EL HOMBRE KNOWS SPORTS
Earlier this week, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell sent out an intimate e-mail to about 5 million of the league’s customers declaring that labor peace will be achieved, and America’s number one sporting religion will not miss a minute of revenue gathering. On the confidence scale, it was akin to Justin Bieber’s saying he was ready to whip up on Randy Couture. Unless Goodell and his robber baron bosses can get players to accept a longer season, less money and a continued capricious approach to discipline – “The NFL: We care! (About offensive players.) – we’re looking at a work stoppage that could threaten the scintillating mini-camp, OTA and exhibition game portions of the program.
The biggest sham in the whole labor mess is the league’s insistence on an 18-game season. Or at least the P.R. run-up to it. After trying to convince us throughout the last several months that the players’ welfares were truly at the heart of league policy, Goodell and the billionaires want to add two games to the schedule, thereby expediting the future need for joint replacements and adding dozens more opportunities for players to endure the kind of dementia-inducing hits that already have 45-year old former warriors stumbling around like Lindsay Lohan on a bender.
Give Goodell and his propaganda ministers credit for concocting a scheme that has softened up fans in advance of the 18-game season. By fining (defensive) players for helmet-on-helmet hits and inventing terms like “defenseless receiver,” they have made it appear as if safety is the league’s top priority. This from a group of people who denied for years that blows to the head had dangerous short and long-term effects.
It is against that backdrop of hypocrisy that the NFL playoffs begin. Enjoy them, folks, because it could be many months before the big fellas start destroying their bodies for our enjoyment again. Of course, unless you live in New England, it’s going to be hard to derive too much pleasure from the proceedings, since the Patriots are so much better than everybody else that the tournament seems as pertinent as a public service announcement from the cast of “Jerseylicious.”
El Hombre isn’t so addled (yet) that he doesn’t remember the early February day in 2008, when the undefeated Pats lost to New York in the Super Bowl, delighting Mercury Morris and proving that nothing is guaranteed in the NFL. But this New England outfit seems different – and better equipped to go the distance – than did its predecessor. Tom Brady’s rock-star look notwithstanding, this is about the biggest blue-collar collection of successful players in recent memory. When your offensive skill package includes a Gronkowski, a Chadron State product, a double-hyphenated running back and a “star” receiver whose career average per catch is 10.7 yards, and you still lead the league in points scored, you have something special. And you want to talk about a “no-name” defense? Try these on for size: Banta-Cain, Ninkovich, Chung and Mayo. That sounds like one of those law firms you see advertised on local cable stations.
It all begins with Captain Hoodie, who espouses the philosophy that you don’t get the best 53 players; you get the right 53 players. For him, winning football is not the province of superstars but of players who want to sacrifice their egos for the system. That’s why he had no problem jettisoning overcooked wideout Randy Moss, once he went into full tantrum mode. It’s about production, not endorsements, and these Pats have a roster full of bottom-line players who appear invincible right now.
Of course, it’s rather easy to extol the proletarian virtues of a team when its QB is the best around. Brady is enjoying his second-best season (the remarkable ’07 campaign is out of reach), completing 65.9% of his passes and tossing 36 TD strikes against a mere four picks. He has maximized his production despite a stable of receivers that includes no big-play threat and precious little proven depth. That Brady is playing at such a high level is a testament to his powers, as well as the Patriots’ ability to outscheme and outexecute opponents. You may have more star power, but their team is superior to your big names.
That’s not to say the Pats are bulletproof. Baltimore smacked them around in Foxboro last year. The Steelers have shown plenty so far. And even Rex Ryan’s bunch is dangerous, provided it doesn’t fold up again in New England when the Pats start firing live ammunition, or if the coach gets distracted by a pair of sexy cheerleader feet.
Over in the NFC, the Falcons would like you to believe they are Super Bowl timber. They’re not. Roddy White is having a great year, but teams with just one receiver have problems against good post-season defenses. The scariest teams in that conference appear to be the two wild cards entries, New Orleans and Green Bay. The Saints beat Atlanta on the road a couple weeks ago and still have Drew Brees under center, last time El Hombre checked. The Packers, meanwhile, get plenty of attention for their great passing game, but it’s the Green Bay defense – ranked fifth in the NFL – that is the team’s biggest asset, particularly on the road. Don’t be surprised if one (or even both) of them is in the NFC title game.
That’s a few weeks off. Right now, fans need to get ready for the Wild Card round and perhaps the last time early January football will be of the playoff variety. If commissioner Goodwill and his owners get their wishes, this time of year will still be regular season, contusions and concussions be damned. Stay tuned for the next e-mail.
Here are this week’s playoff picks. Get ready to cash in, baby! New Orleans minus-10.5 over Seattle; Indianapolis minus-2.5 over the Jets; Baltimore minus-3 over Kansas City; Green Bay plus-2.5 against the Eagles.
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EL HOMBRE SEZ: So, LeBron James has dubbed Miami the “Heatles,” has he? Clever, but James forgets one thing: People actually cheered when the Beatles came to town. He and his made-for-championship cronies don’t engender similar affection…Don’t know about you, but El Hombre has been riveted to the post-Jan. 1 bowl action. You just can’t beat a Middle Tennessee-Miami (OH) matchup. And that Kentucky-Pittsburgh clash promises to be a real humdinger. Looking for a culprit? Consider espn, which continues to manipulate everything it can about sports to suit its programming needs…Kudos to caring Penn State coach Joe Paterno, who denied quarterback Robert Bolden’s request for transfer. It isn’t enough that schools can terminate players’ scholarships after each season or run them off when their performance doesn’t match expectation. Now, Paterno wants to restrain an unhappy player from finding a better situation. Let your people go, Joe…Rafael Palmeiro is upset that he received only 11% of the vote in the recent Hall of Fame balloting and still blames someone else for his positive steroid test. Tough darts. Let’s hope voters continue to punish the juicers by denying them entrance to the Hall. If that means fewer members, so be it…Stay tuned to this space for periodic updates on the shocking scandal that has rocked the cricket world. Three Pakistani players have been accused of bowling “no-balls” at prearranged times during a test match with England and face lifetime bans. Speaking of no balls, how about that “performance” by Miami in the Sun Bowl. The Hurricane players dressed like they were ready for a forced march to Murmansk and played like they couldn’t wait to get back to Coral Gables. New coach Al Golden has plenty of work to do.
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YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? Many media members and plenty of fans are devoting substantial energy to the Packers’ passing attack when assessing Sunday’s Green Bay-Philadelphia wild-card playoff game. While Aaron Rodgers and his crew of sticky-handed receivers are extremely dangerous, the real challenge for the Eagles comes from the Packer defense, which ranks fifth in the NFL and is no doubt frothing at the opportunity to see whether Michael Vick will continue his regression to the run-around QB he was in Atlanta. In a way, you can’t blame Vick’s move backward. He’s learning a brand new way to play the position, so it’s natural that he uses his instincts as a default reaction to new and more dangerous schemes from rival defenses. Plus, since he’s behind such a shaky offensive line, it’s hard to hang in and progress to the third read when marauding blitzers are charging toward him. If the Eagles want to have a chance Sunday, they had better keep Vick clean. Otherwise, he’ll be running around and likely commit backbreaking turnovers that will contribute to an early post-season exit.
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AND ANOTHER THING: By waiting until Jan. 5 to make Rich Rodriguez’s dismissal official, Michigan head coach David Brandon added extra pressure to his search for a new head football coach. Worse, if he truly believed Rodriguez could have saved his job with a strong bowl showing against the SEC West’s fifth-place team, Wolverine fans shouldn’t have too much faith in his ability to choose the right man to replace Rodriguez. It was obvious to everybody that Rodriguez had to leave, and U-M’s ugly losses to Wisconsin and Ohio State proved that. If Brandon needed to see the Wolverines stumble around in the second half against Mississippi State(!) in order to decide Rodriguez’s fate, he wasn’t paying much attention the rest of the season. Let’s hope he was merely trying to save the $1.5 mil that came off Rodriguez’s buyout after Jan. 1 and that he has been compiling candidates all along and working back channels to make the right hire. And don’t think it has to be someone who is necessarily a “Michigan Man.” For instance, even though Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald has denied interest, he is definitely considering the spot but keeping it very quiet, due to his current post as a Big Ten head coach.