Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Learning To Like A New Sport


I've been a fan of Arsenal and the English Premier League for five months now. The quick backstory: after being unimpressed by anything I saw in the World Cup, soccer fans encouraged me to follow the EPL. They promised a much more exciting and higher quality brand of soccer than that of the WC--so I promised to pick a team to follow for an entire year and really try to get into the sport.

I chose Arsenal because they were good, but not the best. They would be on TV every weekend. There was a great book written about their history--Fever Pitch--which I read and which really helped me learn about what it meant to follow not just Arsenal, but any EPL side. I also chose the Gunners because they had a reputation for playing a style of soccer that was pleasing to the eye--lots of nifty passing by highly skilled international athletes. And, they just seemed cool--a cool name, cool uniforms, cool history. So far, my choice has been a great one.

I'M A GOONER

I'm keeping my promise. I've seen every league game this season, plus a couple of the other trophy contests. Just last week, Arsenal sat atop the standings (or table, as it's called). Even though I've only been a fan for five months, it still made me swell with pride to see them in first place this deep into the season. But, they lost 1-0 to hated Manchester United, which again brought up the subject that haunts Arsenal: they can't win the big one. In their last 12 against Chelsea or Man U, they are 0-11-1. So, that is the mountain they must climb.

To my eye, Arsenal needs three things (other than health). They need a bit more offensive firepower (I don't understand why Walcott doesn't play more--they say he's he fastest player in the EPL and a good goal scorer). They need a bit more toughness on defense. And, they need a really good goal keeper. They seem to be very close to having all of that, but it's just not quite happening for them.

I've really enjoyed the personalities on the team, from the smooth Cesc who is a passing savant, to the cocky Nasri, who can be a brilliant goal scorer. Their coach, the Frenchman Arsene Wenger, spiced things up this season by having an affair with a French female rap star 35 years his junior. Good stuff!

It's only been five months, but I can't imagine rooting for another team. I chose wisely. My next objective is to see a game at the Emirates Stadium. One day.

LIKES AND DISLIKES

Above all, I'm really enjoying the color and pageantry of the league. The history, the stadiums, the uniforms, the international flavor, and of course the raucous crowds. I'm also digging the athleticism of the players--I've always known they had tremendous stamina, but they are also gifted athletes who have to be much tougher than you might think.

The television coverage of the EPL, and soccer in general, is tremendous. I never realized just how much soccer you can watch if you want to--if you have the right channels. Between certain Fox and ESPN channels, you can watch practically every EPL game each weekend. Amazing. And the coverage is top-notch. The graphics, camera angles, replays and announcers are all terrific. Ian Darke is the best play by play man I've heard, although the guy who sounds like Michael Palin is great, too.

I also like that you have no commercial breaks during each half--it's a tidy, less than two hour investment to make for every match.

The game itself I rate as good to very good. It's not football or basketball in terms of how it sucks me in. However, the EPL was a good tip--it's light years more entertaining than the World Cup. There are plenty of scoring chances in each game. There are usually enough goals. There are organized possessions and constant attacking, which is great. The passing and dribbling can be mesmerizing. I would rather watch Adrian Peterson rip off an 80 yarder, or Kobe make some crazy under-the-backboard-spin-around dunk--but I have to admit that the two goals that Nasri scored against Fulham this month had me jumping off the sofa.

To be honest, I've come around on most of the things I used to dislike about the sport. I don't really like draws--I would prefer a shootout--but I understand they have a place. I used to hate the flopping, but I'm used to it now. I also used to not understand, at all, offside--but I think I get it now. Soccer is like any sport--the rules are the rules, but the interpretation can vary from official to official.

THE SOCCER BONUS

I love my job. I love that I have to watch the Cowboys and Rangers for work. But, I'm also finding that I love watching Arsenal because I don't have to talk about their games on the radio. It's a bit of a release for me, in the same way that pro cycling is. They are escape sports--they are contested in lands far, far away, and I like that. I like that the average guy walking down the street has no idea that Arsenal finished second in their Champions League group, or that Philippe Gilbert won the Tour of Lombardy this fall. It's one of the reasons that, when I was a kid, I was so drawn to the Spurs--because they played in the ABA, and nobody at school new that league existed.

Five months. Not a long time, but I'm happy to report that I'm hooked. In five more months, five more years--even twenty five more years--I think I'll still be hooked. I just hope by then the Gunners have given me at least one trophy to cheer.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Advice For LeBron--And The Heat


I have turned on LeBron. One year ago, I worshiped the guy. Now, following his dissing of his hometown, his one hour TV special to announce the dissing of his hometown, his giving himself the nickname "King James", and his stupid new Nike commercial, I've grown to dislike him very, very much. I used to think of him as perhaps the greatest physical talent I had ever seen on the court--a down-to-earth guy who would win many titles. Now, I think of him as an egomanical coach killer.

So, it is with great hesitation that I offer this advice to LBJ. Nothing would please me more than to have the Cavs finish with a better record this season than the Heat--but that's not going to happen. What also isn't going to happen is Miami winning the title. Unless they follow my plan.

There are a few guys in the league who I've always thought were out of position. Two guys in particular who play the 2 & 3 spots that I've always thought should be point guards. One is Brandon Roy--he was a point guard for half of his four years in college at Washington, and when you watch Portland games he does more ball handling and playmaking (especially in the 4th quarter) than anyone on the team, including the always overrated Andre Miller. Roy's rookie year I thought he was Portland's point guard, because that's what it looked like on the court and because Jarrett Jack sucked. For his career Roy averages 5 assists per game, an has a great feel for the art of passing. The Blazers have nothing to lose, having not won a playoff series since '00--although I understand that Roy's knees are bad, and playing point might be too much. However, playing the off guard position requires you to chase guys like Kobe and Wade and Manu night after night, which isn't exactly a vacation for your knees.

But I digress, because it's the other guy in the NBA that should be playing point for his team that I really want to discuss: LeBron. He currently leads the Heat in assists at 8 per game. Imagine what kind of assist totals he would rack up if he went Magic Johnson on us? It's soon-to-be Miami head coach Pat Riley's job to talk LeBron into being his team's Magic. In fact, that's what Riley and LeBron both mentioned as a big factor in his choosing Miami--he didn't want to worry about how many points he scored, he just wanted to set up Wade and Bosh. So why not do it? Right now James and Wade are each averaging 22 ppg. Who exactly is setting up whom?

The Heat have no point guard. They are a mess right now, with everyone worried about deferring to everyone else. Nobody on the team wants to be seen as a ball hog, so they all go overboard to please their teammates. Giving LeBron the point guard duties would establish desperately needed order. LeBron is, along with Jason Kidd, the most gifted passer in the game today. His ball handling is good, not great--but Magic wasn't exactly Curly Neal. As long as you know how to take care of the rock, you don't need to be an otherworldly dribbler to play an effective point. And, Magic was 6'9 (soft), LeBron is 6'8 (chiseled)--both a matchup nightmare with the size to see the whole court.

Plus, Wade is the Jordan-esque closer on that team, not LeBron. Things would work a lot better if it was James setting up Wade for the kill. LeBron looked like he might become a Jordan-esque closer, but that was just for one night in Auburn Hills in '07. He never got there again.

I really believe that LeBron would put up Magic-like numbers if he played the point--he would average 18 points and 12-15 assists per game. I think he would love it. And, taking over the most unselfish position on the court would do wonders for his image.

We would also find out if LeBron is a winner or not. Magic was great because, above all else, he had a burning desire to win. We don't know if LeBron has that. We don't know anymore if LeBron is a classic leader, or just a spoiled talent. Moving him to point would answer a lot.

But, since it's my great desire to see the Heat fail, I hope that they don't read this blog.

Monday, November 8, 2010

We've Never Seen Anything Like These Cowboys


The 2010 season has, quite simply, been the worst Cowboys season of their 51. Two other poor campaigns come to mind: 1960 and 1989. However, there were no expectations for either of those squads. In 1960, the Cowboys were a first-year expansion team with some former Giants assistant named Landry coaching them--they were expected to go 0-12, and they went 0-11-1. 1989 was Jerry and Jimmy's first year--they were expected to fall on their faces, and they did, going 1-15.

2010 is different. This team was thought by many--locally and nationally--to have the most talented roster in the NFL. This team was picked by many--locally and nationally--to represent the NFC in Super Bowl 45 at the Deathstar. The Cowboys strutted around training camp like the cock of the walk. Wade Phillips was noticeably relaxed and overconfident. Stephen Jones confided in those who would listen that "we really have something special here." So how did it go so wrong? For me, it all started back on the second weekend of this calendar year.

January 9th, 2010: Mission Accomplished

Dallas 34, Philadelphia 14. The Cowboys win a playoff game. Wade raises the "Mission Accomplished" banner. He gets the monkey off of his back. So does Romo. So does the rest of the team. And, because they have a head coach who doesn't know how to drive a team or demand excellence from a team, they think they've arrived.

From that point forward, they put it on auto-pilot. They thought they had figured it out. They thought they would follow a natural progression upward. Never mind the fact that Minnesota beat them one week later 34-3--they saw that as a small speed bump on their road to next year's title. The organization was so impressed with itself for winning a playoff game that they forgot to do what any champion does: work harder in the face of success. This year's training camp was a joke, and everyone noticed except for Wade.

I believe that I can make a solid argument for Wade being the worst coach in Cowboys history. First, we eliminate Landry, Jimmy and Barry, because they all won Super Bowls. Campo? Terrible record, but he had awful rosters to work with. Parcells? Never won a playoff game, but rebuilt a bad team into a good one. Gailey? Got a team in demise, unlike Wade, who got a team on the rise. Plus, Wade was the head coach for Jerry's most disappointing moment as owner (the playoff loss to the Giants in '07), most embarrassing moment as owner (the 44-6 loss to Philly in '08), and the most embarrassing season he's ever presided over as owner (2010). Jerry said all of that, not me. Wade was brought in here to take the franchise to the next level up. Instead, he's dragged it down to it's lowest low in 51 seasons.

An Enema, Please

This franchise is a mess. We all know it starts with Jerry admitting he's Al Davis and stepping aside. But, we also all know that will never happen. Modern medicine and extreme wealth will keep Jerry alive for at least 30 more years, and he's not going to give up his GM title until he croaks.

Getting rid of Wade and getting a taskmaster head coach in place is step one. Letting that coach evaluate talent is step two--along with revamping your scouting department (how silly does it look now that they told us in '09 they were drafting for special teams?). Unless Jimmy or Bill has been in charge, the talent evaluation has sucked. Too often they look at athletic ability only and ignore the fact that the player might have a low football IQ (Felix Jones), might not be very tough (Mike Jenkins), might be more interested in making rap videos than playing hard (Marty B), might be more interested in celebrating mundane plays than focusing on the big picture (Igor Olshansky). It's got to change

As our buddy Mike Lombardi always tells us, the best teams are honest with themselves about their talent. But that won't happen around here as long as Jerry is in charge of the talent.

Jerry has a huge decision to make in the next few months regarding his next coach. Paul Sullivan writes in his new book "Clutch" something that I think directly applies to Jerry. He says "You cannot be clutch when you are making business decisions to advance your personal standing--or get revenge for being slighted." Since the day Jerry fired Jimmy, this is what he's tried to do--prove to people that he can build a champion without Jimmy's help. Prove to people that he's a football man. Prove that he can evaluate talent. Prove that he can juggle everything that people say he can't. Get revenge on the people who have slighted his abilities as a GM. He makes his business decisions based on advancing his personal standing--in other words, his ego.

That ego is responsible for poor talent evaluation now coming back to haunt them. That ego is the reason the most uninspiring and underachieving head coach ever was hired four years ago. That ego is the reason the Cowboys are now the laughing stock of the pro sports world. Have we ever seen a team, in any sport, with such lofty expectations turn into such a joke so quickly? No, we haven't. The Cowboys are making history of the wrong kind. The sad thing is, Jerry has no idea why.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Finally


Two significant things happened to me in 1976. Each cemented me as a life-long Rangers fan. Both happened on the same summer trip, from OKC to Dallas, where I spent a couple of weeks with my cousins.

First, we all joined the Dr. Pepper Junior Rangers--we got an official club identification card, a cheap batting glove, and some general admission tickets with severe restrictions (I think we could only go see day games against the Twins or Indians). I felt like part of the team--I was a Junior Ranger. It sounded like I was in the farm system. Certainly all of us Junior Rangers would grow up and one day become Senior Rangers! Isn't that the path that Fergie Jenkins followed?

The second occurrence made an even greater impact: I went to my first Rangers (and first MLB) game. June 25th. My Uncles Don and Ronnie took a bunch of us cousins to old Arlington Stadium. We sat down the third base line. It was a doubleheader against the White Sox. Gaylord Perry pitched and won game one. Toby Harrah hit a grand slam. I'll always remember how the giant Texas scoreboard in left flashed "GRAND SLAM" and how the place went crazy. I got a game program, and for the next year or two, I memorized every inch of every page. I fell in love with the old logo--a baseball wearing a cowboy hat. I fell in love with the Rangers.

Never did I, or any of the 29.049 there that night, think we would have to wait through the 70's, 80's, 90's and 00's before we would see our Rangers win a postseason series. No modern day fan of any pro franchise has been forced to wait like that. But this October, our suffering was rewarded. God Bless Clifton Phifer Lee.

I was born in Amarillo and grew up in OKC, so I always tried to root for the teams that were geographically closest to me. That meant growing up a Sooners fan, a Cowboys fan, a Spurs fan (remember, it was the 70's--they were the closest NBA team since there were no Mavericks), and a Rangers fan. I've been blessed--I've seen the Sooners, Cowboys and Spurs win 13 championships in my lifetime. But being a Rangers fan balanced things out, and kept me in touch with fans whose teams don't win much--or ever.

The Rangers won a division series, not a World Series--but it sure felt like the latter. To watch Cliff Lee shut down the Rays while wearing "Texas" across his chest was almost too much--I almost sports cried. It made me think of all of those Rangers teams, players and skippers who paved the way for Lee's heroics. Here's to the heroes of my childhood--the 70's and 80's: Billy Martin and the great '74 squad with Hargrove and Harrah, Burroughs and Fergie. The late 70's teams that I was sure would win it all--Scoop Oliver, Richie Zisk and Bobby Bonds at the plate; Matlack, Blyleven, Perry, Alexander, Medich, Lyle and Kern on the hill. The great Buddy Bell (thanks to Sunny and Buddy for making the All-Star game most years, and giving the Rangers their only national publicity each season), Pete O'Brien, and Mickey Rivers (what--we got the Yankees center fielder?!). Charlie Hough, who threw knucklers each half inning, then smoked in the dugout the other half of the inning--and who kept us in every game he pitched. Oddibie and Inky, Boo and Hoss. They may not have delivered like the boys did in Tampa, but they were a part of the process, the journey.

We know the Cowboys mean a lot to folks around here. But, until this week, I never realized how much the Rangers mean as well. I've heard from so many people who were also Junior Rangers, who also used to sit in those vast outfield bleachers at the old park on hot summer nights cheering a Rangers team that was 20 games out. I've heard from so many Rangers fans who shed a tear when the Tampa series ended because their father or grandfather, who loved the Rangers and took them to games in their childhood, didn't live to see this day. It wasn't a title--it was a moment. A moment that really touched a lot of people.



Fernando said to me the other day "I pity the people who don't like sports." Amen. They are missing so much. Moments like game 5. Moments that make the journey seem worth while. Moments that you never think will come, but they do. Finally. Now, if only I could get that call-up to the bigs from the Junior Rangers, my baseball life would be complete.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The First Month of Fall Sports

First Month of the NFL

Through four weeks, I don't think I've ever seen the league so mediocre. We have 13 teams at 2-2, and more (who had the bye last weekend) that could be 2-2 soon. We have one unbeaten team, and it's the friggin' Chiefs. Everyone's favorites, the Colts, Cowboys, Jets, Packers, Pats, Saints and Vikes, look at best good--and at worst very average. There are no super teams, at least not yet.

My former colleague at The Ticket, Jimmy Christopher, once famously said (during a Ticket Ticker!!) that "parity is for pussies", and I couldn't agree more. I hate parity. It wreaks of the Pussification of America scourge that rewards every kid in the race with a ribbon. It also makes for some poor quality, watered down football--as we have witnessed so far this season.

What I like about letting nature take it's course in sports (as opposed to forced equality) is that it creates great teams and crappy teams. Yes, you'll get some blowouts each week when a super-power hammers a winless squad, but you'll also get more high quality games when the super-powers meet each other. And your the quality of play in the post-season will be much better. Additionally, the occasional dynasty will surface, which makes for better sports drama. It's always fun to see if David can beat Goliath, and it's always fun to watch Goliath battle Goliath. Without that dynamic in sports, we don't have great upset stories, or great championship rivalries. Every sport needs its Yankees or Lakers, its Tiger or Ali.

Can't wait for this season's AFC title game between the Chiefs and Texans. Wow.


First Month of College Football

I want to rant about something that is plaguing college and pro football. Stupid coaches calling stupid time outs one second before the stupid kicker tries a stupid field goal. Can we please put an end to this? It's the most chicken sheet thing in sports since Hack-a-Shaq. I love it when it backfires, like it did two weeks ago on Sean Payton. I love it when a kicker nails it on that first try, then shrugs his shoulders and nails it again after the stupid time out. Just about every coach out there has tried this at least once, and I don't know how they can look themselves in the mirror after the game. It's not smart coaching--it's a childish game of gotcha.

Another college observation: after attending my 28th OU-TX game in the last 31 years, I hit my knees and asked Jesus to never move that game from the Cotton Bowl. No game can match that one for atmosphere (although I hear Army-Navy is amazing--got it on my bucket list). The Fair makes it. The split stadium makes it. The history of the place makes it. Hope it never goes home-and-home, and really hope it never goes to The Deathstar. Pro football stadiums are no place for classic college rivalries.


First Month of the EPL

After adopting Arsenal and watching them for a month, I have to say that I'm really enjoying the sport (and the EPL in particular). I still can't sit down and watch a random West Brom-Wigan match, but I'm all about the Gunners.

The EPL is so much more enjoyable than the World Cup. The players are better, the game is faster paced, the passing is better, and there are many more shots on goal that in the WC. As Fernando put it, the teams in the EPL play to win, while the teams in the WC played not to lose. Right on. And when your game is low scoring to begin with, playing not to lose can really put a guy like me to sleep. But there has been no napping for me during Arsenal games--they are a pleasure to watch with their precise passing and (sometimes, not last weekend) high scoring.

I was disappointed that Arsenal had to play at Chelsea last weekend without Fabregas, Walcott, and van Persie (Almunia not so much). That's like my Spurs playing the Lakers without Duncan, Parker and Ginobili (or at least close). Fabregas is a passing savant, like Magic or Kidd--they are a completely different team when he plays. Without him, they struggle for scoring chances.

I'm also being exposed to the other teams and other great players around the EPL for the first time. I really enjoyed watching Drogba play last weekend. In addition to being great, he seemed cool--always helping up Arsenal players, patting them on the back, etc. Seems like he really respects his opponents, yet during the course of play wants to cut off their family jewels. Admirable combo.

(Random observation from the Arsenal-Chelsea game: the British play by play announcer sounded exactly like Michael Palin doing a Monty Python bit. I loved it!)

Learning the game, and the EPL, has been a blast so far. It's not yet in my top 5 favorite sports, but it's climbing fast. I still can't figure out offsides to save my life, but I'm picking up everything else pretty quickly. I've also been reading up on the history of the league, which has helped a lot. Maybe best of all, I can sit through an entire EPL game without a coach calling a time out right before a penalty kick.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

My Exclusive 2010 NFL Predictions


I like to think that when Andy Williams sang the opening line of his Christmas classic, that he was really thinking about the start of the NFL season. In my mind, and I think in Andy's as well, it really is "the most wonderful time of the year." So, buoyed by the excitement and enthusiasm of a new season, let's run through each division en route to my highly anticipated and sure to be much-talked-about Super Bowl pick.

I struggled with one thing: the fact that we have 40%-50% turnover each year among playoff teams. I could only come up with 3 new playoff teams for this season--a turnover of just 25%. I just couldn't talk myself into 3 more new playoff teams, but I'm afraid history tells us it will likely happen.

AFC West

San Diego (11-5)
Denver (8-8)
Oakland (6-10)
Kansas City (6-10)

The Chargers are very clearly the class of this otherwise weak division. Has their window started to close a bit? Maybe. But they still have a great QB in Rivers, and should easily take the division. The Dumervil injury will really hurt Denver--I think the best they can do is equal last year's 8-8. Oakland and KC have a long way to go. Campbell is not the answer for the Raiders, just as he wasn't the answer for the Redskins.

AFC South

Indianapolis (12-4)
Houston (9-7)
Tennessee (8-8)
Jacksonville (6-10)

The Colts are an easy pick here. They are a machine: the most consistent team in the NFL, and will make the playoffs for the 10th straight season (the current longest streak in the league). Houston might be a very good team, but no team has a more difficult schedule. I don't like the Titans as long as Vince Young is their QB--he's too unstable to make them a solid pick. The Jags will not make the playoffs, and will not sell out a game all season.

AFC North

Baltimore (10-6)
Pittsburgh (9-7, wild card)
Cincinnati (9-7)
Cleveland (5-11)

The Ravens went 9-7 with a brutal schedule last year, and I think they're poised to go at least one game better with a slightly easier slate this season--Boldin will help a sometimes stale offense. If the Steelers can go 2-2 during Big Ben's suspension, they can get to nine wins. The Bengals will be fun to watch, but in the end I'm not sure they're a playoff team. Eric Mangini has felt from day one of the Holmgren era that he's not long for the Browns world, and he'll be proven correct when he's fired at the end of the year, if not sooner.

AFC East

New England (11-5)
New York Jets (10-6, wild card)
Miami (7-9)
Buffalo (3-13)

I like the Jets, but it seems a lot of people have them rated too highly. Sanchez was terrific last season, but let's see him do it again before we stick them in the Super Bowl. I think Belichick will sell his soul to the devil to shut Rex Ryan up. This should be the most entertaining divisional race in the AFC because of that--the old guard Pats trying to hold off the upstart Jets. What about Miami? Was that 11-5 season two years ago a fluke? I think it may have been, and last year's 7-9 is probably a more accurate picture of this team. The season will be so long for Chan Gailey in Buffalo that he may just paint the dog's toenails red and move to Alabam'.

NFC West

San Francisco (9-7)
Arizona (8-8)
Seattle (7-9)
St. Louis (3-13)

This is the most boring division in football, hands down. Give me a boring 49ers team to edge out a now-boring Cards team. Anderson instead of Warner will cost the Cards a few wins. Carroll will work some magic with the boring Seahawks--just some. Sam Bradford will be really good eventually for the boring Rams, but will have a very long season in '10.

NFC South

New Orleans (11-5)
Atlanta (10-6, wild card)
Carolina (8-8)
Tampa Bay (4-12)

The Saints will be good-to-great again, but it's been 13 years since we had a repeat champion in the NFC. They are building something nice in Atlanta, they just need a little more defense to be really scary. Is Matt Moore the answer in Carolina? Is Josh Freeman the answer in Tampa? I can't say yes to either.

NFC North

Green Bay (12-4)
Minnesota (9-7, wild card)
Chicago (9-7)
Detroit (3-13)

The Pack's offense is downright frightening, and on defense Dom Capers has made a difference (they led the NFL in run defense in '09--the first time in franchise history they had done that). They are a bit of chic pick this year, but I'm falling into the trap--the 10th easiest schedule this season helps. Plus, I think the Vikes fall back a bit: the Rice injury is huge, no more Chester Taylor, Percy Harvin's migraine headaches, and another year of age on Brett Favre. Can Martz fix Cutler in Chicago? As a former Cutler fan, I'm now very skeptical. Detroit still sucks--they are 3-37 in their last 40 games!

NFC East

Dallas (10-6)
New York Giants (9-7)
Philadelphia (8-8)
Washington (6-10)

Dallas is the clear favorite. However, since the day it came out, I have feared their schedule. It's the 3rd most difficult in the NFL. I actually think the Cowboys could be better than they were last year, but have a worse record--which will cost them home field in the playoffs. I think NY again misses the playoffs. The Giants have not been the same since Burress shot himself in the leg, and since Spagnuolo left their defense--plus, Jacobs seems to be wearing down a little bit from all of the contact. I still think Eli is terrific, but I don't love his cast. I don't trust Kolb in Philly. The Redskins have a long way to go. Check the history of Super Bowl winning coaches when they try it again at another stop--it's awful. I think Shanahan will struggle to build something in Washington, unless an Elway (not an old McNabb) lands in his lap.

AFC Playoffs

Pats over Steelers
Jets over Ravens

Colts over Jets
Pats over Chargers

AFC Championship: Colts over Pats

NFC Playoffs

Vikings over 49ers
Cowboys over Falcons (Dallas wins a first-round home game, just like last season)

Packers over Vikings
Cowboys over Saints (Dallas beat NO in the dome last season, and will do it again)

NFC Championship: Packers over Cowboys (the tough schedule costs Dallas home field, and winning at Lambeau in January is too much to ask)

Super Bowl XLV

Colts over Packers (Manning doesn't throw a costly 4th quarter pick this time, and gets his second title)

2011

Work stoppage. So, enjoy this season.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Greatest Rangers Team Ever?


The Metroplex hasn't had Rangers Fever like this in more than a decade. In fact, in their almost 40 years in North Texas, the Rangers have fielded few teams with this much potential. If this current team stays on course for the next month, then we'll all be wondering if it might not be the greatest Rangers team ever.

I did this a few months ago when we all had Mavs Fever after the big trade with the Wizards. I took the current team and matched them up with the two best teams from two different eras from the franchise's past. So, let's do that with the Rangers, and hope for a better postseason result from our baseball team than we got from our basketball team.

The other candidates? I've chosen the 1999 Rangers, who won the AL West (for the third time in four seasons) with a club record 95 wins. The 1996 Rangers were also considered to represent this era, but most feel the '99 version was better. There were really no teams from the 80's worthy of being included in this experiment (save for maybe '86), but from the 70's there were three: 1974, 1977, and 1978. The '77 team won 90 games and were led by Gaylord Perry and Bert Blyleven on the mound. The '78 team featured newcomers Al Oliver, Richie Zisk and Jon Matlack, and won 87 games. But I'm going with the '74 squad, led by Billy Martin--they won just 84 games, but finished only 6 back of the World Champion Oakland A's in the AL West.

Let's go position by position and see what happens.

Catcher


2010 Bengie Molina/Matt Treanor
1999 Pudge Rodriguez
1974 Jim Sundberg

Clear advantage to the '99 squad. Pudge was the AL MVP in '99, and when you talk about the greatest catchers of all-time, he's right there with Bench and Berra and whoever else you want to consider. Sundberg was a tremendous defensive backstop, but falls way short of Pudge at the plate. The Molina/Treanor tandem does not figure into the mix here.

First Base

2010 Mitch Moreland/Chris Davis/Justin Smoak
1999 Lee Stevens
1974 Mike Hargrove

Hargrove hit .323 and was AL Rookie of the Year, never struck out, had a high on base percentage, and fielded the ball well. Big Lee Stevens out homered Hargrove 24-4, out RBI'd him 84-66, and had a higher slugging percentage. Again, the 2010 Rangers don't compete here. Tough call, but I'm going with Hargrove, who I think was simply a better all-around player than Stevens. But it's very close considering the two seasons involved. Advantage 1974.

Second Base

2010 Ian Kinsler
1999 Mark McLemore
1974 Dave Nelson

Kinsler, despite his constant injury issues, wins here. When healthy, he one of the most prolific offensive second basemen of his generation. He's also turned into an outstanding fielder, having dropped the error bug of his youth. McLemore was steady, but not spectacular. Nelson could field and run, but he carried a very light bat. Advantage 2010.

Shortstop

2010 Elvis Andrus
1999 Royce Clayton
1974 Toby Harrah

Harrah was an All-Star three times for the Rangers in the 70's. He hit 21 homers in '74, stole 15 bases, but hit just .260. Harrah was always among the league leaders in errors, too. Clayton hit .288 with 14 HR's in '99, and was solid. But Elvis might be the best defensive shortstop in baseball--at age 21. Like Ozzie Smith, anything you get at the plate with Elvis is icing on the cake--and his .280 average is pretty sweet icing. Advantage 2010.

Third Base

2010 Michael Young
1999 Todd Zeile
1974 Lenny Randle

Young is one of the best hitters of his era, but struggles in the field at third. Zeile went 24-89-.293 in '99--pretty solid--yet, he also led AL 3rd basemen in errors that season. Lenny Randle once punched manager Frank Lucchesi, so he doesn't enter the mix here. Nice year by Zeile, but Young is starting to put together the type of resume that, if he plays long enough, will encourage Hall of Fame consideration. And, Young's numbers by the end of the year should trump Zeile's from '99. Advantage 2010.

Left Field

2010 Josh Hamilton
1999 Rusty Greer
1974 Alex Johnson

Johnson was a good hitter--once won a batting title with the Angels. Greer was a fan favorite who played a great left, and went 20-101-.300 in '99--very impressive. But as good as Johnson and Greer were, Hamilton is on another planet. He's putting together possible the greatest individual season in Rangers history. He should win the batting title--easily--and his power numbers are huge. Hamilton runs and fields very well, and is turning into a real leader on the team. Advantage 2010.

Center Field

2010 Julio Borbon
1999 Tom Goodwin
1974 Joe Lovitto

None of the three put up any offensive numbers worth discussing, other than Goodwin's 39 stolen bases. Goodwin could also cover a lot of ground in center--he's the best defensive player of the three. Advantage 1999.

Right Field


2010 Nelson Cruz
1999 Juan Gonzales
1974 Jeff Burroughs

Now we've got some offensive numbers to talk about. Burroughs won the AL MVP award in '74 (25-118-.301). Gonzales did not have his best year in '99, but was still a force at the plate (39-128-.326). Cruz has been great, but has missed too much time due to injuries. Close call, but Juando wins over Burroughs. Advantage 1999.

Designated Hitter

2010 Vlad Guerrero
1999 Raffy Palmeiro
1974 Jim Spencer

Despite the fact that he may have been on roids, Raffy wins. His 47-148-.324 season might almost make Josh Hamilton blush. Vlad has been nice, but his numbers aren't anywhere near Raffy's. Spencer was just 7-44-.278 as part-time DH/1B. Advantage 1999.


Starting Pitching

2010 Lee, Lewis, Wilson, Hunter
1999 Helling, Sele, Burkett, Morgan
1974 Jenkins, Bibby, Brown, Hargan

Is this the area that gives Rangers fans so much hope for this season? Those four names have all been good to great. The '99 starters had a combined ERA in the 5.00's (different era, I know, but still...). The '74 staff was top heavy, with Jenkins winning 25 games and posting an ERA of 2.82--the best pitching season in club history. Bibby won 19 for the '74 squad, Brown and Hargan won 13 and 12 with ERA's in the 3.00's. That '74 staff was damn good, and I would take Fergie over any one of today's Rangers, including Lee. Very, very close call. But, based on wins, strikeouts, shutouts (different eras, I know) and ERA of the four names in each group, I have to go advantage 1974. Fergie might have been the tiebreaker.

Bullpen

2010 Feliz (cl), Francisco, Oliver, O'Day
1999 Wetteland (cl), Zimmerman, Venafro, Crabtree
1974 Foucalt (cl), Merritt, Stanhouse, Broberg

Wetteland was huge with 43 saves, and his setup crew was good. Foucalt had just 12 saves, but when Jenkins and Bibby are finishing damn near every game, you don't have many chances. Feliz has been incredible--a Mariano Rivera in the making. By season's end he may have more than 43 saves. The 2010 middle relief has been incredible--if there was a tie here, they break it. Advantage 2010.

Manager

2010 Ron Washington
1999 Johnny Oates
1974 Billy Martin

I'm not a huge Wash fan, but he's doing something right. I think he's more a product of some genius work by Ryan and Daniels, and perfect timing. Oates was a manager's manager, and is the most successful manager in club history. Billy Martin, however, wins here. Martin was volatile, but a genius. Advantage 1974.

The Final Score

2010 5
1999 4
1974 3

It's official--this year's Rangers squad is the best in club history. It was actually a close race between the three eras, but the current day team wins out. The pitching, both starting and bullpen, has been great. The defense is much improved. Yes, they are benefiting from a weak division (what might that '74 team have done without the A's in their way?), but they are making the most of it.

Keep in mind, these results are as of 8/26/10. If the bottom falls out and this team stinks it's way through September and October, then we'll re-think things. But I don't see that happening--do you?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

My First Date With Arsenal




This weekend was all about EPL in our household. "Eat, Pray, Love" starring Julia Roberts for my wife, and the opening weekend of the English Premier League for me. I think I had more fun.

I was pretty excited about seeing my newly adopted Arsenal Gunners play a match that mattered. I had watched a couple of the preseason "friendlies" as they are called, but that's like watching preseason NFL football--you know it doesn't matter, so you are quickly bored. By the way, there are WAY too many "friendlies" in soccer--just like we have too many NFL preseason games, too many college football bowl games, and too many Globetrotters games each year. Give us a break. Let us enjoy the stuff that really matters, and quit the sham that is exhibition sports. And in the case of the Globetrotters, at least give them someone else to play besides the Generals so that buying into it isn't so difficult.

This weekend's action had the same feel to it that the opening weekend of the NFL has--except that it's only been a two month off-season for the EPL, and the NFL makes us wait seven months (have I really just made a 10 month commitment to a sport that I might not like?). I watched the EPL preview show on the Fox Soccer Channel (which is now in HD--thank God), and I've read up as much as I could on my new team. Arsenal hasn't won anything in the last four seasons (except that glorious weekend last month when they retained the prestigious Emirates Cup), but they are highly thought of which makes it fun to watch a team that may be on the cusp of something big. I was ready to go.

The Gunners were taking on Bob Sturm's Liverpool club. A classic Musers vs BAD Radio clash, and a classic season opening matchup of two sides who are almost always among the best in the league. The game was 0-0 at the start, and 0-0 at the half (what have I gotten into, again?). Liverpool scored quickly to open the second half, and in the last minute of action, Arsenal got a cheap goal to tie the game at 1-1. I was thrilled with the cheap goal--there is nothing worse than losing your opener in any sport. Today, I learned to appreciate kissing my sister.

Other thoughts from my first regular season Arsenal watch:

Is there a sport where going a man down matters less than in soccer? A Liverpool chap was red-carded (kicked out) late in the first half, which meant the Reds played with 10 men to Arsenal's 11 the rest of the way. "We'll kill them!" I thought, thinking of my Gunners now on a hockey-like power play for the second half. In reality, you couldn't tell a difference. Instead of being a man down, Liverpool looked like they were three men up.

The flopping is outrageous!! Don't these guys know that we have instant replay and can clearly see that they were not touched?? They will writhe around in pain as though they've just been Joe Theismann'd. Floppers in the NBA are actors, but they are Oscar winners compared to soccer guys. The cheap playlet often ends with a stretcher being brought out--I've never seen that during an NBA game--I think even Rudy T. walked off under his own power.

The atmosphere at the stadium looks great. The fans are singing and chanting all game long. Is it because they are drunk, or bored, or simply because they're such great fans? I'm thinking all of the above.

Penalty kicks and free kicks are fun. Corner kicks, however, are incredibly overrated. How many times does a team convert a corner--once in 100 tries? There were a ton of corner kicks in the Arsenal game today. The announcers would build them up, and then every time the ball would be poked 600 feet into the air and nobody would ever come close to scoring a goal. Corner kicks are not what they are cracked up to be.

I love Arsenal's road uniforms. I love their home look, too, And I like Liverpool's red. In fact, soccer uniforms, in general, are really cool. Looking forward to watching games each week just to take in the uniforms, stadiums, etc.

I noticed one thing today that may be the key to enjoying soccer. It's the struggle. It can be so frustrating to watch a soccer match because so much goes on, but so few points are put on the board. When your team falls behind 1-0, it seems as though they have to climb Everest to get that equalizer. It's really, really hard to score a goal, and that's frustrating to watch. But maybe that's also the beauty of it all.

So far, so good. I think I'm going to like this. At the very least, I know I'll end up liking in more than a Julia Roberts movie.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Was It A Good Tour?


The man who we all thought would win the 2010 Tour de France, Alberto Contador, won. He was far from dominant, yet nobody was able to take advantage of his less-than-stellar form. Contador didn't win a single stage. He struggled in the final time trial (when is the last time a Tour winner finished 35th in the final time trial--never??). The Spaniard was very beatable this July, but nobody was good enough or lucky enough to knock him off.

It was a very entertaining three weeks, yet the Contador/Schleck battle almost got a little stale to me, with neither able to drop the other on the climbs. The fireworks we all waited for in the mountains never really came about because the two were so evenly matched. Still, the race produced some interesting twists and turns, good story lines, and a result in doubt until the final weekend.

I loved the route of the Tour this year. The cobbled stage was great. There were enough flat stages for the sprinters, but not enough to bog down the flow of the race. There were rolling stages with tricky finishes like the one to Mende. The Alps did not disappoint, and the four days in the Pyrenees were terrific. Thumbs up to the race organizers for finally understanding how to lay out a three week stage race and keep it interesting--something they have had a tough time doing since 1989.

One thing we will all remember about this Tour: crashes. They were everywhere, and costly to many of the GC contenders. Frank Schleck broke a collarbone. Cadel Evans broke an elbow. Lance Armstrong crashed three times on the stage to Avoriaz, basically taking him out of the race in week one.

Could Lance have mustered a challenge had he not hit the pavement so often during that stage? What if he hadn't flatted on the cobbles? I think the answer is no. As good as I felt about his chances to podium before the race, I thought it became apparent during the event that his age had caught up to him. He had one great moment--the prologue. But after watching him for three weeks, two things stuck out to me...

One--his cadence in time trials is not what it was. He used to turn the gear at what seemed like 150 rpm. Now, it's more like a normal 90 rpm. I don't have a answer for that, other than to say his system is not trained like it was to put so much pressure on his aerobic engine. Second--he lacks that pure power and pure explosion in the mountains. At 28, Lance could accelerate and ride away from the best climbers in the world. At 38, he seems to only be able to follow wheels--and just for a while before having to give in and go at his own pace. He's still good at climbing and good at the time trials, but he's not great anymore--understandable for a racer of his age and recent retirement. It makes his 3rd place last year look even more impressive.


Many of us were fooled by Lance's good June results, but in hindsight perhaps we should have looked at his entire season for a better indication of what his Tour would be like--underwhelming. That's OK--I think he's done enough over his career for us to not worry about a 23rd place finish this year. And, as some consolation, Radio Shack won the team competition, giving Lance one last appearance on the podium in Paris, which was cool.

If Lance had been a few years younger, or come to the race in great form, he would have smashed Contador. For whatever reason, Alberto was below his level from last year. Maybe Schleck made him work harder than expected in the mountains. Maybe his race build-up was less than it should have been. Maybe he was ill. In the end, it was one of the least-impressive Tour wins ever. Add to that the controversy over not waiting for Andy on the Port de Bales, and you have a race that Contador would probably like to have a few do-overs in. I can't help but think that somewhere the likes of Merckx and Hinault are thinking "35th in the last time trial and he won the race--I would have crushed him!"

Will Andy Schleck win this race next year? I'm not so sure. Everyone is raving about his final time trial and how much he pushed Contador, but he finished 44th! I thought it was much more that Alberto had a bad day than Schleck having a good day. Andy will have to greatly improve his time trialing still to beat Alberto, because I don't think he'll ever be able to just ride away from him in the mountains.

Get ready for the Contador vs Schleck show for many more Tours. They are both young enough to be at the top for another 7-10 years. Basso? Menchov? Sanchez? Evans? I just don't see another real challenger to Contador's throne outside of Andy. And, there don't seem to be any really bright young hopes on the horizon. Of course, five years ago we didn't really know the names Contador and Schleck, so you never can tell.

Now, anybody up for the Vuelta?

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

2010 Tour de France Preview: Does Lance Have a Chance?



"Few things can bring the country of France to a standstill. The start and end of world wars. A revolution. And, every summer, in the heat of July, a bicycle race, as millions line to roads just to catch a glimpse of the two wheeled missiles and the gods who ride them"

Jorgen Leth from the film "23 Days in July"


Stage 3. This early battleground could tell us a lot about what kind of a race this will be. Stage 3 finishes with seven sectors of cobblestone roads, some of which are very difficult. Traditionally, thin climbers (like defending champion Alberto Contador) have trouble riding the cobbles. In 2004, Spanish climber Iban Mayo lost huge chunks of time to Lance Armstrong on a similar cobbled stage. If Armstrong and his team can make Contador suffer on this stage--and take some time from him--then we could have a wild and dramatic race.

Before we get to how I think it will play out, let's look at the favorites.


Alberto Contador


Two-time winner of the Tour, and acknowledged best stage racer in the world. He has started four grand tours, and won them all. He chalked up some impressive early season wins in this year, and three weeks ago he won the l'Alpe D'Huez stage of the Dauphine. At 27, he is at the height of his powers. His team (a weakened Astana) is a question mark, but his ability is not. His only real weakness may be his impatient nature and lack of tactical nous.

Lance Armstrong


Seven-time winner. 3rd place last year after 3 years in retirement. Slow start this year, but in June finished 3rd in the Tour of Luxembourg and 2nd in the Tour of Switzerland. He's 38, but has said in the last week that he feels 28 again, and that his training and test times are close to where they were at his peak (at least on the climbs). Has a very strong, albeit very old, Radio Shack team. His time trialing has slipped--a lot. But, he's the smartest racer in the bunch, and may be peaking at the right time.

Andy Schleck


2nd place last year. Regarded as the 2nd best climber in the world, behind Contador. Not much of a time trialist, and not much in the way of race results this year. Crashed in training last week--scratched up. Has put all of his 2010 eggs in the Tour basket. May be the only rider in the world who can ride away from Contador in the mountains, and is backed by a strong Saxo Bank squad. He's 25 years old--should be coming into his peak as a rider.

Frank Schleck


Andy's brother, who has been better than Andy this season. Recently won the Tour of Switzerland, and was second in Luxembourg. Improved time trialist, gifted climber. May be a better bet this July than his brother. Also races for Saxo Bank. Frank seems to be a better all-around rider than Andy, yet always seems to sacrifice himself for his bother at the Tour. With his form this season, it may be the other way around this time.

Ivan Basso


Former Tour of Italy winner, then suspended two years for doping, and now recent Tour of Italy winner (two months ago). Does he have enough in the tank to win the Giro in May and then be competitive at the Tour? We'll see. If on form, he's a great climber and a good time trialist. Liquigas team is strong. Basso is this Tour's dark horse/wild card--he could be very good, or very bad.

Others:

Cadell Evans, Denis Menchov, Carlos Sastre, Bradley Wiggins, Christian Vandevelde. If anyone other than one of these ten riders wins the Tour, I will walk down Greenville Ave in a bra and panties.


How I Think It Will Play Out

Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank) will win the prologue time trial, and the first yellow jersey. He will then try to keep yellow on Stage 3 over the cobblestones. Saxo Bank will have to be careful not to burn themselves out early helping Cancellara, as they'll need to save energy for the Schleck brothers and the mountains in the final two weeks. But they'll have yellow for a few days early.

Radio Shack will set a torrid pace on the cobbles near the end of Stage 3. Armstrong is good on those roads, and I think The Shack will try to rip the race apart. Contador knows this, but that doesn't matter--can he do anything about it? He trained a bit on the cobbles this spring, but he's never raced on them--big difference. I see him losing a couple on minutes on this stage. And that will set the stage for a delicious final two weeks. If Amrstrong is not able to pick up any time on Contador on this stage, then the race may be over.

The Alps come first this year, with one mountain top finish. The Pyrenees are more difficult, but will Ccontador be able to control himself until the final week? Will he need to make up time on Armstrong sooner that he thinks? I'm sure, given his mindset, that Contador will try to take time at Avoriaz, the first mountain top finish--Stage 8. If Contador has trouble dropping Lance on this stage, then lookout. If Amrstrong is climbing as well as he says, then this stage should be very interesting.

Stages 16 and 17 are brutal Pyrenean climbing stages. Most feel that Contador will stamp his authority on the race here, in the mountains that border his native country. I think we may have three or four men (Contador, Armstrong, and the Schelck brothers) all within a minute of each other at this point. Whoever can handle the Tourmalet the best will emerge as the likely yellow jersey in Paris. Safe bet here is Contador. He should leave the mountains with a couple of minutes advantage on his rivals, and he should add to that in the final time trial the day before the race ends.

My final picks:

1. Contador
2. Armstrong @ 3:00
3. F. Schleck @ 3:15
4. A. Schleck @ 4:00
5. Evans @ 5:00

(If I had just a little more faith in Conatador, I would pick him to win by 10 minutes. This is the year he should be able to do that, but part of me doesn't trust him, and part of me believes the way the Tour is raced these days--with race radios and director sportif's controling almost everything--that the days of the Merckx-like 10 and 20 minute gaps are over)

It's hard to pick against Contador--he's in his prime, he's had a nice season so far, he's motivated to beat Lance, and he's the best in the world. Lance will put up a good fight--he probably knows he can't beat Contador straight up, but over three weeks, anything can happen. Contador could crash, test positive, have one really bad day, get sick--anything can happen.

I expect Lance to be better than last year in the mountains, but I worry about his time trialing. You can win the Tour if you're in the top 5 in the time trials, but you can't finish 15th in the time trials as he's been doing. Lance can get time on the cobbles, stay close in the mountains, limit his losses in the time trials, and finish on the podium again.

I like Frank Schleck better than Andy this year, but Frank and Andy have a way of throwing away their own chances in order to help each other. If Frank gets greedy and doesn't worry about Andy, he can finish in the top 3. Andy could be playing possum, but something just doesn't look or feel right about him this season.

Cadell Evans is a cagey, gutsy rider who has twice finished second in this race. He'll ride well again. It will be good to see the world champion's jersey racing to win the Tour de France--we haven't seen that since the 90's with Abraham Olano and Greg LeMond.

It will be a fascinating three weeks. With Lance and Alberto on different teams this year, the race should be much more interesting than the '09 edition. This will be Lance's final Tour, and I think he'll go out with a bang--another podium finish, and a fight with Contador through the final week. But, in the end, 27 year old legs beat 38 year old legs.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The World Cup, From The Outside Looking In


I have never been a soccer fan, though not for a lack of trying (more on that later). I have no bias against the sport. I do not hate soccer. I do not hate soccer fans. Or soccer balls. Or soccer moms. On the show this week, we've taken a lot of grief from irate soccer fans who think we deserve a red card for our take on the world's most popular sport. Allow me some time to explain...

I have always been a fringe sport/Olympic sport fan. Like any good American, I've always enjoyed football, basketball and baseball. But I've also always loved learning about sports that most Americans don't know much about. If you've listened to our show for any amount of time, or read this blog, you know that cycling is my passion. Since childhood, I've also always followed and/or played tennis, golf, World Cup skiing, track and field, triathlon, surfing, motorcycle racing, F1--you name it, and I'm open to watching it, learning about it, and trying it.

I would stack my love for and knowledge about international sports up against anyone at The Ticket. Nobody was more into the Winter Olympics than I was. Bob has me on soccer, boxing and hockey. Corby has me on soccer and golf. George has me on golf and swimming. Norm has me on horse racing and gambling. But I'm guessing I've got everyone on most of the sports I listed above, and then some. As a kid, I thought it was great that everyone in school knew who Roger Staubach was, but that I was the only one who knew who Bill Rodgers was. Everyone knew of Larry Bird, but I was the only one who knew of Dave Scott. Everyone had heard of Pete Rose, but no one had heard of Niki Lauda. Walter Payton, Reggie Jackson, Dr. J? That's easy. But how about Laurent Fignon, Gustav Thoni and Guillermo Vilas? I knew them all, because I loved all sports.

Which brings us to soccer. I tried to play it as a kid. I lost interest in a hurry. Not being able to use your hands was a big drawback, I thought. It just didn't have the constant, hands on (sorry) excitement that other sports did. As an adult, I tried watching it, but it never hooked me. I tried getting into the World Cup in 1994 when the U.S. hosted the event--I even went to a game at the Cotton Bowl. Fun atmosphere, but it never grabbed me. I've tried (maybe not hard enough--still more on that later).

So, against that backdrop, and armed with that information--here are my unbiased, non-sarcastic, from the heart observations on the sport of soccer and the World Cup.


THINGS I LIKE

1. Commercial free halves. Greatness. No other sport gives you that bang for the buck. You invest 110 minutes total and it's over. You have zero commercials per half. There is not another sport in the world that can make that claim. I love it.

2. The passion. I would stack the passion of the soccer fan up against the passion of any other fan from any other sport. I've never experienced anything like standing on the side of a mountain road during the Tour de France--the fans are insane. But I hear that the soccer fans at a Premier League game are just as nuts, if not nuttier. I would like to experience that one day.

3. The international flavor. I love any event where, in the stands, you will hear 10 different languages being spoken and see 10 different flags being waved. I enjoy the political/geographical rivalries. I enjoy countries whose hatred for each other goes back centuries. You don't get that in many sports. I also love the color--the jerseys and logos, etc. Very rich.

4. The history. While the game itself doesn't reel me in, the history of the sport does. I like reading about Pele and Beckenbauer. I like looking at the list of the Cup winners. I like the stories behind the stories. Any sport with a thick, global history and with lots of characters and intrigue is ok by me.

5. The United States climb to dominance. Soccer is one of the few sports remaining that we haven't figured out. We've reached the top of the mountain in just about everything else, but the road map to international soccer success is still confusing to us. I like that we are a hungry nation. America is usually at it's best when it's hungry.


THINGS I DON'T LIKE

1. The lack of scoring opportunities. My biggest beef with the sport. There is too much time where the ball is being kicked around at midfield, or kicked out of bounds, or when play just bogs down to the point that you realize nothing exciting is going to happen in the next minute, guaranteed. However, in other sports, there is almost always a chance for a score or something dramatic at any moment. In baseball, every pitch gives you a scoring opportunity. In football, every snap delivers the promise of something big. In basketball, almost every trip down the floor results in a payoff. Even in a slow sport like golf, every single stroke for Tiger counts towards his score--every swing could win or lose the tournament. Every one. Yet, in soccer, I would estimate that you get a legitimate scoring chance once every 5-10 minutes. Not enough, for this reporter.

2. The clock. "Extra time" is the most unstable thing in international sports. Can you imagine watching an NFL game where time was kept on the field and basically hidden from the players and fans? How outraged would we be? I don't understand why the clock can't start at 45:00 and count back, and be stopped when the official wants it stopped. It would make the game much easier to follow, instead of forcing fans to constantly do math and then guess at how much time might remain.

3. The flopping. I don't like it in the NBA, and I like it even less in soccer. At least in the NBA they get right up. In soccer, they bring out a stretcher. Really??

4. The ABC/ESPN announcers. The American announcers (save for a few) act like they've been around the sport forever--they haven't. The Euro announcers that they've imported for this event sound like they would rather be somewhere else. That doesn't get me fired up. Heck, we get so few scoring opportunities, I want those announcers losing their sheet in those moments.

5. The hyperbolic soccer media and fandom. Claiming that the extra time goal against Algeria was one of the greatest moments in U.S. sports history is a bit of a stretch to me. Likening it to the Miracle on Ice (Mike and Mike, Matt Laurer, and dozens of spare soccer scribes) is a joke. The Miracle on Grass? Come on. Should the U.S. beat Spain in the semi-finals on a last-second goal, then yes, let's all roll out the Lake Placid comparisons. But not beating Algeria (who didn't score a goal in any of their three World Cup games) in the preliminary round. As one listener said, it was the equivalent of Texas beating Iowa State 3-0 on a last second field goal. Nice, exciting win--but not epic.

MY PLEDGE

Then again, maybe it's me. So, as an olive branch to the soccer fan who thinks I haven't given the sport a chance or who thinks I haven't thought out my "soccer is boring" opinion, I offer this...

I've been told by many of you via email that the World Cup is not the best soccer to watch--that big-time European pro soccer is. So, I will get into Euro soccer for a season and see if it grabs me. I'll pick one team to follow (suggestions, please), and I will watch all of their games. I will read about it. I will talk about it. I will corner Bob at work and make him answer my questions, at gunpoint if that's what it takes. I will give it an honest effort. I will update my findings along the way. If, at the end of that season, it still hasn't grabbed me, then you'll just have to accept that one of the worlds best sports reporters finds the world's most popular sport boring.

So, let's get going. Let me know which league and team I should follow. Let me know when and where I can watch them. Let me know which websites are the best to keep up with them. I even pledge to attempt to see a game in person, if possible. It's just my way of showing you that I don't hate international sports, and that I don't hate soccer. I just don't get it. Yet.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Conference Realignment and The Year 2025

In sports, like in life, things change. The NFL used to be a 10 team league. The NBA used to be an 8 team league. The NHL used to be a 6 team league. They are not anymore. Things change.

College sports conferences used to be very small and very regional. The Big 6 became the Big 8. The Southwest Conference was 7, then added Tech and Houston. The Pac 8 added Arizona and Arizona St. to form the Pac-10. The Big 10 has grown. The SEC has grown. Things change.

Now, things are really changing. The demise of the Big 12 is the first step in what I believe will be a radical and total reshaping of Division One college football. Think about it this way: things have changed very rapidly in the last 15-20 years. In that time, the Big 12 has come and gone. Other conferences like the WAC and Mountain West and Big East and ACC and C-USA change seemingly all the time. The Big 10 is always looking grow. The haves want more, and they want to distance from the have nots. And it's going to happen in a big way, sooner than you think.

Consider the panic that has set in during the last week. You will, from here on out, see teams constantly trying to set themselves up in a super-conference. Nobody will want to be left out, which will cause things to happen at a rapid pace.

I believe we are headed for four, 20 or 22-team, super-conferences. By the year 2025 at the latest, things will look something like this:

The Pac-20

Northwest Division
Washington
Washington St
Oregon
Oregon St.
Boise St.

California Division
USC
UCLA
Stanford
Cal
San Diego State

Mountain Division
Arizona
Arizona St.
Utah
BYU
Colorado

Southwest Division
Texas
Texas A&M
Texas Tech
Oklahoma
Oklahoma St.


The Big-20 (formerly the Big-10)

Plains Division
Nebraska
Iowa
Wisconsin
Minnesota
Missouri

Lakes Division
Michigan
Michigan State
Ohio State
Syracuse
Cincinatti

Northeast Division
Penn State
Pittsburgh
Boston College
Rutgers
West Virginia

Valley Division
Notre Dame
Indiana
Illinois
Northwestern
Purdue


The SEC

West Division
Arkansas
Alabama
Auburn
LSU
Ole Miss
Miss. State

North Division
Tennessee
Vanderbilt
Kentucky
Louisville
South Carolina
Maryland

South Division
Clemson
Georgia
Georgia Tech
Virginia
Virginia Tech
Wake Forest

East Division
Florida
Florida St.
Miami
Duke
North Carolina
NC State


The Super-West

Patrick Division
Kansas
Kansas State
Colorado State
Air Force
Wyoming

Adams Division
UNLV
Nevada
Fresno
Hawaii
New Mexico

Smythe Division
Baylor
SMU
TCU
Houston
UTEP

Norris Division
Marshall
Memphis
Ohio
Tulsa
Southern Miss

(Late editor's note: I just realized that the Super West might really suck in football, and nobody will think they deserve a Final Four bid. I may have to change out a few teams to create balance)

That's it. That is your new Division One. Each football team will play 11 games--4 or 5 against your division mates, 4 or 5 others against rotating members of your super-conference, and a few non-conference games. Then, at the end of the regular season, each conference will have a playoff featuring the four division winners to determine who goes to college football's Final Four.

The Final Four, of course, will feature the four conference champions. The schools will love this format because each conference will make lots of money with their own, four-team playoff. College football will make a ton of money in the end with the Final Four. We will have a playoff, conferences will make a ton of cash, and everyone will be happy--everyone except the former division one schools who got left out. I can't really see that any of the schools left behind would have much of a case, based on program success, revenue, stadium, size, etc. Anyway, that's life. Things change.

Given the events of the last 7 days, the exact configuration of each conference is of course subject to change. I may not hit on all of the teams and their exact landing spots, but I am confident that we will be looking at this kind of set-up. And perhaps a lot sooner than 2025, because things change. They always have in conference and league lineups, and they always will.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Floyd The Fraud


In July of 2006, American cyclist Floyd Landis gave us a thrill. He dominated a mountain stage of the Tour De France--an epic, Merckx-style, solo breakaway. He won the stage, and the yellow jersey. That was the last good day in the life of Landis.

Soon after that stage win, it was revealed that he had tested positive for testosterone. He was stripped of his Tour win. He was banned by the UCI, cycling's governing body, for two years. He had hip surgery. He was without a team. His wife left him. All the while, he maintained that he had won the '06 Tour without drugs. He wrote a book, "Positively False", proclaiming his innocence for 250 pages. He fought his suspension in court, but it was costly. He went through his life savings. He started the "Floyd Fairness Fund" and raised over $500,000--all donated by people who believed that Landis was telling the truth.

He claimed that he had taken a shot of whisky the night before his stage win, saying that's what caused the positive test. He then claimed the French labs had botched his samples. He then threw Greg LeMond under the bus during his protest trial, when it came out that Landis had blackmailed LeMond, using a story LeMond told Landis in confidence about his being sexually abused as a child. Landis lost his court appeal. Landis had lost everything.

He went away--for a while. He's raced (poorly) for domestic teams the last couple of years. Then, this week, his name resurfaces. After four years of proclaiming his innocence, he now says he was lying. He says he did dope during the '06 Tour. He says he doped as far back as 2002, with all of his then-US Postal Service teammates, including Lance Armstrong. He even went as far to say that the UCI accepted money from Armstrong to cover up a positive doping test during a race in '02. Strong accusations. Or are they, when they come from a scumbag like Landis?

Some specifics from the Landis emails to cycling officials are hard to believe. He claims he went to Armstrong's home to pick up his first dose of EPO, and that Lance met him in the hallway, with his then-wife watching, and gave him the drug. As much as Armstrong is tested and watched, would he really serve as the guy on the team who hands out the EPO to his teammates? Would he really store it in his home, where drug testers show up, unannounced, 50 times a year? Would he really hand out EPO so casually at his home, like he was handing out candy to neighborhood trick-or-treaters on Halloween?

Armstrong's team released a series of emails that Landis had sent to Lance, and to other cycling officials--including some to the organizers of the Tour of California, trying to blackmail them into letting him race in their event. Clearly, Landis has hit rock bottom. He also appears to have lost his marbles. He has no career, no money, no family, no friends, and no credibility.

What if he's now telling the truth? Too late. Had he come forward with these accusations the day after he tested positive in '06, a lot of people would have listened. Now, he's seen as a bitter, axe-grinding, has-been who is simply trying to drag the cycling world into the gutter with him.

And to top it all off, Landis has no proof of any kind. It's just his word against US Postal's word, and as Armstrong said this week, "We like our word."

Armstrong has had to fend off drug rumors before. There is always speculation, but never any evidence or proof of any kind. No doubt, cycling has been a dirty sport--filthy, in fact. But it's also been the most vigilant sport in the world when it comes to testing and penalizing it's athletes. Practically every big name in the sport in the last 10-12 years has failed a drug test--except for Lance. Is he just a genius at staying ahead of the posse? Maybe. Or, perhaps he's just that one-in-a-million athlete, like Jordan or Gretzky or Merckx, who is simply better than everyone else.

Only Lance and a precious few of his confidants know the truth. From the outside, all we have to go on are the test results. Armstrong has, by 100 miles, been the most tested athlete in the world for the past decade. He's never failed one. Those are the facts. Odds say that at some point he's tried something illegal to improve his performance. But the odds also tell us that he's a genetic freak--the same freak that, since he was a teenager, has been head-and-shoulders better than just about everyone else in his sport. Are we to believe that he was doping at age 15 when he would show up at the Tuesday Night Crit in Richardson and blow away the field? I doubt it. Odds also tell us that when you train harder, plan better, and out-think your opponent, you have a better chance to win. Lance has always done those three things.

Armstrong has superior genetics and a clean testing record. Landis has a history of lying, blackmail, and positive dope tests. So who should we believe? Once again, Armstrong ends up the winner. In this case, a yellow jersey for Lance, and scarlet letter for Landis.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Mavericks Paradox: Their Greatest Asset Is Also Their Greatest Weakness

Here we are yet again, left sorting through the wreckage of the latest Mavericks playoff disaster. What is left for them to not accomplish? They've authored the greatest collapse in NBA Finals history. They are the only team in modern NBA playoff history to lose in the first round as a 1st AND 2nd seed. Expectations are consistently high for the franchise each postseason, and those expectations consistently come crashing down like the Hindenburg each year. So what is the problem?

A Different Animal

Dirk Nowitzki is one of the 50 greatest players ever. He's a future Hall of Famer. He's one of the most destructive offensive forces in the history of the game. He is also the only constant in a decade's worth of Dallas playoff failures. Coaches, point guards, wingmen, centers, bench players--they've all been switched out dramatically over the past 10 years, but the team's leader and superstar has stayed the same--and so has the end result each year.

What Dirk gives you on the offensive end (and even that can be somewhat limited, as we'll get to in a moment), he also takes away on the defensive end and in the leadership department. He presents a real challenge for a franchise that tries to build around him--can you win a title when your best player is your worst defender? And not just your worst defender--he's a guy who plays power forward, which is traditionally a very important defensive position. Practically every NBA champ has had a power forward who was able to get down and dirty--able to defend the rim, clean the glass, play good/great man to man defense, and be an enforcer. Sometimes you can get away with an average defender at power forward and still win a title, but you better have Russell or Kareem or Shaq as your big man, not Haywood and Dampier.

Your best player can't be your worst defender. Your best player must lead by example. Kobe, Duncan, Jordan, Kareem, Russell, Walton--they were all able to hold their teammates to higher standard because they were playing at a high standard at both ends of the floor. Even Magic and Bird, not world-class defenders, were still very smart, very hard working, very effective defenders. Teammates respected them and listened to them because they knew they were squeezing every last ounce of defensive ability out of their DNA. Their teammates would think to themselves "I can't slack on defense because he's not slacking, and I don't want to let him down--or have him get pissed at me and kick me in the nuts on national TV!"

Does Dirk have that kind of respect? Can Dirk ever jump on his teammates for not playing defense? I don't think so--because HE doesn't play defense. So, Dirk can't feel comfortable assuming the Kobe-Duncan-Jordan role of true leader, demanding excellence on both ends of the floor. That is a huge fundamental problem. Teams need to be led. They need to be led by their superstar. They need to be led vocally and led by example, and those two are not mutually exclusive.

Dirk: Power Forward?

Every year in the playoffs, games turn into a layup drill for the Dallas opponent. Why? One big reason is because the Mavs have a 7 foot power forward who plays like a 6'8 small forward. Let's face it--Dallas would be a considerably better team if Dirk had stopped growing at 6'8. That would allow him the ability to play the 3 (the position that his game his designed for), and the Mavs could go and get a true power forward to play alongside the center of their choice--greatly fortifying thier interior defense. We all get upset with Haywood and Dampier for not protecting the rim enough, but consider their plight: they have no power forward to help them. Even a great defender like Duncan has struggled to control the paint without a Robinson or Horry or other long defender to help.

Watch the tape from any playoff series (last year's Denver series was a great example). Most of the time you will see a flat-footed Dirk on 'defense'--reaching instead of moving his feet, not blocking out, not rotating in time, and generally playing sub-par man to man and help defense. It's my opinion that, unless you put Dwight Howard next to Dirk on that front line, you can't win an NBA title with your best player playing front-line defense like that. NBA champs always do two things well: protect the rim, and attack the rim. Dirk rarely does either.

Dirk: Unstoppable on Offense?

Pro-Dirk historians will look back at this latest playoff series and cry "it wasn't Dirk's fault--he averaged 27 points and 8 rebounds per game!" It's what they always do--point to his series averages, but it's a tremendously shallow look at his impact on a series.

Look at his game-by-game in this series for a better idea of his impact against the Spurs. He had a poor game 2 (Mavs loss at home), a poor game 4 (Mavs loss) and a poor start and finish in game 6 (Mavs loss). And, he was barely double-teamed the entire series.


Game 6 is a prime example of the Dirk myth. History will show that he scored 33 points on 13 of 21 shooting--great numbers, no doubt. But the box score doesn't show that Dirk lost his composure in the first 16 minutes of the game, and helped dig a giant hole for his team in an elimination game. Silly fouls, missed shots, poor defense, and lots of yelling. Not any way for a superstar and leader to respond. And, while he was great in the third quarter helping the team comeback to tie the game, in the final 7 minutes of the fourth quarter, Dirk made only one shot, and wasn't exactly a huge help on defense. It was a two-point game with 7 minutes to play, and then Dirk disappeared. The pro-Dirk historians will, a few years from now, simply remind you that Dirk scored 33 that night, and that it wasn't his fault. I would strongly disagree.

That 18 footer, which is money in the bank during the regular season, is not a lock in the playoffs. Teams apply a bit more pressure, which makes that shot a bit more difficult, as do the circumstances. If Dirk could take it to the rim on a nightly basis, like he did in game five of the Spurs series, his legend might have a happier ending.

The Solution?

Make no mistake: Dirk is THE reason that Dallas has won 50 games for 10 straight seasons. Not Nellie, not Cuban, not anyone else--Dirk is the man. For the regular season. It's hard for any of us to criticize Dirk because he's such a nice guy and such a great asset to the Mavs and the community. But you would be ignoring the elephant in the room if you think that he is not a primary reason for their playoff failures. NBA basketball changes in the postseason--regular season heroes often can't duplicate their greatness in the second season. Karl Malone, George Gervin, Patrick Ewing--and Dirk, are prime examples of that.

It's simple: you can win a title with Dirk on your team, but you better go and get LeBron or talk Bill Russell out of retirement (and into a fountain of youth), or it's not going to happen. You need a transcendent player or truly dominant center to win with Dirk. The Big German is what he is--that will never change. And something else will never change--to win in the NBA, your best player can't be your worst defender. It undermines his leadership credibility--and that is what is known as a fatal flaw.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

How The Mavs Can Get Back In The Series (maybe)


Long odds, yes. Probably not going to happen. But if the Mavs are to win three in a row against the Spurs they must:

1. Think defense, not offense. Everyone, including Rick Carlisle, is obsessed with getting offense on the floor. I say the Mavs offense is at it's best when they get stops and can run--when they play defense. So, Carlisle should be thinking about having his best defenders on the floor as much as possible. Less Terry and more Marion in the 4th quarter. Even think about Stevenson for a few minutes here and there to shut down a hot Spurs shooter. Good defense leads to transition offense which leads to a faster tempo.

2. Less JJ Barea, less Dampier, less zone defense, less small ball. Championship teams don't get away with playing 5'6 guards, bad centers, tricked up zones, or tricked up small ball. Be an NBA team.

3. Dirk must be more assertive. Catch and immediately shoot over the smaller defender, or catch and immediately drive around the larger defender. Don't dilly-dally. Don't triple pump fake. Don't wait for the double team to fluster you--fluster them!

4. Attack the rim! Good Lord, we've been saying this for a decade now. Good things happen when you attack the rim. The Mavs are the best free throw shooting team in the NBA--take advantage of it! Why won't Jason Kidd attack the rim? They are running him off the three point line, so why not take that big body into the paint and see what happens? Ginobili is not THAT much quicker than Kidd, yet he gets to the rim at will.

5. Be clutch. Biggest difference in these two teams so far. Parker, Ginobili, Hill--they are making their clutch shots. Dirk, Kidd, Butler, Terry--they are missing their clutch shots. It's about being mentally tough. Step up. Be clutch. The game will likely be in doubt in the final two minutes--it will again come down to poise.

Can all of this happen? A lot of it is up to Carlisle, so I don't know. A lot of it is up to the players to change bad habits, so I don't know. And if this is a lost locker room--if Marion and Butler are upset with their minutes, of if every player thinks the refs are out to get them, of if they doubt their teammates--then none of it matters.

We'll find out soon enough.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Running Boston


There aren't many sporting events in this country that are more than 100 years old. The Kentucky Derby, the World Series, the Rose Bowl--and the Boston Marathon. For 114 years in a row, the Boston Marathon has been contested on Patriots Day, a New England tradition. Two and half years ago, when I started running, Boston became my obsession. This week, I realized my dream of taking part in the spectacle.

I had always wanted to run a marathon by the time I was 40. One day, I realized that I was 41 and that I hadn't yet checked the marathon off on my bucket list. So, I started training in the fall of '07 for the Dallas White Rock Marathon. To give me something to shoot for, I decided I would try to qualify for Boston, which meant I needed to run a 3 hour, 20 minute marathon. That fall, I took a weekend trip to Boston--I ran parts of the course, I went to the Bill Rodgers running store, I learned the history of the race. In short, I was hooked. I had to get there. I had to experience it. I had to be a part of the legend.

It took me four tries, but last fall I qualified for Boston by running a 3:20 in the New York City Marathon. I trained hard this winter and spring, and felt like I could run faster at Boston. What I didn't realize until after the race was just how tough the Boston course is. Nothing but up or down. 32 hills along the way, some as short as 100 yards, some as long as almost a mile. They take their toll. Running downhill fast forces your quads to serve as brakes, while they double as engines on the uphills. There are no flat spots on the Boston course. The cumulative effect gets you.

Luckily, there is a wave of energy that you can ride to counteract the difficulty of the course. The crowds were amazing. Loud. Drunk. A solid wall of humanity on both sides of the road from the start village of Hopkinton to the finish in downtown Boston. There were 26,000 runners, and probably one million spectators.

Along the way you run through small New England towns like Natick (the home of Doug Flutie) and Wellesley (the home of Wellesley College, an all-girls school whose students line he road begging for kisses from the runners). After the halfway point, you head into Newton, where the famous Newton Hills start--a series of four big climbs that make or break the race for just about everyone. Then, it's past the drunk frat guys at Boston College, through JFK's hometown of Brookline, into Boston heading past Fenway Park, and down the finishing straight on Boylston Avenue.


I went through the halfway mark in 1 hour, 36 minutes. On pace for a 3:12, but knowing that I would probably slow a bit over the final 13.1 miles. I thought I could run a 3:15 at the start of the day, but once I hit the Newton Hills I knew that wasn't going to happen. My quads were toast. It felt like I was running on two stone pillars. The hilly course had caught up with me. The last of the Newton Hills is called Heartbreak Hill, for obvious reasons. I poked up this climb. At the top, I was so trashed that I seriously wondered if I could even break 3:30, or 3:40, or 4 hours. It felt like the final few miles were going to be a death march.

My secondary goal was to run a 3:19--set a personal best, and better my time from NYC. I did the math--I would have to run 8:00 minute miles for each of the final four miles to get a 3:19. I had averaged a 7:20 pace for the first 17 miles of the race, yet the thought of running 8:00 miles seemed impossible to me at this point. I dug deep, yet could only manage an 8:13, then an 8:07. I was falling behind my needed pace. Two miles to go, and I gave it everything I had. The next mile was a 7:49, and the final mile was a 7:35. I "sprinted" the last 300 yards, and finished in 3:19:38--with absolutely nothing left in the tank. I was really happy that I had broken 3:20 on such a tough course. And happy to qualify to run Boston again next year (if I can shave one hour off of my time, I could actually keep up with the Kenyans--something to shoot for I suppose).

There is something incredibly satisfying about finishing a marathon. It's even more satisfying to finish the most prestigious marathon in the world--and to do it in your personal best time. I will never be a part of World Series, Kentucky Derby, or Rose Bowl history. But now, I'm a very small part of the history of the Boston Marathon--the world's greatest foot race. Finally.