charges.  My hunch is that there would be some sweaty palms in owners’ boxes around the league should that suggestion surface…

I can only think of one instance in the NFL where an owner was separated from his team but was not forced to sell.  Eddie DeBartolo had to step down and hand over the team control to his sister back in the 90s.  DeBartolo was convicted of bribery in a case involving the acquisition of some sort of casino/gambling license in Louisiana.  That was a felony; he served real jail time for it.  It is important to note that he was removed from the team, but no sale was required.

Jerry Richardson sold the Panthers proximal to reports of sexual and racial harassment in the workplace.  Maybe the NFL encouraged him to get the deal done as quickly as possible, but they did not force the sale.  Richardson had the team on the market prior to the allegations which were settled privately.

Leonard Tose owned the Eagles in the 70s and 80s.  He had gambling and alcohol issues and got VERY deeply in debt to casinos in Atlantic City.  He sold the team to Norman Braman to pay off those debts; I do not recall that the NFL mandated that sale.

In the NBA, Donald Sterling had to sell the Clippers – but the reason the NBA forced that sale was that Sterling’s behaviors were damaging to the league itself.  His more than merely insensitive racial comments did not make for any sort of positive marketing strategy.

In MLB, Phillies’ owner William Cox was forced to sell the team in 1943 because it was determined that he was betting on baseball while he owned the team.  Since that act earned him a lifetime banishment from baseball from Commissioner Kennesaw “Mountain” Landis, selling the team was a consequence of that designation.  [Aside:  George Steinbrenner was also banned from baseball temporarily in the 90s but did not have to sell the Yankees.]

I cannot think of any other forced sales due to improper behavior in the major US sports.  Nonetheless, the NFL will have to hand down some sort of punishment here to demonstrate that the League’s personal conduct policy applies to everyone associated with the league.  So, what is the precedent for sanctions on owners:

  • Jim Irsay had a DUI situation.  He went into rehab and cleaned his act up.  He was fined $500K and suspended for 6 games.
  • Steve Keim (a GM not an owner) also had a DUI situation.  He was fined $200K and suspended for 5 weeks.
  • Jimmy Haslam’s company – Flying J – had an ongoing rebate fraud scheme and company execs eventually plead guilty to some charges related to that.  Haslam oversaw the company but was never charged in this mess.  The NFL has not sanctioned him at all.

To me, there is no real punishment the NFL could logically impose here that would matter to Robert Kraft.  Even if the league fined him $5M – – an order of magnitude greater than the fine on Jim Irsay for DUI which I assert is a more severe offense than solicitation of prostitution – – that fine would not do much damage to someone with a net worth in the neighborhood of $5B depending on which estimate one chooses to believe.  If the NFL “suspends” him for any length of time, that only means he cannot be at the game in the owners’ box; he is not the starting inside linebacker after all.  Oh, yes; he would also have to stay away from the team headquarters meaning that he would be isolated from team decisions for some period.  [I actually keyed those words with a straight face…]

So, here is my bottom line on this situation.  It is not particularly outrageous; so, it does not fit well with the hyperbolic protestations of righteousness that are so prevalent:

  • The authorities allege that the women involved in the prostitution at the day spa were victims of human trafficking and were forced into this life of prostitution.  If that is proven to be true, I would not object to putting everyone responsible for said human trafficking under the local jail.
  • The NFL will impose a “significant fine”.  It will be a big enough number that players will notice the amount and grudgingly admit that an owner is being punished to an extent that they would not like to be punished.  I’ll toss out a figure here of $2M – – even though I know that would not be damaging in any way to Robert Kraft and his lifestyle.
  • The NFL will impose a suspension too – – probably on the order of 6-8 games.  This is no big deal.
  • The NFL might dock the Patriots a draft choice somewhere down the line.  I think that penalty would be misguided and irrelevant – – but that has never stopped the NFL in the past.

George Carlin used to say in some of his standup routines – I am going to clean up the language here – that “selling” is legal and “screwing” is legal, but “selling screwing is illegal”.  How can that be?  Good question, good sir…

Finally, Dwight Perry had this bottom line on this matter in the Seattle Times over the weekend:

“Marshawn Lynch should have run.

“Robert Kraft should have passed.”

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

 

 

A New NFL Overtime Rule

All this week, there has been a lot of commentary about the need for the NFL to “do something” to minimize the likelihood that something akin to the infamous no-call at the end of the Rams/Saints NFC Championship Game does not happen again without some sort of logical recourse.  It will be on the agenda of the Competition Committee and already there is reporting that there is a difference of opinion among members of that Committee about what can be done and what should be done – – if anything.  I will not pretend to have a suitable answer to that conundrum.

To a much lesser extent, there has been debate/consternation about the NFL’s overtime rule which was on display in both Conference Championship Games.  The short form of the consternation goes like this:

  • The Chiefs – and their dynamic young QB – never got on the field.
  • The coin flip determined the game’s outcome.

The first item is inarguably true.  I think the second one is NOT true; but because so many people seem to think it is true, I tried to come up with a modified OT Rule that would alleviate those concerns.  Before I reveal my idea, let me state a principle that guided my thinking:

  • Baseball and basketball have the best “overtime rules”.  When a game is tied at the end of regulation time, the teams continue to play the same game they played in order to reach that tie-score situation.  I want any new NFL OT Rule to produce as much “normal NFL football” as possible.

[Aside:  Since the introduction of the current OT rule in the NFL in 2010, the team winning the coin flip is the game winner 52% of the time; so, the advantage to winning the coin flip is hardly overwhelming.]

Ideally, I would have the two teams take a 3- or 4-minute break to gather themselves physically and mentally and then flip a coin to see how the OT will begin and then play a 15-minute “fifth quarter” and see what the score is at the end of the “fifth quarter”.  If it is still tied, then play a “sixth quarter” and so on…  Notice I started this paragraph with the word “Ideally”.  Here is why that is not going to happen:

  • With the league’s focus on player safety, they are not going to require teams to play on in 15-minute segments.  While it could in fact take that long before a game ended – as happened in the famous “kick to the clock game” (Google is your friend) – I seriously doubt that the league would set it up that every OT game would require that much extra wear and tear on the players.

The college OT rule necessitates that both teams play offense and defense to determine the final score.  That is a plus; but giving the offense the ball at the opponent’s 25-yardline as a starting point seems like far too much of a concession to the offense.  However, I will use the college OT rule as the starting point for my suggestion.

I want the game to be decided by football plays to the greatest extent possible and so I will insert one deviation from the rules that got the teams to the overtime situation:

  • There will be no kicking of the football in the OT.
  • There will be no punts (you will see why none are necessary) and there will be no field goals nor PATs.
  • I know; special teams are an important part of the game.  Nonetheless, those guys can use their energies to exhort their teammates to “win it all”.

There would be no need to flip a coin; the visiting team will get the ball first.  That means that in the Super Bowl game, the visiting team will be the NFC team in even numbered years and the AFC team in odd numbered years.  Before the game starts, teams have to know if they are the home team or the visitors; that does not seem to be overly burdensome.  Then:

  • Visitors get the ball at the 50 yardline first down and 10 to go.
  • Whenever any set of downs begins with the ball outside the defenders’ 30 yardline, the offense has 3 downs to make a first down.  That simulates the “normal” course of the game where the fourth down would be a punt or a field goal try most of the time.  If they do not make a first down on those three plays, the ball goes over.
  • Whenever any set of downs begins at or inside the 30 yardline, the offense has 4 downs to make a first down.
  • If the defense holds, the ball goes over.
  • If the offense scores a TD, they MUST attempt a 2-point conversion.  If the defense runs back the 2-point conversion try for a TD the other way, the defense scores 2 points for its side.
  • Then the home team gets the ball at the 50 yardline and proceeds with its attempt to score a TD followed by a mandatory 2-point conversion.
  • At the end of a pair of possessions – one for each team – you examine the score.  Either there is a winner and the game is over, or the score is still tied, and the teams begin a second pair of possessions – this time at their own 40 yardline.
  • Any future pairs of possessions beyond the second set will also begin at the same 40 yardline.

I concede from the outset that removing the kicking from the game – particularly because the game is called “football” – violates my ideal condition of just playing the game in OT the same way you played the game in the first quarter.  However, in my defense, the current OT rule dramatically changes the strategy of NFL overtime games:

  • If the team with the first possession kicks a field goal and then kicks off to the other team and the kickoff goes out of the end-zone, the trailing team gets the ball at the 25 yardline.
  • If on that first series of downs, the trailing team faces a 4th and 16 situation at their own 19 yardline, they are going to go for it.  Punting the ball would concede defeat. However, “going for it” would never happen in the first quarter of an NFL game.
  • Elimination of kickoffs in my suggested OT Rule nods in the direction of “player safety” in the sense that kickoffs produce more injuries than “normal” football plays – or so the NFL folks would have us believe.

I do not expect a call from the Commish thanking me for resolving this issue for the league nor do I expect to become a consultant to the Competition Committee.  All I tried to do here is to come up with a relatively detailed description of how to conduct an overtime game keeping as close as possible to the normal rules, making sure that both teams get the ball, and trying to avoid playing another quarter or half or more of normal football.

Finally, the furor over the completely botched call by the officials in the Rams/Saints game last weekend seems to have died down to the level of an uproar.  Brad Dickson had this Tweet that starts to put that disaster into perspective:

“The Oscar nominations are out. Best Actor nominees include the refs in the NFC and AFC Championship games for acting like they know what they’re doing.”

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

 

 

NFL Coaching Changes – 2019

Eight NFL coaches – 25% of that coaching universe – lost their jobs as soon as the 2018 regular season ended. They are:

  1. Todd Bowles (Jets):  I have said before and I continue to believe that Bowles was not “the problem” in NY; I believe the roster needs work.  In the final quarter of the season when the Jets were obviously out of it, he still had the team playing hard.
  2. Adam Gase (Dolphins):  Seemed to me that the Dolphins were a middle-of-the-road team, so, I have to conclude that ownership in Miami thought the team should have been one of the top teams based on this personnel move.
  3. Hue Jackson (Browns):  After going 1-31 over the 2016 and 2017 seasons, I was surprised to see him coaching the Browns at the start of the 2018 season.
  4. Vance Joseph (Broncos):  The Broncos’ fortunes have been in decline since their Super Bowl win in 2015.  Vance Joseph took the fall for that decline.
  5. Dirk Koetter (Bucs):  The Bucs have been pretty bad the last two seasons, so this move does not surprise me all that much.
  6. Marvin Lewis (Bengals):  Turned the franchise around 15 years ago but the Bengals have been a disorganized mess for the last several years.  It was time for a change in Cincy.
  7. Mike McCarthy (Packers):   Of the coaches told to hit the bricks this year, he is the only one with a Super Bowl ring.  Yes, it was a while ago; but he has one…
  8. Steve Wilks (Cards):  I am surprised he is gone after only one year on the job; that roster was not built to win in 2018 – AND – the Cards had a suspended GM for a while last year, so roster building was hampered.

Normally, at this point, I would comment on the various rumors about who is being interviewed by whom for which position and what the odds and prospects might be.  I want to do something different this morning.  I want to talk about how good – or how not-so-good – each of those vacancies are.  Yes, I know that “not-so-good” is a relative term given that there are only 32 positions of this kind in the known universe.  Still, some of these jobs are better opportunities than others.  So, without further prelude:

  • Arizona Cardinals:  The Cards have a young QB who looks as if he can develop into a franchise QB over time.  The problem on offense there is basic.  There are not nearly enough stars surrounding QB, Josh Rosen, to make the offense a real threat.  With Larry Fitzgerald possibly retiring – and starting the countdown on the retirement clock to his enshrinement in Canton, OH – a significant question is to what degree can Christian Kirk take over the leadership duties for the WRs on the team.  The defense is good-not-great, and the Cards have the overall #1 pick in the draft for this year.  I doubt this team will turn it around in a year or two; this is a developmental assignment.
  • Cincy Bengals:  This may be the worst job of the lot.  The team is aging on defense; the starting QB is a “Lake Woebegone QB” – he is slightly above average; they have one playmaker at WR and a decent running attack.  Add to that the history of boneheadedness on the parts of various players on the team that seemed to be condoned by the coaches and management.  That is not a spigot one can turn off at will.
  • Cleveland Browns:  If Baker Mayfield is for real and not a one-year wonder, this is the best job of the lot.  The Browns’ defense is both young and very good; Nick Chubb is a solid running back; what the team needs is a top-shelf outside threat.  Moreover, the AFC North may be ripe for turnover.  The Steelers have an ageing QB and way too much drama going on; the Ravens’ fortunes could be on the uptick – – or not (See Below); the Bengals are a hot mess (See Above).
  • Denver Broncos:  The problems in Denver are simply stated.  The defense is aging and is not nearly what it was when it helped carry the team to the Super Bowl title in 2015 AND there is no capable QB in town.  The first problem can be resolved through the draft and free agency; the Broncos have shown they know how to do that.  The QB problem is different.  John Elway was a great QB who has shown exactly ZERO ability to find anything better than a marginal QB for the team since he became the GM.  (He did not find Peyton Manning; they found one another.)  Without a franchise QB the Broncos are a team lost in the wilderness – and there do not appear to be any “can’t miss” QB prospects coming out of college this year.
  • Green Bay Packers:  The allure here is obvious; Aaron Rodgers is there to play QB.  The fact that his cap number ranges from $26.5M to $37M (in 2022) could make roster building more difficult than it has to be.  Whoever gets this job will be expected to produce annual division championships and serious runs at Super Bowl appearances while Rodgers is still playing; he is signed through the 2023 season).  There is plenty of room here for the appearance of underachievement and failure to perform to expectations.
  • Miami Dolphins:  For reasons that escape me, the team and its fans seem to think that Don Shula and his championship teams happened about 3 years ago, and the current team is on the cusp of greatness.  It is not.  The Dolphins have a mediocre team led by a mediocre QB.  Adam Gase won 10 games with the Dolphins in 2016 and finished 2nd in the AFC East – behind the perennial champs there – twice in three seasons.  And he got fired.  Good luck to the new guy in town – – even if Don Shula is that “new guy”.
  • NY Jets:  If the Browns’ job not the best job of the lot, then the Jets’ job is.  Sam Darnold has the potential to be the best Jets’ QB since Joe Namath.  [That may seem as if I am damning by faint praise, but I am not.]  The defense has several young and solid players to build around.  The Jets will have a high draft pick this year AND they have plenty of cap room to play with in free agency.  If the coach and front office bungle the opportunity here, they deserve to have a short tenure in NYC – – and the tabloids there will see to that.  [Aside:  Just so you know, the NY Post has already declared that Giants’ coach, Pat Shurmer, is already in the “show-me” phase of his tenure there.]
  • Tampa Bay Bucs:  The new guy here will be the fifth coach of the Bucs in a 10-year span; let’s say that stability is not a key element of this team.  Jameis Winston is a question mark at QB; his physical talents are prodigious; his mental errors and his immaturity surrounding his off-field behaviors are less-than-satisfactory.  The Bucs appear to be on their way to picking up the final year option on his rookie contract; if he falters next year, the team will be back looking for a QB.  The defense is a mess; the top-shelf asset on the team is WR Mike Evans who is certainly one of the 10 best at the position now – – and perhaps one of the top 5.  The coach who gets this job ought to rent not buy…

Above, I said to “see below” regarding the Baltimore Ravens.  In addition to the fact that the team may be in a QB transition phase from Joe Flacco to Lamar Jackson, the fact is that coach John Harbaugh’s deal is up as soon as the Ravens play their final game of the season.  Owner Steve Bisciotti chose not to extend Harbaugh at the end of last season – and admitted that he thought of making a coaching change then.  Presumably, Bisciotti will offer Harbaugh contract after making the playoffs this year – – but will Harbaugh accept the offer or look elsewhere?  If the Ravens change coaching staffs AND change QBs at the same time, there would be plenty of uncertainty around the vector heading for the team fortunes in the near term.

Add to the turmoil and turnover here the possibility of two other coaches losing their jobs between now and the Super Bowl.  I am NOT saying that either of these coaches deserves to be fired – – but it could happen:

  1. Jay Gruden (Skins):  If he is fired, he is yet one more scapegoat for the chaos incubation chamber that Danny Boy Snyder has cultivated for the Skins over the two decades of his ownership there.  The coach is NOT the problem here; the roster is the problem.  The Skins have kept far too many players that they drafted simply because they drafted them even after those players have shown they are marginal on-field performers. There are clearly locker-room problems as shown by the DJ Swearinger mess, and that may be Jay Gruden’s undoing.  However, if he is fired, he will have a job as an offensive coordinator somewhere in the NFL before the 2019 season starts – – if he wants one.
  2. Doug Marrone (Jags):  Look, the Jags were the biggest disappointment in the NFL last year; if that grinds the gears of the owner, then Marrone could be looking for work.  Rather than focus on the underperformance of the Jags in 2018, I think it is equally proper to look at their amazing overachievement in 2017 when they went to the AFC Championship Game with Blake Bortles at QB.  The Jags do not have an NFL-caliber QB on the roster and will not be a top-shelf team until they acquire one.  Ka-beesh…?

Finally, Brad Rock had this observation in his column, Rock On in the Deseret News about a week ago:

“Drew Brees sent a commemorative football to 174 former teammates he believed helped him become the NFL’s all-time passing yards leader.

“Said the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ secondary, ‘What about us’?”

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

 

 

Washington Nats 2018 Season Postmortem

Like almost all prognosticators, I thought back in March that the Washington Nationals would win the NL East handily and would flirt with or exceed 100 wins over the season.  After all, the rest of the NL East looked pretty weak back then:

  • The Braves were young and had underachieved in 2017.  I was not sold then on their pitching; I was in “show me mode” in March with regard to the Braves.  They proceeded to “show me”.
  • The Mets had good starting pitching – if healthy – and a good closer.  The lineup looked anemic.
  • The Phillies looked to be in the midst of a rebuilding; in no way did I think they might be leading the division after the All-Star Game for even a day.  They were a positive surprise to me.
  • The Marlins had traded away all their assets except their catcher.  I did not expect them to win very often.

Despite that apparently soft division which would provide the Nats with 76 of their games over the season, the Nats finished at 82-80 and needed a surge at the end of the season to corral that many victories.  It was a monumental example of underachievement.

The examination of “what went wrong” and “how did this happen” has begun in the DC area and the folks who follow the team around here have already trotted out the usual suspects in these sorts of dark circumstances.  Let me acknowledge them here:

  1. Yes, the Nats had a new manager who had never done this before and who did seem to be a bit overwhelmed at times during the season.
  2. Yes, the team had injuries.  So did every other team in the division and the league and …  Injuries happen to all teams over a season that spans 162 regular season games and six months of calendar time.

Personally, I think both of those “root causes” for the underachievement in 2018 are nothing more than convenient excuses.  The Nats entered the season with an embarrassment of riches at the 8 permanent positions and 2 studs at the top of their rotation.  The team was built to withstand an injury here and there.  Consider:

  • The outfield featured Bryce Harper and Adam Eaton back in March.  The team that started the season did not have Juan Soto at the time but added him sufficiently early in the year, such that he could be a serious contender for Rookie of the Year.  The outfield was loaded.
  • The infield had a star player in Anthony Rendon at third base, another star player at shortstop in Trea Turner, a good hitting second baseman in Daniel Murphy and good old Ryan Zimmerman at first base.  Surely, no starting infield in the NL East looked as good let alone better when the season started.
  • Catching was iffy from the start but if Matt Wieters could just hit .250 and be an anchor for the pitching staff, that should have been sufficient given the rest of the lineup.  Wieters hit .238 but only played in 76 games.
  • Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg sat atop the rotation that then included Gio Gonzales and Tanner Roark.  Scherzer and Strasburg are All-Star caliber pitchers; Gonzales has been an All-Star twice.  Maybe – I said MAYBE – the Mets had – on paper – an equally formidable rotation as the season started.
  • The Nats did not have a lights-out closer back in March and they struggled all season to find one – and to find reliable guys to get the game to the closer-of-the-week in the ninth inning.
  • Howie Kendrick and Matt Adams were on the bench for pinch-hitting duties and to give some of the regulars a rest occasionally.

That is not the Opening Day type of roster that would cause most fans to take a deep breath and wait to see how bad the season might be.  That is not a roster built to go .500 over a six-month season.

Dave Martinez is going to take some heat for this underachievement.  I believe that he deserves some of it, but I think he will take a disproportionate amount of heat.  Martinez is a rookie manager; he is described as a players’ manager; he is one who can communicate with today’s players; he is big on symbolism and fun.  All of that can be very positive with the right team; here is the problem:

  • The Nats are not that team.

Here is where I will take the path less traveled in assessing the disastrous 2018 season for the Nats.  What the Nats need now – – and frankly have needed for at least the last 3 seasons – – is a manager and a management structure less focused on “Dr. Feelgood” and more focused on “Drill Sergeant”.  The Nats are soft and have been for a while.  This team has been coddled/pampered for far too long.

  • Several years ago, as the Nats prepared to play the Giants in a playoff series, someone mentioned to one of the Giants’ players – – cannot recall which one – – that the Nats looked like a tough matchup for the Giants.  That player then said rather crudely – – but accurately – – that the Nats had plenty of talent and physical skill, but they did not have it [and then he grabbed his crotch].  The Giants prevailed in that series…

The grittiest guy on the roster for the Nats was Jayson Werth but Father Time caught up with Werth and he left MLB at the end of the 2017 season.  The new manager came in and proceeded to pull an early symbolic stunt in Spring Training.

  • The Nats brought a camel to Spring Training in Florida to symbolize that this was the year they were going to get over the hump.  Get it?  Hump?  Everyone thought it was a brilliant ploy.  This was going to convince the players that they were going to succeed in the playoffs this time around and make it to the World Series.
  • Yeah … no!

What the Nats needed to do was to work on fundamentals like hitting the cut-off man and covering bases on hustle plays.  Camels don’t help with any of that; camels make you smile and feel good and let you know that you are going to be in the playoffs and you can worry about getting over the hump once you get there.  Ah, the sin of hubris…

I have said this to many folks in the last couple of months as the Nats’ season was circling the drain.  I believe this is one of the critical elements of the team’s shortfall:

  • The Nats needed to hire as their manager whoever passes for today’s version of Billy Martin.  They needed a manager who is no-nonsense and who will punch them out if they loaf or lollygag during a game.  The enormity of the Nats’ collective physical skills tends to obscure the fact that they do not play hard all the time and that milieu becomes contagious and is difficult to eradicate.
  • The Nats needed then and need now a General Manager who will help and support this “latter-day Billy Martin” to whip that roster into shape so that it is a short-money favorite to make it to the World Series.  There is no evidence that Mike Rizzo is of that mindset.
  • Who was/is today’s Billy Martin?  My nominee would be Ozzie Guillen – and he was/is available…

Remember, I said that manager Dave Martinez is not the cause of the problem.  At the same time, I believe that he is the wrong guy with the wrong temperament and outlook on life to lead this roster.  He found himself in a situation where the team was like a Brooks Brothers three-piece suit and he was a pair hot-pink crocs.

The Nats’ fundamental problem has been ongoing for a while – – as evidenced by the comment from that Giants’ player several years ago.  Moreover, the team as an entity has not dealt with it even when confronted with it.

  • At the end of the 2015 season, Jonathon Papelbon grabbed Bryce Harper by the throat in the dugout in the middle of a game.  Teammates had to pull Papelbon off Harper.
  • The cause of that incident was a lack of hustle on Harper’s part on a pop fly to the infield.  Maybe that seems like a trivial thing – – except that it was and still is a pattern of behavior for Harper and other top-shelf players on the Nats’ team.

There is a very overused word going around these days; people talk about “accountability” without ever defining what it might entail.  Well, I will use it here and tell you what it means in this context.  Players on the Washington Nationals have – – for several years now – – been allowed to “half-ass it” during games without being pulled from the lineup for a day or two.  Or maybe even more…  Nothing of a corrective nature happened to players in the past and the attitude has spread.  Until that kind of nonchalance becomes unacceptable, there are not enough creative stunts like bringing a camel to Spring Training that will get the Nats to reach their potential.

I do not pretend to know if the problem is with the manager or with the general manager or with some of the poohbahs in the owner’s suite.  It could be in all those places; that is opaque to me.  What is transparent to me is that there is an organizational acceptance of lassitude/lethargy that undermines the assemblage of physical talent on the roster.

Charles Sanders Pierce was a pragmatist philosopher of the late 19th century.  One of his signature lines was:

“Effort supposes resistance.”

In the situation at hand here, there is little to no resistance when it comes to “half-assing it”; and so, there is no reason to expect anything more than little to no effort.

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

 

 

NFL Season Predictions – 2018

A quick reset, if I may.  This is one of my annual exercises where I set out to embarrass myself.  I am going on the record here to predict the final regular season record for each and every NFL team and to predict the playoff pairings that will begin in January 2019.  [Aside:  I probably have a better chance of bringing peace to the Middle East by January 2019 than I do of getting all of this right.  But what the hey …]

These predictions will stay on the website as long as the website continues to exist as a monument to my ineptitude as a prognosticator.  I take solace in an old adage:

  • Prediction is difficult – – particularly when it deals with the future.

One more background item before getting down to business…  None of these predictions are made with any sort of malice or animus.  There will surely be teams who will have much better records in January than the ones I predicted for them in this piece.  I did not do that to disrespect the teams, the players, the coaches or the fans of that team; what I did was to make a mistake.  Under those circumstances, I do not owe anyone an apology; what I have to do is to admit that I was wrong.

With the administrative stuff out of the way, let me begin with an added feature of these annual things.  I want to make a list of the NFL Coaches on a Hot Seat – – before the season starts.  I will list them alphabetically lest anyone misinterpret and think that I have prioritized the heat on their seat:

  1. Jason Garrett (Cowboys):  He has been the full-time head coach of the Cowboys since 2011; the team’s cumulative record over that period is 62-50 with 2 playoff appearances and 1 playoff victory.  From all outward appearances, he and Jerry Jones have a relationship that is as close as one could have with someone who is not a blood relative.  Or, perhaps, Jason Garrett survives as the Cowboys’ coach because he does not push back against Jerry Jones’ “intrusions” into the football aspects of the Cowboys?  I dunno; I’m just tossing that out there for consideration…  However, at some point, this is nominally “America’s Team” and mediocrity is not going to cut it forever – unless Jerry Jones is happy cashing all the revenue checks he takes in and does not really give a rat’s ass about Super Bowl rings anymore.
  2. Adam Gase (Miami):  Yes, he had the Dolphins in the playoffs in 2016 and then had to try to navigate the 2017 season without his starting QB and with Jay Cutler on the field.  Call that whatever you wish; those were far-less-than-ideal circumstances.  However, the Dolphins let a bunch of their talented players take a hike.  Jarvis Landry and Ndamukong Suh left in the off-season; Jay Ajayi was shipped out of town in the middle of last season amidst rumors of “friction” with the coaching staff.  Boy they sure punished him by trading him to the Super Bowl champion Eagles!  Adam Gase cannot survive another 6-10 season in Miami.
  3. Jay Gruden (Washington):  He has lasted longer than any coach in the Dan Snyder Era and is the only Skins’ coach in that Era ever to get a contract extension.  Nevertheless, his overall record on the job is sub-.500 and the organization/fanbase has higher expectations for this year’s team than in recent seasons.  The QB situation is no longer a weekly soap opera; the Skins have a solid player at that position and his contractual status is settled.  I think the Skins need to be 8-8 or better this year for Gruden to be on the job next year.  Looking at the Skins’ schedule, there could be a big trap early on.  The Skins open at Arizona then host the Colts and Packers before getting the early BYE Week.  If the Skins lose to the Cards and Colts and then get blown away by the Packers leading to that BYE Week …
  4. John Harbaugh (Ravens):  I had him on this list last year.  He led the Ravens to the Super Bowl championship in 2012.  Since then in 5 seasons the Ravens have a cumulative record of 40-40 with one playoff appearance.  Last year, the Ravens would have been in the playoffs had they beaten a mediocre Bengals’ team in the final game – – but they didn’t.  I think the Ravens need to win enough games to make the playoffs this year or they will be finding a new coach next winter.
  5. Hue Jackson (Browns):  With a coaching record in Cleveland of 1-32 over the past two seasons, I am surprised that he is back on the sidelines for another go-round.  There is nowhere to go but up from an 0-16 season and some folks are already talking about the Browns winning 8 games this year and even challenging for the AFC North title.  If ownership has those expectations, Jackson is cooked.  If he wins 5 games with that roster he ought to be given another season at the helm; if he wins the AFC North, the folks in Canton, OH should fit him for a yellow blazer.
  6. Vance Joseph (Denver):  The problem with the Broncos last year was more than just their 5-11 record; in addition, the team did not make a game of it far too often.  Yes, the Broncos were limited by their QB position but 5-11 and looking dispirited on the field is hard to take.  The Broncos have a new QB who will never be a Hall of Fame candidate but who is a step up from what they had last year.  The team must win more games this year and must be competitive in their losses or Vance Joseph will be out of a job after only 2 seasons.
  7. Dirk Koetter (Bucs):  It was not that long ago that the Bucs fired Lovie Smith to promote Koetter to the top job because of the great work he was nominally doing with Jameis Winston.  So, how’s that working out?  Well, the Bucs are 14-18 in Koetter’s two years in the head coaching position and Winston will be sitting out the first 3 games of the season on a suspension for violation of the NFL’s personal conduct policy.  The schedule-maker did Koetter no favorites; the Bucs opponents in those 3 games without Winston will be Saints, Eagles and Steelers.  Ouch!
  8. Marvin Lewis (Bengals):  It seems as if I put him here every year, so I’ll do it again this year.  Actually, I think Lewis is relatively safe for this year unless the Bengals go 2-14 or something like that.  The reason is that he got a contract extension that runs through the end of the 2019 season and Mike Brown does not like to pay coaches not to coach.

I went back a forth about whether to put Todd Bowles on this list.  The Jets’ roster is not a good one and the Jets will start a QB who is 21 years old and only played in 27 games in college.  By all reason, the Jets should not be very good this year – and they were only 5-11 last year.  However, the reason I left him off the list is that the Jets were in the same situation as the 2017 season began; some folks thought that the Jets – not the Browns – would have a shot to go 0-16 for the season and Bowles somehow squeezed 5 wins out of that roster.  I think that overachievement from last season will get him a pass from 2018 and into 2019.

Now to the business at hand; I shall start in the AFC West.  My prediction is that this division will produce a cumulative record of 32-32 at the end of the season.  They may represent the “Left Coast”, but their record is pretty much “middle of the road”.

  1. LA Chargers (10-6):  That’s right; I am picking the Chargers to win the division this year.  I think the other teams in the division have come back to the Chargers and the best QB in the division is Philip Rivers.  They will need some other WR besides Keenan Allen to play well.  I think their weakness from last year was run defense and they seemingly have tried to improve that in the off-season.
  2. KC Chiefs (9-7):  The Chiefs’ D-line and run defense must improve; they got decent pass rush some weeks last year and not-so-good pressure on other weeks.  I think Andy Reid will have a good offense even with a new QB; the defense is “the issue”.  I am not sold on Sammy Watkins and the big money the Chiefs bestowed on him.  Watkins is 24 and this is his 3rd NFL team already.  He is not some journeyman roaming around looking for a place to hang his hat; he was a first-round pick and already 2 teams have “gone in a different direction”.
  3. Denver Broncos (8-8):  Last year, the Broncos’ pathetic offense kept them out of the playoff hunt; the defense was solid.  Case Keenum is not a Hall of Fame candidate anywhere in the future, but he is a significant step up from what the Broncos put on the field at QB last year – – and that assumes that Keenum does not improve even a little from last year to this year.  The Broncos will improve but not enough to win the division or make the playoffs.
  4. Oakland Raiders (5-11):  Their OL took a step back last year and their DL was just plain poor.  Football games are won and lost “in the trenches” and the Raiders paid dearly for those line failures.  The Raiders addressed the OL in the draft; I do not see how the DL is supposed to make a quantum leap this year over last year.  The Raiders’ WR corps will be interesting to watch.  Jordy Nelson is 33 – but he played well in Green Bay last year.  Amari Cooper pulled a disappearing act last year for the Raiders; will he find his way back this year?  Martavis Bryant seemed always to be 48-hours away from another suspension for something or other and that is rumored to be on the horizon for 2018 – – but the Raiders will dodge that bullet because they cut him from the roster in the final camp trimmings.  Those first round draft picks that the Raiders got in exchange for Khalil Mack will be of zero value in 2018 – – and they are going to be heavily scrutinized in the next several years.  The Raiders acquired AJ McCarron from the Bills to be the backup QB.

Moving to the AFC South, my prediction is that the division’s cumulative record will be 34-30 – making it the strongest division in the AFC.

  1. Houston Texans (11-5):  Even if there is a football god on Mount Canton who delights in torturing Bill O’Brien, that god has to take a breather this year.  Forget any draft picks that might make this team or any free agents who might contribute this season, the Texans will be significantly better simply to regain the services of Whitney Mercilus, JJ Watt and DeShaun Watson – – all of whom missed plenty of games last year.  Bill O’Brien has toiled in Houston without a competent QB who is healthy all the time and without the services of key defensive players for the last couple of years.  He – and the Texans – catch a break this year and win the division.
  2. Jax Jaguars (9-7):  The Jags will take a step back this season for a couple of reasons.  They will play a “first place schedule” this year and they are just not likely to repeat the good fortune they had to play teams with injured QBs as often as they did last year.  Unless I counted wrong, they faced 6 mediocre QBs last year [Jacoby Brisset, Blaine Gabbert, DeShone Kizer, Ryan Mallett, Tom Savage and TJ Yates].  The Jags are a good team with a good defense, but I think this is a regression to the mean season for them.  Face the facts here; if Colts’ QB Andrew Luck is even able to play at 80% of his previously shown capacity, the Jags have the worst QB in the division by a mile-and-three-quarters.
  3. Tennessee Titans (9-7):  In terms of team needs, the Titans need an upgraded pass rush and they need to be sure Marcus Mariota says healthy all year.  The Titans signed two free agents from the Patriots in the off season – – Malcom Butler and Dion Lewis.  The new coach in Tennessee is Mike Vrabel.  Hmmm…  Where did he play his football?  Something to watch here is that Patriot players who go elsewhere do not always perform the way they did in New England.
  4. Indy Colts (5-11):  Yes, Andrew Luck is back, and everyone says he is throwing naturally and without pain.  Honestly, I hope that is the case now and the case going forward.  The fact is that he has not played in a real NFL game in about 20 months.  The Colts took 2 offensive linemen high in the draft signaling that they have finally realized that keeping Andrew Luck vertical is critical to their success.  We shall see how all that works out…  Meanwhile, the Colts’ defense looks as if will be a sieve once again.

The AFC North will produce a cumulative division record of 29-35 at season’s end, if my prognostications are correct.

  1. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5):  I think the Steelers win the division by default; none of the other three teams there present a credible challenge unless Ben Roethlisberger goes down and LeVeon Bell does not show up ready to play football.  This Steelers’ defense will not carry this team; it is a far cry from the Steel Curtain of old.  The Steelers drafted an “heir apparent” to Ben Roethlisberger in this draft; what they really needed was to draft an “heir apparent” to Ryan Shazier.
  2. Baltimore Ravens (8-8):  The Ravens need help at WR; they offered Dez Bryant a 3-year contract ($21M) and caught a break when he turned them down.  They added Michael Crabtree who is OK, but not someone who will keep defensive coordinators awake at night wondering what to do with him.  Pressure will mount on Joe Flacco as the season goes along because he has a sub-.500 record as a starter over the last two years and because flashy first-round pick Lamar Jackson is on the squad.  As I noted above, John Harbaugh may be coaching for his job this season.  For once, you can believe him when he says he is playing the guys that he believes give the Ravens the best chance to win.
  3. Cincy Bengals (5-11):  Here is a shocker; the Bengals will start the season with Vontaze Burfict serving a suspension.  Who woulda thunk it…?  The offensive line was miserable last year; I am not sure where the improvement will come from this year unless Cordy Glenn (acquired in a trade) and Billy Daniels (drafted early) play really well.  The Bengals are also single-threaded at QB; AJ McCarron left in free agency.  When they headed into mini-camp the guys on the depth chart behind Andy Dalton were Matt Barkley, Jeff Driskel and Logan Whiteside.  Ruminate on that as you realize that every other team in the AFC North took a QB relatively early in the 2018 NFL Draft – but the Bengals did not…
  4. Cleveland Browns (5-11):  Coming off an 0-16 record, this record would be an infinite improvement – mathematically speaking.  I know it is chic at the moment to talk about the Browns going 8-8 for this season but I just don’t see that happening.  Here is a big plus for the team.  Last year, the Browns soiled themselves so regularly that you might have thought they all ate prunes and All-Bran for breakfast daily.  Whoever played QB on any given series was a turnover waiting to happen.  With Tyrod Taylor at QB, those turnovers are going to go down significantly; he is not a great QB, but he knows how to protect the ball.

The AFC East – similar to the AFC North – is top-heavy.  I predict that the division will produce a cumulative record of 29-35 at season’s end.

  1. New England Patriots (12-4):  Ho-hum…  Another day at the office; another year making predictions about the AFC East champs.  Getting to double digit wins in a season is a lot easier when a team like the Pats can look at the schedule and pencil in at least 5 wins in their division – – and sometimes 6.  This could be one of those years.  The only real “football questions” surrounding the team involve Julian Edelman’s suspension and the deal that Tom Brady has made with Father Time.  To make things interesting, people have flogged to death the story about potential friction among Brady, Belichick and Kraft.  I do not doubt for a moment that there is some unease in that troika, but unless Brady breaks a leg and/or Belichick decides to go yak wrangling/yeti hunting for the balance of the season, the Pats will be just fine.
  2. NY Jets (7-9):  Yes, even with a rookie QB who only played in 27 college games at USC, I think the Jets will improve on their 5-11 record from last year.  I am not sure who is going to catch whatever Sam Darnold delivers in the passing game and I don’t think there are any All-Pro running backs on the roster.  Nevertheless, I was most impressed by the job that Todd Bowles did last year with a terrible roster.  By the way, safety, Jamal Adams, was a really positive addition to the Jets’ defense last year and should only get better this year.
  3. Miami Dolphins (7-9):  The good news is that Ryan Tannehill is back to play QB; the bad news is that Ryan Tannehill is the starting QB.  Fans in Miami have to hope for Tannehill to return to form and improve as the season goes on; he has missed 19 consecutive games so that is not a certainty.  The reason fans have to hope he is back permanently and competently is simple; Brock Osweiler is the back-up and we pretty much have figured out by now that he is not the answer to any question anyone might want to ask.
  4. Buffalo Bills (4-12):  I do not understand the thought processes in Buffalo.  The Bills made the playoffs – via the back door to be sure – in 2017 so they “built on that showing” by blowing up the team.  What I mean by the Bills getting into the playoffs by the back door is simple; they were outscored by 57 points in their 16 regular season games and made the playoffs as the last wildcard.  That does not happen often.  So, their starting QB – Tyrod Taylor – shuffled off out of Buffalo to Cleveland and the Bills replaced him with the triumvirate of Josh Allen, AJ McCarron and Nathan Peterman.  Yowza!  Here are the cumulative stats for those three QB candidates:  5 starts, 8 TDs, 7 INTs.  Yowza – squared!!  And then the Bills traded AJ McCarron away to the Raiders for a 5th round pick and named Nathan Peterman as their Game 1 starter.  But it gets worse…  if I am not sure who will “do the catching of passes” for the Jets, I am even more in the dark when considering the Bills.  Last year, RB, Le Sean McCoy was the leading receiver on the team.  The most productive wideouts on the roster would appear to be Kelvin Benjamin (good but not a game changer) and Zay Jones (he caught 27 passes for 316 yards last year).  I will not be shocked to see a snowy Bills’ home game in December with three inebriated Bills’ fans in the stands with their shirts off and the letters W, T and F painted on their bare chests.  My answer would have to be along the line of “I don’t get it either, bro.”  I project that the Bills will be part of a coin flip to see who gets the overall #1 pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.

The AFC playoff picture will look like this:

  • #1 seed:  Patriots
  • #2 seed: Steelers
  • #3 seed: Texans
  • #4 seed:  Chargers
  • #5 seed:  Jags
  • #6 seed:  Chiefs

And so, having taken a deep breath and refilled my coffee mug for the fourth time this AM, I shall move on to the NFC and like the progression in the AFC, I shall begin with the NFC West.  Should my predictions pan out, this division will be the weakest one in the NFC generating a cumulative record of 29-35.

  1. LA Rams (10-6):  With the recent signing of Aaron Donald to the richest contract ever given to aa defensive player, there seem to be no holes in this roster.  [Aside:  Donald’s contract enjoyed that status for less than 48 hours when it was eclipsed by Khalil Mack’s new deal in Chicago.]  About the only apparent challenge for the team will be the schedule – – not particularly easy outside the division – – and maintaining order in the locker room with some salty characters having been acquired in the off-season.  If things with Marcus Peters, Ndamukong Suh and Aqib Talib start to get out of hand at any point, maybe the coaches will need whips and chairs to keep things under control.  Another question mark for me is the acquisition of Brandin Cooks who is about to turn 25 years old and on his 3rd team already.
  2. SF Niners (8-8):  I hate to be the bearer of ill tidings to the Bay Area fans, but Jimmy Garoppolo is going to lose a game sometime this season.  Now that we are over that speed bump, RB, Jerick McKinnon was supposed to replace Carlos Hyde as the featured RB in Kyle Shanahan’s offense – but now it appears that he will miss 2018 with an ACL injury.  Linebacker, Reuben Foster will serve an early-season suspension; Foster is very important to the Niners’ defense; he is a difference maker.  Foster needs to get a grip on his life and recognize – hopefully during his suspended time – that if he does not get his off-the-field life in better control, he will not be part of the NFL for very long.  Another question mark for the defense is the level of play the Niners will get from Richard Sherman who is coming beck from an Achilles tendon injury last year and a “Grade 1 hamstring strain” suffered in this year’s Exhibition Season.
  3. Seattle Seahawks (7-9):  The turnover within the Seahawks organization is almost as complete as the turnover that occurred here in DC when President Trump took over from President Obama.  About half of the coaching staff is new; the defensive backfield is totally new – unless Earl Thomas relents and shows up to play.  The OL was awful last year and only a true Seattle fanboy would look at this group and say they are going to be world beaters this year.  Russell Wilson made some amazing plays out of nothing last year with his scrambling and throws on the run.  But magicians can only pull rabbits out of a hat if they have previously stuffed rabbits in there.  That OL has to be sure to keep Wilson in a position to keep finding those rabbits to stuff in those hats in order to …
  4. Arizona Cardinals (4-12):  If indeed this is Larry Fitzgerald’s last year in the NFL, this is a sad way for a great receiver – – and by all accounts a very good person – – to exit stage right.  I have this bleak prediction even though the Cards’ QB situation has improved from last year except Sam Bradford is a “China doll” (Bradford has been in the NFL 9 years and has made it through a complete season exactly twice.) and Josh Rosen is awfully green to be wearing Cardinal red.  Word is that the team will carry 3 QBs and include Mike Glennon in the QB discussions.  If Bradford suffers so much as a thumb blister, the Cards could be in deep water.

The NFC South will be a difficult division.  When the dust settles, I predict that the division combined record will be 35-29.

  1. Atlanta Falcons (12-4):  Falcons’ fans need not worry about where the yards and the points will come from as long as Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley and Mohammed Sanu orchestrate the passing attack and Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman handle the running chores.  I am not sold on the Falcons’ DL, but the rest of the defense appears to be plenty good enough.
  2. New Orleans Saints (12-4):  There are no glaring holes on this roster either; the Saints’ defense came to life last year after being AWOL for several seasons and the Saints will also put points on the board against anyone.  The Saints gave up next year’s first round pick to move up in the draft to take an edge rusher from UT-San Antonio, Marcus Davenport.  That took a huge set of onions.  I wonder if Drew Brees – at age 39 – has made the same deal with Father Time that Tom Brady has…  Mark Ingram will serve a 4-game suspension at the start of the season.  That is not exactly the toughest part of the schedule for the Saints except for the 3rd game when the Saints go to Atlanta to play the Falcons.
  3. Carolina Panthers (6-10): The O-line was a significant problem for the Panthers last year and I don’t see that they took any significant or bold steps to improve it during the off-season.
  4. Tampa Bay Bucs (4-12):  Jameis Winston took a giant step backwards last year and will start this year with a 3-game suspension.  When he comes back, he needs to be a lot better than he was last year.  The same must be said about WR DeSean Jackson who can be a real difference maker but just blended into the woodwork last season.  The Bucs did try to shore up their D-line and it does look good on paper.  They signed veterans Jason Pierre-Paul and Vinny Curry; they drafted Vita Vea out of Washington and they have Gerald McCoy coming back from an injury.  If my record prediction is correct, the Bucs will be in the market for a new coach in January 2019.  [Aside:  The NFL is anally retentive about what players can put on the nameplate on the backs of their jerseys.  Imagine if Vita Vea wanted his full name there – – Tevita Tuliʻakiʻono Tuipulotu Mosese Vaʻhae Fehoko Faletau “Vita” Vea]  The Bucs will be coin flipping with the Bills to see who gets the overall #1 pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.

Moving to the NFC North – or the Norris Division as Chris Berman used to call it – I think this will be the toughest division in the league this year.  I project a combined division record here of 36-28.

  1. Green Bay Packers (11-5):  The Aaron Rodgers’ contract issue is resolved, and it ought to be interesting to see how he and Jimmy Graham work to create offensive nightmares for opponents.  Davonte Adams returns also, but I wonder how much the Packers will miss Jordy Nelson.  The Packers added help in their secondary via the draft and they signed Muhammed Wilkerson from the Jets as a run stopper.  The question for the Packers’ defense is their pass rush; it was anemic last year, and it looks as if it will be the same personnel this year.
  2. Minnesota Vikings (11-5):  The team is solid on offense and on defense.  They made it to the NFC Championship Game last year and upgraded themselves at QB in the offseason signing Kirk Cousins to replace Case Keenum.  Moreover, they will get RB, Dalvin Cook back from a season ending injury last year and he looked like a really good player while he was playing.  Of course, there is a question as to how much the O-line will miss coach Tony Sparano who passed away in the off-season…
  3. Chicago Bears (9-7):  Their offense looks to be improved this year as Mitchell Trubisky starts his second year with plenty of experience under his belt.  Remember how Carson Wentz blossomed in his second season with a similar background last year.  The Bears added pass catchers in free agency for Trubisky to throw to – – Trey Burton, Taylor Gabriel and Allen Robinson.  The Bears also have two RBs, Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen who can take some pressure off Trubisky.  The Bears’ defense is not the worst in the league – – and it improved significantly with the trade last weekend to acquire Khalil Mack from the Raiders..  The defensive backfield seems to be Kyle Fuller and “three or four other guys”.
  4. Detroit Lions (6-10):  Two years ago, LeGarrette Blount got a Super Bowl ring with the Pats.  Last year, LeGarrette Blount got a Super Bowl ring with the Eagles.  This year, the Lions signed LeGarrette Blount… Is this an omen?  I don’t think so.

Finally, I come to the NFC East which will not be a fearsome division at the end of the season.  I prognosticate a cumulative record here of 31-33.

  1. Philly Eagles (10-6):  The Eagles may have sneaked up on an opponent or two last year; that will not happen again in 2018.  The two question marks for the Eagles in 2018 are pretty direct.  When will Carson Wentz be ready to play at something near the level he demonstrated in 2017?  Will Jason Peters be able to play at anything near the form that people have become accustomed to seeing from him as he returns from a major ACL and MCL knee injury last year?  If you believe in trends, the last time an NFC East champion repeated in the following season was back in 2004.  Sydney Jones was a high draft pick of the Eagles in 2017 who missed the entire season with an injury; his addition to the defensive backfield is as if the team had an extra draft pick this year to add to their Super Bowl winning roster.
  2. NY Giants (8-8):  The Giants are going to be better simply because they will have Odell Beckham, Jr. and Sterling Shepard on the field to catch the ball and they will have Saquon Barkley in the backfield to run the ball.  The reason the Giants will break even on the season is that the defense – – which struggled last year to be polite – – is going to continue to struggle this year.  Another “issue” for the Giants is that there is precious little offensive depth – particularly on the offensive line.  The Giants won 11 games in 2016; they were probably not that good that year; the Giants won 3 games in 2017; they were not that bad last year.  Given the roster available, 8 wins seems about right…
  3. Dallas Cowboys (8-8):  Whether you think Dez Bryant is a top-shelf receiver or not, the fact is that the Cowboys of 2018 are missing Bryant AND Jason Witten from their pass-catching corps.  That is lot of “chemistry” with Dak Prescott that needs replacing and as importantly, it is a lot of “pass catching” that is missing from the Cowboys’ roster.  Fortunately, Ezekiel Elliott is there to carry the ball; unfortunately, two of the Cowboys’ very good offensive linemen – Travis Fredrick and Zach Martin – will begin the season on the shelf.  In a surprising cutdown move, the Cowboys cut kicker Dan Bailey and will enter the season with a kicker who has never attempted a kick in a real NFL game.  Earl Thomas is holding out from the Seahawks and has said specifically that he wants to play for the Cowboys … a team that could use help in the secondary.  Somehow, Jerry Jones & Co. have not made that happen.  Strangely, I still see the Cowboys breaking even for the season.
  4. Washington Skins (5-11):  I will make no friends in the DC area with that prognostication; expectations are higher this year than they have been in the last 5 years in the DC/Maryland/Virginia area.  Alex Smith is here to be the QB without any drama about his contract; they already have him signed for 3 seasons.  The problem is that he cannot do it all by himself.  He needs a lot more production from the WRs on the team and somehow Jordan Reed has to find a way to play more than a half-dozen games or so.  I said above that Sam Bradford was a “China Doll”; so is Jordan Reed. They really need a ‘bell cow running back” [Hat tip to Keith Jackson] and Darius Guice was supposed to be that guy; he is out for the year with an ACL tear.  Now it will fall to Adrian Peterson at age 33 to be the workhorse at RB.  Good luck to him with that assignment.  The Skins’ defense was miserable last year and if you think it will be significantly better this year, I am anxious to hear your rationale for that.  The back end of the Skins’ schedule in 2018 is brutal.  Starting on Thanksgiving, they are AT Dallas, AT Philly, HOME vs Giants, AT Jax, AT Tennessee, HOME vs Eagles.  Ouch!

The NFC playoff picture will look like this:

  • #1 seed: Falcons
  • #2 seed: Packers
  • #3 seed: Eagles
  • #4 seed: Rams
  • #5 seed: Saints
  • #6 seed: Vikings

Please note that I have picked the LA Rams and the LA Chargers to win their respective divisions and participate in the playoffs.  I am not, however, anywhere near ready to think about a “LA/LA Super Bowl Game”.  If that is your deal, you can try to parlay the Rams and the Chargers as the two conference champions.  If you make the bet and cash it, you will make a tidy sum.  The Chargers are 10-1 to win the AFC Championship and the Rams are 6-1 to win the NFC Championship.  So, a parlay of those two events on a $100 wager should yield $7000.

I do believe that the Atlanta Falcons have an honest chance to be the first team to play in a Super Bowl game in their home stadium in February 2019…

So, just in case you decide to join Bill Belichick on his yak wrangling/yeti hunting expedition and miss the entirety of the 2018 season, you can take this definition of the future along with you and know exactly how things turned out.  Sort of…

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