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Posted on: August 9, 2012 6:31 pm
 

RG3 and Decoding Shanahan

Go back to the year 1988. The Raiders are in Los Angeles, Tom Flores has been demoted upstairs by owner Al Davis and Denver assistant coach Mike Shanahan is hired by the silver & black for his first NFL head coaching job.

Now fast-forward…not too fast, just one and one-quarter seasons later. After finishing 7-9 amidst an on-going, internal clash of loyalties, a 1-3 start in ‘89 gives Davis cause to pull-the-plug on the Shanahan experiment and hand the reigns over to Raiders man Art Shell.

Not a very auspicious start to Mike’s head coaching career. But then, getting fired by Al Davis wasn’t all bad. Oddly enough, it could enhance your resume.

Well known for his hands-on style, Al’s rows with staff often put on public display traits in a coach highly-prized by GM on-lookers. Qualities like decisiveness, tenacity and just being one tough son-of-a-gun. And that’s what Mike looked like after getting the boot: a guy who could give as well as he got, and from the biggest got-guy in the NFL, Al Davis.

That’s no knock on the feisty owner. Though Al could be a thorn in your side if under his watch, for fans, excepting the City of Oakland from1982-‘94, he was a quasi-advocate, a counter-weight to the NFL’s old boy network who conduct business in golf-carts and brass-handled board rooms. And then, only Glenn Ford (Gilda), Sid Poitier (In the Heat of the Night) and Paul Newman (Cool Hand Luke) were cooler than Al Davis in his early days, surveying the action from the Raiders’ sideline in those steel-rimmed sunglasses.

To Golden Gate via Colorado

Mike landed back in Denver (‘90-91) but wore out his welcome fast when he got in the middle of a Reeves - Elway rift. On the outs, he took a job with George Seifert (’92-94). Like Foxborough today, San Francisco was the place to be for coaches on the rise. As architect of 49ers’ 49-23 blowout win in SB29 (SD), Mike’s reputation grew such that he was seen around the League as a football-genius-in-the-making and then a hot commodity.

Third Time Charm

Broncos just can’t kick the Shanahan habit and this time give Mike the head coach’s office. He sticks around for awhile (‘95-08), quickly makes good on his new rep, has Denver back in the big show and this time brings home Mr. Lombardi (’98-‘99). Adding to the euphoria was the fact that Denver’s SB32 win comes against fellow West Coast disciple Mike Holmgren and his history-heavy Green Bay squad (4-1).

Happy Trails Mr. Elway

The mood on Mike starts to change after Elway rides into the sunset (SB33 / Atlanta). As he never got Denver back on top, some have argued Elway was the difference-maker in their back-to-backs. Not a crazy notion given that coaches coach and players play. But keep in mind: 1) Dan Reeves was in the NFL for nearly 40 years, played or coached in five Super Bowls but was stymied in his three Denver visits with John under center; and 2) Shanahan guided post-Elway Denver to the post-season four times, including an AFC title game and averaged 9+ wins a season. Not too shabby.

Whether or not Mike Shanahan is a football genius in league with Paul Brown, Bill Walsh or Bill Belichick is debatable. At the very least he did have something special working at Mile High in the late 90s, special enough to someday get a bust in Canton.

Resurrecting Legacies

Question now is, does Shanahan still have the Midas touch, that special something that garnered two Super Bowl wins? And if he does, can he impart it to his Redskins’ team?

So far, his brief DC tenure suggests no and no. Though he gets props for parting ways with the bill-of-goods that was Al Haynesworth and the plucky but past-prime Donovan McNabb, his inability to make real progress in his two seasons in Washington might be sign he no longer translates to today’s NFL player.

No big revelation then, that his ability to facilitate draft-dandy Rob Griffin’s development is key, not just to the team’s but his own future as well. The early word in summer camp is that RG3 is a talented and willing student of the NFL game. Welcome news to Skins’ fans who are parched for victory champagne since the days of Joe Gibbs & Company.

A concern is that in his eagerness to make good and satisfy antsy fans, Mike succumbs to the trendy but flawed belief that the athletic, muscled, running QB is the quick cure-all for what ails an offense and provides the surest vehicle for getting to the promised land. The tremendous impacts of mercury men Cam Newton (6-10) and Tim Tebow (8-8) on their respective teams in 2011 have only given amplification to the theory.

Mike Shanahan has coached two of the finest QBs of the past 30 years in Steve Young and John Elway. Though both had a flair for scamper (and could cite footwork as their most famous feats (SY: 50+ dash vs Vikes (‘88) / JE: copter-run in SB32)), making it a key element in their modi operandi, both were first & foremost pocket-passers who could air it out and thread the needle whenever necessary, taking to flight as only a last resort.

As impactful as Cam and Tim were, upon closer inspection it’s easy to see why many observers believe there’s a cap on just how relevant a run-QB will be over the long term.

Tebow’s 2011 flies in the face of that tiresome phrase, ‘numbers never lie.’ In science, that may be true (excepting false-positives), but in sport, numbers can tell tall tales and in TT’s case they’re less than sincere. While his pass-stats were paltry, his fire and dedication to game-plan were triggers in Denver‘s mid-season turnaround.

But eventually those flames of emotion must be fed with stout statistics. That can mean numbers that are huge (Rodgers), first-rate (Eli) or simply smart stats (A. Smith / 17-5 ratio) that show you have the skill & savvy to manage the offense and then matriculate with regularity in all conditions (Tom, Eli & Peyton).

As for Cam, he showed a terrific capability for passing but a tendency to take-off in trouble (14TDs). That’s a tell and it’s just what defenders will eventually feast upon.

Then there’s Vick, the man who started the trend. His ‘athleticism,’ as run-QBs are cast, has made him a star but destined him to title-oblivion. Besides two big PS wins (’02 GB / ‘04 STL), Mike’s tenure is defined in two words: boredom (duel careers in GA) and frustration (injury). Only now are he and his handlers starting to see the fallacy of flash-QB: “He wants to and works really hard to overcome his instinct, when a little something goes wrong, to take off (Mudd / PI / CBS / 7-27).” Old dog, new tricks: habits do die hard.  No pun intended.

So there you have it, Mr. Shanahan. You can put Rob on the pocket-passer pathway, the only road leading to the Super Bowl, help box-up his college habits and train him to work in the business of football (NFL / CFL), or, ride his athleticism to 9 or 10 victories (someday) and watch the big game every February at home on the big-screen TV.

Steven Keys
Posted on: July 29, 2012 1:00 am
 

Playoff Push Belies MLB Grind

The ‘dog days' of summer have arrived. The genesis of that phrase? I haven’t a clue. To tell ya’ the truth, sometimes I just don’t want to know the answer. Call it Information Age burn-out. Suffice to say, ‘dog days’ feels apropos come late July.

It’s that time in baseball when the pep & vigor of spring has vanished like a cool summer breeze. Players, managers and umpires start to dig deep into those reserves. Even a salary 20x the President’s won’t make a 162-game schedule feel any easier. It’s a grind.

The batsman who works the count long, keeping defenders out on the 100° field is a favorite of teammates. On the flip-side, if you’re out guarding the grass, it’s the pitcher who works fast, throws strikes and induces easy ‘cans o’ corn’ that you dearly admire.

This MLB season has been a bit of a mutt itself. Besides the early no-hitters that caused such a stir, there have been few special feats, record-paces or super teams to fawn over. And that’s fine. It means most games are in play and that’s good for fans.

The Feel Goods

New York Yankees

There are two kinds of sport franchise: the coasters and the go-getters. The pinstrippers are the Grade A, all-time getters of go. And when they’ve got rhythm, MLB smiles. Division rivals aren’t too thrilled about it but then most of them are real woofers this year. New guy Ichiro Suzuki spent his best (US) ball in Seattle but is a hit-genius.  Yanks hope he is 2012’s version of Lance Berkman. Absent LB, who batted a sizzling .423 in the Series, Cards would’ve been toast by June.

Washington Nationals

A contender in the nation’s Capital is the biggest story of 2012. Might stir memories for real old-timers of DC’s great ‘24 team, the Senators, when Bucky Harris, Goose Goslin, Sam Rice and Walter “Big Train” Johnson led them to a lone WS title. Harper & Strasburg (sound’s like an 1890s musical team) get all the ink, but direction of long-time Nat Ryan Zimmerman and legendary Davey Johnson stoke the fires that fuel this pleasant surprise.

Oakland Athletics

As Texas won’t take-charge and the talent-laden Halos need more help (Greinke), the A’s become relevant. Beyond that, their clover is just a nice summer graze. Signing Youkilis (Chi-Sox) for that vital 3B-spot would’ve bolstered playoff bid (Inge .202). Looking ahead, Cuban pick-up Yoenis Cespedes will star if he perfects patience at the plate. Caveat: Oakland’s unies are great but the wedding-gown white shoes, gotta’ go.

Atlanta Braves

Choppers make the list because they’re contenders, Ben Sheets is 3-0 and it’s Chipper Jones’ swan song season. Though sometimes cantankerous, no player in the years ‘95-04 was better all-around than Chipper. The fact he was a key cog on a perennial winner for all of his 19 seasons and retained a normal appearance, with strong, not gaudy stats in a time when PEDs raged, all make him a 1st-ballot Hall of Famer. One of the era’s best.

Dickey, Trumbo & Trout

Its been a storybook season so far for Mets' R.A. Dickey.  At 37, R.A. has re-invented himself with a wicked knuckleball and terrific numbers (13-2 / 2.97 / 3 CG), while the T & T boys, Mark Trumbo (.307 / 69 RBI / 27 HR) and Mike Trout (.354 / 75 R) have caught on quick in Anaheim as vets try to get it together.  Not to be over-looked, Halo Jered Weaver (13-1 / 2.26), Brewer Ryan Braun (.314 / 70 / 28) and comeback kid Giant Buster Posey (.315) are working on best-sellers themselves.  

Sad Sacks

Boston Red Sox

Could this be Curse II? Only if you believe in boogie monsters and campaign promises. But Beantown may be feeling the Karmic backlash. Not for 2011 meltdown. Those are as common today as over-paid contracts. Rather, for the collective hissy-fit in wake of the crash. In contrast, Spurs flame-out in this year’s NBA playoffs (vs OKC) was its biggest shocker, but in their grief, San Antonio sucks it up and nobody gets run outta’ town (Vaughn?  He got promoted in FLA).

Philadelphia Phillies

No bad karma here, just injury influenza (Howard / Halladay / Utley), though Fred Galvis’ PED suspension is salt in the wound. His light-bat, low run output (14) made him a non-factor. Max factor is low output from oft-injured Polanco (.255 / 27 R) and Jim Rollins (.253). Off-season pick-ups Papelbon (25 SV) and Pierre (.303) prevent total disaster.

Get Crack’in!

Detroit Tigers

Though neck & neck with the pale hose, I expected more from Detroit. If there’s a better batsman in MLB today than Mr. Cabrera (.328 / 82 RBI / 24 HR), I don‘t know who it is. As playoffs have not been strong-suit for the princely-paid Fielder, his less-than-hoped-for RS stats (.306 / 69 / 15) are a slight downer. Maybe a bigger problem is the absence of reliable 3 / 4 starters to take some burden off ace Verlander, Scherzer and busy bullpen.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Bucs pass critical marker in reaching / holding ten games over. That keeps them in the mix and keeps Reds from creating separation. But stars McCutchen and good-fit Burnett need help in this lean line-up or Pirates turn into pumpkins. Standings evoke memories of 70s Bucs’ team under Should-Be-HOF skipper Danny Murtaugh. Their battles with the Big Red Machine were some of baseball’s best. As for Reds, Votto loss is bearable, for a time, in middling National.

Milwaukee Brewers

Anyone thinking Brewers’ brass had hopes of contention in 2012 doesn’t know this franchise. When Miller Park opened in 2001, official word was that cost must first be recouped, then big bucks could be allotted. Ten years later, nada. Greinke commands a pretty penny (Angels) but has an arm you build around (Sabathia). The 1-2 punch of Braun & Fielder is history. Now plans to ‘youth-enize’ the roster. Whoopee. Can’t live off Molitor & Yount forever. Milwaukee, who had an original AL team (1901 / Orioles), deserves better but doesn’t seem to mind. And Green Bay? If Packers were dogging it, every pooch in Brown County would be on curfew (Devine ‘74).

Los Angeles Dodgers

LAD gets kudos for contending during Kemp’s absence and ace Kershaw’s imperfect year. The Hanley move has moxie but I question the smarts, given production fall-off (.251) and head-case hiccups. If Yankees are AL flagship franchise, boys in blue should be NL version, though St. Louis has a claim. Dodgers have coasted post-Lasorda and if Magic & friends feed the drift, dogged Halos will put a permanent & fitting stamp on the City of Angels. Can’t live off Koufax, Fernando, “Bulldog” & Scully forever.

Steven Keys
Posted on: July 25, 2012 12:32 am
 

Urban Renewal Nets SEC Groove

September 1st, that’s the date. That’s when Buckeyes’ new head coach Urban Meyer and Ohio State weigh anchor and embark on their football odyssey in quest of redemption & past glory as they face intrastate foe Miami (OH) in both school’s season-opener.

Who would’ve thunk just two years ago, that in 2012, the winningest coach in the history of The Ohio State University (94-22 / .810) and the most reviled in Ann Arbor (8-1) since Woody Hayes, would be out, replaced by a man of equal accolades in the person of then Gators’ guru Mr. Meyer?

Sidebar: What’s up with precedent “The”: The Open Championship (British), The Johns Hopkins, The University of Alabama, The Championships Wimbledon, The Ohio State? I think it’s what Edward de Vere (Shake-speare) expressed as “paint(ing) the lily (King John).”

And Jim Tressel, he’s doing fine in Akron (VP). The transgressions that led to his exit in 2011 now pale in light of Penn State’s misdeeds. Near 60 and positioned for retirement, if he gets the itch to coach again he’ll have plenty of suitors. Much depends on the right opportunity knocking. That could turn on how experiments pan out at top-tier schools like Notre Dame (Kelly), Florida (Muschamp) and USC (Kiffin). We will see.

An Ohio native (Toledo '64), Urban Meyer arrived in Columbus with an armload of trophies and a perceptible SEC groove. His resume is textbook for the stepping-stone career path: multiple schools, brief tenures, varied specialties. I’m not criticizing. This is SOP for today’s hot-prospect college coach. Larry Brown was ahead of his time.

And those specialties of Meyer, most cover the offensive side of the field. That means he’ll have OSU matriculating nicely in short order. Given last year’s atypical low national ranking (103), there’s no other way to go but up.

The traditionally stout Ohio State defense (19) then figures to remain its strong suit, even with graduate attrition. As defense is not Meyer’s forte this is where his skill in the fine arts of interviewing (assistants) & delegation will come into play.

It takes time to mold a team, but it wouldn’t be hasty to expect quick results from Urban. This guy’s accustomed to winning at a high level (.819 / 7-1). He’s what they used to call a real go-getter, as evidenced by his Manifest Destiny approach to the recruitment war which can take him deep into rival territory (Michigan).

And there in may lay Meyer’s biggest challenge, finding recruits that can maintain the numerous standards laid-down by his new Big Ten employer. There are the NCAA rules, then there are the school’s criterion, enhanced somewhat at OSU in wake of recent troubles.

Helping matters is OSU’s 2012 schedule. No cake-walk, it doesn’t exactly send chills down your spin either, like a typical Notre Dame line-up. Though, I’ve seen more daunting Irish agendas than this fall’s version. I count three bruisers on the Buckeyes’ slate (MSU / UW / UM), five legitimate contests and four win-ables.

Years from now, when the victories & titles are tallied and a retired, gray-haired Urban Meyer steps onto the OSU field and joins the band to dot the ‘eye,’ older Buckeyes will reflect back on those trying times in 2011, nod their heads in acceptance and whisper to eachother, ‘Every cloud has a silver & red lining…and it was worth every penny!’

Steven Keys
Posted on: July 18, 2012 4:20 pm
 

The Best of ESPN

With new technologies in telecommunications, computer and social networks exploding onto the consumer scene, you’d think television would be on the ropes, fighting to survive. But you’d think wrong.

The fierce competition for consumer coin, coupled with horrifically bad TV potpourri that revolves around corpsel-ooze and faux reality-snooze, may have the Nielsens ebbing low but ‘the telly’ still has plenty of power left in that championship punch.

The tube is here to stay.

Texting may be all the rage and the worldwide-web a wonder but neither will ever be, to borrow the words of Sam Spade (Bogart), “the stuff that dreams are made of (Maltese Falcon),” i.e., talking-pictures.

I do the internet daily for my fix of sportology but sometimes you’ve just gotta’ have that injection of audio / visual. And who’s my supplier? ESPN, of course.

Though all the majors now have their own network, all remind me of a Dangerfield-ism from Caddyshack (‘80): “snobitorium.” I don’t know if it’s the superior syntax of jock-laden line-ups or the laid-back, laugh-it-up style, but I’m often left feeling like an intruder, an uninvited guest. Best of the lot: Speed Channel and NFL Network.

Born in Bristol, CT in 1979, then acquired by ABC / Capital Cities (‘84) and today owned by Disney (’96), the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network has lived up to its billing as the “Worldwide Leader in Sport.”

No stranger to criticism in its 30-something lifespan, ESPN has, in large part, met its leadership responsibility by keeping its product uncomplicated, inviting and faithful to the belief that a thread of humor should run through its SportsCenter scripts.

Think of ESPN as the McDonalds of sport media. Often maligned by culinary snobs for their uninspired menus and flavor-challenged fare, the fast-food king is loved worldwide for its reliability and those delectable French fries. Wherever you may be, when you see those golden arches you know what to expect. Same holds true for ESPN, sans the fries. 

Continuity counts plenty in a time when mores are changing with the wind. Tradition may be toxicity to the agents-of-change who strategize in steel towers on Michigan & Park Avenues, but to Main Street America, yearning for something familiar, the expectancy maintained by McDonalds and ESPN is a welcome friend.

Anything as big & diverse as media giant ESPN is gonna’ have a few clunkers mixed-in with the showpieces. As much as I’d like to vent about the Broadcast College coach who trained Tony Kornheiser, Michael Wilbon, Tedy Bruschi, Marcellus Wiley, Mark May & Mark Schlereth to first, love themselves, this write is not about the misfires.

This piece is about those people & programs that hit-the-mark, the glittering gems that comprise the best of ESPN.

Aces of the Airwaves

Doris Burke: NBA sideline reporter

In a time when reporter questions (‘You played great tonight, how does that make you feel?’) are as uninspired as dialogue on The Office, Doris breaks the mold. No pedestrian queries from Ms. Burke. She knows the game & business of basketball, knows the players, asks the questions fans want answered and then the stars seem relieved to hear. No “clown” queries when DB is courtside. A breath of fresh air.

John Clayton: NFL Insider

At first glance you’d think John was a late fill-in from accounts. Though not your typical wide-neck, square-jawed, ex-player analyst, John knows more about the goings-on in the NFL than most GMs. That’s not surprising, given that he’s been covering the game since working the Steelers’ beat back in the mid-70s. Others at ESPN like Chris Mortensen, Ed Werder, Sal Paolantonio, Adam Schefter and charming Rachel Nichols are top-notch, but John is that rare TV hire most fans will look at and say, ‘He’s a civilian, he’s one of us.”

Tim Kurkjian: MLB reporter, story-teller

Whether recalling a by-gone ball-player like Stan Williams (heaven help the hitter who liked to hog home-plate when 6’4” Stan took the mound) or weighing-in on an umpire issue, Tim reminds me why I love the game. Maybe because he loves the game so. It was a grand day when Kurkjian moved into ESPN‘s top spot a few years back. Sensible enough to not step on toes but brave enough to fulfill his social-contract with fans by giving honest opinion, TK appreciates the balance most others dismiss as trite.

Hint: Solid state. That describes ESPN’s baseball telecasts whose production & play-by-play is second to none. But like all the national broadcasts, their endless analysis of balls, strikes & strategy is enough to bore the bejeebers out of you. It’s a sin when a venture as vibrant and rich in history as baseball will demand so little color from its commentators.

Best in Show

1st and 10 (First Take, Presented by Bass Pro Shops)

If it works, don’t fix it. That expression used to carry weight. Not anymore, not with today’s fidgety TV producers. Such is the case with ESPN’s foray into the morning-show genre as somebody just can’t stop tinkering with this popular segment.

Veteran writer Skip Bayless is the star of 1st and 10 and not averse to hitching his wagon to other stars on the rise (Tebow / Lin). As elder statesman, Skip is resident doormat on the set but takes it like a pro because the slot and pay are sweet. Cocksure Stephen A. Smith was recently seated opposite Skip to give the segment an edgy feel. If mollified, Steve can be an insightful, congenial foe, but his loud, bombastic, often mocking style is best suited to AM radio. Tube watchers want smart, light-hearted debate and that means the pairing of Skip and Rob (“I’m not buying it”) Parker. Like Skip & Steve, Rob can homer on occasion (favorites) but keeps it real in reminding the big-suits that one need not be an ex-player to have a valid view.

Host Jay Crawford can break neutrality but keeps the peace, while Cindy Brunson makes a terrific back-up. Show’s appeal likens to Howard Cosell’s MNF re-cap of NFL’s Sunday slate in the 70s. Monday Night Football was always a bit of a snoozer (even with Dandy Don), but America stayed tuned long enough to hear the best 3-minute sport-wrap ever.

Hint: One of ESPN’s defining traits has been its inclusiveness, putting out the welcome-mat for everyone. Fixing on one music motif, whether it be jazz, pop, country-sex or in this case, hip-hop rap, goes against that proven policy. Target one audience and you’re bound to lose another. Besides, it’s not the right thing to do.

Outside the Lines

We fanatics aren’t the dullards many would have us be. Like the cultured set, we can appreciate a clever quip, have been known to say ‘good morning’ and will even put out recyclables. And some of us watch OTL, ESPN’s tribute to 60 Minutes (CBS). Hosted by charter member Bob Ley (’79) with talented back-ups Steve Bunin, Jeremy Schaap and T.J. Quinn, this show takes head-on those topics deemed too weighty for the “be-boppin’ & scottin’” guys (Cowherd / Rome) or the witty banter of Sportscenter.

SportsCenter

The show that changed it all. It too has changed over the years. Those standard-issue blazers in the 80s were special. But there’s been one constant that’s made it all gel: the anchors. Though a few got too big for their britches (Eisen / Olbermann / Patrick), on the whole, the hosts stick to the clever-copy, ad-lib when apropos and stay outta’ the way. The toppers: Linda Cohn, Chris McKendry, John Anderson and Stuart Scott.

Wish-List

1) Retire ESPY name. Is there a worse award-tag in the business than this gobbler?

2) Bring back Classic ESPN. Sport & history go hand-in-hand. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been drawn-in by its usurper, ESPNU. Take a poll, y’all.

3) Ditch AXIS (camera) title. If I’m the WWII generation I’m a bit miffed. Heck, all of America should be insulted. The fact the colors (red & black) match the Nazi flag, maybe by accident, is nonetheless doubly-offensive. Destroy the AXIS-moniker and require the persons responsible for its existence to watch the entire British TV documentary, The World at War (1973 / 24 episodes).

Note: These are the observations of one person. No doubt there are other individuals in front of and behind the cameras that I have yet to discover or chosen to omit in the interest of style (length) that help to make ESPN worth watching.

Steven Keys
Posted on: June 29, 2012 4:05 pm
 

Calm Before Storm Tebow

Take a deep breath. Hold it in. Breath out. Again.

Now close your eyes. Drink in the calm, the serenity. Imagine birds singing, squirrels frolicking, puffy white clouds drifting by on blue sky…wait a second. Wake up!

There’s the neighbor’s dog, doing-his-thing on your lawn. Landlord phoned, says he can’t fix the A/C ‘til next week. And today your boss put up the new schedule: you’re on graveyard now with that guy who doesn‘t believe in hygiene or teamwork. Just terrific.

Okay, so your life’s no bed of roses. But wherever you live, whatever smidgen of sanity you enjoy today, savor it, bottle it up and hide it under your bed because before you know it, Tebowmania II is gonna’ hit the fan. And when it does, it’s gonna’ be everywhere.

It’s building offshore but when Hurricane Tim makes landfall later this summer, his image will be splattered all over the consumer landscape like a Jackson Pollock painting.

The ionosphere will be so saturated with Tim-ness it wouldn’t be crazy for ESPN to craft a separate channel to accommodate the mass of minutia generated by Mr. Sunshine’s NYC experience. Call-letters: ESPNTT; permanent host: Skip Bayless; occasional antagonist: Stephen ‘Don’t forget the A.’ Smith. Best ratings on the tube after American Pickers. I used to be an Antiques Roadshow man until some chucklehead added sound effects.

Tebow’s narrative is just one puzzler that looms large over NFL America this summer.

There are, of course, some givens for NFL 2012:

Patriots & Packers will again toy with the rest the League. Brady & Rodgers, Belichick & McCarthy: money in the bank. I’d include Big Ben in that bunch but with the beating he takes every year in Pittsburgh it’s a minor miracle if he makes it to the PS in one piece.

When fans realize draft dandies Luck & Griffin can’t walk on water, both will be given sanctuary by the fact Colts, and to a lesser degree Redskins, are major reclamation-projects.

Half-measures get you the Chicago Bears. After landing prize catch Cutler they got stingy (WR). Talent at key some positions (Cutler / Forte / Urlacher / Briggs), Chicago’s still no match for hot rivals (Vikes (’09) / GB (‘10-11)), making ‘07 SB visit / loss look like an aberration. Collapse vs Denver in 2011 was low point. Soldier Field fans deserve better, but settle for 9-7.

Then there are the perfect teams, as in, all-must-go-perfectly-or-bust: Cowboys (Romo), Eagles (Vick), Ravens (Flacco), Falcons (Ryan), Chargers (Rivers). See 2013 NFL Draft.

And if the Giants could ever defend a title like they take one, fans & media might start taking Tom & Eli into their hearts. Then again, it is the greater NYC press. Maybe no.

Here then are the biggest brain-teasers to ponder on the porch-swing before NFL 2012 lifts-off this September (9/5):

1) What flavor of quarterbacking will Cam Newton and Carolina select;
2) How will the Saints tumultuous off-season play on their 2012 performance;
3) How much life is left in Peyton Manning’s multi-million-dollar arm;
4) Was the NFC in 2011 that bad or were Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers that good; and
5) What does Rex Ryan have up his sleeve on the Tim Tebow experiment?

Flash Cam

No first-year QB has ever made as big a splash as did Carolina Panthers’ Cam Newton in 2011. His unexpectedly advanced passing skills were matched only by his record-setting mobility (14 rush TD). Whether he chooses to develop into the first great, black pocket-passer since Doug Williams or follow the run-rabbit-run routine of Vick and Tebow may be the most intriguing storyline of 2012. It should be a no-brainer. Doug was superb.

The Saints

“(T)he truth will set you free.” It’s a Bible verse. It’s about as popular today as ‘Love thy neighbor.’ Not very. Like Roger, Lance, Barry, Ryan and James Harrison, Jon Vilma, Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints have hunkered down into a mental-bunker of denial, opting for the ‘us-against-the-world’ tact in dealing with exposure of their well-documented bounty program. The general player population has stayed out of the fray but I suspect feelings are mixed. Saints are still players in this League and likely will make the PS but the cathartic-effect of coming-clean might’ve made them great again. I’ll cry tomorrow.

Wing and a Prayer

Not a gambler per se, John Elway must have a soft-spot for QBs headed to Canton. The rumor mill aside, Manning and his handlers in Denver (and Indy) have kept the wraps on his suspect wing & neck down tight. Regardless of Broncos pedestrian pool-of-talent in receiver-corps, Peyton elevates everyone around him and, if healthy, takes them back to PS. The contract terms owner Bowlen and PM put in place per chance worst is realized (tired arm) could be curious.

Real Deal 49ers?

The team Belichick didn’t want to face in SB46. Careful what you wish. Jim Harbaugh is the off-kilter coach who’s fast becoming the next Jerry Glanville: wins games and enemies. JH brought defense back to the NFL and it’s a good thing, given how he didn’t know a lick about offense (Michigan / Bears). Rex Ryan was suppose to be this guy.

Tabernacle Tim

Answering the Tebow question isn’t paramount in NFL 2012 but it may feel that way, given the hullabaloo it generates. In rare circumstance, duel-QBs can work wonders (Waterfield / Van Brocklin).  This ain't that.  Ryan's been around the game a long time, winning a ring in 2000 (Ravens), and shouldn't be so silly as to turn his QB position into a game of musical chairs. Jets’ brass know they already have a talented, successful (4-2 PS), albeit, sometimes erratic, still maturing signal-caller in Mark Sanchez.

TT’s not in NYC to upset the apple cart. He was brought in to do what he does best: motivate. It’s his calling and he’s good at it. Tim’s mission is to light a fire under Sanchez and, as such, will get some snaps and the # 1 slot if Mark unexpectedly folds. But if Rex & Tony don’t jump-start the Jets run-game and shore-up the defense, Tim’s role is moot.

While this all weighs on Mark’s mind, Jets are wise to return Tim to his original HS spot: tight-end. God knows he likes the contact, has the speed, the hands and a nose for the end-zone. If HOF, Heisman-holding Notre Dame quarterback Paul Hornung can embrace the theory of evolution (QB to HB), so too can Misters Ryan and Tebow.

Steven Keys
Posted on: June 25, 2012 12:35 pm
 

Danica Hitting Her Marks

Having roots in America’s Dairyland, a top five finish in last Saturday’s Nationwide stop at Road America would’ve been the ideal confidence-builder for an anxious Danica Patrick and race team, JR Motorsports.

Fellow driver Jacques Villeneuve put the brakes on that storyline when he chose not to use his own pads on the fabled Wisconsin raceway.

In the final lap of the Sargento 200 in Elkhart Lake, Villeneuve inexplicably gave Ms. Honey Badger, who was holding down the five spot, a solid hit square on the back-end, causing her Chevrolet to spin off track and off path towards her second top-ten finish (Texas) as NASCAR approaches its half-way point of the 2012 season.

This was no harmless trading of paint. In his brief post-race interview on ESPN, a smirking Villeneuve was dismissive of the mishap with Patrick, giving a strange “brake” explanation as cause for the short, sharp shock.

Only fitting that the man who took the cheddar…checkered flag, German-born Brazilian Nelson Piquet, Jr., was as much in need of the ego-boost as Patrick. The son of the legendary Formula One champion, it was Junior’s first victory in Nationwide (3) and his first on the NASCAR driving circuit where he’s competed mostly in the Camping World Truck Series (37), hitting that track the same year as Danica (2010).

Race officials and NASCAR will assess the matter further, but I found it ironic that just prior to Jacque’s contact with the # 7 GoDaddy.com car, ESPN announcers speculated that NASCAR drivers are willing to “push” Patrick as “they know she won’t push back.”

Was this track take-out confirmation of such a prevailing attitude in the pits or merely an unfortunate accident and coincidence? I‘ll leave that judgment call to NASCAR, but as Elaine Benes of Seinfeld fame would say, “That’s a BIG coincidence.”

Though she was in no position to push-back once taken out, just the fact that DP was in the leadership pack before the bump means she was giving-back as well as others gave.

While Jacques was flippant, in her own post-race interview, Danica showed strength of character by ‘taking the high road’ in choosing to avoid the blame-game and deciding instead to focus on the positives of her bittersweet Road America experience.

“I was running ahead, didn’t finish the deal (ESPN / 6-24).”

The ESPN race-announcer’s observation was news to me, but not a shock, if true.

NASCAR drivers may not be the good ol’ boy bunch of stock-car’s earlier days, but it’s still a man’s sport where women on the track are usually wives or trackside reporters.

Patrick’s position is not entirely unlike Jackie Robinson’s in 1947. The bar will always be set higher for those who try to break barriers. Their resolve must be twice as strong.

But Patrick is starting to hit her marks on the raceway with more consistency now and it showed at RA. Hard part is finding that delicate balance, knowing when to push back and when to suck it up, or in the spirit of the Badger State, when to move “forward.”

Playing the smart-card in her post-race interview was a good play. In any job, you’ve gotta’ earn your stripes and make your own reputation. No one’s gonna’ hand it to you. But most drivers, not all, will respect the new employee who can take his / her lumps, put it behind ’em and stay focused on the next job that‘s just around the corner.

Branch Rickey and Robinson knew all too well, that, if you give the troublemakers & knuckleheads an opening, they’ll slither right in.

Finding that balance, along with a little luck that every driver needs on occasion, Ms. Patrick should get a few more Nationwide top-10s and maybe even a nice Sprint Cup finish this season.

I just hope she can find her own Duke Snider and Pee Wee Reese to help hobble the chuckleheads along the way.

Any volunteers, NASCAR?

Steven Keys
Posted on: June 23, 2012 4:07 pm
 

No-Hitters, No Wonder

Everybody’s talkin’ (Nilsson), ‘bout LeBron, R.A. Dickey and no-hitters. While Kevin Durant’s Finals fade is fodder for debate, not much more worthwhile to write about His Magnitude, Mr. James until the leaves start to turn.

As for the plethora of pitching gems, theories abound.

Next time you go to the ballpark, better hold on to that ticket stub for you could be in possession of a little piece of profitable history. In MLB 2012, no-hitters are happening with the frequency of an Oregon Ducks’ uniform change: weekly.

Some worry MLB is on a fast-track to becoming the “Hitless Wonder” League (’06 Sox), even turning as barren of scoring as the flop-fest that is soccer. I shudder to think.

But keep off that panic button, Biff. This has happened before. The early 90s saw back-to-back seasons of seven no-hitters each (‘90 & ‘91). You can call what’s happening today a ‘variant of normal,’ even if the final tally does hit double-digits. Maybe no.

The wealth of no-hitters this year shouldn‘t come as a shock to baseball observers.

Reason # 1 happens to be the elephant in the room: PEDs, or as we like to think, their demise. Though, with all the legal maneuvering from MLB and the Union, I’m not clear as to whether or not baseball’s even drawing blood for HGH testing this season as planned. A real shell game.

Suffice to say, the glory days of PED use should be over. Consider this present period to be one of adjustment for players and managers both.

Most think the big benefit from PEDs is power, the long-distance, as in home runs. Yes, that’s part of the payoff.

But the biggest advantage from juicing is bat-speed. Power doesn’t mean diddly if you can’t make contact. And putting bat-on-ball is a learned behavior, demonstrated so sweetly by laureates of the art, Ted Williams and Tony Gwynn.

Ever try hitting a 70-mph pitch? For us non-professionals it’s a 1-in-20 chance (Billy Crystal should be proud he even fouled-off a few in Yankees’ spring-camp a few years back). Then try hitting the real heat: 90 plus. Forget about it, Frank.

Reason # 2 for the surge in no-nos and low-lows (1-hitters): today’s home-run mind-set.

The round-tripper has been a fan favorite since the Bambino and the hot dog hit the scene. But when juicing became common-place in the 80s, most batters began swinging for the stands with reckless abandon. And more than a few managers (Leyland / La Russa) seemed pleased as punch, converts of the Earl Weaver school of thought: “Pitching, defense and the 3-run homer.”

Today, principles of hitting like on-base % and having ‘command of the strike zone’ get the snub: ‘Who cares with these biceps,’ still seems the overriding outlook of many a ballplayer in 2012.

It’s why the ‘Bud Selig Home Run Derby & Family Fun Show all-star Extravaganza’ has sadly become MLB’s biggest showcase of the season, bigger than even the fall classic.

Next time you watch a ball-game on TV take notice how non-selective, indiscriminate batters can be in the box, how many bad pitches they’ll flail at. I’m talking really bad.

Batters seem less patient-at-the-plate than their forefathers, though King Kelly and Larry Doby might just laugh at that observation. I’m picking up a trend where, if the batter doesn’t like first-call strike, he pouts, tanks the at-bat and then fumes when the umpire calls strike three. Makes you wonder how they ever made it to the Majors.

And it’s not like most hurlers in 2012 are wowing batters with their own command of the zone.

Sure, we have our masters of the mound (Verlander / Santana), but plenty of pitchers need Mapquest to find the plate these days. With today’s free-swinging, disco-dancing batsman, it doesn’t really matter. Throw the heat high and he’ll chase it.

And before we start talking about replacing the ‘men in black’ with machines (Valentine / Loney), players & managers should re-acquaint themselves with something called home plate and the strike zone it represents. Then get back to us on that robot thing, Bob.

It all makes contact hitters like Derek Jeter, Ichiro Suzuki and Al Pujols that much more special. These guys still remember the baseball adage they were taught as youngsters: A walk is as good as a hit. It’s not deep psychology, but the more selective you are, the better pitches you get. What do know, Turbo?

Playing baseball is a highly skilled profession. And it’s not without its dangers. But it ain’t rocket science, though, the knuckleball of Mets’ renaissance-man R.A. Dickey comes pretty darn close.

Steven Keys
Posted on: June 18, 2012 4:14 pm
 

Knicks Nix Jackson Deal?

I’m not buying it, not for a second.

I‘m not buying into any characterization of Phil Jackson’s recent HBO interview that claims he had no interest in the formerly vacant New York Knickerbockers head coaching position. The “Real Sports” conversation is scheduled to be aired on 6-19.

By highlighting his use of the word “clumsy” when describing the Knicks in his talk with Andrea Kremer (NYT - Beck - 6/15; CBS - Moore - 6/16; AP-Fox - “Phil” - 6/16), Jackson is broadly painted as being aloof to the MSG post.

I think that’s hog-wash, straight from the media spin-cycle.

Besides the obvious reasons, like his availability and NYC past, there are ‘tells’ (and red-herrings) in these floated excerpts of the interview that tell me Phil was, if not enamored, at least somewhat vested in the idea of filling the Knicks‘ coaching job last May.

First he tells Andrea, “I wasn’t gonna’ take the (Knicks) job, that’s for sure.” That’s a red-herring. If,…IF you were interested in a position, took a gander and it didn’t develop, isn’t that like something you’d say? Maybe.

To further dampen curiosity, the coach states Knicks’ ownership “never called.” But that could mean one of two things: either their people had no conversation at all about the job, or, both sides put out pre-interview feelers, reached an impasse and hence, no phone call.

Then Phil wades into the Knicks roster, making it sound like his typical scenario, a talented team in need of a maestro to bring it all together to make beautiful music (Bulls (‘89) & Lakers (‘99)) and the perfect setting for start of the newest Jacksonian Era.

Rightly perplexed, Andrea prompts the Zen-master: “But wouldn’t you have been the perfect person to come in and blend all that talent together? You sort of have a good history of that.”

Phil: “Yeah. Well, it didn’t happened.” That’s a tell.

He could have said, ‘You’re right, Andrea, in the past that’s exactly the spot I would've reveled in and took-on as a challenge. But now I’m older and don’t have that kind of energy, that kind of patience.’ He didn’t say that.

Instead: “Yeah. Well, it didn’t happen.”

Reads to me like a guy who was curious-interested about the job and feels a bit put-off.

You have to read between the lines here but it’s not like some coded-text CIA-man Rob Redford and his ‘wrong place at the wrong time’ co-workers (RIP) had to decipher in Three Days of the Condor (‘75).

Intentional or not, Phil Jackson may’ve given us all a clue. I think, within certain parameters, he wanted the Knicks job. But ownership, for whatever reason, wouldn’t or couldn’t make it happen. Heck, PJ himself made the case for his hiring in the interview.

Why the deal never matured, only the possible principals would know that story. But it’s hard to imagine, someone with Jackson’s reputation, experience, in these circumstances, not being contacted at all or making the fatal negotiation error of asking for something he couldn’t reasonably expect from Knicks’ ownership. Hard to imagine, indeed.

Though, if I’m Knicks’ owner James Dolan / MSG, I don’t offer Phil the sun and the moon, let alone the stars too. Phil’s getting up there in years and he wasn’t being disingenuous about the problems with team chemistry at the Garden. No matter who's at the helm, turning this Knicks' roster into a Finals regular is a long-shot.

And if you’re a Knicks’ fan whose pride was left a little bruised by the Jackson interview, my advice: suck it up. Nothing said in those interview-excerpts hasn’t already been hammered home by media & fans, around the nation, ad nausea, for the past two years.

But it’s all a moot point now as the Knickerbockers made 2012 interim coach Mike Woodson their main-man. He could be the answer-man as the team seemed to find some direction, some stability under his late-season stewardship after D’Antoni’s departure.

This Knicks team needs more than direction to become a viable contender. It’s a group in need of a decorated-leader whose reputation compels all to subjugate their egos (Anthony / Stoudemire) and take instruction, especially when hard times test your resolve & faith.

Big question: Does Phil keep himself free on chance Woodson quickly becomes the out-man? My hunch: “Maybe no (Furio)” That's not Phil’s style.

The full HBO interview may shed more light on Phil Jackson's mindset.  Present reports indicate he's ready to venture back into the game in the right situation. Ending his coaching tenure where his NBA career began would’ve been special, but then the Knicks are a riddle that even the Zen-master or CIA bookworm would have trouble de-coding.

Steven Keys
 
 
 
 
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