Tuesday, November 28, 2006

McGwire Should be Shut Out of Hall of Fame

The ballots for the 2007 baseball Hall of Fame are out, and it's one of the most intriguing and important years for the vote in a long time. That's because in addition to sure-fire first-ballot Hall of Famers in Cal Ripken Jr and Tony Gwynn, one-time single-season home run champion and suspected steroid user Mark McGwire is up for election. A lot has been made of this ballot being the first test case for how we evaluate the steroid era in the context of baseball history. The thinking goes that a few years removed from the beginning of widespread awareness of steroid use in professional baseball, we will have gained some perspective and hopefully, some wisdom on how to evaluate the players. So far, the prevailing thought seems to be, look at any power numbers from the era with a healthy dose of skepticism, which I believe is warranted. With that in mind, my thought is that if you are a Hall of Fame voter, you cannot vote Mark McGwire into the Hall of Fame.

There are a number of reasons that electing McGwire, at least at the moment, would be a foolish and potentially embarrassing idea for voters. First of all, there is way too much suspicion that has surrounded his career to be taken lightly.

- His time early in his career as a member of the Oakland A's "Bash Brothers" duo with Jose Canseco, admitted steroid user. Being so closely linked with Canseco can only damage McGwire's reputation. And with a confirmed steroid user there in the locker room, the temptation was certainly available for the young McGwire to partake as well.

- The discovery during his record-breaking 1998 season that he used a supplement, "andro," that while not banned by Major League Baseball at the time, has since been forbidden. While you can't blast McGwire for using andro if it was an allowed substance at the time, the episode is significant because it reveals his some of his philosophy on how to maintain the unmatched physical shape he had acheived by that point in his career. If this supplement was fair game, you can't rule out others.

- Of course, the 2005 Congressional hearing on steroid use in baseball in which McGwire repeatedly took the fifth when asked critical questions , saying that he wasn't "here to talk about the past." While that's not such an overt admission of guilt, don't you think that if you've been called to this hearing, there is some suspicion that you have used steroids? And if you're McGwire, who has so much to lose, namely your reputation and Hall of Fame candidacy if you don't convincingly deny your involvement, wouldn't you run with the opportunity to clear your name if you were at all capable? To me, the fact that he didn't do just that is an implicit admission of guilt.

With so much suspicion clouding his candidacy, it would be foolish for voters to elect him to the Hall unless there is conclusive evidence that proves otherwise. What if hypothetically, he was voted in on the first ballot and then somebody with nothing to lose and intimate knowledge of the situation, a la Jason Grimsley this past season, revealed that he in fact was guilty of steroid use? What an embarrassment that would be for the baseball Hall of Fame, which holds itself up to be the most prestigious of all the Hall of Fames in sports.

At this point, voters seem to agree with this assessment, as an overwhelming minority of those surveyed in an Associated Press poll said they would not vote for McGwire on this ballot.

Monday, November 27, 2006

The Charmed Life of the San Diego Chargers

Maybe it's just good karma going their way after the Ryan Leaf draft pick in 1998 went so horribly wrong and shackled them for several years. More likely, it's shrewd and forward-thinking decision-makers. Whatever it is, the San Diego Chargers are at 9-2 after today's win against the Raiders, and hardly has there been a week when it has been more evident the genius of their general manager A.J. Smith and his predecssor, the late John Butler, in putting this formidable team together.

The story starts in 2001, when Smith, then the assistant to Butler, and the Chargers had the top pick in the draft in hand. They seemed to be poised to take Michael Vick, the once-in-a-lifetime, make you do a double-take quarterback out of Virginia Tech. He was supposed to be the quarterback who would usher in a new era of NFL offense, changing the way the game was played. He was a slam-dunk choice, kind of like Reggie Bush was supposed to be in the 2006 draft. Of course, the Chargers defied convential wisdom and passed on Vick, trading the pick to the Falcons, and gaining the opportunity to draft TCU RB LaDainian Tomlinson at #4 overall and Purdue QB Drew Brees with the first pick in the second round. While everyone agreed that they got a couple of good players, the Chargers were lambasted for passing on a chance that they would never have again. At the time, people labeled it an overly-cautious move by the Chargers, who were still smarting from the Leaf debacle just a few years earlier.

Turns out Butler and Smith knew what they were doing. Fast forward 5 years later, and Drew Brees gave the Chargers two Pro Bowl caliber seasons before moving on to New Orleans, where he now leads the NFL in passing yards and is on the short list of MVP candidates. And wouldn't you know it, the leading MVP candidate in the league this year is that other 2001 Chargers draft pick, LaDainian Tomlinson. LT is on pace to break the single-season touchdown record this year, and with a couple more good years, can legitimately be considered among the greatest running backs in NFL history.

Vick on the other hand, who had success earlier in his career, leading the Falcons to the NFC Championship Game two years ago, has fallen on tough times. His raw athletic talent is still very much there and something to behold. However, he constantly faces questions about his quarterbacking ability in the pocket, and seems to be playing in an offensive system ill-suited to his talents. Today, his Falcons were beaten handily by Brees' Saints, a game that was capped off by Vick giving some Atlanta fans the finger as he stomped into the locker room.

Part 2 of the assemblage of the Chargers happened in 2004, when again, the Chargers had the top pick in the draft. When Eli Manning made it clear that he would not suit up for San Diego, the Chargers were able to swap Manning to the Giants for NC State QB Philip Rivers, in addition to the 2005 draft pick that would materialize as DE Shawne Merriman. Who's laughing now? Rivers, who has had to endure questions about his ability as an NFL QB because of his awkward throwing motion, has thrived in his first year as starter, while Manning is looking shakier by the week as the Giants continued their recent slide with a shocking 24-21 come-from-behind loss to the Titans, a loss that was due in no small part to Manning's critical interception late in the game with the score tied. Meanwhile, Merriman is in the midst of a four-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy, but before he was busted, he was looking like a prime candidate for league Defensive Player of the Year.

And wouldn't it be ironic and quite a jab to the Manning family if San Diego was able to overtake Indianapolis and their QB, Peyton Manning, and reach the Super Bowl this year? Who would have thought that the team that drafted Ryan Leaf might reach a Super Bowl before a Peyton Manning-led team did? Very interesting indeed....

Saturday, November 25, 2006

NFL Week 12 Predictions

With the NFL regular season entering its final six weeks, action is starting to heat up and the games mean more. With that, I'll begin predicting games the rest of the season, starting with this week's slate of weekend games:

New Orleans at Atlanta - In the tightly packed NFC South, this game will be huge in propelling the playoff hopes of one of these teams. Atlanta is the NFC's most inconsistent team, and they've lost three in a row, which means they're due for a win this week. New Orleans' suddenly suspect defense has given up 31 and 38 points the last few weeks. Atlanta is capable of putting a lot of points on the board, and they're the pick.

Cincinnati at Cleveland - Other than a one-point loss to the Bucs, the Bengals' losses have all come to playoff contenders this year. That means, despite the collective misperception of the Bengals as an elite team, they're still a team that will beat the teams they're better than on paper. Cincinnnati will keep up their playoff hopes with a win to improve to 6-5.

San Francisco at St. Louis - If there was a team that was going to challenge Seattle in the NFC West, a lot of people would have said Arizona, some would have said St. Louis, but I don't think anyone would have said the 49ers. But, here they are, at 5-5, with a real shot to contend for a playoff spot. The Rams have made ill-use of their weapons on offense, especially running back Stephen Jackson, who has only been given 16.4 carries over the last five games, all of which have been losses, not coincidentally. The 49ers seem to have had the Rams' number of late, and they're the hot team, so I'm picking them to win on the road and keep the NFC West race close.

Pittsburgh at Baltimore - I was really tempted to pick the Steelers in this game given the desparate straits they find themselves in, and the history of the Ravens and Steelers playing each other close, no matter the records. But Ben Roethlisberger has a whopping 17 interceptions this year - Pittsburgh barely got by Cleveland last week in spite of his 3 picks - and I can't see him facing a defense the caliber of the Ravens and getting out alive. Baltimore will keep it up at home.

Carolina at Washington - New Redskins QB Jason Campbell was impressive in his first start against Tampa Bay last week, and I expect the Redskins to put forth a great effort at home on Sunday. However, the mystery of the deterioration of their defense has yet to be solved, and facing a Panthers team that needs to win to keep the Saints and Falcons from nipping at their heels, they will go down to defeat in a close game.

Arizona at Minnesota - Here's the stinker of the week, a game that nobody outside of Arizona and Minnesota will want to watch. Minnesota has rapidly slid from contender status in recent weeks, and I think Cardinals' coach Denny Green will be fired up visiting his old home and with nothing to lose given the lame-duck position he finds himself in. Matt Leinart could have a big game against a questionable Vikings pass defense, and I'm picking Arizona to get their third win of the season.

Houston at NY Jets - There's no doubt that the Texans are a team headed in the right direction, but nothing in their season to date leads me to believe that they can beat a tough opponent on the road in late November. The surprising Jets will keep up their playoff hopes by winning a game they should win.

Jacksonville at Buffalo - This is a game that Jacksonville can't afford to lose in the tight race for the wild-card spots in the AFC. But Jacksonville is a curious team that will lose some games that will make you scratch your head in confusion. The Bills, playing at home, and coming off of a an exciting last-second win in Houston, will surprise the Jags and deal them a crushing blow to their playoff chances.

Oakland at San Diego - Some games don't need too much analysis. The Chargers are arguably the AFC's best team right now, and nobody needs a reminder of how bad the Raiders are. San Diego wins easily.

NY Giants at Tennessee - The Giants are coming off of two consecutive losses, and Tiki Barber is unhappy with the number of carries he's getting. But New York has historically been a team that bounces back when their backs are against the wall, including multiple times this season. That's why I like them to defeat the ever-improving Vince Young and the Titans in a close game on the road.

Chicago at New England - This is probably the game of the week, and it's a tough one to pick. It'll be an interesting litmus test to see how wide the gap is between the conferences when the NFC's best team faces one of the elite in the AFC. While Chicago has beaten good teams in the Seahawks and Giants this year, both were missing key players at the time, and neither team is at the level of the Patriots. New England has already lost three games at home this year. No way Bill Belichick lets them lose a fourth.

Philadelphia at Indianapolis - Once upon a time, Jeff Garcia was a Pro Bowl quarterback for the 49ers. A couple of failed stints in Cleveland and Detroit later, he's now the Eagles' backup QB for the injured Donovan McNabb, and will get a chance to start this week against the Colts. My guess is that Indianapolis has learned something from last year, and will come back focused and ready to rock at home following their first loss of the season last week in Dallas. I like the Colts to pull away in the second half and get the win.

Green Bay at Seattle - In another mediocore Monday Night Football matchup, it looks like the Seahawks will get Matt Hasselbeck back this week, and have the tandem of Hasselbeck and running back Shaun Alexander together for the first time in a long while. Meanwhile, Green Bay hasn't beaten a team with a winning record this year. They won't break that streak this week. Seattle will maintain their first-place standing in the division with a win.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Radio Show Tomorrow 6-7PM on IVNET.TV

Please tune in tomorrow to ivnet.tv at 6pm to listen to my weekly sports talk radio show, "Going Deep." Just log on to ivnet.tv and click on the English language page. You'll be taken to the main media page, where you click on IVNET Radio on the left-hand side of the screen. Tomorrow's topics include:

- Recap of the three Thanksgiving day NFL games.
- A preview of Week 12 in the NFL, including predictions
- The race for BCS spots in college football, including the big Notre Dame-USC game
- Baseball's big-time free agent signings
- The rise of the mid-major in college basketball

Make your voice heard by emailing me at sami.ghazi@gmail.com

Year of the Second-String QB

Job security of NFL quarterbacks has always been a fragile thing, but has the revolving door of starting QBs ever been this active in one season? Yesterday on Thanksgiving, we were treated to three games, and in each, the winning quarterbacks had started only 7, 5, and 3 games respectively.

Detroit Lions reject Joey Harrington came back to his former home and led the Dolphins to a convincing 27-10 victory over his old team. It was Harrington's fourth straight win as starter, something he never did as Lions QB, improving his record to 4-3 as starter after taking over for the ineffective Daunte Culpepper.

After his near-flawless 5 TD effort against the hapless Buccaneers, Cowboy QB Tony Romo is now officially the hottest quantity in the NFL, and has ascended to rock star status in Dallas, much to the dismay of Bill Parcells. He is now 4-1 as starter, and his insertion into the starting lineup has given the Cowboys a new identity, as an exciting offensive team that is a threat to score on any given play.

And finally, Trent Green, who was projected to be the Chiefs starter going into the season, got his his second win since coming back from a horrific concussion in the opening game against the Bengals. And while he looks to be Kansas City's starter the rest of the way, backup QB Damon Huard was integral in keeping the Chiefs season alive after an 0-2 start, by going an impressive 5-3 in his time at the helm.

This season, 11 teams have turned to quarterbacks who were not projected to be their starters to start a game for them. The erstwhile second-string QBs have gone 28-31 for a winning percentage of .474. That may not sound impressive, but the quarterbacks who were replaced have gone 20-37, a percentage of only .350. And not to rag on Andrew Walter too much, but 6 of the 31 losses by the "backups" were by the Raiders' Walter, who has been hamstrung by an outdated offensive system and a subpar offensive line.

Several of the QB moves have very possibly signaled the end of the road as a starter for the benched signal caller. Drew Bledsoe of the Cowboys, Mark Brunell of the Redskins, Kurt Warner of the Cardinals, and Kerry Collins of the Titans may now be relegated to sideline status for the rest of their careers. This means of course, that most of the QB changes have been successes - Romo, Vince Young of the Titans, and Arizona's Matt Leinart are now entrenched as starters, while Washington's Jason Campbell will likely get to that point soon.

Then there are the quarterbacks who have stepped in at least in part because of injury. Bruce Gradkowski of the Bucs has been OK as starter, but he has played well enough to at least merit a debate as to whether he should be the #1 QB again next year. Harrington and David Garrard of the Jags were inserted partly because of injuries to the opening-day QBs, but are likely to stick in the lineup for the long-term because they've just been plain better than Culpepper and Byron Leftwich respectively.

Now, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady shouldn't be looking over their shoulders, but this season has shown that the level of talent in the NFL, in this case at the quarterback position is so evenly matched, that no starter should take his job for granted, regardless of past accomplishment and/or contract status.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Stop the Madness!

When did major league baseball GMs and owners decide to go Dan Snyder on us and overpay anyone who's put on a glove? The Cubs paying $136 million for 31 year old-to-be Alfonso Soriano was excessive, but at least he's one of the top offensive forces in the game. The Red Sox paying $51 million just to negotiate with Japanese star pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka is huge, but he's only 26, and if he's as good as everyone says he is, you'd have to consider that a necessary price of doing business.

But the Angels paying $50 million over 5 years for centerfielder Gary Matthews Jr? We need to draw the line here. At this point, you're just throwing your money away. This past season his numbers for Texas were: .313, 19 HR and 79 RBI, and he made his first All-Star Game. Don't get me wrong, he's a good player, but he came up with his career-best numbers in a contract year, and has not had anywhere near the kind of season he had last year at any other time in his career. Wouldn't you think you'd like to have a little less risk in your substantial investment - for example, knowing that he could put together his numbers two years in a row?

What really boggles my mind on this signing is that the Angels could have stuck with their current outfield roster and probably come out even without having had to spend $50 million. Instead of bringing in Matthews, why not give utility-man extraordinaire Chone Figgins a chance to start everyday in center? Figgins is four years younger than Matthews, has a higher career batting average (.285 to Matthews' .263), and gives an added dimension as a real base running threat (52 stolen bases last year to Matthews' 10). While Matthews will likely get you somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 HR and 25 RBIs more than Figgins would provide, in addition to some spectacular defense, is that really worth an additional $10 million per year? I guess the Angels think so, but I don't.

I know that some people will say that a huge part of Figgins' value is in his versatility, but the Angels have young Maicer Izturis looking to emerge at third base, the infield position that Figgins plays most often, along with strong corner outfielders in perennial MVP candidate Vladimir Guerrero and the solid Juan Rivera. Plus, this guy's been bounced around the field enough with nary a complaint the last few years - doesn't the Angels organization at least owe him a well-deserved shot to stick at one position rather than importing an expensive free agent?

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

MVPs Anonymous

In a bit of an upset, Justin Morneau, first baseman for the Twins, won the AL MVP today in a close vote over Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter. Morneau, who hit .321 with 34 HR and 130 RBI is probably the most improbable, and for the moment, the most anonymous league MVP of this generation. A native of British Columbia, Canada, Morneau won the award in only his second full season as the Twins starting first baseman. What makes it all the more impressive is that his huge year came after a season in 2005 in which he fell well short of lofty expectations that were heaped upon him.

For Morneau to break through and win the award meant he had to overcome a lack of name recognition that comes his lack of experience and his status as member of a smaller market team in the Twins. And the players he finished above in the voting are about as big-name as they come: Derek Jeter, David Ortiz, and Frank Thomas. Usually in baseball, big names like that end up walking away with the award. The only leauge MVPs in the last 15 years that are comparable in terms of their surprise emergence are Ken Caminiti who won for the Padres in 1996, and Terry Pendleton for the Braves in 1991. But even those two players were more firmly established when they won the honors than Morneau is now.

Maybe the most comparable example to Morneau is Miguel Tejada, who won the AL MVP for Oakland in 2002. His numbers that year are eerily similar to those of Morneau this year - he also had 34 HR with 131 RBI. Both players were the top offensive threats on teams that were not star-studded but were full of good players. And the key thing is that both players played their best during remarkable winning stretches by their teams. You may remember that the A's won 20 games in a row in that 2002 season, and this year's Twins overcame a mediocore April and May to become the hottest team in baseball over the final four months of the season. Both teams won their division in tight races, and as a side note, both teams were upset in the first round of the playoffs - the A's in 2002 by Minnesota, and Minnesota by the A's in 2006 ironically enough.

If anything the MVP results in both leagues this year show that you need a torrid stretch in the back half of the season in addition to solid production throughout the year in order to win the award. This year's two second-place winners, Jeter in the AL and Albert Pujols in the NL, had great overall seasons, but did not have the signature late-season stretch that gave the MVPs to Morneau and Ryan Howard of the Phillies in the NL.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Yet Another Take on a College Football Playoff

In the aftermath of this weekend's round of games in college football and the subsequent BCS rankings, there's been a firestorm of debate surrounding who should face Ohio State in the national championship game in Glendale, AZ. As it is right now, Michigan remains #2 in the BCS with their one loss, but has a slim lead over #3 USC, who will likely pass the Wolverines if they end up winning their final two games over Notre Dame and UCLA. All the while, fans around the country are putting in their two cents over who should play the Buckeyes in the title game. That all seems a little pointless to me - regardless of who you may want to see in the game, or which matchup might bring in the best ratings, you are going to see the #2 team in the rankings in Glendale. That's why the whole computerized BCS ranking system was put together: to mitigate, at least to a degree, the bias of human subjectivity in determining a national champion. And for the most part, the system in place gets it right.

But there is room for improvement. This year, there is a legitimate argument that Michigan might be a more worthy opponent to Ohio State than USC, which is exceedingly valid given the showing they put up last Saturday in Columbus. The Trojans would say that with only one close loss in their season, why should they be any less entitled to the spot than Michigan is? And the same goes for the SEC champion, whether it be Florida or Arkansas, which will likely end up with only one loss on the season. In my opinion, no other teams this season, merit a discussion. That assumes however that USC beats Notre Dame. If the Irish beat the Trojans, they would replace USC in that foursome deserving a discussion.

My solution: this muddled mess could be cleared up by having a two-round playoff. Having only a pair of semifinals in addition to the championship would remove any gray area around who is worthy enough to have a shot at the title game. In the era of the BCS, there hasn't been a year in which you could legitimately argue for more than four teams (though usually it's no more than three) deserving a shot in the championship game. When unbeaten USC and Oklahoma battled for the title a few years ago, undefeated and #3 Auburn was left in the lurch. With a semifinal game, any debate about Auburn would have been resolved.

Logistically, it's not unreasonable either. It would only be one additional game, so it's not an overwhelming burden on the players as student athletes, especially since the timing of the game would coincide with the start of a new semester, where some leeway is allowable. And think of the ratings bonanza for the TV networks if they had another big-time game to be able to broadcast.

And while a playoff would expose the top team to the possibility of an upset, it's no different than the danger that a top team in any other sport on any level would have to face. And besides, top college football teams are essentially playing in a charged playoff atmosphere every week, where one loss puts you in real jeopardy, and two losses are fatal. With the number of one-loss teams in the mix this year, I think a simple system like this would provide some real clarity.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Sports Illustrated Jinx Strikes Again

Well, at least it wasn't a devestating, season-ending injury. Just a week ago, when I saw that Roy Hibbert and Jonathan Wallace of the Georgetown Hoyas were on the cover of Sports Illustrated's college basketball preview issue for the Mid-Atlantic region (the cover featuring the pair of Hoyas was one of five versions of SI's preview issue), my first reaction was excitement. Finally, after too many years of blending in with the crowd, my Hoyas were back in the national spotlight on the cover of the country's premier sports magazine.
After crowing about our glorious return to prominence for a bit, a co-worker reminded me to be cautious - if they're on the cover of SI, there's always the possibility of being struck with the infamous SI jinx. Kansas, one of the other teams featured on the cover in other parts of the country, had already been struck, being upset by Oral Roberts.
Last night, Georgetown, playing at McDonough Arena, the rarely-used on-campus arena where they hadn't lost in 24 years, was upset rather handily by little Old Dominion 75-62. Hopefully, any powers of the jinx stop here and we're not in for an extending losing streak or injury to a key player like Hibbert or Jeff Green. More importantly, this game may serve as a wake-up call early in the season for the Hoyas, who have looked surprisingly sluggish in their first three games.

Recapping a Busy Football Weekend

Now, things are starting to get interesting. If you're a football fan, of both the college and pro game, this is when you can really start discussing the battle for postseason positioning in earnest. With the college football season approaching its final couple of weeks and the NFL season rounding the bend into its final stages, there's hardly a more interesting time to speculate about who'll get in to the desired postseason spots and who'll be left out. With that said, here are some of the biggest stories of the weekend:

- We don't have to speculate about one thing. Ohio State will be playing in the national championship game in January. And boy, good luck stopping that offense. Michigan came into the game riding its reputation as one of the staunchest defensive teams in the country, with a unit full of potential future pros. Whole lot of good that did them on Saturday, when Troy Smith and his arsenal of weapons carved up the Wolverine defense to the tune of 42 points. The offense is so explosive and so varied in its attack, and they have the ideal quarterback in Smith acting as maestro. Another reason why you have to like the Buckeyes' chances regardless of who they play: Ohio State is 4-1 in bowl games under Jim Tressel. He will have his team prepared to play under the brightest of lights.

- The BCS rankings that were released today have Michigan still at #2 over USC, a bit of a surprise. However, don't go thinking that a rematch is certainly in the works. The Wolverines hold a slim .075 margin over USC for the #2 spot, and while Michigan's season is complete, the Trojans still have games against Notre Dame and UCLA. If they win both, they'll likely leapfrog Michigan for #2 and earn the chance to play Ohio State in the title game.

And in the NFL.....

- The Colts were bound to lose some time, and better for them to lose on the road to an NFC opponent, than to a team in their own conference. And while they still have the inside track on homefield advantage throughout the AFC playoffs, they need to figure out a way to improve their rush defense between now and the playoffs, because if they don't, they will be toast, Peyton Manning or not. Looking down the road, they need to hope that they don't face the Chargers in the playoffs because LaDainian Tomlinson could make short work of the Colts defense the way he's playing now.

- Speaking of Tomlinson, there is no doubt that he is the front runner for league MVP at this point in the season. He has 20 touchdowns already, only 10 games into the season, on pace for 32, which would easily surpass the record of 28 TDs set by Shaun Alexander of the Seahawks just last year. The amazing thing is that everyone knows he's going to get the ball in the red zone and he still scores 3 or 4 touchdowns per game. Amazing how 6 years ago, everyone blasted the Chargers for trading the top overall draft pick and the chance to take Michael Vick. Well, all they ended up with was a Hall of Fame-to-be running back in Tomlinson, while Vick is now scrutinized ad nauseum for his quarterbacking style.

- While he won't win the award, it might be time to include San Francisco running back Frank Gore in discussions for league MVP. In the biggest game of the year for the 49ers, he came up huge with 212 yards in a 20-14 upset of the Seahawks. Don't look now, but the young Niners are only a game out of first place and can be considered serious contenders for a playoff spot in the NFC. Gore is leading a talented offensive nucleus that is getting better by the week. He is already over 1,000 yards for the season and is impressively averaging over 5 yards per carry.

And it only gets better from here - 3 games on Thanksgiving and more big-time rivalry games in college football this weekend in addition to the normal NFL action on Sundays.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Schembechler Raised both Michigan and Ohio State

As if the attention devoted to the Ohio State-Michigan game couldn't get any greater, the hype machine blew a gasket with the passing of the legendary former Wolverines' coach Bo Schembechler. In addition to being a one-of-a-kind coach, Schembechler was also by all accounts a classy and principled man. Out of all the stories I heard yesterday in the coverage of his death, my favorite was one that came not in his role as head football coach, but rather as the athletic director of the school. On the eve of the 1989 NCAA basketball tournament, coach Bill Frieder announced that he had accepted an offer to coach at Arizona State, effective at the end of the tournament. In retrospect, knowing the kind of man Schembechler was, Frieder might have been wise to put off negotiations until after the tournament. Schembechler dismissed Frieder before he got to coach a game in the tournament, saying, ""A Michigan man will coach Michigan, not an Arizona State man." As a result, Steve Fisher was installed as interim coach, and the Wolverines went on to win the title, beating Seton Hall in the final. How many athletic directors put in that situation, knowing how lucrative a deep run in the NCAA Tournament can be, would have made a principled move like that? I can bet that even if the Wolverines had been upset in the first round of the tournament, Schembechler would have been convinced that he had made the right move because loyalty and devotion to Michigan comes before all else.

That episode is indicative of why the school will miss him so much. The man bled Wolverine maize and blue, and was the greatest force behind carving out the identity of Michigan sports, as the powerhouse we know it as today. But lest you think that Ohio State is unaffected by this untimely death, think again. Schembechler started his career as an assistant to another legend, Ohio State's venerable Woody Hayes, and between them, formed a great personal rivalry that added significantly to the luster of the big game.

My feeling is that today, both schools will show the due respect and restraint that is owed to the passing of such a larger-than-life figure. Michigan of course, but I would argue that Ohio State needed Schembechler nearly as much as Michigan did.

The annual Ohio State-Michigan game is one of the truly special events in the pantheon of college sports. We toss around the word "rivalry" often, but with these two foes, the meaning of the word is taken to a whole different level . Every Ohio State and Michigan student is thankful that their two teams have built one of the handful of rivalries that stand out as annual holidays. It is the ultimate showcase for competition and school pride, but that wouldn't have materialized if there wasn't an equally worthy opponent on the opposite sideline. Through their rivalry, each of these schools has been lifted up in a way that would not have been possible otherwise. Any memorable character in literature needs a worthy foil to do battle with, and it's no different in this case. Hayes and Schembechler are the primary men responsible for lifting this game to the holy day of obligation it has become, and for that, every Buckeye and Wolverine should be grateful.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Radio Show tomorrow 6-7pm

Tomorrow, Saturday the 17th, I'll be doing my second broadcast of my sports talk radio show, also conveniently entitled, "Going Deep," from 6-7pm. How can you listen? Go to ivnet.tv , go to the English language page, and that'll take you to the main broadcast page. To listen, click on the box on the left-hand side that says, "IVNET Radio."

Tomorrow's topics include:

- The Ohio State-Michigan epic
- Longtime Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler's death
- Previewing Sunday's NFL games
- The effect of the Daisuke Matsusaka sweepstakes on the balance of power in the AL East
- Some offbeat stuff, including Emmitt Smith's "Dancing with the Stars" victory

Email me at sami.ghazi@gmail.com if you want to chime in on any or all of these subjects during the show

Thursday, November 16, 2006

An Alternate Universe

It was reported today from multiple sources that Frank Thomas, coming off a monstrous year DHing for the Oakland A's, is close to signing a two-year deal with the Toronto Blue Jays. It was weird enough seeing the Big Hurt suiting up in something other than a Chicago White Sox uniform this past season, but it'll be even more strange to see him wearing Blue Jays colors.

Remember that Seinfeld episode where Elaine makes friends with Bizarro Jerry, George, and Kramer and how disarming that was for everyone in the episode? It's kind of like that for me when I see a great athlete who has been a mainstay with one team for his whole career suddenly jump ship for what is usually a forgettable final couple of years before retirement.

In that vein, here are some of pro sports' most famous examples of legends who seeemed to be misplaced in their new duds:
Joe Namath and Johnny Unitas both were part of one of the most important games in NFL history, Super Bowl III, but later ignominiously played some unceremonious games for West Coast teams, Namath for the Los Angeles Rams, and Unitas with the San Diego Chargers.

Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing were rivals from their college days on through to their matchup in the pivot during the 1994 NBA Finals. By the time each of them had migrated north, there were clearly no more Finals appearances in the offing.

Montana to Rice is probably the greatest quarterback to wide receiver combination of all time. But it was that way when they were winning champinships with the 49ers. These two accounted for 4 Super Bowl MVP trophies betwen them in the '80's, none in their post-San Francisco careers.

Presenting your newest "Dancing with the Stars" champion, Emmitt Smith, in an unfamiliar Cardinals red. It seems almost criminal for the NFL's career rushing leader to be associated with the mediocrity of the Cardinals.

And the most surreal image of them all. Michael Jordan, not in a Chicago Bulls jersey, but in that of the Washington Wizards. I'm a Wizards fan, and even to me, it didn't seem quite right. Most Jordan fans (as might MJ himself) will probably choose to forget the couple of playoff-less years in DC.

What do you think? Any more that I've missed?

Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Latest Fallout of a Wild Season

Another week, and yet another reshuffling of the rankings in college football. After this week's slate of upsets, it has become abundantly clear that if your team is hovering around the Top 10, it will have a chance to contend for the national championship. This week, 4 Top 10 teams lost - Louisville, Texas, Auburn, and Cal - opening the door right back up for teams like USC and Notre Dame, whose championship hopes were seemingly dashed after their sole losses. And other one-loss teams who seemed like longshots to be title game contenders, Arkansas and Rutgers, are now #5 and #7 respectively in the AP rankings. It wouldn't take much for either of those two to get into the national championship game. Here's why:

- USC and Notre Dame (at #4 and #6 respectively) still play each other, meaning that one of those two is guaranteed to have 2 losses.

-Besides playing Notre Dame, USC has 2 more tough games left, with Cal and archrival UCLA. At least one more loss is not unreasonable for the Trojans.

- The loser of Ohio State-Michigan is likely out of the running (despite the fact that the loser still might be the second best team in the country, but that's another matter).

- And for Arkansas, if things continue the way they are right now, a matchup with Florida in the SEC title game is on the horizon. Florida is at #3, but if the Razorbacks win, they will certainly pass them in the BCS standings.

Arkansas would appear to have the inside track on a title game spot if they take care of their own business and USC loses one more time. Rutgers needs more help to get in. They also need to win out - no small task considering West Virginia is still on the schedule - and they need Arkansas, Florida, USC, and Notre Dame to lose.

The fact that we're talking about these two teams as viable opponents to the Big Ten winner in the championship game is probably the most prominent story in this season full of surprises and oddities. Other highlights of the season:

- Two 1 vs. 2 matchups in one year. Ohio State and Texas squared off early in the season, and now the Buckeyes and archrival Michigan are ready to do battle this Saturday in the certainly the most anticipated regular season game of the year - perhaps of the millennium.

- The lack of a dominant player in Heisman discussions. Unless he goes belly up against the Wolverines on Saturday, Buckeyes QB Troy Smith likely has the trophy wrapped up. And despite his acheivements - quarterbacking the #1 team in the country, solid stats, and his playing his biggest game of the year against his toughest opponent so far in Texas - he has not had that transcendent year that you often see from a Heisman winner. It's certainly a big change from last year, when you had uber-talents Reggie Bush, Vince Young, and Matt Leinart at the top of the ballots.

- The resurgence of the Big East. This year, the top three teams - Louisville, Rutgers, and West Virginia, have all been mentioned at one point or another as national championship contenders, with the Scarlet Knights garnering the talk now.

- The major thud of the long-time giants, Florida State and Miami. Remember when the mathup between these two teams to start off this year was considered a gem of an early season game? Yeah, seems like a long time ago to me too. The 5-5 Hurricanes have a had an absolutely retchid season, with their very average performance on the field just one of their lowlights that include the past week's shooting death of D-lineman Bryan Pata and the infamous brawl against Florida International. The Seminoles, another 5-5 team, have had to endure calls for legendary coach Bobby Bowden to resign.

The ups and downs of the year have made for an amazingly interesting season, one of the most unique in recent memory. Here's hoping the excitement continues on into the bowl season.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Handicapping the Rest of the NFL Season

With the NFL season half over, there are very few certainties present. You can count on one hand the number of teams that are locks to make the playoffs. The interesting thing is the number of first place teams in the NFL that are on shaky ground when it comes to maintaining their current standing.

First, I give you the teams that will make the playoffs, guaranteed: Chicago, Indianapolis, and New England. That's it. The other five divisions are so bunched up, it's hard to make sense of anything.

NFC East:
New York: 5-2
Dallas: 4-3
Philadelphia: 4-4

NFC South:
New Orleans: 5-2
Atlanta: 5-2
Carolina: 4-4

NFC West:
Seattle: 4-3
St. Louis: 4-3

AFC South:
Baltimore: 5-2
Cincinnati: 4-3

AFC West:
San Diego: 5-2
Denver: 5-2
Kansas City: 4-3

And that doesn't include a couple of other contenders, Minnesota and Jacksonville (both at 4-3), the Jets at 4-4, and included in this conversation only because they're the defending champions, Pittsburgh, at 2-5.

So, who are going to be the 9 other teams to join Chicago, Indianapolis, and New England in the playoffs? Let's start by getting the easy ones out of the way.

Had Their Chance, Blew It:
- St.Louis could be 6-1 right now, with a three game lead on Seattle with a chance to make it insurmountable with Matt Hasselbeck and Shaun Alexander out for the Seahawks. Instead they stand at 4-3, tied with the 'Hawks for the division lead, having lost games against a bad 49er team and blown a two touchdown halftime lead against Seattle at home. And their upcoming schedule is rough, with the Chiefs, Panthers, Bears, and a rematch with the Seahawks still to go.

-As if it wasn't bad enough already for the Steelers, they get the Broncos next. Even if Pittsburgh rallies in the next stretch of games, their final three games will likely spell their doom given their small margin for error: at Carolina, Baltimore, and at Cincinnati.

-The Eagles could be 7-1 by now, and probably should be at least 6-2. But they've had a rough time of it with the close game, losing tough ones in the final seconds to New Orleans, Tampa Bay, and the Giants. The first half of the season was their chance to sprint out in front and build a cushion to prepare themselves for a tough second half of the season. Now, only at .500 with two teams ahead of them in the NFC East, the playoffs are looking more and more like a distant shot.

Pencil Them In, but Have an Eraser Ready:
- Given the weakness of the NFC West, the tough schedule of their only real challenger in the Rams, and six more winnable games on paper left on the schedule, the Seahawks should be making their fourth consecutive trip to the playoffs this year. If they're able to get Hasselbeck and Alexander healthy and going, the defending NFC champs could be a darkhorse contender to go deep into the playoffs.

-Minnesota has been one of the surprises of the year, and throwing out their awful performance against New England last Monday night, have been in every game they've played. This is a team that is not likely to go into a prolonged slump given their steady running game, solid run defense, smart quarterback in Brad Johnson, and the great attitude their new coach, Brad Childress has brought. And the rest of the season is full of winnable games - this could be an 11-win team by season's end.

-The Giants have a famously difficult schedule they've had to and will continue to have to surmount. But so far, that hasn't seemed to faze Big Blue, as they've gone to a 5-2 start, with a 3-0 record in the division. And the remaining games against their top divisional competition, Philadelphia and Dallas, both will be at home in December when the winds at the Meadowlands will be at their fiercest. To top it off, this team has shown that no lead is safe for the opponent, with the ability to come back from anything. New York is a team to be feared, and by season's end, it could be the main threat to knock out the Bears in the playoffs.

-It remains to be seen how they'll finish in their own division, and how they'll get through the upcoming 4 game stretch without their star, Shawne Merriman, but the Chargers have too much talent to miss the playoffs for a second consecutive year. They're 5-2 with a Hall of Fame runner in LaDanian Tomlinson, an ever-improving quarterback in Philip Rivers, and a great defense. The real question is whether coach Marty Schottenheimer's conservative approach will doom them if they play enough close games, but that doesn't usually hurt his teams until the playoffs.

-The Broncos' defense probably isn't as good as their remarkable showing the first 6 games of the season, but it's definately not as bad as it was during their close loss to the Peyton Mannings (er, I mean Colts) last week. Jake Plummer is hearing it from his critics this year, and deservedly so. However, Denver can run and play defense, which should be enough to get them into the playoffs in spite of Plummer's unpredictability.

And now, some tougher choices:

Close But No Cigar:
-Nobody expected the Jets to be at .500 at the midway point in the season this year under a rookie coach. So for that, they deserve a lot of credit. And looking at their schedule, a 9-7 finish looks very possible. The problem with that is 9-7 might not be good enough to make the playoffs in the AFC this year. So far, they've beaten the teams they should beat, (excluding last week's defeat to the Browns), but they're probably not ready yet to go get that tough win or two that propels them into the playoffs.

-You just never know what to expect from the Jaguars. Sometimes, they'll wow you with their defense and a run or two from their rookie star, Maurice Jones-Drew. But they're also capable of some bad losses, as their drubbing to the Texans from a couple of weeks ago shows. And now, there's quarterback uncertainty, with David Garrard filling in for "injured" Byron Leftwich, which may just be a not-so-subtle ploy to bench Leftwich. Neither of the quarterbacks though, strike me as able to lead the team into the playoffs this year given the tough competition in the conference.

-I get the feeling that the Bengals this year are going to end up the way the Chargers did last year, the infamous "best team not to make the playoffs." I don't know if it's the off-the-field problems, or Carson Palmer isn't quite himself again yet, but this does not seem like the same team that looked so promising in the first three games of the season. And their schedule is absolutely murderous down the stretch - they still have both games against Baltimore, and to end the season, at Indianapolis, at Denver, and at home against Pittsburgh.

Should Make It, But Not a Lock:
-Everybody loves the Saints these days. They're the feel-good story of the NFL and they're sitting on top of the NFC South after 7 games. They've certainly proven that they can beat good teams and they appear to be benefitting from the fresh start they're getting with new coach Sean Payton. They have a solid, consistent offense - you know what you're going to get from Drew Brees, Deuce McAllister, and Joe Horn. And add in arguably the two best offensive rookies of the year in Reggie Bush and WR Marques Colston, and this is a team that will put up points. I like this team to win the NFC South over the Falcons and Panthers.

-The Ravens are surprisingly sitting on top of the AFC North, and I think they'll be able to maintain their lead on through to the end of the season. The defense is as good as ever, and I think Brian Billick taking control of the offense is a good thing. Don't forget that Billick headed some of the most awesome offenses in NFL history when he was the offense coordinator of the Vikings back in the late '90's. His creative playcalling may be what's missing to make the Ravens' offense respectable. The unforseen struggles of the Bengals and Steelers don't hurt either.

-Kansas City is surging right now, playing surprisingly good offensively under backup QB Damon Huard. At this point, it may be Huard's job to lose even when regualar starter Trent Green comes back. If I was coach Herman Edwards, I would keep Huard in there and maintain the momentum the team has built over the last several weeks. What may put them over the top and into the playoffs in the end is the fact that they play most of their remaining tough games at home in fearsome Arrowhead - Denver, Baltimore, and Jacksonville. They have San Diego on the road in mid-December, but the rest of their road games are eminently winnable.

-I'm really hesitant about this pick, but I'm going to go with the Falcons as my last NFC playoff team over the Panthers and Cowboys. Michael Vick is furiously inconsistent, but they can run the ball with the best of them with their three-headed monster of Warrick Dunn, Jerious Norwood, and Vick. But why do the Falcons get the edge? Among these three evenly-matched teams, the Falcons get first the Cowboys, then the Panthers at home in the third and second-to-last games of the season respectively.

So, after all that, here are my projected playoff seedings as I see it now:


1. Chicago
2. New York
3. New Orleans
4. Seattle
5. Minnesota
6. Atlanta


1. Indianapolis
2. New England
3. San Diego
4. Baltimore
5. Denver
6. Kansas City

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Louisville, West Virginia in it for the Long Haul

Last night, Louisville beat West Virginia at home 44-34 at home to get a leg up on the competition in chase to face the Ohio St.-Michigan winner in the BCS title game in January. This might have been the most interesting game of the year in college football - though not the best, given the mistakes that West Virginia made that killed their chances. I'll admit, that there was a curiousity factor built in to this matchup that was the main reason that I tuned in, rather than the mere fact that these are two of the best teams in the country squaring off. I won't be as interested in Ohio St.-Michigan in a couple of weeks. That's old hat. There was an excitement, a freshness, a hunger permeating through this matchup that made it all the juicier. Could it really be that these two teams, both of the formerly beleaguered Big East, and both holding a top-5 ranking were meeting to decide in all likelihood, a spot in the national championship game?

These two teams? Well, believe it, and believe that they will be around for the long haul. And while teams have cycles with up seasons and down seasons, the Cardinals and Mountaineers appear primed to maintain and build upon their success for the forseeable future. Here are the reasons why according to how I see it:

The coaches: Rich Rodriguez of West Virginia and Bobby Petrino of Louisville are two of the brightest stars in the college football coaching galaxy, and as long as they keep that up, there will always be some speculation about the possibility of their leaving for "greener pastures," places with more prestige and more football history. Here's why I don't think that will happen.

In Rodriguez's case, there's rarely been a man more suited to coach a particular team than he is for the Mountaineers. The man was raised on Mountaineer football growing up in West Virginia, and later went on to play under Don Nehlen there in the early '80's. Now, this is pure speculation on my part, but I think that if Miami does indeed fire their coach Larry Coker at the end of this season, a logical person to look at as a replacement is Rodriguez. But Miami these days is not looking like the most desirable place to go coach, and besides, do you think Rodriguez would be able to look at himself in the mirror if he left West Virginia for a former Big East rival in the Hurricanes?

For Petrino, the lure would more likely be the NFL. His creative offensive mind is a seductive lure for a lot of pro teams, and he does have NFL experience, having been on the Jaguars coaching staff during the hey day of Mark Brunell. But leaving college for the NFL just never works - and if anything confirms it, it's the struggles of Dolphins coach Nick Saban, who was seen as the one man who might be able to reverse that trend.

Plus, the both of them have teams on the rise, on the verge of becoming perennial national powers. They can become legends at their respective universities, and in the process, develop college football's next great rivalry in the remade Big East. The reasons to stay are too good for them to be leaving any time soon.

Street cred: It's not enough to be a good solid program when recruiting hot shot high school kids. You have to be able to say you can hang with the big boys of college football, the "name brand" schools that everyone knows and deifies. Both Louisville and West Virginia have two recent signature wins against those kinds of elite schools. Louisville earlier this year humiliated Miami, way back when the Hurricanes were ranked. Yeah, Miami's having a rough year, but that doesn't matter in this case - you beat Miami, and you have made it a step further with that recruit who has grown up watching the Hurricanes dominate. It's a major statement that the Cardinals made.

The Mountaineers got their win in last year's Sugar Bowl, beating (and doing so with a lot more ease than the final score indicated) an SEC team in the Georgia Bulldogs. Not only did West Virginia beat a team from the revered SEC, they did it on a grand stage in a game no one expected them to win, and in front of a hostile crowd in Atlanta, that was dramatically pro-Georgia.

Precedence: The emergence of these two schools reminds me a lot of the rise of another former Big East team, Virginia Tech, in the late '90's. The Hokies had always been a solid program under coach Frank Beamer, but they were just that, and never were seen as elite. Then came the Michael Vick's magical freshman year when he took them to a surprise appearance in the National Championship game against mighty Florida State. Most people expected the Hokies to get run off the field, but they held their own, even taking a brief lead on the Seminoles in the second half. They eventally lost the game, but the point was proven: Virginia Tech can play with anyone, and they have been consistently been regarded as among the nation's elite ever since.

Again here, we have two slightly disrespected teams because of their Big East background. But let the Hokies be a guide, either of these teams are worthy of playing for a national championship, and hopefully, we'll get to see Louisville get its chance this year.

Game Over for Pacman

Talented but troubled Titans cornerback Pacman Jones was suspended for a game and docked an undisclosed, but apparently "significant" amount of money according to Coach Jeff Fisher for spitting in the face of a woman at a nightclub last week. If you ask me, that's the only move that Fisher could make. Besides it being a deplorable action - I mean, even Radiers fans wouldn't accept that kind of behavior - do you really want to piss off the sizable portion of your fanbase that is female? Or for that matter, has a wife, sister, or even a girlfriend? Or thinks that's just plain nasty?

Tonight on Fox Sports Radio, host Andrew Siciliano asked Derrick Brooks of the Buccaneers, one of the most highly respected players in the NFL, if he thought that teams should penalize players for off-the-field incidents. Brooks said yes, as I expected him to, but I don't think that this is something that should be an issue, especially at this point in the evolution of the sports world and fans' expectations of players.

From a purely pragmatic standpoint, you have to hold your players to a higher standard than limiting discipline to the workplace. These players represent the team and the city, and if they go off into your friendly neighborhood nightclub and launch a big wet one right in your eye, the fans are going to turn on them. Look what happened to the Portland TrailBlazers a few years ago. They historically had one of the most loyal fanbases in all of sports
- with no other professional sports team to compete with in the
state of Oregon, the Blazers had it made. But then came the rise of the infamous Jail Blazers, of the JR Rider, Rasheed Wallace, Damon Stoudamire era. Always getting into scrapes with the law for one reason or another. And guess what - the fans left, and I can't say I blame them. If you're a fan of your hometown team, it's likely because you have a lot of civic pride. So if your professional sports team goes and disgraces the name of the city they wear on their jerseys, why should you as a fan, endorse that? And the Blazers still haven't recovered from that rough patch - I'm sure some fans will never return.

From a business standpoint it makes all the sense in the world to take a stand and discipline players more severely. Also however, it allows the coach to exercise more control over his team on the field. If you are a professional sports coach, you are obsessed with winning. It's all you care about. So if the players know that the coach will not accept misbehavior off the field, then what are the chances he'll be leniant on the field? Having a disciplined team is essential to winning games, no matter the sport - a lot of times, that's the difference between the successful coaches and the unsuccessful ones. Bill Parcells is one of the best football coaches of all time because he's a very smart man, but I think more importantly, because he knows how to drop the hammer on his players when it becomes necessary.

A positive sign in all this is that the arbiters across all the sports are now tending to err on the side of being too severe with punishments than too light, whether it be on or off-field incidents . Some people were shocked that Albert Haynesworth (another Titan) got 5 games for stomping on the Cowboys' Andre Gurode, but that's the way it works nowadays. Even Bud Selig, who's perceived as the least intimidating of the pro sports commissioners, handed down 20 games to Kenny Rogers when he shoved that cameraman last year.

Way to go, Jeff Fisher, for setting a standard that should be the norm across the board.
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