Sunday, December 14, 2014

Backing into the Saddle

By now you are aware of the epic battle for the NFC South crown with the champion of the division having the privilege of hosting a playoff game.  My beloved 8-5 Steelers head to Atlanta to face the 5-8 Falcons, both thirsting for victories for the exact reason.  Understand this article is not about the Steelers as I fully expect them to struggle in a dome against Matty Ice.  The Steelers, too, haven't won two road games in two weeks since 1953.  (I actually think is the 2010 season when they won in Tennessee and Tampa Bay, but I may be wrong.)

At this point, I'm not certain any of the NFC South teams want to win the division.  Really.  Let's say the Saints or Falcons win the division ... at 6-10!  Do you realize they would most likely have a top-10 draft pick AND a home playoff game?  Going into Week 15, there are already 19 teams in the NFL with seven wins. Quick math ... 32 - 19 = 13 worse teams with the higher draft order.  And most people would say the Rams and Vikings (and maybe the Bears) could end-up tallying seven or more wins with a stronger roster.

The thought of having a high draft pick and hosting a superior NFC foe is embarrassing.  When the 7-9 Seahawks hosted the 11-5 Saints in January 2011, most of the country not displaced in the Northwest thought the Saints would win.  First, never bet on a road favorite playing outdoors that makes their home in a dome.  Second, because it was already an black eye for the NFL to have this imbalance of rewards, how silly does the league look when the home field advantage IS the deciding factor ... along with the best run in the last 10 years.  Third, even with the Seahawks victory, there was no realistic hope for a Super Bowl run with Atlanta, Chicago and Super Bowl champion Green Bay moving forward in the playoffs that season.  Every player in the Seahawks locker room believed they could win, but do you think the league was happy when one of it's marquee, successful teams - not to mention the defending Super Bowl Champions - were bounced from the first game of the first day of the tournament, basically because of archaic rules?

I don't want to hear the playoff system works and this season, the NFC South champion's losing record is an anomaly.  It also happened five years ago, and when that occurred, those 2010 Seahawks were also called an anomaly.  The 10-6 Giants and the 10-6 Buccaneers did not go to the playoffs in 2010, and that will seem like less of a robbery if  three superior NFC teams are three games better than the mighty Falcons or devastating Saints here in 2014.  Don't forget, the Panthers have a super flyweight puncher's chance to the win the division at the heels of their impressive tie against the Bengals.  While we marvel at the playoff runs by the Steelers, Giants and Packers in recent years ... seizing victory on the road in three playoff contests before winning the Lombardi Trophy on neutral ground, those teams had earned their postseason birth and caught fire at the right time.  Can you imagine if the Saints make the Super Bowl, entering the postseason four games below .500, and, even with three playoff wins, only muster nine wins in five months?

So what do we do about this?  First, if I could run the League, all teams in the NFL postseason tournament would have 9 wins or more.  (That's right; they can't be 8-7-1.  Nine wins.)  Second, teams are seeded in order of record, regardless of division champion.  Third, head-to-head match-ups are ultimate tiebreakers.  This year, if the Saints, Falcons and Panthers don't have nine wins (and they won't,) they are disqualified from the playoffs and there would then be three Wild Card teams instead of two.  Since they are not going to the playoffs under this format, they could be guaranteed a top-10 draft pick for their efforts.

Now for this week's winners:

Did you know there are 10 divisional rematches on the Sunday menu?  Arizona already beat St. Louis on Thursday night and I would argue that  sweeping any division opponent is rare, even if there is a chasm in the division standings.  The Rams were on a roll defensively, and they continued that roll against the Cards.  Problem was Shaun Hill reminded us why he's Shaun Hill and, in the end, the Cardinals left town with a sweep of their division opponent.  

Here's the shakedown of showdowns, with the lines and the team that won the first match-up of the season underlined:
* Tampa Bay at Carolina (-3)
* Cincinnati at Cleveland (-1)
* Houston at Indianapolis (-6.5)
* Oakland at Kansas City (-10)
* Miami at New England (-7.5)
* Washington at NY Giants (-6.5)
* Denver at San Diego (+4.5)
* Minnesota at Detroit (-7.5)
* San Francisco at Seattle (-10)
* Dallas at Philadelphia (-3.5)

Now ask yourself, as I look at the menu above, how many of those teams do I see sweeping the season series?

Here's who I'm taking, with a small footnote:
* Tampa Bay +3 ... Derek Anderson is starting.  Two wins in a row for Carolina is one too many.
* Cincinnati +1 ... I can't see the series sweep for the Brownies.
* Houston +6.5 ... This is the Texans' Super Bowl ... they may lose, but they'll cover by forcing turnovers.
* Kansas City -10 ... REVENGE!!!
* New England -7.5 ... I hear Miami plays awesome in the cold weather.
* Washington +6.5 ... I'd like to think the road team will have a better record than last year's 3-13 squad.
* San Diego +4.5 ... Eight in the box forces Manning to throw two costly interceptions.
* Minnesota +7.5 ... Vikings defense is tougher than advertised; if they can contain Johnson and Tate, they have a shot.
* San Francisco +10 ... I mean, how many consecutive weeks can the Niners not cover?
* Dallas +3.5 ... I feel like Sanchez fooled us on Thanksgiving.  His other games against the Packers and Seahawks are what we are used to enjoying.

In summary, if the team lost the first meeting, I'm taking their side to cover the number.  Analysis of the logic to come next week.  Good luck to you all.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

List of Demands

Did you hear the NFL lockout is over?

The most nauseating and pointless lead story for the past two weeks...three weeks...month...four months finally came to an end.  But don't worry - when you wake up tomorrow, you'll hear about free agents and 10-year CBA marriages and shortened training camp workloads and Brett Favre.  I have a migraine just imaging the speculation and impending chaos.  You might be lured to the stories of Albert Haynesworth and OchoCinco joining the Patriots or the drama that is "where will Kyle Orton end up," but it's just offseason fodder and fools gold.

September 8th can't get here fast enough.

I haven't spoken to anyone of my friends or family that has cared about the lockout.  In fact, I wrote my buddy Robby back on March 12th to ask if I should cancel my Sunday Ticket.  His exact response: they'll get a deal done...cancel nothing. 

There wasn't a fan in their right mind that thought we'd lose football the way we lost a World Series or an entire NHL season. The NFL's imminent start was just that, and fans were just bludgeoned during the news cycle like a dusty carpet with a stain on it. Those dozens of people that followed the lockout, I would imagine, are overjoyed that free agency is here. The rest of us can at least start watching players in pads push each other around instead of hopping off a bus and hold a briefcase on their way out of a revolving door.

Doesn't it make you just a little upset, though, when the players and owners mention "getting a deal done for the fans" or "now the fans can enjoy football" or "it's all about the fans."  Really?  All about us...awesome.  Football is back?  I'm sorry - did someone lose it? 

I'm glad the game is about the fans.  If this really is the case, Mr. Commissioner and Mr. Dee Smith, why not take action to make the game better for the fans.  Here are five simple demands that we the fans have for the next 10 years:

1) Please lock the league out after every draft and don't open shop until July 25th.  You can make it a national holiday of sorts.  Since the players have negotiated an ultra-sensitive practice limitation workload and since players have whined and lobbied for fewer team-run offseason workouts, then please do us all the favor of not getting in our way for a good three months.  You've proven you can negotiate terms for labor peace in five days, even though you were allotted five months.

2) No Thursday Night Football.  You are not bringing more exposure to the most popular sports league by shoving it on a cable package that few households own and relegating those households to enjoy 49ers at Seahawks.  Save Thursdays for Opening Night, Thanksgiving, maybe a Thursday special in December, but nothing more.

3) Expand the playoffs by one team.  Home field advantage is not the prize it once was (see 2010 Green Bay Packers, 2007 NY Giants, 2006 Pittsburgh Steelers.)  Players crave time off and more money.  Give the number one seed the luxury of the only bye week in the conference playoffs and have seeds 2 through 7 duke it out with Saturday and Sunday tripleheaders!  More games on television means more revenue and more playoff bonuses.

4) Free Parking.  Yes, it sounds a bit crazy and near impossible.  But try it for a couple games and watch what happens.  Your stadium experience will immediately be improved when fans start their game day ritual without having to worry about dropping $30 for parking.  Attendance will improve, fans will be rowdier, and season-ticket waiting lists will become special, again.  It's a small gesture to the fans that, no longer how poorly or wonderfully your team is playing, we want you here.

5) Please fix overtime.  My plan - (1) 10-minute overtime quarter - play the entire 10 minutes with regular rules.  If the game is tied after the 10-minute overtime, the team with the ball retains the ball, but must begin on their own 30-yard line.  Now the game is sudden death - no clock needed.  The coin toss no longer decides most of the outcome, it eliminates any tie games, it places value on overtime in the regular season, and it rewards teams for keeping possession of the football, not just lining-up for a field goal.

I doubt any of these will happen, but if the league were truly devoted to the fan experience, including more play on the field without expanding the schedule to 18 games, it will consider alternative ways to make its product better without watering it down. 

Here's hoping we don't have to suffer through another NFL offseason like 2011.  If we do, I don't think the masses will be as quick to embrace the league like we are currently.  Maybe Goddell and others will take the necessary steps to make the product for the fans better rather than posturing through the business of the league.
Don't you dare...

Monday, July 18, 2011

(Feelin' Good) x 12

How about those British Open picks I made on Wednesday: Jason Day ... +9, tied for 30th
Mahan, Quiros, Karlsson ... cut

Hey, it's not like the answer was right under my nose.  Like the rest of the planet, no one had Darren Clarke winning the Open Championship this weekend.  Sure there were other dynamic names racing up the leaderboard in pursuit of the title. As the wind howled and took it's turn on stage with rain, fog and sun, Thomas Bjorn caved on Friday, Chad Campbell croaked on Saturday, Dustin Johnson crumbled on Sunday, and Phil Mickelson tickled our imagination for 10 holes before returning to Planet Phil on Sunday's final eight. Clarke, native to the elements and refreshed with perspective, was the only entrant to fire four rounds at or under par. Seems like a rather simple formula for success, no matter who thinks you can win or not.

Clarke's is a story of tremendous triumph that we can play over and over if we wanted to teach lessons in fortitude, fundamentals and functionality.  There has been one exquisite piece after another about his capture of the Claret Jug in the cacophony of weather in Sandwich and how Northern Ireland is now the epicenter to the game of golf.  Or is that just to story we crave?

Here's a little quiz for yourself as you ponder how awesome it must be to win a golf tournament: Can you recite the last 12 major champion winners in the game of golf (preferably in order, please?)  If the answer is yes, what do you notice about these dozen names?
1) None of them are repeated.
2) None of them are named Tiger.

We have spanned three full calendar years witnessing some of the best golf in the world from many of the games up-and-comers.  Some have been thickened with drama (Stewart Cink's '09 British Open title) and others have been runaway clinics (Rory McIlroy's US Open stranglehold in June.)  All have been coated with a story of the individual that, if it doesn't tug at the heart a bit, it at least teaches us the foundation for that man's success.

So now we are left to make this fundamental decision: is this what we want?  Matt Crispino - good friend, future frequent reference and sidekick for the weekend - and I debated many sports topics that ranged from Jay Cutler's legacy to Syracuse Orange fans IQ to whether Hartford Whaler fans should be Carolina Hurricane fans.  Crispino stumped me with this query: What golfers do I root against?

I could not think of any.

So many of the stories that have garnered my attention are worth rooting for.  I would imagine there's plenty of ego, wealth and circumstance that all successful professional golfers possess that may be tagged unattractive, unpopular or uninspiring.  I enjoy the theatre that unfolds on the back nine of any golf tournament and further enjoy the recipe for that player's ascension.  Certainly it's heightened in major championships and tournaments with slightly higher stakes, like the Players Championships, the Accenture Match-Play and the Ryder Cup.  Winners accelerate their level of focus and execution; let's hear how it happened.

Now that Woods is not in the picture - and will stay that way until he wins something - more golfers are taking the bull by the horns, even if the bull is resting passively in his stable.  I enjoy it.  The field is wide open.  But most casual fans want to latch-on to a story or rivalry, eager and hopeful McIlroy and/or Mickelson win 10 more times this year.

Darren Clarke's victory, close to his 43rd birthday, at 150 to 1 odds, an afterthought to his countrymen's charge up the rankings, is just what golf needs.  The twelve most recent major champions have stamped their names on trophies and in history books as it becomes more and more challenging to prognosticate the champ. 

Here's hoping we can make it 13 in a row one month from now.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Bold Prediction Wednesday

I was fully prepared to give you a score-by-score breakdown of who I thought was going to win the British Open and two players that I think will finish in the top 10 this weekend at Royal St. George. 

A new story, though, has taken away some of that thunder, so I'll just tell you who I believe will have a good showing in the English town of Sandwich:

Winner: Jason Day
Top-10 Finishers: Alvaro Quiros, Hunter Mahan, Robert Karlsson

While driving home today, radio reports on the different outlets had James Harrison in the news for critical comments he made about Roger Goddell in the August issue of Men's Journal.  By the way, doesn't the name 'Men's Journal' sound like something I would carry in my satchel to record my rendezvous with Richard Gere?  This is not a shock.  No one on the players side of the negotiations probably thinks fondly of Mr. Goddell.  After all, Goddell is meant to be the impartial face of the league, but in these negotiations, he has become the face of the owners.

I did enjoy the part about Harrison referring to Goddell as both a puppet and a dictator.  I will detail on what platform the words "puppet" and "dictator," are used simultaneously, unless Harrison told Men's Journal something like, "Goddell acts like a dictator to the players.  Do you like this hand puppet I made?"

Harrison took the time, though, to criticize Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers quarterback who has made plenty of bad decisions in his life.  Rashard Mendenhall also could not escape Harrison's blame, calling him a "fumble machine." 

Mendenhall responded with, "I don't have a problem with what [Harrison] said because I know him."

OK, glad that's settled.

Roethlisberger is a different matter.  Here is a list of people that don't care for Ben Roethlisberger:
* the AFC North
* Georgia and Nevada
* all women sans fiance (Additionally, checkout the intense reporting here by James Walker - thanks James.)

Teammates should not make that list.  Teammates have disagreements and we as fans should have learned by now, those players should settle their own matters privately.  Roethlisberger has already had his captaincy rightfully removed from his list of responsibilities.  Whatever Ben's problems were off the field, he's looked to remedy them.  On the field, he has been nothing less then a great player, no matter what you think of his character.

It's difficult to pinpoint what Harrison's motives are for making these comments - as well as the possible questions the reporter conjured to get such abrasive remarks.  For now, the NFL really can't react to these comments with the labor bickering still ongoing.  It does create some fodder for a day or two about how crazy Harrison is, how the Steelers gave Green Bay three touchdowns and how Goddell is an evil super-genius.

The lockout, however, will end.  I'm not sure what the commissioner will do because Harrison is, after all, just ranting and hasn't committed a crime except for first degree hurt feelings. However, I have an idea what Mike Tomlin and Art Rooney II might be looking to do.

Harrison will be 33 this year and is under contract by the Steelers through 2012 with options through 2014.  He, like Roethlisberger, is a valuable member to the Steelers, but at what point does the verbal baggage finally stop?  Steelers fans have their varying opinions on both men, whether to discard them or offer forgiveness, but both are undeniably top talents at their profession

Tomlin and Rooney are going to meet with Harrison about his comments and get to the bottom of his angst.  At the end of the day, I can see Tomlin and Rooney giving Harrison the choice of how he wishes to proceed:
* Contribute to the team at come to us with your problems
* Leave

I think Harrison, when he weighs his options, will ask for a new team.  It's not going to be something the organization wants, just like they don't want Hines Ward drinking and driving, Santonio Holmes getting high, Mendenhall damning bin Laden haters, or Roethlisberger in Georgia dive bars.  Tomlin and Rooney are not reactive to these many mishaps, just like they won't succumb to media and fan scrutiny at the drop of a hat.  But after weighing the facts of the case and advocating for what's best for the team, they will attempt to trade Harrison and he will not be in a Steelers uniform when they tee it up this season.

The sad irony is the two guys largely responsible for winning Super Bowl XLIII will be exiled unceremoniously.  I hope Harrison decides to take the upstanding path and meets with the team, Mendenhall and Roethlisberger.  I just don't think it's in his nature.