SportsProf

(Hopefully) good sports essays and observations for good sports by a guy who tries (and can sometimes fail) to be a good sport.

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Thursday, September 27, 2007

And Charles Barkley Will Be the Spokesperson

The Philadelphia 76ers, second-to-last in attendance in the NBA last year, are offering a five-pack of tickets, the "All You Can Eat" Package. Last time I checked, they had a Top 50 all-time player, who, had he eaten less, might have won a championship (or two) in the league. In the age of obesity and diabetes, I rank something like this second only to any municipality's claim that the introduction of casino gambling can help save its tax base.

Needless to say, the 76ers need to do something. I read an article in today's Philadelphia Inquirer about the new VP of Marketing, who has introduced an ad campaign that will feature Kyle Korver diving for loose balls, to emphasize the team's grittiness.

I suppose that when you have someone as transcendant as Kobe Bryant on your squad, you lead with him. And, to a degree, the product sells itself because, with Kobe, you at least have one of the top 10 NBA players of all time. Maybe higher. If you're the Boston Celtics, chuckleheads that they are, you lead with the Three Fates, Garnett, Allen and Pierce, none of whom has won a title, and sell the fact that you have 3 Hall of Famers on your roster. It doesn't matter that at least 2 don't know how to play defense, that all 3 need the ball to be effective, that all are getting old and that no NBA team with three players who averaged more than 20 ppg has ever won a title (and, believe me, this Celtics' team will be a bickering mess by the time the year's up). But, if you're Philadelphia, and all you really have is a B-list star in Andre Iguodala, you have to emphasize "old-time" basketball.

Picks.

Screens.

Boxing out.

Diving for loose balls.

Translated, it means that you don't have a nucleus to come close to winning a title and you have to appeal to nostalgia, which would be all well and good except, to my recollection, the NBA isn't marketing to people who really recall the great teams and players of the 1960's and 1970's. They don't want us, they want people who like the sizzle as much, if not more, than the steak.

So why Kyle Korver diving for loose balls?

The Phillies have the most exciting trio in the majors in Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard.

The Eagles have been a bellwether team for several years and have marquis players in Brian Westbrook, Donovan McNabb and Brian Dawkins.

The Flyers, at least, spend money on marquis players, even though they seemed to have let the game's evolution pass them by in that they haven't become as quick a team as they should have. But at least they spend the money.

And the 76ers? It's good to know that they're going to emphasize old-time basketball.

It's just a shame that the guys they're doing it with aren't named Chamberlain, Jackson, Walker, Jones and Greer, or Malone, Iavaroni, Erving, Toney, Cheeks and Jones (yes, you can't forget the 6th manon this team).

Good luck drawing fans, guys. With your combination of high ticket prices and a low-quality product, it will be a victory if you win 35 games and finish higher than 25th in the league in attendance.

But Kyle Korver will be diving for loose balls, so we got that going for us.

Which is nice.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Agony of Being a Phillies' Fan

Will the Phils come close for a third year in a row without making the playoffs? It seems to me that Phillies' fans aren't as juiced this year as they were the past two years, if only because the past two years' of history had left them with the expectations that the team won't make the playoffs this year. No one wants to leave his emotions open for three straight years and get disappointed three times in a row.

Last night's game gave them a golden opportunity to pull within one of the Mets, only to have their pitching blow up. Again.

That's this club's epitaph -- great bats, weak arms. They are a fun team to watch, but they can break your heart, too, if you're a fan. Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard deserve a better pitching staff than the one they've got.

Five more games, one behind the wild-card leader San Diego, tied with the red-hot Rockies.

It should be an interesting week.

Good Hit, No Fielder?

Aside from the cheap-shot jokes that they probably couldn't fit in the same room, it's probably not a good idea to put Prince Fielder in the same room with his father, Cecil. Read this and see what I mean.

How did things get this bad?

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Should the Phillies Re-Sign Aaron Rowand?

Mike Sielski, the best columnist people have never heard of -- for the Bucks County Courier Times -- suggests not.

His reasons are compelling, and you should read the whole thing. The potential non-signing has nothing to do with Rowand, his outstanding season or his leadership. It has everything to do with more glaring needs -- to fortify the team's starting pitching and bullpen and, also, to free up money to sign Ryan Howard to a long-term contract. Bottom line for the Phils is that the backup outfielders -- now that Pat Burrell has seemingly hit his way out of his funk -- are stronger than those who fill out the back of the bullpen roster. Put differently, the top four outfielders for the Phillies next year could well be Burrell, Shane Victorino, Jayson Werth and Michael Bourn. The latter two have acquitted themselves well this year. Antonio Alfonseca, Jose Mesa and Clay Condrey, among others, have not done so well (even if Alfonseca pitched well early in the season and Condrey has pitched pretty well recently, with one huge blowup notwithstanding).

The Phillies could make the playoffs this year, or they could miss them narrowly for the third straight year. If the latter scenario comes into fruition, look for the Phillies to spend money on the pitching staff to improve it. They'll have to, because despite Houston's new love affair with one-time Phils' GM Ed Wade, the farm system is barren when it comes to pitching. Help will have to come from elsewhere, and it won't come cheap. Most likely, it also won't be named Kyle Lohse (whom Scott Boras represents and who will ask for too much) or Freddy Garcia (who was the biggest heralded bust since Danny Tartabull fouled a ball off his foot in the first game of the season about 15-20 years ago, missed the entire season and then never played for the Phillies thereafter). Cole Hamels is your ace, Kyle Kendrick is good, and Jamie Moyer will be 45 years old. Adam Eaton is a bust, J.D. Durbin is inconsistent, and Kyle Lohse has been okay. To get over the top, the team will need to do better.

Even if it means letting Aaron Rowand sign with someone else for a 4-year deal at $8 million per.

Teddy Roosevelt Goes Oh for the Season

Today was the last home game for the Washington Nationals, and the fans were psyched for the last mid-game race of the presidents -- Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt. All were rooting for Teddy, who is oh for the races, which were begun last season.

The Nats' bullpen was psyched too, going so far as to emerge from their workspace to try -- to a man -- to physically restrain the Father of Our Country, the principal drafter of the Declaration of Independence and Honest Abe. The real problem was that Teddy didn't participate, so it was a three-person race. I forget who won, but the Nats' brass showed Teddy on the big screen, waving to the fans from the construction site that will be the new ballpark in 2008. Needless to say, the hometown crowd wasn't thrilled.

And while perhaps they have yet to fall in love with Ryan Zimmerman, Jon Rauch or Manny Acta, the Nats' faithful loves Teddy. So much so that after the race concluded and the other presidents were ushered off the field, the fans chanted "We want Teddy, we want Teddy."

Resoundingly so.

Great stuff in the world of mascots and attractions at a ballpark. The sausages in Milwaukee are cool, and so are the Presidents in D.C. And, there's a link between the two -- as someone once said, "Democracy and sausage are both similar -- you don't want to see either of them made."

Indeed.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Funny Comment in Madden 2008

I was playing my son tonight in Madden 2008. He had San Diego, I had New England.

The game was close at half time (I might have been up by a field goal), and I received the opening kickoff in the second half. On the second play from scrimmage, I picked up a blitz and Tom Brady hit Randy Moss for a 60-yard touchdown.

During the replay, the color commentator, John Madden, said the following: "This team is always good at making adjustments after halftime. They always seem to be a step ahead of the other team."

Ahem.

Given the revelations of the past month or so, it could well be that we now know the real reason why.

Just goes to show you that sometimes there is truth behind conventional broadcasting language.

A step ahead, or a few plays ahead?

You be the judge.

Will Teddy Roosevelt Ever Win a Race?

In Milwaukee, they have sausage races.

In Washington, D.C., once a game the mascots -- the Presidents -- Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt -- race after one of the early innings (it might be mid-third, but don't hold me to it). The wins are somewhat evenly distributed among Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln, but Teddy Roosevelt has never won a race.

Not a one.

Never.

Now you could understand that this could have happened to a Benjamin Harrison, James Buchanan or Warren Harding, but Teddy Roosevelt? The guy was tough as nails and competitive as all get out. Seems to me that if they held these races in real life, Teddy would have one at least one of them.

Don't think for a moment, though, that the 'ol railsplitter, Honest Abe, would have been a pushover here. He was country strong, that Abe Lincoln was, and as a young man won many a contest that involved a feat of strength. Washington didn't become the leader of the Continental Army by being a wimp, and Jefferson was brilliant enough that he would have found a way to win.

Anyway, the Teddy Roosevelt watch is on at SportsProf. Should Teddy win, well, it's not like Appalachian State over Michigan in Ann Arbor, but he'll snap a long losing streak.

Perhaps next year, though, when the Nats play in their new park. They have one more game in RFK (tomorrow), and then that's it.

It says here that when the Nats usher in their new park, Teddy wins the first race of the year.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Stunned, in Philadelphia, at least

How many were somewhat shocked when the reeling Houston Astros named Ed Wade, former GM of the Phillies, as their new GM? The Philadelphia sports columnists apparently were, because they're not shy, especially in the Daily News. Their silence is deafening, either because they're too excited about the Phillies third-straight dalliance with the playoffs (we'll start calling the boundary that prevents them from getting in the "Manuel Line" if they don't break through this year) or they're too concerned about the Philadelphia Eagles' 0-2 start against 2 teams most thought they would have beaten going into the season. Yes, the Philadelphia papers reported the news, but that's all they did.

Meanwhile, here's the take from Houston, which, naturally, is strongly linking Wade to the harvesting of guys like Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins. Which means that Houston fans could get giddy over the inking of Wade, who arguably helped create the best nucleus of players anywhere in baseball. Yes, in a few magical years, the Astros should be contending for the World Series. It's that simple, right?

Not so fast. Houston fans, remember this: Wade was excoriated in Philadelphia, and during his eight-year tenure the Phillies didn't make the playoffs. At one time at the end of his tenure, Wade said that he thought that all went well except for the fact that they didn't make the playoffs. Huh? Wasn't that what he was supposed to be there for? Having been a Philadelphia sports fan and observer for over four decades, I can safely say that his departure was met with about as much enthusiasm as any since the days that Eagles' fans booed Joe Kuharich out of the City of Brotherly Love. In the late 1960's.

There were a few reasons for this, all of them professional. Wade didn't help his cause when he came across like a needing-to-be-rescued basset hound before the media. More than that, though, he never pulled the trigger on a big move before the trading deadline or did a lot to help his team in the off-season. He drafted J.D. Drew after Scott Boras (and I'm not taking sides here) told Wade that the Phillies shouldn't draft the former Florida State star because he didn't want to go to Philadelphia -- that left the Phillies without a key #1 pick at a time when they were rebuilding. The Phillies lost out there (even if Drew is more the next Fred Lynn than the next Manny Ramirez). He let Curt Schilling and Scott Rolen go in plum awful trades that yielded next to nothing for the Phillies. While his drafts did yield guys like Utley and Howard, the Phillies have one of the worst farm systems in baseball and perenially did under his watch. Utley and Howard more are testimony to the notion that every now and then any organization can come up with gems rather than evidence that Wade's crew accomplished these feats year in and year out (they didn't). Moreover, the Phillies during his tenure failed, for the most part, to develop pitching depth at significant levels. Yes, Wade gets a kudo for drafting Cole Hamels, but other than Hamels the drafts were pretty lean.

The articles about Wade's hiring basically have said that Wade has his baseball roots in Houston and is returning to them, and that his hiring is proof about what a small world baseball really is. But it's a mistaken world, too, if the Astros actually believe that Wade is the best candidate out there. Eight years in Philadelphia with no playoff appearances are hard to dispute, and it's also hard to give Wade credit for the Phillies' performance of the past two seasons (since he's been gone). And, while Charlie Manuel has done a decent job skippering the ship, Wade did pass on Jim Leyland (who wanted the job) when he hired Manuel, and all Leyland did was solve Detroit's riddle and lead them to their first World Series appearance in 22 years. Overall, his was not a legacy that suggests he'll succeed in Houston. Ed Wade had a very good shot in his eight years at Philadelphia, and his tenure just doesn't measure up.

Why do so many coaches and front-office people get recycled? Jim Fregosi managed the Angels and then managed the Phillies in the early 90's, struck lightning with the '93 team, and overall fizzled. Somehow, he surfaced several years later in Toronto, didn't do well, and then, after that, was rumored to be a candidate for the Giants' job at a time when it wasn't clear when the ownership was sold on Felipe Alou. That, too, was puzzling. There are always up-and-coming candidates. Someone gave a young Tony LaRussa his first chance, and he turned into a Hall of Fame manager. Same with Joe McCarthy years ago. Why recycle people who haven't done it?

Somewhere, out there, an assistant GM who will build champions got passed over and has to be scratching his head. It may be Ruben Amaro, Jr., who is an Assistant GM with the Phillies and who might be Pat Gillick's successor in the Soft Pretzel Capital of the World once the incumbent, Pat Gillick, steps down (Amaro, a Wade protege, was happy for his former boss, who is godfather to one of Amaro's kids). It may be an Assistant GM in Arizona, Colorado, Milwaukee, New York, Cleveland or Los Angeles, denied his (or her) first shot.

Sorry, Houston, but you still have a problem, and the hiring of Ed Wade won't solve it.

Just ask the millions of Philadelphia fans who are happy that he is gone.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Three Important Lessons from a Baseball Game

There were 3 unlikely heroes in last night's Phillies' game: the last position player on the bench whom most fans view as a mistaken free agent signing, a reliever who should get the Duncan yo-yo endorsement for most times being yanked up and down from the majors to AAA during a season, and a promising fourth outfielder who had trouble seeing the ball early in the contest.

The Phillies beat the Cards in 14 last night, 7-4, leaving themselves 1.5 games behind the Mets in the NL East and 1.5 games behind the Padres for the wild card. They're either on the verge of a great finish that will enable them to make the playoffs or they'll finish as the fifth best team in the NL for the third year in a row, narrowly missing the playoffs. All that said, they're fun to watch, a team with a World Series-caliber position playing lineup and a pitching staff that could give Six Flags' best roller coaster a run for its money.

Last night, the Phillies went into the top of the 14th tied at 4 with the Cardinals. Chase Utley was on second, Aaron Rowand on first, with two outs. Because of a double switch earlier in the game, it was the pitcher's turn to bat. The Phillies had one position player left on the bench, reserve catcher, Rod Barajas. Barajas was signed as a free agent in the off-season and handed the starting catcher's job, which he promptly lost to both second-year player Carlos Ruiz and the Disney movie waiting to happen, second-year player Chris Coste, who made the majors for the first time last season at the age of 33. Barajas was put on the DL about a month or so ago with an NBA-type of injury, came off without much fanfare, and has hardly played. Needless to say, when I saw him come up to the plate, I figure that the Phillies' bullpen would need to hold -- again -- to survive for the 15th inning.

I was wrong. Barajas, ever the professional, was ready for his moment, smacked a hard single to right center driving in a sprinting Utley to make the score 5-4. It was a clutch piece of a hitting for a team that knew that the Mets had collapsed against the Nationals in DC earlier that night and a win could put them within 1.5 games of first in the NL East. What a lesson Barajas taught us all -- that a true teammate stands ready to play whenever he is called upon. Barajas did just that.

Then there was Werth, who had left 6 men on base and struck out twice in key situations earlier in the evening. Werth is playing a lot in right because he's had a hot bat and because the incumbent, Shane Victorino, still hasn't fully recovered from an injury to his calf that he sustained in July. Werth followed Barajas to the plate with the opportunity to give the Phillies a few insurance runs. Showing that a short memory is key for a good hitter, Werth hit a tailing line drive a few feet inside the first-base foul line that made it was to the rightfield corner. Two runs scored, and the Phils were up 7-4.

Enter Clay Condrey, the reliever who should win the Puddle Jumper Airlines' Man of the Year award for how much he's rode the shuttle to and from Ottawa, home of the Phils' AAA farm club. Condrey also demonstrated what a professional he is, because the night before he let in 5 runs in relief en route to an almost-disaster for the Phils, who held on to win 13-11. He pitched a strong final inning for his first career save (and was about the 8th Phillies' reliever to notch a save this year). Condrey obviously blocked out the horrors of his Monday night performance and came up with a key inning last night.

And the Phillies' bullpen came up with the following stats last night:

11 IP
6 H
1 R
1 ER
2 BB
8 K.

A great job by an oft-maligned (deservedly so at many intervals) group.

As for who's left to spell Jamie Moyer tonight, there are a few guys, that's for sure. But what wins championships for teams are not only the outstanding day-in, day-out performances of the Utleys, Rollins and Howards, but also the lesser publicized efforts of guys who many fans probably forget 5 years after they leave town, the Barajases, Condreys and Werths. And while that may be, let's remember this: last night, when it really mattered, they played like Hall of Famers.

All of us should take stock in what Rod Barajas, Clay Condrey and Jayson Werth accomplished last night. All have taken many knocks this season, and all bounced back to make the most of their opportunities last night. That's a great measure of a player and a person -- not only basking in the good times, but getting up after the bad ones.

The 14-inning game was exciting, and the Phils provided a few extra lessons in the final innings.

Stop Snitchin' is the Credo in the NFL

at least among coaches.

Okay, it's really not the same thing as people who live in innercity neighborhoods who are strongly encouraged not to cooperate with the police and prosecutors. NFL coaches and front offices will cooperate with the league when asked or else they'll find themselves without draft icks or in some doghouse somewhere. But then again, they don't find themselves going to the authorities when they see bad things happening, or, at least, that's what the credo about Peter King writes in Sports Illustrated this week.

What do you think? Should teams tell the league about other teams' transgressions or should they try to work it out amongst themselves?

Well, two teams last year did call the Patriots last season on what's now become the most publicized fascination with tape since the Nixon Administration and Watergate, and, guess what? It apparently didn't work, because the Pats continued their tried and true old tricks this year. Perhaps they did promise two NFC teams whom they won't see again for a while that they won't illegally tape events in the future. But perhaps they didn't say they wouldn't do it again, period. If that's the case, do you have a choice? Don't you turn them in because they were warned?

Rex Ryan, the defensive coordinator for the Ravens and Buddy's son, makes the most sense when he says that coaches should spend their time on how to beat the other team rather than how to disguise their signals. He's absolutely right about that.

When, or how, will this scandal finally go away?

Well, here's one solution. O.J. Simpson did make bail, and he allegedly has a weapon, so there's no telling what he might do. As Dustin Hoffman's character in "Wag the Dog" said about a president whose administration was in trouble and needed a distraction, "What we need now is a pageant."

Indeed.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Truth of the Matter. . .

is that if you're a Philadelphia Phillies' fan, no lead is safe.

I went to bed last night with the Phillies holding an 11-3 lead over the Cardinals. I went to bed hoping that the bullpen would be good enough to hold onto the lead.

Seriously.

Ask a Phillies' fan, anywhere, and he'd tell you the same thing -- that no lead is safe.

I wasn't surprised when I read in the morning's paper that they held on to win -- 13-11 (they had led 11-0).

Such is the life of a Phillies' fan. You have a position player lineup that is capable of winning the World Series. And you have a pitching staff that is capable of winning the Little League World Series. Okay, that's a bit harsh, but it's been like this all year in the City of Brotherly Love. The hometown nine are fun to watch, there's no disputing that. But those under a cardiologist's care should not watch the game from the 6th inning on or when either J.D. Durbin or Adam Eaton is the starting pitcher, for that matter.

The Problem That Just Can't Get Solved That Easily

The nation loves its football. It's the national pastime now, and there are many factors as to why it has eclipsed baseball. Here are a few suggestions:

1. Media advancements have made it a much more exciting game to watch than baseball, especially on television.

2. It's very easy to bet on, and, at heart, many of us like a good wager that's easily discernible. You can't bet on baseball that easily, and it's more a question of the odds you get than a point spread, and Americans love their point spreads.

3. It's violent, and our society has become more violent, so instead of hitting our neighbors who mow their lawns at 8:30 a.m. on a Saturday we want our hometown gladiators to maul the guys from Dallas. (Okay, so that argument would bode well for hockey, which isn't nearly as popular as football). Still, there's some appeal to this logic.

4. The baseball strike of 1994, where they actually canceled the World Series, opened the door for football to become more popular because the NFL didn't have the labor strife that MLB did. Many sports fans were very angry with baseball for years.

5. The NFL's salary cap gives every team a chance to rebound and rebuild very quickly, whereas, well, the lack of a salary cap has rendered Pittsburgh and Kansas City, among other clubs, perennial doormat status in Major League Baseball.

I actually don't know what the root cause is/was/has been of football's great rise, but that rise has come at a historic cost that is the very sad underbelly of the NFL and, for that matter, all of football -- the permanently injured. Read this article about recent testimony before Congress on the frustrating issue of making sure that injured retirees don't end up living in squalor because they don't have sufficient funds to address their medical needs, some of which are substantial. After all, most of us don't make our living hefting weight or colliding with people, and those who do start playing at 7 and some don't finish until they're 32 (while many never play in college, many who play in college don't play in the pros and many pros don't play more than a handful of games). That said, there are about 2 decades worth of violent, bone-jarring collisions replete with breaks, strains, sprains, dislocations, pinched nervers, concussions and the like that are serious injuries. Put differently, the heroes of their prime could be the same guys you see limping into an old timers' day.

It's with great hope that the NFL owners and teams and television networks will pony up to make sure that the players are well provided for. Americans derive great joy from the sport, but the costs are very high -- the wreckage of bodies and lives resulting from the long-term damage the game does to people. That price is too much for any of us to bear.

And that leads to another question -- will people be playing the game in 50 years? On the pro side, the medical advancements and equipment should be much better. On the con side, the evolution of man is such that you could have 6'5", 300-pound linebackers running 4.5 second 40-yard dashes colliding with running backs who are 2/3 their size. What happens then? And to those players 20 years after they retire? How much of the "All Jacked Up" film do we want to see on ESPN? Will society say the game is too violent -- or will it want more and more?

Let's hope that the players' union, the league and the owners resolve this bad problem soon and well. The retired players deserve better than they get. I'm not assigning blame here, because some say that the union hasn't represented the players well enough in this regard and others say that the teams haven't cared enough. The bottom line is that we're talking about players who have played hard and made great sacrifices for the hometown team. Whether or not the game is wise is another story, but given its popularity today, the league and the union should make this issue their top priority.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

You Couldn't Make The First Two and a Half Quarters Up

Last night, in Princeton, the defending Ivy co-champs hosted Lehigh for their first game of the season. In the first two and a half quarters, the Tigers proceeded to do the following (and if you wrote this as a part of a script, few would have believed it):

1. Lose a fumble on the first play from scrimmage.

2. Throw two interceptions (one on a tipped ball, the other on a bad throw).

3. Muff a punt (ball was rolling slowly to the Tiger returner, with Lehigh coverage guys right on him, and he pulled a Philadelphia Eagle stunt and muffed the ball), with Lehigh recovering it.

4. Had a punt blocked in their own end zone for a safety (the snap was from about the Tigers' one yard-line, and the punter never had a chance. He made a great play by falling on the ball and preventing a Lehigh TD); and

5. A kick returner failed to run under a short kick, letting it bounce, and, again, Lehigh covered the kick well and recovered it.

The final score was 32-21, Lehigh, but the game wasn't that close. The Tiger team as a whole looked unprepared for the game -- from the coaches to the offense to the special teams. In fairness to the defense, while Lehigh looked quicker, they were on the field so much they had to be exhausted. It was a bad night overall for a team that came into the season with so much promise.

That said, one game doesn't a season make, and the best you can say is that the Tigers got out the rust and cobwebs from the off-season and will leave these mistakes behind and excel in their next nine games. Of course, if the first game is a harbinger of things to come, it could be a long season. It's way too early to pass judgment on the Tiger squad, but last night was a bad game for Princeton.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Why Wasn't Bill Belichick Suspended?

Good stuff on ESPN Radio this morning regarding the Tape Worm that New England has afflicted the NFL with. Chris Mortensen reported that he spoke with 6 NFL teams, and half thought the punishment was okay and half thought it wasn't enough. I agree with Mortensen that it might not have been enough, especially since the Pats have two first-round picks in the 2008 NFL draft -- their own and San Francisco's.

And I'll go one further. . . why wasn't Belichick suspended?

Fine him $500,000 -- he can afford it.

Fine the team $250,000 -- it will hardly hurt their bottom line.

Strip them of draft picks depending on whether they'll make the playoffs -- they're such good drafters, the league didn't take enough picks away.

But take Belichick out of the building for an entire season?

That would get people talking.

No coaching input.

No drafting input.

Put him on his house in Martha's Vineyard and make him watch HSN and HGTV and write reports on the evolution of "The Andy Griffith Show" as it appears on TVLand. Put him to work, yes, okay, for a better cause (such as leading a one-year task force to reduce injuries in the NFL and to increase the lifespans of former players), but keep him out of coaching.

That would send a message -- to owners, to players, to front-office people, to fans -- that the NFL is most serious as to how it treats transgressors. Because recently, it has send conflicting messages. Cheat on substances if you're a player, and you could miss anywhere from four games to a season depending on the circumstances. Cheat on the fundamentals of good sportsmanship -- taping other teams' signals, allegedly wiring defensive linemen, causing teams headsets to not work at New England's home stadium -- and you get fined but you still get to do what you love. Pac-Man Jones acts like a total goofball and embarrasses the league and he's out for a year. Bill Belichick doesn't throw $80k at strippers and causes a riot in the process, but he damages the foundation of the game. And he still gets to do what he loves. Many players have trouble regaining their form after missing a year, but coaches can sit out 15 years and win a Super Bowl (such as Dick Vermeil). How does that square?

I like the fact that Roger Goodell isn't bashful about being out in front of issues. He's gotten off to a great start and he's confronted some serious problems. That said, he should have whacked this coaching titan (however misanthropic he may be) much harder.

Sure, now, there will be speculation about the outcome of games that were played since Belichick has been in New England. Leo Durocher, who managed the NY baseball Giants to a miraculous comeback in the 1951 season (the one that led to Bobby Thomson's "Shot Heard Round the World" home run to win the three-game playoff against the Dodgers to get into the World Series), has been shown to be a cheater -- he had cameras in centerfield to steal the Dodgers' signs and posthumously has been vilified (it hasn't helped Leo's cause that he was much more of a rogue than most managers and coaches past and present were or are). What has Belichick perpetrated that's any different?

Not much, and I think that folks just find it hard to believe that this so-called coaching genius who went to Ivy-like Wesleyan University could have done any such thing. After all, he's the coaching genius, so it couldn't have happened, because the Pats won because Belichick is so brilliant and Tom Brady is so cool. Except that it did happen, and now fans and players and coaches will wonder about how New England's change of game plan in a second half was so perfect or why the headphones went out during a key drive and all of this other petty, parlor-trick stuff that's supposed to be reserved for the villians in Disney movies. And, naturally, speculation will turn to other successful teams as well. Were their victories so much that their coaches had them better prepared or that their coaches had wrongly obtained key information that was tantamount to stealing a playbook?

Bill Belichick has no one to blame but himself. He is a very smart and accomplished coach, but no one compelled him to breach the boundaries of the rule book and good sportsmanship the way that he did. Yes, we do admire those who play aggressively -- but within the limits. And, no, we don't remember the guys who act with dignity and stress fair play and lose (I happen to remember Illinois' Lou Tepper, but most people don't). Is that what it's come to -- cross the line and win or don't and be out of a job and forgotten?

Roger Goodell would have answered that question -- once and for all -- by enforcing a lengthy vacation for Mr. Belichick.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Annals of Bad Coaching Decisions: Greg Ryan, U.S. Women's Soccer

In Rocky IV, one of the worst "Rocky" movies and one where Sylvester Stallone got way too full of himself, improbably Soviet (yes, Soviet, and not Russian) fans started rooting for Rocky Balboa after he bloodied the steroid-fed and seemingly invincible Soviet champ Ivan Drago in a title match deep inside the Evil Empire.

Fast forward to today, where the North Korean women's team, a young, spritely bunch, played like attacking, aggressive Americans and the U.S. women's team, not the team per se but its coach, acted like a puppetmaster over such a dominant empire that he refused to believe his team was vulnerable and made the bonehead move of the sports week (which takes a lot given what went on in the NFL over the weekend). The U.S. women's team went into this game ranked Number 1 in the world, with the North Koreans #5. The North Koreans pushed the action in a scoreless first half in rainy conditions, only to have the U.S.'s star striker, Abby Wambach, score at the 50 minute mark to give the U.S. a 1-0 lead. To paraphrase from another famous sports movie, the U.S. women started playing "old-time soccer" right after the half. (Okay, so perhaps they didn't put on the foil).

And then a funny thing happened on the way to a victory. Wambach cut her head on a play near the U.S. goal on a set piece a few minutes later and went off -- but was not substituted for. Okay, she's one of the team's stars, but the cut was worse than expected. The U.S. coach didn't substitute for her, which meant that the U.S. played a woman down -- for over 10 minutes. (Ryan said in this article that he was told Wambach only would be off for a few minutes). During that time, the North Korean team smelled blood and played like their lives depended on winning, scoring two goals a few minutes apart. They attacked, they didn't relent, and they pushed hard (okay, so one of the goals resulted as much from so-so goaltending from U.S. goalie Hope Solo -- the ball hit her smack in the hands and then went over her head and into the goal as much as it was a great shot) and they took the lead. It took a heady play by U.S. midfielder Heather O'Reilly later in the game to tie it at 2, which is the way the game ended.

It was an exciting game, but make no mistake about it, the North Koreans were the aggressors. The U.S. looked like George Foreman on the end of Muhammad Ali's rope-a-dope strategy, flat, a step slow, lunging at balls, playing without much verve, not looking confident. No, U.S. fans didn't switch sides and root for North Korea, but the team that showed U.S.-like grit and determination wasn't wearing the red-white-and-blue. It was wearing red.

Which is what U.S. fans should be seeing. Greg Ryan blundered for certain. You can't simply give a world class World Cup team a person advantage for 10 minutes and expect to get away with it. Sure, Wambach is a star, but you have derived your team from a country of 300 million people, so the substitutes, after all of the competition, should be pretty good -- and eager to show that they deserve more playing time.

One more thing -- the broadcasting wasn't very good at all. Neither Julie Foudy doing the color commentary nor Heather Mitts doing the analysis in the studio added much this morning. Both are still too close to the U.S. program and players to be objective, and while Foudy was constructive at times, she didn't at all address Greg Ryan's coaching decision regarding Wambach. How could you miss something so obvious -- it was a key part of the game, it had to be addressed, and she whiffed. Also, she commented on the U.S. team's 47-game unbeaten streak and said that it would have been good for this team to have lost before the World Cup so that they would have learned how to bounce back and handle adversity. That's an interesting point, but how far before the World Cup? Two years, two months? There's a huge difference. This team needed to come into the World Cup with full confidence it could beat anyone -- and winning -- not losing -- usually does that.

Let's chalk this one up to a bad day all around. That said, the going won't get any easier for the U.S. team. They now play #3 Sweden, which tied Nigeria today, 1-1.

Bird Brains

Okay, so kids today don't use that expression to say that something is stupid.

I once heard a good coach say that while it's good to learn from your own mistakes (hopefully relatively small ones), it's better to learn from the other team's mistakes. Which is precisely what Andy Reid and the Philadelphia Eagles did not do this past off-season. And, worse, they didn't learn from the big mistakes of the baseball team that dwells right across the street from them.

Flash back to the past baseball off-season, where everyone in Philadelphia knew that the Phillies needed to upgrade their bullpen. They failed to do so, signing only an overweight Antonio Alfonseca and hoping that a bunch of guys who couldn't make the Last-Chance Hotel's team would have a puncher's chance to form a good 'pen and lead the Phillies to a playoff berth (as the hometown nine just missed making the post-season in each of the past two seasons). So what happened this season? Pat Gillick's failure to act led to a bullpen that blundered more than the Larry and Curly in "The Three Stooges," and the Phillies might "just miss" making the playoffs for a third year running.

Even if you're holed up as a grad student in Penn's physics lab you've got to know that the Phillies have bullpen problems and had them going into the season.

Which means that the jocks at the NovaCare Complex and Lincoln Financial Field had to know about this too. I mean, they're sports fans, and some of them actually have some free time to watch baseball. So, analogously. . .

Going into the season, the Eagles' return game was sub-par. So, you would have figured that they would have done something to buttress it, and they did. First, they signed Bethel Johnson, and, second, they hoped that their fifth-round pick from two years ago, Jeremy Bloom, could do the trick. These hopes, by the way, turned out to be as good as the Phillies' signing Antonio Alfonseca (who, by the way, had some good moments this season before they tired him out, which is more than you can so for Johnson and Bloom combined). Johnson was cut after the spring mini-camp, and Bloom did nothing to distinguish himself in training camp, thereby taking the bloom off the punt return game.

Which meant that the Eagles were caught flat-footed. They cut bloom too, and they asked a couple of guys who hadn't returned punts before to return them at the season's outset -- Greg Lewis and J.R. Reed. It would be one thing if you asked your best athlete on your HS team to add this job description to his already full load of RB, FS and kickoff returner, but this is the best football league in the world where specialization is everything. I mean, the Bears have Devin Hester, and while we don't expect to have our returners be that good, at least they should know when to call a fair catch and when not to dive for a ball during a fair catch.

But Lewis didn't do the former, Reed didn't do the latter, and their muffs cost the Eagles 10 points and the game. Okay, so the offense looked sluggish, but the D looked good and the Birds should have won the game.

I mean, losing a game on 2 muffed punts in the NFL? Even the lowest-ranked DI teams probably catch the ball on punts. Yes, we're talking Temple, Rice, Stanford. . .

All because the front office failed to act in the off-season and failed to learn from the failures of the baseball team across the street, to wit: if you have a gaping problem, acting decisively to fill it, or other market forces will fill it for you -- with bad results.

It's one thing to make a play call that doesn't work, call a blitz, or miss a 53-yard field goal.

It's another thing to show up for your opening game unprepared.