Friday, April 25, 2008

Draft gurus

Tomorrow is the NFL draft.

The pundits have been out in force, analyzing, dissecting, breaking down the top players - trying to find the sleepers, identify the busts, and anoint the next superstars without a single player having seen a single down in the NFL except on their television sets on Sunday.

It passed the stage of interesting a long time ago and now just resides in the land of tedium. Analysis for analysis' sake. Everyone has a different opinion, everyone identifies a different place where a team has needs, and everyone seems to feel they have the right remedy for what ails a given team.

Are there draft picks that are gimmes? Yeah, and there are those that are so glaringly wrong (Ted Ginn, Jr., anyone?) that one wonders how the GM and the scouts of those teams still have jobs going into the second day of the draft, and there are reaches. But let's face it, if these so-called draft experts were so good at what they do, they would be drawing their paychecks from the NFL and not some media outlet.

Mel Kiper, I'm looking at you.

I'm not saying what he does is easy. He compiles an immense amount of information and seems to be able to recall it without referencing notes. What I am saying is that he does not seem capable of doing the most difficult part of his job - which is to bring a certain gut instinct to his separate certain facts and make accurate projections based on scheme and mental make-up.

For those of you who think otherwise, here is a list of some of Kiper's most memorable moments ganked from his bio on Wikipedia...

  • Kiper also criticized the Colts selection of Marshall Faulk at #2 in 1994, saying that the team should have taken either Shuler or Trent Dilfer.[5] Kiper attacked the selection of Faulk, stating, "That's why the Colts keep picking No. 2 every year." [6] Faulk became the 1994 Offensive Rookie of the Year.[7] After a long career as one of the elite running backs NFL history, the general consensus is that Faulk will someday be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
  • Kiper projected Notre Dame quarterback Rick Mirer as the 30th pick; he was selected second overall by the Seattle Seahawks.[9] Though he showed some early promise, Mirer failed to develop and was finally benched during his fourth season. He spent the remaining eight years of his career with six different teams as a journeyman backup. [10]
  • In 1999, Kiper said that Oregon quarterback Akili Smith would be a great NFL player and would finally provide the Cincinnati Bengals with the passer they'd lacked since Boomer Esiason. Smith was selected ahead of Daunte Culpepper, Torry Holt, Edgerrin James, Champ Bailey, and Jevon Kearse, but he spent less than four abysmal seasons in Cincinnati, starting only 17 games. He has since struggled in several brief stops in the NFL, NFL Europe, and the CFL. It's notable that Kiper rated Smith higher than Donovan McNabb and Culpepper, despite the facts that Smith only had 11 starts at the college level and had performed poorly on the Wonderlic aptitude tests administered at the NFL Combine, both of which are traditionally seen as important indicators of a quarterback's readiness for the NFL. Smith's career was marred by inconsistency and failure to grasp the complexities of the Bengals' playbook, issues which appear to have been foreshadowed by his lack of experience and low scores.
  • One of Kiper's most well known mistakes was when he stated that USC wide receiver Mike Williams would be the best player in his 2005 draft class, despite not having played football in over a year after being ruled ineligible by the NCAA. When ESPN analyst Merril Hoge disagreed, Kiper uttered the now infamous line, "I'll see you at his Hall of Fame induction." Williams has been a remarkable disappointment, playing very little and showing no signs of improvement with either of the two teams he's played for. As of October 31, 2007 he is already out of football after being waived by the Oakland Raiders. Further adding to the embarrassment for Kiper (and the Detroit Lions, who selected him 10th overall) is the fact that the next three players selected after Williams all became Pro-Bowlers within 2 years - the Cowboys' DeMarcus Ware, the Chargers' Shawn Merriman, and Saints offensive tackle Jamaal Brown.
  • In the 1995 Draft, Kiper proclaimed UCLA wide receiver JJ Stokes a "sure-thing" who was destined to be a future All-Pro. On draft day, Kiper lambasted several teams, including the New York Jets, for passing on Stokes until he was selected 10th overall by the San Francisco 49ers. Stokes spent an undistinguished 8 years in San Francisco in the shadows of Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens, never making a single Pro Bowl or even surpassing 770 yards receiving. After the draft, the Jets signed Hofstra wide receiver Wayne Chrebet as an undrafted free agent. Chrebet became one of the Jets most popular players and surpassed Stokes in every major statistical category.
  • In the same 1995 Draft, Kiper had rated BYU Quarterback John Walsh as a first round pick. Walsh declared for the draft after his Junior season and had an abysmal NFL combine where he ran a 5.3 forty yard dash and displayed a weak arm in workouts. Nonetheless, Kiper still rated Walsh as a late 1st/early 2nd round pick on the day of the draft and said he would be a perfect fit for a "West Coast Offense" team like the San Francisco 49ers because of his accuracy on short passes. Walsh slid all the way to the 7th round where he was finally taken by the Cincinnati Bengals. He never appeared in a single game for the quarterback needy Bengals and was out of football less than a year later.
  • One example of Kiper getting a player correct in the 1995 draft was when he asserted that Notre Dame defensive back Bobby Taylor, a college free safety, would make an excellent cornerback in the NFL because of his ability to match up with larger wide receivers. Kiper had Taylor rated as one of his top 10 prospects in the draft, and though Taylor wasn't drafted until the 2nd round by the Philadelphia Eagles, he went on to have a long and distinguished career just as Kiper said he would.
  • In 1998 Kiper said that Washington State Quarterback Ryan Leaf's "attitude" (which had rubbed teammates and coaches the wrong way in college) would be an asset in the NFL and give him a mental advantage over Peyton Manning. Kiper also said that Leaf had the better natural physical tools and would be a great quarterback, though he still rated Manning as the more polished and better overall prospect. Leaf was chosen second overall by the San Diego Chargers immediately after Manning. Leaf's career soon imploded, largely because of a confrontational attitude and poor practice habits that alienated teammates, coaches, and fans. He is now regarded as not only the worst bust in NFL draft history, but also possibly the biggest bust in all of professional sports.[12] His story is viewed as a cautionary tale of what can happen when a team attempts to build around a player with raw talent but questionable attitude.
By no means is Kiper alone in this, however, when so glaringly wrong on picks like Leaf, Akili Smith, and Ware...all of whom had serious detractors at the time of their respective drafts, one has to wonder how he retains his draft guru title with ESPN.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Political personal foul

There's always a lot of controversy regarding sports and politics. It's coming up a lot right now in relation to the Olympics.

There is a certain faction that feels that the Games should just be about the athletes, and that the Olympics is not the venue for politics and political protest.

Unfortunately, that should be the case in sports as a whole, but let's face it...politics and sport have always been intertwined, and not just in as much as the Kennedy family's joy in playing touch football on the East Lawn.

Whether meant to be or not, Jackie Robinson's rookie year in Major League Baseball was as much political statement as it was an opportunity for a talented ball-player.

In 1965 the American Football League pulled their All-Star Game out of New Orleans when the black players were treated poorly by local businesses, including the hotels in the Crescent City.

The NFL had to make decisions on whether to play their scheduled slate on Sundays based on national tragedies - the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. They have made security decisions based on the invasion of Iraq in 1990. They have combined teams (The Eagles and Steelers in the 1940's) to keep the league playing games at a time of war.

All of these decisions were influenced by the politics of the times.

There was even, in the NFL, a controversy in hair in the late 1960's when Joe Namath came into the league. He represented young, rebellious America during a time of civil unrest in America, while Baltimore's Johnny Unitas represented the old guard.

But the Olympics are different.

The Olympics have always been political because governments have always been involved. Governments sponsor teams, they compete to host the event, and even when watched, it is about us against them. It's about which country can win the most. It is not about, what the Olympic Committee wants you to believe, some higher ideal of competition or cooperation.

The so-called Olympic ideal is a myth. It's not about a level playing field and the best athletes in the world. Were it about a higher ideal, no country would be awarded the games. We all engage in human rights violations - China (Tibet), the United States (Guantanamo Bay, and, historically, civil rights issues with just about every minority in this country...the most glaring in the last century being the last time we engaged in internment camps for the Japanese, not unlike Gitmo for the Muslims, during World War II), England (over the last 40 years in Northern Ireland), and the list goes on.

It has always been about politics, whether world, national, or individual.

Just a sampling of what the history of the Olympic games has indeed been in the regards to politics...

In 1916 the Olympics, to be held in Berlin, Germany, were canceled due to World War I. Twenty years later Berlin hosted the Olympics again, Adolf Hitler seeing the event as an opportunity to demonstrate the superiority of the Aryan further his political agenda in the world arena.

At Mexico City in 1968 two American sprinters were expelled from the games for, as the IOC stated, "The basic principle of the Olympic Games is that politics plays no part whatsoever in them. U.S. athletes violated this universally accepted principle . . . to advertise domestic political views." The two runners, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, were expelled for demonstrating their support for the Civil Rights movement in the United States by giving the Black Power salute during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner at the time of the awards ceremony.

In 1972 there were the terrorist attacks in Munich, killing members of the Israeli team.

In 1980 the US boycotted the Moscow Olympics in reaction to the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan. More than 60 other countries followed suit.

In 1984 the Soviets boycotted the Los Angeles games, claiming that the US was politicizing the games, stirring up anti-Soviet propaganda and sentiment, and that the US was being cavalier in their attitudes towards providing adequate security for the Soviet athletes. In the US response to the Soviet accusations, the US spokesman took another opportunity to attack the Soviets for the invasion of Afghanistan. Practically all the Eastern Bloc countries followed suit.

There were other years that the Olympics were marred by some form of political statement, boycott, or other political issue affecting attendance or scheduling. This is just a sample, a notation that the idea that the two are separate or should be expected to be separate is ridiculous.

Should it be? Yes. The athletes who train their whole lives for these games should not have their opportunity destroyed by political issues, but don't expect it to ever be that way.

On a side note...

This is from New York Newsday about Isiah Thomas' new roll with the Kickerbockers...

Isiah no longer full-time. Walsh didn't say the reassigned Isiah Thomas was forbidden to have contact with the players next season, but it certainly sounded as if Thomas' new role involves being completely invisible. "He's not coming in every day like he used to," Walsh said, "but he is there as a resource for me."
Is it just me, or has Donnie Walsh turned Isiah Thomas into Milton Waddams from Office Space? It's just a matter of time before he's sitting at a desk in some broom closet in Madison Square Garden with a can of bug spray and his paychecks cut off.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Patriot Day reflections

I just want to acknowledge the Bruins who made a series out of what looked to be a brief post-season cameo. You guys have something to build on for next year. Good job guys. Next year get a little deeper into the playoffs. You have a lot to live up to in Boston with the way things have gone for everybody else.

Yo, Sox...way to smack the Rangers around. Always nice to see a big win on the annual morning game.

Finally, the marathon...

I ran in one in Maryland a couple of years ago. It is the only marathon I have participated, in spite of living for years on the Boston Marathon course (on the Fenway for two or three years, right off of Kenmore square, and in Cleveland Circle for another three).

My goal was to finish in four hours (I was a sprinter in high school, and distance running is still something of a foreign beast to me). I was on pace to meet my goal through 18 miles. The last eight miles took me an hour and fifty minutes. I hit the wall.

From what I understand, mile 18 is the typical place to hit the wall.

It is part of what makes Boston so difficult.

Heartbreak Hill starts in the course's 18th mile. It's a series of brutal and unforgiving hills, and what most who don't run in these things fail to understand, is that the downhills are just as hard on the body as the uphills. They take a toll on the knees, the uphills on the muscles, and by the end the body is...shall we say, unhappy.

It's why watching Uta Pippig smile and blow kisses through Kenmore Square blew my mind. More so once I ran in one of these events.

I always look up the results of the race. I don't know why, as I often don't know the names of the least anymore. I can only speculate that it's because the race is a war of attrition, and I want to acknowledge the accomplishments of those who fight to the end of Boston. It's an impressive feat.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Monday observations

After what has felt like a decade of futility at Madison Square Garden, Isiah Thomas got the heave-ho...sort of.

Thomas is a man of no authority now in the NBA.

After managing the Knicks past the point of irrelevance with horrendous coaching and personnel decisions, so far past the point of irrelevance that the team was so bad they were relevant only as a cautionary tale to the rest of the NBA, Thomas was finally axed as the coach of the Knicks. For some reason the team kept Thomas on the payroll.

I have a theory about that.

Thomas has (to call it single-handedly would absolve James Dolan of his culpability, and let's face it, Dolan has just been as culpable as Thomas) pretty well annihilated the New York basketball franchise, making it the laughingstock of professional sports. He is to the NBA what the Ragnarok is to Norse Mythology. He is the Destroyer, and he has done it to them both on and off the court.

As such, I think David Stern asked the Knicks to keep him on the payroll to keep him from doing this to any other franchise.

He currently has a position with no title, no one reports to him, and he apparently has no responsibilities in this position (as yet). Sounds like someone the NBA wants kept out of the way.

Like I said, just a theory. But I know if I'm Stern, I'm trying to keep him from doing this to any other franchise.


To Danica Patrick for putting to rest the comparisons to Anna Kournikova with an outright win in the 50th open-wheel race of her career. After taking the flag at the Japan 300, Patrick has become the first woman to win one of the major races in the sport's circuit. While not a fan of racing, I thought this deserved a mention.

To Vikings' defensive end Kenechi Udeze for the fact that his leukemia is in remission and that he has found a bone marrow donor in his fight against this form of cancer. Now let's hear some good news on Joe Andruzzi who is engaged in his own battle with cancer, having been diagnosed (according to a January update from Sports Illustrated) with Burkitt's Lymphoma. That particular form of lymphoma is rare, but aggressive wherein a cancerous mass can double in size in just 24 hours.

To Big Papi who seems to be working his way out of his slump. It's nothing short of amazing that the Red Sox have led the American League in run production (and are third overall) in spite of Ortiz's struggles at the plate. Currently, with Ortiz only barely within spitting distance of the Mendoza Line (.160, up from a low in the double digits), the team leads the AL in run production with 104 (as of Monday morning), RBI's with 99, slugging percentage at .446, and the majors in batting average at .295, and on base percentage at .367. What does this mean for the rest of the league when Ortiz really begins hitting?

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Magnificent Seven

I have to admit.

I thought they were done.

I thought the Bruins were cooked down three games to one to the Montreal Canadiens. I thought it was all over...that the Bruins would be the first pro team from Boston to fail to advance to its post-season championship game in a season that started in 2007.

The Sox won the World Series, the Pats lost the Super Bowl, the Celtics are the number one seed in the NBA, and the Bruins...well...the Bruins have managed to stay alive for one more night.

The playoff series with Montreal is all tied up, with the Bruins winning two in a row now...including a dramatic come from behind victory on Saturday.

The odds are against them. It is unlikely that the Bruins will win on Monday night to make it three in a row. Of course, Saturday's victory is exactly the sort of victory that can be a back-breaker. Like the Yankees against the Sox in 2004, New York had Boston's back's to the wall late in the game - they had the opportunity to put the series away. The Yanks just weren't the same team after coughing up that ninth inning lead in the game that would have sealed their trip to the 2004 Series against the Cardinals.

Monday we find out if the Canadiens can recover from coughing up a 3-1 series lead, or if the Bruins can rise to the occasion and seal the deal against the team that has been the albatross around their neck for as long as I can remember.

RIP Mr. Marzano

I have a strange connection to former Sox catcher John Marzano.

As I'm sure most of my readers heard about Marzano's passing on Saturday - the former Sox back-up catcher found in his home, dead of an apparent heart attack at age 45.

Marzano was a South Philly guy in every sense of the word. He was born there, grew up there, and died there. Even when he was with the Sox he maintained a home in the old neighborhood.

How and why do I know this?

Because the neighborhood is deeply embedded in my family history.

My mother's family came here from Italy. More accurately, my grandfather, as a child, arrived in America from the province of Abruzzi with his family and settled in Philadelphia. His father opened a grocery that was passed to him and his brothers, at which time it came to be known as Ricci Bros (pronounced Ritchie). The small neighborhood store was in the family until it was sold by my mothers cousin just a few years ago.

Ricci Bros. became quite well known across the city, and was for some time the place to get a hoagie before going to the Vet for a game. Marzano was a regular.

When home on off days from the Sox he used to stop in the store and talk to my great Uncle Sal. This happened, according to Sal with a certain amount of regularity.

At the time, I lived in Boston.

Whenever we would have big family gatherings Sal, by that time the family elder, would always engage me in the following conversation, "you like the Red Sox, right? Their back-up Johnny, you know Johnny?"


"Yeah. You know, he's from South Philly. He grew up near the store. He still comes in whenever he's in town. Gives me his tickets to the game. I keep telling him I can't use 'em. You live up there, right? Next time he comes in, I'll make sure to mail them to you."

Sal never remembered to mail the tickets, but I always thought it was cool that there was this weird family connection to the Sox.

Sal passed away not too long ago. I know this would have saddened him. He always described "Johnny" as a "good kid from the neighborhood," and was always happy that he made it to the bigs.

Sleep well big guy, enjoy that eternal pick-up game with Ted Williams.