Friday, September 10, 2010

Get It While You Can


Make sure you squeeze every drop of NFL action you can out of this season, sports fans, because the way things look, it’s going to be a long while before the big fellas are hitting again. You want to talk Hard Knocks? Try what the owners are going to do to the players in the upcoming labor negotiations.

Unlike Paul Tagliabue, who preached conciliation and practically was pinned to former labor boss Gene Upshaw, Roger Goodell is a war-time consigliere, and that suits capos like False Face, Captain Mac-and-Cheese, Little Danny and The B-Movie King just fine. They want more dough, and Goodell won’t stop squinting until he gets it for them.

This time next year, expect a lockout, enough angry rhetoric to fill a presidential election cycle and some posse members looking for real work. With that specter looming like a swimsuit competition on The View, let’s make the most of the coming NFL season and all of its glorious plot lines.

Sigmund Freud’s All-Stars: During Field of Dreams, Terence Mann asks Ray Kinsella, “You’re seeing an entire team of psychiatrists, aren’t you?” but he could well have been addressing the Bengals’ trio of Chad Ochocrazy, Me-O and “Make It Rain” Jones, who will no doubt lead Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis to the shrink’s couch this season. You can always count on Cincy for something bizarre, whether it’s the team’s previous front office circus, its hideous uniforms or its proclivity for coming up short in key situations. This year may establish a new standard. Jones has pledged to keep his mouth shut and even shed his toxic “Pac-Man” moniker, but keeping a lid on the Ativan Twins may prove impossible for the franchise. Get ready for a season of can-you-top-this lunacy that could land Lewis in the Laughing Academy – or on the bread line.

Jersey Sure: After watching his performance during HBO’s Hard Knocks, network execs were no doubt salivating over the concept of The Rex Ryan Variety Show. You know, a little song, a little dance, a pair of double-XL pants. It sure was fun watching the Big Fella bludgeon the Jets through the pre-season, and now Ryan must navigate a league filled with people who want to beat the hell out of his team. That may sound fine to the coach, but he’s not the one out there cracking heads. The Jets have a new stadium of their own (or at least half of a new stadium) and a lot of talent. They also have the undivided attention of each opponent. That’s not the best thing with a young QB still learning how to pass to his teammates. But at least Ryan is ready for his close-up. And safe on the sidelines.

Into the Sunset (Maybe): El Hombre can assure you that this is the final season for Cowboy Quarterback. He’ll hang ‘em up after throwing another crushing post-season interception and never – EVER – ride Old Paint onto the gridiron again. Unless he doesn’t. Unless his dad-gum love of NFL football overpowers reason and his saddle-sore body. Unless his love of slapping backsides, throwin’ snowballs and just living every kid’s dream is too powerful. Unless being with “his guys” in the locker room is better than being with “his family” on the ranch in Mississippi. Unless the Vikings send Joe Kapp, Mick Tinglehoff and Leif Ericson to beg him. Here are a couple fearless predictions regarding Number Four: 1. He doesn’t play every game; 2. He goes into seclusion when the Packers reach the Super Bowl.

Exile on C Street: Many Eagles fans got their wish in April when their team shipped out QB Donovan McNabb and began the much-anticipated Kevin Kolb Era. Forget that half the city still can’t pronounce the young passer’s last name (KOBB) or that when the Birds drafted him four years ago few knew where he had played his college ball or had ever watched him perform. He wasn’t McNabb, and that was good enough for them. While Kolb endures his inevitable growing pains, McNabb tries to help turn the fetid Redskins into contenders. It won’t be easy, no matter how solid new coach Mike Shanahan’s track record might be. And if McNabb thought D.C. was a sanctuary, wait ‘til the tough times come, and even the team’s broadcasters start tossing bombs at him. The good news is that Fat Albert will be a scapegoat for another week or so, before he’s traded away – hopefully to Vladivostok – but then the pressure shifts to McNabb. So, go ahead, folks and make him feel at home. All together now: “BOOOOOO!!!”

No Super Home: Every night, False Face gets under his Cowboys comforter, smoothes out his America’s Team pajamas and prays fervently that his team will play in the Super Bowl next February – in his colossal TV lounge, er, stadium. Ever since NFL fans realized the Big Game was being held in the pleasure dome, there has been much wringing of hands over the concept that the Cowboys could actually play for all the skittles at home. Well, fret not, America. It ain’t happening. In fact, thanks to their shaky O-line, overrated ballcarrier (Marion Barber) and stubborn insistence on keeping Roy Williams around, the Cowboys have as much chance of realizing False Face’s Super dreams as he does of reprising Alistair Cooke’s role as host of Masterpiece Theater. Sorry, FF, it’s another February at home.

Fearless Predictions: Cowboy Quarterback’s streak of playing in every game will be snapped this year, thanks to a cranky ankle and a Geritol deficit…Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis confronts his own mortality, growls at it, snarls at it but ultimately succumbs to it…The Lions won’t stink. Neither will the Raiders. The Bills, however, will…Say good-bye to the following coaches: Mangenius, Jack Del Rio, Lovie Smith and Tom Coughlin…Rookie of the Year: C.J. Spiller, Bills. MVP: Peyton Manning, Colts.

And the Envelope, Please: NFC Division Winners: East – Dallas; North – Green Bay; South – New Orleans; West – San Francisco. Wild Cards – Minnesota, Atlanta. Wild Card Round: Minnesota over San Francisco; Dallas over Atlanta; Divisional Round: Green Bay over New Orleans; Dallas over Minnesota; NFC Championship: Green Bay over Dallas.

AFC Division Winners: East – New England; North – Baltimore; South – Indianapolis; West – San Diego. Wild Cards – New York Jets, Pittsburgh. Wild Card Round: New England over Pittsburgh; Baltimore over Jets; Divisional Round: Indianapolis over New England; San Diego over Baltimore; AFC Championship: Indianapolis over San Diego.
Super Bowl XLV: Indianapolis 27, Green Bay 23.

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EL HOMBRE SEZ: The uniforms worn by Boise State and Virginia Tech Monday night made the costumes worn by the teams in “On Any Given Sunday” seem staid. Packer Rick said it best during the game: “I now have to watch Penn State-Alabama Saturday to get this out of my mind.” It will be refreshing to see a pair of teams whose sartorial tastes are nowhere near the nightmare paint favored by the Hokies and Broncos…The NC2A has “reprimanded” and “censured” Princeton for a “major” women’s tennis violation. Sounds about right for the Ivies. No probation here. That’s for the plebeians. If Muffy took some cash from “Uncle” Worthington at the Club, then shame on her, and by all means, admonish, reprove and even scold Old Nassau. Then, it’s off to the veranda for some ginnies…Guess Tony LaRussa isn’t such a genius when his team goes 7-16 and slides out of contention. But at least those great St. Louis fans keep cheering the losses…Back in the late 1980s, when Rumeal Robinson was leading Michigan to the top of the college hoops world, Dookie V used to bleat that the Wolverine guard would be “the CEO of a major corporation some day!” Now, Robinson is facing 30 years in stir for defrauding a bank on a $700,000 loan. Sad…In trouble due to an illness suffered by its bid chief and enduring problems with some cranky farmers, Munich has turned to Katerina Witt to spearhead its campaign for the 2018 Winter Olympics. The former figure skating star may not be able to overcome the German setback, but two things are certain. First, those farmers will fall in line, or they’ll be sent to the Russian front. Two, nobody can touch Witt in the swimsuit competition.

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YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? When the game clock hits zero Sunday, you won’t find Chuck Bednarik sitting on Jim Taylor, making sure the Packers can’t run another play, as happened at the end of the 1960 NFL championship game between the Eagles and Green Bay. More than likely time will expire with a deep knee bend by Packer QB Aaron Rodgers, icing the win for the visitors and ruining the Birds’ nostalgia day. The 2010 opener represents the two stages of NFL rebuilding. Philly is in the early stages of its new identity, while the Pack has developed its personality fully. Rodgers may not throw for 300 yards Sunday, but he will have his moments – and plenty of them. Meanwhile, Kolb will look good at times and lost in other situations. Meanwhile, the Eagle ground game will suffer behind a shaky offensive line that tries to overcome a nasty Green Bay 3-4, and an average secondary will have problems controlling Rodgers, Donald Driver and Co. Don’t push the panic button yet, Eagles fans, but do notice the difference between a maturing contender and a work in progress. Green Bay 24, Eagles 13.

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AND ANOTHER THING: Last week in Atlanta, North Carolina was without 13 players, due to various hints and allegations. Georgia WR A.J. Green is out for three more contests due to off-field shenanigans, and several of his teammates have been arrested over the past year. Michigan awaits its probationary sentence. Missouri dismissed its leading rusher after he was charged with sexual assault. All over the country, schools are compromising themselves by hiring and recruiting people who have no business being part of university communities – all in the pursuit of greater glory and money. Mostly money. The coaches are compromising established standards by searching for advantages anywhere they can and by bringing aboard players with questionable backgrounds and no commitment to their schools, other than on the field. With the competition for dollars so acute, we can’t expect a change in this behavior anytime soon. The only antidote is president-led reform that puts in place stringent standards for coaches and players and keeps the bad actors away from the front door, much less in the house. For a while, this kind of behavior was confined to the so-called “bandit” schools, which operated on the fringes and didn’t care much about their reputations. But when establishment members like Michigan and North Carolina are stung by impropriety, it shows how widespread the trouble is. And it’s time for a change.


Thursday, September 2, 2010

Whoa, Nellie! It's College Football Time Again


After an off-season characterized by conference realignment shenanigans and agents’ being described as “pimps” by an on-again, off-again coach, it is great to have some football to watch for a change. There will be plenty of drama, especially once ADs try to search for new coaches before firing their old ones, but at least we can look forward to weekends filled with footballs flying – and perhaps a fully-developed power running attack or two.

The spread offense isn’t exactly in the ICU, but teams are figuring out how to defend it more effectively, meaning we might actually see some offensive linemen who can move forward and – holy smokes! – real, live fullbacks on the field. Let’s not get carried away and expect a return to real football throughout the nation, but the basketball-on-grass crowd has been served notice: The tough guys are coming back.

Here are some of the other storylines worth following throughout the season.

Cheat On: Back in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, USC’s schedule cards used to include the Rose Bowl as the team’s 12th game, and according to most Trojans, their birthright. If ‘SC was paying by the line for this year’s cards, it was able to save some money, because the Men of Troy aren’t going anywhere after their season finale against UCLA. A nasty probationary sentence in the wake of Reggie Bush’s ill-gotten cash and prizes has rocked Southern California, keeping it from a bowl game this year, taking away some scholarships and costing the Trojans star offensive tackle recruit Seantrel Henderson, who left the program after learning of the probation. Making matters worse is the hiring of carpetbagging coach Lane Kiffin, who made zero friends at Tennessee and now has to satisfy a new AD, Pat Haden, who appears to have zero tolerance for tomfoolery, or fools for that matter. All dynasties end eventually, and the USC’s recent era of dominance may be over.

CSI: Ann Arbor: And Chapel Hill. And Columbia. And…well, you get the picture. If the NC2A can rain down serious hellfire down on USC, it means business. So, look out Michigan and North Carolina. Beware half the SEC and South Carolina. Perhaps this is the new age of justice in college athletics. No longer with the folks in Indianapolis just pick on the little guys and let the big-timers get away with more violations than Lindsay Lohan commits. The most disturbing of the latest problems comes from UNC, where it is alleged that several Tar Heel players had papers written for them by a tutor who used to be coach Butch Davis’ nanny. Holy academic fraud, Batman! If this is verified, the alleged culprits might be tossed from school, instead of just banned from their spots on the team. Keep an eye on this one, and pay attention to the NC2A. It might just be coming to a powerhouse near you.

Try, Try Again: Bob Davie couldn’t do it. Ty Willingham couldn’t do it. Heavy C couldn’t do it. But Brian Kelly can, and if you believe the propaganda, he will lift Notre Dame back to a level of prominence enjoyed by Rockne, Leahy and Parseghian. That’s going to be hard without the level of athletic talent found at SEC schools, Texas, Ohio State and other places that have a more cavalier approach to academic portion of the student-athlete concept. Every time ND gets a new coach, we are bombarded with reasons why the Fighting Irish are ready for a return to the national picture. The fact is, the program hasn’t had the players, so they haven’t won the games. Kelly is perfect for South Bend. He’s Irish. He’s arrogant. He’s been successful before. What he isn’t is blessed with a loosening of the admissions requirements. Had that been the case, Pope Urban VI would have taken the gig five years ago. Expect eight wins for the Irish this year. Some creative scheduling down the line could result in a BCS berth. But it will take a serious aligning of the stars for ND to win it all.

Partial Idiocy: The Big Ten’s announcement that it was expanding triggered hysteria that rivaled the runs on banks in 1929. The Big 12 was almost blown apart. The WAC was. Big East administrators started Prozac drips to keep calm amidst reports they would be left with C-USA leftovers and any old Yankee Conference castoffs they could convince to elevate their programs. And the Pac-10 finally realized that the rest of the country doesn’t care about it. There was plenty of craziness to go around, but the worst of it may come later this year, when short-sighted Big Ten money-grubbers decide the best way to align the new, 12-team version of the Western Conference includes splitting Michigan and Ohio State into different divisions. Although they didn’t move their annual game – played on the final Saturday of the regular season for all but one of the last 75 seasons – to October, the division split is an abomination, because it takes the schools out of daily, head-to-head competition against each other. All of this comes because of the possibility that splitting the schools could result in a title game matchup between them that produces an avalanche of cash. First off, there’s no guarantee it will happen regularly. Secondly, it’s an obscene move by greedmongers who have clearly lost sight of college football’s tradition and meaning. Worse, the people in charge at Michigan and Ohio State pushed for it. That’s disgraceful. Splitting Michigan and Ohio State takes away a big part of what made the schools’ rivalry so great, all because there could be a big payoff once in a while in early December. Shame on you.

Be Careful What You Wish For: At this point, it would appear that people who like and approve of the BCS fall into two categories. The first is the “it’s better than what we had” cadre, which employs the same logic as Soviet citizens who felt Brezhnev was “better than” Stalin. The second is filled with blind sycophants, paid mouthpieces (see Hancock, Bill) and the lazy-brained, who blindly support the contrived system. But enough about that. The real story this season has to do with Boise State, which by the virtue of its good fortune from the college football sorting hat, has a chance to play in the BCS championship game next January. If the third-ranked Broncos get past non-conference tests against Virginia Tech and Oregon State, they could well get a shot at the title and strike a blow for the great unwashed in the college football world. Huge responsibility would accompany such an opportunity, since if BSU were to flop, the entire mid-major world would be marginalized and removed from serious BCS consideration. No pressure, fellas.

The Interloper: Okay, so we all knew Jimbo Fisher would eventually replace Bobby Bowden at the helm of the Florida State Bowden built into a national power. But many – Bowden included – thought the takeover wouldn’t happen until 2011. If you believe the latest news, Bowden was offered the opportunity to be a wax replica of his former self for a season while Fisher did all the heavy lifting. The August drama has obscured the fact that Fisher must now revive a program that has teetered over the past decade and craft a new identity that doesn’t include its iconic symbol. The return of QB Christian Ponder should make that job easier, and the Seminoles have already returned to the recruiting trail with a vengeance. But after pledging to stay away from the program and let Fisher work, Bowden has returned. He poses no threat to Fisher, but his willingness to throw bombs at administrators, including school president and former Bowden player T.K. Wetherill, shows that he still wants some influence. Fisher should hope that doesn’t mean questioning a fourth-and-one call against Miami.

The Envelope, Please: One of El Hombre’s favorite memories of his storybook childhood came when Oklahoma kicker Uwe von Schamann nailed a 41-yard field goal in 1977 to give the visiting Sooners a 29-28 win over Ohio State and send Buckeye coach Woody Hayes into a full, abusive froth. Von Schamann and Hayes are long gone from the college football landscape, but expect to see their descendents squaring off for all those BCS marbles (don’t get EH started) next January. Buckeye QB Terrell Pryor showed in last year’s Rose Bowl romp against Oregon’s flag-football defense that he can be extremely dangerous, while the Sooners are ready to roll back with a vengeance after last year’s misery created by Sam Bradford’s injury. When the pads stop popping in Glendale, the Buckeyes will have some overdue revenge, and the Big Ten will have a spot at college football’s big table once again.

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EL HOMBRE SEZ: If Roger Clemens’ posse of $500/hour mouthpieces can convince a jury to render a “not guilty” verdict in his perjury trial, he may have just paid the highest-ever admission fee to Cooperstown. Then again, it’s one thing to obfuscate, bob and weave in front of a jury and another to convince skeptical Hall of Fame voters that Clemens wasn’t a juicer…Looks like incarcerated Giants wideout Plaxico Burress isn’t playing ball this year, thanks to a judge who shot down his work-release request. Aw, shoot! Oops, maybe that wasn’t the best way to express outrage…Whether it was overwork, poor mechanics or some sort of curse on the woeful Nationals’ franchise, it is a true tragedy that pitcher Stephen Strasburg must undergo Tommy John surgery Friday to repair a torn tendon in his pitching elbow. All serious injuries are sad, but this comes to a player on whom a team and city placed its hopes. Strasburg might rebound and become a dominant pitcher, but it’s unlikely he’ll ever reach his complete potential. That’s a damn shame…Can you name another one-time major sporting event that has lost more luster than the U.S. Open tennis championship? Once a must-see event, it is now populated by a group of largely-anonymous players, all but a handful of whom don’t matter a lick to American audiences. Worse, it takes weekend TV time away from college football. Where have you gone, John McEnroe?

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YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT?: Now that we’re in September, the Phillies must stop talking about how long the season is, how much experience they have and start winning games. Throughout the past five months, whenever the Phils committed unpardonable sins like losing four to the Astros or using Dannys Baez out of the bullpen, they were quick to remind nervous fans and cranky media the season consisted of 162 games, not 16 or even 82. The time for patience is over. The Phillies are three games out of first in the NL East and have yet to demonstrated any sustained consistency at the plate. If this is indeed the team’s time, then we should expect excellent play and no more calls for patience. As the team’s margin for error shrinks, its accountability will rise. It’s time to see if the Phillies are really a championship team, because the long season is getting pretty short.

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AND ANOTHER THING: Throughout the next several days, NFL teams will determine final depth charts and make the difficult decisions about who belongs and doesn’t belong on their teams. It’s an arduous process that always ends in dejection for dozens of hopefuls. Arizona head coach Ken Whisenhunt has already made one player pretty upset when he announced Derek Anderson will be his starting QB when the Cards open the season next weekend. That ran counter to the hopes and dreams of one Matt Leinart, who during his brief NFL career has done nothing to show he belongs as a regular under center in the league, yet somehow thinks he deserves a starting spot. In response to Whisenhunt’s decision, Leinart whined to the media, whined to the coach and generally acted like the kind of petulant child to whom you would never turn over control of your offense. Leinart is inconsistent, doesn’t seem like a particularly hard worker and hasn’t exactly established himself as a leader. And, now, because of his behavior, he could be traded to some garden spot like Buffalo. Hope the tantrum was worth it, Matt.