Tuesday, February 27, 2007

These Players Will be Feeling the Heat

Spring training is upon us, and while that might equal a 6 week vacation for a lot of players, there are a couple handfuls of players, coaches, and one very prominent executive who are going to be under the microscope like never before. Below are 5 of the 10 individuals who I feel are facing the most pressure as the 2007 season approaches and how I think they'll fare. I'll give you the top 5 players under pressure tomorrow.

10. Justin Morneau - 1B, Minnesota Twins
Morneau broke out in a huge way the final 4 months of last season, rolling all the way to the unlikeliest of MVPs. Unlike last season however, Morneau won't be given any leeway should he struggle to start out the season. He's now an established power hitter, and his big challenge is to see how he handles being pitched around in a lineup without much thump.

9. Brad Lidge - Closer, Houston Astros
Lidge had a roller-coaster 2006, losing his closer job briefly, then regaining and holding it to the end of the season. If Lidge can regain the form he had through 2005 before NLCS Game 6 and the Albert Pujols home run, the Astros could be the team to beat in an NL Central that appears to be up for grabs. My guess: he'll be solid if not spectacular, keeping his job safe.

8. Fredi Gonzalez - Manager, Florida Marlins
Joe Girardi came out of his firing by the Marlins smelling like roses, and it didn't help Gonzalez in the court of public opinion since he was essentially hired before Girardi could clean out his office. What will really hurt Gonzalez though, are the expectations that accompany his team a year after overachieving under Girardi. Realistically, Florida is still probably a year away from being a serious playoff contender, and if they struggle, Gonzalez may get some heat unfairly.

7. Joel Zumaya - Reliever, Detroit Tigers
Zumaya had a spectacular season in 2006, bursting onto the scene as one of the premier set-up men in baseball. Then like one of his 101 mile per hour fastballs, he flamed out just as spectacularly in the World Series, giving up key hits and making crucial fielding errors. Does the negative momentum of the World Series stay with him, or will he ascend to the closer role? My guess is that he takes the job from incumbent Todd Jones at some point this year - he's got too much talent for the Tigers not to make the switch eventually.

6. Lou Piniella - Manager, Chicago Cubs
Cubs fans have become increasingly intolerant of mediocrity in recent years, and make no mistake, Lou ain't having any of that either. Maybe more than anyone else on this list, I expect Piniella to succeed because of his incredible track record as manager. However, he is coming off a putrid stint as Devil Rays manager, and faces sky-high expectations in Chicago after the off-season spending spree they went on. The Cubs should be right in the thick of things in the Central race, and Piniella will likely prove to be the Cubs' smartest investment of the offseason when all is said and done.

Monday, February 26, 2007

The NCAA Race is Wide Open

This is what's great about college basketball that you don't get in any other sport: the closer you get to the postseason, the more teams that have hope (unfounded hope in some cases, I grant you) for a berth in the NCAAs seems to increase exponentially. And this year takes that uncertainty that makes the sport so exciting this time of year to a level we haven't seen in quite a while. Not only do you have a crowd of teams trying to squeeze in to the field of 65, but this year, you have a host of teams that that have a real chance at making a championship run. The across the board parity along the college basketball landscape that has prevailed this year, in addition to the lack of a dominant team gives a bigger group of teams legitimate hope for reaching the Final Four.

Today was a perfect example of why there is no clear favorite. The #1 and #2 teams in the polls, Wisconsin and Ohio State played an underwhelming game for a matchup of such prominence, with neither team able to crack 50 points. The thing is though, this is the first big win of the year for the Buckeyes, who will likely be #1 in both polls as of tomorrow. They've been thumped by two other top 5 teams this year, Florida and North Carolina, both of whom will continue to be ranked behind Ohio State in the new polls.

Florida, the national champs, have struggled as of late, and while they will probably respond to Coach Billy Donovan lighting into them following their embarrassing loss to SEC bottom feeder LSU on Saturday, I don't believe the Gators will repeat. They've got the talent and the experience, but there's a reason why schools rarely repeat in college hoops - it's too hard to get through the pressure cooker of a 6 game single-elimination tournament two years in a row. Look at the last team that had a profile that was very much like the Gator team now - the 1997-98 Arizona Wildcats, led by Mike Bibby and Miles Simon. That was a team that won the championship a year ahead of schedule the season before, and was considered the odds-on-favorite entering the tournament the following year. But they ended up getting whacked by a streaking Utah team in the regional final that came in prepared and hungry. I think it's very possible that we could have a similar situation with Florida in this tournament.

In my opinion, the most solid team in the country, the one that should be considered the favorite among a muddled field, is UCLA. They were #1 in the polls for a number of weeks earlier in the season, and have no alarming losses. They lost by 2 to a very dangerous Oregon team, by 7 to a good Stanford team, and by 5 at West Virginia in a game they did well to get back into following a horrendous start. They have two of the best players in the country in Aaron Afflalo and point guard Darren Collison, and you know that with Ben Howland as their coach, they're going to play good defense. The cherry on top is their hunger to finish the job they got so close to last season when they got ambushed in the national championship game to the Gators.

Some of the other teams may be flashier and have bigger name stars, but the Bruins deserve the mantle of favorites in a crowd of flawed teams.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Hoyas Take Over Big East Lead

In the Big East's most significant game of the year, Georgetown outslugged Pittsburgh 61-53 in what is probably the program's biggest regular season win since the Allen Iverson era. The victory wasn't the prettiest, with an abundance of turnovers and bodies banging in the air and on the ground, but impressive nonetheless.

Everyone knows about the contributions of the team's big two, Jeff Green and Roy Hibbert and to a lesser degree, on-the-money point guard Jonathan Wallace. But I came away very impressed with the way Patrick Ewing Jr. affected the game. He's not a scorer, but he showed today that he can impose his will on the game on the defensive end and in the energy and emotion he brings. There was a sequence during the game when a Pitt player got by the 7'2" Hibbert and understandably, looked to ease up as he went in for the layup. But out of nowhere came Ewing, blocking the shot from the back and taking away what should have been an uncontested 2 points for Pitt. If you can make the rim that difficult to penetrate, you will usually win, and that's what happened here.

Today's win also affirmed for me that the Hoyas are never out of a game, even when they fall behind. Defense doesn't usually take an off day, so their defensive presence is going to be a constant, keeping games close. And their offensive philosophy dictates that they milk the shot clock for everything it's worth, which cuts down on possessions and making it unlikely for games to get away from them. Today, when they fell behind by 8 in the 2nd half, they were able to stem the Pitt momentum and got back to basics offensively, pounding the ball into Hibbert for a 3 point play immediately following a timeout. And watching the Pitt players chest-bumping on their home court when Georgetown called the momentum-breaking timeout had to stir the team's sense of pride. They responded to the adversity, just as they have throughout their now 11 game winning streak, when they came back from deficits against St. John's, Villanova, and Cincinnati.

Now the Hoyas have the leg up on the Big East regular season title and are showing the country that their preseason top 10 ranking wasn't in fact too high, as many had protested. Georgetown and Pitt are the clear class of the conference this year, and I'm hoping for a third round in this heavyweight fight.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

It's About Time

After more than a century (123 years to be exact), the All England Club at Wimbledon finally came to its senses today and announced that it would be handing out equal prize money to both men and women after years of giving women a lesser purse.

The argument that had been used that women were paid less than the men because they play fewer sets is total bunk. This is the entertainment business, and if the fans are entertained, that should be the determining factor in the bottom line. You are paid what you are worth in the market. That's the way it goes, particularly in sports. This isn't a 40 hour a week office job where overtime pay makes sense. It doesn't make sense to apply it to this situation. Does anyone say that they were cheated of an optimal spectator experience after watching a thrilling, 3-set tiebreak women's match just because they didn't play an extra two sets? Conversely, it doesn't take a whole lot longer for a dominating male player than it does a woman to blow through his opponent in straight sets. In that case, aren't you merely delaying the inevitable anyway?

I would argue as well that the women's side of the draws in majors are usually a lot more interesting to watch than the men's side. At this point in time, the men's side is basically all about battling to become the sacrificial lamb at Roger Federer's altar. There's no drama involved. On the women's side though, you get some variety, which very recently came up in a big way when Serena Williams came out of nowhere (well, that's overstating it for a player of her enormous ability, but I digress...) to win the Australian Open. So pay them what they're worth, that's all there is to it.

The other side of this is that Wimbledon was really starting to look bad after the French Open last year joined the U.S. Open and Australian Open in offering equal prize money to each of the sexes. That left Wimbledon, the most prestigious event in the sport, the venue you most closely associate with tennis, looking, rightfully so, like the old codger unwilling to let go of the old days. Anyways, I bet the All England Club is not hurting for money in the least to give as prize money.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Norv's in for Some Rough Sailing

Norval Turner - coach of the Vegas' oddsmakers' preseason favorites to make the Super Bowl, the San Diego Chargers. Raise your hands if you think that amicable old Norv is overmatched for the job. OK, Redskins and Raiders fans, stop screaming, we see you. And we can feel your bitterness seeping through.

Seriously, I think Norv is in a no-win situation here. Because as remarkable as it seems for a man with his historically awful winning percentage as a head coach, some people seem to be giving him the benefit of the doubt. Pointing to the, shall we say, unorthodox owners he worked under in Dan Snyder and Al Davis, and his unquestioned success as an offensive coordinator, there seems to be a faction that thinks he can succeed. And his name isn't Marty Schottenheimer, so he's sure to get along swimmingly with GM A.J. Smith, who with every passing day, seems more and more like one of the most powerful GMs in the league. To me, that sounds like he's only set up to fail because the expectations are so enormous. He has everything he could want going for him. Now he just has to win.

He inherits a team that went 14-2, one of only 21 teams in league history to have done as well in a 16-game regular season. The way, I see it, he faces three scenarios and the public reaction that will accompany each:

A.) Chargers miss the playoffs - Norv's legend as an incompetent head coach grows.

B.) Chargers get into the playoffs and lose - Why did we hire this guy to do what Marty Schottenheimer could do with his eyes closed?

C.) Chargers win the Super Bowl - With that roster, he's supposed to win it all. He becomes the Barry Switzer of his generation, winning with a team that another staff so brilliantly built up.

Now, the above reactions are probably at least a little unfair, especially Option C, as Norv has at least accomplished quite a bit in the NFL on his own merit, which is not something that Barry Switzer can say. But I think you would hear those reactions to each of those scenarios.

As for me, I think that Norv will take San Diego to the playoffs and lose this coming year. The Chargers are too talented not to make the playoffs, but I can't see them winning it all. I don't even think I see them making the Super Bowl. It's become more apparent with every passing year, that in the hypercompetitive NFL, you need a great head coach who can put you over the top. Colts players will attest to the importance of Tony Dungy this year. So will the Steelers to Bill Cowher's motivational techniques that rallied them to a title in 2005.

I just don't think that Norv has that certain something that pushes his team over the edge. You know that phrase that's used that players "will run through a wall" for their coach? You never hear that applied to Norv Turner. He's got all the tools he could ask for, now's the time to put it all to good use.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Sizing Up BracketBuster Saturday

First off, let me clarify something - this post isn't going to be about analyzing tomorrow's BracketBuster games and predicting winners. I don't know how Butler and Southern Illinois match up against each other. And I have no idea if Virginia Commonwealth out of the CAA can be this year's George Mason.

What I do know is that the mid-majors for whom this day is dedicated have carved out quite a niche for themselves that would have been hard to foresee a decade ago. Upsets from lower-profile schools in the NCAA Tournament have always brought 15 minutes of fame to #15 seeds like Santa Clara and Hampton (upsetting Arizona and Iowa St. respectively). But until the last 5 years or so, teams like that were an afterthought. making their 2-line cameo appearance in the major motion picture of the big time conferences.

So how did we get to the point where now, in 2007, BracketBuster Saturday is a big-time, all-day event that gets real, substantive attention? The emergence of Gonzaga as a consistent force that can hold its own among the big boys is probably the biggest factor. It's not just that they made the Elite 8 (and held a lead on eventual champion UConn with 10 minutes to go in the Regional Final) in 1999. The fact that they sustained their success and translated it into recruiting prowess, regular national television appearances, and respect (even fear) from major conferences is what made them an enduring force. And it gave hope to the other mid-major conferences that you don't necessarily to be Duke or North Carolina to win and win big, year in and year out.

George Mason's run to the Final Four last year was the coming-out party of the mid-major uprising, but really, the signs had been there all year. A national player of the year candidate from the West Coast Conference in Adam Morrison of Gonzaga. The Missouri Valley tournament championship game being televised nationally on CBS. And perhaps sweetest of all, an across-the-board grilling of smug CBS candidate Billy Packer for his initial criticism of the Selection Committee placing too many mid-majors in the tournament.

Even with all that, I think the mid-majors in college basketball are given attention now more because they're a burgeoning curiosity than the completely legitimate fact that they play great basketball. People want to be able to try and predict the next George Mason so they can look like the genius in their March Madness pool. Or they watch a Missouri Valley game because it's the hot conference of the moment, that carries a certain sex appeal to it. (Which in itself, seems outright odd to say on the surface, but you'd have to say it's true.) Mid-major basketball is kind of like indie music - a few select people really truly appreciate its beauty, and then a whole lot of people say that they're into it because it's hip at the moment.

Either way, I'd say they're glad to have the attention.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Celtics Win!

As I write this post, there is less than 3 minutes left in the game between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Boston Celtics, losers of 18 straight games - and wouldn't you know it, the Celts are going to finally end the skid. They're up by, ironically, 18 as I write this.

Today is February 14th. The last time that Boston won before tonight was January 5th. Let's reflect on the time that was the Celtics' losing streak and what has changed in a little more than a month. On January 5th:

- Greg Oden was the definitive #1 pick in the 2007 NBA Draft

- The Ohio State football team was an unstoppable force waiting for their coronation as champions

- You would have felt comfortable betting your 401K that Ron Rivera would get a head coaching job before Lane Kiffin

- Isaiah Thomas was still a dead man walking in New York

- Nobody gave two thoughts to the love lives of astronauts

- Peyton Manning couldn't win the big game and the Colts defense was a serious liability

- The other side of karma hadn't reared its ugly head on the Duke basketball team

- Art Monk wasn't yet in the NFL Hall of Fame....Oh wait, he's still not. (I apologize for that bitterness, but as a Redskins fan, I can't help it.)

- Chris Webber was a washed-up has-been

- The Boston Celtics were still playoff contenders (Yes, even at 12-20, which is where they stood on Jan. 5th, that was reason to hope in the Eastern Conference.)

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Blanket New Orleans

Not exactly a sports post here, but I just wanted to give some exposure to a new organization that's been doing some great things. Blanket New Orleans, started by a group of Georgetown University students, has been working to help rebuild the Gulf Coast region.

The group has gotten publicity on CNN, and with the recent tornadoes hitting the city, the region could use more help than ever.

I have a link to the group's blog on my blogroll, and the official site is www.blanketneworleans.org.

(As a disclaimer, no one from the group asked me to put up this post - I just think it's a great organization.)

Monday, February 12, 2007

Marty Schottenheimer Fired

If a head coaching firing in the NFL can be both stunning but not unexpected at the same time, this is it. The San Diego Chargers finally decided to cut their losses with the embattled Marty Schottenheimer after 5 years as coach. The tipping point has been building in the last month ever since the juggernaut Chargers lost in the divisional playoff to the Patriots then witnessed an exodus of assistant coaches to other teams (i.e. Wade Phillips and Cam Cameron) and higher positions. An already frosty (at best) relationship between Schottenheimer and GM A.J. Smith couldn't take any more stress than it had already come under, and as a result the last thread that Marty was holding on by finally snapped.

Of course this is the logical and correct decision by San Diego in the decision of GM Smith or Coach Schottenheimer. If one of them had to go - and clearly, one did - it was going to be Schottenheimer. He was already a lame duck head coach who hasn't won a playoff game in more than a decade. And let's not forget that Smith has done an incredible job assembling a roster than many regard as the most talented in the league.

What does this mean for the Chargers? Who will they hire at this point so late in the game? Again, Bears defensive coordinator Ron Rivera pops out as a obvious possibility. Colts assistant Jim Caldwell, who along with Rivera interviewed last week for the Cowboys job, could also get a look. Maybe they'd try to lure Redskins offensive coordinator Al Saunders? It's hard to envision the Bolts going after a college coach - it's much too late, with National Signing Day having just wrapped up last week.

And now, what happens to Marty Schottenheimer? At 63, I'd say that he has one more coaching stint left in him. He's going to get a call from teams that need a coach next year, no doubt about it - he's too good for that not to happen. But you would think that'll be his last chance to win a Super Bowl. And considering how badly he wants to win one, I don' t think he'd take just any job. I doubt that at this point in his career, he's willing to wait around and build a team from scratch. The team he takes over will need to have some pieces in place.

For an offseason that wasn't supposed to have too many spins on the coaching carousel, this will be the seventh head coaching change of the offseason. Just par for the course in the oftentimes crazy world of the NFL.

Kris Benson out for the Year

It was revealed today that Orioles pitcher Kris Benson is out for the year with a partially torn rotator cuff, leaving a big hole in the 2007 rotation. Benson's no ace, but you know that when healthy, he'll give you a solid 150-200 innings and is good for 10-15 wins per year.

You would think that this is a logical time to install young Hayden Penn as the #5 starter in place of Benson, but Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports is reporting that the O's might go after former Met and Cub Steve Traschel instead.

That would essentially plug the hole in the rotation, but why not see what Penn can do? We'll see what spring training brings us on the pitching front.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Twins Lock Up Mauer

The Minnesota Twins signed their 23 year old catcher and reigning AL batting champion Joe Mauer to a 4 year, $33 million deal today. According to the terms of the contract, he earns more with each passing year, culminating with a $12.5 million payday in the final year of the deal.

Twins GM Terry Ryan said, "This is a market deal. Don't worry about that."

Well, it's certainly a good contract given the financial limitations of the Twins, but I have a hard time believing that if Mauer was allowed to hit the open market that he wouldn't make a good bit more. A 23 year old batting champion playing at a premium position with the potential to be one of the all-time greats? If J.D. Drew can make upwards of $70 million, then what would Mauer be offered if the Yankees or Red Sox or Mets had gotten a chance?

That being said, smart of the Twins to not let it get to that point.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Georgetown Runs Winning Streak to 7

On a day celebrating the 100th anniversary of Georgetown basketball, the Hoyas made a capacity crowd filled with Georgetown greats of old, including Patrick Ewing, proud with a convincing 76-58 victory over #11 Marquette. As usual when Georgetown wins, their two stars, Jeff Green and Roy Hibbert both played superbly with Green putting up a career high 24 points and Hibbert going for 23 and 11 rebounds.

It seems like the Hoyas have turned a corner ever since an embarrassing loss at home to Villanova last month. In their 7 game winning streak, they've beaten up on the teams they should beat, and now have proven that they can beat a top-15 caliber team by defeating the Golden Eagles, who were riding an 8 game streak of their own.

I'm not exactly unbiased here, but it's looking more and more like the Hoyas could make a deep run into March. They have size that most teams can only dream about, an offensive philosophy that places a premium on quality possessions, and experience from a Sweet 16 appearance last year. That being said, there are also a few things could doom them. First is their free throw shooting. Jonathan Wallace, Green, and DaJuan Summers hold their weight, but it gets ugly after that - starters Jessie Sapp and Hibbert are in the 60% range, and none of the first 4 players off the bench shoot better than 50% at the line.

Also, despite playing in an offense where any given starter could lead the team in scoring on any night, Green needs to get opportunities to score against quality opponents. Except for a close loss against a good Pittsburgh team, Green has been a non-factor scoring-wise in all of the Hoyas' defeats. He's picked it up big time in the last four games, probably the team's most impressive four game stretch of the season.

Next, Georgetown gets West Virginia at home on Monday night. The Mountaineers blew #2 UCLA out of the building at home today, and have played surprisingly well this year even after the graduation of their two stars Doug Gansey and Kevin Pittsnoggle. I'll be interested to see if the 'Eers build on the momentum from today's upset or suffer an emotional letdown after their biggest win of the year.

If the Hoyas win their next 3 games, in which they'll be favored in all of them, that'll set up an enormous game against current Big East front-runner Pittsburgh at the Verizon Center in what could be a game that ends up deciding the regular season Big East title. Now that'll be a charged atmosphere.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Wade Phillips Named Cowboys Coach

Jerry Jones decided to take everyone a little bit by surprise today and introduced former Chargers defensive coordinator and erstwhile Broncos and Bills head coach Wade Phillips as the new Dallas head coach.

In hindsight, this is probably the logical ending to an illogical search. After hiring Jason Garrett as the offensive coordinator before the head coach was hired, it wouldn't have made sense to bring in Norv Turner to be the head coach, like most expected was going to happen. Norv's biggest strength as everyone knows, is his mind for offense. That's why he's always been a great offensive coordinator. But he's not exactly Bill Parcells when it comes to the intangibles of getting a team ready to play as a head coach. So why bring in Garrett if you'd just be better off having Turner call the plays? That would make Garrett a wasted hire, and from what everyone seems to be saying about him, he's a bright guy with quite a future ahead of him as a coach in the league. In the end, Jones wasn't going to leave the potential of his young star, Garrett, unfulfilled.

There are two camps that should be especially thrilled with the Phillips hiring. One is DeMarcus Ware. Under Phillips' direction, Shawne Merriman exploded as maybe the most feared player in the NFL over the last two years. Ware is another linebacker with just as much freakish skill as Merriman, and he could very well blow up this coming season with Phillips as his mentor.

The other player that should be relieved at the Phillips hire is actually a group of players - namely, the San Francisco 49ers offensive unit - in particular, QB Alex Smith and RB Frank Gore. With Phillips the man in Dallas, Turner stays on as the offensive coordinator in San Francisco, meaning that the 49ers' two young offensive cornerstones who made incredible strides this year, can take the next steps towards greatness under Turner's tutelage.

Finally, while Phillips got a three year deal to coach the Cowboys, in reality, he probably has two years to get Dallas into the Super Bowl. Dallas has plenty of talent on both sides of the ball, and all signs point to the NFC being open for the taking next year, just as it was this year. Expectations are high, and if Phillips can't take the team to an NFC title at the least, I would think that Jones will be looking to his hotshot new assistant in Garrett or maybe even another big name that surfaces, like Bill Cowher. Enjoy the honeymoon now, Wade, because the expectations are enormous.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

John Amaechi Comes Out of the Closet

Former NBA center John Amaechi, who played for Orlando, Utah and Cleveland in his NBA career that ended in 2004, will publicly come out as a gay man in his new autobiography, Man in the Middle. With his pronouncement, Amaechi becomes arguably the most visible male athlete to come out to date.

Amaechi was never a star in his brief NBA career, but he is a name that NBA fans will recognize - he was a key contributor to some overachieving Orlando teams back in the Doc Rivers era some 5 years ago. And his name is one that is known on two continents: in addition to the United States, the native Brit is well-known in the UK.

The first thing that I thought of when I heard this news is that we're still nowhere close to the point where an athlete in a major professional league could openly declare his homosexuality in the middle of his career. It's no secret that in the NBA, as is the case in any sport really, intolerance of homosexuality is rampant. I don't need to be an NBA insider to know that. The NBA is a young man's game - I know a lot of young men, and "gay" is thrown out as an insult routinely.

Commissioner David Stern's comments about the story were questionable at best:

"We have a very diverse league. The question at the NBA is always 'have you got game?' That's it, end of inquiry."

That looks great when you're drawing up the NBA's official statement on diversity, but it's also blatantly false in many cases. Listen, that's not to say that the NBA is nothing but a bunch of insensitive jerks, but clearly there is an atmosphere where masculinity and verility are prized, and being gay tends to fall on the other side of the spectrum in that conversation. Instead of trying to sweep it aside, Stern needs to acknowledge that there's an institutional problem of insensitivity towards the issue, and take steps to address it.

There's no question that there are current NBA players that are gay - it would be a statistical improbability for that not to be true. But it would take quite a bit of courage for any of them to come out during their career. At this point, in the year 2007, it would probably be career suicide to do so. That player would risk the ire not only of opponents and fans, but probably some of his own teammates as well. And this is clearly secondary of course, but any marketability that player had in terms of endorsements would probably go down the drain too.

The thing is, if you asked any of Amaechi's teammates what they thought of him back when he was playing, I would guess that they would give their opinion on him without the thought of his sexual orientation ever crossing their mind. So, it shouldn't be any different today either.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Post-Super Bowl Blues

The Super Bowl has come and gone. Peyton Manning got his championship, and the Colts got their victory celebration in Indy in front of thousands of adoring fans.

Now what? How do we go on without football??

The next couple of weeks are a bit of a wasteland for sports fans. In that space of time, we have not one, but two of the most irrelevant, uninteresting events in all of sports - the professional All-Star Game.

First, you have the NFL Pro Bowl, the worst All-Star Game of them all. In a sport in which players conceal major injuries for weeks so they won't have to lose playing time, players annually fall all over themselves to find any excuse to avoid going. Did you get a paper cut that required a bandage? Hey, call in sick - the conference's fifth alternate at your position is eager and waiting to take your spot in Honolulu.

Then you have the NBA All-Star Game, which might have a little bit of novelty appeal this year, with it being played in Vegas. The problem with the NBA All-Star Game, much like the MLB All-Star Game, is that the most anticipated event isn't the game itself. Like the Home Run Derby in baseball, the Dunk Competition in basketball is the main event. Actually for me, the actual game is third on the list of All-Star related events. First is the Dunk Competition, second is the unveiling of the game's starters and reserves, and then it's the game itself. It's almost anticlimactic, really.

With college basketball's conference tournaments leading into the NCAA Tournament still about a month away, there's about a month of drudgery ahead before we get an exciting event to throw ourselves into. Not that I can't appreciate the NBA and NCAA regular seasons, but after a month of glory that was the NFL playoffs, being plunged back into the routine is a little tough to get used to.

Monday, February 05, 2007

The Colts Win the Super Bowl

Colts fans - you can exhale now. Peyton Manning, Tony Dungy, and the rest of the Indianapolis organization delivered on their previously unfulfilled promise and won Super Bowl XLI in sound fashion tonight, 29-17 over the Chicago Bears.

This game was the final step in the evolution of the Indianapolis Colts to championship status. No longer are they the thrill-a-minute offense that scores 3 touchdowns in the span of 5 minutes to the detriment of its overworked defense. It's not that they're not capable; instead, they collectively realized that method wasn't going to win them a championship. Tonight, they took what they were given by the Bears' play-it-safe Cover 2 defense and mixed pass with run to perfection. Manning has seemed more unstoppable and awe-inspiring in the past, but in the last two games, he has never been better, and it resulted in a well-deserved championship.

Some of my thoughts watching the game:

-The final score will read 29-17, but in reality, it was never that close. The Bears put together one good drive the entire game, the one that resulted in the Muhsin Muhammad touchdown that put Chicago up 14-6. And even that was aided by a short field provided by an Indianapolis turnover. They exploited the one matchup they had a clear advantage in - their return game vs. the Colts' cover unit - to the tune of a Devin Hester TD return, but in every other way, the Bears were dominated. Both Joseph Addai and Dominic Rhodes were able to cut through the vaunted Chicago defense with regularity, allowing Indianapolis to chew up the clock, methodically breaking the Bears' spirits. The defense continued its shocking postseason turnaround and came up big in the second half.

- Speaking of chewing up the clock, the game turned to the Colts' for good on their first possession of the second half. Even though it only resulted in a field goal, it took 13 plays and extended for the better part of the third quarter. That wore down the Bears defense and prevented the Bears offense from ever getting back into rhythm, a fact that was punctuated by the ugly play of QB Rex Grossman later in the half.

-Speaking of Grossman, as much as the Bears depend on the running game to drive the offense and at points tend to take the game out of his hands, they, like any other team, need their QB to make at least a couple big plays to have any ability to win the game. Even back in 2001 when the Ravens won the Super Bowl with Trent Dilfer, a QB who was thought of as the weak link, he made some plays that won the game for them. Rex was never able to do that in this game and turned the ball over 3 times to boot. He's sure to be one of the most highly scrutinized players in the NFL when next season starts.

-Adam Vinatieri has now played in 5 Super Bowls, 4 with the Patriots and 1 with the Colts, and he has been part of teams that have beaten representatives from all 4 NFC divisions: as member of the Patriots, he helped to defeat the Rams of the NFC West, Panthers of the NFC South, and Eagles of the NFC East. Now his Colts team victimized the Bears of the NFC North. Useless tidbit, I know, but interesting to me.

-Classy move by Colts owner Jim Irsay during the trophy presentation to take a moment to reflect on the natural disaster in some Florida communities this past week and offer assistance on behalf of the organization. Nice to see there's a sense of perspective there amid the elation.

-I noticed today that during pre-game intros, both the Bears and Colts went out as a team instead of having individual player introductions. I know this is now the norm ever since the Patriots did it in 2002, and I applaud the new standard of glorifying the team instead of individuals. However, I wonder if the part of the motive for doing so is fear of being portrayed as selfish and individualistic, as the Rams were unfairly pictured in that 2002 Super Bowl when they had individual player introductions.

-As far as game MVP, you can't argue too much with Peyton Manning on a night when it was truly a team effort that won Indianapolis the championship. However, if it was up to me, I would have given the MVP to both Joseph Addai and Dominic Rhodes, the Colts' running backs. Their ability to routinely break plays of 6, 7, 8 yards or longer was the key to the offense tonight.

-Chalk up another Super Bowl win for the AFC - that makes 4 in a row and 8 out of the last 10 Super Bowls won by the conference. And nothing leads me to think that the significant disparity between the NFC and AFC will change much heading into next year. But despite the win, I would say that the Bears have a better shot than the Colts at getting back to the big game next year just because the competition in the AFC is so fierce that it'll be tough to do two years in a row.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

My Favorite Super Bowl Commercial of All-Time

The moment of truth is upon us...you can cut the tension with a knife. Anyway, on with it.

#1: Apple - 1984 - I think this is not only the best Super Bowl commercial of all time, but could be the best commercial of all time, period. The tie-in with George Orwell's "1984" and the implied comparison of IBM to Big Brother is brilliant. Apple's always sought to identify itself as innovate, different, and ahead of the curve. And this commercial does all that in an exceedingly clever way. Not to mention the production qualities of the commercial are excellent.

The ad is before my time, but I can't help but give it the top spot because I've never seen anything better.

As for tomorrow, I'm not expecting to see anything on the level of this masterpiece - all I'm hoping for is an upgrade from the mediocrity of recent years. And for God sakes, please let's not have too many pharmaceutical commercials.

Tony Dungy and the Colts' Final Step

After two long weeks, the Super Bowl is finally just a day away. Instead of trying to break down the game (which would be a fruitless endeavor - go to the real experts on that), I just wanted to be able to write a post expressing my rooting interest for the Colts tomorrow. And it's really nothing against the Chicago Bears - got nothing against them. But it would be so much more satisfying for me to see the Colts win, because it would be the culmination of a long road to success that has been filled with obstacles that could have crippled others. And naturally, a win would taste especially sweet for their venerable leader, Head Coach Tony Dungy.

Much like the Pittsburgh Steelers (in fact, when you look at the two teams and the paths they took to championship status, they're almost mirror images of one another) last year, an Indianapolis win would confirm that you always have a chance when you dig deep and believe in the seemingly impossible.

Who believed that they were championship material at the start of these playoffs, when the defense played like a sieve and they were up against a formidable AFC field? Who believed that they could come back from an 18 point deficit against their longtime tormentors in the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game? And who believed that even with a 38-34 lead in the final minute of the AFC Championship, they would win with the balance of the game in the hands of the Colts defense going against Tom Brady?

Obviously, the Colts believed in themselves - if they didn't, they wouldn't be at the point they're at now. And that's a testament to the leadership that Coach Dungy has provided. In my opinion, getting his team, and himself to persevere and learn from years of professional near-misses and personal tragedies and win a Super Bowl would be a more impressive accomplishment than coaching a team that suddenly rose up and won it all in the span of a year, a la the 1999 Rams.

If the Colts lose, from everything I've heard about Dungy, I feel confident saying that he would not let the loss define him or his legacy - not that he particularly cares about his "legacy." He's too well-rounded of a man to let that happen. But for a man that has gone through the struggles that he has gone through in recent years (watching his old team, the Buccaneers win a Super Bowl the year after he was fired; enduring the Colts' series of playoff failures in recent years; most significantly, somehow carrying on after the suicide of his son last year), he deserves to have a taste of the other side. After putting in all the work that he has, and maintaining his faith in more difficult circumstances than any of us would care to do, it only seems right that he get to have the incomparable feeling of having won a Super Bowl.

If the Colts do in fact win, I hope people will take more from it than just the thrill of having watched a Super Bowl victory. I know that I'll be looking at it as confirmation that no matter how hopeless it seems, any obstacle can be overcome with strength of will and belief in yourself and those around you.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Favorite Super Bowl Commercials: #2

Getting down to the home stretch here, so you know these last two have to be pretty special.

#2: Pepsi - Cheating Heart - I love the way the guy just slowly leaves the scene of the crime trying to act as invisible as possible - I'm almost expecting him to just suddenly dash out and hear the screech of his car pulling out of the parking lot. Pepsi really hit some out of the park back in the '90s with their ads, but this is the best in my opinion.

Let the drumroll begin for #1....(!)

Brett Favre Back for One More Year

According to Brett Favre's hometown newspaper, the Sun Herald in Mississippi, the Packers QB is coming back for another year.

"I am so excited about coming back," he told the newspaper. "We have a good nucleus of young players. We were 8-8 last year and that's encouraging. (AP)

Two things come to mind:

1. Favre is right to be excited. While he didn't put up great numbers last year, he's still more than capable, and if the team can build on the momentum they created at the end of last year, they're a legitimate playoff threat in 2007 in the weak NFC.

2. Aaron Rodgers, the Pack's backup QB, might be one of the most snake-bitten players in recent memory. He went from being the possible #1 pick in the entire draft a couple of years ago (he nose-dived all the way to #24) to now likely having to wait until his 4th season to start his first NFL game, a pretty safe bet considering Favre has started 257 consecutive games.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Favorite Super Bowl Commercials #3

#3: Budweiser - Zebra - A true football fan's ad - so perfectly encapsulates the frustration felt by all fans when the refs go into their peep show booth.

Favorite Super Bowl Commercials: #4

#4: Tabasco - Exploding Mosquito - The two best things about this commercial: 1.) The mosquito exploding is totally unexpected the first time you watch it, and it makes all the more hilarious; and 2.) The guy's expression after he sees the explosion is priceless. Don't try to mess with a man and his Tabasco.

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