Friday, December 11, 2009

The Right Choice


When El Abuelo went to his first and only bullfight, he rooted for the bull, not only because the poor animal was clearly a double-digit underdog, but because it was the right thing to do. The rest of the stadium was pulling for the torero, hoping to see a precise kill. But not El Abuelo. He was impressed by el toro’s power and dignity. And of course, he was disappointed. The bull went down like the victim of a mob hit. It was bloody, ruthless and stunningly final.

It may be hard to believe, given his steel-encased 6-foot, 4-inch, 300-pound frame, but Ndamukong Suh is the bull in the Heisman Trophy race, both metaphorically and in a literal sense. Watching him terrorize those old boys from Texas – not to mention anyone else unlucky enough to have lined up across from him the past two seasons – was like seeing Mark Mangino tear though the Sizzler buffet. Oh, the humanity. In a year when no traditional (read: Offensive) candidate stood out in the Heisman sweepstakes, discerning voters had the opportunity to take a good look at the player who best fit the mandate found on every ballot: “We are truly grateful for your support in selecting the most outstanding college football player in the United States (El Hombre’s italics) for 2009.”

That would be Suh, no question about it. The other finalists had great years, to be sure, but “most outstanding” status belongs to those who truly distinguish themselves as performing well above the usual. That’s the trouble with awards these days. They often go to the person who has the best press agent or the loudest TV foof blithering about his greatness. At this point, we have heard so much about the majesty of Tim Tebow that it’s a wonder he hasn’t been beatified, with only a couple miracles – one of them could be a card trick – standing between him and sainthood. (Word is Sixers GM Billy King prays daily to Tebow to get another job, and should an NBA team hire him, that will definitely qualify as the QB’s first miracle.) What is conveniently omitted from the Tebow mythology is that he hasn’t had a dominant season. His numbers (2,413 yards passing, 18 TDs, five ints., 859 yards rushing, 13 TDs) are impressive but not dominant. Tebow didn’t overwhelm people they way he did in ’07, when he won the Heisman by accounting for a knee-buckling 55 touchdowns (23 rushing, 32 passing). He was great and led the Gators to a perfect regular season, but he wasn’t the most outstanding player out there.

Texas QB McCoy had a fine season, too, throwing for 3,512 yards and 27 TDs. But he threw 12 picks and didn’t show so well against the only two stout defenses he faced. In games versus Oklahoma and Nebraska, McCoy was a pedestrian 41-of-75 (54.7%), for 311 yards, a touchdown and four picks. About the only thing Heisman-like about that combined effort was that it appeared as if McCoy was throwing with a stiff arm.

It’s going to be tough for a lot of voters to eliminate those two from contention, since as quarterbacks, the hold the ball longer than anyone else and are clearly visible for the myopic, who conveniently forget there are 21 other players on the field with the QB. They’re the types who believe multi-tasking is eating a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich.

The running back crop is pretty impressive this season. In fact, two of them received my second and third-place votes. But as strong as Toby Gerhart and Mark Ingram were this season, neither was the type of player who made you call friends during games to talk in amazement about this play or that move. Gerhart was the closest to that of any ballcarrier, but it’s possible part of his amazement quotient was due to the fact that finding white tailbacks these days is practically impossible, unless you’re haunting the New England Small College Athletic Conference. EH compadre Raging Bill refers to the Caucasian tailback as the “passenger pigeon,” since that species is long extinct. While Gerhart does have some peers, he is a rarity, though he was practically unstoppable in Stanford’s final four games, when he averaged 185.5 yards/contest and scored 13 touchdowns. Pretty impressive, but let’s not get carried away.

Same goes for Ingram, who finished 12th in the nation in rushing. His 1,542 yards and 15 touchdowns are certainly strong performances, and he did come up big in the SEC title game against Florida, rushing for 113 yards and three scores, but let’s be serious here. We’re looking for the “most outstanding” player, not just someone who plays well. Consider some of the other running backs who have won the Heisman. Barry Sanders rushed for 2,628 yards and 37 touchdowns. (Gulp!) Marcus Allen gained 2,342. Ricky Williams picked up 2,327 and scored 29 times. Mike Rozier had 2,148 yards and 29 scores. Bo Jackson: 1,786 yards and 6.4 yards/attempt. And they all did it in 11 games. Gerhart and Ingram are great college players, but they are not Heisman-worthy.

Suh is. His numbers bear it out, which is extremely rare for a defensive tackle. Most of the time, those guys are anonymous, content to – and praised for – earn their side of beef by commanding double and triple-teams and let someone else earn the glory. They are most often found beneath six hundred pounds or so of offensive linemen while linebackers and strong safeties accumulate the stats. Not Suh. Not only did he lead Nebraska in tackles for the second straight year, a remarkable feat, but he also piled up 23 tackles for loss, 12 sacks, three blocked kicks, 24 QB hurries, 10 batted-down passes and an interception. But the numbers are only part of it. Because of Suh’s dominance, the entire Husker defensive unit thrived. Take fellow D-tackle Jared Crick. He had a huge year, all right, with 15 tackles behind the line and 9.5 sacks, and is plenty talented. But as one coach who watched the Huskers devastate the potent Texas attack said, “Crick’s like the guy who rooms with the good-looking guy and gets a bunch of girls because of the roommate.” That may be a little bit of an overstatement, but without Suh’s attracting so much attention, there’s no way Crick produces what he did. And there’s no way Nebraska comes within a second of the Big 12 title. You want outstanding? You want Suh.

This year, the bull wins.

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: El Hombre certainly doesn’t condone any kind of anti-Semitic behavior, like the taunting that took place during the Harvard-Dartmouth squash match last week, but you have to admit that it’s rather amusing that when we discuss bad behavior at big schools, it’s usually surrounding football or basketball. In the Ivies, it’s squash. Somebody needs to teach Biff and Chip some manners…If it’s December, then the Cowboys are choking. That’s a darn shame…The early rollout of the stupid Nike LeBron and Kobe puppet ad campaign is bad news for people who prefer to remain sane. This means seven more months of that nonsense. Make it stop, please!...Is there anything more ridiculous than espn’s touting that its sportscenter broadcasts are coming to us from Los Angeles? Who cares if they’re spewing their nauseating brew of synergized highlights, self-promotion and canned crowd noise from a ger in Ulan Bator, just as long as we find out (eventually) the score of the game? Just another reason the network is about as far away from its groundbreaking roots as Michael Jackson was from his Jackson 5 days.

* * *

YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? The decision to extend Andy Reid’s
contract hasn’t been too well received among Eagles fans, and that’s not hard to believe, given the brainwashing that has been done about how the city of Philadelphia “deserves” a parade (pronounced locally as “prade”) and how a Super Bowl is the only way to measure success. Of course, many of these people think it’s a good idea to replace Donovan McNabb with Kevin Kolb. Yes, Reid is a borderline boob when it comes to clock management. He also has some serious splotches on his resume, like the ’02 NFC title game loss to Tampa Bay, and his decision not to go with the no-huddle attack during the last seven minutes of the Super Bowl loss to New England. But his successes far outweigh those failures. He’s one of only four (four!) coaches ever to win 100 games in a decade with the same team. He has brought the Eagles to the playoffs seven of the 10 seasons he has coached the Eagles and has won a post-season game every year. His teams almost always get better as the season goes on, and he has even improved as a GM, as his recent moves to upgrade the offense have shown. Reid is imperfect, and he clearly doesn’t like the media (so what?), but he has done an admirable job so far. Now, if he doesn’t get over the hump by the time this deal is done, it’s time to move on. But Reid deserved the extension, and those who want to see him go should be very wary of what might come next.

* * *

AND ANOTHER THING: Let’s get something straight: Anybody who thinks Tim Donaghy didn’t try to influence the outcomes of the games he was betting has never gambled on sports. If you had money on a game, and someone said you could send somebody to the bench with foul trouble, you would do it immediately. In fact, if somebody handed you a gun with a single bullet in it and said you could use it at any point in the game, don’t think for a minute you wouldn’t consider kneecapping a player to guarantee a cover. We didn’t believe Pete Rose, and we shouldn’t believe Donaghy. He deserves a chance to rebuild his life, but we don’t have to buy his story. It just doesn’t add up.

* * *

ONE MORE FOR THE ROAD: It is a testament to the corporate world’s “conscience” that sponsors are not jumping off the Tiger Woods train in bunches. Nike, Accenture and the rest of the logos are sticking by their man for one reason: At some point, this will all burn out, and Woods will return to the links to (one would assume) keep dominating the rest of the field. When that happens, and he issues his mandatory public mea culpa – get ready for a ratings bonanza, Oprah – and undergoes some therapy and/or rehab (that Ambien can be pretty addictive), you can bet the sponsors will be happy to have remained with a man who will have become a sympathetic figure. If Woods plays it right, he will be able to able to regain his former prominent perch, provided he can avoid ordering off the menu at Perkins House of Pancakes.