Friday, January 29, 2010

All-Star Disaster


Back when Allen Iverson was holding the Philadelphia 76ers hostage with his unique brand of bionic wrist shooting, a clever saying circulated among the wily wags who covered the team. It went like this:

“They say there’s no ‘I’ in team, and there’s no “team” in Iverson.”

Great stuff, no? Anyway, the point was pretty clear. So long as A.I. was getting his, it didn’t matter what else was going on. The Sixers would win some with him, and in 2001, Iverson (with a bit of help from Larry Brown) lifted the team to the NBA Finals. But that was the limit for Iverson, whose selfish game never allowed the franchise to surround him with other top-flight players, because they knew they wouldn’t see the ball.

If only Iverson had used his powers for good, he could have been one of the greatest point guards ever to pull on an NBA uniform. Just imagine how others would have lined up to play with a ridiculously quick guard who could penetrate at will, was unstoppable in the open court and looked to pass first. It didn’t happen, and last year, age finally caught up with Iverson. No longer able to carry a team on his narrow shoulders, he was asked to take on secondary roles with first Denver and then Detroit. His response in both cases was an upraised middle finger, and after the season he was cast off into the discount bucket, where only Memphis – make that the Grizzlies’ nitwit owner – was interested in claiming him.

You know what happened from there. Iverson was injured during training camp, and when he got healthy, he blanched at coming off the bench. Memphis dumped him, the Sixers picked him up, and his creaky body turned him into the type of complementary player that used to surround him during his prime. In these cases, players generally drift off into obscurity, either as afterthoughts on rotten teams (like the Sixers) or as reserves on winners. They don’t, however, become All-Stars.


It’s impossible to blame Iverson for his ascension to the starting lineup of the Eastern Conference All-Stars. He didn’t concoct a computer program to stuff the e-ballot box – as far as we know. Nor did he go door-to-door soliciting votes. He merely forced his way out of Memphis – where “God” told him to go, if you believe AI’s mid-summer revelation – resurfaced in Philadelphia, shed a few tears, kissed some hardwood and then proved that he isn’t the player he once was.

Since joining the Sixers, Iverson has scored a modest 14.9 ppg and dished out 4.4 apg. He’s playing just under 33 minutes a game (a far cry from the 40-plus he used to average) and has missed some time due to arthritis, not exactly a condition that afflicts younger men. Iverson will be 35 this June, and his days of embarrassing rivals with his signature crossover and jet streaming the opposition in the open court are certainly over. The Sixers knew that when they signed him, as did the rest of the NBA, which passed on his services during the off-season. To his credit, Iverson is coping with his creeping mortality, making concessions to his diminishing physical skills by trying to be more of a (gasp!) team player.

Kudos to him for that, but his willingness to junk the me-first approach that made him equal parts thrilling and maddening is not reason for inclusion among the game’s best. It’s especially not worthy of a spot on the starting five. Iverson achieved that status solely due to fan ignorance that spawned a tidal wave of support. Boston’s Ray Allen received flak from all corners when he called for an end – or at least an amendment – to the process of selecting All-Star participants by fan vote. Those who back the system argued that since the game is an exhibition, staged solely for the fans (and to make a fat profit) the NBA’s loyal customers should choose the participants. That makes sense until you realize that making the All-Star team is more than just an opportunity to spend 48 defense-free minutes. Many players have clauses in their contract that give them bonuses for reaching that milestone. Others are judged Hall of Fame-worthy by the number of times they are selected.

As bad as Iverson’s election was, the fact that Tracy McGrady, who has played all of six games this year and averaged 3.2 ppg, almost received enough votes to join the West’s starting lineup was an even greater travesty. Thank goodness a late surge pushed Steve Nash past McGrady. Why couldn’t Me-Mac have done like Yao Ming and removed himself from the ballot? Ming, who won’t play this season, understood that millions of Chinese fans would have pulled his lever, so he bowed out, gracefully. McGrady lacked that kind of class.

The solution should incorporate fan voting, but it should also let players, coaches and/or media have a voice, the better to eliminate future fiascos like the Iverson selection and the McGrady near-miss. That way, perhaps the game will feature the best of the best, not the products of election fraud.

There’s no ‘I’ in team, and there shouldn’t be an Iverson in the All-Star Game.

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: Golfers descended on Torrey Pines this week for a continuation of the “Who Gives A Crap Tour,” and no matter how much officials protest, Phil Mickelson and Scott Piercy can’t generate the same interest as Mr. Hot Sex. There’s no truth to the rumor PGA bigwigs are offering a $1 million bonus to the first rehab therapist who gives Tiger Woods a clean bill of health…Joel Branstrom, the Kansas high school hoops coach who was pranked by students who promised him Final Four tickets if he made a halfcourt shot (he made it, but they had no tickets for him) will be a guest of the NC2A at this year’s Final Four. After hearing about the organization’s generosity, Texas coach Rick Barnes asked for the same treatment – and wanted to know if he could bring his team with him…Wait a second. Cowboy Quarterback threw a stupid pass? Nooooo way! As much fun as it was to watch Brett Favre blow it in the last seconds of regulation last week against New Orleans (check out the radio call; it’s classic: ), you have to be impressed with his toughness. The Saints treated him like a piƱata, and he kept coming back, albeit a little too dramatically. Now, we get to wait months to find out whether he’s returning. That ought to be a lot of fun.

* * *

YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? It’s amusing to hear people try to figure out how much responsibility Sixers’ coach Eddie Jordan should take for the team’s awful, 15-30 record. The answer? None. When GM Ed Stefanski hired Jordan, he talked about how great it was going to be watching the Sixers run Jordan’s “Princeton Offense.” Stefanski conveniently forgot that the team had no point guard and that its highest-paid player, power forward Elton Brand, is a pick-and-pop type with few of the intuitive basketball skills needed for the scheme. Worse, by giving Andre Iguodala a huge contract and Jason Kapono nearly $13 mil for two years(!), Stefanski created one of the nastiest salary cap situations around. The Sixers may have to trade Iguodala and others for an ugly expiring contract just to get under the cap next year and avoid paying the luxury tax. And somebody wants to blame Jordan for that. Sure, the coach could have won a few more games if he had decided on a rotation earlier, but the team he has been handed is not prepared to run his offense, lacks a go-to scorer, doesn’t play very good defense and shoots poorly from outside. Brand is a shell of his former self, and the Sixers didn’t realize that a big reason he looked so good a few years back with the Clippers is that Sam Cassell was hurt, and Brand took a lot more shots than he usually did – yielding more impressive numbers. Jordan isn’t the best coach, but he has been given a nightmare of a roster. The best thing for the Sixers would be for a regime change. Sell the team, Mr. Snider, and let someone who cares about basketball take over.

* * *

AND ANOTHER THING: The NFL has been largely bulletproof when it comes to marketing itself over the past couple decades, but the league has made a huge mistake with the Pro Bowl, no matter how much commissioner Roger Goodell tries to convince us otherwise. About 48 of the 76 players initially announced to play in the game will be suited up and ready to go Sunday night in Miami, where upper deck tickets are reportedly selling for $20 bucks below asking price. Okay, so the Pro Bowl is a joke anyway, and no one should really care – other than the players, who loved going to Hawaii – whether the market for tickets is suffering. The real travesty is that the league is forcing Pro Bowlers from the Colts and Saints to make a special trip to Miami ahead of their teams and stand on the sidelines for the first half of the game, instead of preparing for the Super Bowl, which is only the main goal of every player in the league, except for Me-O. It’s asinine to torpedo your championship game so that an exhibition can have a little more tube appeal for espn. The NFL can try to spin this any way it wants, but it loses big. Let’s hope Goodell has the brains and guts to reverse field next season.


Friday, January 22, 2010

Time to Win? Time to Defend

Because Cowboy Quarterback is slapping backsides and just plain having a great time playing the game again, be prepared to be overwhelmed the next couple days (as if we’re not buried under already) with fawning accounts of how a 40-year old’s success in a young man’s game is a truly remarkable thing and that this weekend’s conference title games revolve around the continuing drama of Brett Favre’s quest to be a champion once more.

Please wait a moment while El Hombre wipes the vomit from his chin.

Favre’s play this year has been excellent, especially after his 2008 late-season meltdown in New York, which conspiracy theorists could hypothesize was a purposeful attempt to be freed from Gotham in order to be courted by the Vikings. Favre is healthy and surrounded by some pretty impressive talent in Minnesota, even if Adrian Peterson’s rushing average is shrinking faster than a banker’s credibility. His ability to rein in that wild hair that has so often caused him to think he can fit the football into microscopic areas has meant a lot to the Vikings. And should he lead Minnesota past New Orleans this Sunday in the NFC title game, the mind boggles at the two weeks of sycophantic love letters the media will toss Favre’s way in the run-up to the Super Bowl. It’s possible espN’s Rachel Nichols will be reduced to reporting on Number Four’s teeth-brushing habits (“Floss first, then circular rotations with the brush, followed by substantial gum stimulation”) as game time approaches.

As well as Favre has played, and as impressive as the other QBs – Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Mark Sanchez – have been in leading their teams to the Final Four, each squad has achieved its success primarily because of defense and (with the exception of Indianapolis) the ground game. The NFL is a passing league, and this year more QBs have attempted at least 500 passes than ever before. More have thrown for at least 4,000 yards. And a record amount completed 65% of their passes. And yet, when the winning must be accomplished, the big, nasty people get it done.

In their win over Arizona, the Saints rushed for 171 yards and forced two turnovers. They held the mighty Cardinal attack to just 14 points and just about knocked Kurt Warner into retirement. For a minute, it appeared as if the game was going feature more scoring than a Tiger Woods golf weekend, but after Bobby McCray pole-axed Warner, it turned into a one-sided affair. Later that night, the Colts held Baltimore to 270 total yards, pounced on four Raven gaffes and limited them to a mere 12 first downs. Indy didn’t run it, but then again, with Manning under center you don’t worry about that. One interesting thing about the game was that there has been precious little national outcry about the final seconds of the first half, when the clock operator ran off just two seconds on a Manning pass, allowing the Colts to run another play, instead of going for a field goal before intermission. The resulting TD made it 17-3 and effectively ended the game. Baltimore coach John Harbaugh went bats about the slow clock, but nobody did anything about it, and CBS did not show a replay with a real-time clock on the screen. Hmmm. It couldn’t be that the network didn’t want to expose a crucial gaffe – if a more reasonable four seconds had run off the clock, Indy probably would have tried a field goal with 0:05 to go, instead of going for the TD with 0:07 left – and embarrass the NFL, could it? That might not help things during the next TV contract negotiations.

The next afternoon, Minnesota rushed for 109 yards, held Dallas to a total of 248 and sacked besieged Tony Romo six times, to gain a measure of revenge from the 1975 Drew Pearson push-off game at venerable Metropolitan Stadium. Capping off the Cowgirls’ pathetic performance was Keith Brookings’ crybaby performance. The veteran linebacker screamed at the Viking bench after Minnesota’s final touchdown, a three-yard Favre pass, with less than 2:00 remaining. Were the game played between two junior-high teams, Brookings would have had a gripe about the Vikes’ running it up. Since it was contested between highly paid professionals, Brookings needed to keep his mouth shut and lick his wounds. Capping off the weekend, New York rushed for 169 yards, forced two turnovers and limited San Diego to 4-of-13 success on third down in its upset win. Afterward, Chargers coach Norv Turner reminded everybody of how many games his team has won in December – and nobody cared.

Notice a pattern here? All four of the teams were stingy. They suffocated the opposition and made it easier for the offense to do its job. That’s how you win in the post-season, not with fun and fancy aerial attacks and visionary offensive coordinators. Hunker down and smash some heads. That’s playoff football.

Favre may get all the glory if Minnesota gets to Miami, but he would be smart to direct the flattery toward the angry, oversized men on the other side of the ball. After all, he has to practice against them.

Now a few words about last week: It didn’t happen.

You may not have much faith in El Hombre’s predicting abilities about now, but that’s when you’ll find him to be the most dangerous – in a good way.

Indianapolis (minus 7 ½) over New York. EH was wrong about the Jets. Real wrong. Coach Rex Ryan’s team has been outstanding in the playoffs, displaying a tremendous ground attack and rugged D. Well, you can’t be one-dimensional at this level, and Sanchez isn’t ready to make big plays against the quick Colts defense. Meanwhile, nobody is better at sniffing out crazy blitz schemes than Manning. Colts 23, Jets 13.

Minnesota (plus 3 ½) over New Orleans. When Romo drops back to pass in the Cowboys’ first mini-camp of the coming spring, he’s going to expect a purple-clad defender to be charging at him. The Viking pass rush is relentless, and that’s going to force Brees to keep some extra people in for protection. That’s not good. Meanwhile, Favre, Adrian Peterson and wideout Sidney Rice will find plenty of holes in the Saints defense. Minnesota 27, New Orleans 23.

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: By now, many of you have heard about the knuckle-dragger down in Georgia who wants to start a whites-only professional basketball league down South. (Surprise!) Can’t wait to see the wide-wail corduroy warm-up pants. And nothing says basketball excitement than an “alley” without the “oop.” How about those cheerleaders in turtlenecks, monogrammed sweaters and tartan-print skirts? Sexy! The WBL (Whitey Basketball League) – it’s Bland-tastic!...Let’s hear it for Boston College linebacker Mark Herzlich, who is back practicing with his teammates after a bout with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare cancer that usually hits young adults. Herzlich is cancer-free and ready to play in 2010. Let’s hope the only obstacles he faces from here on out are angry blockers…You have to love NASCAR. Ratings sag and attendance drops, and how does the left-turn set react? By loosening safety restrictions and encouraging drivers to bump and bang each other around the oval. Genius. What’s next, rules that allow drivers to pack heat? Forget El Hombre suggested that. It’s just the kind of idea that might catch on with that group…The ejection of 11 disorderly Croats from an Australian Open match this week has shined the light on tennis hooligans. Could there be a crazier juxtaposition? What’s next, riots at curling matches? Unruly patrons at dressage competitions? And they say Philadelphia fans are tough.

* * *

YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? On the surface, the Phillies’ decision to lock up Joe Blanton for three years is a good one, because it gives them four starters – Blanton, Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, J.A. Happ – on the books through the 2012 season. And since Blanton has thrown more than 1,000 innings over the past five seasons, his presence in the lineup almost guarantees 200 IP each season, not bad for a third or fourth starter. But the question we need to ask is whether three seasons of Heavy B trump one year of Cliff Lee. In essence, that’s the deal the Phils have struck by telling us they couldn’t afford $9 to Lee this year but they could pay Blanton $24 mil (7, 8.5, 8.5) over the next three. This appears to be the hallmark of a team that is trying to maintain its perch as a contender without going for the brass ring. If Hamels does not rebound to ’08 levels this year, and Blanton’s arm betrays him from overuse, 2010 could be a mess for the Phils, particularly if the expected troubles at the number five spot in the rotation – neither Pop-Pop Moyer nor Kyle Kendrick inspires – arise. Pairing Lee with Halladay in the rotation this year, even if it meant cutting loose Blanton, would create a dynamic pairing atop the rotation that no other team could match. Instead of doing that, the Phillies are trying to protect their backsides with Blanton’s solid but hardly spectacular work, a sophomore (Happ) who could fall apart easily now that hitters know him, and the mystery that is Hamels. If the staff doesn’t come around as the Phils hope, that lineup had better be ready to score seven a night – and then some.

* * *

AND ANOTHER THING: Tiger Woods’ arrival at a sex-addiction clinic was as predictable as ridiculously low scores at this weekend’s Bob Hope Classic. If you follow the textbook definition of an addiction – risk-taking, willingness to give up your family, career and reputation to feed it – Woods definitely has a problem, as his smaller checkbook, fleeing sponsors and disappearing wife and kids prove. But it’s hard not to see his checking in (allegedly) to the treatment center as the first step in a calculated move back to playing again. One would imagine a sniffling appearance on Oprah will follow, with interviews by handpicked espn and 60 Minutes correspondents on the menu as well. A tightly regulated press conference comes next and finally a return to the links. If Woods has a problem, let’s hope he can be helped. But if he’s just going through some P.R. plan to generate sympathy from the media and fans, then shame on him. Again.


Friday, January 15, 2010

There's No Crying In Baseball, Mark


The big winner in Mark McGwire’s recent media tour in support of his new contrition over a decade of steroid use is Kleenex, because every time he speaks these days, the tears tend to flow. If we didn’t know Big Mac had hired former Bush press secretary Ari Fleisher to be his Big Flak, one would think he had stolen a page from the Dick Vermeil Drama Handbook. McGwire has produced so much saline solution in the past couple days, officials in Kazakhstan have proposed using him to help replenish the shrinking Aral Sea.

Give McGwire credit for one thing: Unlike other members of baseball’s Shameless Generation, he at least admitted to using the stuff more than once or twice (Andy Pettitte) or accidentally (Balco Bonds). There was no talk of flaxseed oil or B-12 shots. No irresponsible dentists or “personal health issues.” McGwire juiced, and he admits it. For that, he deserves a gold star.

But like his fellow drug cheats, McGwire qualifies his apology, and that’s where all the goodwill begins to stagnate like spilled can of Blatz souring in the searing summer sun. He claims his 10 years of abuse were not designed to improve his play, even though the label on the box he got at Steroids R Us clearly stated that the product was a “performance enhancing drug.” Nope, McGwire was merely using the stuff (for some reason, he can’t remember the name of the substance, despite a decade of use) to stay healthy and remain in the lineup. Everything else came straight off the shelves at God, Inc.

The technical term for this type of elusive behavior is “steaming pile of crap,” but to a layman, McGwire is simply rationalizing his actions and trying to get us to buy into the sham. Forget that his home runs per at-bat dropped from 14.0 to 8.4 during his peaking juicing – a 40% decrease. Forget that he wouldn’t have come near his final total of 583 dingers without the drugs. And forget that it was ultimately the steroids that ended his career by contributing to classic P.E.D. injuries in his back and knees. (Parents, feel free to use this last one with the kids as a textbook definition of irony. Or, you can stick with the Tiger-Woods-getting-smacked-by-a-golf-club example.)

McGwire juiced to hit more home runs. To hit longer home runs. They may have helped him stay healthy, but their primary result was to allow him to craft a mammoth, sculpted frame with more power, speed and endurance. He sure could hit the ball before the juice, but he hit it further, more frequently and with more jaw-dropping majesty once he started abusing drugs. The resulting 135 taters in 1998-99 were to be his ticket to immortality. Now, they are black marks in a baseball record book that has less and less credibility and the smoking guns in a career that was a product of cheating.

By copping to steroid use, McGwire is hoping to ease his return to the game as a hitting coach for the Cardinals. That will probably work, especially since Cards’ manager Tony LaRussa is leading the cheers for his return – and erasing any last bits of credibility he has by claiming he knew nothing about McGwire’s steroid abuse until the slugger called him earlier this week to confess. That makes LaRussa the only person in America who didn’t act like Captain Renault upon hearing McGwire’s “revelation.” But let’s hope those who vote for the Hall of Fame aren’t snowed by the well-crafted act of contrition, no matter how much the slugger paid for it. McGwire’s success is directly related to continued, deliberate steroid use. He wouldn’t have thrived as he did without the drugs, so his candidacy for immortality should not even be considered. He said he was sorry, and that’s a good step. He also said he wished he had never played in the “Steroid Era.” Maybe he should have thought of that before he started sticking needles in his butt – or having Jose Canseco do it for him.

Speaking of Canseco, is anybody ever going to get tired of seeing the guy proven right? So far, he’s like Rocky Marciano – undefeated and untied. The guy is a bit of a crackpot (okay, he’s a big crackpot), but he has been right on about steroids. It’s a wonder baseball invertebrate Bud Sellout hasn’t put a contract out on the guy yet. The baseball that conked Canseco on the head before flying out of the park may have knocked him a little loopy, but he speaks the truth about the juice, and if he says he and McGwire had a little needle party in the clubhouse shower, then it happened. Period.

Canseco isn’t trying to get a job in Majoke League Baseball. He has no shot at the Hall of Fame, either. McGwire, on the other hand, has one and wants the other. His well-rehearsed apology might keep him in a Cardinals uniform, but in no way should it punch his ticket to Cooperstown. He didn’t tell the complete truth, and even if he did, the fact that he used steroids for a decade should serve as a ringing indictment against his candidacy. Let’s hope the Hall of Fame voters don’t soften up like the audience at a romantic comedy and admit McGwire to baseball’s Valhalla. Be vigilant, folks, and realize a cheat and manipulator when you see one.

Oh, and someone get McGwire a tissue. It looks like he’s crying. Again.

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: Giants Stadium is being sold, piece-by-piece. Fans can buy seats, turf and locker room items. No word on how much Jimmy Hoffa will cost…New England has cut ties with defensive coordinator Dean Pees, bringing his career with the Pats to a close and rendering unemployed the only NFL coach whose name is a full sentence…NBC is planning 835 hours of Olympics coverage, with only 820 of those devoted to figure skating. Talk about a classic case of biathlonism…With the NBA trading deadline looming next month, the rumor mill has started its annual churn. The most interesting name being mentioned is Tracy McGrady, the oft-injured, highly overrated Houston forward who has never won a playoff series. The best part of dealing for Me-Mac is that his bloated contract (about $21 mil) expires after this season, so it will be possible to chase some of the top free agents in this summer’s robust class. Talk about a big fall from grace. Once considered a star, Me-Mac is only coveted for his expiring contract. A cautionary tale? Nahhh. Today’s money-grubbing players don’t care, so long as they get paid.

* * *

YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT: Now that the Eagles’ season is over, the frustrated fans (you mean there are some who aren’t frustrated?) are looking for scapegoats. Instead of realizing the team just wasn’t good enough (crappy O-line, insufficient edge pass rushing, weak LBs, poor safeties) to beat Dallas, the fans’ consensus is that Donovan McNabb is responsible. He did not play well against Dallas either time in January; that’s for sure. Is he the main problem on the team? Not by a long shot. That title goes to GM Andy Reid. (As opposed to coach Andy Reid.) So, let’s get rid of him. Really. Eagles fans are so ready to have Kevin Kolb under center, so deal McNabb. The team will be doing him a favor. Ever since the blowhard from Rhode Island – via Columbia and the beach block in Sea Isle – brought a bunch of sots to New York to boo McNabb, the town has been against him. So, set him free, play Kolb and bask in the glory of 8-8 and 7-9 records. But, hey, at least there will be a change. And that’s what Eagles fans crave. Meanwhile, let’s see what McNabb can do with a legitimate commitment to the run and a good defense. The guess here is that it will be plenty.

* * *

AND ANOTHER THING: Now for a quick word on Pete Carroll and Lane Kiffin. It’s time to stop lionizing these big-time coaches as builders of character and great molders of men. They are self-absorbed competition freaks who care about their careers first. (Second and third, too.) Any player who signs on to play for one of them had better be smart enough to understand that his best interests are nowhere near the top of these coaches’ lists of priorities. Kiffin’s decision to bolt Tennessee after one season reveals his true character. How long until he leaves Troy? If he tried to convince UT conscripts to follow him to SoCal, he should be penalized harshly by the NC2A. As for Carroll, he rebuffed one NFL entreaty after another before finally settling on Seattle. Hmmmm. That couldn’t have anything to do with the pending NC2A investigation into improper benefits received by former Trojan players, could it? Nahhh. Pete just wanted to get some good coffee and experience 275 days of rain every year. Right. One thing is certain: Kiffin certainly learned well during his time under Carroll. If you can root for ‘SC or the Seahawks, you have a strong stomach.

* * *

ONE MORE FOR THE ROAD: Now for the picks. The “good” news is that El Hombre went 2-2 against the spread (thank you, Ravens and Cowboys) last week. The ugliness comes from the 1-3 money-line performance. It’s time to get healthy.
Arizona (plus 7) over New Orleans: The Old Man has it cooking like he did back in the Arena Football League days, and the Cards don’t seem to mind how many points the other team scores. The Saints stumbled home during the regular season but should outscore the Cards in a thriller. New Orleans 41, Arizona 38.
Baltimore (plus 6 ½) over Indianapolis. The Ravens looked great pillaging the crippled Pats last week, but Indy is another story. Baltimore QB Joe Flacco isn’t playing well enough to hold up his end on offense, and MVP Peyton Manning is rested and ready to work his magic. It will be close, but Indy breaks its streak of losing playoff openers after bye weeks. Indianapolis 20, Baltimore 16.
Dallas (plus 3) over Minnesota. I don’t care if Brett Favre is undefeated in the Big Mall this season, because Dallas is the NFC’s best team. After an afternoon of Cowboy pressure, Favre might just throw a punch at coach Brad Childress. Expect this year’s teary-eyed retirement press conference on Tuesday. Dallas 24, Minnesota 17.
San Diego (minus 7 ½) over New York. Okay, so El Hombre was wrong about the Jets last week, although it would have been nice if Cincinnati had shown just a little guts before lying down. But the Jets won’t make it two straight, not against the NFL’s hottest team. Phillip Rivers takes another step toward elite status with a convincing performance. San Diego 23, New York 10.


Friday, January 8, 2010

Keep the Carnage Coming


You have to love the NFL. The same league that has spent the past several years doing its best to tell us there is no link between repeated shots to the head by angry 300-pounders and future brain damage is now hoping to entice coaches to keep players in harm’s way during late-season contests, even if their teams have absolutely nothing to gain from the games. Seems the league is worried about the product on the field and giving fans the best value for their ticket dollar. Well, tell all that to Wes Welker and the Patriots.

For those of you who don’t arrange their lives around the NFL – and if you don’t, the league’s assassins will find you – Welker tore two knee ligaments (Good news! He still has one intact) Sunday in the Pats’ finale, which meant as much to New England as gun control legislation does to Gilbert Arenas. (More on that chowderhead later.) Now New England will enter the post-season without its top receiver (Don’t even try to give El Hombre Randy Moss), and Welker has the very real possibility of spending the remainder of his career as a shadow of his former self. But, hey, at least the fans got to see the first-stringers! Right. See how that plays during the post-season as the Pats try to win a Super Bowl without a stalwart.

This whole thing began because Colts’ coach Jim Caldwell decided it was a good idea to keep Peyton Manning away from the Jets’ pass rush, which resembles an angry beehive. By doing that, he surrendered the chance to “make history” by going 19-0. What he was really doing was preserving the most important single asset in the league and assuring the Colts that they won’t have to see backup QB Matt Painter do anything during the post-season except warm up. And even that is frightening for Indy fans.

Anybody who watched Texas fall apart in the wake of QB Colt McCoy’s injury Thursday night knows what can happen to a contender when it loses its top player. The Longhorns eventually rallied and showed some heart, but they didn’t have enough to beat Alabama. Without Manning, the Colts don’t win a playoff game. No way.

Caldwell’s decision was roundly criticized by the “historians” who analyze the NFL’s every heartbeat. By resting Manning, even though the Colts had a five-point third-quarter lead when the quarterback sat down, Caldwell was forfeiting a chance at immortality. Had Manning’s knee been turned to oatmeal by a blitzing linebacker, Caldwell would have been torn apart for exposing the QB to marauding defenders, in the name of self-aggrandizement. In other words, it was an untenable position, and Caldwell made the choice he thought would give his team the best chance to win a Super Bowl title. (Again, have you seen Matt Painter play?)

In the coming weeks and months, we’ll hear all sorts of things designed to guard the league’s image and give the fans their “money’s worth.” Commissioner Roger Goodell might offer up extra draft picks to teams who have already clinched playoff berths or secured seeding positions that nonetheless continue to expose their stars to maiming. At the same time, Goodell will be trying to goad the union into adding another one or two games to an already-bloated regular season schedule, injuries and future damage be damned. If there is a revenue stream available, you can bet the NFL will mine it until every last crumb of gold is found.

Of course, no one will say anything about protecting the players, who endure multiple 10-car pileups every week. Sounds about right for the league that still tries to convince us that repeated shots to the melon have no long-term effect. Maybe those making the decisions in New York have absorbed a few of those themselves. They still know how to count the money, though. That always seems to be a possibility in the NFL.

Now for the moment you have waited for: This week’s picks.

Cincinnati (minus-2 ½) over New York. Chad Ochocrazy was shut down last week in the Meadowlands. It’s not happening again. New York coach Rex Ryan thinks his team is the Super Bowl favorite. He should remember that his pop, Buddy, never won a playoff game. It might run in the family. Bengals 24, Jets 14.

Dallas (minus-4) over Philadelphia. Say what you want about how hard it is to beat a team three times in the season. That only holds when the opponent has something going for it. The Eagles O-line is a mess, and its linebacking corps needs federal disaster relief. Cowboys 23, Eagles 16.

Baltimore (plus-3 ½) over New England. The Raven ground attack looks great, and the Baltimore defense is nasty once again. The Patriots will certainly miss Welker, and even if they win, it won’t be by much. Patriots 21, Ravens 20.

Green Bay (plus 2 ½) over Arizona. Last year, the Cardinals came alive in the post-season and shocked everybody. That was then. Packers QB Aaron Rodgers is ready for his coming-out party, and Green Bay has a nasty D. Packers 27, Cardinals 14.

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EL HOMBRE SEZ: Tiger Woods appears shirtless and buffed on the cover of the recent Vanity Fair, a photo taken before his Skanko-Roman wrestling ways were revealed. Wonder if he plans to use the picture to attract chicks?...If Mike Leach did half of what he is accused of at Texas Tech, his firing was warranted, no matter how annoying the kid was. You can’t treat players like that, especially those whose daddies are espn broadcasters. Next time, lock the son of Mr. & Mrs. Nobody from Busted Boil, TX, in an equipment shed. Then again, given Leach’s love of pirates, it’s a wonder he didn’t make the young man walk the plank…Los Angeles Clippers broadcaster Michael Smith is accused of bilking a golfing buddy out of a cool $735,000 by convincing him to use his home as collateral for a loan on a development deal that went bad. The news isn’t all awful for the team, since given its oft-shaky defense, it’s good that somebody associated with the Clippers might be trying to steal something…There are reports that a “friendly” match between the U.S. and Mexican national soccer teams in Pasadena has been scrubbed over a dispute between Telemundo and Univision, each of which want to televise the game. But that’s only part of it. The real problem came when Rose Bowl officials mandated that Mexican fans could only bring in three bags of urine apiece to throw at the American players. Mexican fans wanted to bring nine…If Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas is suspended for a long period of time, he might just want to consider competing for a spot on the U.S. Olympic biathlon team. He could pair with teammate Javaris Crittenton, who might have some free time on his hands soon, too.

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YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT: Admit it, you’re one of those Philadelphia fans who is secretly hoping the Eagles lose to Dallas Saturday, so the Donovan McNabb “era” can end. Or if you’re not, you know someone who is. You might get your wish, because the Birds don’t look like they have much hope at False Face’s pleasure dome, thanks to a defense that’s giving up points faster than espn can come out with new gimmicks (a 3-D channel?) and an offensive line that has the same cohesion as Charlie Sheen’s marriage. Those two were huge culprits in last week’s loss to the Cowboys, but few chose to look at it that way. It was all McNabb’s fault. And if the Birds lose this weekend – or next, or the one after that – there will a huge cry for Number Five’s dismissal. Maybe the vultures get their wish granted, and if they do, they had better be careful, because Kevin Kolb isn’t necessarily the answer, and teams without good QBs (see Bears, Chicago, among others) don’t win the Super Bowl and get a “prade” for “long-suffering” fans.

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AND ANOTHER THING: NBA commissioner Uncle David Stern did the right thing by taking Arenas out of action, and he should not be swayed by the meathead’s recent remorseful statements regarding his gun shenanigans when deciding his ultimate punishment. Arenas still doesn’t think he did anything wrong, and that’s despicable. Stern should hammer Arenas hard by removing him from action for the rest of the year – without pay. And since attempting to void the rest of his contract would cause an uproar from the union, the next labor negotiations should establish clear penalties for those who bring firearms into a locker room or any other team-related area: minimum one-year suspensions and the end of their contracts. Stern needs to make examples of both Arenas and Wild West partner Javaris Crittenton, so the league reputation doesn’t revert to its 1970s version, when everybody thought the league was filled with renegades.

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ONE MORE FOR THE ROAD: It is with a heavy heart that El Hombre reports the passing of a true American hero and a loyal EH reader, Bill “Bitsy” Grant, who succumbed to cancer Tuesday at the age of 85. Bill was a walking 20th century history book, having survived the Great Depression, World War II (Normandy landing, Battle of the Bulge, historic meeting with Soviet troops in Germany) and perhaps most demanding, raising eight children. A loyal Hawk who graduated from Saint Joseph’s thanks to his hard work, smarts and the G.I. Bill, Bill later became a successful advertising executive. Bill was a devout Catholic and searched until his last days for the answers to life’s tough questions, never once expressing his frustration at how elusive that pursuit was. He loved the Phillies, golf, mystery novels, anything to do with St. Joe’s and his family. It took no cajoling whatsoever to elicit a rousing rendition of “The Night Paddy Murphy Died” from him at family gatherings, and woe to anybody who was caught behind him at the dessert table. Bill was a gentleman, an exemplary father and grandfather and a great friend. He will be missed greatly.