Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Placebo Effect

I don't have any particular issue, as a whole, with the government trying to get to the bottom of a variety of issues in professional sports. There are issues which demand government intervention, and issues which don't.

When athletes, ownership, or front offices cross the line into the illegal, violate federal or state statute...that's when government intervention becomes appropriate.

But sometimes the timing brings into questions the motives of the government officials that are attacking the issues in professional sports quite so fervently.

Based on the timing of a number of even the legitimate issues being addressed by legislators, both liberal and conservative, everything from steroids to cheating is nothing more than a political placebo, the Prestige of a group of second rate magicians that try to distract while they make our education system disappear under a handkerchief. It was the strategy of the Bush Administration during the last election, distract with an inconsequential issue, keep the public from paying attention to a degrading system of education, a health care crisis, and the erosion of the EPA and corporate restraints.

W and his advisers took an action that John Kerry performed in the 1970's, breaking the code of silence after his time in Vietnam, and informing the United States about atrocities committed during the war by American troops, and used it against Kerry. It was one big distraction from any issue of substance that should have been addressed in the election. Away from education, health care, and his administration's mishandling of the budget surplus.

It's not the first time this has been done, but it might be among the most obvious.

Now sports is the distraction.

Arlen Specter who has claimed that he would pursue the president with the same sort of fervor that he is now pursuing the Patriots for possibly filming the Eagles, hasn't. He has shielded an administration that engages in illegal spying on its own citizens, has pardoned criminal activities by friends of the administration, and has been part of a legislative cluster-fuck that has engaged in some of the worst and most bitter partisan politics in the history of the nation.

Now, in an election year, Specter wants to know if the Patriots filmed the Eagles. Not the Rams, not the Panthers. Just the Eagles.

He doesn't want people to remember that Comcast, engaged in a bitter dispute with the NFL Network, is one of his biggest campaign contributors.

He wants you to believe that this is a government issue, in spite of the fact that no law was broken. He wants you to look at his left hand, when the coin is in the right.

While I think the government does have a stake in the issue of performance enhancing drugs in sports, as much as what Specter is involved in, this has become a distraction as well.

All that said, at this point I'm just waiting for one of these idiots, whether Specter, Foxx, or any number of others, to finally pull the rabbit out of his or her ass.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

1985 Boston Redux

The 1980's were a good time for Boston fans with all of the city's Big Four sports franchises making post-season appearances. Favorite sons the Red Sox made three post-season appearances from 1986 to 1990, winning the American League East in '86, '88, and 1990, and appearing in the 1986 World Series before bowing to the then Boston tradition of losing in game seven.

The often sad-sack Patriots even made three appearances in the post-season, the first coming in the strike shortened 1982 season with a less than impressive 5-4 record. They then had back to back appearances in 1985, and 1986, including their utter destruction at the hands of the bears.

The Bruins dominated the ice, achieving the a playoff berth every year of the decade, winning the Adams Division three times, but failing to seal the deal in two appearances in the Finals against Edmonton.

Without question, the city's most successful franchise then (and throughout the history of pro sports in Boston), was the Boston Celtics. Like the Bruins, the Celtics appeared in the post-season every year in the decade. Unlike the Bruins, the Celtics won three of their five appearances in the NBA finals, twice beating Houston, once Los Angeles, and twice losing to the Lakers.

I bring this up because this year's edition of the Green and White bear some striking parallels to the 1985 squad.

While the differences are glaring - the Celtics of then already had two championship banners on the decade hanging in the rafters of Boston Garden, and two of the Big Three were drafted by the team - some of the parallels are eerie.

The 1985-86 squad was put over the top with the off-season acquisition of Bill Walton, a future Hall of Famer and, at this point in his career, often injured veteran. Used off the bench, Walton was a key component in bringing that season's banner to the rafters of the Gahden. Walton was brought in out of the frustration experienced at the disappointing end to the '84-85 season.

That team won (franchise second best) 67 games on the backs of Larry Bird, Robert Parrish, and Kevin McHale on its way to that year's title. Roll player starters like Dennis Johnson and M.L. Carr were key, making important defensive contributions to the team, just as Walton made major contributions to the team as a bench player.

In an effort to recreate the magic of the 1980's, then player, now GM Danny Ainge spent the last off-season acquiring Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to give the Celtics a new Big Three. Currently on a pace to win 66 games with 54 wins, the Celtics have an opportunity to at least challenge the regular season record of the 1985 squad. With 15 regular season games left, the Celtics will need to go 13-2 in order to tie that team, and 14-1 to tie the franchise record for wins in a season.

This season, in the Bill Walton roll is the oft-injured veteran (primarily groin issues) Sam Cassell. The 38-year old veteran is at the tail-end of a very solid and respectable NBA career which includes two championships. Cassell, like Walton, has been compared to aliens (though for very different reasons), was brought in to provide an additional veteran presence, and to put the team over the top.

While it's still three months before we will find out if the parallels between this year's and 1985 squad will expand to include a championship, the team's ability to take on all comers thus far, makes it look like there will be more comparisons to be made.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Cautionary Tale of Numero Uno

The biggest off-season event in any sport happens in little more than a month.

Late in April, football fans across the Nation will gear up for the draft. For the bad teams it's a chance to see the next anointed "savior" of the franchise.

It is as much an exercise in renewal of hope for the gridiron faithful as is Spring Training for those who worship in the church of the Diamond.

For those who know their history, it's also warning as much as the pathway to renewing the faith.

By now, Raiders fans have to be approaching the day with caution.

Realistically, all should...but none more so than those holding the top pick in the draft. Once the prize pick for those scraping the bottom of the barrel, now it's looked at as a curse - an unproven player that demands too much money for being what amounts to the first person hired from a pool of available that has virtually no resume.

If one assumes that a player generally doesn't come into his own until his third season, here's a look at the last 25 number one picks with enough service time for proper evaluation and their impact to the team that drafted him...

1980 Detroit Billy Sims, RB, Oklahoma - Had short career of only five seasons, but ran for over 1000 yards in three of them, including 1303 yards and 13 touchdowns in his rookie year.

1981 New Orleans George Rogers, RB, South Carolina - A solid seven season career that included over 1600 yards on the ground in his rookie year, and ran for fewer than 900 only twice.

1982 New England Kenneth Sims, DT, Texas - Sims was a solid, but unspectacular defensive lineman for the Pats until 1989, logging 5.5 of his career 17.5 sacks in the 1985 season. Given fore-knowledge of Sims' career in the NFL, it's highly unlikely that he would go any higher than the third round in a do-over of that draft.

1983 Baltimore John Elway, QB, Stanford - The drafting of Elway was not as bad as it often sounds for the Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts. With Elway threatening to sign a contract with the Yankees (maybe that's why I never liked the guy), rather than play for the Colts, the team traded him to Denver. What the Colts got in return is what gets lost in the shuffle - journeyman quarterback Mark Herrmann who didn't stay anywhere long, and starting offensive linemen Ron Solt and Chris Hinton. Solt was the the result of a 1984 pick garnered in the trade and was with the team until 1988 with a pro-bowl appearance in 1987. He returned to the team for one season in the earle 1990's before hanging up the spikes. Hinton played for the Colts until 1989, appearing in six pro-bowls. Seven combined pro-bowls on the offensive front...Not bad production to get for a number one pick.

1984 New England Irving Fryar, WR, Nebraska - Largely a disappointment while in New England, Irving seldom put up the statistics expected of him when drafted. Due mostly to issues with drug abuse and immaturity, Fryar didn't realize his potential until he was on his way out the door, logging his first career thousand yard season one year before he hit free-agency and ended up in Miami. Until then Fryar's numbers were those of a team's third receiver, rather than primary or secondary target. The bottom line, for New England, he was not worth the number one pick. Twice in a decade the team missed in the draft. At least these weren't the likes of Eugene Chung, Chris Singleton, or Ray Agnew - all picked later in the first round, all with less significant impact on the team.

1985 Buffalo Bruce Smith, DE, Virginia Tech - Hall of Fame career as a defensive end for the Bills. 'Nuff said.

1986 Tampa Bay Bo Jackson, RB, Auburn - For Tampa, he meant nothing. Rather than play for Tampa, Jackson, arguably the most talented multi-sport athlete of the last 20 years, played minor league ball for the Kansas City Royals. The following year he reentered the draft and was picked 183rd by the Raiders. Considering his split allegiance between sports limiting his production, the Raiders got excellent production from this seventh round pick who averaged more than five yards per bruising carry before a freak injury ended his NFL career.

1987 Tampa Bay Vinny Testaverde, QB, Miami-FL - A solid, if unspectacular quarterback, Testaverde started his career with one hand proverbially tied behind his back, drafted by the NFL's then laughing-stock. While the man whose name translated from the Italian is Green-head holds the distinction of being the only quarterback to have thrown a touchdown in each of his 21 seasons, he also threw more interceptions than touchdowns in 11 of those (including through his first six consecutive seasons). For Tampa, Testaverde didn't do what is expected of that first pick, but to be fair, the brain-trust failed to put him in a situation to be that guy.

1988 Atlanta Aundray Bruce, LB, Auburn - Bruce played for the Falcons for four seasons, starting 16 games only once. While there he averaged four sacks, 44 tackles, and two forced fumbles per year. Certainly not the numbers you expect of a first pick linebacker. He went on to an additional seven undistinguished seasons playing for the Raiders, starting an average of one per year.

1989 Dallas Troy Aikman, QB, UCLA - One of the building blocks of the Cowboys three Super Bowl teams and Hall of Famer. Pretty much what people expect from the top pick.

1990 Indianapolis Jeff George, QB, Illinois - He was Ryan Leaf before Ryan Leaf. He was Nuke Laloosh...the guy with the million dollar arm and the ten cent head. A coach killer and me-first guy, George had all the physical tools to be everything that a number one pick was supposed to be...everything but the gray matter required to do the job that needed to be done.

1991 Dallas Russell Maryland, DT, Miami-FL - Put together a solid-middle-the-first-round sort of career as a plugger in the middle of the defensive line for the Cowboys championship team.

1992 Indianapolis Steve Emtman, DT, Washington - Cannot be considered anything more than a bust for Indy as Emtman appeared in only 18 games in his three year career in Indy, and appearing in only 16 games once.

1993 New England Drew Bledsoe, QB, Washington State - Bledsoe, like Aikman, was the savior for a moribund franchise. Putting up borderline Hall-of-Fame numbers, Bledsoe led the Patriots to the post-season four times and was instrumental in helping the Pats past the Steelers to make the 2001 Super Bowl. Like Aikman, Bledsoe had a powerful impact on the team, the sort expected of the first pick, piloting the Pats to the post-season in only his second season.

1994 Cincinnati Dan Wilkinson, DT, Ohio State - Quite simply, Wilkinson wasn't a bad player. He was just never the player that the Bengals thought he would be and certainly not worth the number one pick in the draft.

1995 Cincinnati Ki-Jana Carter, RB, Penn State - As much an indictment of Cincy's front office in the mid-1990's as anything else, Carter, even when healthy, never put up the numbers expected of a first round pick. Through his two healthy seasons he averaged 3.3 yards per carry and never broke 500 yards in a season.

1996 NY Jets Keyshawn Johnson, WR, USC - Often knocked as a player who didn't deserve the honor of being a number one, Johnson started his career with seven straight seasons with catches totaling more than 840 yards per season, four times breaking the 1000 yard mark. Only once in his eleven year career was he under 800 yards receiving. He averaged almost six touchdowns per year and averaged seven yards per attempt in his thirteen career rushing attempts. Maybe not first pick numbers, but most certainly first round numbers.

1997 St. Louis Orlando Pace, OT, Ohio State - Pace, in his time with the Rams, developed into one of the premiere offensive linemen in the game, playing in two Super Bowls with the Rams, winning one. A multiple pro-bowler and all-pro, Pace was easily worth the pick used on him.

1998 Indianapolis Peyton Manning, QB, Tennessee - Manning has been the cornerstone on which the Colts have built their team. A perennial contender, the Colts picked a likely future Hall-of-Famer when they picked Manning.

1999 Cleveland Tim Couch, QB, Kentucky - He lasted five seasons and threw 67 interceptions while throwing only 64 touchdowns. All given, his other statistics aren't bad, as he finished five years in the NFL with a completion percentage of 59.8, while being sacked almost three times per game started. Twice Couch was sacked more than 50 times in a season. That said, he was never the savior that quarterbacks are expected to be when drafted.

2000 Cleveland Courtney Brown, DE, Penn State - A terror in college, Brown could never be considered anything other than a bust for Cleveland. He was never the game changing impact player coming off the edge that he was projected to be. Currently he is out of football.

2001 Atlanta Michael Vick, QB, Virginia Tech - Was unable to lead the Falcons to back to back winning seasons during his brief time in the NFL. A supremely talented athlete, he never had the head nor desire to develop himself into the quarterback that the number one pick needs to or is supposed to be because he was too interested in his extra-curricular activities to realize that the money train that is the NFL could go away.

2002 Houston David Carr, QB, Fresno State - Dealt a bad hand with the Texans, going to a team with virtually no offensive line, Carr was little more than a punching bag in Texas. That said, Carr, now a head-case, has never, and likely never will fulfill the potential he showed coming out of college.

2003 Cincinnati Carson Palmer, QB, USC - Arguably one of the top five quarterbacks in the NFL, Palmer has had his talent recognized while languishing on a team beset by players who are sever character issues. Unless the Bengals begin drafting players who can avoid trouble with the law, Palmer could be on his way to being this generation's Archie Manning - the guy who gives the franchise hope, but needs more help to get the job done.

2004 San Diego Eli Manning, QB, Mississippi - The impact of this draft for the Chargers? Quarterback Philip Rivers, offensive lineman Roman Oben, linebacker Shawn Merriman, and and kicker Nate Kaeding, all starters, were acquired as a result of the Manning-Rivers trade. A solid take for the number one pick.

Twelve of the last 25 first-picks (of whom we have enough of a body of work to judge) had negligible impact for the team that drafted them, and at least three others had solid careers, but not first-pick expectation sort of careers. Sixty percent of the picks failed to meet expectations.

Is it any wonder that the team with that pick in recent years has frantically attempted to trade out of that spot? Considering the investment, the pick needs to be a sure thing. With a 48 percent failure rate, and another 12 percent that doesn't quite live up to expectations, the first pick is anything but.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Hope Springs eternal


It's a time of renewal, a time for new hope. It's when fans of the Cubs and Indians say things like, "this is the year. This year the [insert team name here] are gonna win it all."

On the surface, it might seem a little ridiculous. There are twelve franchises in Major League Baseball that haven't won a World Series for at least 25 years (some of the teams haven't won since their inception as long ago as 1961...the Texas Rangers/Washington Senators). For Cleveland it's been 60 years and this will mark 100 for the Cubs. As the saying goes...when the sun comes up every morning, you come to rely on the fact that it will rise the next morning.

The Cubs perennially seem to find a way to blow their championship opportunities. The Indians haven't exactly fared much better.

Why should these teams, the fans of these teams hold out hope? Fans of the Cubs, Indians, Giants, Rangers, Astros, Brewers, Nationals, Padres, Mariners, Pirates, Phillies, and Orioles will all have differing levels of hope based on personnel, management, and ownership of their respective teams.

The fans of the Cubs and Indians hope to be this season's 2004 Red Sox, breaking a Championship drought that spans generations. Fans of the Orioles hope for a chance, in spite of the past incompetencies of Peter Angelos' ownership.

Why do they continue to hope, in spite of years of heartbreak?

Why, when there are teams that, on paper, that are better? Teams like the Red Sox, Mets, and Tigers.

It's simple really...

It comes down to two things. One is faith.

I've talked before about the religion of sport and the teams being the different denominations. It's no more evident than at the beginning of a season when, in spite of all proof to the contrary, we believe that the team we root for will be the one standing at the end of the season...whether on the diamond, the court, the gridiron, or the rink.

But the second is a little more tangible.

We watch the Red Sox break an 86-year drought to win two World Series titles in four seasons. We watch a Colorado Rockies team that wasn't even supposed to be a contender sweep its way into the 2007 Series. We see a Cardinals team that barely played over .500 ball during the regular season in 2006 win that year's championship.

We see these things and think about our teams, "why not us? Why not this season?" And we believe.

Ultimately, we believe because we're fans.

Go Sox.