Dave's Sports Views

Analysis, humor and opinion on the sports world

Location: Dallas, Texas, United States

Monday, January 30, 2006

Why Ben Fell

(Note that I've also posted a CORRECTION to this article.)

As Ben Roethlisberger enters the Super Bowl with a 26-4 career record and playing the best football of his career, it’s worth noting how lucky the Steelers were to get him with the 11th pick of the 2004 NFL Draft.

This is not a case of Tom Brady drifting under the radar to the 6th round of the draft, because he had been forced to battle for his starting job in college. Big Ben was a known commodity coming out of “the other” Miami, the one in Ohio. He possessed all the gifts – size, arm strength, mobility – necessary to be a great NFL quarterback.

He fell to the Steelers because of two reasons: 1) He came out as a junior, so he didn’t get to participate in the Senior Bowl events, which, among quarterbacks, helped catapult Philip Rivers above him and cemented Eli Manning as the top pick in the draft; 2) Teams picking before the Steelers for the most part had committed to a quarterback and weren’t going to use a top pick on the position when other needs were more apparent. Some of them might look back now and wish they'd done it differently.

Let’s take a quick look at how teams above him came to their decisions:

San Diego

QB Situation Then: Drew Brees was struggling and the team felt it needed a franchise quarterback, so it looked to Manning. Trouble was, Manning refused to play in San Diego, so the Chargers had to gamble that they could make a trade to get the maximum value for him. Fortunately, the New York Giants were willing.

The Pick: Manning, QB, Mississippi

QB Situation Now: After Manning went to New York, essentially for Rivers, Brees has improved tremendously. Maybe he needed more competition, but in any case, it’s now Rivers that is on the trading block.


QB Situation Then: Kerry Collins was signed before the draft after revitalizing his career in New York. At 31, he was still young enough to be productive, and his arm fit Al Davis’ obsession with the long pass.

The Pick: Robert Gallery, OT, Iowa, who has started 31 of 32 games on the offensive line in two seasons. The Raiders gave up 45 sacks this year and struggled on offense despite adding Randy Moss and Lamont Jordan in the offseason.

QB Situation Now: Collins was benched for Marques Tuiasosopo at one point this season and the Raiders appear to be starting over at quarterback.


QB Situation Then: Josh McCown appeared to be the quarterback of the future after showing some promise in 2003, and new coach Denny Green wasn’t going to pass up the chance to draft Larry Fitzgerald, his former ball boy in Minnesota.

The Pick: Fitzgerald, WR, Pittsburgh, who combined with Anquan Boldin to give the Cardinals a pair of 1,000-yard receivers, even if they weren’t sure who would throw them the ball.

QB Situation Now: Injuries have limited McCown’s performance. Kurt Warner was signed in the 2005 off-season to stabilize the position but was injured during the season. McCown and John Navarre split time the rest of the year. Another situation in flux.

New York

QB Situation Then: Collins was out, and his long-term successor was yet to be identified. Warner was signed before the 2004 season to keep the position warm.

The Pick: Rivers, QB, NC State, who has appeared in mop-up duty only since the trade to San Diego.

QB Situation Now: Rivers went to San Diego for Manning, who stepped in and took his lumps late in his rookie year. He improved this year but showed the ability to get rattled under pressure. Still, it’s likely the Giants have found their starter for the long-term.


QB Situation Then: With new coach Joe Gibbs, the Redskins signed veteran Mark Brunell to go with youngster Patrick Ramsey.

The Pick: Sean Taylor, S, Miami, who is one of the fiercest hitters in the game with his body and his saliva.

QB Situation Now: Ramsey fell out of favor with Gibbs, who seemed more comfortable with the veteran lefty Brunell. A game competitor, Brunell led his team to a five-game winning streak to finish the season and a victory over Tampa Bay in the playoffs, but the offense was hardly imposing. How much more does Brunell have in him? Will Ramsey recover?


QB Situation Then: Signed veteran Jeff Garcia before the draft to a long-term contract.

The Pick: Kellen Winslow, TE, Miami, who broke his leg in the second game last year and then destroyed his knee in a motorcycle accident in the 2005 offseason. He has tremendous potential and a great pedigree, but he faces an uphill battle to live up to them.

QB Situation Now: Garcia was nearly killed behind a bad offensive line last year. Trent Dilfer came in for this season but by the end of the year, new coach Romeo Crennel had handed the offense to promising rookie Charlie Frye.


QB Situation Then: Joey Harrington, the third overall pick in the 2002 draft, had struggled but the Lions were still counting on him to succeed, especially with guru Steve Mariucci as the new coach.

The Pick: Roy Williams, WR, Texas, who has looked spectacular at times but is left to carry a sputtering offense full of promising careers gone astray.

QB Situation Now: Garcia was brought in for the 2005 season as the starter under his former coach Mariucci but broke his leg in the preseason, making Harrington the starter. Garcia and Harrington split time during the year and Harrington showed enough signs of life that he’ll probably get one more chance. He certainly has enough receivers.


QB Situation Then: Michael Vick had led the Falcons to the playoffs in 2002 but was recovering from a broken leg that had limited him to five games in 2003. Still, a singular talent and a former No. 1 overall pick who was sure to nail down the position for years to come.

The Pick: DeAngelo Hall, CB, Virginia Tech, who has blossomed into one of the better young corners in the NFC. He had six interceptions in 2005 and is headed to the Pro Bowl.

QB Situation Now: Vick’s numbers over the past two years: 29 touchdowns, 25 interceptions, 56 percent completions. The Falcons got to the NFC Championship Game in 2004, but Vick’s are hardly stellar numbers for a quarterback who has struggled to overcome his natural inclination to run. Matt Schaub, drafted in the third round in 2004, figures to get at least a look, to provide the Falcons with trade bait if nothing else.


QB Situation Then: Byron Leftwich was entrenched in only his second year.

The Pick: Reggie Williams, WR, Washington, who has 62 catches in two years but only one touchdown for an offense that prefers to grind it out with the run.

QB Situation Now: Leftwich had solid numbers in each of the past two years and showed the ability to make big plays in clutch situations. Worth watching, though, is the broken leg that cost him the final five games of the 2005 regular season and led to a bad performance as the Jags lost to New England in the wild-card round.


QB Situation Then: David Carr, the first pick of the 2002 draft, would be given every chance to succeed. Given the Texans' offensive line, he’d need it.

The Pick: Dunta Robinson, CB, South Carolina, who has 175 tackles in two seasons, an alarming number for a cornerback. It means he’s getting picked on, the front seven can’t make plays, or, in this case, both.

QB Situation Now: Carr is likely to remain the Texans quarterback despite the temptation for them to draft hometown son Vince Young with the first pick in the 2006 draft. Give Carr a backfield with Reggie Bush and Domanick Davis, plus Andre Johnson at wideout, and he’ll have some weapons. But how can the Texans leave a player of Carr’s talent such a sitting duck (68 sacks last year) behind the worst offensive line in football?


QB Situation Then: Tommy Maddox had led the Steelers to the playoffs in 2002 and was penciled in as the 2004 starter despite a below-average season the previous year.

The Pick: Roethlisberger, QB, Miami (Ohio), who was forced into the starting role when Maddox went down in the second game of the 2004 season. He won 15 games in a row before succumbing to playoff pressure and the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game last year. Now he'll be the youngest quarterback besides Dan Marino to start a Super Bowl.

QB Situation Now: Quarterbacks are paid to win games, and Roethlisberger has a better winning percentage than any quarterback over the past two years, including Brady and Peyton Manning.

The point here is that teams face an age-old drafting problem: Do you take the best player available or do you take the best player that fits your need? Many of the players taken before Roethlisberger have already shown signs of becoming NFL stars, particularly Fitzgerald, Taylor, Roy Williams and Hall. But several of the teams who picked before the Steelers, particularly Oakland, Arizona, Cleveland and Detroit, have seen their quarterback situations get worse over time.

Bottom line: A handful of NFL teams can say they know who their quarterback will be five years from now (assuming no injury or contract dispute). None of the teams who picked before them can say so with as much certainty as the Steelers.

Opening Day in January

Pitchers and catchers might not report to Spring Training for another month, but to a handful of baseball fans, Opening Day came on Friday.

Strat-O-Matic Baseball has been the subject of a cult following among many baseball fans, including this one. And a group of about 100 folks gathered on Friday outside its headquarters in Glen Head, N.Y., to be the first to receive the 2005 installment of the player cards and the computer version.

The game has existed since founder Hal Richman began creating and marketing the cards himself in 1962. His is a wonderful story of a man with a dream and the determination to see it through.

Hal still runs the company, with a small staff of folks to assist with the sales, marketing and design of the products, which include both cards-and-dice and computer versions of baseball, football, basketball and hockey games. And he is able to tap into a network of followers to help test and enhance the products. This is an American business success story as well as a testament to the love of sports, particularly baseball -- the original and most popular of Strat-O-Matic games.

I've written about this topic before. You can click here for a link to an article I had published in 2002 in the Minneapolis paper.


Thursday, January 26, 2006

How BIG a game is it?

Tell me you haven’t faced this scenario. Your significant other sees you sitting on the couch and she asks, “What’s on TV tonight?”

You say, “The big game.”

She says, “I thought the big game was on last night.”

You reply, “No, this is the REALLY big game.”

(I realize I’m stereotyping gender roles here, so forgive me.)

Until now, sports fans didn’t have a measure to quantify the importance of a game for viewing purposes. Obviously, you’re going to watch a game involving your favorite team or player whenever you can. But any decent sports fan knows there are some events that must be watched without exception.

Introducing the Must-View Index™ or MVI, an attempt to measure just how big a game is, so you can plan your evening or weekend around it.

The MVI has five components, which are the five key criteria one uses to determine whether to watch a game – independent of rooting interest.

Star Power – Does the game feature high-profile teams or star players, in terms of talent or viewing appeal? All-Star games are a natural for this. Seeing the top teams in each league would yield a high Star Power score. Any game featuring Kobe Bryant would score high in this category right now. And the 1999 U.S. women’s soccer team’s games would, too.

Historical Significance – Do you have a chance to see something extremely rare, such as an individual milestone or a team continuing its dominance? Obviously, some records can be broken on a moment’s notice, with no warning. But career and season plateaus can be predicted with some warning. Fans will want to watch the home run countdown of Barry Bonds this year, and they were intrigued by the Patriots’ chance to three-peat. And some games get sneaky high scores in this category. For example, Houston and San Francisco played on the final day of the season for the right to select Reggie Bush.

Rivalry – Does the game feature two teams with a history against each other? There are obvious rivalries: Yankees-Red Sox, Redskins-Cowboys. There are more recent rivalries: Patriots-Colts, Pistons-Pacers. And there are individual rivalries: players matching up against their former teams (any Lakers vs. Heat game qualifies), two top pitchers facing one another, etc. A rivalry usually means an intense, hard-fought game.

Competitiveness – Does the game have a chance to be competitive AND well-played? Only in those rare circumstances, usually those involving one’s favorite team, does a sports fan hope for a one-sided game. Those who watched the Rose Bowl or the Steelers-Colts Divisional Playoff realized they saw something incredible. Competitiveness also has the ability to rear its head when one least expects it, but again, there are ways to determine ahead of time if a game has a chance to be close. At the same time, just because a game is likely to be close doesn’t mean it’s worth your time. Two bad teams can play an evenly matched game, but one that’s aesthetically unwatchable.

Impact on Season – Does the game have high stakes for the participants? Baseball fans are going to tune in for the World Series because it’s the crescendo of the season. Ditto the Super Bowl, Stanley Cup, NBA Playoffs, March Madness and the college bowls. Well, most of the bowls. Some regular-season games take on more meaning, if a team’s playoff life is at stake, or if two of the top teams meet in the regular season for a possible tiebreaker or seeding advantage.

So, to calculate the MVI, give each game a score of 0 to 10 on each of the five measures. Average the scores, then multiply that result by 10 so there’s a 0-to-100 scale. Or you can just add up the numbers and double the result – you get the same score. (Hey, I’m looking for any ammunition I can get, and a 94 sounds a hell of a lot better than a 9.4 or a 47.)

Let’s give some examples from various extremes, starting with recent games.

The 2006 Rose Bowl would be an example of a must-watch game.

Star Power: 10 (You had the top three players in college football, including two Heisman winners in a row, and the top two teams. It can’t get any better.)
Historical Significance: 9 (USC was going for a third national championship and had won 34 in a row, putting them within hailing distance of Oklahoma’s record. Texas hadn’t won a national championship in 35 years. The BCS rarely worked before.)
Rivalry: 6 (The teams weren’t historical rivals, but they were two of the most storied programs in college football history.)
Competitiveness: 10 (Though USC was favored by most experts, the game was expected to be competitive.)
Impact on Season: 10 (It was for the national championship, with no arguments.)

Total: 90 (Average score is 9.0). You needed to watch this game. (And wasn’t it worth it?)

On the opposite end of the spectrum, how about the Dec. 24 regular season game between the Lions and Saints?

Star Power: 0 (A few decent players, but no really big names, and both teams were mostly dogging it by that point.)
Historical Significance: 1 (Maybe the last regular season home game the Saints would play outside Louisiana. Time will tell.)
Rivalry: 1 (Both teams play in domes, and Tom Dempsey of the Saints kicked the NFL’s longest field goal to beat the Lions back in 1970. That’s the extent of the rivalry.)
Competitiveness: 1 (Could have been close, but not likely to be well played.)
Impact on Season: 0 (Neither team had anything at stake. The only impact was that both teams were one game closer to being put out of their misery.)

Total: 6 (Average score is 0.6). You should have finished up your shopping instead, or cleaned your garage if your shopping was already done.

Scores are always subjective. You might find more star power in a game than I do, or think a game has a better chance to be more competitive. But that’s the point of the MVI – people have personal reasons for wanting to watch sporting events, above and beyond just following the teams they root for. The MVI just gives us a way to measure it.

But anything above 50 you should keep tabs on. Anything above 75 you should try to watch or TIVO. Anything at 90 or higher should be missed only to attend a wedding or funeral.

I was trying to think of a game that would get a perfect score, and the closest I came up with was the seventh game of the 2004 American League Championship Series. It had the star power of the two premier teams in the American League and two of baseball’s top franchises. It had the history of the Red Sox trying to continue a path toward ending their 86-year drought. The rivalry is the best in the sport. The teams were almost equal and the pitching matchup featured two solid, if unspectacular, starters. And obviously the winner was moving on to the World Series and the loser ending its season. That’s pretty much a 10 across the board.

I’ll use the MVI to evaluate some big games along the way, and feel free to use the tool to convince others that you really MUST watch the game tonight. I also welcome your thoughts on how, if at all, you might want to tweak this.

Because I’m all about manipulating numbers.


Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Another plug: SportsPickle.com

For those of you who love The Onion and don't know about a sports-specific equivalent to it, check out SportsPickle.com.

It's the product of a fellow named DJ Gallo, who also writes for Page 2 on ESPN.com, and it's his satirical take on the sports world. He updates it every Wednesday, so after (or before) you take a gander at The Onion, surf over to SportsPickle.com for the latest in would-be sports news. I've posted a link to it on the left-hand side of this page. My favorite headline this week is: Shaq One-Ups Kobe by Putting on 82 Pounds. You can also click Who's Been Pickled on the home page of his site and see all of the back issues. Great stuff!

You can also check out DJ's columns on ESPN, where he writes mock headlines for various cities' sports sections and other witty commentary on a weekly column for Page 2.

So, with apologies to DJ, here's my sports headline of the night:

Artest agrees to trade after Kings announce move to Pluto

The Other DJ

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

News we could see coming

The sports news of today provided several big stories, but none of these four should really surprise anyone.

Barry Bonds decides to pull out of the World Baseball Classic

Let the jokes and conspiracies begin about Bonds bailing because of the stricter drug policies at the World Baseball Classic, but this makes sense on another level. This is likely Bonds' last year. He's sure to pass Babe Ruth and move into second place on the all-time home run list, and if he's healthy -- and if pitchers throw the ball anywhere near the plate against him -- he's got a chance to hit the 48 homers needed to pass Hank Aaron. You can't blame Bonds for wanting to make the most of his at-bats in the games where those home runs count. It wouldn't be surprising to see other stars pull out between now and March. By the way, ESPN has a nice little site with an overview, rosters, and facts about the countries, found here.

Theo Epstein returns as Red Sox GM

This one made way too much sense. The original kid GM loves the Red Sox too much, he's too smart for the team to let him get away, and it was never made public why he walked away in the first place. Once no team snapped him up quickly -- Wouldn't you want the guy who built the first Red Sox World Championship in 86 years? -- it was only a matter of time before the sides came to their senses.

Ron Artest rejects a trade to the Kings

Actually, he didn't reject the trade for Peja Stojakovic. Artest spoke out that he didn't want to play for Sacramento, so the Kings cancelled the trade. Lots of ways I can go with this one. Are the fans in Arco Arena too laid back for Artest? No promises from the Kings for the days off to further his recording career? Not enough words to rhyme with Sacramento for his raps?

Then there's this quote from Ron: "It's not that I don't want to play there." OK, here's Media Training 101: When someone explicitly repeats that a published report is not true, it almost always is.

Meanwhile, now that the Kings have traded Peja, only to now take him back. They might want to see if Epstein has some free time for a consultation before he goes back to Boston. After all, Epstein deftly managed a similar situation when he had trades in place for Nomar Garciaparra and Manny Ramirez as part of the Alex Rodriguez acquisition-gone-awry. He handled it quite well, keeping Manny and letting Nomar pout before trading him for the final pieces of the championship puzzle.

Mario Lemieux retires

Nothing sarcastic to say about this news. Wayne Gretzky will always be The Great One. Lemieux then must be The Damn-Near-Great One. While he didn't have the ultimate impact on hockey that Gretzky did, Lemieux will always be remembered as perhaps the sport's greatest warrior.

He blended size and skill like no player before or since. He produced two Stanley Cups without having the overall talent of Gretzky's Edmonton teams. And he averaged just 0.04 points per game fewer than Gretzky.

He lifted a moribund franchise to two Stanley Cups, then rescued it from bankruptcy. He played his entire career with one team, avoiding the traveling circus that Gretzky had to endure as he made his way through Los Angeles, St. Louis and New York in the latter stages of his career. And finally, he battled through Hodgkin's disease, painful back injuries and now heart trouble before finally calling it quits, such was his commitment to the sport.

Lemieux is in the Hockey Hall of Fame because there isn't anything higher to honor him in the sport. Now as a last-ditch plan to build an arena in Pittsburgh teeters on the brink, Lemieux and his group have announced that they're selling the Penguins because Mario doesn't want to be the one to have to move or fold them.

The sport's most courageous shift is over.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Team of Destiny ... Or Just Plain Lucky?

Talking with a friend about the Pittsburgh Steelers' heart-stopping victory over Indianapolis two weeks ago, we thought that such a dramatic victory made them seem like a team of destiny. Then my friend pointed out that the week after the Immaculate Reception in 1972, Pittsburgh lost to Miami. (Granted, it was the 17-0 Dolphins, who will be quick to remind you they're the only team ever to go unbeaten.) So I started thinking about how such miraculous teams fared later on in the playoffs.

Following is the result of a scientific study, in which I looked at teams since the Divisional Playoffs began in 1970 who escaped with a dramatic victory in that round, and how they fared the rest of the way. I'm focusing on divisional playoffs only, so you'll see no discussion of The Music City Miracle, Frank Reich, or The Fumble, and only tangential reference to The Drive. That's because teams that win the Divisional Playoff need to win two more games to win it all. Three games seems too many, and one game too few, to really evaluate them.

Team: 1971 Dolphins
What Happened: Beat Kansas City 27-24 in double overtime on Christmas Day, when Hall of Fame kicker Jan Stenerud missed two game-winning kicks.
What Happened Next: Shut out the Colts in the AFC Championship, lost to Dallas 24-3 in Super Bowl VI.

Team: 1972 Steelers
What Happened: Franco Harris caught a pass, and, you know, took it to the house, beating Oakland 13-7.
What Happened Next: Lost 21-17 to the aforementioned Dolphins in the AFC Championship.

Team: 1972 Cowboys
What Happened: Scored the last 17 points of the game to beat San Francisco 30-28.
What Happened Next: Hammered 26-3 by archrival Washington in the NFC Championship.

Team: 1974 Raiders
What Happened: Ken Stabler's dramatic "Sea of Hands" touchdown pass to Clarence Davis beat two-time defending champion Miami 28-26.
What Happened Next: Lost to the Steelers 24-13 in the AFC Championship.

Team: 1975 Cowboys
What Happened: Roger Staubach completed "Hail Mary" pass to Drew Pearson, who somehow wasn't called for pass interference, beating the Vikings 17-14.
What Happened Next: Crushed the Rams 37-7 before losing Super Bowl X to Pittsburgh.

Team: 1976 Raiders
What Happened: In a veeeeery suspicious call, New England's Sugar Bear Hamilton is called for roughing Ken Stabler on 4th down, giving the Raiders a second chance to pull out a 24-21 victory.
What Happened Next: Beat Pittsburgh 24-7 and Minnesota 32-14 to win Super Bowl XI.

Team: 1977 Raiders
What Happened: After tying game on field goal in final seconds, beat Baltimore 37-31 on Stabler-to-Dave Casper touchdown in double overtime.
What Happened Next: Lost to Denver 20-17 in AFC Championship.

Team: 1979 Rams
What Happened: Vince Ferragamo threw 50-yard touchdown pass to Billy Waddy with 2 minutes remaining to beat Dallas 21-19.
What Happened Next: Shut out Tampa Bay 9-0 and hung in Super Bowl XIV with Pittsburgh before losing 31-19.

Team: 1980 Raiders
What Happened: Mike Davis picked off Brian Sipe with the Browns in range for the winning field goal, preserving 14-12 victory.
What Happened Next: Became the first wild card team to win the Super Bowl, beating San Diego and Philadelphia.

Team: 1980 Cowboys
What Happened: Scored 20 fourth-quarter points to beat Atlanta 30-27.
What Happened Next: Lost to the Eagles in the NFC Championship, 20-7.

Team: 1981 Chargers
What Happened: Outlasted Miami 41-38 in overtime, with Kellen Winslow blocking a potential game-winning Dolphins field goal while battling heat exhaustion in the Orange Bowl.
What Happened Next: Went from the oven to the freezer, losing AFC Championship 27-7 to Cincinnati in minus-59 degree wind chills.

Team: 1983 49ers
What Happened: Detroit kicker Eddie Murray just missed a game-winning field goal, allowing the Niners to escape, 24-23.
What Happened Next: Rallied from 21-0 deficit to tie at Washington but lost 24-21 in NFC Championship.

Team: 1984 Steelers
What Happened: Eric Williams ran a John Elway interception back to the 2-yard line in the final minutes, setting up the winning touchdown in a 24-17 victory at Denver.
What Happened Next: Blown away by Dan Marino and the Dolphins, 45-28, in the AFC Championship.

Team: 1986 Browns
What Happened: Scored 10 points in the final five minutes to tie the Jets, won in double overtime on Mark Moseley's field goal, 23-20.
What Happened Next: Lost to the Broncos by the same score the next week, thanks to "The Drive."

Team: 1989 Browns
What Happened: Thurman Thomas dropped a potential game-winning touchdown, and Cleveland intercepts Jim Kelly on the next play to beat Buffalo, 34-30.
What Happened Next: Lost to Denver for the third time in four years, 37-21, in the AFC Championship.

Team: 1989 Rams
What Happened: Flipper Anderson hauled in Jim Everett's winning touchdown, then ran straight to the locker room in a 19-13 overtime victory against the Giants.
What Happened Next: Lost 30-3 at San Francisco in NFC Championship.

Team: 1991 Broncos
What Happened: John Elway led an 87-yard drive in the final two minutes, setting up David Treadwell's winning field goal in a 26-24 win over Houston.
What Happened Next: Missed three field goals, lost Elway to injury and gave up a defensive touchdown, yet still only lost 10-7 at Buffalo in the AFC Championship.

Team: 1994 Chargers
What Happened: Rallied from 21-6 down, beat Miami 22-21 when Pete Stoyanovich missed a game-winning field goal.
What Happened Next: Stunned Pittsburgh 17-13 in AFC Championship. Run over by the 49ers in Super Bowl XXIX, 49-26.

Team: 1995 Colts
What Happened: Upset top-seeded Kansas City, who missed three field goals and committed four turnovers in a 10-7 defeat.
What Happened Next: Lost dramatic AFC Championship at Pittsburgh, 20-16, when final pass bounced off receiver Aaron Bailey's chest.

Team: 1999 Buccaneers
What Happened: Rallied from 13-0 down to beat Washington 14-13, aided by a bad snap on the potential game-winning field goal.
What Happened Next: Lost 11-6 at St. Louis in NFC Championship. Tony Dungy has hated instant replay ever since.

Team: 2001 Patriots
What Happened: Tom Brady didn't fumble while tucking the ball away. Adam Vinatieri kicked two dramatic field goals to beat Oakland in the snow, 16-13.
What Happened Next: Upset Pittsburgh and then St. Louis to win Super Bowl XXXVI.

Team: 2002 Titans
What Happened: On his third try for a game-winning field goal, Joe Nedney connected to beat the Steelers, 34-31.
What Happened Next: Lost to Oakland 41-24 in AFC Championship.

Team: 2003 Eagles
What Happened: Completed 4th-and-26 play in game-tying drive. Beat Green Bay in overtime, 20-17 following horrendous interception by Brett Favre.
What Happened Next: Lost to Carolina 14-3 in NFC Championship.

Team: 2003 Panthers
What Happened: Steve Smith took a Jake Delhomme pass 69 yards for the winning touchdown in double overtime to beat St. Louis 29-23.
What Happened Next: Beat the Eagles before losing to the Patriots on another Vinatieri game-winning kick.

Team: 2004 Steelers
What Happened: Jets kicker Doug Brien missed twice to win the game. Jeff Reed connected to beat New York 20-17.
What Happened Next: Steamrolled by the Patriots machine 41-27 in AFC Championship.

Final Tally:

Of the 25 teams cited, 17 lost in the conference championship game. Five won their next game but lost the Super Bowl. Only three (the 1976 Raiders, 1980 Raiders and 2001 Patriots) won the Super Bowl.

Granted, most of the teams that won their thrillers lost to better teams in the next game, but this proves that to win the Super Bowl, you have to more than just lucky. You also have to be good. The great teams through the years (the Steelers, 49ers and Cowboys dynasties, the 1985 Bears) have dominated their opponents.

The 2005 Steelers have already gone farther than many of their predecessors who escaped in the second round of the playoffs. We'll see if they can join an even more elite group.


Switching to hoops

With two weeks before the Super Bowl, we'll take a break from football commentary and move to basketball, given that there are two good stories there.

Big, Big, Big East

All three remaining college unbeatens lost on Saturday, two of them losing to Big East schools -- Georgetown over Duke and St. John's over Pittsburgh. These results and the rest of the play this season points to the Big East this year being the best conference ever.

When a school like St. John's, which has struggled for the past few years, beats 2005 Final Four participant Louisville and unbeaten Pitt in back-to-back games, you're talking about a deep conference. Georgetown has also struggled in recent years but appears to be making a return under the son of their greatest coach.

Add to the mix UConn, which is a perennial Final Four contender and in line to be No. 1 in the new polls; Villanova, a Top 10 team despite a strong inside presence; West Virginia, which came within a whisker of the Final Four last year; and newcomers Marquette, DePaul and Cincinnati along with Louisville. It has legendary coaches -- Pitino, Boeheim, Calhoun -- along with up-and-comers like Jay Wright and John Thompson and underrated coaches like John Beilein and Tom Crean.

The Big East has been and always will be a basketball conference, and expanding to 16 teams after the defections of football schools Miami, Virginia Tech and BC was a brilliant move.

Kobe's 81

Kobe Bryant ran Shaquille O'Neal out of Los Angeles so that he could be "the man." Well, officially, he is.

Earlier this year, Bryant scored 62 points in three quarters against Dallas. Last night, he went for 81 against Toronto. He's topped 40 points 12 times this year and is almost certain to be the NBA's leading scorer.

Watching him play, even in highlights, it's obvious Bryant has that Jordan-esque quality that even when you set your defense to stop him, he can still beat you whenever he wants. It's now clear that he is the heir apparent to the greatest player who ever lived.

Now that Bryant has made peace with Shaquille O'Neal and lured Phil Jackson back into Jeannie Buss' life, performances like last night will bring spotlight to Kobe's talent, rather than his propensity for selfishness and ball-hogging.

Will he be able to win a championship all by himself? That remains to be seen. But Bryant has earned the right to try.


Sunday, January 22, 2006

Super Matchup: Steelers vs. Seahawks

A short post tonight, since I’m desperately trying to get a hold of Mike Tice to buy some Super Bowl tickets.

This matchup might not have the same luster as previous Super Bowls, but anyone who watched the domination by Pittsburgh and Seattle today has to admit that the two best teams are playing the Super Bowl.

Both the Steelers and Seahawks carved up the opposing defense, played turnover-free football, and made big plays on defense. They bring veteran coaches and the two hottest quarterbacks in the NFL to Detroit.

Pittsburgh had some trouble corralling Jake Plummer, but they forced him into the kinds of mistakes that have haunted him in the past. Ben Roethlisberger picked on the Denver secondary, making the Broncos pay for their attempts to focus on the Steelers’ running game. It will be interesting to see what Seattle tries to do on defense, given that Roethlisberger has now shown three weeks in a row that he will beat you if given the chance. Pittsburgh’s running game only averaged 2.7 yards per carry Sunday, yet they controlled the game offensively. Steelers’ teams couldn’t win in the past without running the ball well.

Seattle won with the legs of Shaun Alexander, who ran well and was not tentative despite his concussion last week, and the arm of Matt Hasselbeck, who has taken his game to another level in the postseason after his most successful regular season. Carolina had no running game, with its top three backs out of action, and the Seahawks did what almost no one else could this year – shut down Steve Smith.

Both Mike Holmgren and Bill Cowher have been to the big game before. In fact, one of them was there three years in a row, when Cowher’s Steelers lost to Dallas in 1996 before Holmgren’s Packers went to consecutive games in 1997 (beating New England) and 1998 (losing to Denver). It's an offensive tactician against a defensive ringleader.

Looking at this game now, with two weeks of hype in front of us, it looks dead even. Pittsburgh hasn’t seen a running back in Alexander’s league in the postseason, but Seattle hasn’t faced a team with as many offensive weapons. There will certainly be something to watch in between the commercials.


Friday, January 20, 2006

Conference Championship Picks

Since I’ve analyzed the teams already, I’ll make these picks short and sweet. Two interesting tidbits about the games:

1. Unlike last week, which had four rematches from the regular season, the teams playing this week are largely unfamiliar with each other, having played only once each since 2001. Carolina and Seattle met on Oct. 31, 2004, with the Seahawks winning at home, 23-17. The injury-riddled Panthers were in the midst of six-game losing streak. Similar circumstances surrounded Pittsburgh and Denver’s last meeting, on Oct. 12, 2003. The Broncos pulled out a 17-14 victory in Denver, handing the Steelers their third loss in a five-game losing streak, again largely a result of injuries. Though the Steelers went 6-10 that year, their position allowed them to draft Ben Roethlisberger with the 11th pick of the subsequent draft.

2. In the past seven years, one Conference Championship game has gone to the home team and one has gone to the road team. The last road sweep was 1998 (Denver over Pittsburgh and Green Bay over San Francisco). The last home sweep was 1997 (New England over Jacksonville and Green Bay over Carolina).

Pittsburgh at Denver – The teams are remarkably similar, ranking in the top five in the NFL in both rushing offense and rushing defense. Both the Steelers and Broncos like to put heat on the quarterback and use their athleticism at linebacker and safety. Both have fierce offensive lines and smart wide receivers. And both have quarterbacks with something to prove. Roethlisberger, despite exceptional games the last two weeks, needs to erase a horrible performance in last season’s AFC Championship. Jake Plummer needs to play like the quarterback that he hasn’t been consistently in nine seasons, the guy whom Bill Walsh once compared to Joe Montana. Big Ben has shown signs that he’s ready to take the next step and become one of the league’s elite quarterbacks. Plummer will still be a guy who hasn’t lived up to his potential, until he wins a game like this one. Steelers 17, Broncos 10

Carolina at Seattle – The Panthers might be getting more support than any recent road playoff team not named New England. They have an experienced team and one that has played very well on the road under John Fox. I just keep coming back to one thing: Seattle is a different place to play. Unlike New York and Chicago, where the fans’ spirit seemed to be broken when the Panthers took early leads, Seattle fans haven’t been to the playoffs enough to give up early. The Seahawks, after a few seasons of modest success, have taken a big jump this year and look ready to take the final step. Shaun Alexander’s health is a question, but so is Julius Peppers’. Seattle showed last week that they can win without Alexander against a good defense. Carolina hasn’t had to prove they can win without a healthy Peppers. Nick Goings replaces DeShaun Foster, and he’s a talented running back, but I’m betting he won’t be the threat that keeps the Seahawks from keying on Steve Smith. Seahawks 27, Panthers 20


Thursday, January 19, 2006

Three reasons why the Seahawks will win

We conclude this week with the Seahawks, and why they will beat Carolina:

1. Matt Hasselbeck can outplay Jake Delhomme at quarterback. Despite Delhomme’s experience and talent, Hasselbeck has established himself as a first-tier quarterback this year. His has been a logical progression at quarterback. He spent two years as a backup, earned the chance to be a starter, struggled at first, but has really blossomed in the past three years. He’s helped Seattle to the playoffs in three consecutive seasons, and this year he’s shown signs of taking the next step forward as a leader. Last week against a good defense, with his MVP running back out of commission, Hasselbeck put the Seahawks on his back and led them to victory. Though Alexander will play this week, no one knows how effective he’ll be, so expect coach Mike Holmgren to put the game on his quarterback’s right arm. Hasselbeck has shown this year that he’s up to the task of winning a game. He should be again on Sunday.

2. Like Denver, home-field advantage means more in Seattle. The Seahawks are 8-0 at home, for many reasons. They have an outstanding team. They have a supportive crowd. Also, Seattle brings an element that most stadiums don’t have – rain. We’ve hardly seen a drop of rain in months in Dallas, because Seattle has stolen it all. Odds are good that rain will fall on Sunday, making the field a little slower. That favors Seattle for two additional reasons: 1) Alexander, if healthy, outclasses Nick Goings at running back. 2) A sloppy track might be the only thing that can slow down Steve Smith. Weather that enhances the Seahawks’ primary advantage, and neutralizes Carolina’s, naturally favors the home team. However, even if the weather is good, Qwest Field presents a daunting task for any visiting team. The end zone seats are so close to the field that the fans can see pass interference penalties better than the referees. The crowd is so loud that the Giants had 11 false-start penalties in a game there this year. And the Panthers will have to cross three time zones to get there.

3. Seattle’s defense has played big when it matters most. People are finally starting to appreciate the Seahawks’ offense, thanks to Hasselbeck’s emergence and Alexander’s MVP season. The defense is still building its own reputation, but this year, the Seahawks’ defense has stepped up when it most needed to. They helped turn a certain loss to Dallas into a win in regulation. They stiffened and held the Giants to three field-goal attempts in an overtime game when New York was driving, and triumphed after Giants’ kicker Jay Feely missed all three times. They hung a shutout on the Eagles in Philadelphia (without McNabb and Owens, but any road shutout is a good one), scoring three times in the game. They held Tennessee on two fourth-and-short situations in the fourth quarter to avoid an upset on the road. It’s a defense that can be had at times – witness tough road wins against the Titans, Rams and 49ers that turned into shootouts. But while Seattle’s defense won’t be confused with the Bears (or the Panthers, for that matter), it has developed a knack for making big plays when the game is on the line. Playing at home, that should be more than enough.

On Friday, the picks for the Conference Championships.


An unsolved mystery no longer

While others are off saving the world, I'm often pondering such serious questions as: What happens to the T-shirts of the losing team in a big game while the winning team is donning theirs on national television?

A good friend and I roamed the streets of Tempe, Arizona, after Super Bowl XXX, saying that if we kept looking, we knew we'd find some shirts celebrating the Steelers Super Bowl Championship that went to the Cowboys instead.

Well now, thanks to Slate and Deadspin, I've found the answer.

Where Are the USC Championship T-Shirts?
They might be going to Haiti.
By Torie Bosch
Posted Thursday, Jan. 5, 2006, at 12:37 AM ET

On Wednesday night, Texas beat USC 41-38 to win the Rose Bowl and college football's national championship. After the game, Longhorns players paraded around the field sporting freshly minted championship hats and T-shirts. But what happens to the merchandise that gets printed up for championship game losers?

It gets shredded or shipped. The fate of the incorrect merchandise depends on the sport and controlling organization. Two different sets of locker room memorabilia get printed only if a game is a one-shot deal—like the Rose Bowl or the Super Bowl—or if a series is down to the final game.

Each league has its own policy. Major League Baseball prints up victory merchandise in three phases: for each league's division and Wild Card winners (eight teams total); for each pennant winner; and for the World Series champ. MLB prints fewer than 200 sets of hats and shirts per event. If they do have to print up merchandise for both teams, like when the World Series is tied 3-3, the losing team's shirts and hats get shredded to avoid confusion and embarrassment.

Other leagues donate the extra apparel. The National Football League prepares approximately 300 sets of merchandise for each conference-championship winner and the Super Bowl victor. That means there will be at least 900 hats and shirts commemorating a win that didn't happen. The NFL donates that merchandise to World Vision, a charity that passes the apparel to people in impoverished, war-torn, or otherwise needy countries.

The National Basketball Association doesn't print up their celebratory merch until a team has two wins in a playoff series. If they have to manufacture apparel for both teams, the extra stuff—usually a couple hundred pairs of shirts and hats—gets distributed through the NBA's Basketball Without Borders program. Recent recipients of the losers' garb include Brazil, Argentina, and South Africa.

The fate of the NCAA's locker-room merchandise depends on whether it is in the possession of the manufacturers or the Collegiate Licensing Company, which handles the clothing after it leaves the factory. If the shirts and hats haven't left the manufacturer's plant, they are professionally destroyed. If the CLC has them, they work with a variety of charities to donate them. When USC beat Oklahoma in last year's championship game, the shirts commemorating an OU victory were distributed in Haiti with the assistance of a local church.

Fans who want celebratory T-shirts typically have to wait until the next day. Printing companies have blank shirts and artwork ready to go before the game starts. If it looks like a local printing company's team is going to lose, staffers get sent home. But if the home team clinches a victory, staffers spend the night printing up the shirts to send to stores the next morning.

Explainer thanks Carmine Tiso of Major League Baseball, Tammy Purves of the Collegiate Licensing Company, Dan Masonson of the National Football League, and Matt Bourne of the National Basketball Association.Torie Bosch is a former Slate intern.

Article URL: http://www.slate.com/id/2133753/

Copyright 2006 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive Co. LLC

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Three reasons why the Panthers will win

Moving to the NFC, here are three reasons why the Carolina Panthers will beat Seattle:

1. They are the most experienced team left. Start with the most important position – Jake Delhomme is the only remaining quarterback who has played in a Super Bowl, and only Ben Roethlisberger has also played in a conference championship game. Obviously, a more proven quarterback isn’t a guarantee of victory, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. Thirteen of the Panthers’ starters also played on the Super Bowl team, and if not for injuries to the likes of Stephen Davis and Kris Jenkins, the number would be higher. Experience matters most when a team is on the road, evidenced by the Panthers’ 8-2 road record and impressive victories at New York and Chicago. Though Seattle has a perfect home record, Carolina is better equipped to play a conference championship game on the road than any of the NFC playoff teams were. The Panthers are an amazing 4-0 in road playoff games under John Fox.

2. Steve Smith is playing at a bionic level. Maybe he didn’t get enough respect in finishing out of the top five in the MVP voting, and he’s determined to get an MVP trophy in the Super Bowl instead. Whatever the case, Smith has been the best offensive player in these playoffs. He has 40 receptions for 706 yards in six career playoff games, with 22 of those catches coming this year. And it’s easy to see the impact Smith has on the Panthers, when you consider that they reached Super Bowl XXXVIII, following a season when he caught 88 passes, then missed the playoffs entirely last year when he was lost for the season with a broken leg in Week 1. This year, Smith has been back and better than ever, and the Panthers look like a Super Bowl team again. His blend of speed, quickness and surprising strength – just ask Charles Tillman – make him a threat to do virtually anything. He has been successful going deep, catching the quick outlet pass, or running the football. As a result, even a strong cover corner like Seattle’s Marcus Trufant will have trouble stopping him.

3. Carolina has the best defense remaining. The Panthers had the third stingiest defense in the NFL this year, allowing just 283 yards a game, and they also had the third-best turnover ratio, at plus-16. That’s a credit not only to coach John Fox, but also to the team’s exceptional depth across the defense. Jenkins, a fierce run-stopper, was lost for the season in Week 1, and Jordan Carstens stepped in. The Panthers’ allowed the fourth-fewest rushing yards in the league. Former Seahawk Ken Lucas signed with the team as a free agent, allowing Ricky Manning, a starter in the Panthers’ last Super Bowl, to shift to nickel back. Promising rookie Thomas Davis, a first-round pick, backs up at both safety positions. This is a unit that takes chances that pay off frequently – witness the six turnovers they’ve forced in the postseason and another that was taken away from them against Chicago on a questionable call. With the Bears out of the playoffs, this is the team most likely to ride its defense to a championship.

The final installment on Thursday – why the Seahawks will win.


When Headline Writers Go Awry, Part 1

The following story -- and headline -- ran on ESPN.com's soccernet:


Dick in for Zimbabwe, but Mpofu is forced to pull out

CAIRO, Jan 18 (Reuters) - Zimbabwe have called up defender Herbert Dick to replace the injured Dumisani Mpofu in their 23-man squad for the African Nations Cup finals, team officials said on Wednesday.

Mpofu, who played at the last Nations Cup finals in Tunisia, suffered a twisted knee in a friendly match in Morocco on Saturday and will not recover in time.

The 26-year-old Dick comes from the Bulawayo club AmaZulu.

He is expected to join up with the team later this week. Zimbabwe arrive in Cairo on Wednesday.

They play their opening Group D match against Senegal in Port Said on Monday.

Props to Eric Mangini

I have to give my congratulations to new Jets coach Eric Mangini. Those of us who went to a NESCAC (New England Small College Athletic Conference) school have to recognize our own. Mangini graduated from Wesleyan University (also Bill Belichick's alma mater) in 1994, where he played nose tackle on the football team. Two years earlier, I graduated from Bowdoin College, where I covered the football team for the school newspaper.

Bowdoin never played Wesleyan during the four years I was there, due to the NESCAC's schedule rotation. So I never saw him play. But it's worth noting that Mangini made the New England Division III all-star team twice and helped lead the Cardinals to 6-2 seasons in 1990 and 1993. Interestingly, he took 1991 off to spend the year studying and coaching football in Australia.

That's what athletics at those schools were all about -- playing for the love of the game while expanding your horizons in the classroom and in life. Most of his teammates and my classmates are successful in medicine, law, business, whatever. Mangini chose to stay in coaching, and today he's reached the pinnacle of that profession. Congratulations!


Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Three reasons why the Broncos will win

Yesterday I gave you three reasons the Steelers will win in Denver. Here are three reasons to favor the home team:

1. Jake Plummer is the new Trent Dilfer. Remember when the Baltimore Ravens marched to a surprisingly easy Super Bowl championship in 2001? The defense was the reason, but Dilfer had become under Ravens’ head coach Brian Billick a reliable starting quarterback after years of being a coach-killer. Plummer has shown much the same progress working with another talented offensive mind, Mike Shanahan. In his ninth year (that’s right, his NINTH year) in the league, he had his second-best quarterback rating at 90.2, only one point worse than what he had in 2003, his first season in Denver. Dilfer was in his seventh season, and, like Plummer, with his second team when he won a ring in Baltimore. Plummer’s three seasons under Shanahan have been his three best statistically, and he took a big leap forward this year in dropping his interception number from 20 to seven. Known in college as a gunslinger and a playmaker, he’s become an NFL late-bloomer who now has the ability to manage a game and take what the defense gives him. That is important against a defense like Pittsburgh’s, which will try to confuse Plummer with its zone blitzing schemes and dare him to take the safe route.

2. They use the altitude to their advantage. Denver is so good at home not just because of crowd noise, but also because the Broncos are built for Mile High’s altitude. It’s no coincidence that Denver became a Super Bowl champion when they added the running game to complement John Elway’s passing. In Denver, the key to beating an opposing defense is to outlast them by keeping them on the field. That’s a function of running the ball. Because it’s the offense that knows the play coming to the line, the defense usually expends more effort since their players have to react and charge the play. With a defense that’s as high-octane as that of the Steelers, Denver must use its running game to keep Pittsburgh on the field. The Broncos’ backs – Mike Anderson, Tatum Bell and Ron Dayne – and a solid offensive line allow them to do that. On the flip side, Denver’s tremendous depth on the defensive line – which came about by trading for virtually the entire Cleveland Browns unit – gives them an opportunity to bring in fresh bodies on almost every play in an attempt to neutralize the Steelers’ running offense.

3. Shanahan is the Bill Belichick of offense. Shanahan coaches his offense the same way Belichick coaches his defense. His philosophy is: Figure out what the opponents feel most comfortable doing, and then take that option away. Volumes have been written about Belichick’s defenses slowing down the Bills in Super Bowl XXV, or jamming the Rams’ wide receivers in Super Bowl XXXVI, or continually showing up in Peyton Manning’s nightmares. What doesn’t get written as much, probably because Denver hadn’t won a playoff game since Super Bowl XXXIII, is Shanahan’s ability to do the same thing on the other side of the ball. Ask Bill Cowher about how Shanahan’s offense exploited a blitzing Steelers defense, holding them to two sacks, when the teams last met in the AFC Championship Game. Or how they pounded away for 179 yards against the Packers’ suspect run defense in the Super Bowl that year. Or how they, um, exploited Eugene Robinson in the following Super Bowl.

If you notice, I’ve hardly said anything about the Broncos defense yet. It’s a solid unit with a number of standouts, and it led the Broncos to victory last week. But ultimately, the Broncos' success this week will hinge on Shanahan's game plan, the running backs ability to control the clock, and Plummer's game management. If those three things are favorable, Denver wins.

On Wednesday, I’ll shift to the NFC and present the case for the Panthers.


Athletes speaking out

Over the past two weeks, first Tiki Barber and then Peyton Manning have been criticized for making public comments that were negative toward teammates and coaches. I can understand fans' displeasure with their comments. After all, we want all of the players on our teams not only to perform on the field, but also to make us feel good about them by saying and doing all the right things off the field.

But isn't it a little disingenuous of the media to take these guys to task? After all, these are the sound bites that they salivate for. How many times do you hear Bill Belichick cited for making controversial comments? Never, because he doesn't ever make them. He knows they'll be repeated ad nauseum until the next game. He'll be asked to clarify or qualify them in every succeeding press conference. And the media hate him for being bland.

Manning and Barber spoke out about their feelings on the games. Their comments weren't personal toward their teammates and coaches. They were the players' assessments of how the games played out. They answered what they were asked.

The media, yet again, is awash in double standards.


Monday, January 16, 2006

Three reasons why the Steelers will win

Over the next four days, I’ll post three reasons why each team can expect to win this week. Obviously, this is known in the business as “fence sitting,” so on Friday, I’ll step out on the line and make predictions. But in two very close matchups such as these, it’s good to look at what each team brings to the championship games. In these breakdowns, I’ll focus on what the particular team’s strengths are.

So, I’ll start with the Steelers, and move to the Broncos, Panthers and Seahawks.

Three reasons why the Steelers will win:

1. They’re a team of destiny. No sixth seed has made it this far since the 1990 playoff expansion, but no sixth seed has had as much talent as the Steelers. Pittsburgh went 15-1 last year and, if not for Ben Roethlisberger’s struggles in the postseason, would have been thought of as a Super Bowl favorite at the beginning of this season. But, when healthy, Big Ben has looked like the real deal this year, and most of his supporting cast was back. Add a full season from Casey Hampton on the defensive line and Kendall Simmons on the offensive line, and Pittsburgh is as good as they were last year, despite the 11-5 record. Jerome Bettis came back to try for a Super Bowl in his hometown, and for once, the road to the Super Bowl doesn’t go through Pittsburgh, which might be the best thing for the Steelers. And given they way Bettis and the Steelers survived Sunday, they might be charmed. Many people thought that with New England being vulnerable, it was the Indianapolis Colts’ year. But perhaps it’s the other team the Patriots have terrorized so well that will reap the rewards of their downfall.

2. They have the offensive balance that has always eluded them. When the Steelers’ first rose to prominence under Bill Cowher, they did it largely with the running game. Barry Foster and Bam Morris pounded the ball, and the quarterbacks, Neil O’Donnell and Mike Tomczak, simply tried not to lose it. Then came the Kordell Stewart era, in which the Steelers could often be spectacular on offense but didn’t always have the discipline to execute when it mattered. Now they have a terrific one-two backfield of speed (Willie Parker) and power (Bettis), a quarterback with the arm, legs and toughness to win a game, receivers who can catch and block (and throw!), and the constant under Cowher – a physical and talented offensive line. The early 90s Steelers wouldn’t have had the firepower to come back against the Bengals, and the late 90s and early 00s Steelers wouldn’t have had the confidence to throw the ball early against the Colts. These guys feel like they can do it all, and it’s why they’re 8-2 on the road this year.

3. Troy Polamalu will be the best defensive player on the field. No discredit to Denver, which has some wonderful players on defense, or to his own teammates. But Polamalu has had a ridiculous postseason. He has become for this Steelers defense what Ray Lewis is to the Ravens – equal parts head, heart and soul. Polamalu can step up to stop the run. He can blitz. He can cover. And best of all, he plays in a scheme such that the offense rarely knows what he’s doing. Even when they do, Polamalu has the legs and the motor to get himself into the play. Three times against the Colts, he came from nowhere to nearly make an interception, and as we now know, the last of them should have been a pick. If he and the rest of the Steelers defense can adjust to the altitude in Denver, they should be able to force the action like they did against the Colts. Of course, after an ill-advised lateral following an interception against the Bengals, and the play that was taken away from him in Indianapolis, Polamalu may want to consider just taking a knee if he picks one Sunday.

Later Tuesday, I’ll tell you three reasons why the Broncos will win.


Oh, THAAAAT rule ...

Now the NFL, after initially saying that Troy Polamalu's non-interception yesterday was a judgment call (and, by inference, a correct call), admits that referee Pete Morelli blew the call by using the wrong rule to interpret whether Polamalu established possession.

The league now says that because Polamalu wasn't touched, the ref should have used the rule that says if a player maintains possession while contacting the turf, he has established control of the ball.

The so-called "football move" rule only applies when the player loses the ball as a result of contact with the opposing team.

If anyone can explain this to me, you have officially won the right to do my taxes this year. And by the way, I'm expecting a big return.


Sunday, January 15, 2006

Now that I've caught my breath ...

After a game like the Steelers and Colts played, it’s going to be difficult to craft a coherent story here, so following is a list of observations about the game in bullet-point format, and in no particular order:
  • It has to be the most improbable series of events: Jerome Bettis, who hadn’t lost a fumble all year, fumbled to give the Colts one last chance, then Mike Vanderjagt, who hadn’t missed a field goal at home all year, missed the tying try. That summed up a game that had more momentum shifts than any I can remember.
  • The apparent interception by Troy Polamalu that was reversed on the replay wasn’t a case of a bad call. It was a case of another obscure rule that the NFL needs to re-examine. This rule, which we can call the knees rule, says that if a player catches the ball and falls down, but isn’t touched, he has to get both knees off the ground before losing control of the ball. Else it is not a catch. Like the “tuck rule,” it’s obscure, it makes little sense and it just happened to come to light in a very important game.
  • That doesn’t excuse the referees for some very poor calls, including a non-pass interference against the Colts in the first half, and an incredible no-call when Steelers guard Alan Faneca clearly flinched on a 4th-and-1 play in the fourth quarter. How can referees make no call there? Either they saw Faneca move or they didn’t, so they have to call the Colts for encroachment. When you combine those calls with a few poor ones in the Patriots-Broncos game on Saturday night, you wonder how NFL officiating has gotten so bad. Here’s a theory: Instant replay. Knowing that there’s the possibility of replay to help them out, officials have lost the courage to make the calls on the field. The only trouble is that the referees then dictate the actions of coaches who have to challenge the calls. The college rule of where a questionable play gets reviewed upstairs is a better way to go. And someone please tell me how the college officials can review plays so quickly, with very little interruption and the referee staying on the field, while the NFL ref has to go into the peep-show booth and the replay takes 5 or 10 minutes.
  • Ben Roethlisberger has gone from a quivering rookie in last year’s playoffs to a steel-nerved leader this year. It’s been a remarkable transformation and it’s the reason the Steelers are in the AFC Championship Game.
  • Had Bettis’ fumble cost the Steelers the game and ended his career, you almost wonder if that being the last play of his career would have hurt his Hall of Fame chances. It won’t come to that, and it’s a good thing because The Bus should be given a clear path to Canton.
  • The line of the day has to go to my fiancée, who is slowly learning about sports and dutifully watched along side me as I surely lost 10 years from my life. When she heard the story about Colts cornerback Nick Harper having been stabbed by his wife the day before, she responded in shock, then said, “You don’t stab a guy the day before a big game!”

Now, some general observations on the playoffs:

  • A strong argument can be made about resting starters late in the year to avoid injuries when a team has already clinched its playoff position. However, all four teams coming off the bye weeks looked rusty, especially early in their games. Is it a coincidence that Seattle and Denver, which played their key offensive starters for most of a half in their final games, survived? And is it a coincidence that Indianapolis and Chicago, which went with the second string for most of their season finales, dug themselves holes that proved too deep? In particular, was Lovie Smith’s decision to sit Rex Grossman in the last game of the regular season, when the quarterback had played in six quarters this season, a factor in Grossman’s 3-for-15, 2-yard start Sunday?
  • It’s also interesting that Carolina and Pittsburgh, which needed to win their final games just to make the playoffs, have looked like the two sharpest teams in the playoffs so far.
  • When I hear announcers and referees talk about making “a football move,” I think back to Bobby Knight’s famous press conference in which he asked what “a game face” was.
  • Injuries have played a bigger role in these playoffs than in recent years. Carson Palmer, Shaun Alexander, Julius Peppers and DeShaun Foster have suffered game-ending injuries thus far. Though only Palmer’s team failed to survive, the NFC Championship game next week could come down to which team can stay healthy.
  • A lot will be made of Tony Dungy and Peyton Manning and their inability to lead the Colts to a victory in a big game. Let’s give Dungy a break for now, as he lost to a coach today whose big-game coaching record is less than stellar, but who now looks like a genius. However, Manning again showed that if you disrupt his timing, he becomes vulnerable. He is not mobile, and his throws seem to scatter when the pass rush is on his mind. New England exploited this in each of the past two years, and Pittsburgh did it today.
  • Next week looks to be another beauty. Pittsburgh and Denver are similar teams with the ability to pound the ball on the ground. Having tamed the crowd in the RCA Dome, the Steelers face another hostile environment. Carolina and Seattle, despite the gap in their seedings, are almost dead-even. In fact, take into account Seattle’s relatively weak schedule in the NFC West and Carolina’s more difficult schedule in the NFC South, and the Panthers might be the better team. Both home teams have been perfect in their stadiums this season, which is no small factor.
  • Finally, a retrospective on the Patriots’ success. It’s hard to fathom a New England loss in which the Patriots turned the ball over five times. Over the past five years, they have been laser-like in their execution, both on offense and defense. And in the playoffs, nearly everything has gone their way, because they have taken the game plans drawn up and run them with hardly a flaw. I expected that if their run was to end, it would likely come against a team with the same kind of grind-it-out mentality that they have displayed. Denver was such a team, which is why I picked the Broncos to win. But I couldn’t have expected it would happen the way it did. For once, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady looked human. It’s hard to imagine them staying down for long. Brady is too young and too good, and Belichick seems to genuinely love solving other teams with his singular blend of analysis and creativity. This is an interruption in the dynasty; it’s not nearly the end.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Divisional Playoff Picks

For the second year in a row, three of the four Wild Card games were won by the road team. But do you remember what happened in the next round in 2005? All four home teams won, three of them barely breaking a sweat. While all the winners did things to impress last week, they take a step up in class against four teams with a combined 30-2 home record this year.

Washington at Seattle – Most NFL fans will get to see how good the Seahawks are for the first time, since their games are rarely aired outside Seattle and their opponents’ cities. That’s too bad, because this is a legitimate Super Bowl threat. Beyond having the home field, Seattle is talented on both sides of the ball. The offense stands out. Seattle scored at least 24 points in 10 of its last 12 games (one of those was the season-ending loss to Green Bay, in which the starters came out early). NFL MVP Shaun Alexander runs behind the league’s most unsung offensive line, and quarterback Matt Hasselback had the best completion percentage, yards per attempt, and quarterback rating of his career. The Seahawks’ injuries on defense leave them vulnerable, but not to the Redskins’ offense, which barely gained 100 yards last week. Finally, Seattle has the intangibles in their favor, something to prove with no postseason wins since 1984 and a heavy heart from the death of Dave Brown, one of the greatest Seahawks ever. Seahawks 27, Redskins 10

New England at Denver – Saturday night television hasn’t been this good since we were watching the adventures of Captain Stubing and Mr. Roarke. While a lot of people were hoping for Indy-New England in the divisional playoffs, the two AFC matchups bring together the four best AFC franchises over the past 10 years. And this promises to be a rugged battle between two tough teams and two smart coaches. The Patriots are the choice of many writers and broadcasters, and why not? One of my rules is not to pick against a reigning champ until someone beats them. But the matchup here doesn’t favor New England. Forget that the Patriots lost to the Broncos in Week 6 in a game that wasn’t very close. They’re better now. But they still have a tough matchup against Denver’s running game. It’s amazing to see Jake Plummer mature from a talented but erratic passer to a complete quarterback who manages the game extremely well. With Mike Anderson, Tatum Bell and Ron Dayne, he has three talented running backs, and Rod Smith is the type of receiver who can exploit the Patriots’ young secondary. Brady and Belichick will keep it close, but the bid for three in a row ends here. Broncos 24, Patriots 20

Pittsburgh at Indianapolis – Evidently Steelers’ linebacker Joey Porter attempting to talk trash when he said, “They don't want to just call a play, get up there and run a play. They want to make you think. They want it to be a thinking game instead of a football game.” This has to go down as one of the more bizarre taunts in sports history. Rather than insulting the Colts’ intelligence, Porter chose to praise it. Well, closed-circuit to him, football is often a thinking man’s sport. It’s players have, on average, more college education than their baseball, basketball or hockey counterparts. And NFL playbooks are thicker than the rear end muscles in which Porter got shot two years ago. The Colts’ are one of the NFL’s smartest teams, and after not playing a meaningful game for more than a month, they have to be ready to unleash their offense on the Steelers. I like Indy’s passing attack against the Pittsburgh cornerbacks, who looked vulnerable against the Bengals last week. The Steelers can run a few trick plays of their own, but it will take all they have to beat the NFL’s best team. Colts 38, Steelers 17

Carolina at Chicago – This is the fourth of four rematches from the regular season in the Divisional Playoffs. In contrast to the early game on Sunday, this one will see few points. One stat screams out to me from the teams’ earlier matchup this year, a 13-3 Bears’ victory in Chicago. Steve Smith, Carolina’s best offensive player and probably the best receiver in the NFL this season, caught 14 passes for 169 yards. And Carolina still barely avoided being shut out. Smith had two fewer catches than the Panthers had rushing attempts in that game. After its success running the ball last week, Carolina has to commit to the ground this week. It’s their only chance to beat an aggressive and opportunistic Bears’ defense that sacked Jake Delhomme eight times in their last meeting. Chicago’s defense is the best in the league, vastly superior to what the Panthers’ carved up last week in New York. But I like Carolina for one reason – Rex Grossman’s lack of experience. Not only has Grossman played in just two games this year. He has seven career starts in his three years in the NFL. That’s not going to cut it against what might be the second-best defense left in the playoffs. Panthers 16, Bears 10

A plug for Deadspin

Those of you who have found my blog - either through my prompting or by chance on the Web - and enjoy it will really like Deadspin. It's my favorite sports blog out there, and is updated several times a day with commentary, humor, news and recaps of what's on TV and the Web in the sports world. You might not always agree with it, but you'll get a rise out of it. It's had enough effect on one person to lead him to post his own blog, all about why he hates Deadspin. No such thing as bad publicity, right?

Check it out at www.deadspin.com or the link I've posted on the left-hand bar.

Divisional playoff picks tomorrow!


Wednesday, January 11, 2006

From Cooperstown ... to Canton

With the Baseball Hall of Fame elections over, the spotlight can turn to the list of 15 finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, announced today. It is perhaps the deepest class ever. The finalists are:

Troy Aikman, QB
Harry Carson, LB
L.C. Greenwood, DE
Russ Grimm, G
Claude Humphrey, DE
Michael Irvin, WR
Bob Kuechenberg, G
John Madden, coach
Art Monk, WR
Warren Moon, QB
Derrick Thomas, LB
Thurman Thomas, RB
Reggie White, DL
Rayfield Wright, T
Gary Zimmerman, T

Essentially, this list spans most the Super Bowl Era, from Wright - whose Dallas Cowboys lost to the Packers teams that won the first two Super Bowls - to White, whose Packers teams went to back-to-back Super Bowls in the late 1990s. All but Humphrey, Moon and the two Thomases won Super Bowls, and those four were dominant at their positions. In particular, Derrick Thomas was the heir to Lawrence Taylor as a speed-rushing linebacker, and Thurman Thomas was one of the first great catch-and-run tailbacks whose versatility opened up the passing game further.

No fewer than three and no more than six men can be elected when the committee meets in Detroit on the day before the Super Bowl. For me, four of the names jump out:

Aikman was a three-time Super Bowl winning quarterback. Earlier this year when he, Irvin and Emmitt Smith were being inducted into the Cowboys Ring of Honor at Texas Stadium, the radio programs buzzed with talk of whether Aikman or Smith was more valuable. And while Smith earned his deserved praise as the NFL's all-time leading rusher, most agreed that without Aikman's steadiness at his position, the Cowboys don't win three Super Bowls in four years. He was a great leader and remarkably consistent, having neither a slow learning curve at the beginning of his career nor a slow decline at the end.

Carson will always live in the shadow of his teammate, Taylor. But if you ask Bill Belichick, he couldn't have turned out such great Giants' defenses each year without the other linebackers. Carson was the best of those, adept at both defending the pass and the run. His combination of size and speed was the prototype for today's great linebackers, the Derrick Brooks' and Brian Urlacher's. He was on the all-NFL team seven times and was team captain for 10 of the 13 years he played. Carson has come tantalizingly close to election in the past few years and deserves the nod.

Derrick Thomas also lived in Taylor's shadow, because they were so similar, but in addition to his 126 sacks, Thomas added his own mark on the game. The Chiefs linebacker forced 42 fumbles in his career, and he was one of the first to tackle in such a way as to rip the ball out of the offensive player's hands. That type of technique is so common now, that some defensive players think of nothing else. Another stat that shows Thomas' legacy is that of the winningest teams of the 1990s. First was the 49ers, with 113 wins, then the Bills, with 103. Those are easy to guess. Third? That would be Thomas' Chiefs, with 102.

White was the most feared pass rusher ever, with apologies to Taylor and Bruce Smith. No one forgets the sight of him throwing offensive linemen aside with one arm, turning 300-pound men into rag dolls. He had 198 sacks in 15 NFL seasons after playing one year in the USFL. He made the Pro Bowl 13 years in a row. And he made it cool, no pun intended, to play in Green Bay. Whether God told him to go or not, White's decision as one of the league's first unrestricted free agents epitomized what the league has long tried to do: develop a structure where large-market teams and small-market teams can compete on a level playing field.

This is a hard field to handicap, and all of the finalists will have their defenders. The likes of Irvin and Thurman Thomas will have strong support, and both seniors candidates (Madden and Wright) will have sentimental value. (Both senior finalists were elected last year.) In my view, the four listed above were game-changers who bring the greatest credentials to the Hall.


Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Sutter gets in; Gossage should be, too

Bruce Sutter today became the fourth player elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame on the strength of his work as a relief pitcher. He's a deserving choice, because he helped to redefine the role in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Sutter was different than the closers of today. After reading that he was elected, I looked up his stats on baseball-reference.com, and the saves, ERAs and hits-per-innings pitched ratios are outstanding. But one other stat struck me even more: the number of innings that Sutter pitched each season.

Between 1976 and 1985, Sutter's lowest total of innings pitched was 82 1/3, and that was in the strike-shortened 1981. The guy could give you two innings if you needed it, and his managers never hesitated to put him in during tie games (which is why he had so many decisions for a closer - he went 65-67 during that period) because he was their best hope to stop the opposition.

Just for comparison I looked at the numbers for Mariano Rivera and Eric Gagne, two great closers of today.

In 2002 through 2004, when he had 152 saves total, Gagne pitched 82 1/3 innings in each season (which is an amazing coincidence in its own right) or the same amount that Sutter had in his lowest year during the 10-year period described.

Then I looked at Rivera, and besides 1996 when he threw 107 2/3 innings as a setup guy for John Wetteland, his highest IP total was 80 2/3.

Rivera is the gold standard for closers in my lifetime, and far be it for innings pitched to be a measure of Hall-worthiness, but Sutter's dominance as an "old school" closer (i.e. if it was a close, winnable game, he was in there) demonstrates him to be one of those players who changes the game.

And there was another guy in the American League who was doing the same thing while Sutter was dominating the National League. He was Rich "Goose" Gossage.

In 1978, Gossage threw 134 1/3 innings for the World Champion Yankees, going 10-11 with 27 saves. In every close, meaningful game, Gossage was on the mound. When the Yankees beat Boston 5-4 in the classic one-game playoff to win the AL East, Gossage pitched the final 2 1/3 innings (relieving Ron Guidry, who was having one of the greatest seasons ever by a pitcher). New York was going to win or lose with Gossage, the most intimidating pitcher of his time.

From 1977-1985, Gossage threw at least 79 innings per season all but twice - the strike year of 1981 and 1979, when he was hurt - and saved between 18 and 33 games each year. Again, many of his appearances came in non-save situations where the game was tied.

Sutter and Gossage have to rank among the top 10 closers of all-time, which alone makes them worthy of the Hall of Fame. Beyond that, they were the first of the shutdown closers who forced managers on the opposing team to try to win the game in the first seven innings. That's a trend that continues today, through the redefinement of the closer role and the emergence of quality set-up men. Essentially, what Rivera and Wetteland were doing for the Yankees in 1996, Sutter and Gossage were doing by themselves.

Congratulations to Sutter for making the Hall, and here's hoping Gossage gets in, too.


Regarding the other candidates, I have the strongest sentiments for Bert Blyleven and Jim Rice. Blyleven has impressive career numbers, mostly playing for weaker teams. When he did play for contenders, he was a key contributor with a strong postseason record that produced two World Series wins.

Rice was the most feared hitter in the American League for more than a decade. His numbers look particularly strong in light of the steroid scandals and wild inconsistency of many of today's hitters (Bonds and Pujols excepted).

But I haven't the strong feelings about either of these that I do about Sutter and Gossage. While Blyleven has strong career numbers in strikeouts and shutouts, he isn't going to be mentioned in the same breath as the all-time great starters. Nor is Rice in the first rank of hitters all-time. Sutter and Gossage belong with only Rivera, Eckersley, Fingers and Wilhelm in the discussion of the game's greatest relief pitchers.


Sutter enters the Hall

Bruce Sutter was the only electee into the Baseball Hall of Fame today. I'll post my thoughts on his deserving entry -- and those of others who weren't elected -- this evening.


Sunday, January 08, 2006

All about the quarterbacks

Thoughts on a big weekend of football:

As a Steelers fan, I’ll take any win, though this one tastes a little funny after Carson Palmer’s injury. Jon Kitna stepped in and played admirably, but the Steelers defense made the adjustments at halftime and dominated the second half. Also, it seemed as if the blown field goal had an impact on both teams. It gave Pittsburgh the kind of momentum a turnover usually provides, and Cincinnati’s offense wasn’t the same afterward.

Many people were expecting the Steelers to win, including perhaps the NFL and the TV networks. The schedule for next week was announced before the games today, awarding Denver the Saturday night home game and Indianapolis the early afternoon slot on Sunday. Had Cincinnati won, they would have been the only team forced to work on a short week, since the Bengals would have met the Broncos. Not a fair proposition, especially with Kitna replacing Palmer. The league should have waited until the matchups were set.

Assuming he recovers from knee surgery, Palmer vs. Ben Roethlisberger will be a battle to watch for a long time. Big Ben showed the composure that he was lacking in his playoff debut last year, rallying his team from two 10-point deficits and playing turnover-free football. When the Steelers’ running game was bottled up early, Roethlisberger made the throws he had to. Also, Pittsburgh’s offense is at its best when it mixes in a few trick plays, like Jerome Bettis’ attempted throw into the end zone (which was incomplete but perhaps kept the Cincinnati defense off-balance on the next play, a touchdown), and the Randle El to Roethlisberger to Cedrick Wilson touchdown pass. Those plays keep the defense honest and allow the running game to flourish.

I’ve admired Palmer for going to Cincinnati as the top draft pick without hesitation and trying to turn the Bengals’ fortunes around, unlike another quarterback who had a bad day Sunday. Eli Manning has a ways to go as a big-game quarterback. The Panthers defense shut down Tiki Barber and dared Manning to beat them. He couldn’t make the throws, and Steelers fans can tell you all about the big games in which Manning’s No. 1 receiver, Plaxico Burress, disappeared more often than Mr. Snuffleupagus.

Another young quarterback, Chris Simms, actually played quite well in his playoff debut against a good defense. After some early mistakes, he put his team in a position to win and they came close to tying the score on Edell Shepherd’s touchdown that wasn’t. Three times this week – counting the Rose Bowl – a receiver caught a pass and appeared to lose the ball just after their second foot came down, and all three times it was ruled incomplete. At least the calls were consistent.

The two big college football stories this weekend also involved quarterbacks. Simms’ successor at the University of Texas, Vince Young, declared for the NFL Draft on Sunday, and Virginia Tech QB Marcus Vick did so on Saturday, a day after being kicked off the Hokies’ squad. Giving Vick any more copy is a waste of time, so let’s just say that one of these guys gets it and the other doesn’t – and their pro careers will reflect that.

I’ll take credit for 2 ½ of my picks – I correctly predicted the Steelers’ and Redskins’ victory, coming within range on the scores. And I had New England over Jacksonville, but in a much closer game that seemed to be the case at halftime. A few big plays in the second half turned a close game into a Patriots blowout. I was way off on the Carolina victory.

Gut feeling: the four home teams win next week. But I’ll think long and hard about the visitors – especially Carolina and New England – between now and Friday, when the official divisional playoff predictions come out.

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