Friday, January 25, 2008

Buying the hype, selling the fertilizer

Just some random thoughts as we go into Super Bowl week...

There has been a lot of talk about the non-story of Tom Brady's ankle. If Brady was carted off the field after his ankle was rolled on in the game against the Chargers eight days ago, I would be concerned. But today I see it as a non-story.

In 2001 Brady was lifted from the AFC Championship Game against the Steelers when his ankle was twisted under him in the first half. Drew Bledsoe came in and marched the Patriots down the field for a score and captained the Patriots to victory, creating a quarterback controversy going into the game against the Rams a week later. A WEEK LATER.

This year Brady has had two weeks to recover and never had to be removed from the Chargers game. As a matter of fact, he was 7 for 7 passing after the sprain. He was 15 of 26 before.

Thought two -

The New York Giants are the chic pick among a lot of the pundits. So much so that I think I have heard more of the national talking heads pick the Giants than the Patriots. The reasoning - they have the defense and the running game to cause the Patriots problems...or...The Patriots have to lose sometime...or...The bye helps the Giants to plan for the Patriots...or...Look who the Giants had to beat to get there. The Patriots had an easier road...or...Because of what they did against the Patriots in the final regular season game, the Giants know they can win.

I don't know that I would lay money on the Patriots, given the spread. However, I think the Patriots are the likely winners in this contest.

Yes, the Giants have a great running game, but so did Dallas, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, and Pittsburgh. And yes, the Giants D has been great, particularly in the post-season. However, the last time I checked, neither Bays - Green and Tampa - have the offensive weapons of the Patriots, and neither does Dallas (and for anyone who wants to try to argue that, tell me - who would you really rather have at QB? Romo or Brady?).

Then there's this -

In his time with the Patriots, Belichick is 24-4 when facing the same QB for the second time in a season (I might be off on that number, but I think it's right). Coughlin is 1-3 following a bye with the Giants. Belichick is 13-7 (including with the Browns) after a bye, but has won his last ten straight.

As for who the Patriots beat - the Jaguars, according to the talking heads, were supposed to be the strong defensive team with the powerful running game that was supposed to topple the Patriots from their perch. Now they're a "who did the Patriots really beat" team.

Everyone out of New England is talking about how the Colts would have given the Patriots a better game, but they struggled mightily against the banged up Chargers team that eventually faced the Pats.

As for the last point. The bottom line is that the Giants couldn't hold the Patriots off late in the game, and then Eli turned the ball over at the least opportune of times while trying to mount a late drive.

I'm not saying that the Giants don't have a chance. I just don't see solid logic behind the reasoning that I'm hearing from those predicting a New York win. I do think it's gonna be a helluva game.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Smoke and mirrors

Rings don't mean what they once did.

It used to be that multiple Super Bowl rings translated into...stronger consideration for Canton. Dynasty translated into a stronger case for enshrinement.

This is how football's dynasties stack up with players that made the Hall - The Cowboys of the 1970's have close to a ten-spot's worth of HoFers, and the 1990's team had at least three (when Emmitt Smith gets inducted). The Green Bay teams of the 1960's had close to a dozen. The Dolphins, who went to three Super Bowls in the early 1970's have seven. The Steelers of the 1970's have ten, not including ownership. The 49ers of the 1980's through early 1990's have four, not including Jerry Rice, who's not yet eligible.

Even the four Super Bowl loss Bills have Jim Kelly, James Lofton, Thurman Thomas, coach Marv Levy, and Bruce Smith is considered to be a lock when he becomes eligible next year, giving those Bills five.

Why do I bring this up, one might ask.

With the Patriots on course to possibly win their fourth Super Bowl in seven years (only the Steeers of the 1970's have won as many championships in as short a period with four in six years), the talking heads will, invariably, talk about the great teams of all time. With that discussion comes the talk of Hall of Famers.

Taking off the fan hat, most pundits seem to agree that the only sure-fire candidates from the previous Super Bowl winning teams currently on the Patriots are Bill Belichick and Tom Brady (Randy Moss is pretty likely to get in). In past seasons, the only other name that came up with regularity was Adam Vinatieri.

Vinatieri was a great kicker - arguably the most clutch kicker in the game during the run of three Super Bowls in four seasons. But he suffers from being a kicker trying to work his way into a Hall that annually has a log-jam of worthy candidates due to the rules that limit how many candidates can enter in a year - which includes places taken by owners, commissioners, and other contributors who weren't necessarily on the field. Those off the field contributors often bump deserving players. It's why only one kicker has ever made it in, and why Vinatieri will have trouble getting in.

As for Moss - first, this is possibly his only season with the team. Second, there are a lot of Hall voters that will hold his time in Oakland against him - and rightfully so. He dogged it for two seasons, and that's not what great players...difference makers, do. He will get in, but he won't get a free-pass to Canton.

All of this begs a question, though. What's the standard? Is it putting up great stats? Is it coming up big in the big games?

Consider - Peyton Manning is considered a sure-fire Hall-of-Famer. He should be. He has been one of the most prolific offensive forces throughout his career. Sure, he's had Hall-of-Fame caliber receivers, running backs, and linemen around him, but he has generally been less than stellar in the post-season, riding to his only Super Bowl win on the back of a resurgent defense last year.

Richard Seymour has been mentioned in the past, but his injury issues in recent seasons has seriously hurt his chances.

The Patriots have a variety of players who have come up big in the post-season, or in order to seal the team's trip to the post-season, but do not have Hall-type numbers.

At different times throughout their Super Bowl runs, the Patriots have ridden the likes of Kevin Faulk, Tedy Bruschi, Troy Brown, and Ty Law.

Law has a legitimate shot, but could be hurt by the tail end of his career. Law was one of the best corners in the game for a stretch, but was it a long enough stretch?

Bruschi habitually has come up big at the right time, but will be hurt by the fact that few have ever considered him one of the top five inside/middle linebackers of this era - generally getting ranked behind Ray Lewis, Zach Thomas, Derrick Brooks, Brian Urlacher, and when they were at their peak in Pittsburgh, Levon Kirkland, and even Chad Brown. This is in spite of what we have seen he really means to that defense - anybody else remember what it was like when he was out because of the stroke?

Troy Brown regularly made the third-and-long conversion that kept the chains moving, recovered a blocked kick against the Steelers in a playoff game, returning it to mid-field where he lateraled the ball when about to be tackled - translating into seven more points in a close game.

Now Kevin Faulk is filling the Troy Brown roll. Coming up big when a big play is needed.

None of these players, however, are likely to make the Hall. Leaving the only long-timers as the Brady-Belichick tandem - making one think that the Patriots have won all their Super Bowls with smoke and mirrors.

On a lighter note - from my father, the Iggles fan (one that I have heard before, but am always amused by) -

Three quarterbacks, Peyton Manning, Brett Farve, and Tom Brady, go to heaven to visit God and watch the Celtics play a game. God decides who will sit next to him by asking the boys a question...

God asks Peyton Manning first: "What do you believe?" Peyton thinks long and hard, looks God in the eye, and says, "I believe in hard work, and in staying true to family and friends. I believe in giving. I was lucky, but I always tried to do right by my fans." God can't help but see the essential goodness of Manning, and offers him a seat to his left.

Then God turns to Brett Farve and says, "What do you believe?" Brett says, "I believe passion, discipline, courage and honor are the fundamentals of life. I, too, have been lucky, but win or lose, I've always tried to be a true sportsman, both on and off the playing fields." God is greatly moved by Brett's sincere eloquence, and he offers him a seat to his right.

Finally, God turns to Tom Brady: "And you, Tom, what do you believe?" Tom replies, "I believe you're in my seat."

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Between a rock and a hard case

Football players sacrifice their bodies for a lot of reasons. For many it's the large salaries, for some it's the love of the game, and for others it's the glory that a championship brings. They sacrifice their health and well being. They put a lot on the line.

They are professional sports' tough guys (face it, hockey players are tougher, but that's only because they're certifiably insane - it' not the same thing as just being tough).

Players garner reputations for toughness and durability. Brett Favre has played in every game since he got his first a leather helmet. At least it feels like that's when he got his first start. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning also have started every game since starting - in spite of being banged up. Drew Bledsoe won consecutive games with a pin holding together the tip of his index finger on his throwing hand (and he wasn't leading those comebacks by handing the ball off). He even tried to come back into the now famous Jets game after shearing an artery in his chest (sure, he wasn't in his right mind, but you get the point).

Hall-of-Fame Rams defensive end Jack Youngblood famously played in the NFC Championship game and subsequently Super Bowl XIV with a stress fracture in his left leg. Lawrence Taylor and Emmitt Smith were both major factors in playoff games for their respective teams while each played with a separated shoulder. Terrell Davis famously suffers from debilitating migraines, and had one during Super Bowl XXXII. According to Davis it was so bad that he had trouble seeing. It didn't stop him from lining up, if for nothing else, as a decoy in Denver's backfield.

Recently Antonio Gates and Philip Rivers, both listed as questionable and game-time decisions for the Chargers' loss to the Patriots in this past weekend's AFC Championship game, toughed out the game in the hopes of landing that Super Bowl berth.

Why? Because opportunities to get to the Super Bowl are rare. Many players never get there. Half the teams in the NFL have never won a Super Bowl. Eleven teams account for 35 of the 41 titles. Approximately 18 percent of the league's teams haven't even played in the game.

Dan Marino lost in the big game in his rookie year, and then never got 17 seasons. Linebacker Clay Matthews played for 19 seasons and never made it. Neither did quarterback Vinny Testaverde in his 21 seasons.

As Ron Jaworski is fond of noting - winning in the NFL is hard.

It's why so many of these players play hurt. They believe they give their team the best chance of winning.

Which brings us to LaDainian Tomlinson.

Tomlinson is catching a lot of flack for being on the sideline while his team put up field goal after field goal in Sunday's match-up with the Patriots. He might be as injured as he is now claiming, however, that doesn't mean he doesn't deserve to be called out by the former players that are now part of the entertainment machine that is sports journalism (and when your toughness is questioned by Deion Sanders...well that's just sad).

Tomlinson is defending himself, saying he was no better than 50 percent and that he felt that the healthy duo of Michael Turner and Darren Sproles gave the Chargers the best chance to win. He can defend himself in this manner all he wants - but he dug himself this hole. HE told the team doctors in the days leading up to the game that he was well enough to be taken off of the injury report. HE told the press that he was 90 percent in the days leading up to the game. So, either HE lied to the doctors, press, and San Diego fans in the days leading up to the game, or HE's lying now in order to deflect criticism.

Either way, he deserves to be questioned...deserves to take the hit, so to speak - whether for his toughness, or for unrealistically raising the expectations of the San Diego fans and teammates.

One thing's for sure - it appears that it would have taken being in a wheelchair or on crutches to keep his injured teammates off the field. And, hell, Rivers had [arthroscopic] knee surgery surgery six days before the game.

Tomlinson best get used to being criticized for this one, because it's not going to stop.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Tiki the difference maker

Last season we heard from Tiki Barber - often - on how bad a coach Tom Coughlin is. It continued through this year in a book he published, accusing Coughlin as being the reason for Barber going into an early retirement.

Barber was considered by many (outside the locker room) to be the leader of the Giants. We heard and read a lot about the Giants being "Tiki's team."

Barber criticized the head coach, and his quarterback.

To a man, the Giants that have publicly responded, blasted Barber.

Under Barber, Eli Manning showed little to no signs of progression from his rookie year until...well, until Barber left. This is largely the same team that Barber left.

Yet now they click.

Interesting that not a single former Giant teammate of Barber's has come to his defense, but they have all rallied around their coach and their quarterback. Even Terrell Owens, a noted locker room cancer, still had (public) supporters in the San Francisco and Philadelphia locker rooms after burning those bridges with nuclear devices. Barber has had none. Zero. Zip. Not one former teammate has come out and said anything even vaguely like, "look, Tiki's a good guy and a friend. He's not here this season, so he doesn't know how Eli, or Coach are this season," or even, "based on his experience here the last couple of seasons, Tiki's not saying anything that's not true, but it's a different atmosphere this year."

But none of that happened.

Instead, the biggest difference that Barber has made for the Giants this season was to take his divisive, malcontent attitude out of the mix.

Interestingly enough, the team got even better when their trash-talking, injury-prone tight-end ended his season on the injury list. The two biggest trash talkers (sure, Barber didn't talk trash so much about the opponents as he did his own team) on the team either leave or have absence enforced on them and the Giants get better and are headed to the Super Bowl. Coincidence? I think not.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Dante's Inferno

The New England Patriots are Super Bowl bound.

On an evening when the Patriots were facing the league's seventh ranked rushing attack, being led by uber-back-up Michael Turner, it was the Patriots running game that ran roughshod. The Chargers rushed for 104 yards.

The much maligned Laurence Maroney rushed for 122, and the team for 149. In the second half, after Tom Brady struggled, the Pats turned to a short passing game featuring Kevin Faulk and their running game. Over 100 of Maroney's yards came in the second half.

In essence, they put the game in the hands of Dante Scarnecchia's boys. The 38-year offensive line coach, and assistant head coach is the team's longest tenured coach, and has cobbled together lines that got the team to the Super Bowl with street free-agents, and no-names like Russ Hochstein and Brandon Gorin.

His offensive line took over the game, mauling the vaunted Chargers defensive line. Stephen Neal and Logan Mankins absolutely manhandled defenders at the point of attack, the Seans were effectively eliminated by Matt Light and Nick Kazcur while Dan Koppen neutralized the big body in the middle.

This game was won in the trenches.

And Maroney didn't waste the gift, punishing any defender daring to make a tackle - once knocking one five yards down field and out of bounds.

Welcome to Dante's Inferno. It won't get any easier for whoever the opponent is in Arizona.

Oh...and by the way....

Eat it Mercury.